December 06, 2014



The greatest king to be born in the family of the Badami Chalukyas, Pulakeshi II is widely regarded as one of the greatest monarchs in the glorious history of India. In his thirty-three year long reign, he carved out an empire that covered extensive parts of northern and central Deccan; at the zenith of his military prowess, the whole of the peninsula bowed to him. The accounts of foreign travelers who visited his domains tell us a resplendent tale of prosperity that was ushered in the south during this period. Never since the time of the powerful Satavahana ruler Gautamiputra Satkarni had any king from down south ruled such a vast territory. His resounding victory over his worthy contemporary Harsha Vardhana, the emperor of Kanauj is considered to be his most remarkable military feat. However, there is certainly more to him than this and in this post, I would like to present my views on the meteoric rise and equally sudden fall of southern India's earliest emperor.

It is a well-documented fact that Ereya as Pulakeshi was known in his youth, had to fight his uncle to get the throne that 'rightfully' belonged to him by the law of primogeniture. He raised the banner of revolt against the incumbent Chalukyan king Mangalesa after it became clear that the latter wanted to hand down the kingdom to his own son. Though we do not have the details, Ereya might have been about 15 to 20 years old when the Vatapi kingdom was engulfed in the civil war; he was young and inexperienced. Mangalesa, on the other hand was at the height of his career; having ruled over a decade, it is quite possible that he had filled the army and administration with his loyalists. Moreover, he had won decisive victories in the west and north that saw the Chalukyan domain double in size, proving that he was a worthy general. For Pulakeshi to build an army strong enough to challenge the incumbent king and then lead it to a victory over the forces of Mangalesa when he was just a fugitive prince is in my opinion, one of the biggest achievements of his career in spite of the fact that he got some aid from feudatories like the Gangas of Talakkad. This proves that he had mastered the art of military strategy and diplomacy at an early age.

Further proof to my above mentioned conclusions can be got from the steps he took to stabilize his new kingdom following his coronation and prior to a brilliant career of military conquests in the later years. As the combined armies of Appayika and Govinda crossed the Bhima River to engage the new king, he used shrewd diplomacy to break their unity; while he conferred royal titles on the latter, he defeat the forces of the former on the battle field. Further, he also forged a matrimonial alliance with the Gangas by marrying a princess from the Talakkad royal family.

Most Chalukyan monarchs took titles like 'Ranavikrama' (Victor on the battle field) and 'Sri Prithvivalabha' (Lord of the Earth). However, none of them justified these rather lofty epithets more than the emperor we are discussing here. After consolidating his position at home, Pulakeshi II turned his attention towards the Arabian coast where chiefs who were loyal to his predecessors may have discontinued paying allegiance to the Badami court. According to his court poet Ravikirti who gives a detailed picture of his patron's military achievements, he invaded Banavasi, perhaps to see of a challenge posed by the descendants of the Kadambas and then captured Puri, identified with modern day Elephanta caves near Mumbai from the Konkan Mauryas. It was his northern campaigns that brought him in contact with Emperor Harsha Vardhan who was the undisputed ruler of the Gangetic plain. He is believed to have extracted tribute from the Latas, the Malavas and the Gurjaras. The crowning glory of Pulakeshi's reign, as most of the historians seem to believe was his victory over the Kanauj army on the banks of the Narmada. This was one of those rare occasions in history when a southern ruler was able to successfully defend his domain from a strong northern adversary. Following this splendid victory, he took up the title of 'Dakshinapathesvara' (Lord of the South). As if to justify this, he undertook a series of expeditions to the east that saw his army capture Vengi and prevail over some kings of Kalinga. With his sway extending from the Arabian to the Bay of Bengal, the warrior-king turned his attention to the south and mounted a highly successful invasion of the Pallava kingdom in which he is believed to have routed the Kanchi ruler Mahendravarman I in a battle. Thus at its zenith, the empire of Pulakeshi II covered most of modern Karnataka, Goa, Maharashtra and Telangana besides large territories of Gujarat, Rajasthan, Chhattisgarh, Madhya Pradesh, Andhra and Odisha. Thus it is very clear that as far as military prowess is concerned, he was second to none.

