Kalhana: The First Historian of India

Most literary sources of the history of ancient India are religious texts, and any historical information of use has to be extracted from them. Apart from the Vedas and the Puranas, we have available to us a host of literature from Buddhist and Jain literature. The Sangam literature is the earliest that we have for South India, among other Kannada and Telugu literature. Apart from religious texts, other texts on subjects like grammar, poetry, statecraft, philosophy etc. provide a preview of the then life and times. The purpose of these texts, however, was not history.

Very early in his book, What is History?, Edward Hallett Carr, proposes this thought, about what history is:

History consists of a corpus of ascertained facts. The facts are available to the historian in documents, inscriptions and so on, like fish on the fishmonger’s slab. The historian collects them, takes them home, and cooks and serves them in whatever style appeals to him.

In the 12th century, one man decided to write for the purpose of history, and as a historian. Kalhana (कल्हण) is regarded as the first historian of India. In 1148 CE, Kalhana started writing the history of the rulers of Kashmir, starting from legends to the kings and queens of the 12th century. It took him two years to complete the book, and in 1150 CE he had completed the Rajatarangini – the River of Kings.

Very little is known about Kalhana. He was the son of Chanpaka, a minister in the employ of King Harsha of Kashmir (1089-1101 CE). Chanpaka is referred in Rajatarangini as dvarapati or the Lord of the Gates; commander of the frontier troops. Kalhana was born in Parihaspura  now know as Paraspore in the Baramulla district of Jammu & Kashmir.

The Rajatarangini

The Rajatarangini is a Sanskrit kavya composition (poetic metre), of 7,826 verses, set in eight cantos of varying length; each a Taranga or a wave. Kalhana used multiple sources to chronicle this sequential history of the kings of Kashmir, including sculpture, architecture, coinage, and manuscripts, because of which he makes claim for an authentic representation of history.

In the preamble of the first canto of Rajatarangini, Kalhana elucidates the nature of writing a historical account. The seventh verse says:

That noble-minded [poet] is alone worthy of praise whose word, like that of a judge, keeps free from love or hatred in relating the facts of the past.

and soon after:

What is the skill required in order that men of a later time should supplement the narrative of events in the works of those who died after composing each the history of those kings whose contemporaries they were ? Hence my endeavour is to give a connected account where the narrative of past events has become fragmentary in many respects.

Kalhana clearly was attempting to create the first historical account of the kings of Kashmir. Most translators and later historians however,  are of the opinion that while the intent for removal of bias was there, it was not always followed. Regardless, the purpose, structure, and method help us classify this as a valid historical account. Kalhana takes care to ensure that, while being a historical account, it is not dull. He believed that a historical text should also be a work of art. The accounts are graphic, vivid and show the love he has for the country, when he describes certain scenes.

Of the eight cantos or books, the earlier ones primarily draw from the Itihaas-Purana tradition. The middle ones are drawn from various sources; the later ones, which deal with the 8th-12th century history of Kashmir, are the most accurate.

The Rajatarangini depicts the kings and queens in equal measure. While his personal bias does seem to creep in, there is no attempt to hide or tone down the importance and relevance of women, who have ascended the throne or have been powers behind the throne. While he clearly disapproves of women rulers like Didda, he describes their role in founding and destroying royal lineages. ‘The contrast between the narrative and didactic sections of Kalhana’s text, evident in his alternate glorification and denigration of women, not only stresses their agency but also reveals the complex power equations in the royal domain.’ (Rangachari, 2012)

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The most definitive translation of Kalhana’s Rajatarangini is that by Sir Auriel Stein [Download]. The others are by Jogesh Chandra Dutt and by Ranjit Sitaram Pandit.

Three Rajataranginis followed that of Kalhana’s Rajatarangini; by Jonaraja, Pandit Srivara, and the last is a work of two authors, Prajyabhatta and Suka.

References

  1. Singh, U. (2008). A history of ancient and early medieval India: from the Stone Age to the 12th century. New Delhi: Pearson Education.
  2. Singh, U., & Lahiri, N. (2010). Ancient India: new research. New Delhi: Oxford University Press.
  3. Sharma, T. R. (2005). Historiography: a history of historical writing. New Delhi: Concept Publishing.
  4. G. (1970). Kalhana. Retrieved December 18, 2016, from http://kalhanagvdev.blogspot.in/
  5. Kak, R. C. (n.d.). Ancient Monuments of Kashmir. Retrieved December 18, 2016, from http://ikashmir.net/monuments/doc/monuments.pdf
  6. Pandit, R. S. (1968). Rājataraṅgiṇi; The Saga of the Kings of Kaśmīr. New Delhi: Sahitya Akademi
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