Notes from the Designer #3

Development of the military system

Some of the earliest information giving insight into ancient Indian warfare is found in the literature of the Vedic era (ca 1600 to 500 BCE). The hymns of the Rig-veda, the earliest testimony of Vedic Sanskrit, describe constant warfare between numerous competing tribes. Indra, the chief deity of the Vedas, is a thunderbolt-wielding god of war, a great leader of tribes under whose supreme control are “horses, all chariots, and the villages, and cattle.” A never-conquered hero, Indra was invoked by warriors in both sides of a conflict:

He whom both battle lines call upon in the fray, both adversaries on this and on that, he whom they invoke, standing on chariots, that, O men, is Indra.

The hymns of the Vedas describe kingship as a necessity borne from the exhaustion and insecurity engendered by perpetual warfare. Tribes began raising, in an apparently elective fashion, their ablest military leaders (usually a chief) to the status of king or rajan. Then, as the early tribes expanded, they began to form both offensive and defensive confederations, which themselves wrestled with one another or fought against independent tribes for supremacy. One of the most prominent moments in Vedic military history, the Battle of the Ten Kings, recalls a defeat inflicted upon one of these great confederations by king Sudasa, leader of the Bharata tribe. In the battle, engaged on the banks of the Parusni river (the modern Ravi in Punjab), two of the confederate kings were drowned, and another killed in action. The selection of a riverbank as a theatre of battle was a device that would be employed by Indian commanders into the Mauryan era. And the eponymous conquering tribe would, millennia later, become the official name of the modern Republic of India -- Bharat.

In the later Vedic period the Bharatas formed an alliance with their rivals the Purus and other allied tribes to form the Kuru nation; a Kuru king would later annex the city of Takshashila (now Taxila in modern Pakistan). A descendant of the Purus would in time establish the kingdom of Maghada in the east. In centuries to come, Maghada would become the seat of power of the Mauryan dynasty, and Taskshashila the provincial capitol of the Mauryans’ western province of Gandhara. (Both locales are featured in the game Chandragupta.)

From the nuclei of the early kings’ personal retainers grew a nobility skilled in the art of war, onto whom was eventually devolved the duty of defending the realms from outside aggression and internal discord. These warriors and their lineage formed a powerful and separate class within the social system of Hindu culture of the Vedic era, grouping themselves into clans that collectively became known as Rajanyas. From this social grouping would ultimately evolve the warrior caste known as the Kshatriyas.

The Hindu monarchies at this time did not possess standing armies. In times of war levies were raised as necessary, the local levies supplying their own arms and led by their own chiefs. The foot soldiers, or patti, were likely drawn from the traders and workers who formed the bulk of the population, under the leadership of (usually) Kshatriya commanders. Contrary to popular notion, the military profession was not the exclusive domain of the Kshatriya caste.

The Vedic army, then, consisted of foot soldiers and chariots (rathin). Interestingly, the Rig-Veda regards the elephant as a wild animal, and there is no mention of the horse in warfare other than its use in pulling the chariot. The principal weapon was the bow; lances, slings, swords, and axes were used occasionally. As for military tactics, these consisted of the knights driving their chariots to the front line and showering their opponents, and hordes of footmen followers, with missiles. Infantry contributed little to the decision of battles, other than demonstrating the personal glory of their knight as a conglomerate mass (and by dying in large numbers).
The Vedic period ends in roughly the 6th century BCE, when a number of linguistic, cultural and political changes occur within Indian society. Called the Epic or Heroic Age, this period produces the national epics of ancient India, the Mahabharata and the Ramayana, which recount civil war, conquest, and territorial expansion. Reflected in these epics’ valorization of the warrior is an important change in the country’s social structure. The Kshatriya or fighting class becomes predominant, hereditary, and bound by an exclusively martial ethos. As Majumdar describes, the Kshatriyas’ duties became “onerous and sacred” -- to defend the realm, the people, and the Dharma (righteousness), “not to forget a kindness or hurt,” not to “back out when challenged to fight or gamble,” and in the words of the Epics, they considered it a sin to die in bed.

With the Epic-era elevation of the fighting class came the standing, permanent army, with recruitment, training, and fixed and regular salaries; advances in fortification, military logistics and espionage, and an hierarchical command structure closely followed. With the introduction of the elephant and cavalry corps, all the elements for the Mauryan military system were in place.

Next week: A little Caturangabalawith your biryani?

Below, a scene of soldiers on the march (Khajuraho temple)