The migration of the Aryans from the Indus to the Ganges valley around 1000 B.C.E. left what is now Pakistan largely autonomous. But by the middle of the first millennium B.C.E. the region’s isolation had given way to a series of invasions of ideas and armies. Jainism and Buddhism were the first of the former, which left indelible marks on the region’s society and culture that still echo today. The armies came from Persia, Greece, and Central Asia, each earning a place in the region’s history. Concurrently, the Hindu kingdoms that developed in India from Aryan roots periodically held sway over the Indus region from whence they originated.
In the sixth century B.C.E., near the end of the Indus region’s period of obscurity, spiritual and intellectual revolutions were reshaping the ancient world. New thinkers advanced ideas that profoundly changed views of life and religion. These guiding spirits included Zoroaster (ca. 628–551 B.C.E.) in Iran; Pythagoras (ca. 570–500 B.C.E.) in Greece; Confucius (551–479 B.C.E.) and Laozi (FL. sixth century) in China; and Siddhartha Gautama (ca. 623–543 B.C.E.), known as the Buddha, and Mahavira (ca. 599–527 B.C.E.), who spread Jainism, in India.
Mahavira was born a prince at Vaisali, near Patna, India. The son of Siddhartha, chief of the Nat Clan of the Kshatriyas, his given name was Vardhamana. At age 30 he gave up his life of ease to embark on a spiritual quest and wandered as a monk for 13 years until attaining supreme knowledge. He spent the next 30 years preaching throughout the subcontinent, teaching the faithful how to achieve release (moksha) from earthly concerns by avoiding sinful thoughts and desires and by avoiding causing harm to others. As did Buddhists, he believed every living being was infl uenced by karma, the accumulated energy of all the individual’s good and bad deeds. Followers called him Jina, the conqueror, and later Mahavira (taken from the Sanskrit word mahavir, meaning very brave and courageous). Jainism and Buddhism are considered to have developed contemporaneously, as their founders lived at the same time. But Mahavira based his teachings on Jaina traditions that went back centuries in the Indus Valley. Within Jainism, he is regarded as the 24th, last, and most important of the tirthankaras, ford makers, or pathfi nders. The previous tirthankara, Parshvanatha, or Parshva, and the fi rst for whom historical evidence exists, probably lived in the ninth century B.C.E. Mahavira, over his years of preaching, brought many new adherents to the faith. His sermons were memorized by followers, and over hundreds of years, they were collected in the Agam Sutras (canonical literature). Punjab eventually became a stronghold of Jainism, with a large community in Lahore. Most adherents moved to the Indian portion of Punjab following independence in 1947.
As Mahavira spread his message, another scion of the nobility who would have even greater impact on the region was on a similar mission. Siddhartha Gautama was the son of the chief of Kapilavastu, a principality at the foot of the Himalayas. Gautama abandoned his life of ease and pleasure and set off on a search for truth, wandering first as a hermit and later attracting followers as he preached during his journey. His quest eventually brought him enlightenment and he was proclaimed as Buddha, a Sanskrit word meaning “enlightened one” or “awakened one.” (The title applies to anyone who has received enlightenment, though is often used to refer to Gautama, who was also called by the religious name Shakyamuni.) Gautama believed in reincarnation and preached that karma, the accreted spirit of one’s good and bad deeds, determines the quality of the next life. The key to enlightenment lay in connecting to dharma, the truth of the world’s nature, which is only possible by elevating one’s karma through thought and deed. This would allow the attainment of nirvana, an exalted state of bliss and understanding. Gautama also taught that there is no intermediary between humans and the divine spirit and that he himself was merely a guide.
