The Dawn of Civilisational Darkness
By the close of the tenth century, even as Shakti Kavi (Brawny Poet) Ranna was writing supercharged verses of brilliant Kannada poetry extolling his patron, the Western Chalukya King Tailapa II, classical Bharatavarsha was perched on the edge of implosion into irretrievable civilizational pieces. In the faraway impregnable alcazar at Ghazni, Mahmud had decided to cast his predatory eyes on mainland India. Blissfully unaware, Taila II had at last, successfully vanquished the great Paramara King of Malwa, Munja (or Vakpati Munja) sometime in 994-95 CE. History is unclear on whether Munja died in battle or was executed by Tailapa II.
Indeed, the entire century was a fiery cauldron of extraordinary but heedless heroism, which witnessed the spectacular, self-inflicted death of three major Hindu dynasties. vināśakāle viparītabuddhiḥ. The flame burns the fiercest before turning into carbon. It was a century of vision-impaired Kshatra whose civilisational consequences Hindus are still suffering.
Yet, this all-round implosion didn’t occur only with the deaths of Munja or Tailapa II who savoured his great victory for barely two years.
Last Beacon of an Ancient Noble Tradition
Munja was succeeded in 1000 CE by his fabulously renowned nephew, the indomitable warrior, encyclopedic scholar, and immortal poet Paramara Bhoja Raja. Perhaps Bhoja is comparable only to or rivals his illustrious Gupta predecessor, Chandragupta Vikramaditya, and much later, to Sri Krishnadevaraya. Among their multifaceted accomplishments, they upheld the fine and timeless Sanatana tradition that scholarship and learning presides over royalty.
The selfsame Mahmud of Ghazni, the Islamic barbarian, unscrupulous plunderer and prolific destroyer of Hindu temples had to cravenly sneak back to Ghazni owing to the sheer terror he felt at the mere news that Paramara Bhoja had decided to punish his fanatical misadventure at Somanatha. And as long as Bhoja was alive, Mahmud didn’t attempt a similar escapade in the region. But in the long run, it appears that Mahmud’s fanaticism took deeper and more enduring roots.
Bhoja’s Vagdevi Languishes Amid Sufi Dargahs
Paramara Bhoja’s beloved capital, Dhārānagara (today’s Dhar city in Madhya Pradesh), which once housed a grand Saraswati Temple is now bereft of Her. The mūlamurti of the temple was befittingly named Vāgdevī, the Goddess of Speech, Articulation and Learning. This Vāgdevī continues to languish as an “artifact” in the British Museum. The enormous Saraswati Temple complex also served as a mini-university until it was spotted by a pious Sufi fakir named Kamal Maulana, who stayed in Malwa for three decades, collected intelligence and faithfully transmitted it to the super-bigot Ala-ud-din Khalji. What happened to it after that is a gory story unnecessary to narrate here. Today, whatever remains of the Vāgdevī Temple is surrounded by four dargahs of Sufi saints, and Hindus are allowed to offer Puja only once a year, on Basant Panchami.
The modern-day version of Ala-ud-din Khalji named Digvijay Singh had completely banned Hindus as long as he was the Chief Minister of Madhya Pradesh. This is the selfsame Bhojshala, today, more or less firmly in Muslim hands.
The Stirrings of an Intrigue
However, Bharatavarsha would’ve permanently lost Bhoja Raja when he was still a mere boy. Thanks to the selfsame Munja, his own uncle.
Bhoja’s ascension to the throne of Dhārā, a historic event, was separated from his own death by a hair’s breadth.
This essay narrates that story.
Munja was not an evil king by any standard as we shall see. He became a regent of the Malwa kingdom after the death of his brother, Sindhula or Sindhuraja, father of Paramara Bhoja. Soon, he assumed the full powers of a monarch even as the young lad Bhoja was piling up laurels at school for his sharp intelligence, felicity for learning, and the enormous promise he was showing as the future monarch.
