Wednesday, 25 April 2018

W for Waihind

The town of Waihind has been known in history by different name variants, as it has been held in importance by significant events which have changed the course of history a few times. Albeit an ancient small town, and now almost a hamlet, the history of Waihind cannot be ignored when we talk about ancient and medieval periods of undivided India.

The primary reason for its importance has always been the strategic location. Situated on the right (west) bank of the Indus River, about 15 km from present-day Attock and 80 km east from Peshawar, in the Swabi district of modern Pakistan, Waihind has always been the preferred point of crossing the Indus River and entry into Hindustan for every traveller from the west.

Importance of Waihind in ancient times

References to Waihind are found in the 12th century poet Kalhana’s ‘Rajatarangini’ (History of Kashmir), wherein the town is referred to as Udakabanda, which could be a colloquial shortening or derivative of the Sanskrit term ‘Urdhva-banda’, meaning ‘an upper town’ [In Sanskrit: Urdhva means Upper and Bhianda means Town; the word ‘banda’ most likely is a derivative of ‘Bhianda’.] Some other texts of the time refer to the town as ‘Udabhandapura’ which is yet another derivative of the same name. During the ancient period of the 8th to 11th century, the place was more popularly called Waihind, which later on got corrupted to Ohind and finally came to rest as Hund, the name with which we know it in the present day.

Waihind was the site of Alexander the Great’s crossing of the Indus and entering India, as it was centuries later for all the other invaders from the west, viz., the Scythians, Kushanas, Mahmud of Ghazni, Muhammad Ghori, Babur and also the Chinese pilgrims who came to India via the Hindu-Kush route, all crossed the Indus River at Waihind to enter the plains of India.

During the 2nd century, the city was made a part of the Kushana empire spanning entire Gandhara region with the capital at Purushapura (ancient Peshawar). From the excavation findings in the area, it is seen that the Kushanas built settlements, houses, and gateways and planned streets in Waihind. Around the 7th century till the 11th century, Waihind and the entire Gandhara region were a part of the Hindu Shahi Empire being ruled from Kabul. After the Hindu Shahi kings, Jayapala and his son Anandapala were defeated in Kabul and Peshawar, their first and second capital cities, the Hindu Shahi dynasty moved their capital to Waihind and ruled their empire, albeit reduced in territory, from the city.

However, the status of Waihind as the capital of Gandhara under the Hindu Shahi kings was short-lived as Mahmud of Ghazni defeated King Jayapala in the First Battle of Waihind in 1001 and his son Anandapala in the Second Battle of Waihind in 1008, thus pillaging and destroying Waihind considerably. The Hindu Shahi king, Anandapala ceded Waihind to the Ghaznavid Empire and moved his capital to a new location Nandana in the Salt Range Mountains. Waihind lived on as an eastern frontier town of the Ghaznavid Empire but lost all its glory, status and economic prosperity forever.

References of Waihind in earlier texts

Kalhana in his Rajatarangini described Waihind as “to the North of the Indus, there is a city of complete merit by name Udabhanda where communities have made their home … protected by the chief of kings Bhima of terrible valour by whom the earth was protected… It is a place where kings ousted from their own territories by enemies, found safety…”

By the last line, it is supposed that Kalhana was referring to the ousting of the Hindu Shahi kings by Mahmud of Ghazni in 1001, and the shifting of their capital to Waihind.

According to the Hudud al-Alam, an anonymous tenth century work, Waihind was a large town and received merchandize such as musk and other precious stuffs. It served as a trade centre between India and Central Asia. An eminent Muslim writer of the time, Maqadsi describes Waihand, “with its fine gardens, numerous streams, abundant rainfall, good fruits, cheap prices and general prosperity of its people. On the outskirts of the city were walnut and almond trees and within it bananas and the like. The houses were made of wood and dressed stone. The city itself was greater in size than Mansura (Sind)…”

Waihind in the medieval and modern periods

Waihind was included as a part of the Delhi Sultanate and was ruled over by different generals under the dynasties that took the throne at Delhi by succession. However, the town had reduced considerably in its political significance by then and remained important only as the point of crossing the Indus.

Understanding the strategic importance of Waihind and a cross-over point on the Indus, Mughal Emperor Akbar ordered the construction of a large fort on the mounds of the place. However, the final nail to the importance of Waihind was also driven in during the reign of Emperor Akbar. The final construction and formation of the Grand Trunk Road (it was named so later by the British) and the building of massive bridges at Attock to easily cross over the Indus River, robbed Waihind of all its traffic, travellers and commercial activity related to the travel route from which it had benefitted so long. Waihind thus continued to languish and was relegated into insignificance.

Post the decline of the Mughal Empire, and with no focus whatsoever on Waihind, the city became part of the disintegrated smaller kingdoms held by different regional tribes. The notable among them were the Khans and Mians who mixed with the families of Balar Khel and Habib Khel in the region to establish their control. The name of Waihind had also changed to Hund by then, primarily under colloquial reference and influence. Their most popular ruler was Khadi Khan.

As the British took over the entire region, the chieftain of the Balar Khel village of Waihind, Khan Bahadur Khan joined hands with the British forces to fight against the advancing Maratha armies. Post these wars, Waihind came fully under the control of British territory and the land was snatched from the local Khan rulers.

After independence and the creation of Pakistan, the city continues with the name Hund and also houses the Hund Museum which stores the artefacts found in different excavations conducted in the area. The Mughal Fort built by Akbar right across the village, still stands, but in considerable ruin.

In the words of Dr Ahmed Hasan Dani, a chronicler of the Gandhara civilization, (in an interview to The Express Tribune, Pakistan)“It is often said that history repeats itself and present day Hund is a testimony to this fact. From the courtyard of the Hund Museum, one can see vehicles crossing the Peshawar-Islamabad Motorway Bridge over the River Indus in the winter haze. It was in 1586 when Akbar built the Attock bridge-crossing on the River Indus... The construction of Grand Trunk Road and the Attock bridge-crossing had pushed Hund into oblivion. Today, the new motorway bridge signifies that history is retracing its steps to Hund…”


Photo: Restored ruins of the Fort and village at Hund.

