Ajanta. Bagh. Dandin

in Article
Published on: 16 December 2015

Walter M Spink

Walter M Spink is a Professor Emeritus of History of Art in the University of Michigan. He has devoted many decades to the study of Ajanta caves and has authored a six-volume edition ‘Ajanta: History and Development’ among others.

Ajanta. Bagh. Dandin.

Vakataka's Late History

Walter M Spink


Introduction 1

Dandin as a source 2

Vakataka’s late history: the final years 4

Visruta = Subandhu 6

Bagh and Ajanta 8

The Bagh plate 13

DeCaroli’s analysis 16

Visruta is indeed Subandhu 21

Time chart 28

References 28



Maharaja Subandhu, ruling in 486 CE, provided money ‘for repairing the broken and rent portions’ of the Bagh caves.  This is convincing evidence that they were finished well before 486 CE. Since Ajanta and Bagh are closely contemporaneous, Ajanta must also be dated well before 486, confirming the validity of the ‘Short Chronology.’ The suggested timespan is 462-480 CE (see Time Chart).

It is only when we can accept the Short Chronology for the development of both the Ajanta and the Bagh caves that we can justify the view that India’s so-called Golden Age reached its apogee during the reign of the Vakataka emperor Harisena (460-477 CE) rather than in earlier Gupta times. Furthermore, since Ajanta’s development ends at the very same time that the late history of the Vakatakas, as described in Dandin’s remarkable Visrutacarita, begins, we can follow the course of late Vakataka history, almost year by year, between 478 and the rule of Maharaja Subandhu of Mahishmati in 486. This strongly confirms the historicity of Dandin’s account, a matter of great interest to historians, because of the common belief that such works cannot be ‘serious’ history.

Dandin as a source 

Dandin, as the court poet for the young Pallava king Narasimhavarman II (695-722 CE), constructed an arresting tale of the final years of the ancient Vakataka dynasty, from about 478 to about 484 CE. This is a story that had a special meaning for Dandin, because his ancestors had been closely connected with the Vakataka court in the fifth century (DeCaroli 1995, 672). Transmitted in surprising detail via India’s remarkable oral tradition, Dandin’s  recounting of ancient events made it a perfect vehicle for the listening pleasure—and the moral and political instruction!—of the poet’s young Pallava auditor. The young king would have been engrossed, in particular, by the actions of the heroic Visruta, a young prince from Magadha, who served as protector of his Vakataka queen and her children after their flight to Mahishmati when the Vakataka imperium was collapsing around 478 CE. 

But although the future for these Vakataka ‘refugees’ was to be all too brief, Dandin in fact ‘edits’ his story, with its pro-Vakataka focus, to give it a ‘happy ending,’ in which Visruta’s helpful stance remains unchanged.  At the same time, what we know from our history books, and what Dandin must have known from his family traditions—but what the Pallava prince did not know and had no reason to know—is that in the end Visruta apparently used his powerful Vakataka connections as the very foundation of a new dynasty. This would be known later as the powerful Early Kalacuri house, founded in ca 486 by one Maharaja Subandhu of Mahishmati who, so it appears, was none other than the wily Visruta himself. 

As will be clear later, the date of the collapse of Ajanta’s established patronage (478) must be coordinated with what we shall see of late Vakataka history, as revealed by Dandin. He describes the flight of the Vakataka prime minister with the queen and her children from Vidarbha to the presumed safety of Mahishmati, where a son of Harisena was Vakataka viceroy.[1] This in turn must be coordinated with the known date (486 in ‘real’ time) of Maharaja Subandhu’s rule over the city of Mahishmati.[2] Since Subandhu was already established as Maharaja in 486, we should conclude that his accession date was 485 (if not slightly earlier). This would be the terminus ante quem for the activities of the royal family and their ‘protector’, the hero Visruta, in the city of Mahishmati.

It is reasonable to assume that the flight of the Vakataka Prime Minister with the royal family from the Vakataka capital (Vatsagulma) to the (presumed) safety of Mahishmati—would have taken place in the same year (i.e. 478) as the traumatic collapse of established patronage at Ajanta, and the flight of the anxious Vakataka patrons from the site, as a consequence of the emperor Harisena’s sudden death the year before.

Following Dandin’s surprisingly detailed account, much happened with the Vakataka queen and her children and with their constant ‘protector’, the heroic Visruta, while they were getting to and living in Mahishmati. Starting with the flight of the family in 478, all of these involvements in Mahishmati had to take place before the end of 484 (i.e. prior to Maharaja Subandhu’s accession in (suggested) 485.[3] This allows a maximum of seven years for their travel to Mahishmati and their residence in the city.

Vakataka’s late history: the final years

We can locate these various events, involving the displaced royal family and the actions of their ‘protector’ Visruta as follows, arbitrarily assigning a ‘reasonable’ sequence to the events:[4]

478 CE: The Vakataka Prime Minister—known to be Varahadeva, one of Ajanta’s major inaugurators—flees with the Vakataka queen, princess, and crown prince to Mahishmati, where a second son of Harisena is viceroy.

479 CE:   The royal family takes up residence in Mahishmati, but is already concerned about the crown prince’s safety, since the now-ruling uncle appears, ominously, to have imperial ambitions of his own.

480 CE: The prince is taken into the Vindhya forest for safety, where he is found by the adventurous Gupta prince, Visruta, and under the latter’s protection taken back to Mahishmati.

481 CE: Visruta and the queen, anxious about the Vakataka viceroy’s plans ‘to put her son to death’ before she could ‘raise her son to the throne’ (Dandin 1986, 405) successfully arrange for his death by poisoning.

482 CE: Threatened by the Malawa prince’s intended marriage to the Vakataka princess, the concerned Visruta, disguising himself as a dancer in the connected celebration, stabs his rival to death and (still unrecognized) quickly escapes  

483 CE: After hiding in the temple of the goddess Durga, Visruta emerges ‘miraculously’, declaring her support and her blessing upon his role as the counselor of the young prince and as the betrothed of the Vakataka princess.

