Most Ignored Component of Ancient Bharat – The Military

The Persians are famed for their archers, the Turks for their horsemen, and India for Her armies

Bharatbarsha is long known for her wealth and advanced civilization, specially in ancient times. And this was not something hidden to the other empires also. The surprising fact is, even after being aware of such a wealthy place, why did ancient conquerors chose to let her be alone; they could have attacked and conquered the land and imposed their own culture on the natives, thus they themselves could have put a permanent footprint in history. Not only that, if we look at different empires, there is one similarity in them, be it Persian or Greek or Mongol (not the Mughals) or Caliphate or Huns – all of them ended on the banks of Indus – is it mere co-incidence? or all the conquerors suddenly started to feel homesick after reaching the river Indus? Even if the later is true, what might the reason that was present throughout ages that used to force the invaders to go back ? – Yes!!! you got it right – the muscle of any civilization- THE MILITARY. In spite of being an integral part of Bharat civilization, surprisingly this is one area that is the most unexplored one – the lack of knowledge about it went up to such an extent that some people actually believes that Bharat army that time were actually comprised of peasants.

On the contrary, ancient Indian Military was one of the most composed, most advanced and most fearsome forces in the world.The myth of Bharat Kingdoms being not able to cope up with foreign invasions due to relying on obsolete methods of warfare may be applicable to a few selected Kings, but not entire Bharat. Even taking into consideration of Prithwiraj Chauhan’s blunder of letting the defeated islamic invaders go back unharmed and giving them another chance to attack subsequent year, still we can say that most of then Bharat Kings were not likely to lack such kind of vision. From each and every aspect of military wing, starting from weaponry to army formations, from defensive structures to offensive potentials, from guerrilla warfare to making alliances – the ancient Bharat armies still have a lot to teach our modern day field-marshals.

Weapons

According to the military accounts obtained from the Gupta Empire, it can be ascertained that more than one hundred and thirty different weapons were developed and segregated into thrown and un-thrown weapons classes. These are further categorised into various sub-classes. Gradually the more effective weaponry evolved in the country. More refined and complicated weapons and artillery were employed by the various armies of India. Probably some specific warrior clans failed to understand the importance to upgrade their arsenal, but most of other kingdoms went on to continuously increasing the firepower, which is the core reason we can find some unique yet deadly weapons in ancient Bharat. (https://www.storypick.com/deadly-indian-weapons/)

The very fact that our military science named DhanurVeda provides sufficient clarity that the bows and arrows were the primary weapons of war in those times until the introduction of gunpowder. The bows used in ancient Bharat were of 2 types [The Wonder that was India – A.L Basham]. The shorter and lighter version was used by the cavalry. And the ones used by the dismounted soldiers were really huge (like 2 meters tall), and while firing the arrow, the bow was supposed to be anchored on the ground to store additional momentum in the arrow. The bows were mostly re-curved ones. The range of these bows was really long. Indians are also known for using steel bows. As described by Arrian, arrows were three cubits long (nearly 4 and a half feet). “…nothing can stand against an arrow shot by an Indian archer, neither shield nor breastplate nor any strong armour…”. Arrowheads were made up of iron or steel. (https://www.quora.com/What-kind-of-bows-arrows-were-used-in-war-in-ancient-India, https://sourcebooks.fordham.edu/ancient/arrian-bookVIII-India.asp, https://arxiv.org/ftp/arxiv/papers/1101/1101.1677.pdf)

