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