The Harshnath Temple and the Question of Patronage: Kings, ascetics, traders and the salt network

श्रीहर्षः कुलदेवोस्यास्तस्माद्दिव्यः कुलक्रमः

अनंतगोचरेश्रीमान्पण्डितभौत्तरेस्वर:

‘This row of great kings had the origin of their virtues in devotion to Shambhu [Shiva]. The holy Harsha is their family deity; through him the family has become illustrious.’

Verse 27, Harsha stone inscription of Vigraharaja

In 1834, two British officials, Dr G.E. Rankins and Sergeant E. Dean discovered a large slab of black stone in the porch of a dilapidated 10th century CE Shiva Temple atop a hill near the village of Harsha, within the Sikar principality of the Shekhavati province in Jaipur state. Both sent facsimiles of the inscription to the Asiatic Society of Bengal early in 1835 and was soon published by E. Dean in the Journal of Asiatic Society of Bengal (vol. IV). After a hiatus of six decades, the epigraph was re-edited with improved impressions by Prof Kielhorn in 1892[1] and later by D.R. Bhandarkar in 1913.[2] Since then, this lengthy Sanskrit inscription, now housed in the Government Museum, Sikar, has been widely regarded as one of the most important documents for writing the early history of the Chahamana or the Chauhan dynasty of Shakambhari (Image 1) The Harsha stone inscription, as it is commonly known, was inscribed in vikrama samvat 1030 (973 CE) during the reign of the ruler Vigraharaja II. It celebrates the achievements of a line of seven princes of the dynasty, particularly their devotion and contributions to the grand Harshnath Temple of Shambhu (Shiva), known locally as Lord Harsha and also given the stature of the kula devata or family deity of the dynasty. (Image 2) The close association of the shrine with the region’s most important political power led to generous donations and patronage not only from the rulers but also their family members, officials and non-elite patrons like the merchants, traders, guilds, pilgrims and the influential ascetic community belonging to the popular Shaiva-Pashupata tradition. It was this intricate network of patronage that firmly established the Harshnath Temple within the regional political, economic, and religious landscape.

Image 1: Harsha stone inscription of V.S. 1030, Government Museum, Sikar.
Image 1: Harsha stone inscription of V.S. 1030, Government Museum, Sikar.
Image 2: Harshnath Temple (10th century CE), Harsha Hill, Sikar, Rajasthan.
Image 2: Harshnath Temple (10th century CE), Harsha Hill, Sikar, Rajasthan.

The question of patronage, dating and the emerging political associations

There is a lack of consensus regarding the original patron of the temple due to the inscription listing multiple individuals involved in the construction or repair of the temple at different stages. Bhandarkar was of the view that the temple was originally constructed by Guvaka I, a local chieftain who was feudatory of the powerful imperial Pratihara dynasty under the regime of Nagabhata II of Kannauj, referred to in Harsha stone inscription as Prince Nagavaloka. Guvaka was likely the founder of the house of Chahamanas, implying that the temple was first erected in the 9th century. Bhandarkar adds that the temple was subsequently renovated by a Shaiva ascetic of the Pashupata tradition named Bhavirakta, also known as Allata. After his death, it was completed by his pupil Bhavadyota during the reign of King Vigraharja.[3] K.C. Jain shares a similar view, attributing the temple’s construction to Guvaka I who ‘built this temple in the tenth century A.D.[4] However, it is important to note that Guvaka I could not have lived later than the 9th century.

In their reading of the same inscription, Krishna Deva, Michael W. Meister and Madhusudan Amilal Dhaky, credit ascetic Allata for the temple built in 956 CE, with some later additions by his disciple Bhavadyota after his death in 970 CE.[5] Allata is celebrated in verses 33-34 of the Harsha stone inscription for building the temple of Harshnath with the wealth received from the devout individualse. Ambika Dhaka raises doubts about whether the temple was indeed commissioned by Guvaka I, who lived in the first quarter of the 9th century CE. She suggests that the sculptural style of the temple aligns more closely with the latter half of the 10th century CE.[6] However, she has not suggested any possible patron for the same.

Allata (d. 970 CE) likely lived during the reign of King Simharaja, the predecessor of King Vigraharaja, whose early reign coincided with the inscription of the Harsha stone in 973 CE. Simharaja is praised in the above inscription for his significant contributions to the Harsha Temple, including generous land grants, temple renovations, the establishment of an andaka (gold shell) on the temple spire and the allocation of various villages to the Harsha Temple. (v 18) This sheds some light on the sequence of events surrounding the temple’s history.

The Shaiva association with the Harsha Hill may have predated the times of Guvaka I but it was he, who seems to have first established the family’s political connection with the linga of Shiva-Harsha at the hill. Verse 13 of the inscription, which mentions Guvaka, does not clearly indicate whether the shrine was commissioned by him or if it was already there during his times and was revered deeply by Guvaka.[7] The linga is described as varabhavanamayi-bhautali-kirtimurti, suggesting that this glorious form of Shiva, firmly placed on the earth, was enshrined in some temple. However, the verse does not explicitly state whether Guvaka himself established this shrine.

