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.


  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.

Hearts of Gold, Times of Gold

India’s first Golden Age: Indo-Sanskritic Culture Reaches its Climax, c. 320 – 550 CE.

In Which The Indians establish their second great empire, awakening a sleeping giant of religio-cultural power and inaugurating one of the greatest cultural renaissances in human history

One of Indian and indeed global history’s most interesting quirks is how certain themes and patterns repeat with slight variations, like patterns in a mandala, owing perhaps to some of the distinct religious and cultural practices of the subcontinent; or perhaps to the whimsy of fate and coincidence. A very interesting example: c. 320 BCE, Chandragupta Maurya declared himself Mauryan emperor in Pataliputra on the Ganga. And, c. 320 CE, Chandra-Gupta I declared himself Gupta emperor in Pataliputra on the Ganga.


Gupta depiction of the boar-god Varaha at Udayagiri. Like Varaha figuratively lifted the earth, the Guptas figuratively lifted Hinduism and indigenous culture from a churning ocean and elevated them to their pinnacle.

Under the imperial Gupta dynasty, a process that began in my last article reached its climax. The many foreign tribes who had made India a melting pot of civilizations were gradually subdued and a new culture that was, for the first time, recognizably Indian began to emerge. If not for the peace, patronage, and sophistication of the Gupta era, the culture of India and the world would be very different; but, like every Golden Age in human history, the Guptas carried with them the seeds of their own destruction and introduced systems of inequality that would ossify and cripple the subcontinent in a few centuries. Let’s begin!

Subcontinental Subjugation

It is a relatively unknown fact that were it not for a woman, the imperial Guptas would probably not have existed, and I do not mean that in only the maternal sense.

“It is a relatively unknown fact that were it not for a woman, the imperial Guptas would probably not have existed..”


The Gupta Empire at its greatest extent, with the great southern expedition of Samudragupta marked.

There was a young king named Chandra-Gupta, who had inherited and conquered slices of the Gangetic Valley, and dearly felt the need to convey the inheritance to the next generation. He selected, for this great honour, a princess of a very ancient and distinguished clan, who had fallen on hard times: Kumaradevi Lichchavi. As a dowry, he demanded and received the ancient Mauryan capital of Pataliputra. He evidently now felt powerful enough to assume the title of Great King-of-Kings (Maharaja-dhi-raja), the Indian equivalent of Emperor. This done, he and his successors set off to earn the title on a nearly unparalleled programme of conquest.

What sets the Gupta conquest apart from all that had happened in North India over the last few centuries? Firstly, there is the superficial fact that they were indubitably of subcontinental origin. Secondly, the entire dynasty was Hindu and patronized Hindu royal traditions. Thirdly, unlike Asoka Maurya, the Guptas were not interested in direct administration beyond a point: they wanted tribute and acknowledgement of their power. Nor did they share his benevolent spirit or guilt at the use of violence. Fourthly and most importantly: these men of violence were also extremely sophisticated men of culture.

By the death of Chandra-Gupta I, Gupta power stretched from Pataliputra across the Gangetic Plains, having driven out the weakening Kushans. Next in line to the throne (after the by-now usual Indian royal post-mortem civil war) was Samudra-Gupta, his chosen heir, whose armies, suitably, flooded across the subcontinent (“Samudra” means “ocean” in many Indic languages). Starting from  a camp near modern Delhi, he uprooted existing kingdoms and assumed direct control over most of North India. But, apparently, this was nowhere near enough for him.

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Starting from the eastern coast, Samudragupta led his forces south, through Orissa and Andhra (map included above), smashing to pieces the ego and the armies of every king on the way. Finally, at Kanchipuram in Tamil Nadu, he smote King Vishnugopa Pallava‘s crown and pride to the dust. It was a moment of truth for the subcontinent. Would Samudragupta, like Asoka Maurya, bring the entire subcontinent under his personal rule, or would he satisfy himself with eternal fame and be content with tribute and influence? Wisely perhaps, the emperor chose the latter and crowned the kings he had defeated as his sworn vassals. This done, he returned to Pataliputra and assumed the title and imperial umbrella of a Chakravartina previously benevolent title which to earlier Buddhists had meant “Turner of the Wheel of Law” but now meant “World-Conquering-Monarch“.



Chandragupta II ” Vikramaditya” as a Lion-Slayer. Rev: The goddess Durga.

His death and the eventual succession of his son are somewhat murky. Some numismatic evidence points to Samudragupta’s actual successor having been one Rama-Gupta, but, after a murder (romantic sources say over a woman) or a civil war, the excellent Chandra-Gupta II, the most powerful of Gupta emperors, came to the throne. His daughter Prabhavati-Gupta was married off to Rudrasena II of the Vakataka Kingdom, the successors of the Satavahanas in the Deccan, and with their aid, he finally smashed the Western Kshatrapas, Indo-Scythians whom we first met nearly 400 years ago in my last article, and incorporated Gujarat, Saurashtra, and Malwa into the empire. Next he defeated a Bengali tribal confederacy and brought it, with Assam, firmly into the ambit of the subcontinent; continuing in his father’s footsteps, we are told, he crossed the Indus and pacified the barbarians across the Khyber pass before finally returning to rule.

The emperor’s son-in-law, King Rudrasena, mysteriously expired at a young and promising age, and his Gupta queen took over as regent for her two sons, which meant de facto that it was really the emperor at Pataliputra calling the shots in the Vakataka kingdom. (Nevertheless, it can hardly have been easy for a young woman to rule in her own right at the time, even if she was a Gupta. Sadly we have almost no information on this interesting figure.) It was the royal Vakatakas who were primarily responsible for the marvellous caves at Ajanta, and who are therefore a gold mine of information on India at the time.

The Gupta Empire had reached its territorial, economic and cultural pinnacle: Chandra-Gupta II took on the title of VikramadityaSun of Power“. The Roman Empire in the West was in terminal decline and the Han dynasty in China had fallen into chaos; India was now the greatest power in the world, bursting at the seams with gold and artistic endeavour.

Sun of Power: The Culture of Gupta India


Vishnu as depicted in the Gupta temple at Deogarh. The worship of Vishnu became immensely popular under Gupta patronage.

Now that I’ve set the stage, let’s talk about culture in this golden age. In my last article, When in India, do as the Indians do, I discussed the process of Sanskritization, where Brahmanical Hindu culture spread across the subcontinent, offering legitimacy and sanctified kingship in return for an adherence to caste and ritualistic sacrifice. The process involved a great deal of cultural give-and-take but really quite contributed to the earthy, local feel of Hinduism: an immeasurable number of local tribal deities were incorporated into the pantheon and began to be worshipped in new ways. Depending on the polity in question, the incorporated deity’s place in the pantheon varied. The pastoral deity Gopala, for example, merged with the older heroic demigod Vasudeva to form the legendary Krishna, while the tribal boar-god Varaha was given attributes of a saviour. Both were then worshipped as avataras of the newly prominent Vishnu the Preserver, a personal favourite of the Gupta monarchs (presumably his exalted position in the Hindu pantheon appealed to emperors who saw themselves as exalted among Indian kings). An expanded philosophy of divinity began to portray  all gods as an aspect of a transcendent One, and interesting ideas of the Male and the Female, the Mother and the Father, merged with and gradually assimilated earlier Buddhist ideals of purity, hedonism, and abstinence. Nature gods and fantastical beings, fertility, sex, temptation, renunciation, enlightenment: ideas gradually shaped over centuries of interaction with local and foreign cultures finally obtained royal sanction, and were solidified with oral and written productions. Most importantly, the depiction of Hindu gods in statues stems from the Gupta period, influenced by Mahayana Buddhist ideals. Without temples and deities, modern day Hinduism would not even exist, being the core of contemporary Hindu belief. The Guptas finally turned Hinduism into an instrument of royal power, something that appealed to both the elite and the masses, a fusion of Rig Vedic shamanism/ sacrifice and deeper philosophical and artistic ideas borrowed from other sects.

“The Guptas finally turned Hinduism into an instrument of royal power, something that appealed to both the elite and the masses, a fusion of.. Vedic sacrifice and deeper ideas..”


Krishna battling the horse-demon Keshi. 5th century Gupta depiction.

