Medieval Indian War Elephants
In India, elephants were not only fighters but also siege weapons. Kautilya names the breaking of fortress walls, gates and towers amongst the elephants’ important functions. Ancient authors tell us that elephants could pull merlons off a wall with their trunks, or they served as live battering rams to attack castle gates. Consequently, all the defenders’ efforts were concentrated on resisting elephants. Successive gates were built at such an angle that an elephant could not attack them at a high speed. A chain was also stretched in front of the gate and the gate’s leaves were supplied with sharp iron or teak spikes arranged in horizontal rows. To offer some protection to the animal, an elephant’s forehead would be protected with a bronze or steel plate.
This plate shows the siege of a castle as one elephant attacks the gate, and another pulls down the merlons. Behind them stand war elephants carrying towers and crews, ready to repulse a possible counterattack by the besieged. Early medieval images of elephants lack fighting towers. However, the fact that elephants bore towers, at least from the 10th to late 15th centuries, is confirmed by the evidence of several reliable eye-witnesses. According to some sources, the strength of a crew varied from 2 to 14 men (the latter consisting of 12 soldiers and 2 drivers). Large swords were often tied to an elephant’s trunk and tusks, and the animal itself was sometimes clad in armor.