The text below is from the third chapter of the ‘Harshacharita’ (Deeds of Harsha) as translated by E. B. Cowell and F. W. Thomas. Bana describes the career of Pushyabhuti (or Pushpabhuti), Harsha’s illustrious ancestor, ruler of the city of Thanesar (Sthanishvara) in the region of Shrikantha. The narration takes place in Pritikuta, where the poet’s extended family resides. Bana starts with a beautiful portrayal of the autumn season, before moving on to Shrikantha and Sthanishvara. He then narrates Pushyabhuti’s devotion to the god Shiva, and his interaction with the Shaiva saint Bhairavacharya. The saint gifts the king a marvelous sword by the name Attahasa, and obtains his assistance in the performance of a special rite, the Mahakilahridaya (with Tantric overtones). Pushyabhuti defeats a Naga (serpent) who seeks to interrupt the ritual. A goddess then blesses the king and predicts that he will give rise to a line of great monarchs, the greatest of whom, Harshavardhana, will conquer the world.

On a certain occasion Bana left the king’s presence and went to the Brahman settlement to revisit his kin. It was the beginning of autumn, when the clouds are thinned, when the chataka is distressed, when the kadamba duck gives voice; a season deadly to frogs, robbing the peacock of its pride. Then the caravans of hamsas are welcomed back, the sky is like a whetted sword, the sun brilliant, the moon at her clearest, tender the array of stars. The rainbow of Indra fades, the girdling lightning is at rest. Then closes the nipa, the kutaja has no flower; budless is the plantain, soft the red lotus, the blue lotus exudes honey; the water-lily is a joy, the nights are cool with the cephalika, the jasmine becomes fragrant, the ten regions are all ablaze with opening night lotuses, grey are the winds with saptacchada pollen, lovely clustering bandhukas form an unexpected evening glow. The horses have undergone lustration, the elephants are wild, the herds of oxen intoxicated with ferocity. The range of mud diminishes, young sand isles bud forth by the river banks. The wild rice is parched to ripeness, the pollen is formed in the Priyangu blossoms, the cucumber’s skin is hardened, and the reed grass smiles with flowers.

Gratified beyond measure at the news of Bana’s favour with the king, his kinsmen came forth to meet him with congratulations. In due course he experienced the great joy of finding himself among his numerous relatives, greeting some, greeted by others, kissed by some, kissing others, embraced by some, embracing others, welcomed with a blessing by some, blessing others. The elders being seated, he took a seat brought by his excited attendants. At the receipt of the flower offering and other hospitable attentions his delight was still further increased, and it was with a joyous heart that he made his inquiries, “Have you been happy all this time? Does the sacrifice proceed without hindrance, gratifying the Brahman groups by its faultless performance? Do the fires devour ablations with ritual duly and without flaw performed? Do the boys pursue their studies at the proper time? Is there the same unbroken daily application to the Veda? The old earnestness in the practice of the art of sacrifice? Are there the same classes in grammar exposition? Is there the old logic society, regardless of all other occupations? The same excessive delight in the Mimamsa, dulling all pleasure in other authoritative books? Are there the same poetic addresses, raining down an ambrosia of ever-new phrases?” They replied, “Son, the affairs of us people devoted to contentment, whose intellectual pastimes are always at command, and whose only companion is the sacrificial fire, are of little importance, so long as the earth is happily protected by our monarch’s arm, swaying the whole world. We are in any case happy, but especially now that you, having cast aside indolence, occupy a cane seat beside our sovereign lord. All the ceremonies proper to Brahmans are fully carried out as far as our powers and means permit and in due season.”

Mid such conversations as these, court news, remembrances of past boyish sports, and stories of the men of old he amused himself with them for some time: at length rising at noon, he complied with the usual observances. After dinner his kinsmen gathered round him. Soon the reader Sudristi was observed approaching, wearing a pair of silken paundra cloths pale as the outer corner of the peacock’s eye: his sectarial lines were painted in gorocana and clay from a sacred pool blessed at the end of his bath; his hair was made sleek with oil and myrobolan, a thick bunch of flowers, kissing his short topknot, added a touch of spruceness, the glow of his lips had been heightened by several applications of betel, and a brilliance imparted to his eyes by the vise of a stick of collyrium: he had just dined and his dress was decorous and respectable. He seated himself on a chair not far away, and, after waiting a moment, set down in front of him a desk made of reed stalks, and laid upon it a manuscript from which he had removed the tie. Having turned over the intervening leaves marked by the end of the morning chapter, he took a small light block of a few leaves, and read with a chant the Purana uttered by Vayu, his honeyed intonations, charming the hearts of his hearers. While Sudristi was thus reading with a chant delightful to the ear, the minstrel Suchivana, who was not far from him accompanied the modulation of the chant by reciting in a voice loud and sweet this Arya couplet:
‘Itself sung by sages, itself widespread, embracing the world, cleansing from sin,
‘Methinks this Purana differs not from the achievements of Harsha!
‘Following the law of heredity, free from discord, noised abroad by its deeds, including all India under its sway,
‘Issuing from a Shrikantha, this chant resembles the sovereignty of Harsa!’

