A region which has been overlooked in modern India; Madhya Pradesh has a rich history that deserves to be explored.
The state of Madhya Pradesh, the second largest Indian state by area, remains an under-discussed and an under-appreciated state. There is a tendency to think of Madhya Pradesh as an “artificial entity” – culturally not dissimilar to the rest of North India. A state that is not worth our attention. But to my mind, that angle has been overdone and MP remains woefully under-studied.
Madhya Pradesh’s Exceptionalism
When we think of Madhya Pradesh there are many things that strike us immediately, such as:
– Its relatively low population density, along with Rajasthan, relative to the rest of North India. Some numbers:
|Region||Population / sq. km (2011)|
– Madhya Pradesh’s geography also marks it out among all Indian states, particularly when compared to the rest of the North Indian plain. Forests account for roughly 31% of the state’s area. This is in sharp contrast for instance to say the corresponding figure of 7% in UP
– Much of Madhya Pradesh is a plateau as it is home to the Vindhya and Satpura ranges. In contrast to the plains of UP, Bihar, and Punjab
Next, let’s move to Madhya Pradesh’s demography and politics –
– Madhya Pradesh is perhaps the most Hindu of all Indian provinces. With 91% of its population adhering to Hinduism. But it is also worthwhile to note that MP is home to a very large proportion of the “adivasi” population. The Scheduled Tribes account for 21% of MP’s 73 million
– In terms of its politics, MP to this day remains a bipolar polity with power keenly contested by Congress and BJP. This is in sharp contrast to other Northern States like Uttar Pradesh / Bihar, where caste-based parties remain very dominant (E.g. : Samajwadi Party, Bahujan Samaj Party).
– MP has seen far less iconoclasm over centuries compared to other states. Many of the ancient pre-Islamic sites in North India (pre 12th century) are to be found here.
- Bateshwar temples
- Temples at Amarkantak
- Sanchi Stupa
- Sonagiri Jain temples
So there is a case for Madhya Pradesh’s exceptionalism which is seldom made by anyone. But what is this territory’s place in Indian history? When does the region first make its appearance in the annals of India? Let’s explore.Get monthly updates
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Vedic Antecedents: Geographical Centroid or Southern Frontier?
Today we tend to think of Madhya Pradesh as the “Center” of India geographically. But in the Vedic as well as in the early classical period before the Common Era, the Vindhyas were not viewed as the geographic centroid but the southern boundary of Aryavarta.
Back in the Vedic and even Epic period the term “Madhya Desha” referred not to the area that constitutes Madhya Pradesh today, but to the Ganga – Yamuna Doab – the great plains of present UP and Bihar. The Vindhya territory marked the southern frontier of the Aryan cultural zone.
Nowhere is this more evident than in the Manu Smriti, which clearly is a post-Vedic, post Epic period text (possibly composed in the centuries just preceding the common era). But even in this text, Aryavrata ends with the Vindhyas.
आ समुद्रात् तु वै पूर्वादा समुद्राच्च पश्चिमात् ।
तयोरेवान्तरं गिर्योरार्यावर्तं विदुर्बुधाः
“The country extending as far as the Eastern Ocean and as far as the Western Ocean, and lying between the two mountains (Himalaya and Vindhya),—the learned know as Āryāvrata”
Having said that Aryanization of the Deccan had started happening even before the time of Manu Smriti. Even a territory to the south of the Vindhyas like “Vidarbha” features in the Mahabharata. Even very early Sangam literature in Tamil country already refers to Brahmins. By the time we reach the classical period (3rd / 4th century CE), Aryan culture had engulfed the whole of the subcontinent and beyond.
Vindhya territory was now no more the southern frontier, but the geographical centroid. But despite being viewed as the southern frontier, the Vindhya region and the territory just to its south played a major role in North Indian geopolity during the Vedic period. Major late Vedic kingdoms included –
- Chedi (modern Bundelkhand) (Shishupala of Mahabharata fame)
- Avanti kingdom (modern Malwa) (with its two great cities of Ujjain & Mahishmati)
Both kingdoms are mentioned in the 4th century BCE Buddhist text Anguttara Nikaya (in its list of 16 Mahajanapadas).
