Political leaders 250BCE to 1194CE
By Shri Sudheer Birodkar
The period from the fall of the Maurya Empire in the 2nd century B.C.E. up to rise of the Guptas in the 3rd century C.E. saw a string of smaller dynasties rule from Patliputra. The Maurya Empire itself had started shrinking after the passing away of Samrat Ashoka Maurya. Brihadratha, the last Mauryan emperor and the grandson of Samrat Ashoka, was assassinated by his general Pushyamitra Shunga. Pusyamitra Shunga then started the Shunga dynasty which ruled was displaced a few decades later by the Kanvas who formed their own dynasty. But neither the Shungas nor the Kanvas could recreate the splendor of the Mauryas. Meanwhile north-west of the country saw a procession of invaders into India.
Assorted Invaders/Settlers of North India in Pre-Gupta times
The first invaders were the Kushanas (Ku-Shan) who were a subset of the Yuei-Chi from today's Sinkiang area of Eastern China. They came as invaders but settled down in India and were absorbed into mainstream society. The Kushana Empire which is dated around the 1st century B.C.E. to the 1st century C.E. stretched from Smara-Kansa (modern Samarkand) up to Mathura in North India. It did not include the Ganges valley. The capital of the Kushanas was at Sakala (modern Sialkot).
They embraced Buddhism and patronized it. The most illustrious ruler of this line was Emperor Kanishka who built the magnificent Boddhisattava and Buddha (150 feet high) at Bamiyan in Afghanistan. He also gave generous grants for the construction of Stupas, Chaityas and Viharas. The Stupa at Sanchi is typical of the many Stupas, Chaityas and Viharas that dotted the countryside in Mauryan and Post-Mauryan times. The Stupas and temples served as centers of learning, religious activity, and revenue collection centers. For this reason, they were supported by feudal lords with generous grants like the Brahmadeya, Devdana and Agrahara.
The Shakas (Scythians) came into India as invaders from South-Western Iran. They seem to have ruled a large part of India including Gujarat and Sindh apart from Baluchistan (in today's Pakistan) and Siestan (in today's Iran). The Shakas seem to have patronized Hinduism although they might have originally been Zoroastrian by faith. The most illustrious ruler of this line was Rudradaman who patronized and composed Sanskrit poetry.
The Satavahanas were contemporaries of the Kushanas and ruled from Vengi in Andhra up to Pataliputra (Patna). During the rule of the Kushanas and the Satavahanas, the economy remained basically feudal. The most famous ruler of the Satavahanas was Gotamiputra Satakarni. The Satvahanas (or Salivahanas) were Hindus and built many temples and gave grants to many temples-endowments. Their architectural style is called Hemadpanthi style.
The Golden Age of the Guptas
The age of the Guptas in the 3rd and the 4th centuries C.E. is considered to be a golden age. The Gupta Empire was founded by Chandragupta the first (not to be confused with Chandragupta Maurya who founded the Maurya Empire in the 3rd century B.C.E.).
The king who really extended the Gupta Empire was Samudragupta and he inscribed the story of his conquests on the rust-proof Askoka pillar in todays Pithoragarh. It states that he uprooted 17 kings from the Ganges valley to lay the foundations of a pan-Indian empire.
But the most illustrious emperor of the Gupta line was Vikramaditya who succeeded Samudragupta. He shifted the capital from Pataliputra to Ujjaini (Modern Ujjain in central India). His court had the Navaratnas (Nine Jewels) who included the playwright Kalidas and the astronomer Varaha-mihira. His rule can be said to epitomize the zenith of medieval civilization.
The Huna Invaders
The weakening of the Gupta rule saw the fresh intake of invaders like those of the Hunas or Sweta Hunas (White Huns) who invaded Iran and then India in the 5th century C.E. The Huns who were very war-like and destructive were led by chieftains like Toramana and Mihirakula. Their initial invasions (led by Toramana) were repelled by the Gupta Emperor Narendragupta but the later Hun invasions weakened and finally subsumed the Gupta empire.
Emperor Harsha Vardhana
The last pan-Indian Hindu Kingdom was that of Emperor Harsha Vardhana. He successfully defeated the Huns and established a kingdom that included most of North India.
In his days, Central India was under the rule of the Chalukya ruler Pulikeshin who checked Harsha's advance south of the Narmada and who in turn was checked by the Pallavas from extending his rule to the deep south. Thus the picture of India after the Guptas in the 5th century C.E. is that of political fragmentation. Harsha's rule from roughly 606 till 644 C.E. is an exception in political unification in relation the fragmentation that existed before and after it.
Harsha's Mobile Royal Court
The Harsha Charita  talks of the resplendent court of the Emperor which moved from city to city. Although Staneshwara (Thanesar) was the official capital, Harsha alternatively ruled from Kanyakubja (Kannauj) and a ever changing set of cities spanning most of his empire.