Hearing this Bana’s cousins, who had previously arranged together, looked meaningly at each other. There were four of them brothers, Ganapati, Adhipati, Tarapati, and Shamala, and their aspect was, like Brahma’s four faces, made pure by the study of the Veda, their looks, like the four methods, endearing from the employment of conciliation; men of mild manners, and culture, holding the status of preceptors, expounders of Nyaya, deep in the study of able works, receiving only good words both in the world and in grammar, versed in the acts of all monarchs and sages of old, inspired in mind by the Mahabharata, acquainted with all legends, great in wisdom and poetry, full of eagerness to know stories of heroes, thirsting for no elixir but that of listening to well-turned phrases, foremost in years, speech, distinction, asceticism, the conference, the festival, in person, and in sacrifice. At a signal from the others, the youngest of them, Shimala by name, much loved by Bana, respectfully spoke, “Friend Bana, no reign has been stainless except that of this Harsha, king of kings, sovereign of all continents. Concerning him indeed many marvels are reported. In him we see how a ‘Subduer of Hosts’ has set at rest the moving partisan kings. In him a ‘Lord of People’ has displayed forbearance towards all other rulers. In him a ‘Best of Men’ has won fame by pounding a king of Sindh. In him a ‘Master’ has signaled his power by laying low his enemy at one stroke. In him a ‘Man Lion’ has manifested his might by cutting down his enemy with his own hand. In him a ‘Supreme Lord’ has taken tribute from an inaccessible land of snowy mountains. In him a ‘World’s Lord’ has stationed the world’s guardians at the entrance to the regions, and the treasure of all the earth has been distributed among the first of the people. These and like great undertakings do we see, resembling those of the first age of gold. Therefore we are eager to hear from the beginning onwards, in the order of his lineage, the fortunes of this auspiciously named hero, rich in the merit won by noble deeds. It is long since we first desired to hear. As the magnet attracts hard and sapless iron, so do the qualities of the great even the hard and tasteless minds of insignificant people, much more those of others naturally tasteful and susceptible. Who could be without curiosity regarding his story, a second Mahabharata? Pray relate it, your highness!” So much said he became silent.

Replied Bana with a smile, “Sir, your remarks accord not with fitness. I consider the demands of your curiosity impracticable. People absorbed in their own objects are commonly void of discrimination between the possible and impossible. Attracted by the virtues of others and confused, I suppose, by passion for hearing stories of friends, the minds even of the great lose their discernment. Beyond the comprehension of the omniscient, beyond the capacity of the god of speech, beyond the strength of the goddess of eloquence, how much more is he beyond such as I! What man could possibly even in a hundred of men’s lives depict his story in full? If, however, you care for a part, I am ready. In what way may a feeble tongue possessed of a few grains of letters be of service? Your highnesses are the audience, the fortunes of Harsha the theme: what more can be said? The day, however, is near its close. The adorable sun, bright with matted locks of ruddy rays trailing behind, is sinking in the mass of the evening glow. Tomorrow I will narrate the story.” “So be it,” they all assented, and rising soon after, he proceeded for his twilight worship. Then, with heat soft as a Malwa woman’s wine-flushed cheek, the day folded itself up. Red exceedingly, as if through toying with the lotus beds, the sun kissing the dusk declined; following the track of whose chariot horses, the darkness sped like Yama’s buffalo along the firmament. In due course the bark dresses banging upon the hut-roofs of the house ascetics were gathered in. The heavens were gladdened by the smoke of the Agnihotra rite, stealing away the taint of the Kali age. The sacrificers preserved a rigid silence: the women strolled around in the restlessness of recreation time. Bundles of green panicum and rice were being strewn about for the sacrificial cows after milking; the Vaitana fires were being lighted, the braided ascetics, hairy with black antelope skins, were seated on their clean mats, the students mumbled their tasks, the meditating yogis squatted in the Brahma posture, innumerable scholars ran about with sounds of clapping, while, by leave of their wearied old teacher, a concourse of dolts, dandies, and boys performed their twilight task by blunderingly belching out the disconnected lines of their books.

