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History Indian History Military History

The Better Cavalry (pt. 2)

Our glorious past

This is part 2 of 3. If you’re not familiar with the background, check out part 1 here. If you don’t care for rambling posts that end in a pointless cliffhanger, don’t bother with that. If you’re one of those people who are “here for a good time, not a long time”, I’m afraid you’ll have to wait because this post is going to be slightly longer than part one. Because the whole point of this post is the comparison of horses and elephants in cavalry, this will need some digressions into history before we get to the argument itself.

Because – as you might have guessed – between the introduction and the substance lies a story. Unlike last time, this one is based on true events and is about 30% relevant.

The name’s War. Total War.

It is the ninth century CE. India is deep in the throes of a period of great religious, political and economic change. Buddhism is dying a slow and protracted death, and Jainism is now all the rage. Since the fall of the Gupta empire, northern India has seen the rise and fall of at least five truly great emperors that recaptured the territory but ultimately failed to build an empire of their own. The pattern was familiar to anybody that had lived through the whole period: brilliant warrior rises through the ranks by suppressing revolts for the king, gains reputation and power, builds his own parallel army and takes down the king, expands the territory through relentless campaigns (mostly by attacking riverside cities) with the ultimate goal being to conquer at least two of the three great cities of Kanyakubja, Pataliputra and Ujjain. Likely, he’d have shifted his capital once or twice to a prominent location and minted a few gold coins to show off his new wealth. Once this original creator was dead, the kids would quickly squander the great opportunity they’re handed and the region would begin the cycle all over again.

Something similar was going on again. Harsha, the all-round top bloke that he was, was all about the culture, and kind of let his empire slip away from him. To make matters worse, he decided one day in the mid-seventh century that for personal reasons, he would die without an heir. Centuries later, historians and students still groan about this fact, because they now need to start keeping track of names.

Source: Wikipedia

Taking advantage of this power vacuum, the Pratiharas of Gurjara (aka Gurjara-Pratiharas) slowly start to detach themselves from their original Rashtrakuta masters (Chalukyas and Rashtrakutas deserve a whole post of their own, but you’ll just have to read the Wikipedia link for now). Deciding that it was going to be too easy for the distracted master to crush their fledgling kingdom, they create a marriage alliance to prevent any such actions in the future. This turns out to be a fantastic move, because the Rashtrakutas now start to see the Pratiharas as their vassal state and maintain friendly trade and military relations. But the Pratiharas don’t have to pay any tribute because of the close marital ties. Some might term this stereotypical gujju stinginess, but I think it’s just a genius move.

In the process, they also fight off the first wave of Turkic invaders, and gain a reputation as the worst enemy of Islam in Khorasan. With the help of the Rashtrakutas, they hold Ujjain and Kanauj, which makes them the pre-eminent power in the North. Cool.

In the east in Bengal, there is, at the time of Harsha’s death, another “defender of the Hindu faith” in control: Shashanka.

Compared to the erudite and tolerant Harsha, Shashanka is a zealot. He tears down stupas, massacres monks and leads an all-out war against Buddhism. Along the way, he burns the Mahabodhi tree as a way of denying Buddhists their greatest religious symbol. To me, Shashanka is proof that unlike faith – which is personal – a religion is a political entity. And no religion expands without massacres, intolerance and violent conquest.

Intolerance notwithstanding, Shashanka creates a strong regional identity in Bengal, that helps create several powerful kingdoms in the region, which collectively form the eastern edge of north Indian kingdoms’ power. In a cruel turn of events, Shashanka’s line dies almost immediately after he dies. And the next time Bengal is unified, it is under a Buddhist kingdom: the Palas.

The Pala, Rashtrakuta and Pratihara “tripartite” struggle forms a neat summary of the religious struggle of the time as well: while they are all cosmopolitan to some degree, they favour Buddhism, Jainism and Hinduism respectively. And in this period of near-constant conflict, their efforts are all for control over one city: Kanauj.

Never did all three kingdoms look this way at any one time. The areas show the general sphere of control and Kanauj is at the intersection

The emperors and their high horses

So, that’s the scene. Three mighty kingdoms each seeking to call itself an “empire” by conquering Kanauj. Let’s focus on the dominant struggle here: the Pala-Gurjara conflict. Specifically, let’s take a look at their militaries, as they meet at Kanauj.

