AFTER THE GUPTA EMPIRE: WHITE HUNS, PRATIHARA AND THE CHOLA EMPIRE

WHITE HUNS IN INDIA

Between the 5th and 13th century, a succession of invaders invaded and plundered the India. The White Huns were the first of these. They attacked India in several waves in 5th and the 6th century. They were a branch of the same tribe that marauded through Europe and challenged the Roman Empire. Based in an area around the Oxus River, the White Huns harassed the Persians and in turn were harassed by an alliance of Persians and Blue Turks

The Gupta King Skandra Gupta held back an invasion of the Huns who crossed the Hindu Kush around A.D. 466 and 467. The Huns returned again 20 years later and were able to establish a kingdom in Pakistan which they extended into central India.

The Huns were fierce horsemen and skilled archers, They sacked Gandhara and cities in India. The Hun chief Mihirakula is remembered as a tyrant who used to watch five elephants pushed off a cliff for entertainment.

In the A.D. mid 5th century, the Huns invaded Northwest India. In A.D. 460 they were repulsed by Skandagupta (454-467). The Gupta dynasty in India reigned in the Ganges basin with the Kushan empire occupied the area along the Indus. India knew the Huns as Hephthalite or Huna, the Sanskrit name. The Huns waited until 470 right after the death of Gupta ruler, Skandagupta, and entered the India from the Kabul valley after the conquest of Kushan. They mopped on along the Ganges and ruined every city and town. The noble capital, Pataliputra, was reduced in population to a village. They persecuted Buddhists and burned all the monasteries. Their conquest was accomplished with extreme ferocity and the Gupta regime was completely extinguished. [Source: Glorious India <>]

For thirty years the northwestern India was ruled by Hun kings. We know some of the Hun kings ruling India from coins. The most famous ones were Toramana and Mihrakula. They ruled India in the first half of the 6th century. Unlike the previous invaders — Persians or Greeks — who had brought elements of civilization and culture, the Huns brought only devastation with them. Luckily the Huns were driven out in less than 75 years when several Indian armies fought together.

The Hun incursion was brief but had far-reaching impact, Buddhism was pushed into the into the Swat Valley of Pakistan. With the Gupta empire in disarray, India was lunged into a period of darkness. A number of tribes crossed the Hindu Kush and settled in India and Pakistan and added to South Asia’s cultural diversity. Among the Huns themselves, many converted to Hinduism and they were the ancestors of the great Rajput families of Rajasthan.

Pratihara Empire

Akhilesh Pillalamarri wrote in The National Interest: “The Pratihara Empire (650-1036 C.E.), also known as the Gurjara-Pratiharas is little known in the West and hardly better known in India. Yet it is one of the most consequential states in South Asian history and its size and duration exceeded many other empires listed here. The empire originated among military clans in western India after the fragmentation of the Gupta Empire. This period saw the rise of the Rajputs in the deserts of parts of Gujarat and Rajasthan, who were to play an important role in subsequent Indian history. The Rajputs were Kshatriyas (a caste of warriors and rulers) who dedicated themselves to warfare, martial prowess, and fortification with a zeal previously not found in India; in this sense, they resembled the feudal knights emerging in Europe around the same time. Rajputs were fiercely independent and always held their fiefs autonomously while also allying themselves to the Mughals and British at various times. [Source: Akhilesh Pillalamarri, The National Interest, May 8, 2015 <|>]

“Shortly after the rise of the Pratiharas, they defeated Arab invaders at the Battle of Rajasthan (738 C.E.), halting Muslim expansion into India for three hundred years. Later on, they set up a capital at Kannauj, near Delhi, and expanded into central India. In both western and central India, they set up a large number of fortifications, making these regions hard to conquer. More importantly, a more muscular form of Hinduism emerged in this period that provided the ideological basis for later resistance to Islam in a way that was not possible with Buddhism. Like most Indian empires, the Pratihara Empire eventually fragmented into multiple states and Mahmud of Ghazni, an invader from Afghanistan, who took away a lot of gold and demolished temples, sacked Kannauj in the early 11th century. The Pratiharas soon petered out.

