The Kamarupa kingdom of Bhaskaravarman
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Bhaskaravarman (bʱaːskərə'vərmən) (600–650) of the Varman dynasty was perhaps the most illustrious of the monarchs of the ancient kingdom of Kamarupa. His name has been immortalised in the accounts of the Chinese Buddhist pilgrim, Xuanzang, who visited Kamarupa during his reign. Kamarupa was one of the most advanced kingdoms in India under Bhaskaravarman.
He came to power after his brother Supratisthitavarman had died. A bachelor king, he died without an heir. After his death Salasthambha, who established the Mlechchha dynasty, acquired power in Kamarupa Kingdom after overthrowing Bhaskaravarman's immediate successor, Avantivarman.
Bhaskaravarman is known for his alliance with Harshavardhana against Shashanka, the first major ruler of Bengal (Karnasuvarna). He issued the Nidhanpur copper plate grant from his camp at Karnasuvarna and it moved into his control for a short period.
After Susthitavarman was defeated by Mahasenagupta, his son Supratisthitavarman came to power, who built Kamarupa's elephant army but died prematurely without an heir. Thus, the younger son, Bhaskaravarman, came to power in Kamarupa. Even after he succeeded to the throne c. 600 CE, Bhaskaravarman was known as kumara (prince). The reasons why he was called Kumara are not quite clear. It could be that he was a bachelor throughout his life.
On ascending the throne Bhaskaravarman found two strong rival powers growing in northern India, viz. one in central and northern Bengal under Shashanka and the other in mid-India under Prabhakaravardhana, the father of Harshavardhana.
Kamarupa kings had extended their sway over northern and perhaps central Bengal after the decline of the Gupta power. About the last quarter of the sixth century, Mahasena Gupta tried to check the growing aggressions of the Kamarupa kings. It seems that Shashanka gave powerful aid to Mahasena Gupta who inflicted a defeat on Susthitavarman, the king of Kamarupa. The Magadha king thus recovered northern and central Bengal over which Shashanka was appointed as Maha-samanta or governor. Subsequently, taking advantage of the death of Mahasena Gupta and the weakness of his minor son Madhava Gupta, Shashanka proclaimed himself as independent king of central and northern Bengal and also struck coins. He soon attained to such power that he not only challenged the feeble Magadha ruler Madhava Gupta on the west and the Kamarupa power on the east but also subjugated the whole of lower Bengal, Chota Nagpur and Orissa on the south.
Towards the west of Kamarupa, Shashanka appears to have held possession of that portion of territory which included the lands granted by Mahabhutavarman to a large number of Brahmans. It is therefore unnecessary to stress why he was regarded as the natural enemy of Bhaskaravarman who must have been waiting for a favorable opportunity to regain the lost dominions and to retaliate the defeat inflicted on his father. Shashanka was however too powerful a ruler to be dealt with and Bhaskaravarman therefore wisely refrained from precipitating matters by himself launching an attack on Karnasuvarna, the capital founded by Shashanka.
The long looked for opportunity came when Shashanka treacherously murdered Rajyavardhana who had succeeded Prabhakaravardhana as the king at Thaneswar. This incident is mentioned not only by Bana but also by the Chinese pilgrim Xuanzang. On getting this information, Harsha, Rajyavardhana's brother and successor, resolved to take revenge on the murderer. He had just started on his march to subdue Shashanka when he was met by Hangsavega, an ambassador from Bhaskaravarman, with valuable presents.
Alliance with Harsha
The Harsha Charita of Bana gives a detailed account of Hangsavega's meeting with Harsha. Plying him with gifts and praise, the diplomat was able to effect an offensive and defensive alliance between the two kings. The newly formed alliance was disastrous for Shashanka for while Harsha's cousin and general Bhandi probably attacked from the west, Bhaskaravarman at once attacked from the east and occupied Karnasuvarna which was near to Kamarupa.
From his Nidhanpur copperplate inscription it appears that Bhaskaravarman attacked with a strong navy of huge boats, which must have passed down the Brahmaputra and then proceeded up the Ganges, and that his army consisted of war-elephants, cavalry and infantry. Being attacked from two sides and thus outflanked Shashanka fled towards Orissa.
The Nidhanpur copper-plate grant was issued from Bhaskaravarman's victorious camp at Karnasuvarna. Thus the defeat of his father was avenged and the lost dominions were regained. Bhaskaravarman now became the master or overlord of practically the whole of Gauda excluding only Magadha which was included in the dominions of Harsha.
