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Notes from the Designer #6 -- Arms & Armament: Chariots

Arms and Armament – Part II: Chariots

Chariots (rathin)

In the Vedic era the chariot was a small, two-wheeled vehicle drawn by two or more horses. Consisting of a wooden framework fastened by rawhide thongs onto an axle-tree, the war-car was little more than a floor with a guard (probably leather or wicker) surrounding it, and perhaps a seat for the warrior. A pole with a yoke for the horse team was fixed to the axle. Wheels, originally of solid wood, were eventually made lighter with the use of spokes. The entire affair, measuring about 12 feet in length (from axle to yoke) and about 6 feet in width (the width of the axle), was generally designed to convey one charioteer and one knight. If drawn by four horses – two fastened to the yoke and two by straps outside – then three charioteers were apparently needed, one to drive the pole-horses and two on either side of him to control each of the outer steeds.

Though this type of “standard,” two-wheeled chariot remained in vogue as late as the 1st century BCE, by the Epic period heavier four- and even eight-wheeled cars were being used. As testified in literature such as the Mahabharata, chariots were vulnerable to broken axles and the loss of wheels during combat, failures which rendered single-axle, two-wheeled vehicles useless. The heavier, multi-axle variety was designed undoubtedly to alleviate this problem, as well as to make possible the use of larger platforms that could accommodate more warriors. The Epic-era charioteer stood upon a lowered shelf in the front, below the line of fire of knight, and a fence-rim made of tiger skins or stiff leather surrounded the car to protect the occupants. A piece of additional wood fastened beneath the car, an anukarsha was carried for on-the-fly repairs of battle damage.

The epic chariot was apparently embellished with accoutrements such as the ensigns and banners of the knight, often adorned with bells and garlands. There was also a large umbrella-like covering called a chattra. It is not certain whether the umbrella was intended as a sunscreen or for protection, but it and the other paraphernalia were deemed spoils of war collected by the victor. Interestingly, old literary works note that umbrella sticks and flagstaffs recovered from the enemy became the central prop, called talaikkol, used by dancing girls in Tamil India (in southern Indian and Sri Lanka).

From Curtius we are told that king Porus employed chariots drawn by four horses and carrying six men. Two of these were reported to be shield-bearers, two were archers, and two were charioteers who, in the heat of battle, would drop the reins and hurl darts or javelins at the enemy.
Kautilya, writing only a few decades later, describes several categories of chariots used by the Mauryan military. There were battle chariots, training chariots, chariots for transport, and those used in “assaulting the enemy’s strongholds.” From the latter two it is apparent that the word “chariot” is used generically as a wheeled conveyance, meaning a “wagon” or a mobile siege engine. Of the battle chariots – our main interest here – the best, according to the Arthashastra, were those carrying ten to twelve persons. The recommended measurements were 8 feet in height and 9.5 feet in width … considerably larger and undoubtedly heavier than their Vedic forerunners.

While oxen drew the chariots to the battlefield, their horses were led by halter so as not to injure their legs or become fatigued. Because the chariot was used as a shock weapon, driven at a full-speed charge to break the enemy’s ranks, the horses were valued for speed and not endurance. The war-car did have other important functions, as Kautilya notes, its mobility used for resisting attacks, suddenly occupy positions of advantage, and rallying the infantry. Kautilya further notes the chariot’s work in displaying “magnificence” and frightening the enemy with “fearful noise.”

In the game Chandragupta, these larger, heavier chariots of the Mauryan era appear as a separate (and new to GBoH) class of chariot, the Heavy Chariot (denoted as “CH*” on the counter). And, for fun, we also include an elephant-pulled chariot in the mix. Though mentioned in Buddhist literature as a war device, the military use of elephant chariots is at best tenuous, so the “elCH” will be offered as an optional rule.

Next week: Cavalry.

Below, chariot detail from Bharhut; a temple chariot.