Medieval Temple Kingdoms

views updated


MEDIEVAL TEMPLE KINGDOMS The nearly eight-hundred-year span from the fall of the Gupta empire to the establishment of the Delhi Sultanate in the beginning of the thirteenth century has been a period of intense debate among historians of India. The sources for this period are extensive, comprising thousands of stone and copper plate inscriptions issued by scores of royal families and local lords; large numbers of religious, literary, and legal texts in both Sanskrit and regional languages; travelers' accounts in Arabic and Chinese; coins, monuments, and archaeological remains. In British colonial times, this period was judged to be one of "Hindu weakness," characterized by a bewildering array of petty dynastic houses engaged in constant internecine warfare—what one scholar called the "mutually repellent molecules" of Indian polity when not checked by a superior power. Until as late as the 1950s, the major concern of historians was simply to order the copious dynastic records into some sort of reliable political chronology. Since then, a number of more sophisticated cultural and social history perspectives have emerged.

One way to make sense of the diplomatic history of the royal houses of this period is the celebrated theory of the rājamandala, or "circle of kings," set out in the Artha Shāstra. According to this idea, the kingdoms of the subcontinent formed a great hierarchy of antagonisms and alliances, imagined as a vast set of concentric circles, at the center of which stood the ambitious king. A king seeking imperial status, signified by taking titles like mahārājādhirāja ("Great King over Kings"), sought to expand his sphere of influence by conducting wars of submission against contiguous kingdoms and by seeking alliance with those beyond their borders. While as a theory the rājamandala may explain the almost predictable diplomatic behaviors of kings during this period, it fails to capture the complexity of political relations on the ground. First, there was always more than one king (often there were several) who sought imperial status through such policies. This made the rājamandala in practice a highly complex, unstable, and multifocal structure. Second, the rājamandala was a theory of diplomacy rather than a theory of state. It tells us very little, in other words, about the structure and functioning of polity. All of the inscriptional evidence suggests that political conquest in these empires rarely entailed the direct annexation of territory; defeated kings were instead integrated into a loose imperial affiliative structure as underlords (called sāmantas). They retained their ancestral territories and gained the protection of the imperial center, in return for tribute, military support, or service at court. Such imperial systems were most stable during periods of expansion and warfare, but tributary lords tended to assert their independence in times of either peace or imperial contraction.

As Gupta power in Gangetic and central India contracted at the beginning of the sixth century, a number of royal houses, some of whom had once been Gupta underlords, asserted independence and joined the Hūnas in vying for supremacy. Among these were the Maukharis of Kanauj, the Aulikāras of Mandasor, the Vardhanas of Sthānvīshvara, the Maitrakas of Valabhi, and the kings of Gauda, Vanga and Kāmarūpa. By the middle of the seventh century, the Vardhana king Hasha had annexed the neighboring kingdom of the Maukharis, with its prized city of the "Hump-backed Maiden," or Kanyākubja (Kanauj), and pursued an aggressive policy eastward against Gauda. Southward, the Chalukyas of Badāmi established themselves as the most powerful kings of the Deccan under the leadership of Pulakeshin II (r. 610–643), subduing many local kings like the Western Gangas, Kādambas, Bānas, and Alūpas—partly at the expense of the Pallava kings based farther south in Kānchi, who had earlier been dominant in the lower Deccan, but who from the sixth century were forced to turn southward for resources and allies. The Vardhanas of Kanauj, the Chalukyas of Badāmi, and the Pallavas of Kānchi thus formed three major foci in the overlapping hierarchies of the rājamandala system. This period set the pattern for the next six hundred years. By approximately 750, a new configuration had emerged, which saw three major imperial courts struggling for putative paramountcy: the Gurjara-Pratīhāras, an aristocratic clan with pastoral origins, who established a major empire from the city of Kanauj; the Rāshtrakūtas, a vassal house who defeated their overlords, the Chalukyas of Badāmi, in 757 to build a major empire in the Deccan and South India; and finally, the Pālas of Monghyr in eastern India, famous for their patronage of Buddhism, who rose to prominence in present-day Bihar and Bengal. Masudi, the Arab traveler who visited India in the tenth century, recognized these kings as the most powerful in the subcontinent. Their fortunes varied, and though regionally based, they spent great energy and resources in pursuing transregional imperial projects, assisted by their underlords.