Though a lot has been said and written about Pulakeshi's conquests, the accounts of Chinese traveler Hsuan Tsang give us a beautiful picture of the conditions prevalent in the Chalukyan Empire during his time. Besides portraying a positive picture of the monarch and his army, the Buddhist scholar also heaps loads of praises on the people of the region and talks about the prosperity abundant here during the time. The point I am trying to make is that not only was this Badami king a great conqueror, he also seems to have been a superb administrator. The very fact that he exchanged ambassadors with the king of Persia shows that his fame as a strong ruler spread much beyond the realm of the Sub-continent.

Another point that I would like to make before we talk about the reasons for this powerful ruler's downfall is that he achieved all the above mentioned feats at a time when there were other equally strong monarchs ruling in other parts of the country. Though, I do not intend to demean the achievements of any king in history, the fact remains that it is comparatively easy to carve out an empire when the nation is split into small and weak kingdoms, each vying for supremacy. However, this was certainly not the case during this period. The first half of seventh century AD in Indian history was the 'Age of the Emperors'. The Gangetic plain was under the control of Emperor Harsha as discussed earlier, a sizable chunk of Deccan was held by the Chalukyas and in deep south, in AD 630, the most famous of the Pallava kings - Narasimhavarman I was crowned as the king of Kanchi. As such, we see that between AD 630 and AD 642, different parts of India were ruled by strong rulers, each of who excelled in the art of warfare and diplomacy. In spite of the fact that he faced tough competition from his worthy contemporaries, the extent of his empire and the prosperity enjoyed by his subjects truly justifies his claim as one of the greatest monarchs in the history of our land.

It is said that you are at your weakest when you are at the peak; perhaps, the lives of few people justify this as much that of Pulakeshi. After scaling great heights and over-running the whole of Deccan, he faced a series of setbacks at the end of his glorious career. After succeeding his father, the new Pallava ruler Narasimhavarman I led a counter invasion into the Chalukyan territories ably assisted by the Pandyas, the Cheras and the Cholas. After winning several battles, the mighty king of Kanchi captured Vatapi and Pulakeshi II is believed to have died a heroic death on the battle field defending his metropolis. The intriguing question is how did the empire that Pulakeshi built so painstakingly, collapse in a matter of months?

Perhaps, age did play its part in the unfolding of the events during the last years of his life. If Ereya was 18 years old when he ascended the throne, having ruled for thirty three years, he would have been over 50 at the time of his death. In those times, when average life expectancy was low, Pulakeshi was well beyond his prime. Moreover, the constant campaigns that he undertook during his reign would have definitely taken its toll on his body, draining him both physically and mentally; may be he was no more the master strategist that he once was; the vigor that saw him vanquish all his enemies was probably gone; even worse, after having beaten all his neighbors, he may have become complacent and neglected the challenge posed by the Pallavas who had recovered from their early defeats and by now raised a strong army.

Apart from this, the constant warfare on several fronts would have drained the treasury. The main sources of income for the Chalukyan kings like others in medieval India were revenue from land, trade and tributes paid by sub-ordinate chiefs. Although the land was fertile, famine and drought could have curtailed the empire's budget considerably. Pulakeshi II would have had a vast army; possibly thousands of soldiers and hundreds of elephants fought for him. Thus, he needed money to pay and train his men and to buy arms and ammunition. Also, we know that the Chalukyans were prolific builders; the monuments that they have left behind shows that he spent a huge portion of their treasury on constructing temples and making religious donations. Probably, during the last days of Pulakeshi's life, the state's finances had dried up and he could not get the necessary reinforcements to check the Pallava invasion.

Last but not the least; Pulakeshi's greatest mistake was that he failed to check the growing power of Pallava Narasimhavarman I. Having defeated the Kanchi ruler's father Mahendravarman I, he seems to have become complacent in his attitude towards his southern adversary. After becoming the king, Narasimhavarman slowly began raising an army to avenge the losses suffered by his father. Besides, he like Pulakeshi of his youth was a gifted general and an excellent strategist. He forged an alliance with other rulers of the Tamil country viz the Pandayas, the Cheras and Cholas and launched an offensive against the Chalukyas in early 640s. Though the preparation for this war would have taken several years, the mighty Vatapi ruler did nothing to counter the Pallavas either militarily or diplomatically. This proved suicidal; not only did Pulakeshi die on the battle-field, he lost his capital to the invading army till it was liberated by his son Vikramaditya I in AD 655.

Read the complete series on Badami Chalukyas here (Link)