Warrior guide - Indian

In this part of the warrior guide series I cover India up until about the start of the 20th century. Why just India and not a bigger chunk of Asia? Because there's a lot to cover for just India alone, and enough information was usually available. I didn't cover every single empire or warrior type, some simply didn't have enough information or a lot of contradicting sources, but there's still plenty to gain inspiration from for your own works of fiction down below.

Like in other parts of this series, I focus entirely on warrior types and armies, not on individual people. Some will be mentioned, usually leaders, if they were the key to changes, but the primary focus is still on larger groups as a whole.

Ahom Kingdom

Active around:
- 1228-1826 CE

Strengths and/or special features:
- Used a Paik system for conscription

The Ahom Kingdom was a powerful kingdom that managed to last for nearly 600 years. They had to defend against the Mughal Empire, who, at one point, had conquered almost the entirety of what's India today, as well as parts of Afghanistan. The Ahom army consisted of infantry units, cavalry units and naval units. War elephants were not mentioned, which is exceptional as you'll find in the rest of this guide, but maybe I was simply unable to find the right sources.

The Ahom Kingdom used a Paik system to form its armies. A Paik was any man in the Ahom kingdom who was between the ages of 15 and 50, and who wasn't a slave, priest, high caste or noble. Each Paik was formed into a group of 4 (called a got). Each Paik was given land, but at least 1 Paik of each Got had to be in either military or public service at any given time. The other three would tend to his land. This way both military and agricultural needs could be met even during times of war.

Photo by P Phukan

Bengal Army

Active around:
- 1756-1908 CE

Strengths and/or special features:
- A mixture of Europeans and different Indian castes
- A mixture of all sorts of units

The Bengal army was formed in 1756 with the establishment of a European Regiment in the East India Company, but this was destroyed that same year. The next year, Indian people were recruited, but none of them were from the Bengal region of today. They were soon joined by European regiments once more, and this mixture of different people and unit types continued for most of its existence. This isn't all too surprising, as they were trained by and supposed to fight alongside the British after all.

However, despite the relative differences, the Indian recruits were generally from the North of India, as the Brits favored their taller and broader physiques compared to the Indians in the South. However, when 64 Bengal regiments rebelled in 1857, the idea of mixing a wide variety of people became more popular, as a mixture of diverse origins seemed less likely to result in a unified mutiny.

The Bengal army included, at one point or another, Sikhs, Gurkhas, Baluchis, Pathans, Brits, Punjabi Muslims, and Bihari Rajputs, among others.
As far as unit types go, there were, at one point or another, cavalry regiments, volunteer guards, bodyguards for the general, horse artillery, regular artillery, sapper and miners, fusiliers, a whole bunch of infantry regiments, and various animals mostly used to carry supplies.

Photo by Rajesh Dangi

Chalukya Dynasty

Active around:
- 543 CE - 1200 CE

Strengths and/or special features:
- Drunk elephants
- Powerful navy

The Chalukya dynasties were actually 3 dynasties that ruled individually, but are closely related. The first, the Chalukyas of Badami, reigned from 543 CE until 753 CE. The second, the Chalukyas of Kalyani, from 624 until 1061 CE, and the Chalukyas of Vengi from 957 until 1200 CE.

Their military was similar to that of many other Indian dynasties, which means they had a navy, an elephant regiments, a cavalry, and an infantry. It was a well organised army too, which was a great factor in their success.

According to the Chinese traveller Hiuen-Tsiang, their war elephants were intoxicated with liquor before they went to battle. This isn't hugely surprising, as it was common to feed war elephants alcohol outside of India too. Giving them alcohol, and potentially antagonising them with weapons or other means, puts them in a drunken rage during which they're somehow easier to control, they ignore pain more easily, and it increased their strength. Elephants have a taste for alcohol too, so getting them drunk was easy enough.

Chola Dynasty

Active around:
- 300 BCE - 1279 CE

Strengths and/or special features:
- One of the longest running dynasties in the world
- Professional army
- Most powerful navy of ancient India

The Chola dynasty was a powerful dynasty that covered a big chunk of southern India, as well as parts of Sri Lanka, Indonesia, Malaysia, and the Maldives. Because many Chola kings were focused on building temples, which also served as economic centres, many of what they constructed has survived to this day.

Their military had 4 parts: the navy, the cavalry, the infantry, and the elephant corps. The infantry was further divided into different regiments, but their swordsmen were the most prominent. The war elephants were also an important part of their army and were incredibly numerous, often carrying house-like structures on their back, which housed soldiers who fought with bow and arrows, or with spears if close quarter combat became necessary.
It's said there were 2 million soldiers at the peak of the Chola Dynasty.