Historical accounts vary on the succession of Munja as well. The 14th century Jain scholar and poet Merutunga in his acclaimed Prabandha-Chintamani says that Sindhula was Munja’s younger brother. However, Padmagupta, the contemporary poet of both Munja and Sindhula says that Munja was the elder brother. But the most delightful, exalted and moving narrative is given by the great Sanskrit poet and writer Ballaladeva (or Ballalasena) in his 16th century classic, Bhoja-Prabandha, which continues to occupy a preeminent place in the world of Sanskrit literature. All three narratives (Padmagupta, Merutunga and Ballaladeva) present a uniform account of Bhoja Raja’s ascension to the throne of Dhārānagara.
The Delightful Bhoja-Prabandha
The influence of Bhoja-Prabandha has endured till date. It is a brilliant and creative tribute to the geniuses of Sanskrit literature throughout the ages with Kalidasa as its literary emperor. From the depths of his vast and fertile creative imagination, Ballaladeva summons all these literary luminaries to the court of Paramara Bhoja and gives us charming anecdotes and magical stories woven in a warm, witty, and affectionate fashion. Indeed, most of the stories surrounding Kalidasa which have caught popular fancy and renown till today jump out of the pages of Bhoja-Prabandha.
An arid but objective historian might dismiss this immortal work as having no historical value, but it has a value far profounder than mere historical data and facts. A chief value of Bhoja-Prabandha is how its author uses his fond nostalgia for a bygone golden era to serve as hopeful inspiration for the dawn of similar greatness sometime in the unpredictable future. The Sanskrit scholar Dr. K.P.A. Menon captures this sentiment and places it in proper historical perspective:
Royal patronage had stopped and staging of plays and such intellectual pastimes had become old history. From the 12th century onwards, we do not find any original work of great merit coming from this region and Sanskrit was getting much greater patronage in the southern states as compared to Northern India… The whole of Northern India had been under the rule of Muslim conquerors of Turkish, Afghan and Mongol origin… One can only speculate on the magnitude of the loss suffered during this period when a foreign language like Persian became accepted as the official and court language.
There was enough reason for the poet to ruminate over the past. He decided to build a charming legend around a great monarch who had been eulogised all the time as a great patron of learning and generous bestower of gifts. Around him gathered all the poets and scholars cutting across time and space. It did not matter whether it was a poet belonging to the court of a Pallava or Gauda ruler nor did he hesitate about associating poets separated by a time gap of five of six centuries in common intellectual pursuits. It could not be that Ballala did not know that Bana Bhatta was a court poet of Harsha and Kalidasa must have flourished a few centuries earlier. Still, he decided to bring them together in the court of the great monarch King Bhoja of Dhara. [Emphasis added]
Indeed, as the title of the work makes it clear, Bhoja-Prabandha is the story of Paramara Bhoja, the monarch and hero of the work.
Bhoja-Prabandha opens with the dying Paramara monarch, Sindhuraja who is worried about succession. His son, the highly talented and prodigious Bhoja is just a lad aged about ten years. Sindhuraja is aware of the temptations of the royal throne but has no option but to entrust the kingdom to his brother, Munja.
Munja proves himself a worthy caretaker of Dhārā after Sindhula’s death but an astrologer who arrives at his court poisons Munja’s mind with his astonishing knowledge and a display of confident arrogance. The entire narrative in Bhoja-Prabandha is generously infused with extraordinary gems of wisdom and timeless lessons on an impressive array of topics. Here is an example.
kaṇṭhasthā yā bhavedvidyā
sā prakāśyā sadā budhaiḥ |
yā gurau pustake vidyā
tayā mūḍhaḥ pratāryate ||
Knowledge that stays at the tip of one's tongue
Can always be used and expressed by the learned.
The fool is deceived by what needs reference
To a teacher or text for support ||
Indeed, there is little intrinsic usefulness in an education system that has no space for such immortal gems that teach life and confounds education with the mere acquisition of skills.
