Spread of Firearms in Ancient India, Indian History

  Adil Shahi Sultanate of Bijapur, Indian HistoryThe earliest use and spread of firearms, i.e. cannon, in the ancient Indian sub-continent can probably be traced to the second half of the fifteenth century and the campaigns of Sultan Mahmud Bigarh of Gujarat. However, between that time period and 1498, when the Portuguese arrived in Calicut (present day Kozhikode, in Kerala) on the southern Indian coast, neither cannon nor smaller firearms (notably harquebus and matchlock) had come to form an integral part of the Indian arsenal. This situation came to be modified, however, in considerable measure during the first century of the Portuguese presence in India. Thus, by the close of the sixteenth century, cannon had become omnipresent in the armouries of every major south Indian ruler.

Babur, the founder of Mughal Empire in India, had also much to contribute to the spread of firearms in ancient India. In the case of northern India, the invasion of Babur, a Timurid ruler based initially in the Oxus basin and later in Afghanistan, led to the defeat of the Lodi Sultans of Delhi at the battle of Panipat (1526). In this battle, Babur made extensive use of field artillery, a measure which was considered highly unusual in the period, even though firearms had been known in the broad region from at least the late fifteenth century. Babur`s sources of artillery, which arguably did not have a decisive effect on the course of the battle, anyway were, however, not western European but Turkish. In fact, at least a decade before Panipat, the Ottomans had shown the importance of the use of cannon against the Mamluk kingdom and against the Safavid forces. On the latter, the Ottomans `wrought havoc` in the battle of Chaldiran (1514), with harquebus and cannon.

Following this early success enjoyed by firearms, both on sea as well as on land, their use all through the sixteenth century can be witnessed widely. Spread of firearms in ancient southern India was the first conspicuous instance in the battle of Raichur (1520), between the forces of Vijayanagara and the Adil Shahi Sultanate of Bijapur. Here, a group of twenty Portuguese with espingardas (a term used indifferently by contemporaries for matchlock and harquebus), under the command of a certain Cristovao de Figuei-redo are known to have assisted the Vijayanagara forces by attacking people who appeared at the ramparts of the besieged town. Usage of firearms is also enlightened when the Vijayanagara forces had captured an important Bijapuri noble, Salabat Khan. The force had seized from Khan many horses and elephants, `and four hundred heavy cannon, besides small ones; the number of gun-carriages for them was nine hundred`.

Spread of firearms in ancient India is evident from the employment of artillery, which had a certain place in southern Indian warfare by the 1520s. It was typically used in siege situations. Artillery usage was however seldom critical and the principal mode of warfare in the early sixteenth century was consequently still seen as lying in the use of heavy cavalry and elephants, supported by a mass of infantry. As the sixteenth century passed by, use of firearms in southern India manifolded. This process was aided by the ever-increasing presence in the region of European cannon-founders. The Europeans were perhaps the earliest instance of cannon-founders in India. The Milanese people went over from Cochin to Calicut in 1502, where they found artillery and started to act as bombardiers. Moreover, Europeans also sold both cannon and lighter weapons manufactured in Europe to their Indian counterparts. An instance of this was a certain trader resident in Goa called Manuel Coutinho, who in the late 1540s sold harquebuses in Bengal.

This type of sale was, of course, illegal in the eyes of the Portuguese Estado da India, but was facilitated. The facilitation has been suggested by the fact that locally manufactured firearms were of poor quality. Where Indian-made cannons were described even as late as the 1780s as `cumbrous, ill-mounted and ill-served`, there can be no denying that the sheer numbers, whether locally manufactured or imported, had attained a certain dimension by the close of the sixteenth century. Spread of firearms in ancient India was an unusual phenomenon that people lapped up gladly. In the major south Indian battle of the sixteenth century, Talikota (1565), between the Vijayanagara and Deccani armies, it is claimed by a Telugu source, Ramarajana Ba-khair, that the Vijayanagara armies had approximately 2300 guns of size, besides several thousand smaller guns. However, while it is frequently assured that these weapons produced `great carnage`, at no point during the battle do they seem to have had a significant effect on its course. The south Indian battle mentioned was eventually won on the basis of undercover negotiation and fomented sedition.

In the decades that followed the Talikota battle, European descriptions of warfare and fortified centres in south India continue to cite the conspicuous role of firearms. Nicolau Pimenta, a Jesuit visitor to the city of Senji, notes the presence therein (circa 1600) of `much ordnance, powder and shot` and the same is stressed by other writers describing even lowlier forts. Spread of firearms in ancient India had hence turned into an essential chapter in Indian history, contributing pages of valuable annals. A particularly evocative image is provided by Gasparo Balbi, a Venetian resident at the Portuguese settlement of Sao Tome de Meliapor (Mylapur, today a suburb of Madras) in the early 1580s. Firearms figure in descriptions of centres further south as well. Tanjavur, in this context had served as a nerve centre of artillery and firearm. Jesuit sources from the 1640s, claim that Tanjavur was possessed of `a prodigious quantity of pieces of artillery of every calibre`, including one `big cannon, in the mouth of which a man could conveniently hold himself couchant`.

