Catalyst | Warfare in ancient India and high school football

I’ve spent the last week reading KA Nilakanta Sastri’s magnum opus, the History of South India, that spans from prehistory to the fall of the Vijayanagar empire. Among the many insights and curious facts that the book reveals, it throws some light on military prowess of kingdoms and empires over the ages.

By the 13th century, warfare in South India was internally competitive, but had lost the edge to armies north of the Vindhyas. This was certainly not the case earlier – with the most notable examples of southern victories being Chalukya Pulakeshi II’s against Harshavardhana of Kannauj in the 7th century and Chola Rajendra I’s power reaching up to the Ganges in the 11th century. This does not remain so after the formation of the Delhi sultanate.

When the Khilji and Tughlak sultanates from Delhi began making inroads south of the Vindhyas starting in the latter half of the 13th century, one finds that the southern kingdoms did not offer a whole lot of resistance immediately. Allaudin Khilji’s famous slave general, Malik Kafur’s raids deep into the Deccan and Tamil heartlands, are referred to as daring, catching almost everyone off-guard. For example, kings like the Hoysala Veera Ballala III appear to have capitulated almost immediately, as he was trying to sort out affairs in Tamil country while Kafur came marching up to his capital Dwarasamudra (present day Halebeedu near Hassan, Karnataka). On a full reading, it appears that extended supply lines, the limited objectives of the initial incursions and an increasingly hostile Hindu populace were the major reasons why Kafur and his successors did not fare better. Nothing that can be pinned to a competitive armed force.

Curiously, this reminded me of the way a few of us played football (soccer) while in high school and afterwards. Some of us friends played regularly with each other on a basketball court, the games were fun and competitive, and we continued doing so for quite a while. But if we had to play with other groups, or play on a full-size football field, the game suffered quite a bit, and we would often not be even remotely competitive.

Warfare in south India appears to have become equally stultified – there were known kingdoms, empires and fiefdoms spread across the land whose relative power varied with time, and by and large there was a code of the conduct of warfare. For one thing, temples were rarely destroyed – more often deprived of their wealth, and likewise the priestly class were rarely harmed. For another, governance and civilian life continued without too much change. Caste groups, village leaders and corporate guilds provided much of the governance (iniquitous as it might have been) – from dispute resolution and policing to developmental works like irrigation and road building. The entry of new forces changed this status quo irrevocably.

Even if you were to discount the earlier example as Malik Kafur and others having gotten the advantage of surprise, the story remains the same even a century later. While Harihara and Bukka Raya of Vijayanagara were rapidly consolidating their hold on regions south of the Krishna river in the 14th century, they barely met with any success in military engagements with the rival Bahmani sultanate. If anything, only the incessant in-fighting and intrigue between various ruling muslim factions in the Deccan appears to have blunted the impact of their victories against Vijayanagara. It is only by the time of Krishnadeva Raya in the early 16th century that Vijayanagara starts winning large scale victories on the Northern border of their empire that were not quickly reversed.

Krishnadeva Raya managed to achieve this only by creating a more martial state, fostering a competitive military culture with games and contests of physical feats, a modernisation of the army with gunpowder technology and horses via the Portuguese, and other sweeping changes.

North Indian powers were equally blind to events outside the subcontinent, as noted by historian KM Panikkar in a speech in 1961, ‘Before the enemies reach Panipat‘. They probably paid for it a lot more. South Indian states paid for this blindness to people outside the basketball court less frequently, but this deserves no excuse. Perhaps a key failure was in not looking for military technology through oceanic trade routes and restricting trade largely to luxury items and commodities. The only major defence import via the seas was the horse – and it is quite telling that south Indian armies never developed the ability to care for horses well, with many of them dying regularly of disease. Not even the Vijayanagara empire managed to change that. For Arab and Persian traders, south India remained a happy export destination for horses, with an ever-present demand.

Religious taboos on sea voyages resulted in a complete lack of parity in trading ability, and it is little wonder that maritime powers from Europe conquered India from the south. With the exception of the Cholas, Indian powers never had a blue water navy. One can only imagine the possibilities if an Indian power had developed a blue water navy after the invention of gunpowder.

Though India has a blue water navy in the 21st century, we should really be asking ourselves – have we really left the basketball court?