There are many facets of Sindh’s history that are shrouded in mystery. One such aspect is the era before the advent of Arab rule in 711, when the region was under Buddhist and Brahmin rule.
The limited scholarship that has been carried out on the subject portrays Sindh as a highly developed and prosperous society back then. Dutch scholar J. E. van Lohuizen-De Leeuw, in her 1981 essay ‘The Pre-Muslim Antiquities of Sind’, from the book Sind Through the Centuries, states: “Sind [sic] appears to have been a rich country in those days, materially rich due to its flourishing trade and culturally rich on account of its diversified religious patterns.”
An effort has been made here to draw a picture of Sindh during the interesting times of the 7th and early 8th century CE when, in a span of just 60 years, Sindh went through three great dynastic transitions, from Buddhist to Brahmin rule and then the Muslim conquest.
The Buddhist Rai Dynasty
The dawn of the seventh century saw the Buddhist Rai dynasty ruling Sindh for several generations. The region’s peace was stirred in 626 CE during the rule of Rai Seharas, when, “All of a sudden, an army of the king of Nimruz invaded his [Seharas’] country, entering Makran,” reads The Chachnama, the oldest multi-genre chronicle on the era. It was translated into English from Farsi by Mirza Kaleech Beg in 1900, under the title The Chachnama: An Ancient History of Sind.
Though Sindh’s army repulsed the attack, it lost its king in the battle. He was succeeded by his son Sahasi II, who ruled Sindh from 626 to 652 CE, according to Dr N.A. Baloch in his article ‘The Historical Sind Era’, published in Sind Through the Centuries.
What was Sindh like before the advent of Islam in the region in 711 CE? Who were the Buddhist and Brahmin dynasties that ruled in the 7th century, before they were displaced by the Arabs? Dr Muhammad Ali Shaikh attempts to piece together a picture from the existing historical sources
It was around 642 CE when a Chinese pilgrim, Hsuan Tsang, visited Sindh and “found innumerable stupas” and “several hundred Sangharama occupied by about ten thousand monks,” states British historian John Keay in India: A History. Although Buddhism was the most dominant religion in Sindh, Hinduism had a presence too, with about “thirty Hindu temples.”
Speaking about people, the Chinese pilgrim observed that they “as whole were hardy and impulsive and their kingdom ... was famed for its cereal production, its livestock and its export of salt,” Keay quotes him.
The Earliest Portrait of a ‘Sindhi’
One of the most important relics from the Buddhist era was discovered from among the remains of a stupa near Mirpurkhas. About 18 centuries old, it is a plaque containing a man’s portrait, which most of the scholars believe was either that of the builder or donor of the temple. Thus, it is held by H.T. Lambrick, in his 1973 book Sindh Before the Muslim Conquest, as “the earliest known portrait of an individual inhabitant of Sindh: perhaps a prominent merchant of the second or third century AD [CE].”
Describing the portrait, Lambrick states: “The figure wears a waist cloth, a necklace and an elaborate headdress which may have been a wig. It was painted; the complexion was wheat-coloured, with black eyes, eyebrows and moustache. One hand holds a small lotus flower, the other is placed carefully on a fold of waistcloth, which we may suppose did duty as a purse.”
The Brahmin ‘Soft Coup’
During the closing years of Buddhist king Sahasi II’s 28-year-long rule, most of the affairs of state were entrusted to his most loyal Brahmin minister Chach. Chach originally came from a humble background, but earned the admiration and confidence of the king on account of his sheer merit, talent and hard work.
“Having the entire support and confidence of the king, his [Chach’s] personal authority over Sindh and its dependencies was absolute,” notes Lambrick.
Another person that enjoyed the confidence of the king was his young queen, Suhandi. “Sahasi [was] entirely under influence of his wife, who was evidently a woman of strong mind as well as of strong passions,” observes Lambrick.
An incident brought Chach and Suhandi closer to each other. Once, Chach wanted to see the king regarding an urgent state business. The king was resting in his palace with his queen. He granted audience to Chach in the presence of the queen, who “fell desperately in love with the handsome Brahmin,” writes Lambrick. Initially, Chach resisted Suhandi’s romantic overtures, citing his religious and moral limitations, but eventually he succumbed to the queen’s persuasions.
Apart from this romantic tale, there were the hard political realities which may have compelled the two to foster an alliance. King Sahasi was childless. Suhandi feared that, after his death, the kingdom would fall to his relatives, who would not only divest her of her property, but perhaps not even spare her life. Meanwhile, Chach realised that his position would be even more precarious than hers. Hence, the two may have formed an alliance to safeguard their personal interests.