Photo credit and source: The Express Tribune, Pakistan – obtained through Wikimedia Commons

Connect with me on Twitter: @Sayan74

I am participating in the #BlogchatterA2Z challenge and today’s letter is ‘W’.

Tuesday, 24 April 2018

V for Varanasi

Mark Twain, being enthralled by the legend and sanctity about Benaras once said: “Benaras is older than history, older than tradition, older even than legend and looks twice as old as all of them put together.” Thus to gauge and fathom the legend of Benaras in itself is an awe-inspiring and mammoth task. There are innumerable legends, myths and tales surrounding Benaras, spread across many ancient texts, mythology and historical accounts, in both Hinduism and Buddhism as it is across different eras of Indian history.

The Legend of Varanasi’s origin and its etymology

Varanasi or Benaras was known as Kashi in the ancient texts and mythological tales. In Sanskrit, Kashi means ‘the city of Shining Light’, an epithet that the city has truly lived up to, being a luminous centre of religion and learning from time immemorial. The name Varanasi comes from the city’s location, being based at the confluence of two of Ganga’s tributary rivers, Varuna and Assi. The name is therefore attributed to these rivers: the Varuna still flows as a channel in the northern part of Varanasi, while the extinct Assi River is remembered by the famous Assi ghat in Varanasi on the Ganges.

Varanasi or Kashi is believed to be the ‘city of Lord Shiva’. The ascetic that he was, Shiva decided to settle down in the plains (leaving his Himalayan abode) after his marriage to Parvati, and chose Kashi as his new home. Shiva therefore is known and worshiped as ‘Kashi Vishwanath’ (the Lord of the world in Kashi) in Varanasi.

The legend of King Divodasa who with the boon of Brahma established the utopian rule of the ‘Dharma’ in Varanasi and consequently banished Lord Shiva and all other Gods from the city, is very popular in mythology. Lord Vishnu finally managed to skilfully depose the righteous king Divodasa and return the city of Varanasi to Lord Shiva.

The oldest archaeological evidences found from the region of Varanasi dates back to about 1000 BC, but mythological references to Kashi take us back much earlier. In the Mahabharata, Bheeshma abducts the princesses of Kashi, Amba, Ambika and Ambalika to be the brides for his brother Vichitra Virya, who was the reigning king of Hastinapur at the time. The Mahabharata also mentions that the Pandavas came to Kashi in search of Lord Shiva to atone for their sins of fratricide and Brahmanhatya (killing of Brahmins) which they had committed during the Kurukshetra war. Kashi is considered as one of the seven holy cities as per Hindu beliefs, along with Ayodhya, Avanti, Mathura, Hardwar, Kanchi and Dwarka.

Varanasi as a centre of religion and learning

The city over the eras has emerged as a prominent centre of religious exuberance and entrenched learning. Lord Buddha is said to have founded Buddhism in Varanasi in 528 BC when he delivered his first sermon “The Setting in motion of the Wheel of Dharma” at the nearby location of Sarnath. The Chinese monk and pilgrim Hieuen Tsang wrote about Varanasi when he visited the city in 635 BC, “a centre of religious and artistic activities...” He referred to Varanasi as ‘Polonisse’ in his accounts.

In the 8th century Adi Shankaracharya established Shaivisim, the cult of Shiva, as the official sect for Varanasi, adding to the religious prominence of the city. Varanasi’s religious importance and celebration of Hindu culture continued even through the medieval period when India came under the dominance of Muslim rule. Tulsidas composed the Ram Charita Manas in Varanasi, and several luminaries of the Bhakti movement, viz., Kabir and Ravidas, were born here. An important Maha-Shivratri festival was hosted in Varanasi in 1507 which is said to have been attended by Guru Nanak, which gave an impetus to the founding of Sikhism as a new religion.

At the same time, Varanasi also suffered heavily during the invasions by Muslim armies, viz., Mahmud of Ghazni and Muhammad Ghori who destroyed and looted many temples in the city and killed and enslaved many of its people. Also during the reign of different Muslim dynasties of the Delhi Sultanate, Varanasi was often attacked and ransacked by the invading armies. Such frequent attacks and plundering gave temporary setbacks to the city and its spirit of culture and learning.

Later history of Varanasi

During the reign of Mughal Emperor Akbar, Varanasi experienced a revival of Hindu culture and religion. Akbar invested in the city and built two large temples dedicated to Shiva and Vishnu, while other kings also contributed to building and restoring temples and promoting classical Hindu learning in Varanasi. The city saw another setback and lull during the reign of Aurangzeb who ordered the destruction of many temples and imposed restrictions on religious practices of the non-Muslims.

However, by 1737 the Mughals accorded official status to the Kingdom of Benaras under the ruling of the ‘Kashi Naresh’ (king of Kashi). Much of the modern Varanasi was built and developed by the Maratha and Brahmin rulers in the 18th century. Maharaja Ranjit Singh of Lahore and of the Sikh confederacy fame got the tower of the Kashi Vishwanath temple gilded in gold leaves. The sanctity of Varanasi continued during the British Raj with the British establishing colleges and modern institutions of education and learning. The Sanskrit College of Benaras, founded in 1791 by Jonathan Duncan was foremost among such institutions. The Central Hindu College founded by Dr Annie Besant later became the foundation of the creation of the Benaras Hindu University.

While the British technically ruled over the region and also transferred the capital of the Kingdom of Benaras to Ramnagar, across the Ganges, the ‘Kashi Naresh’ continued to remain the religious head of Varanasi and was much revered by its people.

The epitome of Varanasi

While Varanasi continues to be the cultural capital of North India since a long time, the epitome of its fame lies in its close association with the Ganga River on the banks of which the city is situated. The ‘ghats’ (embankment of stone steps going down to the river) of Varanasi are world famous, with the ‘Dashashwamedh Ghat’ being the most popular of them all. Other important ‘ghats’ are Panchganga ghat, Assi ghat, Manikarnika ghat and Harishchandra ghat; the latter two being where Hindus cremate their dead. It is a popular belief amongst Hindus that death in the city will wash away all earthly sins and bring salvation (moksha).

