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.

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.

Indian History Indian politics Religion

The Idea of Ayodhya

Hindustan as an alternative to India

“A few Hindus entered Babri Masjid at night when it was des­erted and installed a deity there. DM and SP and f­orce at the spot. Situation under control. Police picket of 15 persons was on duty at night, but did not apparently act.”

— K.K.K. Nayar (23 Dec, 1949)

This is the first time in years that I’ve decided to write several thousand words on anything other than an academic assignment. So, I’ll try to string my thoughts into a nice blog-friendly structure. Bear with me.

So there’s this idea in political science that when the British waved a wand and vanished in a puff of smoke from what they called “India”, what they left wasn’t so much a country as a bunch of identities loosely confined within an area roughly the size of the Amazon. A fevered puzzle of peoples that had hithertofore agreed to disagree on everything from religion and development to the role of women. People have discussed it for the longest time, in newspaper articles, editorials and countless sneering told-you-sos, and some like Pratap Bhanu Mehta have built their whole careers wrestling with what that means for the India of today.

So you’ll forgive me for my insistence that in order to reach Ayodhya, we need to pass through the bylanes and durbars of Delhi.

What gave us this nation? Why did we end up with the nation we have today, with all its contradictions and problems? How did this chaotic country of 300-something million at independence decide to become a democracy, granting everyone suffrage from the get-go, working within the first decade to dismantle pernicious social structures like untouchability, inequality and zamindari that had hamstrung us for millennia? India’s story is not only surprising within the context of history, but within the broader geopolitical realm in the middle of the 20th century. In a sea of multicultural melting pots like Syria, Nigeria and Iraq (all wrecked by the British, but that’s a story for another day) that never saw an ounce of development or harmony, India stands out as a curious anomaly. Even today, there isn’t another country with the level of diversity of opinion, identities, languages, faiths, opportunities and aspirations as India.

And yet, there’s a level of agreement on some basics: we are all equal but not the same, we get to pick our leaders (to whatever extent any modern democracy allows its citizens to), and we all get to argue, bicker, fight, shout and scream till we’re blue in the face; just to be able to believe whatever we want to. In other words, we all believe in the nation-state of India. So, a natural question to ask is: how is it that if we can’t agree on anything, we can all seemingly agree on what is and what isn’t India? It’s a weird question – and not just because I framed it that way.

One fantastic book that captures the essential absurdity of this contradiction is The Idea of India by Sunil Khilnani.

TL;DR: there is no single India, and there never was. What we have now is mostly a Gandhian-Nehruvian idea of India as a pluralistic, egalitarian experiment where the state gets to tell its citizens how to conduct themselves with dignity. The other ideas that lost out were: the capitalistic India of Naoroji, the Hindustan of Golwalkar, the kookyland of Besant and the militaristic powderkeg of Bose.

And there began our troubles

See, the issue was that not everybody bought into this idea. There are many that still cling to this outdated and entirely absurd notion that India was a “Hindu rashtra” at some point and we need to return the nation to that. When exactly? 2500 years ago, when the only “Hindus” were in what is now Pakistan, and everybody else prayed to whatever animal they felt like? 2000 years ago, when the country was mostly Buddhist as a rejection of the Hindu social order? 1500 years ago, when the country was so divided on religious grounds that the Buddhists, Shaivas and Vaishnavas considered each themselves entirely distinct religions and burned each other’s temples to the ground? Or was it 1000 years ago, when the Muslim rulers started to organize themselves around Delhi and a large part of northern India was naturally converting to Islam? Or India’s inarguable glory days of wealth and prosperity under the rule of Sher Shah Suri or Akbar but without the Muslim monarchs who are just too much for you to bear? But if you don’t like any of the above, everything else is mostly just a country fragmented into a million states that were only ever united under Ashoka, Akbar and the British Raj. Notice how none of them were ever Hindu empires.

Any way we slice it, in the 2500 years of history of India as a geopolitical entity, it’s only since the 15th century (after the Bhakti wave peaked) that India was a Hindu-majority region. Not Hindu, merely Hindu-majority. So, the idea of Hindustan is based around a narrow focus on 20-25% of the entire history of this country, without any clear reason for why we should focus on this specific 20%. It’s a baseless idea built around flawed logic and a poor understanding of history.

It’s kind of like planting a Hindu image in what is clearly, obviously and historically a non-Hindu building, getting a mob together, performing a puja and hoping that the noise can hide the fact that this idol didn’t exist yesterday.

A bit like the symbolic fight over Ayodhya.

