Notes from the Designer #13 -- Camps and Fortifications

Camps and Fortifications

Both archeological and literary evidence carry the history of fortification in India to antiquity. Towns and settlements excavated from the pre-Vedic “chalcolithic” period, show signs of protection by massive stone walls. The Vedas speak of the use of stone and sun-dried brick, hardened earth, construction of palisades and berms, and so forth. Later, in the Epic period, we read of cities being fortified with walls and ramparts, complete with buttresses, watch-towers and massive gates. Water-moats, dry-moats, and “mud-moats” are also described.

Archeological evidence confirms this and has also brought to light construction methods, materials, and a host of other detailed information. The city of Takshashila, known as “Taxila” to the Greeks (and appearing in two Chandragupta scenarios), has been excavated, unearthing evidence regarding its protective stone walls, street pavements, and its densely packed warren of alleys and lanes. Pataliputra, the capital of the Nanda – and later, the Mauryan – dynasty, was on the other hand fortified with timber, not brick. According to Arrian, Indian towns built on the banks of a river (as was Pataliputra) were largely built of wood, as heavy stone construction would not survive on the softer ground of a river’s floodplain.

The ancient Hindu concepts on fortifications are described in great detail by Kautilya, who considers fortification as one of the seven constituent elements of the state. With Kautilya’s usual predilection for classification, the Arthashastra delineates between hill, water, desert, and forest forts, and recommends the various terrain features most advantageous to each of the four categories. As one might expect, the hill-fort was the variety most preferred.

Apart from the permanent stronghold, there was also the matter of fortified encampments for the army on the march. Again, Kautilya provides a clear enunciation of the principles and methods of ancient Hindu encampment of the Mauryan era, offering numerous tantalizing details. So tantalizing, in fact, that we’ve given the ancient Indian encampment a star role in two of Chandragupta’s scenarios.

The Indian military camp was large, a mini-village as it were, containing not only the combatants and the accoutrements of war and their provisions, but also a motley host of non-combatants numbering priests, bards, vendors and traders, physicians and surgeons, hunters and their dogs, and of course the ubiquitous accompaniment to men on the march – prostitutes. The Arthashastra recommends camps to be located near rivers for water supply and the filling of moats, and if possible to also be flanked by a forest for protection. The camp was to be of a size adequate not only to contain the marching force but also to be protected by it from within. If the Mahasenapati’s entire host was encamped in the field, for example, the camp would be quite huge – “1000 by 500 bows” for instance, or over a mile in length and 2/3 of a mile in width.

Regardless of the size, the Mauryan-era camp followed the same basic plan. On a site declared to be the best according to the “science” of such things, Kautilya declares that “the nayaka, the carpenter, and the astrologer should measure a circular, rectangular, or square spot for the camp which should, in accordance with the available space, consist of four gates, six roads, and nine divisions.”

The heart of the camp was the royal pavilion. In this, placed to the north of the camp’s geographic center, were the quarters of the king; immediately to the west was the royal harem and the quarters of the harem’s guard. In front of the royal pavilion (apparently at the physical center of the camp) was erected a shrine for worship, and across from this, to the south of the center was a royal audience tent. To the right of the king’s quarters was placed the treasury and other administrative offices, to the left were the stables for the king’s horses and elephants.
Four concentric defensive enclosures were then constructed, each one surrounding the other at a distance of about 210 yards, with the royal pavilion at the center of the innermost enclosure. This innermost or “First” enclosure immediately protecting the king’s quarters, treasury, harem, etc., was made of carts or wagons. It is uncertain how the wagons were arranged, but one could assume that they lashed together or fixed in position by being buried partially buried, etc. (as was practiced elsewhere, i.e. the Spartan women’s defenses against Phyrrus). To the forefront of the First Enclosure was housed the prime minister (e.g. Chanakya) and the kitchen, armory, and storehouse.

Surrounding the First enclosure was a perimeter of thorny shrubs or methipratati, an ancient-Indian version of concertina wire, as it were. Within this, the Second enclosure, resided the headquarters of the commander-in-chief (if not the same as the king), the barracks of the maula and bhrta troops, and stables for the cavalry and chariot corps. The barracks usually consisted of round tents, though wooden huts were sometimes constructed for longer stays.

The Third enclosure was the palisade wall and gates of the camp proper, protecting the elephant corps, the sreni or guild levies, blacksmiths, carpenters and other military artificers. Surrounding the camp walls was a Fourth enclosure made up of an earthen wall and ditch. Protected by this berm – and safely outside the camp walls – were stationed the tribal levies and any commandeered labor. Merchants, the courtesan corps, and other riff-raff were welcomed to pitch their tents outside of the defensive barriers along the main road leading to the camp’s gates.

For security (spying was always a problem), a password and/or passport system was used to restrict access into the various enclosures of the camp. Spiked pits, moats and the other usual defenses were secretly placed around the perimeter, including a special three-pointed rod (called a hastivaraka especially designed to deter elephants. Patrolling the terrain outside of the camp were huntsmen and dog keepers who acted as spies and sentinels, ready to sound a trumpet or signal with fire the approach of the enemy.

As with military camps everywhere, discipline was of utmost importance. All drinking, gambling, and social gatherings inside the Hindu camp were prohibited. Outside the camp however, in the shantytown of hawkers and hookers, such restrictions undoubtedly did not apply.


We have now reached the extent of the historical data, the “what we know” of the ancient Indian military system. From the archeological data, as well as collaborating foreign and other literary evidence, we can with some confidence build and equip an ancient Indian army of the Mauryan era, organize it into its four-winged catarungabala, array it on the battlefield and place it in an authentic military encampment. We can tailor the GBoH game system to represent the unique features of the Indian military, and we can create orders-of-battle for our armies.

What remains now is to create scenarios for the game. But to design specific battle scenes -- to populate them with their leaders, balance them towards an historical outcome, and to place them within any contemporary political and military context -- the data with which we must work becomes murkier. The historical evidence used from here forward is exclusively literary, and sometimes found only in drama, legend, and other apocryphal sources.

But, remembering that we are designing a game, a simulation meant to be fun as well as instructive, we won’t let the fog of Indian history impede us. In fact, it will become an Opportunity, giving us the creative freedom to design some interesting and unusual scenarios.

Next week: India’s First Empire.

Below, a camp follower (Bharut carving).