India and South Asia: Medieval Summary

  • Last updated on November 11, 2022

India’s long history, with the exception of Aśoka’s (c. 302-c. 232 b.c.e.) Mauryan rule between 269 and 232 b.c.e., has been one of constant internal strife and defensive warfare.

Political Considerations

India’s long history, with the exception of Aśoka’s (c. 302-c. 232 b.c.e.) Mauryan rule between 269 and 232 b.c.e., has been one of constant internal strife and defensive warfare. Early Hindus;ancientHindu literature considered war and duplicity as serious activities, extolling them as honorable duties of king and subject alike. A warrior caste, the Kṣatriya (Indian warrior caste)[Ksatriya]kṣatriya, was dedicated to warfare, and the concepts of glory and honor were punctuated in works such as the Mahābhārata (c. 400 b.c.e. -200 c.e. ; The Mahabharata, 1834); the Manusmṛti[Manusmrti] Manusmṛti (compiled 200 b.c.e. -200 c.e. ; The Laws of Manu, 1886); and the Arthaśāstra (300 b.c.e. -300 c.e. ; Treatise on the Political Good, 1961). Prior to the Mauryan Empire and Aśoka’s rule, war had been brutal and merciless. After the second century b.c.e. , however, war was fought in a more humane manner.Indian;medievalIndian;medieval

Around 500 c.e., with the appearance in India of numerous invaders from Central Asia, where armies and fighting techniques were superior, Hindu Hindus;medievalwarfare underwent a profound modification. War elephants, concentrated use of cavalry, and emphasis upon horses were integrated with Indian techniques to give the highly mobile invaders a distinct advantage over rigid Indian methods. Horses and horse riding;IndiaHorses, which had not flourished in India, were hearty, strong, and durable in battle. The invaders’ concentration upon cavalry with superior horses increased their mobility. With their entrance into the Punjab and their operation around trade routes, the invaders opened a new era in Indian warfare. Hindu principalities, for the most part, continued to engage in petty intertribal disputes.

The one thousand years between 500 and 1526 c.e. witnessed four critical periods characterized by internecine warfare and destruction. The sixth century introduced numerous invading hordes that opened India to centuries of defensive warfare. Islam;IndiaMuslim influence in the tenth century, in the form of the Ghaznavid GhaznavidsTurks from Afghanistan, began an early influx of Islamic and Muslim influence that continued almost uninterrupted into the early sixteenth century. The most traumatic period was the fourteenth century with the Mongols;in India[India]Mongol invasions of Tamerlane (Turkic leader)Tamerlane (1336-1405) in 1398, which left North India devastated. Two hundred years later, a turning point in Hindu history occurred with the invasions of Turkic armies out of Kabul, Afghanistan, under Bābur (Mughal ruler)[Babur]Bābur (1482-1530) and the founding of the first Mughal Mughal EmpireEmpire of India.

Military Achievement

Petty squabbles and interprincipality rivalries for territorial control characterized the approximately one-thousand-year period from 500 to 1526 c.e. Attempts were made at creating unified empires, but these were short-lived. During the first half of the seventh century two figures emerged who vied for supremacy. North India was conquered by Harṣa of KanaujHarṣa of Kanauj[Harsa]Harṣa (c. 590-c. 647) who, in attempting a southward expansion, was repulsed by Pulakeśin Pulakeśin IIPulakeśin II[Pulakesin 02]II (r. 609-642), the greatest of the Cālukyan monarchs. After the death of Harṣa, constant endemic warfare erupted between numerous rival dynasties and local kingdoms amid frequent foreign invasions by steppe nomad warriors and by Arabs whose militant religious zeal left an indelible mark on Indian history.

Harṣa’s Empire, c. 640

During the ninth century North India witnessed a fierce three-way struggle between three dynasties–the Prātihara of Rajputana, the Pāla of Bengal, and the Rāṣṭrakūṭa of the Deccan–that left general chaos and disunity in its wake well into the tenth century. On the periphery of India a new power flexed its muscle in the form of the Central Asian Turks. Their Muslim emirate of GhaznavidsGhaznī in Kabul, Afghanistan, exploited the anarchy of the subcontinent by raiding northern Punjab. In the early years of the eleventh century, Maḥmūd of Maḥmūd of GhaznīMaḥmūd of Ghaznī[Mahmud of Ghazni]Ghaznī (971-1030), one of the most able military leaders of Asiatic history, exerted such pressure with his raids that Hindu princes swore allegiance to him. He weakened the power of Hindu states in North India and removed the Prātihara Prātihara Dynasty[Pratihara]Dynasty of Kanauj, the greatest obstacle to the spread of Islam. These raids ceased in 1030, and the Turks turned to gaining control of Persia and Central Asia. Maḥmūd’s successful attacks were a precursor of events to come later in the twelfth century. The Hindu rulers continued their wrangling using the same unwieldy military tactics, having learned nothing from their defeat at the hands of the Turks.

