An extract from Armies of the Middle Ages, Volume 2
by Ian Heath

[Based on ‘Court of the Horses’ at Srirangam, Tamil Nadu, India] [Based on Relief-carving on The Bal Krishna Temple, 1513]


Foot-soldiers of the types depicted here provided the bulk of Hindu armies as well as the greater part of the infantry element of India’s Moslem armies. They were referred to as payaks or paiks and were armed predominantly with sword and shield, spear or javelin and shield, or bow and arrows. The sword carried by 34 appears to be an ancestor of the type later called sosun pattah (‘lily leaf’), widely used in India and Persia. The sword was the favourite weapon of the Rajputs, who liked to indulge in chivalrous battlefield duels. Other arms included knives, sabres and clubs, while handguns were in limited use by the end of this era. The majority of Hindu infantry in Moslem employ were archers, called dhanuks (from the Sanskrit dhanush). Duarte Barbosa, who visited India c.1500-c.1516, described the Hindu infantry of the Deccan as ‘very good archers, and their bows are long like those of England’. Other sources too refer to the ‘large straight bows’ used by Indian infantry, which were made of cane. Though they did not shoot particularly far they inflicted deep wounds at close range, the barbed arrow-head in addition often breaking off in the wound. In Moslem employ some Indians substituted composite bows.

The two figures depicted here give a good idea of the general appearance of Hindu infantry of the 11th-16th centuries. Both are from Vijayanagar, 34 being from the 15th century ‘Court of the Horses’ in Sri Rangam temple while 35 is from a relief-carving celebrating a victory over Orissa in 1513. Both wear no more than a linen, cotton or silk girdle and shorts, plus light wood and leather sandals in the case of 34, most of the written sources confirming the skimpiness of their battlefield attire (phrases such as ‘naked and barefooted’, ‘nearly naked’ and ‘bare from the waist up’ recurring frequently). Ferishta says quite specifically that the foot-soldiers of Vijayanagar used to enter battle ‘quite naked, and had their bodies annointed with oil, to prevent their being easily seized’. Admittedly Domingos Paes, another early-16th century Portuguese visitor to Vijayanagar, saw Hindu infantry who were much better clothed than this, but that was at a royal review of the army in peacetime. He recorded that ‘you will see among them clothes of such rich material that I do not know where they came from, nor could anyone tell how many colours they have’. He also mentions ‘thick tunics’, doubtless the same as the ‘quilted tunics’ recorded in other sources (see 38), this being the only reference to any sort of armour being worn; under the year 1522 the chronicle of Fernăo Nuniz actually says that their shields ‘are so large that there is no need for armour to protect the body, which is completely covered’, probably alluding to the large rectangular type of shield shown in 34a (from a frieze of c.1268 at Kesava). Abd-er-Razzak in 1442 apparently similarly described Hindu shields as being large (‘of cow’s hide, large as a portion of cloud’ in Elliot’s translation, but rendered by others as ‘a buckler of ox-hide, which might be mistaken for a piece of mist’, a description which could imply either that it concealed its holder like mist or that it was flimsy). The shield carried by 34 is of the smaller variety of buckler often to be found in the pictorial sources. Paes described the decoration of Hindu shields as comprising ‘many flowers of gold and silver ... figures of tigers and other great beasts, others all covered with silver leaf-work beautifully wrought, others with painted colours, others black and [so highly-polished that] you can see into them as into a mirror’.

The bangles (bangri) invariably to be seen worn by Hindu soldiers of this period are not always the bracelets that they appear to be, many instead being chakram (quoits), which were flat, steel rings of various sizes, sharpened on the outer edge. Barbosa described them as ‘steel disks which they call chacarani [ie, chakrams], about 2 fingers in breadth, as sharp as razors at the edge but blunt inside. They are the thickness of a small plate, and there is a hole in the middle. Everyone carries as many as 10 of them [elsewhere he says 7 or 8] on the left arm.’ To throw one ‘they placed it on the [index] finger of the right hand, putting the finger a little round it so as to give it a grasp, and hurl it straight at the enemy. If they hit an arm, leg or neck they cut right through’. It would seem that the Moslem as well as the Hindu infantrymen of Delhi used them.

In Moslem service some Hindu infantry, called payak-ba-asp, were issued with nags for transport to the battlefield, though they dismounted to fight. The Moslems, incidentally, considered that the best native infantry were those of Bengal, chiefly belonging to the Hath, Dom and Bagdi castes.

Next: 36. NORTH INDIAN INFANTRYMAN in Armies of the Middle Ages, Volume 2 by Ian Heath

Vijayanagar Illustrations and Articles
Mughal Illustrations of Costume & Soldiers