Stephen R. Welch
The “four-fold” army – Caturangabala
Both national epics of ancient India, the Mahabharata and the Ramayana, mention the four-fold division of the army, indicating that it was firmly entrenched in the ancient Indian military system by the time of the post-Vedic or “Epic Age” (beginning roughly 500 BCE). These four divisions were the foot-soldiers (patti), car-warriors or chariots (rathin), elephants (hasti), and cavalry (ashva). Sometimes to this catalog were added four other categories, including burden-carriers, ships, spies, and local guides, but the core fighting arms or “limbs” of the Epic army was the caturangabala -- the four-fold army.
The chariot remained the most conspicuous “limb” in the Epic era, playing a decisive part in the battles that rage in the Mahabharata, but the infantry, or rather the quantity of infantry, retained a distant second-place. A monopoly of the noble classes, chariots conveyed their knights into battle while the rank-and-file followed on foot. For each chariot there were assigned two cakra-rakshau or “wheel gaurds,” generally younger nobles under service to the knight, and each cakra-rakshau was attended by a retinue of foot soldiers.
The elephant at this time had been domesticated and was being used in military operations, but would not become the most important limb of the army until the Macedonian invasion. When Alexander meets Porus on the banks of the Hydaspes (4th century BCE) a significant change had occurred in Indian military organization -- king Porus came to the battlefield riding an elephant, not a chariot. Porus’ chariot corps, as they were, did not fare well in the battle, becoming stuck in the mud or the charioteers jolted out of their seats as they hurled over broken ground. Yet, despite such experiences, Indians were not ready to relinquish their war-carts. Chandragupta’s war office would continue to maintain them at considerable strength (and expense).
When Porus meets Alexander at the Hydaspes River, the elephant corps is in the first rank of prominence in the Indians’ army, posted along the front like towers in a fortress wall. They had clearly become the most important arm in the Indian army – every kingdom demanded elephants, and everywhere there was an implicit faith in their military effectiveness. “The victory of kings in battles,” Kautilya remarks, “depends mainly upon elephants.” After overthrowing the Nanda dynasty in the eastern kingdom of Magadha (represented in two scenarios of Chandragupta ), Chandragupta Maurya would increase the size of the Maghadan elephant corps two nine thousand pachyderms. The age of the chariot had passed.
Nor was the cavalry recognized as having much value in the Epic era; in battle scenes of the Epics horsemen are conspicuous for falling off of their mounts or bolting in fear. They did not work together as an organized body, but instead are seen circling around the chariots or guarding the flanks of the elephants as screens, or picking off frightened infantry when the confused herd was too chaotic for the employment of the war-cars (provided that enemy elephants were not nearby).
But, while still subsidiary to the elephants and war-cars, the cavalry had finally become recognized for its value by the time of Alexander, when it is clearly organized into corps on either flank of Porus’ army at Hydaspes. Kautilya later would attest to the cavalry’s utility in the Arthashastra, defining its tasks as principal functions of its mobility, such as scouting, gaining the flanks and rear of the enemy, cutting off provisions and reinforcements of the enemy, delivering a charge, and pursuing a retreating foe.
The lowly foot-soldier was in Vedic times nothing more than an accompaniment to the chariot-warrior, and by the Epic era this relative inferiority remained unchanged. War scenes in the Mahabharata for example describe the infantry as a horde without individuality, useful as a decorous backdrop to the valiant charioted noble. Generally, the infantry suffered the greatest losses but was considered to contribute least to the decision of battles.
In fact, the foot-soldier of ancient India never outgrew this subservient status. By the Mauryan era their function was described as little more than to bring their weapons to the battlefield, and even Kautilya’s remarks tellingly make no clear distinction between infantry as combatants versus mere camp followers. But, regardless of this institutional disdain, it was recognized by now that the fortunes of battles were often decided by the infantry’s sheer weight in numbers. The Greeks acknowledged them as redoubtable fighters, particularly as archers, and they were seen as indispensable in terrain that neutralized the advantages of the other “limbs” – broken, rocky ground, forests, and hillsides. They were also, for obvious reasons, the only branch of the caturangabala that could be employed in the defense of forts and strongholds.
The game Chandragupta will faithfully simulate this four-fold structure. Subordinate leaders called nayaka will command the elephant, cavalry, chariot or infantry “limbs” of the armies in the various battle arrays described in the Arthashastra, under direction of their Overall or Wing Commanders. In a feature unique to the GBoH system, the subordinate and support role of the infantry will be represented with a “combined line” of infantry+elephants or infantry+chariots in which both unit types, under certain restrictions, can move, fire missiles, or attack simultaneously. (More on all this later.)
One more note of interest before leaving our discussion of the caturangabala. V. R. R. Dikshitar reminds us that the most popular board wargame in the world, chess, is derived from an ancient game of India whose Sanskrit name was Chaturanga. The king and his counselor (the latter called a “queen” in the modern version) occupied the central squares of an 8X8 square board; flanking these were elephants (“bishops”), in turn flanked by horses (the “knights”), and the two corner squares were occupied by the chariots (today’s “castles”). The foot-soldiers were (and in the game, still are) the “pawns.”
How was the ancient Indian soldier equipped? What weapons did he use and how was he armored for battle? We’ll discuss this in next week’s “Notes.”
Next week: Arms and Armament.