In Conversation with Hans Bakker

In Conversation with Hans Bakker

in Interview
Published on: 22 May 2018
Rajesh Singh interviews Hans Bakker on the Ajanta and the Vakatakas, Baroda, January 2016


Rajesh Singh: I have Prof. Hans Bakker with me who is one of the most renowned experts of the history of the Vakatakas. Right now he is ERC curator, that is European Research Commission’s curator at the British Museum. He is more renowned for his work called the Vakataka’s Hindu Iconology that was published in 1997. It changed many ideas on the history of the Vakatakas that was shrouded in mystery until a few decades back. Some of his landmark research findings have offloaded the focus that was entirely on the subject of the Ajanta. Now we come to know that the Vakatakas had a much greater role to play than popularly thought of. His work is also very much noted for his critical additions on Skandpurana and more about his work I would like to ask himself. Prof. Bakker, what a great honour it is for me to be able to meet you and learn about your research on the Vakatakas. May I begin asking you about your current area of research?


Hans Bakker: My current area of research actually is to trace an ancient trading group from the Indian Ocean through Baroda through Ujjain up to Mathura and Kanauj in the 5th and 6th century. Because we think that around this trading group, this Pashupata religion reformation within the Shaiva religion was travelling slowly up to the north and then spreading over the Ganga valley to the east. So we are looking for ancient remains of the 5th and 6th century which are related to this Pashupata religion along this track from Bharuch or Barugaza through Ujjain up to Mathura and Kanauj. So that is one major concern at the moment.  


RS: Excellent. I wish I was also a part of your research. At the moment I would like to invite your attention to the immediate subject of our discussion which happens to be the Vakatakas. Many of the people in India have not even heard of the Vakatakas. Who were the Vakatakas? What do we know about them Sir?


HB: Well, one major question that nobody can answer at the moment is where they came from. All of a sudden in the 4th or 5th century we have inscriptions of the Vakatakas. The first major branch of the Vakataka dynasty settled in Vidarbha. But whether they originally belonged to that country or came from another country, we don’t know. Probably they came from abroad, but some people say they came from South India. Others think that they came from the Vindhya region.


I think personally they came from the Vindhyas because the first king is called Vindhyashakti. But at the end of the 4th century and during the first half of the 5th century, they all of a sudden were very prominent in the upper Deccan area. And then they disappeared again.


RS: How did they suddenly occupy this central part of the Deccan?


HB: That is a pertinent and a major question. My personal opinion is that they were new to the area of Vidarbha and before they came there, there was not much urban settlements around. Maybe there were small agricultural communities where they set themselves up as rulers, local rulers and were fairly successful at that. I don’t think that they were a continuation of the Satavahana dynasty before that. They were something new in the 4th century. They set themselves up and then they left us not only inscriptions but also a lot of archaeological material, sculptures etc.


RS: Which is the rough area, what is the tentative contour of their dominions?


HB: Well, we know that there were at least two branches. The inscriptions speak of more, of four sons but we know of two branches. One is in Vidarbha and the other is around, more to the West. Yes, Vatsagulma. But that branch came to the fore in the middle of the 5th century and we have the evidence, the Ajanta caves. Before that, we don’t know very much about them but we have a lot of archaeological material. The senior branch in Vidarbha were prominent in the first half of the 5th century.


So these two branches, well, in a way they are branches, in a way they are completely separate, both call themselves Vakatakas and through that category they link up to one another.


RS: So you spent decades studying the art and archaeology related to the Vakatakas. What is so important about the Vakatakas that attracted your attention?


HB: What is important about them I think is that they left us with a wonderful collection of art, art objects, sculptures, the caves of course of the Vatsagulma branch in the Ajanta, and they were major players in the history of India. I mean they were part of the Gupta period and they were connected to the Imperial Guptas of Northern India. So for one century they were major players in the historic field. So that is an important thing by itself, but in my view more important is what they have left to us and what they have left to us is wonderful sculptures and wonderful paintings in the Ajanta Caves.


RS: Do you think the Vakatakas of Vatsagulma had any direct or indirect role to play in the development of Ajanta Caves?


HB: They certainly had a role to play there because we have their inscriptions, although we do not have an inscription of the Vakataka king himself in Ajanta. Well, that is very sadly missing actually. And the impression we have of the inscriptions of the Vatsagulma branch is that they were not particularly Buddhist kings but they allowed people in their court who were Buddhist to set up the caves, to patronise the caves, provided all kinds of funds to excavate the caves and beautify the caves. So they were indirectly involved in setting up the Ajanta caves. Whether the king himself and his family were very much involved, that is an open question because we have no evidence for that.


