Licchavi Dynasty Begins in the Kathmandu Valley, Nepal Summary

  • Last updated on November 11, 2022

The advent of the Licchavi rule brought Nepal into the historical world. The Licchavis introduced many important innovations, including writing, the Sanskrit language, an organized government with a code of laws, and the formal worship of Hindu deities.

Summary of Event

It is not known precisely when the Licchavis penetrated into Nepal. Inscriptions and records are fragmented, and much of the data conflicts. There is, however, a consensus among specialists that their rule must have taken hold of the Kathmandu Valley no later than the beginning of the fourth century c.e. A precise chronology of kings and the period of their rule is problematic because the remaining inscriptions and chronicles are fragmentary and do not provide a coherent account. Before the Licchavis, the region was inhabited by a group of people called the Kirātas, a remarkable people known for their skill in archery and warfare, who had held sway in the region for centuries. One record asserts that a Licchavi king who came from the south overthrew a Kirāta king named Galija. Religion in Nepal before the Licchavis largely consisted of a mixture of Buddhism and popular atavistic deities. Mānadeva I Aṁśuvarman Narendradeva

The Licchavis came from the south, probably from the Vaisali region in India’s Gangetic Plain. They introduced Indo-Aryan religion, and although Hindu, they were tolerant of other forms of worship. One theory asserts that the Licchavis entered Nepal after their homeland fell to the control of the Kushān Empire of north India in the first century c.e. In that case, they may have been living on Nepali soil for some time before taking full control over the region. Although historical records provide the names of the first four rulers, Haridattavarman, Vasurāja, Vṛsadeva, and Śaṅkaradeva, the dates of their rule are not certain. The political authority of the early dynasty, however, can be surmised from the marriage of a Licchavi princess to King Chandragupta I of north India at the end of the third century c.e. The marriage alliance, referred to frequently in Gupta inscriptions, served to enhance greatly the prestige of the Imperial Gupta Dynasty.

Only with King Mānadeva I does a clear picture of Licchavi rule begin to emerge. He has a heroic place in Nepal’s history. Regarded as the preeminent Licchavi king, he continues to live in the folk memory as sovereign of a golden age. He was the first Nepali king to mint his own coins and to have royal edicts inscribed on stone. His inscription on the Changunārāyana pillar at Changu (464 c.e.) is the earliest dated Licchavi historical account available. His various stone edicts reveal that he loved his subjects and looked after the poor. He was devoted to his mother, Rājyavatī, and persuaded her not to immolate herself on her husband’s funeral pyre because he needed her wise counsel in administering the country. By quelling rebellious feudatories, he brought the country under his full control. Mānadeva was a devotee of the Hindu god Viṣṇu, and he set up two famous stone images of the deity that are splendid examples of Licchavi art. The historical data indicates that he also consecrated images dedicated to Śiva and established a Buddhist monastery and two stupas (Buddhist funerary monuments). He also built the Mānagṛha, the famous palace and administrative center used by Licchavi kings until the mid-seventh century.

Aṁśuvarman, one of the greatest rulers, technically was not of the Licchavi line. It is said that he belonged to the Vaiṣya Ṭhakurī clan and started out as an influential officer of King Śivadeva’s court. In time, he rose to be a co-ruler. Finally, after the death of Śivadeva, he became the sole monarch of the country. His inscriptions cover a sixteen-year period; he also produced coins bearing his name and the royal title “most venerable king of kings,” a designation later assumed by each Licchavi ruler.

A great builder, Aṁśuvarman was known for his many architectural and sculptural achievements. He constructed a beautiful palace called Kailāskūṭa Bhavana that served as his residence and administrative center of the government. He supported major irrigation projects in the kingdom. Many fountains and water conduits were built during his reign; some are still in existence today. The famous seventh century Chinese traveler Xuanzang (Hsüan-tsang) mentioned Aṁśuvarman in his account of his travels. Although Aṁśuvarman had died a few years previously, his reputation was great and he was respected as a man of great bravery, learning, and piety. Aṁśuvarman worked tirelessly to subdue rival feudatories and to ensure a harmonious and prosperous kingdom. Aṁśuvarman was a religious man, constantly engaged in the study of books. Although a follower of Śiva, he set up generous trusts to meet the expenses of many various Hindu temples and Buddhist monasteries. A compassionate king, he wrote, “I am always thinking of how I can make my people happy.”

