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Encyclopédie des historiographies : Afriques, Amériques, Asies

Nathalie Kouamé
Éric P. Meyer
Anne Viguier


Rajatarangini of Kalhana (The): Sanskrit Kavya as History

Rajatarangini de Kalhana (Le) : un Kavya sanskrit comme histoire

Shonaleeka Kaul


Le Rajatarangini est un poème épique (mahakavya) en sanskrit qui contient près de 8000 vers répartis en 8 livres ou parties. Il fut composé au Cachemire (Inde), en 1148‑50 apr J.‑C. Kalhana, le poète et auteur, était brahmane lettré. Le Rajatarangini est un texte qui rend compte des nombreuses dynasties royales qui régnèrent dans l’ancien royaume du Cachemire, depuis ses origines mythiques jusqu’à l’époque du poète. Il a acquis un statut emblématique depuis que les savants des xixe et xxe siècles l’ont labellisé comme étant le premier texte traitant spécifiquement d’histoire de toute la littérature sanskrite. Ils le considérèrent ainsi à cause du respect dont fait montre le texte pour la chronologie, les causes historiques et pour son objectivité (supposée).
Cependant, l’interprétation positiviste de cette œuvre met entre parenthèses et rejette les aspects du texte qui ne correspondent pas à la conception empiriste de ce que doit être un ouvrage d’histoire. C’est le cas notamment de ce qui concerne les mythes ainsi que des aspects rhétoriques et didactiques du texte, qui occupent pourtant la majeure partie de la Rajatarangini et qui sont typiques d’un discours poétique traditionnel. Corrigeant ces interprétations incomplètes du texte indien original, des approches récentes ont tenté de replacer le Rajatarangini au sein du genre parent des kavya et de la culture littéraire qui le caractérise. En adoptant cette perspective, l’historicité du Rajatarangini apparaît davantage comme la résultante de sa structure poétique et de sa narrativité que de son contenu factuel. En outre, envisager ensemble le texte lui‑même et ses stratégies littéraires comme l’usage du mythe, de la rhétorique et de la didactique, permet de découvrir, ce qui, d’une manière culturellement spécifique mais potentiellement universelle, peut constituer une « vraie » connaissance du passé et des actions humaines.

Texte intégral


1The Rajatarangini (literally, River of Kings) is an epic poem (mahakavya/prabandha) composed in the classical language, Sanskrit, in 1148‑50 in Kashmir (part of the modern state of Jammu and Kashmir, India). It was composed by a Kashmiri Pundit, or member of the ancient Indian learned class, named Kalhana. He is said to have been the son of a former minister by the name of Campaka in the court of a Kashmiri king, Harsha. Kalhana himself, however, does not seem to have worked for any king.

2The Himalayan region of Kashmir is an intermontane valley formed by the river Jhelum (ancient name Vitasta), a tributary of the river Indus. Running into nearly 8000 verses that are unequally distributed among eight books or sections, the Rajatarangini is an account of the royal dynasties that ruled the kingdom of Kashmir from its putative origins to the poet’s own time: In other words, it narrates nearly two millennia of the ancient and early medieval history of the Valley.


3One of the outstanding features of the Rajatarangini is that it is self‑reflexive. It begins with a prolegomena clearly stating its purpose (prayojana), its method, and its vision or philosophy of history. To begin with, it tells us that it was certainly not the first such work of Kashmiri history to have been written. Indeed, the Rajatarangini based itself on consultation and emendation of at least eleven similar Sanskrit texts composed before itself. Though only one of these older texts (Nilamata Purana, 8th century) has survived and only the author of another (Kshemendra 11th century) is historically well known, this indicates a long and well‑established premodern tradition of writing history.

4Moreover, in shaping its contents and message, the Rajatarangini also draws extensively on other, pan‑Indian Sanskrit literature like shastra (prescriptive treatises on statecraft and law), niti (political and moral parables), and itihasa (narratives on the past), even as the basic fact of chronicling dynasties king by king is in the vamshavali (genealogy) tradition. Indeed, the Rajatarangini may be seen to migrate among these genres and kavya (highly aesthetic poetry and prose), making it a composite text. All of this suggests a strong intertextuality at work in this Kashmiri epic which seems to have brought together a number of Sanskrit literary and philosophical traditions rather than departed from them. This is important to note, given that the dominant scholarship on the Rajatarangini has controversially believed it to be unique among all Sanskrit literature (more on this below in the section on historiographical assessment).

