Fall of Ratha chariots (part 4/4)

This is the final part of the four part series on chariots.

Humans learned horse-riding before they build their first cart or the wheel. Cavalry has always been in existence and was very effective for surprise raids, transporting troops (actual battle is on foot but from a more strategic area), supply routes, reconnaissance & as couriers. Alexander’s cavalry & heavy infantry subdued the chariots in Persia, Egypt & India bringing the end of 1,000 years of supremacy of chariots.

The fact that Pheidippides ran a distance of 250km from Marathon to Athens on foot to deliver the news of victory against Persians in 490BC hints the complete lack of cavalry in the greek army. For such a nation to turn around and make the cavalry that overtook the whole world in less than a 150 years is remarkable. (Macedonia was a an insignificant Greek hill city at that time allied with Athens)

First strong factor is the genetic engineering through selective breeding. Greeks were a race that would abandon (killing through exposure to nature) its own human babies if found too weak or deformed. Such ruthless single-minded eugenics obsession for perfection helped increase the size of horses from 48 inches weighing about 360kg to 60 inches and 500kgs. They spend good money to motivate the breeders as well. Alexander’s horse Bucephalus was purchased at the cost 13 talents (each talent is 26kg of gold). Till 19th century, India imported almost all of its war-horses. For a country that contributed 26% of the world’s GDP, this reliance on imports tells a convincing story of how difficult & skilled horse-breeding was.

A horse can carry ~30% of its weight on its back. So larger horses could carry armor and gallop for longer distances. The horsemen were rich noblemen & landlords who unlike the modern anorexic jockeys of today had abundant muscle & fat weight (fat saves against fatal cuts & blows during warfare) with battle armor.

The selective breeding not only increased the size, but also made them more tame (without their ability to kick fatally or bite off the opponent’s face). This made the need to tie a horse to the wooden frame of the chariot an unnecessary luxury. These tame horse, through rigorous training learned to recognize battle commands and anticipate the rider’s intentional, thus freeing the warrior’s hands to fight. The Na’vi bond between the warrior and his direhorse or banshee that was depicted in the movie Avatar was achieved two thousand years ago and without the need of the chord. This eliminated the need of a charioteer and making chariots relics of the past.

Rigorous training bolstered by development of stirrups and saddles (though the modern optimized designed were a few centuries later) allowed for a more stable platform for warfare without the unnecessary overhead of a mechanical wheel and carriage.

Ancient world fighting was a smaller scale and revolved around harvest time in order to maximize plunder. The need to safeguard vast expanse of grain fields compelled defenders to meet the attackers in the open before they could lay waste to the countryside. This meant dry, rain free weather of harvest time and vast open fields conducive for chariot maneuvers. Fortifications, earthworks, trenches, traps and boulders of the later armies made chariots useless. Julius Caesar in the battle of Alesia 16km long circumvallation around the fortified city. He then constructed a second fortification as a ring to prevent attack from the rear relief party essentially the besiegers were ready to be under siege. (So there was a earthwork by Vandals to protect themselves but romans created a ring around it and another ring to prevent a relief party to attack it.)

Chariots cannot ride in the soft soggy soil after the rains, this added to the uncertainty that no general had the luxury off. Unlike horses, chariots cannot hide in the trench, forest or away from the enemy sight for the surprise element limiting their use in the battle.

Unlike peasant soldiers of the ancient time, who ran away at first sign of trouble, Greek and Roman infantries were professional soldiers. They were not subdued by enemy’s superior numbers, war contraption or even their own losses. This eliminated chariots as tools for psychological warfare. Larger armies meant that chariots could not toy with the infantry by circling them.

The first composite bow were too small, too expensive and prone to failure to be used for mass deployment. However, technology improved and the use of wood, horn and sinew made the first laminated bow that was portable (unlike longbow) and yet had power to pierce armor. This meant that archers could fire from safe distance behind the cover of infantry. So it was unnecessary to spend large sums of money to create a mobile archery platform through chariots.

In India & in Africa, chariots came under fierce competition from elephants. Elephants could trample at close range. They were impossible to kill or topple, could ram through city gates or fortifications, provided a very high platform to launch an attack and scan the battlefield for enemy weakness and movements. Elephants were used from prehistoric times to as late as early 17th century by Akbar & Mughals.

The cost of chariot construction and upkeep was so significant that the kings and rich noblemen used chariots for ceremonies just to show off their wealth. It became hard for armies to spend on machines that had so limited use and these vehicles were phased out after Alexander’s conquest.