After Guvaka, the four subsequent successors, Chandraraja, Guvaka II, Chandana and Vakpatiraja, are not recorded in the epigraph as having made any donations to the shrine (v 14-17). The reigns of the latter two were marked by political tensions with the Tomaras. Until then, the Chauhan dynasty had been a minor feudatory of the imperial Pratihara dynasty. The fortunes of the dynasty changed under the subsequent ruler, Simharaja, who was the first Chauhan ruler of Shakambhari to assume the title of maharajadhiraja by freeing his territory from the suzerainty of the Pratiharas.[8] He is celebrated in the epigraph for his major victory over the Tomaras. Dashrath Sharma noted that by then, the Pratihara overlords were weak rulers unable to control vast territories of the empire.[9] Simharaja, with his growing power, established his ritualized sovereignty through generous grants of various villages to the Harshnath Temple and by establishing an andaka on the temple’s spire (v 18).

The older shrine at the Harsha Hill, whether commissioned by the local chieftain Guvaka I or not, would have been a humble shrine that likely required renovation or major expansion to match the growing stature of regional powers, the flourishing local economy and the increased influence and popularity of the Pashupata tradition and its ascetics. This endeavour to rebuild the temple was spearheaded not by the king but by an ascetic Allata, who is explicitly celebrated in verses 33-34 of the Harsha stone inscription for building the temple of Harshnath with the donations received from devout people. Simmharaaja does not appear to have personally overseen the reconstruction of the shrine, but he did contribute by establishing the andaka (gold shell) on the temple's spire and providing generous donations and grants for its rebuilding and maintenance. His charity was followed by his brother, sons and officials, who made similar grants to the temple (v 38). His successor, Vigraharaja, reigning at the time when the inscription was composed, likewise granted two villages to the temple.

The role of Pashupata ascetics was, therefore, central to the re-erection of the Harshnath Temple. Among the various sects of Brahmanism, Shaivism found the greatest acceptance in the ancient cities and towns of Rajasthan and was quite prevalent even during the Kushana and Gupta times. Of the four major Shaiva sects- Shaivasiddhanta, Kaula, Kapalika and Pashupatas, it was the Pashupata tradition that garnered the greatest popularity in the region, with their influence evident from 7th century onwards in various cities and towns of the region. Receiving patronage from various local powerhouses such as the Pratiharas, Chauhans, Guhilas, the Pashupata ascetics often enjoyed strong political power.[10] The close association of the Pashupata ascetics with the family deity of Chauhan at Harsha Hill is a clear testimony of these power relations. The Harsha Hill inscription further reveals that Allata died before the completion of the task, which was then finished by his faithful pupil, Bhavadyota, who undertook the remaining work such as establishing an orchard, a prapa or a watering place for cattle, a well, etc.

Patronage beyond the kings and ascetics: Situating the Harsha Temple in the regional economic configurations

The grand reverence to the Harshnath Temple in the inscription, unfortunately, results in neglecting the archaeological remains of several other religious structures on the hill. These structures, although not mentioned in the inscription, were dedicated to various Brahmanical deities, like Surya, Shakti, Viṣhnu, etc. Several minor shrines, most of which were contemporaneous with the main shrine, are also in a state of total ruin, , with only their base courses remaining intact in most cases. (Image 3) The complex was not designed to be a panchayatana (main temple with four subsidiary shrines on each corner) as the number and distribution of the sub-shrines do not follow the order of symmetry and proportions.[11] Elizabeth Cecil has noted remains of at least twelve such temple foundations (c. 10th-11th centuries CE).[12] Even after the erection of the Harshnath Temple, these shrines of varying scales were continued to be built, mostly in an unplanned manner, until the 11th century. This suggests a wide range of continuous patronage, including contributions from non-elite donors, who often remain unrecorded.

Image 3: Ruins of several shrines surround the main temple of Harsha.
Image 3: Ruins of several shrines surround the main temple of Harsha.

The Harshnath stone inscription does not record the names of these non-elite donors who may have patronized these sub-shrines. However, it does indicate that even during the reign of Vigraharaja in the late 10th century, the main temple received generous donations from several pious people residing in nearby settlements. These settlements varied in size, ranging from medium-sized settlements and exchange centres with epithets palli or padra like Marupallika, Kalavanapadra, etc or larger urban centres like Mahapurika. The early medieval process of economic expansion, characterized by the emergence of agrarian localities, settlements of various sizes, exchange centres, urban, religious and artistic centres are discernible in the region of Sapadalaksha[13] roughly from the 8th-9th century onwards. The generous donations from diverse economic centres suggest a deep integration of the Harsha Temple with the economic nexus of the region. Unlike the fertile regions of eastern Rajasthan, where the economic growth was inextricably linked with the process of agrarian expansion,[14] the drier regions of Rajasthan followed a different growth trajectory. Here, economic development combined regional agrarian potentials with intensive utilization of local mobile resources such as animals and their products, as well as immobile resources like stone, products of arid vegetation, salt, etc. [15]

