The Art of Indian Warfare: From the Indus Valley to the Chola Empire
As Indians, we have always been brought up on folk tales, several mythological stories with lots of battles fought with wondrous weapons. We have listened to the tales of the great Kurukshetra War from the epic ‘Mahabharata’ between the Pandavas and Kauravas with their use of celestial weapons. We have also been narrated the events of the great war of Lord Rama with Asura King Ravana in the other epic ‘Ramayana’. All these tales have made us fascinated about wars and the valor of the warriors. However, these are mythologies where the writers have added layers of fantasy to an existing structure. Nevertheless, just like the wars of the epics, the real ancient Indian warfare was equally fascinating, minus its fantastical weapons of course.
A Peaceful Ancient Indian Civilization
India has a long history of civilization. Its genesis lies in the Indus Valley Civilization of Harappa and Mohenjo-Daro, which in reality covered a vast area in the North-West of the current Indian sub-continent. This civilization started a long way back but apparently reached its pinnacle around 3000 BC. It was a bronze and copper civilization.
The archaeological ruins of this civilization have taught us that it was a very advanced settlement with proper town grid planning, sophisticated sewerage systems, public baths, designated marketplaces, etc. Though the Indus Valley people were highly advanced and sophisticated, a full-scale war probably never happened in their lives. Though some bronze and copper weapons have been excavated, those were likely meant for the guards rather than a standing army. Therefore, it seems that the people of that time were more interested in trade with other places rather than conquest or glory.
Excavated ruins of Mohenjo-daro of the Indus Valley Civilization, Sindh province, Pakistan, showing the Great Bath in the foreground. Mohenjo-daro, on the right bank of the Indus River, is a UNESCO World Heritage Site, the first site in South Asia to be so declared. (Saqib Qayyum / CC BY-SA 3.0)
But this civilization gradually declined probably due to changes in the weather pattern with the land becoming arid and unsuitable for cultivation.
Indian Warfare Begins
In the course of history, many migrations happened in India and around 1500 BC, a group of people travelled down from Central Asia and populated the North Indian plains. This group of people is held responsible now by the experts for the creation of the Vedas, and hence the Vedic civilization of India probably started in that period.
The Rig Veda, which was the earliest Veda, speaks of battles. Out of all the conflicts that it mentions, one is quite intriguing. It’s called the ‘Dasarajna Yuddha’, which translates to Battle of the Ten Kings in English. In that battle, a king called Sudas of the Bharata tribe fought and defeated a confederation of ten other tribes. By that time, horses had already entered the Indian scene and the weapons of that battle must have been made of bronze and copper. The Iron Age of India probably started after 1500 BC but before 1000 BC, which was also the time when the aforementioned epics were composed in their earliest forms as per popular theories.
Experts generally consider this Battle of the Ten Kings as a historical event today, and looking at the facts now where ten tribes and their kings aligned to fight a sole ruler, the actual battles must have been fierce and were probably fought in the area of Punjab in Northern India. The army of Sudas prevailed and his tribe became prominent in the northern plains.
We know that the ancient Indian armies consisted of a formation called the ‘Chaturanga’ – four divisions consisting of infantry, cavalry, chariots and elephants. However, it is very hard to determine now when this formation actually started. The Vedic tribes must have used horses and horse-drawn chariots more, rather than elephants because elephants were in fact an Indian addition in warfare and would have taken some time to be part of the army. If we read the Kurukshetra War of the Mahabharata in current times, we find that all these four divisions were operated in that war. Even considering that, the war in that epic was inspired by events of those times, in reality the Mahabharata has been embellished with additions over many centuries for a long time.
Modern representation of an elephant from ancient Indian warfare. (CC BY SA)
As the ancient Indian Mahajanapadas (meaning ‘great footholds of people’) and Janapadas (‘footholds of people’) gradually solidified into distinct political entities, rivalries between them increased and so did the wars. By that time, the weapons became advanced too with iron swords, lances, various types of bows and arrows, maces, battle-axes, Kharga - the heavy swords, triple-bladed spears, round-headed spiky maces and various kinds of shields.
