The stature of Benares as the seat of learning, knowledge and wisdom grew under the patronage of the Maukharis of Kannauj, Gurjara-Pratiharas and the mighty Kalachuris towards the end of the 10th century.
The period of the Kalachuris is often referred to as the golden era in the city’s history marked with the construction of exquisite temples, tanks and bathing ghats and commencement of schools of thought, art, literature and Sanskrit. Raja Lakshmikarna, also known as Raja Karna of the Kalachuris of Tripuri is their most illustrious ruler and credited with the construction of a Shiva Temple known as Karnameru at Karnaghanta. He is also said to have constructed a Karna Tirtha on the bank of the Ganges in Prayag.
The Gahadavalas who took over the reins of power in the 11th century took the city to its zenith. There are as many as ninety inscriptions of the Gahadavalas with a majority of them listing the records of donation of land to Brahmins after bathing in the Ganga River.
Their strong faith in Advaita proved to be the strength behind their remarkable leadership. They took it upon themselves to protect the sacred tirthasthalas in their realm of which Benares and Kannauj received the maximum religious patronage.
The sacrosanct city also became an administrative and political seat of power under the Gahadavalas and thereby, became the imperial capital of Akhanda Bharat for the first time in nearly two thousand years. The last time Kashi had been looked at as a prominent political capital was between the 6th and 7th centuries BCE.
The Gahadavalas were known for their religious fervour, generosity and liberal outlook, the outcome of their deep roots and faith in Advaita. Their inscriptions describe their love for Lord Shiva, the Lord of Kashi. Lord Shiva is referred to as Kṛttivāsa in some inscriptions, indicating that the temple of Kashi Vishwanathji was considered to be the ultimate abode in this period.
Their most successful king, Govindachandra is praised as an incarnation of Lord Vishnu and is believed to have descended to earth to protect the city of Kashi. Raja Govindachandra made sizeable contributions to Brahmins and the Adi Keshava Temple in the Rajghat Plateau. He has been mentioned in over fifty inscriptions for the charitable donations made to temples of Lord Shiva, Lord Surya and Lord Vishnu.
During the reign of Raja Govindachandra, Kashi became an important centre for learning the Vedas, Panini’s treatise on Sanskrit grammar, philosophy, literature, arts and medicine. The greatest literary works in Sanskrit, on Hindu religion and its philosophy, on dharma and Niti were composed in this time.
These works emphasised the importance of the Ramayana and Mahabharat, Puranas and Dharmashastras and covered a wide range of subjects from the meaning of duty, importance of social and cultural life to rites of worship, rites of the dead, the deed of giving charitable donations and importance of visiting sacred shrines.
In fact, one of the earliest scriptural references to over 350 shrines in Kashi, to the development and demarcation of the Panchkroshi Yatra and the association of the Kashi and Kashmir school of thought was brought to light in this period.
Artisans, traders, merchants, scholars, craftsmen and playwrights settled in and around the three sacred zones of Omkareshwara, Vishweshwara and Kedareshwara Temples. Ponds and lakes were converted into sacred tanks as per scriptural injunctions. Raja Govindachandra built ghats on the bank of the Ganges, wells, gardens, groves, pools, houses and dharmashalas.
The grandeur of the Gahadavalas is found on eighty-four inscriptions in the middle Ganga valley. They refer to large donations, gifts and constructions in and around Kashi. The city expanded up to the famous Lolark Kund in the south with seven holy ghats built along the Ganga as per the scriptural authorities.
The demise of Raja Govindachandra saw the rise of a Buddhist sect called Vajrayana that swerved from its original ideals and instead engaged in terrifying Tantric practices involving dark arts, animal and human sacrifices, debauchery, intoxication, eating meat and performing strange rituals in the middle of the night in the dense forests near the historical city.
Jayachandra, the grandson of Raja Govindachandra was envious of Samrat Prithviraj Chauhan and wished to establish his control over North India. Taking advantage of this conflict, Qutb al-Din Aibak, general of the Ghurid king Muhammad Ghori defeated Jayachandra in 1193 – 94 and beheaded him. His army ran amuck and looted the city, destroying more than one thousand temples in Kashi alone, raping women and children, slaughtering Hindus and burning revered Hindu texts. They even raised mosques on their foundations using the debris of the temples.
The rich city was reduced to rubble, rivers of blood flowed and bodies of Hindus were piled up with none to perform the last rites. The second invasion by Qutb al-Din Aibak in 1197 – 98 sealed the fate of Kashi forever with the defeat of Harishchandra, son of Jayachandra and marked the end of the glorious century of the Gahadavalas.
Written by Lakshmi Subramanian
* Photos are only symbolic (Taken from public domain/internet and any copyright infringement is unintentional and regrettable)
* Information about History of Banaras is taken from archives