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Shiv Sena

Shiv Sena is a modern militant Hindu political organization. This organization originally emerged from a movement in Mumbai demanding treatment for the Maharshtrians over migrants to the city. The city of Mumbai is one of Indias largest commercial and industrial centres. The citys predominant language is is Marathi which plays an important role in the unity among Maharshtrians. Shiv Sena is a product of nativism based upon Marathi ideologies and Hindutva (Hindu nationalism). The name Shiv Sena derived from the seventeenth century founder of the Maratha Empire. The Marathas became prominent in the seventeenth century under the leadership of Shivaji Maharaj, who revolted and defeated the Mughal Empire of the North. By adopting the name Shiv Sena, which translates to the Army of Shiva(Katzenstein 387) in 1966, this organization formed to safeguard the interest of the sons of the soil.In 1967, Shiv Sena entered the political scene by helping Congress defeat Krishna Menon, a South Indian by birth. And in 1968, this organization had 42 of 140 seats in the municipal election (Katzenstein 387).

Nativism is a term for the policy of protecting the interests of native born or established inhabitants against the interests of migrants. Multi-ethnic societies, such as India, often cultivate Nativist attitudes. Nativism most commonly arises in urban areas as opposed to small cities or tiny villages because industrial and commercial centres often attract migrants. On occasion, when Nativism is politicized it will find expression in the forms of demonstrations, riots, nativist associations and nativist political parties (Katzenstein 386). Shiv Senas movement of nativism is different from ethnic movements, linguistic movements and regional sub-nationalism because it is specifically anti-migrant (Katzenstein 386). However, Indian subnational movements such as Akali Dal and Dravida Monnetro Kazhagam may contain elements of nativism. Alkali Dal is a regional political party in the Punjab state of northwestern India, who is the principal advocacy organization for the large Sikh community (DSouza 2014). Dravida Monnnetro Kazhagam is also a regional political party in the southeastern state of Tamil Nadu. They are a nationalistic movement advocating the betterment of the dravidian population in Tamil Nadu as well as Sri Lanka (DSouza 2014). In India nativist movements have emerged in different sorts and sizes. In a small North Indian town of Khajurho, the faint dispersion of nativist attitudes had cased one of the three small restaurants to change its obvious South Indian name to one that is ethnically non-descriptive. In the city of Gauhati in North India, there have been violent demonstrations against migrant Marwari businessmen and shopkeepers (Katzenstein 386). And in the city of Bombay (current day Mumbai), nativist sentiment has found explicit political expression in the militant political party Shiv Sena. Bal Thackeray, the founder of the party, was a cartoonist for the Marthi newsletter the Marmik. Under his leadership the Shiv Sena became a dominant political force in Maharashtra (Hollar 2012).

There are essentially two phases of the formation of Shiv Sena (Katzentstein 388). The first was the emergence of the Sena as a nativist movement which aimed to protect the interests of the local people against the encroachment of the outsiders.And the second was the development of its more militant phase. Even though these two phases need to be examined independently, the origins of these phases are not; instead, they have emerged from each other (Katzentstein 388). The nativist phase of Shiv Sena mainly focuses on the job competition of middle class Maharashtrians. Shiv Sena primarily argues that a the main goal of an educated Maharashtrian was to find a stable job, particularly an office job. They claim that Maharashtrians, unlike other migrants to the state, do not have the aspirations or the equity to take up new businesses. For these people, it is far better to take up a reliable and safe office job rather than entering the unknown of commercial pursuits. The typical interpretation of the situation is that South Indians had been migrating to Mumbai, and that they began to monopolize the office jobs in the city. Accordingly, Maharashtrians were unable to compete with the migrant South Indians because either South Indians were able to speak better english or these people would hire exclusively from their own communities (Katzenstein 389). It is generally thought that the different communities in Mumbai maintained different employment specializations. South Indians were being recruited to management positions and office work; Maharashtrians typically worked as house servants or labourers. Bringing attention to these struggles faced by Maharashtrians is what had won Shiv Sena most of its votes. Shiv Sena also claimed, that as a community the Maharashtrians felt themselves to be subordinate on their own native soil(Katzenstein 392). These feelings of subordination were established in part due to the demographic position of Maharashtrians in the the city of Mumbai. In 1961, Maharashtrians were a minority, representing only 41% of Mumbais population, however they were still the largest linguistic community (Katzentstein 392). Although the fact that the non-Maharashtrians exceeded the local Maharashtrians in their own city evidently affected the way Maharashtrians perceived themselves and others. The minority position of Maharashtrians would have mattered less if these people did not perceive themselves to be economically or socially subordinate (Katzentstein 393). Surveys comparing the Maharashtrian communities from 1950 to 1966, when the Sena emerged, showed that the underdeveloped Maharashtrian communities had not changed in 16 years. This lack of economic and social change had caused the shift in the psychology of the Maharashtrians (Katzenstein 394). This lack of change and frustration provoked the emergence of Shiv Sena. Even two years before the formation of Shiv Sena proposals for Maharashtrian unity, and attacks on outsidersin the Marmik sparked awareness for the Maharashtrian frustration. The formation of Shiv Sena was only successful in the city of Mumbai and there neighbouring city of Thana. Shiv Sena attempted, but failed to attain political power in other urban and rural areas in Maharashtra. This success in the large cities opposed to smaller towns and rural areas was attributed to the higher literacy rates and the higher rates of migration. The literacy rates in Mumbai were twice as high than the surrounding ares of the rest of the state of Maharashtra; if this were not the case it is debated that the Sena would not have succeeded. Much of the partys reputation had been won through the media, especially through the Marmik.

With attempts to move farther into the state of Maharashtra, Shiv Sena realized that regional identity alone cannot help the party reach its ambitions because their philosophies and avenues to gain support had changed. Bal Thackeray had realized that his anti-south campaign had lost its edge (Engineer 1203). Thackeray, however, got an opportunity to reassure his importance when the Hindu revivalist movement began to emerge in the early eighties, after the episode of conversions to Islam of some Harijans in the Meenakshi- Puram district of Tamil Nadu (Engineer 1203). The party had already played an important role in the Kosa and Bhiwandi riots in the late sixties and the early seventies, only rarely was its anti-Muslim concept overlapped with its anti-south efforts. In 1984, Shiv Sainiks were roaming the streets of Mumbai with swords in their hands, this followed communal riots in Mumbai and Bhivandi (Engineer 1203). A series of riots and communal violence took place wherever the party opened a branch. Shiv Sena again used the changing demographic of Aurangabad to its advantage. Marathwada was previously a part of the old Nizam state. It was ruled by Muslim elite with some collaborations with Hindu elites. Hindu resentment against Muslim domination had began to surface (Engineer 1203). This situation had become worse with the social and demographic change. Like the city of Mumbai, industrialization had brought non muslim outsiders to Aurangabad. The muslim population began to decrease in numbers and significance. In 1985 Shiv Sena entered the town of Aurangabad by increasing communal tensions (Engineer 1204).

The anti-Muslim movement presented by the leadership did not make it to a popular level, until the movements leading to the riots of 1992 and 1993. These riots took place in Mumbai in December 1992 carrying into January 1993. 900 people were killed in these riots, which were initiated by the hostilities of large protests. These protests were reactions to the 1992 destruction of the Babri Mosque by Hindu Karsevaks in Ayodhya. In Hindu mythology, Ayodhya is the first place of the God – king Rama (Banerjee 1214). And the location of the Babri Mosque was believed to be on the actual birthplace of Rama. This event had escalated Hindu and Muslim tension. It is believed that the riots in Mumbai were pre-planned, and that the Hindu rioters were granted access to the location of muslim homes and businesses through sources that were not public. The women of Shiv Sena were recored as playing an important role in these riots. This violence in Mumbai had included a large number of women. Shiv Sena, mobilized women to block the arrest of several of its leaders, these women also prevented fire engines from being able to access Muslim areas in need. As well they had looted Muslim stores and attacked Muslim women (Banerjee 1214). Shiv Sena women also had a lot of influence in the partys violence through shaming the men with taunts of wearing bangles, being unmanly and suggesting that they could not be fathers to their children since they were standing by watching the violence Hinduswere being subjected to.

To further understand the significance of the rise of Shiv Sena in Mumbai it is important to understand the terms local peopleand the sons of the soil. Maharashtra, meaning the land of the Marathi speaking people, is the third largest state of India. Maharashtra meaning The land of the Marathi speaking people. The local people in Maharashtra were defined with three meanings: firstly, that a persons mother tongue was the linguistically dominant language. In Maharashtra, this was Marathi. Second that a person had lived in Maharashtra for at least ten to fifteen years. Lastly, one who identifies with the joys and sorrowsof Maharashtra (Katzenstein 387). It is important to note that the feeling of sub-ordinance felt by the local people of Mumbai and surrounding areas created tension and caused the very uprising of the Sena. Shiv Sena has had an outlasting effect on the people and culture of Mumbai and Maharashtra. It has been discussed that Shiv Sena and Bal Thackeray had changed Mumbai forever. Particularity the violence and riots they had sparked across the city.


Banerjee, Sikata. (1996) The Feminization of Violence in Bombay: Women in the Politics of the Shiv Sena.Asian Survey 36 (December): 1213-1225.

DSouza, Shanthie M. (2014) Dravidian Progressive Federation. Britannica Academic. Accessed March 25, 2017.

