Chapter 2 Northern India Age of the Three Empires (800–1000)


A number of powerful empires arouse in north India and the Deccan between AD 750 and 1000. These were the Pala empire, which dominated eastern India till the middle of the ninth century; the Pratihara empire, which dominated western India and the upper Gangetic valley till the middle of the tenth century, and the Rashtrakuta empire, which dominated the Deccan and also controlled territories in north and south India at various times. Each of these empires, although they fought among themselves, provided stable conditions of life over large areas, extended agriculture, built ponds and canals, and gave patronage to arts and letters, including temples. Of the three, the Rashtrakuta empire lasted the longest. It was not only the most powerful empire of the time, but also acted as a bridge between north and south India in economic as well as in cultural matters.

​The Struggle For Domination In North India: The Palas

Following the reign of Harsha, Kanauj was considered the symbol of the sovereignty of north India — a position which Delhi was to acquire later. Control of Kanauj also implied control of the upper Gangetic valley and it is rich resources in trade and agriculture. In addition, the Palas and the Pratihara clashed with each other for the control of the area extending from Banaras to south Bihar which again had rich resources and well developed traditions. The Pratihara clashed with the Rashtrakutas also.

The Pala empire was founded by Gopala, probably in 750 when he was elected king by the notable men of the area to end the anarchy prevailing there. He was succeeded in 770 by his son Dharmapala who ruled till 810Dharmapala was defeated by the Rashtrakuta ruler, Dhruva who had earlier defeated the Pratihara ruler. But after these signal victories Dhruva returned to the Deccan, leaving the field free to Dharmapala who occupied Kanauj and held a grand darbar there which was attended by vassal rulers from Punjab, eastern Rajasthan, etc. But Dharmapala could not consolidate his control over Kanauj. The Pratihara power revived under Nagabhatta II, Dharmapala fell back, but was defeated near Mongyr. Bihar and modern east UP remained a bone of contention between the Palas and the Pratiharas though Bihar, in addition to Bengal, remained under the control of the Palas for most of the time.

Failure in the north compelled the Pala rulers to turn their energies in other directions. Devapala, the son of Dharmapala, who succeeded to the throne in 810 and ruled for 40 years, extended his control over Pragjyotishpur (Assam) and parts of Orissa. Probably a part of modern Nepal was also brought under Pala suzerainty.

Thus, for about a hundred years, from the middle of the 8th to the middle of 9th century the Pala rulers dominated eastern India. For some time, their control extended up to Varanasi. Their power is attested to by an Arab merchant, Sulaiman, who visited India in the middle of the ninth century and wrote an account of it. He calls the Pala kingdom Ruhma (or Dharma, short for Dharmapala) and says that the Pala ruler was at war with his neighbours, the Pratiharas and the Rashtrakutas, but his troops were more numerous than his adversaries. He tells us that it was eutomary for the Pala king to be accompanied by a force of 50000 elephants and that 10 to 15 thousand men in his army were employed in ‘fulling and washing clothes’. The strength of his army can thus be imagined.

Information about the Palas is also provided to us by Tibetan chronicles, although these were written down in the seventeenth century. According to these, the Pala rulers were great patrons of Buddhist learning and religion. The Nalanda University which had been famous all over the eastern world was revived by Dharmapala and 200 villages were set apart for meeting its expenses. He also founded the Vikramasila University which became second only to Nalanda in fame. It was located on the top of a hill, on the banks of the Gang a in Magadha amidst pleasant surroundings. The Palas built many viharas in which a large number of Buddhist monks lived.

The Pala rulers also had close cultural relations with Tibet. The noted Buddhist scholars, Santarakshita and Dipankara (called Atisa), were invited to Tibet, and they introduced a new form of Buddhism there. As a result, many Tibetan Buddhists flocked to the universities of Nalanda and Vikramsila for study.

