By Dr. Ramesh Kumar
The reign of the Abbasid
Caliph Harun Rashid (786-809) has been noted for its literary brilliance. He has
often been described as Charlemagne of the East. According to Amir Ali,
the distinguished scholar, “the glory and renown of Rashid's administration
are mostly due to the wisdom and ability of the men to whom he entrusted the
government of the empire for the first seventeen years of his reign”.
Abbasids owed their elevation
to Persians, particularly to people of Khurasan. In turn, their rule saw ascancy
of Persians over Arabs. The Khurasani family, which played a crucial role
(752-904) during the Abbasid rule was the celebrated house of Barmak or
Barmecides. They wisely directed the affairs of the caliphate. Through
generous patronage of learning, lavish hospitality and wise administration they
conferred lustre on the reigns of first five Abbasid Caliphs. The Barmakids were
the most efficient administrators the Caliphate had seen and their vizirate
brought peace and stability to the outlying provinces. In Baghdad the court of
Barmaks became a Centre of patronage for the Ulema, poets, scholars alike. The
arts of civilised life were cultivated everywhere.
This noble ancient Persian
family has been hailed by scholars for its statesmanship, generosity and
administrative capacity. Barmaks served Abbasid rulers with unswerving fidelity
and extraordinary ability. The people were prosperous and happy. The empire had
grown rich and strong. National wealth had increased. The Barmak family headed
the Revenue Department. They followed a strict policy of taxation with the sole
objective of enriching the state treasury. The Barmaks were keen in displaying
leniency and gave concessions to the eastern provinces, particularly Khurassan
even at the cost of the Treasury.
the author of Literary History of Persia, compares Barmak family to
Nidhamul-Mulk and Juwayni families. It was because of the conciliatory policy of
influence of Barmecides that Persian-Arab balance of power remained in place,
which gave stability to the Abbasid dynasty.
Prof. Philip Hitti says,
"their (Barmaks') generosity was proverbial. Even today in all the
Arabic-speaking lands the word barmaki is used as a synonym of generous and "as
munificent as Ja' far is a simile that is everywhere well understood".
A number of canals,
mosques and other public works owe their existence to the initiative and
munificence of the Barmakids. Al Fadl, son of Yahya bin barmak is credited with
being the first to introduce the use of lamps in the mosques during the holy
month of Ramadan. Ja'far, another son of Yahya acquired great fame for
eloquence, literary activity and pen-manship. Hitti argues that chiefly because
of him Arab historians regard the Barmakids as the founders of the class
designated as 'people of the pen' (ahl al-qalam) But he was more than a
man of letters. He was a leader of fashion, and the long neck which he possessed
is said to have been responsible for the introduction of the custom of wearing
Amir Ali laments, "but their
grandeur and magnificence, their benefactors and lavish charity, which made them
the idols of the masses, raised a host of enemies who were determined by every
means in their power to bring about their ruin".
Who were these Barmaks? What
was their ancestry? Some Arabic writers believe that the Barmaks were originally
Iranians and were the head-priests of the fire-temple of Naubahar near Balkh.
Al Masudi in Muruuju dh Dhabab says Barmak, the ancestor of this
family was a Magian and high priest of great fire-temple at Naubahar. He
remarks, "He who exercised these functions (Chief Priest) was respected by
the Kings of this country and administered the wealth offered to the temple. He
was called Barmak, a name given to those invested with this dignity, whence is
derived the name of the Barmecides (Barmaki, from Baramika); for Khalid bin
Barmak was the son of one of these great Pontiffs".
Recent researches, however,
indicate that Barmaks were not Persians but belonged to northern
most probably Kashmir. Prof. Zabiullah Safavi of
in his great work Barmikyans puts forth this view. Similar view is held
by Sayyid Sulayman (Arab-o-Hind Ke Talloqat, 1930), who further
argues that Naubahar was not a Zoroastrian fire-temple but a Buddhist temple.
W. Barthold, the authority on Central Asian history too agrees with this
view that Naubahar was a Buddhist temple.
Barmaks in later years took
deep interest in India. In fact, the first extant Arabic report on
was prepared under the directions of Yahya bin Barmak (d. 805) by his envoy.
