The Extinct World of the Bhaṭṭārakas or Bhattas is a Dried-up Teardrop of History

Tracing the brief cultural history of the Bhaṭṭārakas or Bhattas, the talented bards and panegyrists who occupied a central place in the Hindu society for a millennium.
The Extinct World of the Bhaṭṭārakas or Bhattas is a Dried-up Teardrop of History

THE SANSKRIT ROOT BHA generally means “sun,” “light,” “to glow,” “to shine,” “to look attractive,” and so on. Some of its familiar derivatives include Bhāskara and Bhānu. But its most renowned derivative is the very name of our country, Bhārata. In the human realm, the once-ubiquitous surname Bhaṭṭāraka was variously used as a title of respect, a formal address that had a range of meanings including preceptor, saint, sage, king, a noble lord, and so on. Its most frequent usage occurs in the Buddhist annals where Bauddha Munis and philosophers are addressed using the generic Bhaṭṭāraka honorific. Bhaṭṭāraka also means “Sun.” In some regions of Bhārata, the term Bhaṭṭāraka-vāra was used for “Sunday.”

The resplendent Maitraka Dynasty that ruled from Valabhi in Saurashtra, Gujarat, flourished for three centuries and carved a glorious niche in the socio-political and cultural history of Bhārata. The very name, Maitraka has its origins in Mitra or Sun. Some of its illustrious rulers adopted the Bhaṭṭāraka or Paramabhaṭṭāraka title. The Valabhi University should arguably rank as their finest contribution to Indian learning. At its peak, it rivalled the more renowned Nalanda.

Even to this day, Jain monks and heads of Jain Mathas are titled Bhaṭṭāraka.

However, the diminutive form of Bhaṭṭāraka will be instantly familiar to today’s audience. This is the omnipresent, pan-Indian surname, Bhat, Bhatt, Bhatta, Bhattacharya, Bhattar, another nomenclatural proof of the awesome and sustained cultural unity of Hindus and Bhāratavarsha.

When we read Indian history in this fashion it not only comes alive like a pulsating, contemporary reality but debars any scope for distortion. We are invited to a tasty feast of the never-ending experiential joy of further exploration, discovery and rediscovery.

The history and fortunes of the Bhaṭṭāraka or Bhat title or surname is as chequered and bumpy as it is revelatory. From its remote origins as an honorific and later a surname, it was largely applied to the Brahmanas and Kshatriyas (we do not consider Jainas and Bauddhas as separate from Sanatana Dharma). For much of its millennial journey, the title retained its pre-eminence and inspired pride and accountability among its holders to behave and conduct themselves according to the highest standards of piety, scholarship, and Dharma.

Apart from some of the aforementioned kings, an incredible gamut of Bhaṭṭārakas or Bhattas emerged on this sacred soil and strode over several realms like absolute colossuses. In literature we have the eternal Bana Bhatta. In rhetoric, there was the outspoken Mahima Bhatta. In the realm of poetics, the 11th Century Kashmirian Mammata Bhatta remains an enduring figure. Then there is the famous Manusmriti commentator, Kulluka Bhatta. In astronomy and mathematics, we have the absolute early master in Aryabhatta.

However, there was another class of Bhattas who followed a profession that went extinct about a hundred and fifty years ago. These were the bards, panegyrists and eulogisers. Spread over a vast expanse of India’s sacred geography from Rajasthan, Gujarat, Andhra, Karnataka, Tamil Nadu, and parts of contemporary Maharashtra, these luminaries commanded quite an extraordinary degree of patronage, respect and reverence for more than a millennium. In general, their main occupation was to glorify the king by composing original poetry in Sanskrit or Bhāratīya bhāṣā set to tune. They also maintained records of the royal dynasty’s lineage and important milestones of its history. They were learned in an impressive list of subjects including languages, prose, poetry, geography and several aspects of the administration. Some of them also worked as full-blown bureaucrats.

Extant Origins

The earliest extant record of these Bhattas is available in an inscription grant that occurs in the Western Ganga dynasty dated 968 CE in the reign of Satyavakya Permmanadi. His bard Jayasena Bhatara (Bhatta) ruled over the Kâreya province (this roughly falls in the contemporary Mysore-Nanjanagud belt) wrote this grant which reads as follows:

Jayasêna Bhatara who was ruling Kâreya, and the bold Dandanâyaka Bikkeya, assigned the land for cultivation for the Devigere and Piriyakere which Nagavarma had ordered to be constructed. Jayasêna Bhatara allowed four kaṇḍuga as rent-free land for the upkeep.

One kaṇḍuga = 160 litres or its equivalent in weight.

