Sugandha Devi, the Queen in Kashmir's Golden Era


Sugandha Devi, the Queen in Kashmir's Golden Era

I don't know if anyone else enjoys searching for namesakes. However, this pastime of mine and a recent discovery of Indian literature led to an unanticipated journey through the pages of history. The narrative of the Kashmiri kings is mentioned in Kalhana's Rajataringini. Three ladies are included in this list, Queen Sugandha being one of them. Continue reading to learn more about the life and legacy of the Queen, whose reign is frequently referred to as the "golden era" for Kashmir by historians.

Sugandha Devi's life and ascent

Sugandha Devi, who was born in the ninth century, wed Shankaravarman (CE 883-902) of the Utpala dynasty. Given that the Queen consort herself came from a wealthy family, this relationship significantly increased the political standing of the royal family. According to Kalhana's introduction in Rajatarangini, Sugandha was "...the daughter of the great Svamiraja, the lord of the northern region, named Sugandha was beloved as is the night of the full moon by the moon (157)." Her bravery to accompany her husband in battles—a habit extremely unusual in monarchical India—added to this list of qualities.

She experienced grief shortly after Shankaravarman passed away while attempting to recover from a war wound. Many people followed their king in passing, but Sugandha Devi assumed the role of regent until her son Gopalavarman reached adulthood. By installing the legitimate king on the throne, she created a means for the lineage to survive. This arrangement did not, however, continue long enough to stabilise Gopalavarman's hold on power. According to the chronicles, the queen regent started having sexual relations with the minister Prabhakara. The minister felt intimidated when the monarch learned about their relationship and plotted regicide with a sorcerer's aid.

The last of Shankaravarman's lineage, Samkata, Gopalavarman's brother, was installed as king. But within ten days, he also passed unexpectedly in an unexplained manner. She made multiple attempts—all of which failed—to reclaim the throne within the royal line of the illustrious Hindu king Avantivarman (the father of Shankaravarman). "Thus, when the dynasty of king Samkaravarman had come to an end, upon the petition of the subjects, Sugandha took royal authority in person," writes Kalhana (243).

Sugandha Queen's reign

Although Queen Sugandha's regency was found wanting, her reign (CE 904–906) was magnificent. Although it was brief, she did a lot, which is why it is frequently referred to as Kashmir's "golden era." She established Sugandhapura and Gopalapura as towns.

Premnath Bazaz describes Queen Sugandha as being "liked by the people, trusted by the courtiers, and admired by the soldiers, yet she couldn't live happily ever after to serve her people as the kingdom was infected with conspirators and opportunists who were ever ready to create trouble for her."

Two strong groups ruled the Kashmiri court during those times, deciding who would hold the throne. They were the royal bodyguards, the Ekangas, and the military group, the Tantrins. Sugandha Devi attempted to reclaim control with the aid of Ekangas and other allies during a power struggle and subsequent dethronement by the Tantrins. When a battle broke out in the Srinagar suburbs in 914, they made a final stand for their Queen. However, it was hopeless. Queen Sugandha, who was imprisoned in the "Nispalaka Vihara," passed away there.

Her legacy through the feminist aesthetics perspective

The copper and bronze coins are among the most significant finds during the reign of Queen Sugandha. Numismatics fans will undoubtedly be intrigued by the features of these coins.

Some people might consider Queen Sugandha's usage of masculine titles as an attempt to demonstrate her status as a man in a man's world. It may be viewed as proof of the authority she held, which was comparable to a king's (a man). I present an alternative analysis from the standpoint of feminist aesthetics in an effort to shed insight on how gender categories were understood during the reign of Queen Sugandha.

In her book on feminist theory and the aesthetics therein, Anu Aneja outlines a South Asian perspective of gender as a flexible term. She starts with the artefacts from the Indus Valley Civilization and continues into Rekhta in her examination. Aneja's points regarding mystic aesthetics should be taken into account in order to better understand the connection I'm attempting to make.

She says that both female and male mystics (in this case, the king) "appears to embody/rise above these traits," where "the masculine and the feminine see as dynamic attributes rather than as frozen bodily essences." Similar to that, the marks on these coins suggest a flexible and non-essentialist understanding of gender that may have been common at the time.

To put it another way, our contemporary conception of gender roles causes us to misinterpret sociohistorical cues in a way that supports our current hypotheses. When the masculine and feminine are viewed from an analeptic perspective, the situation is significantly altered. Regarding the notion of gender in a bygone society, the coins that Queen Sugandha struck convey a different tale. It demonstrates how the concept of gender was understood more loosely back then, without essentialism, hierarchy, or superimposition of traits. Instead, it shows how masculine and feminine titles might have been employed interchangeably.

Lessons from the Kashmiri Queens

My history textbook from an elementary school identified Razia Sultan as the only woman to rule Delhi. Men owned the thrones and the dynasties. Women were not included in the Law of Primogeniture and were only, at best, permitted to offer advice while hiding. Many texts, notably the Manusmriti, support these viewpoints.

However, Kashmir's history is proud to have produced numerous queens, including Didda, Yasovati, Sugandha Devi, and Kota Rani. They were good rulers who possessed beauty and ferocity. At the very least, bringing their stories out of obscurity stimulates contemporary women to assume greater leadership positions, serves as a reminder of how women rulers have changed our shared history, and most importantly, empowers women to take care of their own lives.

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