The Blood of Belshazzar — Archetypal Cursed Gem, Part Four: Nanda Empire to China

Robert E. Howard’ s stories of the Third Crusade and Cormac Fitzgeoffrey were not equal to his Turlogh O’Brien tales, for my money. But they were still great reads. The sketchy outline he gave through the mouth of the bandit lord Skol Abdhur, concerning the history of the evil gem called the “Blood of Belshazzar” that maddened so many with greed, cruelty and power-lust – including Skol himself – was alone worth the price of admission. Plenty was omitted after Alexander the Great lost it on his Indus campaign. Skol Abdhur merely says that “for centuries the Blood of Belshazzar was lost to sight. Somewhere far to the east, we know, its gleams shone on a road of blood and rapine, and men slew men and dishonored women for it. For it, as of old, women gave up their virtue, men their lives and kings their crowns.”

It affected Alexander strangely while he had it. His behavior became so arbitrary and violent that his army, which had all but worshipped him, was nigh to turning against him. He was never more fortunate than when the evil gem was struck from his breastplate, to be lost in the gore and dust of the battlefield. After he recovered, he agreed to turn back to Persia. His intended attack on the Nanda Empire never occurred.

Even for Alexander, it would have been a mighty opponent. It covered most of northern India from west to east. The Nanda army numbered 200,000 infantry, probably 50,000 cavalry (more, according to Plutarch), with thousands of chariots and trained war elephants. When Alexander’s army refused to face them (and the hellish wet season of northern India) the last Nanda monarch was already reigning. He had only a year or two to live. This was Dhana, known as Argames to the Greek chroniclers.

Dhana never held, or even saw, the Blood of Belshazzar. Someone – a wounded soldier who escaped the battlefield, perhaps — found the gem and carried it away. The next person to possess it was a scholar, philosopher and wizard called Chanakya. He was a remarkable character even in the age that produced Socrates and Aristotle. He flourished at the great center of learning, Taxila in the western Punjab. Ambhi, king of Taxila, had made submission to Alexander when he invaded India, and even became a valuable ally of the Macedonian’s against Porus, the one Indian monarch to really resist his invasion.

Chanakya – also known as Kautilya — belonged to the Brahmin caste. There are somewhat sinister aspects common to the different versions of his legend. One asserts that he was born with a complete set of teeth, a sign that he would become a king – which was not fitting for a Brahmin. His teeth were therefore broken while he was an infant, and a prophecy was then made that while he would never be a king in his own person, he would rule through another.

Chanakya mastered the complex and extensive scriptures, the Vedas, at a very early age. He had considerable knowledge of divination and astrology. He was well acquainted with Zoroastrian belief; the city of Taxila had been annexed to the Persian Empire by Darius the Great, though it became independent again later, and Chanakya undoubtedly corresponded with Persian magi and scholars. He may have been a Zoroastrian himself.

Chanakya, though, was no unworldly theologian. He knew medicine, economics and commerce. A consummate politician and diplomat above all else, he has been called “the Machiavelli of India” by some. Like Machiavelli, he wrote a classic treatise on politics and the art of ruling – the “Arthasashtra.” Like Machiavelli, he has been praised for clear-sighted realism, and on the other hand, condemned for being devious, ruthless and amoral. Sagacious and subtle as the serpent of Eden, that was Chanakya – and he now had the Blood of Belshazzar.

He became a king-maker and went looking for a potential king. His occult knowledge  helped him find one. This was a promising youth from the Magadha kingdom in the east, poor and obscure because his father, a chief, had been killed in a border dispute. His mother’s brothers had left him in the care of a cowherd who raised the boy as his own son. Later he was sold to be a cowherd himself. His character and abilities, though, were evident even in those humble circumstances. Chanakya learned that this youth had met Alexander the Great, and been impressed even while loathing his attempt to conquer India. Later, while he was herding cattle, he had slept in the open and been approached by a lion, which instead of mauling him, gently licked him until he awakened – an omen of a kingly future.

He became known to history as Chandragupta I, founder of the Mauryan Empire.

Chanakya bought the lad and took him to Taxila. At that great centre of learning he was educated in military and political tactics. From one point of view, Chanakya rescued the lad from sorry circumstances and set his feet on a path to greatness. From another, he was Chandragupta’s evil genius.

Chandragupta despised the current Nanda monarch, Dhana, for doing nothing while Alexander led his forces to the Indus, and vowed to secure the country against further invasions from outside. Beginning as a bandit, he collected mercenary soldiers and secured public support against the oppression of the Nandas. Their empire was sliding downhill in a riotous debauch of court extravagance and luxury in any case, and headed by a worthless nonentity in the person of Dhana.