For this part and the next, I’m going to rely very heavily on ‘Mughal Warfare’ by Gommans, which paints a good picture of Indian military history and organization. I’ll also be using some accounts from ‘Chinese and Indian Warfare – From the Classical Age to 1870’ by Kaushik Roy and Peter Lorge. Most stuff about Bengal is from ‘Early History Of Bengal From The Earliest Times To The Muslim Conguest’ by Lal. European context is from ‘Combined Arms Warfare in Ancient Greece’ by Wrightson. A lot of the information about elephants and their use in battle is from ‘Elephants and Kings’ by Trautmann.

The Prathara army borrowed heavily from its Central Asian neighbours: horses were abundant in Central Asia and the long history of horse breeding had given rise to a wide range of breeds for everything from farm labour to military uses. So, the army was organized along similar lines: cavalry and infantry in agile formations with a focus on maneuverability, flanking and speed. By contrast, the Pala army is from the thick, humid jungles of Bengal and Burma: prime elephant territory. So, the Pala army is very elephant-heavy, with a small cavalry force that’s just supposed to act as a go-between for infantry, and for scouting. It is also unique among Indian states in that it maintained a sizeable navy, a navy that would only be surpassed by the mighty Cholas in a few centuries. I mean, look at what the Cholas were doing in 1025 AD, when Europe was in the embrace of the Dark Ages.

This is impressive, but is only half the picture. The Cholas were also engaged in trade with Egypt, Mesopotamia and Scythia.
Source: Swarajya

But for now, the war is essentially hordes of horses vs several elephants. So, you can imagine how things unfolded when the Palas, under Dharmapala, attacked the Pratihara forces under Indrayudha at Kanauj. Most people would guess that the superior speed and agility of the horse archers would have allowed them to disrupt Pala lines, cut off supplies and defend the city from those pesky eastern invaders.

And they’d be wrong. The Pala war elephants mop the floor with the western cavalry, reducing them to such a state of helplessness that once the siege is over and Dharmapala is victorious, nearly every other state nearby declares fealty to him almost immediately. The victory is resounding, and unlike what we may expect now, practically everyone back then would have said the same thing: it was obvious that the elephants would win.

Why? Because horses have always been somewhere between useless and a bad idea. And in this battle, they offered nothing to the Pratiharas.

No horsing around

I have no love for horses but I know that they’re extremely useful animals. So, this section won’t be very long. I suspect you already know most of what makes horses useful in war. So, let’s go over the major points of why they’re not a good idea.

Let’s get one thing out of the way: horse riding is stupid. Chariots were a good idea, but when people took the logical next step and removed the carriage, they took a good idea too far. Horses are timid, have a nasty temperament, get spooked easily, and when spooked, can kill the rider with frightening ease. The key trouble with riding horses, though, is that it is simply inefficient. Dragging is simpler than carrying, which is simpler than lifting. Anybody who’s tried to move a bench at the gym known what I’m saying: you always begin trying to lift it to where you need it, but once you realize how hard it is, you just give up and surrender yourself to dragging it around like a wimp. A chariot requires the horse to drag the weight around, which is simple enough and allows a horse to move a carriage easily even with several tonnes of load. Carrying, though, requires special conditions to be efficient: the animal must have a slightly bent vertebra that allows it to absorb the weight and creates a small depression for the rider to sit comfortably in. Even then, getting off the ground is much harder. So, if your animal collapses due to weakness, its unlikely to get back on its feet without extra help.

In case you’re not convinced yet, here’s a video by one of my favourite YouTubers to persuade you further.

Terrible as horses are, they’re absolutely worthless in most parts of India. First, they’re not native to the land so they have no immunity to tropical diseases and parasites, and don’t seem to enjoy the climate very much. Where introduced, there are other issues as well. Subcontinental India has many features that make it simply a horrible place for horses: there isn’t enough hard grain and the ones that do exist cause digestive issues, terrain like marshes and jungles that horses are completely unsuited for, and not enough free open fields for them to graze in. So, feeding a large cavalry in Medieval India required pouring additional resources into feeding them special food, housing them in fancy stables (even now, horses are prone to cold and rain damage; that’s why they need those funky-looking jackets) and training and taking care of them needed specialists that had to be hired from outside the land. Also, most Indian states had no cultural memory of breeding horses so the indigenous breeds were weak and sickly and had to be regularly bred with horses from the Central Asian steppes.

