The Curious Case of Multiple Raja Bhojas of India
Sometimes, a man acquires a legendary aura due to the benevolence of his heart or due to the greatness of his deeds. But often legends accumulate the collective qualities of various heroes and give them a solitary name and face. In the history of mankind, this singularity has often been witnessed across lands and geographies, and this is likely the case with the multiple Raja Bhoj of India, legend
We all know about King Arthur , his Excalibur and how he bravely defended his land. The character of Arthur was probably drawn from many local leaders and heroes who at various points in English history successfully won battles and looked after the well-being of their respective people. Simultaneously in my country, India, the legends of ‘King Vikramaditya’, an ideal king is known to people from time immemorial.
Great King, Chandra Vikramaditya, (Mahadkhanniazi / CC BY-SA 4.0 )
As per common folklore, King Vikramaditya was an epitome of a perfect ruler. He was magnanimous, conscientious, brave, valiant and handsome. He was and still is, present in the consciousness of people, so much that several important kings of the Indian sub-continent in history, have adopted this name to their titles signifying a validity of greatness to their rules. Some even say that this character is loosely based on the Gupta Emperor Chandragupta II (reign 380 – 415 AD), who is often referred to as Chandragupta Vikramaditya, although others place the character’s roots much earlier.
Coin of the Gupta king Chandragupta II. ( CC BY-SA 3.0 )
In contrast to this, what about when the opposite happens? That is, when a legend develops based on the real-life of a king of ancient times? We are here today to discuss exactly this phenomenon.
The King and the Oil Presser Folk Story
In the streets of India, there is an expression often heard which goes like this: ‘Kaha Raja Bhoj Kaha Gangu Teli’ (‘Gangu’ is a name and ‘teli’ means an oil presser). This sentence roughly translates to ‘See where Raja Bhoj is and where is Gangu Teli,’ implying that you cannot compare a king with an oil presser. This popular aphorism is often invoked when pretentious people are needed to be shown their correct places.
But how did this originate and become part of everyday Indian culture? Well, as far as this folklore goes, Gangu Teli was an ordinary oil-presser, who once by the sudden turn of fate, had the chance of helping the very great Raja Bhoj, which in turn made him so arrogant that he had to be reminded of his original position. Probably, Gangu Teli assumed himself greater than a monarch, and in spite of being economically ordinary, exacerbated his pretensions to such an extent to his fellow folk, that people started mocking, eventually invoking his very name.
But we are not discussing here the history and originality of this character called Gangu Teli. He might or might not have existed, it is very hard to know now in the absence of any solid shreds of evidence. Gangu was and is a very common name in India. But the great Raja Bhoj did exist in ancient times, and there were multiples of them, now gloriously emblazoned in the annals of Indian history . Let us discuss them chronologically.
Shiva and Parvati, Gurjara-Pratihara Dynasty of Kannauj, Uttar Pradesh, India, 9th to early 10th century, Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art. (Daderot / CC0)
Gurjara Pratihara Empire
One of the glorious dynasties of Indian history was the Gurjara Pratihara Empire. They ruled at a time (c. 8 th to 11 th century AD) when three major powers were controlling the vast majority of the Indian sub-continent – Rashtrakutas, Palas and the Gurjara Pratiharas themselves. Indian history is replete with tales of this tripartite struggle. These three powers vied for greater territories and continuously squabbled amongst themselves. The origin of the Gurjara Pratiharas was obscure but they ruled a vast part of West, Central and North India (and bits of East India too). The Gurjara Pratihara is notable in Indian history due to their successful battles against the Islamic Arab army.
Gurjara Pratihara Empire in 900 AD. (Thomas Lessman / CC BY-SA 3.0 )
One of the greatest rulers of this dynasty was Mihira Bhoja. He probably came to the throne in c. 836 AD. Mihira Bhoja came to power at a difficult time when their empire was crumbling due to the defeats suffered by his father. But he built it again and under him, the Gurjara Pratihara Empire stretched a vast area from the Himalayan foothills to the Narmada River (North-South) and from Sindh in the West to the lower Ganges River valley in the East. In fact, the dynasty reached one of its peak periods under Mihira Bhoja. He is also known as Bhoja I.