The conclusion thus appears to be much manifested: by the early seventeenth century, the Tamil country was prolifically supplied with firearms ranging from matchlock and harquebus, to the largest of cannon. Indeed, their presence may be detected further north as well in the Telugu lands. Spreading of firearms in ancient India further bears proof in a kaifiyat description of an engagement in the Telugu fort of Siddhavatam in the 1580s. The description mentions how the defender of this bastion, a certain Basavana Buya had readied a double-barrelled jajayi (possibly derived from the Arabic jaza`il, a wall-piece fired from a swivel, or a long-swivel musket) that was set up in the area between the outer and inner walls of the bastion. As the opposing Velugoti army drew near the fort, Basavana Buya shot it at the commander who was riding in a howdah on an elephant.

Dutch records from their fortress at Pulicat, and from their factories further south on the Coromandel coast, are also emphatic on the prominent presence of firearms in the region. The Dutch had also recorded numerous requests from local palegallu (chief resident) for the loan or outright sale of cannon to them. It is evident then, that the Dutchmen had played an outstanding role to spread firearms in ancient Indian civilisation. On some occasions, the Dutch did give in, as when, on more than one occasion, they lent the well-known Balija entrepreneur Cinanna Cetti (d. 1659) several pieces of cannon. It can also be noted that all the trading companies on the Coromandel coast acted in some measure as suppliers of cannon to the Nayakas and at times with unanticipated consequences.

There also occurred courtesy requests on behalf of the European seafarers presenting firearms to moguls back in India. And these firearm demands naturally acquired a certain urgency in times of war, as for instance, during the struggle over succession at Chandragiri in the early 1630s between Aravidu Verikata and his uncle Aravidu Timma Raya. This struggle lasted nearly six years, from the death of the previous ruler Ramadeva in 1629. By 1632, Verikata had managed to make his way from Anegondi, where he was initially located, to Kanchipuram.

The spread of firearms in ancient India as weapons used for ambush is reiterated elsewhere in the seventeenth century too. An example can be cited of the Dutch illustrations of campaigns in the Ramanathapuram region in the 1680s, between warring clans of Maravas. In late 1686, Kilavan (Vijaya Raghunatha) Setupati, ruler of Ramnad, faced a rebellion in his territories, fomented by the appanar nattu Marava chiefs, Raja Surya Tevar and Raghuvanna Tevar. The marauders had received aid from the Madurai Nayaka and the Tondaiman Raja of Pudukkottai. The Setupati himself barely escaped being assassinated in his camp by the conspirators, but later recovered and surprisingly turned the tables on his opponents.

The above-mentioned observations, taken together with numerous references in Jesuit letters of the mid-seventeenth century, suggest that the use of firearms was most common in two contexts. First, in situations of siege and second, from ambush. In the first instance, cannons were typically used, as were mines; in the latter case, the use of smaller arms, fired in a volley was not unknown. It is clear too that a reasonable level of proficiency existed in both cases, even if the fixation with size (in the case of cannon) sometimes proved counterproductive. Spread of firearms in ancient India were securely developed into two distinct phases, beginning from the early 14th century and gradually culminating in the 17th century.

In part, this spread of firearms in ancient India was related to the composition of the armies in the period. And the fact was that, that mercenaries were frequently employed in the armies. As early as the battle of Talikota (1565), one source claims that the Vijayanagara forces could call upon the service of roughly 3000 parangis. Later descriptions of the Nayaka kingdoms of Tamil Nadu confirm the presence of Portuguese mercenaries there. But not all of these mercenaries were specialists in the use of firearms. In the final analysis, the foreign recruits had to incorporate themselves into the prevailing and accepted mode of warfare; otherwise, the consequences could be disastrous, as an instance from eighteenth-century Mysore illustrates. In a Portuguese mission letter, originating from Mysore in the 1720s, a Jesuit, Joaquim Dias, describes the siege of a fort in western Mysore; those within were the Wodeyar Mysore forces, their besiegers Kodavas. While mention of the use of firearms in situations of siege, or from ambush, is not uncommon, this does not translate into a general use of firearms and in particular, harquebus and matchlock.

Firearms use to occupy a prominent and even unexpected place in literary sources of the Nayaka period, appearing not only in hunting-scenes and descriptions of war, but also in what are ostensibly `erotic` descriptions. All of this directs to the fact that firearms exercised a certain hold over the imagination. There also lies proof of close association of firearms with groups like the Bedas and Boyas, who were largely forest men or hunters, who had risen to chieftainships in the early modern period.

Spread of firearms in ancient India was also glorified in literary passages, sometimes even by unheard writers. A passage from the anonymously authored early eighteenth-century text, Tanjaviiri andhra rajula caritra, proves particularly illuminating with respect to the attitudes of the warrior elite toward firearms. One of the major events described in the text is the fall of Tanjavur in 1673 to Madurai forces. In this episode, the account repeatedly mentions about the use of firearms, including both small arms and cannon mounted on batteries (morjalu) on the Madurai side. After approximately ten or twenty thousand cannon balls had been shot, the town accepted surrender. Firearms in various sophisticated and common forms had almost flooded the warring market, with every social class vying for owing one.
(Last Updated on : 27/01/2012) 


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