Why did medieval Indian cavalries avoid Parthian archery?

Direct open frontal assault, rather than ambush and cunning, was preferred by the Kshatriyas

Direct open frontal assault, rather than ambush and cunning, was preferred by the Kshatriyas

In one account from the Ramayana epic, Ram was so fair that even though he knew Ravana’s weak point was his navel, he continued to shoot arrows at Ravana’s head, in accordance with Kshatriya’s dharma. Enraged, Hanuman asked his father, the god of wind, to send a fierce breeze to push Ram’s arrow and cause it to strike Ravana’s navel. This display of nobility befits the so-called supreme defender of the rules, Maryada Purushottam. So it’s rather strange that the same Ram hides behind a tree and shoots an arrow to kill Vali who was busy fighting his brother, Sugriva. This is a question that still torments many Indians. And all explanations sound like excuses.

This value placed on direct open frontal assault, rather than ambush and cunning, is central to the kshatriya pride inherited from the Rajputs. Chanakya’s recommendations on stealth, strategy, ambush and cunning had few takers in the Rajput world. In Rajput bardic poetry, the trickster is always the villain, the invader, the weak and lazy king, never the hero. The hero always values ​​a fair fight. In Rajput poetry, he openly challenges his fellow Rajputs as he claims his bride thus proving his worth as a groom and son-in-law. He never attacks at night and always waits for the enemy to finish his meal. Greater value is given to the hero who chooses death over dishonor.

Even if they are defeated and killed in battle, even if they lose kingdoms, Rajput ballads praise the heroes who remain fair, just and brave in the face of cunning and cunning. Nobility and bravery are worth more than victory. Heroines are glorified for committing suicide to discourage men from being cowards. The heroes continue to fight even after their heads have been severed from their bodies, a motif found even in later Sikh and Muslim Ghazi war literature.

Krishna, the rule breaker

It is very ironic as in the Rajput land is the temple of Krishna who is identified in Dwaraka as Ran-chor-rai, the leader who abandoned the battlefield. A term of almost derision, as Krishna fled from Mathura when the city was attacked by Jarasandha. Krishna took refuge in the west, beyond the desert, on an island, from where with the help of the Pandavas, he planned the death of Jarasandha, by trickery.

Representation of a mounted archer performing a Parthian shot.

Representation of a mounted archer performing a Parthian shot.

Krishna is Leela Purushottam, the one who skillfully plays games and is known for breaking the rules of war. In the Mahabharata, he compels Arjuna to strike unarmed enemies; he asks Bhima to hit Duryodhana below the navel, and he spreads misinformation to make Drona lose his will to fight. Krishna’s charm and sophistry eclipse his rule-breaking frenzy. Some argue that Krishna’s behavior is in line with his being a member of the ‘lunar’ dynasty and therefore lacks the virtuous radiance of the ‘solar’ dynasty of Ram and the Rajputs. Be that as it may, the Indian in general is so influenced by Rajput ideals that he disagrees with the popular sentiment that “all is fair in war”, even though war is for the dharma.

Indian epics and ballads come closest to a strategy is when the Vedic gods, known as devas, find a loophole in their fight against the asuras. Vaman, the dwarf, tricks the asura king Bali into giving him three steps of land, then turns into a giant.

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Mohini distracts the asuras while the devas consume the nectar of immortality. Thus deceived, the asuras continue to ask Brahma for boons that allow them to cheat death, but the devas always find a way out. Namuchi asks that he not be killed by anything solid or liquid. Indra kills Namuchi using foam, which is neither solid nor liquid. We can safely say that it’s about outsmarting the opponent, not stabbing them in the back, as Ram literally does in Vali’s murder.

This brings us to Parthian shooting, an archery trick that played a key role in the Islamic-Turkish conquest of India. Although attributed to the Parthians, who lived in Central Asia, it was a common trick among horse archers of the Eurasian steppes, even among the Huns, Sassanids, Scythians, Central Asian Turks and Mongols. The horseman would rush towards the enemy then abruptly turn around, creating the illusion of a retreat. Then as he walks away, twist his body, raise his bow and fire an arrow at the pursuing enemy who may have let his guard down. Archers would do this again and again, confusing enemies, including Romans in ancient times, and Byzantine armies during medieval crusades. The Indians, more comfortable with the aggressive frontal attacks of the war elephants, never found a way to counter the nimble cunning of the Parthian horse archers.

Everything in the game

Parthian fire played a key role in the defeat of Prithviraj Chauhan at the Second Battle of Tarain. Perhaps, to compensate for this loss to Parthian shooting, the Prithviraj Raso was composed by the king’s court poet, Chand Bardai, describing how the Rajput leader, though blinded, finally shot Muhammad Ghori using just the sound to identify the target (shabda-bhed), a skill valued in the Indian archery tradition since ancient times.

This painting from India, in the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, depicts a battle scene.

This painting from India, in the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, depicts a battle scene.

The Parthian shot may have inspired the side-to-side movement of the horse in chess as well, moving forward and then sideways. According to legend, the 64-square chessboard was invented in India and traveled to Persia and Europe, where the shape and movements of the game were further elaborated. As the game moved, the minister (mantri) became the queen, the elephant (gaja) became the bishop, the chariot (ratha) became the siege tower or the castle and the horse (ashwa) became the knight.

Was the horse-knight movement invented outside India?

Indians have known about horses since the earliest times, when the Aryans brought the beast to India, around the same time that horse-drawn chariots reached Greece, Egypt, Anatolia, Mesopotamia and China. Kings like Ashwasena and Ashwapati are mentioned in Indian epics. Horses came to India with the Greeks, Scythians, Parthians, Huns, Kushans, and later Turks and Afghans. Throughout India, terracotta and stuffed horses are offered as offerings to folk heroes such as Dharma-Thakur from Bengal, Momaji and Ramdevji from Rajasthan, Aiyanar from Tamil Nadu.

Some of the first representations of saddles come from India, in the stupa of Sanchi, for example. India was therefore clearly exposed to anything related to horses. But Indian warriors seem to ignore Parthian shooting, which has become popular in the armies of Persia and Central Asia. Perhaps he was even actively avoided. And it may have to do with the idea of ​​“retreat” built into this cavalry movement, which seemed contrary to the spirit of Kshatriya and Rajput dharma.

While Hindu temples and lore are replete with imagery of horse-drawn chariots and riders, we find no image or mention of Parthian shooting anywhere. A rare exception is the Srisailam temple of the Vijayanagara period (16th century) where images of Parthian shooting are found. By this time, the kings of southern India had been sufficiently exposed to Turkish warfare.

Perhaps the Vijaynagara kings hired Turkish cavalry or formed non-Rajput warrior clans to adopt this practice. It’s not clear. But soon gunpowder would arrive and completely replace archery on the battlefield.

The writer is the author of 50 books on mythology, art and culture.

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