Strange geographical and temporal gaps in our school history as it appears to a school boy
 Source : News Bharati English  Date : 16-May-2017

Kanishka, the benevolent Buddhist king of the Kushana Dynasty, had his capital at present day Peshawar (original name Purushpur, in North West Pakistan), and he ruled all across North India up to Pataliputra (now called Patna) in the 2nd century ( CE 127 -150) – I learned from my school text in history.

During his rule the famous school of Gandhara art flourished around his capital. When I grew up and studied more I realized that this is at best a half truth. The truth is that his empire extended up to Turfan in Tarim basin in Uzbekistan; the people were Buddhist in all of Afghanistan and further north and the Gandhara art left its mark all over Afghanistan. The enormous mountain-side Buddha statues of the Bamyan Valley in Afghanistan and Swat valley in Pakistan, all destroyed by Taliban canon fire in the late 1990s and early years of 2000, were landmarks of the Gandhara School.

The historical narration in my school text then jumped to King Harsha Vardhana, whose rule extended from the Punjab in the north to Kamarupa (Assam) in the east and Narmada in the South in the 1st half of the 7th century (CE 606 to 647). Harsha’s capital was Kannauj in present Uttar Pradesh. His court poet Bana Bhatta wrote the 1st historical text, written by any Indian, named ‘Harsha Charita’, chronicling the events of the king’s life.

Prior to that Indians had written only the Puranas, which were sometimes partly historical and partly mythological with stories of Gods and Goddesses, conveying religious/spiritual messages. Indians were not history conscious and this attitude did not change much even after Bana Bhatta and they paid dearly for this, as we shall see later. Judging by my experience in school, I wonder whether this attitude has changed even now.

The moot point is that there is a gap of several centuries between Kanishka and Harsha. Also the history taught in our schools is silent on what happened in Afghanistan which was till Kanishka’s time a part of the Indian political, religious and cultural sphere, contiguously from north western India and continuously from the times of the Mahabharata; Gandhara was the name of Afghanistan and adjacent regions of Pakistan at that time and queen Gandhari, mother of the Kauravas hailed from there.

It would be relevant to enquire how did the Greek chroniclers who came with Alexander’s invasion (4th century BC) record the name of the region. In any case, the name Gandhara or shorter Gandhar persisted even five centuries after Alexander’s invasion. It is probable that the name Kandahar is an evolution of Gandhar. (Some Modern Greek historians have put forward that Kandahar is a corruption of Alexander. But that seems unlikely in a region dominated by Persian and Arabic languages in which the corruption of Alexander is Sikander.)

It is justified to say that the region was part of India, inhabited by Hindu and Buddhist people, and the present day Afghans are descendants of our ancestral cousins. Our school text books do not talk about Gandhar anymore; the narration makes a great leap of about 1000 years from Kanishka’s Gandhar to Mahmud Ghazanvi’s Afghanistan, with nothing in between.

After Harsha the narrative falls silent even on Punjab. There was a mention of Sindhu Pradesh, almost out of the blue, when it was conquered by an Arab general called Mohammad Ibn Kassim in CE 712; prior to that history of Sindhu is a big blank to an Indian school child. My school text had no mention of Balochistan, and much later I learned that there is a Shakti Peeth of the Hindus called Hinglaj in Balochistan. I am reminded of the statement of Nawab Akbar Khan Bugti, a renowned leader of the Baloch people leading a struggle for Baloch independence from Pakistan and killed by the Pakistan army,

“I have been a Baloch for thousands of years, a Muslim for centuries and a Pakistani for only a few decades”.

Balochs have always protected and are still protecting the Hinglaj temple and its idol, and regular Pooja continues there since times immemorial. Khan Bugti might as well have said, “I have been a Baloch and a Hindu for thousands of years, a Muslim,….”. What is remarkable is that my father, who was at school during and after the 1st world war, learned the same kind of history that resembles a moth-eaten cloth, and it seems that this narrative is a colonial legacy which we are yet to outgrow.

I have given above a few examples of geographical and temporal gaps in our school history. Some more will be cited later. The birth of Islam as a religio-political force was the single-most important event of the late ancient world history. Well within a century of its inception Islamic forces captured territories ranging from Spain to Persia (present Iran).

