Use of Elephants in Ancient Indian Warfare

I still remember when I first used internet, I was excited because I was taught internet is the lavish source of knowledge from all around the world. I used to search about Adolf Hitler, Mussolini and world world war in the tiny screen of a Chinese phone. From the world wars, I moved back in time to learn about Greek Invasion of India. The story of Indian kings intrigued me because I found their tradition close to mine because of my religious affiliation.

Personally, I found ancient Indian history more interesting because of frequent use of elephants in their military.

The readily available elephants (Elephas Maximus), native to Asia were used in ancient Indian army, irrespective of regions, dynasties or points in time. Their use continued well into the medieval period as well. In modern times, Elephants are often used in popular video game cultures as an unique symbol of Indian civilization.

Elephants had a huge psychological impact in a war because their majestic sight and their destructive potential were incomparable. Although, they proved to be double edged sword in the battleground, their use continued throughout the history.

History of Use

The remnants of Magadha Kingdom

The Mahabharata mentions the use of elephants in the battle but they were secondary to chariots which were preferred vehicle of the warriors. King Bimbisara (543 BCE) who started the expansion of Magadha Kingdom often used war elephants in his battalions. In the mid 4th century BCE, the Magadha army had about 3000 elephants. The Mouryans and Gupta empires had separate military division entrusted with the task of taming, breeding and training of elephants for military purpose. The renowned Chandragupta Maurya (321-297 BCE) had about 9000 elephants. The elephants devision in mauryan empire were led by officers who were addressed as “gajadhyaksha”.

Chandragupta Maurya


The famous book “Arthasastra” of Kautilya(5th century BCE), gives a lot of information on different species of elephants, and has also provided procedures for breeding, training and devising tactical strategies with elephants. This proves their well documented use of elephants in ancient battles.
Owning the elephant division in their army were a proud achievements for several princely kingdoms around india later in 4th-11th century CE. The royal princes and commanders were taught the tactical usage of elephants. Owning a separate elephant division displayed good economy as well because it was not cheap to take care of such majestic beasts. Enemy war elephants were also captured as a prize after successful invasion of enemy’s territory. For example Prasenajit (c. 6th century BCE) of Koshala captured war elephants after defeating King Ajatashatru (492 BCE to 460 BCE) of Magadha. In the year 780-793 CE, Rasthrakuta emperor Dhruva Dharavarsha abandoned the invasion of Pallava Kingdom because he was offered a lot of war elephants. This means they were also used as a diplomatic tools to thwart invasions.
In the medieval era, the turks and mughals kepts war elephants as a show of their poweress. They were often used in military parades. In the battlefield, commanding officers and generals rode on them to get a good view of the battlefield and relatively be safe from sneak attacks on the generals.

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mughal era art depicting use of elephant


The use of war elephants gradually declined at the end of medieval era because european invaders brought in infantry and artillery based warfare in the indian subcontinent. This rendered use of war elephants useless because they just couldn’t compete with sheer efficiency of infantry and cavalry. The matters were more worsened because of elephants being out of control and inducing damage on indian sides.

Tactical use

Due to its sheer size and ability to get rid of a number of enemy foot soldiers at one sweep, the elephant was used as a routing unit. It was used to create a shock on the enemy army which made them scatter. The terror of elephants made breach of enemy formation easy and thus increasing the chance of victory.

battle of hydaspes


The chalukyas of Vatapi(present day Karnataka state) often used drunken elephants to make enemy retreat within the walls. It was truly a sight of terror and blood when drunk elephants mercilessly tramples over the enemy foot soldiers. They were also used to battering down the walls and barricade of enemy.
Similarly, Elephants were also used to guard flanks and rear from enemy’s sneak attack. However it all changed when Europeans came to India with gunpowder and explosive artillery.

Drawbacks

Elephants were like a double edged sword in the battlefields. Their moody nature were nearly impossible to override. This nature often created more havoc on the allies side when the enemies inflicted more damages on elephants causing them to go rampant.
In 326 BCE, King Porus and Alexandar the Great fought which would soon be called the Battle of Hydaspes. King Porus was the king of the territory which spanned the region between Hydaspes (modern day Pakistan) and Acesines (Punjab region of today’s India). His territory was essentially the gateway to Indian subcontinent.

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In the battle of Hydaspes, He staked everything on war elephants to stop the advance of Macedonian army being personally led by Alexander The Great. He lined 200 elephants along the front of the infantry, in the hope to scare away the enemy. However, Alexander focused on destroying the flanks. When the Indian cavalry and infantry routed towards the flanks, the Macedonians attacked the elephants. Initially, the elephants wrecked havoc on Macedonian armies but due to their (elephants’) wounds, elephants went berserk and trampled anyone they could find. Sadly, the Indians themselves lost many of their numbers by their own elephants. King Porus who was also riding on an elephant got wounded and was taken prisoner.

aftermath of the battle of hydaspes

The time went on and enemy’s general became more and more expert in countering the war elephants. However, Indians failed to improvise and adapt. Instead, they were insistent on their usage of war elephants. Enemies continued to outwit elephant experts all through the course of ancient Indian History which resulted in lots of defeats for Indians King.

Bibliography

  1. Singh, S.D. Ancient Indian Warfare. MLBD, 1989.
  2. Banabhatta (Translated by E. B. Cowell and F. W. Thomas). Harsacharita. Royal Asiatic Society, London, 1897, 284.
  3. Chakravarti, P.C. The Art of War in Ancient India. Low Price Publications, 2011.
  4. Kane, P.V. The Harshacharita of Banabhatta: Uchchvasas I-VIII. Published by the author, Bombay, 1918, 702.
  5. Keay, J. India. Grove Press, 2011.
  6. Yazdani, G. (ed.). The Early History of the Deccan. Oxford University Press, Oxford, 1960, 490.

Aashiz PoudelAashiz Poudel

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Aashiz Poudel

Aashiz Poudel is a graduate in Mechanical Engineering from Institute of Engineering, Tribhuvan University. An avid book reader, a tech enthusiast and a knowledge addict...
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