Military of Ancient India


Brief Summary of Ancient India's Military History
India has a long illustrious history dating back over 7000 years.  The area was rather peaceful until the Indo-Aryans from the north invaded and settled in India.  Their people would eventually become the 16 Mahajanapadas, or "Great Kingdoms", which often wars with each other.  Some of these Kingdoms lasted over 2000 years..

Magadha, at the mouth of the Ganges, was arguably the greatest Mahajanapada.  India's two most powerful dynasties originated from Magadha.  The empire was famous for it's huge armies.  Alexander's Macedonians mutinied rather than to fight the King Nanda's large forces at the Ganges.  

From the movie "Alexander", Indian War Elephants charges the Macedonian lines.

The later Mauryan dynasty had an even greater army, Macedonian ambassador Megasthenes reported them having 30000 cavalry, 9000 war elephants, and 600000 infantry.  That army would later unite all of India for the first time in history.

The Mauryans made good use of their large number of elephants. The chariot has become less effective, but were still used as an arm of the army because of their prestige.

By the time of the Gupta dynasty, the chariots were rarely used. They employed heavily armoured elephants and cavalry. They also relied very heavily on archery. Iron shaft arrows and fire arrows were used against elephants. Bamboo longbows were still mainly used, but their noblemen wielded newly invented steel bows. The Guptas, being brilliant mathematicians and scientists, developed sophisticated war machines like siege crafts and catapults.

Illustration of Gupta Cavalry

After the Gupta decline, India was once again fought over by small kingdoms, including invading Muslims, until the Mughals took control in the 16th century.













Mahabharata Wars

The epic Mahabharata, put together at around 350 AD, is the greatest epic in the world. It's 106000 verses is ten times that of Homer's Iliad and Oddyssey put together. It is about a bloody struggle between the Kauravas and Pandavas clan for the throne of Hastinapura, with numerous divine interventions. Mahabharata is a very important text in Hinduism.

An Illustration of the Battle of Kurukshetra of the Mahabharata Wars



Many of the great Indian epics have described flying machines, or Vimanas, and their descriptions sounds similar to a flying saucer. UFO conspiracy theorists points to these texts as evidence that they exist. They believe that the peaceful Buddhist Mauryan King, Ashoka kept these anti-gravity and aerospace technology secret to avoid evolving warfare to become even more bloody and devastating.





Parts of an Ancient Indian Army

Elephant (Gaja in Sanskrit) - Indians were famous of their use of elephants. They were the first nation to use it in battle (~1500 BC), and the last to stop (1800's AD). A King's wealth and power can be judged on how many elephants he owned. The legendary Mauryan strategist, Kautilya, claims his king has more than 21000 elephants.
On the battlefield, they were heavily armoured and served as mobile fortresses. The sight of such a beast swinging a massive iron ball with it's trunk, their tusks equipped with poisoned swords, and up to six archers on its back can drive even the most disciplined soldiers to break ranks.

Chariot (Ratha) - Although most people associate Ancient Indian warfare with elephants. The Chariot is the real backbone of their armies. Indian chariots are nothing like the light Egyption chariots that people usually think of. They are huge four-wheeled vehicles, made of iron, wood, and decorated with gold. The smallest ones held two men, the charioteer and the archer. The largest ones can hold as many as 7 men and pulled by 6 horses. The chariots are used to charge right into melee battle, trampling the enemy while firing arrows and fighting hand to hand.

An Indian Chariot

Cavalry (Turanga) - The cavalry of most Indian kingdoms were not noteworthy. They were by far inferior to the Arab horsemen to the west. One exception, however was the Rajput kingdom of western India. Their horsemen were able to match those of the invading Mughals.

Infantry (Pada) - The bulk of the Indian army, like most other armies, were its infantry. The most common melee weapon was the sword. Most archers use the longbow, like the English ones they are usually as tall as a person. Battles in India were usually much more large-scaled than those in Europe. A typical battle looks like a sea of infantry converging, with chariots and elephants scattered in it.

Guptan Archer


Even though Indian armies were so large, they did not simply rush out onto the battlefield. India was one of the first nations to use tactics, divisions, and formations. Commanders would organize their troops into a variety of formations, or vyuha. Some of these include: Chakra (wheel), Suchi (needle), Padma (lotus), and Garuda (eagle).


The armour used were very different throughout India. Some wore the strong, interlocking iron, steel, leather plates similar to those of Europeans, while warriors in the south wore no armour at all because of the climate. Some just wore silk clothing, effective agaisnt archers because the arrows couldn't penetrate the silk fibres.
Their weaponry was also very unique. Some of the more famous ones are the kukri knife, and the tiger claw weapon used by assassins.

A decorated kukri knife.

A Bagh Nakh, or tiger claw.

Horses are terrified at the sight and smell of elephants.

Magadha, the Mahajanapada

The Mauryan Empire at its greatest extent.

The Gupta Empire at its greatest extent.


Related Articles

Naval Warfare in ancient India

The Story of Vimanas

India defence looks to ancient text


An old Indian sword.





*use Citation Builder for proper MLA format

Gorkhali, . Military History of Ancient India. 2006. 18 Feb. 2007 <http://www.allempires.com/article/index.php?q=military_ancient_india>.

History, BYU. Ancient Indian Military History.. 18 Feb. 2007 <http://history.byu.edu/fac/hamblin/ALEX/33%20India%20war.htm>.

Dr. Nagendra Rao, . Ancient India.. 18 Feb. 2007 <http://www.suite101.com/lesson.cfm/18730/2056>.

MacroHistory. Ancient India.. 18 Feb. 2007 <http://www.fsmitha.com/h1/ch13.htm>.

Newman, Garfield, Elizabeth Graham, and Rick Guisso. Echoes from the Past, World History to Thye 16th Century. Toronto, On: McGraw-Hill Ryerson Limited, 2001.





  1. How many Mahajanapadas were there?
    1. 6
    2. 12
    3. 16
    4. 18

  2. Which Magadha dynasty conquered all of India for the first time?
    1. Nanda
    2. Maurya
    3. Shunga
    4. Gupta

  3. Which type of troops were ancient Indians most famous for?
    1. Elephant
    2. Chariot
    3. Cavalry
    4. Infantry

  4. Which type of troops were ancient Indians least famous for?
    1. Elephant
    2. Chariot
    3. Cavalry
    4. Infantry

  5. Which of these weapons were not invented by ancient Indians?
    1. Kukri
    2. Bagh Nakh
    3. Steel Bow
    4. Catapult