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Notes from the Designer #11 -- Army Size & Organization

Size, Strength, and Organization of the Army

We must rely on foreign (Greek) sources for numbers of the land forces maintained by the various Hindu states of Chandragupta’s era, including those of the Mauryas. Indian records simply do not provide the numerical strength of military forces, and figures cited in the Epics are fanciful and contradictory.

At the time of the Macedonian invasion, Alexander’s historians relayed the strengths in infantry, cavalry, chariots, and elephants, of a number of the kingdoms and tribal chiefdoms he encountered. Later, Seleucus’ ambassador to the Mauryan court at Pataliputra, Megasthenes, recorded figures for the strength of Chandragupta’s forces as well as a number of other kingdoms that bordered the Mauryan empire. Though the possibility of exaggeration is never distant – Megasthenes, for instance, uncritically recorded what he was told by his boastful Mauryan hosts – these numbers are at least plausible. Other evidence asserts that the Indians, particularly the Mauryas and the large independent kingdoms such as Kalinga, did field armies that were quite large (often to the point of unwieldy) and maintained reserves at considerable expense to the state’s exchequer. The table below arranges some of the data from these foreign sources:

Table 1: Notes

+ Numbers for these two rows are taken from Megasthenes.

++ Megasthenes does not quantify the number of chariots in the Mauryan chariot corps, but merely states that there were a “large number.” Nor does he quantify chariots in any of the other kingdoms – possibly reflecting a Western bias towards the chariot that it was no longer a viable weapon.

As for army organization, we have better data from the Epics, military lexographies of the era, and particularly Kautilya’s Arthashastra. Essentially, the ancient Indian army was divided into squads, platoons, battalions, etc., with a corresponding leadership hierarchy. According to Kautilya, the smallest unit was a squad of ten under command of a padika, every ten padikas were under command of a platoon-level officer, and so on, the units increasing by magnitudes of ten through a chain of command to the commander-in-chief or mahasenapati. Epic-era sources differ with Kautilya in basing the military units in magnitudes of three rather than ten, but in any case it is clear that the Indians employed a hierarchical command structure over their large armies.

There is some confusion surrounding Kautilya’s definition of some of the subordinate commanders – a problem originating, I suspect, in the Arthashastra’s redactors rather than Kautilya – but it is logical to assume that the mahasenapati was in command of his field generals or senapati. The nayaka, a battalion- or regimental-level commander, is said by Kautilya to be in charge of sounding orders to the troops for their actual movements on the battlefield and their formation in to battle arrays, etc. Thus, for the game Chandragupta, we use the terms mahasenapati, senapati, and nayaka to denote the Overall Commander, Subordinate/Wing Commanders, and the Contingent-Commanders of the Indian forces, respectively.

When describing the hierarchical command structure, Kautilya states that “for every ten members of the constituents of the army, there must be one commander, called padika.” It is not clear what Kautilya here means by “constituent,” though the implication is that he is referring to the caturangabala. The ratio of unit types – infantry vs. chariot vs. elephant etc. – certainly was not a one-to-one correspondence, however. Would 100 elephants be considered a “platoon” equal to a platoon of 100 footmen? Probably not. Other sources, notably the Mahabharata and the lexicography of Amara, more reasonably distribute the weapons types in a ratio of one chariot, one elephant, and three cavalry for every five foot soldiers.

There are some problems with this, however. First, in this scheme the military units are described as consisting of all four unit types, i.e. a squad supposedly containing five infantry, three cavalry, plus one chariot and elephant each. It is extremely doubtful that this was actual military practice. Furthermore, the term for squad is patti, which is synonymous with “foot-soldier,” suggesting that the smallest military unit was infantry-only. By inference (and a dose of common sense), we can be fairly confident that Indians did not employ some novel “combined arms” system of chariots, elephants, cavalry, and infantry at the tactical level. Lastly, the ratio of foot-soldiers – 50% of the army, according to this scheme – seems rather low, and is not consistent with foreign sources’ description of actual Indian armies on the battlefield or Indian sources’ own depictions of Indian infantry as a conglomerate horde.

So, in order to make sense out of this muddle we need to produce a synthesis combining the “ten-based” unit structure outlined by Kautilya with ratios amongst the caturangabala approximating those described in the Epics, and add in a bit of common sense gleaned from what is known about the military organization of other civilizations of the era (e.g. the Persians). Lastly, with V. R. R. Dikshitar’s cogent analysis of the contradictory lexicons for army officer and unit names, we are able to construct an organizational scheme that can be said to provide, with at least a reasonable degree of confidence, a plausible and historical scheme for building the orders-of-battle for our Chandragupta scenarios.

Next week: Of staffs, mandalas, and snakes.

Table 2