The tale of Bharat has been, for the most part, a glorious tale of bravery, honour & Dharma. But our matrubhumi’s prosperity attracted a series of invaders. We held them off for millennia but as we entered into the early middle ages we lost our war fighting ability – limiting it to fighting petty internecine wars among ourselves. We were so focused on trade that we forgot that Dharma & Trade can be protected only by a force of arms.
As our trade grew so did a threat that none thought possible. It grew in the arid central Asian plains. It was a man on a horse with a bow and a sword or lance
THE STEPPE WARRIOR
To most Bhartiyas, the Steppe Warrior remains shrouded in mystery. Even though he had the most devastating impact on our nation, we as common citizens do not know anything about the greatest military force of the ancient and medieval world.
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He was a nomad by nature and war was why he existed. It was through war that a nomad acquired wealth, woman and necessities of life. The lands of central Asian steppes was a hard land – arid & cold. Food was scarce. The steppe warrior nomad did not farm or grow or make any valuable trading commodity so the only way he could survive was through ”Loot and Raiding”. He raided agrarian societies in the plains and sometimes he also raided other nomadic tribes. But the richest prize were the trading caravans passing through on the ancient Great Silk Roads (yes, there were many silk roads). The trade caravans originated in China and Bharat and they travelled towards Arabia, Europe, Africa, Mediterranean and even up towards modern Russia. The caravans brought back horses (Horses were not local in India until the rise of the Kathiawadi Horse by the Marathas).
He first looted the trade caravans passing through his area along the great Silk Roads (not road). But the wily warrior that he was he soon realized that looting a few caravans would invite reprisals or worst the caravans would take alternate routes. So he latched onto the idea of providing security to the caravans – in return of gold, goods or coins. This arrangement served him well but greed grows forever and now the nomad wanted more. His blood lust demanded more so he went directly to the source – to China and to Bharat.
The steppe warrior nomad came to Bharat as Sakas & Kushans millennia before the mongol/turkic hordes arrived.
Important point –
By this time horses were not coming into Bharat in any significant numbers – WHY? Because this was the time of rise of islam and the devastating ghazwas that accompanied it. The battles of Badr, Jamal, Ridda wars and the Shia/Sunni schism had made good quality Arabian horse very difficult to acquire. As horses were an imported commodity, Bhartiyas never learnt to fight from horse-back.
By the time medieval age arrived, the steppe warrior had grown into the world’s greatest cavalry force in the world. The predominant method of war in the civilized world was shock combat – massive numerically superior forces attacking with overwhelming force. This style of war proved futile against the steppe warrior. They avoided direct confrontations. Rather, they employed feigned retreats with great effect and were able to shoot arrows with pinpoint accuracy from horseback. The steppe warriors picked off their enemies from afar and neutralized the enemy without having to face the fury of a charge. Genghis Khan and Timur perfected the multi- faceted strategy of “calculated terror” with astonishing results. However, the steppe warriors, like any other military group, were not invincible.
There would be no steppe warrior without the horse – No Genghis Khan or Kublai would ride mowing down enemies from one end of the world to the other.
To a nomadic steppe warrior, the horse was essential to his survival. The steppe warrior’s natural proclivity for war springs from their peregrination: “War is therefore a natural consequence of successful nomadism and like any skill needed for survival it will be practiced to proficiency.” The steppe nomads successfully conquered kingdoms and empires mainly because of the horse and their proclivity to unpredictability, large number of male recruits, the ability to instill fear and drill-like organization. If their small recurved composite bows were the weapon that destroyed enemies, it was their horse that allowed them to use smaller bows and lighter arrows in devastating manner.
Their horses were different from the arabian horses. The Steppe warriors used horses that were more like ponies – smaller in stature, hardy and requiring lesser food than an arabian horse. The steppe horses displayed an uncanny connect with their rider and with the herd. This allowed the steppe warrior to execute complex maneuvers with an unseen skill. Another striking feature of the steppe horse was that that the male horse was NOT used for war. It was used only for mating and as a beast of burden. The steppe warriors exclusively rode the mare – the female horse.
The earliest encounters of civilized world (after decimation of the arabian and levant nomadic tribes) between the nomadic steppe warriors and the city states of the mediterranean Greece. Scythians and Sarmatians at various times raided city states of Greece. The scythians also came eastwards towards Bharat. Their invasions into our matrubhumi are commonly called the Sakas Invasions.
The invading Huns (mistakenly referred to as Germanic tribes) too rode into Bharat on backs of a breed of a horse that has been described as ugly by the early roman scholars. The exact breed of the Hunnic horse cannot be determined but it is safe to say that they were like the steppe horses – stockier, powerful, hardy and well suited for war. Greek historian writes that the “Huns live and sleep on their horses” Sidonius claimed that “scarce had an infant learnt to stand without his mother’s aid when a horse takes him on his back”.
The Scythians (Sakas) horse was used differently than the Hunnic horse. The sakas used the horse in teams to pull chariots – ceremonial as well as war chariots. Their chariots were distinguishable by the attachment of sharp blades (called the scythe) to the wheels
Of all the steppe war hordes to come to India, none was more destructive than the mongol/turkic hordes lead by Timur and later in form of mughals led by Babur.
For close to a 300 years – after the decline of the Gupta Empire, Bharat was intent on fighting among themselves – our neighbours destruction was so desirable that they would burn their homes for it. Bharat ost its ability to repel invasions. This was also the time of war in the lands of Arabia where new religion was being born by sword and blood. Wars there, reduced the import of Arabian horses, The most desirable breed) into Bharat. The steppe horses were mistakenly considered inferior (because of their short stocky appearance). Unfortunately, this mistake cost us dearly. We lost to the invading hordes from the steppes and were under rule of the slave dynasties, The Mamluks. By the time the turkic tribes arrived in force (led by Timur) Bharat was already under the sway of Islam and fighting a losing battle for survival.
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