Barmaks were responsible for inviting several scholars and physicians from India
to the court of Abbasids. Renowned historian, DP Singhal says Barmaks
were Indian-trained or Indian ministers, under whose patronage and tactful
administration, Baghdad became a centre of Indian learning, particularly
astronomy and mathematics.
Scholar RS Pandit remarks
that the name Barmak is of Indian origin. He observes, "The Barmak family had
been converted but their contemporaries never thought much of their profession
of Islam nor regarded it as genuine (Al-Fihirist by Ibnul-Nadeem). They also
engaged Hindu scholars to come to Baghdad, made them the Chief Physicians of
their hospitals and got them to translate, from Sanskrit to Arabic, books on
medicine, toxicology, philosophy and other subjects".
According to Prof. C.S.
Upasak (History of Buddhism in
the name 'Baramik' is a
derivative of the term Vara-Aramika, meaning the 'Chief of the Attants of
an Arama' or Buddhist monastery. Aramika is an attant of an Arama or Sangharama
who looks after the Vihara, its property etc. as appointed by the Sangha. The
Nava-Vihara possessed good landed property amounting to hundreds (1500 sq kms)
of sq. kms. and so, numerous aramikas were appointed to look after it. The Chief
of the Aramikas was called 'Vara-Aramika'.
J. Harmatta and BA LiTvinsky
present a different view (History of civilizations of Central Asia, Vol. III, p.
371). They argue that the famous Barmakid family were apparently
the descants of the Hephthalite pramukhas of the Naubahar at
Balkh. According to them the
Hepthalite ruler of Balkh bore the Bactrian title sava (King), while the
name of his son, Pariowk (in Armenian, clerical error for Parmowk) or Barmuda,
Parmuda (in Arabic and Persian, clerical error for Barmuka, Parmuka) goes back
to the Buddhist title pramukha. It shows that he was the lord and head of the
great Buddhist Centre Naubahar at
His dignity and power were thus more of an ecclesiastic than of secular nature.
Prof. S. Maqbool Ahmed,
former Director Central Asian Studies Kashmir University, is of the view that
the Barmak family originated in
Kashmir. During the years of turbulence, mother of Khalid bin
barmak and Khalid had sought refuge in
Nau-Vihara Temple :
is one of the oldest towns in the world, being the birthplace of Zoraster. As
per Zorastrian tradition Balkh was built by first Aryan ruler Bakhdi. Ancient
Greek historians called, it Bactra, (Baktra or Bactria) and the whole country 'Bactriana'.
Situated in north-west Afghanistan, its present capital is Mazar-i-Sharif.
It is a small town now, lying in ruins.
In Indian literature
has been described as Balhika, Valhika or Bahlika.
town became popular to other Buddhist countries because of two great sons of
Afghanistan-Tapassu and Bhallika. There are two stupas over their relics. As per
a popular leg, Buddhism was introduced in
by Bhallika, disciple of Buddha. He was a merchant of the region and had come to
Bodhgaya. First Vihara at Balkh was built for Bhallika when he returned home
after becoming a Buddhist monk. H. Tsiang visited Balkh in 630 when it was a
flourishing centre of Hinayana Buddhism. People called the city ‘Little
Rajagriha’ since it housed many sacred relics.
was first subjected to pillage and plunder by Alexander in 329 B.C. It came
under Hepthalites or Huns by the of 4th Century A.D. Kanishka had been the
first Buddhist to rule Balkh. The early Huns followed a religion akin to
Zorastrianism and worshipped fire and Sun. Subsequently, Hun Kings became
followers of Buddhism.