TL;DR: The horse’s primary strength is and always has been speed, but when the terrain is tricky, convincing your horse to follow you is worse than just getting there by foot. They’re only about as effective as ostriches, really.

So, breeding horses was too expensive for the average farmer and only selectively useful for kings. As a result, where possible, Indians took to using other animals: oxen and asses for draught purposes, and infantry and elephants in warfare. Elephants, though, are not a poor man’s horse. So why did every Indian army have them? Not to mention that at one point or the other, Chinese, Thai, Burmese, Roman, Egyptian, Carthagian, Scythian, Arabian, and Nubian armies all had a separate elephant division.

The elephant in every room

Elephants are majestic beasts. They’re intelligent, powerful, (mostly) peaceful and have complex social structures that make them eerily similar to humans. They use tools, manipulate others to get what they want, retain memories for upto 25 years, can be taught to paint and play, grieve when a family member dies and show creative problem solving abilities. They’re regularly classified as the third/fourth most intelligent animal on the planet, only slightly worse than the great apes (and possibly some cetaceans). Look at this totally legit “scorecard” that rates animals on various atributes of intelligence, and notice how well the elephant does compared to every other animal on there:

I know that whales/dolphins are missing here, but you get the idea

The only reason elephants are not higher on that list is that they’re stubborn, proud animals that just cannot be forced into anything; even if it’s a researcher trying her best to make a case for it to be classified a non-human person. So, we simply don’t know the extent of their intelligence. Kind of like octopuses and cuttlefish.

What we do know about is their immense strength and dexterity. And speed. I’ve seen elephants charge at people and I cannot exaggerate how insanely quick they are. Just because an elephant looks chunky and awkward does not mean it’s slow, and don’t believe the “fact” that elephants can’t run. Research has shown that they can and do sprint.

The combat potential of elephants has been an open secret for millennia. Alexander witnessed it first-hand at the Battle of Hydaspes when his forces fought a king called Porus in Sind (Pakistan). Nobody actually knows who this Porus fellow is, and his name (to me; others have suggested alternative explanations of where his name came from) seems like a Hellenised version of ‘Purus’ or ‘Purush’, meaning ‘man’ or ‘master’ in Sanskrit, which was one of the many languages in the region at the time. Porus defended his borders against the vast invading army using only a few dozen elephants as a wall. Alexander’s horses were so scared of these bedecked beasts that they simply refused to advance. Alexander eventually defeated Porus, of course, but was so impressed by him that he let him stay in charge of Sind as his satrap (later Sanskritised to ‘kshatrapa‘, a title that everyone from early Indo-Scythians to the Saka peoples used to mean ‘governor’). Plutarch notes the relationship between man and elephant:

Most historians agree that Porus was four cubits and a span high, and that the size and majesty of his body made his elephant seem as fitting a mount for him as a horse for the horseman. And yet his elephant was of the largest size; and it showed remarkable intelligence and solicitude for the king, bravely defending him and beating back his assailants while he was still in full vigour, and when it perceived that its master was worn out with a multitude of missiles and wounds, fearing he should fall off, it knelt softly on the ground, and with its proboscis gently took each spear and drew it out of his body

Plutarch, in ‘The Life of Alexander’

But he took with him a few of these impressive war elephants as a proof of concept for old-timers in Macedonia. Alexander, you’ll remember, never made it back to Pella to impress his lady friends back home. But war elephants made their own way to Europe through their use in the Roman, Scythian, Seleucid and Carthaginian armies, most famously in Hannibal’s entourage as he tore through Europe around 200 BCE.

