Esala_Perahera festival at Kandy, Sri Lanka

Looks like I’m celebrating World Elephant Day a bit late, but got reminded about it thanks to Davide Mana at Karavansara. To commemorate it, let me post about a topic that should be of interest to gamers and lovers of period fantasy: the use and misuse of elephants in war, specifically in Asia.

Amber Fort: where an elephant almost got me ...

The most unforgettable experience I ever had with elephants was when I followed one carrying my mother and sister up the road to Amber Fort in Jaipur, on foot and with camera in hand. Unfortunately, the beast had just finished a digestion cycle …. I will never follow an elephant from close behind ever again. I have to say though that I did resume following that elephant, because it was nicely tricked out in cloth drapings that made it look like a medieval Rajput war elephant.

From an animal lovers’ standpoint, any use of elephants (or horses for that matter) in war is a misuse.  But used they were, for we humans are savage beasts, and we have a bad habit of taking up any weapon that comes to hand whatever the consequences. And the majestic elephant, with its size and strength, was definitely seen as a weapon in ancient times.

Asia from India east to Indochina was the heart of elephant warfare. Here the creatures were at their most plentiful, and the Asian elephant has always been considered easier to tame than the African. And since elephants were also used for labor, specially in construction and logging, there was also a ready pool of experienced elephant handlers available to train and crew the war beasts.

Elephant Tactics
So how were elephants used in Asia? The techniques used for war elephants in ancient times were taken from India, so Eastern and Western usages were very similar. They were used as line-breakers in battle, as command platforms, and as missile platforms, carrying archers and javelineers, and later, arquebusiers and even light artillery. However, there are also some interesting distinctions.


On Elephant Stampedes
There’s a commonly-repeated trope that war elephants are unreliable, more dangerous to one’s own side than to the enemy. While elephants do have a tendency to run amok, I  believe this view of them is skewed by the Western experience. If they were really that bad, they wouldn’t have continued in use for so long would they? I hypothesize instead that this trope had several causes:

First, elephants used in the Mediterranean area were often African or Atlas elephants, which were less tractable than the Asian.

Second, the elephants were raised only for war, and very likely with rushed training. They may not have been as used to people and clamor as elephants kept longer and perhaps used for work when not at war, as would’ve been the case in India and eastward.

And third, there were never enough of them to make a consistent  positive impact in battle west of India.

Trained elephants were always scarce west of the Indian subcontinent, relative to the lands east. Western generals who did use elephants – Hannibal, the Successors of Alexander, the Romans – never had them in the numbers a wealthy rajah of the east would.

A reliance on Indian mahouts would have aggravated the problem, because there would also have been a shortage of experienced trainers.

War Elephants in India
Curiously, it seems the idea for the howdah, the protected ‘tower’ mounted on war elephants’ backs, did not come from India. (Robin Lane Fox, Alexander the Great).

Ancient Indian warriors sitting tandem on elephant

Ancient Indians instead mounted the elephant using a harness of ropes strung high up the elephant’s sides, so the riders on the back could tuck their legs beneath it. The idea for the howdah may have been Greek, perhaps from Alexander’s successors.

Elephant with state howdah

The howdah, plus increased use of barding for the elephant, must’ve increased the war elephant’s effectiveness to a frightening degree. The fighting crew were now better protected, had a more stable platform on which they could easily turn to face any direction, and more men could be carried in a howdah than sitting tandem bareback.

Elephant armor detail, India 17th or 18th century

Indian kings would use war elephants in mass charges to break the enemy line, or use them as mobile fortresses around which to rally resistance when at bay. Royalty and commanders would often ride elephants, which gave them a much higher vantage point from which to direct the battle, and more protection than being on a horse. Of course, this also made them more visible as targets, a fact taken advantage of by the horse-archer Turkic armies that later invaded India from the north.

Castle gate reinforced against elephants

Spiked castle doors, Mehrangarh Fort, India

Elephants were used as living siege engines up to late medieval times. The elephants’ natural behavior of using their foreheads to push down trees was adapted to breaking down gates. This led to many castle gates being built with spiked doors, examples of which can still be found across India specially Rajasthan. This gave me the idea of featuring elephant battering rams in my story The Black Titan of Gaikand, in Swords of the Four Winds.