484 CE: Well established now within the royal family, and ‘carrying on the work of administration for the prince’ (Dandin 1986, 410), Visruta wins the hearty approval of the court, declares his determination to uproot any remaining menace by the Asmakas, and (as Dandin’s account ends) is zealously taking ‘all the proper measures’ (Dandin 1986, 411) for the benefit of both court and country.

485 CE: As far as Vakataka affairs in Mahishmati are concerned Dandin has no more to say; his story ends abruptly by the end of 484.  The fate of the young Vakataka prince, Visruta’s own expected marriage to the Vakataka princess, and Visruta’s own future, all await resolution or clarification. 

486 CE: Together with ‘485’ this is the year when its ruler, Maharaja Subandhu was starting his rule over Mahishmati, the city previously governed by Visruta, who, although the young prince’s counselor, had become, in effect, the Vakataka regent.

The hardly coincidental coordination of both time and location evident here—the very last year (484) of the heroic Visruta’s control of the city on behalf of the young prince on the one hand and with the very first years of Subandhu’s accession on the other (485) is too remarkable to be ignored.

Visruta = Subandhu

Indeed, the identity of Visruta, a young prince’ on the make’ and Subandhu, who had already ‘made it’, is supported by a significant similarity in their origins: Visruta is one of the Dasakumara (Ten Princes), with their birth in the Gupta heartlands, while Subandhu himself surely came from the same Gupta context, for he uses the Gupta era for his one known dated (Barwani) inscription.[5]

Furthermore, the exercise of his new position as the powerful head of a new and independent dynasty helps to explain the final disappearance of the Asmaka aggressors from history.  In fact it may have been his triumph over the troubling Asmaka aggressors that both suggested and validated the founding of what comes to be known later as the (his) Early Kalacuri dynasty, with its many links to Mahishmati.  It seems clear that this final triumph over the continually bothersome Asmaka aggressors finally was achieved only after Visruta’s years of attendance upon the displaced Vakataka family, who both needed and wanted the help of their swashbuckling Gupta relative to ward off those ‘border raiders’ In any case, we hear no more about the Asmakas after Subandhu.’s new dynasty was established; in fact, they disappear from India’s history altogether at this point.[6]

So, ultimately, Subandhu (or Visruta/Subandhu) was able to use this significant connection to incorporate the remaining aura of that long-established (even if weakened) Vakataka dynastic line into his new one, becoming in the process, no longer the merely helpful prince Visruta, but Maharaja Subandhu of Mahishmati.

Also highly significant, if we can believe that he and Visruta are the same historical figure, would be the validation and consolidation of Subandhu’s new dynasty through his (probable) marriage to the Vakataka princess. Although we have no absolute proof that this politically profitable marriage actually took place after Subandhu became the ruler in Mahishmati, the fact that Dandin makes so much of the expected event and that the goddess herself heartily approved it, strongly suggests that the marriage did indeed take place.[7] It may be that Subandhu justified the extension of his rule from Anupa into previous ‘Vakataka’ territories, because of this family linkage.[8]

Just as his connection with the Vakataka princess would have been important in the achievement of Subandhu’s goals, his disconnection with the young Vakataka prince would have been of equal importance. To say that he killed the prince (in his characteristically clandestine way) might be to put it too crudely; but it is certainly the case that the young prince somehow disappeared from history—or at least from Dandin’s story—at precisely the time that Subandhu came to power in Mahishmati. In fact, now with a royal wife, and with his long experience as the virtual Vakataka regent, it is even possible that he was rapidly identified, in the mind of the public, as the legitimate heir to the Vakataka power long before his new royal house became known as the ‘Early Kalacuri‘ dynasty. 

That new power, in its remarkable expansion to the south, would gradually encompass most of the territories once held by his wife’s Vakataka ancestors; they would now become the domains of the Early Kalacuris by ‘right.’ In any case, the abrupt and ‘pointless’ ending of the Vakataka’s history, as Dandin has preserved it, is the very moment, one way or the other, at which Subandhu’s history begins.

What I have tried to show is not only that the Barwani inscription of 486 can be used to locate the final history of the already largely destroyed Vakataka house in real time, but that, beyond that, it can confirms the ‘short span’ of Ajanta’s development with a precision impossible before, to approximately 462 through 478.    

But to confirm this understanding of Ajanta’s development, and at the same time to confirm the identity of Visruta and Subandhu, explaining the transfer of Vakataka rule in Anupa to that of the nascent Early Kalacuri dynasty, we must turn to the once flourishing Buddhist establishment at Bagh—a site that indissolubly connects Maharaja Subandhu’s rule with the history of his Vakataka forbears.

Bagh and Ajanta  

Bagh and Ajanta are ‘sister sites,’ about one hundred fifty miles apart as the crow flies. The two sites share many developmental features, with Bagh sometimes directly influencing Ajanta, as in its prior introduction of stupa shrines to viharas, and Ajanta sometimes influencing Bagh, as in its introduction of focal Buddha images to the site.[9]

Although both Bagh and Ajanta were started only shortly after the emperor Harisena’s accession to the Vakataka throne in 460, the ending of their development is significantly different. With the attack of the Asmaka coalition on the Vakataka forces early in the reign of Sarvasena III (acc. 478}, Ajanta’s established development suddenly and painfully ends, first (during 478) with the flight of the Vakataka courtiers and, during the same troubled year, the hasty departure of the now-ruling Asmaka patrons from their complex at the western extremity of the site.[10]

At this point, starting in 479 and continuing only for the next year or so, new and previously ‘uninvited’ donors took over Ajanta, putting a helter-skelter array of hundreds of votive images in and on the otherwise abandoned caves.   With the established Vakataka patrons gone by the end of 478, during 479 and 480 the local villagers and many of the still-resident monks took over the site, which rapidly became a chaos of ‘selfish’ spiritual activity.[11] And then, shortly after that, the site was abruptly and essentially abandoned as part of the fallout of the Asmaka coalition’s attack on the region.[12]  By the early 480s, although a few remaining monks with no better place to go, were probably still living in the caves, there was little happening now—or indeed for the next many centuries--in the deep ravine.