The Palas had close trade contacts and cultural links with South-East Asia. The trade with Southeast Asia was very profitable and added greatly to the prosperity of the Pala empire and led to the incursion of gold and silver from these countries into Bengal. The powerful Sailendra dynasty, which was Buddhist in faith and which ruled over Malaya, Java, Sumatra and the neighbouring islands, sent many embassies to the Pala court and sought permission to build a monastery at Nalanda, and also requested the Pala ruler, Devapala, to endow five villages for its upkeep. The request was granted and bears testimony to the close relations between the two empires.

​The Pratiharas

The Pratiharas are also called Gurjara-Pratihars, probably because they originated from Gurjaratra or south western Rajasthan. They were, at first, probably local officials but were able to carve out a series of principalities in central and eastern Rajasthan. They gained prominence on account of their resistance to Arab incursions from Sindh into Rajasthan. However, the Arabs were decisively defeated by the Chalukya rulers of Gujarat in 738 and ceased to be a real danger.

The efforts of the early Pratihara rulers to extend their control over the upper Ganga valley and Malwa were defeated by the Rashtrakuta rulers Dhruva and Gopal III. In 790 and again in 806–07, the Rashtrakutas defeated the Pratiharas, and then withdrew to the Deccan, leaving the field free for the Palas. Perhaps the main interest of the Rashtrakutas was the domination of Malwa and Gujarat.

The real founder of the Pratihara empire and the greatest ruler of the dynasty was Bhoja. He rebuilt the empire, and by about AD 836 he had recovered Kanauj which remained the capital of the Pratihara empire for almost a century. Bhoja tried to extend his sway in the east, but he was defeated and checkmated by the Pala ruler, Devapala. He then turned towards central India and the Deccan and Gujarat. This led to a revival of the struggle with the Rashtrakutas. In a sanguinary battle on the bank of the Narmada, Bhoja was able to retain his control over considerable parts of Malwa, and some parts of Gujarat. But he could progress no further in the Deccan. Hence, he turned his attention to the north again. According to an inscription, his territories extended to the western side of the river Sutlej. Arab travellers tell us that the Pratihara rulers had the best cavalry in India. Import of horses from Central Asia and Arabia was an important item of India’s trade at that time. Following the death of Devapala and the weakening of the Pala empire, Bhoja also extended his empire in the east.

The name of Bhoja is famous in legends. Perhaps, the adventures of Bhoja in the early part of his life, his gradual recon quest of his lost empire and his final recovery of Kanauj struck the imagination of his contemporaries. Bhoja was a devotee of Vishnu and adopted the title of ‘Adivaraha’ which has been found inscribed in some of his coins. He is sometimes called Mihir Bhoja to distinguish him from Bhoja Paramara of Ujjjain who ruled a little later.

Bhoja probably died in about 885. He was succeeded by his son Mahendrapala I. Mahendrapala, who ruled till about 908-9 maintained the empire of Bhoja and extended it over Magadha and north Bengal. His inscriptions have also been found in Kathiawar, East Punjab and Awadh. Mahendrapala fought a battle with the king of Kashmir but had to yield to him some of the territories in the Punjab won by Bhoja.

The Pratiharas, thus, dominated north India for over a hundred years, from the first quarter of the ninth to the middle of the tenth century. Al-Masudi, a native of Baghdad, who visited Gujarat in 915-16, testifies to the great power and prestige of the Pratihara rulers and the vastness of their empire. He calls the Gurjara-Pratihara kingdom al-Juzr (a corrupt form of Gurjara) and the king Baura, probably a mispronunciation of Adivdraha, the title used for Bhoja, although Bhoja had died by that time. Al-Masudi says that the empire of Juzr had 1,800,000 villages, cities and rural areas and was about 2000 km in length and 2000 km in breadth. The king’s army had four divisions, each consisting of 700000 to 900000 men. “With the army of the north he fights against the ruler of Multan and other Muslims who align themselves with him”. The army of the south fought against the Rashtrakutas and of the east against the Palas. Fie had only 2000 elephants trained for war, but the best cavalry of any king in the country.