As the evening was now established in the sky and the lamps called stars were peeping forth, Bana proceeded to the house, and sate down in the same company with his loved kinsmen. The first watch having been so spent, he betook himself to a bed in the house of Ganapati. With all the others, however, who in spite of closed eyes obtained no sleep, waiting like lotus beds for the sunrise, curiosity made the night wear but heavily away. Awaking at the fourth watch of the night, the same bard as before sang a couple of verses:
‘Stretching out his foot behind, elongating his body upwards to full length by bending his spine,
‘With bowed neck leaning his mouth upon his breast, tossing his dust-grey mane,
‘His projecting nostrils restlessly moving through desire for fodder, the steed,
‘Now risen from his bed, gently whinnying paws the earth with his hoof.
‘With bent back and loins brought near his mouth, curving his neck sideways,
‘His curls matted about his ears, the horse with his hoof rubs the corner of his eye,
‘Inflamed by irritation in sleep, while small bits of chaff cling to his moving eyelashes,
‘And his eye is uneasily smitten by his tossing hoar-frost-scattering forebead-tuft.’

Hearing this, Bana dispelled his slumbers, and having arisen, washed his face, worshipped the holy twilight, took his betel at sunrise, and sought the same place as before. Meanwhile all his kinsmen collected and sat down in a circle round him. Having learnt their object through the former discussion, he began to relate to them the fortunes of Harsha, “Listen. There is a certain region named Shrikantha, peopled by the good, a heaven of Indra, as it were, descended upon earth, where the laws of caste usage are for ever unconfused and the order of the Krita age prevails. Owing to the number of its land lotuses the ploughs, whose shares uproot the fibres as they sear the acres, excite a tumult of bees. Unbroken lines of Pundra sugarcane enclosures seem besprinkled by the clouds that drink the Milky Sea. On every side its marches are packed with corn heaps, like mountains, distributed among the threshing floors. Throughout it is adorned with rice crops extending beyond their fields, where the ground bristles with cumin beds watered by the pots of the Persian wheel. Upon its lordly uplands are wheat crops variegated with rajamasa patches, ripe to bursting, and yellow with the split bean pods. Attended by singing herdsmen mounted on buffalos, pursued by sparrows greedy for swarms of flies; gay with the tinkle of bells bound to their necks, roaming herds of cows make white its forests, revelling on vaspachedya grass and dropping milk. Thousands of spotted antelopes dot the districts. Pot-herbs and plantains blacken the soil around the villages. At every step are groups of young camels. The exits are made attractive by vine-arbours and pomegranate orchards; arbours, ablaze with pilu sprays, besmeared with the juice of hand-pressed citron leaves, having flower bunches formed of spontaneously gathered saffron filaments, and travellers blissfully sleeping after drinking the juice of fresh fruit; orchards, where the fruit, ripe to bursting, seems coloured by the beaks of the parrots attacking the seeds, and the flowers are tinged by the cheeks of climbing monkeys. There are lovely groves where woodrangers taste the cocoa-nut juice, where travelling folk plunder the date-trees, monkeys lick sweet-scented date juice, and partridges tear the aruka to pieces with their beaks. Not barren are the sylvan hollows of forest pools, refuge of myriad travellers, encircled with avenues of tall arjuna trees and turbid at the edges through the descent of herds of kine. Troops of camels and flocks of sheep form in hordes under the guardianship of camel boys. Wandering droves of mares, besmeared with the sap of crushed saffron beds, where they roll as if to seduce the steeds of the sun’s chariot, visit the land, roaming like the deer of the Maruts at will, with snorting nostrils and uplifted heads drinking in the air. Good men, in conduct spotless as the moon’s rays, adorn it like pearls. Such is the land of Shrikantha.

