About the Name

It begins with a love of political history and of events and places that may not otherwise catch the public imagination.  The obscurity stems from a number of factors…and a dynasty whose name appears to mean (in my shaky Sanskrit) to mean “Grinder of Nations” and whose activities showed them worthy to be the name is definitely something that can get imprinted in the hyperactive imagination of a young teen.  Below is a brief description of their obscurity and their meteoric rise and fall.

The Problem

Indian history has not lent itself to good record keeping. To begin with there is the absence of one unified state across the subcontinent for any appreciable periods of time. Even when there were unified states across North, Central or South India they were generally feudal entities with feudatories jockeying for position and waiting for an opportunity to usurp the imperial scepter. Once in power they had little incentive to preserve the records of their predecessors. Even if a damnatio memoriae was not declared on the now fallen imperial overlord, benign neglect allowed the manner of record keeping to do the job.

Unlike the histories of Herodotus, Seutonius, Tacitus, Arrian, Cassius Dio, Julius Caesar etc. which were passed down the Greco-Roman world and were used as reference works for future generations such works in Indian history are conspicuous by their absence and disappear for long stretches of history. The medium on which these treatises (if any) were written is the likely culprit. Kalhana’s Rajatarangini which details the history of Kashmir is one of the few independent historical works to survive and give a detailed historical background in post-Puranic India. The literary works of certain authors like Kalidas and Banabhatt provide some teasers as well.  With Greek ambassadors a rarity after the fall of the Indo-Greek kingdom and apart from the occasional Chinese Buddhist pilgrim foreign sources for Indian history are very scares in the first Christian millenium.

With many historical works lost in the mists of time, a historian is then left with two other sources – numismatics and royal inscriptions. Alas, traditional Indian coinage relied on punch marks with various symbols depicting regions and royal emblems. Until the Bactrian Greeks invaded India, royal portraiture and indeed any script identifying the ruler is generally absent on Indian coins. Even though North Indian coinage (particularly the Guptas) appreciated the propaganda value coinage would provide, this seems to have generally escaped Central and Southern India.

The Satavahanas with their contact and constant warfare with the Western Kshatrapas of Gujarat did issue some silver drachms. But by and large coinage of the Deccan states would continue to use punch marks (albeit often in gold) until the advent of the Muslim sultanates.

As a result the only source of information remaining is the often boastful copper-plate inscriptions and victory pillars erected by various kings. Needless to say these often have to be read with a big grain of salt.

It is into this information void that the Rashtrakutas of Myankheta fall. Even though I grew up in areas that they ruled for over 200 years, I never heard of them until I opened Chapter I of Volume 4 of the Bharatiya Vidya Bhavan’s History and Culture of the Indian People on the Age of Imperial Kanauj about 20 years ago.

This was not the first or the last dynasty to lord over the Deccan. However, they were arguably the most successful until the Marathas in the 18th century. But the politics that governs the inclusion of subjects in history books has excised them from mass consciousness and placed them into undeserved obscurity. In my opinion a fit title for a blog by a history buff with a lot of useless knowledge rattling in his head.

The Origins

The aforementioned Satavahana Empire crumbled into the hands of its feudatories (the Andhra Ikshvakus, Abhiras, Chutus, Kadambas, etc.) by around 220AD. About 30-50 years later this vacuum would be filled by the Vakatakas who ruled the Deccan until around 500 AD. Almost all the knowledge of their reign comes from assorted cave inscriptions and their marital alliance with the Imperial Guptas. By around 540 AD imperium of the Deccan fell to the Chalukyas of Badami.

Unlike the Vakatakas whose aggressive instincts were held in bay by the Gupta super state next door, the Chalukyas had fewer restrictions on their aggressive conduct. They checked the southern advance of (the grossly overrated) Harshavardhana of Kanauj and in the last 100 years of their rule commenced with their southern neighbors the Pallavas a squabble over the Krishna-Tungabhadra doab that would survive both dynasties for over 1,000 years.

The Rashtrakutas make their appearance in history as feudatories of the Chalukyas. By the early 8th century they were based in Berar and played a major role in repelling a major Arab invasion of Western India. While the Chalukyas had been distracted on their southern flank they suddenly discovered to their horror an over mighty vassal in their northern provinces. Following an ever present theme of Indian history, the Rashtrakuta Dantidurg would topple the Chalukyas in 753 AD.

The Rise and Fall of a Great Power

Over the next 200 years the Rashtrakutas would be the pre-eminent military power in India. Dantidurg had defeated the Pallavas. The feat would be repeated by Govind III. After the Pallavas had been replaced by their feudatories, the Cholas, Krishna III by defeating them at Takkolam would delay the rise of Chola power for 50 years.

In North India, the victories of Dhruv Dharavarsha and his son Govind III almost destroyed the nascent Gurjara Pratihara Empire in its infancy and would force the Palas of Bengal to submit. When the Pratiharas did reemerge after a brief period of Rashtrakuta retrenchment the invasions of Indra III and Krishna III would bring the edifice crashing down.

And then suddenly in this list of warrior kings comes the peace loving and very underrated Amoghavarsha I. Abruptly succeeding Govind III at the age of 14 he would reign for 62 years. After surviving a mass revolt early in his reign he appears to have avoided the aggressive war-mongering of his race.  The solicitude of his care for his subjects compares favorably to Ashoka (and unlike Ashoka he would not leave a decrepit, tottering state to his successors) and to mythological kings like Shibi. Kings willing to sacrifice their limbs for the welfare of their subjects are rare in the annals of history.

The fall of the Rashtrakutas would be as meteoric as their rise.  Ironically it would be triggered by a vassal. Two years after the death of Krishna III the Paramara Siyaka would sack the Rashtrakuta capital of Myankheta. Two years later, another vassal the Chalukya Tailapa II claiming descent from the Chalukyas of Badami would extinguish the imperial Rashtrakuta line.

The Rashtrakuta line would survive in many of their offshoots transplanted in their northern campaigns – notably the Rathors. However, their impact on the polical structure of North India would be long lasting.  With the destruction of the Pratihara Empire there would never be a unified Hindu state that would control Noth India.  Just as the Turkish menace gathered on the northwestern borders, North India would crumble into a bunch of warring states where Chandelas, Kalachuris, Paramaras, Gahadvalas, Chauhans and Solankis would vie for power.  Divided they would crumble before the Turkish invasions of the next 200 years.

Yet it is unclear how much blame the Rashtrakutas should bear.  While the Pratiharas easily handled a number of Arab invasions these paled in strength compared to the Ghaznavid and Ghorid invasions.  The ease with which the Rashtrakutas thrashed the Pratiharas time and again suggests that the ramshackle power base of that state.

Few people in modern India have heard of the Rashtrakutas. They did not have a nationally recognized propagandist like Banabhatt or Xuanzang to raise their profile for future generations. Their coinage has not been identified and much of it may have been re-struck by their successors, the Later Chalukyas of Kalyana.

However, the physical signs of their rule survive Krishna I, the uncle and successor of Dantidurg built the famous Kailash temple at Ellora. Some of the temples at Elephanta next to Bombay may also be commissioned by the Rashtrakutas. Kannada literature patronized by them has survived to this day.

For about 250 years the Rashtrakutas were the preeminent power in the Indian subcontinent. Kings from Kanauj to Ceylon sent gifts to the court at Myankheta. Imperial aspirations of other challengers were regularly shattered or dealt severe long term set backs.

But it would be transitory. The relentless wheel of Indian history that sent the Rashtrakutas to the top would abruptly toss them down to give way to a new imperium…until they too would fall. The cycles of Indian history keep grinding on.