DSouza, Shanthie M. (2014) Shromani Akali Dal (SAD)Britannica Academic. Accessed March 25, 2017.

Engineer, Asghar A. (1988) Aurangabad Riots: Part of Shiv Senas Politcal Strategy.Economic and Political Weekly 23: 1203-1205.

Engineer, Asghar A. (1988) Shiv Sena – Protector of Hinduism or Menace to Minorities.Comparative Studies of South Asia, Africa and the Middle East 8:70 – 74

Hollar, Sherman (2012) Bal Thackeray.Britannica Academic. Accessed March 25, 2017.

Heuze, Gerard. (2000) Populism, Religion and Nation in Contemporary India: the Evolution of the Shiv Sena in Maharashtra.Comparative Studies of South Asia, Africa and the Middle East 20: 1-62

Katzenstein, Mary. (1973) The Emergence of Shiv Sena in Bombay.Asian Survey 13: 386 – 399

Related Topics for Further Investigation



Caste system


Mogul Empire

Marathi Empire


South Indian


Marathi Ideologies

Shivaji Maharaj

Noteworthy Websites Related to the Topic

Article written by: Cora Place (March 2017) who is solely responsible for its content.

The Shiv Sena

The Shiv Sena is a Hindu nationalist party based in Mumbai and founded by Bal Thackeray in 1966. Although the modern Shiv Sena party is deeply involved in Hindu nationalist rhetoric, it started as a regional, pro-Marathi party in the state of Maharashtra. The roots of the Shiv Sena’s pro-Marathi origins is evident in the name – which translates as Army of Shivaji. Shivaji was a Marathi warrior responsible for the foundation of the Maratha Empire in the seventeenth century. In the earliest period of the Shiv Sena, the organisation was motivated by the economic plight and migration of non-Maharashtrians to Mumbai (Roy 139). In addition to the establishment of the Shiv Sena, Thackeray had launched Marmik, a Marathi language based newspaper that pushed many of the Maharashtrian issues that would also be espoused by Shiv Sena. By the 1980’s, Mumbai and Maharashtra had been experiencing decades of economic decline and a stagnant labour market.

According to Shiv Sena founder, Bal Thackeray, Maharashtrians suffered from economic and social discrimination. When including Thackeray’s claims with the economic conditions of the state, it led to increased support for Shiv Sena (Banerjee 113). Thackeray had used the economic situation as a way to vilify all non-Marathi Indians in Mumbai and the state of Maharashtra. In 1984, however, Shiv Sena and Thackeray had moved away from a pro-Marathi ideology to the broader ideology of “Hindutva” or Hindu nationalism. In order to rejuvenate the Shiv Sena and take advantage of the weak political situation in Maharashtra, the adoption of Hindutva gave the Shiv Sena a wider Hindu base in contrast to a narrower ethnic base. It also allowed the Shiv Sena to gain political prominence, as Nehruvian secularism (named after former Indian Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru) became overshadowed by the Hindu nationalist ideology (Banerjee 85). Bal Thackeray and the Sena, as a result, began to focus their disdain and particular brand of Hindutva on India’s Muslim population.

In 1947, India had been partitioned into two states (and later three) on the basis of religion. Muslim-majority Pakistan (and later Bangladesh separate from Pakistan) and Hindu-majority India were divided into two dominions. The partition led to the displacement of approximately ten to twelve million people and resulted in a period of mass violence in both India and Pakistan. Like the 1940’s, the 1980’s was a period of tension and anxiety. Mainstay policies, such as secularism, began to look exhausted (Banerjee 85). As a result, Hindutva became more prominent. In order to understand the theory of nationalism theorised by Anthony D. Smith that was adopted by Shiv Sena, among other Indian far-right political organisations, some explanation of the form of nationalism espoused is required. The form of nationalism that Hindu nationalism fits is the theoretical model of Primordialism; primordialism can be explained in a way as a variant of “organic nationalism” (Smith 55). Primordialism is a strategy by which an ethnic group uses their language, religion, culture as markers of biological affinity (Smith 56). The basics of this nationalist strategy work with the Shiv Sena in both its pro-Marathi ideology and later Hindutva ideology. For the Shiv Sena, language was the original source of tension and grew to include religion, or wider-kin, according to primordialism. Other principles of primordial nationalism include an attachment to customs and territory (Smith 57): this too is supported by Thackeray and Shiv Sena’s push for policies to benefit Maharashtrians, rather than other Indians and Muslims in the 1960’s and 70’s. Anthony D. Smith’s monograph, Nationalism, uses the example of Pakistan and India as a case for primordial nationalism. In Nationalism, there is the discussion of Pakistan’s independence being driven by Muslim elites during the partition of India, as well as being driven by a desire to protect Muslim culture, traditions, and institutions (Smith 59).

As a Hindu nationalist organisation, Shiv Sena has not been averse to violence. While the Shiv Sena is a political party, it had been involved in inciting the Mumbai riots of 1992-93. Several instances – Jogeshwari, Behrampada, Dhavari, and Govandi – are some of the most notable acts that surround the period of the Mumbai Riots, where between sixty and sixty-seven percent of attacks by Shiv Sena targeted Muslim populations in and around Mumbai (Banerjee 35). According to Thackeray and Shiv Sena, Muslims are the enemies of the Hindu nation, supporting the primordial model of nationalism. As the Shiv Sena were founded upon a pro-Marathi ideology and named the “Army of Shivaji”, there is a sort of tradition that is notable. In the seventeenth-century,  Shivaji created an independent state from the Muslim Mughal Empire, starting in Maharashtra and eventually becoming the Maratha Empire. For Shiv Sena, this forms the early basis of the tradition of Muslims being their enemies. This is repeated in traditional “myths” of Islamic aggression against Hindus as a result of long-lasting Muslim rule of India and stories of Muslim rulers using brutality to maintain their dominance over the Hindus of India (Banerjee 36). Another example of how the Muslims were depicted as bloodthirsty is a slaughterhouse in Govandi/Deonar. A slaughterhouse was opened in this neighborhood in 1975, mostly employing Muslims, which resulted in the Sena using this as a political issue to state that Muslims are deliberately offending the Hindu people and faith as a result (Banerjee 49-50). This method of demonizing the Muslim populations of Maharashtra and India as a whole has also given the Sena an opportunity to use the matter of Hindu masculinity in their nationalist discourse.

The Shiv Sena have a discourse that is simple to understand once in the context of the Primordial nationalist theory. It maintains a narrative that Muslims are historical enemies of India and the Hindus, and the Sena maintains that Hindu masculinity is threatened by the Muslims. As a result, Shiv Sena has claimed that the Indian government is weak for maintaining a secularist system that damages Hindu tradition. Furthermore, Shiv Sena has characterised the government as impotent, effeminate, and castrated in order to be subservient to India’s Muslim community (Roy 141). The Shiv Sena espouse that due to the weakness of the Indian government, Hindu masculinity is rejuvenated through acts of violence against Muslims. This weakness is noted by the Shiv Sena in their reference to the authorities as Hijras (eunuchs), though it is disputed that the authorities actually sided with the Sena during instances like the Mumbai Riots in 1992 and 1993 (Banerjee 37-38). In the Shiv Sena organisation, the regeneration of masculinity is heavy in its rhetoric, attributing violence and aggression as masculine attributes. This can be noted in the rhetoric of referring to Shiv Sena militants as Shiv Sainiks (warriors), and their fight against Muslims as a dharmayudh (Holy War) (Roy 143). Another aspect of Shiv Sena’s nationalist rhetoric playing on masculinity is to draw on the necessity of protecting the women of their family. This is used by Shiv Sena in this particular instance by referring to the nation of India as Bharat Mata, or “Mother India” (Roy 146). While Shiv Sena is a majority male organisation and known to use hyper-masculinity with patriarchal constructs, the Sena also maintain a wing of women. For the Shiv Sena, it is possible that a woman can have “masculine traits”, and that masculinity and femininity are not necessarily limited to biological or gendered dichotomies (Banerjee 133-134).

While this development of women within the Shiv Sena may appear contrary to what Bal Thackeray originally espoused when founding the Shiv Sena, he lauded the role of women within the organisation (Sen 75). Despite this, Thackeray also maintained the position that women should maintain the more restricted roles of “everyday Sena women” as carriers of domestic and religious culture (Sen 75). There is a contradiction in what Thackeray espouses regarding the traditional role of women and the eventual role of women within Shiv Sena. Thackeray had many contradictions in regards to his writings and speeches regarding the role of women. As stated previously, Thackeray believed that women should carry the domestic and religious culture as necessary, but in his speeches, he made pleas to women to take up arms and defend themselves in the streets of Mumbai (Sen 77). Just as Shiv Sena used metaphors associated with lightning and fire to rejuvenate masculinity among Hindu men, Thackeray invoked the female goddesses Kali and Durga with the ideals of female militancy for Shiv Sena women, albeit to minimal effect (Sen 79).

