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A section of a Chinese Eastern Han Dynasty (25–220 AD) fresco of 9 chariots, 50 horses, and over 70 men, from a tomb in Luoyang, China, which was once the capital of the Eastern Han.

Power and Prestige across Asia: A History of Chariots, Part II

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Read Part I: Superweapon of the Ancient World: A History of Chariots

According to written sources from ancient China, the chariot is reported to have been first used during the Xia dynasty. A Xia minister by the name of Xi Chong is credited with its invention, and the chariot is also said to have been deployed during the Battle of Gan in the 21 st century BC. Much of the Xia dynasty is still a mystery, and some scholars have even expressed skepticism regarding the existence of this dynasty. The notion that the chariot was invented during this period of Chinese history is no exception.

With regards to archaeology, it has been suggested that, at earliest, the chariot was introduced around 1200 BC, which corresponds with the reign of King Wu Ding of the Shang dynasty. This dating is based on a curious artifact known as a “bow-shaped implement” discovered in several chariot pits. These artifacts have also been found in more readily datable contexts, including the Tomb of Fu Hao, where oracle-bone inscriptions provide a reliable date.

Archaeologists have also speculated that the chariot was not a Chinese invention, but imported from the Caucasus via Central Asia. Two important technical similarities have been pointed out between these two types of chariots. Firstly, the wheels of both types of chariots had between 18 to 28 spokes. Secondly, the position of the axle in these chariots was under the middle of the chariot box. By comparison, chariots from elsewhere in the Bronze Age world normally had wheels with only four to eight spokes. Additionally, their axles were located at the rear, rather than under the middle of the chariot box.  

Chariots for combat

It has been suggested that the chariot performed different functions during its usage in Chinese history. Originally, the chariot was used as a symbol of prestige and a vehicle for hunting, much like the Assyrians during the eighth and seventh centuries BC. Unlike the Assyrians, however, the Chinese chariot was gradually used as a weapon in war. In its initial stages, the chariot is said to have been used as a mobile command platform, in line with its role as a status symbol. During the Zhou dynasty, however, the use of chariots in warfare became more widespread, and may have played a decisive role in the overthrow of the Shang dynasty during the 11 th century BC. By the time of the Spring and Autumn period (between the eighth and fifth centuries BC), chariot warfare, in which chariots were pitted against chariots, had spread throughout China.

Bronze driver, horses, and chariot found at the necropolis complex of Emperor Qin Shi Huang.

Bronze driver, horses, and chariot found at the necropolis complex of Emperor Qin Shi Huang. Wikimedia Commons

Unlike the Near East, however, chariot tactics are a little less clear in China. It is known that each chariot had a crew of three men – a driver, an archer and a warrior for close combat. To increase the effectiveness of the chariot on the battlefield, each chariot commander was usually allocated a contingent of infantry, with whom he could coordinate attacks on the enemy. By the third century BC, however, the chariot had become obsolete, and was replaced by cavalry. Yet, the role of the chariot as a prestige object remained, as evidenced by the bronze chariots discovered in the Tomb of Qin Shi Huang.

Indian chariots – the transport of gods

The use of the chariot as a status symbol can also be seen in India. In fact, the Indian chariot (known as a ‘ ratha’) was not used only by mortals, but was also said to have been used by the gods. Even today, the ratha is still used in religious processions in Hinduism. An image of a deity is placed on a ratha, and the vehicle is then pulled around in the streets by hundreds of deities in the company of priests and musicians. The most famous celebration involving the ratha is the Ratha-Yatra, which is traditionally celebrated in Puri, Odisha. During this celebration, the images of the deities Jaggannath, Balabhadra and Suhadra, are taken out in a procession to the Gundicha Temple in a massive ratha.

Painting depicting Ratha Yatra Festival in Puri, India. Circa 1840.

Painting depicting Ratha Yatra Festival in Puri, India. Circa 1840. Public Domain

Ratha Yatra chariot at traditional Hindu festival still celebrated in modern times.

Ratha Yatra chariot at traditional Hindu festival still celebrated in modern times. Jan Smith/ Flickr

Chariots of the Vedas

In addition to the religious importance of the ratha, these vehicles were said to have played an important part in Indian warfare as well. Unlike the chariots from China, however, there are no known archaeological examples of Indian chariots. As a result, our knowledge of chariots in India is derived mainly from literary sources. Although it has been pointed out the chariot may be reconstructed using the scattered references in the Vedic texts, the picture is still incomplete. Nevertheless, some scholars agree with the description of the chariot found in the Vedic Index—a light vehicle with two spoked wheels, drawn by two, occasionally three or four horses. The chariot box was said to have a wooden framework, and was manned by two persons, namely a driver and a warrior.

In front of the Vittala Temple of Hampi, India is the world famous stone chariot or ratha. This is one of three impressive stone chariots in India, the other two found in Konark and Mahabalipuram. The wheels of the ratha could originally be rotated, but they were fixed in place by the government to avoid future damage by visitors.

In front of the Vittala Temple of Hampi, India is the world famous stone chariot or ratha. This is one of three impressive stone chariots in India, the other two found in Konark and Mahabalipuram. The wheels of the ratha could originally be rotated, but they were fixed in place by the government to avoid future damage by visitors. Jon Hurd/ Flickr

The chariot was certainly used in ancient Indian warfare, one of the most famous being the Battle of Hydaspes in 326 BC between the Indian king Porus and Alexander the Great. During this battle, Porus was said to have fielded 1000 chariots, though they were rendered useless when their wheels got stuck in the mud. Unfortunately, without further information, we are forced to rely on our own imagination to envision how the Indian war chariot would have looked like when it was used in battles.      

A chariot scene from Pakistan, Gandhara region, third century.

A chariot scene from Pakistan, Gandhara region, third century. Public Domain

Though the chariot is obsolete as a weapon of war, it remains a symbol of ancient engineering and elevated status and power instantly recognizable in modern times.

Featured image: A section of a Chinese Eastern Han Dynasty (25–220 AD) fresco of 9 chariots, 50 horses, and over 70 men, from a tomb in Luoyang, China, which was once the capital of the Eastern Han. Wikimedia Commons

By Ḏḥwty

References

China Internet Information Center, 2015. Mausoleum of Emperor Qinshihuang (259 BC- 210 BC). [Online]
Available at: http://www.china.org.cn/english/features/atam/115132.htm

Kulkarni, A., 2013. Ratha - The Indian Chariot. [Online]
Available at: http://www.ibtl.in/blog/2117/ratha--the-indian-chariot/

Roberts, S., 2013. The Chinese war chariot. [Online]
Available here.

Shaughnessy, E. L., 1988. Historical Perspectives on The Introduction of The Chariot Into China. Harvard Journal of Asiatic Studies, 48(1), pp. 189-237.

Sparreboom, M., 1985. Chariots in the Veda. Leiden: E. J. Brill.

The British Museum, 2015. Wooden model of a chariot (ratha). [Online]
Available here.

UNESCO, 2015. Mausoleum of the First Qin Emperor. [Online]
Available at: http://whc.unesco.org/en/list/441

www.ancientmilitary.com, 2012. The Military of Ancient India. [Online]
Available at: http://www.ancientmilitary.com/ancient-india-military.htm

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