The Pratiharas were patrons of learning and literature. The great Sanskrit poet and dramatist, Rajashekhar, lived at the court of Mahipala, a grandson of Bhojai. The Pratihara also embellished Kanauj with many fine buildings and temples.

During the eighth and ninth centuries, many Indian scholars went with embassies to the court of the Caliph at Baghdad. These scholars introduced Indian sciences, especially mathematics, algebra and medicine to the Arab world. We do not know the names of the Indian kings who sent these embassies. The Pratiharas were well-known for their hostility to the Arab rulers of Sindh. Despite this, it seems that the movement of scholars and goods between India and West Asia continued even during this period.

Between 915 and 918, the Rashtrakuta king, Indra III, again attacked Kanauj, and devastated the city. This weakened the Pratihara empire, and Gujarat probably passed into the hands of the Rashtrakutas. The loss of Gujarat, which was the hub of the overseas trade and the main outlet for north Indian goods to West Asian countries, was another blow to the Pratiharas. Another Rashtrakuta ruler, Krishna III, invaded north India in about 963 and defeated the Pratihara ruler. This was followed by the rapid dissolution of the Pratihara empire.

The Rashtrakutas

While the Palas and the Pratiharas were ruling over north India, the Deccan was being ruled by the Rashtrakutas, a remarkable dynasty which produced a long line of warriors and able administrators. The kingdom was founded by Dantidurga who set up his capital at Manyakhet or Malkhed near modem Sholapur. The Rashtrakutas soon dominated the entire area of northern Maharashtra. They also engaged with the Pratiharas for the overlordship of Gujarat and Malwa as we have seen above. Although their raids did not result in the extension of the Rashtrakuta empire to the Ganga valley, they brought rich plunder, and added to the fame of the Rashtrakutas. The Rashtrakutas also fought constantly against the eastern Chalukyas of Vengi (in modern Andhra Pradesh) and in the south against the Pallavas of Kanchi and the Pandyas of Madurai.

Probably the greatest Rashtrakuta rulers were Govinda III (793–814) and Amoghavarsha (814–878). After a successful expedition against Nagabhatta of Kanauj and the annexation of Malwa, Govinda III turned to the south and made expeditions against the Kerala, Pandya and the Chola kings, the Pallavas and the Ganga (of Karnataka). The king of Lanka and his minister were captured and brought over as prisoners to Halapur. Two statues of the lord of Lanka were carried to Manyakhet, and installed like pillars of victory in front of a Siva temple.

Amoghavarsha ruled for 64 years but by temperament he preferred the pursuit of religion and literature to war. He was himself an author and is credited with writing the first Kannada book on poetics. He was a great builder, and is said to have built the capital city Manyakhet so as to excel the city of Indra.

There were many rebellions in the far flung Rashtrakuta empire under Amoghavarsha. His grandson, Indra III, (915–927) re-established the empire. After the defeat of Mahipala and the sack of Kanauj in 915, Indra III was the most powerful ruler of the times.

Krishna III (934–963) was the last in a line of brilliant rulers. He was engaged in a struggle against the Paramaras of Malwa and the eastern Chalukyas of Vengi. He also launched a campaign against the Chola ruler of Tanjore, who had supplanted the Pallavas of Kanchi. Krishna III defeated the Chola king, Parantaka I (AD 949), and annexed the northern part of the Chola empire. He then pressed down to Rameshwaram and set up a pillar of victory there and built a temple. After his death, all his opponents united against his successor. The Rashtrakuta capital, Malkhed, was sacked and burnt in 972. This marked the end of the Rashtrakuta empire.

The Rashtrakuta rule in the Deccan thus lasted for almost two hundred years, till the end of the tenth century. The Rashtrakuta rulers were tolerant in their religious views and patronised not only Saivism and Vaishnavism but Jainism as well. The famous rock-cut temple of Siva at Ellora was built by one of the Rashtrakuta kings, Krishna I, in the ninth century. His successor, Amoghavarsha, is said to have been a Jain but be also patronised other faiths. The Rashtrakutas allowed Muslim traders to settle, and permitted Islam to be preached, in their dominions. This tolerant policy helped to promote foreign trade which enriched the Rashtrakutas.