Chariot tactics & Egyptian chariots (Part 3/4)

Egyptians were masters of chariots. In the battle of Kadesh, 5-6 thousand chariots were used against the Hittite. The chariots, like cavalry archers by later armies, would charge but stop close to enemy. From there they would be able to take good aim at the infantry body parts not protected by armor. Javelins are hurled against pursuing cavalry or heavy infantry with shields and armor.

As depicted in movies Ben Hur and gladiator, the chariot can actually travel faster than a horse plus rider galloping. The speed, the momentum and the cloud of dust that a chariot charge creates is actually terrifying and primitive armies had no solution to it.

Like cavalry, chariots are great to concentrate firepower towards enemy weakness and bolster allies who are getting overwhelmed. Their ability to flank, charge from rear can easily create panic esp. against untrained soldiers. Imagine the plight of a pedestrian seeing a one ton car charging towards it. The ability to pursue retreating soldiers is advantageous to achieve regicide (kill/capture of the king/general) and ensuring the enemy does not escape with food and valuables.

Chariots were great against elephants as well because of their unique ability to maintain safe distance and fire while retreating. Here the goal is to attack from the side where there was no armor rather than front, distract the animal and prevent it from charging forward. Charioteers would taunt and poke the beast it goes berserk and steer it away from the battlefield. Ancient armies had not solution to neutralize elephants and that was the reason why Hannibal campaigned undefeated for years in Rome and even Akbar maintain a fleet of 1000 war elephants at huge cost to the exchequer.

Walls and large earthwork were rare in ancient times and most civilizations were close to flat riverbed plains making the battlefield ideal for such maneuvers. Most chariots operated in large fleets over plain fields without tree cover making it difficult to trap or surprise the chariot from which they could not escape. If few chariots get trapped or their wheels get stuck, their friends would lend a hand and rescue them. Hence making them unstoppable in ideal terrain.

Early chariots looked like lightweight I shaped structures designed for speed, suspension and stability. This I shape has not changed even for modern cars, axle in one end and powertrain in the other with a beam to connect the two. This created the connecting beam as a very stable torsion spring preventing the chariot to overturn during maneuvers. The rear axle was not nailed to the beam but allowed to make making it the first suspension designed by man. The walls & floor of the chariot carriage were from woven leather hides or wicker making it light weight yet strong for an era without plywood or metal sheets. The beasts were tied using a horse collar/saddle pads with a breast collar and not the ox yoke because of the difference of horse anatomy from the draft beasts.

Ancient engineers understood wood as a composite material and leveraged on steam-bending, bonding, layering to maximize the strength & lower the weight. Certain structural parts were covered by metal sleeves for reinforcement. However wheel getting dislodged and capsizing of the vehicle during the charge was common problem of the era.

The wheels is where the craftsmanship differs from nation to nation. Nobody had ball bearings or effective lubricant or springs and yet they were able to achieve speeds of 20 km/hr. The first wheels were solid wood but gradually engineers started reducing weight and improving the joints. They went for hub and spoke model with 4 spokes (too bumpy as it was difficult to maintain curvature) to 8 spokes that weighed almost as much as the solid wheel. Boring a hole in the hub to attach spoke made it weak and prone to failure. Egyptians solved this problem by creating V shaped wedges glued together to create the hexagonal star wheel. The spokes would act as spring leaf as the wedges would like to straighten itself and thus redistributing pressure on the hub. Chariots wheels that were not in use tended to deform under its own weight. They went for 6 spokes which they found to be the ideal tradeoff between weight & durability.

Also they experimented with various axle position. The front of the carriage would save on weight on the connecting beam, the middle on the cost as it helps do away with the flooring and the rear (preferred by Egyptians) minimized the vibrations making aiming while retreating more accurate.

The sight of Persian Scythed chariots with their long blades gives and impression that chariots were used as shock force. A shock force is the charge of medieval knights designed to break the enemy infantry formation, cause a rout and cut off the retreat. The knight’s lance has to face the enemy to be effective and not away from it, then why are the chariot’s blades are pointed sideways? They were the first kind of bayonet designed to protect, give mental insurance to the defenders rather than to provide tactical advantage. Wheels are chariots Achilles heel and the enemy had to just poke a spear to immobilize the chariot. Scythes is a deterrent for the enemy for such mischief. In addition, it provides some protection to prevent chariot from toppling during turning or uneven surface.

