Notes from the Designer #7 -- Arms & Armament: Cavalry

Arms and Armament – Part III: Cavalry

The Cavalry (ashva)

By the time of Porus the cavalry had attained the status of being one of the main components of the Indian caturangabala, the four-fold army. While this was a great improvement over the Vedic days, when horsemen were relegated to guarding the flanks of the elephant or the chariot-warriors, the cavalry would never came to form the core of the Indian army as they had for the neighboring Persians and Scythians. At Hydaspes, the performance of the Macedonian cavalry and its superiority in training, discipline and equipment, would expose a fundamental weakness in the Indian military system and portend its exploitation by foreign invaders for centuries to come.

India was not horse country; its indigenous breeds were weak, and in the south of the country they were altogether absent. Ancient sources agree that the only decent breeds were those found in the Sindhu area, Kamboja, and elsewhere to the north and west of the country (roundabout modern Punjab). Undoubtedly, interbreeding over time with stock from Persia, Bactria, Scythia and the like improved the breed of northern India. In the Deccan region of the south, however, the handicap was even more severe, and kingdoms had to secure their supply of horses from overseas, primarily Arabia.

Both bits and saddles were part of the horse’s equipment in India, but the record is mixed as to how they were used. The Epic-era Mahabharata, for example, mentions nothing of bits or saddles in its various catalogs of articles abandoned on the battlefield. In his Indica, written in the 4th century BCE, Arrian states that the Indians had no curb bits but instead fit around the extremity of the horse’s mouth a circular piece of stitched rawhide studded with spikes of iron, brass, or ivory “pointing inwards, but very sharp.” The reins were connected with iron prongs in the mouth, and these prongs, to which were connected the spike-studded circular rawhide, were used to control the animal. The Sanchi sculptures and art found in the Ajanta caves, though, represents both bitted and unbitted horses. It appears that both may have been used.

As to the saddle, the Mahabharata uses a number of epithets that indicate some type of covering for the horse’s back, though only blankets are clearly described as among the accouterments left on the battlefield. But saddles are clearly visible in the art of Sanchi and Ajanta, indicating that they were used by the time of the Macedonian invasion into the Mauryan era. Foreign sources, however, report that the mass of Indian cavalry did without the saddle, suggesting that it may have been confined to the higher classes.

Some of the horses at Sanchi, furthermore, depict stirrups. These appear to have been simply a surcingle (a strap around the horse’s girdth) behind which the rider tucked his feet, but other sources describe an arrangement with a loop for the big toe, and yet others mention a single stirrup used as an aid for mounting only. In any case, there is no good reason to believe that stirrups (or saddles, for that matter) where in wide use by the Mauryan era.
In the Epic period, the cavalryman drove his animal with a whip that was fixed to the wrist, allowing a free hand for his spear or sword. The use of a breastplate is sometimes mentioned. On a more curious note, though not exactly related to armament per se, the Mahabharata makes mention that the cavalry’s horses were “armed” with a draught of wine before marching into battle.

Later, in the Mauryan era, though Kautilya contemplates horsemen with breastplates, helmets, and mail coats, the vast majority of the cavalrymen appeared to have worn simple tunics and the ubiquitous pugree or turban. Generally the weapons were long lances for the charge and a sword for melee, and a short buckler (shorter than that used by the infantry) for protection. Spears were also used, and the occasional battleaxe or mace.

In the game Chandragupta, the Indian cavalry are therefore of the familiar, javelin-armed light cavalry (LC) and lancer (LN) varieties. In the scenarios pitting the Mauryans against the Macedonian generals Seleucus and Eudamos, though, the light Indian cavalry will face heavy (HC) and cataphracted cavalry units of Bactrian, Carmanian, and other mercenaries, as well as the elite Macedonian Companion HC … but the Indians, for their part, will have cataphracted elephants and heavy chariots (CH*) on their side.

What is most interesting regarding the ancient Indian cavalry is the fact that they never developed mounted archery. This is particularly odd, as the bow was held in such high esteem as a weapon of the infantry and chariot-warriors, and was even a weapon for the elephant riders. The Epics are hardly cognizant of horse archers, the historians of Alexander make no mention of Indian bowmen, and Kautilya and other relevant sources say nothing of it. While mounted archers would make an appearance in the Indian military system after the Scythian and Parthian invasions of the 1st century BCE, it would never take root, and by the time of the middle ages had withered away.

This lack of mounted archers, compounded by the general subservience of their cavalry (in prestige) to the elephant and (in quantity) to the light infantry, would ultimately prove to be a grave detriment for the Indians. In the 11th century CE, the slow, traditional tactics of the Indian foot archer and the lumbering, vulnerable elephant corps would fall prey to the onslaught of the invading Turks and their swift-moving horse archers.

Next week: “The victory of kings in battles” … the Elephant.

Below, closeup of cavalry carvings at Sanchi, Madhya Pradesh.