A Devastating Prediction
The poison seeps into Munja’s innermost recesses when the astrologer reads out the young Bhoja’s horoscope and proclaims:
"O King! Even Lord Brahma will be incapable of relating Bhoja's ascent to fortune… Still, I shall tell you something that my limited intellect can fathom."
And then drops the devastating prediction:
For a full fifty years and five
Seven months and three days
Will Emperor Bhoja lord over the kingdom up to
The Dakshinapatha (Southern India) and the Gauda (Bengal) country as well ||
The colour drained from Munja’s face. Outward, his expression remained stoic and he rewarded the astrologer and sent him away. Avarice, insecurity, and jealousy replaced Munja’s genuine affection for his talented, promising young nephew. This is how Bhoja-Prabandha describes Munja’s mental state and its behavioural manifestation.
avamānaṃ puraskṛtya mānaṃ kṛtvā ca pṛṣṭhataḥ |
svarthabhraṃṣo hi mūrkhatā ||
Facing humiliations with seeming courage outwardly
Swallowing his sense of self-respect,
A pragmatic man achieves his selfish goal
It is foolish to ignore selfishness.
A Fatal Royal Order
The jealousy that consumed Munja quickly transformed into malice, which was invariably accompanied by its cousin, cruelty. He lost his appetite and sleep. Its logical outcome arrived as quickly. He summoned one of his trusted vassals, Vatsaraja, ruler of the Vanga region. When Vatsaraja met him in private, Munja issued this order: Take Bhoja to the Bhuvaneshwari forest during the first part (yāma) of the night, cut off his head and bring it to me directly to my private chamber. The appalled Vatsaraja tried to dissuade Munja using various methods of persuasion but Munja was adamant.
Eventually, when the mere boy Bhoja learns of the plot to assassinate him, he puts up a brave fight against Vatsaraja but it is a losing proposition. He is captured, hoisted into Vatsaraja’s chariot and driven away to the shrine of Mahāmāyā in the Bhuvaneshwari forest.
Bhoja-Prabandha describes what happened next by drawing a truly evocative and tension-filled picture.
The evening fires had been lit. The sky was blanketed by the thick smoke of the fire. The fast-receding sun had already sunk into the Western Ocean, unwilling and afraid to watch the unspeakable sin that was about to be committed.
Unsheathing his sword, Vatsaraja told Bhoja in front of the Mahāmāyā temple:
“Beloved Prince, you’re worshipped by all subjects in the kingdom. I’m merely a servant who is following the orders given by his king. And the king is scared that you will inherit the kingdom as prophesised by the astrologer.”
The Great Spoiled God
When he heard this, the just fury that Bhoja had experienced till then morphed into wisdom far beyond his tender years. Facing certain death, Bhoja lapsed into contemplative silence for a few minutes and when he spoke, it was the voice of high philosophy that spoke:
ambhodhih sthalatāṃ sthalam jaladhitāṃ dhūlīlavah śailatāṃ
merurmrutkaṇatām tṛṇaṃ kuliṣatāṃ vajraṃ tṛṇaprāyatāṃ |
vahnih śītalatāṃ himaṃ dahanatāmāyāti
yasyecchayālīlādurlalitādbhutavyasanine devāya tasmai namaḥ ||
Homage to that Great God who has become spoilt through flattery
And fond of miracles, by whose will the ocean transforms
Into a landmass and the land becomes an ocean as well,
A speck of dust becomes a mountain and Meru becomes a clump of earth.
Straw becomes as hard as thunderbolt and thunderbolt becomes straw,
Fire becomes cold and snowflakes become fiery.
And even as a stunned Vatsaraja heard these lines, the boy Bhoja plucked two large leaves from a banyan tree nearby. He folded one leaf making a cup out of it. Then he drew out a knife hidden in his dress, plunged it into his thigh and filled the banyan-leaf cup with his blood and handed it to Vatsaraja. On the other leaf, he inscribed an extraordinary verse addressed to his uncle, Munja, and gave it to Vatsaraja:
“This is my order to you as a Prince. Hand over this letter to the King.”