Aṁśuvarman was followed by Udayadeva (r. 621 c.e.), a Licchavi and the legitimate heir. Udayadeva’s reign was very brief. He was overthrown by a rival clan, the Ābhīra Guptas, who, although seizing the full and real power, established puppet Licchavi rulers on the throne. Although the records of the period seem to suggest joint rule between Guptas and Licchavis, the fragmentary data does not provide a definite picture as to why the Guptas did not seize exclusive control for themselves.

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In 643 c.e., Narendradeva, Udayadeva’s son, finally crushed the Guptas and their ambitions to rule. When his father was overthrown, Narendradeva had avoided Gupta machinations and escaped to Tibet. Later, with Tibetan help, he returned to recover his rightful place on the throne. About this time, a new route was forged through the Himalayas between China and India going through Lhasa, the Tibetan capital, and the Kathmandu Valley to north India. Once it was established, Chinese pilgrims were able to visit sacred Buddhists sites more easily by following the Himalayan route and avoiding the treacherous Central Asian routes through the Taklamakan Desert. Opening the mountain route greatly stimulated the growth of commercial and cultural interaction in Nepal. The Licchavi Kingdom flourished because of the frequent, rich trade. During his stay in Tibet, Narendradeva learned of the wealth and splendor of China. Once he regained control of his kingdom, he sent a mission to China with gifts and established cordial relations with the Chinese court. Both Nepali and Chinese records refer to their mutual warm relations.

There is documentation of a very peculiar event relating to Narendradeva’s rule. A Chinese mission had been attacked in north India while attempting to visit the court of King Harṣvardhana. The king had died and his throne was seized by a usurper named Arjuna. The Chinese ambassador Wang Xuance (Wang Hsüan T’se) and his entourage had been attacked, and many on the mission had been killed. Wang managed to flee to Kathmandu where he found refuge at the Licchavi court. Subsequently, Narendradeva and the king of Tibet, Song-tsen Gampo, sent troops to avenge the wrongful treatment of the Chinese mission. The guilty party was captured with his family and brought to China for retribution. The event sealed the friendship between China and Nepal, and the Chinese government was grateful to Nepal for vindicating China’s honor. Having regained Licchavi suzerainty, Narendradeva’s kingdom was wealthy, flourishing, and powerful.

By the ninth century c.e., the Licchavi state had begun to disintegrate. The few and fragmentary records that remain from the period indicate that central authority was severely compromised. Feudal lords and the monasteries may have appropriated political power. Some scholars believe that Nepal must have fallen under foreign domination of some sort. Whatever the facts, it is clear that Nepal suffered a decline in power and entered into a dark period in its history for the next two and a half centuries.

Significance

It is difficult to define the geographical and political boundaries of Nepal during the Licchavi period. During the reign of Mānadeva, the kingdom may have included parts of eastern Assam and West Bengal. There is no doubt that, with the Licchavis, the region entered not only the historical era but also the mainstream of classical South Asian culture with a sophisticated urban society and refined material culture. The region had been largely Buddhist until the Licchavi’s introduction of formal Hinduism with its concomitant caste system, temple architecture, and religious texts and rituals.

Brahman priests working for the Licchavis accelerated the process of Sanskritization. In fact, Sanskrit became the courtly and literary language of Nepal and was used exclusively for inscriptions and royal edicts of the time. The Licchavi period is known for its brightly painted multistoried wooden architecture and sculptural achievements. The stone works of the Licchavi period are remarkable for their sophisticated form, elegant proportions, and harmony. Sculptures from the seventh century in particular are the masterpieces that established high artistic standards that influenced artists for centuries to come. It was in the field of governance that the Licchavis made the greatest impact in Nepal because they set a precedent for what thereafter became the standard pattern in which Hindu kings claiming high-caste Indian origin ruled over a population that was neither Indo-Aryan nor Hindu. Nepal today continues to have an ethnically diverse population that is half Hindu and half Buddhist.

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Jha, Hit Narayan. The Licchavis (of Vaisali). Varanasi, India: The Chowkhamba Sanskrit Series Office, 1970. This excellent study considers the two phases of Licchavi history, as rulers of an important kingdom in Vaisali, north India, and later as the first dynasty of the Kathmandu Valley. Reviews Licchavi social, religious, and economic life as well as administrative systems.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Regmi, D. R. Ancient Nepal. Calcutta: Firma K. L. Mukhopadhyay, 1960. Overview of early Nepali culture and life as well as the history of the Licchavi Dynasty. Bibliography.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Slusser, Mary Shepherd. Nepal Mandala: A Cultural Study of the Kathmandu Valley. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1982. Excellent two-volume treatise that reviews archaeological, inscriptional, and textual evidence to construct a definitive history of Nepal. Bibliography.

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