Kalhan- The first historian from Kashmir, of Kashmir!

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By: Syed Rooh Fatima

Kalhana has shared the fate of so many Indian authors of note whose memory lives solely in their works. There is no record of the life of this scholar-poet to whom is attributed the chronicle of Kashmir called ‘Raj Trangni’. From the indications scattered through the narrative, however, we can gather some instructive facts regarding the author’s personality and the time and surroundings in which he lived.

Kalhana, according to his own statement, wrote his work during the years 1148-49 AD.’ His description of the events which occurred during the troubled years 112-21 AD imply personal observations made with a mature mind. Dr Stein, therefore, places his date of birth about the beginning of the 12th century.

The commencement of this century is marked in the history of Kashmir by an important dynastic revolution which brought about material changes in the political state of the kingdom. King Harsha (1089- 1101 AD), who seems at first to have secured a period of consolidation and peace, subsequently fell a victim to his own Nero-like propensities. Heavy fiscal exactions necessitated by a luxurious court, and the cruel persecution by tire Damara clan who formed the land aristocracy, led to a rebellion under the leadership of the brothers Uccala and Sussala, two relatives of Harsha, who succumbed in the struggle and met a tragic death by murder. During the following seven years, civil war continued almost without interruption. The greatest portion of Kalhana’s life passed in what was for Kashmir one long period of civil war and political dissolution.

Kalhana father, Campaka, held several responsible positions under King Harsha. First of all he was Dvarpati or commander of the frontier defences. Later he became his minister and at the time of Harsha’s flight, he was one of his few followers who remained loyal to him to the last. From the mention of Parihaspura as the birthplace of his uncle, Kanaka, it may be inferred that this town was the original home of Kalhana’s family. A Brahmin by descent, he was a Saiva by faith, but throughout his narrative he maintains a friendly attitude towards Buddhism. His composition proves amply that his studies in various branches of traditional learning had been both thorough and extensive. His acquaintance with the older standard works of poetry, such as the Raghuvansha and Meghaduta, may be assumed a priori.

He seems to have thoroughly studied the epics like Ramayana and Mahabharata also. The dynastic war which had cost Harsha his throne and life had a lasting effect on the fortunes of Kalhana’s family. His father, who in Harsha’s reign had occupied one of the highest posts in the administration, played no longer any part in public life after his master’s death. It seems that Kalhana himself never held any office under any subsequent ruler or otherwise enjoyed any special favour from the court. Probably we owe his activity as a chronicler to this fact. Born from a family of rank and note he could have expected to take an active share in the affairs of his country like his father before him. The adverse political circumstances closed for him the doors of service. What better use, congenial to his hereditary tastes, could he then make of his literary training than by recording the history of his country?


Kalhana’s qualities as a historian are unsurpassed. For the collection of material for his history he not only consulted older works on the subject, but also used original sources like inscriptions of various kinds – those recording the construction of temples, memorials or palaces; records of land grants or privileges, etc. He also studied coins and inspected old buildings. He is a master of accurate topography of ancient Kashmir. Kalhana’s impartiality as a historian and his honesty of purpose are remarkable.

He himself puts forth the ideal in the following words: “That noble-minded (poet) is worthy of praise whose word, like that of a judge, keeps free from love or hatred in relating the facts of the past. He does not hide errors and weaknesses of the king under whom he wrote. He does not hesitate to condemn the later activities of King Harsha to whom he had good reason to be grateful for raising his family to high office or to expose with bitter sarcasm the cowardice and empty bragging of the Kashmiri soldiery. Kalhana lived at a time when the invention of gunpowder and the printing press had not yet revolutionized human thought. He had not heard of the rights of man nor the denunciation of monarchy, but he passes many strictures against kings and priests, their morals and methods. He shows his aversion and contempt for the Damaras whose overbearing attitude was the direct cause of the civil wars which sapped the vitality of the kingdom. Equally critical is he of the doings of the

Similarly he does not hide his contempt for the priests whose pride was equal to their ignorance. He bitterly complains of their baneful influence on the affairs of the State. History, according to him, was not something to learn but something to make people live and understand life. He gives both sides of all questions and points out the faults as well as the virtues of the kings and other characters whom he describes. Further, his observations show that the achievements of the great are merely answers to certain big needs in society and that success was only possible because the time was ripe.

Hence he does not cover up the faults of the State, an individual ruler or group of men. In his history there are no heroes or heroines and the few persons who might be so described are only functionaries of certain groups and have not been too much emphasized; indeed whether we love them or not for their virtues it is their voices which make them unforgettable. Another trait in Kalhana which is modern is his freedom from narrow nationalism. He pays a tribute of admiration to the brave men of Bengal who travelled all the way up to Kashmir and avenged, at the cost of their lives, the death of their king who had been treacherously murdered at Trigrami.

Shortcomings certainly there are in his Chronicle when studied in the light of modem historical technique. He does not, for example, distinguish a legend from history. At places there are serious gaps in chronology. But still it is impossible to peruse the Chronicle and in particular it’s later portions, without realizing that the poet who wrote it had an observant eye and an open mind for the affairs of the world around Him…

(Reference for this article are taken from the works of P N K Bumzi by the author)

—The author holds a Master’s in Mass communication and journalism and History. [email protected]

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