Dhana’s military commander in chief, Bhaddasala, was no lightweight, however. He was a courageous soldier who knew his business. He wasn’t to be underrated, and Chandragupta didn’t.  Wearing the Blood of Belshazzar, the youth won a number of minor battles, earning a reputation. On that basis, and with the help of Chanakya’s expert diplomacy, he forged an alliance with Parvatka, the lord of a kingdom in the modern Punjab.

In fact Parvatka is very likely the Indian name of Porus. Porus had no reason to love the Nandas, and least of all Dhana. Alliance with him raised Chandragupta from a small-time brigand and rebel to the leader of an impressive army. It included Indo-Scythian Sakas, Yavanas or Greeks, Kambojas (who appear to have been an essentially Iranian tribe and were certainly fierce warriors) Kiratas (a mountain people, noted archers, who worshipped Shiva) and Bahlikas (warlike as their friends the Kambojas, and famous breeders of superb horses).

Chandragupta then confronted a large part of the Nanda forces, with Bhaddasala in command. He broke them in a bloody, savage battle. The victory enabled him to control the Magadha kingdom on the Bay of Bengal, the original home of the Nandas and the base of their power.  In 310 BCE, Chandragupta and Porus besieged the Nanda capital of Pataliputra, near the Ganges. The Nanda army was immensely greater even then, but Chandragupta knew from his mentor how Alexander had many times defeated forces overwhelmingly superior in numbers. Leadership, determination and unity were what really counted. Chandragupta’s army surrounded the city and tightened their grip around it until their Nanda foes were defeated. After that the Nanda Empire collapsed. The Maurya Empire, which was to become far greater in extent and accomplishment, was founded.  All surviving members of the Nanda clan were killed to prevent any resurgence of their rule.

Chandragupta was twenty years old.

His contemporary Alexander had died by then. Chandragupta moved against the satraps Alexander had left behind in northern India, defeated them, and slew two of the more important. Later he expanded his empire further, coming into conflict with Seleucus, one of Alexander’s generals and successors, in the year 305. They met in a fierce battle on the Indus in which thousands of men died. Seleucus lost, concluded a treaty with Chandragupta, married his daughter to the young emperor, and had to cede vast territories west of the river. They included the Hindu Kush and most of modern Afghanistan. Chandragupta had gained his lordship of that immense territory by swimming through gore, like all owners of the ruby, who had to feed its appetite for blood or have it taste their own. As REH wrote:

It shone on the breast of the Persian king.
It lighted Iskander’s road;
It blazed where the spears were splintering.
A lure and a maddening goad.
And down through the crimson, changing years
It draws men, soul and brain;
They drown their lives in blood and tears.
And they break their hearts in vain.
Oh, it flames with the blood of strong men’s hearts
Whose bodies are clay again.

–The Song of the Red Stone

Chandragupta had several wives. The daughter of Seleucus was not his chief wife or empress; her name was Durdhara. She came to a gruesome end by accident, or so the legends say. Chanakya, now the emperor’s chief minister, had long fed him tiny and increasing doses of poison to make him immune. Poison was a favorite way of assassinating rulers. Queen Durdhara, pregnant and some time away from giving birth, ate some of a poisoned meal prepared for her husband. Chanakya entered the room and saw what was happening. He instantly cut off her head with a sword before she could fully swallow the food in her mouth, to save the baby in her womb. He slit open her belly and took the baby out. By his sorcery he kept the child in the stomach of a goat for the remaining term, then gave him to a female slave to nourish. Because of that the boy was named Bindusara, “bindu” meaning “point” or “spot. “ The goat’s blood had left indelible speckles on the child’s skin.

Chandragupta appears not to have punished or dismissed his sinister attendant. Circa 300 BCE he led his vast armies southward, driven by the insatiable hunger for conquest the red stone inspired. He crossed the Vindhya Mountain Range and subjugated the Deccan. Eventually he had mastered all of India except south beyond the Deccan and the kingdom of Kalinga in the east (modern Orissa). His army at its greatest numbered over half a million men.

By accepted history’s account, Chandragupta eventually became a Jain ascetic and abdicated, leaving his throne to Bindusara in 297 BCE. But it doesn’t seem likely that any man would retire to a life of ascetic spirituality while he held that accursed ruby. There is a scurrilous and unreliable legend that his son Bindusara assassinated him. It just might be true.

