Vaisnavism Under the Rule of the Nalas

BY: SUN STAFF - 29.1 2020

Orissan Patachitra

A study of the history of Vaisnavism during the Nala era by Dr. C.B. Patel, Bhubaneshwar, Orissa.

Following the famous South Indian expedition of Samudragupta, several small principalities rose into prominence in South India:

1. Mahendra of South Kosala
2. Vyaghraraja of Mahakantara
3. Mantaraja of Korala
4. Mahendra of Pistapura
5. Swamidatta of Kottura
6. Damana of Erandapalla
7. Visnugupta of Kanchi
8. Nilaraja of Avamukta
9. Hastivarman of Vengi
10. Ugrasena of Palakka
11. Kubera of Debarastra
12. Dhananjaya of Kusasthalapura

These principalities were known to have been defeated by Samudragupta as per the description of Allahabad Pillar Inscription of Samudragupta. Of these, the 1st, 6th and 11th kings were ruling over various parts of Kosala and Kalinga. Korala has been identified as Kulada in Ghumsar area. Kalinga was then divided into four principalities viz. Kottura, Erandapalla, Devarastra and Pistapura. Kottura has been identified with modern Kathoor, about 12 kms to the south of Mahendra hill. Erandapalla has been identified with modern Erandapalli of Srikakulam district, Devarashtra with Yellamachili of Visakhapatna district and Pistapura has been identified with Pithapuram of Godavari district.

Dr. Sahu opines that even after the Southern expedition, suzerainty of Samudragupta did not extend over Southeastern India and therefore the claim of an Allahabad Pillar inscription should be regarded as exaggeration. In fact, it was a brilliant military raid without any permanent impact. Immediately after the retreat of Samudragupta, the South Indian potentates became independent and carved out their own kingdoms.

At this juncture, the Matharas rose to power in the coastal belt of Orissa with their epicentre in and around Mahendragiri, and the Nalas rose to power in Bastar-Koraput and Kalahandi region. The Mathara rule ended by about 498 A.D. after the rise of the early Gangas.

The Nalas carved out a vast kingdom in the South Kosala area and ruled from 300- 740 A.D. in the upper Mahanadi and upper Godavari valley. They began their rule from Puskari, i.e., modern Podagada in Koraput district adjacent to Gajapati area, in about 290 A.D. Sisuka, the 1st ruler of the dynasty, had a long rule up to 330 A.D., during which time he extended his kingdom in the Vindhyan and Southern Kosala regions. Prithvivyaghra (700-740 A.D), the last early or imperial Nala, ruled from the Rajim area in present Chhatisgarh region.

For another 160 years, the Nalas were not known but surprisingly, from epigraphic records we came to know of one Bhimasenadeva, who claimed descent from the Nala family as ruling over Ganjam and Gajapati districts in the beginning of 10th century A.D.

The history of the Nalas from the 2nd half of the 8th century A.D. up to the beginning of the 10th century A.D. is shrouded in mystery. The descendants of Prithvivyaghra might have been ruling over part of ancient Nieadha country as petty political powers during this period. Due to paucity of evidences, we are not in a position to connect the lineage of Bhimasenadeva, who appeared and ruled over Ganjam region in the beginning of 10th century A.D. with the early Nalas. Therefore, we place him and his royal lineage in the group of later Nalas.

Vaisnavism in the Nala Kingdom

Nala kingdom witnessed the splendid efflorescence of Vaisnavism. From the epigraphic statement, Padamulam Krutam Visnou Rajna Sriskandavarmena, it is definitely evident that the Nala king Skandavarman (C.480-515 A.D.) was an ardent devotee of Visnu and an active patron of Vaisnavism. The state of the Vaisnavite movement in South Kosala prior to his days is almost shrouded in obscurity. A learned scholar, the late S.C. Behera believed that after Samudragupta's invasion, Vaisnavism received its momentum under royal patronage and the Matharas in Kalinga and the Nalas in Western Orissa (i.e. South Kosala area) were known to have marshaled the cause of the faith in 4th-5th century A.D. Dr. H.C. Das also supports this contention and speculating about its antiquity he is inclined to suggest that Vaisnavism might have spread in this land from the 1st phase of its reflection. In fact, Vaisnavism appears to have a hoary beginning in this region as is indirectly indicated by the enormous number of legendary accounts.

The Indradyumna episode suggests its origin in tribal society in an unknown Blue Hill, perhaps located somewhere in the eternal Vindhyan range, the cradle of the Nalas of South Kosala. Narayana worship there appears to predate the predominance of Vishnu, and Vaisnavism appears to be a later development. H. Kulke believes that perhaps Lord Jagannath was the most famous Hinduized tribal deity and Orissa seemed to have been deeply influenced by the tribal culture.

