Warfare—South Asia


Mauryan units from Rome: Total Realism 6.0

Throughout most of its long history, South Asia has consisted of a multitude of states, all vying against one another for power, territory, and domination. At times, certain states have expanded outward from their core areas to form India-wide or regional empires, such as the Mauryan empire (c. 324–183 BCE), the Cola empire (850–1279 CE), or Vijayanagara (c. 1346–1565 CE). South Asian empires have also been erected by foreign invaders, as in the case of the dynasties of the Delhi sultanate (1192–1526), the Mughal dynasty (1526–1857), and the British (c. 1850–1947). All these contests have involved warfare.

Traditional South Asian Warfare, 2600 BCE–1720s CE

Very little is known of the military aspects of the first recorded South Asian civilization—the Harappan civilization (c. 2500–1900 BCE)—since its script has not yet been deciphered. That it possessed citadels and walled cities seems to indicate a need for military protection. The Harappans had rudimentary bronze weaponry, mostly swords, spearheads and arrowheads. Most probably, their enemies were not formidable in terms of either ability or numbers. Although it was initially thought that the Harappan civilization was destroyed by the invading Indo-Aryan tribes, current research posits that environmental factors caused its demise, around 1900 BCE.

The Coming of the Indo-Aryans

From about 1500 BCE, seminomadic, pastoralist, and Sanskrit-speaking Aryan tribes people began penetrating South Asia from the northwest. Although they possessed sophisticated military technology in the form of the light two-wheeled war chariot, the incoming Aryans were not a disciplined army led by a great leader on a campaign of swift conquest. Indeed, the Aryan “conquest” was more of a migration, measured in generations rather than in years. The numerous Aryan tribes—about forty are mentioned in the Rig Veda, a sacred text dating from the second millennium BCE, if not earlier—were not peaceful. They were in constant conflict with one another, mostly over cattle, which was how they measured relative wealth and power. (The ancient Sanskrit word for fighting literally means “to search for cows.”) The mythical conflict between the Kauravas and the Pandavas, which forms the central narrative of the epic Mahabharata has a factual kernel, probably originating as a tribal war over cattle and land in what is now northern Punjab.

When not fighting amongst themselves, the Aryan tribes fought the indigenous Dasas. We know that the Dasas had many forts, because the Rig Veda often refers to Indra, the main Aryan god, as Purandaradasa— “destroyer of the Dasa forts.” Dasa forts may well have been wooden, for Aryan hymns often call upon Agni, the fire god, to help defeat the Dasas. In the Rig Veda, a war between two Aryan tribal groupings was won by a King Sudasa, whose name indicates that some Dasas had already been assimilated into Aryan culture. Evidence of Aryan attempts to invade and settle peninsular India is contained in the other great Indian epic, the Ramayana, which tells the story of the Aryan Prince Rama’s expedition to Lanka (Sri Lanka) to rescue his wife Sita, who has been abducted by the evil demon king, Ravana. Rama was aided by the monkey-god Hanuman; some see in Hanuman and his people a reference to the aboriginal tribes or the Dravidian peoples of southern India.

By 500 BCE, the mixing of the Aryan and indigenous peoples had resulted in the distinctive Varna (caste) social pattern, which most resembled the estates or orders of Medieval Europe, and set the template for what became Hinduism. Here, the second-ranking Kshatriyas were the varna of warriors and kings. Yet, throughout the traditional period, considerable social mobility existed, especially in warfare. Lower varna men fought in the Mauryan armies, alongside charioteers and Elephants, and by the eleventh century, it was not uncommon for men from the lowest Vaishya (merchant) or Shudra (labourer) varnas to assume Kshatriya or Rajput (literally, “son of a king”) status through military service. Indian peasantry supplemented their agrarian incomes by soldiering, which was seen as an honourable profession. A military labor market, mediated by military entrepreneurs known as Jama’dars, became a feature of precolonial India.