Talwar

The next commonly used weapon is obviously the Sword. Just like any other army, ancient Bharat also have had their own versions of sword. The most common one is termed as “Talwar“. This archetypal one handed sword has a 45+ inch. long single-edged blade which goes wide towards the pommel from the tip, no expanded false edge or yelman like in the Kilij (the Turk version), a curved blade (but not as curved as Shamsir, the persian version) and a spiked pommel. Absence of one radical curve like the Shamshir indicates that Talwar could be used for thrusting as well as cutting purposes. The pommel of the Talwar is sometimes pierced for a cord to lock the sword to the wrist. The Talwar’s grip is confined and the outstanding disc of the pommel presses into the wrist. These features of the Talwar hilt result in the hand having a very secure and rather inflexible hold on the weapon, enforcing the use of variations on the very effective “draw cut”. The spike attached to the pommel could be used for striking the opponent in extreme close quarter circumstances when it was not always possible to use the blade. The ancient Bharat version of swordplay primarily depended on two major techniques – “Thrusting Strike” (a power-strike controlling the hand by means of twisting of the thigh, muscles of back and shoulder which was able to pierce armours), and the “Slicing Strike” (a delicate strike to produce a clean, thin cut without any extra damage). As the experts say – “The Europeans could split the enemy’s skull in half with a powerful direct downing strike. The Indians, as a rule, achieve the same result by means of delicate cutting strike of the wrist with the use of ingenuity and mastery instead of brutal force” (https://www.indianetzone.com/38/ancient_indian_weaponry.htm, http://indianfight.com/indian-technique-with-a-sword/)

Khanda

Though curved-bladed Talwar-s have become integral part of showcasing prestige of warrior clans in India, there was also a significant straight-blade version also: “Khanda“. Being ~45 inch. in length, this two-handed and double-edged weapon is said to date back until the Gupta era (280 A.D.). The blade broadens from the hilt to the point, which is usually quite blunt. While both edges are sharp, one side usually has a strengthening plate along most of its length, which both adds weight to downward cuts and allows the wielder to place their hand on the plated edge. The hilt has a large plate guard and a wide finger guard connected to the pommel. The pommel is round and flat with a spike projecting from its centre. The spike may be used offensively or as a grip when delivering a two-handed stroke. According to some, the design was improved by Prithviraj Chauhan. He added a back spine on the blade to add more strength. He also made the blade wider and flatter, making it a formidable cutting weapon. The new design proved very effective against the leather inlaid chain mail armour of Muslim invaders. It also gave a good advantage to infantry over light cavalry enemy armies. (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Khanda_(sword))

One unique and interesting variation of sword of ancient Bharat (dated back to 500 B.C.) is “Urumi” – which is a deadly combination of a sword and a whip. The blade is fashioned from flexible edged steel measuring three-quarters to one inch in width. Ideally, the length of the blade should be the same as the wielder’s armspan, usually between 4 feet to 5.5 feet. Multiple blades are often attached to a single handle (even up to 32 blades). Being flexible in nature, it cannot be used for a thrust-strike. Instead, it is able to inflict powerful and dangerous slash-strikes. In order to make continuous strikes with the weapon, it must stay continually in motion so that the momentum which gives the blade its slashing power is not lost. This usually requires the user to swing it over and around their head and shoulders in furious arcs, which creates a defensive bubble of flying metal that an opponent would be reckless to get close to. In addition, it makes a terrific weapon against multiple opponents, both by providing a good barrier at a number of angles at once, and for the long, wild attacking arcs the steel whip provides. (https://www.atlasobscura.com/articles/indias-deadly-flexible-whip-sword-takes-years-to-master)

Pata

A comparatively modern version but effective sword is “Pata“. The long double-edged straight blade is ~44 inch. in length. The hilt was designed to be used by one hand and a gauntlet was integrated to it as a hand-guard. It was considered to be a highly effective weapon for infantrymen against heavily armored cavalry. It was mostly used by Maratha warriors against Mughals. (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pata_(sword))

Another less known variation of sword is “Ayudha Katti” – 19 ½ inches in overall length.  The blade is 12 ½ inches long. The height ranges from  1 ½ inch wide at the hilt to 3 ½ inches at its widest spot before it tapers to the point.  The thickness of the blade is ¼ inch at the hilt tapering distally to ⅛ inch near the tip.  The blade is sharp on the concave side. The hilt is solid horn, possibly water buffalo, with brass fittings. (http://atkinson-swords.com/collection-by-region/indian-subcontinent/india/kodava-ayda-katti-india.html)

