Dawn of Civiliation in Ancient India
Throughout its history India and its diverse geographic regions were divided into many kingdoms, often at war and sometimes numbering in the hundreds. Warfare in ancient India took on a wide variety of exotic forms, but all of with a uniquely Indian flavor. As the military of ancient India developed so did its iconic features, including elephants, bamboo long bows and massive shirtless infantry armies. Each region of the subcontinent added its own unique elements to ancient Indian warfare. The deserts of the northwest were ruled by the Rajputs, skilled mounted warriors. The Nepalese ruled the mountainous to the North, one of their tough kingdoms eventually producing a world changing man called the Buddha. The monsoon soaked East was ruled by independent minded kingdoms such as Bengal and Assam. Over the centuries various tribes, ethnicities and dynasties battled for supremacy, but they where unconquerable by repeated invasions from the West. The ancestors of the Indo-European Aryan invaders established kingdoms in central India (earning the indo part of the Indo-European family). In the Southern jungles were the Dravidian kingdoms, these indigenous people of India had created the Indus Valley Civilization and formed India’s oldest kingdoms. The North and South of India are divided by the Deccan Plateau, home of many small kingdoms, defended by some of the fiercest warriors in India.
India was Earth’s third civilization to use writing and an early trade partner of the Sumerians. However, after the Aryan invasion the secrets to their language were lost. Little is known about warfare during the Indus River Valley Civilization warfare; even if their writing could be deciphered it would probably tell us very little, most of the surviving text is on seals. Some of the weapons found in the archeological record would have been just as likely used for hunting as warfare, but others are clearly for military use. We do know they used axes, spears and maces. Their maces were similar to stone maces used in Egypt and Summer. They had a wood handle and head of alabaster, limestone or softer but easily shaped sandstone. They also used long, leaf shaped daggers and knifes. The blades were made out of copper or bronze and either one or two edged. For range weapons the ancient Indian warriors employed slings and bows. Their arrowheads were of a uniquely Indian variety, featuring thin heads with long barbs.
Vendic Period of Ancient Indian War (1700 BC – 500 BC)
Around 1700 BC a massive invasion of Aryans swept into India from the Northwest. The Aryans had a pastoral, nomadic and warrior culture. Their basic political unit was a grama (wagon train), a tribe was made up of various gramas and lead by a king or chieftain. These early Vedic Aryans had come from a group that had invented the Chariot and spread out in one of history’s great invasions (and migrations). From the steppes North of the Caspian Sea they spread from the Levant to the borders of China. A warrior class operated their Chariots, the expensive wonder weapon of its day. The mobile chariot was a leap beyond its horse and donkey cart forerunners and provided the Aryan warrior class with a distinct military advantage. The invaders also brought iron weapons with them and used it one their chariots. Iron is lighter and stronger than bronze and copper, giving another significant advantage to the invading warriors. Settled populations and their civilization were destroyed by the Aryan invasion and its ripple effect, as their techniques and weapons spread out across the old world causing what has been called the Bronze Age Collapse. In India there is no widely accepted archaeological or linguistic evidence of direct cultural continuity from the Indus Valley civilization. One of earth’s first great civilizations perished.
As the Arians merged with the Indians they formed a new society. In its earliest phase the nomadic tribes were still on the move creating a complex political structure. The Aryans formed a semi-nomadic society, still based on herding, and a strict class system was imposed. The Vedic Aryans formed many competing kingdoms, each skirmishing, warring and shifting alliances in attempts to dominate the people and territory of their neighbors. The battlefields were ruled by massive chariots that were nothing like the sleek, fast two wheeled chariots of Egypt. Indian chariots were large four wheeled firing platforms requiring four to six horses to pull them. They weren’t used for out flanking enemies, but charged straight into the enemy ranks crushing anyone in its path. Two to six men manned the chariots, using the six foot height advantage a large chariot offered to rain arrows down on the enemies, while spear armed warriors made sure no enemies could climb aboard. Later (c. 470 BC), the Indians invented scythed chariots. These featured curved blades that were attached to the wheels, causing death and dismemberment to anyone unlucky enough to be in their path.
