We may often come across scholarly allegations of the conspicuous lack of historical consciousness in ancient India. While there is mounting evidence to disprove such baseless assertions, one ancient text stands out for its concern for history and factual accuracy. This is the Rajatarangani, written by Kalhana; a comprehensive account of the history of Kashmir till the 12th century AD. It is widely acknowledged to be one of the earliest articulations of regional self-awareness, and the 8000-odd verses in this kavya are often treated ipso facto as history. One of the most important characters in the Rajatarangini is LALITADITYA MUKTIPADA from the Karkota dynasty. One of the most powerful rulers of his time, Lalitaditya was a master strategist and his role in augmenting strategic ties with Tang China can help us comprehend the complex political landscape of ancient India.
The Karkota dynasty was founded by Durlabhavardhana, but it flourished only with the accession of Lalitaditya in AD c. 724. During this time, the southern Hindukush had two other significant power blocs- the Turks (who were Buddhists) and the Tang Chinese. These three kingdoms formed a fascinating triumvirate that helped keep the invading Tibetans and Arabs at bay. Interestingly, the relations between Lalitaditya and the Tang emperor seem to have been rather cordial, and scholars have underlined how China’s victories over Tibet were essentially contingent on the agricultural and military support offered by Kashmir. These joint military activities also gave Lalitaditya the opportunity to attack central and eastern India, subjugating Yashovarman- the powerful ruler of Kannauj- in the process[ref]
Kalhana claims that he completed a digvijaya- or victories all over the subcontinent- and hoards of ‘sri-pratapa’ coins found in different parts of India may reflect the grain of truth embedded in such an assertion. His role in repulsing the Arabs in North-west India is also part of folklore, and there is evidence to show that the Arabs didn’t gain any lasting success in the Southern Hindukush with Lalitaditya at the forefront. Though South India may have eluded him, it can be said with certainty that Lalitaditya made Kashmir a prolific political player in the Indian subcontinent.
Kalhana describes Lalitaditya as a universal ruler (sarvabhauma), whose intellectual capabilities exceeded those of parochial monarchs.[ref] He established his capital in Parihaspura, ruins of which can still be seen today. He richly endowed temples and monasteries with idols and grants, and his most significant architectural achievement was the Martanda Sun temple, which creatively blends various styles- including Gandharan and Chinese. The sublime view of the Kashmir valley from the precincts of this temple still enthrals visitors, and it is a living embodiment of Kashmir’s heritage. Kalhana writes that Lalitaditya carried out his last campaign in north-west India, going up till the Gobi Desert, where he was routed and killed by the Arabs. His life though continues to be relived and re-imagined in folk memory, and he is remembered for his stupendous courage and valour. It must be borne in mind that Lalitaditya derived his power largely due to his strategic acumen, as he ensured that his army became more and more modernised with the influx of Chinese and Sassanian technologies. Such stories are sure to motivate contemporary discussions around ‘strategic autonomy’ and ‘military exchange’, and that is precisely the reason Lalitaditya’s story has become part of our nation’s intangible heritage.