The first kingdom to maintain one era was that of Seleucous Nikator, the successor to the empire of Alexander the Great. Established in 312 BCE, this regnal date was (thankfully) continued by the less prominent successors of Seleucous, and is known today as the Seleucid Era.
Seleucous lost the provinces approximating to modern Kabul, Kandahar, and Baluchistan to Chandragupta Maurya in 306 BCE. In 250 BCE, after continual revolts, the provinces of Bactria (North Afghanistan) and Parthia (East Iran) also broke away to form their own independent kingdoms. To mark this event the Kings of Parthia started their own era in 248 BCE, which is known today as the Arsacid Era.
The rulers of Parthia (known in India as the Pahlavs) went on to conquer most of Iran and West Asia. The Greek rulers of Bactria were less successful——they attempted to expand into India after the break-up of the Maurya Empire but were also threatened by the movements of the Saka and Kushan peoples from the north. After some meteoric success they passed into history as Indo-Greek kingdoms in the north-western corner of India.
The Sakas moved into Parthia and fought relentlessly against the Parthian Emperors but were defeated and reduced to vassalage. The Parthians used these Sakas as probing arms to expand into the then disturbed conditions in India, from the western region of Baluchistan. While this expansion was continuing, Vonones the Parthian governor of Dragnia (eastern Parthia), rebelled and formed his own kingdom. He went on to conquer the rest of the Parthian possessions——to mark this event Vonones started a new era.
In the colonial times historians in India deduced that this new era was dated around 58 BCE and roughly tallied with the Vikrami Samvat of Hindu tradition, which was dated 57 BCE.
The Saka-Pahlavs and the Malav clan
The Saka-Pahlav armies campaigned up to the important city of Mathura in the east. They fought continually against the Indian warrior clans in their path——the most prominent among these were the Malavs (मालव) who had earlier fought ferociously against Alexander’s retreating army. After the break-up of the Maurya Empire, the Malavs had spread their rule across lower Punjab, while branches of their clan had established independent kingdoms in Rajasthan.
The Malavs in Punjab were reduced to vassalage but the kingdoms in Rajasthan remained independent of Saka rule. At about this time Vonones rebelled against Parthia and the shaky Saka dominions also felt the impact of this disturbance. Two inscriptions, one in Taxila and another in Mathura, are inscribed in what is calculated to be the era of Vonones (58 BCE).
Around 20 BCE Maues, the Saka Satrap in India, declared his independence from Vonones and Parthia. But within a few decades these Sakas again lost this status——for while the Saka-Pahlavs had been moving into India from the west, the Kushans (कुषाण) were at that time moving into the Punjab from the north-west. The Sakas became vassals of the Kushan Emperor Kanishka and began recording inscriptions in an era known as Varsha.
Some 500 years later, long after the Sakas and Kushans were dead and gone, this era was named the “Saka-Kaal” and still later the “Shalivahan-Saka”. It is assumed that either Kanishka or (more probably) a Saka chief started this era in 78 CE.
The Indian warrior clans of the region religiously followed another era, dated to 57 BCE, and known later as the Vikrami Samvat(विक्रमी सम्वत).
Just like the Saka era was called simply Varsha, the Vikrami Samvat too was known simply as Samvat for the first few centuries of its founding. It was later called Krita, which is either the name of a king, an astronomical term, or a word indicating “that which is established”. Around the 5th Century CE it was named the Malav era and a few centuries after that was called the Vikrami Samvat, after an earlier Malav king named Vikramaditya.
The earliest inscriptions using this era have been found in Rajasthan and Madhya Pradesh describing events occurring in the Malav kingdom. Coins of the Malavs have also been found in Rajasthan dating to the 1st Century BCE and later. The Vikrami Samvat thus appears to have been founded to commemorate some important event in the history of the Malavs of Rajasthan and MP.
However colonial historians attempted to link the Vikrami Samvat with the Parthian era of Vonones. According to them the Malavs in Punjab became vassals of the Saka-Pahlavs (साका पह्लाव) and followed their eras (both the earlier Arcasid of 248 BCE and the later era of Vonones)——they took the 58 BCE era to Rajasthan after the Sakas separated from Parthia. The Sakas then started their own era (78 CE) while their enemies, the Malavs of Rajasthan continued using the old Parthian era and made it their own.
There are several problems with this strange thesis. The dating of Vonone’s era is not certain, and besides its founding could be coincidental to that of the Vikrami Samvat. Secondly inscriptions and coins reveal that the Malav kingdom was established in Rajasthan much earlier——the Punjab Malavs did not “move out” to Rajasthan.
