Around 100 miles north of Delhi, on the Grand Trunk Road, is the modern-day city of Kurukshetra, where the grand epic of the Mahabharata is said to have played out some millennia ago.
The society of North India evolved from that nodal point for thousands of years to come. Contemporary cultures, stories and beliefs find a curious connection to the land of the Mahabharata.
The Battle of Kurukshetra: The ancient epic Mahabharata continues to influence our modern customs and culture. (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)
Some 1,400-odd years ago, Raja Harshvardhan ruled the same city, then called Thanesar, and from there, the entire northern India. In view of rising administrative needs to control the vast empire of Harshvardhan, it was decided to shift the capital to Kannauj, in today’s Uttar Pradesh.
Kannauj is a fertile land in the heart of northern India. The name of the city is derived from the classical name ‘Kanyakubja’. Although Harsha ruled strong from the city, his successors could not hold onto power for long — and soon, the city became the focal point of a tripartite struggle between the Palas of Bengal, the Rashtrakutas from the Deccan and the Gurjar-Pratiharas who ruled Rajasthan, Gujarat, Malwa and other parts of northern India.
The Gurjar-Pratihara evolved into a force to reckon with and were, for a time, the most powerful kingdom in India.
One of the most powerful empires in India was that of the Gujjars. Today, they are agitating for reservation. (Photo: PTI/file)
One may blame it on the British, or on the turn of time, that the descendants of the once grand Gurjar-Pratiharas are now overturning buses and stalling trains, bringing to halt an entire state, to demand the status of Scheduled Tribes (ST)
The rise of the Gurjar-Pratiharas
Contrasting views have developed on the origins of the Gujjar tribe — there are some who believe that the origin of the tribe is indigenous. Others think they came to India with the other central Asiatic nomads who accompanied the Huns. Hence, a resemblance with the white Huns and Scythians from Central Asia is often cited.
According to a Rashtrakuta record, Pratiharas belonged to the Gujjar stock.
There are others who believe that the Pratiharas were the descendants of Lakshman.
The Gujjars-Pratiharas shot to prominence around the 7th Century AD, after the decline of the Gupta Empire.
Some believe the Gurjar-Pratiharas were descended from Lakshman himself. (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)
The Gupta empire, facing constant clashes from the Huns, declined in the 3rd-4th Century AD — the later Guptas failed to keep a hold on their large empire. In these circumstances, the Gujjar tribe/clan began by establishing itself over the region that makes up the geography of western India. After the end of the Later Guptas, Raja Harshvardhan ruled north India for a few decades. During this time, the Pratihara Gurjars were strongly building their defenses.
Gurjars against Arabs
The Gurjar-Pratihara dynasty was founded by Nagabhata, who ruled from Ujjain. His rule extended from Madhya Pradesh to Gujarat and Rajasthan. The inscriptions of the Gurjar-Pratiharas suggest that they rose to prominence first in the Malwa region.
Writes Vibhuti Bhushan Mishra in the book The Gurjara-Pratiharas and Their Times, “From Rajjila was born the illustrious son Narabhata who on account of his prowess was called ‘Pellapelli’. His son and successor Nagabhata, known as Nahada in the Ghatiyala inscription, made Medantakapura his permanent capital.”
Medantakapura is the ancient name of Merta, a city in Nagaur district (Rajasthan). Mishra notes, “Al Biladuri, while giving an account of Junaid’s incursion, mentions among other things that Junaid sent his officers, in addition to other places, to Marmad and Mandal and the Gurjar Pratiharas offered strong resistance to the invading Arab forces.”
Nagabhata I had a big role in challenging the Arabs from the Sindh.
Local historians believe that the rise of Rajput kingdoms in Rajputana was also a response to the invasions. The legend of Agnivansha Rajputs finds a parallel in the rise of the Gujjar empire.
A force to reckon with
The decline of Harshvardhan’s kingdom created a power vacuum in the Kannauj region. Apart from being economically valuable due to its location in the Ganga doab and its fertile soil, Kannauj was in those years the power center of north India.
The tripartite struggle was an effort by the three strong regional powers to assert their hold onto Kannauj.
What stands out is that the Gujjars — while offering resistance and a wall of defense against the Arabs — were also very strong in maintaining their hold over Kannauj.
R C Majumdar writes, “The Palas were one of the most long-lived dynasties of Indian history, but their supremacy in the Gangetic Doab was of short duration. The scepter of Kanauj was not long wielded by the vassals of Dharampala, and by AD 836 the Pratihara dynasty was firmly established in the city of Mahodaya (Kanauj). Before the end of the ninth century, the power of this new imperial line had extended in all directions and the command of the great Pratihara King was obeyed all over the wide expanse of territory stretching from Pehoa in Punjab to Deogarh in Central India, and from Una in Kathiawar to Paharpur in North Bengal.”
The Gurjar-Pratiharas may have rebuilt the Shiva temple at Somnath. They did build the Bateshwar temples of Morena, MP. (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)
Interestingly, Pehowa is around 50 km from Thanesar, where Harshvardhan ruled in his early years. Vatsaraj, grand-nephew of Nagabhata, is believed to have won the position of ‘Samrat’, or emperor, and extended the kingdom to Bengal and the Deccan.
The successor of Vatsaraj, Nagabhatta II, conquered Sindh, Andhra and Vidarbha. Reinventing the policy of conquest and extension of empire, his armies went out north, east and south.
The Pala Ruler Dharampala had earlier appointed Chandrayudh as the ruler of Kannauj. Nagabhatta defeated Chandrayudh and occupied Kannauj and also went as far as Munger in Bihar.
Nagabhatta II is also believed to have rebuilt the Shiva temple at Somnath — which was destroyed by Arab raids from the Sindh. However epigraphic records of the same seem short.
After some decline, Gurjar power recovered under Bhoja I, grandson of Nagabhata II, enthroned at Kannauj in AD 836. He defeated the Gaudas (of Bengal) and his empire extended as far as Paharpur in North Bengal.
Turn in Tide
Over time, the Gujjars, along with Jats, Rajputs and Yadavs, came to hold a firm grip on agricultural as well as military activities. Historian Baij Nath Puri believes that the Gujjars were locals around Mount Abu (Rajasthan).
The Gurjars had to face the wrath of the British after their participation in the violent Revolt of 1857. (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)
However, during the British rule in India, they were called “turbulent” for their hostile behavior against the British Raj — this led to a steep decline in their stature in Hindu society.
Scholars have held that the classification of Gurjars along with others as “Criminal Tribes” because of their active participation in the revolt of 1857 deterred their progress in modern India.