In the latter half of the tenth century, a new crop of powerful dynasties rose to prominence. In North India, the Pratīhāra empire disintegrated into smaller kingdoms, some of whom claimed to be the "sons of kings," or rajaputras—the ancestors of the famous rajputs of the Sultanate and Mughal periods. The more powerful among these were the Chahāmānas of Ajayameru, the Gāhadvālas of Kāshi, the Chandellas of Kalanjara, the Kalachuris of Tripurī, and the Paramāras of Dhārā. A king from the last of these families, Shīyaka II, destroyed the Rāshtrakūta capital Mānyakheta in 973, and not long afterward, a former Rāshtrakūta vassal established a Chalukya kingdom based in the northern Deccan at Kalyāni, claiming links with the earlier Chalukyas. In South India, the Cholas overthrew the Pallavas of Kanchi, then underlords of the Rāshtrakūtas, and under the illustrious leadership of Rajaraja Chola (r. 985–1016) defeated the Pāndyas of Madurai to establish an empire in the south powerful enough to make its presence felt in Southeast Asia. After the success of Turkish armies on the northern Indian plains at the end of the twelfth century, and the establishment of the Sultanate of Delhi in the thirteenth, the political dynamics of northern India, and a century later of southern India as well, changed irreversibly.

The great majority of these kingdoms ascribed to the political ideologies, ritual programs, and historical worldviews of the theistic religions of Shaivism (the worshp of Shiva) and Vaishnavism (the worship of Vishnu), as they were embodied in cosmological "ancient tales," the Purāṇas, and ritual manuals called Āgamas and Saṃhitās. Though Shaivism and Vaishnavism had their origins in earlier times, it was during the post-Gupta period that they were transformed into powerful temple-based cults, gaining extensive royal patronage and dominating both rural and urban landscapes. This transformation was achieved in part by providing rulers with compelling new royal liturgies and imperial ideologies. The theistic cults largely dispensed with the older public Vedic fire-sacrifices like the ashvamedha, or horse sacrifice, and placed image worship in temples at the center of both public and private ritual. Temple building became a major preoccupation of Hindu rulers after the Gupta period, and dynasties like the Pallavas of Kanchi, Chalukyas of Badāmi, the Rāshtrakūtas of Mānyakheta, and the Cholas of Tanjavur built spectacular imperial temples and endowed them with large numbers of tax-free land holdings. Inside those temples were ritually established icons of Hindu gods and goddesses that were endowed with juristic personalities. Worship was governed by the ritual of pūjā, or "honoring." Unlike the distant divinities of the Vedic pantheon, to whom men dispatched offerings through the fire oblation, theistic ritual was based on a radically "immanent" and "emanative" conception of the divine. Vishnu and Shiva as cosmic overlords were thought to take many forms, both in the heavens and on the earth, to create, protect, and even destroy the cosmos. This theology had many implications for medieval life, but at the level of polity, it allowed kings to claim partial divinity (typically as an embodiment of Vishnu, the solar protector). Moreover, it provided kings with a rich language of imperial power. If the vast hierarchy of divine and human agencies was continuous with and mirrored the world of men, then it is perhaps not surprising that the language of sovereignty, the vocabulary of affiliation, and sumptuary palace routines of kings and gods were largely identical and reinforced one another.

The rise of dynastic kingdoms and temple cults in early medieval India overlay more complex social processes. Chief among these was the expansion of what one historian has called "state society," which saw the incorporation and transformation of relatively simple, clan- or kin-based societies into more economically specialized, socially differentiated, and ideologically elaborate social formations characterized by the existence of state apparati and an intellectual class largely freed from the strains of manual labor. The basis of these developments was an expanding agrarian economy—an expansion that saw tribal pastoralists, hunter-gatherers, and occasional agriculturalists transformed into settled, revenue-producing peasants. Historians have pointed out that the institution of the temple facilitated this long process of social and cultural integration by disseminating the values and ideologies of the elite (like devotion and submission to authority) among the lower orders as they were incorporated into caste society. Tribal and local gods were often absorbed into the prodigious pantheons of Vishnu and Shiva as lesser gods and local incarnations in the same way that tribal leaders could potentially convert their power into lordly status by taking on aristocratic norms. Despite these processes of dissemination and absorption, evidence suggests that the cultural change was multidirectional, as the persistence of tribal features in high caste pantheons and the spread of more egalitarian religious movements in the temple environment, which were hostile to landed interests, readily indicate.

Daud Ali

See alsoAshvamedha ; Chola Dynasty ; Guptan Empire ; Harsha


Chattopadhyaya, B. D. The Making of Early Medieval India. Delhi: Oxford University Press, 1994.

Escheman, A., H. Kulke, and G. C. Tripathi, eds. The Cult ofJagannatha and the Regional Tradition of Orissa. Delhi: Manohar, 1986.

Inden, Ronald. "The Temple and the Hindu Chain of Being." Purusartha 8 (1985): 53–73.

Majumdar, R. C., ed. Comprehensive History of India, vol. III, pt. 1 (300985). Mumbai: People's Publishing House, 1981.

Sharma, Ram Sharan. Indian Feudalism: c. 3001300. 2nd ed. Delhi: Macmillan, 1980.

About this article

Medieval Temple Kingdoms

Updated About content Print Article