Varanasi also remains as an important centre for culture and music and is the place where the ‘Benaras gharana’ form of Hindustani Classical Music was developed.


Photo: The ghats of Varanasi on the Ganges.

Photo credit and source: Wikimedia Commons

Connect with me on Twitter: @Sayan74

I am participating in the #BlogchatterA2Z challenge and today’s letter is ‘V’.

U for Ujjain

The city of Ujjain, located on the banks of the Kshipra River in present day Madhya Pradesh, has been an important centre for Hindu religious and cultural activities from the ancient times. The city has continued to thrive and prosper down the centuries and is now a bustling township in the central heartland of India.

Ujjain in the ancient times

The earliest settlements in Ujjain date back to 700 BC as per the excavated findings in the area. In ancient India, the kingdom was called Avanti with its capital at Ujjain. The city was also known as Avantika or Ujjaini. By 600 BC Avanti was one of the sixteen Mahajanapadas (kingdoms) of Aryavarta (north India), the references of which we find in many ancient texts like the Puranas. Ujjain as the capital and a prominent city on the Malwa plateau, remained as an important political, commercial and cultural centre.

The people of Ujjain celebrated Lord Shiva as their guiding deity and devotedly worshipped him. Mythology has it that Lord Shiva impressed with the devotion of the people, granted their wish and resided in the city in his form of ‘Mahakaleshwar’ – the fiery column of light which signified the unending passage of time. A large and ornate temple was built in 600 BC to worship Lord Shiva in the Mahakaleshwar form in Ujjain, which is one of the holiest and most visited Shiva temples in India. The temple stands till date and is held as a place of pilgrimage by devout Hindus.  

Ujjain flourished greatly during the Maurayan period. Ashoka was first the viceroy of Avanti when his father Bindusara ruled the empire and later when he became the Emperor, he glorified Ujjain to a large extent. After the Mauryans, Ujjain was ruled over by local rulers like the Shungas and the Satvahanas until the Gupta period of history.

During the Gupta era, entire north India saw a revival of Classical Hinduism and resurgence of Sanskrit language. Ujjain emerged as a notable centre for intellectual learning for Hindu, Buddhist and Jain texts and literature as well as art and architecture. The celebrated poet Kalidasa eloquently described the city of Ujjain and its people in his fine composition Meghaduta. Bhartihari composed his great epics Virat Katha and Neeti Sataka, where the love story of princess Vasavadatta and Udayan was set in the city of Ujjain. The famous literary composition Mrichchakatika by Sudraka was based in Ujjain as were many of Bhasa’s works. Ujjain also appears as the capital of the legendary King Vikramaditya during this period. Composed in the later Gupta period (10th century), Somadeva’s ‘Kathasaritsagara’ describes Ujjain as “a city built by Vishwakarma and being invincible, prosperous and full of wonderful sights.”

Ujjain in the medieval to modern period

During the rapid conquest of northern India by the Delhi Sultanate kings, Ujjain was attacked by Sultan Iltutmish in 1234. The city was pillaged and plundered and the centuries-old Mahakaleshwar Shiva temple was severely damaged. This attack on the city was a huge setback from which the city could only recover much later. For the ensuing centuries as the country passed through the Muslim rule from Delhi Sultanate till the Mughals, Ujjain remained a low profile centre. However it was still venerated as an important pilgrimage place by the Hindus who flocked there.

By the early 18th century when the Mughal power in Delhi was waning and most of the kingdoms in India had asserted their independence, Ujjain came to be ruled over by the Maratha Scindia dynasty. However, the Scindias soon shifted their base to Gwalior from where they continued to rule. In 1736, the Maratha general Ranoji Scindia rebuilt the Mahakaleshwar Shiva temple (to its present structure) in Ujjain and restored its earlier reverence and architectural grandeur to a great extent.

The Scindias and the Holkars of the region continuously fought for the suzerainty of Ujjain until both were subdued by the advancing British armies. As Ujjain and the region passed under the British Raj, they decided to reduce the importance of Ujjain and promote Indore as the alternate power centre for the region. This had also to do with the merchants of Ujjain refusing to support the British policies, and their direct revolt towards the British motives.

After Independence, Ujjain continued to be part of Madhya Bharat region until 1956 when it was infused into the state of Madhya Pradesh.

Ujjain is considered to be one of the seven holy cities for the Hindus (Sapt-puri) and a major pilgrimage centre. It is also the venue of the Kumbh-mela - the religious fair which occurs once every 12 years on the banks of the Kshipra River, the last one being held in 2016. Ujjain recently has also been selected under the ‘Smart City Development Programme’ by the Government of India.


Photo: Ram Ghat on the Kshipra River in Ujjain.

Photo credit and source: Wikimedia Commons

Connect with me on Twitter: @Sayan74

I am participating in the #BlogchatterA2Z challenge and today’s letter is ‘U’.

Monday, 23 April 2018

T for Takshashila

Takshashila is famous for being the first and earliest form of University in India. The city flourished as a seat of learning and trade and commerce under the early dynasties of rulers, but also declined rapidly and was ruined way too soon. Takshashila thus can be regarded as one of the earliest ancient cities of India.

Mythological origins and etymology of Takshashila

The Ramayana tells us that Bharata, brother of Lord Rama founded two cities in the Uttarapath (North corridor) region, viz., Pushkalavati and Takshashila, and installed his two sons Pushkala and Taksha to rule over them respectively. In Sanskrit, Takshashila is derived from ‘Taksha’ and ‘shila’ (rock), describing the foundation rock laid by Bharat’s son Taksha for the city. In later Pali (Buddhist) language the city is called ‘Takkasila’ while the Greeks referred to it as ‘Taxila’, the name which has stuck to the city over the millennia down to the modern age. The Ramayana describes Takshashila as a magnificent city famous for its wealth and grandeur.