The Buddha’s message struck a responsive chord among those disenchanted with the rigid social stratification practiced by the Hindus. One of the Buddha’s primary patrons was Bimbisara, the fifth Saisunaga ruler of the Hindu kingdom of Magadha, one of three larger kingdoms founded by the Aryan tribes who had migrated east from Pakistan. Magadha dominated the northeast region of the subcontinent. The king ruled from the capital at Rajgir. He married a Kosala princess and annexed the neighboring kingdom of Anga. According to legend, Bimbisara invited Gautama to visit his court at Rajgir before he had achieved enlightenment. When Gautama declined, Bimbisara invited him to return once his quest was completed. Having attained enlightenment, the Buddha and his monks visited Bimbisara’s court, and the ruler awarded him property for use in his teachings. Bimbisara was later deposed by his son Ajatasattu, imprisoned, and starved to death. Ajatasattu (also spelled Ajatasatru and Ajatashtru) built a new capital at Pataliputra and made Magadha into the most powerful of the three Hindu kingdoms.
The area that is now Pakistan may have come under Persian domination as early as the reign of that empire’s founder, Cyrus the Great (ca. 585–529 B.C.E.). Under his grandson and second successor, Darius I (r. ca. 522–486 B.C.E.), the area of Sind and Punjab became the 20th satrapy, or province, of the Achaemenian Empire, as the Persian dominion was known. Darius called the new Persian province the Sind Satrapy, after Sindhu, the ancient name of the Indus River. References to Sindhu and Hindu figures are found on inscriptions in the ancient Persian cities of Kermanshah, Susa, and Persepolis and refer to Hapta Hindva (the Seven Rivers) as belonging to Darius’s empire. Herodotus (ca. 484–420 B.C.E.), the Greek historian, wrote that Darius had dispatched Scylax to lead an exploratory mission to the Indus River valley in 517 B.C.E. Once under its suzerain, Sind was the richest of Persia’s provinces and, according to Herodotus, “paid a tribute exceeding that of every other people” (Herodotus, Persian Wars, Book III, 204), due in part to the heavy rainfall and many rivers that nourished the land. Darius also conquered the doab between the Indus and Jhelum Rivers.
Commerce followed conquest. Trade increased, and several cities were established along caravan routes. With growing prosperity, the arts and philosophy took more prominent roles in society. Taxila, near Rawalpindi, which would later be renowned for its art and commerce, is thought to have first flourished as such capital during this time. Charsadda, on Peshawar’s trade route, is thought to have been another of the thriving metropolises of the era. An additional result of Persian influence was the introduction of the Kharoshthi script, read from right to left, to the subcontinent
By the last half of the sixth century B.C.E. Gandhara (consisting of present-day Peshawar in NWFP and the Rawalpindi area of Punjab) had been added to Persia’s territory as a separate province. Portions of Sind west of the Thar Desert and the Punjab east of the Indus are also thought to have come under Persian rule, as did the entire length of the Indus River itself, from Upper Punjab to the Arabian Sea. However, the region remained administratively independent. The rajas who ruled the small kingdoms that comprised present-day Pakistan simply swore fealty to their Persian lords, paid their tribute, and provided military assistance when needed. This independence grew over time as the Persian Empire’s power began to fade. Darius used the region’s military assistance to further expand his empire. He used Pakistani troops in his victorious first campaign against the Greeks, which expanded the Persian Empire as far west as the River Danube. And when Darius dispatched Xerxes (r. 485–465 B.C.E.) to lead a subsequent campaign against Greece, troops from Pakistan were again part of the invasion force. Herodotus wrote of the cavalry and chariots that came from the Indus satrapy, and of their bows and arrows of cane sheathed in iron. He also noted their garments of cotton. Besides bringing the Indus region under foreign infl uence, its link with Persia also created history and cultural identity for this area unique and independent from that of the rest of the subcontinent. It is among the divisions between what is now Pakistan and India that persist to the present. For almost two hundred years what is now Pakistan remained the collective vassal of Persia’s rulers. But internal confl ict still occurred as local kingdoms fought for greater regional dominance, and would-be rajas sought to usurp the power of established rulers.