In the time of the ancient Aryans, Brahmans had often claimed dignities and respect that they did not actually receive (why would so many have turned to Buddhism otherwise?). But at last, there was a real necessity for divine sanction to justify the cycles of peace and violence which Indian rulers were busy unleashing on each other, and for the obscene wealth and inequality which was the order of the day. Brahmanism shrewdly provided this, by claiming the “divinely ordained” caste system, which Buddhism could not or would not do. In return, its vision of an ideal world, with Brahmans firmly on top, gained royal support.

Thus did the status of the three “twice-born castes”- the Brahmanas (priests), Kshatriyas (warriors) and Vaishyas (merchants and farmers) begin to increase by leaps and bounds, at the expense of the rapidly-ostracized shudras (menial workers). The economy was more prosperous than ever, but the wealthy were getting wealthier and were busy exploiting the lowly, now with spiritual sanction to stymie any bleeding hearts. If that is not the greatest possible proof in human history that “trickle-down economics” does not work, I don’t know what is.

Ajanta Cave 1 paintings, walls

Royal bath of a KingFrom the Ajanta Caves.

But even though caste finally had royal approval, it didn’t solidify overnight (in fact it is debatable how solid it was until the British showed up and bungled it completely by officializing it in the name of “respecting religious sentiments”, as if Indians only cared about keeping the gods happy). The subcontinent was still home to a stunning array of religious practices. On the one hand, there were Samudra-Gupta and his successors, who performed the ancient asvamedha horse-sacrifice and donated thousands of gold coins and cows to “needy” Brahmans; and on the other hand the small daily offerings of flowers to the little stream outside one’s house, and rare pilgrimages to the Buddha’s birthplace if you could afford it, because at least the highways were kept safe by the imperial majesties in their ivory towers, even if they took all your money to do it.

“… At least the highways were kept safe by the imperial majesties in their ivory towers, even if they took all your money to do it.”


Illustration of the Ramayana by Sahib Din, 1652Kausalya, Rama’s mother, is depicted slaying the horse to the left and lying beside it to the right.

According to the Rig Veda, the sacred oral tradition of the semi-barbaric nomadic Aryans, this is how the asvamedha worked. A white horse was set free to roam around for an entire year, followed by a king’s army (ostensibly to protect it but more likely to guide it to a suitably safe destination). If it entered enemy territory, the enemy would either have to fight the army or submit to the king’s authority. At the end of the year, assuming the horse and army were still standing, they would return to a great sacrificial pavilion where,  (Squeamish readers may wish to avert their eyes) the horse, a goat, and a bovine were ritually purified, the chief queen “spent the night with the horse” (please don’t make me elaborate) indicating its power and virility entering the royal bloodline, and then the three animals were dismembered, quartered, and offered to the four cardinal directions, after which the king was crowned as an undisputed monarch. The Rig Veda even mentions a purushamedha  or man-sacrifice, but this was believed even in 1500 BCE to be figurative and not literal. (Squeamish readers may continue reading) Of course there was debate on the practice even in the later Vedas, Upanishads and Brahmanas condemning the ritual as barbarism (the atheistic Carvaka school denounced the authors of the Veda as “buffoons, knaves, and demons“), and some evidence to suggest a stone horse was actually used.

“.. There was debate on the practice.. condemning the ritual as barbarism.. denounced the authors of the Veda as buffoons, knaves and demons.”

But my point is that even within “Hindu tradition” there were violent, bestial voices and sensitive, progressive ones. Massive, conspicuous consumption was a symbol of royal power and lived alongside small roadside shrines to gods of crossroads and trees. This bewildering array of voices, of culture in flux, of life in motion, is still visible in the ancient cave paintings at Ajanta.


Royal Procession at Ajanta. Take as long as you want. Soak it all in.

A brief note on the appreciation of Indian art: the forced perspectives take some getting used to, but they are meant to allow the artist to showcase more of his subject. Observe the composition of the work, the matching of the colours, the tiny details crammed into the painting, and above all, try to comprehend its soul and spirit. Now let’s get back to Ajanta.

The paintings, commissioned under Vakataka royal patronage, are in a rock-cut Buddhist monastery, and are a window to India’s soul. The markets, the palaces, the ceremonies, the talking animals, the gods, the night-prowling demons, intricate floral and geometric patters, hairstyles, costumes, jewellery, musical instruments, the palm fronds, the flowers, the jungle, the sheer breathtaking detail and joy of being alive: a frozen gateway, as it were, to a people and a way of life that are dead and gone but still alive in our minds and hearts. It is enough to bring a tear to one’s eyes, to think of all that we had that we have now lost to the sands of time, terrible restorations, DSLR camera flashes, and government apathy. If an out-of-the-way monastery could afford art on such a scale, the opulence of the imperial palace in Pataliputra defies the imagination.

“A frozen gateway.. to a people and a way of life that are dead and gone but still alive in our minds and hearts.”

The Ajanta paintings belong to the Amaravati/Gupta school of art. Like many of India’s cultural products of the time, this style crossed the seas with Gupta merchant seafarers and artisans to the kingdoms of southeast Asia. The attention to detail, careful selection of colour, and vibrant composition can be seen reflected everywhere in Asian art from Tibet to Japan. But even this was not the most significant Indian export under the Guptas; that is coming soon.

Contrast the elegant jewellery and expressions of the Bodhisattvas above to the gaudy opulence of modern TV and film depictions.


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Gupta emperors, as I said earlier, were men of great sophistication. In fact, Samudragupta is (according to his own court poet) a most accomplished poet in Sanskrit, despite the fact that his body was “adorned with the marks of hundreds of scars”. His coins depict him in martial poses but also with a veena (gallery in previous section). Oddly for an Indian he is quite concerned with proclaiming his matrilineal descent and addresses himself as Lichchhavayah, or son of the Licchavi (his mother, Kumaradevi), possibly because his father, the progenitor of the imperial Gupta line, was in fact of low birth?


Samudragupta-issued coin of his parents Chandra-Gupta I and Kumaradevi Lichchavi. Rev. “Lichchavayah” in Brahmi script.

Samudragupta’s filial affection, however, seems to be the exception and not the rule. Women’s voices, like those of the lower classes, are by this time largely absent from the Indian discourse. They are well-represented in paintings but clearly as objects of desire or curiosity. The artist loves women but not as equals: they are expected to be faithful, beautiful and obedient like Sita in the Ramayana. In coins they are either goddesses or model queens, and, speaking of queens, Gupta emperors had a habit of forming “bedroom alliances” by marrying multiple eligible princesses of different kingdoms, which was the norm in Indian society. Of course it goes without saying that there were exceptions to the rule, like Chandra-Gupta II’s daughter Prabhavati (mentioned above), but it is perhaps significant that her own words, unlike her father’s, have not survived.

“Women’s voices, like those of the lower classes, are by this time largely absent from the Indian discourse.”


Gupta-era depiction of a scene from the Ramayana.

It’s quite possible that the Gupta ideal of kingship- cultural sophistication, military prestige, and Brahminical patronage- was shaped by and shaped later depictions of ideal kings and legendary rulers. This concern for ideal kingship is recorded not only in the Ramayana, a legendary depiction of the demigod Rama: an ideal son, husband and king (and avatar of Vishnu) of which the earliest written version dates from the late Gupta period, but also in the works of the great playwright Kalidasa (who puts Shakespeare to shame in terms of the sheer human pathos and purple prose of his work) who in his Raghuvamsa describes Rama’s ancestor Raghu in terms that would almost perfectly describe any great Gupta emperor.  And, speaking of plays: an interesting feature of Indian plays of the time (aside from their very explicit eroticism) is the fact that they are bilingual. The male characters speak courtly Sanskrit, the females, children and lower classes speak Prakrit and are addressed in Prakrit by their men. If this is a reflection of life at the time, as drama tends to be, it’s significant how the very language that Indians spoke ingrained inequality from childhood.


The Iron Pillar and the Qutb Minar.

The emperors were not, however, narrow-minded individuals. Chandra-Gupta II’s heir, Kumara-Gupta, was one of the first patrons of the great university of Nalanda in Bihar, one of the greatest universities in global history with students from across the  world. Nor did they neglect the ancient and distinguished universities of Taxila, with Gupta mathematicians discovering, as we are taught in school, the concept of zero, and metalworkers attaining a high degree of skill in the casting of gold and other metals. (A 6-tonne Gupta iron pillar now at Mehrauli in Delhi has only slightly rusted in 1600 years of Indian weather, and even survived a cannonade ordered by the Persian conqueror Nadir Shah in 1739 CE. It mutely proclaims the glory of Chandra-Gupta II to this day). The immense cultural bloom of the time is visible, as I have discussed, in paintings, academia, numismatics, and religion, but let’s talk now of yet another aspect.