The Mahabharata refers to Takshashila as the place famous for two incidents. First, the Kuru kingdom’s heir and grandson of Arjuna, Parikshit was enthroned at Takshashila. Second, it was at Takshashila that sage Vaisampayan (Rishi Ved Vyas’s pupil) recited the story of the Mahabharata to the later Kuru king Janmejaya, when was performing the snake-sacrifice. This was one of the first recitals of the Mahabharata and its audience included Ugrashravas, a travelling bard, who later disseminated the story to other people.

The Buddhist Jataka tales, especially the Takshashila Jataka, refer to the city as the capital of the Gandhara kingdom and describes it as a great seat of learning. It refers to many Buddhist monks being educated there and the glory of Buddhism in the region at that time.

History of Takshashila

The earliest history of Takshashila can be traced to around 3360 BC, based on the findings excavated in the region. However it is believed that the place was abandoned after the decline of the Indus valley civilization. The first major settlement at Takshashila commenced around 1000 BC. The region came within the eastern fringes of the Achaemenid and Hellenistic Empires, when they attacked the Indus valley region and held control over it for a few centuries. The Achaemenid rulers, King Daruis I and King Xerexes stationed their generals in the area who were tasked with exploring the Indus valley area.

Alexander the Great was able to take control of Takshashila in 326 BC without a fight. The city was meekly surrendered to him by King Ambhi (Greek: Omphis). The Greeks describe Takshashila as “wealthy, prosperous and well-governed”.

The city passed on to the Mauryan Empire when Chandragupta Maurya took control of it in 317 BC. His guide and advisor, Kautilya, is said to have taught at the Takshashila University and provided education to Chandragupta during which he spotted the spark in him worthy enough to form and rule an empire. Chandragupta Maurya made Takshashila into a regional capital and frontier town. During the Maurya period, Takshashila came to be located on the ‘Royal Highway’ which connected the Maurayan capital Pataliputra (modern day Patna) to Purushapura (Peshawar), Pushkalavati (Gandhara) and onwards towards Central Asia via Kashmir, Bactria and Kapisa (Kabul region). This important location of Takshashila thus also made it an important centre for trade and commerce. During the time of Ashoka, Takshashila was turned into a great centre for Buddhist learning and a spring-board to spread Buddhism in the North-west region and beyond into Persia and Greece.

The next few centuries, the Indo-Greeks, Indo-Scythians and Indo-Parthians ruled over Takshashila and the region (in that order), until in the 1st century AD, the Kushanas took over the city. In the words of the Greek philosopher Apollonius who visited Takshashila around that time, the city was “fortified and well laid out. It was governed by King Kadphises…” (said to be the founder of the Kushana Empire). The later powerful Kushana king, Kanishka, further glorified Takshashila by adding more Buddhist stupas and architecture to the place. He also patronised the Takshashila University and revived it.

By the 4th century AD, when the Gupta Empire held sway over entire Northern India, Takshashila was a city famous for its trade links. Trades in silk, sandalwood, horses, silverware, pearls and spices made it an oft visited city by travellers from Central Asia. Takshashila also featured prominently in the Classical Sanskrit literature which was at its zenith at the time, being referred to as both a centre of culture and learning as well as a militarised frontier town. The Chinese pilgrim Fa Hien visited Takshashila in 400 and describes the university in eloquent words.

Takshashila University

Though Takshashila is referred to as one of the earliest and ancient universities, the education system in Takshashila was quite far from that of a university. There were teachers in many disciplines, ranging across spirituality, medicine, economics, literature, mathematics, astronomy and the different sciences. The students used to come from different countries far and wide and would stay at the teachers’ quarters till their studies were completed. There was no formal system of examination and the teacher would decide when a student was ready and had indeed understood the subject to his satisfaction. There were no formal education degrees conferred on the pass-outs of Takshashila either, as the knowledge gained was considered to be the reward in itself. Takshashila had an immense effect on Hindu culture and Sanskrit language from the ancient times.

Takshashila was famed for its eminent teachers and students. The foremost among them was Chanakya, also known as Kautilya, the eminent strategist who composed the Arthashastra in Takshashila. The famous Ayurvedic healer, Charaka studied and perfected his skills in Takshashila. He also started teaching the science of medicine there at a later period. Another notable student-teacher of medicine at Takshashila was Jivaka, the court physician of King Bimbisara of Magadha, who had treated the Buddha in Pataliputra. The Kosala king, Prasenajit who patronised the Buddha at Sravasti during his time, was also a noteworthy student of Takshashila. Panini, the grammarian and expert of rhetoric, who codified the rules of Sanskrit grammar and language was a part of the community at Takshashila.

Decline of Takshashila

During the latter part of the Gupta period (450 AD), Takshashila fell in between the three-way war between the Persians, the Kidarites and the White Huns of western Gandhara. In the ensuing war in 470 AD, the White Huns swept over the Gandhara region including the city of Takshashila. Their barbaric warfare destroyed most of the Buddhist monasteries and stupas in the city and caused extensive damage to the living settlements thus completely disrupting the functioning of the university. By 540 AD, the Huns had completely taken over the region and were ruling in Takshashila, continuing sporadic devastation and damage. It was a blow from which the city could never recover.

On the religious front, Vaishavism and Shaivism the important cults of Hinduism, began their resurgence after almost thousand years of Buddhist dominance. The ruling Huns took to Shaivism and began to promote the religion in the area, thus causing the Buddhist remnants of Takshashila to rapidly fall in decline. Hieuen Tsang, the much travelled Chinese monk who visited Takshashila in 630 AD, wrote that, “most of the Buddhist sangharamas lay ruined and desolate and only a few monks remained there. The city had become a dependency of the Kashmir kingdom with local rulers fighting for its control…”

Though Takshashila fell into decline and was completely ruined with subsequent disuse, it was around this time (7th century) that during some attacks on the city, some Brahmin priest-cum-scholars escaped and fled to the nearby Kamboja kingdom capital at Kabul. This refugee-delegation of Brahmins was led by a jat-Brahmin named Kallar who was well received and appointed as a minister in the Turki-Shahi court of Kabul. Kallar after sometime effected a successful coup against the ruling Turki-Shahi king and overthrew him to take the throne of Kabul for himself, thus establishing the Brahmin Hindu-Shahi dynasty of Kabul, one that he and his descendants ruled successfully for 300 years until Mahmud of Ghazni defeated and conquered them in the early 11th century.

