Military History of India (Book Excerpt) by Uma Prasad Thapliyal

This book covers all major aspects of the military history of India, including the organizational and operational dimensions. Beginning with ad 1600, it examines the role of the military from ancient times to the present day. The book also catalogues the various operations undertaken by the Indian Army through the centuries within the country and overseas. Indian Navy, Indian Air Force and Paramilitary Forces have been adequately covered to highlight their role in the defence of the country. Major organizational changes introduced in the military apparatus and the operations conducted from time to time have been narrated in detail. This book will serve as a useful guide to the history and relevance of the armed forces, for both the general and the informed reader.

Uma Prasad Thapliyal was born in Uttarakhand in 1938. He retired in 1996 as the director of the History Division, Ministry of Defence, Government of India. He has published several books on Indian history and military. He is the recipient of various awards for his original research works on Rajbhasha. In recognition of his outstanding research acumen, he has received Senior Fellowship by the Indian Council of Historical Research in 1997. Below you can read an excerpt from the book, Military History of India. Courtesy: Rupa Publications India.


An Excerpt from Military History of India

Warfare in Ancient India

War is an intrinsic part of human existence. Man has been fighting for self-preservation or self-aggrandizement since the beginning of mankind. Vedic Indians considered war a ladder of progress and prayed for sons who could destroy their enemies. A hymn in the Atharva Veda reads: ‘Oh braves! Rise with your standard and be prepared, for your enemies are like killer serpents. They are devils. Subjugate them… Oh braves! Destroy your enemies and kill their commander with your army.’

In the Mahabharata, Sri Krishna exhorts Arjuna to fight as ‘there is no better duty for a Ksatriya than to fight a righteous war and that only fortunate ones find an opportunity to fight such a war’. The epic views war as a ritual, wherein death is a sure way to salvation. In fact the entire body of Indian literature from the Vedas to the Puranas, portrays this view.

Picture Credit: Rupa

Picture Credit: Rupa

War had assumed a cult form in Vedic India. The Rig Veda is dedicated to Indra, the god of war, and one fourth of the hymns eulogize his heroic deeds. The Ramayana and the Mahabharata are basically heroic tales. Puranic literature contains vivid descriptions of wars between the Devas and the Asuras. The Dharmasastras and Nitisastras also abound in references to wars in ancient India, and war is a common theme in secular literature, including the works of Kalidasa and Bhasa. Ancient Indian art as portrayed at Sanchi, Bharhut, Amaravati and Ajanta is no less revealing in this respect. Briefly, the history of warfare in ancient India reads as follows:
Proto-historic Period The history of warfare in India can be traced to the Chalcolithic age, represented by the Indus Valley Civilization.

That the authors of this civilization maintained armies and fought wars is borne out by archaeological discoveries. Excavations at many Harappan sites have revealed the existence of well laid-out citadels or protective walls. At some Harappan sites, small rooms adjacent to bigger structures look like guardrooms. Barrack-like structures have been identified at Lothal, Mohenjo-daro and Harappa. Incidentally, some male head forms found at Harappa and Mohenjo-daro have been identified as those of warriors. Bows, knives, spears and slings were common weapons in that period perhaps. Soldiers did not use shields and armour.

Vedic Age

Indus Valley inhabitants met a violent end, perhaps at the hands of Aryan immigrants, who entered Punjab about the middle of the 2nd millennium bc from Central Asia. The Aryans fought many battles during their stay in Punjab, and later during their southward and eastward expansion. In the Rigveda, there are numerous references to these wars in which King Susrava battled against a confederation of twenty kings who fielded an army of more than 60,000 men. Divodasa of the Trtsu tribe fought many battles with the Turvasas, Yadus and Purus. He also fought successfully against the Panis, Parvatas and Brsayas. In the battle of Parusni (Ravi), Sudas, his son, inflicted a crushing defeat to the confederation of ten kings and three confederate kings perished. Sudas also defeated the confederation of Aja, Sigru and Yaksu tribes, led by King Bheda, on the banks of the river Yamuna.

