Vakatakas was an Indian dynasty which ruled Deccan part during middle of 3rd century. Vakatakas are generally divided into two families, namely eastern Vakataka and western Vakatakas. Western Vakatakas established their capital in Vatsagulma (Now Washim) which flourished at the peak of rule. Vakatakas are also known for their contribution towards arts mainly the construction of The Ajanta Caves.
Origin Of Vakatakas
The origin of the Vakatakas incidentally took place far away from where they eventually ruled, in the dry region of Bundelkhand located between the states of Uttar Pradesh and Madhya Pradesh. The etymology of 'Vakataka' is often traced to the village of Bagat in Bundelkhand. However, some scholars points to its origin in the village of Nachna (or Nachna-kl-talai) in Panna District of Madhya Pradesh.
The founder of the dynasty was a ruler named Vindhyashakti. Puranic accounts inform us about his capital being located at Purika in Berar. It was his successor, Pravarasena I, who is widely recognized as the greatest ruler in the lineage. He conquered a large chunk of territory that had earlier been under the sway of the Sakas, and also performed four ashvemada yajnas. He was the first ruler in this dynasty to anoint himself as samrat. His death however triggered a feud within the family for succession. The Vakatakas were eventually divided into two groups based on their location. [ref]
Around the middle of 4th century A.D. , when the Gupta Emperor Samudragupta established his control over the region of Bundelkhand. After getting exterminated by Samudragupta , Rudrasena I traveled down Dakshinapatha and established his capital at Nandivardhana ( 40 km north east of present day city of Nagpur) and founded the Eastern Vakataka Dynasty. This dynasty has largely entered the annals of Indian history due to the iconic matrimonial alliance stitched between Prabhavati Gupta (daughter of Chandragupta II) and Rudrasena II.
Meanwhile, Sarvasena I grandson of dynasty's founder Vindhyashakti I founded his own kingdom with its capital at Vatsagulma ( now Washim) in the south west of Nandivardhana and presently in the east of city of Aurangabad on what is today known as ' Ajanta Plateau'. His descendants were come to know as 'Western Vakatakas'.
A Tale Of Two Kingdoms
Traditionally the Wardha River served as a dividing line between these two regions of Vidarbha. The area to the east of the river was known as Jungle Prant known for its thick forest and tribes , while the west was considered as a civilized area noted for its rich black soil , thriving towns and trade routes. This demarcation would continue till as late as the mid 18th century until The Great Maratha rulers of Bhonsle Clan made Nagpur (in the heart of Jungle Prant) their capital and encouraged the settlers to cut the forests and civilise the area.
While the Western Vakataka kingdom was considerably smaller than its Eastern counterpart, it derived great wealth due to its income from international trade, thanks to its control over a large swathe of the Dakshinapatha, the trade route that connected the cities of the North, such as Pataliputra and Takshashila to the great cities of the South, such as Paithan and Kanchi.
We find references to the city being a great centre of learning, as late as the 10th century CE (almost 500 years after the Vakatakas). Sadly, nothing of the old Vakataka capital remains, probably because most of the palaces and other buildings were made of wood.
One of the most extraordinary discoveries at the Ajanta Caves was a coin of Byzantine Emperor Theodosius II (402-450 CE). No one has a clue to how it travelled from Constantinople all the way to the hills of Ajanta. Perhaps it was donated by a merchant or a king. But it does give us an insight into the prominent role played by the Deccan in international trade. The murals in the Ajanta Caves have depictions of numerous foreign figures such as the Chinese, Greeks and Persians, who were perhaps traders or travellers in this region.
Harisena : The Patron Of Ajanta
The greatest ruler of the Western Vakataka dynasty was Harisena, who succeeded to the throne in 460 CE. Renowned historian Dr Walter Spink, who spent six decades studying the Ajanta Caves and their patron, would describe Harisenas reign as having 'hardly a rival in the world in terms of its political or artistic achievements'. From the inscriptions found in Cave No 16 at Ajanta, we know that his rule extended across most of Central India, from the Tapi River in the north to Telangana in the south.
Interestingly Vakataka kings were Hindu Shaivites and yet oversaw the construction of the most magnificent Buddhist caves complex ever built in Bharat.
Erection Of Ajanta Caves
While Vakataka rulers were Shaivites, a large portion of the governed citizens were Buddhists. It may have been Harisena's Buddhist ministers who prevailed upon Harisena to sponsor the vast Buddhist monastery complex at Ajanta. The Ajanta Caves were an exclusive project, with patrons being the ruling elite of the Western Vakataka kingdom.
In 466 CE, the work began on Cave No 1 at Ajanta, popularly known as Harisena's Cave as it was endowed by him. This is the most richly decorated cave in the complex. But all was not well in Harisenas kingdom. Between 471 and 474 CE, the chieftains of the Asmakas (Telangana region) and Rishikas (Khandesh in Maharashtra) led insurrections against the Vakataka rule. During this period, most of the workers and artists here moved to the Bagh Caves near Mandu in Madhya Pradesh, where they built a magnificent cave complex very similar to the one at Ajanta. Sadly, due to the poor quality of rock, almost nothing has survived there.
While construction of the royal caves at Ajanta restarted in 475 CE, it would halt dramatically in 477 CE. Dr Spink as well as another noted historian V V Mirashi argue that the dramatic end of the Western Vakatakas after Harisena's sudden death in 477 CE, was such an important event in those times that it was recalled, blow by blow, by noted Sanskrit playwright Dandin. His quasi-historical treatise, Dasakumaracarita (Story of Ten Princes), refers to this dramatic decline in its eighth chapter (Visruta Carita), almost a century after the events actually happened. Apparently, Harisena met his mysterious end in a plot organized by his feudatory, the Asmakas.
Decline of the Vakatakas
As per Dandin, 'the son of an Asmaka Minister, under the pretext of being expelled by his father for his profligate conduct, came to the unsuspecting court of Harisena's weak successor, Sarvasena III, with a numerous train of musicians and dancing girls and numerous retainers and spies in various disguises where he successfully corrupted the young king with wine, women, and song, along with pernicious political counsel.'
This mole in the Vakataka establishment encouraged Harisena's son Sarvasena III to wage a war with the Asmakas, where he was treacherously betrayed and killed.
Sarvasena's widow and minor children took refuge in the Kingdom of Mahismati (Maheshwar in Madhya Pradesh). The Asmakas could not manage their new conquests and the Vakataka Empire splintered. This ended the rule of the Western Vakatakas.
Interestingly, the fall of the Western Vakataka kingdom came almost at the same time as that of the last powerful Gupta Emperor, Skandagupta, who died in 470 CE, and soon the Gupta feudatories began to assert their independence. During Harisena's time, the remnant of the Eastern Vakataka kingdom was ruled by his distant relative, King Narendrasena, who too died around 470 CE.
Fall of the Vakatakas
Few historians believes that Narendrasena's son, Prithvisena II may have played a role in the destruction of the Western branch of the family. But it is believed that soon after Prithvisena II, the Vishnukundins of Andhra Pradesh, who ruled from Guntur, took over the Eastern Vakataka kingdom. The Chalukyas of Badami may have sounded the death knell on this empire around 550 CE. Thus, the Age of the Vakatakas had truly ended by the middle of the sixth century AD.
This relatively short-lived kingdom would have been ignored had it not been for its greatest contribution to this country and world in the field of art and architecture: The Ajanta Caves.
Millions of tourists round the globe frequent these caves to experience their architectural grandeur . But few of them heard of Western Vakataka Dynasty without whose patronage this marvel of Bhartiya Art would not have been built. Let us try to fulfill this felt need...