With the ascendance of the Karkotta dynasty, the Hindu Kingdom of Kashmir reached great heights of power and prestige. Its influence and fame spread far and wide, in the process, attracting respect and receiving tribute from neighboring states/kingdoms. Durlabh Vardana extended his kingdom to Poonch, Rajauri, Taxila and Hazara and consequently, controlled trade routes between Kashmir and Afghanistan. It was during his rule that the celebrated Chinese traveler Huein Tsang visited Kashmir and stayed there for two years between 631 and 633 CE. Huein Tsang was provided all the facilities to study Hindu scriptures in Sanskrit and was treated with courtesy. He was extended great hospitality that was due to a foreign traveler wanting to study the Kingdom of Kashmir.
Rise of the Karkotta Dynasty
Lalitaditya of Karkotta dynasty rose to power in 724 CE. During his rule of 37 years (724-761), he established himself as one among the greatest soldier-statesmen of all time. While presiding over his vast empire, he took it to unprecedented heights of prosperity and influence, giving a fillip to art, culture, architecture and literature. The well-being of his people remained his life-long passion. Though a Shaivite himself, he was sympathetic to the philosophy of Buddha, whose influence in Kashmir at the same time was substantial. For a nation, which historically, rarely expanded beyond its territorial boundaries, Lalitaditya was an exception.
Buddhism had established deep roots in Kashmir after the great Kushan king Kanishka who ruled North-West India from Gandhaar – now Kandahar (in present day Afghanistan), had held the Great Council of Buddhists at Kanishpura – present day Harwan – close to Srinagar. It is widely believed that Kashmir at that time possessed four Ashok Chaityas, each containing a small relic of Buddha’s body. The sacred tooth relic of Buddha was also with the King, but was taken away by Harshavardhana.
The Karkotta dynasty, to which Lalitaditya belonged, rose to power in Kashmir in 631 CE. For decades, Nagvanshi Karkotta Kayasthas served in the army of Kashmir Kings and were known for their valour in war. As a reward for their loyalty and soldierly acumen, they had been given the title of Sakhsena. Around 624 CE, a well-known commander of this immensely powerful army, Durlabh Vardana, married the daughter of the King of Kashmir. This, subsequently, resulted in the establishment of the Karkotta dynasty that eventually ruled Kashmir till 855 CE.
Lalitaditya faced many challenges immediately upon ascending the throne in Kashmir…
Just before the ascendance of the Karkotta dynasty in Kashmir in 631 CE, the struggle between the two contending philosophies i.e. Buddhism and Hinduism had come to an end, with the re-emergence of Hinduism as a strong faith. The period prior to the Karkotta dynasty, saw two outstanding rulers of Kashmir, Meghavama and Prawarsena (part of Gonanda II Dynasty). Both left their imprint on the history of this period. Prawarsena was the first to move the capital city to Srinagar, which at that time, was known by the name of Prawarsenapura. The king is also remembered for constructing the first bridge across River Vitasta (later Jhelum), with the help of boats. It is pertinent to mention here that during this period, King Vikramaditya, who ruled from his capital at Ujjain, exercised loose suzerainty over Kashmir.
With the ascendance of the Karkotta dynasty, the Hindu Kingdom of Kashmir reached great heights of power and prestige. Its influence and fame spread far and wide, in the process, attracting respect and receiving tribute from neighbouring states/kingdoms. Durlabh Vardana extended his kingdom to Poonch, Rajauri, Taxila and Hazara and consequently, controlled trade routes between Kashmir and Afghanistan. It was during his rule that the celebrated Chinese traveler Huein Tsang, visited Kashmir and stayed there for two years between 631 and 633 CE2. Huein Tsang was provided all the facilities to study Hindu scriptures in Sanskrit and was treated with courtesy. He was extended great hospitality that was due to a foreign traveler wanting to study the Kingdom of Kashmir. In the meantime, King Harsha ascended the throne in Ujjain and he too, sustained the existing relationship with Kashmir.
Karkotta dynasty’s greatest King, Lalitaditya Muktapida (mo-to-pi)3 in Chinese, was born around the turn of the ninth century, as the third son to Durlabhaka Pratapaditya, who was the grandson of Durlabh Vardhana. After the death of Pratapaditya, his eldest son, Chandrapida, became the King of Kashmir at a very young age. Chandrapida was known as a courageous king, with a simple disposition. After ruling for just seven years, he suddenly passed away. This ensured that the next in line of succession, Tarapida, ascended to the throne. His ascension resulted in mis-governance as he lacked courage and administrative acumen. His sudden death after eighteen months of rule over Kashmir ended his brief reign, paving the way for Lalitaditya to take over the Kingdom of Kashmir at the age of 20 years.
