Four Fold forces-The Chariots,The Elephants, The Cavalry and the Foot Soldiers.

There is very little written about the organisations of the Sri Lankan armies of ancient and medieval periods. This articles gathers some information available on ancient inscriptions , the  text written on palm leaves manuscripts around  the 5 Cent AD and few paintings and other artefacts.

sinhla emblem

The Royal emblem of the sinhalese Kings which is found on almost all their coins prior to 2 Cent AD, on a few Royal Seals and on many of the Inscriptions of Royalty is a Railed Swastika. The Swastika which some historians believe to be the Chakravarthi or the King him self is supported on a central post and having four other shorter posts depicting his four fold army – the Chariots, the Elephants, the Cavalry and the Foot-soldiers.The Caturanga-bala.It is not difficult to own one of these coins which are over 2,000 years old, as they are found at most ancient sites , literally in there hundreds. They are more finds of these coins [ dropped or lost] than the Talipot tree emblem coins 1/2 cents – 50 cents] issued between 1871-1950′s[ Over 30 million issued for circulation].

There is always two symbols flanking the Railed Swastika. These symbols vary,  but most times it is the Vajrasana ,  the symbol for the Throne and  the Triratna which some believe to be the head of the Royal Mace. The other symbols is  the Flag, the Dhajaya or the Royal Standard.

According to an ancient book Kautilliya Arthsastra which was studied by our Kings the Organisation of a basic unit of the Four Fold Army was ,

“The one Commander of ten single units is the lieutenant [Padika], the one (commander) of ten lieutenants is the General, the one (Commander) of these is the Commandant.”

“A unit was known as Anga, and the Commander was Angadaksaka, Each unit according to old books were Either An Elephant[ or a Chariot], 5 Horses or Cavalrymen and Thirty Infantryman. The Officer in charge of Infantry unit was a Padika, A Nayaka Commands a 1,000 units.”

An Elephant , Five Horses and 30 Foot- Soldiers that formed a troop according to Arthsastra-  The suggested ratio of Horse to Foot soldiers was 1: 6. This was only a guide and the final selection of battle groups would depend on the terrain[ Palce] , the Time of battle and the mighgt of the opposing forces.


bASIC UNIT FOR CAVALRY 1The Basic unit of elephants from  the only book that is available which is mentioned in the Mahavansa is shown below, The Artasastra recommends the basic elephant unit to have 5 Basic  horse unit to support an Elephant. This basic array is shown below. That is there will be 5 horses and 30 Foot soldiers.

The Elephant was used in battle to break through any Infantry Mass or Array, only if properly handled.The Charging Elephant had to be protected by a good screen of Cavalry, Archers and Infantry, until it closes in with the enemy lines , then and only then it can break through and cause the enemy to panic. A elephant wounded will panic and would trample down friendly Cavalry and Infantry, this had to be avoided.

A Basic recommended Unit around a Warrior on an Elephant.

A Basic recommended Unit around a Warrior on an Elephant.


How King Kavantissa[1 Cent BC] raised and organised his army according to ancient Text Mahawansa.

Chapter 23.Verse 58; Theraputtabaya , a General  of Dutugemunu  who  used a Club to break down Coconut and Palm trees. King Kavantissa bade him and other 9 Warriors to raise ten each, like the ten raise 10 warriors each , who in turn raised 10 each ,formed thousand one hundred and ten Warriors.


The written history of the Sinhalese mention  the foot soldiers and use of horses in warfare from the time of Pandukabaya. The invasion by the Assa- Navikas  Sena and Guttika during the reign of King Suresena.The use of elephants in siege warfare of Dutugemunu are a few of the facts that will be spelled out in this page. Many inference could also be obtained from rock inscriptions and cave paintings. There is no evidence of how our ancient Senpathis deployed their four fold Army, but it is written down that , our Military Commander were well versed and skilled in use of Elephant and Horse [ Dutugemunu] and bearing of Sword and versed in Archery and Tissa his brother was equipped with troops and Chariots[ Mahawamsa Chapter XXIV paragraph 1 and 2]. The books that were available to our Kings was that of Kautiliya, which is also available to us. Section 155 of Kautiliya states that –

” The Commander in Chief and the Commandant should arrange the Army in a Battle -array, with chiefs assigned different positions after detaching it out of sight of the Enemy.”

One  example of many ,what and how the composition of the four fold troops is also given, Elephant are not mentioned in this arry.

He should place as the centre a Division of three row of three Chariots, a Flank and a Wing of the same size on either side, thus there are 45 Chariots in a Chariot Division, Two Hundred and Twenty Five Horses, Six Hundred and Seventy Five Soldiers as Fighters in Front and the same number as Foot-guards.”


The only way to reconstruct what the basic organisation of the Sinhalese army is to compare with  other references that is available. I found a one such incident but in the 1520 AD when Proytela Rala attempted to recapture the stockade established by the Portuguese. PE Pieris got the facts from Portuguese writing states that he attacked with 2000 Foot-soldiers supported by 150 Wadakkara Cavalry and 25 War Elephants. The Elephants carried a castle on the back, a Sword in the trunk and the Tusks were fitted with large Scythes made of steel.  The Ratio of Elephant to  Horse to number of foot soldiers  is  1: 6 : 80

The Basic battle formation  the suggested by Arthasastra,  with distance between each array when deployed is battle is shown below.


The Artasastra explains the the allocations of surplus soldiers to arrays by distributing them to strenghten the wind=gs, flanks and centres. The Battle formations such as pure and mixed formaticribed.