There is also a legendary kingdom of “Haihaya” with its capital at Mahishmati in modern Madhya Pradesh that features in Mahabharata and Puranic literature, possibly also belonging in some form to the Vedic period. The Haihayas were most likely overthrown by Brahmins of the Bhargava clan – as indicated by the legend of Parashurama avenging his father Jamadagni’s death by killing the Haihaya king – Kartavirya Arjuna.
The Mauryan Period and after
In later periods, the territory of what we call MP today became a part of the great Mauryan Empire which united much of India. Ashoka was, in fact, the governor of Ujjain as per some Ceylonese Buddhist sources, during his father Bindusara’s reign. He married a merchant’s daughter – Devi – during his stay in that region. The lady was a native of Vidisha (Besnagar in modern MP).
Vidisha a few centuries later became home to the famous Heliodorus pillar – erected in honor of Vasudeva by a Greek ambassador to Shunga court). In the early centuries of the Common Era, many parts of Malwa actually came under the rule of the Deccan based kingdom of Shatavahanas, during the reign of the great Gautamiputra Satakarni.
This distinguishes the Malwa region from the rest of north India in that it was often under the rule of Deccan based kingdoms – first briefly during the Satavahana period, and later during the Rashtrakuta period.
The Classical age: Yashodharman and the Malwa resistance to the White Huns
In the height of the classical era (3rd – 5th century), much of modern MP came under Guptas – an empire headquartered in Pataliputra. Then there was a period of chaos. A period of repeated invasions of Shweta Huna foreigners (from the North West), causing the decline of the Guptas. This was when the Malwa region came to the fore and did Bharatavarsha a great service. The great Malwa king Yashodharman of Aulikara dynasty was instrumental in defeating the Huna warlord – Mihirakula (known in later Persian tradition as Mehr Gul), and driving Huns out of India
Who were the Aulikara kings? Were they just feudal lords owing their allegiance to Guptas? Or were they independent kings? I am not sure. But Yashodharman’s place (500 to 550 CE approx.) in Indian history should be very exalted. His great victory is commemorated in the great Mandsaur stone inscription in western Madhya Pradesh today.
There is also a separate Mandsaur pillar inscription which explicitly declares Yashodharman’s victory over Mihirakula (which you don’t find in the stone inscription).
But the persistent invasions of the White Huns and the Alchon Huns did take a toll eventually leading to the decline of the Gupta Empire in Northern India. With the exception of pan-North Indian rule of Harsha, the region of MP during the centuries 7th to 9th was influenced greatly by kingdoms to its south in the Deccan – particularly the Rashtrakutas.
The Chandelas and the Paramaras
Post 9th century, the Rajput dynasts extended their sway over the regions of Malwa and Bundelkhand – the Paramaras in Malwa (Western MP) and the Chandelas in Bundelkhand (Northern / eastern MP). Today we remember the Chandelas the best for their marvellous, if somewhat lurid, temples of Khajuraho in northern MP. The Paramaras are remembered somewhat differently. Through the memory of a single individual – their greatest king – the erudite Raja Bhoja.
Bhoja ruled from his capital in Malwa – the town of Dhara nagara – known as Dhar today. His reputation is one of the greatest among all Indian kings in our 3000+ years of history. He was a veritable polymath, a great Shiva bhakta, a renowned warrior, a patron of the arts, and a fine litterateur himself.
While many works are attributed to him, the book he is best known for is “Shringara Prakasha” – a treatise on poetry and drama. Bhoja’s influence was so great on succeeding generations that many a fine king in later years has attempted to emulate him. The great Krishna Devaraya of Vijayanagara Kingdom in early 16th century fashioned himself as “Abhinava Bhoja” (the new Bhoja).
The Medieval age
Eventually, the Delhi Sultanate did gain political control over these regions in the 13th/14th centuries. Until the rise of the Mughals 2 centuries later, the sovereignty rested with the Sultanates of Malwa, Delhi and also the Hindu Tomara dynasty of Gwalior. The Mughals then ruled over the region for a good part of 2+ centuries.