India’s Warring Kingdoms Are Born
Around the 6 th century BC, out of the Mahajanapadas, Magadha in Eastern India became very powerful when its charismatic king Bimbisara annexed the neighboring Anga and consolidated his empire through further conquests and marriage alliances. Bimbisara was a very dynamic general in war and apart from the Chaturanga formation of his army; it is believed now that he maintained some form of navy too after annexing Anga, which had easy access to the riverine and ocean trade.
Depiction of King Bimbisara offering his kingdom to the Buddha. (Hintha / CC BY-SA 3.0)
Bimbisara’s son ‘Ajatashatru’ (his name itself meant that his enemies had never been born) who supposedly assassinated his own father, was a king with an unquenchable thirst for war and conquest. He was also helped by the supply of rich deposits of iron ore in his kingdom, which helped in making armaments, apart from the woods and elephants in the jungles of the Magadhan kingdom. By that time, elephants had taken a major role in battles.
Ajatashatru was also extremely innovative in warfare. When striking the city of Vaishali, he used two unique weapons quite uncommon for that age. One was a catapult, which could throw huge stones over the city. The other was a chariot like a vehicle, which had massive swords and maces attached on both sides of it, and which could mow down the enemy army in a pitched face to face battle. Hence, he prevailed over the Vaishali army.
The Macedonian Strikes
When Alexander the Great attacked India, the biggest battle that he faced was the Battle of the Hydaspes against King Porus of India in 326 BC on the bank of the river Jhelum. In spite of being numerically superior in forces, with huge elephants adorning the battlefield, Porus lost because of the ingenious tactics of the great Alexander.
A painting by Charles Le Brun depicting Alexander and Porus (Puru) during the Battle of the Hydaspes, which is an example of ancient Indian warfare. (Charles Le Brun / Public domain)
However, the fighting was fierce and all those big elephants definitely scared the Greek army, because later on, when Alexander planned to move east and take the Magadha Empire, the information that they received of the vast army and the numerous elephants of the Nanda Dynasty further scared the Macedonian army who were already tired and homesick by then.
The Mauryas Empire Unites the Land
The armed forces in the Indian sub-continent became more organized and powerful under the Mauryas who reigned from around 322 and 185 BC. Ashoka the Great ruled an empire, which encompassed more or less the whole of modern-day India with some of its neighbors. Ashoka fought a bloody war with the state of Kalinga (modern day Odisha state), which saw unprecedented bloodshed. The armies by then consisted mainly of cavalry, infantry and elephants. Chariots slowly became obsolete as their maneuverability became questionable under certain circumstances.
Portrait of Ashoka the Great. (Prarthana1830590 / CC BY-SA 4.0)
The weapons became more and more sophisticated with various kinds of swords like Khanda - a straight double-aged sword, longbows, etc. coming into the picture, apart from the already existing ones. The command structure of the army became more fluid with several divisions created as per requirements. There was a chief commander known as ‘Senapati’ with several other generals under him commanding each division.
In India, from a very ancient time, spies were used to learn the strategies of enemies. As per legend, Ashoka used a very sophisticated agent network. They were called by the name the ‘Nine Unknowns.’ However, the veracity of this cannot be ascertained with any surety. But this kind of spy was sometimes used even to sow dissension amongst the enemy ranks. King Ajatashatru did it with the Vaishali confederation.
Gradually, with the passing of time, as more migrations and invasions happened in India, they also brought their own styles and strategies of war. The people from the Indian sub-continent were always reluctant to invade other territories outside India, though there were exceptions. However, due to the increased number of raids and invasions, the fortifications became sophisticated too, and forts were built to defend and thwart any outside attack. With the strengthening of forts, the siege weapons got advanced too. The battering rams, catapults, flamethrowers, longbows, etc. were increasingly used. However, the ancient Indian army formations were not as sophisticated as the ancient Greeks or Romans.