The fate of Bagh at the time of the Asmaka coalition’s assault on the Ajanta region, was remarkably different from that of Ajanta. This was clearly because Anupa, in which Bagh lies, had never fallen under the Asmaka onslaught that destroyed or damaged so much of the Vakataka imperium. We know this because Dandin’s account of the flight of the Vakataka queen and her children to Anupa (and specifically to Mahishmati), is not ‘just a story.’ It fits too neatly in this crucial moment of dynastic change not to be believed.

When we consider the implications of the ‘Short Chronology’ for our understanding of this final stage of Vakataka history as it was played out in Mahishmati, it is hard to deny the high credibility of the overall reconstruction presented. Furthermore, this fusion of the fading Vakataka power with the rising energies of Maharaja Subandhu leads toward a remarkable later development: namely, the rise of the nascent Early Kalacuri dynasty—nourished by the somewhat protected situation of Anupa in these troubled times.[13]

Happily, the developmental history of the Bagh caves coincides revealingly with the political history of Anupa at the time of the general breakdown of the once widespread Vakataka supremacy. When, in about 478-480 Ajanta was in chaos, the Bagh caves show no sign of trouble whatsoever.  There was no traumatic shift in their patronage, in contrast to the situation at Ajanta, where a small horde of new donors rapidly took over the site. Bagh has no such ‘uninvited’ intrusions whatsoever. Instead, judging from the thickness of the pervasive coating of grime created by the smoke of the oil lamps, it is clear that the caves were in worship over many years. 

Such long and uninterrupted usage suggests that the region must have been relatively untroubled in the very period (about 478-480) when Ajanta was rapidly falling apart.  Indeed, this is confirmed by (or confirms) Dandin’s claim that this is the very time when the Vakataka Prime Minister took the queen and her children for safety to Mahishmati, where a second son of Harisena was ruling as viceroy.  

A comparison of Bagh’s development with that of Ajanta suggests that the Bagh caves were probably all completed (both excavation and painting) somewhat before 478.[14] This was the time when, throughout the greater part of central India the Vakataka imperium was falling apart. But it is clear that, in Anupa, the viceroy was able to hold off any inroads by the Asmaka coalition, and at the same time he must have had a strong enough family or dynastic interest to prevent any encroachments in the nearby caves. Indeed, they must have owed their continued existence to his approval and/or support.[15]

Indeed, this consistent protection of the caves and of the monks who lived and worshipped in them, presumably involved the support (quite possibly direct) of the royal family, just as had been the case at Ajanta. This relationship must have continued from the beginning of work in 462 through the long stretch of time right up to 486. 486 (or I suggest 485) is when the Maharaja Subandhu took over the rule of the region, and about the same time that he made a generous donation to the clearly long established and very active sangha at Bagh. 

The fact that there appears to have been no interruption in the worship of the Bagh caves over that long period—while the grime seems to have been getting thicker and thicker and during which time there were no disruptive intrusions at all—suggests that when the Vakataka authority over the region ended in about 484 Subandhu himself must have continued the protection of both the caves and the sangha without a break.

Revealing evidence for this is based on the content of a remarkable document, the inscribed copper plate found in the debris of Bagh Cave 2 in 1928. It records the gift of a village by Maharaja Subandhu of Mahishmati to support the needs and the activities of the sangha established at the site.[16] Significantly for our considerations Subandhu’s order included funds ‘for repairing broken and rent portions’ of the caves, confirming that they had been in existence well before the time of Subandhu’s reign. The inscription is related to another inscription recording a gift of the same donor, and introduced in the same way: ‘Om (or success)! Hail! From the city of Mahishmati—Maharaja Subandhu, being in good health, issues the (following) order...’ Although the date of the Bagh plate has been lost due to breakage, it must have been issued at roughly the same time as the closely related (Barwani) inscription, which can be assigned to 486 CE according to the Gupta era.[17]

The Bagh plate

The body of the revealing Bagh plate (Mirashi 1955, 19-21) follows:

Be it known to you that for the increase of the religious merit of my parents and myself, this village has been granted by me… in order that it may be used for (defraying the expense of) perfume, frankincense, flowers and offerings, for (the worship of) the divine Buddha, as well as for maintaining an alms-house, for repairing broken and rent portions (of the vihara) and for providing the Community of Venerable Monks coming from (all) the four quarters, with clothing, food, nursing of the sick, beds, seats as well as medicine in the Monastery called Kalayana (the Abode of Art) caused to be constructed by Dattataka, as long as the moon, the sun, the oceans, planets, constellations and the earth would endure. (Lines 4-9)

Line 10: Having known this, our officers and rulers of other countries should not cause obstruction out of their love [for religion] and regard for us, while the monks (of this Vihara) are enjoying (the village).

The site at Bagh had plenty of available space in the fields around the cave for various useful structures, now long since lost, as well as a convenient supply of water from the nearby river, so we must think of the whole site as probably once much more extensive than the sadly collapsing cave site that it is today. Although much of the space along the mountainside, understandably, is taken up with rock-cut viharas, it also has a few excavations, such as Caves 3, 5, 6, and 9, that have always puzzled scholars as to their purpose.  Quite possibly these atypical excavations were planned for some of the functions, such as ‘for providing…the monks…with clothing, food, nursing of the sick, beds, seats as well as medicine’, as well as the support of an ‘almshouse’, that are mentioned in the inscription.

Such references bring the site to life, giving an unequalled description (at least for these times) of the day to day as well as long term functioning of what was obviously a remarkably active institution. Where else can we be given such immediate insights into the importance, in the midst of all of the other workaday functions, of the ‘worship of the divine Buddha (with) perfume, frankincense, flowers, and (other) offerings,’ even while the normal housekeeping tasks—such as the repair of the ‘broken and rent portions of the vihara’ was going on.