Their biggest power was their navy though, at least until their military focus was shifted more toward the lands in the north. Their navy was more than just a military force, it was a diplomatic symbol as well, and navy commanders sometimes acted as diplomats.


Active around:
- 3102 BCE (still a subject of scholarly discussion)

Strengths and/or special features:
- Set of rules for the Kurukshetra War

The Kurukshetra War is a war described in the Mahabharata, a Sankskrit epic of ancient India. The epic is too large and complex to summarize in a short piece, but it was essentially a war between two sides, which included deities and mythological humans during the war and the preparation of the war, including Krishna.
Before the war started, the two army commanders agreed on a set of ethical rules all fighters would need to abide by. These are the Dharma-yuddha, and are as follows:

Fighting must begin no earlier than sunrise and, should end by exact sunset.
Multiple warriors must not attack a single warrior.
Two warriors may duel, or engage in prolonged personal combat, only if they carry the same weapons and they are on the same mount.
No warrior may kill or injure a warrior who has surrendered.
One who surrenders becomes a prisoner of war and will then be subject to the protections of a prisoner of war.
No warrior may kill or injure an unarmed warrior.
No warrior may kill or injure an unconscious warrior.
No warrior may kill or injure a person or animal not taking part in the war.
No warrior may kill or injure a warrior whose back is turned away.
No warrior may strike an animal not considered a direct threat.
The rules specific to each weapon must be followed. For example, it is prohibited to strike below the waist in mace warfare.
Warriors must not engage in any 'unfair' warfare whatsoever.
The lives of women, prisoners of war, and farmers are sacred.
Land should not be pillaged.

Almost every rule was broken, sometimes multiple times. The war itself lasted 18 days.

Photo by PHGCOM

Gupta Empire

Active around:
- 240 CE - 605 CE

Strengths and/or special features:
- Most powerful empire in the world at one point
- Powerful archery regiments
- Used steel weapons

The Gupta Empire was, around 400 CE, the most powerful empire in the world as the Roman Empire was declining. It was during this period, which is also called the Golden Period of India, that many advancements were made in science, academic fields, political administration, architecture and art. Much of this happened during the reign of Chandragupta II, who reigned from 380 CE until 415 CE.

Their army was, of course, very powerful too, relying heavily on archers. Like other Indian armies throughout time, the Gupta Empire had infantry, war elephants, a navy, and a cavalry, which included chariots. They used longbows made of bamboo, which didn't warp as much under the humid conditions like other wooden bows at the time did. Some nobles also had steel bows.

Archers on horseback were not used, nor were flaming arrows. The lack of archers on horseback was likely because their army was disciplined and the commanders knew well organized tactics were far more important.
During the reign of Chandragupta II, the army consisted of 500,000 infantry, 50,000 cavalry, 20,000 charioteers, 10,000 elephants, and 1200 ships.

Kingdom of Mysore

Active around:
- 1399-1947

Strengths and/or special features:
- Used rockets
- Used firearms that were modern at the time

The Kingdom of Mysore was a powerful kingdom in the south of India, reaching it's peak around the 18th century, and eventually falling to the British at the end of that same century. It was then a princely state under the suzerainty of the British crown until 1947.

The Kingdom of Mysore has been at war with the Kingdom of Travancore, Marathas, the Nizam of Hyderabad, and eventually the British as well. While the Kingdom of Mysore used a variety of weapons, including muskets and cannons, their most standout technology was the Mysorean rocket. Rockets already existed at the time, but the ruler of Mysore during the 18th century, Hyder Ali, developed the first casings made of iron, allowing the rockets to fly much further.

The rockets were like large fireworks with blades attached to their tips. Some of the rockets would swirl and fly all over the place once they first hit the ground near their targets, causing them to fly around like spinning scythes.
The rockets are said to have had a reach of about a kilometer (1000 yards), but some say the reach was twice that. Either way, with a rocket corps of 1200, which was later increased to 5000, the Kingdom of Mysore was able to deal heavy blows from a great distance.

After the Kingdom of Mysore lost to the British, the British used this rocket technology to develop their own, the Congreve rocket.

Marathi Empire

Active around:
- 1674 - 1818

Strengths and/or special features:
- Powerful navy
- Hired experts from other countries
- Focus on light cavalry over heavy cavalry

The Marathi Empire once dominated roughly 60% of what is India today, and they're credited for ending the Mughal Empire, who once dominated almost the entirety of India. Their main force was regular infantry, who had access to a wide range of weapons, but they used a wide range of technology and units as well, including cannons, light cavalry, a navy, and firearms.

Due to the rugged, mountainous terrain of the initial Marathi Kingdom, the focus was primarily on infantry, as well as some light cavalry. Chhatrapati Shivaji, the leader at the time, didn't have access to horse trading markets either, so that further limited the use of horses. However, because the Mughal Empire focused more on heavy cavalry, the light cavalry proved to be an advantage, and the focus continued to be on light cavalry throughout their reign.