Symbolic of his struggle against reality

The Muslim argument is built on history

We all know the Muslim side of this. Babur, a Kyrgyz-Uzbek warlord who claimed to be descended from both Genghis Khan and Timur, fought his way through the Hindu Kush and arrived in Delhi. He did not like the city or the region and prefered Kabul instead.

Hindustan is a place of little charm… There are no good horses, meat, grapes, melons, or other fruit. There is no ice, cold water, good food or bread in the markets. There are no baths and no madrasas. There are no candles, torches, or candlesticks.

Babur in “Baburnama”

His sister, Khanzada, is one of the most badass and underrated female figures in history (Netflix Originals, where you at?). Also, fun facts: Babur appears to have had homosexual tendencies, drank like a fish, loved music, did every drug that Kabul could offer him and his autobiography (by all accounts, a beautiful work) seems more like a Sufi work than anything a pious Muslim would write. Here’s one gem:

Like us many have spoken over this spring, but they were gone in the twinkling of an eye.

We conquered the world with bravery and might, but we did not take it with us to the grave.

If that doesn’t make you think about the impermanence of glory on the same lines as Ozymandias by Shelley, I don’t know what will. Needless to say, he was also a very characteristically harami Mughal emperor. Another thing that gets overlooked: Babur (and his line) would have preferred to be known as Timurids instead of as Mughals, because they were proud of their Timurid heritage and not so much of their Mongol blood. Babur, as should be obvious by now, had some not-so-nice things to say about the Moghuls:

The Moghul troops who had come as reinforcements had no endurance for battle. They left the battle and began to unhorse and plunder our own men. It was not just here they did this: those wretched Moghuls always do this. If they win they take booty; if they lose they unhorse their own people and plunder them for booty.

Think about that when you’re thinking about why Baburnama is essential reading in most of Central Asia, and I believe should be in Indian schools as well.

He also seems to have ordered the construction of a small mosque in a little sleepy town called Ayodhya. “Seems to have”, because the only record we have of the date is from several decades after the mosque was constructed. Also, for a guy who liked Babur as much as Babur did, there’s no mention of this “Babri Masjid” in his autobiography. There’s also no real evidence to show that Mir Baqi was a “Mir”, or even a significant individual of the time. But the mosque stood nonetheless and people prayed there for centuries, seemingly unmolested by the Hindus around it.

So, let’s not belabour the point here. the Muslim argument is solid and rests on some evidence, but like all Indian history, the details are a bit fuzzy. Let’s look at the “carefully constructed”, “historically accurate” Hindu argument.

The Hindu argument is a whole load of cowdung

Long, long ago, a Dalit man wrote a wildly speculative book called “Ramayana” which said that a racist, sexist hunk called Rama was born in Ayodhya. Nobody seriously takes it to be historically accurate – not least because there are no man-sized apes in Karnataka that can leap across an ocean. It only starts to resemble reality if you reduce it to this:

  • man marries woman
  • they leave on a holiday/exile/honeymoon
  • woman escapes/elopes/gets kidnapped
  • man needs to prove his manliness and ownership over woman by killing the “kidnapper” who actually treats her with more respect than the husband ever does throughout the length of the tale
  • man returns victorious but shames wife for getting kidnapped in the world’s oldest tale of victim blaming.

But even then, it’s little more than a myth to most modern Indians.

Except people like Subramanian Swamy, who’s just a litigious joker with a sensitive ego – and we don’t need to worry about him. Or maybe we do, because rabble rousers like him planted an idol in 1949 and started this whole drama in the first place. Then, they razed Babri to the ground in 1992, on live TV no less. Here’s an oldie but a goodie:

The key instigators like Uma Bharti and LK Advani were rewarded by the Indian political class with MP posts, pretigious ministries at the centre and a whole lot of political capital. The people who stood in the way and tried to prevent popular violence were figures we’re now uncomfortable with. Don’t believe me? Watch:

Later, when the case made its way to the Allahabad HC, the Archeological Survey of India (ASI) found some structural remains under the Babri masjid complex, and the layout of the leftovers looked vaguely like a temple. And that’s it – that’s all the “scientific proof” that the Hindu side’s argument rests on.

The Hindu argument then boils down to this Sparknotes version:

  • Book of fiction written at some unclear point in history says Rama was born in Ayodhya
  • There was a temple under the Babri Masjid
  • Some travellers to Ayodhya write that there was a temple to Rama there at some point
  • Ergo, this site is where Rama’s temple stood.
  • Therefore, it’s ours.

