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)


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.


  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

Ancient Places: Benares

Extract from “The Geographical Dictionary of Ancient and Medieval India” by Nundo Lal Dey, Luzac & Co., London, 1927.

Bārāṇasī: Benares situated at the junction of the rivers Barṇâ and Asi, from which the name of the town has been derived (Vâmana P., ch. III). It was formerly situated at the confluence of the Ganges and the Gumti (Mbh., Anuśâsana ch. 30). It was the capital of Kâśi (Râmâyaṇa Uttara, ch. 48). At the time of Buddha, the kingdom of Kâśi formed a part of the kingdom of Kośala.

According to James Prinsep, Benares or Kâśi was founded by Kâśa or Kâśirâja, a descendant of the Pururavas, king of Pratishṭhâna. Kâśirâja’s grandson was Dhanvantari; Dhanvantari’s grandson was Divodâsa, in whose reign Buddhism superseded Śiva-worship at Benares, though it appears that the Buddhist religion was again superseded by Saivism after a short period. In 1027, Benares became part of Gauḍa, then governed by Mahîpâla, and Buddhism was again introduced in his reign or in the reign of his successors Sthirapâla and Vasantapâla. Benares was wrested from the Pâla kings by Chandra Deva (1072—1096) and annexed to the kingdom of Kanauj. Towards the close of the twelfth century, Benares was conquered by Muhammad Ghuri who defeated Jaya Chand of Kanauj (James Prinsep’s Benares Illustrated, Introduction, p. 8; Vâyu P., Uttara, ch. 80).

In the seventh century it was visited by the celebrated Chinese traveller Hiuen Tsiang. He has thus described the city and its presiding god Viśveśvara, one of the twelve Great Liṅgas of Mahâdeva:

“In the capital there are twenty Deva temples, the towers and halls of which are of sculptured stone and carved wood. The foliage of trees combines to shade (the sites), whilst pure streams of water encircle them. The statue of Deva Maheśvara, made of teou-shih (brass), is somewhat less than 100 feet high. Its appearance is grave and majestic, and appears as though really living.”

The Padma P. (Uttara, ch. 67) mentions the names of Viśveśvara, Bindumâdhava, Maṇikarṇikâ, and Jñânavâpî in Kâśi (Benares). The present Viśveśvara, which is a mere Liṅga, dates its existence since the original image of the god, described by Hiuen Tsiang, was destroyed by the iconoclast Aurangzebe and thrown into the Jñânavâpî, a well situated behind the present temple. There can be no doubt that Benares was again converted into a Buddhist city by the Pâla Râjâs of Bengal, and Śiva-worship was not restored till its annexation in the eleventh century by the kings of Kanauj, who were staunch believers in the Pauranic creed. The shrines of Âdi-Viśveśvara, Veṇimâdhava, and the Bakarya-kuṇda were built on the sites of Buddhist temples with materials taken from those temples.

The temple of Âdi-Keśava is one of the oldest temples in Benares: it is mentioned in the Prabodha-Chandrodaya Nâṭaka (Act IV) written by Krishṇa Miśhra in the eleventh century A.D. The names of Mahâdeva Tilabhâṇḍeśvara and Daśâśvamedheśvara are also mentioned in the Śiva Puraṇa (Pt. 1, ch. 39). The Maṇikarṇikâ is the most sacred of all cremation ghats in India, and it is associated with the closing scenes of the life of Raja Hariśchandra of Ayodhyâ, who became slave to a Chaṇḍâla for paying off his promised debt (Kshemeśvara’s Chaṇḍ-kauśika; Mârkaṇḍeya P. ch VIII).

The old fort of Benares which was used by the Pâla Râjâs of Bengal and the Rathore kings of Kanauj, was situated above the Râj-ghâṭ at the confluence of the Barṇâ and the Ganges (Bholanath Chunder’s Travels of a Hindoo, vol. I). Benares is one of the Pîṭhas where Satî’s left hand is said to have fallen, and is now represented by the goddess Annapûrṇâ, but the Tantrachūḍāmaṇi mentions the name of the goddess as Viśâlâkshî.

There were two Brahmanical Universities in ancient India, one at Benares and the other at Takshaśilâ (Taxila) in the Punjab. For the observatory at Benares and the names of the instruments with sketches, see Hooker’s Himalayan Journals, Vol. 1, p. 67).