Chola Empire

While most of India’s empires have been primarily land-based powers, the Chola Empire is unique in that it was a naval empire. The historian John Keay noted “the idea that the sea could be political, a strategic commodity in its own right dominated by a state rather than by commercial competition, was a relatively new concept for Indians.” The Cholas were based in Tamil Nadu and had been around as a minor state from the second century B.C.E. However, their imperial period began in the 10th century C.E, when they dominated all of South India. [Source: Akhilesh Pillalamarri, The National Interest, May 8, 2015 <|>]

“Due to geographic and topographic reasons, the projection of military power out of South Asia has always been difficult, leading to relatively little conquest of territories outside this region by South Asian states. However, South Asia’s position on the sea is an exception to this rule, and a great naval power can use the region as a base to dominate the Indian Ocean. The Cholas knew this, as did the British later. The Cholas were famous for their maritime expeditions that gave them control over the Maldives, Sri Lanka, and the Malaysian-Indonesian archipelago by 1025 C.E. Large portions of northern India and Southeast Asia’s coasts were tributary. After a period of decline, the Chola were overthrow by a vassal in 1279 C.E. <|>

“After the defeat of a Hindu coalition by Muhammad of Ghor in 1192 C.E., Islamic rule began over much of northern India. At least two Muslim empires worth the name of great powers existed during this period: the Delhi Sultanate (1206-1526) and the Mughal Empire (1526-1858). Other prominent empires during this era include Vijayanagara in South India (1336-1646) and the Maratha Empire throughout most of South Asia (1674-1818). After 1757, the British Raj eventually came to dominate South Asia afterwards by defeating local rulers, the Mughals, Marathas, and Sikhs and ruled until 1947.” <|>

Chola Dynasty

In 985, Maharajah Rajaraja the Great (who name roughly translates to King Kingking the Great) became the leader of the Chola kingdom of southern India. He built a huge stone temple dedicated to Shiva not so much out of piety but as means of unifying support against the Muslims and taking a stake in the trading empires in Southeast Asia, the Indian Ocean and China.

The Chola dynasty had been around several centuries before it became a major player in India. It was mainly a regional power in southern India and didn’t have much influence over India as a whole until later. Battles between the Chola kings and their rivals from Chera and the Pandyan kingdom are described in the poems and epic ballads of Sangam anthologies, the earliest surviving Tamil literature. The Chola Dynasty produced beautiful carved Indian goddesses from granite and bronze. See Art.

The Cholas are among the earliest of South Indian royal houses. The artifacts of the period found in South India, the Mahabharata and Ashokan inscriptions mention it. It is known that Karikala was a Chola ruler who reigned in the A.D. 2nd century. During Karikala's reign, the capital city was moved to Kaveripattanam from Uraiyur. Nedumudikilli seems to have been the successor of Karikala, whose capital town was set to fire by the sea pirates. The frequent attacks of Pallavas, Cheras and Pandyas decreased Chola’s power. Cholas’s glory began when Pallavas power declined. [Source: Glorious India <>]

Chola Sculpture

The golden age of Indian sculpture was during the Chola Dynasty (10th to 13th century). Works from this period included beautiful carved granite Indian goddesses and multi-armed bronze gods. The Chola rulers came to power at a time during the Hindu Restoration, when Hinduism was reasserting itself after a long period when Buddhism and Jainism were strong. Part of the revival was the production of images of Hindu deities. During the early years of the Chola dynasty granite was the favored material but it was heavy and difficult to transport. Bronze then became the material of choice because it could be be crafted into smaller, lighter objects and metal was one of the five elements of nature.

Favored images were the gods Shiva, his consort Parvati, Durga, Ganesha and Lord Rama. Describing a late 10th century bronze Shiva statue called “Lord Crowned with the Moon,”Souren Melikian wrote in International Herald Tribune: it “has a smile of ineffable contentment on its closed lips. It invites and at the same time defies scrutiny.” A Vishnu bronze he wrote, stands “with one arm steadying his club while another peacefully salutes and the other two arms hold up symbols. Here, the deity, smiles with irrepressible glee.” On a Durga made in 970 he wrote it “must have been inspired by a young woman in her teens. She stares with a soft almost timid expression at odds with the character of a goddess that tramples demons. Yet the longer you look at the masterpiece, the more you suspect something in eludes the profane.” [Source: Souren Melikian wrote in International Herald Tribune, February 22, 2003]

