Political leaders 250BCE to 1194CE

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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. The last Maurya Emperor Brihadratha, the grandson of Samrat Ashoka, was assassinated by his general Pushyamitra Shunga who started the Shunga dynasty. This dynasty ruled for a few decades and was displaced by another dynasty, the Kanvas. But neither dynasty 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 Kushanas

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 Indian 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) upto 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 Indian countryside in Maurya and Post-Maurya times. These Stupas, along with the many temples, apart from being centers of learning and religious activity, also served as revenue collection centers. For this reason, they were supported by feudal lords with generous grants like the Brahmadeya, Devdana and Agrahara.

The Shakas - Scythians

The Shakas 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

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 the 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 successful chieftains like Toramana and Mihirakula. A Gupta Emperor by the name Narendragupta checked the initial Hun invasions led by Toramana, but the later Hun invasions weakened and finally subsumed the empire of the Guptas.

Emperor Harsha Vardhana

The last pan-Indian Hindu Kingdom was that of Emperor Harsha Vardhana. He successfully defeated the Huns and established a large kingdom over most of North India. But he could not bring the entire country under his rule.

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 [1] talks of the resplendent court of the Emperor which moved from place to place of his large kingdom in North India. Although Staneshwara (Thanesar) was the official capital, Harsha alternatively ruled from Kanyakubja (Kannauj) and also moved along with his court from place to place 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 Aggression in Sindh

When Harsha's rule ended with his death in 641 C.E., an event in far away Arabia had a deep impact on India and its subsequent history. The rise of Islam and the beginning of the Jehad brought Muslim invaders and rule to India from 1194. The very first Muslim attack on India had taken place nearly 500 years earlier in Sindh in the year 715 C.E. These Arab invaders led by Mohammad Bin Qasim displaced Raja Dabir who ruled Sindh from his capital Deval (near modern Karachi).

The actual reason for this invasion was that Raja Dabir was aiding the Iranian (Zoroastrian) princes in trying to overthrow the Arab Rule in Persia. This seems to be a fact as many Sassanian nobles from Iran had taken refuge in Sindh and were plotting for the liberation of their country from the Arab yoke.

But the pretext given by Arab historians for the Arab invasion of Sindh is that Raja Dabir's navy had detained an Arab merchant ship.

To avenge this detention of a merchant ship, the Arabs overran the entire kingdom of Raja Dabir as also the neighbouring kingdom of Mulasthana (Multan). They even unsuccessfully tried to attack Malwa (Malibah in Arab records).

After this invasion which was limited to Sindh, all further Muslim attacks were thwarted by Kings like Raja Bhoja and other Gurjara Kings for a period of 300 years. The presence of strong Hindu Kingdoms in Central India ruled by Kings like Raja Bhoja in the 7th century C.E. and later the Gurjara Kingdoms, prevented the march of the Arabs into India.

In the period 750 to 850 C.E., the Arabs based in Sindh had attacked Malwa (called Malibah by the Arabs), but were repulsed by Raja Bhoja and his successors. The later Arabs attacks were repulsed first by the Gurjara rulers and later on the Rajputs who play an important role in Indian history from the 9th century C.E. till the coming of the Muslims in the 12th century.

Afghanistan in the period 950 C.E.

The Arabs had overthrown the Zoroastrian Sassanian rulers of Persia around 650 C.E., and wiped off Zoroastrianism as a religion in Iran and Western Afghanistan by converting the population to Islam. It was now the turn of the then frontier provinces of India to face the sword of the Islamic Jehad. In those days, Western Afghanistan comprising the provinces of Heart (whose name is derived from Hari-Rud a derivation from the older term Hari-Rudra - two Hindu dieties) and Kandahar (the ancient Gandhara of the Mahabharata) was ruled by Sabuktagin a Muslim ruler from a town named Ghazni. He was facing 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 Ranges and Punjab on the Eastern side.

Raja Jaya Pal Shahi, Ruler of Punjab bore the brunt of the Islamic Onslaught

The year 980C.E. marks the beginning of the Muslim invasion into India when Sabuktagin attacked Raja Jaya Pal in Afghanistan. Afghanistan is today a Muslim country separated from India by another Muslim country Pakistan. But in 980 C.E. Afghanistan was a place with Hindus and Buddhists. The name "Afghanistan" comes from "Upa-Gana-stan" which means in Sanskrit "The place inhabited by allied tribes". This was the place from where Gandhari of the Mahabharat came from Gandhar whose king was Shakuni. 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 the Islamic hero Sabuktagin who fought with a sword in every hand to defeat the Hindus and destroy their temple to put up a Mosque in its place.

The victory of Sabuktagin pushed the frontiers of the Hindu kingdom of the Shahis from Kabul to behind the Hindu Kush mountains (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). After this setback, the Shahis shifted their capital from Kubha (Kabul) to Udbhandapura (modern Und in NWFP). Sabuktagin's son Mahmud Ghazni, kept up the attacks on the Shahis and captured Und. Subsequently, the Shahis moved their capital to Lahore and later to Kangra in Himachal.

Tirlochan Pal Shahi - the Last Hindu Ruler of Punjab

Three generation of Shahi kings laid down their lives and their kingdom in battling the invaders.

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 when away from the battlefield.

The defeat of the Shahis opened up the Gangetic plains to the Muslims and Mahmud Ghazni repeatedly attacked the main Hindu kingdoms ruled by the Gurjara-Pratiharas and sacked Hindu temples. 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[2] But these first Muslim raids into India had given an ominous indication of what was to come a couple of centuries later in the year 1194 C.E.

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 Indian 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 first blow given to it by the Marathas in 1756 C.E.


  1. Bana-Bhatta, Harsha Charita
  2. The Glory that was Gujar Desha by K.M. Munshi
  • Sudheer Birodkar, "A Hindu History: A Search for our Present History". Reprinted with permission.