In the fourth century, the Persian Empire fell to another great invader from the west, Alexander the Great (356–323 B.C.E.). The son of Philip of Macedonia, Alexander took the throne upon his father’s death in 336 B.C.E. As a prince he had harbored dreams of military conquest, and upon becoming king he put his plans into action. The Persian Achaemenian Empire, at the time the world’s most powerful, was his first objective. After taking two years to organize his army, in 334 B.C.E. Alexander led his troops eastward. Darius III (ca. 380–330 B.C.E.), who ruled the Achaemenian Empire at the time, gathered forces from across the empire to battle the invaders. His forces included Bactrians and Sogdians from what is now Pakistan. Their assistance in this and previous campaigns pitting the Persians against the Greeks did not escape Alexander’s attention. Alexander defeated Darius at Issus in 333 B.C.E., though the Persians survived the defeat. Suspending his campaign long enough to conquer both the Phoenicians in present-day Lebanon and Egypt in the years 332–331 B.C.E., Alexander returned to rout Darius at Gaugamela in 331 B.C.E. He looted and burned Persepolis and several other Persian cities.
In 327 B.C.E., after adding Khurasan and Bactria to his conquests, Alexander marched his army toward Afghanistan and points east. Enlisting Pashtun tribesmen to join his forces, Alexander crossed into present-day Pakistan via the northern route through Bajaur and Swat. His campaign lasted from June through December. Consolidating his victories, Alexander married Kleophis, queen of the Assakenoi (Asvakas), the region’s most powerful tribe. Continuing the advance, in February of 326 B.C.E., Alexander crossed the Indus River at Rhind, 12 miles north of Attock. He was welcomed by Taxila’s ruler, Raja Ambhi. Alexander spent some time here enjoying the hospitality of this center of culture and learning. But the adjacent kingdom, middle Punjab, ruled by Porus (d. 317 B.C.E.), resisted the Greeks, gathering forces that included 200 war elephants, 300 chariots, 4,000 cavalries, and 30,000 infantry. Alexander met the Punjabi army at Jhelum ford that July and defeated Porus in what would become known as the Battle of Hydaspes. In recognition of Porus’s valiance in battle, Alexander allowed him to keep his throne. (This also served to limit future insurrections among local populations.) After defeating Punjab, Alexander advanced to the Hyphasis River (modern-day Beas River). He wanted to continue his conquests and defeat Magadha, the Hindu kingdom to the east, but his soldiers, weary from the long campaign, refused to go farther. Alexander spent three days cloistered in his tent before emerging to order his army’s withdrawal, after having 12 pillars marking his conquests erected by the river. On his way back through Pakistan, he marched south and fought the Malavas (Malloy in Greek), whose kingdom was in western and central India, before conquering Multan. His army suffered numerous casualties during the campaign.
Along the route, he established garrisons manned by troops he left in place and founded towns that would be populated by settlers who would come from Greece and other parts of the empire. Greek historian Diodorus Siculus (fl . first century B.C.E.) wrote that Alexander himself recruited 10,000 people to reside in a city he founded in the lower Indus region. Continuing south in Multan, Alexander crossed the Hub River near Karachi. Upon arriving at the mouth of the Indus he divided his army in two. Half he sent back by sea, while the other half returned over land. He had spent 10 months in what is now Pakistan, traversing its length and breadth. History records that Alexander and his generals were much impressed with the culture they found in Pakistan and the prowess of its military, which was superior to the armies Alexander had faced in Asia Minor and Asia up to that point. On the way back to Macedonia, Alexander died. His generals fought over his empire. Seleucus I Nicator (358–281 B.C.E.) gained the largest part, extending from Asia Minor to Bactria, including present-day Pakistan. He continued Alexander’s practice of building new towns in an effort to cement Greece’s hold on the land.
Alexander’s invasion brought Hellenistic culture to the area, notwithstanding the influences already absorbed by soldiers from the region who had battled on the Greek’s home soil more than a century and a half before. Local soldiers who joined Alexander’s armies or that of his successors quickly learned and adapted to Western customs and ways. But in the immediate aftermath of his invasion, Alexander’s influence was negligible. With his limited resources, he left administrations as he found them for the most part and made no effort to recast the culture in the Macedonian mold. And unlike the barbarity that marked Alexander’s assault on Persia, cities, and civilians were spared the depredations of his army. He came, he conquered, he left. However, garrisons Alexander established to present a facade of Greek rule would play a role in the region’s political and cultural future.
