Poet Historian Kalhana

26 Dec 2017 13:05:12



It is surprising for some that the rich land of Kashmir gave birth to such a man who was not only a great historian, but a great poet too. Kalhana had all those personality traits in him that are expected and should exist in a historian. In the same way, he also displays all the qualities of good poetry and creativity. He has written the history of a long time-period. He presents a detailed description of events and people without any partiality or bias. The description is so lively that the reader feels as if they are eyewitness to the events themselves, and the writing is also picture-clear to the reader. Studying history sometimes becomes boring, but Kalhana has effectively made it easy and interesting.


Knowing about Kalhana is also quite a good experience. It is difficult to find personal information about Kalhana like his birth and family. Rajtarangini written by Kalhan is said to have been written between 1148 AD to 1150 AD.  Another hint about his tenure is that there was a king 'Harsh Dev' in Kashmir who ruled between 1089 AD to 1101 AD. The name of his Prime Minister was “Champak”. He was responsible for the security of the king, and was also called as 'Dwarpati' in the language of that time. Kalhana was the son of this 'Dwarpati Champak'.


Kalhan's brother 'Kanak' had a good understanding of music. These details give us some idea about his birth and family background. Another fact that sheds some more light is that king 'Jai Singh' assumed the throne of Kashmir in 1127 AD. Kalhana held the prestigious position of poet laureate in his court. Because of this kind of family background and his own position in the court, he had very closely observed the thoughts, feelings, emotions and behaviour of kings and royal families. This experience of his came very handy in his writing of history. It may also be pointed out that it was because of his position and prestige, he wrote things as he saw them, without any fear or greed or expectations of favours.


Information about Kalhana's personal life is scarcely available, but more than plenty has been written about his creation – Rajatarangini. Detailed descriptions of him as a historian are available. Similarly, plenty of comments, references etc. have also been written about his poetry. It would be appropriate to discuss both these points shortly in this part of the chapter. As a historian, he proves to be quite knowledgeable about history. He investigates facts with an eye of a specialist. Collects detailed factual information, then thoroughly studies and analyses them. He also cross-checks them at the scale of their contemporary circumstances. He also keeps in mind the likes and dislikes, nature and habits of the kings and other important people. Then picks up his pen only after a wise assessment of all these aspects.


The specialty about him is that he never gets overwhelmed by dominating personality of someone so much as to overlook facts or obscure the truth. A single example is sufficient in this regard. The king Jai Singh whose court he was a member of, was fond of flatterers. While writing about Jai Singh, he frankly wrote about this downside of his character. Neither did he fear nor succumbed to any kind of greed while writing this.


He has covered a very long time-period while writing the history. The time from the age of Mahabharata to the year 1150 AD is the subject of his writing. It is often very difficult to collect evidences of prehistoric times. Kalhana has used Neelmat Purana, contemporary architecture, commendation letters received by the kings at different occasions, ruins of rock-inscriptions, coins of relevant times and other archaeological means as references and evidences. He has even tried to collect facts from popular legends and folk-tales. Using all these means he has generally reached to the truth of events. Although exceptionally, a few descriptions do get confusing or even ridiculous at first glance, but a little common-sense can lead the reader to the actual facts. For example, the reign of Ranaditya has been mentioned to be 300 years long, which is obviously not correct. But Ranaditya belonged to 'Gonanda' dynasty. The reign of this dynasty was certainly 300 years long. As such, if we assume that this description was not really about Ranaditya himself, but about the Gonanda dynasty to which he belonged, then this statement becomes accurate. This is also something that logically makes sense.


It is not only the political outline of history that Kalhana has presented, but he has also described the social and cultural conditions of those times in an interesting manner. He has also done a witty characterization of many characters. Characters of Matrigupta, Pravarsen, Narendraprabha, Pratapaditya and Ananglekha, Khankh and Durlabhvardhan have become quite interesting. Intriguing pictures of various aspects of human psychology come out of these characters.


Situations of drought and epidemics, floods and fire etc. catastrophes have also been very effectively described in his writings. Kalhana's approach towards others was very generous. Even though he was a faithful Brahmin himself, yet has open-heartedly praised the philosophy of Buddhists and some of their traditions. On the other hand he has bitterly criticized religious imposters. The following comment about Kalhana is really significant -

“Of the entire ancient Indian history, the only effort to present a scientific history is Kalhana's Rajtaringini. Kalhana's perspective is more or less similar to a modern historian. Not only has he risen above local and circumstantial prejudice, but has also maintained a very expedient balance in description of events. The conciseness of descriptions is commendable.”


When we think of Kalhana as a poet, we notice that he has succeeded in joining the ranks of best of the Sanskrit poets. He has pioneered a new genre in literature by writing history in the form of poetry. He made history a branch of literature. He took story-segments of history, and harmoniously amalgamated together the descriptions of people and events into the form of poetry. Though he usually avoids use of long similes, yet wherever he has used similes or other metaphors, it is perfect and beautiful. In his poetic book (poetic history) Rajtarangini, he has used all kinds of figures of speech which has dramatically enhanced the elegance of his poetry. The reader also gets to enjoy various aesthetics (“Rasa”) of poetry. Even though the main aesthetic of the poetry is 'Shant Rasa' (Peace or Tranquility), the reader can also experience other aesthetics like 'Shringar', 'Veer', 'Raudra', 'Adbhut' etc. Rasas. Occasional occurrences of 'Karun Rasa' immediately after 'Veebhats Rasa' makes the reader feel as if they are tasting sweet immediately after tasting something bitter or salty. Another important characteristic worth mentioning is that he also includes occasional humour in-between. We know that humour is not a frequent ingredient of Sanskrit poetry, but Kalhana's poetry is pretty good in this respect. Splashes of humour and satire in the witty flow of poetry are very helpful in getting the reader completely absorbed in the pleasure of reading it. Many contemporary poets and writers have honoured Kalhana by calling him a mature poet.

In the last, it would be appropriate to mention a fact of special importance. After 1150 AD, various other intellectuals carried forward the history-writing work of Kalhana. For example, the work of Jonraj of Kashmir is called the 'Second Rajtaringini'.


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