Culture History Religion

The Better Cavalry

It’s kurmas all the way down

My previous post was a bit much for many of my Hindu friends. Some of you wrestled with me regarding the substance in the post, and some others tried to convince me there was none. That’s fine; in fact, I agree with most of you that it was maybe a bit too anti-Hindu. Maybe it felt like I was needlessly needling your sensitive constitution. Let me try to assuage some of that animosity with a little story. About me.

A scenic detour back in time

As a kid, I was wildly enamoured by Hindu scriptures. I loved reciting Sanskrit shlokas, learnt as many of them as my supple brain took soak up, and would enthusiastically take part in competitions where my parents would engage in a Brahmin version of the rap battle. I would be paired up against a kid, roughly my age, and we would try to outdo each other with our delivery of ancient religious and philosophical texts. My weapon of choice was the Vishnu Sahasranamam or “the thousand names of Vishnu” – a blistering train of tonguetwisters sure to destroy you in the 20-odd minutes it should take to get through. I knew the whole thing by heart (in fact, I still retain some of that memory), and could recite it near-flawlessly without so much as a stutter.

When I recited it at a contest at the age of 10 – and won – I felt like a king for making my parents happy. But they weren’t as proud of me as they should have been. Well, the joke’s on them because I’ll never give them that opportunity again.

Vishnu Sahasranamam sung by the inimitable MS Subbulakshmi.

Another ballroom classic was the dreaded Bhagavad Gita. Or ‘Gita’, if you’re a fan of chopping the endbits off things. The west knows the Gita for such gems as the old favourite of Oppenheimer, the “father of the atom bomb” (shoutout to the Civilization fans out there).

Now I am become death; the destroyer of worlds

Robert Oppenheimer, after witnessing what he’d created by supervising the detonation of the first nuclear weapon

The line above is from verse 32, ch. 11, and is more accurately translated as “I am mighty Time, the source of destruction that comes forth to annihilate the worlds”, but that doesn’t fit on a bumper sticker. Here’s the full verse, if you’re interested (and yes, it’s supposed to be sung that way; it’s not prose).

śhrī-bhagavān uvācha

kālo ’smi loka-kṣhaya-kṛit pravṛiddho

lokān samāhartum iha pravṛittaḥ

ṛite ’pi tvāṁ na bhaviṣhyanti sarve

ye ’vasthitāḥ pratyanīkeṣhu yodhāḥ

Ch. 11 v. 32
Follow along if you want to hone your pronunciation

The Gita, however, is about more than just destruction and religious, portentious imagery. It’s a good work showing off everything that made Sanskrit a great (and dead) language: there are double entendres like nowhere else, spiritual wisdom and philosophical critique cloaked in layers upon layers of literary devices: riddles, paradoxes, anagrams, palindromes, metaphors and complex words that make you pull your hair out.

It’s still not as bad as Kalidasa, who was fond of using words like “शरच्चन्द्रचन्द्रिकाधवलं” (read: sharachchandrachandrikAdhavaLam) meaning “as white as the full moon on an autumn night”. Scholars that study Kalidasa use commentaries by later authors; only masochists read the originals.

But I digress

The Bhagavad Gita is a freestanding work, but is better understood as a book of the Mahabharata – easily one of India’s greatest works of literature. People these days tend to view it as a religious work. I don’t blame them; it has been misinterpreted, misunderstood and whitewashed beyond recognition. If you strip away the generational rot of creeping Hindutva politics and lazy readings of history, the Mahabharata is a brilliant political treatise written over several centuries containing everything you’d expect from a genre-defying work of the highest calibre. Its complex narrative, multilayered characters (compare the vengeful warrior-queen Draupadi with the Lois Lane-like damsel in distress called Sita) and condensation of human life and suffering are so timeless that at every point in history, writers have seen it as the perfect balance to the simplicity of Ramayana. Let me repurpose a quote about Homer:

The poems […] differ from all other known poetry in this that they constitute in themselves an encyclopædia of life and knowledge; at a time when knowledge, indeed, such as lies beyond the bounds of actual experience, was extremely limited, and when life was singularly fresh, vivid, and expansive

As much as that is true of Homer, it’s much more true of the unknown author(s) of the Mahabharata. So you’ll forgive me for going on about it at every opportunity.

And this is where I get to the point

As I graduated beyond the tried-and-tested Vishnu Sahasranama, I began reading the Gita. It appears in the Mahabharata in the Bhishma Parva (“the book of Bhishma”). There’s also some pretty unwholesome description of war, death and war strategies. My dad thought it would be a good idea to try to connect these concepts with something I enjoyed – chess.

I wasn’t a prodigy or anything. I’m sure I’d lose to a blindfolded footstool. But that isn’t important. What’s important to this story is how Indian chess (called “chaturanga”, or ‘four units’) differs from the more familiar chess. Here’s a summary:

  • Pawns don’t get the two-square first move
  • En passant is not allowed (because of above)
  • Promotion of pawn is dependent on where it ends up
  • King is always placed to the right of minister (‘queen’), regardless of colour
  • The four familiar units of queen, bishop, knight and rook are replaced by minister/queen (mantri/rani), camel, horse and elephant

It’s the last difference that really stuck with me, and was partly why I started to resent people who trained to be chess masters. Most of my better-educated friends would refer to the units by their English names, and would pull fancypants moves like en passant and underpromotion that I never understood the logic of. Why would a pawn be captured just because it passed by your unit after having just moved two squares? Makes no sense at all.

But what always annoyed me was that the Indian units that I’d grown up with did not match the shape of the pieces on the board. It infuriated me that my elephant looked like a stumpy pillar and the camel looked like an infected phallus, but the horse was just a horse.

And that, is why I’m writing about the various kinds of cavalry in the armies of the world. Because my knowledge is restricted to Indian, Persian and European armies, I’m going to focus my energies on showing why cavalries were a stupid idea and should not have been popular for as long as they were.

Then, I’ll tell you why horses are the worst idea and elephants are the absolute best for pure destruction. And then, maybe I’ll make a case for camels too.

But you’ll have to wait.

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