An ancient city located in present-day Madhya Pradesh, Mahishmati is a familiar name for readers of ancient religious and literary texts.
For fans of the Baahubali movies, the wait for the sequel has truly been a long one. The multi-lingual epic fantasy (it was shot in Tamil and Telugu and dubbed in other languages), which released in 2015, was a blockbuster hit and received great acclaim for its production design. The movie even clinched two National Awards, including one for special effects. Naturally, anticipation is riding high for Baabubali: The Conclusion, the final part of the movie, which is slated for release this April.
Baahubali’s tale is set in the kingdom of Mahishmati, which contrary to popular notion, is not entirely fictional.
The set of Baahubali’s Mahismati kingdom. Source: Youtube
According to historical records, Mahishmati is a city likely to have been located in central India, what is now the state of Madhya Pradesh. The city finds mention in numerous records as well as tales, which suggest that it was a capital city and an socio-political centre.
It is believed that Mahishmati was a part of the Avanti kingdom, an ancient Indian janapada. Puranic records suggest that Avanti was split by the Vindhyas into two parts—while the capital was Ujjayini, located in the north, Mahishmati was the headquarters of the Southern part. Though historical accounts and stories offer conflicting views, the city is considered to have been the erstwhile capital of the Haihayas, an ancient confederacy of five clans that ruled over large parts of Western and Central India.
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PK Bhattacharya, in his book Historical Geography of Madhya Pradesh from Early Records, sheds light on some of the records that mention the rulers of Maheshmati and their descendants. He gives the example of the Anushashana Parva of the Mahabharata, which held that “the thousand-armed Kartavirya (Arjuna), the Haihaya, reigned over the whole earth from Mahishmati”.
The city has also been mentioned in the Harivamsa where it is stated that the city was founded by King Mahishmat, the heir of Sahajna who came from Yadu (one of the five Indo-Aryan tribes mentioned in the Rig Veda) through Harihaya. Another account states that the founder of the city was king Mucukunda, who too may have been a descendant of Yadu.
He further writes, “The Mahishmati region was also known as Anupa. In the Raghuvamsa, it is clearly stated that Mahishmati, on the Reva, was the capital of the Anupa country. The description of the city of Mahishmati, in the Raghuvamsa, as (FE) Partiger points out, leaves no doubt that it was not on the Narmada, but in the middle of it. The passage of the Harivamsa, describing the foundation of the city by Mucukunda also points to its location in the rocky island and village of Mandhata, now sacred to Siva and containing a famous shrine of Omkaranatha.”
Using these records as well as other historical documents and the accounts of Patanjali, the author argues that Mahishmati was located such that it took only a night to travel between the city and Ujjayini.
Readers and history buffs are likely to know Mahishmati from legends and tales in the great Indian epics.
The Mahabharata is one of the most prominent ancient Indian texts that refers to Mahishmati. Source: Wikipedia
The Mahabharata, rather some of the regional interpretations of the text, includes an interesting tale of the city in the years before the Pandava princes rose to power.
According to the legend, Mahishmati was ruled by the King Nila. Agni, the lord of fire, fell in love with Nila’s beautiful daughter which displeased the king. Agni had assumed the form of a Brahmin to woo the princess, and the king ordered for his punishment. When the deity revealed himself, King Nila refused to punish him.
King Nila asked Agni to be the protector of his kingdom, and years later when Pandava prince Yudhisthir embarked on a mission to conquer everyone else, his younger brother Sahaeva prayed to Agni for success before he moved to invade Mahishmati. Later on, Nila is said to have served as a rathi (charioteer) during the Kurukshetra War.
According to the Vishnu Purana, Ravana—the king of Lanka—attacked Mahishmati during the reign of Kartavirya Arjuna. However, the chief antagonist of Ramayana lost the battle and was captured by Kartavirya. PN Bose’s notes from the Proceedings of the Indian History Congress records this tale, along with other anecdotes about Kartavirya.
These multiple tales and the lack of historical and archaeological evidence have led to conflicting subjects on the origins of Mahishmati.
Mandhata is considered to be a possible site for the erstwhile Mahishmati. Source: Bernard Gagnon
Buddhist texts place the city in Avanti. While Digha Nikaya mentions that Mahishmati was the capital of Avanti, other Pali texts mention Ujjayini as the capital. However, the texts do agree that Mahishmati was a part of Avanti, and Buddhist suttas and stupas mention Mahishmati to be a site of interest for the disciples of Buddha.
In the 11th and 12th centuries, kings in the country’s southern parts claimed to be descendents of Haihaya and even hailed Mahishmati as their place of origin. Inscriptions from the 13th century show that some kings claimed to have stayed in Mahishmati during that period.
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Historians have suggested modern-day Maheshwar, Mandla and even Mysore to be the location of erstwhile Mahishmati. But these are now considered obsolete arguments or attributed to confusions arising from similar sounding names.
The story of Mahishmati has sadly been lost in the pages of times. Though the makers of the Baahubali movie have taken an imaginary route in their choice of Mahishmati as the setting for their epic, one wonders if the historical city matched up, or perhaps surpassed, to the grandeur of the extravagant movie sets.