The Hindu-Shahis of Kabul brought Takshashila and the entire region of Gandhara under their control during their reign, but by then Takshashila had been completely ruined and no efforts of revival were undertaken. Takshashila remained only in folklore, history and memories.

The Ruins of Takshashila

The lost city of Takshashila were not discovered until 1863-64, when Alexander Cunningham, the founder and first Director-General of the Archaeological Society of India, mapped its location based on the notes left behind by the Chinese scholars Fa Hien and Hieuen Tsang. Among the major ruins at the site of Takshashila are the Dharmarajika Stupa, which houses the mortal remains (fragments of bones) of the Buddha; and the Jaulian mahavihara (site of the ancient Takshashila University).

It is believed that the Dharmarajika Stupa was first built on a grand scale by Emperor Ashoka, as a refurbishment of an earlier modest stupa housing Buddha’s mortal remains. However, the stupa was damaged during later wars and was rebuilt to its current state by the Kushana king Kanishka in 2nd century AD.

The major sites of the ruins of Takshashila have been identified about 35 kms north-west of present-day Rawalpindi in Pakistan. It is accessible for visitors more easily from Islamabad by the direct motorway to Taxila. The site has now been named as an UNESCO World Heritage Site and also houses the Taxila Museum. Buddhist organisations in Thailand and Sri Lanka have been working together with the Archaeological department of Pakistan to revive and maintain the Buddhist relics and ruins in Takshashila.

Takshashila’s ruins today feature as an important stop on the Buddhism pilgrimage circuit, which is famous as follows: Lumbini/Kapilavastu (place of Buddha’s birth), Bodh Gaya (place of Buddha’s enlightenment), Sarnath (place where Buddha preached the first sermon - thus the founding of Buddhism), Sravasti (place where Buddha performed miracles), and Taxila (place where Buddha’s mortal remains are held).


Photo: Ruins of the Dharmarajika Stupa in ancient Takshashila.

Photo credit and source: Sasha Isachenko, Wikimedia Commons

Connect with me on Twitter: @Sayan74

I am participating in the #BlogchatterA2Z challenge and today’s letter is ‘T’.

Saturday, 21 April 2018

S for Sravasti

The city of Sravasti is one of the most important of India’s ancient cities not only from a religious perspective, but also from that of learning, culture, architecture and art. Sravasti is famous for being the seat of Lord Buddha and the centre of entrenchment of Buddhism during the lifetime of the Buddha. However, Sravasti is an equally important centre for the Jains, as Tirthankara Shambhavanath was born there. Sravasti is located in the fertile Gangetic plains in present-day Uttar Pradesh and is 170 km north-east of Lucknow.

Mythological origins of Sravasti

In the Ramayana, Sravasti is mentioned as created as the capital city for Lav to rule over his part of the kingdom of Kosala, when Lord Rama divided his kingdom between his two sons. Lav ruled from Sravasti while Kush ruled from Kushavati. The Mahabharata states that Sravasti was named after the legendary king Sravasta of the Suryavanshi (Solar dynasty) lineage, who had founded the city. The city is situated on the banks of the Rapti River (then called Achiravati) and was a peaceful one with expansive agricultural tracts of land.

In the 6th century BC, King Prasenajit of the Ikshvaku clan (Suryavanshi line of Lord Rama) ruled over the region and had his capital at Sravasti. It was during the reign of King Prasenajit that Lord Buddha arrived and started staying in Sravasti.

The treatise ‘Brihatkalpa’ mentions that in the 14th century, this city was called Maheth and was a part of the twin establishment of Saheth-Maheth in the area. It is said that it is in the ruins found in Maheth that the ancient city of Shravasti stood. Excavations in the Saheth-Maheth region by Alexander Cunningham in 1863, have yielded sufficient evidences to validate this theory.

Buddha in Sravasti

Buddha came to Sravasti at the invitation of a merchant named Sudatta who had met him at Rajagriha (Rajgir), the capital of Magadha. Sudatta wished to build a monastery for Buddha in Sravasti and devoted all his wealth for that. The monastery was built on an expansive garden owned by King Prasenajit’s son Jeta. Legend has it that Jeta asked Sudatta to cover the garden with gold as the price for purchasing the land, and when the devoted merchant painstakingly did so, the surprised Jeta had a change of heart and donated the wood of the trees in the garden to build the monastery. Thus the monastery came to be known as the ‘Jetavana mahavihara’. The other Buddhist monasteries in Shravasti were the Pubbarama and the Rajakarama, the latter being built by King Prasenajit himself.

Buddha stayed for 24 Chaturmasas (a holy period of four months in a year) in Sravasti, of which 19 were spent in Jetavana and the rest in Pubbarama. Buddha is said to have performed miracles in Sravasti, including the very famous ‘twin miracle’ where simultaneously he had fire coming out of his shoulders and streams of water from his feet, thus representing the control of opposite elements of nature within his own self. A considerable amount of Buddha’s preaching and sermons were delivered from Sravasti.

Later history of Sravasti

The later glorious period of Sravasti was during the rule of Emperor Ashok and then his grandson Samrat Samprati. Both of them upheld Buddhism in a glorious way and built a lot of Stupas and Buddhist temples in Sravasti.

The ancient city of Sravasti, which originally stood at the site of the twin establishments Saheth-Maheth saw decline since the 2nd and 3rd century. However, the modern Sravasti grew just on the outskirts of the ancient ruins and the settlement of its people gradually shifted to the new city. 

