Sultans of Swing

The Muslim Sultanates in India, c. 1100 – 1526 CE

In which the Indians learn that not all foreigners are barbarians, and not all invaders are villains

The subcontinent had been slumbering for centuries, paying scant attention to a world that had changed beyond recognition. It was high time for a splash of cold water. And hot blood.


Chandragupta II Vikramaditya’s Iron Pillar at Mehrauli, with the massive Qutb Minar in the background.  The tallest brick minaret in the world, the Minar was built on the orders of the slave-turned Sultan Qutb-ud-din Aibak.

This article is pivotal to the story of India, because it discusses the genesis of one of the most important aspects of modern Indian identity: Indian Islam, and the first Turkic Sultans in the subcontinent, who are generally blamed for every malaise in our society ranging from caste (“Caste was really a defense mechanism against evil invaders!”) to sati, jauhar and child marriage (“It started as a way to prevent Muslims from stealing Hindu women!”), and most disturbingly, to justify violent and radical Hindutva (“The Sultans did x to my ancestors y years ago, therefore it is acceptable to do the same thing to all Muslims in 2016!”). These arguments, despite being grounded in little to no fact whatsoever, are still broadly accepted by the average Indian, because little to nothing of Indian history of this period is taught in schools (it is too politically incendiary, and as I’ve said on a number of occasions, Indian education is much weaker because of how susceptible it is to political interference). I aim to present an unbiased view of the Muslim invasions and examine both what they contributed to India, and what the Sultans really inflicted.

I think that India was much enriched by its experience with Islam. Though the fruits of that tree were borne in the North primarily under the Great Mughals of the 16th and 17th centuries, the Deccan has had a most fascinating journey with sultans and rajas. The first part of the article discusses how it was that the Turks came to India, and sets this event in a global historical perspective. The second discusses the Sultanate itself. The third discusses the genesis of Indo-Islamic culture under Vijayanagara and the Deccan Sultanates. The fourth is a summary, and anticipates the second Indian Golden Age under the Great Mughals.

‘These Turks are Crazy!’


Turkic cavalry in the 12th century CE

By the end of the 10th century CE, the Abbasid Caliphate, in terminal decline, had lost control of its new Turkic converts. The Seljuk Sultan Alp Arslan delivered a stunning blow to the Byzantine Empire, conquering Anatolia and setting it on a course that began the Crusades and eventually extinguished this last remnant of the Romans. Meanwhile, in Persia, ambitious Turkic warlords began to carve out personal fiefdoms for themselves and go on unauthorized raids for plunder and slaves, against infidels as well as fellow Muslims. Of course, all these were “in the name of Islam”, but a simple look at who was raking in the moolah is a pretty clear indicator of motivation. It’s not like the Caliph could do anything about it anyway.

Like with Indian kings, religion merely justified the violence of the state. The state was violent enough even without religion.

“… religion merely justified the violence of the state. The state was violent enough even without religion.”

As North India descended into anarchy thanks to incessant ritual warfare – by which I mean ritualised conquests of neighbouring kingdoms in the name of kingly dharma – a certain Turkish slave-turned-general, by the name of Sabuktigin, unable to make any headway in Persia, decided to bolster his cash reserves with a spot of looting. He found, to his interest, that on his borders were a bunch of Afghan Hindus known as the Shahi dynasty. Over a few years, his highly versatile cavalry archers, well-drilled and hungry for plunder, made quick work of the Shahi’s outdated elephant and ill-equipped infantry formations. His son, Mahmud, an even bloodier-minded man, conquered Lavapura/Lahore, and decided to use it as a base henceforth to mount more plunder expeditions into this unimaginably wealthy land- the land beyond the Sindhu (Indus) River. In Persian, the ‘S’ was rendered as a ‘H’. The land, therefore, was known as Hindustan.


Mahmud of Ghazni listens to Ferdowsi read his Shahnameh. Mahmud’s patronage of this text, one of the most significant cultural artifacts in history, has made him a national hero in Afghanistan.

Mahmud was a mere raider, though his own court account would seem to indicate that he had conquered the entire continent of Asia and purged it of every single Hindu who had ever lived. Yes, it’s undeniable that his raids made his capital, Ghazni, unimaginably wealthy. Yes, the fact that he was fighting against non-Muslims made him a religious hero, in the spirit of the times. Look at Godfrey of Bouillon, the commander of the First Crusade, who is a Christian hero because of his brutal slaughter of every man, woman and child, Jewish and Muslim, who happened to be in Jerusalem when he conquered it.

But there’s an important aspect missing from Mahmud’s claims: namely, the fact that no Indian source makes the slightest mention of him. This could mean two things. Firstly, that we’re horrible historians (no Indian source mentions Alexander the Great, either). Secondly, that Mahmud’s raids didn’t actually make too much of an impression on the subcontinent. It’s probably a combination of the two. Another fact worth mentioning: India may have been Mahmud’s medieval ATM, but the money was spent trying to conquer other Muslim states in Persia.

“..India may have been Mahmud’s medieval ATM, but the money was spent trying to conquer other Muslim states in Persia.”

Mahmud’s death plunged his kingdom into anarchy, and it was two centuries before yet another Turk set his sights on India. By this time, some sort of order had been restored in the North under a loose coalition of Rajput clans under Prithviraja III Chahamana (popularly known as ‘Prithviraj Chauhan’ in modern Hindi).

When Muhammad Ghori, another Turkic adventurer, occupied one of Prithviraja’s frontier forts in the Punjab, Prithviraja immediately assembled an army from his vassals to fight him off. The opposing forces met at a place called Tarain and began an inconclusive day’s combat, in which Ghori learned an important lesson on the effectiveness of Rajput infantry and armoured elephants. By evening, his forces were in full retreat. Prithviraja, foolishly assuming that his opponent fought according to outdated Indian ideals of battle, refused to follow and slaughter the enemy. In any case, the retreat of an army was at the time a token of submission and tribute in the subcontinent. But the Turks had learned their lesson well, and they now knew what they could win for themselves in Hindustan.

By the next year, masses of Turks had flocked to Muhammad’s banner for the promise of loot and plunder. He had spent the year in careful planning, while Prithviraja, confident that he was a rajadhiraja who had conquered all, had been busy enjoying himself. Muhammad proceeded again to Tarain, and an overconfident Prithviraja led his troops there. (Barely any allies?  Prithviraja’s earlier warmongering had made him a political pariah among the Rajputs.) The night before battle was expected to be joined, the Indians were shocked to find the Turks had broken all Hindu battle codes and attacked before sunrise. In confusion, they attempted to strike back with heavy infantry and elephants, but the Turkish cavalry archer lines dissolved like water and reformed out of range, showering the Indians with deadly arrows the whole time. As the sun rose to a sweltering height, the Rajputs were gradually exhausted and infuriated by an enemy that refused to engage. Then, just as their morale began to waver, Muhammad ordered his cavalry in for the killing blow.


The collapse of the Rajput center at the Second Battle of Tarain, 1192. Muhammad’s victory signalled the beginning of a new era in Indian and by extension, global history.

At sunset, the thoroughly demoralised Rajputs expected quarter. The Turks gave none. Muhammad himself led a heavy cavalry division into the Rajput center. At last they broke and fled, hoping to save their lives with this act of submission.

Unfortunately, the world did not (and does not) work according to the laws of the Mahabharata.

“Unfortunately, the world did not (and does not) work according to the laws of the Mahabharata.”

The slaughter continued through the night and ended with the complete annihilation of Prithviraja’s kingdom and his own death. But, instead of looting and departing, Muhammad decided instead to fill in the political vacuum he had helped create, and headed to the great city of Delhi. Thus was the Delhi Sultanate established.

The Slaves who would be Sultan

Let’s zoom out a bit and try to look at the broad trends that characterised the subcontinent’s longest-lasting (yet) engagement with Islam. The first aspect I’d like to look at is military/political. The Turks’ cavalry archers, no-rules, no-holds-barred conquest of the North was unabashedly brutal, but efficient. Within a century, despite hard-fought native resistance, the Turks had overrun most of North India, from Multan to Bengal. Their armies were composed of men enslaved from across the world and purchased by Sultans, and therefore loyal only to them. The first ‘dynasty’ of the Sultanate, in fact, were all slaves of the preceding Sultan, until the Forty Nobles of the Sultanate took over after the vizierate and coup of one Ghiyas-ud-din Balban.


Hulagu Khan’s siege of Baghdad.

Under Sultan Balban, Delhi’s carefully planned border forts, diplomatic ties to other states, and state-of-the-art cavalry were able to successfully repel the Mongols under Hulagu Khan, who had destroyed Baghdad and made the Tigris river flow red with blood and black with ink. (The Delhi Sultanate of India, and the Mamluk Sultanate of Egypt, were practically the only states of the time to actually beat off a Mongol conquest: no mean achievement, as the Mongols were the greatest and most brutal empire of the day, causing rulers to tremble in their boots from China to Hungary, and even attacking Moscow in the winter- the only military force to ever launch a successful winter invasion of Russia.) This allowed the subcontinent a period of peace to rebuild its economy and laid the foundation for the Sultanate’s military superiority over the ageing Hindu kingdoms of the south.

The violence of the Sultanate is undeniable; but it was quite in keeping with the general brutality of the Middle Ages, especially when religion was used as a scapegoat. Broadly, Sultans did indeed sack temples and so on to fund their military but they were perfectly willing to intermarry and ally with native rulers. Especially in the South, tolerance became a de facto way of life within a couple of generations for Turks in their new native land. It makes more sense to say that the Sultans were all rapacious and greedy than to say they were all bigots.

” It makes more sense to say that the Sultans were all rapacious and greedy than to say they were all bigots.”

Another interesting tale is that of Sultana Razia, one of the very few female rulers of a major state in the Middle Ages. The daughter of the slave Sultan Iltutmish, whose eldest son and heir had been killed by the Mongols, plunging Iltutmish into a terminal depression, Razia was a brilliant ruler who would certainly have had an easier time of ruling had she been male. Her fiery spirit refused to be confined to the harem, as was expected, and she was able to gather enough support at court to be appointed Iltutmish’s successor. She was quite indulgent of the religious practices of her Hindu subjects, and openly carried out an affair with an Ethiopian slave of hers. These two proved to be the nails in her coffin, as her racist, intolerant nobles called for a civil war, which ended finally in her death, and the installation of her younger brother as a puppet Sultan.

The Turkic nobles in general were absurdly resentful of the authority of any Sultan and ensured the Sultanate never centralised for beyond a decade or two. The Delhi Sultanate suffered a great deal as a result of the conflict between nobility and monarchy, which led on multiple occasions to the unceremonious murder and replacement of a reigning Sultan. However, this was not always a bad thing, as it was precisely that sort of uncivil disobedience which enabled the brilliant general Alau-ud-din Khilji to come to the throne.