Alexander had created a superb army. The lessons of his methods and strategies were adopted by local rulers, for whom warfare had been an art, science, and instrument of state for centuries. Chandragupta Maurya (r. 322–298 B.C.E.) was one such ruler. A Punjabi noted as remarkable, brave, and ruthless, he established a kingdom, the Mauryan empire, in the Ganges River valley. The first major Indian state, it ruled the upper half of the subcontinent until 185 B.C.E. His renowned court was at Pataliputra (near present-day Patna), the largest city in the east in its time, covering some 13 square miles (34 sq. km). Pataliputra was filled with palaces, temples, a university, gardens, parks, and other public buildings and spaces. The king, whose palace contained hundreds of rooms, was protected by a crack corps of formidable female soldiers. Chandragupta’s minister Kautilya (Chanakya), author of a textbook on government administration and political strategy, was instrumental in the kingdom’s expansion and administration.
Chandragupta had failed in an earlier effort to conquer Magadha, undertaken in an alliance with the Greeks when Alexander was in Punjab. After Alexander’s death, Chandragupta again attacked Magadha, this time defeating the kingdom and claiming its throne. In 305 B.C.E. Chandragupta battled Seleucus, Alexander’s successor, near the Indus River, emerging victorious. In the subsequent peace treaty, Seleucus ceded all of present-day Pakistan and part of Ariana, present-day Afghanistan, to Chandragupta. To cement the treaty, Chandragupta married Seleucus’s daughter and gave Seleucus 500 war elephants. This marked the end of Greek rule in Pakistan, though descendants of these Greek immigrants would one day rule the region. Cordial relations between the Greeks and Chandragupta were maintained. Megasthenes (350–290 B.C.E.), an ambassador sent to the court by Seleucus, wrote an account of Chandragupta’s kingdom, reporting on the government, trade, the capital, and the army. Greek influence had remained limited in the region, but under Chandragupta Hellenistic ideas and culture sparked an intellectual renaissance in the royal court, stimulating interest in the arts and sciences. A century later the descendants of Greek garrisons left in Bactria would invade Punjab and establish a line of Bactrian kings.
After Chandragupta’s death his son Bindusara (r. ca. 298–273 B.C.E.) continued the empire’s expansion, conquering the Deccan. But it was Bindusara’s son and successor, Ashoka (r. ca. 269–232 B.C.E.), who was regarded as the most able of the dynasty’s kings, and, indeed, was one of history’s great rulers. His fi rst major conquest, in 261 B.C.E., was of the Kalinga kingdom in the present-day Orissa province of India. Though his kingdom was expanded with the sword, the blood shed in his war with the Kalingas so repulsed Ashoka that he became a Buddhist and, according to lore, a devout missionary. This turned all of Pakistan on a path toward Buddhism, on which it largely remained until Islam appeared about 1,000 years later. Thus Pakistan was under Hindu rule for only a relatively short time. A paternal ruler, Ashoka regarded his subjects as his children and sponsored works of architecture and education. Greeks played a large role in these latter activities, and Ashoka also apparently relied on his Yavana, or Greek subjects, and Greek nobles to assist in his empire’s administration. Ultimately Ashoka’s kingdom stretched from Afghanistan to the Cavery River in south India. His death began the Mauryan empire’s decline. Mauryan control over Pakistan had been limited, and the descendants of the Greeks who had come with Alexander and established themselves in northwest Pakistan gradually asserted their power.