In such a country is a certain district called Sthanvishvara, blessed, with thousands of flaming sacrificial fires; allaying all inauspicious signs; thronged with hundreds of great rivers uproarious with tumult; bright, like a replica of the moon world, with rows of white houses plastered with stucco; like a claimant to the name of Kuvera’s City, oppressing the world with clanking ornaments of wine-flushed beauties. Sages entitled it a hermitage, courtesans a lover’s retreat, actors a concert hall, foes the city of death, seekers of wealth the land of the philosopher’s stone, sons of the sword the soil of heroes, aspirants to knowledge the preceptor’s home, singers the Gandharvas’ city, scientists the Great Artificer’s temple, merchants the land of profit, bards the gaining-house, good men the gathering of the virtuous, refugees the cage of adamant, libertines the Rogue’s Meet, wayfarers the reward of their good deeds, treasure-seekers the mine, quietists the Buddhist monastery, lovers the Apsaras’ City, troubadours the festival congress, Brahmans the stream of wealth. There are women like elephants in gait, noble-minded, attached to worldly pomp, possessed of rubies, their faces brilliant with white teeth, their breath perfumed with the fragrance of wine, their bodies like crystal, their limbs soft as acacia flowers, robed in bodices with wide and beautiful hips, thin waists; lovely are they, honeyed in speech, of a bright and captivating beauty. In that country there arose a monarch named Pushpabhuti, having, like Indra incarnate, a bow supporting all castes, Meru-like in the attribute of a golden nature, Mandara-like in attracting glory, ocean-like in observing proper bounds, moon-like in his receptivity for arts, Veda-like in truthful speech, earth-like in supporting all mankind, wind-like in sweeping away the bad passions of all kings, a Guru in speech, a Vishala in intellect, a Janaka in asceticism, a Suyatra in splendour, a Sumantra in secret council, a Budha in station, an Arjuna in brilliance, a Nisadha in frame, a Shatrughna in battle, a Shura in vanquishing armies of heroes, a Daksha in fecundity; framed in the compounded splendour of all the primaeval kings.

Now the minds of the great are naturally wilful and follow their own lights. Wherefore from boyhood upwards he, untaught by any man, entertained a great, almost inborn, devotion towards Shiva the adorable, upholder of the universe, creator of creatures, annihilator of existence. From all other gods he turned away. Not even in dreams did he take food without worshipping him whose emblem is the bull. Devoted to the Lord of Beings, the foe of the Demons’ City, the lord of countless Hosts, spouse of the Daughter of the Mountains, before whom all worlds bow, he thought the three spheres void of all other deities. Thus house by house the holy lord of the Cleaving Axe was worshipped: the winds blowing in those pure districts were fragrant with resin melted in the sacrificial pits. It was with gifts and presents customary in Shiva’s worship that the king was honoured by citizens, dependents, councillors, and neighbouring sovereigns, whom his arm’s might had conquered and made tributary. Thus they gratified his heart with huge Shiva bulls white as Kailasa’s peaks, and ringed about their horn-tips with gold-leaf creepers; with golden ewers, with oblation vessels, censers, flowered cloths, lamps on jewelled stands, Brahmanical threads, and mukhakoshas inlaid with precious gems. His queens also complied with his desire, voluntarily undertaking the threshing of the scattered rice, deepening the glow of their hands by staining the temples with unguents, occupying all their attendants in stringing flowers. Now this monarch so devoted to Shiva heard men speak of a great Shaiva saint who belonged to the Deccan, but whose powers, made famous by his excellence in multifarious sciences, spread over the whole sphere of humanity. Hearing of this Bhairavacharya, the king conceived towards him, a deep affection as towards a second Shiva, and desired by all means to see his face.

One day, as the failing light was kissing the western hill, the portress approached the king, who was in the harem, and said: ‘Your majesty, a recluse stands at the door and declares that he has come by order of Bhairavacharya.’ ‘Where is he,’ the king with profound respect inquired, ‘conduct him here, introduce him.’ The chamberlain did so, and soon the king saw the ascetic enter, a tall fellow with arms extending to his knees, emaciated by a mendicant’s life yet from the stoutness of the bones in his limbs appearing fat, broad in the head, his forehead undulating with deep wrinkles, fleshless hollows beneath his eyes, which were round and ruddy as wine drops, his nose slightly curved, one ear very pendulous, the rows of his prominent teeth distinct as seeds in a gourd, his lip loose as a horse’s, his jaw elongated by a hanging chin. A red ascetic’s scarf hanging from his shoulder formed his vaikaksaka wrap; his upper robe, consisting of a tattered rag knotted above his heart and stained with red chalk. In one hand he grasped his bamboo stool. His left held a yoke pole resting on his shoulder, where its motionless point of support was tied with a complicated fastening of hair rope; to this were attached his dirt-scraper and sieve of bamboo bark, his loin cloth at the end, his alms bowl contained in its receptacle, namely a cavity of kharjura wood, his water pot fixed in a triangular support made of three sticks, his slippers disposed outside, and a bundle of manuscript bound by a string of stout cord. As he drew near, the king welcomed him with the usual courtesies, and when he was seated, asked where Bhairavacharya was. Charmed with the king’s gracious speech, the mendicant stated that he was staying near the city in a deserted house contiguous with the woods on Sarasvati’s banks; and he further added ‘His reverence honours your sovereign majesty with his blessing.’ With which words he drew from his pack and presented five jewelled silver lotuses sent by Bhairavacarya. The king, shrinking, as politeness dictated, from slighting a friend’s gift, but also unwilling to be guilty of too hasty acceptance, paused a moment wavering, but at length, yielding to nobleness, took the gifts and said, ‘Our devotion to Shiva, the source of all fruitful results, produces fruits inaccessible indeed to desire, seeing that we find such favour with his reverence, the guru of the world. Tomorrow I will see his reverence.’ With these words he dismissed the ascetic, profoundly delighted at his news.