The Rajput clans had fought for decades but were subdued at last by Alau-ud-din. His ambush of, and vassalisation of, the Seuna Yadava kings of Devagiri provided the Sultanate with its first foothold in the Deccan. From here, Alau-ud-din dispatched armies under his slave, one Malik Kafur, into the deep South.


A victorious Turkic army.


The stunningly elaborate temple at Dwarasamudra. Persevering with its construction despite knowledge of Muslim invasions is an eloquent example of how kings had begun to focus on cultivating the symbols of power, instead of power itself. The successors of the Hoysalas did not make the same mistake.

Malik Kafur, born a Hindu, had been castrated and eventually came into the service of the Sultanate at the cost of a thousand dinars (hence his nickname, Thousand-Dinar-Kafur). A general in the same league as his master Alau-ud-din Khilji, Kafur’s expeditions in the south had a significant and lasting impact. He defeated the Hoysala Kingdom of Karnataka (where the blissfully clueless kings had been pumping money for nearly 200 years into the great temple at Halebidu/Dwarasamudra, still unfinished to the point where Kafur arrived and burned down the neighbouring royal palace), and wiped out the older Hindu kingdoms of Tamil Nadu. When he received news of Alau-ud-din’s death, Kafur pulled out of the South to (unsuccessfully) play kingmaker in Delhi (he died), leaving a political vaccum which was filled by interesting new states, one of which was a great new Hindu empire. This empire’s interaction with the neighbouring Bahmani sultans of Northern Karnataka and Maharashtra set the Deccan on a very interesting historical trajectory. More on that later!

The second aspect is intellectual. Delhi’s original Turkic rulers were barbaric even by the admittedly low standards of the Middle Ages. An interesting example: the general Bhaktiyar Khilji, leading a raid on behalf of the Sultans into Bengal, came upon a massive complex of buildings surrounded by a wall. There was a mob of peasants outside who attempted to fight him off, and were quickly slaughtered without much effort. Inside were a number of men with clean-shaved heads, dressed in saffron. Khilji reasoned that, as these men wore uniforms and their citadel had been defended,  it must be a fort. Being unable to talk to them, read, or write, he ordered the walls smashed, the men slaughtered, and the buildings looted. But to his surprise, all that he found in the buildings were palm leaves with strange scribblings on them. Even more surprising, the men didn’t even resist his soldiers but died quietly. The furious Khilji ordered the entire complex to be set on fire. It burned for weeks.

“Being unable to talk to them, read, or write, he ordered the walls smashed, the men slaughtered, and the buildings looted… It burned for weeks.”

That was the end of Nalanda University– founded by the Gupta emperors of India’s long-forgotten Golden Age. An institution that had imparted learning to students from across the world for hundreds of years ended at the hands of barbarians who could not even comprehend what “learning” was.

But don’t get me wrong: Nalanda’s destruction was indeed a disaster, but on the whole, the Sultans actually renewed the intellectual life of the subcontinent. Once the Indians got over the initial daze of the first successful barbarian conquest in centuries, Hinduism again changed to accommodate new traditions. In both North and South, Hindu and other rulers realised that their older traditions were untenable, and shifted to a more militaristic and realistic sort of state, more in the spirit of the times.

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The tireless Moroccan traveller Ibn Battuta. Among the many, many other roles he filled, he served as a judge in the Delhi Sultanate under Muhammad bin Tughlaq.

The re-establishment of India’s trading connections with the West, now controlled by Muslims, allowed Persian intellectuals to find service in the subcontinent, bringing the Islamic world’s greatest advances in administration and military organisation into play. Religious tolerance, however, was not yet at the sublime level that India was to experience under the Mughals.

The third aspect is economic: as I said, India was dragged kicking and screaming, as it were, into the Middle Ages, and re-entered global trade. The Deccan especially, under the new sorts of Indian states, became highly prosperous and populous. Some Sultans, such as the mad genius Muhammad bin Tughlaq, experimented with leather currency; Alau-ud-din Khilji experimented with price controls in Delhi. However, as the power of the Sultans declined, the North split into a number of smaller Sultanates, with Malwa and Gujarat, for example, becoming independent. Afghan and Turkic nobles vied for power; the South, happy and prosperous, took little interest in the affairs of the North. The last great steppe conqueror, Amir Timur-i-Lenk (“Timur the Lame”, or Tamerlane), who by this time controlled most of Persia and was acknowledged as the world’s pre-eminent Muslim ruler, defeated the Tughlaq dynasty and brutally sacked Delhi. The Sultanate became a shadow of its former self, but Delhi’s days of glory were far from done. And, in a strange twist of fate, it was the descendants of Timur who would restore it. Remember that, now.

The City of Victory

After the death of Alau-ud-din Khilji and the withdrawal of Malik Kafur, a set of extraordinary men decided to take advantage of the political vaccum in the south. One of them, Alau-ud-din Bahman Shah, set up the great Bahmani Sultanate in Maharashtra and Telangana. Another pair, Harihara and Bukka Sangama Raya, former vassals of the vanquished Hoysala dynasty, constructed a new capital to rule the middle and deep South. In Orissa, the Gajapati (“Lord of the Elephants”) kings began to experiment with a new sort of state, in contest with the Sangama brothers.


The great temple of Vittala at Vijayanagar.

Let’s talk about the Sangama dynasty and the great empire they established, which I absolutely adore. I spent days exploring the ruins of the capital city, now known as Hampi, which is a pity, considering its true name is so awesome: Vijayanagara, the City of Victory!

The Vijayanagara empire, hegemon of the South, progenitor of the identity of the modern states of Karnataka and Andhra, the most powerful Hindu state since the Rashtrakutas, is often portrayed as the heroic protector of defenceless Hindus against villainous Muslims. I find that highly annoying. Firstly, Hindus were not defenceless, nor were Muslims villainous. Secondly, and this is from my personal experience: next to the ruins of the great imperial palace in Hampi is a relatively intact building. Know what it is? A mosque for the emperors’ elite Muslim troops. Next to the imperial palace. Ten minutes’ walk from the great Hazara Rama temple.

Vijayanagara’s rule of the South was feudal like no Indian state before it, but very similar indeed to its Muslim neighbours. Unlike earlier Indian kings, such as Harsha or Samudra-Gupta, the emperors of Vijayanagar would not vassalise defeated kings but conquer and administer outright, using a new feudal class loyal to the emperor alone, akin to Sultanic conquests. These nayakas, or feudal lords, were responsible for local administration, taxation, and the raising of troops. Even after the fall of Vijayanagara, the nayaks played an important role in the subcontinent, often forming the core of new local aristocracies. The modern metropolis of Chennai, for example, was named by the Telugu ruler Damarla Chennappa Nayakudu, a nayaka in the service of Vijayanagara.


India in 1500 AD, prior to the conquests of Krishna Deva Raya.

Vijayanagar’s control of both of South India’s coastlines quickly powered it to the status of an economic powerhouse, thriving on spices, gold and perfume. It imported rudimentary gunpower weaponry from the Portuguese and quality horses from Arabia, as did the Bahmani Sultanate to its north. The rivalry between Vijayanagar and the Sultanates is fascinating to observe, with the better-equipped Sultans generally having the upper hand, and Vijayanagar playing a game of catch-up until the reign of the brilliant emperor Krishna Deva Raya, patron of Telugu poetry and culture, and of the great temple complex at Tirumala (a statue of the emperor and his wives, donated to the temple, stands there to this day. Seen it!). Krishna smashed the Sultans and the Gajapati kings of Orissa, extending his rule north along the coastline of Andhra by 1530. As the Bahmanis splintered into the five smaller sultanates of Bidar, Berar, Ahmednagar, Bijapur and Golkonda, Vijayanagar exploited their rivalries to maintain its hegemony of the South.


The thoroughfare outside the Vittala temple at Hampi.

The city of Vijayanagar at its peak was a wonder. The size of some of its ruins at Hampi is stupefying, and Hampi is merely the Royal and Sacred Centres of the city: the innermost of its seven walls. The city dwarfed Paris and was the largest and most populated city of its time, exceeded only by Peking in China. Great parks and markets, the raging river Tungabhadra; the ancient rocks of the Deccan; the thriving masses of people from across the world; the sacrifices; the gold! At the great temple of Vittala Krishna, I saw how reflecting pools and strategically carved roofs were used to keep the interiors of the temple bright and well ventilated. I struck with my own palms a stone pillar acoustically engineered to sound like a drum (supposedly, the queens would dance to the music of an orchestra beating on such pillars). I saw delicate paint on stones carved hundreds of years ago; I saw the influence of Dravidian and even Saracenic architecture on the watchtowers and the domes and arches of what buildings are still standing. I saw people taking selfies at temples that their ancestors would have worshipped at; I heard tales, half-myth, half-history, of Vijayanagar having been the abode of the monkey Vanaras of the Ramayana, and read carvings and stories narrating the actions of the god-hero Rama on the walls of the temples. I stood on the massive platform used for imperial coronations and great sacrifices and watched the ruined aqueducts of the palace; I stood in the immense avenues of the abandoned markets, and I could almost feel the city, still alive, merely slumbering.

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Okay! I’m back. As I was saying, some elements of Vijayanagar’s ruling class were able to maintain an iron grip on the state, by engineering succession crises and regencies, and keeping the Deccan Sultanates at each other’s throats, but it couldn’t last. A series of massive insurrections in the deep South eroded the empire’s economic foundation; the excellent Kapilendra Gajapati Raju of Orissa conquered the bountiful coastal lands of Andhra from the empire; and the succession of a series of weak and inefficient rulers left the centre in chaos. Eventually the Deccan Sultanates realised that Vijayanagar would not leave them in peace and formed a coalition to destroy it. With the military sapped by the wars with Orissa, the regent was unable to put up a solid defence, and was captured and killed at the Battle of Talikota in 1565. The nayaka feudal lords no longer owed any allegiance to the state, and ordered Vijayanagar evacuated without even trying to fight. Nayaka troops, and fleeing citizens, cleared out the city almost before the Sultanate armies arrived. Did the Sultans sack and destroy the city? I doubt that, if the Sultans were really as bigoted as some textbooks make them out to be, they would have left any temples standing (which is not the case). Either way, by the time the British rediscovered the ruins hundreds of years later, the local people had forgotten all about their glorious past, in truly Indian style.

Prelude to the Great Mughals


A Mughal oil painting of Babur reading. Babur is one of history’s most interesting authors, a man a great perseverance and honest about his failings. A shrewd leader, he understood the importance of religion and showmanship in inspiring his soldiers.

