She was physically disabled. She was clever, manipulative, ruthless, and ruled Kashmir for more than 40 years. Obviously, men thought Didda was a witch.
“The statesmanlike instinct and political ability which we must ascribe to Didda in spite of all the defects of her character, are attested by the fact that she remained to the last in peaceful possession of the Kashmir throne, and was able to bequeath it to her family in undisputed possession.”
— Aurel Stein
Rani Didda’s (r 958-1003 CE) rule represents the peak of women’s power in Kashmir, which unusually had many women rulers both before and after her. She is sometimes called the Catherine of Kashmir, referring to the ruthless Catherine the Great of Russia who ruled long and well with the help of her favourites (?) whom she periodically purged. In spite of a leg disability and her gender, Didda was able to rule Kashmir with an iron hand for more than four decades.
Didda is a very controversial ruler, who is difficult to slot. All agree about her tremendous political survival skills, by cold-blooded application of Arthashastra maxims; her ability to rule, select able lieutenants, and her achievement of stability in the fractious kingdom she had inherited. What many researchers find hard to digest is her thirst for power and snidely attributed lust for men. What in men would be admirable ambition and display of masculinity become in her a failing and an evil.
Historians ascribing innumerable lovers to Didda, however, could be just a sign of gender bias—after all, how else could a woman possibly succeed in getting loyalty from her ministers? Unless of course by witchcraft, which she is accused of!
Fortunately, the history of Kashmir has come down to us in great detail, written by Kalhana in Rajatarangini in 1149 CE, generally considered India’s oldest historical chronicle. It is brutally frank in its tales of blood and betrayal, and of kings from all caste origins; clearly not commissioned by rulers who would have insisted on appropriately glorious ancestors. The late historian P.N.K. Bamzai wrote: “In his history there are no heroes or heroines…indeed, whether we love them or not for their virtues, it is their vices which make them unforgettable.”
A brief backgrounder on Kashmir. It had been a major intellectual centre for Buddhism, especially under Kanishka. In the 4th and 5th century CE, hundreds of Kashmiri missionaries like the venerated Kumarajiva, travelled up the Karakoram silk route and converted China to Buddhism. In the 6th century, Kashmir was devastated by the Hun ruler Mihirakula who persecuted Buddhism and encouraged Shaivism. In the 8th century, the Shaiva king Lalitaditya created a brief pan-Indian empire, where he raided as far as Assam, Afghanistan, Tibet, the Vindhyas, Gujarat and Sindh. He even had diplomatic relations with the Chinese emperor, and actually offered to host 200,000 Chinese troops in Kashmir to fight the Tibetans, their common enemy (Fortunately, no Chinese troops showed up in Kashmir till the 20th century).
Kalhana mentions two queens who ruled before Didda, though women ruling was not supported either by Hindu or Buddhist scripture, the Mahabharata saying: “The country where a woman, a child or a gambler rulers, sinks helplessly as a stone raft in the river.”
One was the mythical Yashomati, who was supposedly crowned by Krishna himself. Kalhana’s comment on her saintly rule: “The eyes of men which viewed womankind with scanty courtesy, considering it as one of the objects of pleasure, looked upon this mother of her subjects as if she were her goddess.” The other woman ruler was just 50 years before Didda: Sugandhadevi ruled at the beginning of the 10th century as a regent and then directly, but just for two years. Coins minted by her say Sri Sugandhadeva, rather than “devi”. She was overthrown and executed by her courtiers.
In 950 CE, the ancient and powerful Hindu Shahi dynasty was ruling Kapisa (Kabul) and Gandhara (it was destroyed by Mahmud of Ghazni 50 years later). King Bhima Shahi’s daughter was married to Simharaja, the king of Lohara (currently Lohrin in Poonch).
Simharaja had a beautiful but physically disabled daughter, Didda (b 924?). She is often referred to as Charanhina (footless) in Rajatarangini. Though she could walk, she had a woman called Valga who would carry her about, surprisingly also in running competitions (I suppose she would still win as queen), for whom she later built a math called Valgamath. Didda was still unmarried at 26, very much on the shelf in that era.
