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By A.I. Makki

  In the 11th and 12th centuries CE, the kingdoms bordering the frontiers of Medieval India faced a series of assaults from the Ghaznavid and Turkish Armies. At that time these kingdoms had resources that were far more superior then these of the Muslim armies of Central Asia that were challenging their borders. The Indian warriors of Medieval Ages had made a name for themselves in valor and courage and they were in no way inferior to their enemies in might. And yet their armies were unable to face the onslaught of the Muslim armies that came from overseas and others from land crossing the passes of Hindu Kush Mountain Range.  Modern historians are puzzled about how a small army of Muslim soldiers could penetrate so deep into the heart of Medieval India even to this day!

  If we study this subject objectively, we find that the Muslim armies came fully equipped with cavalries on horses, complete with saddles and stirrups. The soldiers wore full body armor made of thick metal, helmets made of chain mail and plate armor capable of withstanding any physical attack against their bodies by their opponents. They carried with them sharp, curved swords and daggers that were made of a superior alloy of iron, which was very similar to steel, and that was capable of cutting deep into the armor and bodies of their adversaries. Moreover, they had introduced the use of gunpowder fired from cannons that made a loud noise and flashed fire that disoriented the elephants and horses in the armies of the kingdoms of India. That prevented the Indians from forming strategies and to counter attacks against them, or lead organized cavalry charges to meet the threat.

  The Turkish Muslim armies had acquired sophistication to use bows and arrows and their bows had over the years evolved into a formidable weapon that could fire an arrow with deadly accuracy. Each archer mounted in a cavalry unit formed an invaluable unit of the army, which was capable of inflicting maximum damage. According to the historical sources, it was Muhammad bin Qasim - a general deputed by the Caliph -who first attacked Sindh in the year 711 CE to rescue Muslims taken hostages by its ruler from their sailing vessels on high seas. The Arab armies that accompanied him fired the town with catapults and arrows, ignited with fire by the use of Naphtha, and succeeded in creating havoc and confusion in the Sindh armies. The Muslims had perfected the use of bow as a tool of precision in archery and their skills were unmatched by any other army in those days.

  The bows and arrows continued to be the weapons of war of the Muslim armies until the end of the Mughal rule, and as a rule the man-made bows were four feet long and generally shaped into a double curve. The arrows were carried in quivers, which were known as Tarkash, and the bows in a case called as the Qirban or Jaibah. The bows and the arrows were transported on the backs of animals in a casing that was called Saghdaq. The bow makers had learnt the art of bow making in the weapon centers of Damascus and the most famous of them were entrusted with the task of manufacturing bows and arrows for the Muslim armies.

  Although the Mughal armies used firearms and battle cannons in all their expeditions in India, the use of sword continued to be an important weapon of offense against the enemy soldiers. Great importance was given to attaining mastery in its use and the soldier who wielded the sword expertly was awarded with a rank of distinction. The Mughal Emperor Akbar had in his personal collection about thirty swords that were meant for his use during times of war. The Nihang Nama, a seventeenth century illustrated manuscript lists all the types of swords used in India by the Mughal armies according to their ranks and names.

  The swords used in the Northern Indian Kingdoms before the Muslim rule were the straight swords with rounded points or the curved sword, which made a thrusting blow impossible. They were heavy and after the advent of Muslim rule, the heavy straight swords of the Indian armies evolved into a curved, slender blade made after the fashion of Islamic swords the curvature of which fitted neatly into the belly of a horse of mounted cavalry soldiers. The finest and the most praised among the swords was the Shamsher, which was used as a cutting weapon with a perfect curve that reached India brought for the first time from Persia. The immense value of this Central Asian Saber developed into a new shape, which was called Khanda by the Rajputs and the early Muslim Emperors. 

  The Muslim armies also wore in their belts daggers with curved blades with cutting edges on both sides as a secondary weapon. Most of the other daggers had a single cutting edge, and they were used during the times of war and for peaceful purposes. This short dagger, sometimes worn in the horsemanís boot or khuff was known as Jamadhar, which was a weapon that the Muslims borrowed from the Hindus.