Remember Timur? His sons and grandsons tore apart their inheritance with dynastic squabbling in the centuries after his death. Northern Persia and central Asia were ruled by minor ‘Timurid’ princes, each the ruler of little more than a city or two. One of these princes was named Zahir-ud-din Muhammad Babur. Over the course of a most interesting life, Babur conquered and lost his ancestor Timur’s capital of Samarkand a number of times, was defeated by the Uzbek ruler Shaibani Khan, considered converting to Shia Islam as a vassal of Shah Isma’il Safavid (who claimed to be the reincarnated Twelfth Imam, a descendant of the Prophet Muhammad’s son-in-law Ali. Isma’il is primarily responsible for turning Persia/Iran into the Shi’a state it is today). Unable to make any sort of footprint in Central Asia, Babur luckily managed to inherit the kingdom of Kabul in Afghanistan, importing quality guns and cannon from the Ottoman Empire, rapidly ascending to be the most powerful state in the West under Sultan Selim the Stern and his son, Sultan Suleiman the Magnificent.

Babur, like many invaders before him, had heard a great deal of the wealth of Hindustan. He had heard of a great kingdom called Besnagar (‘Vijayanagar’) with a king who commanded armies of hundreds of thousands (yep, Krishna Deva Raya!). More importantly, he knew that the Muslim Sultans of Delhi had been defeated by his ancestor Timur, and argued that this gave him claim to suzerainty over Hindustan. This radical and potentially highly lucrative idea attracted an army to him, which he disciplined and trained into a lethal force. Blooding them with a few raids into the Punjab, Babur headed to Delhi, and destiny.

“Babur headed to Delhi, and destiny.”

What was the state of our subcontinent on the eve of Babur’s invasion? In the North, the Sultans had demolished the petty principalities, unified kingdoms, defeated the Mongols, and re-established foreign trade – with a new, Muslim dominated global community –  before turning inward and decaying. Sufi Islam had begun to take its tentative first steps. In the South, prosperous and multicultural new states had learnt interesting lessons from Islam, and administration and military techniques were the better for it. But Hinduism and Islam were yet to fuse: they were yet to contribute to a greater and broader sense of Indian-ness, they did not yet understand each other. All that was needed was a little push. And Babur and his descendants, the heirs of the destroyers Genghis Khan and Amir Timur-i-lenk, were the strange vessels upon whom this task fell.

Coming up in my next article: What does it mean to be Indian? The extraordinary legacy of the Great Mughals, and the genesis of modern Indian identity.

Prequel: Indian Sunset, Crescent Moonrise


  1. Basham, A.L. and Rizvi, S.A.A. (1956). The Wonder That Was India. Sidgwick and Jackson.
  2. Rizvi, S. A. A. (1999). The Wonder that was India (Part II).
  3. Thapar, R. (2015). The Penguin History of Early India: From the origins to AD 1300. Penguin UK.
  4. Doniger, W. (2009). The Hindus: an Alternative History. Penguin.
  5. Eraly, A. (2011). The Age of Wrath. Penguin Books India.
  6. Armstrong, K. (2007). Islam: A Short History. Modern Library.
  7. Armstrong, K. (2015). Fields of Blood: Religion and the History of Violence. Random House.

Indian Sunset, Crescent Moonrise

The Coming of Islam to the Subcontinent, c. 8th – 12th centuries CE

In which the Indians, living in a happy little bubble, receive a rude reintroduction to a world changed beyond recognition (much like the author after starting his first job)

 Hello, beloved readers, long time no see! 😛 This here is an extra-special article covering one of the most thematically important periods in the history of the subcontinent, one that aims to answer the question: how was it that the land of the mighty Guptas, of the seafaring Cholas, of the erudite Palas, came to be conquered within two centuries by barbarians whom any self-respecting ancient Indian ruler would have sent packing?


The fantastic Kailasanatha Temple at Ellora, carved downwards out of a single massive block of stone under the patronage of the Rashtrakuta king Krishna I in the 8th century CE for reasons which will soon become apparent.

The answer, as you may have guessed, lies in broad socio-political and military decline, not in (as some medieval sources would put it) the innate qualities of Islam versus Hinduism or supposed flaws in Indian character brought upon by the humid climate (this latter is actually what the Victorians believed). In order to cover a trend which took place over four hundred years, I am (as with my earlier article, When In India, Do as the Indians Do) not going to provide a dynastic history, but a cultural one. The first section of the article discusses the broad regional trends we can observe in Indian polities at the time. The second talks about the decline of the secular in Indian life and the decay of royal power, setting the stage for the third, which discusses the rise of Islam up to the point of the fall of the Caliphs and the rise of the Turks- itself setting the stage for my next article, which will cover the Sultanate period of Indian history.

On the properties of Triangles

The Emperor Harsha-vardhana wanted to equal Samudra-Gupta and conquer the Deccan.

Instead, the Deccan conquered him.

In Karnataka there is a dusty little town called Badami, which is quite famous for its exquisite rock-cut temples. However, the glorious history of its founders and rulers is, like with most Indian cities, quite forgotten. Badami, for example, was the seat of the mighty Chalukya Dynasty, which ruled, in one form or another, one Indian state or the other for seven hundred years, from the 6th to the 13th century AD and still survive as the Solanki Rajputs.


Pulakesin II, the Chalukya, receives a Persian delegation

These Chalukyas, like many dynasties, were feudal vassals who broke free as their masters weakened. Under King Pulakesin II, they delivered a stunning blow to the ageing Harsha, supposedly the only defeat in his entire career. Harsha, a broken old man, died soon after. His sons were murdered and his crown usurped. The Chakravartin was dead: the petty states of the North once again returned to jostling for supremacy.

Pulakesin, meanwhile, was now the most powerful ruler in the South, and saw no reason to interfere. Heading to Madurai (named for Mathura in the north- an example of Sanskritization), he forcefully secured the submission of its Pallava ruler. Unfortunately for Pulakesin, this ruler was succeeded by his son, the great general Narasimhavarman “Mahamalla” (“Mighty Wrestler”) Pallava, who made such a habit of defeating the formerly invincible Pulakesin that he claims in one of his inscriptions that he could “.. read the word ‘victory’ written on Pulakesin’s backside as he fled from battle.”

He claims in one of his inscriptions that he could “.. read the word ‘victory’ written on Pulakesin’s backside as he fled from battle.”

Stuck in escalating warfare, the Pallavas and Chalukyas paid scant attention to governance. The Chalukya Rashtrakuta (=”Governor”) Dantidurga overthrew the Chalukyas and violently pacified the South. Meanwhile, in the North, a coalition of low caste Gurjaras (modern Gujjars), originally a tribal pastoral caste, managed to bring under their aegis most of Western India (interesting fact: the Gurjaras, though ancestors of modern high-caste Rajputs, were called “Pratiharas” or “doorkeepers” by the rather snobbish Rashtrakutas). In the East, meanwhile, the chaos of Harsha’s death led to the election of one Gopala as the King of Bengal, and the establishment of the last imperial Buddhist state in the subcontinent. The lines of war, as it were, were drawn.

The prize?

The imperial crown of All India.

Just kidding! There was no concept of India at this time, but there was still immense prestige to be gained by vassalising the most important city in the subcontinent: the capital of the great emperor Harsha, Kanyakubja (=”Kannauj”). Thus was the Kannauj Triangle established, as the three mightiest states of the day began their incessant warfare with each other in the name of prestige and honour.


The Kannauj Triangle. The hegemony of the subcontinent was intermittently traded between the three kingdoms.

Which is not to say, of course, that they neglected their own empires to do so. They didn’t. Well, at least not at the beginning. During this Early Medieval period, money was initially poured into universities, art and sculpture (triggering what is known as the Bengali Golden Age, with the Pala kings patronising the great universities of Vikramashila and Nalanda in addition to Tantric/Mahayana Buddhism). Arguably the greatest sculpture in human history, the magnificent Kailasanatha Temple at Ellora, cut out of a single massive rock, was constructed under imperial Rashtrakuta patronage. An interestingly human quote from the sculptor in charge of the project still survives: “Oh, how was it that I built this?”

Tolerance and patronage of secular culture only tend to happen in prosperous states (as true today as it was in India 1,100 years ago, I believe). As the Gurjaras, Palas and Rashtrakutas were weakened by constant, ritualistic fighting, secular interests began to take the backseat, and money was poured instead into pomp, prestige, and religious patronage.

“Tolerance and patronage of secular culture only tend to happen in prosperous states.”

Needless to say, what was good for the kings’ egos was rarely good for their kingdoms. Vassals broke free as dynastic decline set in; the Rashtrakuta dominance of the South was replaced and replaced by warring states in Karnataka (the Western or Kalyani Chalukyas), Andhra (the Eastern or Vengi Chalukyas), and Tamil Nadu (the newly resurgent Chola Kingdom, the only Indian state which bothered itself with non-Indian affairs at this time).  The Gurjara-Pratiharas, having by means of a great fire-sacrifice at Mount Abu(and bribing Brahmins) discovered that they were in fact high-caste Kshatriyas, descended from the Sun and Moon, transformed into the Rajput princes and rapidly broke into small, feuding states. Meanwhile, the Palas were extinguished, as I shall discuss in the next section.

The Chola Who Conquered the Ganga

I’ll talk a little more about the Kailasanatha temple because, like the city of Madurai/Mathura, it represents a sort of late-stage Sanskritization. The sacred geography of India was changing, and a concept of “this land” as opposed to other lands was evolving. Think about it this way: the Rig Vedic peoples, as they moved from the Punjab to the Gangetic Plains, refer to themselves as Aryas and non-Sanskrit-speaking natives as Dasyus. Then, under the globally-oriented rule of the relatively cosmopolitan Mauryas and later foreign rulers, the concept of us/them and the world being centered around India gradually subsides. Under the Guptas, a rough idea of those who follow caste and sacrifice versus those savages who do not (mlecchas), shaped not only by imperial patronage but also the Indian experience of the barbaric Huns, again emerges. Now it is not just the Aryas as opposed to the world but the Hindus as opposed to the world, with their sacred sites near the Ganga.

In the Early Medieval period, this idea of conflated Hindu/Indian identity acquired a subcontinental scope. The Kailasanatha temple in particular reflects something monumental: shifting sacred sites, here the metaphorical Mount Kailasa, the abode of Shiva the Destroyer, is shifted from the Himalayas to the new power centres south of the Deccan.


Chola influence at its peak under Rajendra I. Rajendra’s destabilization of North India is quite possibly a factor in weakening it to later Turkic raids.