The Gupta Buddha. Arguably the greatest depiction in stone of the Buddha, and my personal favourite.

Gupta sculpture, as I mentioned in my latest article, is an Indian interpretation and refinement of the concern with human perfection first introduced by the Indo-Greek Gandhara school of art, and this is clearly visible in Gupta-era depictions of the Buddha, possibly the most beautiful depictions of The Enlightened One ever seen. (The Guptas were Hindu but were very religiously tolerant and were happy to patronise other sects.) The faces are serene, the lines of the body clear and well-formed, the folds of cloth well-realised. A careful arrangement of geometric lines and patterns indicates deeper meanings: nirvana for the Buddha, the heat and dust of combat in the carving of Krishna and Keshi above.

Like Amaravati art, Gupta sculpture too was exported to Southeast Asia, again influencing both religious and secular art. It wasn’t merely sculpture but even architectural and broader cultural ideas that were exported, with Indianised kingdoms and temples attested to from the 400s CE, and some Hindu traditions still kept alive and well today by native, non-Indian Hindus. Hinduism and Sanskritization being relatively assimilative, present-day local observances and beliefs vary greatly from Indian Hinduism.

The kingdom of Ayutthaya in Thailand was named after Rama’s birthplace, Ayodhya. Sanskritized rituals, dances and epics proliferated from Burma to Java, with an interesting mix of cultures from Indian traders who settled down, and local rulers who turned to Brahmanism for legitimacy and support for their rule. Without the mighty Gupta cultural juggernaut, it’s unlikely that there would have been Indian trade on that scale in the first place, and even more unlikely that local rulers would have accepted the foreign culture of a bunch of merchants who worshipped fire. The Gupta experiment with visual, royal Hinduism changed India and indeed Asia forever; it will always remain their greatest and longest-lasting achievement.

“The Gupta experiment with visual, royal Hinduism changed India and indeed Asia forever; it will always remain their greatest and longest-lasting achievement.”


The Great Temple of Vishnu at Angkor in Cambodia, the largest in the world, follows on earlier Gupta innovations of iconography, sculpture, and temple design.

Imperial Sunset


The Silk Road at its peak between the Roman, Gupta and Chinese Empires.

The Silk Road, that massive superhighway of goods and gold stretching from Rome to India to China, began to unravel owing to the actions of the Han emperors in China, hundreds of years ago. They had attacked a neighbouring nomadic tribe, who fled and attacked their neighbours in an escalating domino effect; many of these tribes had settled in South Asia and had been assimilated. But there was one tribe that did not want to settle, a tribe unimaginably barbaric and violent: the Huns.


Gupta cavalry and elephants smash a Hunnic horde.

The Great Hunnic Horde split into two: one group headed for Europe, driving before it the Alans, Magyars, and Goths, who successively attacked and brought the Western Roman Empire to its knees. Meanwhile the Eastern Roman Empire was too busy fighting Persia to trade; the Han dynasty collapsed, sending China into chaos. The great trade links between the world’s three superpowers were severed. The other Hunnic horde, the White Huns or Sveta Huna as they came to be called, headed for India and ran headlong into the last great Gupta emperor, named after the Hindu god of war: Skanda-Gupta, who smashed and scattered them to the winds.

Not even the Roman emperors had been able to defeat the Huns in pitched combat. But repeated Hunnic invasions forced Skandagupta to devalue currency to pay his army, since he could no longer rely on immense east-west trade. Hyperinflation combined with local rebellions from former subject kings brought the empire to its knees within decades of Skandagupta’s death; the Huns stormed in and brutally sacked and pillaged wherever they saw fit. The Guptas, to their credit, never stopped fighting. Under their last significant ruler, Narasimha-Gupta, they formed a coalition with their erstwhile vassal, King Yasovarman of Malwa, and drove the Huns out of India, saving it from a Dark Age like that into which Europe had just descended. The Huns fled to Kashmir and sacked it, then they headed to Gandhara and sacked it, then their khan died and the horde dispersed.


Skanda-Gupta as an archer, a heavily devalued coin. He still holds the by-now quite beleaguered imperial Garuda standard.

The Huns would never again be a threat to South Asia. But, sadly, neither would the Gupta emperors, who subsided into ignominy at Pataliputra until their unceremonious ouster by the last North Indian chakravartin: Coming up in my next article. Stay tuned! 🙂

Prequel: When in India, do as the Indians do

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


  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. Coin Photographs: The Coin India Virtual Museum
  6. Ajanta Cave Paintings: Wikimedia Commons and

When in India, do as the Indians do

The Evolution of Culture in South Asia, c. 180 BCE – 300 CE

In which the Indians establish a precedent for cultural assimilation which becomes their brand image until 2014

When we last left the Subcontinent, the Mauryan Wheel of Law had ceased to turn as the Indo-Greek kingdoms  began their conquest of the Punjab and Gangetic Valley, and local kingdoms and identities began to reassert themselves in former imperial territories.


The Indo-Greek King Menander Soter (Milinda) debates with the Buddhist monk Nagasena

This essay attempts to cover nearly five hundred years of history, almost triple the timescale of my older ones. In order to prevent my untimely demise at the hands of irate readers, therefore, I present instead of a dry, dynastic history of practically identical monarchs (with which the Internet abounds) a cultural history of the subcontinent, tracing the social intermingling and the intellectual diversity to which it was home. I begin chronologically with the Greeks and Scythians in the North and then examine the indigenous culture of the South, before returning to the Kushanas in the North and setting the stage for the Indian Golden Age under the Gupta emperors. Let’s begin!

Barbarians and Buddhism


Menander as represented on the Bharhut stupa. In one hand is an ivy branch (symbol of the Greek god Dionysos) and on his sword is the Buddhist triratna symbol.

As I’ve mentioned earlier, with the demise of Alexander the Great, his Persian, Afghan, and Baloch territories were disputed between the Mauryas and the Seleucids. After the death of Asoka Maurya, these territories were taken over by assorted Greek generals and administrators, who at various times were forced into a single mighty state (“The Indo-Greek Kingdom”), notably under the most interesting ruler King Menander I “Soter” (“The Saviour”), a Buddhist who is supposed to have converted after a stimulating debate with the teacher Nagasena.

Known as “Yavanas” in Sanskrit (from Persian Yona, Greek Ionia), the Greeks were a very important component of the consciousness of the subcontinent. Not only were they rulers and soldiers, but traders and  artists as well. The Gandhara school of art, which I have mentioned earlier, was a result of the interaction and likely intermarriage of Greek and Indian artisanal families.

Indo-Greek art is thick with little symbols which are testament to the influence these two cultures had on each other. I could dig up hundreds of examples: Bodhisattvas and Buddhas with Greek bodies and flowing robes; Indian gods with Greek beards pursuing Indo-Greek apsara-nymphs, and so on. But I’ve chosen the below image in particular:


Two Aristocratic Gandhara Ladies

Two Aristocratic Gandharan Ladies” is a masterpiece on many levels. It represents two ladies, evidently high-born and wealthy; sisters perhaps, or friends. Their features are a curious blend of Indian and Greek. Elegant hand gestures complement truly Indian proportions of breast and waist, their posture and brows delicately Greek. Their elaborately done-up hair is midway between the two but their jewellery and costumes are Indian; the drapery and folds of the cloth are again Greek. Imagine them in Menander’s capital, Sagala (Sialkot): a paradise of gardens, groves, lakes and tanks. The streets and squares are well-laid; the mansions of the aristocracy, to which they belong, are “aloft like the mountain peaks of the Himalayas”; there are hundreds of alm-halls for the monks; people throng the streets irrespective of caste, creed or colour; preachers from every sect and creed of the subcontinent debate and teach in the streets. Our ladies shop for muslin and silk; they inhale the scent of flowers and perfumes; they admire jewels set in warm gold, which glitter and glow in the sun, like the sun. The Buddhist Milinda-Panha (“Questions of Menander”) proclaims it an equal to Alakamanda, mythical capital of the god of wealth.

