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Rājā Bhoja: India’s Greatest Scholar-King

Bhoja, the medieval king, holds a special place in Indian historical memory. He is revered both as a great warrior and a defender of India as well as a scholar and patron of the arts and sciences.

Bhojpur Temple near Bhopal, India, constructed under the command of Rājā Bhoja. Via Wikimedia Commons.

July 31, 2023 23:02 EDT

History is replete with great rulers and great scholars, but it is rare that one individual should combine both characteristics. I want to tell you about one of them, who I consider to be the greatest of all: Bhoja, the Paramāra king of Malwa.

Great men and women are a product of time, place and circumstance. The exceptional demands of the situation in which they are thrust bring out the abilities that set them apart. Yet there are individuals who rise so much above what their predecessors have done that they become world figures.

Examples of unparalleled leaders in the military sphere include Hannibal, Alexander the Great, Julius Caesar, Genghis Khan, and Napoleon. Of these, Caesar was also an author. I have admired his direct style in the memoir De bello Gallico, known in English as The Gallic War.

I believe there is no ruler in world history who equals the intellectual achievements of Bhoja, who ruled a vast empire from his capital at Dhārā from 1010 to 1055 CE. Not only was he a military leader who defeated many kings, but he was a person of acute intellect, a polymath who wrote 84 books on subjects that include chemistry, grammar, architecture, astronomy and even robotics.

A successful conqueror

At its greatest extent, Bhoja’s empire stretched from Vidisha in the east to the Sabarmati River in the west and from Chittor in the north to Konkan in the south—i.e., most of middle India—although the Udaipur Prashasti inscription, written by Bhoja’s successor Udayaditya, claims that his rule covered most of India. His armies fought as far afield as Sindh and Afghanistan.

The rule of Rājā (or King) Bhoja may have begun somewhat before 1010. The earliest known reference to him is from the copper plates found at Modasa in North Gujarat, dating to 1010. A contemporary account of his rule is in Dhanapāla’s Tilaka-Mañjari. Merutuṅga’s Prabandha-cintāmaṇi, completed in the fourteenth century, states that he ruled for 55 years, 7 months and 3 days, indicating that his rule may have begun as early as the year 1000. Another important source is Ballāla’s Bhoja-prabandha, composed at Varanasi in the 17th century.

Bhoja’s military campaigns and conquests were in all directions. We have inscriptional evidence of his campaign in Gujarat in 1018 and in Konkana in 1020.

He was a contemporary of the great Chola emperor Rājendra I (r. 1014–1044), who conquered Sri Lanka and large parts of Southeast Asia. In 1019, the two formed an alliance to conquer East India and thus dominated most of India together. According to one inscription, the alliance also included the Kalacuri king Gangeyadeva. The allies also defeated Indranātha, the Somavamshi king of Kalinga.

Perhaps the statement of Bhoja’s rule covering most of India in the Udaipur Prashasti inscription is to indicate the extent of the empires of the two allies. This zone of domination was certainly considerable in a subcontinent so prone to political division.

The Udaipur Prashasti inscription also claims that Bhoja’s armies defeated the Turks. Bhoja is said to have sent troops to the Kabul Shahi ruler Ᾱnandapāla in his fight against the Turkic Ghaznavids. This campaign may be legendary, but legend or not, the image of the great Bhoja resisting Turkish invaders became a powerful symbol for later generations of Indians who resisted Muslim rule.

A polymath and scholar

Bhoja wrote 84 books. These include the following texts, most of which were written in Sanskrit:

— Two books on astronomy and astrology.

— A treatise on chemistry dealing with the extraction of metals from
ores and the production of various drugs.

— A prosimetric retelling of the Ramayana.

— Several poems composed in Sanskrit and Prakrit.

— A major commentary on the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali.

— A treatise on Śaivite philosophy that is also a synthesis of certain

— A treatise on Sanskrit grammar that includes a discussion of Vedic

— A treatise on lexicography.

— A treatise on poetics and dramaturgy. Disagreeing with the
aesthetic hedonism developed by Anandavardhana and
Abhinavagupta, Bhoja sees śṛṅgāra, beauty and cleverness, as the
fundamental and motivating impulse both in the universe and in
drama. This view may have influenced the Kashmiri scholar

— A treatise on medicine:

— A treatise on horses, equine diseases and their remedies.

— A treatise on personal health and well-being.

— An encyclopedia on several topics including statecraft, politics,
city-building, jewel-testing, characteristics of books and ship-

— A treatise on secular and religious architecture, iconography,
painting and machines in 83 chapters. The machines discussed
include mechanical toys or robots. There is also a description of
a flying machine:

Build a great bird of light wood, with a tight sheath, in it place a rasa-yantram as a receptacle for fire with the power of mercury and the force of air from the wings in unison, a man atop may travel far through the sky, painting pictures [in the clouds] with a mind serene.