A further example, to clarify the argument, comes from the Chola King Rajendra I of Tamil Nadu, who sent an expedition into Orissa and then ordered it up to Bengal, defeating the last Pala king and completing the north’s descent into anarchy (coincidentally weakening it to later invasions from the West). Not that Rajendra cared, for he had a “great” task for this mighty army: to fill cisterns of water from the Ganga to fill in the sacred temple pools at his new capital, Gangai-konda-Chola-puram, The City of the Chola who Conquered the Ganga.  Rajendra’s generosity in granting lands and endowments to temples ensured vociferous Brahmin support and thus the worshipful respect of the masses. (Despite the Chola army’s atrocious rape of the Sri Lankan capital of Anuradhapura, the destruction of the stupas, the slaughter of the monks, and forcible settlement of Tamils in northern Sri Lanka; in addition to other exploits including dispatching a massive fleet to Malacca, where it secured the submission of local kings. Of course, as a result of caste taboos and economic decline caused by the devolution of royal power to temples, all these conquests were undone within two generations of Rajendra’s death.)

The point of this entire exercise?

The sacred geography of the Ganga, or Kailasa, is replicated and moved to a temporarily more powerful king who can better maintain, and be maintained by, a mature caste system. Kings may come and kings may go, but the mollification of religious elites is eternal.

It is difficult for us in the post-Enlightenment era to conceive of Church and State, or religion and king, to use an Indian example, as being separate things, and in that light we might justifiably condemn Indian rulers for investing in such immense propaganda devices instead of actually making their subjects’ lives better. Brahmanism and rituals were part and parcel of the daily life of the average Indian, in one form or another, and especially so for kings sitting on the ivory towers of court ceremonial. Whereas earlier kings patronized religion to add another social support to their rule, religion had now become practically the only support to their rule.

Why invest in training an equipping a proper army when one can rely on the hereditary nobility for a mob of troops whose “karma” is to die for you? Why invest in social reform and anger the powerful Brahmins who control your populace’s superstitions? Build another temple instead! You’ll be remembered forever and it’ll be a sure mark of divine favour. And it’s so much easier. Just give it the revenue of a few villages to show your piety and generosity. It’ll surely never demand more from your heirs as your dynasty’s control weakens!

“…Just give it the revenue of a few villages!”

The construction of temples, the submission and appointment of vassal kings, constant “wars” fought according to rigid, almost mythological/ceremonial rules: these were what mattered. Even Buddhist states such as the Pala kingdom fought pointless wars against the Rastrakutas and the Gurjaras for control of Kannauj.

The emperors were powerful and on the surface, all was well in the subcontinent, business as usual. But the world was changing as the emperors splurged on temples and sculpture. The dynamism and energy that characterised the Guptas is gone. Notions of “caste purity” led to the ossification of the great Indian ports on the Western coast; the great achievements of the universities never trickled down to improve the lives of the commoners; as vassal kings and peoples grew angry and resentful, the unitary empires began to splinter and descend again into the primordial chaos.

As Al-Beruni said of India at this time:

“The Hindus believe that there is no country but theirs, no nation like theirs, no king like theirs, no religion like theirs, no science like theirs”.

However, while the subcontinent was busy in a dream of summer, the Dark Ages had descended on Europe, and the Crescent had risen in the Middle East…

Armed Prophets Always Conquer, as Machiavelli Said


The Roman emperor Heraclius inspects the battlefield at Nineveh in Iraq.

Let’s step back in time a couple of centuries. The Eastern Roman or Byzantine Empire, in Greece and Turkey, has just fought back from the brink of extinction and recaptured Syria and Egypt from the Sassanid Empire in Persia and Iraq. Both these ancient states are exhausted by the conflict; the broken Persian emperor Khusro II dies and the empire descends into the anarchy of civil war as a flood wipes out the farmlands of Iraq and plunges it into chaos.

Then came the unification of the Arab peoples under the banner of Islam; the Prophet Muhammad died and a vigorous, curious new state began to stretch its wings. Striking out towards Syria, they found Roman garrisons exhausted and subject peoples open to negotiation. In return for “dhimmior “protected” status for their religions and businesses, Syrian and Egyptian Christians displeased with Roman control and the dogma of the Greek Orthodox Church were happy to come over to the side of Islam.

In a stroke, the Caliphs had become a great force to reckon with; the Romans were infuriated but, shockingly, could make no headway against them. As more and more people began to convert to Islam, which had hitherto been restricted to Arabs, it quickly evolved from a simple moral code to a tolerant, pluralistic imperial power structure. The nomadic Arab raiders needed plunder to stay away from each other’s throats and began to probe into, and quickly conquered, an already weakened Persia. Off to the West, in Libya, great movements of tribes and peoples would see the banners of Islam carried to the Atlantic Ocean within a generation.


The Spread of Islam in the 7th century CE. 


The House of Wisdom, a world-famous academy and library established by the Abbasid caliphs in Baghdad.

The Arabs did not achieve all this merely through military power but through pragmatism, tolerance, and an openness to learning and science. For example, one Caliph supposedly offered the Eastern Roman Emperor a treaty of eternal peace if he only sent over a famous professor of mathematics to lecture for a year in Baghdad.

Why is all this relevant to India, you may ask. And the answer to that is simple. We often think of Muslims in India as being little more that brutal foreign barbarians, but they weren’t always brutal, or foreign, or barbaric. In fact, Muhammad bin Qasim, the first Muslim ruler in the subcontinent, governing Sindh in the name of the Ummayyad Caliph, extended protection and dhimmi status to all Brahmins and Buddhists.

“We often think of Muslims in India as being little more that brutal foreign barbarians, but they weren’t always brutal, or foreign, or barbaric.”

(The absurd career of Muhammad bin Qasim is in my next article, don’t worry!)

Unfortunately, the tolerance of the Caliphs and their governors did not survive for long. When the Turkic nomads north of the Oxus converted to Islam, they were brought to Baghdad as a sort of royal bodyguard to prop up the Caliph and instead ended up dismembering the decaying carcass of the Caliphate on their barbarian swords. Islam entered its dark age- and as the Turks set their eyes on India, sheltered from the world for so long, so too would the subcontinent.

Coming up in my next article:

The Turkish invasions manage to reunify North India against the Mongols; shaken out of their stupor, new and dynamic Hindu states such as Vijayanagar patronise cosmopolitanism and global trade; prelude to the apex of Indian tolerance, art and power under the Great Mughals.

Prequel: The Secret History of the Emperor Harsha, Part II.

Sequel: Sultans of Swing


  1. Basham, A.L. and Rizvi, S.A.A. (1956). The Wonder That Was India. Sidgwick and Jackson.
  2. Thapar, R. (2015). The Penguin History of Early India: From the origins to AD 1300. Penguin UK.
  3. Doniger, W. (2009). The Hindus: an Alternative History. Penguin.
  4. Eraly, A. (2011). The First Spring: the Golden Age of India. Penguin Books India.
  5. Armstrong, K. (2007). Islam: A Short History. Modern Library.
  6. Armstrong, K. (2015). Fields of Blood: Religion and the History of Violence. Random House.







The Secret History of the Emperor Harsha, Part II.


The Secret History of the Emperor Harsha, Part I.

C. 606 CE, Northern India. Part-time poet, full-time scoundrel, the young Brahman Banabhatta has managed to enter the employ of King Prabhakara-vardhana of Sthanisvara [Thanesar], as a tutor for the princes Rajya-vardhana and Harsha-vardhana. His “pupils” have gone off to war against the barbarian Huns; Bana has been left behind to happily apply a thick coat of butter to the court, and particularly to the beautiful Princess Rajya-shri. But, of course, his charmed life cannot last..

Part III. Bana and the King of Demons

For three months, a steady stream of messengers returned to Sthanishvara from the front. The King’s sons were covering themselves in glory in battle against the Sveta Hunas [White Huns], who were retreating on all fronts. The kingdom’s borders now (528 Saka) stretched to the River Sindhu [Indus] and into the Panchanada [Punjab].

However, just as the army was returning to the capital with its spoils, the barbarians (who had evidently been gathering their forces and not actually retreating) crossed the Sindhu and attacked. In a letter that Harsha sent for me to read to his sister (since he assumed she could not read Sanskrit either), he explained that he’d patiently let the Huns make headway into our forces, letting them think they were winning, and then ordered reinforcements to swing in from the behind, cutting off the barbarians and methodically slaughtering every last one. Rajya had distinguished himself in the battle, killing the Hunnic King with his own hands. Even cousin Krishna had found an unexpected talent, commanding Harsha’s cavalry with distinction. The official report, which the King received, gave the entirety of the credit to Rajya, since Harsha was not supposed to actually be in command.

Of course, I had not been idle at all while my “wards” were away. I had the enviable task of taking the official military dispatches and turning them into Sanskrit battle-epics. Since the King was in any case no great connoisseur of poetry, I found that even a hastily scribbled couplet could earn me a pearl necklace. Freed from adherence to deadlines, I was able to focus my attentions on someone I was beginning to find increasingly captivating: princess Rajyashri.

Every evening, I found myself part of her admiring entourage. I would sit quietly, admiring her inconspicuously and scribbling on a palm leaf, until the dandies all made their excuses and left. Once she and I were alone with her maids as chaperones I would recite to her poems in praise of her beauty, hoping she would blush. We would talk about everything, from tales of the gods to my own tales of life in the city, which she would paint in delicate strokes on silk (being a woman of high birth, she was not allowed out of her home and knew little of the outside world); she would give me tidbits of palace gossip, which I would convert into scandalous jokes and one-liners for public circulation. I would buy her little gifts and presents from the markets and sweet-talk her maids into leaving them on her pillow.

But our favourite topic of conversation was Harsha. She and I, I believe, were the only people who ever came close to understanding him. She loved him as a brother and a son, almost; she knew his ambitions and his merit and was his fiercest lobbyist in court. I loved him too, I think, but more importantly I had convinced myself that Harsha would not forget me once he had achieved the power he sought, and so stuck with him.

As for my connection with Rajyashri, it was not long before I realised that I had fallen in love with her.

At the end of his first campaign, Harsha returned home a conquering hero. Whether by pure coincidence or by his intelligent design, the army returned to Sthanishvara on Harsha’s birthday, and the entire capital was dressed and bedecked like a new bride. The princes entered the city on two magnificent horses, white for Rajya, black for Harsha, bedecked in gold and silk, carrying the captured banners and emblems of the Huns in their hands. The two young men were wreathed in flowers and crowned with coiled coronets of gold, their hair oiled, their arms painted with scented powder, their chests dusted with camphor, sandalwood paste on their thighs, red paint on their feet. They seemed to be gods on earth – What a spectacle! The army stretched for miles behind them; the crowds sprinkled them with flowers, and perfumed water, roaring their names; elephants beat on drums and the sky seemed to split with the sound of hundreds of brass trumpets, horns, and conch shells. They stopped at every temple to bow to the gods, make votive offerings and scatter gold to the crowds; at last they arrived at the palace and prostrated themselves at their father’s feet, to the chanting of priests and the sprinkling of consecrated rice.

