Kashmir was ruled by many women in ancient and medieval times. Some of them proved more capable than their male predecessors and successors. Sara Wani recreates the life and times of queens whom history has recorded in detail
Hindu religious laws treated women as minors, irrespective of their age. But that did not prevent the rise of women power. Kashmir’s Hindu period actually saw the rise of many sovereign queens who proved their mettle.
Before Kauravas’ and Pandavs’ fought epic Mahabharata, history suggests, a woman ruled Kashmir. Yashovati was a consort of King Damodara who was killed in the battlefield. Eventually, his pregnant consort was enthroned and ruled as a queen regent after birth of her son. Her period is recorded as successful. Kalhana says the “popular ruler” was seen by her subjects ‘as if she were a goddess’.
Queen Regent Sugandha Devi ruled Kashmir for 28 years (855-883 AD) and history sees it the ‘golden age’. She accompanied her husband Shankaravarman, the son of famous Hindu king Avantivarman, when he was killed by a soldier in the battlefield.
Sugandha suppressed the news of the king’s death by attaching strings to his body, with which she managed to lower and raise the king’s head, as if he was returning the salutes of the feudal lords approaching the royal procession. After performing his last rites, his son Gopalavarman was crowned the king. Being the minor’s mother, she took over the governance.
While she managed the affairs of the states effectively, Sughanda took pleasure in bodily indulgences. Chroniclers accuse her of being intimate to her treasury minister Prabhakaran. This relationship is considered to be the reason for boy-king’s assassination.
Gopalavarman was succeeded by his younger brother Samkata. He also had a mysterious death within ten days. With Shankaravarman gone with his two sons, the kingdom jumped into political uncertainty. As self seekers and ambitious courtiers started plotting a coup, public figures called a maha-Panchayat for choosing the country’s ruler. Sughanda was so popular that she was chosen sovereign Queen of the Kingdom.
“She was loved by the people, trusted by the courtiers, and admired by the army,” Premnath Bazaz writes in his book Daughters of the Vitasta. “But this efficient administrator and wise queen couldn’t live happily ever after to serve her people as the kingdom was infested with conspirators and opportunists who were ever ready to create trouble for her.”
Tantrins, a faction of her army were part of the conspiracy. Tantrins, Bazaz says disliked a woman efficiently and successfully running the government machinery and vexing power amidst them. In a bid to take wind out of the Tantrin, Sughanda abdicated throne and put Nirjitawarman, a prince of the royal birth, on throne with herself wielding power behind the scene. Tantrins opposed the nomination for his “blamable character”. Tantrins declared Nirjitawarman’s son Partha as their king. Powerless Sugandha retired to live in peace at Hushakpura (Ushkur, Baramulla).
Royal bodyguards, the Ekangas, united all other factions loyal to ex-queen and persuaded Sugandha to wage war. A ferocious battle ensued in Srinagar suburbs in April, 914 AD. Tantrins routed Sugandha and captured her. She was imprisoned and spent her life miserably.
Half a century later, Kashmir witnessed another Queen’s phenomenal rise. Didda the Queen consort of King Kshemgupta (950 AD) ruled Hindu Kashmir for almost half a century. “Though she was lame, the beauty of her face and the grace of her form were enchanting,” Bazaz wrote.
Surrounded by sycophants, led by Phalguna, Kshemgupta was a drunkard, and debauch. Didda gradually took the control of administration and ran the affairs of the government till 958 AD. She was ruling the state for eight years when king died. Didda wanted to commit Sati, but a prudent minister Narvahana stopped her.
As Abhimanyu, Kshemgupta’s minor son was enthroned, Didda ruled. Phalguna, the chief minister was an eyesore for her rivals for his bravery, administrative acumen and foresight. Didda also bore malice against him and tried to assassinate him. An insulted Phalguna ran away, collected forces and challenged Didda. The crafty queen negotiated peace making Phalguna to abandon his plan to attack Srinagar and laid down his arms.
Later another conspiracy was hatched to dethrone Abhimanyu, but Didda, banished all conspirators. They took refuge in the house of an influential figure. Conspirators formed a league and rebelled pushing state to a civil war. Conscious of numerical superiority of rebels, Didda resorted to diplomacy and triggered rifts among them by offering wealth to Brahmans. The rebellion fizzled out.
In follow up, Didda resorted to reconciliation, started addressing grievances of her opponents and appreciating the valour of the rebels. Yashodara, one of the rebel leaders was appointed the supreme commander and sent to subdue Udabhandpora. After accomplishing this feat, Yashodara gained respect but some courtiers accused him of corruption forcing Didda to punish him.
Expecting a grand reception for his victory, Yashodara was taken aback. He assembled like-minded forces and revolted. Rebels battered the palace doors but could not disturb Didda who sent Abhimanyu to a safe place. Soon after, she took on rebels using Ekangas and succeeded. Yashodara and his rebels were captured and punished. Eramantaka, one of Yashodara’s close combatants was thrown into Jhelum with his neck tied to a boulder.