“Imagine them in Menander’s capital.. a paradise of gardens, groves, lakes and tanks.. the mansions of the aristocracy… are aloft like the mountain peaks of the Himalayas.”

It is difficult to underestimate the influence that the Indo-Greeks had on the culture of the subcontinent. Our aesthetic sense, the bedrock of everything from paintings to temple construction, is shaped by it; its idealised proportions, serene expressions, detailed folds of cloth, Indo-Corinthian columns, or even erotic courtship are reflected in one way or another in almost every subsequent production, usually by further refinement, idealisation, and elaboration.

Observe above the similarity in expression and the relative proportions of the facial features (eyes, brows, lips) between the former, a painting of the Bodhisattva Avalokitesvara from Ajanta, c. 6th century CE; and the latter, a Gandharan Buddha c. 1st century BCE/CE.

Scythians and Sakas


South Asia 50-100 BCE, depicting the many conflicting states and tribes of the time

Roughly around the time the imperial Maurya dynasty finally collapsed in India, the imperial Han Dynasty in China sent a great military expedition against their barbarian neighbours. Though they could not have known it at the time, this event set off one of the greatest migrations in human history. A tidal wave of nomadic peoples, each fleeing from their neighbours to the east, headed to the West; the migration would end nearly 600 years later with the fall of the Western Roman Empire and the Gupta Empire in the Indian subcontinent, at a time when the Han Dynasty fell in chaos.

“The consequences of conquest come back to haunt us all in the end: the fabric of human history connects all peoples and races, and is too complex for us to ever comprehend or predict.”                                                                                                   -Me

Of these many nomadic peoples, three are especially important to the story of India, and each of them will follow and topple the previous one, with interesting effects on Indian culture and economy. The first of these were the Scythian hordes or “Sakas”. They were fleeing the Kushanas (Yuezhi), and arrived at the borders of the Indo-Greek kingdoms around 80 BCE. Initially the Saka chiefs were overawed by the power of the kings, and swore fealty to them. But the tribes eventually swelled in numbers and ambition and began to unify and conquer their overlords. A few decades later, under King Azes I, they had conquered Gandhara and Punjab; they then headed to Gujarat and the Gangetic plain, supposedly even sacking the old Mauryan capital at Pataliputra.


Saka and Indo-Greek cavalry in combat

The Scythians then settled down and became “Sakas” to their new Indian subjects. The kings established two major satrapies, in the Persian style: one at Mathura (ruled by the Northern Satrap or, as rendered in Indian languages, Kshatrapa), and another, much more prominent one at Gujarat under the Western Maha Kshatrapa, which became increasingly prominent as the King and then the Northern Satrapy were uprooted by the Yuezhi (“Kushanas”) who were hot on their tail. But more on that later.


An Indo-Scythian couple inspect their herds

Under the Sakas, there was of course the usual intermingling of races and costumes but in addition a patronage of indigenous art. Some Sakas were pagan, some Buddhist, and some Hindu; their ideas of nature-gods fused with and helped in the evolution of existing subcontinental religious observances. They inaugurated an era of timekeeping (the Saka era); their style of minting coins (copied from the Greeks) was further copied by many subsequent Indian rulers; their pastoral, horse-rearing culture is sure to have had an effect on the development of later militaristic castes. In addition, their close genealogical ties to the tribes who were by now masters of Central Asia further promoted Silk Road trade in the subcontinent, as did their development of the great port of Bhrigukachchha (Barygaza) in Gujarat, a major entrepot for Roman trade. Their complete assimilation in the subcontinent can be deduced from an inscription by the Western Maha Kshatrapa Rudradaman I, c. 130 CE, which he had carved on a great dam at Junagadh, constructed under Chandragupta Maurya about 400 years prior and finally restored by himself.

Be it accomplished! The Mahakshatrapa Rudradaman.. he who was resorted to by all castes and chosen as their lord to protect them.. who has attained wide fame by studying and remembering, by the knowledge and practice of, grammar, music, logic and other great sciences; who..”

Rudradaman I. Compare the excellent depiction of facial features to the coins of Antialkidas.

The list of Rudradaman’s most excellent qualities continues at length in true Indian style: he could be any Indian king were it not for the fact that he is, patrilineally, a Saka. Even more important: the inscription is in pure Sanskrit, of which Rudradaman was apparently a great scholar. Why is this important? Because, it seems, the Sakas turned to patronage of Brahmans and the culture of the elite to bolster their rule. Asoka Maurya had spoken to his subjects in Prakrit, for he had no need to pander to anyone, being immensely popular with the Buddhist masses. The Saka usage of Sanskrit is quite possibly an effort to seek legitimacy by hearkening back to traditions of language and art that had been the preserve of the upper castes. It is quite possible that this reflects the growing power, at last, of Brahmanism. The Saka precedent of “respecting” what was earlier a very amorphous caste system would be followed for hundreds of years, most damagingly by the British.

Satavahanas and Sanskritization

Gautamiputra Satakarni

Gautamiputra Satakarni (seated, center right) celebrates his defeat of the Scythian hordes


My own sketch of the Amaravati Stupa

By the end of the reign of Asoka Maurya, urbanization had just taken off in South India, with the Tamil poets of the deep South beginning to compose the great corpus of poetry, the Sangam literature. Having come into contact with the North, South Indian urban centers grew in leaps and bounds, fuelled by the immense profits of trade with the East and the West. Thanks to the efforts of Asoka, Buddhism was quite popular. Despite the political uncertainty of the times, Indian artisanal goods consistently improved in quality over the next few centuries; penetration of trade links continued at a tremendous pace; merchant classes grew more and more influential. How did this happen?

Working professionals formed trading conglomerates to ensure quality standards and uniform pricing, and make consensual representations to a plurality of petty rulers. Within a few generations, guild families were intermarrying and providing cheap credit to such inductees to form new family businesses. Their economic power was sufficient for them to extend independent patronage to artists  and religious institutions such as the Buddhist Sangha: notable examples of these are the Amaravati school of art, arguably one of the most influential art styles in human history, and the magnificent Amaravati Stupa.


Possible Satavahana princess, from one of the earliest caves in Ajanta

Economic prosperity and political power developed apace. After suffering a shocking blow under the Saka hordes at the turn of the first millennium CE, the Satavahana tribe of Andhra had, under their greatest ruler, Gautamiputra Satakarni, unified most of the Deccan and defeated not only the Sakas but the Greeks (Yavanas) and Parthians (Pahlavas) as well. This unified kingdom was ruled by a central king-of-kings (rajaraja or rajadhiraja) who had subdued a number of petty local rajas and thus could not rely on the central bureaucracy to maintain power, as the Mauryas had. Thus the Satavahanas, like the Sakas, began to overawe their trembling vassals through immense Hindu ceremonies such as the Asvamedha or horse sacrifice, and trumpet their splendour by patronizing poor Brahmans. The powerful specialized guilds needed to be kept happy; thus they were turned into jati and eventually moved from Buddhism to a place in the caste system, a part of the edifice of royal power.

“This unified kingdom.. could not rely on the central bureaucracy to maintain power. Thus the Satavahanas… moved from Buddhism to a place in the caste system, a part of the edifice of royal power.”

But, just to clarify, the brutally oppressive system of later years was nowhere in sight yet. Caste was at this point still quite flexible as Sanskrit/Hindu culture began to spread through the subcontinent and reach accommodations with local traditions, cults, and elites (a process called “Sanskritization“). At this point Buddhism is still the religion of the  majority: the socio-economic conditions are not yet ripe for rigidity, but the seeds have just been sown.

Kushanas and Cosmopolitanism

Let’s summarise the evolution of the subcontinent so far.

  • North: Highly cosmopolitan, urbanized and religiously fluid owing to the multitude of foreign contacts; beginnings of Brahminical patronage and a shift to Hinduism. Buddhism still predominant; prosperity from land-based trade along the nascent Silk Road.
  • South: Beginning to diverge from the North ethnically and politically under local rulers; rapid Sanskritization of elites and kings causing a wane in the influence of Buddhism; prosperity from East-West trade along the coast; urbanization moving inland.