The reference to the need for such repairs to the Bagh caves is hardly surprising, because the sandstone from which the excavations were cut, is notorious for its softness and friability. But at the same time such a reference does help us to distance the original creation of the caves from the time of Subandhu’s Bagh inscription (about 486) and supports the assumption that they had a long and continuous life from 462 right up to the time that they are so tellingly described in Subandhu’s record.

Although it is perhaps reasonable to believe that Subandhu’s generous support of the Bagh site and its controlling sangha was not made until he was solidly settled on the throne, sometime after 485, the very content of the inscription tells us that the ‘community of venerable monks’ at Bagh was surely a thoroughly established long-term one, both in terms of its facilities and its activities.  Although the reference to monks ‘coming from all the four quarters’ or the later warning to ‘rulers of other countries’ may be somewhat formulaic, when we add these references to the accounting of the daily charitable and administrative duties in which the sangha was involved, the conclusion must be that the site was a vigorous and well known community in itself.  It must have evolved and been active over many years—presumably starting from the time of its inauguration in about 462, when ‘it was caused to be constructed by Dattataka’.  All in all, reading the inscription one must conclude that the busy site must have been something of an entrepot—a busy world unto itself to which traders and travelers and monks and even scholars must have been eager to come—a world now newly energized by the ambitions and achievements of the heroic Gupta prince Subandhu.  And of course, with such positive energy vitalizing it, it was expected to last ‘as long as the moon, the sun, the oceans, planets, constellations and the earth would endure.’[18]

Although it is very possible that the sangha and the site itself had suffered during the understandably stressed hard years between 478 and the accession of Maharaja Subandhu in c. 485, it is nonetheless evident that the care of the caves had been an ongoing and active concern right up to the time when the Maharaja Subandhu, once he was ruling in Mahishmati took it under his care. Although he himself may have been Hindu rather than Buddhist, his obviously generous support of the sangha and a concern for its needs, would surely have been an important way to enhance his new position as ruler of the region from the start.[19] 

The fact that the Bagh caves, as Subandhu’s own Bagh inscription confirms, had already been completed and been in use well before Subandhu’s accession in 485, proves, due to the close association of the two sites, that Ajanta’s development, too, must have been completed well before 485.  Indeed, they both must have been completed by or before 478 if our judgment about the general impact of the collapse of the Vakataka imperium is correct.[20]  And since we can now confidently locate our Vakataka family events in (and going to) Mahishmati between our upper limit of 484 (just before the accession of Subandhu in 485) and the lower limit of 478 (the probable date of the family’s flight to Mahishmati) we can turn to Dandin’s ‘subtle, captivating, and persuasive text’ (in DeCaroli’s words), to elaborate upon the character and timing of these final years of the once powerful Vakataka house.

DeCaroli’s analysis

DeCaroli (DeCaroli 1995), in his study, convincingly argues that Dandin may well have composed the Dasakumaracarita (and in particular the Visrutacarita) for the moral and political ‘instruction’ and listening pleasure of the young king Paramesvaravarman I (670-695, and possibly even in the time when the latter was a young prince in the court of Narasimhavarman II (695-722).  Thus his account belongs to a period over two hundred years from that of the events described.[21]  But why, DeCaroli asks, did Dandin select this particular period and this particular cast of characters—all connected with the long-defunct Vakataka house—to write about and to relate to the young courtier. 

The choice of the Vakataka dynasty’s last days for his story surely was largely determined by what Dandin knew of his own family’s history, if we can accept, with DeCaroli and a number of other scholars the account of Dandin’s ancestry as described in the Avantisundarikatha.[22] As DeCaroli tells us, Dandin came from a long line of court poets; ‘his family had held that position since the time of his great-grandfather, Damodara, who left Vidarbha, the Vakataka capital, and migrated south to the Pallava court of Simhavisnu at Kanci in the late fifth century.’

So the fact that Dandin’s family roots were in Vidarbha—indeed, in the Vakataka court itself—would explain his particular interest in that area. But, even more than that, it must have been the startling collapse of the great Vakataka dynasty—at the court of which his ancestors had served—that compelled his interest; for the destruction of the great Vakataka imperium under the onslaught of the Asmaka coalition had dealt a wrenching blow to the stability of the whole central Indian world. In fact, it must have been, particularly for Dandin, as for his forebears, a disaster that was ‘literally unforgettable’.

However, even the unforgettable can be forgotten if it is not in some way preserved; and this is where the remarkable phenomenon of India’s long oral tradition must be called upon to help us understand how stories from the past, like the one that Dandin told the Pallava prince, could still be being told with such apparent precision over two hundred years later. 

In this regard, we can do no better than to follow the footsteps of the adventurous historian William Dalrymple into a simple village in present-day Rajasthan. There he brings the old tradition to life by involving himself, in his insightful way, by actively listening to and talking to an unassuming (but amazing!) bhoja named Mohan. Mohan, with his wife accompanying him in song, was able to go on for hours—night after night—reciting and performing the story of the local deity Pabuji.  This is a 600 year old epic of four thousand lines, ‘a fabulous tale of heroism and honor, struggle and loss’ not unlike the Visrutacarita of Dandin, itself part of a seemingly endless epic. Dalrymple explains that such bhojas, as traditional hereditary singers of these ancient tales, ‘were invariably simple villagers, shepherds, cowherds and so on, often illiterate’.[23] Yet they were able to remember colossal quantities of verse often longer than the whole western bible, and to transmit it with a staggering precision.  It is this pervasive tradition of remarkable ‘recall’, now being rapidly destroyed by the dark victories of technology, that was once the medium of narrative communication throughout the land, and throughout the many otherwise forgotten centuries of the past. Indeed, it is this long tradition of tale-telling, in both countryside and court that explains how and wherefrom Dandin got his stories, and could use them for his auditors’ delight and instruction.