The city is mentioned in the ‘Brihatakalpa’ as a prosperous and prominent township in the Gupta period (4th – 5th century AD). Chinese monks Fa Hien and Hieuen Tsang both of whom visited Sravasti (in different centuries) during their travels in India write about the city as a flourishing Buddhist habitation. Their accounts also mention about the ancient city in ruins, which however seemed to be well preserved and frequently visited by people.

However, by 900 AD, as the political scenario across the Gangetic plains of northern India changed and Kannauj assumed the imperial position as capital of an undivided Hindu India (northern region only), Sravasti came to be ruled by a dynasty of Jain kings. King Mayuradhwaj ruled over Sravasti in 900 AD, and is said to have also changed the name of the city to ‘Manikapuri’.

For the next one hundred years, the Jain kings Hansadhwaj, Makaradhwaj, Shudhavadhwaj and Suhridhwaj ruled over the city and the neighbouring region. This period marked the phenomenal rise of Jainism in Sravasti and the establishment of a number of Jain temples, thus making the city an important religious centre for the Jains.

King Suhridhwaj is credited with defending Sravasti and its temples against the invading Muslim forces in the early 11th century. However, by the 13th century, as the entire northern part of India was swamped by rapid Islamization, Sravasti was attacked and pillaged by Alauddin Khilji, who destroyed many temples and shrines in the city.

Sravasti does not offer an independent history of its own during the medieval period when India passed under the Muslim rulers of Delhi. The region was governed by the subahdars (governors) of the Delhi Sultanate kings and later the Mughals. During the reign of the Nawabs of Awadh and later the British Raj, Sravasti became a part of the majestic province of Awadh, however it continued to remain insignificant from a political or historical perspective.

Sravasti today

The sites of Saheth and Maheth are considered to be the location of the ancient Sravasti. Maheth was the city where people lived while Saheth was the location of the Jetavana monastery. The walls of ancient Sravasti still stand and they encompass the ruins of the stupas of Sudatta (the merchant who originally invited Buddha to the city) and Angulimala (a fierce dacoit whom Buddha had converted to a monk). The stupa marking the site of Buddha’s famous ‘twin miracle’ is also located just outside the walls of the ancient city.

At Saheth, the ruins of Jetavana monastery can still be seen. It includes the ‘Gandhakuti’ – Buddha’s hut and abode in Sravasti where he spent for 25 rainy seasons, and the Ananda-Bodhi tree which is believed to have been planted by Sudatta after Buddha’s arrival in Sravasti and under which Buddha preached. Buddhists consider the Ananda-Bodhi tree to be the second most sacred tree after the Maha-Bodhi tree in Bodh Gaya, under which Buddha attained enlightenment.

Photo: Ruins of Gandhakuti – Buddha’s hut, ancient Sravasti.

Photo credit and source: Wikimedia Commons

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I am participating in the #BlogchatterA2Z challenge and today’s letter is ‘S’.

Friday, 20 April 2018

R for Rajouri

The picturesque town of Rajouri is located about 150 km from Jammu, on the Poonch highway. The place is known for its beautiful lakes and serene ambiance. It was this quaint town that was once the ancient capital of the Kamboja kingdom of the north-west, as early as the first millennium BC, when it was known as ‘Rajapura’.

The Kamboja kingdom

The earliest references to the Kambojas are found in the Sanskrit grammarian Panini’s works, in the 5th century BC. Even in the mythological texts such as the Manusmriti and Mahabharata, the Kambojas find mentions. They are described as fallen Kshatriyas (warriors) who were said to have degraded from their position due to failure to abide by Hindu sacred rituals. In the Mahabharata, there is a reference to Karna conducting an expedition against the Kambojas, at the behest of Duryadhona, the result of which was that the Kamboja tribe fought alongside the Kauravas in the Kurukshetra war. The later Puranas also mention the Kambojas as an Uttarapatha (North corridor) tribe who along with the Sakas, Pahlavas, Barabaras and Yavanas constituted the Uttarapatha Pancha-gana (five hordes of the North corridor).

Historical studies on the ethnicity of the Kambojas suggest that they were of Indo-Iranian race (sometimes referred to as Indo-Aryans) who had their territories beyond Gandhara - in modern day geography, beyond Afghanistan and lying in Tajikistan, Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan areas. During the Mauryan period, the Kambojas ruled independently and were friendly with the Mauryans. This is evidenced by the excavated Buddha statues, edicts and inscriptions of Ashoka regarding spread of Buddhism, found in the area.

By the Maurya period, the Kambojas had crossed over the Hindu-Kush range and entered Gandhara kingdom and settled in the region extending up to Rajapura (western face of Kashmir). The extent of the Kamboja kingdom, in this context, therefore ranged from the valley of Rajouri (Rajapura) in south-western Kashmir to the Hindu Kush range, with its borders extending probably as far as Kabul, Ghazni and Qandahar.

In Sanskrit Puranic literature, this region has been named as ‘Komudha dvipa’ (the land of the Komudhas), while the Greeks referred to it as ‘Komedes’ (ref.: geographical writings of Ptolemy). The Kambojas were also referred to as the Ashvakas, primarily because of their excellent breed of horses (Sanskrit: Ashva). They had been referred to in the Mahabharata as “ashva-yuddha-kushala” (men expert in cavalry war).

In the Maurya period, Ashoka made a prominent mention of the Kambojas in his Rock Edict no. XIII, which described the Kambojas as “araja vishaya” meaning, kingless, which implied republican polities. In Rock Edict no. V, we find mention of Ashoka having sent Buddhist missionaries to the Kamboja land to convert the population to Buddhism.

Rajouri as the Kamboja capital

Kamboja was included and recognised as one of the 16 Mahajanapadas (kingdoms) in Aryavarta since the days of the Mahabharata. It had its capital in Rajapura (present day Rajouri). The Mahabharata mentions that Karna led an expedition to Rajapura just before the Kurukshetra war in order to gain their support for Duryodhana. In other references, especially in Kautilya’s ‘Arthashastra’ and Panini’s ‘Ashtadhyayi’, Kamboja’s capital is described as Rajapura which is the place of the King of Kamboja, who in turn is described as a ‘titular head’ of a republican form of government. The line of Kamboja kings in Rajapura, as mentioned in the Mahabharata are Chandravarmana Kamboja (the first Kamboja king), Kamatha Kamboja and Sudakshin Kamboja who fought in the Kurukshetra war on the side of the Kauravas and were slain by Arjuna.

