The undefeated Carthaginian general Hannibal and his ferocious one-tusked elephant Surus charging towards the mighty Roman troops and spelling doom for them – The scene has caught the imagination of Western world with its sheer grandeur over the years. But, the fact of the matter is it was nothing when compared to that famous historic elephant charge that happened almost a century ago when the illustrious Chandragupta Maurya wreaked havoc upon his enemies with his elephant fleet that consisted about 9,000 elephants!
MADE IN INDIA
There is some ambiguity as to when the custom of using elephants in war first started but it is widely accepted that it began in ancient India. The early Vedic period sources do not cover the use of war elephants extensively. However, in Rigveda, the king of Gods and chief Vedic deity Indra is depicted as riding Airavata, a mythological elephant, as one of his mounts. By sixth century however i.e. the late Vedic period, elephants were used as lethal war machines.
The ancient Indian epics Ramayana and Mahabharata, dating from 5th – 4th century BC, elaborate on elephant warfare. In fact, many characters in the epic Mahabharata were trained in the art. The story of Bhagadatta, the king of Pragjyotisha Kingdom, and his almost unbeatable elephant Supratika is one such instance that extolls how war elephants wreaked chaos on a battlefield.
FIT FOR A KING!
Ancient Indian kings certainly valued their war elephants, so much so that some of them have even said that an army without elephants is as despicable as a forest without a lion, a kingdom without a king, or as valour unaided by weapons. The use of elephants further increased with the rise of the Mahajanapadas. King Bimbisara (c. 543 BC), who began the expansion of the Magadha kingdom, relied heavily on his war elephants. The significance of war elephants can be gauged from the fact that the author Banabhatta devotes many pages of his ‘Harshacharita’ to describe the elephants of his master King Harshavardhana.
A lot of attention was given to the capture, training, and upkeep of the elephants. Many treatises were written on these subjects, and many important works of the ancient period, like the Arthashastra of Kautilya (c. 4th century BCE), give a lot of information on the subject.
The main use of the elephant was for its routing ability. A war elephant could get rid of a number of enemy foot soldiers, scare away horses, and trample chariots in one sweep. Thus, it was more about the psychological impact it could have, i.e. the shock value. The enemy forces would be scattered, leading to a breach of formation, which could then be exploited.
Besides actual field deployment, the elephants carried out many functions that included clearing the way for marches, fording the rivers that lay in their paths, guarding the army’s front, flanks, and rear, and battering down the walls of the enemy. They were also used as command vehicles, i.e. the preferred mount of the commander enabling him to have a commanding view of the battlefield.
The custom of intoxicating elephants was practiced to bring out the ferocious nature of the animals, which increased their capacity to inflict destruction on the enemy troops. An inebriated elephant could cause much more panic and thus break enemy formations, especially of infantry, by trampling them mercilessly. The Chalukyas of Vatapi (present-day Badami, Karnataka state) were well known for their use of drunken elephants manned by equally (or less) drunken warriors, which caused the enemy to retreat within the walls of his capital.
A DOUBLE-EDGED SWORD
While war elephants have helped many monarchs in securing victories, there are equal number of instances where they did more harm than good. In the Battle of Hydaspes (326 BCE), King Porus’ elephants went berserk due to the wounds inflicted by the enemy and trampled anyone they could find, which happened to be mostly Porus’ men themselves. It also doesn’t help that when using the elephant as a command vehicle, the commander could be easily killed by enemy soldiers, thereby creating undue panic and turning the tables in war. In many cases, the royal elephant was expressly targeted for this reason.