Bust of a Kushan Prince

Particularly eagle-eyed readers may have noticed that I mentioned a tribe called the Yuezhi, who were hot on the tails of the Sakas. For a brief while they focussed their attentions on petty tribal infighting while raiding the Parthian empire in Persia, and then turned their attentions back to their ancestral enemies, the Sakas, who had by this time settled down and become thoroughly Indian. Under a succession of martial kings, beginning with a certain Kujula Kadphises, the Yuezhi wiped out the Saka kingdom and the Northern Kshatrapa at Mathura. Wisely enough, the Western Kshatrapa swore fealty and was spared by the new “Kushan” Kingdom.



Possible reconstruction of the Great Stupa at Purushapura: 700 feet high with great bells and streamers at every tier

The Kushanas reached their apex under King Kanishka, a descendant of the aforementioned Kujula. His kingdom, stretching from Central Asia to Pataliputra, provided a stable haven for the development of the Silk Road trade route and benefited immensely from it. In fact, contemporary Roman writers bemoan the immense drain of gold from their empire (which was enjoying an era of peace and prosperity under the excellent emperors Trajan and Hadrian) to India at around this time. More important to the history of humankind is Kanishka’s religious and cultural syncretism. As cosmopolitanism reached its peak in Gandhara, Kanishka’s empire bore emblems of Greek, Buddhist, Hindu, and even some Persian culture; he patronized both the elegant Gandhara and the solid Mathura schools of art. At his massive capital, Purushapura (“City of Men/ City of Man”: modern Peshawar), he ordered the construction of the greatest Buddhist monument ever built. An 87-metre wide, 210-metre tall stupa that dwarfed even the Amaravati stupa in comparison, this multi-storied marvel was studded with jewels and gold and could be seen from miles away. Unfortunately for posterity, this wonder of the ancient world has not survived, and all we know of it comes from a tale by the Chinese pilgrim Xuanzang 500 years later.

“Of all the Stupas in the world.. not one comes close to this in grandeur. Everybody agrees that this is the most wonderful Stupa in the whole of the inhabited world..”



Mahayana Buddhist coin of Kanishka with Greco-Kushan script. Obv: Shahenshah Kanishka the Kushan; Rev: “BODDO” or Buddha.

Buddhism had begun its journey from philosophy to religion from the time of Asoka Maurya and the Second Buddhist Council; Kanishka ordered a Fourth Buddhist Council which definitively founded the Mahayana (“Great Vehicle”) school of Buddhism, which worshipped the Buddha as a deity in addition to assorted Bodhisattvas such as Avalokitesvara and Vajrapani, with its own distinctive stories, scriptures, and pantheon. Kanishka’s control of the Silk Road, and his personal patronage, helped disseminate this and ensured that it was the dominant school of thought for centuries in countries as far-flung as Japan, Tibet and China.

Prosperous but not decadent; intellectually vital; religiously syncretic; ethnically diverse; artistically sophisticated; the subcontinent had an unmistakable cosmopolitanism that, arguably, was never repeated in its history. There is great glory and sophistication yet to come in my story, but the deep connections that South Asia (not just India) once had with the world in general and with Central Asia and Afghanistan in particular are, like Kanishka’s stupa, no more  than rubble and ash.

Prelude to the Golden Guptas

With the death of Kanishka, the Kushan Kingdom began to unravel under pressure from the Sassanid dynasty of Persia. Meanwhile, after Rudradaman delivered a death-blow to the Satavahanas, the Western Kshatrapas too were in decline. The time was ripe for a reassertion of the indigenous culture of the subcontinent, much enriched in art, culture and wealth by its experience of foreign contact. Wealth flowed freely in the cities, the populace was thriving as never before, Brahmanism had evolved into a formidable royal tool. Petty princes abounded across the subcontinent, and the precedent for their subjugation had been set. It was time for someone to follow in the footsteps of Chandragupta Maurya and Gautamiputra Satakarni.


There was Samudragupta! Equal to the gods.. By whom the whole tribe of kings on Earth were overthrown.. Whose deeds in battle are kindled with prowess.. around whom Fortune circles.”

It was time for India’s Golden Age. And, as the Roman Empire declined in the West and Han China subsided into chaos, India would do what neither of these powers could: break the power of the Huns and keep alight the flames of civilization as the greatest imperial power of its time. Stay tuned for more!

Sequel: Hearts of Gold, Times of Gold

Prequel: Pax Maurya, or, Mauryan Peace

Pax Maurya, or, Mauryan Peace

Asoka Maurya and the fall of the Empire, c. 300 – 180 BCE.

In which the Indians, having founded an empire, experiment with organised religion.

He who had once held the world in the palm of his hand, died with no more than half a plum to his name.


The Gateway to Asoka Maurya’s Great Stupa at Sanchi, built to house relics of the Buddha

Asoka Maurya, a colossus in global, Indian, and Buddhist history, occupies a similar position in Buddhism to that of the Roman emperor Constantine (the first to proclaim tolerance for Roman Christians) in Christianity. Buddhist writers generally present Asoka as a wicked monster redeemed  and turned into an angel only by Buddhism. Therefore, I’ll make a distinction between religious and non-religious sources in this essay.

“Asoka Maurya.. occupies a similar position in Buddhism to that of the Roman emperor Constantine in Christianity”.

My aim here is to present Asoka as a human, and not as an apotheosized figure as most school textbooks do. I argue that far from being the Perfect Human Being that he is generally assumed to be, the real figure is far more compelling. The first part of this post discusses his traumatic formative years. An interlude of sorts discusses in further detail the immensity of his vision, with a word-picture of which I am rather proud. The third section discusses the culture of South Asia at the time and anticipates future changes. The fourth traces the fall of the Mauryas, Edward Gibbon style.

Finally, for a life as dramatic, eventful and eventually tragic as Asoka’s, there is an inexplicable paucity of great artwork (excepting Hutchinson’s excellent Story of the Nations, and the excellent work of the Sri Lankan artist Prasanna Weerakkody, who graciously provided the featured image for this essay). While it’s something I aim to eventually address with my own work, I apologize in advance for the preponderance of black and white imagery.

Asoka the Terrible: 304-260 BCE


Asoka as depicted on the Sanchi Stupa, with two of his wives

Propaganda aside, Asoka Maurya (ironically, the name means “Without Sorrow“), born to the emperor Bindusara “Slayer-of-Foes” Maurya, grandson of the conqueror Chandragupta Maurya, did not seem destined for greatness at birth. He was short and not particularly good-looking, with rough skin that made him the laughing stock of the royal maidens. His mother was not of great rank compared to the emperor’s other queens. Nor was he the eldest son, for there were a number of older half-brothers better qualified (in age and paternal affection) to be next in line for the throne.

He is not likely to have led a life with plenty of parental affection. This manifested, like with so many neglected children, in a myriad of generally debauched habits, including cruelty to captured enemies, a general addiction to hunting, and supposedly even some twisted S&M including the burning of members of his harem.

“The emperor, apparently, saw potential in this dissolute son.”


Bollywood depiction of an aged Bindusara Maurya. Among other mistakes, ancient Indian queens rarely wore so much clothing. 😛

The emperor, apparently, saw potential in this dissolute son and selected him for advancement (or, possibly, humiliation?). He was dispatched to be the governor of the western provincial capital at Ujjayini (Ujjain), while his elder half-brother and heir-apparent Susima Maurya was dispatched to the grand northern capital at Takshasila (Taxila). Asoka distinguished himself through astute negotiations with the disaffected populace of his province, securing it for his father. (I should probably also mention that he took the daughter of a local merchant as a lover and fathered two children.) Susima, however, ended up causing a revolt which the aging emperor managed to put down.

Asoka’s time at Ujjain was to prove in retrospect the happiest of his life, for terrible news soon came to him from his network of friendly merchants and travellers. The old emperor, it was rumoured, was dead. Prince Susima, as heir apparent, had been summoned to quietly assume power before the news could spread, and he was on his way to the imperial capital, Pataliputra,with an army.

Asoka moved quickly. Leaving behind conjugal happiness in the pursuit of power, he collected a small force of loyal troops and marched for the capital at speed, while sending messages promising favour and advancement to the ministers of the empire. When Susima arrived at the city, perfumed, bedecked and prepared for his coronation, he found Asoka’s banners flying from the walls and his half-brother sitting on an elephant in front of the ceremonial gate, surrounded by the imperial guard and his troops. Infuriated, he threw caution to the winds and charged his own elephant towards the upstart. Seconds before he made contact, the ground gave way and he fell into the pit of live coals that Asoka had prepared and concealed in front of his position.

