Sunday, June 7, 2020

458 - Biological Warfare Counters the Huna

The expansive Gupta Empire ruled for hundreds of years over northern India, stretching from the mouth of the Ganges River in the Bay of Bengal to the Indus River pouring into the Arabian Sea. Successive generations of rulers such as Chandragupta and Samudragupta added substantial territory to their influence as well as securing important trade routes that funded the flourishing empire. In the middle fifth century, however, invasion from the north seemed it would break apart imperial rule.

Skandagupta, who came to the throne as the lesser son of Kumaragupta after a forceful seizure of power in about 455, sought to defend his lands from the Huna, also known as Alchon Huns or White Huns, whose migratory conquests marched south from Central Asia. The Huna had gained political recognition by the Sassanid Empire to the west, guarding each other’s flanks while the Sassanids fought Byzantines in the Middle East and the Huna sought to expand. Skandagupta used the heavy cavalry, supported by war elephants and infantry, that had brought together the Gupta Empire to drive away the Huna incursion. It was obvious, however, that Skandagupta’s victory would only be temporary as the Huna were a quickly growing power.

Pondering the issue, Skandagupta looked out over his empire, which was often presented as the most advanced in the world. Analytical texts such as Kama Sutra had studied aspects of the human experience that many considered beyond understanding, Jainist mathematicians had defined principles of infinity, and creators had synthesized the logic of warfare into the game that the world would come to know as chess. No problem should be beyond their collective minds, so Skandagupta put out an edict that whoever discovered the best solution would be given a great reward. Numerous designs for innovative weapons and techniques flooded the palace at Pataliputra. Skandagupta’s choice was one that had been a part of human strategy for centuries: biological warfare.

The strength of the Huna rested in their herds, particularly their warhorses. Gathering sick horses from outbreaks in corners of the empire of diseases such as equine influenza and glanders, the imperial guard smuggled them into the northwest to be sold, allowed to be stolen, or simply let go to blend in with the Huna’s own. One strategy even had horses the guise of an Ashvamedha sacrifice in which soldiers would protect a horse as it wandered freely through the empire for one year, proving the stability of the imperial rule. Proving to be much less expensive than keeping up a large army to deter Huna invasion, Skandagupta and his descendants repeatedly introduced waves of plagues among the horsemen, devastating their herds and base of their economy.

In generations to come, however, the Guptas felt the consequences of the plagues as they often spread back into the empire from the west. Horse populations dropped, and the empire found itself with a dire shortage of beasts of burden. Attempts were made to expand the use of elephants and even camels, but elephants took a long time to propagate and camels did not do well in more humid climates. In about 500, Skandagupta’s great-grandson Budhagupta followed his ancestor’s example to appeal for ideas to resolve the burden issue.

By then, the Gupta Empire had grown by leaps in its science. Aryabhata had summarized Indian knowledge of mathematics and astronomy into one great work and clarified the place-value system that implied the existence of a “zero.” While he supported a geocentric model of the universe, he did show the Earth was round and rotated on an axis with the moon using reflected sunlight. Art and architecture had thrived with the imperial households increasingly supporting Buddhism with new temples. Numerous scholars focused their attention on contagions to better understand how to protect local horse herds. After reviewing complex schemes for mass canal systems and improved designs for carts, Budhagupta approved an engine that mimicked the power of a horse by steam from a boiler. Steadily steam engines came into use with iron soon replacing early brass models.

While the first steam engines were used to pull carts, soon the devices were being used in stationary form at mills. Religious objection to using forests for fuel were met with increased mining of the empire’s extensive coal resources. Demand for iron drove Gupta conquests southward into the kingdoms of the Vakatakas, beginning a new era of expansion for the empire. As the economic middle classes grew throughout the caste system, the newly rich patronized engineers and scholars, especially when their discoveries in chemistry or physics could make money. Varahamihira furthered geometry and trigonometry and define reflection and refraction in optics, leading to the development of lenses that soon allowed for telescopy, microscopy, and photography.

The Gupta Empire lasted approximately three hundred years before its satellite provinces in Southeast Asia broke into smaller states and revolution changed the imperial structure for more representation. By then, the technology and culture of India had spread widely, and, even in a different political form, northern India remained the scientific and economic center of the world. Indian steamships circumnavigated Africa to Europe and reached as far as Japan and New Zealand, establishing colonies for trade all along their paths. Buddhism, the imperially supported religion above others, spread along with the economic wealth, creating a complex mixture of versions of related religions throughout the world. Buddhism grew further under the Indian-influenced Song dynasty in China, where scholar-bureaucrats continued the Guptan practice of encouraging technological development and launched expeditions to map the western hemisphere.


In reality, the Huna continued generational invasions of northern India going as far as Eran midway through the subcontinent. Conquerors such as Toramana and Mihirakula were seen as bitterly cruel, especially as Mihirakula’s beliefs in Shiva drove him to destroy temples and any recorded knowledge. Eventually the Guptas and their allies defeated the Huna, but by then the trade routes had been wrecked and the empire had been worn down.

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