While it may have been the goal of Bal Thackeray and Shiv Sena leaders to mobilise a militancy within Shiv Sena women, it appears to have failed. Instead, the Shiv Sena women used their political motivation to achieve objectives through continuous political engagement (Sen 108-109). As a result, the women of Shiv Sena provide a more pragmatic and utilitarian approach to Hindutva and Shiv Sena’s political participation. While Thackeray’s rhetoric may have been contradictory, it appears to have been suited to the situation when it came to Sena women. The call to arms may have failed when contrasted to how Hindu men responded, but it had an impact on how women approached politics within not only India, but also the male-heavy Hindutva movement. In fact, the role of Shiv Sena women is more aligned with Shiv Sena allies, Rashtriya Swayamsewak Sangh (RSS). The Shiv Sena’s penchant for violence is contrasted by the RSS’ cooperative and activist approach – which is more in line with what Roy has noted with the Shiv Sena women (Roy 145). The two parties both belong to the Hindu nationalist movement but have different approaches. With there being different approaches within the Shiv Sena organisation itself, though, there is a possibility for further change within the organisation, especially following Bal Thackeray’s death in 2012.











Bibliography & Further Recommended Readings

Banjaree, Sikata (1999) Warriors in Politics: Hindu Nationalism, Violence, and Shiv Sena in Mumbai. Boulder: Westview Press.

Heuze, Gerard (2000) “Populism, Religion, and Nation in Contemporary India: The Evolution of Shiv Sena in Maharashtra.” Comparative Studies of South Asia, Africa and the Middle East 20: 3-43.

Roy, Abhik (2006) “Regenerating Masculinity in the Construction of Hindu Nationalist Identity: A Case Study of Shiv Sena.” Communication Studies 57: 135-152.

Sen, Atreyee (2007) Shiv Sena Women: Violence and Communalism in a Bombay Slum. Bloomington: Indiana University Press.

Smith, Anthony D. (2010) Nationalism: Theory, Ideology, History. Cambridge: Polity Press.

Related Topics for Further Investigation

Aghadi women

Babri Masjid

Bal Thackeray

Bombay/Mumbai Riots

Hindu Nationalism

Partition of India

Mughal Empire

Rashtriya Swayamsewak Sangh


Srikrisna Commission


Related Websites


This article was written by: Rasim Music (Spring 2017), who is entirely responsible for its content.

The Marathas (and their social mobility)

Hinduism is composed of a caste, jati, system and class, varna, system (Rodrigues 132). According to Hindu myth, the four main varnas, compromising the brahmin or “priestly” class, the ksatriya or “warrior” class, the vaisya or “commoners” class, and the sudra or “servant” class (Rodrigues 146), originated from the body parts of a mythical deity, Purusa (Macdonell 240). The Brahmins were and continue to be regarded as the purest class in Hindu society, originating from the head of Purusa. The Ksatriya class is said to originate from the torso and arms of Purusa as they are expected to protect people and bear arms. Thirdly, members belonging to Vaisya originated from his legs and lower body. They are responsible for tending to land or cattle and trading goods or money. The Sudra class originated from Purusa’s feet as they were the most impure members of society. Jati means “birth group” and provided Hindus with a more explicit rank or status in society (Macdonell 238). One’s jati refers to their occupation and dictates their dietary habits, ritual allowances, and interactions with members of other castes (Macdonell 231). Members or groups within a caste claim varna status and these claims are dependent upon their states of ritual purity (Rodrigues 83).

Upward mobility and social reform was extremely rare in Hinduism. The caste and class system was very rigid, and ritual purity in pre-colonial India was held in the highest regards. However, one group that achieved upward mobility in the varna system was the people of the Maratha jati. Originally, members of the commoners or servant classes, they were eligible to achieve Ksatriya or warrior status through their military efforts against the Mughal Empire in the late 17th centuries under the rule of the rebellion Shivaji (Deshpande 6).

The Maratha jati was a military caste situated in southern India. The majority of the group was mainly derived from kunbis origin; atribe” or caste that was and continues to be generally associated with the Sudra varna as “peasant cultivators” of the Western region in Maharashtra (Russell 199). The two other “tribes” that constituted the Maratha caste included the dhangar or “shepard” and the coala or “cow-herder” (Russell 201) both of which also claimed Sudra status.  

It is also likely that the Maratha caste is derived from a military origin from various castes throughout Marathashtra. Many of the chief families claim to have rajput origin, a warrior caste located in Northern India. Their name is derived from the word rajaputra meaning “son of gods” (Russell 199). Shivaji, a noble ruler of the Maratha caste in, also claimed rajputs origin as he was the ideal Hindu ruler (Gordon 1). Born somewhere between the years of 1627-1630 C.E. (Abbott 159), Shivaji, has become a glorified icon in Hinduism. He was a Hindu king who instituted the Maratha kingdom and revived the Hindu religion in India (Laine 302).  Shivaji has become popular through the stories and myths about his ability to lead a Maratha uprising and establish a Maratha kingdom in the midst of the era of the Mughal Empire. Thus, the Marathas were agents of the Mughal Empire’s ultimate defeat towards the end of the century.

The military engagement between the Mughal and Maratha Kingdoms began with a feud between the Maratha warrior Shiavji and the Mughal emperor Aurangzeb and ended with the death of Aurangzeb in 1707 along with the fall of his empire (Pearson 221). Their feud was instigated long before the decline of the Mughal kingdom when Aurangzeb constantly invaded the northern Pune district in Marathashtra (Gordon 59). His father, Shahji, gave Shivaji his first position in his career as a jagirdar, owner or lord of a feudal land grant (Laine 302). Shahji was among the army at Bijapur, a region of Muslim power, and became a successful solider under the direction of many Muslim rulers, including Adil Shah (Laine 302). When Shahji died, he sent his son to Pune where he learned to become a central political and military figure, establishing control over much of Maharashtra (Laine 303).

The revival of Hinduism and the start of the social mobility for the Marathas began when Shivaji proclaimed himself as a member of the Ksatriya class. His Vedic coronation in 1674 (Laine 303) was protested by many Maharashtrian Brahmins as they questioned the legitimacy of his lineage in the Hindu culture (Deshpande 6). Despite his grandfather’s, father’s, and half-brother’s Muslim sponsorship, Shivaji became invested in identifying as a Hindu, and later became known for his role as a “defender of dharma” (Laine 306).

Once Shivaji grew older, he became the primary candidate for coordinating the Maratha-Mughal war. The Mughals had captured many of the Maratha forts during their crusade of Maharashtra and, after a period of peace, Shivaji launched several successful attacks in order to retrieve the lost forts (Gordon 79). The most renowned legend of the great Hindu ruler, however, was when he confronted Afzal Khan. Afzal Khan was a Bijapur general for the Muslims who was sent to defeat the Maratha uprising in which Shivaji was credited (Laine 306). They had negotiated a meeting but whilst on his journey to meet Shivaji, Afzal Khan harassed many communities along the way and destroyed idols and buildings, including the temple of the goddess Bhavani (Laine 306). Upon arrival, Afzal Khan attempted to murder Shivaji but was unsuccessful. Instead, Shivaji slew his opponent using a sword given to him by the allied goddess (Bendrey 1143). That sword, to this day, is in an unknown location. Other accounts of the story say that it was a prejudiced attack, stating that Shivaji had prepared for the murder of his opponent, arriving to their arranged meeting with weapons while Afzal Khan did not (Beveridge 184). In either case, it seems safe to say that neither challenger arrived without the idea of defeating the other.

Another great story of Shivaji is told through the Maratha defense against the Mughal invasion at the fort of Simhagad in 1670 (Laine 307). Here, the Marathas under Shivaji’s reign were able to gain control over the fort. In contrast with the Mughal captain Udebhan, who is often portrayed with demonic characteristics of cruelty and lust, Shivaji is portrayed as an “epic hero.” Some, even suggest he is an incarnation of Rama himself (Laine 307), though it does not seem to be widely accepted. He is more often equated with Arjuna or even Bhima (Laine 307), both characters in the Mahabharata epic.

Following Shivaji’s death in 1680 (Pearson 226), Sambhaji took over the Maratha’s military. During his reign, the Mughals were able to conquer the kingdom of Golconda in 1687, an overdue goal Aurangzeb had set for himself (Richards 241). A long battle ensued between the Mughal and Maratha empires at Hyderabad Karnatik, as the Marathas attacked the capital in Kancipuram (Richards 24). However, the Marathas were driven out of Karnatik two months later.  Up until 1690, both the Mughal and Maratha forces suffered military setbacks, and both were equally ineffective at striking against each other during this time. Shambhaji was captured and killed by the Mughals around 1689, leaving his brother, Rajaram, in control (Richards 244). However, the Mughal Empire regained full control over Hyderabad Karnatik, forcing the Marathas to rethink their strategy.

By 1692, Karnatik became the centre of military affairs between the two enemies (Richards 247). The siege of Jinji, a previously Maratha territory, took several years resulting in major losses for the Mughal army (Richards 2). During the intervals of Maratha raids, Aurangzeb’s generals collected whatever revenue they could find since the war was of his main concern (Richards 250). The Marathas, between the years of 1704 to 1707, were ruthless in their warfare against the Mughals as some of their greatest battles and victories occurred during this time (Richards 252). These crusades also concluded the twenty-one year struggle between the two empires. Aurangzeb, unable to defeat the Marathas armies with brawn instead resorted to bribery, paying his enemies in rupees and jagir (Richards 252-253), or land revenue (Pearson 221). The Mughal armies soon grew weak as the empire was unable to support their military due to loss of land and money. As a result of this financial deprivation, Mughal military performance continued to decline which lead to the fall of the Mughal empire and the rise of the Maratha kingdom in Maharashtra in 1707 (Pearson 221).

