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.

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