King Prabhakara-vardhana had made a career fighting the Hunas to establish his kingdom, but this was probably the little state’s greatest victory yet. He embraced his sons with joy, conferring them with an abundance of splendid titles which I had busily come up with over the last week (Harsha became He Whose Camp Was the Sky and Whose Station and Abode Was Mars, for example). He decreed ten days of public thanksgiving and feasting in honour firstly of the conquest; secondly in honour of the sixteenth birthday of his son Harsha-vardhana; and thirdly in honour of his most Beloved Son and Heir, Rajya-vardhana, he of Exalted Fortune, Hammer of the Hunas!

I was standing behind the King, next to Rajyashri. I saw Harsha’s face turn into a careful, emotionless mask when he saw his elder brother again receive honours which he thought he didn’t deserve. Nothing else mattered to him: he alone wanted to be adored and worshipped.

That evening as we feasted, I congratulated my dear friend and slipped him a few pellets of an expensive new drug I had pried out of my underworld contacts, called afena [opium] from the distant land of Sina [China], home of the great Silk Road trade route. He thanked me graciously, saying that at least I had not forgotten his worth! He had a gift for me as well: the skull drinking-cup, set in silver, that he had promised me. Did I mind if he inaugurated it? Of course not. He drank more and more, eating like a demon after three months of military rations. I was high too, and soon we were both giggling at inane nonsense. Harsha’s eyes half-closed and he began to move his slim, muscular arms in patterns, tracing out a web in the air, completely engrossed. I figured that he would probably not remember anything I told him anyway, so I told him, between fits of mutual giggles, that I thought Rajyashri was the loveliest and most talented woman in the world, and was unmarried.. Harsha didn’t give me the least sign of having heard me. Soon he fell asleep, and I kept him company.

After that night, Harsha stopped his bachelor-ly habits, and our evening walks rapidly became a thing of the past. His complete immunity to addiction was terrifying. He would wake before dawn and start military drills with his bodyguard. Then a rub-down with oil and a cold bath; a sparse breakfast while sending off letters to all and sundry. He spent most of the day summoning assorted ministers and ambassadors to his quarters, lobbying for influence and responsibility with the former and promising the heavens to the latter; Rajyashri and I also did our part, trying to secure for him the position of crown prince. Meanwhile the actual crown prince had lost himself in conjugal “harmony” and fathered a son who I am reasonably sure was in fact Harsha’s.

About a month into this new routine, Rajyashri summoned me to her quarters for a private audience. I was extremely excited, and spent hours elaborately bathing and perfuming myself, combing out my hair, rubbing myself with oil, and generally making myself irresistible. I popped a bit of fragrant cardamom into my mouth and waltzed into her chambers. The minute I saw her face, I realised I had drastically misread the situation: the Princess informed me that Harsha had arranged an alliance with King Grahavarman Makhauri of Kanyakubja [Kannauj – one day to be Harsha’s capital], and she was to be married to him to seal the pact. The aging Prabhakara-vardhana had given his assent to the marriage and she had wanted me, dearest friend of the family, to be the first to know. Of course I grinned and congratulated her in the highest terms but my insides were in turmoil and my heart had plummeted down to Hell.

Did she really have no feelings for me after all that we had shared? Was I to blame for reminding Harsha of her marital situation the night of his return? And how could she be willing to be sold like a prize animal for Harsha’s ambition? A woman of her talent and sophistication deserved to be a goddess! I thought I saw doubt in her lovely eyes but I could no longer even bear to look. I bowed myself out, threw myself on my sleeping-mat, and refused to move for days. I didn’t even get up to say goodbye on the day her marriage procession left. Instead I munched on opium, dreaming of great beasts covered in scales, of heavenly damsels, and of my lost love. Always of her.

King Prabhakara-vardhana was now a grandfather, his daughter was married off, and his kingdom was strong. His health was increasingly failing, and he had by all accounts had a good life. He died peacefully in his sleep, his succession orders clear, despite all of Harsha’s efforts. Rajya-vardhana was therefore ceremoniously crowned as the new Raja of Sthanishvara, and a number of allied kings came to that great city to wish him well.

I was already prostrate with loneliness, now Harsha was prostrate with jealousy, but he never showed it to anyone except me. To all appearances he was Rajya’s loyal brother, praised the new King’s martial abilities to the skies, and was granted great titles and responsibilities, including control of the treasury and the command of the royal guard. There was even talk of marrying him to a Gupta princess, a most ancient and distinguished family who had once ruled the entirety of North India but now had two bickering lines who ruled in Malwa and Magadha. Harsha’s meetings with ministers and ambassadors continued, and the King trusted him absolutely.

One day news came to King Rajya-vardhana that the King of Malwa, Deva-Gupta (the last of the Malwa Gupta line, who wanted to restore their fallen glory), had attacked King Grahavarman (the husband of Rajyashri), killed him and taken her prisoner. The King was infuriated at this insult to his family and decided to avenge himself. Harsha recommended that they move as quickly as possible before Deva-Gupta could consolidate his gains, and offered to be custodian of the kingdom while his brother was off on campaign to rescue their sister.

Accordingly Harsha was appointed regent and Rajya requested his father-in-law Shashanka, King of Gauda, to come to his aid. Shashanka was then camped on the outskirts of Sthanishvara with a large contingent of troops, having arrived for Rajya’s coronation to pay his respects. The two set off with great fanfare, and I decided I had to accompany them because I was practically mad with worry about Rajyashri. I couldn’t tell the King this, I just told him I thought he needed the company of a poet to catalogue his glorious deeds. I forgot to tell Harsha I was going.

We reached the Kanyakubja border in two weeks, with me struggling mightily from drug withdrawal but finally with a reason to live and on the mend. We found the King of Malwa waiting with his army. I have never been a military man but my friend Jayasena, who later became one of Harsha’s generals, explained to me what happened. King Rajyavardhana was not interested in negotiation; he threw caution to the winds and attacked.

He had to charge his elephants down a valley into a prepared position where Devagupta’s archers and infantry were waiting. The slopes of the valley were covered with thick forest cover, where Devagupta’s cavalry were waiting. Shashanka and Rajyavardhana led an elephant charge followed by their cavalry, with their infantry lagging behind. Gupta arrows and javelins rained down on them and Rajyavardhana died instantly. Shashanka fell off his elephant’s back and his guards bore him to safety. Meanwhile our maddened elephants turned tail and charged our own cavalry; enemy cavalry then swung down the sides of the valley and slaughtered our unprotected infantry. Our army was completely routed in a matter of hours and Shashanka led the remnants into the forest, where the terrain was too rough for pursuit.

I remember being led by a rope back to the Gupta camp, numb. I had never seen so much pointless bloodshed and could not even comprehend why all these soldiers had abandoned their families and homes, as I had, to do the bidding of kings who did not even know their names. I was spattered in blood, too numb and disoriented to think: what a fool I had once been to write poetry about this merciless madness! Gupta horsemen had attacked our camp, looted everything, and taken everyone prisoner. The fate of the camp followers and prostitutes, men and women, I cannot bring myself to recount to this day.

A few hundred prisoners wilted in the sun, waiting for King Deva-Gupta to return from the battlefield. It was sunset by the time this monster had sated his bloodlust and returned to inspect his spoils. He pronounced himself well-satisfied with his men and decreed three days of feasting, with ten gold coins  to every soldier, and more for the officers and generals. We were led off to a Brahman bureaucrat to assess our suitability for ransom. Though all my jewels and accoutrements had been unceremoniously stolen when I was captured, my bearing set me apart from the mob and he believed me when I introduced myself in Sanskrit as a poet and confidant of Harsha’s. I was led to the King’s great tent late that night and ordered to wait. From the inside I heard drunken hoots and a woman screaming in pain. Did I recognize that voice..?

Eventually the screams subsided and were replaced with broken sobs. A booming voice yelled to the guards to show me in. A great bear of a man, eyes red as fire with alcohol, sat on a throne of wood and gold, but I didn’t even look at him. My attention was on the weeping woman lying next to him, her once-perfect skin covered in scratches and bruises. She was trying desperately to cover her body with a ragged cloth, but I could see that she was bleeding from between her legs. I knew that she was Rajyashri.

My numbness turned to a torrent of pure rage and hate. My tongue was ash and my vision red, but I was in chains, and could not move. I was helpless, and needed a way out.

The guard behind me kicked in my legs and I collapsed, prostrate, before the rapist. Before I said anything, however, his herald addressed me as the ambassador of King Harsha, apologized for my poor treatment, and asked me to convey a letter, and the King’s sister, back to Sthanishvara. I didn’t let on that Harsha had not sent me, and was very confused as to why Deva-Gupta was meekly returning Rajyashri to Harsha when he had just fought a battle for her. Either way, I was sure that Devagupta had now practically killed himself, for Harsha would smash this bastard as soon as he found out what had happened.

The next day Rajyashri and her attendants, broken and trembling, with myself, a letter and a hundred Gupta horsemen, picked across the battlefield. The corpses were bloating in the summer heat and flies swarmed the air like dust. The ladies nearly fainted at the stench. I would have headed back to comfort them and my beloved Rajyashri were it not for the cavalry lance pointed between my shoulder blades by the captain of the Gupta contingent.

We drudged on in silence for days. I could not sleep at night, with Rajyashri screaming in her sleep and her attendants trying to calm her down; the guards were distracted enough once that I managed to pry open the letter..

His most Awesome Majesty, Maharaja Deva-Gupta of Magadha, Kanyakubja and Malwa, King-of-Kings, to his brother and ally, King Harshavardhana of Sthanishvara and the Hunas, greetings! You have more than fulfilled your end of our bargain. With your information the conquest of your brother-in-law’s kingdom was simple. I am also much indebted to you for your information on your late brother’s marching order. I am coming to Sthanishvara to accept your oath as my loyal vassal, as I promised. I will take your sister as my wife to solemnize our pact. Have a great feast prepared in honour of our marriage.

Harshavardhana, that monster who I had loved as my dearest friend, had pimped out his sister and murdered his brother. That King of Demons! Yet this was only the beginning of his career of infamy..

Part IV. Bana and Emperor Harsha

If Harsha ever found out that I knew what he had done, it would be curtains for young Bana. Rajyashri had quite likely figured out the truth herself, so she too was in terrible danger. If only I could speak to her! But the Guptas kept a careful eye on their future “queen”. So careful, in fact, that two nights after I had made my sickening discovery, they were too distracted to notice that their camp had been quietly surrounded by troops. At a whispered command a volley of arrows killed the sentries, and then a howling bunch of horsemen rode in and slaughtered the Gupta troops. They would have attacked me too but I was yelling out in joy and proclaiming my identity and Rajyashri’s to all and sundry.