Not much is known about the early life of Lalitaditya. However, being the youngest of the three sons of King Durlabhaka Pratapaditiya, it can safely be concluded that he must have undergone training in statecraft under the watchful eyes of his father and the two elder brothers. Besides, he must have been exposed to the contrasting styles of governance of his two elder brothers, which must have made him conscious of his true duties towards his kingdom.
Lalitaditya faced many challenges immediately upon ascending the throne of Kashmir. Around this time, the Arab invaders from the West had started pushing towards Asia and had occupied the provinces of Swat, Multan, Peshawar and the kingdom of Sindh to the South. Mohamad Bin Qasim, the Arab General, who had captured Sindh in 712 CE, was now eying the Kingdom of Kashmir and through it, he intended to expand his territories to Central Asia.
The local rebellions launched by Daradas4 on the outskirts of this Kingdom and Bhuthias of Ladakh to the North, who were under the loose suzerainty of Tibet, were the other challenges that Lalitaditya had to contend with immediately. As a first step, Lalitaditya chose to subdue these rebellious subjects. He soon succeeded in establishing order in the immediate vicinity of his capital, far off Ladakh and parts of Tibet in the North East. He also decided to venture South from Kashmir in order to ensure that Arabs did not pose a direct threat to Kashmir. By the time the threat posed by the marauding Arabs became serious, Lalitaditya’s rule extended to the present-day Haryana and North Punjab. His march into Punjab was not marked by much bloodshed as the people willingly submitted to him.
If the Kingdom of Kashmir had to survive, Lalitaditya could hardly overlook the ever-existing threat of Chinese to his kingdom from the North…
At the same time around 730 CE, Junaid, who had been appointed as the Governor of Sindh, was keen to expand his territory further North and East into mainland India. At this time, Yashovarman, who was the King of Ujjain, ruled over vast territories, comprising the present day Uttar Pradesh, Bihar, Chhattisgarh, parts of Bengal and Jharkhand. Yashovarman and Lalitaditya soon realised the gravity of the threat to their respective Kingdoms and therefore, entered into a military alliance. This alliance ensured that Junaid’s well-laid plans to extend his territory into India, never fructified. It is said that Lalitadiya had been very upset at the treatment meted out to the Hindus of territories captured by the Arabs. As retribution, he ordered the captured Arab soldiers to shave off a part of the hair on their heads.
Lalitaditya was not satisfied with merely defending the territorial integrity of his kingdom, but wanted to take the battle into the territories captured by the Arab marauders. In a swift move, he captured Dard Desha (Dardistan) and Tukhara country (Tukharistan of the latter historians), which encompass present-day territories of Northern Pakistan, North-Eastern regions of Afghanistan, Turkestan (part of Central Asia, matching more or less with the modern-day Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, South Kyrgyzstan and South West Kazakhstan). It may be mentioned that the whole region then boasted of extensive Kashmiri traditions and learning, thanks to the efforts of numerous Kashmiri monks who had established many Kashmiri settlements in several cities of Central Asia.
Therefore, it is not difficult to understand that the Kashmiri army under Lalitaditya gained some easy victories. He, however, encountered tough resistance from the ruler of Bukhara. Finally, after three failed attempts, the Bukhara King, with defeat staring him in the face, decided to surrender. Lalitaditya accepted the surrender after the former agreed to pay tribute as his acceptance of Lalitaditya’s suzerainty. Kalhan5, the celebrated 12th century author of Rajtarangini6, describes the battle thus: “The master, which transported his power, abandoned his (war-like) fury (only) whenever opposing leaders discretely folded their particular palms at their victorious sun-set. On noise of their drums (out done) in assault, the dwellings of their enemies were diverted because of the (frightened) residents and thus resembled ladies dropping in fright the duty of these wombs.”
Lalitaditya’s army mostly consisted of recruits from the North, including his famous General Cankuniya. The T’ang Dynasty’s gradual decline also helped him to attract their dissatisfied, though skillful and experienced soldiers, to his Army. The fact that Cankuniya had already been bestowed with the title of Cankiun-General by the Chinese much before he joined Lalitaditya’s Army, proves that the former must have been a formidable general when he joined the Kashmir forces.
In the meanwhile, the relations between Lalitaditya and Yashovarman deteriorated due to contending claims about some territorial issues. This led to the hostilities breaking out between the two. Yashovarman initially submitted to Lalitaditya peacefully, but while the final draft of the treaty was being prepared, some dispute cropped up between the two. This led to the resumption of the hostilities, in which Lalitaditya emerged victorious. This victory ensured that Kannauj and Yashovarman’s vast territories came to be occupied by Lalitaditya. Later, he took his campaigns to the East, as far as Gaud and Vanga (the present-day Bengal), expanding his territories deep into Eastern India.