One of the Indian war elephant’s worst vulnerabilities was the location of its mahout. Mahouts sat on the elephant’s neck, in front of the howdah and without any protection. There was an ancient code of chivalry that forbade targetting charioteers and mahouts – combat was supposed to be purely between warriors – but this was surely ignored more often than not.

Tusk blades

The Mughals, who were among the first to introduce guns to India (rockets may have existed earlier) introduced an innovation of their own to elephant warfare by mounting swivel guns on elephants. These cannon were known as Jingal, Gajal or Gajnal. Elephants were also used to draw heavier artillery pieces; guns were even rated as to whether they were ox-drawn or elephant-drawn, the latter of course being bigger and more powerful.

Mughal-made Jingal swivel guns, to be mounted on camel- or elephant-back

At their height, Indian war elephants would be clad in plate-and-mail armor, often with heavy chanfrons (head pieces). Tusks might be tipped with sharp iron cones or blades, and sometimes a blade was also attached to the trunk.

Anti-Elephant Tactics in India
Commanders in India, specially of the invading Turkic and Mughal forces, often had to resort to tricks to defeat the war elephant-heavy armies of the rajahs.

Fireworks, including rockets, were used to frighten horses and elephants both.

Timur (Tamerlane) screened his cavalry charge in one battle with camels carrying burning straw tied to their backs. The fire and smoke distracted the opponent’s elephants, allowing his cavalry to win the day.

The Mughals would use oversized caltrops to spike the elephants’ sensitive feet, and artillery firing langrel shot – iron bars and spikes – which acted like spinning buzzsaw blades.

Rana Pratap (right) attacks Rajah Man Singh

Some Indian cavalry mounts were specially trained for fighting against elephant-mounted opponents. They were trained to ramp up, placing their forehooves on an elephant’s flank or behind. The rider, thus elevated, was in a better position to shoot or lance the elephant’s riders. In the Battle of Haldighati, Rana Pratap of Mewar attacked the enemy commander, Rajah Man Singh of Amber, in exactly this manner.


You may have noted the elephant-trunk chanfron on the head of Rana Pratap’s horse. Supposedly this was made with the idea that it would make elephants think the horse was a baby elephant, and so desist from harming it. On the other hand, the elephant being a symbol of royal power may have been enough reason for this design – elephants are quite intelligent and would likely have seen through the deception!

Just as in tank warfare, though, the best anti-elephant measure was considered to be another elephant. The non-elephant using armies that invaded India would end up adopting it. The Mughals also managed to recruit Rajput allies, and these allied kings often commanded Mughal armies from elephant back, at the head of their own elephant-riding contingents.

War Elephants in Southeast Asia
War elephants appear very frequently in ancient Southeast Asian art, from Burma on India’s borders all the way to Vietnam. Even the Southern Han of China used war elephants for a while.

Southeast Asian war elephants with back-mounted mahouts; the ride at the neck is a fighter

As in India, elite fighters and commanders rode in howdahs, shooting arrows and throwing spears. A naginata-like polearm consisting of a long saber blade on a long shaft was common to elephant riders, who used it against their counterparts on other elephants or to slash at the heads of cavalry and infantry who tried to attack their mounts.

The Southeast Asian method of controlling the war elephant was more complex but perhaps better for the mahouts than the Indian. Where the Indian mahout sits on the elephant’s neck, Southeast Asian mahouts were often described as sitting behind the howdah, controlling the elephant with a long pole.

A signaller could also be posted to the howdah, standing behind the commander; he would be responsible for signalling to the mahout, who of course couldn’t see where they were going, and perhaps to the army at large as well.

Elephant at Surin Elephant Festival, Thailand; note the foot guards stationed at the elephant's legs

Just as tanks in close or urban terrain are vulnerable to infantry, so elephants could be vulnerable in jungle. One tradition often represented in Siamese, Burmese and Cambodian art is the posting of ‘elephant guards,’ at least four men stationed at the elephant’s legs.

These walked beside the elephant and engaged any infantry or cavalry that tried to attack to elephant. This posting would’ve required agility and nerve – you’d have to be quick to dodge between stamping elephant legs in a melee, and nervy enough to do it!

Elephants would continue to be used in war into the 20th century, with the British army using them to  transport artillery and supplies in the Burmese hill country up to World War II. Modern gunpowder weapons, however, had ended the battlefield reign of the armored main battle line war elephant.

[None of the photos used in this post are mine. Credit belongs to their creators, however I was unable to find attributions.]