Our rescuers were part of the remnants of Rajyavardhana’s army, it turned out, and they prostrated themselves before Rajyashri begging her forgiveness for failing her family. King Shashanka had posted them to scout out the Gupta army in case it followed. Being back among her own people had restored much of her strength. She was broken in body but never in spirit: she could not afford to let them know what had been done to her. With quiet dignity she ordered them to take her to Shashanka. He was a day’s ride ahead; as soon as he set eyes on her, he sent riders off to Harsha to let him know that his sister was safe. Meanwhile, he dug in and fortified his camp, waiting for reinforcements.

The old gentleman did not need me to tell him what had happened to Rajyashri. He had many daughters himself and could imagine. He ordered a secluded part of the camp to be set aside for her and gave orders that she not be disturbed. However, I befriended her guards, and told them that I was madly in love with her maid, Kadambari. With a little bribe, I was allowed in and out freely.

At last I could speak freely with my beloved. She allowed me to hug her, I wept for her pain, but she had no tears. I told her that I had loved her from the moment that I had first seen her and that I would never allow anyone to part me from her again, whether or not she felt the same. I swore my loyalty to her. No response. I gave her Deva-Gupta’s letter to Harsha. She read it, and then her eyes flared back to life.

Deva-Gupta had bragged about Harsha’s approval when he took her, she said, but she could not believe him until she saw that letter. We both agreed that it would be foolish to confront Harsha or let him know that the letter existed. At the same time, she wanted her revenge on her rapist and guessed that Harsha had no intention of becoming anyone’s vassal, be they Gupta emperor or no. Once Harsha had dealt with Deva-Gupta, we would give the letter to Shashanka, the late Rajya’s father-in-law. He would give Harsha what he deserved.

Events, however, overtook us. Displaying his alarming ability to inspire men, Harsha left his cousin Krishna as regent in Sthanishvara and forced his army to march to Shashanka’s position in two days, where he embraced the old king as his brother. He ignored me but lavished attention on Rajyashri, who maintained appearances and gave him no hint that she knew what he had done.

The oblivious Deva-Gupta, meanwhile, arrived at a leisurely pace to find Harsha’s entire army rested and waiting. The fool had no idea what Harsha was up to and assumed he had turned up to pay him obeisance. Advancing regally on an magnificently caparisoned elephant, to the sound of drums and trumpets and Brahmans proclaiming him Maharajadhiraja [Great King-of-Kings, the Indian equivalent of Emperor], he met Harsha close to his lines. Before he had any idea what was happening, Harsha flung a javelin fifty yards into his chest, his corpse was hoisted on a pike, and Harsha’s exhilarated army charged into his, baying for blood and revenge. That was the end of the imperial Guptas.

Harsha-vardhana had redeemed the honour of his family; he was the hero of the Gangetic plain for delivering it from Deva-Gupta’s power (and, nobody noticed, into his). The cheering troops raised him on a shield and proclaimed him King. He ordered Shashanka executed immediately after, on the bogus charge of having “betrayed” his beloved brother Rajyavardhana. There were now no great kings left to oppose him in the north.

In three deft moves Harsha had become the greatest power since the age of the Guptas: he had betrayed his family to become King, and then betrayed his partner-in-crime to become the greatest power in the North. Then he killed off the last possible opponent he could have had, while he was at his mercy.

Check and mate, as they say in chaturanga: Rajyashri and I were trapped. Shashanka had been our only chance at bringing Harsha to justice, and far from stopping him from becoming King, Harsha was now likely to become the next emperor of North India. We decided to cut our losses and hope that he would let us live in peace. For insurance, Rajyashri gave her jewels and the letter to her loyal maid, Kadambari, and ordered her go to Sthanishvara and release the letter if any harm came to her. This done, they exchanged clothes, I told the guards Kadambari and I were eloping, and we escaped to the forest as King Harsha was carried back into camp on the shoulders of his cheering troops.  

Petty princes and republics from across the north rushed to pay him homage over the next few months. He bribed, threatened, and cajoled them into granting him the title of “Chakravartin” [“Turner of the Wheel of Law”, a Buddhist Imperial title] and “Maharajadhiraja“. If they saw it as a purely honorary title, they were in for a rude awakening.

Part V. Bana Is Taught That Love is for Fools

But I digress: at this point Harsha still had one loose end to tie up, and his grand imperial wars were still in the future.

I am a man of the city, I know nothing of navigating in a forest, and Rajyashri, having never left a palace without dozens of guards, knew even less. By sunset we were lost and I had to help her up a huge tree in a clearing. I climbed up to the top of the tree to keep watch. She asked me if I would sing a song for her. I’ve never been a singer but that night I brought tears to my own eyes.. The words poured out of my mouth, the tune formed itself without my even trying.

“Come down from the top, Bana.”, she said.”Hold me.”

As the sun rose I could see Harsha’s banners weaving through the forest, and heard the baying of hounds: his hunters were on our trail. I climbed down and begged her to follow me, to run; but she would not. I was terrified of what would happen if Harsha got his hands on us. Rajyashri, however, was done running.

I heard hoofbeats: Harsha rode into the clearing alone circling his black horse around me, his cold eyes fixed on my face, a grin on his lips. I will never forget that image until the day I die, because I think it was the first and last time I ever saw Harsha for what he really was, and not what he wanted me to see. Black hair, unbound but for a golden coronet, waving in the wind, piercing eyes that seemed to barely to contain ambitions as immense as the cosmic ocean, boring into my immortal soul. “Well, Bana, what tangled webs we weave,” he said. He sounded amused, like a wolf playing with a pup. “I’m assuming, since you ran, that the two of you have evidence of my wicked sins. Oh, what a pity,” he said. “My beloved sister Rajyashri, light of my life, killed herself in a forest clearing with her attendants, unable to bear the grief of parting from her husband.”

He turned away from me and rode to the bottom of the tree. “Come down, come down, Rajyashri! This game has gone on for too long. It is time that our peoples were brought together under one rule, and there is no one who would be better at it than I. You know it as well as anyone. I can’t have that legacy threatened, so I’ll make it quick and painless. But don’t worry, I promise you will not be forgotten. The poets will sing of your name and virtue for generations.” He winked at me conspiratorially.

Rajyashri gave him a steely glare that killed the words in his mouth, and he actually pulled his horse back in surprise. She spoke, and every word was like a slap.

“You, serpent whom I suckled at my own breast. Rakshasa! [Flesh-eating demon!] From the time Mother died I was there for you always, against our own elder brother I supported you, and this is how you repay me?” Her voice rose, but it was carefully controlled, emotionless, just like Harsha’s when he was angry. That made it sound even more terrible as she listed his sins. “By killing innocent people. By murdering our brother, our King, and his army. By selling me not once, but twice. By allowing me to be raped. How many more have to die so you can have your fancy title?”

Harsha didn’t even blink. He opened his mouth to say something.

“Don’t you speak, you little bastard. Let me finish. Your game is done. There is a letter from your dog of a co-conspirator to you, detailing your filthy plot. It’s on its way to Sthanishvara now, and it’ll arrive before any news of your ‘coronation’. Kill me and Krishna will receive the letter and declare Rajya’s son King on the spot. Begone! Leave me in peace. I have no brother any longer.”

“In that case, I’ll be perfectly frank with you, sister.” He drew his sword and cantered over to me. I was frozen to the spot in fear. “You may have a contingency plan for your life, but not his. Do you mind if I make my life easier and eliminate a witness?” He raised the blade. I closed my eyes and prepared to die. The air was thick with tension.

The blade didn’t fall. She was beginning to climb down. 

Harsha had judged his prey well, and could see the love for me that even I has not. He began to laugh. He whistled, and guards stepped out of the trees. “Problem solved! I’ll keep him alive, so you will not dare move against me; I’ll keep you alive, so your ‘messenger’ will be silent, and so will this fool. You know, I have never understood what you see in the lower classes.” At this point he gave me a vicious kick on the back of the head, and I collapsed.

I could only watch as guards trussed up Rajyashri and gagged her. She didn’t have to say a word. I could see everything she wanted to say to me in her eyes. Her spirit was dead and broken by the time they hoisted her upright onto Harsha’s horse.

Frowning, he moved towards me. She just kept staring at me with those immense, wordless eyes.

“I’ll change the story. I convinced my beloved sister to take the monastic vows and join the Buddhist Sangha [Church] as a nun. A king can do nothing more noble than that. And of course I will make plenty of donations to them to keep them quiet. I will be a good emperor, Bana, you’ll see. Ashoka Maurya, Samudra-Gupta: I will follow in their footsteps and unite this land. Yes, I’ve done terrible things, but it’s all for the greater good.”

The men formed up around him and the banner was raised. He turned his head slightly. “I will keep my promise to her, though. The poets will tell her story.” He gestured and a bag of gold was flung at my feet. “In fact, Bana, I rather like your sycophantic style. I’ll have you do it, once I am supreme and secure. Go back home until then, marry a nice girl, have a child or two, stay away from princesses, stay away from love, my old friend.”

The trumpet sounded. Harsha began to ride back to his camp, bearing away my heart and soul on his steed. “Don’t fuck with me, Bana,” he added coldly. “Don’t ever fuck with me.”

Historical Note.

The emperor Harshavardhana of the house of Pushyabhuti, a Shiva-worshipping clan based around Sthanishvara (modern Thanesar) is widely considered to be the last ruler of indigenous Indian descent to hold the title of “Chakravartin” in North India, in the aftermath of the fall of the Gupta Empire, as the world began to fall into the Dark Ages and India began to ossify as Buddhism waned and Brahmanical Hinduism grew ascendant.

After he came to the throne, Harsha moved his capital to Kanyakubja (Kannauj), his brother-in-law’s former capital, and from there brought most of North India under his rule through incessant military campaigning, forcing most smaller princes into becoming his vassals. A patron of Buddhism, Harsha’s court was a place of great literary and artistic sophistication, and his system of law was relatively benign, as described by the Chinese Buddhist monk Xuan Zang. However, by this time, Buddhism was very much on the wane in India. Harsha’s decentralized empire, based on tribute and not administration, did not survive his death.

Our best source for the reign of this enigmatic figure is the “Harsha-Charita” by his on-again, off-again court poet, Banabhatta. Bana is a quirky figure and freely admits to having had a dissolute life in his prologue to the Harsha-Charita, which is a very heroic account of the deeds of Harsha until the point where my own work leaves off. The Harsha-Charita, it should be noted, can hardly be considered reliable in all aspects, since (to give just one example) Bana claims to be descended from a childhood friend of a half-human, half-divine son of the Hindu Goddess Sarasvati. As far as the details of his youth are concerned, I have generally stuck to Bana’s own words and descriptions of the company he used to keep, though his bisexuality, like in my work, is only barely hinted at. Harinika, for example, was an actual dancer-girl that Bana once kept company with, as were the ascetics, snake-doctors, and so on.