Cavalry wasn't their only strength though, their navy was able to keep both the Portuguese and the British at bay, and they hired experts from abroad to forge new weaponry, like cannons.

The Marathi Empire also gave rise to the Bargis, who were plunderers on horseback during the period when the Marathi Empire expanded into Bengal. The rich Bengal lands were ripe for plundering, and the Bargis' superior speed and maneuverability proved too much to conquer for the Bengali armies. The Bargis only wanted to loot and pillage, not conquer lands after all, which they did yearly for 10 years.

Maurya Dynasty

Active around:
- 322 - 180 BCE

Strengths and/or special features:
- Iron-age power house
- Well organized army
- 6 branches within the army

The Maurya Dynasty was an incredibly successful and powerful dynasty, reaching a size of over 5 million square kilometres (1.9 square miles), making it the biggest empire to have ever existed within India. It covered the entire Indian peninsula, with the exception of a part of the south, as well as parts of Afghanistan, Iran, and Pakistan. It took parts Alexander the Great had conquered before and left in control of satraps, which are like governors.

The army itself was composed of units common for that time, meaning infantry, cavalry, chariots and war elephants, and their equipment was pretty standard too. Bamboo bows, hide shields, iron weaponry and such were dominant. However, their strength came from both sheer numbers and from their organisation. The army was said to consist of 9,000 war elephants, 30,000 cavalry units, and 600,000 infantry units, which came from a population estimated to be between 50 and 60 million people, so the army was able to be supported well too.

The Maurya Dynasty army had 6 branches. One for the infantry, one for the cavalry, one for the elephants, one for the chariots, one for the navy, and one for logistics and supplies. This, in combination with good tactics and training, as well as their sheer numbers, led to their success.

Mughal Empire

Active around:
- 1526-1540 & 1555-1857 CE

Strengths and/or special features:
- Gunpowder empire
- Rank based recruiting system
- Focus on cavalry

The Mughal Empire was the second largest empire ever in India, second only to the Maurya Dynasty mentioned before. It spanned across almost the entire Indian peninsula, with the exception of the southern part. During the 17th century it was also the world's biggest economy, accounting for over 24% of the world's GDP, as well as 18% of the world's industrial output.

The Mughal army had a unique system to recruit soldiers. Rather than have a regimental structure, the Mughal army instead used a quote system for each of its officers. Every government officer was also automatically a military officer, one who had to fulfill their quota of soldier recruitments. They had to keep a ratio of 1:2 infantry to horses, but the amount of horses they recruited determined their rank. 10 was the lowest rank, 5000 the highest, but the prince had a rank of 25000. There was also a quota for elephants and transportation needs.

The cavalry was the primary branch, and also the highest paid one, but they were primarily higher class people. Each person had to provide their own equipment and two of their own horses, so obviously only higher class people could afford this.
The artillery branch was also very important, many lighter cannons were used because of the risk and labor cost of heavier artillery. Firearms were used a lot as well.

While the Mughal Empire did have a navy, it was fairly weak. It was used in wars too, but it was primarily used to try and control piracy and the transport of goods.

Naga Sadhu

Active around:
- Fought in 1757, but still exist today

Strengths and/or special features:
- Warrior monks
- Fought naked

A sadhu is a person part of Hinduism or Jainism who has renounced worldly life, meaning they follow a spiritual discipline and renounce worldly possessions. They wear saffron colored clothing in Hinduism and white clothing or are completely naked in Jinaism.

In 1757, when Afghan forces invaded their lands, the temples of the Sadhu were pillaged for their riches. Every temple was to be destroyed, but the Afghan forces, led by Ahmed Shah Abdali, met thousands of sadhu warriors, all covered in cash, who sought to protect dharma and their temples. Having given up the worldly life, the sadhu would only ever fight in the defence of their faith, and so thousands of naked and scantily clad warriors defended their faith with success, but at the cost of countless lives on both sides.

Nair Brigade

Active around:
- 1704 - 1949

Strengths and/or special features:
- Personal bodyguard of the king
- Initially consisted only of Nairs

The Nair Brigade started as the personal bodyguards of king Marthanda Varma between 1708 and 1758, during which they successfully defeated the Dutch. The Dutch were both better equiped and superior in combat, but still the Nair prevailed. They managed to capture the Dutch captain, Eustachius De Lannoy, who, in exchange for his life, remained to train the Nair brigade further.

The Nair Brigade was eventually controlled by the British, but only used as a policing force, and it became part of the Indian army in the 20 century.

