The Maitrakas: The Learned Rulers of Saurashtra (5th to 8th CE)

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    The Kathasaritasagara of Somadeva, an 11th CE collection of stories, tells us a fascinating tale of a learned Brahmana who refused to send his son to the University of Nalanda as the University of Vallabhi was better. exactly was this university and who built it? This is one of the most fascinating stories from the 5th and 6th CE in Western India.

    In (approximately) 475 CE, Central and Eastern India was in complete disarray. The might of the Gupta Empire had been broken by the attacks of the Hunas and the Empire was fragmenting. A great bastion of the Empire was the Western provinces, which had been wrested from the Western Kshatrapas by Chandra Gupta II and these provinces appeared to have been bypassed in the Huna invasion.

    There was a resurgence in Buddhism in 5th CE Gujarat as is seen at Devnimori and other sites and from the beautiful Buddha statues recovered from Gujarat. Buddha statues from Sarnath even bear the inscriptions of Kumara Gupta II and Budha Gupta. The Gupta rulers were predominantly Vaishnavite and had patronised all sects but in the aftermath of the Huna invasion seemed to have turned into staunch donors to Buddhist sites.

    In 475 CE, the Gupta general of Saurashtra in Western India broke away from the Empire and created his own kingdom. His name was Bhatarka, he was Skanda Gupta’s general, and he founded the Maitraka Dynasty. He was a canny ruler and only titled himself Senapati, i.e General. He ruled till 493 CE and was succeeded by his son Dharasena I (493-499 CE).

    Dharasena too used only the title of Senapati. Little is known of his reign apart from the fact that he consolidated the Maitraka state and further strengthened his position by marrying one of the daughters of Vakataka Emperor Harisena. Her name was Chandralekha.

    Their capital was at the city of Vallabhi (today a small town of the same name near Bhavnagar in Gujarat). The location of Vallabhi has been further strengthened by the discovery of a number of Maitraka copper plates and seals. Archaeological excavations were carried out there by M S University of Baroda in 1979-80 under Prof R N Mehta. But, sadly, no report was published. In its heyday, it was a magnificent city called Vallabhipura.

    Dharasena was succeeded by his younger brother Dronasimha, who declared himself ‘Maharaja’. This appears to have raised the hackles of the Guptas and a battle ensued with the Gupta ‘Raja’ Bhanu Gupta (most probably a younger scion who was Governor of Malwa around 510 CE) as we know from the Eran Stone Inscription of Bhanu Gupta. This was the time of the Huna invasion of Malwa under Toramana and the Guptas had more immediate problems than the Maitrakas. Dharasena was followed to the throne by a yet younger brother Dhruvasena I (519-549 CE).

    Dhruvasena is known to us from a number of grants, where he praises his father and brothers. They tell us he was a staunch Shaivaite and went on to build a Buddhist monastery at Vallabhi for his niece Dudda. This is one of the most famous viharas at Vallabhi and is known as the Dudda-Vihara and is mentioned in many texts.

    He also gave grants to Brahmanas at Vadnagar (where there were a number of Buddhist viharas) and was probably the ruler in whose reign the famous and very significant ‘Jain Council’ was held at Vallabhi.

    The Kalpa Sutra, a very important Jaina text, scholars believe, was written during his reign as it starts by condoling the death of Dhrvasena’s young son. The Vallabhi Council too condoled the king’s loss.

    The present shape of the Jaina scriptures owes its form to the Council of Vallabhi. The importance of the Jain Council of Vallabhi cannot be overstated. All modern Jainism, especially in Western India, bears its mark. The revival of Jaina texts and textual traditions can all be traced back to this event.

    It was in Dhruvasena’s reign that the whole of Saurashtra became a part of the Maitraka Kingdom. He did this by defeating the Garulaka’s of Dwarka.

    Dhruvasena died in 549 CE and was followed by yet another (third) brother Dharapatta (549-553 CE), who had a short reign as he was probably quite old. Interestingly, we see from his grandson's copper plate grants that Dharapatta was a Sun worshipper.

    The sons of Batarka finally made way for the next generation after ruling for 78 years! Dharapatta was followed by his son Guhasena (553-569 CE). He assumed the title of ‘Maharajadhiraja’, thereby making it clear he had no overlords. He then went about strengthening the Maitraka Kingdom.

    We know he fought a major war with the Maukharis from the Jaunpur Inscription of Ishwaravarman but there appears to have been no victorious outcome for the Maukhari invasion. Guhasena, a staunch Shaivaite, is surprisingly known to us exclusively from grants to Buddhist monasteries. He was a well-known poet and composed poetry in Sanskrit, Prakrit, Saurseni and Apabhramsa.

    Guhasena was succeeded by his son Dharasena II (569-590 CE), who appears to have squandered his fathers gains. He lost to the Maukharis (was defeated by Ishanavarmana) and became their vassal as is seen from his subsidiary title ‘Samanta’. He seems to have made up some ground later as seen from his later adoption of the titles ‘Maharaja’ and ‘Mahasamanta’. He made numerous grants to Buddhist monasteries and he also interestingly mentions the Buddhist monk Sthiramati, who is mentioned by Hiuen Tsang!