By James Prinsep (British Library [1]) [Public domain], <a href=

Benares is said to be the birth-place of Kaśyapa Buddha, but Fa Hian says that he was born at Too-wei, which has been identified by General Cunningham with Tadwa of Tandwa (Legge’s Fa Hian, ch xxi; Arch. S. Rep., XI), nine miles to the west of Śrâvasti. Kaśyapa died at Gurupâda hill. But according to Aṭṭhakathâ of Buddhaghosha, Kaśyapa (Kassapa) was born in Benares and died at Mrigadâva or modern Sarnâth (JASB., 1838, p. 796.) In the Yuvañjaya-Jâtaka (Jâtakas IV, 75), the ancient names of Benares are said to have been Surandhana, Sudarśana, Brahmavarddhana, Pushpavatî, and Ramya.


Featured image, courtesy Harini Calamur. Reproduced with Permission.

Ancient Places: Bundelkhand & Mahoba

Extract from “The Geographical Dictionary of Ancient and Medieval India” by Nundo Lal Dey, Luzac & Co., London, 1927.


The ancient name of Bundelkhand, the kingdom of the Chandrātreyas or the Chandels. It’s capitals were Mahoba and Kharjurāha (Ep. Ind., vol. I, p. 218). Kāliñjara was the capital of the Chandels after it had been conquered by Yasovarman. The name was corrupted to Jajāhuti (Alberuni’s India, vol. 1 p. 202) and Jajhoti (Cunnigham’s Anc. Geo., p. 481)


Mahoba in Bundelkhand. The whole Bundelkhand was anciently called Mahoba from this town. It was the capital of the Chandel Kingdom which is universally said to have been founded by Chanda Varman who was born in Samvat 225; he built 85 temples and erected the fort of Kāliñjara. The Chandel kingdom was bound on the west by the Dhasan river, on the east by the Vindhya mountain, on the north by the Yamuna, and on the south by the source of the Kiyan or Kane river. It appears from the inscriptions that the Chandel kings from Nannuka Deva, the founder of the dynasty, to Kirat Singh reigned from 800 A.D. to the middle of the sixteenth century. It was in the reign of Kîrtti Varma Deva, the twelfth king from Nannuka, who reigned from 1063 to 1097 A.D., that the Prabodha Chandrodaya Nātaka was composed by Krishna Miśra (Arch. S. Rep., vol XXI, p. 80). The town stands on the side of the Madan Sāgar lake, which was excavated in the twelfth century. The Kirat lake is of the eleventh century.

Featured image taken near Panna, in the Bundelkhand region.

Ancient Places: Kannauj, Uttar Pradesh

Kannauj, for sure, has to be counted among the cities with the most names. References to this place have started from the Ramayana and have continued since. Of the many names, Kannauj was known as Kanyakubja and by far, this is the most interesting story, of the city’s various names.

According to the Valmiki Ramayan, there was once a great king by the name of Kuśa and was married to the princess of Berar (modern Vidarbha). Together, they had four sons — Kuśhanābha, Kuśāmbha, Asūrtaraja, and Vasu. Each of these sons founded their own cities and helped protect the kingdom. The cities they built were:

  1. Kuśhanābha built Kaushambī (Possibly, Kosambi, (Prayag) Allahabad)
  2. Kuśāmbha built Mahodaya (Kannauj)
  3. Asūrtaraja built Dharmāranya, (Very close to Bodh Gaya, Bihar) and
  4. Vasu built Girivraja (Rajgir, Bihar)

Of these four places, however, our story is about Mahodaya, the city built by Kuśāmbha (the second one). In this grand city, Kuśāmbha sired a hundred daughters, all of them amazingly beautiful, with the help of the celestial damsel, Ghritāchi.

Much later, as these hundred young ladies were out in the garden one day, Vāyu, the Wind-God was besotted by them and offered to marry them all, and even offered them eternal life. The girls, notwithstanding that he was, well, God — made haughty remarks and scornfully rejected the proposal outright, invoking their father’s eminence.

Needless to say, Vāyu was enraged and entered their bodies (प्रविश्य सर्व गात्राणि) and disfigured them, turning them all into hunchbacks.

This city, then, came to be called Kanyā-Kubja — “the city of the hunchbacked maidens.”

As Rama Shankar Tripathi has mentioned in his book, History of Kanauj: To the Moslem Conquest, this story has little use from a historical point of view, except that this place has found mention in ancient times.