The Marathas caste, formerly situated under the Sudras varna, came to claim Ksatriya status due to a series of events encompassing Shivaji’s coronation and their military persistence against the Mughal Kingdom in the late 17th century. In present day, Maratha caste members live in deprivation, and some even in poverty, yet they continue to claim aristocratic status (Russell 205). Along with those who claim kunbis origin, the Marathas remain tied to the Ksatriya varna, (Deshpande 5), but they do not possess the resources or methods to conserve it easily. Some have trouble electing peace over warfare and instead produce a shallow and external façade of extravagance and glamour under their upper-class status (Russell 205-206). The Maratha caste prospered during their two to three centuries of constant warfare against Aurangzeb and the Mughal Empire (Russell 205-206). During this time they succeeded in becoming an extremely wealthy and powerful caste – a trademark of their name that Maratha members continue to identify with today.


References and Further Recommended Readings:

Abbott, Justin (1930) “The 300th Anniversary of the Birth of the Maratha King Shivaji.” Journal of the Oriental American Society, Vol. 50: 159-163.

Bendrey, V. S. (1938) “The Bhavani Sword of Shivaji the Great.” Journal of the Royal Society of Arts, Vol. 86, No. 4482: 1142-1144.

Beveridge, H. (1917) Review of Shivajī the Marātha; His Life and Times by H. J. Rawlinson. Journal of the Royal Asiatic Society of Great Britain and Ireland, 183–185.

Deshpande, Prachi (2003) Caste as Maratha: Social Categories, Colonial Policy and Identity in Early Twentieth Century Maharashtra. Colorado: Colorado State University.

Gatson, Anne-Marie (2003) “Dance and Hinduism: A personal exploration.” In Studying Hinduism in Practice. Hillary Rodrigues (ed.). New York: Routledge. pp. 75-86.

Gordon, Stewart (1993) The New Cambridge History of India: The Marathas 1600-1818. New York: Cambridge University Press.

Laine, James (1999) “The dharma of Islam and the din of Hinduism: Hindus and Muslims in the age of Sivaji.” International Journal of Hindu Studies, Vol. 3, No. 3: 299-318.

Macdonell, A.A. (1914) “The Early History of Caste.” The American Historical Review, Vol. 19, No. 2: 230-244.

Pearson, M. N. (1976) “Shivaji and the Decline of the Mughal Empire.” The Journal of Asian Studies, Vol. 35, No. 2: 221-235.

Richards, J. F. (1975) “The Hyderabad Karnatik, 1687-1707.” Modern Asian Studies, Vol. 9, No. 2: 241-260.

Rodrigues, Hillary P. (2003) “Divine times: Goddess worship in Banaras.” In Studying Hinduism in Practice. Hillary Rodrigues (ed.). New York: Routledge. pp. 131-145.

Russell, Robert Vane (1916) The Tribes and Castes of the Central Provinces in India. London: Macmillan and Co.

Sax, William (2003) “A Himalayan exorcism.” In Studying Hinduism in Practice. Hillary Rodrigues (ed.). New York: Routledge. pp. 146-157.


Related Websites:


Related Topics:

Class/Caste System in India

Maharashtra during the late 17th Century







Mughal Empire

Maratha Empire

Afzal Khan

Hyderabad Karnatik






Article written by: Lauryn Zerr (April 2016), who is solely responsible for its content.

Maratha Kingdom Founder: Shivaji Bhosale

Shivaji Bhosale was the founder of the Maratha Kingdom in the 17th century (Vartak 1126). He began as a local chieftain in western India and eventually engaged in hostile relations and battles with the reigning Muslim rulers of India at that time; eventually he established an independent Hindu kingdom in the Deccan (Satar 167). Shivaji was born in April of 1627; his father was named Shahaji and was of the jagidar caste, a middle level gentry (Jasper 2). His mother, Jijabai, was abandoned by her husband during her pregnancy with Shivaji. Shivaji’s family has claims to royal lineages. One of these, King Porus, has been contested as there is a lack of evidence to confirm it (Kincaid 25). The descent through the Ranas of Udaipur, however, is much sounder. The name of Bhosale was said to have been connected to a fief of Bhosavat in Udaipur (Kincaid 25). Once out of this territory, the Bhosales came to the Maharashtra region, where they hired out as mercenaries to Mussulman princes (Kincaid 26). At the time of his birth, all of India was under Muslim rule and to gain support from the local population personal favors and mercenary gains were offered (Ahluwalia 141). Hindus were persecuted for their religion and many temples and sacred sites were destroyed or badly vandalized; the building of temples was completely forbidden (Ahluwalia 141). Throughout Shivaji’s childhood, he developed a close relationship with his mother. She was a motivating factor for him in his fight against the Muslims (Rai 59).

Debate arises regarding Shivaji’s education, with some claiming he was illiterate and others that he was quite educated and had knowledge of Persian, Urdu and Sanskrit languages (Rai 62). However, Shivaji’s earliest experiences of education and learning came from his mother, Jijabai. She was said to be a woman of great courage and earnestness and these qualities were passed onto Shivaji (Takakhav 70). Shivaji, historical records indicate, possessed both charisma and immense courage (Satar 167). In 1637 Dadaji Kondadev came to be in charge of Shivaji’s official education: an education that centered on military training, intellectual discipline, and even finance (Takakhav 76). It was said that Dadaji had such a strict sense of self that he nearly had his own arm cut off when he realized that he had unconsciously taken a mango belonging to his master (Rai 65). It is believed that the great Hindu epics, the Ramayana and the Mahabharata, had a profound effect upon Shivaji’s mind and motivations (Rai 64). A document dating to 1645 was found bearing the seal of Shivaji, and within in it was the clear desire for founding an independent Hindu state (Kulkarni 20). This is what scholars attribute to evidence that Shivaji was attempting to develop swaraj, meaning self-government (Kulkarni 24). All the actions carried out by him were to further this goal.

Depiction of Shivaji Bhonsle in Brhadesvara Temple in Thanjavur
Depiction of Shivaji Bhonsle in Brhadesvara Temple in Thanjavur

When Shivaji finally embarked upon his journey to overthrow the Muslim rulers they were at the height of their power and the country was in an ideal state for the introduction of a new era (Rai 72). The political career of Shivaji began with the acquirement of Poona Jagir from his father (Kulkarni 20). Shivaji began preparations for the realization of his goal by inspecting his new holdings of Jagir and creating a group of loyal supporters and friends (Takakhav 91). The recipients of Shivaji’s initial aggression would be the Adilshahi Sultanate of the Bijapur government. The fort of Torna was taken by Shivaji in 1646 after he convinced the governor to allow him through the gates (Rai 75). This victory was enhanced by the treasure that was found hidden in the fort. With this treasure he persuaded the ministers of Bijapur to join his cause and he also acquired a great deal of weapons (Rai 76). The fort of Purandar was also taken and would prove to be essential in the establishment of Shivaji’s empire (Rai 78). Through the acquisition of these strategically important forts, Shivaji brought under his rule the entire territory of Chakan to the Nira (Takakhav 105). At this point in time Shivaji was also the ruler of the southern Konkan. A woman was sent to Shivaji by one of his followers and she was the daughter of Mulana Ahmed, ruler of the northern Konkan. Rather than keep her, Shivaji reportedly cited the story of Ravana from the Ramayana and the perils of being brought low through other people’s women and she was sent back to her family (Rai 80).

Eventually, Shivaji became too much of a threat and the Empire decided to put a stop to his rebellious actions. The queen mother, Bari Sahiba, gave the order to have Shivaji destroyed by force (Rai 96). There were none within her court that were willing to offer their service to this task, as Shivaji’s exploits up until this time led the men to hesitate engaging in an encounter with him (Takakhav 151). However there was one among them who volunteered for the chance to be a hero. The man to take up this task was named Afzal Khan. Khan worked in the royal kitchen and was said to have had been of great stature and power (Rai 96). The plan was to befriend Shivaji by giving him false hope for the possibility of a Sultan’s pardon (Takakhav 152). However, Shivaji had scouts in the area who alerted him to the true intentions of Afzal Khan and that he had an entire army with him (Takakhav 153). The actual encounter between the two men has been variously described. Some have said that they traded insults regarding one another’s ancestry, others that there were no such words but that each man was prepared for deceit by the other (Rai 101). The end result being that Afzal was killed and had his head removed. Shivaji then retaliated with a quick assault on the fort of Pratapgad and thousands of Bijapuri soldiers were killed (Rai 102). When this news reached the Sultan and queen mother, they were shocked and mourned the loss of Afzal Khan and the many troops; after which the capital city was on alert for any possibility that Shivaji may try to enter the city (Takakhav 177).

Following the death of Afzal Khan, Shivaji took action against a number of forts under control by the Bijapur government; this would lead to a final confrontation between the two. The Sultan led his own army out on a campaign to wrest control back from Shivaji as well as to destroy him (Takakhav197). Shivaji knew that he could not face the Sultan with the full force of the latter’s army so he intended to let the Sultan wear his army down through the recapturing of smaller forts. When the royal army was lesser in strength, then Shivaji intended to push them back once and for all (Takakhav 194). Eventually the chief vizier of the Bijapur court entered into negotiations with Shivaji, the result of this being a treaty that allowed him to keep all of the conquests he had previously made under his control (Takakhav 202). The exhaustion of the Sultan’s military left him no choice but to accept these conditions as well as recognizing an independent Maratha state, paying tribute to Shivaji, and entering into a defensive alliance with him (Takakhav 202).

