Ancient History Notes for UPSC [Part 12] Eastern Indian Kingdoms

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Eastern Indian Kingdoms

Eastern Indian Kingdoms

Kingdoms in eastern india began to appear mostly after the 2nd century BC in Orissa and after the Christian era in areas like Bengal, Assam, etc.

Orissa – The oldest example of any civilization in Orissa after king Ashoka’s Kalinga conquest is of king Kharavela (190 BCE to 170 BCE) of the Mahameghavahana dynasty tracing its descent from Uparichar Vasu of the Chedis. He is said to have conquered kingdoms up to central UP, Magadha and many parts of Satavahana empire without caring for Satakarni of Satavahanas. It also shows that after conquest of ashoka, Kalinga had come out of Magadha rule and established independence. His inscription at Hathigumpha at Udaygiri caves in Bhubaneshwar is famous as it gives year to year description of what Kharvela did. Kharvela also mentions the canals built by the Nandas. Kharvela is said to have conducted the Rajasuya Yagya according to the Hathigumpha inscription.

This proves the existence of a mixed culture where he also donated to Jain monks of his state. Overall, the ports of Orissa carried trade with Romans. Excavations at Sisupalgarh show Roman objects belonging to 4th century AD. Even Samudragupta mentions conquering provinces of Kosala and Mahakantara.

Apart from Kalingas, we have Matharas, Vasishthas, Nalas and Manas who formed kingdoms in Orissa. Nalas area of influence was in forests of Bastar district and Madhya Pradesh. The Nalas had issued gold coins and had an elaborate system of administration. The Manas issued cooper coins. The Matharas ruled near the Mahendragiri mountains. They used to give religious endowments called Agraharas for supporting religious institutions. Most of the times, they were exempted from tax.

The most important point to note is that civilization was not limited to the coastal belt of Kalinga but went deep into forests of Dandakaranya and even the northwestern part of Orissa. All kingdoms were Vedic and used to perform practices and give grants to Brahmins. This also resulted in many tribal areas being brought under civilization. Sanskrit became the prime language of charters and social instruction after 5th century AD with kings issuing charters in Sanskrit containing verses from Puranas, Dharmashastras, etc.

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Bengal – The earliest reference to Bengal was from 2nd century BC from southeast Bengal where people knew Prakrit and Brahmi script. But the most references of Bengal come after 4th century AD when the Gupta empire spread there. Guptas had feudatories in Bengal who ruled on their behalf. We have a reference of a Maharaja of Pokahrna who was a devotee of Vishnu.

Settlement in Bengal was broadly divided into two parts – northern Bengal which is in Bangladesh and south-east Bengal. North Bengal was a Sanskrit well versed area in the 5th-6th century AD. Local kings called Samanta Maharajas maintained their own administrative setup and army. They became independent when Gupta Empire declined. After 6th century AD, this area was known as Gauda and ruled by Shashanka, rival of Harsha. For about a century from 5th century AD, we find land grants called Pundravarshanabhukti on copper plates. The land was purchased in gold and given mostly to merchants, artisans and landed classes. Religious endowments were also made. The land was uncultivable in most cases which also prove the reason for the grants – to bring land under cultivation. These lands were not taxed. In the south-east Bengal delta called Samatata, the local rulers were forced to accept the suzerainty of Samudragupta. This area however, was not ruled by Vedic princes and hence promotion of Sanskrit was limited. After 6th century, we find existence of multiple kingdoms which are Vedic in nature and who promote Sanskrit. From 6th and 7th centuries, we find Sanskrit on charters. We have Khadgas, Lokanthas and Ratas in Comilla area. All these princes had issued land grants called agraharas, issued gold coins and used sophisticated Sanskrit meters. We find existence of an administrative and disciplinary unit called Dandabhukti and Vardhamanabhukti in 7th century. Apart from that, we find land grants given to Buddhist monks and Brahmins. The land rights were with the communities although the individuals owned the lands. All the kingdoms knew Sanskrit and were well versed with Dharmashastras and Puranas. The era from 5th to 7th centuries saw rapid expansion of kingdoms in Bengal.

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Assam – Earliest settlement in Assam was at Ambari near Guwahati. It dates back to 4th century AD. The fillip was given in 6th century AD where excavations at Ambari show existence of Sanskrit and art of writing. The kingdoms were two – Davaka and Kamarupa with the latter being prominent in the Brahmanputra valley. The rulers were submitted to Samudragupta in 4th century AD. The kings of Kamarupa adopted the title ‘Varman’. King Bhaskaravarman was famous in 7th century AD. Buddhism also was prevalent as seen from Hsuan Tsang’s accounts.

The conclusion that historians draw is that the contact with the Gupta was responsible for spreading of vedic religion and Buddhism, varna system, etc in Bengal and Orissa. This is also applicable to the tribal areas of Chhota Nagpur plateau. This happened during varied times from 4th to 7th century AD. Overall, these areas were progressive food producing economies with a rich administrative structure.

Harsha or Harshavardhana (606 CE -647 CE)

The Huna invasions in 5th and 6th centuries made the Gupta empire recede from western and north-western India. Local Gupta feudatories declared independence. The family of Pushyabhuti from Thanesar in Haryana became conquered areas until Kanauj. Harsha conquered and made Kanauj his capital. Henceforth, Patliputra lost it’s importance to Kanauj as the latter lay at the centre of north-India with east-west dominance possible. Kanauj was situated in the middle of the doab at a height. This made fortifications possible. Harsha expanded his empire in entire north India. He is known as the last Hindu emperor of India. He was stopped southward by Pulakeshi II of Badami Chalukyas. The Meguti temple at Aihole has inscription of Pulakeshin II and copper plates – both talk of defeat of Harsha and Narmada being the boundary.

Harsha’s court poet Banabhatta wrote Harshacharita in praise of Harsha. This was the start of biographies. Harsha himself is atrributed as author of Ratnavali, Priyadarshika and Nagananda.

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Harshavardhana Administration

  • Harsha’s administration was feudal and decentralized in nature.
  • He had a cavalry bigger than the Mauryas. Xuanzang refers to components of army as chariots, cavalry and elephants. The Madhuban inscription talks of the king’s camp having boats, elephants and horses.
  • His feudatories had their own setup and paid taxes to the king.
  • Taxation was light according to Xuanzang. One sixth of farmer’s produce was taken as tax. Bali, Bhaga, Kara, Hiranya are some tax terms that continued.
  • Hsuan Tsang tells us that the revenue was divided into 4 parts, one for king, one for scholars, one for payments to officials and one for religious purposes.
  • The officials were paid through land grants which also prove the lesser coins during Harsha times.
  • Hsuan Tsang was robbed in Harsha’s empire which reflects poorly on the law and order, although robbers had strict punishments.
  • Harsha himself was on the move with periodic visits to different regions of his empire.
  • Nalanda was a Buddhist monastery in his times which could accommodate around 300 monks according to the account of I-Tsing in 670 AD. Harsha’s sister Rajyasri was known for her knowledge of Sammatiya school of Buddhism and also participated in the Buddhist assembly at Kannauj.