The Rashtrakuta kings were great patrons of arts and letters. In their courts, we find not only Sanskrit scholars, but also poets and others who wrote in Prakrit and in the apabhramsha, the so-called corrupt languages which were the fore-runners of the various modern Indian languages. The great apabharamsha poet, Svayambhu, and his son probably lived at the Rashtrakuta court.

​Political Ideas and Organisation

The system of administration in these empires was based on the ideas and practices of the Gupta empire, Harsha’s kingdom in the north, and the Chalukyas in the Deccan. As before, the monarch was the centre of all affairs. He was the head of the administration as well as the commander-in-chief of the armed forces. The king also dispensed justice. Vassal rulers and autonomous chiefs often limited the area of the direct administration of the king, although the kings adopted high sounding titles such as Maharajadiraj param-bhattaraka etc., and claimed to be chakravartin, or supreme, of all Indian rulers.

The king’s position was generally hereditary. Thinkers of the time emphasised absolute loyalty and obedience to the king because of the insecurity of the times. Wars were frequent between kings and between kings and their vassals. While kings strove to maintain law and order within their kingdoms, their arms rarely extended far enough. Vassal rulers and autonomous chiefs often limited the area under direct administration. A contemporary writer, Medhatithi, thinks that it was the right of an individual to bear arms, in order to defend himself against thieves and assassins. He also thinks that it was right to oppose an unjust king. Thus, the extreme view of royal rights and privileges, put forward mainly in the Puranas, was not accepted by all the thinkers.

The rules about succession were not rigidly fixed. The eldest son often succeeded, but there are many instances when the eldest son had to fight his younger brothers, and sometimes lost to them. Sometimes, rulers designated the eldest son or another favourite son as their Yuvaraj or successor. In that case, the Yuvaraj stayed at the capital and helped in the task of administration. Younger sons were sometimes appointed provincial governors.

Kings were generally advised by a number of ministers. The ministers were chosen by the king, generally from leading families. Their position was often hereditary. Thus, in the case of the Pala kings, we hear that a brahmana family supplied four successive chief ministers to Dharmapala and his successors. From epigraphic and literary records, it appears that in almost every kingdom, there was a minister of correspondence which included foreign affairs, a revenue minister, treasurer, chief of the armed forces (senapati), chief justice, and purohita. All the ministers, except the purohita, were expected to lead military campaigns as well when called upon to do so. We also hear of officials of the royal household (antahpur). Since the king was the fountain head of all power, some of the officers of household became very powerful.

The armed forces were very important for the maintenance and expansion of the empire. Armed forces included well-organised infantry and cavalry, war chariots and large number of war- elephants. Large numbers of horses were imported both by Rashtrakuta and Pratihara kings by sea from Arabia and West Asia, and over land from Khurasan (east Persia), and Central Asia. Some of the kings, especially the Rashtrakutas, had a large number of forts. They were garrisoned by special troops, and had their own independent commanders. The infantry consisted of regular and irregular troops, and of levies provided by the vassal chiefs. The regular troops were often hereditary and sometimes drawn from different regions all over India. The Pala kings, and perhaps the Rashtrakutas, had their own navies, but we do not know much about their strength and organisation.

The empires consisted of area administered directly and areas ruled over by the vassal chiefs. The latter were autonomous as far as their internal affairs were concerned, and had a general obligation of loyalty, paying a fixed tribute and supplying the quota of troops to the overlord. Sometimes, a son of a vassal chief was required to stay in attendance of the overlord to guard against rebellion. The vassal chiefs were required to attend the darbar of the overlord on special occassions, and sometimes they were required to marry one of their daughters to the overlord or to one of his sons. But the vassal chiefs always aspired to be independent and wars between them and the overlord were frequent. Thus, the Rashtrakutas had to fight constantly against the vassal chiefs of Vengi (Andhra) and Karanataka; the Pratiharas had to fight against the Paramaras of Malwa and the Chandellas of Bundelkhand.

