DIDDA, the last Queen of Kashmir

  • By B L Razdan
  • February 15, 2023
  • Didda Rani ruled Kashmir from 980 to 1003. Read about the life, struggles and ruthlessness of Didda, the queen of Kashmir.

History has often been unkind and cruel to women, especially those who wielded power. Trampled by wars and crusades involving machinations and intrigue, lies hidden the story of a glorious woman who was considered the harbinger of bad times when she was born but went on to become a legendary warrior saviour of Srinagar, the capital city of Kashmir.


Didda, the warrior queen of Kashmir, is the untold story of a disabled princess abandoned by her parents, a mother whose son branded her a witch, a queen whose trusted prime minister almost forced her to commit sati and a woman who fought against all odds to become the most feared warrior queen. Known as ‘Didda Rani’, she began her rule as a regent after her husband, Kshemagupta, died of fever leaving behind a minor son. 


First published in Journal of Bharatiya Vidya Bhavan.


Her regency was met with resistance by the nobility and upon assuming the reins, she strived to dispose of these lords, ministers, satraps and cronies, who historically held great sway and power. She was, however, able to match the myriad machinations of the nobles, using the four wellknown classical tools of sama, dama, danda and bheda (conciliation, gifts, trickery and force).


Keeping apace and abreast of each of their moves and pitting one against the other, she managed to eke out a period of relative quiet amidst the prevalent unrest. Gradually, over time, she succeeded in outmanoeuvring all and dealt effectively with the once widespread rebels.


Rule by women was culturally acceptable in ancient Kashmir. The women who ruled Kashmir possessed legal authority, whether they had royal ancestry or not. They played an active role in the largely patriarchal society of Kashmir.


Historically, ancient Kashmir was ruled by four queens namely, Yashovati of Gonda dynasty, Sugandha (904-906 AD) of the Utpala dynasty and Didda (980/1-1003 AD) of Viradeva dynasty. Compared to other societies of the time, women in Kashmir were held in high esteem and regard. The fourth and the last queen who ruled Kashmir was Kota Rani, who was a victim of trickery, treachery and deceit by none other than her own lieutenant, who had an eye on the throne and was waiting for a suitable opportunity. In effect, it was Didda, who was the last woman ruler of ancient Kashmir.


According to Kalhana’s Rajatarangini, Didda (born c. 924) was a daughter of Simharaja, the King of Lohara, whose kingdom lay in the Pir Panchal range of mountains, on a trade route between western Punjab and Kashmir. From her maternal side, she was the granddaughter of Bhimadeva Shahi, a Hindu king of Kabul. She married the King of Kashmir, Kshemagupta, at the age of 26, uniting the two kingdoms of Lohara and Kabul.


Even prior to becoming regent, Didda had considerable influence in state affairs, as evidenced by the coins of that era, which have been found to show both her name and that of Kshemagupta.


When Kshemagupta died following a fever contracted after a hunt in 958, he was succeeded by his son, Abhimanyu, who was still a child. Naturally, Didda acted as regent and effectively exercised the power to rule. She first got rid of the troublesome ministers and nobles who, not surprisingly, rebelled against her. The situation became tense and she came close to losing power, but having asserted her position with the help of other influential political players (including some whom she bribed), Didda displayed a streak of ruthlessness—she executed not only the rebels who had been captured but also their families. 


More trouble erupted around 972 A.D. when Abhimanyu died. He was succeeded by his son, Nandigupta, still a young child himself. In c. 973, she ‘disposed of’ Nandigupta (in the words of the historian Aurel Stein) and then did the same to Tribhuvanagupta, his younger brother, in c. 975. This left her youngest grandson, Bhimagupta, on the throne, again with Didda as regent.


Her desire for absolute power became untrammelled, especially after the death of Phalunga, a counsellor who had been the prime minister at the time of her husband. Phalunga had been exiled by Didda after Kshemagupta’s death and then brought back into her fold when his skills were required. She also took a lover called Tunga at this time, and although he was a mere herdsman, this provided her with a sense of security, so much so that in c. 980 she arranged for Bhimagupta to be tortured to death and assumed absolute power control for herself, with Tunga as her prime minister. 


She ruled with an iron hand, crushing rebellion and animosity at first sight with bribery, extortion and at times, even assassination. Her swift addressal of conflict and prompt response to any sign of rebellion was characterised by ruthlessness—she would uproot and eradicate every last vestige of the person who even remotely posed a threat. She often utilised mutual favour-bargains and in spite of her headstrong, uncompromising attitude, used her crony relations to help her retain power and safeguard her interests. 


Didda and Tunga were able to resolve political issues, including the discontent prevalent among the Damaras (feudatory landlords) by resorting to force and diplomacy. These tactics led Stein to comment: “The statesmanlike instinct and political ability which we must ascribe to Didda in spite of all the defects of her character, are attested by the fact that she remains the last in peaceful possession of the Kashmir throne, and was able to bequeath it to her family in undisputed succession.” 


Didda ruled as Queen Regent from c. 980 CE until her death in c. 1003, at the age of 79. She is one of the very few female monarchs in Indian history and is sometimes referred to as the ‘Catherine of Kashmir’, after the ruthless Catherine the Great of Russia, who ruled long and well with the help of her favourites, whom she kept purging as and when they grew beyond their boots. 


The legend of Didda is entwined with a life of solitary struggles against prejudice and patriarchy. She eventually went on to rule unified Kashmir (comprising the Lohar kingdom and Kashmir) for a period of 44 years, taking it to glorious heights and making it the most powerful kingdom in mediaeval Asia.


The foundation laid by Didda helped Kashmir defeat the dreaded warlord Mahmud of Ghazni on two occasions and he dared not even look at Kashmir till over 10 years after Didda’s death.


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This article was first published in the Bhavan’s Journal, 31 January 2023 issue. This article is courtesy and copyright Bhavan’s Journal, Bharatiya Vidya Bhavan, Mumbai-400007. eSamskriti has obtained permission from Bhavan’s Journal to share. Do subscribe to the Bhavan’s Journal – it is very good.

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