The distinguished history of Indian Army dates back more than ten thousand years. The two grand epics of ‘Ramayana’ and ‘Mahabharata’ constitute the fundamental framework around which the edifice of Indian Army is built. The massive war ‘Mahabharata’, fought at Kurukshetra in north-central India, has left indelible imprints on the Indian psyche. Fought relentlessly for eighteen days in the quest of peace, the force level described in the Epic states 18 ‘Akshaunis’, seven with the ‘Pandavas’ and eleven with the ‘Kauravas’, amounting to nearly 400,000 assorted troops fighting on chariots, horses, elephants and foot soldiers.
Though innumerable wars have been fought thereafter, most were in quest of universal peace and ‘dharma’. Recourse to arms was only taken when peace was threatened. In fact the word 'peace' forms the very core of Indian philosophy, which can most aptly be traced to one of India's ancient scriptures known as the ‘Yajurveda’. It is stated in verse, the English translation of which reads - “May the sky be peaceful; may the atmosphere be peaceful; may the earth be peaceful; may eternal peace cometh upon us”.
The archaeological history of India dates back to more than 2500 BC, when an urbanised civilisation known as the Indus Valley Civilisation flourished along the banks of River Indus, in the alluvial north - western plains. Similar findings like the coastal cities of Lothal and Dwarka came to light more recently along the coast of Gujarat. However, the Indus Valley Civilisation’s two urban centres at Mohenjodaro and Harappa gradually declined in the second millennium BC, and almost completely disintegrated around 1500 BC due to ecological reasons like drying up of rivers and drought. The coastal cities disintegrated due to massive floods.
Due to the gradual extinction of such civilizations, the north-western invasion route through the Hindu Kush Mountains remained unguarded for centuries, and gradually many people and tribes managed to cross over for better economic prospects. With many recent landmark findings refuting the invasion of Asian-European people, or the Aryans, into the Indian sub continent en masse, the military history of India dates back to 6th century BC, encompassing the period when some of the more belligerent forces like the Persians, Greeks, the Turks, Huns, Mongols and so on crossed over into the more fertile and alluvial plains of India from the north-western route.
Though scanty details are available of the early conflicts between the invading forces, evidence shows that some of the invaders did manage to slowly overrun western India and consolidated their hold along the Indo - Gangetic plains, and in the process subdued numerous native tribal kingdoms through pitched battles. Their advance further south was generally halted by the jungle covered Vindhya Mountains. Those apart, certain areas along the western coast and the Deccan plateau were hilly and sparse – unsuitable for the movements of considerable bodies of people. However, this vast area also lent itself favourably to resistance against invasion by loose fighting warriors, such as the Marathas who subsequently became a force to reckon with. The other major pre-condition of war in India was and continues to be the climate. Monsoon rains between June and September rendered movement of armies virtually impossible. The best season for campaigning was always October and November, when the crops were ripe, the herbage green and it was possible to live off the country.
Between foreign invasions, wars in the north became a sport of kings and noblemen, and rarely become a national struggle for existence save when a new invader from the northwest entered the fray.
The armies of the native tribes were made up mostly of foot-soldiers, later come to be known as the infantry. The bow and arrow were their principal weapons. Cavalry was non-existent as horses were scare. Around 537 BC Cyrus of Persia reached the region of modern Peshawar, and his successor Darius conquered part of north-western Punjab. Their invasions brought home to the Indians the importance and utility of cavalry, however Indian climate conditions were not conducive for the breeding of good horses, and therefore reserved for pulling the war chariots of kings and nobles. So the infantry continued to be relied upon as the decisive weapon of war. Warriors were the most honoured and leading classes of society.
Wars usually had limited objectives and were fought for the most part with far less savagery than elsewhere in the world. Rarely did the locals indulge in mass slaughter after a victory. Such chivalrous and rather ritualistic conduct of war made conquest by less punctilious invaders rather easy.
