Clash of Two Deccani Superpowers

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Through his book, Lords of the Deccan (2022), Anirudh Kanisetti attempts to write of a time when the Deccan dominated the India story.

Harsha, Great King of Kings of north India, was an unconventional sort of emperor. His family, like the Chalukyas, came from a humble background, though he was a descendant of merchant townsmen rather than cultivators or pastoralists. Unlike the Chalukyas, this clan’s military capabilities had been forged in the heat of north Indian wars, which meant they had not only fought Alchon Huns from Central Asia but had also been entangled in the dramatic political developments of the previous century attending the final collapse of the Gupta empire – a saga of espionage, conspiracy, betrayal and war.

King Harsha pays homage to Buddha
King Harsha pays homage to Buddha | Wikimedia Commons

Suffice it to say here that by 606 CE, Harsha, supposedly only fifteen years old, ended up on the throne of Kannauj, north India’s most wealthy and prestigious city at the time, after the sudden death of both his elder brother and his brother-in-law.

By 618, at which time Pulakeshin II had subjugated most of the Deccan and was throwing his weight around Gujarat, Harsha had successfully forced most of north India to submit to his imperial formation, spreading his influence across its thousands of thriving settlements ruled by hundreds of vassal dynasties. Over this time, his army is supposed to have grown from 5000 to 60,000 war elephants, from 2000 to 100,000 cavalry, and incorporated innumerable masses of infantry. Even if this is an exaggeration, Harsha was clearly seen by his overawed contemporaries as one of the subcontinent’s dominant rulers, if not the dominant ruler.

In comparison, Pulakeshin’s territories had far fewer large towns and productive agricultural regions; few chiefdoms and kingdoms could afford to build massive irrigation works in the Deccan yet. The arid plateau also had many more pastoralists and herders than the lush plains of the north, and was in general more sparsely populated. We do not know how much military might Pulakeshin could summon, but it is doubtful that he could have matched Harsha’s.

India in the 7th Century CE
India in the 7th Century CE | Wikimedia Commons

Having expanded his influence as far as Bengal, commanding the ports of India’s east coast, Harsha now wanted to control its west coast as well, potentially linking his territories to flourishing coastal trade routes in both directions. This threat may have been the trigger for the Latas to send tribute to Pulakeshin in the first place. If so, it was a dangerous gambit: as one scholar puts it, ‘the sovereign of the Deccan must have considered to be his natural birthright … unlimited access to the ocean ports of the Gulf of Cambay [Khambat]’. Apparently deciding that tribute was not enough, the Chalukya emperor now attacked and conquered a part of Lata (southern Gujarat) and installed a relative of his as ruler.

Up to this point, Harsha must have watched with growing surprise and interest as his audacious rival survived every challenge thrown at him, but the invasion of Lata must have been the last straw. It was the winter of 618 CE, little more than eight years since Pulakeshin II had come to the throne. There would be no better chance for Harsha, who had been emperor for twelve years, to put him in his place.

After consulting astrologers and calculating the outcomes of the campaign, planning out the route to be followed, rallying his armies and vassals, and arranging for supplies along the way, the order was given. ‘At the close of the third watch, when all creatures slept,’ Harsha’s court poet tells us, ‘the marching-drum was beaten with a boom deep as the gaping roar of the sky-elephants. Then, after a moment’s pause, eight sharp strokes were given upon the drum, making up the number of leagues in the day’s march.’

Though little is known about precisely how ancient and medieval Indians fought battles, contemporary manuals describe huge, heavy formations and counter-formations (vyuhas) organized according to complex rules. North India, with access to vast amounts of infantry, elephantry and cavalry, was especially suited to this sort of fighting.

The Deccan could not muster or feed the same numbers of infantry, nor did it have access to the overland routes of the horse trade, emerging as they did from Central Asia. If Pulakeshin had fought Harsha in north India, his army would easily have been surrounded and crushed. But in 618, to punish Pulakeshin for his audacious move on southern Gujarat, Harsha had to cross the Narmada river into the Deccan – which tilted the odds in Pulakeshin’s favour.

As the sun bathed the Vindhyas, Chalukya scouts – perhaps allied forest tribes – may have fanned through the seemingly endless forests, using sounds and drums to signal the approach of the enemy. Harsha’s army was probably carefully tracked and avoided until the very last moment. Ambushes and sneak attacks may have been planned to stretch their supply lines and worsen morale. Thickets might conceal ambushers with bows and spears, while hills and ravines might hide elephants to trample incautious groups of infantry.

When Harsha’s army, like the Mughals centuries later, was disoriented and exhausted in the unfamiliar Deccan, Chalukya forces may have aimed to lure them into a brutal, decisive confrontation.

Pulakeshin’s troops were ideally adapted to close-quarter combat. His elephants, in the hundreds, were fed huge quantities of alcohol before battle, spikes fitted to their tusks, great bells hung around their necks, howdahs tied to their backs. The animals were then bunched together into close formations for massed charges, brave mahouts desperately trying to guide them with the fearsome ankusha, a sharp elephant goad dug into their eyes and temporal glands. To the hypnotic beating of battle drums, the elephants were followed by bands of elite hereditary warriors wearing loincloths and minimal armour, also drunk on alcohol.

Harsha’s court poet describes his infantry as wearing topknots and spotted red coats, ears adorned with ivory rings. The north Indian emperor commanded them from the back of his elephant Darpasata, a massive animal whose head was adorned with a ‘crested crown of gold’. But beyond this, there is little we know for certain of the confrontation between the two young emperors.

Pulakeshin II's inscription at Aihole
Pulakeshin II's inscription at Aihole

Pulakeshin’s inscriptions, and those of other medieval royals, paint pictures of horrifying battlefield violence. They describe elephants colliding, tusks gleaming with blood. The hulking beasts would attempt to force each other to topple, their senses dulled by alcohol, as their riders stabbed each other with lances. The screams of men trampled underfoot and gored by tusks, the squeals of fallen elephants whose bellies were pierced by the cruel spears of the Chalukya infantry, must have filled the forest.

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

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

And so, as Harsha ordered his retreat, as the Vindhyas reverberated with the sound of retreating drums and the piercing blast of victory trumpets, Pulakeshin was left to giddily proclaim his astonishing victory. As a Chalukya court poet put it, Emperor Harsha, whose name meant Joy, had lost his laughter in the Deccan. All of a sudden, it was clear not only to Pulakeshin’s vassals, not only to his family, but to the entire subcontinent, that the Deccan had arrived.

As kings and emperors reeled from the news, Pulakeshin claimed the splendid title of Parameshvara, Paramount Lord. Lata and the northern Deccan were his. He now turned his attention to the rest of India south of the Narmada.

Excerpted with permission from Lords of the Deccan written by Anirudh Kanisetti and published by Juggernaut Books in 2022. You can buy your copy here

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