The bow was the dominate weapon of the military of ancient India, but Vendic era warriors also employed slings and javelins as ranged weapons. Sword, axes and spears were used in close combat. However as the many warring kingdoms struggled for greater control a vast array of weapons and tactics developed, including the world’s first use of war elephants. (India was also the last nation to use war elephants in the 1800’s AD)
Around 1000 – 500 BC, two ancient Indian epics were written, the Ramayana and the Mahabharata. Both epics are center around the wars and conflicts between the small kingdoms and various tribes. They refer to a wide variety of military formations, theories and esoteric weaponry. Tactically warfare moved away from focusing on individual warriors in battle towards formations. The weapons used ranged from the familiar such as axes, swords, javelins, and maces to the very exotic and even unimaginable. The Mahabharata mentions the use of the Pasa, a triangular noose weapon made of rope and lron balls for weight that was used for strangling opponents. Another example is the sudarshana chakra, a spinning disc like weapon with very sharp edge that is hurled at the enemy. Many of these weapons were linked to Hindu religion, for example the Chakra is an attribute of the Hindu God Vishnu and was made by the architect of gods, Vishvakarma. Other examples include hammers on the end of long five foot poles and an eight sided iron club.
A wide variety of battle formations were used by ancient Indian armies. Examples of these intricate and possibly overly complex formations include the Wheel, Needle and Fish to name just a few. In one particular formation know as the lotus, archers where placed in the center and the infantry and cavalry formed "petals” around them for protection. The Eagle formation, which was commonly used, is another interesting example. A wedge formation of the toughest troops formed the beak and led the army into battle. The 'head’, just behind the beak would follow the beak into battle and where also of high quality. Often, war elephants would be placed in the beak and head. Two broad 'wings' would sweep out from behind the head, with the swiftest troops, the chariots and finally the cavalry at the outside. Reserves would then be positioned between the wings and the head to form the body.
As the Aryan Kingdoms The Aryan kingdoms moved increasingly towards agriculture and away from their traditional pastoral organization they also put in place the rigid caste system. This system, still in effect today, formalized their dominance and strictly organized people’s places in society. Their armies developed into their classic four part organization, infantry, elephants, chariots and archers. However, all of this would soon be upended by a fearless conqueror from a distant, unknown land.
War with Alexander the Great
Alexander had inherited both masterful tactics from his father, Phillip of Macedonia, and the world’s best military force. He also inherited rule over the martially powerful Greeks and Macedonians. After Alexander consolidated his kingdom and defeated some warlike Thracian tribes on his Northern border he began to conquer the "known world”. Alexander defeated the world’s largest empire of the time, the Persians in two pitched battles. He then defeated the defiant Phoenician cities on the Eastern Mediterranean and Egypt before returning to finish off the Persians in yet another massive pitched battle. After that he marched East, fighting the tough tribes of modern Afghanistan, there he lost more men in battle then in his war with the vast Persian Empire! Once he had established control of Afghanistan through brutal, genocidal war he aimed his army at the indo-gangetic plains where the hundreds of small kingdoms that had stretched across it had consolidated into sixteen different kingdoms.
In 326 BC Alexander the Great began his invasion of the India. He moved East intent on conquering all the lands to the "Great Out Sea”, which he believed to be on the other side of India. Alexander and his forces crossed the Indus river but where halted at the Hydapes River by a large army on the other side. Porus, ruler of the Punjab Region, had positioned a large army on the other bank complete with war elephants, archers, infantry and chariots. The infantry were armed with bamboo cane framed hide shields and bamboo spears with iron heads. The Indian archers employed an effective 6 ft long bow also made out of bamboo that shot long cane arrows. However the most frightening aspect of the Indian army was the war elephants. These massive beasts were something the Greeks and Macedonians hadn’t faced and they would soon wreak havoc on the battle field.
Alexander out maneuvered Porus and was able to cross up river with an elite part of his army. The Indian chariots that Porus sent to counter the crossing became stuck in the mud, and Porus’ son who was leading the counter attack was killed. As Porus turned his army to face Alexander the remaining part of Alexanders forces crossed the river forcing a confrontation on two fronts. Porus lined up his army to counter Alexander and sent his infantry and elephants against him. Alexander’s forces, formed into to formidable Macedonian phalanx, advanced in an echelon. A tactic Alexander had learned from his father, Phillip, who had in turn learned it from the great Greek general and strategist, Epaminondas.
As the two armies approached each other they must have both been intimidated by the sight of their exotic opponents. Confronting the tightly packed and well armored Macedonian phalanx was a terrifying sight that had sent Persian armies fleeing before even engaging them. While the Indian war elephants with their bronze reinforced trunks terrified the Macedonians and panicked their horses. As the armies collided the elephants killed many Macedonians but the lightly armored Indian infantry was unable to compete with the Greek and Macedonian phalanxes who where the world’s best heavy infantry at the time. The Indian infantry huddled near the elephants for protection, however the great beasts having suffered many wounds, became enraged trampling anyone around them. Alexander’s cavalry then slammed into the back of the Indian army, delivering the deathblow.