Of course various details in the ‘history’ of Visruta and the ancient Vakataka court must have been lost, and various details also added to the ‘true story’ in the course of over more than two centuries since the event.[24] However, the very specificity of Dandin’s account—as we shall see later on—has the ring of truth about it, even though, like some Hamlet in modern dress, Dandin has given new ‘stage’ names to all of the major characters in the story. Thus Punyavarman is the emperor Harisena, Anantavarman is his son and successor, Sarvasena III, whom the Asmakas defeated; and in other cases new names are given on the basis of the character’s position, even if his or her name has been lost to history: thus Mitravarman is the Vakataka viceroy ruling over Anupa, Vasantabhanu is the troublesome Asmaka chief, and so on. Because of the compelling force of these old events, and also because Dandin includes the names of significant territories involved—such as Bhoja (=Vidarbha), Asmaka, Malawa, etc.—it is evident, as DeCaroli points out, that the ‘events surrounding the fall of the Vakataka court were rather well known in Dandin’s time’ (DeCaroli 1995, 676)

However, even if these ancient events and the identity of the participants were generally known to Dandin’s seventh/eighth century ‘auditors’, this does not explain why Dandin should take the trouble to describe this old story, come down to him as part of an oral tradition, with such a remarkable specificity in detail after detail—at least, up until the point where he story abruptly stops.  DeCaroli, however, makes a convincing case to explain this surprising precision.[25]

DeCaroli argues that Dandin ‘refers to events which had occurred many years earlier in order to construct an elaborate analogy that would serve to caution the young Pallava king Narasimhavarman II against complacency’ (DeCaroli 1995, 671). ‘Dandin was creating an elaborate metaphor within the tale by paralleling the characters with people and events in the Pallava court (and) in order to be effective he peppered the text with names that we now know to be historically accurate from fifth-century Vakataka inscriptional evidence’ (DeCaroli 1995, 671).

What gave Dandin’s account a particular force was the fact that the struggle between the ‘virtuous’ Vakatakas and the ‘pernicious’ Asmakas could be compared, with instructive relevance, to the long conflict between Dandin’s own Pallava compatriots and the constantly threatening Calukyas.[26] By equating the young Vakataka emperor Sarvasena III, who was ‘graced with every excellence, but unluckily held the science of politics in little esteem’ (Dandin 1986, 395) to Dandin’s Anantavarman, and, by extension, to Narasimhavarman II, ‘it becomes clear that this play is an elaborate and engaging warning to the young king Narasimhavarman II not to grow complacent or let down his guard’ (DeCaroli 1995, 671).

Dandin, not only in his recounting of the many actions of the hero/protagonist Visruta, but in his moralizing disquisitions on the do’s and (especially) don’ts of ‘wine, women, and song’—presented at lavish length—was constructing an arresting but at the same time cautionary tale.[27] He was aiming to teach his young prince ‘that vigilance was essential in a ruler and that anything that distracted from that attentiveness, like overindulgence in art or pleasure, could develop into a very real national threat (DeCaroli 1995, 675).’ Dandin, as court poet, was, in fact, creating ‘an elaborate political commentary on his own age by telling a tale based on the history of an empire vanquished years ago’ (DeCaroli 1995, 675).

It may seem surprising that although nearly every ‘new-named’ participant in Dandin’s account can be recognized by scholars today as a real historical character, the most important figure of all—the heroic Visruta—has no such real-life counterpart discernible from the context of Dandin’s story. As DeCaroli points out, ‘Although the telling of the events that took place at the Vakataka/Bhoja court seems to be fairly reliable, this does not resolve the question of whether Visruta himself can be equated with king Subandhu, as Walter Spink suggests’ (DeCaroli 1995, 676). Although DeCaroli himself refers to Maharaja Subandhu of Mahishmati as ‘being the most likely prototype’ for Visruta, he recognizes that an identification of Visruta as Subandhu would not be acceptable to many scholars (DeCaroli 1995, 677). This is because the traditional view of Ajanta’s development would see the caves as developing well past the known date (485+) of Maharaja Subandhu’s reign, making his linking with Visruta, as well as with the end point of Vakataka history as described in the Visrutacarita, impossible.

However when, either on the basis of actuarial data or, alternatively, on the basis of the clear anteriority of both Ajanta and Bagh to Subandhu’s reign, we accept the correctness of the ‘Short Chronology’ for Ajanta and Bagh, the connection between Visruta and Subandhu becomes clear. 

Visruta is indeed Subandhu 

Not only can we now utilize the dating of Subandhu’s accession (approximately 485 CE) as a solid terminus ante quem for Ajanta’s development, but we can lay out the short course of the Vakataka’s vice regency in Mahishmati, as described by Dandin, with a new and convincing specificity. Given the telling connections in both time and location, we can declare that, just at the moment when the ‘biography’ of Visruta (and the Vakatakas) ends, the ‘biography’ of Subandhu (and the nascent ‘Early Kalacuri‘ dynasty) begins. We can clearly see that their histories are tellingly linked: that as the Vakataka imperium was finally dying, Subandhu’s new dynasty, built on the ashes of the old, was coming to life.

The coincidence of Visruta’s self-seeking career, merging into—or as—Subandhu’s urgent rise, can now be traced back to its roots. Trusting Dandin’s essential (if not always unrelieved) concern for truth, we can briefly review the trajectory of Visruta’s career in Mahishmati, reconstructing late Vakataka (and to some degree Asmaka) history in the process.

Visruta was a young and adventurous Gupta prince, who left the great city of Magadha to make a name for himself, to realize his potential, and perhaps to build his own kingdom out of the available fragments of previous power.[28] He ended up in the city of Mahishmati, in the province of Anupa, one of the few remaining, even if weakened, locations of an otherwise shattered Vakataka power. It was here that a brother of the weak and afflicted Vakataka emperor, Sarvasena III, was ruling as the imperial viceroy, and it to this supposed city-sanctuary that the Vakataka queen, her fourteen year-old daughter, and the little crown prince (about eight years old) had fled for safety from the disruptions caused by the aggressive Asmakas.