Kannauj has had many other names.

Gadhipura or Gadhinagaram, was another name, after the a legendary ruler, named Gadhi.

It has been called Kuśasthala, named — either after the kuśa grass (sacred for sacrificial needs), or after the name of the father of the founder of this city, Kuśāmbha.

The renowned geographer, Ptolemy mentions Kannauj as Kangora or Kanogiza (C.140 A.D.)

In the documents of Huen Tsang who traveled to this place in 636AD, gives the original name of this place as Kusumapura (Keu-su-mo-pu-lo)— city of flowers, before it came to be called Kanyā-Kubja. Fa-Hien, who visited Kannauj before Huen Tsang during the fifth century, refers to the city as Kannauj (Ka-nao-yi), which was probably in use by the natives. Harshavardhan or Śilāditya II reigned when Huen Tsang visited Kannauj.

Around 836CE, Mahodaya became the name of the city, while Kanyā-Kubja, was used to refer to the province.

Finally, the British spelled it as Connodge, and post-independence, it reverted to Kannauj, which is the name of the city as well as of the district.

Featured Image: By w:user:Planemad [CC BY-SA 3.0], via Wikimedia Commons


  1. Dey, Nundo Lal. The Geographical Dictionary of Ancient and Mediaeval India. New Delhi: Oriental Reprint; Exclusively Distributed by Munshiram Manoharlal, 1971. Print.
  2. Tripathi, Rama Shankar. History of Kanauj: To the Moslem Conquest. Delhi: Motilal Banarsidass, 1964. Print.
  3. Valmiki Ramayana – Baala Kanda – Sarga 32 .” Valmiki Ramayana – Baala Kanda – Sarga 32 . Desiraju Hanumanta Rao, K.M.K.Murthy. Web. 21 Feb. 2016. .
  4. Watters, Thomas. On Yuang Chwan’s Travels in India. Vol. XIV. London: Royal Asiatic Society, 1904. Print.
  5. Faxian.” Wikipedia. Wikimedia Foundation. Web. 22 Feb. 2016. <https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Faxian&gt;.
  6. Xuanzang.” Wikipedia. Wikimedia Foundation. Web. 22 Feb. 2016. <https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Xuanzang&gt;.

Ancient Places: Jalandhar, Punjab

Extract from “The Geographical Dictionary of Ancient and Medieval India” by Nundo Lal Dey, Luzac & Co., London, 1927.



Jalandhar, a town near the western bank of the Sutlej in the Punjab; same as Trigartta (Hemakosha). The name is derived from its founder, the Asura Jālandhara, the son of the Ganges by the Ocean (Padma P. Uttara, ch 51). It is the headquarters of the district called Jalandhara Doab or Jālandharapītha lying between the Bias and the Sutlej. It is Kulindrina of Ptolemy; but see Kulinda-deśa.


Garwal including the district of Shaharanpur, north of Delhi (Mahābhārata, Sabhā, ch 26). The entire tract of land lying between the upper portion of the Ganges and the Sutlej was called Kulinda, the Kulindrini of Ptolemy. Cunningham places Kulinda-deśa between the Bias and the tons, including Kilu, the Kuninda of the coins (Cunningham’s Arch. S. Rep., vol XIV). Same as Kalinda-deśa. Accordingl to McCrindle, the region of lofty Mountains, wherein the Vipāśā, the Satadru, the Yamunā, and the Ganges have their sources, was the Kylindrine of Ptolemy (p. 109). The Kulindas lived on the southern slope of the Himalaya from Kulu eastward to Nepal (JRAS., 1908, p. 326)

Featured Image; By Fowler&fowlerOwn work, CC BY-SA 3.0, Source

Ancient Ports in Goa

A journal article in the Indian Journal of Marine Sciences (Vol. 43 (7), July 2014) discusses the the reasons why of most ports in the east and west coasts of India moved from being very far away from the seafront, and eventually moving towards the coastal regions. Why were inland ports abandoned? With special focus on Goa, specifically Gopakapatana, this paper describes the various changes to maritime trade and changes, from a geo-historical and oceanographic perspective.

Article Title: Why were historical period ports of Goa located away from the coast? The decline of Gopakapatana; by Sila Tripathi, Antonio Mascarenhas, & R. Mani Murali; CSIR – National Institute of Oceanography, Goa.

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