The next day he rose early, mounted his horse, and with his white umbrella held above him, and a pair of white chowries waving, proceeded accompanied by only a few nobles to see Bhairavacharya, like the moon visiting the sun. Having advanced some distance, he saw one of Bhairavacharya’s own disciples approaching, and inquired where his reverence was staying. ‘In a bel tree plantation,’ the man replied, ‘north of yon old temple to the Mothers.’ So he proceeded to the place, dismounted, and entered the plantation. In the midst of a great throng of recluses he beheld Bhairavacharya, who on seeing him at a distance moved like the ocean seeing the moon, and, after his disciples had first risen, rose and went forward to meet the king. Having presented a gift of Bel fruit, he pronounced a benediction in tones deep as the roar of Ganges’ flood. The king repeated his salutation by a bow from a distance. ‘Approach, be seated here,’ said the teacher, pointing to his own tiger-skin. ‘Your reverence,’ the king respectfully replied in a voice flowing like a river of honey, ‘you ought not to make me suffer for the faults of other princes. It is surely the bad manners of that inglorious glory which all kings regard, or else the mean pride of wealth, which makes the teacher deal so with me. I am no object for ceremoniousness. Enough of formality, however far removed, in will I am your disciple. A teacher’s seat should be like himself respected, not desecrated. Let your highness only sit here.’ So much said, he seated himself on a rug brought by his attendants. Bhairavacharya likewise, complying graciously with the king’s words, reoccupied as before his tiger skin. All being seated, the nobles and retinue and students, he made the customary offering of flowers and the like. In due course captivated by the king’s charm, he began to speak, ‘My son, your exceeding condescension of self proclaims the majesty of your virtues. You are a vessel for universal good-fortune. Your undertakings harmonize with your greatness. I have never had regard for riches. This poor person of mine therefore is not sold to wealth, that fuel to the fire of vice. My life is sustained by alms. A few hard-won syllables of knowledge are mine. I have some small store of merit acquired by humble service of the holy Master Shiva. Be pleased to appropriate whatever of this deserves to be of service. Like flowers, the minds of the good can be bound by very slight ties.’ ‘Your reverence,’ replied the king, ‘let the bodies of the good be ever so devoted. The mere sight of you has done me infinite good. By his mere coming the teacher has placed me in an enviable position.’ After some time spent in these and various discourses he went home.

Another day Bhairavacharya on his part went to see the king, who placed himself, his harem, his court, and his treasury at the ascetic’s disposal. But the sage with a smile replied, ‘What have we children of the woods to do, your majesty, with power? Wisdom withers sure enough, like a creeper, under the blaze of wealth. The brightness which shines in us is like that of the firefly, which scorches no other being. Only your majesty’s peers are vessels for fortune.’ Then after staying some time he departed. The mendicant as before presented five silver lotuses on each occasion. One day however he entered with something wrapt in white rags, and, having sat down as before, after a pause spoke, ‘Most fortunate king, his reverence informs your majesty that he has a Brahman disciple named Patalasvamin, who from the hand of a Brahmarakhsasa took a great sword called Attahasa. Pray accept of this, a weapon befitting your majesty’s arm.’ With these words he removed the covering of rags, and drew forth from the sheath a sword, like the autumn sky converted to a scimitar, composed of steel heated by the fiery wrath of fate, in its exceeding sharpness humming as with rage at the mere touch of the air, a side-glance, as it were, of the night of doom, the ornament of arrogance, the comrade of valour, the child of death, the path of approaching glory, the road of departing fame. The king took it in his hand, and gazing at it for a while, seemed, as it reflected his image, to be giving the weapon a loving embrace. Pleased at the acceptance, the mendicant departed. The king, naturally of a warlike humour, felt that by aid of that sword the earth lay in the hollow of his hand. The days passing, Bhairavacharya on one occasion made a secret petition to the king, ‘The dispositions of the great, your majesty, are careless of their own interests, versed in serving others. To such as your majesty seeing petitioners is a festival, solicitation is to confer a favour, the acceptance of gifts by others a boon. You are the centre of all men’s wishes. Wherefore I now address you. By a crore of muttered prayers have I, in garlands, clothes, and unguents all of black as enjoined in the Kalpa, performed in the great cemetery the potent rite called Mahakilahridaya. Its completion ends with the slaying of a goblin. Without companions this is unattainable. You are capable of achieving this. Should you undertake the task, there will be three other assistants – one the friend of my boyhood, Titibha, the mendicant who visits your majesty; the second Patalasvamin; the third a Dravidian disciple of mine, Karnatala by name. If you approve, let this arm of yours, long as a sky elephant’s trunk, take Attahasa and for one night become the bolt of one quarter of the heavens.’