Chilanum

The “Chilanum” dagger, dated back to 1700 A.D. has a broad, double-edged, double-curved blade that tapers in place (point). The blades can either have a strong middle ridge or be provided with a hollow track . There are also blades that leak into two spikes. The handles are usually molded in the shape of a stylized blossom and made entirely of metal (without handles) or they have a handle , which is made with handles made of horn , jade or other valuable materials. An intricately designed button sits on the forked knob. The quillons are wide and often similar in style to the pommel. Sometimes the specimens have one Strap as hand protection. The blades are often engraved or gilded. The blade length of an average Chilanum is about 30 cm. It was popular among the Maratha army. (https://de.wikipedia.org/wiki/Chilanum)

Haladie

Among the most dangerous weapons of Ancient India, one pretty unique example is Haladie. This variation of daggers had two double-edged curved blades attached to one common handle. The length was usually around 8.5 inch. for each blade. This weapon can be used as either a stabbing weapon or a slicing weapon. Some Haladie had spikes on one side of the handle in the style of a knuckle duster, while others had a third blade in this position.In some cases the main blades would be serrated. The Haladie is believed to be world’s first triple-edged blades. (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Haladie)

Katar

Another one example that originated in India, Katar is a weapon of push knife’s type. It is characterized by its H-shaped horizontal hand grip, which results in the blade of the sword sitting above the user’s knuckles. It is the unique to South Asia, and is the most famous and characteristic of Indian daggers. Ceremonial Katar were also used in worship. The Katar at first glance has a single blade. however when a trigger on the handle was activated, the blade would split into three. One on the middle and one on each side. Probably when the wielder pushed the Katar into enemy’s body, the blades remained joined with each other. But when the wielder went on to pull it out, the pulling force activated a lever inside and the blades split up into three, thus managing to create a similar effect like a slicing-cut or draw-cut while being pulled out. Effectively, a “Katar”, inflicted damage in a twofold way – first it was used to ‘Stab’ the enemy (while pushing), and then it ‘Slice’-d inside enemy body(while pulling). (https://www.wonderslist.com/top-10-unusual-weapons-of-ancient-times/)

Gada

Gada is a form of Indian mace of varying length which is mainly a blunt weapon that contains a heavy top on one end of the handle to deliver powerful blows and crush the enemy. The head of a Gada is radially symmetric therefore the blow is delivered just as effectively with any of the sides of the top head. The strong heavy handle is usually made of metal or wood and the head is constructed of stone, iron, bronze, steel or copper. The usage Gada is mentioned in the ancient Indian Sanskrit epics the Ramayana and the Mahabharata. (https://www.indianetzone.com/38/ancient_indian_weaponry.htm)

Bagh Nakh

The Bagh Nakh is a claw-like weapon, originating from the Indian subcontinent, designed to fit over the knuckles or be concealed under and against the palm. It consists of four or five curved blades affixed to a crossbar or glove, and is designed to slash through skin and muscle. Several variations of Bagh Nakh exist, including one in which the single crossbar is replaced by two plates hinged together; with an additional loop and claw for the thumb. Earliest Bagh Nakh did not utilize loops for the fingers, rather round holes were punched through the central plate. Many Bagh Nakh also incorporated a spike or blade on one end of the crossbar. There are records of poisoned claws also. (https://www.revolvy.com/page/Bagh-nakh?cr=1)

Chakram

Another addition in the list of weapons those were very unique to ancient Bharat is Chakram. Our brilliant military minds could think of converting even a simple disc into one of deadliest weapon. Chakram was the result of diligent analysis of aerodynamics and perfect implementation of metallurgy. Diameter ranging from 9 inch. to 24 inch. and a razor-sharp edge, the range of a Chakram was up to 100 meter (330 ft.). The smaller Chakram were worn on the forearm and flicked at an enemy’s face at close quarters with an action similar to flicking a deck of cards. The warrior would choose to throw it underarm (like modern bowling game). The ‘Tajani’ method required the wearer to spin the Chakram around his forearm, this spinning gained additional momentum for the weapon. The bigger variations were worn around neck and usually were thrown vertically, to avoic collateral damage to friendlies on its way. A stack of chakram could be quickly thrown one at a time. As the analysts examined the weapon, they remarked “… it does fly…“. (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Chakram, https://www.sikhnet.com/daily-news/weapon-masters-deadly-chakram)