RS: One of the mysteries about the Vakatakas, whether it is the Nandivardhana branch or the Vatsagulma branch, I think is regarding their sociological conditions. During your research did you come across evidences of the social conditions of the time?


HB: Yes, that is an important question. I think they started from a fairly simple and small scale agricultural society. And I think that the eastern branch, the Vidarbha branch remained more or less small scale agricultural society but well-organised. So well-organised that there was a surplus of money and funding. They could build a big capital and temples all around the area or in Mansara. But the impression is that it was an agricultural society. Things might be different with the other branch in Vatsagulma in the trade route. Ajanta of course is on the trade route and it is Buddhistic. So they were connected to trade and to Buddhist monks and they were more open to connection to the north and to the south of Ajanta and maybe even international, because in Ajanta pictures or paintings we have some images or representatives of people from abroad India. So they were clearly part of a bigger world.


In Vidarbha, the Vakatakas were not so much part of the bigger world, although they were very closely connected to the Guptas and that is probably one of the sources of their power.


RS: Prof. Bakker, I also was wondering about the state of economy of the Vakatakas. Did they mint coins?


HB: That is another question that is popping up again and again in Vakataka studies. If they had coins, they did not have many coins. A couple of lead coins may have come in the later period. Some people have argued on occasions that in the middle of the 5th century they were issuing coins, but there is no comparison to the Gupta coins. We have not come across gold coins or silver coins minted by the Vakatakas. So therefore that is one of the reasons why we think it was an agricultural society. They had no need for coins that much. While in Vatsagulma and Ajanta of course, they were part of a bigger professional trade route where they used coins of other dynasties if needed, simply in exchange of goods.


But the Vidarbha Vakatakas, they might have minted some coins at the end of their rule maybe to finance their army to fight their enemies, but it was not an integral part of their economies for a long period that is for sure. Maybe in the end.


RS: In your opinion how do we recount the heritage of the Vakatakas in terms of art, culture and patronage? Which are the most salient things that come to our mind when we think of Vakataka heritage.


HB: Well, I think most people will think of the Ajanta Caves, that is for sure. And they are of course a world monument. I mean they are a stunning monument. So that is one major thing. But on the other hand in the eastern part, in Vidarbha, recently in the last 25 years many new things were found not only on the Ramagiri itself but also in Mansara which is of top level art, actually really a good comparison to Gupta art. It is not completely different from the Ajanta caves but it is possibly distant. The caves and these images are found by unearthing a complete temple and a complete residence/palace. So this is really the heritage of the Vakatakas.


RS: This entire gamut of patronage appears to be “Hindu” art and in the Buddhist art we find no direct inscriptional evidence (HB – No, not of the king), not of the kings (HB – But people of the court of course). So what do we make out about the patronage with regard to the sociological and theological conditions of the time?


HB: There you also have to distinguish again between the eastern and the western branch of the Vakatakas. The eastern ones were clearly what one would call Hindu. They were either Shaiva or Vaishnava. And the Vaishnava element was brought in by the marriage of Rudrasena with princess Prabhavatigupta, daughter of Chandragupta. She was a staunch Vaishnava and built some Vaishnava monuments and left some Vaishnava testimonies in her inscriptions.


The Vakatakas originally were Shaiva. Pravarasena himself was a Shaivite, his son was again Shaiva. So it is only Rudrasena II and Prabhavati who were clearly Bhagavatas or Vaishnavas, the rest were clearly Shaiva.


The other branch is more complicated. They do not seem to be Buddhistic in my view. They seem to be above religion. They were actually just following the dharma and they allowed different types of religion in their realm. Personally they might have been Shaivas, some of them at least as their names indicate that. But we have not much information about that.    


RS: What kind of administrative structure did they have?


HB: Actually we are speaking about two kingdoms. They have a name in common, they have a kind of pedigree in common and they have the period in common but they are quite distinct kingdoms. And when one is fading, one kingdom in the east is fading, the western one takes over. So also the economy might be very different in the two places. As I said earlier, I think that the eastern branch was more local and agriculture oriented and the western branch was taking part of a bigger bulk of trade and even international trade. So it was quite distinctive, these two.


RS: Sir, are you familiar with the excavation done in 1995 or 1997 when one small Mahishasurmardini image and a Roman gold coin was found at Ajanta, (HB – Yes, Walter Spink had shown me that) ? What do you make out of these two finds?


HB: Well we find Mahishasurmardini all over India in this period, so there is nothing special about that. One would be surprised if there was no Mahishasurmardini. I mean these people were carrying these things everywhere. So that is not so surprising. But if there is a Roman coin found there, well, they were objects of value. So if it was not melted down to make some necklace or earrings, then people kept these things. It doesn’t say very much that there was contact with the Romans or not at that time. Probably not because there are two hundred years in between atleast. So I don’t think they are any significant facts.


