Queen Didda was the ruler of Kashmir from 958 CE to 1003 CE. Most information pertaining to her is derived from the Rajatarangini, a twelfth-century Sanskrit treatise on Kashmir by Kalhana.
Her persona led eminent archaeologist MA Stein to comment that “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 remained to the last in peaceful possession of the Kashmir throne…”.
She is one of the very few female monarchs in Indian history.
Early Life and Ascendancy
Didda was the daughter of Simharaaja, the King of Lohara (Disputedly lying in the Pir Panjal range, in the North West Frontier). Her father was spiteful towards her, as she had a deformity in her leg, which led to her title of “lame”. As a result, she was never a contender as heiress to her father, despite him not having a male heir, for long. This was in spite of the fact that the status of women, in Ancient Kashmir was one of the best in the subcontinent.
In the ensuing tug-of-war, the aristocracy, occasionally managed to nearly dethrone her, but the artful queen outfoxed her rivals every time, using diverse and dynamic manipulations.
She was married to the king of Kashmir, Kshemagupta, thus uniting the kingdom of Lohara with that of her husband. It is not sure whether marital truce and unison was a motive and cause behind the marriage or a consequence, thereof. But, in effect, the alliance forged between adjacent kingdoms, consolidated power in the precarious region. Upon marriage, Didda spontaneously gained considerable influence and political traction in state affairs, evidenced by discovery of coins bearing both her name and that of her husband.
When Kshemagupta died following a fever contracted after a hunt in 958 AD, he was succeeded by his son, Abhimanyu II. As Abhimanyu was still a child, Didda acted as Regent (as was the contemporary norm in the region), and effectively exercised sole power.
Her enthronement as Regent, was met with scorn of the disdainful nobility and upon assuming the reins, she strived to dispose of these influential lords, ministers, satraps and cronies, who historically held great sway and were relegated power. She curtailed a fair degree of autonomy, that they historically retained. These aristocrats and plutocrats also harboured political ambition and attempted to wrest control from the Queen, unable to digest a woman in absolute power. In the ensuing tug-of-war, the aristocracy, occasionally managed to nearly dethrone her, but the artful queen outfoxed her rivals every time, using diverse and dynamic manipulations.
She was able to evolve her tact to match the myriad schemings of the nobles, utilising the four classical tools of conduct and arbitration: Saama (Deliberation and Truce), Daama (Bribe, Renumeration or Recompensation), Danda (Exercise of Force, Prosecution, Combat, Vengeance, Punishment or Torment) and Bheda (Manipulation, Scheming and Divide & Rule tactics), prescribed in Hindu scriptures. 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 the course of a decade or two, she outmanoeuvured all of them and settled the once widespread rebels for good.
She ruled with an iron hand, crushing rebellion and animosity, at first sight, with bribe, extortion and sporadically, even assassination. Her swift addressal of conflict and prompt response to any sign of rebellion was characterised by ruthlessness and a salient trend of total uprootment and eradication of every last vestige that even remotely posed a potential or even prospective threat. She often utilised mutual favour-bargains and, in spite of her headstrong, uncompromising attitude, optimised her crony relations, in order to best suit her interests and preserve her scope.
She was practical, adaptable and opportunistic but never succumbed to appeasement, conformance or subservience.
Further trouble erupted in 972 when her son Abhimanyu died. He was succeeded by his son, Nandigupta, still an infant himself, and this agitated the Daamaras, who were feudatory landlords and later usurped the dynastic succession established by her. She managed to eke out a continuum of rule by disposing of Nandigupta, and then his younger brother Tribhuvangupta, subsequently instating her youngest grandson Bhimgupta as the ruler, retaining her sovereignty with her regency.
She resented the patriarchy which forced her to resort to numerous such bypasses and rely on male stilts, as she was delimited in scope from nominally and formally becoming a monarch.
In a hitherto unprecedented (in multiple ways) act and assertive exercise of self-will against the patriarchal orthodoxy, she bust countless norms by taking in a mere, poor herdsman, by the name of Tunga, whom she fell in love with, in her middle-age. This obviously was much to the opposition of almost all, out of class, caste and age-based considerations, besides obviously, at the free exercise of feminine will. But the cultural shock and disapproval persisted underpronounced, as her subjects and acquaintances alike, were wary to vocalise, fearful of her sternness. She thus set a liberal precedent for women, and summited her legacy as a vanguard.
Didda, was assertive and authoritarian but never indulgent or whimsical. She was practical, adaptable and opportunistic but never succumbed to appeasement, conformance or subservience. She later deposed of her third grandson as well, once he started to depict the early beginnings of challenge to her regime, and with her lover’s imbibing emotional support, took the long overdue audacious step to finally reconsecrate herself as the sole, absolute monarch, in 980 AD. She appointed Tunga as her Chief Minister, whose company had provided her the courage to shed her inhibitions and overcome her reservations about ruffling the patriarchy. The relationship worked wonders and provided her the requisite boost to morale. Under the following latter decades of her uncontested reign, the agitation-prone region, enjoyed an era of relative peace.
She exercised an effectively blood-and-iron policy for good measure, thus, consolidating her regal designation. She faced the same fierce opposition and chauvinist inertia and resistance, as the idealistic, great Razia Sultana would, two centuries later. But unlike the latter (her physically and martially more competent ideological successor), she was more pragmatic, acute and sly, and thus managed to outsurvive three generations. Later queens in the subcontinent (in spite of their physical and intellectual prowess) were prone to disruptions, betrayal and gullible backstabbing, and hence failed to match the length of heir reign. Didda, remains the most powerful woman in the history of Kashmir, revered for her administrative skilfulness, conciliatory mastery at maintaining peace, and her indispensable sociocultural legacy, by one and all in the region.
Didda was the epitome of optimisation, reconciling bold self-will with keen practical acumen, and pacifist arbitration. The feisty Queen Didda never yielded to the bridles of patriarchy and lived a full and fulfilling life, as a liberated and independent woman, as well as a sovereign.
- Stein, Mark Aurel (1989b) , Kalhana’s Rajatarangini: a chronicle of the kings of Kasmir
- Ganguly, Dilip Kumar (1979), Aspects of ancient Indian administration
- Kaw, M. K. (2004), Kashmir and it’s people: studies in the evolution of Kashmiri society