  During the Mughal rule the sword makers experimented with inventing variants of the existing swords. Some of them were the curved-bladed Jambia, the straight-bladed Kard, the leaf-bladed Katar, the slightly curved double-edged Khanjar and the pointed single-edged blade called Peshqabz. Its hilts were usually decorated with jewels, metal or jade in the shapes of different animals.

  Other popular weapon used by the Muslim armies was the Bhala or the spear that was carried by both, mounted cavalry soldiers and the infantry. It was made of bamboo, wood, or cane, which were fitted neatly into sharp metallic spear heads and it became the most reliable weapons of the Medieval Muslim armies in India from the eleventh to the fourteenth century CE.

  Other weapons the Muslim armies were equipped with were maces (Gada), which had a globular head with a handle and a knob at its end, Piyazi, shaped after an onion and Garguz, fashioned after the likes of an eight-petal flower. Shapshar with an oval shaped head and Amud with a simple rounded head were primarily weapons used by them to break the helmets and armor worn by the enemy soldiers.

  War-axes (Tabar), which were double-edged or single-edged weapons were the favorite weapons of some of the units of infantry. Another favorite weapon was a narrow-bladed axe with a spike attached to its back that was used as an armor-piercing weapon (Jaghnol). Its use was widely popularized by the Ghurid armies and was later fashioned by the Rajputs into an advanced war weapon. The war-axe was the favorite weapon of Nadir Shah who invaded Delhi in 1739 CE and it is still preserved in the National Museum of Delhi. It has inscriptions in Persian Calligraphy, which shows that it was made especially for the use of the king and its handle ornamented with superb metalwork of silver and gold. 

  A great deal of attention was paid to perfect the body armor of the Muslim soldiers. Scale armor commonly worn by Muslim soldiers for their protection was extremely popular and its variant the lamellar armor (Jashwan) was carried to India by the Muslims from Central Asia after passing through Persia. The body armor was known by its general name Bukhtar. Another type of armor was the Angirkha  that was used as an armor vest and worn under the coat, as well as the Jama -a long coat, worn over this armor to make it invisible. This was mainly used for the protection of the royal family. The Char-aina (four-mirrored) armor made of four plates, which protected the body from the front and the back and also from the two sides was the personal favorite armors of Mughal Emperors Humayun and Aurangzeb. The headgear of this armor was in the form of a helmet and chain mail, which enabled the combatant to see his enemy clearly, while fighting him. This type of armor, usually worn by the elite and the royal personages in the army was expensive and was used only by the privileged leaders.

  Shields for the Muslim armies were made of wood, cane or bamboo, and some of them were covered with variety of animal hides, like ox, buffalo and Sambhar (deer). The shields made from the skin of rhinoceros were highly prized, as it was light, durable and handy during a battle. Sometimes even the skins of tortoise and crocodiles were used in making shields. The wood shields covered with leather was known as Juna, and those made only from cane and bamboos were called as Pahri. Shields made of iron-steel were known as Sipar. Another shield by name Tilwa was used only in tournaments. The metal shield, which was favored and used personally by Emperor Akbar in battlefields, had twelve signs of the Zodiac carved on it. The people employed for making shields for the army were known as Dhabdar.

  The knights of the Muslim armies took great care for the safety of their animals, as they were needed for maneuvering, while fighting an enemy combatant. Turkish horses were highly prized and they were led into the battlefield fully clad in armor that was especially made for them. A metal plate, known as Qashqa, was molded in the form of a plate that would completely protected the head of the horse from any sword blows directed against the animal.

  Elephants were also led into the battlefield fully equipped with armor. The armor made to protect the vulnerable trunk and the forehead of the elephant was known as Pakhar. A metal goad called Ankush was used to control elephants in the course of a battle.

  In general, great care was taken while preparing arms for the Muslim soldiers and their animals, which significantly contributed to their successes.

  The swords and the body armor started falling out of trend at the end of Mughal rule, with the arrival of improved firearms on the scene, which were much more effective. The use of swords and armor gradually disappeared from the memory of people and there is little that is known about them except what is preserved in the museums in different parts of the world and the scraps of literature written about them, which are now preserved in the archives of the libraries.


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