The Mughal Empire had been pushed into the Deccan territory after the collapse of the Nizam Shahi dynasty and as a result, they had hostile encounters with Shivaji as well (Laine 25). A Mughal nobleman by the name of Shaista Khan was sent by the Mughal ruler, Aurangzib, to put a stop to Shivaji, just like Afzal Khan four years prior. Shaista Khan, however, did not lose his life. He was instead sent away in disgrace to Bengal after Shivaji found him cowering amongst the women of his harem (Laine 25). After this encounter, in 1664, Shivaji led an attack on the port city of Surat. Based on the value of goods that were traveling in and out of Surat, the city was of considerable economic importance to the Mughal Empire (Pearson 227). Surat also had significant religious importance for Muslims, as it was the port by which ships left for the Red Sea, carrying pilgrims to Mecca to perform the hajj (Pearson 228). The city was sacked and neither the Viceroy nor the officials did anything to prevent its occurrence, despite the fact that they outnumbered Shivaji’s troops 2 to 1 (Pearson 228). It was estimated that ten million rupees were plundered by Shivaji and his men. The significance of this attack laid in the fact that Shivaji was not immediately punished for his actions by the empire; he was the first rebel in Mughal controlled India to accomplish this (Pearson 228). This, combined with the ineffectiveness of the city’s officials at defending the city, had a negative impact upon Mughal prestige (Pearson 228). Aurangzib was forced to respond to these threats and General Jai Singh was sent to curb Shivaji in 1665. The result was a partial defeat of Shivaji and the creation of the treaty of Purandar, in which a significant amount of Shivaji’s forts and revenue were ceded to the Mughals (Pearson 229). Due to political restraints, Aurangzib was unable to offer a solution that would allow Shivaji to maintain freedom of action in the Deccan (Pearson 229). On May 12 1966 Shivaji was arrested by the Mughal government while in Agra at the request of Aurangzib; apparently, he had been offended when placed behind mansabdars at the court (Pearson 230). His escape a few months later in July was seen as nullifying the empire’s partial victory over Shivaji after the Surat attack and once again accelerated the decline of the Mughal Empire (Pearson 230). By the year 1667, Shivaji had developed a good diplomatic relationship with the Viceroy of the Deccan and a peace existed between the two until 1670 when hostilities once again began. The battle at the fort of Kondana is one of the most well-known. The fort was not taken personally by Shivaji, but by an old comrade of his: Tanaji. Twelve thousand men accompanied Tanaji to the fort, but only fifty were able to enter after the ropes used for climbing the walls broke. Tanaji was killed inside by Ude Bhan. Nevertheless, this small group of men was able to overpower the fort and let the remaining twelve thousand men inside the gates. Shivaji’s banner was hung and canons fired to make him aware of their victory (Rai 158). It was the battle of Salheri in 1672 that was the most decisive and indicative of victory over the Mughals that the Marathas had had (Takakhav 329). Many of the Muslim prisoners taken during this battle even decided to stay with Shivaji once they were healed, swearing allegiance to him (Takakhav 330).

In 1674 at Rajgarh, Shivaji became king after crowning himself (Chandra 325). He effectively became the most powerful of the Maratha chiefs and, to strengthen his place within the social structure, he married into many prominent families (Chandra 124). By some he was still viewed as an upstart and so a special ceremony took place and there a priest officially declared Shivaji to be a high class kshatriya (Chandra 125). Shivaji’s administration showed a high level of organization. The country was effectively divided into different levels of administration with officers in charge of land revenues within his said boundary (Rai 216). This land revenue involved surveying of the territory, maintaining proper land records and assessing the fertility of the soil (Rai 216). Local panchaytas were in charge of administering justice and, for the most part, maintained local autonomy, although anyone dissatisfied with a judgment could make an appeal to the king (Rai 218). The Vedas received a revival under Shivaji and an institution of Hindu learning and patronage was emphasized. There was also attention paid to the needs of other religions: Islam’s holy shrines received subsistence and grants from the Maratha government (Rai 219). Much of his work in the Maratha state continued to be opposed by fellow Maratha nobles (Chittins 79). By the time of Shivaji’s death in 1680 he controlled an area of 50,000 square miles of the Indian subcontinent (Pearson 227). There were complications in regards to Shivaji’s legitimate successor, with his sons and brothers vying for the position, but once they were settled, his principality became the key foundation for a confederacy that eventually came to challenge even the British Empire (Satar 167).

In the years following the death of Shivaji, especially in the 18th century, he came to be regarded as the ideal Hindu leader, perhaps a divine figure influenced by Bhawani, the goddess of good deeds (Burman 1228). Comparisons were even made with Arjuna, the hero of the Mahabharata, whose exploits and encounters were legend (Satar 168). Especially throughout the 19th and 20th centuries, Shivaji became a motivating symbol for the formation of Hindu identities and nationalism (Vartak 1126). He was the mold in which resistance and resurgence could be represented (Vartak 1132). The influence of Shivaji was especially evident in the resistance against Muslim domination and the emancipation of India from the British (Burman 1228). Bal Gangadhar Tilak was the leader of the Extremist party and he is responsible for reviving Shivaji’s memory as an object of inspiration and motivation for all Hindus (Aluwalia 15). This led to the establishment of a Shivaji festival, which was used to promote a sense of nationalism and patriotism against the greatest nation in the world at that time, the British (Aluwalia 15). The legacy left by Shivaji can be felt even today in India, 400 years since he ruled. He is especially relevant in Maharashtra where he is considered the most important of heroes and the founder of an exclusive Marathi identity (Satar 167). His image is used in political realms by the Shiv Sena party, where it has become their cultural territory for representing Maharashtrian propaganda (Vartak 1133). A quote by Jawaharlal Nehru can best sum up Shivaji’s influence and relevance in India, “Shivaji did not belong only to Maharashtra; he belonged to the whole Indian nation….Shri Shivaji is a symbol of many virtues, especially love of country,” (Laine 7).


References and Further Recommended Reading

Ahluwalia, B.K., Ahluwalia, Shashi (1984) Shivaji and Indian Nationalism. New Delhi: Cultural Publishing House.

Burman, Roy J.J (2001) “Shivaji’s Myth and Maharashtra’s Syncretic Traditions.” Economic and Political Weekly, Vol. 36, No. 14/15 (April): 1226-1234.

Chandra, Satish (1999) Medieval Indian: From Sultanate to the Mughals. New Delhi: Har-Anand Publications PVT LTD.

Chitins, K.N. (2003) Medieval Indian History. New Delhi: Atlantic Publishers and Distributors.

Jasper, Daniel (2003) “Commemorating the Golden Age of Shivaji in Maharashtra.” Journal of Political and Military Sociology, Vol. 31, No. 2 (December): 215-230.

Kincaid, David (1986) Shivaji: Founder of the Maratha Empire. New Delhi: Discovery Publishing House.

Kulkarni, A.R. (1969) Maharashtra in the Age of Shivaji. Budhawar Poona: R.J. Deshmukh Deshmukh & Co.

Laine, James (2003) Shivaji: Hindu King in Islamic India. New York: Oxford University Press.

Pearson, M.N (1976) “Shivaji and the Decline of the Mughal Empire.” The Journal of Asian Studies, Vol. 35, No. 2 (February): 221-235.

Rai, Lala Lajpat (1980) Shivaji: The Great Patriot. New Delhi: Metropolitan Book Co. Pvt. Ltd.

Satar, Arshia (2006) Rev. of Shivaji: Hindu King in Islamic India, by James Laine. History of Religions, Vol. 46, No. 2 (November): 167-169.

Takakhav, N.S. (1985) Life of Shivaji. New Delhi: Sunita Publications.

Vartak, Malavika (1999) “Shivaji Maharaj: Growth of a Symbol.” Economic and Political Weekly, Vol. 34, No. 19 (May): 1126-1134.

Related Websites


Related Topics



Mughal Empire

Indian Nationalism


Jagidar Caste

Marathi Identity




Shiv Sena Political Party

[Article written entirely by: Jessica Nish (April 2013) who is solely responsible for its content.]

The Chandella Dynasty

The Chandella Dynasty began in the first quarter of the 9th century C.E..  They controlled an area known as Jejakabhukti, the capital city of which is believed to be Khajuraho.  Khajuraho is well known for its extravagant temples and buildings erected during the reign of the Chandellas.  The Chandellas were of the Ksatriya class but their origin is greatly debated.  Legend says that they descended from Hemavati’s union with the moon (Dikshit 3).  It is thought that the legend is used to explain the questionable status of the Chandellas.  Historians believe that they originated from aboriginal tribes such as the Gonds, Gahawars and the Bhars (Bose 8).  There is no way to come to a definite conclusion but theory supports an ancestry of the Bhars, because of similar traditions, especially evident in their buildings (Bose 9).