In Europe there further advance was checked only when they were defeated by Charles Martel at the battle somewhere between Tours and Poitiers in France in 732 CE (Ref 1). In East the Islamic forces rapidly advanced towards Persia and the fate of the great Zoroastrian civilization was sealed in the battle of Cadesia (637 CE) during the Caliphate of Omar (ibid).

By 642 CE they had advanced up to the borders of Kanishka’s erstwhile empire, i.e., as far as Herat, a province of Afghanistan bordering Iran. It is here they first encountered resistance from the Hindu-Buddhist Indians of Gandhar. The story of how the region was captured bit by bit over three centuries and came to be called Afghanistan, and no one knows since when, and how the Arab forces from Sindh captured Multan (originally Mulasthan, near the border of modern Punjab and Sindh provinces) and established a garrison there, remains untold because our historians choose to remain silent and not fill the gaps, with one or two notable exceptions.

This is in spite of the fact that contemporary Arab chroniclers not only fill many a gap but carry quite contrary accounts (Ref 1 and 3). Two quotations form the Arab historians will be sufficient to illustrate a few of my points. The powerful Pratihara kings perennially surrounded and haunted the Arabs of Multan in the mid-9th century; the latter could save them only by threatening to destroy the famous Sun temple of Multan. The Arab chronicler Al-Masaudi says:

“When the unbelievers march against Multan and the faithful do not feel themselves strong enough to oppose them, they threaten to break their (enemy’s) idol and their enemies immediately withdraw” (Ref. 1).

Another Arab historian Istakhari adds to this account,

“Otherwise the Indians (Hindus in Arabic) would have destroyed Multan” (Ref. 5, pp. 215 – 224).

Apart from showing up a gap in narration, these quotations prove how historically unconscious the Pratihara kings and their court scholars were, because they took no lesson from the fall of the first major township in Sindh, called Debal, on the western bank of the river Sindh, to the Arabs, even before the Arabs had crossed the river to defeat king Dahir’s (Dahar in Sanskrit) army.

The residents and priests of Debal were massacred and the famous temple was destroyed, as per the records of Arab chroniclers. Multan was strategically the most important town because it guarded the route to further expansion eastward. The Pratiharas knew about Multan’s strategic importance but what they did not know was that the Sun temple would not last anyway even if they left Multan in Arab hands. They assumed that the enemy was like the Greeks, Shakas, and Huns etc. as of days older. They did not care to know about the Arab conquest of Debal. Their scholars chose to remain ignorant that a large body of Zoroastrian (Parsi) people had already arrived on the Gujrat coast after fleeing their native Persia where their fire temples had been destroyed and books burned, and had received refuge from King Jadi Rana of Gujarat. Had the Pratiharas taken Multan from the Arabs at that juncture, the subsequent history of India would be different, because Multan according to Majumdar “guarded the flank of every possible route a future Muslim conqueror from outside world would have to follow” (Ref. 2, p.128).

It is no wonder that the famous scholar-historian of Persian origin, Al-Beruni, who  sat in the court of Mahmud Ghazanvi, and came to Hindustan with one of the King’s expeditions and travelled widely to learn and write about India, wrote disparagingly about the Hindu’s curious lack of interest in history (Ref . 4 & 5).    

Returning to Mahmud Ghazanvi, he captured Multan in 1005-6 and further east Lahore in 1015. His capital was Ghazni in Afghanistan but his springboard for attacking the heartland of Hindustan was the garrison town of Multan and then Lahore. Instead, somehow such fanciful ideas have gained currency that Islam as a political force appeared abruptly on our western borders with the advent of Mahmud Ghazanvi who led his forces in one big swoop from Afghanistan, galloping across hundreds of miles on horseback till Gujarat to loot the unlimited riches of the Somnath temple and went straight back to Afghanistan. 

The fact is that the Arab conquest spread like a wild fire in the span of about a century from the Arabian Peninsula to the West till Spain and to the East up to Persia, but was forced to a halt at the border of India due to stiff resistance form the Hindu-Buddhist forces of Gandhar. It took the Islamic forces (Arabs and Turks) three centuries of see-saw movement and numerous battles to subdue the unbelievers of Gandhar.