It is possible that Bhoja made models of wooden aircraft and saw the need for an engine with fire to obtain forward motion by pushing back air. Even if he came up with the description based on theory alone and no models were built, it remains a remarkable description.

The same chapter also has a section on hydraulics:

The flow and water pressure of water can be converted into motion. The water flow moves the machine with the effect that increases with height, pressure, and speed. If water is conserved, it can be used again effectively. It is the way that water flow can be converted into power.

Lastly, a work attributed to Kumbha names Bhoja as an authority on music, which suggests that he also wrote a work on it.

A great builder

Merutuṅga, in his Prabandha-Cintāmaṇi, states that Bhoja constructed 104 temples in his capital city of Dhārā alone. Of these, the Bhojeśvara temple in Bhojpur, about 30 km from Bhopal, appears to be the only one that has survived.

The Bhojeśvara temple was never completed. Dedicated to Shiva, its lingam is 7½ feet tall and 17¾ feet in circumference, set on a square platform with a side length of 21½ feet. The total height of the lingam, including the platform, is over 40 feet. Detailed architectural plans for the temple are engraved on the rocks in the surrounding quarries that indicate that the original intention was to build a massive temple complex with many more temples. Had these plans been executed, this would have constituted one of the largest temple complexes in India.

This great temple features several peculiar elements, including the omission of a mandapa hall leading to the inner sanctum, or garbhagṛha, and the rectilinear roof instead of the typical curvilinear shikhara. It has been proposed that the temple was a funerary temple, or svargārohana-prāsāda.

Its great size may have been inspired by the scale of the Bṛhadīśvara temple in Thanjavur that was built by the father of his ally Rājendra, Rājārāja I, between 1003 and 1010. The Bṛhadīśvara temple, which is 208 feet tall, was the tallest free-standing building in the world when it was constructed.

Bhoja, together with the Solanki king Bhimdev of Gujarat, rebuilt the temple at Somnath between 1026 and 1042 after it was sacked by Mahmud of Ghazni in 1024. This temple was later destroyed.

Another notable construction was the civil engineering masterpiece of Bhoj Lake, which was built by damming and channelizing the Betwa River. On its bank stood the Bhojeshwar Temple.

Bhoj Lake,18½ miles long and 7½ miles wide, was constructed using three now-breached dams. Bhoja first built a 98-foot-high dam over the Betwa River; its thickness at the base is over 300 feet, reducing to about 164 feet at the top. The earth-filled dam was encased by stone slabs of average thickness of 30 feet. Two and a half miles north of Bhojpur, near the village Mendua, a second wall over a half mile long was raised in a natural gap between two hills. The third wall, which changed the course of the Kaliasot River, was about eighteen miles from Bhojpur. This man-made lake existed until the 15th century when Hoshang Shah emptied the lake by breaching two of the dams.

He also built the reservoir Bhojapāla, and the city that arose near it became Bhopal.

The Shiva temple ascribed to Bhoja in the Chittor Fort has an image that was named Bhojasvāmindeva.

In his capital city of Dhārā, he presided over a great Sanskrit school called Sarasvatī sadana or Bhāratībhavana. Today, this place is popularly called Bhojshala.


Bhoja’s fame lasted in India in many ways. He has been portrayed in legends, in written works and, more recently, in film.

Bhoja founded the city of Bhojpur. The city eventually lent its name to a language, Bhojpuri, which is widely spoken in India and as far away as Fiji and the Caribbean.

So, Rājā Bhoja’s name lives on in India in many forms: from the Bhojpur and the Bohojpuri language to Bohpal, the Bhojshala and Bhojanagar, in Rajasthan. 

Bhoja was revered as the ideal and perfect king, and many who followed him, such as King Arjunavarman (circa 1210–15), were taken to be his reincarnations. The great Krishnadevarāya of the Vijayanagara Empire styled himself as Abhinava-Bhoja (“the new Bhoja”) and Sakala-Kalā-Bhoja (“Bhoja of all the arts”).

When Bhoja was alive, it was said:

अद्य धारा सदाधारा सदालम्बा सरस्वती।
पण्डिता मण्डिताः सर्वे भोजराजे भुवि स्थिते॥
Today, the stream (dhārā) of Sarasvatī is steady in Dhārā,
All the scholars are honored in the land of King Bhoja.

[The author published the first draft of this piece on Medium.]

[Anton Schauble edited this piece.]

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.


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