One of the most pervasive myths about medieval India is that our ancestors were “peaceful” towards the rest of the world and were disinterested in any military activities outside “India’s borders”. This is compared, implicitly, to the expansion of the Arabs and the Turks, who supposedly wanted nothing more than to conquer and despoil other peaceful, prosperous lands. While some will admit that the wars of Indian rulers were as brutal as those of any other, it seems that as long as the wars were with “our own”, they were somehow qualitatively different from and “better” than those of other cultures.
Like with most interpretations foisted on us by British colonial historians, there’s a lot to unpack here. The first underlying assumption is that medieval India—despite its staggering size and diversity—was some sort of cultural unity with a clear sense of “us and them”, which somehow happens to coincide, quite conveniently, with the borders of modern nation-states. Second, there is an assumption that war in the medieval world was fought for precisely the same reasons as in every other context throughout time. This is a spectacularly boring idea, one that comes from the colonial mindset of expansion and conquest for its own sake. As we explore the evidence, we’ll see that ideas of geography, expansion and war in medieval India completely defy modern stereotypes.
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Expansion from the “core”: The Gangetic empires
It’s a simple matter to find evidence of “Indian” military activities outside the boundaries of our modern nation-state. The Culavamsa, a medieval chronicle from Sri Lanka, describes how the island was conquered by the Chola dynasty. In South Indian Inscriptions Volume II, the Chola emperor Rajendra I provides details of how his troops sacked the Srivijaya confederacy in present-day Malaysia and Indonesia. But I want to do something more ambitious here—to establish that the Cholas were not an exception and that whenever it was possible, Indian polities could and did seek to conquer “abroad”.
To begin, let’s look at a Gangetic empire—that of the Guptas of the 4th century CE—which set into motion many of the cultural and political patterns we see in the medieval period. Gupta period texts show no indication that people from outside the subcontinent were less deserving of conquest. In the Raghuvamsam of Kalidasa, the legendary king Raghu is described as defeating all the peoples who dwelt to his east, south, west, and north. In Canto 4, verse 60 he is credited with “proceeding on the conquest of the Parasikas” or Persians, during which “he cut with crescent arrows their bearded heads” (verse 63). Soon after, we are told that he crossed the Indus, and that “the flush upon the cheeks of the Huna [Hun] women did display Raghu’s actions on their lord” (verse 68); that “the Kambojas [Afghans] were unable to resist his great virility”; and that he then embarked on expeditions against various Himalayan tribes, arriving in the Brahmaputra river valley and finally returning to his capital, Ayodhya, thus completing his conquest of the four directions.
We can see that the motivation for war is not annexation. In none of his expeditions does Raghu set up a governorship or viceroyalty. Rather, he is motivated by tribute and by symbolism: by displaying his overwhelming military might (and virility) in all four cardinal directions, thus performing a digvijaya or “Conquest of the Directions” — he establishes himself as a universal sovereign, a chakravartin. Even if we can dismiss much of the Raghuvamsam’s claim as literary exaggeration, it still reveals to us something important: that motivations for war in medieval India were complex, driven by symbolism as well as wealth; and that there was no clear geographical or cultural sense of where the subcontinent “ends”.
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Expansion from the “frontier”: The Case of Kashmir
If we wish to establish that Indians were not interested in expanding beyond the subcontinent, we need to find examples of polities that—even when given the option—deliberately decided not to wage war beyond these imaginary modern borders.
Such an example could come from medieval Kashmir. In the 8th century CE, with the Gangetic Plains in a state of anarchy, the Kashmiri king Lalitaditya Muktapida found himself in a position where he could raid freely into this fertile region. And yet in the Rajatarangini of Kalhana, a 12th-century text, we are told once again that he embarked on a digvijaya, supposedly raiding Kannauj, Bengal (east), the Deccan (south), and Dwaraka (west). Details of all of these are hazy, but those of his conquests in the north—in present-day Xinjiang, Tibet, and Afghanistan—are spectacular. In Book IV, verses 165–168, we are told that “the stables of the Kambojas were emptied of horses… The Tuhkharas [Tocharians]… fled to the mountain ranges… the anxiety felt by the Bhauttas [Tibetans] could not be seen on their faces, which are white…” Chinese sources also attest to the last line: Lalitaditya is known to have sent an embassy to the court of the Tang dynasty, offering an alliance against the Tibetans.
Kalhana also provides two rather interesting cultural observations (verse 178–180): “This mighty king made the conquered rulers, in order to indicate their defeat, adopt various characteristic marks, which they and their people wear humbly even to the present day. Clearly, it is by his command, to display the mark of their bondage, that the Turushkas [Turks] carry their arms at their back and shave half their head. On the waistcloths of the Dakshinatyas [Deccanis] the king put the tail which sweeps the ground, to mark that they were like beasts.” Here Kalhana is only describing existing practices of his time and trying to link them to his hero, Lalitaditya. It is nevertheless striking that to him, Deccanis are as alien as the Turks, and all of them are mentioned to establish that Lalitaditya made conquests in all four directions, thus becoming a chakravartin, a universal emperor.
No matter the distances involved, and irrespective of cultural difference or similarity, what the evidence shows us is that medieval Indian polities were always interested in military expansion to the edges of their world, following the cardinal directions to establish a symbolic “universal” rule.
It just so happens that their universes were different from ours: because why would their imaginations be constrained by a nation-state that would not exist for another thousand years? Deccan polities such as the Rashtrakutas raided towards the Himalayas, Odisha, Gujarat, and Tamil Nadu; Tamil polities such as the Cholas raided towards Bengal, Karnataka, Sri Lanka, and Indonesia; Kashmiri polities raided towards Punjab, Afghanistan, and Xinjiang. Once we understand that they all sought to create their own four-directional political universes, expanding through war and centred in their own capitals, we see something much grander than ahistorical notions of “uniting the subcontinent”: a challenging world where medieval Indians were no different in their appetite for conquest than any other polity.
Anirudh Kanisetti is a public historian. He is the author of Lords of the Deccan, a new history of medieval South India, and hosts the Echoes of India and Yuddha podcasts. He tweets @AKanisetti. Views are personal.
(Edited by Srinjoy Dey)