It’s said that during his own reign, Bindusara defeated a further sixteen states and added them to the Maurya Empire. The southern tip of the subcontinent, Ceylon, and Kalinga, remained unconquered. Bindusara reigned about 22 years, and the holder of the ruby had to feed its appetite for blood, so he couldn’t have survived unless he did engage in aggressive wars. He gained the title Amitraghata (slayer of enemies), and that must have had some cause.

Bindusara, like his father and other Indian monarchs, kept a harem. His chief wife, the queen, was evidently named Dharma. Another was Subhadrangi, daughter of Champa. The Asokavadana, or Legend of Asoka, tells how a palace intrigue discredited her and kept her away from the king. Divine Stories, an anthology of Buddhist tales, tells a very similar story, though it gives the king’s wife a different name. Later she was vindicated, reconciled with Bindusara, and bore him a son – the famous Asoka the Great. She exclaimed, “I am now without sorrow!” which is what the name Asoka means.

As a youngster he often saw the Blood of Belshazzar around his father’s neck. On becoming the third Maurya Emperor, he inherited it. Like all princes, he belonged to the Kshatriya caste and was trained as a warrior. He appears to have been exceptional. His skill as a swordsman became famous while he was a youth, and as a hunter, he was said to have killed a lion with a wooden staff. These are typical royal hero-tales, of course. Hercules, Samson, Gilgamesh and King David are all credited with killing lions single-handed.

Forceful and fierce, he was sent by his father to curb riots in one discontented province (Avanti, in the west, near the Gulf of Cambay). As his father’s officer, the prince distinguished himself during Bindusara’s conquest of sixteen kingdoms, and afterwards was stationed in Ujjain as his father’s viceroy. Ujjain, in modern Madhya Pradesh, was the capital of the Avanti Kingdom and an important holy city. It marked the prime meridian for ancient Hindu geographers, just as Greenwich does in the western world today.

The son of a mere subordinate queen, Asoka swiftly rid himself of his better-born brother, whose claim to the throne was greater. He beguiled him into a room which had been prepared as a death-trap, and dropped him through the floor into a pit of live coals like a James Bond villain. On becoming emperor, his story (as written in the Dipa-Vamsa and Maha-Vamsa, both historical legend-chronicles from Ceylon) avers that he killed ninety-nine of his brothers and spared one. The numbers sound legendary and exaggerated; in reality he may have killed only a dozen or twenty brothers.

He made his ministers face a draconian test of loyalty and had many killed for not passing it. He kept a huge harem and burnt some of its members alive for disrespect. He had an elaborate and terrible torture chamber constructed, and kept its functionaries busy disposing of enemies and traitors. Through battle and conquest he pushed the empire’s borders east to the regions of modern Myanmar (Burma) and Bangladesh, and west to the boundaries of the Persian realm. The kingdom of Kalinga on the eastern shore of the subcontinent still remained unconquered, as it had before his father Bindusara and grandfather Chandragupta – but Kalinga’s turn was coming. When he moved against it with his armies, Asoka exceeded in savagery all that he’d done before.

The Kalinga War was fought around 263 BCE, give or take three years. It happened in the eighth year of Asoka’s rule, anyhow. The slaughter was fearful even by the standards of the ancient world. All Kalinga was devastated, plundered and ravaged, about 100,000 people being killed, and many thousands of men and women sent away to other districts in servitude afterwards. At least ten thousand soldiers in Asoka’s army died.

It’s evident that Asoka wore the red stone up until the Kalinga War, and behaved as its other owners had. Equally sound is the inference that after the end of that war, he no longer had it, because he experienced a profound change of heart and spirit. Aghast at the carnage he had carried out, he turned away from war and became a Buddhist. He promoted the relatively new religion; his son Mahindra and daughter Sanghamitra journeyed to Ceylon to establish Buddhism there, with striking success. He adopted an official policy of non-violence (“ahimsa”) and practiced it in person. He established canals and water storage systems, founded centres of learning which common men could attend, renovated his empire’s road system, and all in all turned into a merciful and humane Mr. Wonderful.

That sounds like pure hagiographic legend, especially to our jaundiced thinking today. It’s surely exaggerated. Still, it’s pretty much consistent with Hindu and Buddhist culture in India, in that men while young and middle-aged were expected to meet their family and social obligations of the material world – their obligations as rulers and administrators, too, if they belonged to that caste. But once they had done so, once they grew older, it was perfectly all right, in fact admirable, if they renounced the world and sought spiritual advancement.