Texts found tell us that the founder of the dynasty is known as Nannuka or Candravarman.  The small community that he created for the Pratiharas was gradually expanded with each generation (Prakash 4).  The dynasty was maintained by Nannuka’s descendents for almost a century until Harsadeva.  Harsa reigned from around 905 until 925 C.E., and in this time he contributed to many great changes that occurred in Northern India.  By assisting in a dispute between two very influential brothers, Harsa increased the power of the Chandella name in India.  Harsa’s grandson Dhanga, who reigned from about 950 to 1008 C.E., continued to expand the Chandella territory.  He also cut off ties with the Pratiharas, of whom the Chandellas had previously been vassals.   According to many inscriptions, Dhanga was a very powerful leader and had control over many other kings.  Although there are minimal records of his reign, Dhanga’s grandson Vidyahara is portrayed by Muslim historians as incredibly powerful.  The most important changes in central to north-western India in the early 11th century are attributed to him (Bose 22-51).  Vidyahara’s son, of whom we can only speculate, is thought to be credited with the decline of the Chandellas (Bose 68).  The decline continues until Kirtivarman’s reign from approximately 1060 to 1100 A.D..  There is a story in which Visnu is incarnated into Gopala to help Kirtivarman revive the dynasty (Bose 74).  Kirtivarman’s revival lasted until the reign of Jatavarman from 1115 to 1120 A.D. when it began to collapse again.  Decline and wars continued until around 1308 when the dynasty collapsed.  Some of their land was retained and the Chandella name is still around today as in central India (Bose 115).

Chandella society appears to have been separated into four different classes or varnas, the Brahmanas, Ksatriya, Vaisya, and Sudras.  Those in the Brahmana varna were responsible for religious studies and were often used as ministers and counsellors to the rulers (Bose 151, Mitra 169).  Brahmanas often counselled for their benefit, both to enjoy many privileges of the high class and to maintain their foothold of power.  The Ksatriya varna is seldom mentioned, but it was known to exist.  It appears as though maintaining class divisions declined in importance during this time and gave way to the prominence of Kula, or family.  More mention is made of highly regarded family names than of the specific classes they belonged to (Bose 152).  Little evidence of the lower classes is known, which implies that, like Kula, individuals put more emphasis on their profession rather than class (Bose 154).

Temple at Khajuraho (Chandella Dynasty)

Religious views varied largely.  There are temples found in Khajuraho constructed for different deities ranging from Hanuman, Nanda and Ganesh to Siva, Visnu, and Sakti.  Siva appears to have accumulated the greatest number of worshippers. Sakti, the Great, Supreme or Mother Goddess seems to have been as popular as Siva. She is often seen as Siva’s consort as well as having many different and names (Prakash 137).  Visnu was the next most popular deity of the time.  All ten of his incarnations are present but not all were equally regarded (Prakash 139).  Some evidence of Jainism and Buddhism has also been found.  Buddhism seems to have had a small following but was dying out (Prakash 142).  Small images have been found but nothing of great significance.  Jains had a much larger following and a substantial number of temples were present in Khajuraho (Prakash 141).  Religious tolerance would have been very important during this time and in these areas because of so many different beliefs.  This is apparent in the occurrence of Brahmanical deities in Jaina temples as well as in temples of different deities (Prakash 144).


Dikshit, R.K.(1977) Candellas of Jejakabhukti. New Delhi: Abhinav Publications.

Bose, Nemai Sadhan (1956) History of the Candellas of Jejakabhukti. Calcutta: K.L. Mukhopadhyay Publishers and Booksellers.

Prakash, Vidya (1967) Khajuraho: A Study in the Cultural Conditions of Chandella Society. Bombay: Taraporevala’s Treasure House of Books.

Mitra, Sisir Kumar (1958) The Early Rulers of Khajuraho. Calcutta: Firma K.L. Mukhopadhyay.

Article written by: Cassandra Howard (April 2010) who is solely responsible for its content.

The Kushan/Kushana Dynasty

A Chinese nomadic tribe known as the Yuzhi founded the Kushan Dynasty. The Kushan Dynasty lasted from approximately 20-225 AD (Smith: 248). The Yuzhis have many variations for their name, which includes Yueh-chih and Yueh-chi and they lived on the northern steppe of agricultural China (Liu: 264). Some of the Yuzhi were farmers but most were known as traders. They often were involved in the long distance trading of jade and horses to the rulers of agricultural China (Liu: 286). The Yuzhi were one of the stronger tribes in China but did, however, live near an extremely aggressive nomadic tribe called the Xiongue (Liu: 265). According to the Shih-chi text, the Yuzhi people took their Xiongue neighbors lightly thinking they were non-threatening. The consequences of this carelessness was devastating to the Yuzhi as the Xiongue attacked and overthrew the Yuzhi, and proceeded to kill the Yuzhi king making a drinking vessel out of his skull (Pulleyblank: 154). The date of this event is disputed but it can be placed at around 200-100 BCE (Christian: 201). As a result of this defeat, the Yuzhi were forced to migrate westward in search of fresh pastures (Smith: 248).

The Yuzhi migration was one of mass proportions. Some scholars believe that their migration of people comprised of one to two hundred bowmen and the group at large ranged from half a million to a million people of all ages and genders (Smith 1999: 248). In their westward search for adequate agricultural land the Yuzhi encountered numerous hostile groups. The first of these groups, the Wu-san, were located along the basins of the Ili River (Smith 1999: 248). It is believed by some historians that the Yuzhi slew the Wu-san chief and continued westward (Smith 1999: 249). A small group of Yuzhi, known as the Little-Yuzhi, separated from the main group, the Great Yuzhi (Smith 1999: 249). Some scholars believe that the Little-Yuzhi settled in the Turfan region (Christian 1998: 211). The Great Yuzhi continued traveling westward and met another group, the Sakas. This group, who had a larger number of individuals then the Wu-san, and also tried to defend themselves but fell to the mass fighting force of Yuzhi. The Yuzhi then settled in the prosperous agricultural region occupied by the Sakas (Smith 1999: 249).

The Yuzhi remained in this agricultural region for fifteen to twenty years (Smith: 249). The Yuzhi’s ancient enemy, the Xiongue, along with the son of the slain Wu-san chief, who the Xiongue had protected and raised, forced the Yuzhi further westward (140 BCE) (Smith: 250). The Yuzhi continued their march westward and settled in the valley, Oxus where they conquered the Ta-hai who had lived there (Smith: 250). Over one or more generations, the Yuzhi lost their nomadic habits and settled down to become a territorial nation, occupying the land to the north and Bactria lands to the south (Smith: 250). Over the course of this time, the Yuzhi formed five distinct tribes, or yabghus (Christian: 211). Some scholars believe that not all five of these tribes were Yuzhi, but had leaders that were appointed by the Yuzhi, in order to maintain control in these regions. This was the case as this specific structure of government was not present until the Yuzhi settled in the Bactria (Yu: 72). This system of government lasted somewhere between 15-50 CE where the leader of the main yabhus, Kujula Kadphises or Kadphises I, defeated the four tribes and set a unified empire in Bactria (Christian: 212). This event marks the beginning of the Kushan Dynasty.

The Kushans under the power of Khadphises I, began to expand their empire. Khadphises I began by attacking the Parthians, a group from what is now northern Iran, and his empire expanded from the frontiers of Indus to Persia. Khadphises also attacked and suppressed the Indo-Greeks, an expansion of ancient Greece, and both the Greeks, and Parthians, to the west of Indus, were expelled (Smith: 252). At the age of 80, Khadphises I, died and his reign was given to his son. Vima Takto, known as Khadphises II, began his reign around 45 CE (Christian: 212). Khadphises II began his reign by continuing to do his father’s work, expanding the Empire. He first conquered northern India (Christian: 213). Which was extremely important for the Kushan dynasty, as it gave the Kushans control of an important branch of the Silk roads that led along the Indus valley and gave the Kushans the port of Barygaza, where ships could sail to Egypt, bypassing Parthia (Christian: 213).

Khadphises (Kushana emperor)

The Kushan began trading with the Romans using this route around 100 CE (Christian: 213). The Kushans traded precious items such silks, spices, gems and dyestuffs in return for Roman gold coins. Roman coins were used along this route and Khadphises imitated Roman coinage by making his own coins with his own depiction on them (Christian: 213).
The successor that ruled after Khadphises II was Kaniska, and his reign started around 78CE (Smith: 252). While some scholars believe that Kaniska was the son of Khadphises II, others believe that he was just a relative (Christian: 213 & Smith: 258). The Kushan dynasty was at the peak of its power during the ruling of Kaniska (Christian: 213). Kaniska, like his predecessors, continued to expand the empire. His expansion continued into of regions that include modern Tajikisan, parts of Turkmenistan, Kyrgystan, Afghanistan, Pakistan, and north and east parts of India. Kaniska also moved the capital of the empire from Bactra to Purushapura (Christian: 213). The new capital was a guarded city, situated along the main road from the Afghan to the Indian plains (Smith: 261). Later on Kaniska moved the capital city again, to Mathura on the river Yamuna.

Kaniska (Kanishka), Kushana Emperor

As Kaniska aged he became a devote Buddhist and during his reign, Kaniska erected an enormous relic (Smith: 261). The relic was believe to be carved out of wood and reached approximately 400ft high and was surrounded by an iron pinnacle (Smith: 261). This relic was burned down three times and was repaired after each time and stood until about the 8 century (Smith: 262). Kaniska also built a great monastery next to this relic. The monastery served as a flourishing place for Buddhist education (Smith: 262).

The next two successors of Kaniska were Husvishka and Vasudeva I. Along with Kaniska; these three rulers are generally regarded as the ‘Great Kushans’ (Christian: 213). Their power can be credited to ruling during a time when Parthian power was declining (Christian: 213). The Kushan dynasty ended around the end of the third century with Vasudeva I being the last king.