We are inclined to suggest that Vaisnavism had a very early beginning in South Kosala, many centuries before Skandavarman, in the early period of the emergence of the tribal Nalas as a ruling power. The exact evidence seems to have been lost in the course of time. From the epigraphic evidence of Podagada stone inscriptions and Rajim temple inscriptions it is evident that Vaisnavism was diversely manifest at different places in the Nala kingdom.

The charter of Skandavarman begins with an invocation to Lord Hari:

Harina jitam jayati jasyatitvesa gunastutirnhisa
Nanu Bhagavaneva Jayam jetavyam chadhijetacha

Hari was victorious, is victorious, and will be victorious is not that appropriate. For verily the Divine (Hari is himself the conquest, the object to be conquered and the conqueror.)

This grant records the foundation of a footprint (Padamula) of Vishnu and donation of a certain holding along with abundant Bhuridaksina made to the donee Chakradrona for worship in the temple, by the noble king and foremost scion Srinalanvayamuksasa and son of Bhavadattavarman, with a hope of obtaining religious merit for his father, other ancestors and mother and desiring welfare for himself. He also directed that the proceeds of the holding should be entirely utilised for feeding in a satra of Brahmanas, especially of ascetics, of the poor and of the destitutes. In line eleven he further declares that he who will conform to the good path followed by the king will for long find refuge in God Vasudeva (Savasudevasrayamapnuyachhiyram).

From these references it is abundantly evident that Skandavarman was a devout worshipper of Visnu and a devoted champion of Vaisnavism. The meaning of the padamula of Visnu, which the king established at Puskari and setup the inscription just in front of it, is not quite clear. C.R. Krishnamachary, who edited the grant, translates it as a sanctuary. G. Ramdas thinks it to be a place of pilgrimage wherein the footprint of Vishnu was installed. He also reports of the discovery of a piece of stone about two feet in diameter on which is a slightly deepened impression of a man's right foot. The footprint itself is about 12 inches long and suggests that it must have been made by a very stalwart man. The worn out foot impression and the eroded stone impressed him that it belonged to the same age as the epigraph on the rocky hill. Perhaps it was the padamula of Vishnu said in the inscription to have been set up by Prince Skandavarma? The relic was found amidst thick forest, three miles away in a northeasterly direction from Podagada. However, we are inclined to suggest that perhaps the establishment of padamula of Vishnu refers to the establishment of a Vishnu Vihar or monastery by the king, where the emblem of the footprint of Vishnu was the chief object of veneration. This contention is supported by the internal evidence as well as traditional instances of pada worship in monasteries by the Buddhists and Saivas.

The donation of a large holding for the maintenance of ascetics and the poor in a satra indicates that the padamula was simply a Vaisnava Vihar. In Buddhist Viharas, worship of footprints was also in vogue. At Ranipur Jharial even today, we notice a few pairs of footprints worshiped with great veneration. It was known to have been a centre of Saivism and monastic activities. N.K.Sahu is inclined to think that the footprint symbolises the dwarf incarnation of Vishnu, Lord Vamana, and it appears that the Divine Incarnations were popular in the Nala Kingdom.. Whatever might be the significance, it seems that the traditions of pada also found their way to Buddhism.

We visited the Podagada hill fort and made a detailed surface exploration of the site where the inscribed stone slab stands in isolated set-up amidst jungle ambience, in the one-time thriving imperial city of the Nalas. Now the place is deserted, and traces of a structure in the shape of brickbats, stone slabs, parts of pillars and architectural projections are found, together with the outline of a temple where the footprint seemed to have been lodged. We discovered a stone image of Hanumana in the right corner of the majestic hill fort, which indicates that the incarnation of Rama and His worship together with Hanumana was in vogue in Nala kingdom.

G. Ramdas conducted a trial digging at Kesaribeda near the find spot of the Kesaribeda grant of Arthapatiraja in 1944, and traced out a rectangular structure 8' x 4', and built up walls 2' thick with bricks of 18' x 8' x 2' in size. His report further says the wall now standing are about 2'6" vertical on a floor paved with the same kind of bricks. The entrance into this room is in the eastern wall.

Opposite to this entrance is a beautiful carved image of Vishnu standing two feet high on the pedestal cut on the middle of an obelisk 6' high. The image is six-armed. In the upper right hand is the chakra while on the upper left hand the sankha. The lower right hand rests on the sword that hung from a belt round the waist. The lower left hand rests with the palm upwards on the top of the vertically standing gada. He assigns an ancient date for this Vishnu figure, and from this it is evident that Vaishnavism flourished side by side together with other religions.

Arthapatiraja, elder brother of Skandavarman, was a stunch Saivite and was known to have donated this village (agrahara) to four donees of Kautsasagotra. We notice a Vishnu image of similar type at Nilakantheswar temple complex of Umarkot, which indicates that Vaishnavism also thrived at many places in that region and was popular among people.