Chariots – The Juggernaut

Stone chariot in courtyard of Vittala Temple, Karnataka

The chariot’s importance in ancient warfare was actually derived from its high mobility and raised firing platform, from which experienced bowmen could inflict casualties from afar and then quickly retire. Compared to the nimble and light counterparts from ancient Egypt, Greece or Rome, the Bharat version was pretty much heavier, less agile and massive; usually they were first line of attack. Those war-machines had four wheels, a body made of wood and iron and they usually required 4 to 6 horses to pull them. The wheels are made of wood, but with a sort of metal tyre. A chariot usually had space for up to 7 men – one skilled archer at the center, one charioteer at the front, couple of melee warriors/shield to guard the wheels of the chariot and for close combat on each side, and one at the back to guard the rear. The archer at the center usually got an advantage of 6+ feet elevation than enemy infantry. Instead of conventional strategy of using the chariots to quickly fire volleys of arrows on enemy and then retreat, ancient Bharat military used to charge those juggernauts right into the enemy infantry rank. Front-line enemy soldiers got either crushed under the wheels or trampled under the horses, whoever survived were taken care by the melee warriors whose were present on the chariot. The archer in the elevated middle position got a more prominent view of battlefield and could make precise strikes. However, inscriptions suggest a two-wheel version of chariots also.

Elephants – The Moving Fortress

Destructive power of elephants often resulted in victory

If chariots were the war-machines of that time, a very close counterpart of modern day tanks were the elephants. The elephant corps was deployed in a battle in a block or a line, as per the overall army formation. The main use of the elephant was for its routing ability; at one sweep it could get rid of a number of enemy foot soldiers, scare away horses, and trample chariots. Thus, it was also about the psychological impact it could have, i.e. the shock value. According to the Mahabharata, the elephants were provided with armour, girths, blankets, neck ropes and bells, hooks and quivers, banners and standards, yantras (possibly stone-or-arrow-hurling contrivances) and lances. The riders were seven: two carried hooks, two were archers, two were swordsmen, and the last one, mahout had a lance and a banner. They had a castle like structure on their back. The elephants themselves had long daggers or swords, sometimes several feet long or heavy iron ball, attached to their tusks. They were heavily armored in iron or steel from head to foot. (ancient.eu/article/1241/elephants-in-ancient-indian-warfare/)

Cavalry – The Unsung Hero

Though there is not as much importance of cavalry as elephants or chariots of ancient Bharat, the Cavalry was indeed one pillar of the four-fold military structure (In Atharba-veda, we can hear about dust-raising horsemen). In fact, the crowd of horse-riding warriors in ancient texts clearly opposes the idea that horses were not native to ancient Bharat. One primary role of the horses was to communicate between different divisions of the army, leveraging the superior speed (please take into account the fact that, size of armies of even the smaller Bharat kingdom could easily overshadow that of western empires, so a separate communication department was a must have). Other tactical uses of the cavalry was to break through the obstacles on the way, to pursue the retreating enemy, to cover the flanks of the army, and to pierce the enemy ranks from the front to the rear. The cavalry was responsible, in a large measure, for the safety and security of the army in entrenched positions, forests or camps. It obstructed movements of supplies and reinforcements to the enemy. The cavalry carried two lances and a buckler (round shield), smaller than the infantry one. King Lalitaditya of Kashmir was known to make use of heavy cavalry against Arabs and Turks. Later, Rajputs were seen to go toe-to-toe against the world-famous Turk horsemen. (http://www.hinduwisdom.info/War_in_Ancient_India.htm)