For more insights into the outrageousness of Hindu fundamentalist arguments about Ayodhya and many other topics, watch Vivek (‘Reason’ in English) by Anand Patwardhan. It’s won a bunch of awards, but is not a pretty movie, and is not meant to be a casual watch on the bus ride home. Sit down at a desk and watch. I could only find a link to the Hindi version, so I’m sorry if you don’t understand Hindi.

The emptiness of this case doesn’t end there, because there are some uniquely Indian peculiarities at play here. Enter the courts.

This shit is tiring, man

I’m way out of my depths in the legalities in this section, but I’ve been following this case long enough to be able to see a pattern of complete nonsense in the shenanigans and dirty tricks being used here. Here’s a timeline to help you follow along. There’s a ton of supplementary reading material available in a bookstore near you, if you’re interested in diving deeper into any of the below.

The first is the legal oddity left over from the British period that the deity aka Ram Lalla (aka made up idol placed in temple to provoke Muslims) carries legal rights of its own and is thus represented in court by its own lawyer. The history of this is fascinating and speaks volumes about how the British deepened India’s societal divisions and turned them into active political tools.

And then, one of these clowns on the Hindu side had the bright idea of taking this idea further. He filed that the site itself, “Ramjanmabhoomi”, be added as a party to the claim on the grounds that the site itself is sacred to Hindus and its identity cannot be separated from Ram Lalla. You can see the logic at play here.

To make matters worse, the Shia and Sunni sides, predictably, started fighting each other in public statements, weakening each other’s arguments and undercutting the legalese they were spouting in court. This, added to the open hostility and downright backwardness of some of their arguments during the triple talaq hearings just made it much harder for them to convince anybody that there was a “good” Muslim team here.

In the end, the Hindu side won the case with a weaker argument and no claim to the title.

The Hindu side won (obviously)

How did this come to be? The fact is, it was almost inevitable. For one thing, the Hindu parties were better organised and presented a unified face, with most of their disagreements about the role of the Nirmohi Akhara and amicus filings kept under wraps by the guiding hand of the RSS, or Sangh.

Second, the Muslim side had the rug pulled from under them by the Ismail Faruqui ruling in 1994. This meant that the court effectively proclaimed that mosques were not essential to the practice of Islam. When challenged in the SC, the Court decided to not refer this case to a constitution bench because that earlier ruling was only about that specific land dispute. So, the writing on the wall was clear: Muslims cannot expect the courts to hold up their right to worship.

Fundamentally, there was a huge asymmetry in what the two sides were expected to accomplish through the case. For one thing, the Muslim side had to show that the land was being used for prayers, had a clear line of usage and was essential to the Muslim population around there. They were unable to get a mass of people to prove it because of the slightly inconvenient fact that the masjid no longer exists and thus a revisionist could always say that it was never needed in the first place, and the larger issue that UP under Ajay Bisht is on a fast track to the stone age. The Hindu side only needed to show a few pamphlets and “sacred texts” of zero factual value to prove that a temple to Rama existed around that area. However, their frequent shows of force with rallies and procamations meant that courts had to factor into their decision the possibility of sectarian violence erupting as soon as the verdict was out.

And there, we see the problem coming full circle: India’s highest court itself no longer fully subscribes to the “Idea of India” written into the Constitution.

The Ill, The Illiberal and The Illegitimate

The Indian Constitution is a thing of beauty. But not the kind of robust, timeless beauty of the Grand Canyon or Everest. Instead, it’s a bit like the beauty of Michelangelo’s Painting in the Sistine Chapel: artificial, ethereal, delicate and dependent on something else for structural support. The Supreme Court was just that: the meat and bones to a spectacularly liberal and progressive body. Go over the list of landmark SC cases and you’ll see a pattern: the Court has built an image of steadfast justice and no-holds-barred discipline to the founding principles of the Constitution. Apart from the Emergency years (when practically nothing was untouched by Indira Gandhi’s powerlust), the SC has an almost squeaky-clean bill of health. And it’s not just me saying it.

But now, there’s some walking back going on. The SC is no longer an apolitical body, for better or for worse. There are many reasons for this: India’s growing illiberal class, the deviation of executive capacity from the goals of the judiciary and temptations of the legislative, disintegration of the Congress, etc. But I think the fundamental issue is much more pedestrian: just plain corruption.

What this means for the country is that there’s that much less willingness within the judiciary to fight the excesses of legislation, or to push the executive to do more to pretect people’s rights. We see this time and time again, from the court’s unwillingness to engage with the reality of “sedition laws” to the weaponization of the CBI and NIA to the fact that nobody raises a finger against blatantly religious content in states’ academic curricula. Outgoing CJIs get cushy jobs on “committees” designed to do nothing, and immunity from prosecution in the case of inconvenient allegations against them.

