Who was Kalhan, the Writer of Rajtarangini? In which king’s court did he live?

By Sunil Kumar

For the story of Kalhan(or Kalhana); we need to take a trip nearly 900 years into the past.

The son of a Kashmiri minister Carpaka; he was most probably a Brahmin who wrote the Rajtarangini(literally “River of Kings”) in Sanskrit. This is a land virtually unrecognizable if we view it from a present-day perspective.

One of the most open and liberal societies in India; Kashmir is an intellectually vibrant place renowned for its scholarship; artistic genius and natural beauty. Abhinavgupta; a famous polymath is one of ancient Kashmir’s most famous intellectuals and the culture places great value on knowledge and learning.

Kalhan’s father Carpaka is speculated to have served as a “dwarpati”(commandant) with the King Harsa of the Lohara dynasty(who ruled Kashmir from 1003 to 1320); and were the last Hindu rulers of the place. Rajatarangini covers the period till Kalhana was alive(reportedly latter half of the 12th century(he wrote the book(speculated) in 1148).

In 7826 verses; the book is divided into eight books called tarangas(waves) that cover a huge time period and largely deal with the history of the Hindu kings of Kashmir and the north-west part of the Indian subcontinent. It is considered to be more historically accurate than other books of the time; as it has less flattery and more fact combined with myths and legends. His name only appears in colophons(side notes in the book text)

Starting with Gonanda; a contemporary of Yudhistira(Mahabharata); a huge succession of kings and their reigns are discussed with notable examples being the Mauryan emperor Ashoka who annexed Kashmir, military genius Lalitaditya and the ruthless Queen Didda(kind of an ancient “Indira Gandhi”).

Like other writers of the period; Kalhana was prone to a little exaggeration but his work remained hugely influential; with subsequent pandits and even Muslim rulers and their court scholars attempting more Rajataranganis.

Kalhana saw history as a broad sweep of characters with great drama and an underlying spirit of the melancholy music of humanity. Keeping in line with the historical practices of the time(which can seem boring to us now); he is aware of and indulges in alamkarasastra(ornate descriptions of scenes and situations); a sort of common motif of Indian king tales from Kashmir to Tamil Nadu.

Like other people in the Kashmir of that time frame; he is a devotee of Lord Shiva and puts in an invocation verse at the beginning of his book. A firm believer in fate; karma and a big cosmic interplay of forces; Kalhana’s book achieves a sort of literary immortality apart from a work on history in scholarly circles and its re-evaluation by colonial and contemporary researchers.

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