VIDISHA. ALSO KNOWN AS BHILSA. Almost a stone’s throw away from Bhopal.
The ancient tirtha-kshetra sanctified by lineages of Rishis. The flourishing city gifted by Sri Rama himself to his youngest brother Shatrughna. The immortal megapolis overflowing with wealth and happiness, teeming with people from various Deshas within Bharatavarsha and outside it. The paradise populated by large, ornate mansions and larger, exquisite palaces. The home of the finest jewels on earth. The abode of every Vaidika, Jaina, and Bauddha sect. Invoking its very name brought prosperity, joy and radiance.
The Puranas untiringly, joyously extol Vidisha’s glory and laud the spiritual merit of bathing in the sacred waters of the Vetravati River (now, the Betwa River) on whose banks it is situated. The Skanda Purana recommends the Yatri or pilgrim to visit Vidisha and take a cleansing dip in the purifying waters of Vetravati after visiting Somanatha in Gujarat. The annals of sacred Buddhist literature too, elevate Vidisha to a pristine pedestal. Countless Buddhists spread over centuries contributed substantial sums to build various Buddhist shrines in the city.
Ashoka prized it. Pushyamitra Sunga counted Vidisha among his most important cities along with Pataliputra and Ayodhya. It was his eastern capital. The Greek ambassador Heliodorus who reverentially embraced Sanatana Dharma and became a Bhagavata built the fabulous Garuda Pillar at Vidisha. The Gupta Empire treasured Vidisha as one of its prized jewels. Chandragupta II made it his capital for a while before shifting to that other great Sanatana hub, Ujjayini.
AS A COMMERCIAL POWERHOUSE, Vidisha and its surroundings were renowned for centuries for a stunning variety of industries, trades and businesses. It was a thriving cotton hub and manufactured and exported various grades of cotton that reached all the way to Rome. Vidisha was also famed for its exquisite ivory work, sculptural and architectural marvels. It produced some of the finest swords, which were in huge demand throughout Bharatavarsha and central Asia. If all this was not enough, Vidisha’s pre-eminence derived from its physical location itself: it occupied a median position on the commercial route between the seaports on the West coast and Pataliputra, which in turn culminated in the flourishing Tamralipti port in the Vanga Desha (Bengal). It was also the halting place on the Dakshinapatha (route to southern India), akin to a transit airport.
Above all, Vidisha has been immortalised by the Emperor of Poets, Kavikulaguru Kalidasa in his magnificent Megadhuta. Kalidasa, through the Yaksha (a demigod) instructs the cloud-messenger to soar over the majestic Vindhya peaks to witness the gurgling Narmada breaking into brilliant rivulets on its rocky side after which the cloud would arrive at the Dasharna Desha, whose capital was Vidisha. And then Kalidasa wields his poetic brush to paint a fantastic panorama of this Desha:
Indeed, Vidisha was a geographical expression and a miniature of the panorama of Sanatana Dharma itself: ageless, eternal, self-fulfilled, gorgeous. It is one of those ancient civilisational and cultural nuclei of the Hindu people that survives continuously till date. Defaced over the centuries yet unbroken. Its environs exude its profound history like a sensory object. For a better part of two centuries, the amount of research that has gone into excavating its full history is nothing short of staggering.
ON THE EASTERN BANK OF VETRAVATI opposite Vidisha was its twin, Bhilsa, a great commercial town. This was also known as Besnagar. Since 1956, the whole region was administratively merged in district Vidisha.
From the post-Gupta era, Bhilsa largely eclipsed the splendour of the ancient Vidisha. By the ninth century, the eclipse was near-total with the unstoppable ascendance of Bhilsa as an important Surya-Kshetra thanks to the grand Sun Temple of Bhayillasvamin. Its other names included Bhaillasvamin, Bhailasvamin, Bhayila or Bhailla. Bhilsa derives its name from that temple whose Surya-Deity was known as Bhayila or Bhailla. The Sanskrit root Bha means “light,” “Sun,” “resplendence,” etc.
ONE OF ITS GREATEST patrons and devotees included Krishna III, the monarch of the pan-Indian Rashtrakuta Empire, who transformed Bhilsa into an important city in his dominions in Malwa. At the peak of its glory, Bhilsa not only became a magnet for pilgrims throughout Bharatavarsha but the deity Bhayillasvamin inspired the construction of scores of Surya Temples in the Malwa region. One such notable temple was located in Siyadoni in today’s Jhansi district.
Writing in 1030, Alberuni testifies to the enduring prestige, splendour and sanctity of Bhilsa in his famous travelogue in these words:
By any measure, Bhilsa was a flourishing economic nerve centre with large marketplaces or Vithis, where each Vithi was dedicated to trade in a specific class of goods. The crowning glory of its prosperous commerce was its sanctity as a place of pilgrimage. A beautiful inscriptional record narrates how Bhayillasvamin himself directed and regulated trade, commerce, justice and piety in Bhilsa. A vyavastha or system of jurisprudence was made whereby judicial decisions flowed from the “deity and his attendants and not from any judicial or administrative authority.”
MORE THAN TWO CENTURIES after Alberuni’s visit, Bhilsa had its first disastrous brush with the blood-seeking, expansionist sword of Islam in the form of Iltutmish’s bigoted army.
In 1232, Iltutmish had marched against the menacing fort of Gwalior then under the control of the Paramara feudatory, “Milak Deo, the accursed son of Basil, the accursed.” Basil is the Islamic corruption of “Vishaladeva.“ After a dogged siege lasting almost a year, he finally starved it into submission. And then,
Needless, all the seven hundred infidel Hindus were mercilessly butchered.