Their neighbouring kingdom Kashmir, which was now restricted to the Jhelum valley, was in turmoil. The Damaras, feudal landlords, and the Tantrins, hired soldiers, changed allegiance and constantly rebelled. Kings and dynasties lasted but a few years.
The people were left to the tender mercies of the officials. As Kalhana puts it: “Truly, government servants are a plague to the people and harass them like cholera or dysentery.” Some things are slow to change!
Parvagupta, a minister, had crowned himself in 949, killing the boy king Sangramadeva and throwing his body in the Jhelum, weighted down with a stone. He however died painfully of dropsy within a year, leaving the throne to his son Kshemagupta. Kshemagupta was pleasure-loving and dissolute. He was addicted to women, gambling, and especially to hunting jackals in the woods (the Indian version, one supposes, of fox hunting).
He was now looking for political legitimacy for his rule, and offered to marry the disabled and not-so-young Didda, who had the qualification of being the granddaughter of the Shahis.
The wedding took place in 950 CE and Didda came to Kashmir, to beautiful Shrinagara. Surprisingly, her husband came under her spell so visibly that he started being called “Diddakshema” by the populace, though not very kindly. The infatuated Kshemagupta actually got coins minted with “Di(dda) Kshemagupta Deva” inscribed on them : it is quite rare to find a husband adding his wife’s name to his own! Didda’s influence however created enemies for her, especially the well-entrenched prime minister Phalguna, whose daughter Chandralekha was also married to Kshemagupta.
Didda gave birth to a son, Abhimanyu, and her grandfather, the powerful Bhima Shahi, visited Kashmir to see his great grandson. Bhima Shahi built a temple Bhimakeshava near Martanda.
In 958, Kshemagupta contracted a violent fever during one of his beloved jackal hunts. He was taken to the Kshemamatha in Varahamula (Baramulla) and died there.
Didda immediately secreted away her son, in case he was killed. She was now on her own, surrounded by threats to her own life and to her son’s. The first challenge came when the courtiers gathered for the funeral, and there was great pressure on Didda to commit sati along with the other queens who included Phalguna’s daughter. She refused, saying she had to live to protect her son. Abhimanyu was then crowned and she became the regent.
Prime minister Phalguna, fearing for his life, fled to Poonch. Didda now had to rule the kingdom. She was suspicious of everybody, especially with the example of the execution of Sugandhadevi not so long ago.
The first direct challenge she faced was from Kshemagupta’s sister’s sons, Mahiman and Patala. They gathered many allies, especially Brahmins from Lalitadityapur, and surrounded her when she was visiting the Padmasvamin temple. She managed to get her son away to a math, and then asked to negotiate. During the negotiations, she managed to bribe some of the supporters and placate others. Her faithful minister Naravahana then won a victory over the rest. She ruthlessly killed off many of the rebels including her husband’s nephews, but forgave some she thought would be of use to her.
One of them was the warrior Yashodhara whom she sent to subdue Thakkana, the ruler of a neighbouring kingdom of Shahi descent. Yashodhara won but let Thakkana retain his kingdom. Yashodhara came back expecting a hero’s welcome, but instead there was a botched-up attempt by Didda to arrest him.
What had happened? Any victorious army marching back to the capital always makes the ruler insecure, especially when the commander had previously rebelled. Looking at a parallel in history, Julius Caesar, after his tremendous victories in Gaul, was asked to return without his army. He came back with his legions and captured Rome, and took over the empire.
Yashodhara immediately revolted, and many nobles joined him. This was perhaps the toughest revolt Didda faced, but she managed to suppress it with the help of her ministers Naravahana and Rakka. Again, the rebels and their relatives were brutally killed.
Kalhana says: “The Lame Queen whom no one had thought capable of stepping over a cow’s footprint got over the host of her enemies just as Hanuman got over the ocean.”
