Abhira
 
 

An inscription in Gujarat, of the Saka ruler Rudrasimha (181 CE) records the digging of a tank by the Abhira general Rudrabhuti. In the Saka-Satvahan wars some of the Abhira chiefs, originally Saka vassals, appear to have switched sides to the Satvahanas.

 

Around 248 CE an Abhira kingdom was founded in the North Konkan belt of Maharashtra by Raja Mathariputra Isvarasena, after the decline of the Satvahana power. In an inscription at Nasik, Isvarasena calls himself the son of Abhira Sivadatta, which suggests that Abhira was a tribal name derived originally from a locality. The portion of the Central Indian Plateau, between Bhilsa and Jhansi, was known for a long time as Ahirwada (land of Ahirs). On etymological grounds Ahir (a pastoral community) is believed to be derived from Abhira.

 

The Abhira kingdom in the Deccan lasted till the middle of the 4th century CE. Its territory was taken over by the Traikutak dynasty. The Allahabad pillar inscription of Samudra Gupta describes the Abhira as one of the many tribal states incorporated into the Gupta Empire. This Abhira state was probably in Central India (Ahirwada) and not the kingdom in the Deccan.

 

Late in the 10th century CE a small Abhira principality was founded in Gujarat, near Junagadh. Its ruler Graharipu was called a mleccha who ate beef and plundered the pilgrims. The Solanki Rajput ruler of Gujarat, Mularaja defeated Graharipu and made him a vassal, as per an inscription. But in the late 11th century the Abhira were still creating trouble and Jayasimha Solanki had to fight and defeat their chief Navaghana——this time permanently extinguishing their state.

 

Back in the Deccan, Abhira chiefs were noted till as late in the 13th century CE, in the campaigns of the Yadavas of Devagiri. No mleccha activity was attributed to the Abhira in this region.

 

Abhira in texts

 

The Greek texts refer to an Abhira country (i.e. ruled by Abhira) on the Sindh-Gujarat border. The Puranas on the other hand refer only to the Abhira Kingdom in the Deccan, for which there is epigraphic evidence, and state that ten Abhira kings ruled there for 67 years. The Mahabharat, as we all know was re-written several times since the original story was known in the Rig Veda——it is only the later versions that record the presence of foreigners in India. In these the Abhira are placed in the Sindh-Gujarat region but in another context it says that the home of the Abhira was in Aparanta (Konkan). All of these texts are dated to the post-Maurya age.

 

Using the Greek texts as primary evidence the colonial historians concluded that the Abhira were (what else?) a foreign tribe. This was sought to be confirmed by epigraphic records described above, which show Abhira chiefs as vassals of the foreign Sakas. And the mleccha activities of Abhira chiefs in latter-day Gujarat. The colonial historians traced the name Abhira to a locality called Abiravan in Iran, which is probably a false cognate. Hastily turning these assumptions into facts, they claimed that the Abhira came to India in the train of the Saka invaders.

 

Unfortunately for them the ancient grammarian Patanjali (2nd century BCE) mentions the Abhira in his Mahabhashya (a commentary on languages and grammar). This puts them in India long before the Saka invasions.

 

Similarly the Natyashastra of Bharata (2nd century CE), in compiling the languages spoken in that period, says that the corrupt forms of Sanskrit were spoken by Sabaras, Abhiras, Chandalas, Vanacharas, etc. These are all pastoral, primitive, or forest-dwelling Indian tribes....a foreign tribe would have brought the native speech from its land of origin.

 

Lastly the Nepal Vamsavalis (genealogical tables) state that country was ruled successively by Gopalas, Abhiras, and Kiratas....which can only mean that the mountainous land was peopled by pastoral and forest-dwelling tribes, which had not yet developed the division of labor or the complex society as in other places. The first historic ruler of Nepal, mentioned in contemporary texts and epigraphic records, was Vrishadeva (4th century CE) of the famous Lichchavi warrior clan. His descendants had to continue the fight against the Kirata and Abhira.

 

In the 6th century though the Lichchavi were overthrown by the Abhira who ruled Nepal again for three generations, till they were finally expelled by the Lichchavi king Sivadeva.

 

Conclusion

 

Given the vast spread of the Abhira in different parts of India and Nepal, their grouping with other pastoral tribes and with Sanskrit speakers, and given the present substantial population of Ahirs, the Abhira were probably an Indian pastoral tribe. Their chiefs in Gujarat-Sindh being vassals of the Saka conquerors is not at all surprising, since many other Indian clans like the Uttambhadras were also their vassals, and other Indian generals like Rishabdatta also served under those foreigners.

 

The term Abhira was never applied to foreigners, unlike the terms Saka or Yavan, which were used as terms for foreigners down to the 18th century (Ahmad Shah Abdali was called a Yavan by the Marathas at the Third Battle of Panipat)!

 

The prospect of a foreign tribe multiplying rapidly among an already dense Indian population was next to impossible.