In a village in the kingdom of Bhoja Raja, lived a rather dumb shepherd who took care of his family cows. His shepherd friends always teased him for being very stupid and hardly paid any attention to his words. One day, while passing through a green meadow following his herd of cows, he was tired and sat on a mould of grass. Immediately, he seemed to have gained knowledge and could even extemporaneously comment on the political matters of the kingdom. His friends were surprised at how this stupid boy suddenly began talking sense. They sat down and listened to him sincerely. When the sun was going down, they decided to gather their cows and go home. When he descended the mould, the shepherd was back to his dumb nature. The same thing happened several times in the next few weeks. Every time this dumb shepherd sat on that mould, his friends noticed that he was giving lectures on profound topics like poetry, military campaigns, the scriptures etc. As soon as he climbed down, he became dumb again. The news of these weird incidents reached the king – Bhoja Raja.
Bhoja had the shepherd summoned at court for questioning. When the dumb boy could explain nothing, Bhoja decided to have him demonstrate his knowledge when he was sitting on the mould. And lo, the idiot boy was advising Bhoja wisely. Bhoja understood that there was something under the mould that was causing such a great effect on anyone who sat over it. He ordered the mould to be dug out. After digging several feet down, they saw a lustrous, spectacular golden throne hidden inside. The throne was dug out carefully and taken to the king’s court. Bhoja was fascinated by the beauty and luster of the golden throne and being a powerful king himself, he decided that he was going to use it as his throne. He believed that if the throne could give wisdom to someone as stupid as that shepherd boy, it would help Bhoja become a wiser king too. The throne had 32 steps and there were beautiful women figurines carved out in every step.
When Bhoja was about to put his feet on the first step, the figurine on the first step came to life. The figurine explained that the throne in fact belonged to the legendary emperor Vikramaditya. The only person who had the right to ascend the throne was someone who would answer correctly every question the figurines asked on the way up. Every figurine would narrate a new story expounding the greatness of Vikramaditya, and if Bhoja could match or exceed Vikramaditya’s magnanimity on every step, he would be permitted to ascend the throne. As the rules of the challenge were being explained, Bhoja listened carefully and figured out that if he passed the test, he could ascend the throne and become the supreme ruler, or he would still remain Bhoja and continue to rule over his kingdom. He had nothing to lose. As one could guess, Bhoja Raja was never able to prove himself to be more magnanimous than the great Vikramaditya. Nevertheless the 32 figurines were pleased with Bhoja Raja’s humility, blessed him and allowed him to keep the throne and transformed themselves back to non-living figurines. The story of Bhoja Raja’s ascension to Vikramaditya’s throne is captured in the delightful Hindi story of “Singhaasan Battisi”.
It is historically recorded that Bhoja Raja went on to become a very powerful ruler. His kingdom extended from Bhopal (named after him) on the eastern end to Gujarat, Rajasthan and beyond. He even had allies from Kashmir to Tamil Nadu. When Mahmud Ghazni invaded India from Central Asia, Bhoja Raja successfully led an army of Hindu rulers and protected India, forming a fortress at Lahore on the western side. However, due to disputes among Bhoja’s allies, this mission turned unsuccessful after a few years when Ghazni came back to attack again. Bhoja Raja also rebuilt the temple at Somnath in 1024, after Ghazni’s destruction. (This temple has been destroyed by the Muslims nearly 30-35 times and the Hindus have been successful in rebuilding it again and again. The story of Somnath deserves special mention and hence will be narrated in a future dedicated post.)
Bhoja Raja paid a lot of attention to education of his subjects. It is believed that even a weaver in his kingdom could recite rhyming poetry in Sanskrit. Bhoja Raja himself was a profound scholar and produced 84 astounding works written in Sanskrit – some of which are still available. He is dated at 1010-1060 C.E. His scholarship and wisdom are clearly visible from the wide range of topics he wrote in – sarasvati kaNThabharaNa: a treatise on Sanskrit grammar for poetic and rhetorical compositions, rAjamArtANda – an authoritative commentary on Patanjali’s yogasUtras, jotiSha-rAjamRigAnka – an treatise on astronomy and construction of instruments used in astronomical observations, yuktikalpataru – technological manual explaining the construction of war ships (also contains the formula to make glass), shRiNgAra prakAsha – a treatise on Hindu erotics, dharmashAstra vRitti – commentary on the Hindu law, samarangaNa-sUtradhara – a work on civil engineering describing the construction of temples, dams, forts, idols of deities (also has a design of the glider/flying machine – we think Leonardo da Vinci had the first design of the flying machine and that Wright brothers first made the flying machine, because these profound works in Sanskrit were unknown to the west).
Perusing Bhoja’s surviving works one sees that the Hindu world just prior to its eclipse by the violent Islamic whirlwind from Central Asia was not one on its decline. On the contrary, due geniuses like bhoja, it was in the peak in of achievements in terms of arts, technology and science. Yet, this India and its illustrious rulers were almost opaque to impending doom that loomed large. Some authors have attributed to this to regionalism or the lack of a national Hindu spirit. This was not entirely lacking as evidenced by the confederation that overthrew the Ghaznavis. Yet, the fact that these illustrious rulers were pulling down each other even as their common enemy Mahmud was savaging North India is rather striking. Another paradoxical point to note is that a rAja Bhoja became a pan-Indian epitome of a great ruler from the Tamil country to Kashmir. This suggests that the cultural unity of greater India remained intact even in this period–there were indeed figures who capable of being pan-Indian heroes even if they were only regional in the military achievements. Thus, there was a collective Indian mind, that appreciated the scholarly king, but failed to collectively respond to the problem posed by Islam. Likewise, the kings of Bhoja’s era did not lack in courage or military skills, but remained in their childish cocoons of romantic military adventures even as a greater danger threatened to extinguish them.
The lesson of the twilight of classical Hindu India is a chilling one for modern India. The modern Indians in the same way as their ancestors pride themselves of their intellectual and technological achievements. Despite the depredations of centuries they have the vestiges of cultural unity and continue to have pan-India icons, howsoever crass they may be in comparison to the legendary rAja bhoja. But sadly they remain as naive as their predecessors in the twilight era to the impending threats from Islam and Christianity.