5Another aspect of interest is that the poet Kalhana claims to have consulted rock and copperplate inscriptions (shasana), that recorded royal land grants and had evidently survived from ancient times. This is an interesting palimpsest of sources, giving insight into the materials that went into the making of the text that is today itself considered a source‑material of history. Kalhana used these epigraphs to record the large number of donations made by kings, queens, ministers and generals to religious institutions of different affiliations, like Buddhist, Shaiva (worshippers of Shiva), Vaishnava (worshippers of Vishnu), and Saura (solar worship).

6Regarding the philosophy of history‑writing, Kalhana states that “shedding both attachment and aversion, the voice of the poet should be unwavering when recounting matters of the past” (RT I.7). Modern scholars have read this as a statement recognizing impartiality or objectivity as a virtue in a historian. It is worth noting however that Kalhana presents this as a poetic virtue and it may refer to the state of equipoise that Sanskrit poetic theory (alamkarashastra) of the times recommended to poets composing certain kinds of works.


7Significantly, the Rajatarangini gives a continuous chronology for the region, using traditional Indian calendars or eras, such as kaliyuga and shaka samvat, to assign dates to the ascension and end of the reign of every king or queen of every dynasty that ruled early Kashmir. These dynasties included the Gonandiyas (5th‑6th century?), the Karkotas (7th‑9th century), the Utpalas (9th century) and the Loharas (10th century‑12th century). Some of the important rulers of Kashmir whom we know about because of the Rajatarangini are the Mauryan king Ashoka (4th century), who also presided over an empire that spanned nearly the entire Indian subcontinent, the Kushana king Kanishka (2nd century) and the Huna kings Toramana and Mihirakula (6th century) all of whom also ruled over, and integrated Kashmir into, transregional Indian kingdoms. Hordes of gold, silver, copper and alloyed coins found in the Valley attest to the presence of these rulers in Kashmir.

8The text also documents some more local but nonetheless powerful Kashmiri kings chief among whom was Lalitaditya Muktapida (8th century) who reportedly undertook extensive conquests and raids, reaching into eastern India on the one hand, and central and western Asia (Sinkiang, Iran), on the other. We also hear of King Avantivarman (9th century), famous for undertaking effective measures to control floods in the Valley, and Didda (10th century), one of the few strong female rulers we get in the ancient world.

9The Rajatarangini recounts in detail a host of primarily political events that occurred during these regimes, and the policies, deeds and struggles of successive rulers and courtiers. It does not merely describe these; it seeks to explore the general and individual causes thereof and provide a range of plausible historical explanations for these. In doing so, Kalhana claims, as we have seen, to be detached in his evaluation.

10In fact, however, contrary to his stated dispassion, Kalhana’s style indicates a deep personal involvement when narrating the good or evil deeds of Kashmiri kings and queens. The Rajatarangini is a highly judgmental piece of work and constantly moralizes the events and actions it describes. This takes the form of praise and adulation for righteousness and denunciation and contempt for wrongdoing, the latter expressed even in obscene or scatological terms at places, something that is highly unusual in Sanskrit poetry. Espousing ethics was clearly a defining part of the Rajatarangini’s textual and historical agenda.

11The Rajatarangini is not a tale of only the elites, however. It also dwells centrally on the condition of the subjects under just and benevolent as well as tyrannical and exploitative kings, who alternated in Kashmir’s long history. Indeed, in this work, people’s welfare (prajanupalanam) is a frequent refrain and an important crucible for evaluating the rule of any king.

Historiographical Assessment

12In the main, it is for three reasons, namely the text’s deference to chronology, causation, and (alleged) objectivity, that European Orientalist scholars who studied the text from the early 19th century onwards, called the Rajatarangini the first and only work of history proper to emerge from ancient India. They believed that this late work was a unique exception in three thousand years of Sanskrit literary culture, which they accused of otherwise completely lacking a sense of history even as it abounded in scripture and mythology. Scholars who arrived at this characterization of the Rajatarangini as the first work of history in India included Harold Wilson (1825), George Buhler and Marcus Aurel Stein (1892, 1900), the last mentioned bringing out the critical edition of the Rajatarangini and its full English translation which is read to this day.

  • 1 Majumdar, 1961, p. 14‑25.