And why should the Malavs take on the Parthian era? What significance did it have to them? More importantly why did the other Indian clans also take on the Vikrami Samvat unless it had some connection with Indian tradition?
In fact the coincidental closeness of the Vonones era and the Vikrami Samvat, and the intellectual atmosphere of colonial times, led to such speculative history writing.
The Vikramaditya tradition
There have been several heroic figures in India’s history who have risen above the limitations of clan and region to gain an iconic status among the Indian people——one of these was Vikramaditya.
The Brahmin texts have described a whole host of legendary and historical stories about his valor and wisdom. Some of these; like the story of navratan (nine luminaries of his court) and Vikram-Vetal (Vikramaditya’s test by a supernatural figure), are well-known. However these stories have come down to us after being changed, embellished, and polished over several centuries. The original facts around Vikramaditya are thus lost.
The Jain texts on the other hand have preserved some historical evidence from the earliest times——even though the final texts are of a later period. Merutunga’s Theravali describes the founding of the Gardabilla dynasty at Ujjain, the Saka invasion and occupation of the city for four years, and the defeat of the Sakas at the hands of Gardabilla’s son Vikramaditya who then establishes the Vikrami Samvat and rules for sixty years. His four successors rule for another 75 years and then the Sakas again capture Ujjain and establish their own era. The Jain texts also write of Vikramaditya’s valor and wisdom but in a less laudatory tone.
The story confirms the know facts of the different waves of the Saka invasions….first as Pahlav vassals, then as Kushan vassals. The time period of Vikramaditya’s rule (60 years from 57 BCE onwards) added to the period of rule for his successors (75 years) brings us to the Varsha of 78 CE, which was established by the Sakas after their conquest of Ujjain. However no coin or inscription of Vikramaditya has been found——it is speculated that Vikramaditya was in fact a title taken by the Malav King who defeated the Sakas.
The name Vikram-Aditya, translating to Valor (shines) like the resplendent Sun, henceforth became a title taken by kings who aspired to the status of emperors. The Gupta Emperor Chandra Gupta II took on this title after defeating the same Sakas of Gujarat and finally ending their rule in that part of India. It is suggested by the colonial historians (and the leftists who faithfully follow them) that the entire Vikramaditya tradition is derived from Chandra Gupta II. This is due to the fact that of the nine luminaries of Vikramaditya’s court at least one, Kalidasa, has been placed in the Gupta Period.
This only explains how Puranic stories were embellished over time around the original historical kernel. The Jain texts continue to claim historicity for Vikramaditya of Ujjain. And there are still questions concerning Chandra Gupta II….why did he take the title of Vikramaditya only after defeating the Sakas unless there was a historical tradition of an earlier King who had expelled these foreigners? And if the Guptas started the Vikramaditya tradition why was their Gupta Era never used in Western India….why did the local kings, all subjects of the Guptas, continue to use the Vikrami Samvat?
There are no satisfactory answers to these questions. Instead the colonial historians counter with the fact that the name “Vikrami Samvat” was only used in the 9th Century CE, hence there was no Vikramaditya in ancient times.
But as described above the name “Saka Era” for 78 CE was used only in the 6th Century CE, when there were no Sakas around. Does this mean that the Saka invasions of India never happened? There is a definite sequence of the Vikrami Samvat being first called Samvat, then the Krita Samvat, the Malav Samvat, and finally being named after its founder Vikramaditya. The era of the Gupta Emperors also had a similar progression, being first called the Varsha or the Abda and only later the “Gupta Kaal”.
Later history of the Malav clan
Even after losing Ujjain the Malav clan remained a thorn in the side of the Sakas of Gujarat (Western Satraps). Their coins and inscriptions have been found throughout East Rajasthan and parts of Madhya Pradesh. These bear the legend Malavanam Jayah (Victory to the Malavs) and attest to their independent status.
The records of the Western Satraps (both the Kshaharata and Kardamak families) have references to the constant fights against the Malav clan. Nahapan of the Kshaharata family claims a hrad-fought victory (120 CE)over the Malav clan in the Nasik cave inscription. Rudradaman of the Kardamak family, in his Junagarh inscription claims victory over the Indian warrior clans like the Yaudheyas, the northern neighbors of the Malavs.
On the other hand, in an inscription dated 226 CE (found in Nandsa) the brilliant military campaigns of a Malav chief are said to have brought peace and prosperity to the entire region. This suggests that the Malavs maintained their independence and military power, along with the Yaudheyas and Arjunayans, throughout the period of Saka rule in Gujarat and Kushan rule in Punjab. The conflict between the Malavs and Sakas continued well into the 4th Century CE until the emergence of a more powerful figure in the shape of the Gupta Empire.