To this speech the king, delighted, like one in darkness who sees a light, at the opportunity of conferring a favour, replied, ‘I am highly honoured, your reverence; I consider myself favoured by a charge to be shared with your disciples.’ Overjoyed at the king’s words, Bhairavacharya proceeded to make an appointment, ‘ Your honour, armed with your sword, will find us in the empty house near the great cemetery here at this hour on the approaching fourteenth night of the dark fortnight.’ The days having passed and the fourteenth having arrived, the king after initiation in the Shaiva ritual fasted. The sword Attahasa he perfumed and honoured with frankincense, and wreaths. The day came to a close. A ruddy hue spread over the heaven, as though some one had performed a Bali ceremony with sprinkled blood to ensure the success of the rite. The sun’s rays hung down like vampires’ tongues greedy for the scattered blood. In the firmament the starry clusters gathered close, as if to look upon a horrid act. Thus at the dead of night, in the soundless stillness of a sleeping world, the king, eluding his court and harem, a dagger gleaming in his left hand, Attahasa drawn in his right, cloaked from head to foot in the radiance of his sword like a dark blue silken robe assumed to escape detection, set forth alone from the city, and reached the appointed spot. Then the three, Titibha, Karnatala, and Patalasvamin, came up and announced themselves, armed, bathed, garlanded, and strangely attired. About their topknots of flowers ranged murmuring bees. On their heads they wore turban wraps with large Svastika knots fastened in the centre of their foreheads, and resembling huge mystic seals. Their cheeks were lit with the light of dazzling earrings. Brandishing sharp swords, wherein their images were reflected, they seemed offering human sacrifices to ensure the success of the rite. Their bucklers, bearing crescents and silver globules, might be compared to bits of darkness forming a second and artificial night. They wore thick new cloths girt with golden chain-belts, with daggers fastened to their waists. ‘Who goes there?’ demanded the king of the three. They severally announced their names, and with them at his heels he proceeded to the silent, deep, and awful graveyard, where all was in readiness and pounded resin, flaming in magic lamps, filled the heavens with incense and smoke.

In the centre of a great circle of ashes, white as lotus pollen, Bhairavacharya could be seen, a form all aglow with light, like the autumn sun enveloped in a broad halo. Seated on the breast of a corpse which lay supine, anointed with red sandal and arrayed in garlands, clothes and ornaments all of red, himself with a black turban, black unguents, black amulet, and black garments, he had begun a fire rite in the corpse’s mouth, where a flame was burning. As he offered some black sesamum seeds, it seemed as though in eagerness to become a Vidyadhara he were annihilating the atoms of defilement. The gleam of his nails falling on the oblation appeared to cleanse the flames of the pollution due to contact with the dead man’s mouth, while his smoke-inflamed eye flung as it were an offering of blood upon the devouring blaze. His mouth, showing the tips of white teeth as he slightly opened his lips in his muttering, seemed to display in bodily shape the lines of the syllables of his charms. The lamps near him were reflected in the sweat of his sacrificial exertions, as if he were burning his whole body to ensure success. From his shoulder hung a Brahmanical thread of many strands, encircling his form, like a charm. Having approached, the king saluted, and being welcomed set about his own task. Patalasvamin chose Indra’s quarter, Karnatala that of Kuvera, the mendicant that of Pracetas, while the king himself adorned that marked by Trishanku’s light.