    Vallabhi - A University City

    Vallabhipura was now a critically important capital city and was a powerful centre of polity, administration and, of course, learning. The university is renowned for two great monks who taught here - Gunamati and Sthiramati. Sadly, the names of other renowned faculty are unknown.

    Gunamati (6th CE Buddhist scholar) was a very staunch follower of Yogacharya, his refutation of Madhava (a famous non-Buddhist scholar from Magadha) is legendary. Sthiramati was a very famous Buddhist monk of the 6th CE and he was supposed to have taught at Nalanda before he moved to Vallabhi, where he wrote numerous very famous treatises and commentaries on the Yogacharya and Abhidhamma works of Vasubandhu.

    Vasubandhu, a very renowned Buddhist monk, scholar and writer from Gandhara, was also a philosopher. He wrote a very important commentary on the Abhidhamma Pitaka specifically from the point of view and perspectives of the Sharvastivadin and Shautrantika schools of thought. Sthiramati also wrote a commentary on the Kashyapaparivarta, an important Mahayana Sutra. Vallabhi was also a great centre of Jaina learning from the 5th to the 12th CE.

    The University of Vallabhi was essentially a Hinayana centre of learning but it did not in any way exclude the other nikayas nor did it exclusively teach Buddhist curricula.

    Brahmanical subjects were also taught at the university.

    It was famous for its studies in Political Science, Business Studies, Agricultural Studies, Administration, Law, Economics, Accountancy and of course Religion and Philosophy (mainly Buddhist). Students graduating from Vallabhi were held in very high esteem and were employed by rulers and governors all over India.

    When Hiuen Tsang visited here, he says there were over 6,000 monks and more than a hundred monasteries. He says the citizens and the kings all contributed towards the upkeep of the university and its libraries. The university was also visited by I-tsing (Yijing) in the 8th CE. I-tsing declared it to be at par with Nalanda, where he had studied.

    Tracing the Maitrikas

    Dharasena II was succeeded by Siladitya I aka Dharmaditya (the Sun of Dharma) (590-615 CE). He ruled for 25 years and was interestingly both a Shaivaite and a Sun worshipper. The late Mahayana text of the Manjushrimulakalpa (which deals essentially with the rituals of the Bodhisattva Manjushri and is one of the earliest works of Tibetan Tantric Buddhism) tells us that Dharasena’s reign extended from Kutch to Malwa.

    We learn some very interesting details of his ministers from their grants. One of his ministers was the Minister for War and Peace. He is praised by Hiuen Tsang as a great administrator and a ruler who ruled with kindness and compassion. Siladitya is said to have helped the Chalukyan ruler Pulakesin II in his war against the Kalachuris and he also staunchly opposed the war-like ambitions of Harshavardhana.

    Dharasena II was succeeded by his brother Kharagraha I (615-621 CE) of whom we know very little. The war with Harsha seems to have been an ongoing affair and the Virdi (a small village near Dhola in Bhavnagar District of Gujarat) Copper Plate of Kharagraha I declares Ujjain as his victory camp.

    He was succeeded in turn by his son Dharasena III (621-627 CE), who continued to aid the Chalukyas in their campaigns against Harshavardhana. Upon his death, he was succeeded by his younger brother Dhruvasena II (627-641 CE) who partially changed the fortunes of the Maitrakas.

    Hiuen Tsang says he had converted to Buddhism and the grants made by him to monasteries make this a likely tale but the use of the title ‘Paramamaheshwara’ makes it very clear that he was a Shaivite. He is also known as Baladitya i.e. the Young/Rising Sun. He extended the Maitraka holdings all the way to Ratlam (a city in the north-western part of the Malwa region in Madhya Pradesh) and sealed a further alliance by marrying the daughter of Harshavardhana.

    He was succeeded by his son Dharasena IV, who extended the Maitraka rule southward by defeating the Kings of Lata (South Gujarat). He too was a patron of literature and made many donations to Buddhists and Brahmanas. Dying intestate, kingship moved to another branch of the family and he was followed by Dhruvasena III (650-655 CE), a grandson of Shiladitya I. Lata was probably lost to the Chalukyas during his reign. The decline of the Maitrakas began during his reign. There would be six more rulers after him.

    The Arab Onslaught

    In 677 CE, the Arabs under their commander Ismail attacked the port of Ghogha (a very important medieval port close to Bhavnagar in Gujarat) but were repulsed. This was the beginning of Arab forays into Gujarat. Siladitya IV (710-740 CE) lost the region of Khetaka (modern-day Kheda in Gujarat) to the Chalukyas (These were the Early Chalukyas of Gujarat, also known as the Chalukyas of Navsari).

    Arab armies under Junaid, the general of Caliph Hisham ibn Abd al-Malik (the 10th Umayyad Caliph [724-743C]), invaded the Maitraka kingdom in 735 CE during the reign of Siladitya IV. They laid waste to vast swathes of Kutch, Saurashtra and South Gujarat.