Chola Empire and Rulers of the Seas
After the Mauryas, as various kingdoms and empires appeared on the Indian scene like the Satavahanas, the Guptas and then the various South Indian kingdoms, naval warfare became important and acquired a prominent place. During the reign of the Chola Empire of South India under King Rajaraja I (reigned till 1014 AD) and King Rajendra Chola I (reigned till 1044 AD), the naval warfare flourished. The Cholas captured many kingdoms in South East Asia and the Indian Ocean, thereby making themselves the best maritime empires of India. The South Indian kingdom also used elephants more as horses were not readily available in that region of the sub-continent.
Modern statue of King Rajaraja I on horseback in Thanjavur. (Nittavinoda / CC BY-SA 4.0)
A lot of ancient Indian empires and kingdoms have succumbed to raids and invasions from outside, not due to the inferiority of their fighting forces or due to inferior weapons or lack of numerical advantages, but due to the lack of discipline and innovative fighting strategies.
Indian armies always had vast numbers with the massive elephants at their forefront followed by chariots, cavalry and the foot soldiers at the back. But these became problematic sometimes. The elephants were unpredictable and could even turn on their own armies. The chariots became immobile when it rained making the ground beneath soft and boggy.
The foot soldiers too were not adequately dressed in battle armor. They were either bare from their torso or had to wear a simple cotton vest. They were also bare footed most of the time. The Indian empires had such a vast number of foot soldiers that it was practically impossible to cover all of them with battle armor. However, there were smart commanders too, like Chandragupta Maurya who defeated the Greek Seleucus Nicator, King Yashodharman of Malwa who defeated the White Huns (or Hephthalites) and King Lalitaditya of Kashmir who probably invaded and defeated some of the areas towards Central and West Asia (though there are conflicting theories regarding his conquests). There were many other examples like these.
The defeat of the Whites Huns of Mihirakula by King Yashodharman at Sondani in 528 AD. (Robert Ambrose Dudley / Public domain)
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Conditions for Conflict and Betrayal in Ancient Indian Warfare
War was natural in the ancient Indian scenario. Many strong leaders wanted to expand their territories and establish a uniform rule. Under Ashoka, the Indian subcontinent enjoyed a period of relative peace and prosperity. However, even after the bloody Kalinga War, Ashoka did not disband his armies and maintained a strong force probably for the internal security of his kingdom. Nevertheless, after the Mauryas, the subcontinent fragmented and several kingdoms came to the forefront of Indian politics, many equally strong and continued squabbling amongst each other for more territory. These weakened them drastically in spite of having huge standing armies.
In addition, not all kings were good commanders and sometimes the main commander betrayed them. For example, the commander of the Mauryan army Pushyamitra Shunga murdered the last major Mauryan ruler and established his own Shunga Dynasty. These continued betrayals and internal squabbling made the Indian kingdoms and their armies relatively weak. So, when the Turkish and Afghan armies raided in the medieval times, the Indian kings were found to be unsurprisingly inept in thwarting those attacks.
Also, the Indian generals and armies never seemed to have learned the discipline and superior war strategies of the outside forces. They would generally dash at the opposing army all at once without a disciplined phalanx or any such formations. This adversely affected them repeatedly, but they never developed better tactics. As per the experts, the Indian soldiers were never physically any less than their Western or other Asian counterparts. They were also no less brave or lacking in valor. But in the absence of good strategies and discipline or sometimes inept commanders, they had to bear the brunt of defeat.
Ancient Indian history is, in fact, a history of warfare. Numerous kingdoms existed, and a lot of them opposed each other most of the time. There were outside raids and invasions too as we have seen in the above paragraphs. Most of the periods of Indian history saw tremendous warfare and bloodshed was natural for all its soldiers.
However, the logistics involved in those wars also provided employment to its people because commoners for menial jobs followed all armies. Sometimes, because of the battles, many innovations in daily life came to the fore. As with other civilizations, ancient Indian warfare defined its history and the attitude of its citizens.
Top image: Ancient Indian warfare has so many epic tales of battles throughout the ages, from the Indus Valley to the Chola Empire and conflicts with Alexander the Great. Pictured: depiction of the Battle at Lanka, from the epic Ramayana. Source: Sahibdin / Public domain