“When Susima arrived.. perfumed, bedecked, and prepared for his coronation, he found Asoka’s banners flying from the walls.”

In the space of four years Asoka consolidated the empire and defeated all other claimants. His grandfather had conquered North India, and his father, the South; the ambitious, brash new emperor needed an equal achievement. Kalinga (Orissa) had never truly submitted to the authority of the Mauryan emperors, and its position as an independent port on the eastern coast threatened Mauryan dominance of sea trade. Asoka, therefore, determined to conquer it and set forth with a massive army.


A CG rendering of Mauryan infantry. based on inscriptions from the Sanchi and Barhut stupas

The conquest of Kalinga is infamous not only due to its portrayal in Buddhist sources but also due to Asoka’s own well-documented regret at its outcome. He was victorious, but only at a terrible cost. Hundreds of thousands of people supposedly died, and what portions of the population were still alive at the end of it were uprooted and scattered across the empire to permanently extinguish all possibility of rebellion.

If it was any consolation to the dead, it was to prove, one way or another, a turning point in the history of the world, for the unthinkable happened: Asoka the Terrible called for peace and an end to war in his empire.

Interlude: The Idea of Empire

The Kalinga war had ended with a sobering realisation for the emperor: clearly the amount of military force required to keep together the tremendous patchwork of client states, directly administered territory, and tribes that composed the empire was simply unsustainable. The borders and administration needed to be consolidated; more importantly, his subjects needed to have something to unify them, something more than the threat of force. And so he turned, like Constantine would centuries later, to a spiritual movement, and adapted it to an imperial power structure.

“…He turned to a spiritual movement, and adapted it to an imperial power structure.”

doadwSouth Asia was not lacking for interesting religious sects. Asoka’s own grandfather, it will be recalled, was a Jain; his father Bindusara professed adherence to the Ajivika sect (which held that there was no free will and that all was preordained). The cities of the Gangetic plain were in the immense intellectual ferment that always seems to accompany the economic success which washes away older systems of production. Imagine, for a moment, the crowds of Buddhist monks in saffron robes and Jain monks in white robes begging for alms in Pataliputra, while an atheist and Brahman debate in the marketplace; nearby a Greek merchant with a retinue of Bactrians burns incense in a temple of the demigod Vasudeva, who he sees as a form of Hercules. A Persian prayer-house next door is home to a fire altar where merchants pray to the immortal deity Ahura Mazda. The riverbank of the Ganga, a brisk walk away, is thickly populated with people performing their morning ablutions and praying for the remission of their sins, while naked ascetics tell them that all religion is folly since everything that one does is preordained anyway.

“Imagine, for a moment, the crowds of Buddhist monks in saffron robes and Jain monks in white robes begging for alms in Pataliputra..”


Asoka sets up a pillar edict, with Buddhist missionaries in attendance

Of the bewildering variety available to him, the vessel that the emperor chose was Buddhism, a spiritual creed which ignored the older Brahminical caste system and preached the cessation of earthly suffering and the attainment of enlightenment via the control of desire. It already had a network of monasteries across the subcontinent, with bands of preaching monks who would make a great mouthpiece. Furthermore, Buddhism was inherently a religion of peace and was immensely popular with the wealthy mercantile classes, who were ostracized in the Brahminical system. Asoka therefore called a great Buddhist council at Pataliputra, which expelled heretics and established a single “orthodoxy”. By bestowing them with immense endowments, opening monasteries, building monuments at their holy sites, and funding successful proselytization abroad (especially, as we shall see, in China), Asoka quickly propelled Buddhism to the status of a world religion.

However, it is doubtful how devoted a Buddhist Asoka actually was. None of his edicts explicitly mention that he was Buddhist. In addition, Asoka’s concept of Dhamma, to which his edicts refer a number of times, is a political concept that is clearly meant to secure the loyalty of a multitude of subject peoples – a lowest common denominator, as it were, that all his subjects could get behind. Having decided upon a foundation for the empire, Asoka had his words, his vision, and his accomplishments carved into great rocks and pillars that he caused to be set up across his dominions: the world’s first great propagandist.

The Beloved of the Gods, King Priyadarsin, speaks thus… the sound of the drum has been replaced by the sound of the Dharma!

His words speak to us from centuries away as clear as the day he wrote them. There is no trace of courtly grammar and stiffness in what he says: he sounds, as he claims, like a father speaking to his children; oddly human, and a bit of a do-gooder despite all he had been through in life. Asoka Maurya was indeed one for the ages.

Asoka the Peaceful: 260 – 232 BCE

ashoka2So we finally arrive at what I’ve been promising my eager readers for the last couple of weeks: a discussion of the culture and administration of South Asia under the Mauryas.

Firstly, the empire itself was divided into five provinces with relatively independent governors directly responsible to the emperor, akin to the Persian system of Cyrus the Great. Modern Afghanistan, Kashmir, and Punjab, the Gandhara Province, were administered from the great university city of Taksashila, connected to the imperial capital at Pataliputra by the Uttarapatha, an extremely important (and ancient) highway now known as the Grand Trunk Road. At the border of South Asia and the Greek kingdoms of Bactria, Gandhara became home to the beautiful school of art of the same name, which fused Indian, Greek and Persian elements. The universities of the province had been responsible, about a century earlier, for the codification of Sanskrit grammar under the great teacher Panini. (It is only after Panini’s work that Sanskrit truly takes on its name, meaning “refined, artificial” as opposed to other dialects, collectively called Prakrit, meaning “coarse, natural”). Gandhara was a highly cosmopolitan and prosperous province, with Indian, Greek, and Afghan subjects, as evidenced by Asoka’s trilingual inscriptions there.


The great University at Taxila, one of the earliest known centers of higher learning

Further south was the Western Province, with its urban centers concentrated around Ujjain, though the Mauryas claimed suzerainty over client states as far away as Balochistan, Gujarat and Sindh (the lack of concentrated urban centers may be inferred from the relative lack of Asokan inscriptions, as one may reasonably assume that Asoka only ordered an inscription if he considered that there would be people to read it). This province, already prosperous with trade, had further attention lavished on it by Asoka, who set up religious endowments on every imperial tour.

South of the Narmada was the Deccan Province with its capital at Suvarnagiri in Karnataka. A sphere of Mauryan territory  surrounded by vassal tribes and chiefdoms (such as the Satavahanas in Andhra), Asoka’s promulgation of Buddhism was to become immensely important there once the province broke free in the declining years of the empire.

Heading north along the East coast, we arrive at the province of Kalinga: Asoka’s largest addition to the empire. Administered from Tosali, in his edicts in the area Asoka repents for the bloodshed and violence he caused but never says that the conquest of Kalinga itself was wrong. Nor does he allow the displaced peoples to return to their homeland. So yet again we see the contradictions inherent in this figure: his words are that of one who genuinely believes in his ideas of good and evil. In one edict he brags, with childlike innocence, that he’s cut down on the amount of meat consumed in the palace; yet at the same time he is no fool. Regretfully he must maintain, just in case, his iron grip on the empire.


Tribals rejoice as Asoka’s envoy declares peace after the Kalinga War

Mauryan imperialism until Asoka was in keeping with the spirit of the times: namely, the control of as much territory as it could get. After Kalinga, however, what set it apart from its contemporaries in China and the Greco-Mediterranean world  was not only its long peace but also the benevolence of the state: Asoka’s stated tolerance, philanthropism and infrastructure investment. Compare this to China, which had just formed its own first empire under the infamously cruel Qin Shi Huangdi, who burnt books and established a highly extractive centralised bureaucracy (which became the defining feature of Chinese imperialism); or the Mediterranean, which the successors of Alexander had carved up among themselves, and where they were now carving up each other with incessant wars.

In terms of its treatment of women, the Mauryan empire was quite similar to other contemporary states. What few sources we have of the time mention only the Mauryan queens and princesses, who were generally seen as childbearers, connivers, or models of virtue. Like in almost every Indian state, there was apparently no limit to royal polygamy: always an indicator of misogyny. In the Buddhist Sangha, of course, nuns or “bhikkhunis” were respected, but could not participate in the great theological debates of the time which resulted in the Theravada and Mahayana schools of Buddhist philosophy.