Muslim invasions continued during the twelfth century, led by Maḥmūd’s successor, Muḥammad of Muḥammad of GhorMuḥammad of Ghor[Muhammad of Ghor]Ghor (died 1206), who completed the conquest of North India. Meanwhile, interdynastic war between the Cōla Dynasty[Cola Dynasty]Cālukya Dynasty[Calukya Dynasty]Cōla, Cālukya, and Hoysala Hoysala DynastyDynasties raged for hegemony of South India, and Tamil peopleTamil invasions of Ceylon added to the area’s struggles. With Muslim conquests and the spread of Islam, North India fell under the domination of a foreign power, a foreign religion, and a foreign language. The Muslim Sultanate of Delhi, Muslim Sultanate ofDelhi and its offshoot, the Slave Slave DynastyDynasty, dominated the Indian scene throughout the thirteenth century. Quttbuddin Aibak (died 1210), Shams al-Dīn Iltutmish (r. 1211-1236), and Ghiyās al-Dīn Balban (r. 1266-1287) extended the Sultanate, ruled with great ability, and attended to the safety of the empire, which was constantly threatened by various Mongol hordes on its borders. Periods of stability existed but were punctuated by anarchic dynastic changes, Hindu rebellions, and endemic civil war between Turkish nobility and the Mongol raiders of India.

In 1296 the ruthless monarch՚Alā՚ al-Dīn Muḥammad ՚Alā՚ al-Dīn Muḥammad Khaljī՚Alā՚ al-Dīn Muḥammad Khaljī[Ala al Din Muhammad Khalji]Khaljī (r. 1296-1316) conquered the Deccan to unite most of India under one rule. By the end of the century, however, the empire collapsed in 1398 under the relentless onslaught of Mongol forces led byTamerlaneTamerlane (Turkic leader)Tamerlane. For two hundred years North India lived in utter chaos under the Mongols;in India[India]Mongol onslaught, while South India collapsed under the conflicts waged between various Hindus;medievalHindu and DravidiansHindu-Dravidian dynasties as well as the assault of՚Alā՚ al-Dīn Muḥammad Khaljī.

The rise of the new Hindu kingdom of Vijayanagar kingdomVijayanagar continued warfare with the Muslim Sultanate of Bahmanī Sultanate[Bahmani Sultanate]Bahmanī during a large part of the fourteenth century. The Muslims were victorious, but Vijayanagar remained independent. The SinhaleseSinhalese of South Ceylon, meanwhile, waged war with the Hindu KalingasKalingas of the north, against whom they were generally successful.

After Tamerlane’s disastrous invasion, the central Gangetic Valley and south-central and southwestern India fell under the control of turbulent Muslim rulers. The Hindus took advantage of the situation and emerged as leading powers in eastern and western India, most notably in Orissa and Mewar. Intermittent warfare continued between the two powers until two great events of the sixteenth century ended the chaos of the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries and changed the course of Indian history. In 1498 Portugal;IndiaPortuguese traders arrived on the Malabar Coast and exposed India for the first time to European ideas and influence. Simultaneously the Central Asian Turk BāburBābur (Mughal ruler)[Babur]Bābur succeeded in occupying Kabul in 1504. He took advantage of the chaotic political environment to invade India, defeat the Delhi Sultan Ibrāhīm Lodī (died 1526) and establish the first Mughal Empire of India in 1526. Such an empire had not been seen since the days of the Guptas.

The medieval period in South Asia was dominated by three outside forces that revealed the inherent weakness of the Hindus against less numerous but better trained and equipped mounted invaders. Turkic Muslims, Central Asian Mongols, and European Portuguese traders exerted an influence that forever altered the course of history in India, a history dominated by superior military skill and prowess.

Weapons, Uniforms, and Armor

Before the time of written records, wars were waged between tribal units using clubs, spears, and knives to vindicate offenses. Rarely were wars waged to acquire territory or gain some economic advantage. During the ancient period in India battles were close-formation skirmishes fought by the kṣatriya Kṣatriya (Indian warrior caste)[Ksatriya] warrior caste utilizing thrusting and throwing instruments. During the medieval age, from 500 to 1500 c.e. , battles were dominated by heavy Cavalry;India cavalry. The primary weapon of choice was the bow and arrow. The growing reliance upon cavalry and archers was due to technological advancements in archery and the introduction of the saddle and stirrup between 300 and 800 c.e. , which provided stability for the rider and support for his sword, spear, and lance.

