In this series, we attempt to redress the glaring academic and political neglect of the longue durée historical identity of Kashmir, in particular the amnesia regarding her open, plural and founding connected histories with the rest of India. While the last time we looked at Kashmir’s early archaeology, historical geography and linguistic roots—which proved to be deeply Indic—today we begin with another telling cultural marker: script.
After a brief appearance by Kharoshti on coins in Kashmir and other parts of North-West India, by the 3rd century the Brahmi script—from which the vast majority of Indian scripts today are derived—took over completely, not just in the Valley but the wider culture region. For example, 80% of the 5,000 ancient inscriptions found in Hunza, Gilgit, Chilas and the Karakoram Highway in PoK are in this quintessential Indic script. And, as the epigraphist Oskar von Hinuber tells us, the writing style shows affinities with, remarkably, Western Mathura Brahmi!
Similarly, when Sharada, the script par excellence of Kashmir, evolved from Brahmi circa 8th century, it was under the influence of Eastern Allahabad Brahmi, pointing again to astonishing connectivity. Sharada, in turn, was used beyond Kashmir across NWFP, Peshawar, Ladakh, Kangra, Chamba and Punjab right up till Delhi-Mathura.
All in all, it is obvious that Kashmir partook in shaping material and cultural formations of early India. But that’s not all. She was a part of pan-Indian political formations from the very beginning too, i.e. the 3rd century BCE Mauryan Empire that stretched across the subcontinent and whose emperor Ashoka is believed to have founded the capital city of Srinagari, a local memory we hear of not only in the Rajatarangini (12th century), the ‘first’ history of Kashmir, but even earlier in the Chinese traveller Xuan Zang’s account of his visit to the Valley (7th century). Recall that numismatists identified Mauryan imperial issues among the punch-marked coins found in Semthan, and that the iconic Shankaracharya temple in Srinagar is located at the site of the Jyestheshvara temple said to be erected by Ashoka.
Kashmir was also a part of the trans-regional Indic kingdoms of the Kushanas (2nd-3rd century) and Hunas (6th century), which extended at different points till Banaras and Malwa, respectively.
Further, kings, queens and ministers of Kashmir were drawn from and in alliance with different parts of India across the centuries. Would you believe that Kashmir and Gandhara (Peshawar) were known to be the political allies of Magadha or Bihar! Indeed Kashmir had complex marital and political histories with regions very far away and deep within the Indic mainland like Pragjyotisha (Assam), Gauda (Bengal) and Tamilakam.
For example, Meghavahana (5th century), the great grandson of an exiled king of Kashmir, was given asylum by the king of Gandhara who, in time, sent him across the length of the Himalayas to Pragjyotisha for the swayamvara of its princess. Winning her hand, Meghavahana returned loaded with wealth and the royal Vishnu parasol of the Assamese king. He was then invited by the ministers of Kashmir to ascend the throne. Similarly, Bhikshachara (12th century), a prince of Kashmir cast away at birth, grew up in the Malwa king’s court in the Deccan as his adopted son. Eventually he returned to Kashmir and won back the crown.
Still other rulers from Malwa, like Pratapaditya and Matrigupta (6th-7th centuries), believed to be descendants of the legendary emperor Vikramaditya, were invited by Kashmiris to be their king, due in part to their lineage, showing Kashmir’s subscription to the north Indian politico-mythic universe. Several queens of Kashmir were also drawn from remote regions including Cholamandalam (Tamil Nadu), Assam (as we saw), Andhra, Jalandhara (Punjab) and Kalanjara (Madhya Pradesh).
Complementing the diverse nature of Kashmiri royalty was the eclectic composition of other ruling elites over the centuries. King Lalitaditya (8th century), known as the universal (sarvabhauma) ruler, had a Tuhkhara spiritual advisor; Jayapida’s (6th century) chamberlain was the ruler of Mathura; Anantadeva’s (10th century) jester was from the Ganga plains while his ministers were from Kangra and, again, Malwa.
Interestingly, in the service of King Harsha (11th century) were people from Punjab and also far-off Karnataka. Indeed the dynamic, if quixotic, Harsha spectacularly introduced Kannada couture in the royal court at Srinagar, and also a new coin type depicting the elephant—an emblem far removed from Kashmiri ecology and imagination—obviously under Kannada inspiration. What an incredibly open and cosmopolitan land Kashmir was!
Not just that, the Rajatarangini tells us that several Kashmiri rulers undertook military expeditions deep into the subcontinent. Most notably, Lalitaditya undertook conquests in north and east India, including against Kanyakubja (Kanauj, UP), the symbol of imperial sovereignty in early medieval times that was also coveted by the Rashtrakutas of Maharashtra, Pratiharas of Rajasthan and Palas of Bengal. But while we famously hear in history textbooks of this “tripartite struggle” over Kanauj, Kashmir is never mentioned! This is despite the fact that Lalitaditya’s coins have been found in large hoards from half-a-dozen places in UP and Bihar, reaffirming the political and commercial presence of Kashmiris in the Ganga valley.
Thus, Kashmir’s internal politics did not occur in isolation at all but was a porous process from the beginning, inextricably tied up with other regions of the Indian subcontinent, near and far. This squares with, and must have flowed into and out of, the social and cultural interconnectedness of early Kashmir and the rest of India that we survey in this series.
(To be continued)
Associate Professor, Centre for Historical Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University
(The writer is author of ‘The Making of Early Kashmir: Landscape and Identity in the Rajatarangini’)