Military Studies in Ancient India

Before learning about military studies, it is important to know about the education system of ancient India. First was the system of Gurukul. It was basically a residential school where all children including the children of the king were sent to learn.

Important points to know about the Gurukul system are:

  1. It was a residential school where the Guru or teacher had a house. The teacher and the student stayed together in the Gurukul.

  2. Students stayed in the school for about 10 years to learn many subjects.

  3. The subjects taught included language, grammar, science, mathematics and vedas.

  4. The Guru also taught Military subjects such as use of weapons, physical training and art of warfare.

  5. Military subjects were compulsory for all students including sons of kings.

  6. Life in a Gurukul was tough and a strict disciplined routine was followed.

  7. Education was free and it included boarding and lodging at the Gurukul. It was possible to give free education in those days because the king and other wealthy people gave money to run gurukuls.

  8. The concept of Gurukul was living with the teacher and helping the teacher with daily activities. This included farming, cleaning, woodcutting, etc. The students therefore learnt practical aspects of living. By doing this, students learnt theory and practicals together so that every student could become a person with good character.

Types of Schools

Apart from Gurukul system there were other types of schools. In South India, temples were the centres of all cultural activities and educational institutions formed part of temple establishments. There were schools and colleges in important temples. In certain place there were post-graduate institutions to impart higher education in special subjects.

The educational institutions attached to the temples were known as Salais. These were endowed Schools of a residential type, where scholars received free tuition as well as free boarding and lodging, clothing and other amenities till they completed their studies. Chera King Ay first established the system of 'Salais' in Kerala around 8 A.D. The syllabus and method of teaching were similar to the Gurukul system. Along with the Salais was the Kalari School which specialised in martial arts and training of soldiers.


Kalari was one of the most important educational institutions of South India. It was a military school where general education was imparted through a rigorous course of physical training and the study of the science of offence and defence. The Rajas of Kerala were great patrons of learning and to them are credited the establishment of Kalaris in Military Schools. It was presided over by the Panikkar or Kurup.

The youth of the land were taught the use of weapons as well as marital arts such as fencing, boxing and wrestling. Even the Namboothiri youths received military training in the Kalari during the wars of the 11th century when the Kalari system came into vogue. The training received in the Kalaris was called Kalaripayattu.

It was a regular and full-fledged scheme of physical education intended for the youth of the land. The most promising of the trainees were taught the marmas, viz, the vulnerable parts of the body. Kalaris were intended to foster martial spirit of the Nairs and to keep them fit for war.

Physical Education

During ancient times, physical fitness was given prime importance, especially by the kings and the higher-class warriors. Physical education consisted of strength training; running; swimming; weight lifting. Along with physical education games formed an important curriculum of training.

Ancient India had a rich tradition of games that were played and passed on through generations and cultures. Games were not only meant for leisure but also to develop mental capabilities and maintain physical fitness. Games played in ancient India were related to military tactics and strategy. Popular games played by soldiers include Chaturanga, Chess called Ashatapada or 64 squares, Wrestling and Archery.

Places for Higher Education

Apart from Gurukuls, there were Academies for higher education, similar to what we call colleges. These were called Parishads, Ashramas, Vidyapeeth, and Ghatikas, etc, depending upon the subjects being taught. Some of the most famous Indian institutions known worldwide in those times were Takshashila and Nalanda universities. Vallabhi, Sringeri and Kanchi were other places of learning in ancient India.

Military Education

Military science was generally called Dhanurveda. In Ashrams or Gurukuls there were several departments. The department that dealt with military studies was called Mahendrasthana.

All armies in India had chariots, elephants, cavalry and infantry. It was called Chaturangabala. So how did the soldiers learn to fight? Military education was organised into two types of teaching. First was the individual training of the soldiers. The second was training the army in fighting as a combat unit.

Individual Training

All soldiers and sons of kings had to attend Gurukul with all others. All students were treated as equal. Only those students who had the skills to handle weapons were taught Dhanurveda or the art of fighting with weapons. In other words Gurukul was the first step in learning the art of fighting.

In ancient times, military education was not only organized by the State, but also by individual teachers too who would undertake this duty. In every village, there were military training camps where villagers were given military education for self-defence.

Collective Training

After their basic education in the Gurukulam, individuals were enrolled as soldiers and organised into various units of the army. Each unit had a specific role in war. The soldiers in the cavalry were experts in horse riding and fighting on horseback. Similarly, the charioteer was a good driver who could take the chariot with speed to the given place.

The elephant army was different from the cavalry. All these separate units of the army needed specialised teaching in handling the horses, elephants, etc. and also skillfully managing them in battle. You must have heard of Chanakya, who was a renowned philosopher, scholar and teacher under Chandragupta Maurya. His famous work is
'Arthasastra'. In his book he mentions that army used to assemble at one place every day in the morning and start their training.

Typically the training started with physical training followed by use of individual weapons. Soldiers handling animals had to spent time with their animals and train with them. The leaders would also train the soldiers to fight as a team and follow the tactics.

Administration of the Army Units

Apart from training the soldiers and the army units, there were departments looking after administration of the army units. The officers, men and handlers were taught subjects specific to their job. For example an elephant handler learnt about animal behaviour, controlling the animal, what to feed and when to feed the animal, etc.

Officers such as the Senapathi were required to have knowledge about law and justice, in order to keep the soldiers disciplined.

The curriculum for the princes was Dhanurveda, Nitishastra, Siksha (lore) of elephants and chariots, Alekhya and Lekhya (Painting and Writing). Langhana (jumping) and Tairana (swimming).

Military education is very different from other form of education. The training of leaders and soldiers is as per their role & task in a battle.