Indian War Elephants

War elephants, India’s distinctive contribution to the art of warfare. They were first recorded by Western historians at the battle of Gaugamela (330 BC), when a squadron of fifteen was included with the Indian contingent in the army of Darius III. They seem, like the British tanks at Cambrai in 1916, to have been either too unfamiliar to the generals or too few in number for decisive use. It was not until Alexander’s men reached the Hydaspes that they were faced by a whole corps of fighting elephants which, though eventually defeated, inflicted heavy casualties. The report that King Bimbisara of Magadha, the next monarch to the east, commanded several hundred of these sagacious pachyderms was an important factor in the decision of Alexander’s army to go no farther.

What was not invented could be borrowed. After capturing eighty battle elephants from King Porus at the Battle of the Hydaspes River, Alexander acquired one hundred more before returning to the west. Alexander’s Hellenistic successors made elephants the fad weapon of the era. Able to frighten horses and terrify men, trample infantry and cavalry alike, and even demolish wooden fortifications, elephants could charge at fifteen miles per hour. At that speed, however, they were hard to stop, and they often tended to run amok, trampling friend and foe alike.

Elephants were outfitted with a housing, or howdah, covered with cloth or carpet and bells around the neck and rump. Lower-ranked warriors armed with bows and other missiles were seated in the howdah. According to the Greek historian Megasthenes (c. 350-c. 290 b. c. e.), who was sent as a representative to the royal court of India, three archers and a driver rode on each elephant.

The elephants subsequently became a major arm in Western classical armies, some even being included with the Roman troops that conquered Britain.

In India they were considered to be royal beasts, whose ownership was reserved to the government. Their primary role was in the charge, for which the strongest and largest bulls were specially trained, their tusks tipped with sharpened steel, and their flanks protected by bamboo or leather armour. They were also used to smash palisades or push down gates, or for other combat engineering tasks, such as forming a bridge over shallow rivers or ditches. Smaller bulls and cows were used as baggage animals, giving an excellent cross-country performance in a country which until modern times had few made roads. With the invention of the gun, they were taken into the artillery service as draught animals. British as well as Indian commanders found them excellent mobile command posts, and elephants continued in use by the artillery in India until the early twentieth century.

Indian generals were fascinated by the elephant arm for over 2,000 years, despite repeated evidence of its weaknesses. Disciplined armies, admittedly not always readily available in Indian conditions, could usually avoid the worst impact of the elephant charge by opening lanes in their battle line, just as the Romans did against the elephants of Pyrrhus or Hannibal. Even the best trained elephant was liable to be panicked by the sights, smells and sounds of battle, especially by incendiary devices, and might, joined by its companions, turn into a common enemy, trampling friend and foe alike. Several decisive battles were lost when a Hindu king’s elephant rushed in the wrong direction, leading his soldiers to draw the conclusion that he was deserting them, so that the whole host collapsed like a ruined building. Although the Muslim invaders themselves had come to power by defeating Hindu armies that relied on elephants, they in the course of time became dependent upon elephants themselves and were defeated by subsequent invaders in much the same way.

Elephants generally carried a driver, or mahout, and three to four warriors. In response, the use of large caltrops, iron-pointed triangular devices set in the ground to impede elephant and cavalry advances, was developed. Such Indian tactics were old-fashioned by the tenth century, but they continued into the thirteenth. Hindu pride prevented leaders from learning from their foreign adversaries. Hindus valued strength in numbers over speed and mobility, a doctrine that rapidly caused their defeat.

The elephant’s tusks might also be sharpened or lengthened with sword blades, and it might pick up enemy soldiers with its trunk or trample them underfoot. The standard battlefield role of war elephants was in the assault, to break up the enemy ranks, but elephants were also used in sieges, to push over gates and palisades or to serve as living bridges. Equipped with an iron chain in its trunk and taught to wield it in all directions, an elephant could wreak havoc against an enemy force. Although these great animals were impressive and could frighten an enemy, they were also unpredictable and could retreat under attack into the ranks of panicked Indian foot soldiers. Frequently commanders rode on the elephants so that they had the best view of the battlefield; this high perch made the commanders prime targets for enemy arrows. If the commander was wounded, or if he felt the need to descend from the howda on top of his elephant, his troops often assumed that he was dead and scattered.

