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Notes from the Designer #12 -- Battle Arrays

Battle Arrays

Indian troops of the Mauryan era were drilled in a plethora of battlefield movements, all directed by the nayaka, a subordinate leader roughly equivalent to a battalion or regiment commander. According to Kautilya, Indian troops were trained to perform maneuvers and form into battle arrays by means of an elaborate scheme of trumpet sounds, flags and ensigns signaled by the nayaka and his command structure. Some period sources provide a long list of technical movements and poses, but the more salient ones include “moving backwards, standing still, lying, running apace, rushing headlong into the hostile army, and moving in different directions in accordance with the signals.”

Kautilya advocates that commanders consider the character and composition of their forces before selecting a battlefield, and accordingly chose a location offering the greatest possible disadvantage to the opponent. Kautilya enjoined commanders to avoid arraying their forces facing the south or the sun, or against the wind, and to take up positions not too distant from an escape route to a fortress or other place of safety. According to foreign writers, the latter piece of advise was often practiced, though it had its disadvantages – an army was more tempted to flee to the safety of its camp walls when the going got rough.

Once the hostile armies faced each other on the field, the commander was then to draw up his forces in one of many and various battle-orders, or (in Sanskrit) vhuha). The battle array was a topic treated at great length in nearly all of the ancient Hindu military texts. In the Epic era, the tactical array consisted of three divisions, wings (paksau), the front or vanguard (urasyam), and the rear (pratigraha). Latter were added flanks (kaksau), then the further divisions of center, rear-center, and rear-guard.

The battle arrays were embellished with some poetic license in the Epics, where some are described as shaped like a “thunderbolt,” or a “crocodile” or “heron” complete with “beak” and “eyes” (the latter reputedly occupied by the commanders). Kautilya, writing a technical treatise and not epic poetry, is naturally more prosaic, and describes the battle arrays in a coherent fashion that more reflects military practice. Broadly speaking, he gives arrays four classifications, e.g. “staff-like” or the familiar ranked formations (danda), “snake-like” or columnar arrays (bhoga), circular mandala formations, and detached orders called asamhata. For example, when describing the seventeen different versions of staff-like arrays, Kautilya explains that it is called “padara (‘breaking the enemy’s army’) when its flanks are made to project in front; it is known as drdhaka (‘firm’) when its wings are stretched back … when the front is made to bulge out, it is called shyena (‘hawk’),” etc.
The snake or bhoga array was one in which the troops of the different divisions (front, flank, wing, etc.) were arrayed in a continuous chain or column. Among the five varieties of bhoga array was the sarpasari, which had a serpentine movement, others described as “wagon” or “crocodile,” and even an array called gomutrika -- “course of a cow’s urine.” Whatever unusual configuration, these were not simply columns of marching troops but were bona-fide battle arrays, with deliberately determined shape and depth among the divisions.

One of the more interesting is the circular or mandala array, defined as a battle-order in which the wings, flanks, and front stand in close proximity to one another without any intervening space. When arranged so as to face in all directions, it was called Sarvatobhadra. Lastly, there was the irregular or asamhata array, in which the wings, flanks and front were positioned apart from one another.

Besides the arrangement of wings, flanks, front, etc., battle orders would be arranged according to the constituent limbs of the caturangabala. In the Arthashastra, for instance, Kautilya writes that the array in which “chariots form the front, the elephants the wings, and horses the rear, is called arishta, that in which infantry, cavalry, chariots and elephants stand one behind the other is called acala,” etc. Kautilya further recommends which array to form in opposition to the enemy’s battle-array, and so forth.

Indian battle-arrays will add a bit of chrome to the game Chandragupta, giving a rather exotic look to the initial arrangement of units on the battlefield. Some of the more unusual mandala and snake-like arrays may be offered in some of the scenarios, pending the playtesters “kicking the tires,” as it were. One interesting option may be to offer players an option of choosing from among Kautilya’s arrays for their initial setup.

Next week: The Indian military camp.

Below, a king on the march (Ellora caves).