The Chinese traveler, Xuanzang, visited him in his court and left an informative account of the kingdom, noting the King's patronage of Buddhism though he was not a Buddhist. The biographers of Xuanzang mention Kumara raja as the Lord of Eastern India and this was the appellation applied by subsequent Chinese writers to the kings of Kamarupa. To the Chinese writers, Eastern India comprised modern Assam and Bengal proper including the whole of the delta of the Ganges together with Sambalpur, Orissa and Ganjam. According to the text of the Si-yu-ki, the circumference of the capital of Kamarupa was thirty li and the king who was named "Sun-armour" (Bhaskaravarman) was a Brahman by caste. But, according to Edward Gait, this is most probably a mistake for Varman(Varmma, defence or armour) which was a common Kshatriya title, and as such, was frequently appropriated by aboriginal converts to Hinduism of high rank. It was used among others by Harjjara, who was ruling in 830 AD, and in more recent times by members of Kachari aristocracy. His other name was "Youth" or Kumara. He was a lover of learning and his subjects followed his example. Men of ability came from far lands to study in Kamarupa. Though the king was not a Buddhist he treated accomplished sramans with respect. The reigning king was descended from a stock which originated from Narayana Deva (Vishnu) and the sovereignty had been transmitted in the family for 1000 generations.
Xuanzang came to India with the object of studying Buddhist lore and seeing for himself the various Buddhist shrines in India. He had no idea of visiting Kamarupa which according to him had no trace of Buddhism till that time. It appears that a certain Brahman from "Eastern India" who was a heretic (probably a non-Buddhist or at least a non-believer of the Mahayana system) came to Nalanda when Xuanzang was residing there with Silabhadra, the great Buddhist professor. The Brahman came to dispute with the monks at Nalanda. He was defeated and returning to Kamarupa, he told Kumara raja about the high qualities of the Chinese monk. Bhaskaravarman then sent invitations to the Chinese traveller addressed to Silabhadra. However, he was repeatedly rebuffed as Xuanzang was keen to return home to China. Finally, when he threatened to equip his "army and elephants and, like the clouds, sweep down on and trample to the very dust that monastery of Nalanda", Silabhadra acquiesced and persuaded Xuanzang to make the trip to Kamarupa.
When Xuanzang reached the capital of Kamarupa he was received by Bhaskaravarman and his high officers in state and conducted to the palace. Every day the king arranged music and banquets with religious offerings of flowers and incense. In this way more than a month passed. When Harsha heard that Xuanzang was a guest of Bhaskaravarman, he despatched a messenger peremptorily asking the Kumara raja to send the Chinese priest at once to him. Bhaskaravarman did not like the tone of the message and haughtily replied: "He (Harsha) can take my head but he can not take the Master of the Law yet". Harsha was greatly enraged and sent another messenger to Kamarupa with the following imperial order, "Send the head, that I may have it immediately by my messenger who is to bring it here".
On receipt of this message, Bhaskaravarman realised the folly of his language and the danger of courting a conflict with the more powerful monarch and his erstwhile ally. He therefore escorted Xuanzang to Kajurgira where Harsha was encamping. During the night Harsha came and visited Xuanzang with whom he had a long discourse. Harsha at length declared that he proposed to call a grand assembly at Kannauj and "command the Shramanas and Brahmanas and heretics of the five Indies to attend in order to exhibit the refinements of the Great Vehicle (Mahayana) and demolish their abusive mind, to make manifest the exceeding merit of the Master and over-throw their proud thought of self."
At Kannauj, daily processions took place where the image of Buddha was carried. Harsha, attired as Indra, held the chattra over the image while Bhaskaravarman, dressed as Brahma, waved a white chameri. There were assembled no less than 18 vassal kings of different countries of India besides three thousand Buddhist priests, about the same number of Brahmans and Nirgranthas and about a thousand monks from Nalanda. It is said that of all the kings assembled only "Harsha and Bhaskaravarman wore tiaras like the Devas with flower wreaths and jewelled ribbons."
Xuanzang took leave of Harsha and the Kumara raja after the assembly. He refused to accept anything from them except a cape called ho-la-li made of coarse skin lined with soft down, a present from Bhaskaravarman, which was designed to protect one from rain and cold. Thus the eminent Chinese traveller took his departure with the escort provided by Harsha. Three days after, Harsha, accompanied by Kumara raja, took several hundred light horsemen with them and, overtaking the pilgrim, accompanied him for some time and then finally returned.
Harsha died in the year 648 CE four years after Xuanzang left India, but Bhaskaravarman was reigning till about 650 CE Just after Harsha's death his minister Arjun or Arjunaswa usurped the throne. At that time an embassy arrived from the emperor of China. Alas, Harsha who had shown so much respect to the pious Chinese pilgrim who, on his return, must have prompted the Chinese emperor to despatch this friendly mission, was no longer living to receive the envoy in a befitting manner. On the contrary the usurper Arjun actually ill-treated the members of the mission and killed some of them. The rest, led by Wang-hiuen-tse, escaped to Nepal and sought the aid of the kings of Nepal and Tibet and of Bhaskaravarman.