It is now conjectured that after the period of Bhoja I and then his son Mahendrapala I, the dynasty disintegrated, and this is one of the main reasons for the Arabic Islamic power getting a foothold in the Indian sub-continent subsequently after their times. The Gurjara Pratiharas, especially Mihira Bhoja maintained a large army and gave the Arab troops very little chance to raid and plunder. As a matter of fact, the Gurjara Pratiharas are noted in history for their successful warfare against Islamic armies.
King Mihira Bhoja has gone down in history as one of the greatest empire builders of India. His fortitude in warfare and bravery in conquests saw the empire reaching its golden epoch. Raja Mihira Bhoja was a Hindu and a devotee of Lord Vishnu, one of the Trinities of Hinduism.
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Teli ka Mandir is a Hindu Temple built by Mihira Bhoja. (Gyanendrasinghchauha / CC BY 3.0 )
The next significant Bhoja who is noticeable in history was the king who ruled Malwa in Central India in the 11 th century AD. This Bhoja belonged to the Paramara Dynasty, a Rajput Dynasty which ruled Central India from roughly 9 th to 14 th centuries AD. Though this Bhoja also fought many successful wars, he is chiefly known in history as a great patron of arts, literature, science and philosophy.
This Raja Bhoj was supposedly behind the formation and naming of the city of Bhopal, capital of the Central Indian state of Madhya Pradesh, which was supposedly called Bhojpal and then became Bhopal with the passing of time. While this fact is debatable, it is certainly true that Bhoja founded the city of Bhojpur in Raisen District of Madhya Pradesh. This city also has the beautiful but incomplete Bhojeswar Temple, built by him. This beautiful temple is dedicated to Lord Shiva and was not completed due to some unknown reasons.
Shiva Temple, Bhojpur, Madhya Pradesh, India. (Bernard Gagnon / CC BY-SA 3.0 )
This Raja Bhoj probably came to the throne in the year 1010 AD. He was a polymath himself whose rule was marked by intellectual developments and cultural outpourings. He was also a poet who encouraged other poets of his time and rewarded them profusely. He also bestowed enough support to numerous scholars, and other polymaths and men of learnings in his kingdom. In fact, his capital which is the modern city of Dhar, became the intellectual epicenter of the sub-continent during his reign.
This Raja Bhoja of Dhar though was also a valiant warrior like his namesake in the paragraphs above, he became more famous as a philosopher and benevolent king whose reign witnessed a golden age of indigenous art and culture. In fact, he has been described as a paragon of a virtuous king who was more interested in developing the lifestyle and culture of his people rather than just mere conquests of other territories. But, he had that penchant too.
Raja Bhojadeva, a king from Paramara dynasty and author of Sringara Prakasa. (Bernard Gagnon / CC BY-SA 3.0 )
By religion, although he was a devotee of Lord Shiva, another of the Hindu Trinities, he had also built a temple to the Goddess of Learning, Devi Saraswati, along with a center for Sanskrit studies in his capital city. All these endeavors speak volumes of his quest for excellence in education and learning. Thus, we see that this Raja Bhoja was a true connoisseur of art, architecture, literature, science and religion, together with being a valiant warrior.
The above were the two most distinguished Raja Bhojas of India. Next we come to Raja Bhoja II of the Shilahara Dynasty of modern-day Kolhapur city in Maharashtra state, who assumed power probably in the year 1175 AD. Not much is known about him and he was probably a minor king who tried for glory without much success. We also had a descendant of Mihira Bhoja, Raja Bhoja II who ruled shortly in the 10 th century. Then, we also had a descendant of Raja Bhoja of Dhar, Bhoja II who ruled probably in the 13 th century.
These are the Rajas Bhojas who come to our immediate consciousness from the history of the Indian sub-continent. There might or might not have been other Raja Bhojas too - who knows! However, this beckons us now to the question of the identity of that Raja Bhoj who is generally associated with the oil presser called Gangu Teli. Who among the above Bhojas came in contact with an ordinary oil presser and made him immortal? Was it Mihira Bhoja or was it Raja Bhoja of Dhar or some other Raja Bhoja? The truth remains unknown, as with the origins of many myths.
Let us just say that the glories of Raja Bhoja have endured, and endured well for posterity to invoke his legacy whenever they have to compare a pretentious stooge with a real man of substance and riches.
Top image: Statue of Raja Bhoja in Bhopal at the time of sunset. Source: yash / Adobe Stock