The Vakatakas, a forgotten empire: Tracing the history of a once-powerful kingdom that mysteriously faded away

When one thinks of the kingdoms of ancient India, the mighty Mauryas and the imperial Guptas are proudly recalled. Others, despite their importance, are now forgotten. For instance, not many remember the Vakatakas, a powerful dynasty that ruled the Deccan for three centuries.

The Buddhist caves constructed by this dynasty in the fifth and sixth centuries, the magnificent Ajanta Caves, are a well-known UNESCO site. Despite this, except perhaps historians, artists or civil service aspirants, few know about or remember the builders, the Vakatakas of the Deccan.

 The Vakatakas, a forgotten empire: Tracing the history of a once-powerful kingdom that mysteriously faded away

The Buddhist caves constructed by this dynasty in the fifth and sixth centuries, the magnificent Ajanta Caves, are a well-known UNESCO site. Wikimedia Commons/Anupamg

A history built from sparse information

By the third century, the Satavahanas had collapsed and the Sakas were no longer the powerful force they had been. The stage was set in the Deccan for a local power to stake its claim. It is in this scenario that Vindhyashakti, a Brahmin chieftain about whom not much is known, founded the Vakataka empire.

Theories abound about the dates and origins of this powerful dynasty which emerged in the Deccan in the third century CE. No one has found any connection between the Vindhyas and Vindhyashakti – barring a discovery a few years ago of some relics typical of the dynasty, from a remote site near Satna in Madhya Pradesh.

Most of the information that we have regarding the chronology and the rulers has been constructed through the Puranas and other records and inscriptions. Through these we know that Vindhyashakti founded this family and is said to have ruled between 255 and 275 CE.

However it is his son, King Pravarasena I (275 CE – 335 CE), who was successful in spreading the rule across a greater part of the Deccan. Starting as the ruler of a small kingdom, by the time of his death Pravarasena I’s empire comprised Northern Maharashtra, Berar, Madhya Pradesh and a part of Andhra. At the height of its power, the Vakataka Empire is said to have extended from the South of Malwa and Gujarat to the Tungabhadra River in the South, and from the Arabian Sea in the West up to Chhattisgarh in the East.

A cordial split and two missing branches

Sometime in the fourth century, the Vakataka dynasty split into four separate branches. Pravarasena I had four sons, each of whom he had deputed to manage one of the provinces of the rapidly expanding kingdom. Each of these sons set up an entirely different branch of this kingdom. Of the four branches, information is available about only two. One is the main Vakataka house under Gautamiputra, the eldest son, and his descendants. Sarvasena, the second son, founded his branch that ruled from Bashim till the middle of the sixth century. The two branches were cordial.

The Gupta queen

The defeat of a Kuntala king in Southern Maharashtra by the ruler Prithvishena I (360 CE to 385 CE) increased the prestige of the Vakatakas. This, aided by the fact that their kingdom bordered the Sakas’, may have been what prompted Chandragupta II to take the Vakatakas seriously – and pursue the matrimonial alliance between his daughter, Queen Prabhavatigupta with Rudrasena II, the son of Prithvishena I.

Rudrasena II, who took over the reins of the kingdom in 385 CE, had a short rule. For reasons unknown, he passed away in 390 CE leaving behind his young widow, hardly 25 years old, and his two sons, Divakarasena, aged five, and Damodarasena, aged two.

Wikimedia Commons/Akshatha Inamdar

Queen Prabhavati continued ruling till Damodarasena came of age and took over as Pravarasena II. Inside the Ajanta Caves. Wikimedia Commons/Akshatha Inamdar

Prabhavatigupta took over as regent (390 CE to approximately 410 CE) for the minor King Divakarasena and was aided by her father in all matters military and administrative.

One of the famous inscriptions extant from this dynasty are the Poona copper plate inscriptions and the Riddhapur inscriptions issued by Queen Prabhavatigupta.

Interestingly, Vindhyashakti II who was the king of the Bashim branch offered no resistance – the might of Chandragupta II may have played a role – and through her regency, the cordial relations between the two branches continued. It was during her regency that the Guptas conquered Gujarat and Kathiawar and throughout the period, the Guptas majorly influenced the affairs of the Vakatakas.

Also interesting is that Divakarasena did not become King. While most history books gloss over what happened to Divakara, there is a brief mention in The Vakataka-Gupta Age by RC Majumdar and AS Altekar, that he died young and this forced Queen Prabhavati to continue ruling till Damodarasena came of age and took over as Pravarasena II.

A dynasty at its zenith, and its quiet disappearance

One of the major decisions taken by Pravarasena II, who had a long rule of about 30 years from 410 CE to 440 CE, was to shift the capital of the empire to a new city called Pravarapura, probably near Wardha.

Until then, Nandivardhana – known today as Nagardhan – was the capital city.

Incidentally, in June 2018, it was reported that an archaeological team in Maharashtra had unearthed remnants of Nandivardhana, the Vakataka’s lost capital, definitively proving its existence.

Bodhisattva Padmapani, cave 1, from Ajanta, India. Wikimedia Commons

Bodhisattva Padmapani, cave 1, from Ajanta, India. Wikimedia Commons

The city, heavily-researched and deeply imagined in the setting of my book The Curse of Anuganga, had been found!

The Vakataka branch of the dynasty continued till the end of the reign of Prithvishena II in 480 CE. Since no son or daughter of this king is known to have succeeded him, the leadership passed on to King Harishena of the Bashim branch. By the time Harishena died in 510 CE, the Vakataka empire was at its zenith – covering Andhra, Maharashtra and most of Madhya Pradesh. In addition, its influence extended to Konkan, Gujarat, Malwa and Chhattisgarh. The dynasty was even larger than it had been under Pravarasena I.

Among this branch’s main achievements are the construction of those magnificent Ajanta caves.

However, despite such brilliance and power, the Vakataka dynasty disappeared soon after the death of King Harishena. Most of the regions occupied by the Vakatakas had been taken over by the Chalukyas by 550 CE. But, how and why this decline and disappearance occurred remains a mystery.

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Harini Srinivasan is a Delhi-based writer and an ex-civil servant who has edited several publications, including selected speeches of the President of India. The Curse of Anuganga (TreeShade Books) is her second novel. Her next is scheduled to release shortly with Juggernaut.

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Updated Date: Jun 19, 2019 09:58:24 IST