RS: How do we explain? How did this coin reach Ajanta?


HB: Oh! There are a million ways to reach Ajanta. Ajanta was a rich place. It was connected to trade routes as I said. And coinage of course was part of this international trade. So that coin might have reached in this way.


RS: In your opinion who are the most prominent Vakataka rulers in terms of art, patronage, economy, politics, whatever perspective we look at?


HB: Well, it depends very much on our sources. I mean, of some people we have much more sources than of others. So because of that we think they are more prominent. Anyway, for us they are more prominent. And I am thinking particularly of Rudrasena and his wife Prabhavati Gupta, the daughter of Chandragupta. And there is Pravarasena who was king for a long time. Pravarasena’s reign and the reign of Prabhavati as the regentess saw the first fifty years of the 5th century. There were big, great things built in Ramagiri, Mansara, Mandhal etc. The small area around the present day Nagardhan is very prominent in our sources. They were probably very prominent people in the history of India.


And in the western branch we have of course Harishena and that is basically all we have. So Harishena was king in the time that the Ajanta caves were excavated. So for the other kings we do not have very much information.


And about Harishena also actually we do not know anything at all. We have not many inscriptions left, I think two or so if I remember well and they don’t say very much about him or anything. He is prominent only because he was king at the time the Ajanta Caves were excavated.


RS: And what is the nature of heritage at Mandhal?


HB: That was the earliest place of the eastern Vakatakas. We are speaking about before 400 I would think. They probably set up their capital at Padmapuri, somewhere in that neighbourhood I think. Later they moved to the north, they went to the north of what is now Nagpur, eventually (?) Ramagiri, but the earliest evidence, archaeological evidence we have comes from Mandhal. Some inscriptions and a collection of a very, what shall I say, original images come from there. They have no predecessors. I mean they are something new that they have started.


RS: And what about Pravarapura? What have we found there?


HB: Well, it has been my theory in 1997 that actually this Hidimba Tekdi, next to the tekdis of Mansara, could be Pravarapura. After that excavations have proven beyond doubt that this is indeed the site of Pravarapura because seals also have been found with Pravara on it. So no one questions it any more that this actually was Pravarapura. So Pravarapura was a big residence and palace and a temple complex.


RS: And what about Nagardhan and Ramtek? What have we found there in terms of archaeological heritage?


HB: I think that in Nagardhan, a village at the moment, there have been no excavations or hardly any excavations. But in Ramgiri of course, everything is still physical. I think Ramgiri is actually the product of Prabhavati Gupta because it is Vaishnava. She brought Vaishnavism to the region and she started this big project like her father in Udaigiri. She started a similar thing in Ramagiri when she came to Vidarbha as the queen of the Vakatakas.


RS: Prof. Bakker, I wanted to learn from you about the attitude of the Vakatakas towards the Buddhists.


HB: Well, we can only indirectly answer that question I think. But it seems that they had no problems with the religion at all despite the fact that they were Shaiva or Bhagavatas. In the eastern Vakataka realm, some beautiful Buddhist bronzes have been found not far from Nagardhan, so that seems to signify that there was a Buddhist community living near the capital Nagardhan, Pravarapura and Ramagiri without any problems. On the other hand, we have the evidence of Ajanta which is a Buddhist monument and as I said earlier in this interview, the king himself, Harishena, does not seem to have been a Buddhist. There is no evidence for that in these inscriptions. But he accepted Buddhism as part of Indian traditions (or religions) and so when his courtiers wanted to sponsor and patronise Buddhist excavations, Buddhist monasteries or whatever, they could go ahead with that. So I think they were a part of a bigger whole and there was no great animosity between them as far as we know atleast.


RS: Then what happened after the Vakatakas? Why were these monuments in Aurangabad, Banoti and Bagh desecrated?  


HB: I don’t know whether Bagh fell altogether. I mean that was the wrong stone. I think that was the reason why Bagh collapsed. Ajanta was preserved because it was a different type of stone. And I don’t think they were desecrated. They were simply forgotten. And in Bagh there was a catastrophe because the block in which the cave was cut fell.


RS: Actually there is some evidence which I have also checked and as Professor Spink also has documented of monuments being abruptly abandoned.


HB: Well, that is another thing. Of course there might have been some historical upheaval at the time and the dynasty came to an end.