It appears from the Chinese accounts that the kings of Nepal and Tibet assisted with forces and Shi - kien ma (Sri Kumara), the "King of Eastern India" sent him "thirty thousand oxen and horses and provisions for all his army, to which he added bows, scimitars and collars of great value". With such assistance Wang-hiuen-tse defeated the usurper Arjun and capturing him took him as a prisoner to China. Bhaskaravarman probably did not continue to reign long after this event.
Kamarupa of Bhaskaravarman
Xuanzang, in his travelogue, noted that he crossed a great river Karatoya before entering the Kamarupa. The eastern boundary was a line of hills close to the Chinese frontier. He also said Kamarupa was nearly 1700 miles in circumference. The climate was genial. He mentioned that the people were are short height and of yellow complexion and Bhaskar Varman was Hindu and not Buddhist. The people were honest. Their speech differed a little from that of mid-India. They were of violent disposition but were persevering students. They worshipped the Devas and did not believe in Buddhism. The Deva-temples were some hundreds in number and the various systems had some myriads of professed adherents. The few Buddhists in the country performed their acts of devotion in secret. The pilgrim ascertained from the people that to the east of the country was a series of hills which reached as far as the confines of China. The inhabitants of these hills were akin to the "Man of the Lao". In the south-east of the country elephants were plentiful.
In his Nidhanpur copper-plate inscription Bhaskaravarman is said to have revealed the light of the Arya religion by dispelling the accumulated darkness of Kali age, by making a judicious application of his revenues; who has equalled the prowess of the whole ring of his feudatories by the strength of his own arm, who has derived many a way of enjoyment for his hereditary subjects whose loyal devotion to him was augmented by his steadiness, modesty and affability, who is adorned with a wonderful ornament of splendid fame made of the flowery words of praise variously composed by hundreds of kings vanquished by him in battle; whose virtuous activities, like those of Sivi, were applied in making gifts for the benefit of others; whose powers, as of a second preceptor of the Gods (Brihaspati), was recognized by others on account of his skill in devising and applying the means of politics that appear in suitable moments; whose own conduct was adorned by learning, valour, patience, prowess and good actions".
It appears that Vasuvarna, the writer of the inscription, did not overdraw the picture of the illustrious king. The reference to the "ring of feudatories" seems to suggest that his vassal rulers combined to throw off the suzerainty of the Kumara raja but were unsuccessful.
Bhaskaravarman's close connection with Harsha and Xuanzang led to his association with the famous Buddhist university of Magadha, for his seal has been discovered at the site of Nalanda in the company of two fragmentary seals of Harsha. The seals were found by Dr. Spooner during the excavation of the ruins of Nalanda in the year 1917–18. The text of the seal is as follows:
Sri Ganapati Varma Sri Yajnavatyam Sri Mahendra Varma.
Sri Suvratayam Sri Narayanavarma Sri Devavatyam Sri Mahabhuta Varma.
Sri Vijnana Vatyam Sri Chandramukha Varma Sri Bhogavatyam.
Sri Sthitavarma tena Sri Nayana Sobhayam (Sri Susthitavarma)
(Sri Syama Lakshmyam) Sri Supratisthita Varma.
Sri Bhaskara Varmeti.
This genealogy agrees with that given in the Nidhanpur plate and also in the Harsha Charita of Bana. The mother of Susthitavarma' is however named "Nayana Shova" instead of Nayana Devi and the mother of Bhaskaravarman is named Syamalakshmi instead of Syamadevi as appearing in the Nidhanpur plate. K.N. Dikshit, in his "Epigraphical notes of the Nalanda finds", thinks that the seal probably accompanied Bhaskaravarman's letter to Silabhadra inviting Xuanzang.[full citation needed] As however it was found in the company of the two Harsha seals the probability is that both Harsha and Bhaskaravarman, on their march from Rajmahal to Kanauj, visited Nalanda together with the Chinese pilgrim and, to commemorate their visit, left their respective seals at the university.
Bhaskaravarman reigned until about 650 K.L. Barua CE. opines that, after Bhaskaravarman's death, there was a Mlechha revolt in Kamarupa and Salastambha, the leader or governor of the Mlecchas, usurped the throne by deposing Bhaskaravarman's immediate successor Avantivarman.
Kumar Bhaskar Varma Sanskrit and Ancient Studies University of Nalbari, Assam has been named after him.
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