The first definitely recorded fact in Indian political history is the invasion by the Greeks under Alexander the Great during 327-6 BC. After crossing the Hindu Kush Mountains, Alexander captured the city of Taxila and defeated India’s King Porus at the battle of the Jhelum, or Hydespes as referred to by the Greeks. Chariots were still a considerable force in the army under Porus, these being made of wooden struts bound together with leather thongs, and drawn by two horses. Each chariot had a driver and a bowman. Some heavier chariots had four horses and carried upto six men, of whom two were shield-bearers, two were archers and two were drivers who also functioned as javelin throwers during the battle. The chariots at Jhelum did not fare well, getting stuck in the mud. King Porus himself had come to battle mounted on an elephant. Invaders like Alexander, who came to conquer India, appreciated and adopted local military customs, and even its civilian culture. New kingdoms and a few alliances were soon formed, but these proved to be woefully inadequate against yet more foreign invaders.
Wars were most prominent in the politics and literature of ancient India. Occasionally great kings like Chandragupta Maurya succeeded in subduing and unifying most of the people of India. Manuals of statecraft such as the ‘Arthashastra’ of Kautilya, relating to the period 300 BC to 100 AD, indicate the prominence of war as an instrument of state policy. The ‘Arthashastra’ is one of the most significant documents of military history ever to be written. It is an exhaustive treatise on the early concepts of government, law and war. Its military section cover the composition and structure of armies, the role and function of the arms and services, training concepts and methods, duties of various military functionaries, strategic and tactical concepts, defensive fortifications, leadership and management of large armies.
Under Chandragupta Maurya, Central Asian invaders like the Huns, who in their days had razed and plundered a major portion of the known civilized world, were to stand checked. Chandragupta defeated the remnants of the Macedonians and established the first great dynasty, the Mauryan Empire. Chandragupta added to the extent of the empire, and he was the first to maintain a large, permanent standing army. Bindhusara expanded the empire and Ashoka brought the Mauryan Empire to the height of its power and glory. The Kalinga war proved to be the turning point of his life. It was after this, Ashoka renounced the sword and took to Buddhism, which he spread far and wide through his disciples and emissaries.
It was during this period that war elephants made an appearance on battlefields and they continued to be used by Indian warriors, right unto the seventeenth century. Although the Mauryan standing army was based on infantry, it had a force of 30,000 cavalry, 8,000 chariots and 9,000 elephants. The cavalry was well trained and was employed to attack from a flank, and for exploiting captured positions. During advance they protected the front, flanks and rear. In defence they were held in reserve and were used to harass the attacking forces and to pursue them when enemy offensive was defeated. The principal weapon used with the elephant was the bow and arrow, supplemented with javelins and spears.
After peace was restored by the Mauryan Empire, the pacifist culture accompanied the spread of Buddhism from India to Afghanistan, Tibet, Burma, China, Indo China, Japan and the Indonesian archipelago, had a greater moral bias and preached non-violence. This kind of spiritual ‘conquest’ lacked any territorial cohesion and political unity to oppose concerted invasions from the vulnerable north-west.
The ‘Golden Age’ of The Gupta Empire was restored between 320-550 AD. The most significant achievements of this period were in the fields of religion, education, mathematics, science, the arts, Vedic and Sanskrit literature and the theatre. Harshavardhana managed to restore India’s glory and North India was reunited once again. The many years of peace and prosperity began to feel the strain in 1000 AD and the Indian civilization became complacent. Thus leading to another great chapter in Indian ancient history, the arrival of Islamic invaders.
While Northern India now contended with a new chapter of foreign powers, The Cholas, in Southern India projected their regional military might between 985-1054 AD. Naval ships sailed out from the Coromandal coast, along the eastern Indian peninsula to Sri Lanka and directly to the Malayan peninsula, Jawa, Sumatra and Borneo. Thereafter Chola Kings extended their hold further eastward to Thailand and Vietnam. These conquests were more trade based, and reflected the spread of Hindu culture rather than conquest by the sword. In due course Indian arts, cultural and religious influences spread to these countries where they have survive till date.
Coming back to the north, the Turkish conquest of India developed in a definite pattern. It was a gradual process that began in the tenth century. Turks would begin by conducting raids across the frontier. These developed into invasions during which the nearest Indian King was defeated in pitched battle. The first conquest was used as a springboard for the next one. The process went on into the seventeenth century when the tribesmen of the thick Assam jungles halted the invading forces.