Shah Jahan is famous mainly as the builder of numerous palaces, particularly the Taj Mahal (1632- 1653), a monument to his love for his wife. Militarily, he succeeded to an extent in the Deccan but failed in his numerous attempts to oust the Persians from Qandahar. His illness in 1657 triggered a fratricidal war between his four sons, who all vied to capture the throne. Alamgir emerged the victor, becoming India’s sixth Mughal emperor and ruling until his own death in 1707. Elephants were used with great effectiveness in this succession struggle. At the Battle of Khajwa (1659), Alamgir’s brother and opponent Prince Shuja (died c. 1660) utilized elephants swinging large iron chains from their trunks, wreaking havoc among Alamgir’s troops. Alamgir, however, remained calm and emerged victorious.

A far more terrible invasion was that of the Amir Timur of Samarkand, more familiar to students of English literature as Tamberlane the Great. Despite the zeal with which various Sultans of Delhi had persecuted those guilty of unbelief, or of believing the wrong thing, the vast majority of their subjects continued to practise the Hindu religion. This was felt by Timur to be as pitch upon the faces of all true believers. Moreover, India contained great riches, notwithstanding the depredations of earlier invaders, and its defences, because of a civil war between two rival contenders for the masnad or throne of Delhi, were weak. As he wrote in his autobiography, his purpose in entering Hindustan was, therefore, twofold: `The first thing was to war with infidels, the enemies of the Islamic faith, and by this holy war to acquire some claim to reward in the life to come. The other was a worldly object, that the army of Islam might gain something from plundering the wealth of infidels.’ In the autumn of 1398, with a force of 90,000 Central Asian horsemen, he crossed the Indus and advanced on Delhi. On the ancient battlefield of Panipat he was met by an army (mostly of Muslim soldiers under Muslim commanders) which included 120 war elephants. Once again, however, the elephant threat proved to have been overrated. Timur gained an easy victory and captured Delhi, which was subsequently sacked with most of its citizens being killed or enslaved.

In the year 1524 Zahir al-Din Muhammad, surnamed Babur, the Tiger, ruler of Kabul, previously of Samarkand, a descendant of Sultan Timur, `placed my foot in the stirrup of resolution and my hand on the reins of confidence in God’ (as he put it, in the graceful Persian idiom) and invaded India following the example of his famous and awe-inspiring ancestor. He was also related, rather distantly, to Chingiz Khan, though, like Timur, he was in fact a Turk by ethnic origin, and utterly hated the Mongols. Nevertheless, it had become the custom for the inhabitants of Hindostan to refer to any set of invaders from Central Asia as Mongols and so it was that Babur, after some initial setbacks, became the founder of the great Mughal empire that eventually ruled over almost all India. His decisive victory over the Sultan of Delhi on 21 April 1526, on the old battlefield of Panipat, proved yet again how a relatively small force of desperate but well-led horsemen from Central Asia could almost literally ride rings round the much larger but unwieldy hosts of the Indian plains. Sultan Ibrahim put a lakh of men into the field with a hundred war elephants. He was, however, inexperienced in war, in Babur’s words, a general `who marched without order, halted or retired without method, and engaged without foresight’. Babur, on the other hand, was not only a practised commander but had at his disposal the latest military technology, a battery of wheeled artillery, that would become the great gun park which was the pride of the imperial Mughal armies. After the death in this battle of Sultan Ibrahim and 15,000 of his Muslim and Hindu soldiers, all the chivalry of the Rajputs took the field, seeing a chance to regain Hindustan for themselves. At Khanua (Kanwaha) on 16 March 1527 their army, including now 500 war elephants and 80,000 cavalry, tried the same tactic of a frontal attack on Babur’s field works as had the late Sultan of Delhi, with similarly disastrous results. Babur’s heirs and successors, ruling first from Delhi, then Agra, then Delhi again, followed the familiar pattern of conducting campaigns, whether against each other or in the conquest of the remaining Muslim and Hindu princes of India, in the traditional Indian way of warfare.