Rajouri in modern era

During the Sikh uprising of the early 1800s, Gulab Singh, a general of Maharaja Ranjit Singh of Lahore annexed Rajouri and made it a part of the Sikh Empire. Later, during British Raj, Gulab Singh was made the Maharaja of Jammu and Kashmir and Rajouri was ceded to him. Thus Rajouri became a part of Jammu and Kashmir and continued to stay so after Independence and partition.

However, in 1947-48 and in 1965, Rajouri was severely affected in the India-Pakistan wars, primarily because of its strategic location very close to the border. In 1965, during the Second Kashmir War, Rajouri was captured by the undercover Pakistani militia but later they withdrew their troops.
Rajouri today stands as a small town and municipal council, and home to some of the Kamboja ruins which remind visitors of its ancient history.


Photo: View of modern Rajouri town.

Photo credit: Paul La Porte, 2004-05, via

Connect with me on Twitter: @Sayan74

I am participating in the #BlogchatterA2Z challenge and today’s letter is ‘R’.

Wednesday, 18 April 2018

Q for Qandahar

The city of Qandahar in present day Afghanistan is one of high cultural and historical significance, carrying a wealth of history and heritage. Qandahar’s recorded history dates its origins to 329 BC and credits the foundation of the city to Alexander the Great, but an alternate mythological theory establishes that the city existed even during the Mahabharata times.

Etymology of Qandahar and the theories of its origins

The Mahabharata describes Qandahar as Gandhara ruled over by King Suvala and later by his son Shakuni. The princess of the Gandhara kingdom, Gandhari, was married to King Dhritarashtra of Hastinapur, an alliance formed by Bheeshma to forge matrimonial ties between the kingdoms of Hastinapur and Gandhara.

Gandhara in the early Vedic period was a Hindu-Buddhist kingdom located along the Kabul and Swat Rivers of Afghanistan and was famous for its wonderful climate, verdant settings and art, culture and learning. It was an expansive kingdom and included some significant ancient cities in it. Some historians are of the opinion that the name Qandahar has been derived from the Gandhara kingdom.

Many modern historians have associated the origins of Qandahar with Alexander the Great, who founded the city in 329 BC, while returning homewards after his aborted expedition of India. Alexander named the city Alexandria in Arachosia. Hence a theory has developed that the name Qandahar is a localised form of the name ‘Iskander’ given to Alexander, a.k.a Sikander, in this part of the world.

However, as per later excavations done by the archaeologists like Louis Dupree in 1970, it was found that the Qandahar founded by Alexander was built on the ruins of a large fortified city which existed during the early 1st millennium BC. This proves the existence of the city in the days of the Gandhara kingdom and validates the description given in the Mahabharata about Qandahar.

The Buddhist heritage of Qandahar

Due to its strategic location and vantage point along the trade route connecting the Middle East and Central Asia to the Indian subcontinent, Qandahar was a hugely prosperous city and that made it always a target of conquest for different kingdoms who wanted to rule over the city. The region came under the Seleucid Empire after Alexander retreated, and then was ceded to the Mauryan Empire by way of a war-treaty. It was during the reign of the Mauryas and specifically Ashoka the Great that Buddhism was made the major religion and the region saw extensive installations of Buddhist sculptures, stupas, rock edicts and statues dotting its landscape. One of the major rock edicts of Ashoka which was later excavated read, “Ten years of reign having been completed, King Ashoka made known the doctrine of Piety to men; and from this moment he has made men more pious, and everything thrives throughout the whole world.”

There is also evidence found that the city of Qandahar sent a delegation of thirty thousand Buddhist monks, led by a ‘Mahadharmaraksita’ (the great preserver of dharma) to Sri Lanka for the dedication of the great Buddhist Stupa at Anuradhapura. That the region of Gandhara was predominantly Buddhist at the time of the Mauryans, is evident from the discovery of the mammoth Buddha statues at Bamyan (Sanskrit name: Varmayana). [These were later destroyed by the Taliban extremists].

Islamization of Qandahar

It was in the 7th century that different Arab armies started invading the region and converting the population to the new religion Islam. Yaqub ibn Layath Saffari of the Saffarid dynasty conquered Qandahar in 870 in the name of Islam. However, he could not consolidate his victory over the city as soon Qandahar was taken over by the Hindu Shahi kings of Kabul who ruled there till the 11th century when Mahmud of Ghazni attacked and pillaged the city. This was soon followed by the Ghurids from Ghor when they overthrew the Ghaznavids in the 12th century. By this time, Islam as the new religion had been consolidated in Qandahar and much of the earlier heritage had been destroyed in the wars.

Qandahar, over the next few centuries, exchanged hands between the Mongols, when Genghis Khan attacked the city in the 13th century and the Timurids (dynasty of Timur Lane) who ruled the city between the 14th and 15th centuries, before it was passed on to the Arghuns in the 15th century.

[Incidentally, it is said that the name Afghanistan was derived from the Arghun tribe who held sway over the place in the 15th century. The word Afghan was a localised corruption of the name Arghun.]

The famous historian Ibn Batuta, described Qandahar in 1333, as “a large and prosperous town, three night’s journey from Ghazni.”

Qandahar in the Mughal era

The Mughal affair with Qandahar began when Babur annexed the city in the 16th century. His son and successor Humayun lost Qandahar to the Persian Safavids, but Akbar managed to regain it in 1595. However, after Akbar’s death in 1605, the Safavids once again attempted to recapture Qandahar but the Mughals led by Jahangir’s generals laid siege to the city and successfully defended it. Between 1649 and 1653, the Mughals under Emperor Shah Jahan fought a sluggish war with the Safavids of Persia to retain their suzerainty over the cities of Qandahar, Badakshan and Balkh.