There has been a little artistic licence in my account, keeping in mind that Bana himself is completely over-the-top in his work, with descriptions of ponds and streams sometimes running into several pages. The Harsha-Charita proper begins with Harsha’s cousin Krishna insisting on Bana coming to court to pay his respects to Harsha, at a time where Harsha had established his supremacy over North India. Harsha, however, is less than overjoyed to see Bana, until Bana gets back into his good books with some crafty lobbying and sycophancy. I believe it can’t be entirely ruled out that they were quite well-acquainted at some point and parted on unpleasant terms. Furthermore, Bana’s adulation of Harsha seems often to spill over to excess and veiled sarcasm, and he even claims at one point that the chief complaint that women had against Harsha was that he was impotent.. But only with prostitutes.

Of course Bana’s Harsha is a heroic figure; he could hardly have written an official royal account of a Machiavellian manipulator. But that is the premise of this piece, as I said in my preface: what if Bana had written a Secret History?

Slight deviations from Bana’s official “narrative” have been taken in the name of preserving plot momentum. Harsha’s execution of Shashanka, for example, happened in a separate campaign, but it happens in a single stroke to really establish Harsha’s character in my depiction.

Some Easter Eggs for eagle eyed readers: The Golden Gardabha, or The Golden Ass, Bana’s preferred brothel, is the name of the only Roman novel to survive to modern days, an interesting depiction of sexuality and morality in the empire. Also, Bana wrote what is widely considered to be the first known Sanskrit novel, Kadambari, which is the name I gave to Rajyashri’s maid, who had the letter which Bana probably wished he had released as soon as he got it. The novel Kadambari is full of themes of love un-fulfilled by divine command until after multiple births and rebirths. In that sense it can be taken as a metaphor not only for the letter, but also for Bana’s love for Rajyashri, unconsummated and buried.

It is my ardent hope that the reader enjoys this for what it is, which is a work of fiction, albeit a well-researched one at that. If you’ve come away from this with a better understanding of what life in ancient India would have been like for someone who was neither a King nor a peasant, I’m happy. If you enjoyed my depiction, I’m overjoyed. If you share and spread the word, I’m absolutely over the moon. Thank you, everyone, for your support!

Coming Up in my Next Post: India ossifies quietly, while the world changes beyond recognition, as the banner of Islam is unfurled.

Prequel: The Secret History of the Emperor Harsha, Part I.


  1. Cowell, E.B. and Thomas, F.W. The Harsa-Carita of Bana. Motilal Banarsidass, 1968.
  2. Ridding, C. M. The Kadambari of Bana. Kessinger Publishing, 2005.
  3. Eraly, Abraham. Gem in the Lotus: The Seeding of Indian Civilisation. Viking Adult, 2000.
  4. Eraly, Abraham. The First Spring: the Golden Age of India. Penguin Books India, 2011.
  5. Basham, A.L. and Rizvi, S.A. A. The Wonder that was India. Sidgwick and Jackson, 1956.
  6. Thapar, Romila. The Penguin History of Early India: From the origins to AD 1300. Penguin UK, 2015.
  7. Keay, John. India: A History. Revised and Updated. Grove/Atlantic, Inc., 2011.

The Secret History of the Emperor Harsha, Part I.

The Last North Indian emperor, c. 605 CE

Ever wondered what life in ancient India was like for someone who wasn’t a priest, a king, or a peasant? Then this post is for you! 😛


Justinian and his wife Theodora in court 

My premise is this: Procopius, the Byzantine historian, wrote a number of very flattering works on his patron, the emperor Justinian (r. 520-565 CE, and who built the magnificent Church of St. Sophia, now Hagia Sophia, in Constantinople). However, Procopius also wrote a work, The Secret History, which was published after the death of Justinian, where he accuses the emperor of being a demon in human form, and his wife of being the biggest whore in the empire. The Indian emperor Harsha-vardhana too had an immensely laudatory work written in his honour, the Harsha-Charita by Banabhatta. What if Bana had written a Secret History of the life and times of this figure?

The time, too, is interesting. This emperor Harsha is widely believed to be one of the greatest military commanders in Indian history (with only one defeat in his entire career). He was supposedly a just and gentle ruler, yet he was responsible for extinguishing the last remnants of the great Gupta empire (see my last post, Hearts of Gold, Times of Gold). It’s a vital period in the history of the subcontinent, reaffirming its tendency to form vibrant local states instead of homogenous empires.

(Just to reiterate, this is a literary/historical exercise, and is an interpretation of events of the time based on Bana’s actual work, which is hardly reliable – he claims to be descended from a childhood friend of the son of the Hindu goddess Sarasvati. So put your feet up and enjoy a well-researched work of historical fiction, told from the viewpoint of Bana, by yours truly 😛 )

Chapter I. Bana The Prodigal Son

My mother died when I was an infant; my father took his slave-girl as a lover and sired two half-brothers, who were my sole playmates as a child. Father was not a pleasant man, excessively pious, and excessively fond of the rod when I was slow with my lessons. He died when I was fourteen, leaving to me the house and a modest inheritance. I was sad enough when he died, but found, to my interest, that sorrow could always be quenched with sundry youthful follies. For two more years my uncles attempted to educate me before they realised that I would never make it as a priest but had poetic ambitions. I should admit freely that I was a foolhardy young fellow, quite curious about the world and all that it contained, which my father had diligently denied me: wine, sex, gambling, and meat. This curiosity has brought me all kinds of misfortune; in the hindsight of my old age I see how much misery I could have avoided if I had not been cursed with it..

I would be a poet, I decided. My half-brothers I left with my uncles (they eventually became respected priests), sold the house for a moderate sum and set off for the  city of Pataliputra, walking along the Ganga, whistling like a lark. I still remember that Spring, King of the Seasons… All was young and happy and beautiful as I approached the ancient capital. Of course, every village bumpkin who heads to a town thinks it to be the greatest city on earth, but the riches of Pataliputra even then, in the days of its decline, are still beyond compare to me.

What I remember most vividly is sensation. The banners, cloths, kettledrums, and conch shells blowing in the dawn; the ground drumming with the hooves of horses and the tread of elephants; the brilliant colours of the mansions and palaces; the umbrellas, the beautiful people, the sophists; gardens and fountains (which I had never seen before); the unguents and ointments; the flowers and jewels; the stately ruins, the filthy slums.

Not that I wasted much time sightseeing before heading straight off to the red-light district. I woke up after a couple of days covered in petals and oil, with a throbbing hangover, between a woman and a man who had seemed like celestial beauties the night before but stank like the gutter that morning. Of course my purse was gone. The madam downstairs had taken all my cash and informed me brusquely that I still owed ten silver rupakas [the Indian drachma]. I had to work off the debt, but what talent or craft did I have to sell? She did not need a priest; however, I did play a decent game of chaturanga [the original, Indian form of chess](unemployed priests in my village had plenty of free time). I asked her to if she might know where a gentleman could get a pair of dice at a reasonable rate. She might have some, yes. Would she add it to my tab? I promised to repay her within the week. She sent along a beefy chap to make sure the gentleman did not abscond, and I walked out with my head held high and nothing in my pocket but a pair of loaded dice.

In about a week I earned three things: sore bruises from a sore loser, enough silver to pay off the madam, and wisdom – don’t gamble, but if you have to, don’t win too often (and, if your opponent suspects cheating, bluff your way out of the hall and run for it). Temporarily free from debt, I needed a new source of funds. A halfway-intelligent Brahman of decent stock, I found, did not lack for opportunities.

I participated in debates in the marketplace and entered little poetry competitions. Soon I’d acquired a reputation as decent company, a good poet, and a great sport, and also acquired a number of equally disreputable friends, including but not limited to: a young nobleman who was a Prakrit poet; a human doctor and a snake-doctor; two panegyrists; a foreman; a painter; a magician; an ascetic taking a break from his vows; and of course our coterie of girlfriends, boyfriends, dancing-girls, dicers and gamesters. I lived in the home of an old widow, bless her soul, who let me pay my rent as late as I wished, and died convinced I was a poor young Nalanda graduate in search of a job. Every morning I would head to the markets to sell my poetry and debate; in the evenings I would do the rounds of my friends’ homes, having a bite here, a sip there; the nights I spent in the brothels drinking like Indra and roaring like Siva, indulging my organ with whatever gender took my fancy, and again gambling- losing sometimes, winning most. Life was good, but as always, I wanted more.

I had heard that far off to the north, there were great wars being fought against mleccha [“casteless” or “savage”] barbarians called the “Hunas“, whom the Gupta emperors at Pataliputra had defeated centuries ago. More to the point, it seemed that Prabhakara-vardhana, King of a small state called Sthanishvara [modern Thanesar] , was at the forefront of these wars. I wanted to see a barbarian and a battle with my own eyes, and surely a small kingdom had need of a great poet? (I also owed a little too much money to a local crime-lord after a particularly ill-advised bout of dicing, and was hardly going to shell out my savings for that). A few similarly financially-challenged friends and I made quiet goodbyes to our weeping lovers (and dear landlady) and hopped on a trade fleet from Bengal, sailing slowly up the Ganga as the monsoons poured into the land and turned the dusty plains into lush, verdant green.

Chapter II. Bana and the Prince of Demons

Prabhakara-vardhana, Raja of Sthanishvara in the Year 526 of the Saka Era [c. 604 CE], was not a sophisticated man, but he dearly wished his sons to be sophisticated. Working on the principle of judging a man by the company he kept, he was in the habit of searching for young men of good breeding and education to be his sons’ companions. I came upon this gem of knowledge at a brothel where I had taken up temporary residence, where I also happened to befriend the king’s nephew Krishna-vardhana, who had dropped in for a game of chess and a glass or six of quality bhang [an edible preparation of cannabis, one of the longest-standing traditions of the subcontinent]. I introduced myself with a quippy little piece in Sanskrit, claiming to be a Nalanda graduate (which was not true) and a Brahmin in search of employment as a tutor (which was relatively true). I plied him with drinks and drugs for a few days with my rapidly-vanishing cash, and, like most of my investments, it paid off. Krishna (not a moment too soon) realised that he could ingratiate himself with his uncle if he were to find a tutor for the king’s sons. He asked me to present myself in the palace the next evening.

“Myself” was not all I presented; I spent all the cash I had left to purchase a jewel as a gift for the King, and recited a poem of my own design: a set of syllables which, recited normally, spoke of His Majesty’s glory. Recited backwards, it spoke of his sons’ glory. He was well impressed and I was duly inducted into the palace staff, with a room of my own and my first ever fixed salary. I recall grinning like an idiot the second I was out of the throne room and earning a disapproving glare from the doorkeeper who was sent to escort me to my quarters in the mansion the two princes shared on the palace grounds.