13Their (flawed) assessment of the uniqueness and historical character of the text was embraced and echoed throughout the 20th century by Indologists like Arthur Lewellyn Basham (1961) and Indian historians of different ideological persuasions, like the Nationalist scholar Ramesh Chandra Majumdar (1961) and the Marxist historian Romila Thapar (1983). In perhaps a scramble for coevality with Western disciplinary parameters, they issued laudatory statements such as the following, which became canonical for generations of later historians studying or teaching the Rajatarangini: “Even a modern historian should have little hesitation in ranking Kalhaṇa as a great historian…. [for his] correct appreciation of the true ideals and methods of history”.1

14In so valorizing the empiricist qualities of the text, however, 150 years of influential scholarship on the Rajatarangini essentially applied post‑Enlightenment Rankean positivism to a 12th century traditional Sanskrit poem. In the process, they bracketed out and disowned as “failures” and “imperfections” such aspects of the text that did not fit their idea of what history should be. This included all aspects of figuration, like myths, rhetoric, and didacticism, that were proper to a poetic discourse and so prominent in the Rajatarangini’s own scheme of things as a mahakavya.

  • 2 Ibid., p. 22‑24.

15For example, Marcus Aurel Stein (1900) thought the rhetoric and didactic parts of the Rajatarangini that were in kāvya style were simply unconnected with the narrative proper, which was historical, while Buhler indicted the resort to legend and myth as rendering the chronology of a large part of the text “valueless” and its author suspect. Following suit, despite christening Kalhana “a great historian”, Ramesh Chandra Majumdar2 spoke of his “very defective” method consisting in the inclusion of mythical or legendary kings, “a blind faith in the Epics and Puranas (ancient Indian genres narrating the past)”, a belief in witchcraft and magic, explanation of events as due to the influence of fate “rather than to any rational cause”, a general didactic tendency inspired by Hindu views of karma, and “mere display of poetical and rhetorical skill”. Romila Thapar also dismissed Kalhana’s moralism and didacticism.

16Thus, to be accepted as history, the Rajatarangini had to cease to be traditional Sanskrit poetry. Though entirely inspired from modern objectivist notions of history in the West, rather than from any indigenous or ancient approaches to treating of the past, the underlying belief in the opposition of “factual” (true) history and “fictive” (false) literature was new even to nineteenth‑century Europe, and belied the practice in Classical (let alone Indian) antiquity where history was considered but a form of fine literature with no prejudice to its truth value. The Rankean turn in European historiography imprinted itself on world historians, additionally through the agency of imperialists like James Mill who as early as 1817 launched a scathing attack on Indian literary and historical traditions for not measuring up to their Judeo‑Christian counterparts. Positivism mingled with imperialism to end up downgrading and delegitimizing indigenous Indian narratives of the past. Ironically, in being isolated as a flawed exception in all of Sanskrit literature, the Rajatarangini as history was both the creation and victim of an intellectual approach that sought to simultaneously appropriate and undermine a traditional Sanskrit text.

Recent Approaches

17In the last couple of decades, a new line of thinking has sought to rehabilitate the Rajatarangini in its own literary culture and thereafter investigate it as a work of history. In the process, there has been a move away from an empiricist understanding of the discipline of history towards its literary qualities and to the alternative historical modes that may spring from texts and genres of premodern India.

18Thus, privileging the search for a particular poetic style as a historical marker, Sanskritist Whitney Cox (2013) has recently argued that the occurrence of Sanskrit verses in a “terse, tense” register in the later sections of the Rajatarangini “is able to capture the ebb and flow of the world’s congenital instability by rendering itself dense and rich enough to capture something of it.” This suggests a formal mimesis as the substance of Kalhana’s engagement with history.

19Perhaps more urgently, other Sanskritists like Walter Slaje (2008) and Lawrence McCrea (2013) have returned to indigenous Sanskrit categories of generic analysis, like rasakavya, to gauge the nature and purpose of the Rajatarangini. Rasa refers to the nine aesthetic flavors or essences, like the heroic, the erotic or the compassionate, with at least one of which every work of Sanskrit poetic composition was required to be suffused.

20Walter Slaje, for example, in his analysis of the preamble/prolegomena of the poem, has argued for the Rajatarangini’s pursuit of aesthetic and ultimately soteriological, rather than historical, ends. He points to the evocation of the shanta rasa or state of equipoise that Kalhana claims to have infused his poem with, and which in turn would facilitate the attainment of moksha or liberation by the reader. He says that this was Kalhana’s main endeavour via the narration of the lives of Kashmir’s kings past. In other words, the Rajatarangini’s appeal to historical reality was a necessary means - but merely a means - to enhance, as only an appeal to verity can, the aesthetic effect. Lawrence McCrea also focuses on the shanta rasa but suggests that it was Kalhana’s pessimistic belief in moral decay as the rule of the cycle of time and history that led Kalhana to choose this genre and this literary flavour for his history of Kashmir. Thus, while Slaje sees the historical aspect of the Rajatarangini as subserving and subordinate to aesthetic objectives, McCrea argues for vice versa.

