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Samrat Lalitaditya : The Alexander of India

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The Karkotas were a dynasty that ruled over Kashmir during the 7th and 8th centuries. The most powerful Karkota king was a man called Lalitaditya Muktapida, the son of King Durlabhaka. He came into power after the death of his brother Tarapida, who was the king before him. The Karkotas claimed descent from the mythical Naga King Karkotaka, who finds mention in the Mahabharata.

The story of Lalitaditya is intertwined with that of Kalhana, a 12th century Sanskrit scholar who composed Rajatarangini, a chronicle of the history of Kashmir. Much of what we know about Lalitaditya today is from Kalhana’s writings. In Rajatarangini, Kalhana has portrayed Lalitaditya as a world conquerer, an able general and an adventurer who spent his life in conquests across and beyond the subcontinent. In modern times, he has been called by many as ‘the Alexander of India’ whose horses crossed the boundaries of India and touched the shores of the Caspian Sea.

Lalitaditya’s military career began with a conquest over the kingdom of Kannauj and the defeat of its king Yashovarman. According to Kalhana, the victory over Kannauj was followed by campaigns in eastern India. Later his armies marched into Southern India and Western India before returning back to Kashmir.

After coming back to Kashmir he consolidated his power in North India by extending his control over the regions of Haryana and Punjab. This was followed with campaigns outside India to Badakhshan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, Turkistan, Tibet and several other smaller kingdoms. Among these campaigns is the mention of an interesting battle against an Amazonian kingdom called ‘Streerajya’.

Such a kingdom is also mentioned in several ancient texts including the Kamasutra. During the conquest of Tibet, Lalitaditya tried to secure an alliance with the Chinese against the Tibetans. However, the alliance did not work out and he had to fight the Tibetans singlehandedly.

According to Hermann Goetz, Lalitaditya, as a result of his relentless military campaigning, managed to create an empire which included large parts of North India, Afghanistan and Central Asia within his lifetime. Some historians have theorized that the purpose of these campaigns was to control parts of the Silk Route.

His conquests which stretched beyond the boundaries of India are very important because they debunk the popular notion that Indians were perpetual victims who watched helplessly as they were attacked by one invader after the other.

Rulers like Lalitaditya, Bappa Rawal, the Pratiharas and the Chalukyas managed to postpone the Islamic invasions of India by around 300 years. Lalitaditya defeated Junaid ibn Abd, one of the governors of Sindh after Mohammad bin Kasim, when he tried to invade Kashmir. If it hadn’t been for rulers like Lalitaditya, India would’ve faced the brunt of Islamic invasions much before than it actually did.

Lalitaditya used the wealth he had amassed from his battles to undertake colossal construction activities. According to Kalhana, there was not a town, village, island, river, or sea where Lalitaditya did not raise triumphal monuments.

He built the cities of Parihaspura, Sunishchitpura, Darpitapura, Phalapura, Parnotsa and Lokapunya. The capital of his kingdom was shifted to Parihaspura from Srinagar. According to some, Parihaspura was also the birthplace of Kalhana. Lalitaditya built grand temples within these cities with towering statues made of precious metals. The descriptions of these idols in the Rajatarangini are fascinating.

Being an ardent devotee of Vishnu, a large number of the shrines he built were dedicated to various forms of Vishnu like Keshava and Varaha. He also built shrines dedicated to other sects like Shaivism and Buddhism. The famous Martand Sun Temple near Anantnag was also built by Lalitaditya. Though the temple is dilapidated today, its ruins speak loudly of how grand it must have been in its heyday.

It consists of a massive central shrine surrounded by 84 secondary shrines. The location of the Martand temple is just as spectacular as its structure. The Martand Sun Temple is just one of the few monuments built during Lalitaditya’s time that continue to stand. A large number of the cities and temples built by him can’t be traced today. Lalitaditya also built elaborate irrigation systems. The administration of the kingdom of Kashmir improved in his reign which saw the creation of several new ministerial positions.

The Martand Sun Temple, Image Courtesy : Temple Travel.Net
The central shrine of the Martand Sun Temple, Image Courtesy : Wikipedia
A conjectural sketch of the Martand Sun Temple from the book ‘Letters from India and Kashmir’ Image Courtesy : Flickr

Once while he was away on a campaign for a long time, Lalitaditya got a message from his ministers asking him to return back to the capital. He sent the messenger back informing them that he wished to remain engaged in military conquests till his death. He is said to have died while away on that very campaign, during a snowstorm. Lalitaditya died as he had lived, while away on a conquest in a distant land, fighting, conquering and expanding his territories.

According to historian R C Majumdar, the kingdom of Kashmir was the most powerful kingdom in Ancient India after the Guptas. Lalitaditya was undoubtedly its greatest ruler who expanded his rule across large tracts of land. However his name has almost vanished from public memory today. A conqueror like Lalitaditya deserves a prominent place in our nation’s history, placed in the ranks of the great ‘Samrats’ of India like Chandragupta, Ashoka, Samudragupta and Harsha.

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