The first half of the seventh century saw the consolidation of three power centres in this part of the world: The Tang Dynasty China under Emperor Taizong, the North Indian empire under Emperor Harsha, with the Tibetan empire under Songsten Gampo separating the two. The Chinese emperor was wary of the rising power of the Tibetans as he was of the advancing Arab armies that were then making inroads into Central Asia.
What happened next was largely precipitated by one intrepid Buddhist monk from China who decided to disregard imperial orders and venture out to the land of the Buddha in search of knowledge. Xuanzang not only found his way into India, but also befriended Emperor Harsha. They got along famously and when Xuanzang went back home to China in 646 CE, he got along famously with Emperor Taizong as well.
Thanks to the monk's good offices, Harsha sent a diplomatic mission to the Tang court in 641 CE, which Taizong promptly reciprocated. We even know the name of the first Chinese ambassador to India — Liang Huaijing — part of whose mission was to find out if Harsha was interested in a military alliance against Tibet. Interestingly, Liang was also a member of the party that had dropped off a Chinese princess in Lhasa — as part of a marital alliance with Emperor Songsten — on his way to India. No, statecraft hasn’t changed much since the 7th century.
In any case, Harsha followed up with two more missions in the following years and Taizong sent one more before Xuanzang himself got back home. In addition to Buddhist texts, this time the Chinese wanted the technology to manufacture sugar. By 646 CE, India-China relations were on a high. Then Harsha passed away, Taizong became preoccupied with tensions on the Korean peninsula while his marital alliance with the Tibetans began to bear fruit.
Having heard about Ayurveda from Xuanzang, Taizong wanted it for himself. The Emperor’s health had suffered due to his Korean exertions. Not satisfied with Harsha’s gifts of agnimani and turmeric, he dispatched Wang Xuance, a seasoned envoy, to get him a Ayurvedic physician. Clearly this was before the Chinese discovered the medicinal properties of ginseng or after they acknowledged it wasn’t working, at least for Taizong.
When Wang descended the slopes on the Indian side, he and his party were set upon by a North Indian warlord in the instability following Harsha’s death. Only Wang and his deputy Jiang Shiren escaped.
Now, you don’t mess with the emissary of the Son of Heaven without consequences. Wang went to Tibet where he was provided with 1200 mercenaries. The Nepalese king, Narendradeva, who owed Songsten a favour, sent a cavalry force of over 700 horsemen. So one fine day in April-May 648 CE, a combined force of Tibetan and Nepali troops led by two Chinese officials descended on the said North Indian warlord, a chap they called Aluonashun (or Arunasa), and defeated him after three days of fighting. According to the official Tang records, “[more] than three thousand people were beheaded, and those who jumped into the water and died by drowning numbered more than ten thousand. Arunasa abandoned the city and fled, but Jiang Shiren pursued and captured him. The men and women who were taken captive numbered two thousand, and the cows and horses seized were more than thirty thousand. India trembled at these events. Wang Xuance returned to China taking Arunasa as a captive”.
That’s not all. Wang took back with him an Ayurvedic physician named Narayanaswamy, who introduced himself to the Chinese emperor as being two hundred years old. His ministrations, unfortunately, didn’t work on Taizong, who died soon after in 650 CE. The politics of the Tang court began to discredit Narayanaswamy but couldn’t harm him for fear of creating a diplomatic incident. They finally decided to deport him, but the poor doctor passed away before they could do so.
What we know of these incidents almost entirely comes to us from Chinese sources. There is not a word about this in Indian texts. It’s almost as if it never happened. Tansen Sen, who has an excellent account of this history in Buddhism, Diplomacy and Trade (University of Hawaii Press, 2003), notes that “the military power of the Tang empire, displayed within India’s borders, may have instigated Indian kingdoms, some as far as southern India, to explore military ties with China”.
Southern Indian states exploring military ties with China in the 7th and 8th centuries? Indeed. That’s a topic for another column.
The writer is co-founder and director of the Takshashila Institution, an independent think tank and school of public policy