The warders of the regions having taken their stations, Bhairavacharya confidently entered the cage composed of their arms, and proceeded with his awful work. The opposing fiends after fruitless resistance and much uproar had been allayed. Suddenly, at the very instant of midnight, the earth was rent open to the north, not far from the magic circle, displaying a fissure. Forthwith, there ascended out of the chasm a spirit dark as a blue lotus, with shoulders thick and square as the Great Boar’s, a fiend, as it were, risen from the womb of earth. The gleam of a malati wreath amid locks of crisp curled hair, sleek, dark and growing thickly, produced the effect of a sapphire temple crowned with the blaze of a jewelled lamp. A throbbing voice and eyes naturally red suggested one drunk with the vapours of youth. A necklace tossed about his throat. Above a petticoat white as the Ketaki petal his flank was drawn tight by a scarf, the long white cotton fringe of which, carelessly left loose, hung to the ground just as if it were the serpent Shesha, supporting him from behind. His stout thick thighs planted slow paces as if he feared to break through the earth; yet they could scarce support his mountain-like form. Again and again he doubled his left arm athwart his breast, raised the right cross-wise, bent his leg, and furiously slapped his arms, with such a noise as though he would raise a storm to hinder the rite and maim the animate world. ‘Ho, my would-be paramour of Vidyidharis,’ he sneeringly shouted in tones, ‘whence this conceit of knowledge or blind reliance on your helpers, that without making an oblation to me you aspire, fool that you are, to success? What madness is this? Has no mention come to your ears after all this time of me, the Naga Shrikantha, after whom this region, whereof I am lord, is named? Against my will what power have the very planets to move in the heavens? What a miserable unkingly king is this, who accepts favours from such Shaiva outcasts as you! Receive now along with this wretched monarch the reward of your misconduct.’ When he had said thus much, the three, Titibha and the rest, rushed upon him; but with furious buffets he dashed them, armour, swords and all, to the ground.

Never before had the king heard himself reviled. His limbs poured forth a stream of furious sweat. His hair bristled like an array of arrow heads shot out in hundreds to lighten him for the fray. Even Attahasa, mirroring the constellations, seemed to proclaim his unbending spirit by a contemptuous smile. Scornfully he cried, ‘Ho, serpent, are you not ashamed to demand an oblation in the presence of such a royal as I? But what avail these taunts? Valour dwells in the arm, not in the voice. Take to your weapon. Not thus are you my match. My arm is untaught to smite the weaponless.’ With still greater disdain the Naga replied, ‘Approach, what care I for swords? With my two arms will I crush your pride,’ and so slapped his arms. Ashamed to vanquish a weaponless foe with weapons, the king, flinging away sword and buckler, girt up his loins outside his cloak for a fight with fists. So they fought till their furious slapping had bedewed them with a rain of blood from lacerated arms. Soon the king smote the serpent to the earth, and having seized him by the hair, had drawn Attahasa to strike off his head, when amid the wreath on his shoulder he detected the sacred thread. Forbearing his weapon, ‘Villain,’ he cried, ‘this then is the seed of your career of ill-doing, this is whence you proceed without fear in your wicked courses,’ and so let him go. Straightway as in a moment he beheld a great brightness; a perfume as of lotus beds opening in autumn smote upon his nostrils; instantaneously he heard a tinkle of anklets, and guided his glance in pursuit of the sound. In the centre of the sword resting in his hand, like a lightning flash in the womb of a black cloud, he beheld a woman whose radiance seemed to swallow up the night. Her hands were like red lotuses. Clasped anklets lay about her ankles, as though in her coming she had burst from a prison of thick linked chains. Out of a dazzling white silken robe, embroidered with hundreds of flowers and birds, and gently rippled by the motion of the breeze, her form rose up as from the ocean’s waters. Across her bosom, lay a necklace with lustrous pearls like the stars of autumn. Her hands bore a naturally rosy tint, as if they had caught a vermilion tinge. Her flashing ear-rings shone like the moon, curved to a circle. Clinging about her ear was an ornament of ashoka shoots. Her forehead lacked not a great sectorial line, dark as elephant’s ichor. Moon-white sandals, like the glory of the kings of old, brightened her form. Flowery wreaths, dangling from her throat and kissing the ground, flowed over her like rivers finding their repose in ocean. Limbs soft as lotus fibres voicelessly proclaimed her lotus birth. ‘Who art thou, lady?’ cried the king, ‘and wherefore hast thou come within my sight?’ ‘Hero,’ she said, ‘know me to be the lioness whose caprice is to roam in the forest of sharp scimitar edges. I am ravished by this thy valorous spirit. Crave of me a boon: I will give thee thy heart’s desire.’ Heroes are unwearied in serving others. So the king bowed to her, and heedless of his own advantage, besought the success of Bhairavacharya. Highly gratified, the goddess, anointing the king with her wide-open eyes, replied ‘So be it,’ and added, ‘because of this magnanimity of thine and because of thy superlative devotion to the holy Lord Shiva thou, like a third added to the Sun and Moon, shalt be the founder of a mighty line of kings persisting unbroken upon earth, daily increasing in greatness, full of matchless heroes elated with purity, high fortune, truth, munificence, and fortitude. Wherein shall arise an emperor named Harsha, governor of all the continents, world-conquering like a second Mandhatri, whose chowrie this hand, spontaneously abandoning the lotus, shall grasp.’ So saying she vanished.