(In a similar vein, fanciful ideas have gained currency that Mohammad Ghori (in the late years of the 12th century) launched his campaigns against the Hindu kingdom of Delhi from Ghor in Afghanistan. The fact is that Ghor was his capital but his campaigns were launched from Lahore (located near the present-day Indo-Pak border) which had fallen to the Muslims in CE 1015.)

In the 7th century there were three kingdoms in Gandhar on the western flank of India. The first and most important of them was Kabul (ancient Kapisa – there exists a province by this name not far from Kabul to its north-east even today (the sound pa does not exist in Arabic and is always replaced by ba; hence kapisa becomes Kabisa in Arabic). According to Hiuen Tsang, the 7th century Buddhist monk-traveler, Kabul had ten dependencies, all ruled by Kshatriya Shahis, and referred to by the Arabs as Kabul Shahs.

The second was Zabul; also a province in modern Afghanistan to the north of Kandahar; the rulers of Zabul were most likely known as Ratanpal, as re-constructed by Majumdar (Ref. 3) from the name given by Arab chroniclers. The 3rd and the smallest was Kikkana (also known as Al-Kikan to Arabs) in the mountainous region of Balochistan.

The Hindu Shahi or Shahiya dynasty (also known as Kabul Shahi) had their capital at Kabul and a secondary capital at Udabhandapura (Waihind) near Peshawar. They lost Kabul in CE 879 to a Saffarid (Turkic Muslim) king, and continued to rule parts of South-eastern Afghanistan from Udabhandapura. They recaptured Kabul from the Samanids who had defeated the Saffarids. Thereafter the rise of the Ghazanvid dynasty at Ghazni, situated at some distance south-west of Kabul, not far from the present Pak-Afghan border, gradually eclipsed the Shahis.

King Jayapal, his son Anandapal and grandson Trilochanpal fought heroic battles, sometimes winning but losing more often, and finally at the battle of Rahib (CE 1021) the fate of the Shahi dynasts was sealed and Mahmud Ghazanvi ruled supreme. The famous Muslim cartographer, credited for making the first map of the whole of Eurasia including N. Africa, Al-Idirisi (CE 1100-1165/66) records that until as late as the 12th century, a contractual investiture for every Shahi king was performed at Kabul; and he was obliged to agree to certain traditional conditions that were part of the contract (Ref. 6).

Al-Idrisi is a very renowned and trusted scholar; and curiously Mahmud’s career has very little mention of Kabul, although his see-saw conflicts with the Kabul Shahs or Shahiyas are well documented. It is remarkable that a remnant of the once-powerful Shahi Hindu dynasty remained to rule Kabul even one century after Mahmud, under the suzerainty of the Ghazanvids and must have been paying tributes to them.

I shall not touch upon the histories of Zabul and Kikkana, although their resistance was no less heroic. The history of that period is well documented by Arab Chroniclers and used extensively by Anglo-American historians, but our school children are presented with a history that has gaping holes and resembles a moth-eaten fabric. It is time they get to learn a national history that is objective and whole.

I shall go a little further and say that even our college students should learn Indian national history in their early undergraduate semesters, as in many renowned American universities.


  1. Majumdar R C, Pusalker A D, Majumdar A K, (1962), (Ed.) History and Culture of the Indian People – The Classical Age (Vol. III), Bharatiya Vidya Bhavan, Mumbai, pp 164 -175.
  2. Majumdar R C, Pusalker A D, Majumdar A K, (1964), (Ed.) History and Culture of the Indian People – The Age of Imperial Kanauj (Vol. IV), Bharatiya Vidya Bhavan, Mumbai, pp 111 -114 and 124 – 128.
  3. Majumdar R C, (1976), Readings in Political History of India, B R Publishers, Delhi, pp 215 – 224 & 231 – 239.
  4. Al Beruni’s India (2015), by Dr Edward C. Sachau, Sept. 2015, Amazon.
  5. Khan M. S.(1976) Al-biruni and the political history of India, Oriens. 25/26.
  6. Al-Idrisi, p 67, Maqbul Ahmed; Al-Hind, the Making of the Indo-Islamic World, 1991, p 127, Andre Wink.