Just Like That | Raja Bhoj: The overlooked scholar-king of ancient Bhopal - Hindustan Times

Just Like That | Raja Bhoj: The overlooked scholar-king of ancient Bhopal

May 26, 2024 07:30 AM IST

Raja Bhoj's profound impact on arts and sciences remains largely unacknowledged in contemporary education.

Many years ago, as a child, I lived in Bhopal. I was studying at Scindia School, Gwalior, but used to visit Bhopal during the holidays since my father was posted there by the state government. Our house overlooked Bhopal’s famous lake, Bada Talab. The only bungalow opposite our house was that of the then Inspector-General (IG) of police.

Statue of Raja Bhoja in the Upper Lake in Bhopal, India(Bernard Gagnon/Wikimedia Commons) PREMIUM
Statue of Raja Bhoja in the Upper Lake in Bhopal, India(Bernard Gagnon/Wikimedia Commons)

The lake is vast, the beautiful centre-piece of the city surrounding it. In fact, there is a popular saying: “Garh hai to Chittorgarh, taal hai tau Bhopal” (If there is a real fort, it is Chittorgarh, and if there is a lake of lakes it is that of Bhopal). Decades later, when I visited Bhopal again, I found a vast degree of change. The city had grown so much that I located my father’s house after much difficulty. When I reached the house, the lake was nowhere to be seen. A four-lane road had since been built by reclaiming land from the waters, something like Marine Drive in Mumbai. This grand boulevard is now the pride of Bhopal.

At a strategic spot on this road, rises a large statue from the waters. It is that of Raja Bhoj (1010-1055 CE), who ruled over an extensive kingdom in the Malwa region, with his capital at Dhara, near present-day Bhopal. There are sharp differences of opinion on the quality of the statue from the aesthetic point of view. Some think it is pleasing. Others think it is a mediocre piece of work, an eyesore in the serene waters of the lake. Be that as it may, none can doubt that Raja Bhoj himself was, indeed, a great ruler.

What saddens me is that in our teaching of history, very little is taught or known about such remarkable personalities. Although Bhoj’s military conquests were not insignificant, he should be remembered as an exceptional patron of the arts, literature and the sciences. As a scholar-king, he was the role model of later Hindu monarchs like the iconic Krishnadevaraya of the Vijayanagar dynasty, who chose to call himself ‘Abhinava Bhoja’, the new or modern Bhoja. Hampi, the capital of the Vijayanagar Empire (15th to 16th century CE), the last great Hindu kingdom, is now a popular tourist site, and its remarkable historical ruins are a must-see to understand the greatness of Hindu civilisation. Krishnadevaraya’s exemplary reign (1509-1529), and his achievements and artistic refinement, are at last — but not sufficiently — getting their due. In my opinion, he ranks among the greatest rulers India has seen.

But how many people are aware of the fact that Krishnadevaraya was greatly inspired by Raja Bhoja, who ruled almost five centuries earlier? There is a reason for this. Under Bhoja, his capital Dhara became one of the most renowned intellectual centres. It is said that in his kingdom, even humble weavers could compose metrical Sanskrit kavyas. I was surprised to learn that Bhoja wrote as many as eighty-four books on subjects as diverse as astrology, lexicography, Sanskrit grammar, poetics, dramaturgy, and a commentary on Patanjali’s Yoga Shastras. He was also a great poet himself — the work Shringara Prakash is one of his notable works — and a well-known musician.

Is knowledge about any of this part of our school or university curriculum? How many modern scholars in the various disciplines on which he wrote, have studied, analysed and written about his works? Has India, after independence, cared to translate and popularise some of Bhoja’s seminal writings and insights? It is these gaping holes in our knowledge and educational curriculum that saddens me. Our history is replete with many such jewels of knowledge and creativity, that are largely ignored, and whose real contribution and worth can never be acknowledged by a mechanical chronology of where they ruled and when.

I am willing to wager that most people in Bhopal itself are not aware of Raja Bhoja’s multi-faceted talents. Yet, the tradition of scholar-kings is an old one in India. For instance, King Samudragupta (335-375 CE) of the Gupta dynasty, whose empire extended from the river Ravi in the west to the Brahmaputra in the east, and the Himalayas in the north to the Vindhyas in the south, with several tributary states further south, issued a series of exquisitely crafted gold coins in which he is depicted both as a chakravartin or conqueror and a musician. Not could it be happenstance, that his successor, Chandragupta II, who ruled at the height of the Gupta ascendancy, was a great patron of poets, philosophers, scientists, musicians and sculptors.

I have visited Hampi of course, and it is a transformational experience. But every time I am in Bhopal, I pause for a while at the statue of Raja Bhoj, and recall that in this very region there once ruled a king whose statue stands tall in Bhopal taal, but very few know what a remarkable ruler he was.

Pavan K Varma is author, diplomat, and former Member of Parliament (Rajya Sabha). Just Like That is a weekly column where Varma shares nuggets from the world of history, culture, literature, and personal reminiscences. The views expressed are personal

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