December 14, 2014



Please Note: This is a fictional account of the war fought between Harsha Vardhan and Pulakeshi II on the banks of the river Narmada.

A day before the impending battle, emperor Harsha Vardhan was gripped by anxiety; crowned at the tender age of 16, he had fought many battles in his remarkable military career and had subjugated a plethora of clans in the Gangetic plain. After avenging the death of his brother, he built the most extensive empire in the Sub-Continent ever since the fall of the Guptas; one that extended from Punjab in the west to Bengal in the east. Yet, he knew that the upcoming battle would be the most difficult one that he had fought so far. After all, the skirmishes that had taken place between the two sides over the last fortnight had proved that beating the might Karnataka-bala army would be far from an easy task. It had been over a month since the ruler of Kannauj had left his capital with an entourage consisting of over 40,000 well-trained soldiers, 5,000 choicest cavalry and 300 war elephants on his southern campaign. In fact, the entire caravan including the supply wagons extended for nearly three kilometers from one end to another; it was an entire city on the move, leaving everyone who had witnessed this spectacle 'spell bound'. After crossing the mighty Narmada, Harsha set up his camp on its banks and fortified his position.

Historians and scholars are divided over the reason that prompted the northern Samrat to launch this offensive into the Deccan. Most believe that after conquering the plains, it was but natural for a strong king like him to venture into the south in a bid to fulfill his imperialistic ambitions. Though Harsha was a Buddhist, he was certainly not averse to war. One after the other, his vast army had beaten a host of rulers up to the Narmada frontier and it was but natural for him to expand his horizon and look to extend his territories into the peninsular region, thereby emulating the successes that emperors like Ashoka the Great and Kaniska had enjoyed before him. Others say that it was the submission of central Indian dynasties like the Latas, the Gujaras and the Malavas to the Badami court that irked Harsha. From his point of view, the Chalukyan king, by accepting to be the overlord of the above mentioned families based out of present day Gujarat and Rajasthan was infringing on 'his sphere of influence'. This, in his opinion had to be checked or else several of his own sub-ordinates could do the same.

Three miles down south, in the enemy camp, King Pulakeshi II was finalizing his strategy for the battle. The fourth king to occupy the Vatapi throne, he had proved to be an efficient ruler and a brilliant general in his career so far. After emerging victorious following the civil war, not only was he able to consolidate his position but after a spate of military conquests, he became the undisputed ruler of the upper half of the peninsula. His forces, fighting under the Varaha emblem had humbled other strong regional chiefs and forced them to accept his suzerainty. However, this was the defining moment of his life; while the odds were stacked against him, a victory against Harsha would bring fame and immortality, something that all monarchs crave for. On the other hand, a defeat would bring ignominy and humiliation in form of a hefty annual tribute that had to be paid to the king of Kannauj. In his tent that also served as the war room, he along with his brother Kubuja Vishnuvardhana, his Sandhivigrahika (Foreign Minister), some senior generals and war veterans discussed the plans for the next morning when the great armies of the north and south would meet on the Ranabhoomi. They were aware that Harsha would unleash his fleet of war elephants to break the Chalukyan ranks and devised a strategy to counter it. As the meeting concluded, Ravikirti - the royal poet who witnessed the meeting remarked, "Tomorrow, the magnitude of the victory of the forces of the Prithvi-Vallabha (Pulakeshi) would be such that King Harsha will lose all his harsha (Happiness) and flee from the battle field".

Meanwhile, emperor Harsha had hardly slept that night; he got up early in the morning, performed a host of religious rituals so as to please the Gods and then changed into his military gear. After mounting his favorite war elephant - the Ayraavat, he directed his men to march on. The formation of the Vardhan army was fairly complex; the front line consisted of auxiliary troops that comprised of criminals and prisoners of war flanked on either side by a platoon of cavalry. Behind them were the men belonging to various feudatory kings and chieftains who had accepted Harsha's overlordship. Then came in the famed pachyderm unit followed by a line of archers. Behind them was the core of the Vardhan army at the center of which stood the Emperor surrounded by the royal guards whose main job was to take the King to safety in case of an emergency; the men on foot fought primarily with swords and spears. Finally, there was a line of reserve troops that would be called up in case any unit had to be supplemented urgently.

In the Chalukyan camp too, Pulakeshi performed several Vedic rites to gain the favor of the Gods which included an animal sacrifice. At the auspicious time fixed after consulting the best astrologers from his kingdom, he led his army from the front with the aim of repulsing Harsha's invasion. He divided his front line into 20 units, each comprising of well trained infantry and cavalry mounted on fine Arabic horses. Some of these divisions were headed by rulers of states that had pledged their allegiance to the Vatapi court including the Gangas, the Alupas and the Banas. Behind them was a band of archers, a platoon of elephants, followed by numerous lines of infantry and cavalry amidst which stood the King, overlooking and directing the war operations. As the two armies took their positions opposite each other, Harsha seemed to be impressed with the preparations of his adversary. He quipped to one of his commander, "This is going to be a long day on the battle field for all of us". Pulakeshi though, was unfazed; he scanned the enemy line looking for loop holes that he could leverage to his advantage.