All of the kings of the Kushan Dynasty had a major role of shaping the political, social and religious aspects their empire. The Kushans were known for taking ideas from different cultures and incorporating them into their own. The Kushan pantheon included Irianian, Greco-Bactrian and local deities along with Buddhist gods and influences from Jainism and Vaisnavism (Christian: 213). Kaniska as indicated was an avid Buddhist and had set up the fourth and final Buddhist Councils (Hunter: 175). His council compromised of five hundred monks that made commentaries on the Buddhist faith (Hunter: 175). The council produced many works; one of such is the Mahavibhasha (Smith: 268). Kaniska devoted hours of his time under the guidance of a monk to studying Buddhist texts (Smith: 267). The Kaniska Council at one point made Buddhism the state religion (Hunter: 148). Some scholars believe that the Kushan kings adopted Buddhism because the kings believed that Buddhist propaganda and the patronage would help in political and religious areas. The Kushan rulers gave themselves the title of ‘Son of God’ or ‘Son of Heaven’ in order to solidify their legitimacy. The divine rulers made use of imagery in order to attempt to assimilate all of the different cultures into one distinct society (Aldrovandi: 307).

The population structure of the Kushan was quite diverse; it ranged from small villages and towns, to cities and mountain communities (Christian: 216). The land in the small villages and towns was owned mostly by the elites, while city land was mostly owned by merchants (Christian: 216).

The Kushan Empire was successful for many reasons including such things as achieving political stability over a wide area, creating vast trade networks, and royal support of irrigation (Christian: 217). Agriculture that needed irrigation was the main income system of the Kushan Empire (Christian: 217). One large scale irrigation network that was created was the Khorezm system. Scholars believe that this system needed approximately 15 000 laborers to complete the work and some 6000 -7000 laborers to maintain the system. Cereals, cotton, fruits and poppies were the different types of crops that grew using the water from this system (Christian: 217). The population grew substantially in the Kushan Dynasty because of its large amounts of agriculture and trading (Christian: 217).

The Kushans played an important role in the spread of Buddhism to Parthia, Central Asia and in China (Christian: 215). The first Buddhist texts to reach China were given by the Yuzhi as a gift (Christian: 215). This form of Buddhism that spread out of the Kushan Dynasty was not the same as the Buddhism preached by the Buddha. The Kushan Dynasty Buddhism was influenced by other religions including Hellenism and went through centuries of social and economic change before it was expanded (Liu: 284). The spreading of Buddhism is correlated to the vast amount of goods and ideas that constantly traveled along the trading routes of the Silk roads (Christian: 284).

The role that the Kushans had in trading with other nations had a huge effect on formulating the culture in the Kushan Empire. The Yuzhi were known for being great traders in their former land of China, where they constantly were trading their resources, which included such things as jade and horses (Liu: 285). According to Sima Quin, an ancient historian, the Yuzhi may be considered as the people that initiated the trading along the Silk Roads. He also adds that the Yuzhi started the horse for silk transactions, and thus gave fame to the Chinese silk products (Liu: 278). Perhaps another important legacy of the Kushan Dynasty is the expansion of the Buddhist religion in central Asia. The Kushans also affected Hinduism negatively in their empire as another religion, Buddhism, was spread and became the state religion.


Aldrovandi, Cibele (2005) Buddhism, Pax Kushava and Greco-Toman motifs: pattern and purpose in Gandharan iconography. Sao Paulo: Antiquity

Christian, David (1998) A History of Russia, Central Asia and Mongolia. Malden: Blackwell Publishing Ltd.

Hunter, William (1886) The imperial gazetteer of India, Volume 6. New York: Trübner & co.

Liu, Xinru (2001) Migration and settlement of Yuezhi-Kushan: Interaction and Interdepence of Nomadic and Sedentary Societies. University of Hawaii Press.

Pulleyblank, Edwin (1970) The Wu-san and Sakas and the Yeuh-chih  Migration. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Smith, Vincent (1999) The Early History of India. New Delhi: Atlantic Publishers and Distributers.

Yu, Taishan (1998) A study of Saka history. Philidelphia: University of Pennsylvania.






Related Topics for Further Investigation

4 Buddhist Councils



Silk Roads


The Mahavibhasha











Central Asia



Noteworthy Websites Related to the Topic

Article written by: Ryan Honish (March 2010) who is solely responsible for its content.

King Harsa

King Harsa also known as Harsa Vardhan was born in 590 CE and was an Indian emperor who ruled Northern India over the span of fifty seven years. He was born the second son to Prabhakar Vardhan. His elder brother, Rajya Vardhan, was the king of Thanesar and his younger sister was named Rajya Sri (Panikkar 10). He was born into a royal family classified as the Rajput clan. At the height of his power he managed to build an empire that rivaled the empire of the Guptas (Kulke & Rothermund 109). At the end of his reign Harsa’s kingdom included the Punjab, Bengal and Orissa and stretched from the Himalayas to the banks of the Narmada River (Kulke et al. 109). After the collapse of the Gupta Empire near the beginning of the sixth century C.E., a new imperial dynasty was not established in North India but small republics and small monarchical states sprung up instead (Panikkar 2). His reign seemed to mark a transition from the ancient to the medieval period, when decentralized regional empires continually struggled for hegemony (Kulke et al., 109). Harsa united the small republics from Punjab to Central India, and they, at an assembly, crowned Harsa king in April 606 AD when he was merely 16 years old.

Of all the ancient Indian kings, King Harsa of Kanauj who ruled from 606 to 647 is the most documented in history (Lorenzen 212). This documentation about the life and times of king Harsa is thanks in large part to Bana, a poet and great Sanskrit writer, who wrote the famous biography, Harshacharita, and also, the Chinese pilgrim Xuanzang, who wrote about India during Harsa’s reign (Kulke et at. 110).

Prabhakar Vardhan became ill and died while Harsa’s brother, Rajya Vardhan was in battle. Prabhakar’s queen, Yasovati, wished to die on the funeral pyre of her husband and Harsa took over the administration of the kingdom until his brother returned (Panikkar 12). Rajya Vardhan returned victorious only to find that he must fight another battle. Rajya Sri, the sister of Rajya Vardhan and Harsa, was married to Grahavarman or Graha Varman. The king, Graha Varman Mukhari, had been overthrown and viciously murdered by King Deva Gupta of Malwa. After killing the king of Mukhari, the king of Malwa threw Rajya Sri into prison (Panikkar 17). Harsa’s brother, Rajya Vardhan, then the king of Thanesar, was enraged by this assault on his family. He launched a military attack on the Malwa king and won the battle. However, Sasanka, king of Gauda in Bengal, who was really in secret alliance with the Malwa king, enticed Rajya Vardhan by false civilities and then treacherously murdered him (Panikkar 18).

Upon the murder Harsa’s brother, Rajya Vardhan, Harsa was immediately declared king and took the throne at the young age of 16. However, it is documented by Bana and Xuanzang that at first Harsa was hesitant to take the throne but after some persuasion he did accept the Crown (Panikkar, 14).Despite Harsa’s age when he came to power, he proved himself to be a powerful yet gracious king. After his appointment as king, Harsa joined the kingdom of Thanesar with the kingdom of Kanauj and moved the capital from Thanesar to Kanauj (Schmidt 28).

After learning about the murder of his brother, Harsa was determined to wage war on the double-crossing king of Gauda and killed King Deva Gupta of Malwa in battle (Sen 253). Harsa defeated Sasanka, the ruler of Bengal, but was unable to kill him. Harsa allowed the king of Gauda, Sasanka, to rule his state as a vassal initially; however, Sasanka revolted but it was only the death of Sasanka that resulted in his land being shared between Harsa and his friend Bhaskara (Panikkar 17). After receiving half of Sasanka’s land, Harsa now had the whole of Northern India under his rule. However, the whole of Northern India did not satisfy Harsa (Panikkar 22).

Harsa led an army into the Deccan and Southern India pursuing his ambition of extending his power but he was stopped by Pulakeshi II, the Chalukya king of Vatapi in Northern Karnataka (Panikkar 22). Pulakeshi defeated Harsa’s army on the banks of the river Narmada in 636 AD. This battle was the most impressive demonstration of maneuvers utilizing elephant warfare because both Harsa and Pulakeshi had huge elephant corps at their disposal (Sen 256). A truce was established and Harsa decided to retreat back to Kanauj. The end result was that the river Narmada was marked as the southern boundary of Harsa’s kingdom. He brought Bengal, Bihar and Orissa under his control. His last military campaign resulted in the successful conquer of Dhruva Sena and Ganjam, a part of the modern Orissa state (Schmidt 28). After this monumental achievement Harsa stopped fighting and engaged in a more peaceful lifestyle.

It was during this time that Harsa’s faith shifted from Hinduism to Buddhism. Harsa was an open minded ruler and supported many faiths including Buddhism, Hinduism and Jainism. “The generous vagueness of Hindu religion allowed room for every sort of opinion and hence dogmatic intolerance and sectarian persecution never very much disgraced Hindu history” (Panikkar 34-35). Harsa’s ancestors including his father, Prabhakar worshipped Aditya and other Hindu deities. In his earlier days Harsa was a devout worshipper of Siva (Sen 259). However, according to Bana, in his later years Harsa himself was a Buddhist. Although he followed Buddhism Harsa never gave up his Hindu faith (Panikkar 35). The Buddhists rank Harsa as one of the great Buddhist rulers of India. “The high standard of classical Sanskrit culture at his court and the generous patronage bestowed on Hindu and Buddhist religious institutions alike seemed to show that the glory of the Gupta age had been revived once more” (Kulke et al. 109-110).