The directly administered territories in the Pala and Pratihara empires were divided into bhukti (provinces), and mandala or visaya (districts). The governor of a province was called uparika and the head of a district, visayapati. The uparika was expected to collect land revenue and maintain law and order with the help of the army. The visayapati was expected to do the same within his jurisdiction. During the period, there was an increase of smaller chieftains, called samantas or bhogapatis, who dominated over a number of villages. The visayapatis and these smaller chiefs tended to merge with each other, and later on the word samanta began to be used indiscriminately for both of them.

In the Rashtrakuta kingdom, the directly administered areas were divided into rashtra (provinces), visaya and bhukti. The head of rashtra was called rashtrapati, and he performed the same functions as the uparika did in the Pala and Pratihara empires. The visaya was like a modern district, and the bhukti was a smaller unit to it. In the Pala and Pratihara empires, the unit below the visaya was called pattala. The precise role of these smaller units is not known. It seems that their main purpose was the realization of land revenue and some attention to law and order. Apparently all the officials were paid by giving them grants of rent-free land. This tended to blur the distinction between local officials and the hereditary chiefs and smaller vassals. Similarly, the rashtrapati or governor sometimes enjoyed the status and title of a vassal king.

Below these territorial divisions was the village. The village was the basic unit of administration. The village administration was carried on by the village headman and the village accountant whose posts were generally hereditary. They were paid by grants of rent-free lands.

The head man was often helped in his duties by the village elders called grama mahajana or grama mahattara. In the Rashtrakuta kingdom, particularly in Karnataka, we are told that there were village committees to manage local schools, tanks, temples and roads. They could also receive money or property in trust, and manage them. These sub-committees worked in close cooperation with the headman and received a percentage of the revenue collection. Simple disputes were also decided by these committees. Towns had similar committees, to which the heads of trade guilds were also associated. Law and order in the towns and in areas in their immediate vicinity was the responsibility of the koshta pala or kotwal—a figure made familiar through many stories.

An important feature of the period was the rise in the Deccan of hereditary revenue officers called nad gavundas or desa gramakutas. They appear to have discharged the same functions as the deshmukhs and deshpandes of later times in Maharashtra. This development, along with the pettry chieftainships in north India which we have just mentioned, had an important bearing on society and politics. As the power of these hereditary elements grew, the village committees became weaker. The central ruler also found it difficult to assert his authority over them and to control them. This is what we mean when we say that the government was becoming ‘feudalised’.

Another point to bear in mind is the relationship of state and religion during the time. Many of the rulers of that time were devout followers of Siva or Vishnu, or they followed the teachings of Buddhism or Jainism. They made handsome donations to the Brahmans, or the Buddhist viharas or the Jain temples. But, generally, they gave patronage to all the faiths, and did not persecute anyone for his or her religious beliefs. Muslims were also welcomed and allowed to preach their faith by the Rashtrakuta kings. Normally, a king was not expected to interfere with the customs, or with the code of conduct prescribed by the law books called the Dharmashastras. But he did have the general duty of protecting Brahmans and maintaining the division of society into four states or varnas. The purohita was expected to guide the king in this matter. But it should not be thought that the purohita interfered with state affairs or dominated the king. Medhatithi, the foremost expounder of Dharmashastra in this period, says that the king’s authority was derived both from the Dharmashastras, including the Vedas, and from Arthashastra or the science of polity. His public duty or rajadharma was to be based on the Arthshastra, that is, on principles of politics. This really meant that politics and religion were, in essence, kept apart, religion being essentially a personal duty of the king. Thus, the kings were not dominated by the priests, or by the sacred law expounded by them. Religion was, however important for legitimizing and strengthening the position of the rulers. Many of the rulers therefore built grand temples, often at their capitals, and gave handsome land-grants for the maintenance of the temples and to the Brahmans.



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