Though Seleucus had ceded Greek territory to the Mauryans a century before, descendants of Greeks who had been garrisoned in the area gained control of Bactria (Balkh in northern Afghanistan) and areas west of the Hindu Kush under their ruler Demetrius I (fl . second century B.C.E.). Bactria’s dominion expanded eastward, and by about 200 B.C.E. the Mauryans had been driven from the region. Local rulers asserted their autonomy and sought security, as they had each time an empire’s retreat left them free and exposed. In about 185 B.C.E., under Appolodidus, the Greco-Bactrians began a series of campaigns of conquest in what is now Pakistan. In 175 B.C.E. Appolodidus’s successor, Menander (r. ca. 155–130 B.C.E.), also known as Milinda or Menandros, invaded Punjab, establishing the Bactrian kingdom. At its height, the kingdom extended from Kashmir in the north to the Arabian Sea. Indeed, Bactria’s Greek rulers “had conquered more people than Alexander himself.” (Gankovsky 1971, 72) Taxila became a renowned center of arts and sciences, drawing scholars from all the known world. The acclaimed sculpture subsequently produced throughout Gandhara (Peshawar Valley) and Taxila, called the Gandhara school of art, was a result of the mutual influence between Buddhist and Hellenistic artistic traditions.
Menander, Bactria’s most powerful king, made his capital at Sakala (present-day Sialkot). His kingdom was noted for its seaports, mines, cities, and vibrant trade. Like Ashoka, he eventually turned to Buddhism and was a great patron of Buddhist scholars and teachers. A theological discussion he held with the Buddhist philosopher Nagasena was the basis for a noted Pali text, Milindapanha, Questions of Milinda.
In the middle of the second century B.C.E. nomadic horsemen from Central Asia called Scythians—the fi rst in a progression of these invaders—began to pour into what is now Pakistan. The nomadic tribe had invaded and conquered Persia and Khurasan in about 150 B.C.E. The Sakas were a branch of the Scythians. Menander was on a military campaign to expand his kingdom eastward at the time, Mathura had already fallen, and Menander was preparing to advance on the grand city of Pataliputra when he learned of the Scythian incursion. He turned his army north to meet them. Menander was killed in the ensuing battle, and his death marked the end of the Bactrian kingdom. Rent by internal rivalries and disputes and bereft of its greatest leader, it split into several minor kingdoms. The Sakas quickly overran the patchwork of Greek-led kingdoms and set about building new settlements to accommodate their vast numbers. Such was the preponderance of these new arrivals that Greek geographers and cartographers began to refer to what is now Pakistan as Scythia, while Indians referred to it as Saka-dipa. The Sakas quickly assumed rule over the northwest subcontinent. Branches of the Sakas founded kingdoms in Taxila, Lower Punjab, Malwa, and Jujarat Kathiawar. Their rulers preferred to use the Persian title of satrap. The first three of the Saka kings were Maues, Azes I, and Azilises. Gandhara was their principal stronghold and Taxila their capital. The scanty historical evidence indicates the Sakas initially showed deference toward the assimilated Greek rulers they conquered. The coins struck during their reigns, for example, closely resembled those of the Bactrian Greeks they supplanted. But after several decades the Saka rulers felt confi dent enough to assert their supreme authority and display their cultural roots. They followed the style of the Pahlavis, or Parthians of Iran, in time even turning the throne over to Pahlava princes. One of these princes, Gondophares (ca. 20–48 C.E.), announced his independence from Parthian control, establishing the Indo-Parthian Kingdom. Early ecclesiastical accounts suggest the Christian apostle St. Thomas was martyred here after coming to the region—and even Gondophares’s court—to preach. Over some 100 years of the Indo-Parthian kingdom’s existence, it grew at the expense of the Sakas to encompass present-day Afghanistan, Pakistan, and northern India. The capital, originally at Taxila, was relocated to Kabul shortly before the kingdom’s demise. Though Greek rule had ended, their language remained in use by the ruling and upper classes into the common era. In the second half of the fi rst century C.E., the king of Taxila, for example, spoke fl uent Greek.