One of the biggest blots on Lalitaditya’s otherwise unblemished record actually concerns the princes of Gaud who were assassinated while under captivity in the kingdom of Kashmir. Kalhana is unsparing in reproaching Lalitaditya for this gross violation of the human rights of the princes. While the great Kashmir Emperor was busy with his campaigns in Central and Eastern India, Tibet started posing a serious threat to the Northern and North-Eastern territories of his vast kingdom. Being a master diplomat, Lalitaditya never underestimated the prowess of his opponents. He formed alliances to ensure that he stood a fair chance of success before he embarked on a campaign, while his flanks remained secure.
Lalitaditya’s magnanimous treatment of his subjugated kings and the people of the captured territories also helped his war effort in many ways…
Threat from China
China at that time was ruled by T’ang Dynasty, which during the earlier part of its reign had gradually extended its frontiers towards the West. During Durlaba Vardana’s rule over Kashmir, China had conquered important trade centres such as Kuchha, Khotan, Khorasan and Kashgar. China had thus reached the very frontiers of Kashmir, which by then, had become a pre-eminent power in North India, with kingdoms like “Taxilla and Salt Range (Simhapura) as well as the minor principalities of the lower hills to the rank of dependencies”7. Though, during Lalitaditya’s time the T’ang Dynasty was certainly past its prime, it continued to pose a serious threat which could not be either underplayed or underestimated.
The Chinese threat became grave earlier during the reign of Chandrapida, when the Chinese Army had crossed into Baltistan and overran it. A few years before this, Chandrapida had sent an emissary to the Chinese court for soliciting assistance from the Chinese to counter the threat posed by the Arabs to the Kingdom of Kashmir in the Kabul Valley. It may be mentioned that the Arabs were equally inimical towards the Chinese. There appears to be no evidence on record to categorically establish the Chinese reaction to this request, one way or the other. Nevertheless, one can infer from historical records that around circa 720, Chandrapida was accorded the title of King on the Chinese imperial roll. It is quite apparent that Chinese rulers seemed to enjoy good relations with Kashmir and was, perhaps, the reason why the Chinese did not enter the territories of Kashmir after overrunning Baltistan.
Nevertheless, be that as it may, one thing was very clear to the Kashmir ruler; if the Kingdom of Kashmir had to survive, he could hardly overlook the ever-existing threat of the Chinese to his kingdom from the North. To ensure his kingdom’s safety and guard against the Chinese rolling down from the North, the ruler of Kashmir had to bring the trans-Himalayan territories of Central Asia under his direct rule.
Threat from Tibet
To take on the new threat posed by Tibet, Lalitaditya decided to approach the T’ang Dynasty of China for help. By the time Lalitadiya secured the Kashmir throne, the T’ang dynasty, which had been at the zenith of its power in the seventh century, had lost much of its sheen with Tibetan Chiefs nibbling away at its territories in Central China. In order to get the Chinese on his side to form an alliance against Tibet, Lalitaditya sent his ambassador to the Chinese court during the rule of Yuen Tsun. The Chinese records mention that “Mukhtapida (Mo-to-pi), the king of Kashmir, sent his ambassador, U-Li-to, to the Chinese Court to seek aid from the Emperor, against the common enemy, Tibet”.8
The ambassador tried convincing the Chinese that it would be in China’s interest to support him (Lalitaditya) in his campaigns against the Tibetans before the latter became strong enough to gobble both of them, one by one. A request was made for their infantry, numbering approximately 200,000, to be stationed on the shores of Mahapadama Lake (now Wular Lake). The Ambassador also told the Chinese that Lalitaditya had succeeded in blocking all routes to Tibet through Central Asia and therefore, once the Chinese joined him, victory over Tibet was assured. Though the Ambassador was received with courtesy and extended all hospitality due to a visiting envoy of a famous and powerful monarch, the Chinese did not render any assistance worth the name. It is quite possible that the Chinese were, at that time, themselves busy in suppressing the rebellion launched against the Chinese Emperor by General Gan Lah Shan, a high-ranking officer of Turkish descent, in their Army.
Lalitaditya, therefore, took on the Tibetans in 736 CE with whatever he had through several expeditions. The Rajtarangini mentions that apart from subjugating the entire Ladakh and some Western provinces of Tibet through these expeditions, he does not appear to have succeeded in bringing the whole of Tibet under his control. Kalhana mentions that those days victories gained over adversaries were usually celebrated annually. “Alberuni further says that Kashmiris observed the second day of the Hindu month of Chaitra as the day of Lalitaditya’s victory over Tibet”9. It, therefore, establishes that the victory over Tibet was not small in scale, but quite substantial in its dimension.