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Notes from the Designer #8 -- Arms & Armament: Elephants

Arms and Armament – Part IV: Elephants

The War-Elephant (hasti)

Where other nations were valued for their horses and cavalrymen, India was prized for its war elephants. Once tamed and domesticated, the utility of the beast’s strength and size for purposes of warfare was quickly exploited, permanently placing the elephant in the front rank of the Indian military system. No other branch of the caturangabalawould surpass it. Palakapya, the author of the oldest extant treatise on elephant training, care, and description, would confidently boast,

[W]here there is truth, there is religion; where there is religion, there is prosperity; where there is beauty, there is nobility; and where there are elephants, there is victory.

There is no reference to the use of elephants in warfare in any of the Vedas; only in the Epics do we see elephants represented in military operations. By the time of the Macedonian invasion we see the elephant as the most important arm in Porus’ army, and in the subsequent decades the Nandas, then the Mauryas, would maintain huge contingents of the beasts. In his Arthashastra, Kautilya describes the war-elephants’ primary function as vanguard of a marching army, to prepare roads and campgrounds, batter down walls, gates, and towers of enemy fortifications, and to break up, scatter, and trample enemy troops.

In Megasthenes’ time, the war-elephant carried three warriors, two who shot from the side and one who shot from behind. A fourth man guided the beast in “much the same way as the pilot and captain of a ship direct its course with the helm.” In the sculptures at Sanchi and Ajanta, three instead of four riders are depicted, whereas contemporary texts variously prescribe as few as two and as many as six riders. The elephantry fought primarily with bows, but also spears, and sometimes short-arms. The Mahabharata describes soldiers as even discharging stones and pots of oil from the backs of their pachyderms, much as defenders on a parapet.

Because he carried an ankusha or hook to guide the beast, the elephant driver was called an ankushadhara. The hook was a somewhat elaborate affair, gilded like a whip and decorated with peacock feathers. The hook was used for drawing-back motion, and the prod on its opposite end was used for driving on. Though the hook retained its name into the modern era, the ankushadhara would become the mahaut (the Anglicized “mahout”), the Hindu rendition of the Sanskrit word mahamatra, meaning “one having great measure.”

The elephants themselves were elaborately equipped. Their feet and their heads were ornamented, sometimes with pearls, wreaths, neck chains, pendants and bells, and they were probably painted for battle. The Mahabharata describes the use of spiked iron harnesses. A housing, also often decorated, appears on the backs of elephants depicted at Bharhut and Sanchi. These housings, seated upon protective cloth cushions, were kept tight by means of girth bands and were designed primarily to provide a firm seat or “saddle” for the riders (a covered “tower” was not yet in use).

Kautilya includes among the war-elephant’s accoutrements mail armor (“cataphracting”), arrow bags, and also the generic term yantra, in this context probably meaning armor or some other defensive contrivance (when applied to fortification or siegecraft, yantra refers to a missile-throwing device similar to a ballista or scorpion). We won’t provide war-paint for the EL counters in the game Chandragupta, but some units will be provided with an increased missile offense effectiveness as well as cataphracting.
Most ancient sources agreed that the elephants bred in the southeast, such as the region of Kalinga, were of the best quality and in good supply. Kautilya describes their domestication and training. Once captured, the animal lost its wildness by being incorporated into a herd of tame elephants, and then through various other means was subdued to the point that it would not object when its driver or trainer sat upon it. Then, based upon its general disposition, it was segregated for training in either peaceful “civilian” purposes (labor) or the services of warfare.

If classified as a war-elephant, the animal would then be trained in numerous maneuvers, such as moving forward in straight, traverse, or serpentine movements, trampling and killing, fighting with other elephants, assailing forts, and other feats such as laying down, sitting, “jumping” over fences, and “leaping” over pits or lines drawn on the ground. From the Greeks in the 4th century BCE to the Islamic invaders in the 11th and 12th centuries CE, the Indians’ training and handling of their war elephants often produced amazing results. India acquired such a reputation that it exported its elephant trainers and drivers to the countries outside of its borders. Even the iconoclastic Mahmud of Ghazni (11th century) employed Hindu trainers in his elephant corps.

Indian confidence in the war-elephant would endure well past the age of the Mauryas. Writing in the 9th century CE, the Arab merchant Sulaiman would note the huge contingent of elephants maintained by the king of Ruhmi, and remark that the king would only take to the field in winter because his elephants “could not endure thirst.” The elephant continued its central role in the Indian military, in fact, well past the Muslim conquests. As late as the 14th century, a medieval Hindu writer would declare that an army without elephants is as “despicable as a forest without a lion.” Only after the introduction of firearms did the proud Indian hasti finally lose its military value.


Thus were the Indian infantry, chariots, cavalry, and elephants armed for battle. Beside the division into the four limbs of the caturangabala, however, the ancient Indian military also divided its troops into “grades” based upon their loyalty, trustworthiness, and their manner of recruitment. These grades, ranked qualitatively, are treated at great length by Kautilya in his Arthashastra, and are the subject of next week’s “Notes.”

Next week: Will the real atavi-balamplease stand up?

Below, elephant riders in Bharhut carvings; an elephant-chariot