While the Sakas were losing hegemony in what is now Pakistan in the middle of the first century C.E., another wave of Central Asian nomads appeared. The Yuezhi (Yueh-chih) had been pushed from China’s border region by stronger tribes that seized their grazing lands. The branch of the tribe that overran Pakistan was the Kushans. After conquering Bactria they continued south across the Hindu Kush and seized the Kabul Valley. In 48 C.E., under the command of a Tokhari prince, Kujula Kadphises (30–80 C.E.), they invaded Punjab, Saka territory. Kujula’s son, Kadphises II, who succeeded him, completed the conquest of the Sakas. But the Saka princes were often allowed to retain their rule, and only had to swear their allegiance to their Kushan lords. Such was the retention of their power and status that this period of subjugation is called the Saka era, a name bestowed by the Kushans themselves. It began in 78 C.E., when Kanishka (d. ca. 126 C.E.), their most able ruler, took the throne and started a new calendar, dubbing it the Saka era. Kanishka established the Kushan capital in Purusapura, modern Peshawar, and continued the expansion of the empire.
He extended its territory into Central Asia, all of Afghanistan, and much of northern India, in addition to all of Pakistan. The Kushans controlled the trade routes linking Rome and China from their capital. Their ambassadors were frequent visitors to Rome and China. The empire grew into one of the great civilizations of its time, noted for both its size and its power and the advanced state of its social and cultural life. In addition to being a warrior-statesman, Kanishka was a great patron of the arts. And though the Kushan had traditionally been pagans, Kanishka, like Menander and Ashoka before him, became a Buddhist. The Gandhara school of art, which had first emerged under the Bactrian rule a few centuries earlier, flourished during this time. Both Buddhism and Gandhara art achieved their greatest glories in Pakistan under the Kushans, and under Kanishka’s patronage, Buddhism spread to Central Asia and China.
Buddhism itself was undergoing a transformation. At first, seen as a teacher, Buddha’s overtime was elevated to the status of a god, worthy of worship. This led to a great deal of temple building. Hindus and Jains also made the ancestral heroes of their legends and lore into deities, human reincarnations of gods.
Upon his death around 126 C.E. Kanishka was briefly succeeded by his son Huvishka, who was replaced that same year by Vasudeva I. By the end of the second century C.E. the Kushan empire was in decline. The power vacuum was filled by the rulers, or shahs, of Iran’s Sassanid dynasty. The Sassanians conquered the Persians in 226 C.E. under Ardeshir (r. 226– 241 C.E.). Soon after, his son, Shapur I (r. ca. 241–272 C.E.), laid claim to what is today Pakistan. Shapur’s son, Narses, was made shah of Seistan, Baluchistan, Sind, and the coast of what is now Pakistan. However, the Kushans were able to retain their control of central Pakistan and the Kabul Valley (while the Saka rulers retained their kingdoms under them). The Kushans exercised this power until the fifth century, when their kingdom, along with all others around them, fell to new invaders from Central Asia.
After falling from importance and enduring three centuries of obscurity, Magadha, the once-powerful kingdom that had controlled the subcontinent’s northeast, returned to the Indian stage. This occurred under a ruler who shared the name of the monarch who had established the Mauryan kingdom: Chandragupta I (r. ca. 320–335 C.E.). The founder of the Gupta empire, Chandragupta I was the earliest king to have left a historical record of his rule. His son Samudragupta (r. 330/335–380) was a poet and musician as well as a fearless and aggressive warrior. Under Samudragupta’s rule, the Guptas, as the dynasty was later known, were accepted as the subcontinent’s preeminent kings. Samudragupta conquered all of Upper India and counted the rulers of Punjab and Malwa among his vassals; these and other Hindu vassal states flourished under the Guptas’ reign. Samudragupta expanded the Gupta empire southward to Kalinga (present-day Orissa Province). Chandragupta II (r. 376/380–415), who took the title Vikramaditya (son of valor), continued the empire’s expansion. He conquered the holdout Saka kingdom of Ujjain (in present-day Madhya Pradesh Province, India) as well as the key seaports on the western coast of India—including Broach, Surat, Kalyan, and Sopara—that were crucial for the trade between the Mediterranean world and western Asia. The Gupta empire grew rich from its control of the sea trade, and Chandragupta II was highly regarded. The renown of his court and its splendors was such that, under the name Raja Bikram, he became the heroic subject of a cycle of popular folk tales. Art of all kinds flourished under the Guptas, as did the sciences and religious writing. Hinduism itself underwent a revival during the Gupta years, a process that included the codification of the caste system. Leading literary works were reconfigured to reflect and bolster the revised tenets. The empire retained its vigor and position under Kumaragupta (r. 415–455), who succeeded Chandragupta II. Kumaragupta’s successor, Skandagupta (r. 455–467), was adjudged to be an even more skillful ruler. But, nonetheless, under his reign, the empire would be lost as the region faced what would be its most ruinous invasion in history: the onslaught of the White Huns. When they first appeared in the mid-fifth century, sweeping down from the plains of Central Asia like so many before them, Skandagupta emerged victorious from several battles, killing tens of thousands of the invaders. But more came, and under repeated attacks, the Guptas’ empire declined. By the mid-sixth century, their power had ended.