Porus was outclassed by Alexander’s refined combined arms tactics and the professionalism of his force, the panicle of hundreds of years of evolution in the Greek style of war. However, Porus himself fought on with such bravery and tenacity that he gained the respect and admiration of Alexander. Alexander made him a satrap, a regional governor but in practice he would be a subordinate king in his own right. Alexander would need the support of the local nobility to administer his far flung empire when he returned to the West.
Interestingly, Alexander also encountered poisoned projectiles during his invasion of India, probably dipped in the venom of the Russell's viper.
After the Battle of Hydapes Alexander’s army, home sick and tired after over a decade of campaigning mutinied, refusing to march further to the East fearing even greater Indian armies that were said to have thousands of war elephants. Alexander reluctantly agreed and returned to Persia where he died in 323 BC while planning an invasion of Arabia. At age 32 he had conquered most of the know world creating the greatest empire it had ever seen, but it would not survive his death.
Maurya Empire and Military
The Maurya Empire, ruled by the Mauryan dynasty, was the first empire that was able to unite all of India. The Empire was founded in 322 BC by Chandragupta Maurya. Chandragupta was a general who overthrew the ruling Dynasty of the Nanda kingdom, a state to the East of the straps created by Alexander. The Maurya Empire expanded rapidly westwards across central and western India in the wake of the withdrawing armies of Alexander’s quarrelling successors. Chandragupta’s successors continued his policies of expansion through war, creating the world’s largest empire at that time. The Greeks that remained merged cultures with the Indians over the following centuries creating an Indo-Greek identity.
The Mauryan military reqruited people from all over the subcontinent and from all Castes creating a diverse army.
The core of the army was composed of warriors from Uttarapathian in central and western India. Uttarapatha had many warlike peoples, including the Kambojas, Yavanas, and Sakas. Other groups that provided levy troops in times of war were the Maghadas, Assamese, and Cheras. While the Tamil (Dravidian) kingdoms in the Southern tip only paid tribute. One interesting group that was requrited into the Mauryan armies was the Nagas, which translate to ‘serpents’, a mystical people from Eastern India that worshiped cobras.
Like the Vendic armies, Muaryan armies were formed out of four parts, the Chariot, Elephant, Infantry and Archers, the largest part of the force. At its height the Maurya Empire had 750,000 soldiers and made advances in the weapons and armor of their military. War elephants were even armored and fitted with sword like attachments on their trunks. Small forts were also put on their backs where soldiers would attack from with javelins and bows or long spears, tridents or other polearms at close range. The Mauryan military was reported to have over 9000 war elephants.
After several week rulers the Muaryan Dynasty collapsed in 185 BC. The fall of the Mauryas left the Khyber Pass between Bactria and India unguarded, and a wave of foreign invasion followed. The Greco-Bactrian king, Demetrius, capitalized on the situation and invaded with his Greek army conquering the North East of the subcontinent around 180 BC. While the Greeks formed the Indo-Greek Kingdom the Muarya Empire broke up into smaller kingdoms, which then broke up into smaller Kingdoms again.
Status Quo in Ancient Indian Warfare
The Indo-Greeks were then conquered by an invading force of Scythians around 70 BC. The Scythians were a nomadic Indo-European people who then established the Indo-Scythian Empire in Northwest India. They fought as mounted horse archers, using the powerful composite bow. They were followed by the Yuezhi, Tocharian tribes who also invaded from the great Asian landmass and displaced the Scythians. The Yuezhi were then followed by yet another Indo-European group (this time from the Iranian branch) of nomadic horse archers, the Parthians. The Parthians then from Indo-Parthian kingdoms in Northwest of India while the Indo-Scythians had been pushed into central India. The Indo-Parthians in turn where concuered by the Kushans, another tribal confederation of Tocharian origins. The Tocharians were the most Easterly branch of the Indo-Europeans and had been being pushed out of central Asia. The Kushan Empire originally formed in the 1st century CE in and would eventually fall into decline and collapse under pressure from the Sassanid empire to the West and the emerging Gupta Empire to the East.
While these events unfolded in Northwest, West and at times the central portions of the subcontinent other Indian Kingdoms formed in Eastern and Southern India. Examples include Pandyan, Cholas, and Chera. The
Satavahana empire formed in the Southeast and later the kingdoms of Kalabhras, Kadamba and the Tamil Kingdom of Pallava formed in the South of India.
The kingdoms that dominated the Northwest could never conquer the Southern and Eastern Kingdoms due to military factors. First of all their horses would succumb to the tropical climate of Southern and central India, even if they could operate effectively in the forested or mountainous regions. Furthermore the powerful, but expensive (they could take ten years to construct) compound bow was susceptible to warping in the humid climate unlike the bamboo longbow. Inversely, when the empires of the South and East advanced into the planes of Western or Northwestern India they would be out maneuvered and out shot by the mobile horse archers.
