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Abhiras – An Ancient Hindu Community

Abhiras is an ancient Hindu community, some of whose members became officials and kings in the 2nd and 3rd centuries CE. Abhiras were an ancient community whose primary occupation was tending cattle. Those still adhering to this calling are known as ahiras. There were certain areas where they tended to concentrate, as is known from ancient literary and epigraphic evidence. They spoke a kind of Apabhramsha which Bharata’s Natyashastra called Sabari. Among sudras they were given a superior status and were often spoken of as mahasudra, i.e. superior sudra. Their settlements (abhira-pallis) were known as ghosha.

Ancient Hindu texts associate Abhiras with various regions of India. According to the Mahabharata, they lived in the region where the sacred river Saraswati disappeared, viz., Rajasthan, Pancanada (Punjab), more especially its eastern part, between Satluj and Yamuna. Vishnu Purana speaks of their settlements in Saurashtra, Avanti (western Malwa),  Sura (Mathura), Arbuda (Aravali) and Marubhumi(Marwada).

While Varahamihira’s Brihatsamhita refers to the Abhira countryor people in association with Konkana as a janapada of South India, Parasara (cited by Bhattotpala in his commentary on this work) mentions it along with Saurashtra, Maharashtra, Sindhu-Sauvira, etc., in the south-west. Vayu Purana and Markandeya Purana locate them along with the people of Maharashtra, Vidarbha, Asmaka, Kuntala, Bhrigukaccha, Konkana, Karnata, Nasika, on the banks of the river Veni (Waiganga), etc., in the south. These give us a fair idea of their settlements, both major and minor. Abhiras and their social status find mention in Patanjali’s Mahabhashya, its commentary by Kaiyata, Manusmriti, Kasikavritti by Vamana and Jayaditya on Panini’s Ashtadhyayi and Amarakosha and its commentary by Kshirasvamin, which reveal various facets of their place and role in society.

Some of the Abhiras rose to high political offices and regal power also, especially in Maahrashtra and Gujarat as attested by the prolific literary, epigraphic and numismatic evidence. They occupied high government offices under the Saka Kshatrapa kings of western India. A stone inscription at Gunda (Saurashtra), dated Saka 103 (181 CE) during the reign of Rudrasimha-I, refers to his Abhira Senapati (general) Rudrabhuti,  son of Senapati Bapaka. It is very likely that Ishwaradatta, who usurped the regal power and issued silver coins as Mahakshatrapa (229-34 CE) in the interregnum during the reign of Singhadaman, also hailed from the Abhira stock. The Vamsanucarita section of Puranas mention Abhiras as vassals of Andhras (Andhra-bhrityas) or Satavahanas who, following the collapse of the latter, assumed independence.

A Nasik inscription of the ninth year of Ishvarasena’s reign refers to him as rajan (king). Since his father, Sivadatta, is not given any regal title, it can be inferred that he himself established his dynasty. He is generally credited with the initiation of the Kalacuri-Chedi era commencing about mid-3rd century CE and, on the basis of its widespread use, he is credited by some scholars with an extensive kingdom comprising Gujarat, Konkan ad Maharashtra.

According to Puranas, there were ten Abhira kings following the end of the Andhra (Satavahana) power, and Ishvarasena was just one of them. Nothing is known now about the remaining nine Abhira chiefs. Another Abhira chief, named Vasusena, carved out a kingdom in Andhra Pradesh around the latter part of the 3rd century CE. It is not unlikely that he was a descendant of Ishvarasena and subdued Ikshavakus of the coastal region of Andhra Pradesh. The Khandesh region of Maharashtra became an Abhira strong hold, and there was a powerful Abhira kingdom in this region during the 12th century CE and the Yadava monarch, Singhana, claimed the extermination of the Abhira king Lakshmideva, Lord of Bhambhagiri. Abhiras still continue to be an important constituent of the population in this region, and are engaged in various avocations. There are even Abhira Brahmins.

Some of the Abhiras established themselves in central India and opted for a republican government and the Allahabad Pillar inscription of the Gupta emperor Samudra Gupta includes them among the republican peoples such as Malavas, who acted like obedient vassals of the Gupta emperor. In course of time, their political power came to an end.