Buddhism was introduced in
and around Central Asia in the first Century A.D. by Kashmiris and other
Buddhists from north-west
India. They set up small
colonies at Cokkuka (Yarkand), Sailadesa (Kashgar), Kotamna-Godana (Khotan),
Calmadana (Cherchen). The Kings in these places claimed descent from Indian
The Nava-Vihara was an
important Buddhist monastery in Balkh for advance learning. It was a strongly
built Vihara and was remarkable for its imposing structure. This Vihara was most
sacred place of Balkh for it housed in its shrine-hall the water-basin (pot) and
a tooth-relic of the Buddha, about one inch long of yellow-white colour. At this
place a sweeping brush of the Buddha, made of Kusa grass, about three feet long
and seven inches round with ornamented handle, was also kept. These sacred
objects made this Vihara a shrine of great esteem and veneration for monks and
Hiuen-tsiang made a visit to
this vihara. Though he was a Mahayani, he chose to stay here, a Centre of
Hinyana school. He records, "there is a figure of Buddha which is lustrous
with noted gems, and the hall in which it stands is also adorned with precious
substances of rare value. This is the reason why it has often been robbed by
chieftains of neighbouring countries, covetous of gain". There was also a
statue of Pi-Shamen (Vaisravana) deva who has always protected this Sangharama.
To the north of the Sangharama there was a very huge stupa of 200 feet in
height, covered with a plaster, hard as the diamond and ornamented with a
variety of precious substances. This stupa contained the sacred body relic of
As per Hiuen-tsiang the
Nava-Vihara (or Nava Sangharama) was built outside the city on the
north-west quarter. He informs that it was built by a former King. The Nava-Vihara,
or the 'New Monastery' suggests the existence of an 'old Vihara' which stood in
old days somewhere in the town. The old Vihara, built ten centuries ago, had
totally crumbled down. Hiuen-Tsiang, however, refers to another Vihara to the
south-west, not very far from the Nava-Vihara which had developed as a great
centre for practical training of Buddhism, i.e. Patipatti.
Nava-Vihara developed as a
great Centre for advanced study of the Later Tharavada or Hinayana
This Sangharama specialised in the Abhidharmic group of study. The courses
included the Three Pitakas with its nine Angas (Navanga). Nava-Vihara was also a
great Centre for the studies in the Vibhasasastra of the Sarvastivadins. Prof.
C.S. Upasak opines that in terms of high academic standard and stature no other
University in Buddhist world at that time rivalled Nava-Vihara, not even Nalanda
Mahavihara. Also Nava-Vihara was the only institution, where only highly learned
monks who had already composed some Sastra in Buddhism could he admitted.
According to Hieuen Tsang it was the only Buddhist establishment north of Hindu
Kush in which there was a constant succession of masters who were commentators
of the canon. It was the pride of Afghanistan.
The illustrious monk-scholars
who stayed at this Vihara included Pranjakara (the great priest of the
of Tabak), Dharmapriya, Cittavarma, Dharmakara. I-tsing, another Chinese
Buddhist scholar visited this Vihara in 700-712 AD. He speaks high about the
studies being pursued at this Vihara, Sanskrit too was taught here. Both
Hiuen-tsiang and I-tsing studied at nava-Vihara for sometime.
Geographer al-Qazwini (Athar-ul-Bilad)
too refers to this great monastery. He records.
“The Persians and Turks used
to rever it (The temple of Nawabahar) and perform pilgrimages to it, and present
offerings to it. Its length was one hundred cubits, its breadth the same, and
its height somewhat more, and the care of it was invested in the Baramika. The
Kings' of India and China used to come to it, and when they reached it they
worshipped the idol, and kissed Barmak's hand, and Barmak's rule was paramount
in all these lands. And they ceased not, Barmak after Barmak, until Khurasan was
conquered in the days of Uthman b. Affan and the guardship of the temple came at
length to Barmak, the father of Khalid”.
Arab Conquest of
Arabs were so much impressed
prosperity and magnificence that they called this town ‘Mother of Cities’ (oumm-ul-belad).
Trade and commerce of
was quite brisk. It acted as a trade exchange centre of the east and the west.
A Hepthalite King, notorious
for his savage nature, is said to have ruthlessly destroyed some Buddhist
temples and stupas. He resorted to this plunder because of opposition of
people to his rule and religious beliefs. However, he was not a persecutor of
Buddhism and many monastic centres continued to flourish.
in 642 (during the Caliphate of Uthman, 644-656 AD). Attracted by grandeur and
wealth of Balkh, they attacked it in 645 AD. It was only in 653 when Arab
commander, al-Ahnaf raided the town again and compelled it to pay tribute. The
Arab hold over the town, however, remained tenuous. The area was brought under
Arabs' control only after it was reconquered by Muawiya in 663 AD. Prof. Upasak
describes the effect of this conquest in these words: "The Arabs plundered
the town and killed the people indiscriminately. It is said that they raided the
famous Buddhist shrine of Nava-Vihara, which the Arab historians call 'Nava
Bahara' and describe it as one of the magnificent places which, comprised a
range of 360 cells around the high stupas'. They plundered the gems and jewels
that were studded on many images and stupas and took away the wealth accumulated
in the Vihara but probably did no considerable harm to other monastic buildings
or to the monks residing there".