The Military of the Gupta Empire
The stalemate was eventually broken by the Gupta Empire, although they never were able to take over the central Duncan Plateau, Southwest or Southern regions. Forming in the Northeast of India, the Gupta Empire (320 to 550 CE) is considered a golden age of Indian and Hindu history. This was a time when Indian culture flourished in all areas but like all empires it was made possible by a powerful military.
The military of the Gupta Empire remained based on the traditional four part armies of the past; however the chariot had been replaced by mounted cavalry by this time. They modeled the dress (trousers) and armor of their cavalry after the well clad and equipped Kushans. However, despite the use of horse archers by their enemies such as the Scythian, Parthian, and Hepthalite (White Huns or Huna) they never developed their own. The Gupta favored armored cavalry forces that attacked with lances or swords.
The Gupta military continued to rely heavily on infantry archers, which was an effective counter to mounted archers. One advancement the Gupta military made they made in archery was creating the steel bow; this weapon could match the power of the composite bow while not being subject to the problem of warping do to humidity. This incredibly powerful bow was capable of excellent range and could penetrate thick armor. However, steel bows would have only been used by elite or noble class warriors while common archers continued to use the highly regarded bamboo longbow. Iron shafts were substituted for the long bamboo cane arrows when armor penetration was needed, particularly against armored elephants and cavalry. Fire arrows also were employed by the Gupta, their long bamboo cane arrows being particularly well suited for use in these operations.
Gupta archers were protected by infantry units equipped with shields, javelins, and swords. They had no particular uniforms and dressed in accordance to their indigenous customs. Some warriors wore a type of tunic spotted with black aloe wood paste, which could be a type of tie-dye (or bandhni) that may have functioned as an early type of camouflage. Indian Gupta era infantry rarely wore pants, instead going into battle with bare legs. Skullcaps (more common) or thickly wrapped turbans were worn around the head to give some protection. Shields were generally curved or rectangular and featured intricate designs, sometimes decorated with a dragon’s head. The swords could be long swords, curved swords or daggers.
Elite troops and nobles would have had access to armor, such as chainmail, although the hot Indian climate can make heavy armor unbearable. Use of a breast plate and simple helmet would have been more common. They had access to better steel weapons as well, such as broadswords, axes and the Khanda, a uniquely Indian sword with a broad double blade and blunt point. The Khanda was a slashing weapon and considered very prestigious. Steal was developed in the Tamil region of Southern India between 300 BC and the start of the common era. Steal weapons were highly prized and traded throughout the Near east and ancient Europe. Indian steal was legendary for its tensile strength and knowledge of it fueled a quest for improved metallurgy across the Near east and Europe. By the time of the Gupta’s steel weapons would have been more come common in Indian warfare, but still only used by elite warriors.
War elephants continued to be used and pacaderm armor was advanced throughout this a period. Elephants remained a component of the combined arms tactics employed by Gupta generals. The use of war elephants coordinated with armored cavalry and infantry supported foot archers is likely the reason for the Gupta Empires success in war against both Hindu kingdoms and foreign armies invading from the Northwest. Another reason may have been a higher level of discipline compared to their tribal rivals. At its height the Gupta Empire had ¾ million soldiers.
The Gupta empire also maintained a navy to control water ways and their coasts. They also had a high level of understanding of siege warfare, employing catapults and other sophisticated war machines.
The Gupta Empire eventually collapsed in the face of a Hepthalite (Huna or White Huns) onslaught. This was another of the Asiatic hordes and was probably a confederation of nomadic tribes. Their origins are obscure, although their language is likely of East Iranian origin. They may have gone by the name of White Huns in order to associate themselves with the feared Huns of Turkic origins. The Hepthalite were initially defeated by Skandagupta which has been seen to mean that militarily the Indian armies could defeat them and that the fall of the Gupta Empire was due to internal dissolution. However, the collapse of the Roman and Chinese empires at the same time and to branches of the same invaders seems to point to something more.
Return to the Status Quo
Warfare in India had returned to what it was before the rise of the Gupta Empire, with a wide variety of kingdoms that could never achieve dominance over the others. This state continued throughout the ancient period of India and into the medieval and even modern times. The military of India continued to be a potent force, able to halt an Islamic invasion from the West, something the Persians, Egyptians and many other Nations where unable to do. The subcontinent was not united again until the arrival of the British Empire and its powerful military. However, their hold on power in the subcontinent crumbled and India was once again divided, a situation that remains to this day.