Especially designed heavy chariots were sometimes used to break the heavy infantry formation, but such charges were rare due to the cost involved and the fact that the team would be spent and cannot participate in the battle further. Hence in such occasions these charges of heavy chariots would be accompanied by infantry marching few feet behind to immediately capitalize on the opening or the beachhead provided by the chaos that it ensures in the enemy ranks. Alexander was able to counter this tactic through disciplined trained heavy infantry with 20 feet long poles, but before him no infantry stood a chance. However these were less of chariots and more of war wagons with a payload of barbs, incendiary oil and the charioteer would be in the rear rather than the middle to facilitate safe extraction. The horses’ eyes were sometimes covered, but the sheer bulky momentum of the carriage would prevent the horses from stopping at the sight of the

By 300BC the chariots technology was perfected and there were very little enhancements that Romans could do in the centuries of chariot racing that followed. However till the advent of internal combustion engine, nobody could solve the limitation of conducive terrain and weather needed by chariots to operate.

Rise of Chariot/Ratha (part 2/4)

Although depicted mostly in mythology and as ornate super luxurious vehicles of the kings and generals, theses were a lot more than ostentatious vehicles for the rich, mighty & divine. This war technology ruled the battlefield for 1000 years before being replaced by less cumbersome cavalry.

An effective cavalry horse needs to have the strength and stamina to carry its mount in full armor at full gallop the entire length of the battlefield. The first horses were smaller, less powerful and had a natural instinct to run away from smell of blood, loud sounds or sight of sharp pointed spears. It took centuries of genetic enhancements through selective breeding to overcome these problems to create an effective cavalry. Therefore, the people complaining of additional cost of chariot as the reason for decline fail to appreciate that the chariot enabled effective use of cheaper and more widely available multi-purpose horses (some maybe from the baggage train) to the front lines. Since good horses was always in short supply, this small advantage meant that a large chariot army could be raised faster than a large cavalry army. The legendary horse Bucephalus was purchased for 13 talents (each talent is 26kg of gold) indicating the prohibitive cost of good beasts.

A horse can pull 8 times more weight than it can carry on its back when travelling on firm flat ground. Therefore, it allowed a mediocre pair of horse carry 3-8 warriors to the front lines and retreat once the enemy was close. In comparison, Ghenghis Khan’s Mongolian cavalry, which did not use wheels that effectively because of the terrain, had to maintain five horses per rider in order to maintain mobility carry enough supplies and not wear-out the main battle horse. Therefore, the investment or capital required for both kinds of armies was comparable.

Early riders used nothing more than a blanket as a saddle or cushion and reins to control the horse. As a result, horseback was not a very stable platform for mobile cavalry archery. The carriage of the chariot had a sound suspension, with its two wheels and the floor made of woven raw leather was much more stable to aim arrows amongst the shields & helmets of the enemy. The stirrups & saddle developed later, not only allowed to have a much smoother ride and better aiming platform but also control the horse without use of hands on the reins.

Since first horses had strong natural instincts of fight & fright, a dedicated charioteer controlling the reins and tying the horses to the wooden frame were the practical solutions. Even if the horse kicks and breaks the chariot, the riders were safer than what their fate would be post fall from a horse laden with pointed weapons. In addition, by having two person, one specialized in horses and second in weapons rather than one cavalry person mastering both trades. Hence reducing the training time and cost to field an effective army.

The earlier bows were all wood and not composite which made them longer. Cavalry achers using longer bow could shoot only left which limited their effectiveness in battle. Foot archers firing from behind the safety of friendly infantry lacked the range and piercing power against heavy infantry that carried shields, helmets and armor covering their vital organs. Chariots enabled archers to come close to the enemy, fire arrows, hurl javelins and flee back once enemy was near.

The war chariots with walls of leather or woven wicker  not only provided extra protection but were so light that the chariots could actually could outrun a mounted horseman pursuing them.

I am not detailing the advantages of cavalry/chariots over infantry in terms of speed, shock, ability to pursue, flee etc. The comparison here is more of chariots against mounted units or similar units from a purely military, scale and economic point of view.

Rise and fall of Rath horse chariots

Lord Rama did not use a chariot in the famous mythical battle against Ravana in Lanka. He shot his arrows while sitting on the back of Hanuman even though Lord Indira offered him his ride. Chariots are an expensive piece of equipment, which are prone to failure. Ramayana talks about how Kaikeyi repaired the broken chariot wheel of Dashratha in the battlefield and drove him to safety during the battle against Sambarasura. Centuries later, the technology did not improve much. In Mahabharata, Karan’s chariot wheel was stuck leading to his death. Abhimanyu’s chariot was also demobilized during the chakravyuh and in his last moments was defending himself using his chariot wheel. So why is India so obsessed about Rath, a technology that died 2,300 years ago?