Elated with this victory, Iltutmish led another campaign in Malwa in 1234 and claimed Bhilsa as yet another victim of his violent bigotry. Bereft of the steely protection of an imperial dynasty like the Guptas or the extraordinary Paramara monarch, Bhoja Raja, both the fort and the city of Bhilsa fell to Iltutmish’s army of holy Muslim warriors. The grand Paramara Empire, which had sustained its glory for nearly five hundred years, was hurtling towards extinction. Its present ruler, Devapala, having already lost Gwalior, had to face this additional humiliation.
Needless, the magnificent temple of Bhayillaswamin was demolished. The contemporary Muslim chronicler Minhaj Siraj estimates that this “idol-temple which took three hundred years in building, [was] in altitude… about one hundred Gaz.”
The Bhayillaswamin Temple was rebuilt a few years after Iltutmish left, that is, when Muslim control once again weakened over Malwa. This was a phenomenon akin to the restoration of the Somanatha Temple in Gujarat after Mahmud departed. This was the scene in the aftermath of Iltutmish’s raid:
However, this renewed glory was just a presage to its total eclipse.
THE NEXT DEADLY BLOW TO BHILSA came in the form of the Turushka monster Ala-ud-din Khalji who had chosen it for two specific reasons as we shall see.
Its awesome wealth, accumulated over centuries would supply him with the working capital needed to fulfil his long-term ambition of becoming the Sultan of Delhi. In his submission to the then Sultan Jalal-ud-din Khalji, Ala-ud-din said that he had selected this infidel city because it was not fully incorporated into the Islam’s dominions in Hindustan for it was still fully “infested with Hindoos,” and “I am determined to subdue them.” The prospect naturally appealed to his uncle, the Sultan.
Indeed, Ala-ud-din Khalji had studied Bhilsa (or Malwa in general) quite thoroughly.
Even on the eve of Iltutmish’s invasion, Malwa had become a sorry mess. In fact, the mess was what actually spurred this Turushka’s raid. The Paramara king Devapala had squandered away most of his reign in waging senseless wars against his neighbouring Hindu rulers, and they in turn, against him. His successors were equally myopic and foolish. Each war not only reduced their territories but paved the way for the self-inflicted extinction of this once-grand Hindu Empire, one of the greatest ever to rule over northern and central India.
By the time Ala-ud-din Khalji embarked on a renewed Turushka assault, Malwa had been incessantly ravaged by other Hindu kingdoms including but not limited to the Chalukyas of Gujarat, Yadavas of Devagiri, the Vaghelas of Gujarat, and Hammiradeva of Ranastambhapura. In fact, a direct evidence testifying this internecine Hindu warfare flows from Abdullah Wassaf, the 14th century Muslim panegyrist. Writing in 1300, he describes the situation in Malwa:
In early 1293, Ala-ud-din Khalji marched towards Bhilsa armed with a sizeable force. The route to Bhilsa passed through one of India’s most important hubs of Jaina Dharma, Chanderi. It was an ancient and familiar route, which eventually terminated at the even more renowned Ujjaini. Ala-ud-din’s marauding force “cleared the entire road of vile infidel wretches” a euphemism for Hindu genocide, wanton pillage and destruction before reaching the ill-fated Bhilsa. The Turushka’s rude incursion predictably shook the defenceless city to its foundations. Its infidel inhabitants though, had prior experience of a Turushka invasion but all they could now do was salvage whatever they could and flee for safety.
Ala-ud-din Khalji had a feast of rapacity. His plunder-hungry army recklessly wasted the city with abandon, wrecking its teeming temples and stupas and smashed the ”filthy infidel idols“ on an epic scale. Needless, the Bhayillaswamin Temple was pounded to the ground never to rise again.
Muslim chroniclers uniformly refer to Bhilsa as Bhailasan, a corruption of Bhayillaswamin. The most important part of the salvaging efforts of the Hindus was to cart off their sacred Murtis to safety. They concealed a large number of Murtis in the bed of the Vetravati River. But in a testimony to his bigotry, Ala-ud-din Khalji drew them out of the River and shattered them to pieces. Among these were two enormous “brass idols which had been the object of the worship of the Hindus of those parts,” according to Muslim chroniclers. Ala-ud-din Khalji loaded them on a special cart and gave a familiar order: the revolting idols had to be sent to Delhi and smashed at the Badaun Gate so that the Muslim faithful would trample upon their broken pieces.
Judged purely in monetary terms, the Bhilsa expedition was a wild success. Like a hardened bandit who is also heartless and bigoted and equipped with a kindred army, Ala-ud-din handsomely rewarded himself after chewing up Bhilsa to a carcass.
The pilfered booty travelled on hundreds of horses and carts and included cattle, precious metals, pearls, rubies, gems, and the “inevitable idol to be trampled under the zealot’s feet.” Unlike the normal Islamic practice where the underling gives a fifth of the war spoils to the sultan, Ala-ud-din furnished a prodigious portion of the booty looted from Bhilsa to Sultan Jalal-ud-din Khalji. Plus there was the additional act of Islamic piety: of breaking the infidel idols, which brought “great religious merit to the Musulmans.”
With that, Vidisha, the ancient, sacred Hindu city had been permanently extinguished. Henceforth, the grotesque, foreign sounds of the Kalma would replace the cultured rhapsody of Kalidasa in the defiled city.
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