Although Akbar was young, was inexperienced, and lacked validity for his imperial title, he nevertheless showed determination and valor. At the age of thirteen, he was victorious at the Second Battle of Panitpat (1556) against the Sur descendants of Shir Shah, who were led by an admirable Hindu general, Himu Bhargav, also known as Hemu (died 1556). It is significant that at this battle Himu girded his war elephants in plate armor and stationed both musketeers and crossbow archers on their backs. Clearly, the innovative changes of the Mughal invaders were being adopted and adapted to traditional Indian methods of fighting. Himu was mortally wounded on the battlefield, which led to a rout of his troops and victory for the hard-pressed Mughals.

The Battle of Talikota (1565), considered one of the most decisive battles in this period of South Indian history, demonstrated the importance of having well armed, appropriately dressed troops in combat. The forces of the southern state of Vijayanagar commanded massive numbers but failed to equip their men with armor or even practical clothing. The Indian infantry, with their bamboo bows, short spears and swords, and foreign mercenaries wielding outdated artillery and muskets, were no match for the Deccan sultans who rode on Arabian horses, their armor-clad Iranian and Turanian soldiers carrying steel bows, metal javelins, and 16-foot lances. Additionally, the Muslims had mobile artillery carried on camels and elephants. B3bur’s tactic of using supplies as a wall of protection for the front line of gunners was utilized once again. Historians estimate that the defeat of Vijayanagar resulted in the deaths of 16,000 troops. The great southern empire of Vijayanagar and its capital were destroyed by the invaders.

The military system of the Mughals likewise soon came to resemble in many ways those of their predecessors. Essentially these systems were dictated by the problems of governing a large area with no faster system of communication than that which could be achieved by dispatch riders travelling by post horses over unmade roads. ‘Dihli dur ast’ (Delhi is far away) was the saying of many a Mughal official, reluctant to comply with unwelcome instructions such as those requiring the transmission of revenue. Most rulers worked on the sponge principle, allowing their subordinates to soak up the revenue and then squeezing them to obtain the proceeds.

The military and revenue systems in fact were interdependent. Although at times the major officers of the state were paid a regular stipend, the usual method adopted was one of jagir, the assignment of the revenue of a given area, in return for which the jagirdar or holder of the assignment was required to perform his civil duties and to maintain a stated number of cavalry troopers or sawars (literally, ‘riders’). This arrangement allowed a ruler to divide up the proceeds of conquest among his followers, while at the same time producing the military garrisons by which the conquest was subsequently maintained. The disadvantages included a reluctance of assignees to give up (or of rulers to resume from their old supporters) their assignments when the holders became too old to perform military service in person, and the tendency of the more ambitious assignees to use the armed men whom they retained under this system for purposes other than those approved by their ruler. Indeed for a ruler to assign too much of the revenue invited disaster, since, without forces of his own, he was dependent on the reliability of the magnates of whose contingents his army was composed.

A further problem was that assignees who actually lived in the areas whose revenues were assigned to them and who, in most cases, were actually involved in collecting the revenues (normally the government’s share of the annual crops) tended to become local chiefs. Indeed, often they originally had been local chiefs, Hindu rajas whose lands were not worth the trouble of absolute conquest, or whose military resources made them too hard a nut to be worth cracking as long as they passed on the proper share of the revenue and acknowledged a nominal subjection. At the other extreme, assignees tended not so much to misuse the military contingents they were expected to keep up, as not to keep them up at all and pocket that element of the revenue intended for their upkeep, with the result that when the army was called out, the expected numbers of trained, properly equipped, and well mounted men failed to materialise. When, in an attempt to enforce assignees to meet their obligations, periodic musters were ordered, the same men and horses moved round from assignee to assignee ahead of the muster-masters, to be counted over and over again, hired by each assignee in turn for the duration of the muster. The abuses were countered to a certain extent by systems such as branding the horses and describing the troopers, but all depended upon the honesty, efficiency, and energy of those operating the system, just as it did in Europe at the same time.