Unlike previous invaders who added to established kingdoms, the Huns who swept into the subcontinent from Central Asia through the northwest mountain passes were nomads who are recorded as having enjoyed barbarity and bloodshed. These were Ephthalite, or White Huns, part of the same nomadic group that invaded Europe under the leadership of Attila (d. 453). With their ferocious assaults and terrifying reputations, the Huns quickly conquered Bactria, Kabul, and Gandhara. Their conquest of Kashmir, the Punjab, and Malwa soon followed. The invasion of the Huns turned a new page in Pakistan’s and the subcontinent’s history. All the traditions of previous empires, of the Guptas, Kushans, Sakas, and Mauryas, would be forgotten, and from this time forward new traditions would evolve. As had happened with all previous invaders, the Huns changed as they became inevitably assimilated into the culture. The Huns and their brethren invaders eventually became Hindus. But first, they wrought a complete reordering of the existing clan structures; some clans were stripped of all they had, while others that possessed nothing were elevated to positions of power under the new rulers. The remnants of the high caste assisted in the transformation. The Brahmans invested in the new ruling class the same qualities and spiritual purity they had previously applied to their traditional warrior-king caste, the Kshatriya of the Vedic scriptures. Mirroring this transference, the term Raja-Putra, king’s son, later shortened to Rajput, the designation for the members of the ruling clans and families, became the equivalent of the term Kshatriya. The Rajputs would found kingdoms of their own. Malwa, taken by the Huns under the leadership of Toramana (ca. 448–510) in about 500, served as their headquarters. The rule of Toramana and his son Mihiragula (or Mihirakula; r. ca. 510–542) was so brutal and inept that it finally triggered a revolt. The prince of Malwa, Yasodharman (r. 520–530), and the Gupta king of Magadha, Baladitya, the son of Skandagupta, organized the Hindu rajas to rise up against Mihiragula. They met in battle around 532, and Mihiragula was defeated. Exiled from his former kingdom, Mihiragula settled in Kashmir, where he deposed the reigning king and ruled the area until his death a few years later. The victory over Mihiragula thrust Yasodharman to the forefront of regional rulers. He conquered all the former Gupta lands and took the title Vishnu Vardhan. He also, like other Hindu kings before and after, took the title Vikramaditya. A patron of the arts and literature, Yasodharman reigned over a court that, according to contemporary accounts, possessed “nine gems,” the famed scholars and experts in his retinue, evoking the “nine gems” of Hindu mysticism; each of the latter was thought to possess astrological powers and could be worn individually or combined in a necklace or amulet for their powers at appropriate times. Magadha, which had regularly served as a power center for regional rulers going back centuries, again became a dominant kingdom. Following Yasodharman’s reign, a dynasty of kings whose names were suffixed with Gupta ruled from here for several decades, though their connection to the imperial Guptas is unclear.
The Maukharis of Kanauj
Since the time of the Maurya dynasty, the Makuhari had been a prominent tribe. In the sixth century, a new line of Maukhari kings arose. They had ruled as chieftains in the Gaya district as vassals of the imperial Guptas and had developed an independent kingdom that constantly fought with the second Gupta line. Toward the end of the sixth century, the Makuhari succeeded in expelling the Guptas from Magadha and afterward dominated upper India.
