The armies clashed on the banks of a river
ugle calls late in the night! Call to arms! The troops rushed to gather their weapons. On one side assembled Tibetan crack troops commanded by a Chinese officer.
On the other side were soldiers drawn mainly from the Bihar region. The armies clashed on the banks of a river.
The reader may be reminded of the fateful night of 15th June 2020, when soldiers of the 16th Bihar regiment took on PLA troops that had intruded into the Indian territory in the Galwan river valley.
The use of firearms is prohibited by treaty, so the fighters engaged in fierce hand-to-hand combat involving primitive weapons that resulted in the death of twenty Indian soldiers and unspecified numbers of Chinese soldiers.
However, the conflict described in the opening lines of this text does not allude to this recent skirmish on the LAC. The river in question where the armies clashed is not the Galwan of Ladakh but the mighty Gandak in Champaran district of modern-day Bihar.
Though both events occurred in the month of June, the legend belongs to an entirely different era to the twilight of the Golden Age of ancient India. These incidents followed the death of Harsha, the ruler of one of the largest empires of ancient India.
D. Devahuti pursued his doctoral thesis on this subject matter under the supervision of the famous historian A.L. Basham at the University of London. He subsequently expanded his work to write a popular book titled, ‘Harsha: a political study.’
The first formal contacts between the empires belonging to the Indian and Chinese civilizations took place during the reign of Emperor Harsha, about 1400 years ago. Harsha was crowned as king in the year 606 AD. For the next four decades, he expanded his empire to span the entire north Indian belt up to the Narmada.
It was during his reign that the renowned Chinese traveller Hiuen Tsang made an arduous trip to India and spent 13 years studying Buddhism under the patronage of Harsha. This interaction generated interest and led Harsha to send goodwill missions to the Chinese emperor T’ai-Tsung of T’ang.
Some of these missions carried gifts of exotic Indian produce as well as cuttings from the sacred Bodhi tree. The Chinese emperor reciprocated by sending his delegations to India. Great ceremonies were organized and the streets were richly decorated to honour the dignitaries.
The grandeur of welcome accorded to select foreign dignitaries by the ancient empires was no less than those witnessed in contemporary times!
Among the adventures of the Chinese delegates who visited India, the most notable is that of a county magistrate named Wang Hsuan-tse. When Wang Hsuan-tse arrived in India as the chief envoy of the third and last Chinese mission, he unexpectedly found the country in great disarray. Harsha had died. Local chieftains had appropriated territories they could lay their hands on.
Arjuna, who had been a minister in Harsha’s court, had usurped the region of Tira-bhukti (Tirhut) in Magadha. Champaran, located on the banks of Gandak, was the major city in this region. Wang Hsuan-tse declined to pay tribute to Arjuna. Singed by the refusal of the Chinese delegation to pay obeisance to him, Arjuna ordered the capture of the entire mission.
But Wang Hsuan-tse managed to flee to western Tibet in the dead of the night, even as thirty members of his party were abducted. At that time, Tibet and Nepal were in close alliance with China, sealed by marriages between the royalties of the three kingdoms. With the assistance of the 1200 Tibetan crack troops and 7000 Nepalese cavalry, the Chinese envoy fought and routed the army of the Indian chieftain on the banks of the Gandak. The annals state that the battle raged for three days and 3000 of Arjuna’s men were slain and several thousand drowned in the river. Arjuna and his family were among the 12000 taken as prisoners. Wang Hsuan-tse returned to China with his prisoner Arjuna, and surprisingly, the latter received a considerate treatment during the trip.
What has this obscure ancient legend to do with the modern Indo-Chinese conflict? On face value, nothing much. A lot of water has flowed under the bridge since that deadly encounter on the banks of the Gandak.
India, once a fragmented land of warring kings and republics has now evolved to become a robust democracy, whereas, China has grown from a feudal country to a totalitarian communist nation and an economic giant. Deep nationalist sentiments prevail among the people of either society.
The India and China of today have little to identify themselves, respectively, with the empire of Harsha or the T’ang dynasty of the times of yore. Indo-Chinese disputes of today are always seen from the prism of the 1962 annexation of Aksai Chin.
But on certain fronts, human beings have scarcely evolved in the past millennia. Both, individual as well as collective desires to dominate the ‘other’ are just the same today, as they were in ancient times.
However, the greater battles are not fought on the ground but are fought on metaphysical planes. The impact of fierce philosophical and religious churnings in Magadha far outlasted the outcomes of fierce battles fought on its plains. The routing of the army of the Indian chieftain on the banks of the Gandak did not hinder the spread of Buddha’s message of universal compassion to China and the rest of the world.
Buddha’s message carries as much relevance today as it did in the ancient world, while the legend of the battle fought in Champaran is scarcely known to anyone. Just so, beyond the veil of the border conflict of today, greater battles are being fought on the metaphysical plane.
The Dalai Lama maintains that China may be militarily strong but the battle of the minds is a different game, and if there is any battle to be won, it is this one.
Democratic uprisings in China have happened in the past and Hong Kong is the epicentre of the recent one. It‘s a call to our society: can we mend our strained social fabric and usher a reign of democracy and harmony? A reign whose bugle also gets sounded in Beijing and Hong Kong!
Manu Jaiswal lives in Chennai. He is an associate professor of Physics at IIT Madras. He is intrigued by science and philosophy, the two inexhaustible creative outpourings of the human spirit.