The stage, in Mahishmati, was ideally set for the wandering Visruta’s productive adventures. Already living in the area, he met and helped the ‘royal refugees’, from the start. First of all, colluding with the anxious Vakataka queen mother to secretly poison ‘Mitravarman‘, the ambitious Vakataka viceroy, who saw in the little crown prince a barrier to his own dreams of royal power. Then, on behalf of the little crown prince, Visruta himself took on the burdens of the country’s development by ‘carrying on the work of administration for the prince’ (Dandin 1986, 410). Acting as the virtual regent he was (we can now see) already on his own path to power.  Then, very soon, to the delight of the queen mother, ‘who found herself in a stage of joy impossible to be described’ he won the heart of the Vakataka princess who, happily, was already ‘confused by the rise of love at (his) sight’ (Dandin 1986, 408). 

But now again a road-block on Visruta’s upward pathway had to be removed.  Prachandavarman, the prince of the powerful neighboring state of Malawa had himself been promised the ‘lotus-like’ hand of the princess—an offering all the more desirable, now that the Vakataka viceroy was dead, since it came ‘along with the kingdom, now without a ruler’ (Dandin 1986, 408). So here again, Visruta, as if to protect his own future, rose to the occasion. Secretly joining Prachandavarman’s betrothal festivities, disguised ‘in the gay attire of a dancer’, in the midst of his gyrations he came down like ‘the swoop of a hawk’ (and fatally) ‘struck Prachandavarman, although he was at a distance of twenty yards, on the breast with a poniard, exclaiming, ‘May Vasantabhanu (the king of Asmaka) live a thousand years’’ (Dandin 1986, 408). Having thus, with a characteristic deviousness, shamefully cast suspicion on his Asmaka enemies as the agents of the Malawa prince’s death, Visruta’ leapt over (a high) wall (and) plunged into the (adjacent) garden’, escaping unsuspected into ‘the temple of Durga’ (Dandin 1986, 408-409). There, after seeing him perform what appeared to be miracles in the temple, so that he appeared in the eyes of the astonished public ‘as a partial divine being’, they ‘exclaimed with delight, ‘very fortunate, indeed, is the race of Bhoja (Vidarbha), that has a guardian like you granted by the goddess’ (Dandin 1986, 410).

In following the developing career of Visruta, our wandering Gupta prince, we have seen how by 484, in ‘real’ time, Visruta was already exercising virtual rule over Anupa and Mahishmati, controlling the last but still significant remnants of Vakataka power. His major exploits and activities, starting with his first caring meeting with the young crown prince in the forest outside the city, all contribute to his description as a model of commitment and action for the surely entranced Pallava prince. Dandin then describes Visruta’s efficiency in guarding and ‘carrying on the work of administration’ (Dandin 1986, 410) for the young crown prince; his successfully plotting the death of the ominously ambitious Vakataka viceroy; his ‘blameless’ murder of his Malawa rival before the latter suitor could be given the ‘sprout-like hand of Manjuvadini’, the crown princess; his achievement of the fervent support of the powerful Hindu Goddess and of the ‘astonished public’; and last by not least, his fervent promise, proclaimed with the warm approval of the goddess herself, that he will (finally!) ‘smash the pot in the form of Asmaka’.  And very important: in all these personal and political adventures—even though some had a hidden sinister side—Visruta always managed to emerge like a knight in shining armor—as an ideal role-model for the impressionably attentive Narasimhavarman II, who was being instructed and prepared for the exigencies of rule.

At this point we must leave Visruta, by this time very much in control of the situation. In fact, it is clear that Visruta is becoming, or in effect has already become, the Maharaja Subandhu of Mahishmati—even if Subandhu is never mentioned in Dandin’s account. If Anantavarman is in fact Sarvasena III, and if Punyavarman is in fact the emperor Harisena, Visruta is in fact Subandhu, the very leader who was ruling as regent in Mahishmati on one day, and was ruling as Maharaja in Mahishmati on the next.

But if Visruta was to become Subandhu—if he is going to leave his connections with his life as Visruta behind—there was still one stumbling-block on his way to unencumbered power. He had to be unburdened of his young crown prince—his royal ward.

All that History now requires is that the young Vakataka heir, instead of blocking the way to Visruta’s future, be either deposed or dead; and, knowing Visruta’s ‘experience’ in eliminating both the Vakataka viceroy and the Malawa suitor from his own ‘territory’, we can only believe that Visruta would surely succeed in this new dark goal as well. That was by now the most important step toward Visruta’s emergence as Subandhu hardly a year later.

Furthermore, with his politically astute marriage to the Vakataka crown princess about to be solemnized, we can assume, and with the Asmaka pot destined to be broken under the impact of his new royal power that Subandhu was already on the way. Validated by his Gupta connections, approved by the support of the Hindu goddess, enhanced by his support of the Buddhist sangha, and founded in a region already secured by virtue of his Vakataka past, Subandhu’s new royal house was established upon stable ground.  He and his future descendants would follow a promising path that eventually would lead, as the Early Kalacuri dynasty, to a resolute extension southward over territories that, with his deep Vakataka marriage connection, could be said to be his by right already.

But this is our view of history, and a privileged one.  It is not the view that the young Pallava prince, Narasimhavarman II, was provided with when the court poet Dandin was instructing him in the virtues of kingship.  As Dandin tells the story, there is no Subandhu to complicate the record of the past. It is as if, for Dandin, this ruler, so essential for our own understanding of the ‘real’ trajectory of history, did not exist. 

What Dandin presents, from the beginning to the end, is a purely Vakataka story. It is a story which, whether we like it or not, and whether it was wholly true or not, offered an instructive lesson to Dandin’s impressionable young auditor, Narasimhavarman. It has everything to do with the ideal course of rule, and nothing the do with Subandhu. Although Dandin himself must have known the whole true story, transmitted to him and his family through the oral tradition, he has willfully ‘sanitized’ its ending, leaving the transition from the declining Vakataka dynasty to its ambitious successor curiously unexplained. There is no reference at all to some new dynasty—Subandhu’s!—that took over the city and started on the path to a new future. 

Again, the ‘true story’ is not what the young Narasimhavarman heard. To him Visruta must have remained to the end as a fascinating and saving force, a perfect role model, combining courage and virtue—an adventurous spirit, displaying qualities that in a time of turbulence could serve a young king well.