The reason for such mobility probably was that the Emperor wanted to be physically present at as many places of his kingdom, to collect tribute (taxes) and prevent the fissiparous tendencies of the rebellious noblemen who paid him tribute. Huen Tsang, a Buddhist monk from China, has left vivid descriptions of Harsha and his mobile court. Harsha patronized Buddhism and entertained Huen Tsang's stay at the court and at the Nalanda University.
The First Muslim Attacks on India
The rise of Islam and the beginning of the Jehad brought Muslim invaders to India 74 years after the death of Harsha (641 C.E.). The first Muslim attack took place in Sindh in the year 715 C.E led by Mohammad Bin Qasim. He displaced Raja Dabir who ruled Sindh and the neighboring kingdom of Mulasthana (Multan). Their attack on attack on Malwa (Malibah in Arab records) however, was unsuccessful
All further Muslim attacks were thwarted by Kings like Raja Bhoja in central India and the Gurjara Kings for the next 300 years.
Afghanistan in the period 950 C.E.
The Arabs had overthrown the Zoroastrian Sassanian rulers of Persia around 650 C.E., and converted all the Zoroastrians in Iran and Western Afghanistan to Islam. Next, their jihad focused on the then frontier provinces of India. In those days, Western Afghanistan comprising the provinces of Heart and Kandahar where ruled by Sabuktagin a Muslim ruler from a town named Ghazni. He faced Raja Jaya Pala who ruled from Kubha (modern Kabul) in Eastern Afghanistan, comprised the provinces of Kapisa on the western side of the Hindu Kush mountains and Punjab on the Eastern side.
Raja Jaya Pal Shahi, Ruler of Punjab bore the brunt of the Islamic Onslaught
In the year 980 C.E. Sabuktagin attacked Raja Jaya Pal in Afghanistan. The name "Afghanistan" comes from "Upa-Gana-stan" which means in Sanskrit "The place inhabited by allied tribes". Afghanistan was the birthplace of Gandhari of the Mahabharat. The Pakthoons are descendants of the Paktha tribe mentioned in Vedic literature.
The place where Kabul's main mosque stands today was the site of an ancient Hindu temple and the story of its capture is kept alive in Islamic Afghan legend which describes how the the marauder Sabuktagin defeated Raja Jaya Pal and destroyed the temple.
The victory of Sabuktagin pushed back the frontiers of the Hindu kingdom of the Shahis from Kabul to behind the Hindu Kush mountains. After this setback, the Shahis shifted their capital from Kubha (Kabul) to Udbhandapura (modern Und in modern-day Pakistan's Nort-West Frontier Provinces). Sabuktagin's son, Mahmud Ghazni, continued the attacks on the Shahis and later captured Und. Subsequently, the Shahis moved their capital to Lahore and later to Kangra in modern day Himachal Pradesh.
Tirlochan Pal Shahi - the Last Hindu Ruler of Punjab
Raja Jaya Pal Shahi was followed by his son Anand Pal Shahi who fought a battle with Mahmud near Lahore, but lost as his elephant is said to have run amok within his own army. His son Tirlochan Pal Shahi continued his struggle with the Muslims from Kangra but he too went down fighting when he was treacherously killed.
The defeat of the Shahis opened up the path to the Gangetic plains and Mahmud Ghazni repeatedly attacked the main Hindu kingdoms ruled by the Gurjara-Pratiharas and sacked every temple in his way. The main ruler in those days was Rajyapala Pratihara who resisted Mahmud Ghazni's raids with partial success. In his last attack on Somnath, Mahmud Ghazni successfully sacked the temple at Prabhasa Patan in Gujarat, but on his way back he was roundly defeated by the Gujar rulers of North Gujarat. Mahmud never came back to India after that.
But for now, the Muslim rule of the Ghaznivids was established in Kabul, Paktoonistan and in the land of the five rivers - Punjab. Thus after Sindh in 715, Kabul, Paktoonistan and Punjab became the next provinces which went under Muslim domination in the period 980 C.E. to 1020 C.E.
Tirlochan Pal Shahi was the last Hindu ruler of Punjab and only after an intermission of 700 years of Muslim rule could the next Hindu ruler - Maharaja Ranjit Singh consolidate Hindu (Sikh) rule after the Moghul rule in Punjab had been weakened by the Marathas in 1756 C.E.
Notes & References
- Bana-Bhatta, Harsha Charita
- Heart is derived from Hari-Rud a derivation from the older term Hari-Rudra
- Kandahar is the ancient kingdom of Gandhara from the Mahabharata
- Hindu Kush is literally "killer of Hindus" - a name given by Mahmud Ghazni to describe the number of Hindus who died on their way into Afghanistan to a life of captivity
- The Glory that was Gujar Desha by K.M. Munshi
- Sudheer Birodkar, "A Hindu History: A Search for our Present History". Reprinted with permission.