Many of us in Marcellus are fans of the young Indian historian, Manu Pillai, who has done much to make Indian history interesting and accessible through several bestselling books. Now, as the remaking of India produces more scholars who are researching the country’s history, we have found another equally articulate historian in Anirudh Kanisetti, an editor at the Museum of Art of Photography, Bangalore (click here for more about him and for his ‘Yuddha’ podcasts: https://www.anirudhkanisetti.
Pulakeshin’s pre-battle tactical moves are beautifully explained by Kanisetti: “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. With his control over the northern Deccan solidified by his policy of economic and political integration, Pulakeshin could now easily scout out Harsha’s route of attack and contest the northern emperor’s attempts to cross the great river. Even if Harsha’s probably larger army were to cross the Narmada, this unwieldy force of infantry, cavalry and elephants had to enter the thickly forested Vindhya foothills in order to capture or defeat Pulakeshin — potentially negating their advantage in numbers.”
And then the actual battle is narrated in all its wonderfully gory detail: “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’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, Harsha seems to have realized that he would have to cut his losses…”
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