History Society

The rich history of the Chalukya dynasty

The 7th century Upper Shivalaya temple, built in the early Chalukya style, in Badami, Karnataka.

The 7th century Upper Shivalaya temple, built in the early Chalukya style, in Badami, Karnataka.

“There is not, was not, nor will ever be a city on this Earth like Kalyana,” proclaimed Vijnaneshvara, a renowned Deccan scholar, in the late 11th century. He was referring to the vast metropolis where he dwelt: a place of grand political tumult; of marvellous cultural production in Sanskrit and old Kannada; of trade with the farthest corners of the world. It was studded with markets and temples and palaces built by generations of kings — members of a dynasty known as the Chalukyas.

For nearly 500 years, Kalyana, located today in Karnataka’s Bidar district, cast a shadow over the Deccan, a landmass nearly the size of Germany and many times more populous. Today, most Indians would be hard-pressed to point to this once great metropolis on a map.

The history of Kalyana, its Chalukya rulers, and their empire — like those of so many cities, dynasties and polities in the history of the Indian subcontinent — has been forgotten. Asking why this has happened tells us a great deal about who and what we choose to remember, and may offer us a way to do a little more justice to our vast, multicentric, and morally complex past.

 

Seeking greatness

Why are the Chalukyas so absent from our imagination of the past? After all, we are certainly capable of remembering a long-vanished dynasty when it suits us. Take the Mughals, for instance. Indian politicians routinely bring up long-dead Mughal rulers in electoral campaigns; bookstores and OTT platforms are packed with books and shows either vilifying them as “foreign” invaders or singing their praises as tolerant and fabulously wealthy rulers. Either perspective is held to be directly relevant to modern Indian electoral politics, and is believed to express some fundamental lesson about Indianness.

But the Mughals are not the only dynasty that have gained this extraordinary prominence in our imagination of India’s past. The very first historical ruler we are taught about in school is usually Chandragupta Maurya from 320 BCE, followed in short order by his grandson Ashoka. Soon after, syllabi skip over half a millennium of cultural and social creativity to arrive at Chandra Gupta I in 320 CE, followed by his descendants up to the 6th century CE. We then leap another half millennium of extraordinary politico-economic flourishing to arrive at the Delhi Sultanate in the 12th century, learning in detail its policies and mistakes. Finally, we wrap up our history lessons with the Mughals, the British, and then Independence.

Why is it that, of the thousands of polities that once jostled for supremacy in the subcontinent, only these few are obsessed over? The answer is simple: we seek greatness in our past, and we seek pasts that comfort us and make us feel better about our biases today. To put it bluntly, we are obsessed with ephemeral “imperial moments” when a single polity controlled large swathes of India because that is what resembles the nation-state we are most familiar with today.

 

But imagine a history of Europe where Germany plays no part. Where none of its technological, political, financial, cultural, military, or religious innovations are discussed. Our understanding of how Europe became Europe, and how it shaped the shared history of humanity, would be immeasurably poorer as a result.

And yet, that is exactly what we are accustomed to doing in India in our quest for pure national histories. Though India approaches Europe in size and exceeds it in population and geographical diversity, ignoring the histories of the Deccan, Odisha, Andhra, Kerala, or Assam is simply par for the course.

Highly connected

The Chalukya emperors and their successors reigned over the vast Deccan plateau for 500 years from 600 to 1100, a period too often ignored because it does not fall within a north Indian “imperial moment”. Each dynasty that ruled in this half milennium — the Chalukyas of Vatapi (present-day Badami in Bagalkot, Karnataka), the Rashtrakutas of Manyakheta (present-day Malkhed in Gulbarga, Karnataka), and the aforementioned Chalukyas of Kalyana — lasted for nearly as long as the Tudors of England; in contrast, far from being immortalised in television and cinema, even the names of these rulers are unknown to most.

During their reigns, the Deccan transformed from a dusty, anarchic region to an irrigated, urban, artistically sophisticated, and highly connected landmass that profoundly shaped the history of India and the world.

 

The lords of this land maintained their primacy through transplanting into their territories ideas and talent from across their world. This legacy can be seen quite clearly in their buildings: for example, the architecture of early Chalukya cave temples in Badami is inspired by Ajanta. But the sculptures there, especially those of Vishnu’s avatars, were adopted from distant Madhya Pradesh. Why? Because rulers in Madhya Pradesh had innovated a visual idiom identifying the king with Vishnu, thus presenting themselves as saviours; the Chalukyas recognised its value as a political tool, and had their artists emulate it.

It may seem surprising to us that art and religion might be used for political power, especially when imported from such a distant region. Yet, the evidence that the Chalukyas and their successors did so is indisputable: there are many more examples of ideas that came from thousands of miles away being reworked into uniquely Deccan forms. These movements helped the Deccan participate in networks of cultural exchange that stretched from South Asia to Southeast Asia.

The Deccan was positioned at the very centre of the great circuits of Indian Ocean trade. Its merchant guilds, such as the Ainnurruvar, have a recorded history of nearly 1,000 years. (Compare this to the East India company, which dominated India for all of one century). The textiles, crafts, financial systems, and royal policies of the Deccan were integral to the movement of goods and people between the eastern and western Indian Ocean.

 

Universal violence

We know of Persian seafarers appointed to govern Deccan ports, bearing Sanskrit titles, donating to temples, and securing trade for their masters. Arab travellers wrote with awe of the wealth and size of Deccan cities, and ranked the emperors of the Deccan in the same league as the rulers of the Abbasid Caliphate, China, and the Byzantine empire. Had Deccan rulers and traders not been as interested in global trade, we can imagine that the economic history of the world would have been profoundly different, and India’s hinterlands would hardly have been connected to the networks of the Indian Ocean.

Deccan emperors also repeatedly (and violently) raided north and south India in search of loot to fuel further conquests. The descriptions that survive of these raids are brutal, full of gory detail of the violence against enemies; of women captured by marauding armies; and, on occasion, the looting of temples. They remind us that invaders from Central Asia are not the only ones who have committed atrocities in the subcontinent.

Even these few hints challenge our preconceptions of the past. Perhaps, it’s not a period where one empire maintains a fragile grip over the subcontinent, but that certainly does not make it less relevant to understanding our history. The Deccan shows us clearly how rulers used art, religion, and language to support royal power; how the grandest and wealthiest empires were usually the most open and multicultural; how the history of India’s regions shaped each other and the globe; and how violence was universal to the medieval world.

The more we step back from our notions of what the past should look like, the more we step away from the comforting ground of stale unitary histories, the more we can be awed and challenged by the wonder of what the past truly was .

The writer is author of Lords of the Deccan: Southern India from the Chalukyas to the Cholas , published by Juggernaut Books this month.


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Printable version | May 17, 2022 6:02:59 am | https://www.thehindu.com/society/the-deccan-domination-a-new-book-dives-into-the-rich-history-of-the-chalukya-dynasty/article38340292.ece