As stated above, Chandra Gupta II crushed the Sakas permanently and took the title of Vikramaditya. The Aulikaras, a branch of the old Malav clan, became Gupta feudatories in the Mandasor region. And it was around this time that the plateau region from Mandasor to Ujjain acquired the name of Malwa from its long association with the Malav clan who were now loyal feudatories of the Guptas.
With the decline of the Gupta Empire and the Hun invasions under Toramana and Mihirakula, an Aulikara chief named Yasodharman rose to power, defeated the Huns and spread his conquests across Northern India. In this manner he revived the Vikramaditya tradition——but within a short period of a decade his death ended the historical career of the Malav clan.
It seems certain that like the Aulikaras, other clan-branches of the Malavs would have established petty estates in the region, but there is no definite information regarding this.
The Saka Era in South India
It is striking that the Gupta Era (320 CE) did not survive that empire’s fall, nor did it ever achieve general usage across North India. This position was attained by the Samvat alone. Part of the reason for this was the tradition of its founding and its acceptance by the Indian warrior clans who fought against the foreign Sakas and Kushans——its use was like a show of defiance against those invaders who used their own Varsha.
The subjects of the Sakas, in Gujarat, Sindh, Punjab, and Afghanistan, came to apply the Varsha in general usage. This period coincided with great developments in the related fields of astrology and astronomy. The city of Ujjain in particular was a major center of these new discoveries——renowned astronomers from Varahamihira to Aryabhatta made their calculations and projections using this era. Hence the Varsha (78 CE) became important in the field of ancient astronomy.
Gujarat and the adjoining regions were also major centers of Jainism at this time and the use of the Varsha was strong among the Jain community. New waves of Jain migrants took this era south into the Deccan and South India in subsequent centuries.
As described above the Guptas crushed the Sakas of Gujarat and ended the use of their era. The Vikrami Samvat became the dominant era in North India. But even after the extinction of the foreigners the Jains continued to use their era, now naming it the Shalivahan Saka, after its founder (as per their reckoning). Some associate this Shalivahan with the Satvahan ruler Gautamiputra Satkarni (106-130 CE) who crushed the Saka Kshaharata family after the latter had captured Ujjain in 78 CE. Later the Kardamak Sakas recovered Gujarat and carried on a long conflict with the Satvahans.
Apart from the difference in dates, there is evidence from coins and inscriptions that the Satvahans continued the ancient practice of counting each king’s regnal era separately. Their successors like the Vakataks, the Abhiras, and the Ikshavakus also used separate regnal reckonings for their individual kings.
In fact the first southern kingdoms to use eras were the Chalukyas and Rashtrakutas——and they did so with the Shalivahan Saka, in the 7th and 8th Centuries CE, long after the Sakas were dead and gone! This is attributed to the influence of Jainism among officers of these kingdoms. The kingdoms of the Kadambas and Gangas further south also had considerable Jain influence. The use of the Saka Era in astronomical texts may have been another impetus for the acceptance of the foreign era in the south, but this is speculative.
Whatever the reason, by this quirk of history, the era established by foreigners came to be used extensively in the south, where those foreigners had never set foot. While the areas ruled by those foreigners in the north quickly embraced the rival Vikrami Samvat, as soon as that foreign rule was ended by the Indian warrior clans and the mighty Gupta Empire!
After India’s independence the government resolved to adopt a single calendar (apart from the Vikrami Samvat and the Shalivahan Saka, other local and religious calendars were also in limited use across India) prepared on a scientific basis, which could be used uniformly across India.
The Calendar Reform Committee was set up in 1952 for this purpose. The Committee took three years to complete this task, with an active interest taken by Jawaharlal Nehru, India’s first Prime Minister. Mr. Nehru, apart from being a politician, also had an interest in history. But instead of forming an objective and independent view of history he was swayed by the views and opinions of the colonial historians——this became evident in the eventual decision of the Calendar Reform Committee.
The Saka Era was chosen for the Government of India’s (GOI) official calendar. Part of the reason was its general use in South India and partly its application in ancient astronomy. Nehru’s view of history cast doubt on the historicity of the Vikramaditya tradition while showering praise on the Kushan Emperor Kanishka. He also remained needlessly concerned with what outsiders would think of his association with Hindu tradition, since it was a fashion in those days to disregard Hindu views of history.
However Nehru’s hopes that the Saka Era would now be used by all Indians were belied. The long tradition of the use of Vikrami Samvat, and other traditional calendars, was too strong to be wished away by a bureaucratic decision. So while the GOI continues to symbolically use the Saka Era in official reckoning (where its use is pointless) the North Indian people continue with the Vikrami Samvat in traditional events and festivals (where the use is important)!
Book on Malava coins and inscriptions