When we travel from Karnataka to Gujarat-Rajasthan, we notice the same bards performing pretty much the same functions in the 12th century. This Nadol inscription describes a solemn promise made to Maharaja Rayapala by a group of sixteen Bhāṭs. The inscription’s text has been paraphrased as follows:

We solemnly promise to find out, according to the customs of this country, by means of the Caukaḍika (Panchayat) system whatever is lost by, or snatched away from, the Bhāṭa, Bhaṭṭaputra, and others on their way.

The inscription gives the full list of all the sixteen signatories whose names are prefixed with the title Bhaṭṭāraka. More incredibly, these sixteen Bhaṭṭārakas hail from the following major regions: Nadol, Anhilwara, Baroda, Dwarka and Kathiawar. The term Bhaṭṭaputra is the correct linguistic form of the contemporary surname, Barot, who belonged to the upper echelons of professional bards and panegyrists.

In the 13th century, we have scant but definitive records that show the prestige enjoyed by the Bhats in the grand Hoysala Empire. We have a certain Kirti Raya, a celebrity Bhatta in the reign of Vira Ballala III whose death in 1317 was publicly mourned. The inscriptional grief dedicated to him describes him rather colourfully. It is also unintelligible given that only its fragment has survived.

…This eulogizer, this bard, this fearless champion of bards, the maker of eulogies, Kirti Raya, a stream of melody [in his eulogies]…he was the subduer of illicit love,…a supporter of virtue, died in the reign of the Hoysala King Vira Ballala.

The tone and tenor of the text in the original Kannada is rather marvellous and moving at the same time but its precise effect is impossible to render in English.

Vijayanagara: The Hub of the Bhattas

GIVEN THE SANATANA ZENITH that the Vijayanagara Empire ushered in and sustained, it is unsurprising that the Bhattas had a substantial share in that fortune. Here we have an impressive number of inscriptional and other records that give us a first-hand picture of the Bhattas. We have the names, exploits and profound attainments of some celebrated Bhattas, who are almost uniformly venerated for their social altruism and Karma Yoga.

In fact, from its founding days, the Vijayanagara monarchs held the title of Bhatta in enormous esteem and prestige and applied it to themselves.

We first have the story of the Bhatta named Bācapa who flourished in the early years of the Empire. In 1358, he used his personal wealth to construct several large tanks, rest houses, and performed other works of Punya. He planted rows and rows of shade-giving trees on the four sides of these tanks. In another remarkable feat of Sanatana piety, he performed the Upanayanam to the peepul tree each at these four corners.

The inscription which narrates this exceptional service titles Bācapa’s patron, Bukkaraya as Śrīvīra saṅgamēśvarada rāya bhaṭṭu. Bhaṭṭu is the Telugu word for Bhatta or Bhattar. In other words, Bukkaraya was the royal Bhat or bard of his father, Sangama.

Bukkaraya’s equally famous son, Harihara II is described as the royal Bhat to his father. We have two incredible inscriptions dated 1392 and 1394 from his reign mentioning the inspiring, sublime and elevating character and service of Bhatta Bachiyappa. Here is how they read:

Bachiyappa, the golden necklace of royal Bhattas, the hero of eulogisers, the fearless champion of eulogisers, the beater of time for eulogisers, the promoter of ecstasy which caused the hair to stand on end. . . born in the Baḍavāravamśa was the Bhatta Bachiyappa of Arunahalli. A crown-jewel of the Baḍavāra-kula a master of the Gautama Gotra, increaser of the faithful, a garland of love to the royal Bhattas, a bee to the virtuous, the King of virtue, fearless champion of eulogisers, an elephant-goad to hostile kings: this was the illustrious Bachiyappa of the Bhattas.

Then we have the copperplates discovered at the Sripundi village in the Guntur region which mention how the village was founded. It was apparently given as a gift by the Chalukya King, Kubja Vishnuvardhana to the Bhattarajus. Which opens a separate, tragic page of this history. They composed their poetry and panegyrics exclusively in Telugu.

After the appalling destruction of the Vijayanagara Empire, the fortunes of the Bhattarajus dwindled to woeful proportions. Shorn of political shelter, bereft of protection, their decline and impoverishment was swift and heart-rending. They gradually lost the original genius handed down by generational memory but managed to preserve their art. They began eulogising random Zamindars and wealthy men and with the disappearance of that class as well, the Bhattarajus adapted to the new cup of woe by singing Bhajans, Kirtans, ballads and reciting folklore. They eventually became wandering minstrels, singing and reciting at weddings and funerals. Today, they are variously known as Bhattarajus, Bhatturaju, Bhataraju, Bhatrajulu, or Jathikirthulu.

The most renowned Bhattaraju luminary who made waves throughout the world in recent memory was Sri Sathya Sai Baba.

But the unkindest cut of all happened to them under an alleged democracy of “independent” India: they are today classified as a backward class. A community that could make our Devatas come alive through song and poetry reduced to this.

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