During their eastward march, they fought many battles with the natives called Dasa, Dasyu, Asura, Daitya and Rakshasa in the Vedas. Indra is said to have joined Kutsa in his battle against the Dasyus, and killed 50,000 of them in an encounter. He also destroyed many of their forts. Indra also killed 105,000 followers of Varcin, a Dasa king. In an effort to protect his favourite hermit, Dabhiti, he killed another 30,000 Dasas. King Divodasa of the Bharata tribe defeated the Dasa chief Sambara. The Bharatas also led an expedition against Kikatas, a native tribe inhabiting the Magadha region. A Puru king assumed the title Trasadasyu or chastiser of Dasyus, perhaps after defeating many native tribes.

The advent of the Aryans introduced some revolutionary changes in the military system of India. The most remarkable change was the appearance of chariot in the Indian battlefield. At about the same time, weapons made of metal came into vogue. Furthermore, to defeat the natives who often took shelter in forts, Aryan invaders might have used a device that resembled a battering ram. The sites of copper hoard culture that are identified with Aryans, have yielded many weapons, including swords. The Aryans also introduced the use of body armour and helmets.

Later Vedic Age

The conflict between the Aryans and the natives continued in the later Vedic age. The ‘Satapatha Brahmana’ refers to a fierce battle between Bharata Dausyanti and the Satvantas, in which the latter were routed. Another battle was fought between Satrajit and Dhrtarashtra, the ruler of Kasi, in which the former emerged victorious. The native tribes who were defeated by the Aryans may also have waged wars against each other.

This was also the time when many more tribes claiming descent from the sun and the moon, emerged on the political stage. Ikshvakus and Haihayas, belonging to the solar and lunar races respectively, fought a long battle for supremacy. While the Haihayas faded out, the Ikshvakus revived under King Dilip and ruled over Ayodhya for centuries. The Yadavas replaced the Haihayas and set-up their rule over Mathura, Malwa, Gujarat, Vidarbha, etc. The Purus, who rose to power under Dusyanta, the father of Bharata, ruled over the territory between the river Sarasvati and the Ganga. Anus, another Aryan tribe, came to rule over eastern India, i.e. Bihar, Bengal and Orissa.

As the Aryans pushed towards the east, some old Vedic tribes faded out and new ones came into prominence. The Bharatas of Rig vedic fame were replaced by Kuru-Pancalas. The tribal chieftains of the Vedic age now appeared with appellations like Adhiraja, Rajadhiraja, Samrat, Virat, Ekarat and Sarvabhauma. They took pride in exhibiting their military might by performing military ceremonials like asvamedha, rajasuya and bajapeya.

Epic Times

In the epics, there are references to many wars. At the time of the rajasuya sacrifice, the Pandava brothers earned victories in all the four quarters. The Yadavas of Dvarka fought a grim battle with the Salva ruler. This was followed by a fierce battle between the Trigartas, who were assisted by the Kauravas, and the Matsyaraja Virata assisted by the Pandavas, in which the former were vanquished.

In the great war of Kurukshetra, all the rulers of India, with the exception of a few, participated either on the side of the Pandavas or the Kauravas. Not many survived to see the end of the eighteen-day war. Abhiras wiped out the entire Vrsni clan in a surprise attack on Dvarka, and even Arjuna could not stem the rot. In the battle of Lanka, Ravana’s whole family perished. Though the epics are late compositions, they are said to represent the India of the later Vedic period. There are many more references to wars in the epics.

Age of Mahajanapadas

In the sixth century bc, sixteen Mahajanapadas were ruling over northern India. About the same time, ten autonomous republics, including the confederacy of Vrijis, ruled eastern India. In the course of time, the kingdoms of Magadha, Vatsa, Avanti and Kosala emerged powerful. Bimbisara, the ruler of Magadha, defeated the kingdom of Anga and annexed it. His son Ajatasatru fought a long war with the Licchavis of Vaisali and destroyed them. He also annexed Videha and Kasi. He built a fort at the confluence of the rivers Sona and Ganga (Patna) to ward off an attack by Pradyota, the ruler of Avanti. His successors proved to be weak rulers and finally, Amatya Sisunaga seized the throne of Magadha. He defeated the Pradyotas and annexed the territory of Madhyadesa, Malava, etc.

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