The profound verse is the climax of our essay.
As Vatsaraja took the letter in his hand, he spotted a strange, rare radiance of tranquility on the face of this glorious boy bravely facing the death standing before him. Overcome with remorse, Vatsaraja bowed down to Bhoja and decided to save this human incarnation of Dharma itself. There was simply no way he could kill this boy. He secretly transported Bhoja to the safety of a hideout and then proceeded to meet Munja.
Bhoja’s Profound Verse of Profound Grandeur
Vatsaraja walked towards Munja carrying a large, ornate tray. At its centre was the fake, severed head of Bhoja, which he presented to the king and said:
“Your order has been faithfully carried out.”
Munja had only question:
“Tell me, Vatsaraja, what did my son say before the sword sliced his head?”
In reply, Vatsaraja handed him the letter. With the aid of the lamp offered by his queen, Munja began to read:
māndhātā ca mahīpatih kṛtayugālaṃkārabhūto gatah
seturyena mahodadhau viracitah kvāsau daśāsyāṃtakah |
anye cāpi yudhiṣṭhiraprabhṛtayo yātā divam bhūpate
naikenāpi samam gatā vasumatī muñja tvayā yāsyati ||
The great Emperor Māndhātā, who was the Jewel of the Krta Yuga is gone.
Where is the Vanquisher of Ravana who built a bridge over the Great Ocean?
Other world-emperors like Yudhisthira too, have gone to heaven,
With none of these great rulers their kingdoms went but
With you, Munja, your kingdom will surely accompany you!
When the eternal truth of this verse dawned on Munja, his knees wobbled, he became dizzy and then he fainted. After he came to his senses, he shrieked in disgust at the ghastly deed he had done and ultimately decided to immolate himself. This was a sin no penance could ever expiate. His queen, ministers, advisors, and others in his close circle allowed him to vent. Finally, Vatsaraja told him that he had indeed saved Bhoja’s life.
The story thus has a pleasant ending.
Paramara Bhoja is crowned the king of Dhārā in 1000 CE. His long and splendid reign till 1055 CE is arguably the last bright spot of Classical Bharatavarsha. It is deservedly praised as one of the finest hallmarks in the cultural history of India. It is said that no fool lived or was allowed to live in his kingdom. Even thieves, weavers, and other people we today classify as “backward” could compose brilliant verses extempore. An uncultured tongue and an unrefined quill was known by its absence in Bhoja’s Dhārānagara.
On his part, Munja had distinguished himself as a great conqueror, superb administrator, prolific builder of temples, generous patron of learning, and a compassionate ruler who dug scores of lakes and tanks throughout his Empire. The Munja-Sagara lake (Munj Sagar) in Dhar till today stands testimony to this. The same applies to Munj-Talao in Mandu. The sweeping Ghats in Dharmapuri (in Dhar district, Madhya Pradesh), Maheshwar, Omkareshwar, and Ujjaini are all his bequeathals.
The loss of such remarkable stories counts as a civilisational and cultural loss. Telling and retelling such stories is how we transmit and preserve our unparalleled cultural values and our civilisational memory to succeeding generations. No amount of authentic dating and scientific historical debates about the Paramara period etc, will have quite the same impact as the profundity embedded in such stories. These debates and discussions deservedly have their place and a significance of their own but they don’t form an essential part of our national life lived through the preservation of such historical consciousness. This is an intangible process and its value will be known only after it is lost.
Thus, our next visit to all these places will invisibly open a deeper, hidden vault within ourselves when we are armed with such stories of the real people that lived there. These stories immediately make Bhoja accessible to us when we set foot in Dhārānagara. This is history transformed to timelessness. It is nostalgia without melancholy.
Words fail me when I attempt to express my deep gratitude to Shatavadhani Dr. Ganesh who introduced me to this extraordinary story.