Dawn of Civiliation in Ancient
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
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
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
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
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,
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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.