The occurrence of Vasudeva (Krishna) in the epigraph testifies to the prevalence of the Vasudeva cult in the Nala domain and its amalgamation with Vishnu in local understanding of the Vaishnava philosophy. The Vasudeva Krishna cult, which is resplendent in Indian sacred literature, was a very popular creed through the ages. In the Mahabharata, Sri Krsna is described principally as the Invincible Fighter. Skandavarman, being an invincible warrior of his age, was a worshipper of Vasudeva, who appears to have inspired his personality. The creed of Sri Krsna from the battlefield also seemed to have popular appeal in Nala kingdom.

Under Skandavarman, the Nala kingdom extended almost over the entire traditional South Kosala region wherein of late relics of Vaishnava pantheon have been traced out at many places. Some of these, on stylistic ground, could be assigned to this epoch. In course of our exploration we have discovered a number of Vishnu figures at Saintala and Sauntpur in Bolangir district together with ancient bricks, pottery, structural remains and other vestiges ascribable to Nala age. Vaishnavi (Laksmi devi), the counterpart of Vishnu, also finds representation in the sculptural art of this region at places like Belkhandi in Kalahandi district. Thus Vaishnavism enjoyed a spectacular growth and development, gaining popular support and princely protection.

If the institution of padamula of Vishnu be accepted to represent a Vaishnava vihar (Matha) then it can be said that some sort of Vaishnavite monastic order had also made its appearance under Skandavarman. We are also inclined to suggest that the invocatory phraseology Hari is Himself the conquered and the conqueror. That finds place in the beginning of the inscription marked with some sort of heroic and military accent, perhaps reflects the dichotomic chivalrous and religious personality of Skandavarman, the great and invincible warrior of his age, who appeared to have been inspired by the versatile charisma of Vishnu and Vasudeva, his personal and state Deity. His death about c. 515 A.D. marked the end of a phase of Vaishnavism in South Kosala.

With the ascendancy of the Rajim group of Nalas-Prithviraja (C.585-625), Viruparaja (C.625-660) and Vilasatunga (C.660-700), the second phase of Vaishnavism sprouted in Nala kingdom of South Kosala, with chief concentration in and around the Rajim area comprising parts of the present day adjoining region of Sambalpur-Bolangir-Kalahandi districts of Orissa as well as Raipur and Durg districts of Chhatisgarh.

The Rajivlochan temple inscription of Vilasatunga starts with a prayer offered to Vishnu. H.L. Sukla opines that the four-armed Vishnu image holding sankha, chakra, gada, padma, etc. found inside the Rajivlochan temple belongs to this epoch. He further states that according to the Vishnu Purana the eyes of Vishnu resemble a fully blossomed lotus (Rajiv) and the name of the Vishnu image of Rajim seems to have derived its name Rajivlochan from that. In that previous phase of Vaishnavism we noticed limited and symbolic representation of Vishnu's incarnations. But in sharp contrast, in this phase Vishnu's incarnations became diverse and numerous. In the inscription we find the names of Varaha, Nrusingha, Vamana, Madhava and Rama, etc., which interestingly had their iconic representation in the temple complex itself, testifying to the popularity of Avatara worship of Vishnu Himself in his manifold mysterious aspects.

The Narayana image of Badrinarayana temple of this place furnishes evidence of the synthesis of Narayana the primordial Deity and Vishnu, the Supreme God. The Gajalakshmi motif represented in this rich Vaishnava centre suggests that by this time, the worship of Lakshmi with Vishnu became popular and the motif became almost an inseparable part of temple architecture. The beautiful Vishnu images of Saintala, together with the ruins and relics of a Vaishnava temple there, with the extant doorjamb and icons of Vishnu's incarnation indicate that Saintala was a flourishing centre of Vaishnavism.

We also find relics of Vaishnavism at Salebhata and Patnagarh in Bolangir district of Orissa, which on stylistic ground could be assigned to this age. The Biranchi Narayana image of Salebhata amply testifies that the Narayana cult was also popular here. The exquisite Trivikrama figure of Sauntpur suggests the spread of the worship of Vishnu's various incarnations into the remote areas.

The figures of Varahi and Vaishnavi, etc. found in this area amply reflect that Vaishnavism developed significantly with a rich and diverse pantheon in the Nala kingdom. Gradually a process of synthesis of various cults and cult icons developed almost at all important religious centers, as is evident from the congregation of Siva, Vishnu, Lakshmi, Ardhanarisvara, Matrikas and Harihara figures all together in one centre, at places like Saintala, Sauntpur, Baidyanath, Harisankar, Rajim and Belkhandi etc. The process finally seems to have been culminated in the worship of the all-pervasive Lord Jagannath in the later period.


Dr. C.B. Patel is the Superintendent of the Orissa State Museum, Bhubaneswar