Naravahana now became the most important man in the kingdom. Didda, a little nervous of his power, became a little aloof and started favouring others. Brokenhearted, Naravahana committed suicide. In some time, Rakka also died. Didda, left alone, could see the Damaras uniting against her, and recalled Phalguna who was living in retirement in Poonch, who then effectively subdued the Damaras.
In 972, Abhimanyu, her only child, died. His minor son Nandigupta was crowned, and Didda continued as regent.
For a year, grief-stricken, she immersed herself in an orgy of building, especially to commemorate her son. She built the Abhimanyusvamin temple and Abhimanyupura town, which is now called Bimyan. She built the Diddasvamin temple, the Diddapura town, and the Diddamath, now called the Diddmar area of Srinagar. By one estimate, she laid 64 foundations.
But Nandigupta fell sick and died in a year, followed in quick succession by the next grandson Tribhuvangupta, who had been crowned by her in 973. Many accused Didda of witchcraft in bringing about their deaths, but this is likely to be bad press, as she clearly had nothing to gain by doing so. She crowned the third grandson Bhimagupta in 975.
Phalguna, her Chief Minister and the mainstay of her administration, died during Bhimagupta’s reign. There was a new twist in her life at this point with the entry of a young man, Tunga. Tunga was a Khasa buffalo herdsman from Poonch, who had come to Kashmir with his brothers, and was employed as a letter carrier in her government. Impressed by his capabilities, she started promoting him, until he finally became Prime Minister and commander of the armies. He actually continued to capably hold these posts for nearly 40 years, even after her death. He was widely considered to be her lover, though she was more than 50 years old by the time she met him.
Bhimagupta, meanwhile, was close to attaining adulthood and was getting interested in administrative affairs and reform. He died in mysterious circumstances in 981; many say he was imprisoned and tortured to death by Didda. Didda ascended the throne in her own name and issued coins in the name of “Sri Didda”, which are available for sale on the internet today.
Didda ruled for the next 22 years in absolute power until she died in 1003 at the age of 79, quashing rebellions periodically by using her standard combination of bribes, appeasement and ferocious reprisal. There is a story in Roman history where the Tarquin king, when asked by his son for advice on how to rule, goes to the garden and scythes off the heads of the tallest poppies. She used this theory until there was no opposition left.
Says Kalhana: “Those treacherous ministers who for 60 years…had robbed 16 kings, from King Gopala to Abhimanyu, of their dignity, lives and riches, were quickly exterminated by the energy of Queen Didda.”
Tunga was by her side as she put down a revolt fomented by her nephew Vigraharaja. Tunga also spearheaded a major victory over Prithvipal, the king of Rajapuri (Rajouri).
There is a quaint story about how she chose an heir. She called for many boys from her maternal family and placed a heap of fruit in front of them, challenging them to pick up the maximum number. The boys started grabbing the fruit and fighting with one another. At the end of it, her brother’s son Samgramaraja had the maximum number, without actually engaging in any physical fighting. He had managed to incite the other boys to fight, while he calmly gathered up the booty.
Impressed by his political acumen, Didda declared him her heir. She made both Samgramaraja and Tunga swear a holy oath that they would work with each other, which created great stability for the next two decades.
Thus, on her death, a new dynasty took power in Kashmir, the Lohara dynasty. Mahmud of Ghazni unsuccessfully attacked Kashmir twice, in 1015 and 1023, and Samgramaraja was almost the only king in India to beat him back, partly because of the strong army and administration created by Didda.
The Lohara dynasty finally came to an end in 1320, with the savage attack of the Mongol Dulacha on Kashmir, who absolutely devastated it over eight months. However, while leaving with his loot, his army was destroyed to a man at Banihal Pass by a fierce blizzard. As a wit put it, Kashmir’s winter would not be as easily defeated as its kings.
A new dynasty was then founded by a Buddhist from the Ladakh region, Rinchana, who later converted to Islam and took the name Sultan Sadruddin.