RS: The Vakatakas collapsed, but why should a religious place be just abandoned? We have no evidence of direct patronage of the people. I have seen this in Aurangabad, Ellora, Banoti and Ajanta. Particularly I want to learn from you about the sociological conditions during the Vakataka rule. During your research have you found anything?


HB: Well, sociologically I don’t know. The whole Gupta period came to an end in the 5th century and they were part of that. So they were part of a rule that was fastly disappearing at the end of the 5th century and with the Guptas, the Vakatakas disappeared as well. So what are the causes for the fall of the Gupta Empire? Well, that has been much discussed. They (Vakatakas) were a part of that world and that world was changing by the end of 5th century. Somebody might have continued to be important. I mean Ajanta was eventually forgotten until it was rediscovered. Bagh had difficulties because the rock was not firm enough, so things were falling down. It was probably abandoned, but the temples at Ramagiri are still being worshipped after 1500 years and they have been in worship all the time from 500 to presently.


RS: Continuously? There is evidence?


HB: Yes, we have. There is an 8th century temple at the foot of the Ramagiri. There were some new religious structures built in that period. And of course we have the Yadavas who came during the 11th, 12th and 13th centuries and they took over the heritage of the Vakatakas and built new temples on the same spot. So Ramagiri has been a holy and religious place for 1500 years continuously.


RS: What about the calendar? What kind of year reckoning did they follow? Guptas had their own regnal eras.


HB: Yes, but the Vakatakas also had their own regnal years.


RS: But they did not follow an era.


HB: No. I think that one or two inscriptions probably ascribed to the Shaka era, end of the western branch of the Vakatakas.


RS: But they did not start their own calendar.


HB: No, they did not start their own calendar.


RS: Do you remember which are these two inscriptions?


HB: I think one has to do with this dam that was built near Vatsagulma. The name of the inscription is Hisse-Borala. There I think there is Shaka era.


RS: Another one is by Harishena himself near Bullia. That is also dated in the Shaka era as far as I know.


HB: Okay. But most of them are regnal years.


RS: They are not Vikram samvad at all?


HB: No, definitely not.


RS: Sir, please tell me if the Shaka era found more favours with the Buddhist proclamation and among the Hindus it was the Vikram samvad. Was it not so?


HB: Maybe in certain phases it was so but it was not in the area that we are talking about.  


RS: What about the height of the Vakatakas? Can we imagine that there were large cities at all?


HB: No, not in the sense of as we know cities today. No, I don’t think so. I think that it was the palace and the main monastery that were made of brick that were the centre of a settlement and around that a lot of people were probably living, but not in pucca buildings. So that has all gone.


RS: What about the architecture that we see painted in Ajanta paintings? If the world outside did not exist..


HB: I am not saying that this world outside did not exist. What you see in Ajanta paintings is palace courts scenes and they existed.


RS: Palaces existed, yes, of course.


HB: I think it was a fairly good time to live in the 5th century, a very happy period. You can see in the art, it is happy form of expressions I think, content form of living. Houses of the majority of the people were not made of bricks. And so we don’t have any evidence of it. But what was made of bricks, the palace of the king at least in Vidarbha has been excavated. And that is what is represented in the Ajanta caves.


RS: So what can you tell us about the relationship of the Vakatakas with early Kalachuris, Kadambas and others?


HB: I think, I don’t see any relationship of the Vakatakas with the Kalachuris. Actually, I don’t know. I don’t know whether we have any evidence of that. They were clearly later than the Vakatakas and they were partly in the same areas as the Vakatakas of course, east of the western Vakatakas. Whether there was any relationship or not, I find it very difficult to say. I don’t know it. The Kadambas to the south were contemporaneous. So there was an exchange with the Kadambas.


RS: And Pallavas were not there yet?


HB: No, not in that area.


RS: Sir, one of the theories about Kalidasa is that he was there for a brief while in the court of the Vakatakas. Is it? Do you subscribe to it?


HB: It is thinkable. He must have known their court probably quite well. He was certainly living in the first half of the 5th century. So he might have known the court of the Guptas and the court of the Vakatakas.


RS: Do you think he might have travelled with Prabhavati Gupta.


HB: We cannot exclude that. That is a possibility.


RS: For an excursion or something. She comes and some important people come along with her.


HB: That might be possible and there is a lot of evidence that Pravarasena, her son was a poet himself. There is a tradition that says that he learnt poetry and kavya from Kalidasa which is not by itself unlikely because Kalidas is certainly a senior of Pravarasena. But they might have been partly contemporaneous. So there could be a tradition.


RS: Sir, what was the condition of the development of science during that period? Do you have any views on that?