Once the two sides were ready, it was Pulakeshi, much to Harsha's surprise who gave the first order for the attack. As the conch was blown, five units charged with patriotic fervor, marched towards the enemy while shouting their battle cry. The auxiliaries in the Varshan army who went to meet them were no match to the troops from Deccan known for their courage and valor. Many of them were cut down and the balance began to tilt in favor of the southerners. Harsha though, was not the one to give up so easily; he ordered his cavalry to charge towards the enemy units who by now had occupied the center. The tactic worked and the horse men were able to hold against the advancing Chalukyan forces. For the next hour or so, the battle seemed to be evenly poised; the entire field was strewn with mutilated bodies and the atmosphere was echoing with sounds of swords clashing against each other; while their compatriots were dying around them, the brave sons of Bharata, irrespective of whether they were fighting for Harsha or Pulakeshi, put up a strong fight. As the sub-ordinate kings fighting under Harsha were called in next, the king of Vatapi countered it by ordering more of his units to move towards the line of action. At one point of time though, the right side of the Chalukyan army was on the verge of collapse and a worried Pulakeshi requested his brother Vishnuvardhana to reinforce it. Leading from the front, the prince succeeded not only in holding back the opponents but also killed several enemy soldiers. As if the heat of the battle was not enough, the afternoon sun made matters worst for both sides.

It was at this juncture that Harsha signaled three lines of his elephant units to charge towards the Chalukyan army. Intoxicated with alcohol, the pachyderms wreaked havoc on the battle field, trampling soldiers on either sides as they ran towards the enemy ranks. It was now that Pulakeshi displayed his military acumen; he directed his archers to 'welcome' these beasts with 'fire arrows' dipped in oil. As the fire started descending on to them from the heavens, the pachyderms panicked; some of them even turned back and in the process ended up clashing with the subsequent lines causing a stampede. Still in disbelief, the Vardhan emperor ordered the rest of his elephants to hold on. As if to press home his advantage, Pulakeshi sent more troops to the front. Men on horses fought bravely against the stronger battle elephants and though many of them perished, they brought down several beasts too. Next, the Chalukya king ordered his own set of elephants to come to the forefront. Now that ruler of Vatapi could not use the services of his archers, Harsha had no option but to bring his remaining pachyderms to counter this latest enemy attack. Wave after wave, soldiers fighting for Harsha kept on attacking the men loyal to Pulakeshi. However, the latter were largely successful in holding out. The deadlock continued for another two hours and as the sun began to set on the horizon though, both kings asked their men to return back to their respective camps.

Isn't it a fact that while kings and generals declare war, it is the soldiers who die. On that fateful day in the first half of the sixth century, nearly 15,000 men were slain and thousands more were injured. About 60 elephants were killed; a majority of them belonging to Harsha. In this battle of the fittest, only the 'bravest of the brave' survived.

As the physicians were treating the injured, Harsha called an emergency meeting with his generals to discuss the future course of action. While some of his men wanted to continue the war against Pulakeshi, others argued that the cost involved in this endeavor would be enormous; even if they did earn a hard fought victory, it would be akin to a Pyrrhic victory. Considering that the tribes in the north-west were only waiting for an opportunity to strike, the war if pursued further could severely hamper the empire's defenses against the enemies in the north. After two hours of intense deliberations, the decision was made and Harha's dreams of an empire covering Deccan was gone forever.

In the Chalukyan camp, the mood was upbeat; though the soldiers knew that they had won the day, Pulakeshi a brilliant general himself, refused to drop the guard. He visited the wounded and addressed the gathering of his men where he thanked them for their bravery in defending his kingdom and urging them to be ready for battle the next day. As he was discussing the battle plans with his trusted aides, he received the news that emissaries from Harsha had arrived suing for peace. However, the Chalukyan king kept them waiting for over an hour as he discussed whether to continue the hostilities or not. The Vatapi ruler knew very well that the war could potentially drain his resources, leaving his kingdom vulnerable, both to internal as well as external forces. As his council concluded its meeting, Pulakeshi welcomed the guests and treated them with respect and dignity. He agreed to send his representatives to hold talks with Harsha and declare an instant end to the fighting provided that the Vardhan army would immediately retire to the northern bank of the Narmada.

As Harsha compiled to Pulakeshi's demand, the Chalukyan army moved up north and settled on the opposite bank. The negotiations that began the next day continued for a week. As per the terms of the treaty, the Narmada river was chosen as the boundary between the two empires. Harsha proclaimed himself Uttaradipathi (Lord of the North) while Pulakeshi took the title of Dakshinapathi (Lord of the South). Both rulers agreed to a gradual time bound withdrawal of troops from the front, exchanged ambassadors and promised to settle all future differences via dialogue. As a part of the peace process, the two mighty kings had a brief rendezvous too that lasted for a few minutes where they exchanged pleasantries and spoke of ways in increasing the trade between the two states. Though both were rivals, they had immense respect for each other and it showed in the manner in which the talks were conducted. Besides, the two also exchanged gifts as it was a custom during those times.

Two days later, Harsha left for his capital and took the bulk of his remaining army along. Technically, he had not lost the war. However, the bottom line was that he had failed to break into the peninsula. Nonetheless, he was happy that he had lost to a worthy foe. A day later, Pulakeshi began his return journey to Badami where he was received with much pomp and fare. Defying all odds, he had seized his glory; hence forth, he like Harsha would be known as an 'Emperor' and would be counted amngst the greatest rulers in the history of India.

Read the complete series on Badami Chalukyas here (Link)

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