The king prepared the ground and orchestrated the call to arms. It was customary of the king to lead in the field, often engaging in single combat against enemy nobles of similar rank.

States then, as now, had flags which they carried into battle. The respective flags of the Cheran, Cholan and Pandyan kings included emblems of the bow, the tiger and the fish.

In an earlier post—The Kuravars of the Kurinji Hills—I mentioned that flowers played a large part in the culture of ancient Tamilakam. They used flowers for prayers and private moments, celebrations, public events and war.

[Flowers continue to play an important part in present day South India.]

Kings and generals adorned their persons with garlands. Each king had a preferred flower steeped in the geographical region, history and culture of his nation. For example: the Cherans used Palmyra flowers, the Cholans adorned themselves with Athi (fig), and the Pandyan wore Neem garlands.

Three self-sufficient formations made up a field regiment (precursor to the modern “combined-arms” units):

  • Vanguard (akkam)
  • Colours guard (kodi-padai)
  • Rear-guard (kulai)

The vanguard was the shock-troop; the colours guard the reserve; and the rear-guard provided cover for the army to regroup. Each regiment was complete with fighting men and war animals, messengers, and coolies for sundry chores. The unit deployed bullock-carts, donkeys and camels for hauling baggage and war engines. A regiment on the march lived off the land.

In later centuries, the south adopted the traditional (and specialised) formations of the north: chariot, elephant, horse and foot regiments.

Nobility and generals rode chariots and elephants. Chariots, drawn by two horses, carried a warrior and the charioteer. The king rode on a chariot under the shade of a royal parasol—a valued war booty. He also rode elephants when required.

The cavalry wore leather armour and carried light weapons such as bows and arrows, swords and lances. Foot-soldiers wore armour of various sorts including metal plates, and carried shields and heavy weapons such as the spear and mace. Soldiers of all ranks wore helmets, turbans, greaves and arm-guards made from leather and metal.

The ancient South Indian military shared many parallels with other far-flung societies. One can assume that for a problem there are only so many optimal solutions.

Historians remember kings and their victories. But people die in war and we forget the vast majority who perished. But sometimes, someone reaches out.

In the early 20th century, diggers continued to find headstones of fallen soldiers from this ancient era all over South India.

An epitaph dated 936 CE on a veerakkal (warrior-headstone):

“In the 9th year of Raja Parakesari Varman who conquered Madura when the Perumanadigal lifted cattle in Muttukur, a son of the land, Vedunavaran Varadan, who helped recover the cattle, attained a warrior’s death.”

That wraps up the two posts on ancient South Indian military.

Next week: Town Planning in Ancient Tamilakam

Copyright @ Eric Alagan, 2019

I’m away all week and shall reply to your comments upon my return. Cheers!


  1. Find it interesting that the ancient military shared parallels with far-flung societies. Also, just got to learn about the different flowers used by the three kingdoms. Would also like to learn about the food they ate, the amenities they had and their lifestyle, if possible. Thank you so much.

    1. Hello Padmini,
      Glad that you found the post informative. Check out the other posts in this series > they address several topics you raised.
      All good wishes,

    1. Hello dear,
      My apologies for the late reply as I was away, and am catching up.
      Thank you for your kind words. I’ll try to keep writing about South Asian history.
      All good wishes for now

  2. I found this post and the ensuing dialogue interesting. There are many parallels in the western history with which I am familiar. To cite a few:
    The English wars of the roses when roses were used to define which side a person was on.
    Homer’s narration of the siege of Troy in which one-on-one single combat occurred.
    The biblical tale of David and Goliath.
    I applaud you for your sensitivity to the destructive outfalls of these wars in which the common soldiers took the brunt of the suffering a fact true in our modern wars and the two World Wars.
    With the way that human society evolves there is a lot to be said for passivism (my husband’s folks were passivists!)
    Thank you for an informative post and for stimulating the grey matter.

    1. Hello Jane,

      Yes, we can draw parallels with other cultures and histories. In essence, human beings are hamsters treading the same wheel. But of course each age comes up with new and exotic names that describe the same journey.

      Thank you, for reading all my posts with such keen interest, and oft times reviewing the comments too.


  3. Very often in wars, many sacrificed and only few are remembered. Sometimes they get a memorial erected by the State in recognition.All for the glory and power that one man wants to hold. What about the loss that their loved ones have to live with? Even if there is compensation, it will not mend the pain.

    1. Hello Windy,

      War cannot be justified because behind every single war – there is big ego and/or big business and the collective “we” pay for someone else’s benefit, real or imagined.

      Peace and luv,

    1. Hello Ankur,

      As we know, Hinduism is descriptive but not definitive. I believe back then in the deep south, people practised various permutations of what we might call “Hinduism”. Probably a grafted form of paganism and local customs. I believe many tribes/clans practised burial – including “air burial” where the cadaver was left to carrion eating birds.

      But you are right, people who resorted to cremation had no use for headstones.

      All good wishes,

  4. Interesting post. One of my cherished memories was of the marigold garlands, or the huge flower markets and the many gardens in season. Jasmine flowers were my favourite. In season the whole area had this beautiful smell as night came on from flowering trees in the garden. During festive occasions servants would garland their gods, their masters and memsahibs and even machinery or animals which provided their sustenance directly or indirectly. My car received a garland at this time of the year. The Maharaja or Raja on his elephant leading a retinue on these occasions was impressive. Even in my time the processionals were still there on special occasions though most of the palaces are government property today.

    1. “My car received a garland at this time of the year.” – I found this practise amusing but it mattered much to the people who subscribed to the belief system underlying such custom.

      In South India especially, flowers played (continue to play) a major part in all occasions. The variety of blooms, colours and smells are mind boggling to say the least. Flowers are cheap and abundant. If producers and logisticians can get their act together – flowers can be a huge export.

      Thank you, Ian, for reading and posting your comment.


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