Carthaginian war elephants. Their number is greatly embellished in this impression from the 19th century, but it’s useful as a guide to how Asian elephants from India, Ceylon and Burma were being used in faraway European wars
Seleucid cavalry and elephants. Note that these elephants tend to be more geared towards use as a ranged weapon, whereas Indian armies used them either as a defensive unit or as a charging unit designed to break up ranks and cause mayhem

Unlike the horse, which is a weak animal by itself and is only as good as the rider, an elephant has a range of utilities on the battefield. I showed you some cool specimens earlier, but most of them are just one class of elephants: the “walking towers”. They gave you visibility, range and allowed for better planning and coordination. They also stand out as a symbol of strength and act as an indicator of how well the war is going. As long as the commander’s elephant is visible, the army is motivated to fight on. This is what Duryodhana achieves when he rides on an elephant in the closing sections of the Mahabharata.

The most crucial reason elephants could be found in armies well into the 17th century was their use as a siege unit: the “bulldozers”. An elephant can be trained to tear down walls, doors, gates… If you can build it or grow it, an elephant can probably destroy it with very little effort.

I know that’s an African elephant. I’m trying to make a point here.

There were also the “tanks”. These were the OG war elephants: five tons of muscle, tusks and pure rage (because many of them were either intoxicated or in musth). Their only role was to charge at enemy ranks, scatter cavalry and crush anybody that happened to slip. Unlike horses that are scared away by blood, elephants seem to get even more agitated by the smell of blood. This excited males in musth even more, making them that much more lethal. These have been called the “world’s first combined arms” tactics.

We also had the “walls”. These were elephants stationed near the rear guard, just in front of city gates or the general’s retinue, and their job was to repel any enemeies that managed to get past the front line. These had a small group of archers or javelin throwers that could do proportionately more damage than they could from ground level.

Particularly sadistic rulers also used “wildcards”, which were recently captured wild elephants that would be led on to the battlefield before the army’s advance, to do as they pleased. The elephants would charge, kill, maim, crush and rip through anything the army possessed, at very little cost to the other party. This was generally not kosher, and books on ‘Gajashastra’ (or ‘elephant science’) explicitly forbade this use on the grounds that it is cruel, unpredictable and disreputable.

So, elephants were extremely versatile animals of huge strategic value. And every Indian ruler knew it. Gommans writes:

Abul Fazl maintained that experienced men of Hindustan considered the value of a good elephant as equal to that of 500 horses; and they believed that, when guided by a few bold men armed with matchlocks, such an elephant alone was worth even double that number.

None knew this better than the Palas, who maintained around 5000 elephants in their army, and could call upon upto 7000 in times of need. That’s some serious elephantpower. If Fazl’s estimation is true, that should be enough to crush 2.5 million horses. Even if they were only equal to one-tenth that number, it would have been hugely to Dharmapala’s advantage. But of course, as with all things in life, things aren’t that simple.

The chinks in an elephant’s armour

For one thing, elephants are hard to breed, even harder to train and fiendishly expensive to care for. Each elephant needs a mahout, a retinue of cleaners and a steady supply of food. In the 12th century, an Arab traveller estimated that caring for one elephant cost 500 rupees a month in fodder alone. I have no idea what this number translates into in today’s money, but I’m guessing it’s at least a few thousand times the original number. The rupee grew 70 times from 1958-2019 at 7% per annum. If we assume the average inflation rate to be even 1% per year over 800 years and use the formula for compounding interest

FV = PV (1 + i)n

We get an inflation-adjusted figure of 14.32 lac rupees (1.432 million rupees for those unfamiliar with Indian numbering system) or roughly USD19,800 per elephant per month. That’s nothing to shake a stick at.

So, rulers let their elephants feed along roads and on the edges of forests. This took away from food for cattle, goats, horses, even people. There’s a reason that large, impractical gifts are called “white elephant gifts“. Uniquely though, and unlike horses, they show a great degree of war weariness. Elephants in captivity also get depressed, escape, get aggressive and moody, or starve themselves to death. So, unless well cared for, there’s a big chance that your elephant fleet will simply not exist when it’s time for war. All of this means that most elephants in the service of a king are fresh out of the jungle with just enough training to make them rideable. Only a few of the thousands are likely to see another war.

