The Rise of the Vakatakas (3rd CE - 6th CE)

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    From a vantage point atop Ramtek Hill 52 km south of Nagpur is a cluster of temples on the cliff’s edge. Legend has it that Rama, the hero of the epic Ramayana, visited this hill with his wife Sita and brother Lakshman, leaving his footprint here. It was once believed that these temples were built by the Bhonsle Marathas, who had taken over the region in the 18th century CE. Their red, brick-coloured fort below, built on the ruins of a medieval-era Gond fort, would have been a fortress guarding against the forest tribes beyond. The temples above were their shrine.

    But a series of excavations atop Ramtek and below, within and around the fort in Nagardhan village, have revealed a layered story and an important chapter in Indian history, dating back more than 1,600 years.

    It has unearthed evidence of a large capital city, a powerful dowager Queen, evidence of India’s most famous poet Kalidasa being here, and the story of empire-builders and strategists for whom this stretch of land was crucial in managing the subcontinent.

    Who Were the Vakatakas?

    These ruins and clues within them tell us plenty about the Vakatakas, sometimes described as an ‘obscure’ dynasty in the history of India. Yet they were significant builders of the famed Ajanta Caves (built by the western arm of the Vakatakas ) in Aurangabad, they were the political or temporal successors of the earlier Satavahanas, and they acted as a buffer for the Gupta Emperors in the Deccan.

    There were two distinct branches of the Vakatakas - the original Nandivardhana branch, which ruled from Nagardhan, and the parallel though slightly later Vatsagulma branch, which ruled from present-day Washim (Washim District, Maharashtra).

    It is from the name of the first of the Vakataka rulers that historians trace the origin of the dynasty.

    ‘Vindhyashakti’, mentioned in the Puranas as well as in an important inscription in the Ajanta Caves, is believed to have come down from the area around present-day Bundelkhand, a region divided between present-day Uttar Pradesh and Madhya Pradesh. His son Pravarasena I enjoyed a long and successful rule, during which he extended his kingdom to Vidarbha, the northeastern region of Maharashtra. The Vatsagulma branch was begun by Pravarasena’s second son Sarvasena after Pravarasena’s death.

    The reigns of Vindhyashakti and Pravarasena have been dated to the end of the 3rd century CE, till about 335 CE. Pravarasena was followed by his grandson Rudrasena I (his son Gautamiputra had passed away). Interestingly, in a long tradition that goes back to the Satavahanas (when the powerful Gautamiputra Satkarni reigned), here too we find mention of the matrilineal lines of some of the key Vakataka rulers.

    Rudrasena’s mother, for instance, according to inscriptions, was the daughter of Bhavanaga, the King of the Bharasiva Nagas of Padmavati, south of present-day Gwalior. This alliance, historians believe, would have allowed the Vakatakas to cement their position and expand their kingdom.

    However, by the time of the next king Prithvisena I, there seems to have been some trouble. While inscriptions referring to this ruler have been found in Baghelkhand, in the Northern part of Madhya Pradesh bordering UP, we also know that the ruler of this region was one of the many who was defeated by the Gupta King, Samudragupta, as he built his empire. Scholars like V V Mirashi and D R Bhandarkar have dated Prithvisena’s rule to about 350 CE.

    It is clear that the Vakatakas were pushed and limited to the Vidarbha region as vassals of the Guptas, who ruled from Patraliputra in present-day Bihar, but the latter were also quick to realise the strategic value of a political alliance, to manage the Deccan and beyond. Towards the end of the 4th century CE, even as Chandragupta II, Samudragupta’s son, was finishing the conquest of the Western Kshatrapas, he ensured peace further south by getting his daughter Prabhavati married to Rudrasena II, the young Vakataka king of Nandivardhana (Nagardhan).

    As the daughter of a powerful Emperor (Chandragupta II) and his wife, the Naga Princess Kuberanaga, Prabhavati Gupta would have been led into the Vakataka capital, Nandivardhana, with great fanfare and an entourage. We can only imagine what the city would have been like from excavations there.

    Piecing Together Prabhavati’s Story

    On top of Ramtek Hill, known in texts as ‘Ramagiri’, in a temple dedicated to him, sits a larger-than-life sculpture of Kevala Narasimha or the ‘Lonely’ Narasimha, without his consort. He sits like a king on a throne and overlooks the vast valley beyond. The persona of this half-lion, half-man avatar of Vishnu is impressive and it is hard to imagine that till as recently as the early 1980s, local Maharashtra state tourist guides described this image as that of the Monkey God, Hanuman.

