Monday, June 8, 2015


Maharani Didda was a remarkable person. She lived in medieval Kashmir. 

Have you heard her story? 

But first - Who is remarkable? (in this series of posts) Why women?

Remarkable- Those from history who did something unique. It was an outcome of the intensity of interaction between the person and prevailing conditions. The outcome was not what one would typically expect from the person’s background.

Women- because the boundaries for women have always been drawn tighter than men. So it is all the more spectacular and meaningful when these are questioned or broken.

Remarkable Women – who give pause with their innermost zest for life trying to break free from the confined halls and hallways of preset norms.

(Also, there is no moral judgement here, on the setting or outcome. However there is an unintended bias- the stories I come across, some of which arrive here, can only be a small part of many out there) 

Didda was born in 924 CE. Her father was Simharaja, ruler of Lohara (now in Poonch district). She had a physical disability- a limp. 

In 950 CE she was married to Kshema Gupta, ruler of neighboring Kashmir. He was son of Parva Gupta, who claimed the throne after killing a boy-king Sangramadeva and throwing the body into Vitasta (Jhelum river), weighted with a stone. Parva Gupta had been a minister in the court.

The region had a terrible history prior to the boy-king’s scholarly father Yashaskara, who had brought peace for a decade. The history was of rebellions, treasons, assassinations and depravity. An insane king had even had his father cruelly killed. A queen regent- Sugandhadevi, was executed after she was captured by rebels.

King Kshema Gupta was very fond of his dice, wine, hunting and women.  Yet, he was captivated by his wife Rani Didda- her intellect, charm and beauty. He was nicknamed Didda Kshema, because of coins issued in both their names. Her maternal grandfather King Bhima Deva, of the powerful Shahi kingdom (now in Afghanistan-Pakistan), visited when a child was born. Then one day in 958 CE, the king got a fever after a jackal hunt and died. Sati was expected.  Rani Didda asked for approval for Sati, which was given by Phalguna, the chief minister.

So on the day of the cremation, Rani Didda started walking to the pyre along with other mourning queens. 

What is Sati?

By 900 CE the practice of Sati had taken some hold in the royal families of far northern parts of the subcontinent. (Sati spread to all social classes across the whole, over the next centuries). It had its origins in vague instances from far before, showing up more frequently in 200-800 CE. Some horrified social intellectuals and poets (like Banabatta, 600 CE) desperately lobbied against it. They lost out to extremist voices. Distorted religion is a big weapon, at any time. In this case it was distorted Karma theories.

So, with a combined backdrop of political, social and familial reasons, Sati in royal families became not compulsory, but acceptable as an honorable thing to do, voluntarily. We don’t have numbers on how many royals in all, went this way.

The widowed queen had to get prior approval from a council of ministers, which was usually given. Then, the queen or queens and for a time, also the dead king’s attendees (physician, servants, etc.) entered the funeral pyre and died. If the wife had duties- like a nursing child or special guardianship, she could excuse herself. Or at the time of ascent to pyre, a minister from the assembled council could raise an objection to a queen, requesting her to stay behind for royal duties. She could accept. Recoiling in the last minute and not entering the pyre on her own was dishonorable- she lost her position, caste, home, family and money. She would have nothing and no one to turn to. However, many women who died believed in the practice, we can’t say what fraction. They gave away all their wealth and jewelry and willingly died. What we know is how much any human mind can believe what it wants to, in any time period. 

Lo! In the last minute, Naravahana, a courtier, objected. Rani Didda accepted, gave up her voluntary resolve and got off the ramp. Other queens died, including Chandralekha. Her father, chief minister Phalguna, watched.

Rani Didda had bribed Naravahana to object! Luckily for her, he did. In similar circumstances in about the same area in 1111 CE, another queen wasn’t so lucky. King Uchchala was murdered and Jayamati, his wife, gave a minister Gargachandra, her treasure, with the understanding that he would question her resolve. He accepted the money but didn’t come to the cremation ground at the required time. She delayed while waiting for him on route before entering the pyre, behind Bijjala, the loved queen. But not before her arms were hurt by robbers impatient for her ornaments.


