Indian military history shows how climate and season were inextricably woven with the dictates of Bharatavarsha’s geography.
THE CONSPICUOUS ELEMENT IN THE MILITARY AND POLITICAL history of ancient and early medieval Bharatavarsha is the astonishing sprawl of great Hindu empires that rose and fell on the so-called Indo Gangetic Plain. Most of these empires were also remarkable for their longevity. Thus, for extended centuries, the so-called Indo-Gangetic Plain teemed with vast Hindu empires at such diverse and far-flung places like Magadha, Kanyakubja, and Gauda-Desha. All these empires in turn, reduced smaller kingdoms into feudatories and built an enduring complex and interconnected network of social order and functional harmony underlaid by noble codes of conduct, law, and loyalty.
Measured in terms of influence, impact and durability, if we consider the Maurya Empire as a rough starting point and end it with the death of Harshavardhana, we get a panoramic time travel lounged over an uninterrupted millennium of imperial Hindu rule. But even before the Maurya Empire—the first imperial Hindu Empire—it is not a coincidence that the destinies of the Kurus and the Panchalas were decided in this region and it is certainly not a quirk of fate that the cataclysmic Mahabharata War was fought at Kurukshetra.
Overall, a cordial geography was the great enabler of this fount of Hindu civilisation.
When we return to Dakshinapatha, this spatial panorama significantly alters but on the scale of achievement, it compares favourably with Uttarapatha.
Despite the hazardous landscape and nature-enforced obstacles, Dakshinapatha continuously birthed some of the most remarkable Hindu empires throughout history. The fables of the power, the prowess of the vast military and the prosperity of the sprawling cities of these empires reached the badlands of Arabia and echoed in the citadels of Christian Europe. The earliest of these is undoubtedly the Satavahana Empire ruling from Andhra from the second century BCE to the third century CE. Other notable empires that followed include the Vakataka, Pallava, Chola, Kadamba, Ganga, Chalukya, Rashtrakuta, Pandya, Chera, Western Chalukya, Hoysala, Yadava, Kakatiya, Musunuri Nayaka, Reddi, Vijayanagara, Maratha and Mysore. The timeline continuously occupied by these empires totals roughly up to 2100 years.
A Great Military Theatre
DISSIMILARITY SOMETIMES INVITES DISASTER.
The Himalayan protection, literally, was the great and obvious advantage that enabled the ascent and sustenance of the aforementioned great Hindu empires in Uttarapatha. However, to the determined and plunder-hungry alien conqueror, it is only a matter of time and dogged effort to either circumvent or destroy the toughest obstacle. In the specific case of Uttarapatha, the forces of alien Islamic invaders—unlike their predecessors—eventually met with serial successes owing to three major factors:
- They retained, used, improved, and expanded on the geographical knowledge of infidel Hindustan left behind by the early Arab geographers and merchants.
- A major breakthrough in this accumulation of geographical knowledge was their discovery of the importance of the dictates of time—i.e., the most appropriate season for launching invasions.
- The myopia and complacence of Hindu rulers who allowed the barbarian at the gate to barge into their living rooms.
In the context of this essay, we can examine the second point in some detail.
From the onset of the Āṣāḍa (June) to the dusk of the Bhādrapada (September), rains overran the whole of Bharatavarsha making military operations impossible. Seas are in high tide, rivers crescend to the deathly tune of Varuna, the Mahapathas and Ghantapathas (highways and roads) turn to browny pools of mud, fields go underwater, and villages located on the higher slopes become islands… all obey these liquid laws of nature enforced annually. Perhaps it is only Bharatavarsha’s genius that gave a profoundly spiritual obeisance to these laws by devising the Cāturmāsya system where Acharyas, Gurus, monks and mendicants spent the rainy quarter engaged in inward contemplation, teaching and revision of our sacred literature.
From Dusshera to Ugadi
The close of monsoon heralds the onset of Dusshera. The riverine fury has subsided. Crops begin to ripen and the farmers are busy once again. Highways reopen, commerce proceeds apace as before. And in the Hindu tradition of statecraft, this is also the most auspicious time to embark on a Digvijaya. This is yet another area in which we notice the stunning continuity of the Sanatana civilisation: the Maratha annals (dating back to as recently as the Peshwa epoch) are replete with references to their kings starting campaigns on a day during the Dusshera. The fact that Vijayadashami was celebrated as the grandest festival in the Vijayanagara Realm also holds an eminent testimony to this fact.
However, the same season is also a fecund opportunity for the alien invader. By the end of Dusshera and at the onset of Diwali, harvesting begins. Jungles and other herbage are still green in the afterglow of the just-concluded monsoon. This provides free and easy access to ample fodder for horses and elephants. River levels have fallen, enabling the invading armies to ford them effortlessly.
Thus, by the close of winter, hardened plunderers and seasoned Islamic warriors emerged from the ravines and caves of Central Asia like locusts and pretty much had a free pass through the Himalayan gorges until they reached the North Indian Plains. In Acharya Jadunath Sarkar’s words, they “cross the the rivers by fording them at the upper reaches of the streams flowing down from the Himalayas — at Rupar, Buria-Mustafabad, etc—without having to build bridges or boats or lose time on the bank. Vast cavalry forces can easily sweep—as they have done age after age in the past—through the green belt from the Khyber Pass via Delhi to Bengal’s capital, without meeting with any natural obstacle, if the forts on the way are by-passed.”
By Ugadi, they launch no-holds-barred wars, rudely waking up the slumbering Hindu kings on these plains. And a battle in an open field can go either way as Hindus found out the hard way at the hands of Muhammad Ghori.
However, Dakshinapatha presented a challenge of a wholly different dimension to the alien invaders. The details of its treacherous geography presented in the previous episode clearly show that a north-to-south march was almost impossible without incurring substantial difficulties and losses. The long, parallel mountain chains (the Western and Eastern Ghats) cut up the region into isolated nooks and niches and river-protected enclosures. We observe precisely this factor in the sites of the great Hindu historical cities in Dakshinapatha. Thus, the invader could reach any of these cities only after an excruciating mounting and dismounting of these mountainous obstacles. The more numerous the army, the more excruciating the endeavour. However, in the end victory was not assured because, to borrow the Acharya’s lines again: “[The] Deccan hill ranges are often crowned by lofty forts, towering above the lowlands on some cliff with steep scarped sides and artesian water supply on the flat top or sides. These forts are Nature’s gifts to which the people can retire for safety when defeated in a pitched battle in the plain below. From these shelters nothing could expel them…if only they had laid in provisions or could smuggle in food at night…”
The overall picture of the military geography of Bharatavarsha viewed from the lens of history is this: as I show in Invaders and Infidels, the fall of great Hindu Empires in North India was often determined by just one decisive collision of two great armies. With it, almost half of Bharatavarsha was gobbled up by the alien invader. However, Dakshinapatha presents perhaps the most obstinate, sustained and successful story of Hindu resistance against the alien invader. Till the very end, no Muslim Empire was able to bring the whole of South India under its control.
( Courtesy Dharma Dispatch )