But after the fall of Aurangazeb, several Maratha dynasts became dominant. The Shindes (Scindias) of Gwalior, the Holkars of Indore (Malwa), and at the north-east and south-west frontiers of the regions we had Jhansi & Bhonsles.
The legacy of Holkars is remembered particularly fondly. Their greatest monarch in the 18th century was undoubtedly the great Queen Ahilyabai. She reigned from Maheshwar near Indore for nearly 30 years from 1767 to 1795. A very central figure in the Hindu revivalism of the 18th century.
However, the region in and around Bhopal was a separate princely state, ruled by Muslim dynasts. It was founded in the late 17th century. For much of the British period in the 19th century, this princely state was nominally reigned over by several Muslim Begums. As far as the rest of the region is concerned, the Maratha influence waned near-terminally, after the great Anglo-Maratha war of 1818, which was disastrous for the Marathas.
British Raj and beyond
By the mid-to-late 19th century, much of what we call Madhya Pradesh became to be known by two provinces:-
- Central Provinces
- Central India Agency (comprising of the different princely states owing allegiance to the British)
When India turned independent, we ended up with a plethora of new states in the region. Central Provinces was rechristened Madhya Pradesh. While the princely states in the Central India Agency were split into three states – Madhya Bharat, Vindhya Pradesh, Bhopal.
It was only in 1956 with the lingual reorganization of states, that the predominantly Hindi speaking portions of all these different states were unified and constituted the new “MP” – the largest state in India. The Marathi speaking regions of Vidarbha were ceded to Bombay state.
Madhya Pradesh’s Political exceptionalism – Post Independence
How has the politics of the region shaped up? Perhaps in part owing to its legacy of princely rule right up to the 20th century, Madhya Pradesh politics has been marked by remarkable continuity and political dynasties. The Congress Party has retained its influence in Madhya Pradesh for far longer than in most other parts of North India, except Rajasthan.
The curious non-emergence of localized caste-based parties in Madhya Pradesh is also very striking – in sharp contrast to UP and Bihar. Here’s an examination of Congress vote shares in MP over the years in Vidhan Sabha elections –
|YEAR||Congress vote share %|
Madhya Pradesh, like most other parts of Northern India, reacted viscerally to the Ayodhya Movement. No doubt. Having said that, the Jana Sangh has always had a fairly strong presence in MP. So it is worthwhile to track the vote shares of Jana Sangh (BJS) and BJP over the years
|YEAR||BJS / BJP vote share %|
So what you see is a very healthy and significant right-wing presence right from the inception of the state. Since 2003, the BJP enjoyed uninterrupted power in the state – for over 15 long years (mostly under the helm of Shivraj Singh Chauhan), until 2018 when power shifted into hands of the Congress.
Who have been some of the leading lights of MP politics over the years? As remarked, the politics in the state has long had a dynastic feel to it.
The state’s first CM was Pandit Ravi Shankar Shukla, a stellar personality from the decades of the freedom movement. From 1957 to 1962, the Chief Minister was Kailash Nath Katju, a Kashmiri Pundit, whose family included Dewans in one of the princely states. Next came the distinguished Dwarka Prasad Mishra, a literary figure, father of Brajesh Mishra, the National security advisor in the Vajpayee government. In the early 70s, the CM was Shyam Charan Shukla, the son of Ravi Shankar Shukla whom we have alluded to. Chief Ministers in the 80s included Sundarlal Patwa, Motilal Vora, and Arjun Singh. Digvijay Singh, who was CM for much of the 90s was himself of princely lineage.
The two most recent CMs, Uma Bharti and Shivraj Singh Chauhan, mark a break from the past, in that they are from humbler backgrounds relative to the nepotistic high connections that characterise many of the state’s early politicians
So that’s the end of this historical survey. This is a fascinating region of the country that is much overlooked. Many of its ancient towns have exerted a great influence on Indian life over millennia – Ujjain, Mahishmati, and Dharanagara. Today, we tend to not think of them much. It is also a state that has proved exceptional in its politics. Often deferring to dynastic leaders. And often surprising us with the curious lack of anti-incumbency in its politics. Why is that the case needs to be a subject of some investigation.