This incident shook Didda making her realize the infirmity of the body-politic. She started setting things right by routing the destabilizing elements.
An efficient administrator, a military commander with enviable diplomatic skills, Didda became prey of palace intrigue. She differed with her able Prime Minister Nirvahan who committed suicide causing turmoil and instability. To quell the rebellion that Damaras, the famed and powerful feudatory chieftains, Didda recalled her aged Prime Minister Phalguna who brought a semblance of order but tensions remained.
Her son Abhimanyu wanted to succeed his mother but Didda did not oblige him. He died a broken man. Didda placed his minor son, Nandigupta on the throne but retained the real power. She killed him and later assassinated her two other grandchildren Tribhovana and Bhimagupta.
Bhimagupta assassination, history reveals, was the result of his efforts to dissuade her granny from her association with Tunga, a shepherd from Poonch. She appointed Tunga as her Prime Minister. Her enemies used her nephew, Vigraharaja, against him, but failed. Tunga bravely fought Vigraharaja’s army later. He even inflicted humiliating defeat to Rajouri ruler who had questioned Didda’s authority.
Didda was Kashmir’s virtual ruler for even more than fifty years (950-1001 AD) but her lust for power caused the end of her progeny. Eventually she adopted her nephew Samgramaraja who ruled Kashmir for 25 years (1003-1028 AD). Samgramaraja repulsed the invasion of Mohammed Ghazni. History remembers Didda as a non-conformist ruler who defied her physical deformity and ruled with an iron hand. Many see the criminal queen as a patriot who sacrificed her progeny to protect the kingdom. She is the only queen who issued currency in her name.
Interestingly, Kashmir’s Hindu rule ended with a woman ruler, Kota Devi. She ascended the throne when the cowardly king Sahdeva (1300 AD) fled to safety in the wake of Zulchu’s invasion. The Tartar adventurer decimated Kashmir, killed its inhabitants. Sahdeva’s Prime Minister Ramchandra took refuge in Lar’s Gagangir fort. Approaching winter and dearth of ration led Zulchu to leave with Kashmir prisoners only to be decimated by Pir Panchal snowstorm.
As Kashmir tried to re-emerge, Ramchandra tried to re-take the throne. He had two rivals, political strategist Shah Mir, a Swat resident and Ladakhi prince, Rinchana. The latter had arrived in Kashmir and occupied the throne by killing Ramchandra by deceit. Kota Devi was his relatives. She agreed to marry Rinchana.
Kota Rani, as she is remembered had a tremendous influence on non-Kashmiri Rinchana. He saw Kashmir through queen’s eyes. At her behest, he renounced Buddhism and tried to embrace the Shiavite Hinduism, but was considered unworthy of initiation by the Hindu clergy. A humiliated and insulted Rinchana converted to Islam and became Sardar-ud-Din. Kota clung to her beliefs. Their son Haider was raised as a Muslim and was given in charge of Shah Mir.
After Rinchana’s death Kota refused to enthrone Haider. Instead, she invited Udayanadeva, the brother of Sahdeva. To strengthen the regime and consolidate her power Kota married him.
Historian Jonaraja says Shah Mir disliked Udayanadeva’s accession but could not challenge Kota. He believed Kashmir throne belonged to Haider.
Kota was still consolidating the empire when in 1330 AD Purvan or Achala invaded Kashmir. The king fled to Ladakh leaving Kota and her courtier Shah Mir to defend Kashmir. Employing her diplomatic skills, Kota forced the invader to leave the land without actually raising an arm.
With peace restored, cowardly king returned seeking Kota’s forgiveness. She reinstalled him. After Udayanadeva’s death in 1339, she sidelined both her sons Bolaratan (from Udayanadeva) and Haider, and assumed power with Bikhshana Bhatta as Prime Minister. Shah Mir, now more powerful, revolted, killing her Prime Minister. To save her power, middle-aged Kota married the septuagenarian Shah Mir. It seems that Kota might have tried to kill Shah Mir on their wedding night forcing the king to order her arrest. Kota committed suicide in captivity after being the sovereign of the valley for barely five months.
Though only four queens ruled Kashmir in their own right, numerous other queen consorts actively participated in the affairs of state. History mentions Vakpushta, the queen consort of Tunjina, who worked closely to manage floods and famine and spent their riches to feed the hungry. They lamented over the destruction of their land and wept the tears of repentance, invoking God’s forgiveness.
Ananglekha, the daughter of king Baladitya, was popular with people and courtiers. Since Baladitya’s son had died and soothsayers had predicted that his throne would pass on to his son-in-law after his death, the king married his daughter to Durlabvardhan, a low official, and a low caste Hindu. Upset over her father’s decision, Ananglekha turned vengeful by forming illegitimate intimacy with people of high positions. Once her husband found her in the embrace of her paramour, Minister Khankha, but the calm Durlabvardhan, controlling his impulse, left a note on their bedside that purported to say, “Remember that you have not been slain, though you deserved to be killed.” Overwhelmed by Durlabvardhan’s nobility, Khankha tried to reciprocate his magnanimity. Ananglekha too was ashamed and completely transformed. With the death of Baladitya in 519 AD, Durlabvardhan ascended the throne with the help of Khankha and Ananglekha, as both wielded significant influence among the subjects.