Magadha and the Mauryan Empire

Kingdoms had developed on the Gangetic plain by 500 BCE. One of these, Magadha, straddling the Ganges River in modern-day Bihar, was responsible for introducing the war elephant into South Asian warfare. Elephants soon became as important as chariots in South Asian warfare. Besides becoming the traditional mount of rajas, elephants were used to trample and slaughter enemy troops, batter down enemy forts, for transport, and as archery platforms. However, elephants were expensive and difficult to maintain, and only the richer Indian polities could afford large numbers of them. Archery was also well developed by 500 BCE. Indian archers used double-curved, composite wood-and-horn bows, which had a range of about 100–120 meters. In battle, archers on foot were shielded by a rank of javelin-armed infantry. The absence of swift horses in South Asia resulted in the transformation of the twowheeled chariot into the four-wheeled armored chariot carrying many more archers. Thus, though their offensive power increased, their battlefield mobility was impeded. Magadha also developed the catapult.

Magadha became the basis for the Mauryan empire (c. 324–c. 200 BCE ), during which time the Arthasastra, a classic work of Indian statecraft that adopted an amoral, realist approach to war and diplomacy, appeared. Reputedly authored by the philosopher and imperial adviser Kautilya (flourished 300 BCE), it included details on military organization, strategy, tactics, and logistics and stressed the value of effective espionage and bribery. That the Mughal emperor Aurangzeb (1618–1707; reigned 1658–1707) wanted to abolish the special fund for bribing enemy forts, and that the British under Robert Clive (1725–1774) defeated the forces of the nawab (provincial governor) of Bengal at Palasi (1757) through bribery demonstrates the remarkable continuity of Kautilyan strategies.


Throughout this period, campaigns of the Indian empires, both north and south, were essentially similar. Armies were moving cities, complete with large bazaars to handle supply. War elephants were the most important component until about 1100 CE. They were displaced by the heavy cavalry of the Muslim invaders, who reintroduced the stirrup—originally invented in South Asia in the first century—to warfare there. The stirrup, by anchoring the rider firmly to the horse, made cavalry a true shock weapon, and more useful than elephants in battle.

Siege engines, and after about 1350, large bombards and cannon—which required industrial and financial capacity that only the large empires could sustain—were highly unwieldy, requiring hundreds of pack-oxen. This meant that the progress of an imperial army was painfully slow, about 8 kilometers per day even in Mughal times. Given the nine-month long, monsoon-delimited campaigning season, an imperial army’s typical reach was between 1,080 and 1,200 kilometers. Campaigns were also slowed by the nature of the frontiers, which were imprecise bands of territory between two core areas, inhabited by petty rajas who would either have to be coopted or subdued before the invading army could proceed. Battles were short and confused affairs, the onus being on individual heroic prowess rather than on disciplined maneuver. If a king or commander were killed or captured, then as in chaturanga, the precursor to chess that was popular among members of the Kshatriya class, his army was considered defeated.

Traditional Indic warfare was land based. The only exception to this were the Colas, who, under Rajaraja I (reigned 985–1014) and his successor Rajendra I (reigned 1014–1044), took to the sea to conquer Sri Lanka and Srivijaya (an empire located on the islands of Sumatra and Java). The strategic vision impelling these seaborne campaigns was the control of Southeast Asian maritime trade.

The Mansabdari System

Traditional Indic polities were segmentary, essentially “military confederation[s] of many chieftains cooperating under the leadership of the biggest among them” (Stein 1980, 55). Loyalty was a problem. The Mughals met this challenge with the mansabdari system, which entailed granting a specified rank to a noble and entitled the noble to revenue from an assigned area of land. Mansabdari ranks carried with them the duty to provide a specified number of cavalrymen for battle. A rank was not hereditary, however, and could be revoked at the emperor’s pleasure. The mansabdari system was an early attempt at creating military professionalism in India.

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