The highest officers of the Mughal empire, the Subadars, holders of a Suba or province, were at first called Sipahsalars, ‘commanders of the troops’, and the senior officials of the Mughal state were known as mansabdars, ‘holders of commands’. There were thirty-three levels of mansab, each grade distinguished not by a title but by a number, from 10,000 down to ten, according to the number of troopers the mansabdar was expected to maintain. The later Mughal emperors recognised that many who were granted high rank would not in fact produce the appropriate number of men, and introduced a system of parallel ranks, with the higher figure being honorary (zat) and the lower being that of the actual number of troops (sawar) to be maintained. The proportion of permanently employed soldiers in Mughal armies was small and comprised the household troops, artillerymen and other specialists, including the elephant drivers. All could be used for the many ceremonial functions inseparable from Indian court life. Otherwise the army was composed of the contingents produced, with varying degrees of enthusiasm, by assignees who tended to become hereditary local governors, where sons were allowed to succeed fathers in office if central authority was too weak to enforce the appointment of another nominee.

The relationship between the revenue and the military systems in India was, until well after the Mughal era and well into that of the British, virtually one of symbiosis. The main purpose of collecting the revenue was to ensure payment for the military on whom the power of the government was based, while the main purpose of the military was to ensure the collection of the revenue from which it was paid. Even inter-state campaigns can be considered as having been undertaken with a view to increasing the base of the revenue, which in turn paid for the army which made the conquests, and the still larger army required to hold them. The expansion of the British Indian forces which took place in step with the expansion of British territorial possessions in India simply maintained a pattern set by the Mughals. Troops not involved in campaigning were required to accompany the agents of government whose task it was actually to collect the revenue, in cash or in kind. It is not without significance that the official title of the British district magistrates in the first provinces to be acquired by the British in India was ‘Collector’. The method of gathering the land revenue from the cultivators varied from region to region, but the conventional method in Hindustan was essentially one of tax farming. Wealthy individuals contracted with the government, or its assignees, to hand over an agreed sum and retain the remainder of what they had raised. Generally these tax-farmers (zamindars or land-holders) had a hereditary interest in the villages whose revenue they levied, and through custom and practice all sides knew what could reasonably be yielded, with reductions allowed in times of drought or other natural disaster. Where an area was the subject of disputed control, however, cultivators might be subjected to demands from rival rulers. Distress was also caused when, as in the early British period, market forces were left to determine what could be raised. Rival contractors tried to outbid each other in promises of what they could raise, in order to secure or retain their holdings, regardless of the productive capacity of the land and its cultivators. Troops were required to accompany the collectors, in order to ensure that zamindars actually disgorged all that they had contracted to hand over. Sometimes even artillery was included in such expeditions. As British rule became fully established, the military presence became a guard of honour rather than a threat to reluctant payers. Nevertheless it long continued, partly as a customary way of recognising the social status of those involved, and partly in acknowledgement of their martial spirit. While local chiefs expected to pay what was due, it was thought something of an insult to imply that they would have done so except under compulsion. In most societies taxpayers tend to pay their dues only in response to the threat of force majeure. In Indian society the threat took the colourful and visible form of a body of troops. When the revenue was collected, the troops were required to act as escorts against what was, in unsettled areas, a very real threat of raids by armed gangs or bandits (sometimes, the same people who had just paid it over) as it was taken back to the local seat of government.

It was with a military system based on these principles that the Mughal empire and its rivals conducted their campaigns during the course of more than 300 years. These included struggles against those Muslim states in Bengal and in the Deccan, which had previously been subject to the Sultanate of Delhi; wars of rebellion and succession among the Mughal princes themselves; invasions by Iranians and Afghans from those Central Asian territories where the Mughals themselves had originated; and, within India, risings by new or reviving Hindu powers. Akbar, the greatest of the Mughal emperors, came to power after a victory at Panipat in 1556 over a Hindu army which, in defiance of the lessons of military history, had relied on its 1,500 elephants.


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