    It was easy to make this mistake. For centuries, women visiting the temple believed that if they prayed here, they would be blessed with a son. When the wish ‘came true,' they were supposed to smear vermillion on the image. By the 1980s, after hundreds of years of prayers being answered, there was a thick layer of vivid red paste, which made the idol unrecognizable. Archaeologists had to chisel their way to the actual idol.

    It was the efforts of archaeologist Dr A P Jamkhedkar, currently Chairman of the Indian Council of Historical Research (ICHR) and his team that helped identify the idol and open up the chapter on early Vakataka history in the 1980s.

    Sanskrit scholar and epigraphist V V Mirashi had spent a lifetime piecing together the story of the Vakatakas, thanks to the plethora of copper-plate grants and inscriptions with references to them across Vidarbha. Later inscriptions in the famed Ajanta Caves, commissioned in large parts by the Western Vakataka King Harisena, had helped get a fair sense of the chronology of the dynasty’s rulers, backed as they were by references in the Puranas. But it was the discovery of a cluster of seven temples on Ramtek Hill, including the Kevala Narasimha temple, by Dr Jamkhedkar and team and the placing of it to Vakataka times, that lifted the veil on the early history of the Vakatakas and Queen Prabhavati.

    For on the south wall of the Kevala Narasimha temple, behind layers of concrete, Jamkhedkar also found an inscription chiselled into two slabs of stone, referring to Prabhavati Gupta, her father Chandragupta II, her husband Rudrasena II and her daughter (whose name is lost), who married the queen’s step-brother.

    Rudrasena II died young but he ensured his succession by having three sons and a daughter with Prabhavati. Upon his death, Prabhavati Gupta became the Dowager Empress and Regent for the next 13 years. She wielded great authority, as is evident from a series of inscriptions (in Ramtek and beyond in Pune). Tragedy struck when the eldest son passed away, and it was only with the coronation of her second son Pravarasena II that things settled.

    Evidence of the kind of power she wielded has been found in the Nagardhan excavations, in the form of a clay sealing with her name on it, something rarely seen in history (that is, a Dowager Empress with her own seal!)

    In fact, according to anecdotal and literary evidence, historians have been able to place the great Sanskrit poet Kalidasa in Nagardhan, during the reign of Prabhavati. They believe he was sent by Chandragupta II as part of an entourage accompanying the newlywed Prabhavati, and that he subsequently tutored her sons. His famous work the Meghaduta is said to have been composed on top of the once-forested Ramtek Hill.

    Kalidasa’s training seemed to have helped the young king, Pravarasena II, because, following a long line of poet-kings in the Deccan, Pravarasena is also credited with writing a famous Prakrit Kavya Setubandha or Ravanavaha. This is considered the only extant Prakrit Mahakavya and it is believed that it was vetted by Kalidasa himself!

    Many old capitals in India have been lost. Continued occupation for millennia has ensured such dense occupational layering of sites that archaeologists haven’t been able to go very deep down. Varanasi, Patna, Ujjain…the list is long. This is why excavations in the village of Nagardhan, in Ramtek taluka, south of Nagpur, are so significant.

    Excavations conducted as recently as 2015-2018 have revealed that this was the old city of Nandivardhana, once the capital of the Vakatakas. Interestingly, this is a site that predates even the Vakatakas and shows continued occupation from Neolithic times, when communities first tilled the land here around thousands of years ago. By the time of the Satavahanas, this was an urban centre.

    From the excavations carried out jointly by the Deccan College of Archaeology in Pune and the State Department of Archaeology, Maharashtra, we can get a clearer picture of what the city Kalidasa visited and lived in for some time was like.

    The team has excavated a line of rooms, perhaps workshops or a marketplace, and a zig-zag pavement, indicating some kind of public place. A shrine dedicated to the Fertility Goddess Nagameshi with large, inverted urns was found, and a multitude of pots, kitchen utensils, and querns for grinding were scattered around the settlement.

    Vakataka-era coins with bull and conch shells on the reverse, and jewellery including glass bangle pieces, ear ornaments and pieces made of ivory found in the excavations help paint a picture rich in detail of a large, bustling city.

    The excavations first in Ramtek and then in Nagardhan have confirmed the view that this was the capital of the Vakatakas, until the rule of Prabhavati Gupta’s son Pravarasena II, who shifted his capital to Pravarapura, the present-day site of Mansar, just a few kilometres away.

    The triangle of Nagardhan, Ramtek and Mansar would have been the core of the early Vakataka kingdom, which comprised most of Vidarbha till around the 6th century CE. After Paravarasena I’s son, Sarvasena, the Vakataka base shifted west, with the branch of the ‘Vatsagulma’ or present-day Washim, taking over the entire region.

    It is under them that the Vakatakas would really be immortalised - thanks to one of the most beautiful treasures of India, the Ajanta Caves.

    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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