21A comprehensive reinterpretation of the Rajatarangini by historian Shonaleeka Kaul (2014, 2017) demonstrates that a clear theoretical enunciation of poetry (kavya) as history is to be found in Sanskrit poetics, which needs to be taken on board when considering the range of historical modes that flourished in the premodern world. Further, the practice of this theory may have consisted in developing an ethico‑political discursivity that frames the understanding of historical knowledge and defines, in a culturally specific yet potentially universal manner, what “true” knowledge of time and human action may be.

22Kaul points to kavya’s long‑standing and cherished tradition according to which the poet (kavi) was a seer (rishi), who possessed spiritual omniscience and divine sight (divyadrishti). With these powers, which arose from his poetic intuition (pratibha), he could gauge the real nature of things and even apprehend the different dimensions of time “things that no one before had seen”. This claim to epistemic authority, however conventional, qualified the poet to speak on matters gone by and, as one of Kalhana’s successors put it, rendered kavya as “a lamp that illuminates past realities” (kavyadipam bhutavastuprakasakam).

23Echoing this self‑understanding of the genre, Kalhana writes that the world would be in darkness without the illumining work of the good poet (satkavikrityam andham jagattvam vina) (RT I. 47). Particularly the deeds of kings would be lost forever were it not for the poet who resurrects, vivifies and embodies their glory. Kalhana writes:

  • 3 RT I. 46.

Renowned [and mighty] kings would not even be remembered without the favour of the poet’s work, which is sublime and to which we offer salutations.3

24There can be no doubt that in these statements we find a concrete assertion of the epistemic authority of poets. But that’s not all. In a strikingly constructivist approach to the past and to the pursuit of its knowledge, the poet is understood to be not just the “knower” but even the “creator” of the past. Hence Kalhana calls him kavi‑prajapati or kavi‑vedhas, that is, poet‑creator (RT I.4). He writes: “Who else is capable of making visible (pratyakshatam) bygone times except the poet‑creator who can make delightful productions (ramyanirmana)?” Here again, then, is Sanskrit kavya’s belief in the poet’s creative ability to make the unobservable past perceptible - the quintessentially historical function- and indeed a statement on the past itself so rendered as a construction or production (nirmana).

History as Ethical Instruction

25Kaul further argues that the poet’s ontic access to history was inflected by kavya’s didactic mandate to provide instruction (upadesha) on a range of human goals and affairs, like piety (dharma), power (artha), and pleasure (kama). For a text like the Rajatarangini, the area of instruction was specifically political morality (rajadharma). Accordingly, the primary enterprise of the Rajatarangini was not merely penning a factual record of Kashmir’s past but representation of Kashmir as a discursive political space mediated by an ethical paradigm.

26Thus, governance and kingship in the Rajatarangini are evaluated according to certain moral principles. Good conduct, righteousness, generosity/liberality, discriminating intellect that could tell right from wrong and which encouraged men of merit, character and learning, and the will to enforce justice (dharma) and absence of fear among the subjects ‑ these constituted the highly prescriptive list of personal and political values that drew on a conception of moral order to which the king’s commitment was expected.

27Then, these values were plotted through a series of exemplars that Kalhana identified in Kashmir’s past kings, clubbing them in pairs elucidating their comparative morality. Thus, the hedonist king Vibhishana was succeeded to the throne by his son, Siddha the puritan. The violent monarch Mihirakula was followed by the righteous Baka. The just Chandrapida was assassinated and replaced on the throne by the tyrannical Tarapida. And the debauched father and son, Kalasha and Harsha, were followed tellingly by the high‑minded king Ucchala. These were all historical kings separated by centuries but connected by the poet’s hermeneutical scheme.

28Indeed, declaring the organizing principle of his textual and historical vision Kalhana states early in his work:

  • 4 RT I. 46.

From time to time, due to the spiritual merit of the subjects, kings appear who organize a kingdom that is sunk deep in disorder. Those who are intent on harassment of their subjects perish with their families; on the other hand, fortune waits on even the descendants of those who reinstate order where there is chaos … this [is] the feature of each tale (prativrittantam lakshanam)…4

29In this way, instead of being interpreted at face value alone for the facts and dates of history it reported, the entire River of Kings can be understood as a flow of ethical exemplars. This schematic organization of the text and of time, articulating the poet’s ethicized vision of history, is striking. It is here that the Rajatarangini displays narrativization or the configuration of historical “facts” around a plot‑structure that endows otherwise random data with a unified structure and meaning, thereby rising above mere seriality. This reading of the text conforms to Hayden White’s post‑modern theory of history as narrative. Narrativity in the Rajatarangiṇi embodied the poet’s vision of the past, endowing that past with culturally sanctioned meanings that etched a profound understanding of historicity in early India.