Harsa was reportedly a very charitable king. It seems that Harsa donated the accrued wealth of his kingdom every four years to his subjects as well as making numerous endowments to the University of Nalanda (Panikkar 35). All of the charitable donations made by king Harsa to the University of Nalanda lead to the erection of a huge wall that surrounded the entire university campus in order to create a defense against possible attacks. Harsa also built a large number of temples, monasteries, and other houses of religious worship (Panikkar 36). According to the Chinese Pilgrim Xuanzang Harsa also built numerous stupas in the name of Buddha.

In 641, following Xuanzang’s visit, Harsa was at the height of his political power and sent a mission to China which established the first diplomatic relations between China and India (Sen 261. The Chinese reciprocated by sending a diplomatic representative of their own whose trip is written about in inscriptions at modern Rajgir. These were the first of a total of six missions exchanged, three from each side, over the course of eight years (Sen 261).

“Harsa had a literary and artistic talent and was also a patron of learning” (Sen 260). He created three Sanskrit dramas, Nagananda, Ratnavali and Priyadarsika as well as a grammar and some poetry. Nagananda was a Buddhist drama. Ratnavali and Priyadarsika are plays that are illustrative of the court life of the time in which the blessings of Siva, Visnu and Indra are called upon (Sen 260). They are classed among minor classics of India. Harsa also had a great respect for other scholars and men of great intellect, so much so that he spent a quarter of the revenues from his kingdom on rewarding these men (Sen 261).

Harsa died in the year 647 after ruling Northern India for 57 years. Harsa is thought to have been unmarried and after Harsa’s death, not having any heirs, his empire died with him. The large kingdom very quickly broke up into smaller kingdoms. The years after Harsa’s death are very blurry in the history books, but it marks the conclusion of a period that began with fall of the great Gupta Empire.


Kulke, Hermann & Rothermund, Dietmar (1986) History of India Fourth Edition. London: Croom Helm.

Lorenzen, David N. (1993) History and historiography of the age of Harsha. The Journal of the American Oriental Society, xiv-212.

Panikkar, Kavalam M. (1922) Sri Harsha of Kanauj: A Monograph on the History of India in the First Half of the 7th Century A.D. Bombay: Messrs. D.B. Taraporevala Sons & Co.

Schmidt, Karl J. (1995) An Atlas and Survey of South Asian History. Armonk, New York: M.E. Sharpe.

Sen, Sailendra N. (1999) Ancient Indian History and Civilization. New Delhi: New Age International.

Related Topics for Further Investigation


Rajya Vardhan

Rajya Sri





Graha Varman


Deva Gupta






Dhruva Sena






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Article written by: Stacey Platt (March 2009) who is solely responsible for its content.

The Pallava Dynasty

The Pallava Dynasty has a history enveloped in debate due to the lack of reputable records on the subject. Although the timeline for when the Pallavas took power remains speculative, most scholars place the time of Pallava influence from the 4th to the 9th century C.E. Much of what is known was documented by the celebrated Chinese pilgrim Xuan Zang who traveled to the capital city of the Pallavas, Kancipuram, around 642 C.E. and stayed there for some time (Tripathi 449). Xuan Zang commented on everything from the landscape, to the character of the people. The main epigraphic source of information about this people was found on approximately 30 copper-plate grants and about 200 stone inscriptions that were mostly found in temples in the Tamil and Telugu country (Minakshi 1).

The Pallavas trace their descent back to Drona (Minakshi 35). [Drona was the military leader of the Pandavas as mentioned in the Mahabharata]. This myth however is not widely accepted by scholars. There are differing schools of thought on the origin of the Pallavas. The theory of Parthian origin depicts the Pandavas as a northern nomad tribe that came to India from Persia; they were unable to settle in northern India so they continued south until they reached Kanchipuram. Another school of thought places the Pallavas as the Tamils of south India (Minakshi 4-5). The former explanation of origin is more widely accepted. The first Pallavas were not kings; they were new to that country. One of them married the daughter of a local king and thereby became a king himself, the first king of the Pallavas (Dubreuil 23).

The Pallavas were not a colonizing people but a ruling caste, and they maintained themselves by military power and the subjugation of the native people (Schoff 210). The Pallankovil Plates [of the 30 copper plates] explained that the Pallavas were originally Brahmins that later adopted the profession of arms and became Brahma Ksatriyas. Drona, their mythological ancestor, also was a Brahmin who became a warrior (Minakshi 35).

The government of the Pallavas was largely one of hereditary kingship; however, there was found on the constitutional document of the Vaikunthaperumal temple, the details of an election after the death of Paramesvaravarman II (c. 731), during this time the kingdom was subject to anarchy, assumedly because the dead king had no heir (Minakshi 46-47). The copper-plates elaborately relate the idea of the divine origin of the Pallava family and the line of rulers is traced back to Brahma (Minakshi 48).

Under the rule of the Pallavas, village life was remarkably ordered. All four castes were represented in the villages. The Brahmins enjoyed a high standard of living while the other inhabitants formed the framework of various industries, some of the industries that were represented included cattle, pottery, carpentry, goldsmithing, oil pressing, and merchants. Industries were only set up after obtaining the proper sanctions from the government and taxes were paid to the king in the form of goods or money (Minakshi 160-161). The Pallavas instigated the construction of a complex water irrigation system including tanks, wells, and channels flowing throughout villages and agricultural land in an attempt to ward of the effects of famine and to facilitate agricultural production, rice being the main food source (Minakshi 155).

The Pallava Dynasty was rich is various cultural aspects including dance, art, and music. Evidence of dancing among the Pallavas has been found painted on the walls of temples and caves and depicted by sculptures. Many different poses are depicted and there were individual dances as well as group dances for both men and women. Dancing was a form of entertainment frequently employed in the king’s court, as well as temples. It was common to have dancing and wrestling matches alternate while music provided accompaniment (Minakshi 313-314). Dancing was also used as a form of worship; Siva is depicted in the dance: tandava (Minakshi 315). One of the principal hobbies of the princes and princesses of the Pallava Dynasty was painting. Unfortunately remnants of Pallava paintings are not commonly found. The walls of the cave temples provide a partial look into this art form; paint can be seen in traces of rich colors. The Pallavas used vegetable colour so the available colors were few, but they included red, yellow, green, and black. The Kailasanatha temple contains nearly fifty cells around the inner courtyard and each of them shows traces of painting. Several of the temples sculptures have red and green on them (Minakshi 330). Music also had a prominent place in Pallava society; songs were not only used to praise deity, but rulers as well. Pallava kings had songs called birudas composed, these songs sang their praises and spoke of their individual genius and skill (Minakshi 264).

The Five Rathas (Pallava Period rock-hewn Temples, Mahabalipuram)

Religious freedoms during the Pallava Dynasty were exceptionally observed. Denominations that were present during the dynasty included Saiva, Vaisnavas, Buddhists, and Jainas. Not only were these groups found in the kingdom, but they were all found in the capital city. Right from the beginning of Pallava rule, different religions were allowed to practise their faith. By the 7th and 8th centuries however there are a few hymns that make contemptuous references to Buddhists and Jainas (Minakshi 206).

Perhaps the most well recognized remnant of the Pallava Dynasty is their architecture. Great temples still stand as an ever present reminder of that great past. Monolithic temples hewn out of solid rock first emerged in the Tamil lands under the reign of Mahendravarman I; during his reign 20 such temples were completed, using specialized craftsmen from the north where such temples were already found. Stone temples in the Tamil landscape had not previously been erected because of a prejudice against the stone due to its use in funerary ceremonies. Mahendravarman I, however, was practically minded and saw no reason why the stones could not be shaped and used in his building (Minakshi 350-351).

The Pallavas ruled over a vast kingdom. Kanchipuram was the capital city of the Pallava Dynasty. The kingdom extended along the Coromandel Coast up to the mouth of the Krsna, it then continued to the west in the Deccan and up to the banks of the Tungabhadra River (Dubreuil 14). This vast kingdom was not obtained by marriages alone. The Pallavas employed a vast military and were frequently at war with enemies in an attempt to increase their dominion. The main opposition to the Pallava movement were the Calukyas. It is written in one of their copper-plate records that the Pallavas constituted “their natural enemies.” The Kadambas, the Eastern Calukyas, and Rastrakutas were the other main ruling dynasties and the Pallavas were frequently in combat with each of them (Minakshi 42).

By the 9th century the Cola dynasty to the south was a strong force and the Pallavas finally succumbed to the combined attacks of the Calukyas dynasty on its northern boundary and the reviving Cola power on the south (Schoff 210).

References and Further Recommended Reading

Dubreuil, G. Jouveau and Dikshitar, V.S. Swaminadha (1995). The Pallavas. Madras: Asian Educational Services.

Minakshi, Cadambi (1938). Administration and Social Life under the Pallavas. Madras: University of Madras.

Schoff, Wilfred H. (1913). Tamil Political Divisions in the First Two Centuries of the Christian Era. Journal of the American Oriental Society, Vol 33, pp.209-213: American Oriental Society.

Tripathi, Ramashankar (1942). History of Ancient India. Delhi: Motilal Banarsidass Publishers Private Li

Related Topics for Further Investigation

Yuan-Chwang (Xuan Zang)


30 copper-plate grants



Vaikunthaperumal temple

Pallava painting




Cave temples

Coromandel Coast





Cola dynasty

Noteworthy Websites Related to the Topic

Written by Andy Bridge (Spring 2009), who is solely responsible for its content.