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The Naga dynasties in ancient India

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How many of us remember reading about how the great Gupta Emperor Samudragupta established his empire in north India? Do we remember reading about one Ganapatinaga? I am talking about the Naga dynasty of ancient India and there fascinating though still somewhat obscure history.

The Nagas came into prominence on the political map of India probably towards the close of second century C.E. Though there is still a lot of confusion about their origin but that much is certain that they arose when Kushana power was in decline and the Nagas played a significant role in finishing off the Kushana empire.

“This was the time when a number of indigenous powers, like the Yaudheya, Arjunayana, the Malava were gaining strength.” The Nagas do not seem to be from a single dynasty. Most likely they were a group of families. Their power centre were these four ancient cities – Mathura, Vidisha (Besnagar in Madhya Pradesh), Padmavati (Pawaya in Madhya Pradesh) and Kantipuri (Probably Kutwar in Gwalior, Madhya Pradesh).

The Naga dynasties at these places themselves unfortunately, did not leave any epigraphic record. The sources from which the history of Nagas comes to light are mainly the numismatic evidence and the Puranas. There are also some inscriptions of the Vakatakas that mention one of the Naga dynasty, the Bhara Shivas.

Illustrative Map of Naga Territory

“The Vishnu Purana discloses the existence of nine Naga Kings who ruled at Padmavati, Kantipuri, Mathura and the evidence is corroborated by Vayu Purana, which mentions two houses of Nagas, one at Padmavati. and the other at Mathura. The number of Kings at each of the places being stated to be nine and seven respectively.”

Bhogi, Sada-chandra/ Chandramsha (Candrāṃśa) /Vama-chandra (Rama-chandra), Dhana-dharma/ Dhana-Varma, Vangara and Bhuti-nanda are some of the kings of the Naga house of Vidisha after which the lineage was carried forward by king Shishunandi and his descendents after overthrow of the Sungas.

Though reputed scholar K.P.Jayaswal who had done comprehensive research on this in his “History of India 150 – 350 A.D.” tried to connect the Datta lineage coins of Mathura which are of an earlier period of 100 B.C.E.-50 C.E., with the Nagas of Vidisha, he was strongly opposed by another scholar A.S.Altekar on this point. Altekar has the majority opinion with him, reason being that not only the Datta coins are found only in and around the territory of Mathura but also that when Cunningham and later Dr. R.G.Bhandarkar carried out their excavations in Vidisha, the coins of the rulers of the Mathura series were conspicuous by their absence.

The Nagas of Padmavati were another very important dynasty which even had close relations with the royal house of Vakatakas. H.V. Trivedi had done extensive research on the Naga coinage in his “Catalogue of the Coins of the Naga Kings of Padmavati” published in 1957. He stipulates that the Naga kingdom extended from the areas like Morena and Jhansi to Vidisha. The first prominent king of the Nagas of Padmavati is Bhavanaga, from the Bhara Shiva lineage. He probably ruled from around 310 – 335 C.E.

According to Jayaswal, Vakatakas had “inherited that paramountcy from the Bhara Shivas whose dynasty had performed no less than ten ashvamedhas on the Ganges – a repeated assertion of their imperial position in Aryavarta. It is needless to state that the ashvamedhas were at the cost of the Kushana Empire. That history written in the orthodox Hindu fashion sums up the breaking of the Kushana Empire and driving of the Kushans further and further north-west towards the confines of the Salt Range.”

The daughter of Bharasiva king, Bhava Naga was also married to the son of Vakataka king Pravarasena I, Gautamiputra. “This event was so important in the history of Vakataka dynasty that it was incorporated in their dynastic history and repeated in all the official deeds of the Vakatakas.”

The famous ghat of Varanasi, Dashashvamedha Ghat also has a fascinating connection with the Nagas. “There it is recorded that before this political marriage the rajavamsha (dynasty of the Bharasivas) had performed ten asvamedha sacrifices on the Ganges which they had acquired by valour, that with the holy water of the Ganges seems to me to be the sacred site come down to us as Dasasvamedha at Benares, the earthly home of Lord Shiva. The Bhara Sivas issuing from Baghelkhand must have reached Ganges through what we now called the Ancient Deccan Road terminating at the town of the Goddess Vindhyavasini (Mirzapur, U.P.).”

Jayaswal also opines that the Bhara Shivas and the Vakatakas were most probably neighbours and that for them (Bhara Shivas) to have conducted the said ten ashvamedhas, their existence must have been at the least a century earlier than the reign of Pravarasena I. Thus, he dates the rise of the Bhara Sivas to about 150 C.E.

Bhara Shivas get their family name on account of a religious practice. The inscription of the Vakatakas describes the Bhara Sivas and the reason of their distinct nomenclature in these glorious terms –

“Of (the Dynasty of) the Bhara Sivas whose royal line owed its origin to the great satisfaction of Siva on account of their carrying the load of the symbol of Siva on their shoulders – the Bhara Sivas who were anointed to the sovereignty with the holy water of the Bhagirathi which had been obtained by their valour – the Bhara Sivas who performed their sacred bath on the completion of their Ten Asvamedhas”

Naga Coinage

By the time of the illustrious Samudragupta (335-375 C.E.), it seems that the Naga power was headquartered at two places, Mathura and Padmavati. The famous Prayag Prashasti or the Allahabad Pillar Inscription composed by Harishena gives us insight into this. The inscription talks about how Samudragupta “violently exterminated” nine kings of the Aryavarta, probably during his second campaign in northern India. The given names of the kings defeated are Rudradeva, Mattila, Nagadatta, Chandravarman, Ganapatinaga, Nagasena, Achyuta, Nandin and Balavarman.

“The occurence of four Naga names in the list indicates the serious nature of the threat to the Guptas from the power of the Nagas. But inspite of this campaign of “extermination”, the Naga power survived for a Naga princess, Kuberanaga, was married to Chandragupta II, son and successor of Samudragupta.”

Here we have a very interesting and ammusing connection between the Guptas, the Nagas of Padmavati and Mathura with the Vakatakas. As we read above, the Vakataka ruler Pravarasena I had his son, Gautamiputra marry a Naga princess of Padmavati, daughter of Bhara Shiva king Bhava Naga and the son of this couple, Rudrasena became the next ruler Rudrasena I of Vakatakas. When Samudragupta eliminated the Naga power at Mathura, the princess of the royal house, Naga Princess Kuberanaga was given in marriage to Chandragupta II, son and successor of Samudragupta. Offspring of this union was Prabhavati Gupta who was later married to the Vakataka king Rudrasena II.

Bana Bhatta in his “Harshcharita” also talks about one Nagasena in these words,”the doom of Nagasena, born of the Naga lineage, occured at Padmavati because he was foolish enough to have discussed his policy in the presence of a mynah bird who declared them out loud”.

A lot is still very obscure about the Nagas, so much so that scholars are not even unanimous about whether they were one family that sprung into Mathura, Padmavati, Kantipuri and Vidisha or they were different families sharing the Naga surname. One can only hope that some more research can clear these questions.

References:

1.History of India 150 – 350 A.D. – K.P.Jayaswal

2.Ancient India: History and Culture – Balkrishna Govind Gokhale

3.Dimensions of Human Cultures in Central India by A.A.Abbasi

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