The Army – More Modern than You Think

Armies in ancient Bharat were typically larger than those of Europe. Even the kingdoms which, in spite of being small in stature, could place an army of hundreds and thousands of soldiers, which could put an western empire in shame. A typical battle would look like a sea of infantry and cavalry charging into each other, while the chariots and elephants stood out. Bharatbarsha was one of the first civilizations to implement tactics, divisions, and formations in army, they did not simply rush out onto the battlefield. The army was composed of four arms (chaturanga)—infantry, cavalry, chariots and elephants. They were all deployed in the field according to the specific formation. The chariots were a perfect combination of speed and power and non-arguably the first choice of offence. While the chariots entered into amidst the enemy formation headstrong, the infantry followed. The elephants were immensely powerful, but they were slow. Hence, the elephants were usually deployed in packs. They were used to do some “pressing” on the enemy, other than the creating the “Shock”. Quite often, the elephants were heavily armored and in the battlefield, they were used to create a defensive formation. While they stood a few yards apart, side by side, with all those armors and the “Howda”-s on there back, they literally looked like a moving castle. These formation could provide temporary cover to battered infantries. King Porus was known to have used this tactic. The cavalry was the secondary line of attack. Their role was limited to make a quick attack or providing support to other units. Though the cavalry used to become handy to chase a retreating enemy. Each army was also known to have its own medical and logistics unit. In several occasions, we can get the mentioning of an administrative unit also.

The Navy

The old notion that the Hindus were essentially a landlocked people, lacking in a spirit of adventure and the heart to brave the seas, is now dispelled. In ancient Bharat, nautical skills and ship-building industries were established in at least in three different segments – the Bengal Deltas, The Indus Basin and The Deccans. Apart from the fact that ancient Bharat has regular trade relations with the empires of Egypt, Rome, Persia etc through sea-route; one reality is often ignored that not only there were strong Navy available to almost all the kingdoms of sea-shore, but navies of ancient Bharat never faced a defeat to any foreign force. Legend tells that one prince from Bengal went ahead to conquer a country with literally a small chunk of sea-power. In Kautalya Arthasastra, the admiralty figures as a separate department of the War Office; and this is a striking testimony to the importance attached to it from very early times. In the Rg Veda Samhita, boats and ships are frequently mentioned. In our known history, at least five naval invasions by Arab has been crushed in the western shore by the Chalukyas and the Saindhabas. Chola kings dominated the entire south-east asia using naval power. The Marathas too overpowered the Portuguese in the sea warfare.

This might be in contradiction to our pre-established impression of ancient Bharat military as comparatively weaker ones. But the history was highly distorted by foreigners. During the ages of islamic invasion, in spite of tortures and forceful conversions from islamic rulers, Hindus still continue to stick to the original heritage. They could still feel pride in their ancestry. But once the British took over, the first thing what was changed was the education system in ancient Bharat. The ages-old tradition of Gurukul was termed as ‘illegal’ by the British Empire. Instead, the western education system was promoted which is still continuing today. There is no scope of denying the fact that the western system contributed highly to Bharat culture, but still, the newly formed education system always tries to highlight original ancient Bharat in a cheaper way. The heroes were either toned down or were mentioned as fairy tales – legendary emperors were termed as mythologies, those who once ruled the seas found their places at footnotes; most glorious battles turned into mere border skirmishes, temporary defeats were marked as decisive turns of tide; invaders mentioned as heroes, natives named as outlaws. Original historical records were either destroyed or labelled as trash, distorted propaganda took place in history books. In one word, leveraging the administrative power, the British just ruled out the glorious days from the history of the oldest living civilization. In reality, ancient Bharat military was the most formidable ones in the world. Both Persian and Assyrians were massacred in battlefield, the Greek army were shaken from the core after their confrontation, the retreating Arabs did not dare to look back before they cross the river Indus, royal Turk army were entirely annihilated, Taimur’s own historian mentioned the Bharat army as ‘Army of Demons’, Hunas, Indo-Greeks… the list will go on and on. As I mentioned earlier in this article, the common misconception about ancient Bharat army consisting of soldiers of peasant-like physique comes from this western agenda. The truth is will blow your mind when you will come to know that Maharana Pratap used a sword weighing 25 kg. or Jograj Singh Gurjar was approx. 7 ft. 9 inch. tall (320 kg. weight). Since the invaders’ primary interest was on destruction of documented history and monuments, it becomes really difficult to find out exact events those took place that time.

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