30In this traditional understanding, didactic and historical functions coalesced via poetry. This in turn meant that the model of epistemic truth generated by the Rajatarangini was both transcendent, in invoking higher ethical ends, and contingent in so far as it was located in a referentially adduced historical past.

31Furthermore, didacticism in the Rajatarangini also offered a larger critique of power by pointing to the impermanence of royal sovereignty and of human life itself. To give just one example, in a moral and mortal take on the evanescence of the perquisites and pomp of kingship, the poet writes:

There is perhaps no man who, having been at first shown favour [by Royal Fortune, the sweetheart of kings], has later not been harassed by her, as by the friendship of the vulgar… She, who is without affection, has never followed kings in death when they, without friends or provisions, are en route for the next world… Gold vessels of the banquet and other articles collected in the treasury rooms - how is it that those kings who have departed for the next world [no longer] own them? … Torn from the necks of those [enemies] about to die … the necklaces, accursed and unholy, for whom are they an attraction? Predecessors have left the ornaments behind after defiling them with hot tears of anguish when about to die; while touching them, who does not have a qualm?

  • 5 RT. V.6‑15, VIII.358‑9.

On the same path of death is every individual plunging headlong. I am the slayer and he the slain - the notion of a difference [between the two] lasts but a short while… He who but yesterday exults while slaying his foe, at the end sees an enemy gloating over him when he is himself about to be killed. How awful! Fie on this illusion!5

32The themes of mortality and evanescence of human life and action can be seen as the Rajatarangini’s deposition on temporality itself and its ever‑attendant quality, change. A recognition of this fundamentally historical character of time frames the text in that it begins, too, with describing itself as a balancing remedy, an antidote as it were, for kings who may be seized by change - prosperity or decline - across space and time (nṛpanam ullase hrase va deshakalayoh) (RT I.21). A certain universality and inevitability, then, attach to the march of history in this vision.



Marcus Aurel Stein, (ed. & transl.), 1960 [1892, 1900], Kalhaṇa’s Rājataraṅgiṇī or Chronicle of the Kings of Kashmir, 2 vols, Munshiram Manoharlal, Delhi.

Kaul Shonaleeka, 2017, The Making of Early Kashmir: Landscape and Identity in the Rajatarangini, Oxford University Press, Delhi, 222 p. [9780199482924]

White Hayden, 1987, The Content of the Form: Narrative Discourse and Historical Representation, John Hopkins University Press, Baltimore and London, 264 p. [9780801841156]

Papers and Contributions to Books

Basham Arthur Lewellyn, 1961, “The Kashmir Chronicle” in Phillips Cyril H. (ed.), Historians of India, Pakistan and Ceylon, Oxford University Press, London, p. 57‑65, 552 p. [9780197135204]

Lawrence McCrea, 2013, “Śānta rasa in the Rājataraṅgiṇi: History, epic, and moral decay”, Indian Economic and Social History Review, vol. 50, issue 2, p. 179‑99.

Majumdar Rameh Chandra, 1961, “Ideas of History in Sanskrit Literature” in Philips Cyril H. (ed.), Historians of India, Pakistan and Ceylon, Oxford University Press, London, p. 13‑21, 552 p. [9780197135204]

Thapar Romila, 1983, “Kalhana”, in Mohibbul Hasan (ed.), Historians of Medieval India, Meenakshi Prakashan, Delhi, p. 52‑62.

Kaul Shonaleeka , 2014, “’Seeing’ the Past: Text and Questions of History in Kalhana’s Rajatarangini”, History and Theory, vol 53, Issue 2, p. 194‑211.

Slaje Walter, 2008, “In the Guise of Poetry: Kalhaṇa Reconsidered” in Slaje Walter (ed.), Śāstrārambha: Inquiries into the Preamble in Sanskrit, Harrassowitz Verlag, Weisbaden, p. 207‑44, 255 p. [9783447056458]

Wilson Harold H., 1825, “An Essay on the Hindu History of Cashmir”, Asiatic Researches, vol. 15, p. 1‑119.


1 Majumdar, 1961, p. 14‑25.

2 Ibid., p. 22‑24.

3 RT I. 46.

4 RT I. 46.

5 RT. V.6‑15, VIII.358‑9.


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