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5-08-2015, 23:44

Military Might

The people of ancient India were religious and thoughtful. However, their focus on spiritual growth and understanding life and all it encompasses does not mean they were not warriors. Ancient India’s history includes skilled military leaders and battles that involved tactics never before seen by enemies.


Scholars know little about fighting during the Indus period. Writing is almost nonexistent, and researchers have not deciphered the limited script found on seals. But researchers are not without clues.

Archaeologists have unearthed a variety of weapons. Some of them could have been used for hunting.


Horses were not part of life for the early Indus people. The Indo-Aryans likely brought them to India. This group valued the beasts, using them in battle, but they were important in other ways as well. Horses were a symbol of royalty. Horses also played a part in sacred practices. The Aryans identified them with the sun and sacrificed the animals in rituals.


During the Vedic era, Indo-Aryans introduced new fighting practices to India. The group used weapons made of iron. The metal is stronger than bronze or copper.

The many kingdoms that existed during the Vedic age also put chariots to use as they fought each other. Chariots were large platforms on four wheels. Four to six horses pulled each one, which carried two to six men. Men drove the chariots

into their enemies’ armies, while archers on board showered the enemy with arrows. Other men on board had spears and protected the bowmen from attack.


The chariot was a popular vehicle in ancient times, including in ancient India. Chariots had two or four wheels. Initially, animals such as donkeys pulled the vehicles. Horses became work animals in approximately 2000 BCE, and they were faster than donkeys. A chariot pulled by a horse could reach approximately 15 miles per hour (24 kmh). Ancient Indians used chariots to hunt and for sport.

In addition to spears and bows and arrows, Vedic warriors used axes, javelins, slings, and swords.

The Ramayana and the Mahabharata note the pasa and the sudarshana chakra. The pasa was a noose in the shape of a triangle with iron balls that gave it weight. Soldiers used it to strangle the enemy. The sudarshana chakra was a disk with a sharp edge for throwing at opponents.

In addition to using new weapons, the Vedic people established a new organization for the military. Armies were structured into four parts: infantry, elephants, chariots, and archers. These parts were organized into intricate formations. The armies of Vedic India took to battlefields in formations with names such as the Fish, the Needle, and the Wheel. Some formations were very detailed. For example, the Lotus placed soldiers in the shape of a flower, with archers at the center, surrounded by members of the cavalry and infantry in formations like petals. The Eagle followed the shape of the bird. The best troops and war elephants would form the beak and head. Fighters in chariots and on horses formed the wings. Reserve troops made up the body.


When Chandragupta united the kingdoms of India into its first empire in 322 BCE, he also united their armies. He used them to build and expand the empire. The Greeks that Alexander had led onto the subcontinent.

War Elephants

Elephants have been part of Indian life for millennia. The subcontinent’s earliest civilization, the Indus, hunted elephants and may have tamed them. The first mention of war elephants in India is in the epic poems Ramayana and Mahabharata. Greek writings first mention ancient Indians using elephants in war in the 400s BCE. Elephants fought alongside chariots at first and eventually replaced the vehicles. A person known as a mahout served as an elephant’s caretaker and driver. Before going into battle, the mahout would decorate the elephant’s head and trunk by painting geometric shapes in bright colors on them.

In 326 BCE, Alexander the Great encountered war elephants for the first time in his battle with Porus at the Hydaspes River. Alexander was impressed, saying, “I see at last a danger that matches my courage. It is at once with wild beasts and men of uncommon mettle that the contest now lies.”1 Indians used elephants in battle well beyond ancient times. India was the last nation to use war elephants, relying on the massive creatures in warfare until the 1800s CE.

had been withdrawing following the great leader’s death the year before. Those who stayed joined the local culture.

The Mauryan Empire relied on people from across the land—and from all castes—to complete its military ranks. Warriors from central and western India made up the bulk of the military’s soldiers. Other kingdoms provided troops only during times of war. Kingdoms in southern India provided money rather than people.

The Mauryan military continued the four-part structure of the Vedic era: infantry, elephants, chariots, and archers. The archers made up the biggest of the four groups. The military improved weaponry and armor. One improvement was a protective, miniature fortlike structure that went on the elephants’ backs. From there, soldiers would attack their enemies. Weapons included bamboo bows, javelins, spears, and tridents.



In 326 BCE, after defeating Persia, Alexander the Great set his sights on India. At the Hydaspes River, the famed Greek military leader met Porus, who ruled the Punjab region. Porus had an army of archers, chariots, elephants, and infantry. The archers used bamboo bows that were six feet (2 m) long and long arrows made of cane.2 The mighty elephants wore bronze masks and were a new challenge for the Greeks, but Porus and his army were no match for Alexander and his superior military leadership. Porus’s infantry sought protection by huddling near the elephants, but the beasts were wounded and angry and trampled people nearby. Those not crushed were left to face Alexander’s cavalry, which overpowered them.


The end of the Mauryan Empire led to a fractured India. Kingdoms fought one another, as well as invaders from outside. Ancient India had no single organized military, until the rise of the Gupta Empire in the 300s CE.

The military of the Gupta Empire was similar to those of previous eras.

It had four parts. However, instead of chariots, it relied on a cavalry. The military armed these foot soldiers with lances or swords. Archers remained an important part of the Gupta military. Their strength was improved by an advancement in bow design. Warriors from the upper castes had bows made of steel. They were stronger than

Shields provided additional protection for ancient Indian warriors. They varied in shape and decoration.

bamboo bows. With them, an archer could shoot farther and puncture thick armor. Unlike bamboo, steel would not warp in the humidity of some regions of the subcontinent. However, archers of the lower castes still used bamboo longbows. Most used bamboo arrows, which were often set on fire before shooting. Other fighting instruments included daggers and swords.

Soldiers from the upper castes and the best fighters had other, better equipment, including steel weapons such as broadswords. They had chain mail, too, but it was challenging to wear in the hot environment of India.

Just like the mighty Mauryan military at its peak, the Gupta Empire had 750,000 soldiers.4 Tools such as the catapult gave them an even greater advantage over their enemies. And the expansion of the empire proves the Gupta military’s knowledge of battle techniques.