A singular oddity, which became a sort of Indian tradition, is that Mauryan imperial bodyguards were exclusively female. Perhaps, considering the regicidal behaviour of the Praetorian Guard in Rome centuries later, it was a wise decision.

Racism at least in urban centers is not attested to, but Asoka’s paternalistic, patronizing attitude to tribal vassals is evident from his inscriptions. It is unlikely that caste counted for too much in an empire whose founder might have been from a tribe of peacock-tamers: “Mayura” is Sanskrit for “peacock”.  The social conditions needed for the solidification of caste and dogma did not yet exist, though the Buddhist Sangha, at least, had already departed alarmingly from the teachings of the Buddha.


Fa Hsien at the ruins of Asoka’s palace, 407 CE

Finally, we arrive at the imperial capital province of Pataliputra itself, consisting of the lush, wealthy Gangetic valley. The province was directly administered, in true Chanakyan style, with every functionary from ministers to spies. (Something that is not taught in schools is that the Mauryan state ran brothels, where the prostitutes would loyally report everything they heard to the imperial spymasters). This great city on the Ganga was the jewel of almost every succeeding pan-Indian empire for hundreds of years. An immense parallelogram, 1.5 miles by 9 miles, the city walls were pierced by 64 gates and washed by the holy Ganga. The imperial palace occupied pride of place: seven hundred years later, a Chinese Buddhist monk, Fa Hsien, who paid a visit to the homeland of Buddhism (perhaps Asoka would have been proud?), was awed by the immense ruins of the place and was convinced it had been built by spirits. Now all of it lies in silt at the bottom of the Ganga, slumbering.


Decline and Fall : 238 – 180  BCE

Buddhist sources, for understandable reasons, claim that Asoka in his old age continued to give away all the resources of the empire to the Sangha. Worried, his ministers cut off his access to the treasury. The old man retired to his quarters, but he had already given away all his possessions. All that was left was a plum, of which he had had a bite for breakfast. He told his servant to make it into a stew and serve it to a monk; and, happy at last, the old emperor smiled and died.

The real story, however, is rather more complex.


Asoka’s Queen (1910), by Abanindranath Tagore

In his declining years, Asoka was much plagued by palace intrigues. His favourite son and heir presumptive, Kunala, had been blinded supposedly by one of the emperor’s jealous young wives. Meanwhile, older and more distant relatives, in charge of various provinces, played a game of their own, supporting one heir, and then another. Kunala’s son Dasaratha was chosen as a compromise candidate but was emperor only in Pataliputra. In the West his cousin Samprati Maurya ruled from Ujjain; his uncle Jalauka declared himself King of Kashmir; another cousin, Virasena Maurya, declared independence in Gandhara and went to war with the Greek kingdoms that had recently broken free of Seleucid rule in Bactria.



1st century BCE Satavahana depiction of Asoka as a chakravartin

In the South the Satavahana dynasty of Amaravati (Andhra Pradesh), who had been loyal to Asoka, broke free and set out to conquer the Deccan territories. Kalinga, of course, did not remain loyal for long either. It appears that without a ruler of Asoka’s charisma, there was little to hold the empire together, despite the efforts of Asoka’s Dharma. The lack of a truly central bureaucracy and uniform set of laws (especially governing succession) was something for which every Indian empire henceforth would inevitably pay a price. Yet the feudal system had its own merits: as a fierce sense of independence grew in every region; local cultures, languages and art bloomed into splendour, as I’ll show in my next post.

“The lack of a truly central bureaucracy and uniform set of laws… was something for which every Indian empire henceforth would inevitably pay a price.”

Meanwhile the authority of the emperors continued to decline at a tremendous pace. Virasena Maurya of Gandhara had angered the Indo-Greek kingdoms, who stormed into Punjab and raided ever deeper into the Gangetic heartland. The last emperor, Brihadratha Maurya, was defeated by the brilliant general King Demetrius “Aniketos”(“The Undefeated”), and his prestige never recovered. His commander-in-chief, the Brahmin general Pusyamitra Sunga, assassinated him during a military parade.

Thus did the first great imperial Indian dynasty pass into dust and the myth-smoke.

In my next article I’ll discuss India’s Age of Paradox: without an imperial power, the subcontinent was still flourishing and ALIVE like it had never been before. What is it about the lack of paternalistic centralism that helps us prosper? Stay tuned to find out!

Sequel: When in India, do as the Indians do

Prequel: Gloria Maurya, or, Mauryan Glory


  1. Thapar, R. (1973). Aśoka and the Decline of the Mauryas. Oxford University Press.
  2. Allen, C. (2012). Ashoka: The Search for India’s Lost Emperor. Hachette UK.
  3. Keay, J. (2011). India: A History. Revised and Updated. Grove/Atlantic, Inc..
  4. Thapar, R. (2015). The Penguin history of early India: From the origins to AD 1300. Penguin UK.
  5. Basham, A. L., & Rizvi, S. A. A. (1956). The Wonder that was India. Sidgwick and Jackson.
  6. Featured image: “Maha Bo” Embassy Gift of the Sri Maha bodhi by Emperor Ashoka of India to King Devanampiyatissa of Lanka, by Prasanna Weerakkody. 8’x4’ feet, Acrylic on canvas.Sri Lankan High Commission in Delhi, India. Facebook page: 



Gloria Maurya, or, Mauryan Glory

The Establishment of the Mauryan Empire, c. 320 BCE.

In Which the Indians find themselves at the wrong end of some rather pointy sticks (not kebabs) which introduce them to Mediterranean culture.

There was once a man who was convinced he was a god. Others were equally convinced he was a megalomaniac, and a drunkard.

He had already conquered the largest empire in the world but he wanted more. Stories were whispered to him of a nation at the edge of the world, of a mighty river with immensely wealthy kingdoms on the banks, of naked ascetics who had attained the inner peace which he, perhaps, truly craved. So off he went, dragging his exhausted troops along, supplemented with some natives of this land of which he had heard, who had formerly fought for the Persians.


It seemed this land, India, would not be too hard to conquer: the very first king he encountered, Ambhi (Omphis) of Taksasila (Taxila) surrendered to him abjectly with gifts of gold and livestock. The god-on-earth was generous: he repaid the gifts and confirmed his new ally in his position as King. Then he crossed over into what the locals called “The Land of the Five Rivers”. And there, Alexander the Great, King of Kings, faced the deadliest battle of his career.

The Battle of the Hydaspes River

The Paurava Raja had gathered a great army intent on stopping this bloodthirsty conqueror at the river Hydaspes (Jhelum). Crossing in daylight would be suicide, as Alexander’s troops would be exposed to a hail of missiles and die before they even made contact with the enemy. So he ordered them, oddly enough, to party.

For three days and three nights, the Macedonian (Greek) camp echoed with the sound of music and feasting, while Alexander led cavalry sorties up and down river to find a crossing point. His lieutenants would draw the Raja’s attention by pretending to cross the river at the primary ford (where the majority of his army was), and pulling back at the last moment. Eventually the Raja was convinced that the Greeks were cowards and had no intention of fighting. Then, on a rainy night in 326 BC, Alexander and about 11,000 troops crossed the Hydaspes at a ford they had found.

Eventually the Raja was convinced that the Greeks were cowards and had no intention of fighting.

The shocked Indians turned their troops to face the threat. The Raja sent his son and a detachment of chariots to prevent the crossing. The river banks turned into a hell of mud and blood, the chariots were bogged down and immobilized. The prince was dragged off his chariot and slaughtered. His troops fled. The rest of the Indian army waited in grim anticipation.


Alexander at the Hydaspes. Contrast the discipline and armour of the Macedonian and Indian lines

Alexander had no intention of facing his opponent’s 200 war elephants head on. Instead, he ordered forward a detachment of horse archers to weaken the Indian left flank. Then, he personally led forward heavy cavalry and pike detachments. As the Indian left began to falter, the elephants charged Alexander’s center, inflicting heavy casualties. The mahouts drove them perpendicular to the pike phalanxes, shattering the Greek pikes. However, the beasts were soon maddened by the darts flung by Alexander’s skirmishers, and the combined effect of hundreds of twenty-foot pikes drove them insane with rage. As they turned back and charged their own lines, the rest of Alexander’s army, which had crossed under the cover of the noise of the storm and the battle, appeared to the rear of the Indian lines.