The Arab authors have left
interesting accounts of the destruction of Nava-Bahara The Arab attacks had
little effect on the normal ecclesiastical life in the monasteries or Balkh
Buddhist population outside. Buddhism continued to flourish with their
monasteries as the centres of Buddhist learning and training. Scholars, monks
and pilgrims from China,
India and Korea continued to visit this place.
Several revolts were made
against the Arab rule in Balkh.
The Arabs' control over
could not last long as it soon came under the rule of a local prince, called
Nazak (or Nizak) Tarkhan. He threw out Arabs from his territories in 670 or 671.
He was a zealous Buddhist. He is said to have not only reprimanded the
Chief-Priest (Barmak) of Nava-Vihara but beheaded him for embracing Islam. As
per another account, when Balkh was conquered by the Arabs, the head priest of
the Nava-Vihara had gone to the capital and became a Muslim. This displeased the
people of the Balkh. He was deposed and his son was placed in his position.
Nazak Tarkhan is also said to
have murdered not only the Chief Priest but also his sons. Only a young son was
saved. He was taken by his mother to Kashmir where he was given training in
medicine, autonomy and other Indian sciences. Later they returned to Balkh.
Prof. Maqbool Ahmed observes," One is tempted to think that the family
Kashmir, for in time of
distress, they took refuge in the Valley. Whatever it be, their Indian origin is
undoubted and this also explains the deep interest of the Barmaks, in later
years, in India, for we know they were responsible for inviting several scholars
and physicians from India to the Court of Abbasids."
Prof. Maqbool also refers to the descriptions of
Kashmir contained in the report on
India prepared by the envoy
of Yahya bin Barmak. He surmises that the envoy could have possibly visited
Kashmir during the reign of Samgramapida II (797-801). Reference has been made
to sages and arts.
The Arabs could bring
under their control in 715 AD only, inspite of strong resistance offered by the
Balkh people. Qutayba bin Muslim al-Bahili, an Arab General was Governor of
Khurasan and the east from 705-715. He established a firm Arab hold in lands
beyond the oxus. He fought and killed Tarkhan Nizak in Tokharistan (Bactria) in
715. In the wake of Arab conquest the resident monks of the Vihara were either
killed or forced to abandon their faith. The Viharas were razed to the ground.
Priceless treasures in the form of manuscripts in the libraries of monasteries
were consigned to ashes. Presently, only the ancient wall of the town, which
once encircled it, stands partially. Nava-Vihara stands in ruins, near
Ascancy of Barmaks :
The Governor of Khurasan, who
killed Tarkhan Nizak in 715 had taken Khalid bin Barmak's mother as captive.
During his Transoxus campaign from Sogdiana alone the captives numbered 100,000.
Sources are silent on the fate of Barmak family in the period, 715-748.
Khurasanis never accepted Arab rule under ummayads. In 748 Khurasan Governor
Sayyar Al-Kinani (738-48) was killed by advancing Abbasid army. Khurasanis
played a major role in Abbasid victory. Probably, Barmak family too played a
critical role in it.
Khurasanis gained ascancy by
right of precedence as 'sons of Abbasid revolution' and also because of
their experience of work in a bureaucracy, which the Transoxian land owners
lacked, managing their small domains in a patriarchal manner.
About the ascancy of
Khurasanis, Dozy (Hist. del 'Islamism, translated by Victor Chauvin) observes",
The ascancy of the Persians over the Arabs, that is to say of the conquered over
the victors had already for a long while been in course of preparations; it
became complete when the Abbasids, who owed their elevation to the Persians,
asced the throne". Abbasid Princes continued to repose their trust in Persians,
especially Khurasanis. While Arabs occupied high positions in the Army, the
Iranians and Tajiks gained upper hand in civil administration.