Weapons during the medieval age were generally the same as those used in ancient warfare. These included quivers (bhastrā) slung from a shoulder, broad-bladed swords (khadga), heavy broadswords (niṣṭrimśa), spears (śakti), javelins (śūla), reverse-curved swords, ancient slings (gophaṇa), curved throwing sticks (vālāri kāmbi), and sharpened throwing discs (jah) thrown horizontally or dropped vertically upon attackers.

Head and body Armor;Indiaprotection included shields of leather, the preferred material, scale or lamellar helmets, and a “coat of a thousand nails” scale-lined and fabric-covered or padded about the torso. Heavier lamellar armor of thin plates, common in premedieval times, was rarely worn, especially in the humid, tropical south. For climatic reasons soft cotton quilted armor was preferred, and its use eventually spread to the Middle East and even to Europe. Asbestos cloth appeared in an assortment of fireproof clothing by the twelfth century. Some protective armor for arms and legs was also used.

Horse harnesses were primitive at best. A leather Stirrupstoe-stirrup had been known in India since the first century b.c.e. and continued to be used well into the eighth century c.e. Horse Armor;horsesarmor seems rarely to have been used in Indian warfare.

Years of civil strife left Indian armies poorly equipped. The infantry, made up of peasants, farmers, Jats, Gujratis, and various robbers, used bamboo staffs and, at best, rusty swords. The bow and arrow, much relied upon as a primary weapon, could not pierce the armor worn by Central Asian Turkic forces. The Hindu rajas relied heavily on herds of war elephants to demoralize enemy ranks and disperse cavalry. Turkic forces, however, used steel-clad warriors mounted on superb, agile horses. These were kept in reserve in the center of battle, behind the front line of attack, and were used to decide the final outcome.

Cālukya and Cōla Dynasties, c. 1030

Hindus generally expended their energy pursuing Turkic horsemen who harassed them with firepower, counterattacked, and forced them into hopeless flight and slaughter. The Turkic nomadic invaders used a composite two-piece bow considered the most fearful weapon on the battlefield. Hindus possessed nothing that matched the success of the composite bow. They used mounted bowmen as light troops to harass the enemy, whereas Turks used heavy armor-clad cavalry equipped with long spears in mass charges.

Military superiority gave the Turks the advantage over the Hindus. Turkish horses were superior in speed, endurance, intelligence, and dependability in hostile Desert warfaredesert terrain. Turks used swift camels to carry provisions while living off the land, whereas Hindus used slow and burdensome pack-oxen. Thousands of years on the steppes and deserts of Asia had trained the Turks in stamina and strength.

The Muslim forces utilized various weapons developed by superior Metallurgy;Muslimmetallurgy around the tenth century c.e. Of these the curve-bladed steel Scimitarsscimitar proved supple, tough, sturdy, and capable of being honed to razor sharpness. Arab and Mongol forces possessed artillery against grenades, fireworks, and rockets of the Delhi Sultans. The arrival of Bābur’s hardy, disciplined, and seasoned troops signaled the end of the disorderly and poorly equipped forces of the Sultans of Delhi. The introduction of muskets and artillery turned the tide against Hindu forces at the Battle of Pānīpat in Pānīpat, First Battle of (1526)[Panipat 01]1526. Hindu rule in North India collapsed with the establishment of the first Mughal Empire of India, which lasted well into the nineteenth century. Gunpowder changed the course of warfare forever.

Delhi Sultanate, 1236-1398

Military Organization

The organization of standing armies in India since the third century b.c.e. was based on an ideal extolled in classic religious texts. An army SenāpatiSenāpati (Indian commander)[Senapati](senā) was commanded by a supreme commander (senāpati) over a four-tiered structure of infantry, cavalry, chariots, and elephants. Harṣha’s army consisted of 50,000 infantry, 20,000 cavalry, and 5,000 elephants. Support services and noncombatants complemented this huge, unwieldy army. Chariots;India Chariots, mentioned in the seventh century c.e. , represented a continuation of the ancient form of warfare. The senāpati used a four-horse chariot surrounded by a bodyguard and officers (nāyaka). The ancient military organizational system continued well into the fourteenth century, when cavalry gained greater importance in confronting Muslim invasions. However, traditional Hindu ideals of military organization remained.

In South India there was a clear militarization of the state into military camps. The huge and effective fourteenth century Vijayanagar army was organized by a governmental department called the Kandāchāra and led by a dandanāyaka, or commander-in-chief. However, there was a notable absence of discipline among the military personnel.