Though surrounded, the Raja refused to surrender. He ordered his army into a double phalanx, to face the enemy on both sides. In the utter butchery of the battle, the Indian discipline crumbled under the feet of mad elephants, bloodthirsty Greek cavalry, and rank upon rank of well-drilled pikemen stamping them into mud, blood and death. The army shattered and yet the Raja fought on.


Romantic 19th-century depiction of the surrender of the Paurava Raja

Then, some sources tell us, one of Alexander’s young Indian mercenaries, Sandrocottus/Sandrokoptos, rode up to the Raja’s elephant and convinced him to stand down. The King was taken to the King-of-Kings in chains. “How do you wish me to treat you?”, demanded the conqueror. “Treat me like a King!” demanded the 7-foot tall Indian. Impressed with his courage (or was it caste pride? Keay speculates all that the Raja insisted on was being treated by the Kshatriya code of honour), the Greeks installed him as the governor, or satrap, of the Punjab province. Thus did Indians first taste an organized empire, and the culture and military strategy of the Mediterranean.


An “Indian Julius Caesar”

At this point we must leave Alexander, for his story diverges from that which I wish to tell. (He died either of poison or disease, and his empire was divided amongst his generals). The mercenary Sandrocottus, though, has a fascinating life ahead of him. In case you haven’t guessed already: Sandrocottus or Sandrokoptos is merely the Greek rendering of the Indian Chandragupta

The Gangetic Plains were ruled by the Nanda dynasty of Pataliputra, by all accounts immensely unpopular with their subjects (history is written by the victors: one has to wonder if that was just how Chandragupta portrayed them to disguise his ambition). An apocryphal tale relates how Chandragupta’s initial attack was defeated, and he obtained inspiration by watching a mother scold a child who had burnt its fingers by eating its flatbread from the center and not from the edges. (The same story is told of Alfred the Great as well).

chandragupta_mauryan_empire_305_bcIrrespective of how he did it (an alliance of unhappy Nanda vassals led by his Greek-drilled troops perhaps?), Chandragupta Maurya had, like his idol Alexander’s conquest of Persia, overrun the entirety of North India in about six years. Then, he promptly uprooted the feudal structure of the older kingdom, instituting provinces, governors, and a civilian bureaucracy on a Greco-Persian model. India, then, had its first Empire; Chandragupta secured his western provinces by defeating Seleukos “Nikator” (“The Victorious”), the most powerful of Alexander’s successors, expanding the empire into Afghanistan and Baluchistan, and adding Greeks and Afghans to his rapidly-expanding repertoire of subjects.

Chandragupta’s fame is nearly equaled by that of his supposed mentor, Kautilya, whose Arthashastra is a book of cold-blooded political calculation and tenets of rule that would probably cause Machiavelli to quake in his boots. (Kautilya was actually a proven and successful administrator, whereas Machiavelli ended his career as a failed diplomat. Yet, oddly enough, Machiavelli is the global political mastermind, but outside of India, whoever heard of Chanakya/Kautilya? 😛 )

“.. Oddly enough, Machiavelli is the global political mastermind, but outside of India, whoever heard of Chanakya?”


Victorian depiction of Chandragupta Maurya entertaining his wives

Another (probably spurious) tale tells us that Chanakya aimed to protect Chandragupta from poisoning by feeding him incrementally larger doses of poison each day (which is supposedly the same thing that Mithridates VI “Eupator” of Pontus did to himself). Interesting how stories and patterns reverberate across cultures, isn’t it? One day, Chandragupta, not knowing about the poison, shared some of his food with his pregnant wife. She died, but they were able to save the child. Asphyxiation in the womb had left him with a blue mark (bindu) on his forehead, and so “Bindusara” he was named. (It is unknown what consequences Chanakya faced from the probably infuriated and/or despondent emperor).

After an illustrious career, the old Chandragupta, apparently, decided on a quiet retirement. He headed south, beyond the limits of his empire, to the Jain monastery of Sravanabelagola in Karnataka. There, after a few years of asceticism, he ritually starved himself to death. Compare this to Alexander’s death as a bloated, half-mad shell of a man: the conflict between renunciation and temporal satisfaction is an interesting and recurring theme in Indian history.


The cave where Chandragupta is supposed to have died

Bindusara “Amitraghata” (“Slayer of Enemies”) Maurya, 22, was now emperor. He maintained friendly relations with the Hellenic world (they called him “Amitrochates”).  His programme of conquest pushed the imperial borders all the way down to Tamil Nadu (the early Sangam literature, that immense corpus of Tamil poetry, mentions the white pennants of the Mauryan chariots as they thundered across the land). Governors were installed, and wealth poured into the immense capital of Pataliputra on the Ganga. Imperial highways encouraged trade and the subcontinent began to flourish. As the emperor aged, he sent his sons to govern provinces in order to prepare them to take over on his eventual death.

Two of these sons, Susima and Asoka, are especially important to the story of India. In my next post, I’ll discuss possibly the most famous of Indian rulers, and how he literally changed the world.

Continue reading

India: An Introduction

In which the Author Explores his rather fuzzy motivations

Let me tell you a story. ashokanpillar

In Allahabad stands a pillar. It is crowned by a carven lion, slouched with barely-concealed fury and great elegance, glowering at those who approach. The lion is carved in a style distinctly reminiscent of the great Persian capital of Persepolis, and there are elements of Greek sculpture in its musculature and of Indian art in its stylized mane.


Ashoka as a Chakravartin

This pillar was commissioned by a man who spanned an empire stretching from Afghanistan to the furthest south of the subcontinent, a man yet humble enough not to call himself (as later Indian rulers would) “rajadhiraja” (King of Kings) or even chakravartin. This man in his carvings calls himself nothing more than the raja of Magadha. This man was the Mauryan emperor Ashoka.

A little below that are the engravings of another man, one to whom the appellations of rajadhiraja, paramarajadhiraja, and even rajarajadhiraja (King of King of Kings, or Emperor of Emperors) are plentifully applied. This man rampaged across the Gangetic Plains and most of the rest of India, drawing a galaxy of lesser rulers into orbit around him. He was the great-grandfather of one of the few commanders in human history that was able to defeat the might of the Huns (those barbarians who had humbled even the Romans); from his capital at Pataliputra on the Ganga, his campaigns had “scented the breezes of the Southern Sea”; he was an “Indian Napoleon”. This man was the Gupta emperor Samudra-Gupta.


Jahangir on a Lion Hunt

On top of Ashoka’s are the engravings of yet another man, a patron of Sanskrit and the arts responsible for one of the most beautiful cultural blooms in the history of the subcontinent, a man whose son built the most glorious of Indian monuments, whose father had humbled the mighty Rajputs and inaugurated the most prosperous Indian polity since the time of our first pillar-engraver. This man was the Mughal emperor Jahangir.

I’ve mentioned this pillar for three reasons. To me, India is a country with history, culture, and interesting stories literally just around the corner wherever I go, a country where our history and heritage lies slumbering behind the smoke and noise of our thriving cities. Few other countries have a history as illustrious, a culture so refined; yet in our drab and pedantic textbooks there is no hint of this vibrance, and we rush to dismiss our own roots as too obscure for enjoyment. I want this series of articles to go towards dispelling that notion at least a little.

Now, my reasons. Firstly, note that the Indian idea of an emperor is not like the European conception of an absolute ruler, but is instead defined in opposition to other kings, Direct administration is not the goal of an Indian sovereign: how much more prestigious to have lesser kings accept your suzerainty! The emperor turns the Wheel of Law, as the chakravartin, and is the centre of the raja-mandala, with lesser rulers paying tribute to him. His righteousness and force of arms run his empire, not his shrewd managing of the economy and efficient administration.

Secondly, the pillar is a fascinating example of three rulers, the scions of the three greatest of Indian dynasties, who could not understand the words of those who came before, who came from vastly different backgrounds, and yet appropriated the majesty of their predecessors to leave their own mark in time.

Thirdly, it makes for a rather good story. 😛

My next article will start out my study of India with the imperial Mauryas: stay tuned!

Sequel: Gloria Maurya, or, Mauryan Glory