HB: Well, if you look at the way they have built their monuments, either the caves in Ajanta or the monuments that have been found on the Ramagiri and around Ramagiri, we can see that they were excellent craftsmen. They were truly truly very good craftsmen. So they used all the techniques necessary to make first class of what we would call art. They would probably not call it art but simply call images, motifs, forms for devotion to god. But they were excellent craftsmen. For the rest I would have to think whether we have any information on their knowledge of sciences.


RS: We find a reference that Aryabhatta was born in the Asmaka country and his date of birth is generally considered to be 463 AD. Have you come across any reference, evidence?


HB: No, not with respect to Vakatakas.


RS: I was wondering where in the Asmaka country Aryabhatta learnt it. And then what we know for sure is that he writes his Aryabhattyam in Kusumapura, that is Pataliputra at the age of 21. So what is widely recognised is that he was there in Pataliputra in Magadha and he had his laboratory in a place called Taregna. And then we have another place called Khagaul. Both are just within 100 kilometres from Pataliputra. Last year for solstice, or some comet passing, people from everywhere had come over to the small villages. So Aryabhatta suddenly came into popular imagination at that time last year. But I found a reference that Aryabhatta was not born in Magadha, he was born in the Ashmaka country.  And then at the age of 21 he writes his Aryabhatyam. Was there a school of astronomy over there in Asmaka country?  


HB: No, I can be very sure that.


RS: His system of education?


HB: No, I don’t know anything about that. I have not come across any evidence regarding Asmaka, no. Could well be. We know only very little.


RS: Sir, we have your, I would say, monumental work, Vakataka’s Hindu Iconology in 1997 and then again in 2004, this symposium you had on the Vakataka heritage. These two are landmark contributions to the ongoing Vakataka studies. Before that we had people like Ajay Mitra Shastri and V.V. Mirashi. Then before that we had Yazdani and then A.S. Altekar etc. So I wanted to know from you, from the angle of historiography how do we evaluate today the relevance of the research of these people.


RS: Well, we should be grateful that these people did this research because we are building on their work. But as it goes in science, some results are permanent but most of them are replaced by later results or theories. So their work is still very useful as an introduction and as a basis of further work on Vakatakas. Of course it is not the latest point of view, I mean the latest point of view is changing every day. So they are the shoulders on which we are standing.


RS: Is there anything which still owes very heavily to Altekar?


HB: Well, Altekar was of course one of the very first who developed this theory of the golden age in Gupta-Vakataka period and the connection between the Vakatakas and the Guptas. So that is still valid. I mean that has been proven by the later historiography that there was indeed a cultural relationship between the Guptas and the Vakatakas. So in that sense it is still very important.


RS: Is Mirashi still valid?


HB: Yes, Mirashi more than Altekar because Mirashi was doing editions of inscriptions. So he was actually publishing sources. Altekar was talking about sources but Mirashi was publishing sources. So his publications of the sources itself, the inscriptions, discoveries are on our desk all the day, all the time while we work on the Vakatakas.


RS: What about Ajay Mitra Shastri?


HB: He is, in a way, a successor to Mirashi. So he has done a lot of work in the line of Mirashi publishing newfound inscriptions.


RS: Did you work with Shastri?


HB: Yes, I did. But for Mirashi I came too late.


RS: To what extent would you accept Shastri’s research.


HB: Oh! I think it is a very good Indian tradition of epigraphy. As such he is a good successor to Mirashi who I estimate is one of the major Indian epigraphists together with Sircar. These three people are major Indian epigraphists of say the 20th century and certainly very important even today for all the work on Vakatakas. They published sources.


RS: In your self-assessment, if I may ask, how do we evaluate the significance of your research about the Vakatakas.


HB: Well, history will tell. I can’t say anything about that. I mean that is a very difficult question. History will tell what is of value and what is not of value. I discovered a few inscriptions of the Vakatakas. I think they will last. I did for instance the publication of the inscription from the Kevala-Narsimha temple in Ramagiri which is probably by the daughter of Prabhavatigupta. This edition will, I think, be useful for a longer period. That is the major thing.


RS: And what is your current focus? Which is the area which is occupying you after your monumental work on the Vakatakas?


HB: As I said in the beginning of this interview, we are interested in the history of this Pashupata religion, the Shaiva religion and it seems to have started in the south of Gujarat, actually in this area where we are sitting at the moment. And I think it spread through western and northern India along the trade routes. In my mind they were imitating the Buddhist practice. So they were settling and went into places where there was trade, where there was money and where they could live and attract lot of attention. So they spread in the similar way as the Buddhist religion spread. And to do research on that subject is what I am basically will be doing.


RS: Prof. Bakker, thank you so much for your views on the subject of the Vakatakas