Muslim invaders maintained a well-organized and effective army unlike anything they confronted in India. Muslim forces relied heavily upon superior leadership, seasoned troops of high quality, highly developed military science, and great metallurgical skill. Morale was of the highest nature, supported by a firm brotherhood and religious zeal that rationalized war and conquest in the name of religion. Primary goals were booty and destruction of heathen places of worship.

The backbones of the Delhi Sultan’s army were cavalry and war elephants, the latter adopted from the Hindus. The effect of one Elephantselephant in battle was equal to that of 500 horsemen. Infantrymen were recruited slaves and individuals needing employment.

Bābur, BāburBābur (Mughal ruler)[Babur]descended from the Mongol leader Genghis Khan (between 1155 and 1162-1227), organized his Turkic army on that of Tamerlane (1336-1405). A first-rate military genius, TamerlaneTamerlane (Turkic leader)Tamerlane had organized his fighting forces on a rational basis rather than one of ancient traditional practice, assuring him of unfailing success. He surrounded himself with loyal lieutenants whom he could safely trust with far-flung branch operations beyond his personal direction.

Muslim and Mongol organizational skills, complete mobility, and superior horses and weaponry overwhelmed Hindu forces governed by tradition and lack of discipline. Although Hindu rajas commanded close to one million men, lack of discipline made them vulnerable to highly structured outside forces.

Doctrine, Strategy, and Tactics

The Arthaśāstra (Kauṭilya)[Arthasastra] Arthaśāstra remained the guide for military doctrine, strategy, and tactics well into the medieval period. After the Gupta monarch Skanda Skanda GuptaSkanda Gupta Gupta (r. c. 455-467) successfully repulsed the White Huns Ephthalite, or White White Huns;India Hun, invasion in 445 c.e. , greater emphasis was placed on shock tactics and mobility of cavalry and archers. However, after Ephthalite leaders caused the collapse of the Gupta Empire Gupta state early in the sixth century, Hindu armies again reverted to traditional use of inferior cavalry, war elephants, and less mobility in battle. Warriors continued to use quivers attached to the rear of a saddle. Chariot warfare declined, and shock-value use of war elephants increased. In the south, the Deccan army of the Vijayanagar Vijayanagar kingdom kingdom used camel troops as mounted infantry. Certain troops long abandoned in most of Asia, such as slingers, were still maintained and used by Hindu rajas. Archers and archery;India Archers also remained a critical component of the army, guided by the Dhanur Veda,“science of archery,” military manual.

Military tactics were heavily governed by the Artharva Artharva Veda (Hindu sacred text) Veda (1500-1200 b.c.e. ), one of the sacred writings of Hinduism. Archers shot from a kneeling position supported by spear, javelin, and shield-wielding infantry. Such immobility opened the army to ravaging attacks by extremely mobile Muslim and Mongol troops skilled in fighting on horseback. Elephants Elephants generally carried a driver, or mahout, and three to four warriors. In response, the use of large CaltropsCaltrops caltrops, iron-pointed triangular devices set in the ground to impede elephant and cavalry advances, was developed. Such Indian tactics were old-fashioned by the tenth century, but they continued into the thirteenth. Hindu pride prevented leaders from learning from their foreign adversaries. Hindus valued strength in numbers over speed and mobility, a doctrine that rapidly caused their defeat.

Pre-Islamic India was, however, well fortified, with walls built of stone, brick, or wood, and protected by slopes and bastions. Towers projected a short distance from the Walled citieswall. Towns and villages of the seventh century had inner gates, wide walls of brick or tiles, and bamboo or wood towers. Six hundred years later the military architecture of Muslim and Hindu added the chatri, a ceremonial kiosk above the main gate to allow a monarch an observation post. Countersiege was highly developed, utilizing scaling ladders secured to mud-brick walls and iron plates to breach them. Elephants with iron plates on their foreheads were used as battering Battering rams;elephants as rams. A pāshtīb, or raised platform of sandbags, filled ditches between walls, and a gargaj, or movable wooden tower, reigned down firepower upon the enemy. Attacks were impeded by use of fire, smoke, and heated iron grills.

Turk, Muslim, and Mongol strategy revolved around hit-and-run tactics, the defeat and humbling of a raja into vassalship, the utilization of his kingdom as a base for further advances into India, and the eventual annexation of the territory. The strategy of nibbling away at border provinces allowed a deeper penetration of the subcontinent. Success was directly dependent upon a well-established line of communications with Central Asia, which provided fresh reinforcements and supplies to accomplish deeper penetration. Together with social solidarity, a brotherhood of equality, lust for loot, and a fiery Islamic zeal against the infidel, the invaders quickly overcame Hindu resistance. Rapid movement necessitated a strong cavalry, which paralyzed Hindu armies with sharp decisive blows that frustrated their battle plans and evacuation.