    Gurjara ruler Avanijanashray Pulakesin of the Chalukyas of Navsari took the battle to the Arab invaders and finally defeated and chased them away, according to the Navsari inscription of 738 CE. For his valorous deeds, his Chalukyan sovereign (nominally only) honoured him with the titles ‘Dakshinapathasadhara Challukkikulankara Prithvivallabha Anivartakanivatayitri’ (The pillar of the south, ornament of the Chaluka clan, beloved of the earth, repeller of the unrepellable). Avanijanashraya obviously usurped the Gurjara lands in this endeavour and reached into the heart of Maitraka territory.

    The University of Vallabhi appears to have been sacked during this invasion by the Arabs and though it did recover and go on till the 12th century, it was now a mere shadow of its former self.

    After the Arab invasion, the fragmented western region was slowly reconsolidated by Siladitya V (740-762 CE). But his efforts came to nought as he had to face a second invasion by the Arabs in 759 CE. He repulsed this with his allies, the Saindhavas, a new and growing power in Saurashtra.

    He continued to work toward reconstituting the empire. He issued a grant at Godhra in 760 CE, telling us he was slowly wending his way eastward. He was followed by his son Shiladitya VI (762-776 CE), the last Maitraka ruler who continued his plans of reconstitution. We do not know what exactly happened; what we do know is that the Arabs attacked and captured Barada (identified by some historians as the modern town of Barada in Nakhatrana Taluka of Kutch) but a massive epidemic broke out and they were forced to retreat.

    The Saindhava (they were eastern vassals of the Maitrakas) ruler Agukka I (770-790) claims to have expelled the Arabs. After this third attempt, the Arabs decided to call off the invasion of Western India. Legends say the Arabs were responsible for the fall of Vallabhi, history is silent. With the death of Siladitya VI, the sun finally set on the Maitrakas.

    Patrons of the Arts

    The Maitrakas were able rulers and had a very competent administration. They were patrons of the arts and letters and they were truly secular. Buddhism, Jainism and Brahmanism flourished in their lands. Some of the most beautiful structural temples of the Late Gupta-Maitraka style are testament to the monumental architecture of the era.

    The temple at Gop is the earliest surviving stone temple in Gujarat. It is also the earliest surviving Sun Temple in India.

    The temple has an interesting use of Buddhist motifs as well as Gandharan architectural styles. But besides Gop, we also have Kasar, Dhrasanvel, the complex at Sonkansari (Ghumli) and many more. Art historians have recorded over a hundred instances of temples (mostly completely ruined today) scattered all along the Saurashtra coast and a few inland that belong to the Maitraka period.

    The Maitraka kingdom was actively involved in Indian Ocean trade as is seen from their important port cities at Ghogha, Somnath, Dwarka and Porbandar. Historian Himanshu Prabha Ray is very clear that this was a period of great trade especially in the northern Arabian Sea, Red Sea, Persian Gulf and West Coast of India.

    Somanathapattanam (modern-day Somnath) was virtually founded in the 5th CE and grew into a very important emporium. Greek, Byzantine and Umayyad coins found at the boat-building site of Mandvi in Kutch date from the early 7th to the mid-8th CE once again telling us how important the seaborne trade of this period was.

    No less important is the location of Vallabhi at the head of the Bhavnagar Creek. Its location and the rise of new port sites and the reuse of existing ones point towards large-scale trade between Egypt, Rome, the Byzantines, the Arab peninsula, the Sassanids and the western coast of India.

    The Maitrakas lorded over a rich economy and this is nowhere more clear than in the considerable deep monetisation during their era. They issued die-struck coins of silver coins (and surprisingly of copper too) in the style of the Western Kshatrapas, and many of these silver and copper coins have been recovered in Gujarat and adjacent lands. Their coins bear on the reverse a trident and often also a war-axe (parashu). On their coins, they proudly proclaim themselves as ‘Mahakshatrapas’, carrying forward the traditions of their predecessors.

    Today, sadly, nothing remains but the brickbat dotted hillocks of this vast university town and vibrant capital city. The city was responsible for keeping the light of knowledge burning in Western India from the 5th to the 8th CE; it is where Buddhism saw one of its last great flowerings; where Brahmins sent their sons to study; where the great Jain Council was held, and where some of the great Jain thinkers and philosophers wrote and debated; where the riches of India and the Persian and the Arab world flowed in through its ports. Yet nothing is left of t his city but a few statues, a few copper plates and a few coins. A tragic end to a magnificent past.

    This article is part of our ‘The History of India’ series, where we focus on bringing alive the many interesting events, ideas, people and pivots that shaped us and the Indian subcontinent. Dipping into a vast array of material – archaeological data, historical research and contemporary literary records, we seek to understand the many layers that make us.

    This series is brought to you with the support of Mr K K Nohria, former Chairman of Crompton Greaves, who shares our passion for history and joins us on our quest to understand India and how the subcontinent evolved, in the context of a changing world.

    Find all the stories from this series here.

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