Similar things happen in other cultures, too. Take the Irish at the other end of the known world, in the early Christian centuries. Plenty of wild, rambunctious characters in Erin repented and became monks when they put on some years. It was a common pattern; sin and slaughter in youth, holiness in age.

As for Asoka, his amazing change of character can be explained by his losing the gem. It had inspired many men to madness and bloodlust before him.  A minister or courtier of his, perhaps a kinsman of the people he had destroyed, stole the stone and fled the country with it. He believed he could use it to create a mighty realm elsewhere, just as the wizard Chanakya had. The fugitive travelled in disguise through devastated Kalinga to the coast. There he found passage on a ship bound for the region of Myanmar and Thailand. In those days it was known as Suvarnabhumi, the Golden Land. (In modern times a major Thai airport has been named after it.)  Theravada Buddhism was taking hold there by the third century BCE.

The ship never arrived. It was attacked and all those aboard slaughtered by one of the most fearsome pirates of the region. His murderous fleet was a terror from lower Burma down to the island of Java. Absolutely not a Buddhist and not a Hindu either, this was an animist pagan whose people were pirates by tradition. The gunwales of his dreaded war-boats carried friezes of the skulls of his victims. Head-hunting, plunder and torture were the gentle aspects of his behavior. He and Skol Abdhur, the bestial bandit who came into possession of the jewel centuries later, were spirits of a kind. Not even the Blood of Belshazzar could make much difference to the nature of his career, but it increased his bloodlust, if possible – and it gave him a fatal case of ambition. From twenty-odd ships he increased his pirate fleet, over three years, to fifty, enlarged his base, and became a bigger menace. That, naturally, meant he became a menace it was imperative to destroy.

He over-reached himself in the end. This man was no Alexander or Chandragupta. Captured, he was put to death by torture in the seacoast town of Thaton. The jewel came into the grasp of a local lordling, who did not keep it long. His wife poisoned him for it and fled with her lover, a warrior, who killed her along their road north, and took the Blood of Belshazzar for himself.

Somewhere in the tangle of jungle and rough hill country that borders modern Myanmar, Laos and Thailand – the legendary “Golden Triangle” of the twentieth century drug trade – he too met his death at the hands of savage bandits.  Then, in unknown hands, the jewel moved north into what later became the province of Yunnan, in China. The people there were aboriginal tribes under various primitive chiefs who acknowledged the rule of the central government from the teeth out, and otherwise …. ignored it as much as possible.

The “central government” at the time didn’t amount to much, anyway. But that altered once the obscure and twisted path of the Blood of Belshazzar, some thirty years after the Kalinga War, led it into ruling Chinese hands. Literally Chinese. The realm in question was Ch’in, whose dynasty first unified the country and even gave its name to China, though it lasted only fifteen years.

This was the time of the Seven Warring States.  Large books have been written trying to give sufficient space to that situation and still keep the issues clear. It’s beyond me. But I can pretty much assure everybody that when the Blood of Belshazzar appeared on the scene, it did not make things any simpler.

It came from Yunnan in the south, in the hands of an adventurer under sentence of death there for murder. He arrived at the court of Chao – another of the warring states — in 230 BCE. His journey had been long and difficult, but he expected it to profit him greatly. He offered Chao’s ruler the ruby and described its powers, with as much of its history as he knew – by no means all, but at least the part it had played in creating the Maurya Empire in India. He probably also knew that it had belonged to Alexander the Great, whose name was vaguely known even in the far Orient.

Chao at the time had its back to the wall. Its king accepted the ruby and promised the stranger all he desired, if the red stone had the magical properties he claimed, and saved Chao from conquest. That much the adventurer had judged nicely. Chao, desperate and hard pressed, had let him write his own ticket.

His mistake lay in underestimating the spy system of Ch’in, and the abilities of its agents. Two were present at the Chao court. They took action. The adventurer had a silk scarf drawn tightly around his throat one fine night. The Blood of Belshazzar was stolen from the royal palace and a (fairly crude, but adequate to deceive for a couple of days) copy substituted. That feat of theft might well have made REH’s prince of thieves, Taurus of Nemedia, blink in admiration, but there isn’t space here to record the details. The ruby was smuggled to the royal court of Ch’in.

What happened after that was extraordinary – and bloody – even for the already crimson history of the malignant gem. It was to remain in China for centuries. China had as much reason to rue its presence as Persia and India to rejoice at its absence.

The record will have to be continued in some future post or other.

Read: Part One; Part Two; Part Three; Part Five; Part Six; Part Seven