Great Living Chola Temples

According to to UNESCO: “The Great Living Chola Temples were built by kings of the Chola Empire, which stretched over all of south India and the neighbouring islands. The site includes three great 11th- and 12th-century Temples: the Brihadisvara Temple at Thanjavur, the Brihadisvara Temple at Gangaikondacholisvaram and the Airavatesvara Temple at Darasuram. The Temple of Gangaikondacholisvaram, built by Rajendra I, was completed in 1035. Its 53-m vimana (sanctum tower) has recessed corners and a graceful upward curving movement, contrasting with the straight and severe tower at Thanjavur. The Airavatesvara temple complex, built by Rajaraja II, at Darasuram features a 24-m vimana and a stone image of Shiva. The temples testify to the brilliant achievements of the Chola in architecture, sculpture, painting and bronze casting. [Source: UNESCO World Heritage Site website \^/]

“The great Cholas established a powerful monarchy in the A.D. 9th century at Thanjavur and in its surroundings. They enjoyed a long, eventful rule lasting for four and a half centuries with great achievements in all fields of royal endeavour such as military conquest, efficient administration, cultural assimilation and promotion of art. All three temples, the Brihadisvara at Thanjavur, the Brihadisvara at Gangaikondacholapuram and Airavatesvara at Darasuram, are living temples. The tradition of temple worship and rituals established and practised over a thousand years ago, based on still older Agamic texts, continues daily, weekly and annually, as an inseparable part of life of the people. \^/

These three temple complexes therefore form a unique group, demonstrating a progressive development of high Chola architecture and art at its best and at the same time encapsulating a very distinctive period of Chola history and Tamil culture. The Brihadisvara temple at Gangaikondacholapuram in the Perambalur district was built for Siva by Rajendra I (1012-1044 CE). The temple has sculptures of exceptional quality. The bronzes of Bhogasakti and Subrahmanya are masterpieces of Chola metal icons. The Saurapitha (Solar altar), the lotus altar with eight deities, is considered auspicious.\^/

“The Brihadisvara temple at Tanjavur marks the greatest achievement of the Chola architects. Known in the inscriptions as Dakshina Meru, the construction of this temple was inaugurated by the Chola King, Rajaraja I (985-1012 CE) possibly in the 19th regal year (1003-1004 CE) and consecrated by his own hands in the 25th regal year (1009-1010 CE). A massive colonnaded prakara with sub-shrines dedicated to the ashatadikpalas and a main entrance with gopura (known as Rajarajantiruvasal) encompasses the massive temple. The sanctum itself occupies the centre of the rear half of the rectangular court. The vimana soars to a height of 59.82meters over the ground. This grand elevation is punctuated by a high upapitha, adhisthana with bold mouldings; the ground tier (prastara) is divided into two levels, carrying images of Siva. Over this rises the 13 talas and is surmounted by an octagonal sikhara. There is a circumambulatory path all around the sanctum housing a massive linga. The temple walls are embellished with expansive and exquisite mural paintings. Eighty-one of the one hundred and eight karanas, posed in Baharatanatya,are carved on the walls of second bhumi around the garbhagriha. There is a shrine dedicated to Amman dating to c.13th century. Outside the temple enclosure are the fort walls of the Sivaganga Little Fort surrounded by a moat, and the Sivaganga Tank, constructed by the Nayaks of Tanjore of the 16th century who succeeded the imperial Cholas. The fort walls enclose and protect the temple complex within and form part of the protected area by the Archaeological Survey of India. \^/

“The Airavatesvara temple at Tanjavur was built by the Chola king Rajaraja II (1143-1173 CE.): it is much smaller in size as compared to the Brihadisvara temple at Tanjavur and Gangaikondacholapuram. It differs from themin itshighly ornate execution. The temple consists of a sanctum without a circumambulatory path and axial mandapas. The front mandapa known in the inscriptions as Rajagambhiran tirumandapam, is unique as it was conceptualized as a chariot with wheels. The pillars of this mandapa are highly ornate. The elevation of all the units is elegant with sculptures dominating the architecture. A number of sculptures from this temple are the masterpieces of Chola art. The labelled miniature friezes extolling the events that happened to the 63 nayanmars (Saiva saints) are noteworthy and reflect the deep roots of Saivism in this region. The construction of a separate temple for Devi, slightly later than the main temple, indicates the emergence of the Amman shrine as an essential component of the South Indian temple complex.” \^/

Image Sources:

Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, Lonely Planet Guides, Library of Congress, Ministry of Tourism, Government of India, Compton’s Encyclopedia, The Guardian, National Geographic, Smithsonian magazine, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, AFP, Wall Street Journal, The Atlantic Monthly, The Economist, Foreign Policy, Wikipedia, BBC, CNN, and various books, websites and other publications.

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© 2008 Jeffrey Hays

Last updated June 2015

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