Stephen R. Welch
Arms and Armament – Part I: Infantry
The Infantry (patti)
Recounting the Battle of Hydaspes, Arrian prefaces his 4th century BCE description of the Indian infantry that “it is not to be regarded as the only one vogue.” Indeed, the variation in dress and equipment among the Indian kingdoms was likely to have varied from region to region and from one generation to the next. Nonetheless, between Arrian’s descriptions and such archeological evidence as the bas-reliefs at the Buddhist stupas of Bharhut and Sanchi (both commissioned by Ashoka Maurya), we see that a general mode of equipment prevailed over wide regions of India.
It is clear that the bow was a principal weapon. So prevalent was the bow, in fact, Indians were still using them as late as the First War of Independence in 1857 (called the “Great Mutiny” by the British). Bows (as well as spears), in fact, are still part of the traditional dress of today’s Indian tribal communities.
And they were quite large. As Arrian describes, the bows used by Porus’ forces at Hydaspes were of such a size as to require foot-bracing to draw. According to the Vedic-era text Agni Purana, the best bows were some 72” long, adequate bows were 63”, and inferior bows were only 54”. Originally made of wood or bamboo with a cowhide bowstring, by the Mauryan era materials such as horn were being used. Constructed so that the natural curve of the horn bent away from the archer when unstrung, this reflex horn bow may have been a link between the traditional wooden bow and the composite bow of later ages.
The bows were strung with a silk-thread bowstring, or sometimes sinew or bamboo fiber with a silk-thread outer layer. Arrows, which could have horn, bone, or metal heads of a variety of shapes, were reported to travel with efficacy to about 120 yards; iron heads about 90 yards. The archers carried one or two quivers, which each held 10 to 20 arrows.
In addition to the ubiquitous bow, spears and javelins were also fairly typical. Maces and battleaxes were used, as well as the pinaka or trident. One of most primitive weapons, the club, was the chief weapon of many tribals (in addition to the simple wood or bamboo bow). Alexander, we may recall, was wounded by a club while fighting the “Malloi” tribe.
Whether javelin-thrower or archer, all of the foot soldiers of the standing army probably carried swords. The bas-reliefs such as those at Bharhut as well as the testimony of Megesthenes suggest that the typical sword was quite broad and rather hefty, 3.5 cubits (4.5 feet) long, and wielded with both hands so that the “blow may be stronger.” Kautilya, on the other hand, mentions three distinct varieties of bladed weapon – an incurved cutting edge resembling the modern kukri, the typical long, straight sword mentioned above, and also a blade with a leaf shape. In any case, close fighting, seemed to be engaged with some reluctance, reflecting perhaps the typical soldier’s light armament and the traditional preference for a bow or javelin as the weapon of first resort.
Though archers were probably without shields, those armed with javelin used ox-hide bucklers, reinforced with canes of bamboo or wood. Body armor, when used at all, was relegated to leather or elephant skin. As for metal, Curtius does mention a metal armor worn by Porus (whether chain-link armor or a metal plate is not clear) and Kautilya also describes various types of chain mail and plate armor for breastplates, helmets, and the like. But due to cost and the intricacies of manufacture, metal armor tended to be the monopoly of the higher classes and thus only the wealthiest soldiers -- the king and his bodyguard, and the officers and their personal retainers – wore it. The rank-and-file had to make due with coats of quilted cotton, though most foot-soldiers are portrayed in contemporary art as being bare-chested or wearing at most a light shirt. In general, Indian infantry were for the most part “light.”
The bas-reliefs at Sanchi show infantry wearing a head-dress much like a modern pugree, the turban-like wrapping with a large knot on top. The upper body is bare except for a long belt that encircles the chest and crisscrosses to below the navel (probably made of linen); the lower body clad in a cloth in the fashion of a kilt. Archers are shown with a quiver fastened behind right shoulder. In Bharhut (shown below) the head is bare, the soldier’s short hair bound with broad band fastened at back of the head in a bow, the torso covered with a long-sleeve tunic reaching to mid-thigh and tied at the throat and stomach. The loins and knees covered by a dhoti whose ends hang down in starched, formal folds, and he is wearing high boots. Suspended from his left shoulder is a (very) broad sword in a scabbard.
Next week: The war-car.