Released from death, Rani Didda became regent of her young son, Abimanyu. She was the force that helped him stay on the throne, despite plots to eject them. Rani Didda’s ability for politics, negotiations and strategy was at work. She overcame threats – first, a big fire destroyed the capital. Then, she eliminated a built-in habit of the past- manipulations of ministers over the rulers.

Nephews of her late husband led an uprising with support of Brahmin sections. They besieged her when she visited a temple. There was a stand-off. She managed to send her son away to safety of a matt and negotiated. She talked out some, bribed some and her faithful minister Naravahana defeated the rest. She executed some rebels and pardoned some.

Apparently, and this caused considerable contention- men were seen having access to her living areas.

Yashodhara was another minister who helped put down an uprising. He wanted to march back into the capital with the army and was refused. He revolted and lost. Eventually, the trust also broke between Rani Didda and Naravahana: she suspected he was growing too powerful. He killed himself. Rani Didda recalled Phalguna, who was in exile.

Her son died in 972 CE. In sorrow, she had many temples, Buddhist monasteries and resting houses built. About 64 temples were built, some named after her, like Diddasvamin. Valga, who was Rani Didda’s porter- who sometimes carried her on the back, also built one- Valgamatt.

Nandigupta, her grandson, now king, died within a year. Tribhuvanagupta, another grandson who was installed as king, also died. Bhimagupta, third grandson was placed on the throne in 975 CE.

Here the story took a twist. Phalguna, the chief minister died. Soon after, Rani Didda found new help-a young buffalo herdsman, Tunga. He started as a letter carrier, got noticed and was elevated to a minister. It was said that the pair found love.

Tunga’s position in the court was protested by a fresh rebellion. It was led by Rani Didda’s nephew, this time aided with fasts by Brahmins. Forces lay in wait to catch Tunga at various places. Rani Didda had him hid and overcame the rebellion with her usual strategy: negotiations, gifts and bribery. Later, some were executed. Bhimagupta died in 981 CE in mysterious circumstances- Rani Didda was accused to be behind his death.

She now took the throne herself, finally. Maharani Didda was the ruler for 22 years! Tunga became prime minister and military commander, for he led the army to quell a difficult rebellion in Rajouri and was successful. He later put down more of the same.

Maharani Didda died in 1003 CE at age 79. She chose her successor, Samgramaraja, her brother’s son. He retained Tunga as prime minister. Samgramaraja was weak, and Tunga faced opposition from those who resented him.


Meanwhile, Mahmud of Ghazni’s invasions started in those parts.  When Mahmud’s forces invaded the Shahi kingdom in 1013, Tunga was sent with a large army to aid King Trilochanapala. The new invaders were using different tactics. Trilochanapala had some experience in previous attacks, he asked Tunga to take a defensive position in a vantage point. Tunga ignored the strategy and bravely attacked – he won. But the next morning his forces found themselves surrounded by a large army- what he won was a battle with a small spy force. The Shahi kingdom fell.  Tunga returned home dejected. One day while returning from the royal palace, he and his son were murdered. Suspected conspirators included the king’s brother, his own brother and a trusted follower!

Ghazni failed to reach Kashmir Valley in 1023 CE; the weather played a role.


Almost all the sources of that area and time period trace back to Kalhana’s Rajatarangini, written in 1149 CE. Kalhana disapproved of women rulers- Even in the case of those born in high families, alas! the natural bent of women, like that of rivers, is to follow the downward course. He also disdained women who did not follow gender norms, even Sati.

Then he had this to say about Maharani Didda- She, whom none believed had the strength to step over a cattle track- the lame lady- traversed, in the manner of the son of the wind, the ocean of the confederate forces...

The coins issued by Maharani Didda during her solo rule are still floating around. One can buy them on e-bay.