Harshavardhana (ca. 590–648), the raja of Thanesar (a holy Hindu town north of Delhi), was the younger son of Prabhakaravardhana, a ruler famed for victories against the Gujarat, Malavas, and other tribal invaders. Harsha followed in his father’s footsteps and for several years fought to establish rule over the northern subcontinent. Prabhakara died in 604, and, after his elder son was assassinated in 606, nobles selected Harsha to be king.
About this time the heirless last ruler of the Makuhari dynasty, Grahavarman, was killed in battle and his army defeated by the Malwa king. Grahavarman was married to Harsha’s sister, and after his death, she and other Maukhari nobles invited Harsha to take the throne of their kingdom. Harsha agreed. He then raised an army said to number 100,000 cavalrymen and conquered Punjab, Bihar, Malwa, and Gujarat. He continued south to the Deccan, where he was defeated, and accepted the Narmada River as the boundary of his empire. Making Kanauj his capital, he turned his efforts from expanding to administering the kingdom. Though he reigned at a time when the region’s fortunes were in decline, Harsha, a scholar, poet, and dramatist as well as a monarch, is regarded as the last of the great Hindu rulers. During an assembly, Harsha convened in Kanauj in honor of a visiting Chinese chronicler, Xuanzang, an attempt was made on the king’s life in a plot engineered by Brahmans. Nonetheless, Xuanzang wrote a vivid, complimentary account of the kingdom and Harsha’s court. Harsha died in 648 without an heir. A minister seized power. He attacked and robbed a Chinese envoy, who escaped to Nepal, which was Tibet’s suzerain. Tibet’s king was married to a Chinese princess and attacked Kanauj to avenge the ambassador’s honor. After this incident, the Makuhari empire disintegrated into small states that remained independent throughout the century.
Upper India remained in turmoil for a century after Harsha’s death. The landscape was dotted with small kingdoms inhabited by descendants of the Huns, Gujarat, and allied tribes that had invaded and since settled, and their rajas were infrequent conflict with one another. The Rajput, or sons of the king, inheritors of the Vedic Kshatriya tradition, came to power during this period. Their appellation was both literal and figurative. They were indeed the sons of the monarchs of assorted kingdoms when the title Rajput was adopted. But some began to claim divine descent, and the kings they cited as their fathers included the sun, the moon, and fire. Over time the name came to apply to all members of the ruling class and to all members of the tribes they led. The Rajput developed their own social order, founded on a strong code of conduct and honor. Boys were trained in the art of warfare and horsemanship from a young age. Much of their fighting was against other Rajputs.
The first major Rajput kingdom was founded in 816 by Nagabhata II (r. 805–833) on territory wrested from Kanauj. Kanauj had been under Kashmir and Bengal’s control since Harsha’s death, and its rulers served at the pleasure of these powerful neighbors. Pratihara, as the kingdom was known, grew to encompass much of northern India and retained its power until early in the 10th century. Raja Mahira Pratihara (r. ca. 836–890), also known more popularly as Bhoja, is considered the greatest ruler of the line. From his capital, at Dhar, he controlled territory stretching from the Himalayas in the north to the Nerbuda in the south, and from the now dried-up river Hakra in the west to Magadha, a vassal state in the east. A Hindu, Bhoja maintained a large army. His son, Mahendrapala (r. 890–910) took Magadha from the Pala kings of Bengal. Mahendrapala was in turn succeeded by his son, Mahipala (r. 910–940). But whereas Mahendrapala had been a worthy successor to Bhoja, Mahipala was a weak ruler who began to lose control over his kingdom. He suffered a grievous defeat in 916 when Indra III, the Rashtrakuta king of Deccan, raided the kingdom. Mahipala’s lack of power allowed other kingdoms along his borders to gain strength. One bordering kingdom helped the former ruler of Magadha regain his lost territory, continuing the decline of Mahipala’s empire. The last of the line of this kingdom’s rajas was overthrown by Mahmud of Ghazni in 1018–19.
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