Cool minded Durlabvardhan ruled Kashmir for thirty-six years with Ananglekha by his side. This couple laid the foundations of the Kar Kota dynasty, which gave Kashmir the great king Lalitaditya Mukhtapida whose empire extended from Central Asia in the north, to the Western Ghats in the south, from Bay of Bengal in the east to Gujarat in the west.
Srilekha was another queen consort of Samgramaraja, the prince who was selected by queen Didda for the throne of Kashmir. He reigned for 25 years with the help of his talented wife, Srilekha. During his reign, Mahmud Ghaznavi attempted to invade Kashmir. The ruling couple repulsed the invasion.
After Samgramaraja’s death in 1028 AD, Srilekha was ready to crown herself the queen of Kashmir but was outsmarted by the royal bodyguards. While her infant son, Kalsha was crowned as the king, Srilekha consented to be the regent of the minor king. She valiantly repulsed the invasion of Vigraharaja, the brother of Samgramaraja.
Suryamati, the wife of king Ananta (1028-1063 AD) is recorded to have helped him in consolidating his power. Jointly, they subdued many internal and external threats and raised an organized army which was paid from the state treasury for the first time in the medieval history of Kashmir.
Though being brave and generous, the king lived a luxurious life beyond his means, which made him to mortgage his crown and throne for the continuous supply of betel leaf, which had to be supplied from a foreign betel leaf magnate, Padmaraja. Taking the charge and acting firmly, queen Suryamati put an end to the organizing of gala parties and paid Padmaraja out of her own wealth, thus securing the crown and throne of Kashmir. After restoring the financial order in the kingdom, Suryamati focused her attention to the redressal of public grievances. King Ananta being always in need of money levied heavy taxes on people.
Suryamati was an able administrator but failed to set things right in her own family, as king Anantadeva was forced to abdicate in favour of his son Kalsha, who was inefficient and immoral, always busy in shameless deeds to this extent that he had even started to make incestuous advances toward Kallana, the sister of Anantadeva and her daughter Naga.
This brash and immoral Kalsha though chastised by his father and about to be arrested was saved when the queen herself intervened in this affair, making Anantadeva leave the city along with his riches to settle in Vijeshwara (Bijibehara), thus creating two power centres; one in the city, and the other in Vijeshwara. This led to internecine wars between father and son.
Sandwiched between her husband and son, Suryamati scolded both of them in private, which resulted in Anantadeva’s suicide. The queen herself sat on his funeral pyre.
Jayamati was a street child adopted by a dancing girl. The heartthrob of many princes and riches, she fell in love with Vchchala, but was forced to become the mistress of a rich and influential courtier, Mandalesha. Mandalesha got killed in a street fight, and she became free. She married Vchchala whose fortunes rose, and with the death of Harsha, then the king of Kashmir, was crowned as the king of Kashmir by the rebels.
Jayamati, now the queen of Kashmir, helped her husband in reforming the administration, reaching out to the poor and needy, and abolishing unjust taxes imposed on the subjects by rich and influential and weeded out corruption. The king opened dispensaries where medicines were provided to the poor and needy patients for free.
The dancing girl from a humble background who was made to entertain high and low and forced to live as the mistress or concubine of courtiers never defamed the integrity and the sanctity of the crown and has been praised by Kalhana for her noble deeds.
King Jayasimha’s (1127-1154 AD) senior queen, Raddadevi deserves a special mention. Aware of her virtues of statesmanship and understating, when the King decided to install his minor son Gulhana on the Lohara throne, a principality in South Kashmir, he sent her as his representative at the Coronation ceremony of the 6-year-old prince. It might have been a tedious task for a homemaker who confined herself within the four walls of her palace, but to the astonishment of all she carried the task with such an accomplishment, that on her arrival to Srinagar she was warmly welcomed and honoured by the king.
Muslim rule saw the women getting restricted to the Palaces. There were not many Muslim sovereigns. But a few wielded a lot of power. Bibi Haura, the queen of Sultan Qutub-ud-Din (1373-89) is worth mentioning. Sikander, two of her sons, was barely eight when she widowed. She fought courageously all the conspirators as queen regent and retained her throne. Apart from dismissing her two prominent ministers, she executed her daughter and son-in-law for hatching conspiracy against the boy-king. She ruled Kashmir for a decade till Sikander, the idol-breaker king, took over.
Historian Srivara mentions Gul Khatun, the queen of Sultam Haider Shah (1470-72) as the Muslim parallel to Hindu Didda. Daughter-in-law of Budshah Zainulabideen, was actually running the state as her drunkard husband was living his immoral life. After his death, she skipped interventions in government but remained busy in creating social infrastructures like schools, mosques, and alms-houses.