Realizing how everything so convincingly ‘fits’ in our reconstruction of late Vakataka history, as Dandin presents it, it seems almost certain that Visruta was indeed the real person that we can now envision—an adventurous Gupta prince who really did meet and  protect and guide the royal Vakataka ‘refugees’ throughout the final years of their dying rule. And it also seems likely that when the time was right, that was probably the moment that the young crown prince died, was made to die, or was deposed, and the world would suddenly change. 

In ‘real history’ that would be the moment that Visruta laid his claim to unobstructed power, renounced his Vakataka connections, and became ‘Subandhu‘. But this is where, to avoid a tale of loss to his own Vakataka house, Dandin must leave both the Vakataka future and the helpful and heroic Visruta intact when he, so abruptly, ends his story.  Even though, as Dandin himself surely knew, after 484 a great change is about to occur.[29]

We know—and Dandin must have known—that, either with a bang or a whimper, the year 484, in ‘real time’ was the end of the Vakataka house. But the young Pallava prince did not know this, and there was no need for him to know it. That event—the end of the great Vakataka house—is something that had occurred over two centuries before, along with Subandhu’s rise to independent power. This was ancient history, sung to Dandin by his Vakataka forebears, and now in his own keeping; and it was his to change, if he so desired.

And so he ends his tale simply, without getting into the complexities of change—the sudden shift of Vakataka authority to Subandhu.  To do that would hardly enhance, or even properly end, his Vakataka tale.

Instead, with ‘poetic license’ Dandin assures us that even after his tale was done, the Vakataka dynasty is left in the good hands that it deserves. Visruta assures his listeners—and the Pallava prince—that when the story, even if suddenly, ends the young prince would be ‘firmly and securely placed on the throne of his forefathers’ and that Visruta himself, true to his glowing reputation, would take ‘all the proper measures’ to assure the proper future. (Dandin 1986, 411)

The trajectory of Vakataka (Bhoja) history, as far as Dandin describes it to the prince, is clean and clear, and this is what our rapt young auditor needed to hear. If the young Pallava prince had never heard of Subandhu, and of the ultimate disappearance of the Vakataka house, why should he?  In the context of the Pallava court this was hardly a loss.  The great ancient dynasty about which the young prince was learning, was in good hands, looking forward to a confident future. ‘Adept in state-craft’, we are told, Visruta ‘secured the services of devoted and upright ministers and of spies under various disguises’, to assure a stable future. (Dandin 1986, 411)  And again, as in this perfect, even if imaginary world to come, he ‘inspired a sense of duty (among the people), tormented the heretics, cleared out all who stood like thorns in the way of the prosperity of the state. (Having) thwarted the secret plans of the foes ‘...and (having) firmly established the four castes in their respective religious spheres and duties’, he ‘zealously took all the proper measures’ (Dandin 1986, 411).  At least this is what Visruta tells us, and what the young Narasimhavarman II hears. And what the great Subandhu did. Even if he does not appear in Dandin’s tale!

Time chart

Time chart: Ajanta and related sites




Dalrymple, William. 2009. Nine Lives: In Search of the Sacred in Modern India. London, Berlin, New York: Bloomsbury.

Dandin. 1986. The Dasakumaracarita of Dandin. 4th. Translated by M. R. Kale. New Delhi: Motilal Banarasidass.

DeCaroli, Robert. 1995. “An Analysis of Dandin's Dasakumaracarita and its Implications for both the Vakataka and Pallava Courts.” Journal of the American Oriental Society CXV (4): 671-678.

Mirashi, V. V. 1955. Inscriptions of the Kalacuri-Cedi Era, Corpus Inscriptionum Indicarum series. Vol. IV (in two parts). Ootacamund: Archaeological Survey of India.

Spink, Walter M. 2005. The End of the Golden Age: Ajanta, History and Development -- Handbuch der Orientalistik (HDO) series. Edited by J. Bronkhorst. Vol. I. VIII vols. Leiden: Brill.

Spink, Walter M. 1983. "The Great Cave at Elephanta: A Study of Sources." In Essays on Gupta Culture, edited by Bardwell L. Smith, 235-82. New Delhi: Motilal Banarasidass.

Spink, Walter M., and Naomi Yaguchi. 2014. Defining Features, Ajanta: History and Development series. Edited by J. Bronkhorst. Vol. VI. VIII vols. Lieden: Brill.

Spink, Walter M., and Naomichi Yaguchi. 2015. Ajanta: History and Development, Part 1: Bagh and Dandin by Walter Spink, and Part 2: Ajanta's Cells and Cell Doorways (with Naomichi Yaguchi), HDO series. Vol. VII. VIII vols. Leiden and Boston: Brill.




[1] Dandin (Dandin 1986, 405) describes the viceroy as the queen’s ‘husband’s brother by another mother’.

[2] V.V. Mirashi (Mirashi 1955, xliv-xlvi) reviews many later references to the founding of the Early Kalachuri era in Mahismati.  However, he admits ‘it is not known whether the Early Kalachuris were descended from Maharaja Subandhu who ruled from Mahishmati in an earlier age; for there is a long period of nearly 150 years which separates them and for which no records have yet been discovered.’  However the problem is in part because Mirashi wrongly dated Subandhu’s Barwani inscription according to the Early Kalachuri era (=419 CE) instead of according to the Gupta era (=486 CE).  When the Gupta period date is used, it significantly closes the gap about which he is concerned.  Indeed, sometime between 505 and 533 we know that the Kalachuris were dominating the Konkan, quite possibly under the rule of Subandhu himself or (more likely) his Early Kalachuri successor. See discussion in (Spink, The Great Cave at Elephanta: A Study of Sources 1983, 240 ff.).

[3]  Since Maharaja Subandhu was already well established in 486, the latest date for his succession would be 485, and might even have been earlier.  However, as we shall see, it could not have been much earlier than 485, because one must allow sufficient time for the many Vakataka development that took place after Harisena’s death.