The heir-apparent, Rajya-vardhana, was a decent, if somewhat dull character, whose chief negative quality was his utter and complete mind-numbing boringness. Tall, bulky, good at following orders, not really at giving them. His younger brother Harsha-vardhana, however, was cut of a very different cloth.

Drifters and hangers-on, I like to believe, have a sort of innate talent that enables them to sense when a prospective target’s star is on the ascendant. Having been on the receiving end of such flattering attentions in my Pataliputra days, I had acquired that talent myself, and I had never seen a man who seemed more on the rise than this Harsha. He was about fourteen to my twenty years, little more than a boy; elegant manners, clipped Sanskrit, polite, with features that were too sharp to be handsome, and which seemed always slightly.. off, as if he were only mimicking emotion, and not actually feeling it. He was a fine judge of my poetry, where most would simply clap and give me a coin to shut me up. He spoke to me of grand things: of history and the world, of places I had never heard. I found myself more and more impressed, and dropped my initial pretentious flattery. I found myself pouring out my heart and soul to a boy I barely knew.

Harsha informed me the next week that he had been cooped up in the palace for too long and his father never let him out with his cousin Krishna, because he knew what Krishna did at night. I possessed a squeaky-clean reputation in royal circles and was therefore to be his chaperone on our henceforth bi-weekly “evening walks”.

I was never one to turn my nose up at a good time, especially when a prince was footing the bill! Our first visit was to my former residence, the Golden Gardabha [or, the Golden Ass]. It was a luxurious place, frequented by wealthy nonentities such as the aforementioned Cousin Krishna. The staff, however, went overboard to welcome the Prince, which meant that my outstanding dues were joyously forgotten. Harsha was greeted with cool drinks of fruit, Himalayan ice and honey, and of course much flattery and deference. The madam met us with a tray of fragrant betel and bhang, Harsha’s first taste. We sat and were serenaded by women with a veena as a troupe of perky beauties put on an erotic dance. A jester kept up a stream of jokes and a couple of dwarves, a rare oddity, clashed cymbals. I handed Harsha a glass of wine and he sipped it in the dying sunlight. As lamps were lit, his eyes dwelt more and more on one particular dancer, my friend Harinika. Pleasantly high, he waltzed up to the troupe and requested her attentions, which she provided with much giggles and batting of eyelids. Of course I was well used to her tricks by now but the poor young fellow seemed utterly smitten. He was soon whispering compliments into her ear and she was warmly blushing and caressing his cheek, and led him off to a secluded, cushioned nook. I was busy unravelling the intricate paintings on the roof with my eyes, completely stoned and oblivious to the increasing chaos of moans, smoke and music as patrons settled down with whores.

Very early the next morning, Harsha, floating on air, prodded me awake with his toe, grinning. I slapped him on the back, laughing and joking about his “prowess”. The two of us picked up Krishna, who had been pleasantly dreaming, probably of imaginary women whom he did not have to pay for sex. Over his feeble insistence that we carry him in a litter because he was sure he had finally got the hangover which would kill him, we lugged him back to his home and then returned to the palace.

That winter saw the wedding of Rajya-vardhana and one of the daughters of Shashanka, King of Gauda in Bengal. Of course it was a lovely wedding and all that, but the pre-bedding feast was even more memorable. Prabhakara-vardhana, the aged King, was in a very mellow mood and decided to give young Harsha “permission” to drink for the “first time”, and insisted that I try too. I pretended to be shocked. My dearly departed father, I said, had sold his home so I could study in Nalanda; surely (I turned my eyes skyward) he would return from Heaven to haunt me if I were to do something as sinful as let a drop of wine pass my lips! Harsha, in tears of laughter, took his “first” sip with his beaming father and brother, and pretended to be much more affected by it than he actually was. We all roared with laughter as the groom’s little brother sang a slurred ode to the beauty of his new sister-in-law; then, chanting raunchy rhymes (I, of course, definitely did not already know the lyrics and had to be taught by a very rambunctious Prabhakara-vardhana), we carried the blushing couple off to their chambers and returned to the party.

Harsha, myself, and the old Pataliputra gang were soon the best of friends; Harsha grew quite attached to Harinika, in addition to the usual sexual experimentation and substance abuse. We had to be back in the palace by dawn for the old King’s morning “inspections”, and more than once Rajya caught us at the gate as we snuck back into the princes’ quarters at midnight or later. Rajya was in any case absurdly indulgent of Harsha, and saw him as a harmless young fellow, as did I, foolishly. Have I made it perfectly clear that I was an idiot those days?

One evening, Harsha cut short his usual military exercise routine and had me summoned from my latest poetic rhapsody. “Bana, my boy,” said the boy, “I know this is not our usual hour, but I must see Harinika. I can’t focus on anything else. I have to see her. Look, I got her a present.” He showed off a beautiful ornamental dagger.

Who was I to stand in the way of teenage infatuation? We headed to the Golden Ass, entering from an entrance on the back alley, so as to preserve the surprise. On the ground floor Harinika was leading a dance troupe; four Persian merchants were watching in admiration. One of them beckoned to her, and up to him she went, giggling and moaning as he stuffed gold into her undergarment.

I didn’t even have a second to react: one moment Harsha was next to me, the next he had stabbed Harinika so hard that she couldn’t even scream but collapsed gurgling in a pool of her own blood, trying to hold her ruined throat together. I tried to run towards him to stop him but there was complete chaos; screaming girls and patrons rushed for the exit as a crazed Harsha chopped and beat the hapless Persians into a bloody pulp. By the time I reached him, Harsha was covered in blood, weeping with fury. He threw his gift at Harinika’s lifeless corpse as I put my arms around him, whispering that it was alright. What else could I say, that she was just doing her job? There was nothing I could do but pay the shell-shocked madam to clean up, give Harinika a funeral, and keep quiet about this affair. Then I quietly took Harsha to a pond, washed him off, and brought him home.

Harsha changed that day. He never really understood the concept of love, I think, and he hated being hurt. Henceforth he was much quieter and crueller, and kept his thoughts to himself. No more enlightening talks with Bana the friendly poet, but of course our “evening walks” continued, though now he insisted on paying for every dance and sexual encounter. Not that he needed to, even incognito Harsha always had his way with women.

About a year (Spring, 527 Saka [c. 605 CE]) into my most financially-rewarding friendship yet, Harsha apparently decided that he knew me well enough to introduce me to his sister, who had practically raised him since their mother died young. Her peerless beauty and marriage prospects were the talk of North India those days. In the evening after dinner, we paid a visit to the chambers of Rajya-shri, Princess of Sthanishvara. She was sitting in the moonlight topless, enjoying the breeze, being serenaded and wooed by about a dozen feckless suitors, fanned by an attendant, eyes half-closed as incense burned in a brazier next to her. She was dusky as a night-lotus, her proportions perfect, her hair darker than sin. I quickly averted my eyes.

She opened one perfect eye, adorned with collyrium, to see who her latest visitor was, and grinned lazily and closed it again. “Hello, little monster,” she said, in Prakrit. “I’ve been hearing the most scandalous rumours about your doings in the ratimandiras [brothels]. Will you talk to your sister with the same mouth?” Harsha chuckled and said nothing. Instead, he walked up to the nearest dandy and grabbed him by the scruff of his neck. “Are you a King?” Replied the dandy, attempting to be smart: “No, I can’t say that I am.”

He threw him out.

The rest of the crowd made a rapid exeunt, and it was just the three of us left, with Rajya-shri’s attendant, Kadambari, who smiled shyly at me. I winked back as I settled into a cushion. Harsha began to speak, in Prakrit. He never spoke to women in Sanskrit.

“Sister, may I introduce my dear friend Banabhatta from Magadha, of the Vatsyayana gotra? He is a graduate of Nalanda (he knew perfectly well that I wasn’t, because he had asked me to describe it for him, and what I said obviously didn’t pass muster with him, who had visited the University at the age of ten), a great poet, and a most cultivated man. He is my closest friend and confidant; because he knows that I’d kill him if he ever told on me.” I laughed. Rajyashri raised an eyebrow. “He’s not joking, you know.” I stopped laughing.

“Father’s planning another campaign against the Hunas. Brother is going to be in command, Harsha. The Prime Minister told me.”

“I know, Rajya’s wife told me too, last night.” My eyes widened a little but Rajyashri flashed me a glare that warned me to keep quiet. “He’s camping on the outskirts with the troops. That’s why I’m here.”

“What do you want me to do about it? I’ve already made it perfectly clear to the ministers that I wanted you to be appointed, but Father insisted. He said that you had never even killed a man, let alone fought a horde of howling mlecchas.”

I cleared my throat. “If I may, your Highness, your brother has killed four men and a woman.”

“Harsha! Why?”

“She was a whore. Slept around the town as if I wasn’t good enough for her.”

“So you killed her?”

“I regret it. I lost control. But that doesn’t matter. It turns out I am not even going to be allowed to go on campaign. Father thinks I am not old enough for war; is Rajya any readier than I? I have read every military manual I could find, I’ve drilled until my feet and fingers bled. Why should he get the post just because he is older?” His tone was flat, not a hint of anger, but his words trembled with menace. I got the feeling that he didn’t just mean the military appointment.

“He just wants you to be safe, little brother-”

Don’t call me that. You know perfectly well that Rajya is a fool. Left to himself he’ll lead the entire army off a cliff! I’m going to need the men later. I don’t need a title: just get Father to let me go with the army. I’ll handle Rajya myself. I’ll go and speak to him now. Bana, come.”

“Fine. Go get your glory. Let him stay, though. What will a poet do on a battlefield? Besides, you said he was an interesting man. I’ll take care of him and Father. Tell us about your grand campaign once you are back.”

He saw the look of longing in my eyes and laughed. “I’ll bring you back a skull drinking-cup, poet. Don’t leave him alone with your maids, Shri!” He kissed her cheek and left.

The princess rolled her eyes and turned to me. She addressed me in pure Sanskrit (she later told me she had no tutors, as women were not considered to be worthy of learning Sanskrit, but taught herself by reading, listening, and sheer force of will). Without blinking an eye, I replied in it, busily assimilating the fact that Harsha was sleeping with his sister-in-law, resented his elder brother, was weaving ideas and plots, and was evidently not harmless even to his own kin, let alone to a dancing-girl who was once my friend and was now dead. Living by the Ganga has taught me to go with the flow.

Coming Up in my next post: Bana turns into a lovesick puppy, while the dogs of war are let slip over North India!

Prequel: Hearts of Gold, Times of Gold

Sequel: The Secret History of the Emperor Harsha, Part II.


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