The trouble with the new normal

I like the idea of India I grew up with – a pluralistic, socialist, secular, democratic republic. It makes sense to me, seems just, fair and something for the political class to aspire towards. Nothing captures this spirit as much as the Vidhana Soudha in Bangalore. The white Dravidian building in a city of glass and steel is a bit of an anachronism these days, but just its existence is a testament to the character of this country.

The Vidhana Soudha in Bengaluru, in Jan 2019

The building was mostly designed and conceptualised by the Chief Minister at the time, K. Hanumanthaiah, a man with no architectural knowledge, to commemorate the independence of the Mysore princely state, a wealthy and progressive subject of the British crown. The basic idea is said to have begun from the structure of a Dravidian temple – more specifically the architectural style of the Badami Chalukyas, hence the distinct and rounded “gopuram”. Upper reaches of the gopuram incorporate some elements of Persian architecture as well, a nod to the significant role that successful Muslims had played in shaping the state’s history – one of Mysore’s most famous rulers was Tipu Sultan, a legendary warrior-king whose tales of valour and indomitability inspire many to this day. The gilded lion of Sarnath at the top symbolizes the Union of India, of which Mysore was now a part. But the building was to be more than just a statement of the state’s identity – it was also a declaration of the new India’s aspirations: the Romanesque columns holding up the front are a mishmash of various architectural elements picked up in his travels through Europe. With the construction of this building, Hanumanthaiah was stating his intention to develop the state along Western European lines, but without forgetting its unique place in history.

If you peer closely at the inscription right above the columns, it says “Government’s work is God’s work”, a clever inversion of the priorities in “work is worship”. This, to me, is the right role of religious identities – as a factor to be mindful of. Not be guided by it as fundamentalists of every yarn would have us do, or be entirely agnostic to the religious beliefs of the population you govern – as Western democracies tend to view “secularism”. To me, the secular character of India is about more than just professed agnosticism. It is the duty of the state to respect Constitutional principles, actively engage every group and bring a compromise that serves the weaker sections of society. It is served by giving each group a voice, amplifying it so we hear the substance of the argument and then, collectively agreeing upon a mutually respectful course of action.

The Ayodhya verdict is a farce

The Ayodhya verdict achieves most of these but essentially assumes that the Muslims can determine their own course of action in the regular democratic processes of elections and politics. In doing so, the bench misses the most crucial point: if Muslims could dictate their own fate, they would not have to reach the highest court in the country to have their say. The Hindu side has been agitating that if the land wasn’t handed over to them, they’d find other means to achieve it. What recourse did the Muslims have if their side lost? Nothing.

The bench stated that this was merely a property dispute, and that it was not in the court’s mandate to dictate matters of faith. Therefore, the bickering Shia side and Ramjanmabhoomi were thrown out since they were not parties to the dispute. The verdict gave all of the 2.77 acres to the Hindus and instucted the government to hand over a 5 acre piece of land “in a prominent place” to the Muslim parties as compensation.

Seems fair? Sure. But consider this: it was the Muslim side with a stronger claim to the property, and the Hindu side produced no documents to prove the provenance of the land under question. In a property dispute, the Hindus only argued on matters of faith. So why were they rewarded? Let’s assume it’s not a property dispute, despite what the court says. If this was a religious dispute instead, why were the religious arguments of the Muslim side truncated? Why was the role of a mosque not examined again? Why was the Hindu side not required to produce any material on the reliability of Ramayana as a mapping tool? So, it’s not a religious dispute either. Things don’t add up because the case was neither about property nor about religion. It was purely political.

The court – as is the norm these days under loquacious CJIs like Misra and Gogoi who care more about the language of their judgment and the number of times they quote Shakespeare and Locke in one paragraph – wrote in beautiful prose about the high ideal that the Supreme Court of India stands for and the importance of the following rule of law, and of respecting everybody’s opinion. Then quickly turned around and spat justice in the face.

Coming right after the FRA verdict recently, this goes to show that the SC is no longer a reliable friend of the downtrodden. The court decided in favour of the status quo; and thereby implicitly chose the powerful. It abdicated its duty as we watched and cheered on.

The idea of India stands tall in Bangalore and houses the state legislature. Now, a monument to the idea of Hindustan will be built in Ayodhya, acting as a refuge to everybody who thinks that an equal society undermines their right to superiority over someone else.

Shame on all of us for letting it get this far.