For the Mughals, retaining stronghold over the twin frontier cities of Kabul and Qandahar were important as they were the first point of defence against any invading Persian army. Further, Shah Jahan wished to extend the Mughal Empire all the way to Samarkand, the original home of the Mughals, wherefrom Babur had come, and thus undertook a concerted campaign with the assistance of his sons, Dara Shukoh, Aurangzeb and Murad Baksh. However, he met severe resistance from the Safavids in Qandahar and the Uzbeks in Balkh and could not advance further.

For four long years the battles continued in the North-west frontier of the Mughal Empire and fate played hide and seek with them as the cities of Qandahar and Balkh were captured and recaptured by the Mughals and Safavids by turns. This ambitious campaign was said to have put a huge strain on the Mughal exchequer and had cost the empire 20 million rupees. This was such a severe blow that even though in 1653, when the Mughals came out victorious in the war, Shah Jahan had to abandon the campaign and recall his troops. With the Mughal retreat, the Safavids promptly recaptured Qandahar and the city was lost to the Mughals forever.

Qandahar in later years

By the 1700s, Qandahar was being ruled over by the Hotak dynasty rulers, who were in constant skirmish with the Durranis. By 1738, the fearsome King of Persia, Nader Shah invaded Afghanistan and overthrew the Hotak dynasty and placed Ahmed Shah Durrani on the throne of Qandahar as a subjugate ruler to Persia, before proceeding on to attack the Mughal capital of Delhi. However, in 1747 after the death of Nader Shah, Ahmed Shah Durrani proclaimed independence and established the first true-blood Afghan rule and the Durrani dynasty in Qandahar, making the city the capital of his Afghan Empire. The Durranis expanded their empire to control the whole of Aghanistan, Pakistan, the Khorasan province of Iran and even parts of Punjab in India. Ahmed Shah’s son and successor Timur Shah transferred the Afghan capital from Qandahar to Kabul in 1776.

The legend of the Kohinoor Diamond

It is said that after the death of Nader Shah, who looted the Kohinoor diamond among other valuables from the Mughal treasury in Delhi, his wealth was hastily divided and snatched away by his generals and family members. The Kohinoor Diamond remained with Nader Shah’s grandson who later gave it to the Afghan king Ahmed Shah Durrani in return for his support during a battle in the Waziristan region.

While in possession of the Durranis, the home of the Kohinoor Diamond was Qandahar. Legend has it that in 1799, when Shah Zaman elder grandson and successor of the Durrani Empire was captured and blinded in a prison by rebel Afghan tribes, he hid his most precious ancestral gems, the Kohinoor Diamond and a Pokhraj in a crack of the prison wall. When his younger brother Shah Shuja successfully defeated the rebel tribe, avenged the blinding and murder of his brother and took over the Durrani throne in 1803, he set out in search of the two precious family gems. It is said that the Kohinoor Diamond was found to be with a mullah who was ignorantly using it as a paperweight, while the Pokhraj was found with a student. Needless to say, King Shuja Shah promptly acquired both the jewels.

When Maharaja Ranjit Singh gave shelter to Shuja Shah who had escaped to Lahore in 1813, leaving Qandahar in a state of civil war, Ranjit Singh extracted the Kohinoor Diamond from him almost by force and torture, and thus the Kohinoor returned to India after the turn of almost a century.

Qandahar in later years, contd…

After the Durrani Empire disintegrated in 1813, entire Afghanistan was thrown into strife and civil war broke out between different Afghan tribes who fought for supremacy to rule the land. Qandahar passed through the hands of many such Afghan tribal chieftains and these wars ensured rapid deterioration of the city.

The British invaded Qandahar twice, leading their forces from India, first in 1839 during the First Anglo-Afghan war, but had to withdraw by 1842 after an unsuccessful campaign. They returned in 1878 and laid siege to Qandahar for almost three years, in what is known as the Second Anglo-Afghan war. Despite winning the Battle of Qandahar in 1881 and restoring stability to the city, the British forces had to retreat leaving the city in the hands of local Afghan rulers again.

For the next hundred years, Qandahar had a peaceful existence with different Afghan tribal chieftains succeeding each other and ruling over the city. It did not see much development but continued to be one of the important cities of Afghanistan.

The modern era

In the 1960s, Afghanistan was torn between United States of America and Soviet Russia, and while Russia made Kabul its war base, Qandahar became the base of the US armies. By 1980, the Soviet-backed Afghan government had taken control of Qandahar, but were harassed by the local mujahideen forces in ambush and guerrilla warfare. After the fall of the Afghan government led by Najibullah in 1992, the local mujahideen groups completely took over Qandahar which eventually led to the Taliban movement in 1994.

Qandahar was made the capital of their region by the Taliban and a stronghold militant base. It was during the Taliban regime in 1999 that an Indian Airlines plane was high-jacked and flown to Qandahar airport with its passengers held as hostage by a Pakistani extremist militant group. For the last 15 years or more, Qandahar has only seen insurgency and warfare between the NATO forces allied with the Afghan military and the insurgent Taliban mujahideens who have been joined and aided by different other extremist groups proclaiming jihad. Today, infamously Qandahar is known as the ‘spiritual birthplace’ of the Taliban and remains one of the most insurgent regions of Afghanistan.


Photo 1: The ‘forty steps of Qandahar’ at Chilzina in old Qandahar city – an imposing monument with forty rock cut steps, built by Babur in the 16th century. The rock has carvings on it in Persian detailing the conquests of Babur.

Photo credit:

Photo 2: Artillery square and the main citadel of Qandahar during the Second Anglo-Afghan war of 1881.

Photo credit:, Wikimedia Commons. Photo by Benjamin Simpson in 1881.

Connect with me on Twitter: @Sayan74

I am participating in the #BlogchatterA2Z challenge and today’s letter is ‘Q’.

W for Waihind

The town of Waihind has been known in history by different name variants, as it has been held in importance by significant event...