How did ancient Indians fight?

How did ancient Indians fight?

The original name for chess, which was originally invented in ancient India, was Chaturang, from the Chaturang Bal. It is quaint to think that the pieces of chess even today follow this system of fourfold force.

battle ancient india
Representative image (Source: Studio of Ravi Varma/Wikimedia Commons)

(This is part of the series Make History Fun Again, where the writers introduce historical facts, events and personalities in a fun way for parents to start a conversation with their kids.)

By Archana Garodia Gupta and Shruti Garodia

Indian armies of ancient times had the typical four divisions of chariots, elephants, horsemen and foot soldiers, known together as the Chaturang Bal. The chariots were massive and heavy, and nothing like their nimble and light counterparts from ancient Egypt, Greece or Rome. They had four wheels and needed four to six horses to pull them, with enough space for both the charioteer and an archer.

The elephant was another staple of Indian militaries, from ancient epic times all the way to modern times when the last Indian rulers fought the British in the 19th century CE. War elephants were usually heavily armoured and had a castle-like structure on their backs where several warriors could sit, along with the mahout who guided the elephant. The elephants could also themselves be armed, with daggers and swords attached to their tusks. The sight of these heavily armoured massive elephants charging would wreak terror in the hearts of opponents, who would often break formation and flee.

Incidentally, the original name for chess, which was originally invented in ancient India, was Chaturang, from the Chaturang Bal. It is quaint to think that the pieces of chess even today follow this system of fourfold force, with the 8 pawns as the foot soldiers, the 2 knights the horsemen, the 2 bishops denoting the elephants, and the 2 rooks signifying the Indian chariots. Indeed, the word rook itself is derived from the Sanskrit word for chariot, the rath.


The weapons used by warriors were called Shastras. The bow and arrow was the weapon of choice, though swords, axes and spears were used in hand-to-hand combat. The gada (type of club) was also a popular weapon, and can still be depicted as Hanuman’s weapon of choice in his idols today. The chakra was another uniquely Indian weapon, which could be hurled at enemies from a distance. The first mention of this weapon is in the Mahabharata, where Krishna uses the Sudarshan Chakra to deadly purpose.

Standing figure of Vishnu (Source: Brooklyn Museum/Wikimedia Commons)

The epics also refer to another class of weapons, called Astras. These were missile type weapons that were hurled at enemies, and some of them seem quite fantastical. However, we don’t have historical evidence of these Astras, and thus cannot say whether they existed in reality or just in ancient imaginations!

In the Ramayana and Mahabharata, warriors could invoke astras, which were celestial weapons that they had been granted the right to use by various gods as rewards for prayer and penance. These weapons could wreak terrible damage, and some of them sound eerily like modern weapons we have today!

The Brahmastra, created by Lord Brahma, was considered to be the deadliest weapon. It worked like a guided missile and never missed its mark. It is said that the land where the Brahmastra was used would become barren for ages and life would cease to exist there. Other interesting astras were the Aagneyastra, which emitted flames that could not be put out by water, or the Twashtarastra that apparently caused confusion amongst the enemy so that they would start killing one another, and many more.

Also Read: 5,000 year old things Indians still use from the Harappans

Rules of War

Both the Ramayana and the Mahabharata followed several rules of engagement in their warfare to make them righteous wars, or dharmayuddha. These rules were designed to minimise wanton and unnecessary destruction of life. Some of these are given below.

mahabharata Ashwatthama
Ashwatthama uses Narayanastra (Source: Ramanarayanadatta astri/Wikimedia Commons)

Fighting could begin only at sunrise and had to end exactly at sunset. A group of warriors couldn’t attack a single soldier. There were also some safeguards to level the playing field. Warriors were forbidden from killing or injuring those who were either unconscious or unarmed, those who had surrendered, civilians, and any animals that were not direct threats. Soldiers should engage only with those who were similarly mounted, and never attack those in a more vulnerable position than them. For example, chariot warriors were forbidden to attack the less powerful soldiers on foot or horses, while soldiers on elephants should not harm those on foot.

But it is interesting to note that while all of these rules were laid down with the best of intentions and parties started out respecting them, by the time the great Mahabharata war of Kurukshetra had finished after 18 days, each of these rules had been broken by both sides.

(For more fun journeys through India’s history, check out the newly released two-volume set, The History of India for Children Vol. 1 and Vol. 2, published by Hachette India, which is now available online and in bookstores across the country.)