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The Rise Of Barmarks

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.

E.G. Browne, 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 high collars.

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".

Origin :

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 India, most probably Kashmir. Prof. Zabiullah Safavi of Teheran University 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 India 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 Afghanistan) 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 Balkh. 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 Kashmir.

Nau-Vihara Temple :

Balkh 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 Balkh has been described as Balhika, Valhika or Bahlika. Balkh 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 Balkh 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.

Balkh 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 royal families.

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 lay-devotees alike.

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 the Buddha.

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 school of Buddhism. 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 Kingdom 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 Balkh :

Arabs were so much impressed by Balkh's prosperity and magnificence that they called this town ‘Mother of Cities’ (oumm-ul-belad). Trade and commerce of Balkh 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 Balkh people to his rule and religious beliefs. However, he was not a persecutor of Buddhism and many monastic centres continued to flourish.

Arabs occupied Persia 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 Balkh 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 originated from 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 Balkh 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 Takhta-i-Rustam.

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 inheritance.

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.

Suggested Reading

1.    History of Buddhism in Afghanistan, Prof. C.S. Upasak, Varanasi.

2.    Historical Geography of Kashmir, S. Maqbul Ahmad and Raja Bano, New Delhi.

3.    Re-interpretating Islamic Historiography, Tayeb El-Hibri, London.

4.    A short history of the Saracens, Syed Amir Ali, Delhi.

5.    A literary history of the Arabs, RA Nicholson, Delhi.

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, Delhi.

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 Institutions, Leiden.

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.

Source: Kashmir Sentinel

 
 

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