[4]   Following Dandin’s account, I have divided the actions of Visruta and the Vakataka family into seven ‘time-sections’ between 478 and 484, although the reader should understand that there would be some overlapping of attitudes and actions.  I think it is fair to say that these dates are close to the ‘real’ ones, although obviously they must be thought of as close approximations.

[5]  For the Barwani inscription of ‘Maharaja Subandhu of Mahismati‘, dated Gupta era 486, and the related Bagh inscription, see (Mirashi 1955, 18-219).

[6]  The Asmakas and the Vakatakas, equally victims of fallout from their conflict in the late 470s and the 480s, both disappear from history by the end of the fifth century.

[7]  Hearing how Visruta is praised by the goddess Vindhyavasini (=Durga), the people exclaimed: ‘very fortunate, indeed, is the race of Bhoja that has a guardian like you granted by the goddess.’ (Dandin 1986, 410)

[8] The assumption that Subandhu (or his immediate successors) extended his rule to other regions is based on his apparent connection with subsequent Early Kalacuri developments.

[9] A detailed discussion of the related developments at Bagh and Ajanta has been prepared in (Spink and Yaguchi 2015).

[10]     The rather abrupt ending of the established development of the Asmaka caves can probably be explained by their need, in 478, to concentrate their money and their work-force on the preparations for war.

[11]    Prior to the ‘Period of Disruption‘ (479-480), there were only five inscriptions recording donations at the site written during the fifth century (Ajanta Caves 4, 16, 17, 20, 26), while in 479-480 there were close to ninety, mostly painted, given by remaining monks and local residents eager to make merit from such votive donations, and taking advantage of the presence of many remaining highly skilled and now out-of-work sculptors and painters.

[12]   This ‘Period of Disruption‘ can be said to suddenly have ended when, fearful because of the Asmaka coalition’s victory over the Vakataka forces, the sculptors and painters at Ajanta, working on ‘intrusive’ donations, all abruptly broke off their work at the end of 480.  See (Spink and Yaguchi 2014, 8-10).

[13]  Anupa appears to have been one of the few areas of the assaulted Vakataka imperium not to be taken over by the Asmaka’s coalition, although in Dandin’s account Asmaka was obviously still a menace  to Visruta, who was determined to ‘smash the pot... of Asmaka’  (Dandin 1986, 409).

[14]   See Time Chart.

[15]  Subandhu’s Bagh plate, found in Bagh Cave 2 in 1928, refers to ‘the Monastery called Kalayana (the Abode of Art) caused to be constructed by Dattataka’.   Whether the ‘abode of art’ refers to Cave 2 alone, or to the whole cave complex, is not clear.  Nor do we have further information about Dattataka, although it seems quite certain that he had some close connection with the Vakataka authority in the region.

[16]  The village was situated ‘in the pathaka of Dasilakapalli’.  According to Mirashi, Dasilakapalli may be identical with Deswalia which lies about 14 miles almost due south of the Bagh Caves.  See (Mirashi 1955, 19-21).

[17]  Since Subandhu probably did not come to power until about 485 because (according to our suggested sequence of events) the Vakatakas were still ruling Anupa until about 484.  It seems likely that the Bagh inscription is somewhat later than the Barwani inscription of 486, given the likelihood that Subandhu did not even come to power until 485.


[18]   Ajanta: Cave 26 inscription, see (Spink 2005, 419-20).

[19]   It seems clear from Dandin’s Visrutacarita that Visruta and the Vakataka family were under the protection of the (Hindu) goddess, and it might be noted that Subandhu’s Early Kalacuri descendants generally were Saivites, even though there were strong ecumenical ties between Buddhism and Hinduism in central India in the fifth and sixth centuries.

[20]  I omit from present consideration the Period of Disruption at Ajanta (479-480), which occurred just after the collapse of the established Vakataka patronage in 478.

[21]  DeCaroli, deferring to the opinions of those scholars who do not accept the ‘short chronology’ for Ajanta, suggests that ‘Dandin was writing over one hundred and fifty years after Vakataka rule’, but my own cut-off date for Vakataka rule—approximately 484 CE—would mean that the gap was over two centuries.

[22]  DeCaroli, 673, referring (with bibliographic references given) to the opinions of De, Raghavan, Pillai, Gupta, and Kane.

[23] See (Dalrymple 2009, 90).

[24] Although DeCaroli believes that the Dandin’s recollection of the late Vakataka ‘history’ ‘is a rather accurate account’, he still suggests that ‘Dandin’s first concern was not with a precise chronology of the past…Dandin was, after all, a poet, who addressed himself to his own age and strove to prevent the terrible events of his youth from happening again’ (DeCaroli 1995, 676).  In my own opinion, however, seeing how everything ‘fits’, almost year by year, I would say that Dandin does in fact record these ‘ancient events’ with great precision.

[25]   For instance, in the episode where the Vakataka family flees to Mahismati (Dandin 1986, 405 ff.), we are told, revealingly but gratuitously, that the princess is fourteen years old, that the prince was ‘about eight’, and that their guide, the Vakataka prime minister, was an old man and died of a raging fever.

[26]    (DeCaroli 1995, 675):  ‘In order for the political metaphor to be effective, the Vakatakas, and by comparison Paramesvaravarman I, had to be presented as being nearly perfect while the Asmaka/Calukya had to be made as menacing and vile as possible.’

[27] Dandin speaks at great length about the pleasures and benefits of dalliance, drinking, even cheating, all with a view to capture the attention of his young auditor(s), since he typically ends by warning about the effects of excess, and in emphasizing the importance of virtuous and committed action.  The intentional ‘excess’ of these long and delightful interludes in Dandin’s account are to some degree responsible for scholars’ failing to recognize the underlying historicity of the core of Dandin’s account.

[28]  Near the beginning of the Visrutacarita we find that Visruta was the son of Susruta, whose father was Sindhudatta.  At the start of the Dasakumaracarita we learn that Sindhudatta was one of the counselors of the Magadhan emperor Rajahansa.

[29]  ‘484’, like other dates in our reconstruction of Vakataka history, must be thought of as close, but approximate.  That is, to be more precise, we should say ‘ca. 484.’