Chariots are horse drawn wooden war machines that were first developed around 2,500 BC and ruled the world until around 300BC or Alexander’s conquest of the world when cavalry took over. In India, Porus used 300 chariots in the battle of Hydaspes against Alexander. Malavas had 800 chariots and the last Nanda king had 2000 chariots. Although Maurians retained chariots in the army, but the decline had already started and they started looking like carts and supply wagons for the troops. Chandragupta talked about the might of his elephants, cavalry and infantry and rarely about the role of chariots in the battlefield.  Romans continued to develop chariots for races, but they were toys for entertainment or rides for the rich and never taken to the battlefield.

Just to avoid confusion: A carriage is used to transport passengers by road and cart is used to transport goods and baggage. They prevailed until 1940s by when motorized transport became common but the replacement of chariots by cavalry happened almost simultaneously post exposure to Macedonian cavalry. Britons are said to employ chariots when fighting Rome, but it was a transport vehicle as the soldiers dismounted before the first arrow was fired. Similarly Babur’s chariots were essentially a barricade of bullock carts used to create a temporary palisade wall to protect his cannons and muskets against Ibrahim Lodhi army that was 10 times larger. Similarly, Koreans and Chinese used armored chariots or war wagons as mobile pillboxes to fortify key positions but those were not true chariots.

Over the next three parts, I will explain the technological advantages of chariots, chariot tactics and the reason for its obsolescence.

Lèse-majestéto: Air India

What we stupid mango folks fail to realize is that by Air India’s inability to provide a business class seat at the time & route of his choosing, is an act of Lèse-majestéto against the glory of Marathas & our democracy. Our just elected representative did not lynch or burn the plane but acted with clemency. He did not use knuckles, fists or even slaps as those can lead to concussion, bruises and serious body injury. As an act of great mercy towards the elderly staff of Air India, he used a pliable slippers which will not do any bodily harm or result in a hospital trip. The nation should be thankful for his self-sacrifice as he risked his footwear to being damaged in the process and risked walking bare feet on the carpeted ground of the aircraft. Nobody talks of the dangers of nerve damage to the wrist or carpal syndrome due to his leniency and Air India or any other PSU has not offered to replace or reimburse him for damage.

The corrupt press & social media deliberately mislead the masses in this blatant case of “victim-blaming” and should be severely chastised. Indian Government under the directions of our leader & supreme commander realized its mistake and has corrected it promptly. Elected officials and bureaucrats should be greeted by genuflect cabin crew and the pilot should be amiable for any detour or delays required to fulfill the service obligations of these servants of the state.


Indian wildlife protection act

If you kill a tiger, rhino, elephant, lion or any other endangered species in India, one can expect jail term of minimum 3 years and maximum 7 years.  Yet killing of cow will cost you 14 years in Gujarat and your neck in Chhattisgarh. A just punishment is one whose sentence is commensurate with the severity of the crime, but again prosecuting a poacher does not win elections.

I happened to spend some time with Sangita Iyer, director of “Gods in Shackles” during my last flight from Frankfurt to Bangalore. This Canadian director of Indian origin gave me some unique perspective about the hypocrisy of Indians. She asserted that it is not commerce but religious or cultural zeal, sport and lack of any consciousness or compassion that is fueling all acts of cruelty in India.

The elephant is a scared animal. All Hindu, Buddhist, Sikh & Jain temples have deities of this animal or of its god form Ganesha carved in stone. Yet as the movie described in vivid examples, the treatment to the animals when under the care of temple & affiliates are much worse than those kept in Zoo, animal research, tree logging or industry.

Vedas might have codified the religious status of Bull, Ox and Cow in Indian mythology. Yet the scenes from Jallikattu would sate a very different ground reality about the life of these animals in India.

If Hindu’s were so much concerned about the welfare of these animals, they would take steps to rehabilitate cows roaming on the streets, the rampant problem of foot and mouth disease that infects one in three lactating beasts, regulate the use of hormones, drugs & antibiotics by greedy farmers to improve the yields etc.

Uttaranchal has given citizenship & status of a living person to Ganga & Yamuna but in my opinion if we do respect them as humans, we should take steps to clean the river, install effluent plants and improve the quality of water of these rivers.

The purpose of religion is to purify one’s mind, thoughts and actions. It is an inward journey of self-discovery and realization and not a facade to rally the mobs and subjugate the minorities and non-believers.