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An extract from Anirudh Kanisetti’s book, ‘Lords of the Deccan’

Artist’s impression based on Ajanta frescoes of Pulakeshin II at court.

Artist’s impression based on Ajanta frescoes of Pulakeshin II at court.

Harsha, Great King of Kings of north India, was an unconventional sort of emperor. His family, like the Chalukyas, came from a humble background, though he was a descendant of merchant townsmen rather than cultivators or pastoralists. Unlike the Chalukyas, this clan’s military capabilities had been forged in the heat of north Indian wars, which meant they had not only fought Alchon Huns from Central Asia but had also been entangled in the dramatic political developments of the previous century attending the collapse of the Gupta empire — a saga of espionage, conspiracy, betrayal and war. Suffice it to say here that by 606 CE, Harsha, supposedly only fifteen years old, ended up on the throne of Kannauj, north India’s most wealthy and prestigious city at the time, after the sudden death of both his elder brother and his brother-in-law. By 618, at which time Pulakeshin II had subjugated most of the Deccan and was throwing his weight around Gujarat, Harsha had successfully forced most of north India to submit to his imperial formation, spreading his influence across its thousands of thriving settlements ruled by hundreds of vassal dynasties.

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Having expanded his influence as far as Bengal, commanding the ports of India’s east coast, Harsha now wanted to control its west coast as well, potentially linking his territories to flourishing coastal trade routes in both directions. This threat may have been the trigger for the Latas to send tribute to Pulakeshin in the first place. If so, it was a dangerous gambit: as one scholar puts it, ‘the sovereign of the Deccan must have considered to be his natural birthright… unlimited access to the ocean ports of the Gulf of Cambay [Khambat]’.

Apparently deciding that tribute was not enough, the Chalukya emperor now attacked and conquered a part of Lata (southern Gujarat) and installed a relative of his as ruler. Up to this point, Harsha must have watched with growing surprise and interest as his audacious rival survived every challenge thrown at him, but the invasion of Lata must have been the last straw. It was the winter of 618 CE, little more than eight years since Pulakeshin II had come to the throne. There would be no better chance for Harsha, who had been emperor for twelve years, to put him in his place.

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Harsha was already one of the subcontinent’s most famous monarchs; to face him in battle was a great opportunity for loot and glory, and Pulakeshin would need the skills of these fearsome warriors to even the odds.

Though little is known about precisely how ancient and medieval Indians fought battles, contemporary manuals describe huge, heavy formations and counter-formations ( vyuhas ) organized according to complex rules. North India, with access to vast amounts of infantry, elephantry and cavalry, was especially suited to this sort of fighting. The Deccan could not muster or feed the same numbers of infantry, nor did it have access to the overland routes of the horse trade, emerging as they did from Central Asia. If Pulakeshin had fought Harsha in north India, his army would easily have been surrounded and crushed. But in 618, to punish Pulakeshin for his audacious move on southern Gujarat, Harsha had to cross the Narmada river into the Deccan — which tilted the odds in Pulakeshin’s favour. With his control over the northern Deccan solidified by his policy of economic and political integration, Pulakeshin could now easily scout out Harsha’s route of attack and contest the northern emperor’s attempts to cross the great river. Even if Harsha’s probably larger army were to cross the Narmada, this unwieldy force of infantry, cavalry and elephants had to enter the thickly forested Vindhya foothills in order to capture or defeat Pulakeshin — potentially negating their advantage in numbers.

A painting depicting the use of elephants in warfare in 6th century Central Asia.

A painting depicting the use of elephants in warfare in 6th century Central Asia.

In addition to local intelligence and favourable terrain, Pulakeshin had access to the tanks of the ancient world. Elephants. These deadly creatures possessed the mass and sheer shock value needed to break almost any immobile enemy formation sent against them.

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To the hypnotic beating of battle drums, the elephants were followed by bands of elite hereditary warriors wearing loincloths and minimal armour, also drunk on alcohol.

Harsha’s court poet describes his infantry as wearing topknots and spotted red coats, ears adorned with ivory rings. The north Indian emperor commanded them from the back of his elephant Darpasata, a massive animal whose head was adorned with a ‘crested crown of gold’. But beyond this, there is little we know for certain of the confrontation between the two young emperors. Pulakeshin’s inscriptions, and those of other medieval royals, paint pictures of horrifying battlefield violence. They describe elephants colliding, tusks gleaming with blood. The hulking beasts would attempt to force each other to topple, their senses dulled by alcohol, as their riders stabbed each other with lances. The screams of men trampled underfoot and gored by tusks, the squeals of fallen elephants whose bellies were pierced by the cruel spears of the Chalukya infantry, must have filled the forest.

But eventually, Harsha seems to have realized that he would have to cut his losses. Forcing the Deccan to accept his suzerainty was not worth sacrificing an entire army. Perhaps he intended to renew the conflict another time, but that time would never come, as rebellions and easier pickings called his attention east and kept him there till the end of his reign.

Pulakeshin II, unlikely lord of the Deccan, had defeated the subcontinent’s superpower.

And so, as Harsha ordered his retreat, as the Vindhyas reverberated with the sound of retreating drums and the piercing blast of victory trumpets, Pulakeshin was left to giddily proclaim his astonishing victory. As a Chalukya court poet put it, Emperor Harsha, whose name meant Joy, had lost his laughter in the Deccan. All of a sudden, it was clear not only to Pulakeshin’s vassals, not only to his family, but to the entire subcontinent, that the Deccan had arrived. As kings and emperors reeled from the news, Pulakeshin claimed the splendid title of Parameshvara, Paramount Lord. Lata and the northern Deccan were his. He now turned his attention to the rest of India south of the Narmada.

Extracted from the chapter ‘Harsha’s Laughter’ from Lords of the Deccan .


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