Photo by Nataraja

Nanda Empire

Active around:
- 345 - 321 BCE

Strengths and/or special features:
- First great empire of India
- Caused a refusal to fight among Alexander the Great's troops

The Nanda Empire was a powerful, but ultimately short lived empire. It spanned from east to west India, covering large parts of the east up to the Himalayas. It was conquered by the Maurya Empire, but before this they possessed great wealth and a large army. Their wealth led to a standardized method of trade across their empire, and their army was part of what prevented Alexander the Great from extending his empire further.

While the army of Alexander and the Nanda army never met in the battlefield, Alexander's army was faced with mutinies after seeing 4000 well trained and equiped war elephants, at least according to the Greek historian Diodorus, who covered much of Alexander's conquests.

Photo by Invisiblemaniac


Active around:
- 16th - 18th centuries

Strengths and/or special features:
- Military governers and administrators
- Managed a wide range of tasks, including tax collection

Polygars were military governors and administrators for the Nakaya rulers of several empires. They were tasked with running their territories (called Palaiyams) from fortified centres, and their tasks included tax collection, law and order, maintaining a battalion, and various construction related tasks. In return for their services, the Polygars were given a quarter of the revenue they collected as tax.

During conflicts with the British, many Polygars were able to put up a stubborn resistance, but many ultimately fell to the British and were either hanged or banished.

Rajput Kingdoms

Active around:
- 11th - 16th centuries, but still exist today

Strengths and/or special features:
- Clan loyalty was the most important
- Defeated Muslim sultans

The Rajput Kingdoms were a disparate group of kingdoms, one that couldn't be unified easily due to how loyalty worked to the Rajput of these times. Clan loyalty was far more important than loyalty to the Rajput as a people, so clan fighting was common. When a leader (raja) died, fights for who would take this position were common too.

Some kingdoms, like the Mewar Kingdom, did manage to grow a little. It even managed to defeat two sultans who sought to take control of the Mewar Kingdom, but the Maratha Empire eventually took control of the Rajput, who later were controlled by the British.
During the later Rajput Kingdom periods, many eastern Rajput were recruited as mercenaries by western Rajput.

Sikh Khalsa Army

Active around:
- 1799-1849 CE

Strengths and/or special features:
- Volunteer-based army of Sikhs and non-Sikhs alike
- Well payed soldiers

The Sikh Empire was an empire in the northern region of India, which was formed when the various Sikh states were unified and Afghans were removed from the Punjab area. While the Sikh Empire was a religious one, non-Sikhs were able to climb the ranks in the military just as easily as Sikh could. Skills and performance were the deciding factor. This also meant, despite service being voluntary, only strong and fit men were accepted.
Each member was also paid well, more than members of many other Asian armies and the British Easy India Company.

Ranjit Singh, the leader at the start of the Sikh Empire, also saw value in European expertise. He hired experts to make one brigade, the Fauj-i-Khas, incredibly experienced and equipped with the best equipment he could get. It ended up consisting of 4 battalions of infantry, 2 regiments of cavalry, and a troop of artillery. These impressed Ranjit so much he ordered to restructuring of his entire army, which alarmed the British. They in turn issued orders to arrest any and all French officers travelling (in disguise) to join Ranjit's army.

Sikh Warrior - Nihang

Active around:
- 19th century (?) - today

Strengths and/or special features:
- Known for bravery and ruthlessness
- Carried weapons in their turbans

The Nihang, also called the Akali ("The Immortals"), are a Sikh warrior order easily identified by their blue attire and their high turbans. They became quite famous early on after several victories in which they were outnumbered, and they were guerrilla forces part of the Sikh Khalsa Army. They still exist today, and will defend their faith and people should war break out.

Their attire consisted of the signature blue robes, iron chainmail under an iron breastplate, a charkram (circular throwing weapon) around their neck, one or two swords on their right hip, a dagger on their left hip, a buffalo-hide buckler on their back, an iron chain, and often a bow or spear in times of war. Their turban also held weapons, which could be iron claws, tridents, more chakrams, or daggers. Today the Nihang wear 5 miniature versions on their often more modestly sized turbans, these weapons are: a chakram, an arrow (tir), a sword (khanda), a dagger (karud), and a religious dagger (the kirpan).

Silladar Cavalry

Active around:
- 19th century

Strengths and/or special features:
- Irregular cavalry
- Had to provide their own arms, horse, and pretty much everything else

The Silladar were an irregular cavalry, meaning they weren't part of an army as a standard unit, but rather recruited when needed. They were recruited mostly from richer people, as the Silladar Cavalry had to provide everything themselves. They would be well compensated, more so than regular cavalry units, and if their horse died in battle, they would be compensated for their horse as well.
This means the Silladar Cavalry consisted mostly of higher-caste, relatively wealthy people.

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