During Abbasid revolution the
Barmakid family took key role in dissemination of Abbasid influence in Khurasan.
Barmakid family was connected through marriage ties with neighbouring princes of
Transoxiana. The religious, social and political prestige that the Barmakids
commanded was a key reason why the Abbasids turned to them for support.
Khalid bin barmak was taken
as the first vizier of the Caliphate. The Vizierate post was only next to Caliph
and was all powerful, with authority to appoint and depose governors. Phillip
Hitti has a different view. He says, “though not actually a vizir, a
minister in the literal sense of the term, this official of Persian origin (Khalid)
seems to have acted on various occasions as counsellor for the Caliph and became
the founder of an illustrious family of viziers". CE Bosworth, the noted
authority, says this high administrative post was possibly influenced by the
Sasanian administrative tradition and may have constituted a revival of the
institution of the Vizier (buzurg farmander), or it may; on the other hand, have
been an indigenous development within the Arab ministerial tradition.
Khalid b. Barmak occupied
distinguished positions under first two Abbasid Caliphs, al Saffah and
al Mansur. He had risen to be the vizier, following death of Abu Salma and
Abul Jahm. Khalid was on such intimate terms with al-saffah that his daughter
was nursed by the wife of the Caliph. Likewise, Caliph's daughter was nursed by
Khalid's wife. His son, Yahya b. Barmak, at one time Governor of Armenia, was
entrusted by Caliph Mahdi (775-85) with the education of his son, Rashid.
Under Abbasid regime Khalid
rose to the headship (Chancellor of the exchequer) of the department of Finance
(diwan al-Kharaj) This department was concerned with Taxation and Land
Tenure. Genuine budgets began to be drawn up for the first time and offices
sprang up for various departments. The extensive staff of officials engaged in
correspondence with the provinces and prepared estimates and accounts. An
influential stratum of officialdom, the Irano-Islamic class of secretaries
(Arabic Kuttab, Persian dabiran), was formed which considered itself as the main
support of the state. Their knowledge of the complex system of the Kharaj (land
tax) which took account not only of the quality of the land but of the produce
of the crops sown, made the officials of the diwan al-Kharaj the guardians of
knowledge which was inaccessible to the uninitiated and was passed by
In 1765 Khalid b. Barmak
received the governorship of Tabaristan, where he crushed a dangerous uprising.
During his governorship of Mesopotamia, Khalid, through a mix of firmness and
justice, brought the province quickly into order and effectively curbed the
unruly Kurds. Even in his old age he distinguished himself at the capture of a
byzantine fortress. He also reconciled Other religious dissidents to Abbasid
power, after al-Mansur. Khalid b.Barmak had been instrumental in prevailing upon
Isa b. Musa, the cousin and one-time designated heir apparent of the caliph al-Mansur
to renounce his claims for succession in favour of al-Mansur's son, al-Mahdi.
The fall of Barmaks is, in fact, a more fascinating story.
1. History of Buddhism in
Afghanistan, Prof. C.S. Upasak, Varanasi.
2. Historical Geography of
Kashmir, S. Maqbul Ahmad and Raja Bano, New Delhi.
Islamic Historiography, Tayeb El-Hibri, London.
4. A short history of the
Saracens, Syed Amir Ali,
5. A literary history of
the Arabs, RA Nicholson,
6. A Literary History of
Persia, EG Browne, Vol. I, New Delhi.
7. History of the Arabs,
Philip K. Hitti, Delhi.
8. India and World
Civilisation, DP Singhal,
9. Naw Bahar and the
survival of Iranian Buddhism, RW Bulliet, Iran 14 (1976), 140-5.
10. The Barmakid Revolution
in Islamic Govt, Persian and Islamic Studies in Honour of PW Avery, Pembroke
Papers I, Cambridge.
11. The Arab conquests in
Central Asia, HAR Gibb, New York.
12. The origin of the
Vizierate and its True character, SD Goitein, Studies in Islamic History and
13. The Early Abbasid
Vizierate, Journal of Semitic Studies, 37, 1992.
14. History of civilisations
of Central Asia, BA Litvinsky et al Vol. III and IV, Delhi.