The story goes that when the king fell terminally ill, with Chach’s help, Suhandi called the ailing king’s sympathisers and close relatives from the capital of Alor to the palace. There she detained them and they were all ultimately put to death. In their stead, Suhandi and Chach appointed courtesans who pledged their loyalty to the queen. Suhandi declared Chach as the king’s vicegerent during the king’s illness. After the king’s death, Suhandi married Chach, who ascended the throne, marking the transition from Buddhist to Brahmin rule in the region.
Though Alor had already been pacified, Chach’s assumption of power invoked rebellions from governors and attacks from neighbours. In these circumstances, Chach “had to prove his right to rule, and this took him two or three years,” writes Lambrick. During the process, “he won the capital and the metropolitan region by a mixture of force, fraud and the influence of his former master’s widow.”
The kingdom of Sindh during the 7th century AD, as shown in the map, comprised most of the Indus Valley, excluding its northern reaches. After ascending the throne, as Chach fought wars, he invented a novel way of demarcating his kingdom’s borders, by planting trees suitable to those environs.
“In the north, we learn, he [Chach] reached ‘Kashmir,’” observes Keay, based on the account given in The Chachnama. “Even if this meant not the Kashmir valley but Kashmir territory, which then extended down to the plains of the Punjab, he must have entered the Himalayan foothills, for he marked his frontier by planting a chinar, or plane tree, and a deodar, or Himalayan cedar; both native to the hills.”
“Heading west, he laid claim to Makran, the coastal region of Baluchistan [sic], where he planted date palms,” Keay continues. It was against this backdrop that “Chach’s kingdom lacked only the erstwhile Gandhara in the north-west to qualify as a proto-Pakistan,” Keay writes.
Internally, the kingdom was divided into four provinces ruled by governors, in addition to the central territory directly ruled by the monarch. The territories of two provinces comprised present-day Sindh, while the other two comprised what is now Punjab. The Sindh provinces were Brahminabad, which covered “central Sindh eastward of the Indus together with the whole of lower Sindh and possibly Cutch [sic],” and that of Sehwan (Siwistan) included “the modern districts of Larkana and Dadu, and possibly Las Bela,” notes Lambrick.
Among the Punjab provinces, the Askaland “corresponded broadly with Bahawalpur state and part of adjoining Punjab districts, and the Multan province would seem to have run up at least as far as the Salt Range, as it is said to have bordered in Kashmir,” Lambrick outlines.
The important cities included the capital Alor (near Sukkur), the port-city Debal (near modern-day Karachi), Nerun (Hyderabad), Brahminabad (in present Sanghar district), Sehwan and Multan.
Chach proved to be an able administrator and ruled the country for about 40 years. It may seem strange, but the Arab chroniclers of Chachnama valued him highly, prompting Keay to observe that “for an infidel, Chach would be rated highly by Muslim rulers.”
Chach’s Succession and Raja Dahar
Chach had two sons, Daharsiah and Dahar, from Queen Suhandi, and a daughter, Bai, from another wife. On Chach’s death, initially his brother Chandar succeeded him, but finally power was transferred to his youngest son, Dahar.
Dahar too was a brave man and an able administrator who ruled for about 13 years. However, his morality stood compromised when he reportedly ‘ceremoniously’ married his half-sister to evade an astrologer’s prediction, which said that his half-sister’s husband would rule his kingdom.
This immoral act on his part sent shockwaves across the kingdom and even his elder brother took up arms against him, leading an expedition against Dahar. But he fell ill and died encamped outside Dahar’s fort.
Commenting on this, prominent Hindu scholar Dayaram Gidumal, states in the introduction to Mirza Kaleech Beg’s English translation of The Chachnama: “The king [Dahar] was undoubtedly a greater sinner. It was he who, by the advice of a credulous minister, solemnised his marriage with his own sister, to prevent the working of a prediction. The marriage was not intended to be consummated and, as a matter of fact, it was not consummated; but [the] impious ceremony nevertheless alienated from Dahar not only his brother but all the best and bravest men in the land.”
The king’s alienation from the people played a key role in the Arab victory in 711 CE over Sindh, a land which had in the past repulsed several Arab attacks. This brought an end to the Brahmin dynasty and the power was transferred to the Arabs.
A note on the sources: Three main sources on the history of this period are the accounts rendered by Chinese and Arab travellers, archaeological discoveries and three books on the subject, namely The Chachnama, the Tarikh-e-Maasumi and the Tuhfatul-Kiram. The oldest amongst them is The Chachnama and various scholars have attached varying weightage to its contents.
The writer is former Vice-Chancellor of Sindh Madressatul Islam University and has served as a faculty-fellow/ Fulbright Scholar at American University, Washington DC. He tweets @DrMAliShaikh. He can be reached at email@example.com
Published in Dawn, EOS, February 6th, 2022