Fun fact: this is how war elephants are used today. Yes, you read that right: there are still war elephants in the world. They’re used by tribes such as the Khamti in the remote jungles of Myanmar on the border with India and China. The people capture elephants, use them for war for a while and then either release them or use them for other purposes. There’s an argument in ‘Hybrid Communities’ by Stepanoff and Vigne that this is a better model for animal-human interaction for both humans and elephants as it creates a more mutually respectful relationship that reduces chances of exploitation. The operating word here is “better”, because there is no excusable case for treating animals this way, no matter how deeply rooted in tradition they may be. And no matter how much people try to convince themselves that their models of treating animals are better, I find that as long as the focus is on how an animal can be of use to humans, no amount of sanctity will ever make up for the extent of exploitation that the animal is likely to face.

That’s why I find the standard argument of the “holy cow” to be a completely hollow argument. If you worship an animal for what it gives you, you will also doom the animal to a life of endless servitude, torture and eventually a slow and painful death. There are millions of cows in India that roam city streets and end up as roadkill because their owners just don’t see any output out of them and therefore, don’t need them anymore. As a result, if you ban the killing of cows out of some misplaced sense of reverence, you’re effectively giving them no exit when they’re suffering in pain or have no food or water to survive. All of this is entirely apart from the human side of the argument, which is that if you’re telling people to view cows as an economic commodity that exists to be traded and to be utilized as a commodity, you’re saying that cows exist to help them subsist, they should be allowed to do with them as they please; even if it means killing the cow for meat when the farmer’s family is going through hard times. Those are the only two arguments here; there are no hybrid models. There can be no “religious commodity”. A cow is either a holy object that needs compassion and must not be exploited in any way (which means setting them loose and criminalising their use, harm and killing for whatever reason), or it is an economic entity that can be used for whatever purpose the farmer sees fit. There is no other option.

Anyway, that’s the end of the cow tangent. Let’s return to Kanauj and finish the story.

Kanauj: the perfect elephant use-case

My source for the account of Dharmapala’s attack of Kanauj comes from the fantastic Kit Patrick on the ‘History of India’ podcast. The relevant episode is 5.16 (By setting of the eastern sun) and the scene begins around 24:02.

Sun Tzu says of sieges:

Thus the highest form of generalship is to balk the enemy’s plans; the next best is to prevent the junction of the enemy’s forces; the next in order is to attack the enemy’s army in the field; and the worst policy of all is to besiege walled cities.

Sun Tzu, “The Art of War”, Ch. 3

When attacking a city, the defending army always has a massive upper hand. As a result, at Kanauj, Dharmapala was the underdog by a huge margin. He managed to turn things in his favour by using the elephants’ weaknesses to his advantage. By letting the elephants eat whatever they felt like, he was causing untold economic damage to his enemy’s kingdom. By advancing across the kingdom this way in a haphazard fashion feeding on everything along the way, he spread the defenders thin and made them vulnerable along the rivers, where he used his navy to great effect. Then, when the invaders were attacked, it was conventional melee, where horses are at a huge disadvantage facing anything other than a lump of grass.

The most decisive advantage the elephants conferred upon Dharmapala was their versatility. What was a grain sink while grazing in a poor peaasant’s field could be turned into an angry in a few moments. And when faced by archers at the gates, elephant archers could actually engage them by virtue of their elevation; even as the elephant happily destroyed the city’s fortification. Once the walls were breached, these same elephants could just turn around, stand their ground and act as a rear guard while the infantrymen breach the city walls and complete the siege.

From start to finish, an elephant in battle acts as a fully-capable, self-sufficient and versatile all-purpose war machine. A horse would have been just a dumb animal that carries the same rank as its rider.

That is why elephants are the better cavalry.

Still to come

So, I’ve let you in on why I think elephants are the undisputed kings of cavalry. But is cavalry itself a valuable part of an army? What about Genghis Khan, Attila, Kublai Khan, Tamar and all of those other Central Asian peoples that used horses to such effect? And if elephants are as good as I say they are, why did everybody use horses so much? Why didn’t I talk about alternative cavalries like boars, pigs, oxen, ostriches, emu and camels in this post?

I’m going to cover all of that and some more in the conclusion, to be posted in a few days. Until then, you will just have to hold your horses.

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