Unlike Muslim solidarity, interclan and intercaste Hindu feuding and stress upon tradition in military affairs led directly to their final demise at the hands of Bābur’s forces at the Battle of Pānīpat, First Battle of (1526)[Panipat 01]Pānipāt. Here Muslim firearms dominated the field of battle. The result was the complete collapse of Hindu resistance in 1526 c.e. and the formation of the first Mughal Empire in India.

Medieval Sources

The Manusmṛti[Manusmrti] Manusmṛti (compiled 200 b.c.e. -200 c.e. ; The Laws of Manu, 1886), which stressed glory and power, and the Arthaśāstra (Kauṭilya)[Arthasastra] Arthaśāstra (300 b.c.e. -300 c.e. ; Treatise on the Political Good, 1961), the primary treatise on Indian polity, laid the standards for war and peace well into the medieval period. The latter established principles of warfare, military organization, strategy, tactics, the role of king, military leaders, and warriors, as well as weaponry of war. In a theory of concentric circles, the core state was seen as surrounded by enemy states, and the aim of policy was to achieve a series of mutual alliances. Its emphasis was upon the reality of war rather than glory. The critical arm of the army, the archers, was governed and guided by the Dhanur Dhanur Veda (Hindu sacred text) Veda, written in approximately 500 c.e. , an important manual on the science of archery.

Muslim military science and government of the thirteenth century was guided by the Ādāb-ul-Mulūk wa-kifāyat Ādāb-ul-Mulūk wa-kifāyat al-mamlūk Ādāb-ul-Mulūk wa-kifāyat al-mamlūk[Adab ul Muluk wa kifayat al mamluk] al-mamlūk (c. thirteenth century; translated in part in Fresh Light on the Ghaznavids, 1938), written by Fakhir-i Mudabbir (fl. twelfth-thirteenth centuries) for Sultan Shams al-Dīn Iltutmish. It covered governmental policies and served as a war manual, laying out guidelines for camping sites, battle formations, subterfuge, spying and scouting, night warfare, equipment and arms, and the care of man and horse alike.Indian;medieval

Books and Articles
  • Bhatia, H. S. Mughal Empire in India: Their Political, Legal, Social, Cultural, Religious, and Military Systems. New Delhi: Deep and Deep Publications, 2001.
  • Gommans, Jos J. L. “Warhorse and Gunpowder in India, c. 1000-1850.” In War in the Early Modern World, edited by Jeremy Black. Boulder, Colo.: Westview Press, 1999.
  • Gommans, Jos J. L., and Dirk H. A. Kolff, eds. Warfare and Weaponry in South Asia, 1000-1800. New York: Oxford University Press, 2001.
  • Khan, Iqtidar Alam. Gunpowder and Firearms: Warfare in Medieval India. New Delhi: Oxford University Press, 2004.
  • Majumdar, Ramesh Chandra, H. C. Raychaudhuri, and Kalikindar Dutta. An Advanced History of India. London: Macmillan, 1950.
  • Marston, Daniel P., and Chandar S. Sundaram, eds. A Military History of India and South Asia: From the East India Company to the Nuclear Era. Foreword by Stephen P. Cohen. Westport, Conn.: Praeger Security International, 2007.
  • Naravane, M. S. Battles of Medieval India, A.D. 1295-1850. New Delhi: APH, 1996.
  • Nicolle, David. Medieval Siege Weapons: Byzantium, the Islamic World, and India. Illustrated by Sam Thompson. Botley, Oxford, England: Osprey, 2002.
  • Nosov, Konstantin S. Indian Castles, 1206-1526: The Rise and Fall of the Delhi Sultanate. Illustrated by Brian Delf. Botley, Oxford, England: Osprey, 2006.
  • Oman, Charles. A History of the Art of War in the Middle Ages. London: Greenhill Press, 1991.
  • Sandhu, Gurcharn Singh. A Military History of Medieval India. New Delhi: Vision Books, 2003.
  • Sarkar, Jadunath. Military History of India. Calcutta, India: M. C. Sarkar and Sons, 1960.
  • Wise, Terence. Medieval Warfare. Botley, Oxford, England: Osprey, 1976.
Films and Other Media
  • Ancient India: A Journey Back in Time. Documentary. Cromwell Productions, 2006.
  • Story of India. Documentary. Public Broadcasting Service, 2007.

India and South Asia: Ancient

The Mughal Empire

China: Medieval

Japan: Medieval

The Mongols

Southeast Asia

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