Salt was an important asset to the regional economy of Shekhavati under the Chahamanas or Chauhans of Shakambhari[16]—the ancient name of the salt city of Sambar. Securing effective control over the regional salt ranges remained a central factor in the local politics of the region even during the medieval times.[17] In addition to Sambar, another major salt centre was Didwana, located approximately 60 km from Sikar. Its importance to the regional religio-economic network is evident from the 8th century temple of the Goddess Gauri Shikhara, strategically situated along a local salt lake at Didwana.[18] Even though the village of Harsha or the city of Sikar is not known to have its own salt ranges the temple was closely linked with the salt network of the region. Following the mention of grand donations made by the members of the royal family and officials, the Harsha Temple inscription of Vigraharaja records a donation by a guild of salt traders from Shakambhari, known as the Bhamma guild, who pledged to donate one vimshepaka for every kutaka of salt they sold (v 38).

The inscription further records donations by the horse dealers of the uttarapatha, the ancient famed trade route towards the northwest, promising the donation of one dramma on every horse they sell (v 39). Historically, horses of superior quality have been a major import item from the west to the subcontinent, and the inscription attests that the regional economy of early medieval Shekhawati must have certainly benefited from its strategic position in the animal-trade networks. Apart from the Harsha Temple, many other early medieval temples in the arid or semi-arid regions of Rajasthan were clear beneficiaries of regional animal trade, either the imported ones or the high-quality animals of the region. Two later inscriptions from Barmer, corresponding to the 13th-14th centuries CE, allude to grants provided to the local temples which were computed entirely in terms of transit duties imposed on bigger caravans of camels and bullocks.[19] These diverse donations from several important economic agents of the region allude to the high fame and prestige that was once enjoyed by the Harsha Temple.

Generous donations from the hierarchy of economic settlements and the region’s exchange centres, and also the continuous and sustained patronage from the influential salt guild of the salt city of Sambar (also being the main political centre of the region) and from the horse traders reflect a flourishing regional economic nexus, in which, the Harsha Temple of Sikar was closely integrated and supported.

These religious shrines at the hill had received a medley of patronage from different political, religious and economic agents at different historical junctures. The older humble shrine of Lord Harsha at the hill, whether preceding the early Chauhan ruler, Guvaka, or commissioned by him, soon emerged as a magnetic centre attracting ascetics who spearheaded the task of its re-erection; kings who not only generously donated to the shrine but also established their ritual sovereignty with their kula-devata Harsha; various non-elites and elite donors who patronized the principal shrine and various sub-shrines; merchants, guilds, traders, etc. who flourished in the regional economic prosperity of the time and dedicated portions of their earned wealth for the upkeep of the temples.


Footnotes

[1] Kiefhorn, Harṣa stone inscription of Chahamana Vigraharaja, vol. 2, 116.

[2] Bhandarkar, ‘Some unpublished inscriptions reconsidered,’ 57-64.

[3] Ibid, 58.

[4] Jain, Ancient Cities and Towns of Rajasthan, 396.

[5] Dhaky, Meister, and Deva, eds., 107.

[6] Dhaka, ‘A fresh light on architectural and sculptural art of Shiva temple at Mount Harsha,’ 375.

[7] I am thankful to Sanskrit scholar Dr Krishna Panda for discussing this Sanskrit verse.

[8] Jain, ‘Situating camels and other animals in the Early Medieval efflorescence of the Thar,’ 396.

[9] Sharma, Early Chauhān Dynasties, 29.

[10] For an overview of the influence of Shaivism in the region, particularly that of Pasupata, see Jain (1972:522-3). For a detailed discussion on a close association between the Guhila politics and Pasupata tradition, see Nandini Sinha-Kapur’s State Formation in Rajasthan: Mewar during the Seventh-Fifteenth Centuries.

[11] Dhaky, Meister, and Deva, eds., 107.

[12] Cecil, ‘The Medieval Temple as Material Archive.’

[13] Sapadalaksha region, comprising parts of Rajasthan and north-western India, was ruled by Chahamanas or Chauhan dynasty of Shakambhari lineage.

[14] For a detailed discussion on the early medieval processes in the fertile regions of eastern Rajasthan, see Chattopadhyaya 1994 and Kapur 2002.

[15] For an extensive discussion on this topic, see Jain 2023.

[16] According to the mythical account in the fourth canto of the Prthvirajavijaya, Vasudeva, the first ruler of the political line, received the gift of the salt lake of Sambhar from a vidyadhara whom he had befriended. In an interesting wordplay between Vasudeva and Vishnu, the Bijolia inscription claims that the lake was born of him. (Sharma 1959: 23).

[17] For an extensive discussion on the importance of salt to the local medieval states of the desert, see Kothiyal 2016.

[18] Meister, ‘Gaurī-Śikhara,’ 295.

[19] Epigraphia Indica, Vol. XI. 59-61, c.f. Jain 2023:190.

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