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Notes from the Designer #9 -- Indian Military Grades

Maulas and Bhrtas and Srenis, oh my!

The classification of troops on a qualitative hierarchy is not new, but the Indian system is perhaps unique in that its troops were graded emphatically upon perceived loyalty rather than upon training. This hierarchy, first referenced in the Epics, consisted of (in descending order of quality) hereditary or professional troops, followed by mercenaries, guild levies, and lastly the forest tribes. Though roughly divided by source of recruitment, and thus necessarily factoring training and professionalism, the hierarchy in the Epic Age definitely conflated professionalism with loyalty.

In the Arthashastra, Kautilya reveals that the loyalty-based hierarchy of troops was firmly embedded feature of the Mauryan military system, and he goes to some length to rationalize this gradation. The military grades follow in descending rank as they appear in the Arthashastra:

· Maula -- the “hereditary” or professional troops, maulas were most likely connected by caste and clan with the king. They were so prized for their unfaltering loyalty and fortitude that Kautilya recommends that only maulas should be mobilized against an enemy possessing a “powerful secret service.” The maulas were endowed with special privileges by the state, including rent-free lands in addition to cash wages while on active service, and there are grounds for believing that they were recruited from certain localities (villages which were tax exempt in lieu of military service) or by voluntary enlistment from military tribes of largely Kshatriya caste. Being “hereditary” – a lifelong vocation passed from father to son – they formed the equivalent of a standing army, and were the best trained and most skilled of India’s soldiers.

· Bhrta -- those who fought for pay, i.e. mercenaries. The bhrta were recruited from inside or outside the kingdom. They seemed to have been paid on a “retainer” basis, as they are noted to be “near at hand and always ready to march” in the Arthashastra, and deemed generally obedient to the king. Plutarch observes (in Lives) that, upon Alexander’s invasion, they “defended the cities that hired them with great vigor.”

· Srenis or Sreni-balam -- or guild levies. Analogous to “trade guild,” these were the militias from a class of corporate guilds that followed some industrial arts and carried on the military profession at the same time. Enlisted in the royal army under their own chiefs, they were probably contracted as levies to the king and usually were called out in time of invasion. Some of the most famous of these were the silkweavers’ guild and the corporation of traders.

These commercial-cum-military societies grew out of the need of local communities for protection from brigandage as well as that of merchants’ need to protect their trade routes and caravans. As such, they were both a source of strength and weakness to the state. They were useful in that they provided a means of local defense, including the protection of temples and shrines, and could be relied upon to provide troops during national emergency. But they were also rather numerous and at times became powerful enough to defy the state. Advocates of the imperialism such as Kautilya, naturally, looked upon this independence, with great distrust. Because they were known to engage in private warfare with one another, Kautilya recommended that they be kept at odds with one another, through intrigue, so that they wouldn’t become too powerful in unity.
· Atavi-balam -- or Tribals, were the “predatory hordes” recruited from the tribes dwelling in the forests and mountains. Led by their chieftains, they brought their own war apparatus to the battlefield but fought for pay and plunder, and were considered useful when an army had to pass through morasses, defiles, and other difficult terrain. But, as they were deemed a danger to peaceful settlements even in their own neighborhoods, they were considered utterly untrustworthy, a wild and undisciplined lot. Kautilya nonetheless lauds them as being “numerous and brave, ready to fight in broad daylight” and particularly useful for ravaging an enemy’s countryside during invasion.

Two other “grades” sometimes mentioned include soldiers supplied by feudatory chiefs or allies (suhrd-balam) and troops captured or won over from the enemy (dvisad-balam). Whatever the grade, both soldiers and commanders seemed to have been recruited from all the castes, not exclusively the warrior Kshatriyas. Brahmanas (the priestly caste, including Chanakya himself) were known to both serve and lead, and Sudras (laborers) and Vaishyas (merchants) were apt to have joined the rank and file, particularly the militia levies.

Kautilya’s views on the hierarchical grading of troops were widespread but not shared universally; some sourced deemed guild and mercenary troops as of equal quality and reliability, etc. But as the game Chandragupta is based upon the Mauryan military model, it will emulate the hierarchy described in Kautilya’s Arthashastra. A hierarchical grading of Indian units will play a prominent role in the game Chandragupta, giving units interesting (and sometimes vexing) differences as to command, cooperation with other units, and so forth.

Next week: On whether to kick a man when he’s down.

Below, some modern-day tribals in traditional attire.