The heart of the king was beyond measure gratified to hear this. Bhairavacharya himself, having by the words of the goddess and the full performance of the rite, acquired the hair-lock, diadem, earring, necklace, armlet, girdle, hammer, and sword, and become a Vidyadhara. Addressing the king he said, ‘The wishes, O king, of indolent feeble-minded people embrace not remote objects but the favours of the good are of their very nature far-reaching. To bestow this boon, unimagined even in dreams, who except your majesty had power? A man of light qualities is lifted up like a scale by the acquisition of a mere particle of success. Having been served by your virtues and having attained my purpose through none other than you, I am inspired by the immodesty of an infatuated heart. And so it is my wish to win remembrance by endeavoring in whatever way I can to afford you some grain of assistance.’ The stout hearts of the wise, however, are proof against reciprocation of favours, and the king therefore refused, saying, ‘By your reverence’s success my task is finished; let your reverence proceed to a station according with your wish.’ After this reply from the king, Bhairavacharya, now on the point of departure, warmly embraced Titibha and the others, and regarding the king with a tearful eye like a blue lotus-bed streaming with frosty dew, ‘Friend,’ he resumed, ‘should I say I am going, that were a poor token of affection; if I say my life is yours, tis superfluous; make this poor body your own would imply the creation of an unreal distinction; you have purchased me bit by bit, the bits fall short of your kindnesses; you are my kinsman would place a distance between us; my heart remains with you would want evidence; a success which severs us would not find credence; your kindness was unmerited a mere reiteration; keep me in remembrance a command. At least in all talk of ingrates and all narrations of ignoble people let me be remembered as one remorselessly bent on his own advantage.’ So, speaking, he mounted to the sky. Shrikantha also spoke, ‘Deign, O king, whenever necessary to favour with your commands one bought by your valour and taught discretion,’ and so with the consent of the king entered again the same fissure in the earth.

By this the night was nearly spent. Fragrant with the breath of opening day-lotus beds, the sylvan breeze had begun to blow, attracting the bees by its perfume, lulling the night-lotuses to sleep, chilled by the night’s ending. Scorched as it were by the sighs of ruddy-geese in the anguish of their severance, the night subsided into the western ocean. The lotus beds peeped forth. As the birds awoke, the forest, quivering in the soft breeze, rained down showers of hoar-frost, like bunches of flowers. With their noisy imprisoned bees the night-lotuses hummed like auspicious horns to awake the beauty of the day-lotuses. The stars, buds of the creepers of night, clustered together in the western sky, as if wafted on by the panting breath of the rising sun’s chariot-horses. Occupying Mandara’s peak, the Seven Sages became grey, as if coated with pollen from thickets of heavenly creepers. Taking Titibha and the others, the king, whose limbs were befouled by the give and take of battle with the demon, bathed in the pure water of a sylvan pool. He then entered the city, and next day gratified all three with unguents, food, and clothing immediately after his own person. After the lapse of a few days the mendicant, despite the king’s remonstrances, departed to the woods. Patalasvamin and Karnatala, men of a warlike spirit, remained in the king’s service. Elevated to a fortune beyond their wildest dreams, drawing their swords in the midst of the royal guard, occupying the front rank in the battle, now and then on occasion of story-telling appointed to narrate various actions of Bhairavacharya, and incidents of their own childhood, they arrived at old age by the king’s side.

PS: Though the text is taken from the English translation by E. B. Cowell and F. W. Thomas, I have made minor changes to make it easier to read and understand. This required the removal of entire paragraphs in between (mostly literary hyperbole), and the substitution of certain words (archaic or confusing).

Image Attribution: The image above, sourced from Wikimedia Commons, shows a copper alloy statue of Shiva as Nataraja from Tamil Nadu (c. 950-1000 CE). Shiva was well established as a popular, pan-Indian deity by the seventh century CE, corresponding to Harshavardhana’s rule. Harsha’s ancestor, Pushyabhuti (or Pushpabhuti) is portrayed as a great devotee of Shiva, and disciple of the Shaiva saint, Bhairavacharya. The image was uploaded by Julia W.


  • The Harshacharita of Bana translated by E. B. Cowell and F. W. Thomas (1897)
  • Banabhatta: A Monograph by K. Krishnamoorthy (1976)