The Mahavamsa was written almost six hundred years later by a Buddhist Monk , whose aim was to put in a verse form in Pali, from that compiled by the ancients in Sinhala , free of faults, easy to understand and remember…”. If a soldier reading between the line the  Chapter XXIII  – “Levying of the Warriors”. there a few factors which leads composition of the army of Dutugemunu and how he amassed the troops.The fact the Governor in the province of Giri having a Sindhu- horse[ Para 72], which was ridden by Velusumana who also stole the two top horses from King Elara’s Stable, may be a clue to the presence of the number of horses during that period. Did Dutugemunu use this same Arrays and Modified these principles suiting  Local conditions?.

It is in Mahavansa that King Kavantisssa the father of King Dutugemunu raised 11,110 troop under the 10 Warriors[ Dasa Maha Yodayo]. This amount corresponds to the Largest formation  according to the tradition of the organisation of ancient armies in Indian Sub-continent ,which adds up to 11,900 troops. Of course it contains 375 war elephants and 1575 horses.  Some believe that horses were not suitable for terrain found in Sri Lanka. But considering the employment  of horses in the ancient armies, it is quite possible that they may have had these numbers. It is said that Velasumana a General of Dutugemunu had lived with the Governor of Giri. who had a Sindhu horse. Perhaps he had a more than one , a stable and bred horses. The fact that  Velusumana went to Anuradhpura and stole the two best horse off the stable of Kin Elara, perhaps for breeding purposes.

4 x Warrior Chariots

The Role of ancient Chariots, according to the ancient books were

 ” Guarding own troops, Repelling the four fold army in battle, capturing , setting free, reuniting broken ranks, breaking up unbroken ranks, Causing Terror, showing magnificence, and making a frighting din.”

Chariots were in use in ancient Sri Lanka according to the Mahavamsa. But were they used in Battles, if so were they used in Offensive operations  mentioned above or for Transport of Important Personalities or for logistics. Was the terrain  where main battles described in ancient text suitable for the employment of Chariots ?. These are question that need be answered by Military Historians.

According to Indian Traditions available to our kings, the Chariots were in charge of the superintendent of chariots who were responsible for the manufacture of seven type of Chariots , perhaps accommodating 6- 12 persons. These included chariots for war and Chariots for marches against fortified cities. He had to be conversant with arrangements concerning  Bows, Strike Weapons, Armour and Accoutrements and employment of Charioteers, attendents and Horse.Chariot Unit

A painting of a chariot drawn by a single horse from Tivanka Pilimige, Pollonaruva.



The Role of Elephants in ancient warfare

” Marching in the Van, making new roads, halting places and fords for crossing rivers, repelling as with arms,Crossings and descending in water, Remaining steadfast, Marching forward and descending, Entering difficult and Crowded places, Setting Fire and Extinguishing it, Securing Victory single handed, Reuniting broken ranks, breaking up unbroken ranks,Protecting a Calamity, Assault, Frightening, Causing Terror, Showing Magnificent,Capturing and Setting Free, Breaking Ramparts,gates and Towers, Bringing in  and carrying Away Treasury.”

“The War Elephant has Seven ways of doing work; Standing to attention, Going around, Marching together, Killing and Trampling, Fighting with Elephants, Assaulting Towns and Fighting in Battles.”

The Goad, the Bamboo, the Machine and so on are the implement.

The Vaijayanti-garland, the Ksurapra- necklace, the covering, the carpet and so are the ornament.

The Armour, Lance, Quiver, Machines and so on are the accoutrements for war.

                                                                                                                                                  The Artasastra- Kautilliya

The Elephants were used in warfare from King Dutugemunu time where both he and King Elarala[ 100 BC] fought  mounted on elephants. Many a king such as King Kassayape of Sigiriya fame  to  King Rajasinghe I of Sitawake used Elephant in warfare  when he fought the Portuguese at Battle of Mulleriyaya[ 1600 AD.The Elephant was used in Battles fought in Sri Lanka as

a. For Single Combat as the case of King Dutugemunu and King Elara – see painting below.The two son of King Silakala[518-531 AC] , the Prince Mogallana and Dhathapabhuti  agreed out of consideration for their soldiers lives, to settle their claims to the throne after a single combat.They fought elephant back and after a well contested dual  Dathpabatha had to give way, when his elephant was wounded. He took hi own life despite his brother  entreaties not to do so. Such was the Chivalry of Sinhalese of Royal blood.[ H.C Vol I PT I pg 303]. Dutugemunu’s Labhiyavasaba was famous fighter on Elephants and was probably the Commander of Elephant Force Rasavahini II p 103- Social History of early Ceylon H Ellawala]

b.In massed battles Elephants could break through any infantry mass, if properly  handled , for a wounded elephant in panic would trample down men on his own side as easily as on the enemy’s; the charging elephant had to be protected by a good screen of cavalry, archers and foot till he could close in. In painting below the foot soldier armed with swords and shields is protecting Kandula the Dutugemunu Elephant.

c. Elephants were used to break down fortifications in siege warfare, this is well illustrated at the Battle of Vijithanagara in the Mahavansa.

d. Logistics- Elephant carts, elephants loads etc.

e. The trapping and ornaments on the Perahara Elephants perhaps gives an idea how Duutugemunu’s Kandula may have been protected against Boiling tar and weapons like spears and Arrows etc. Perhaps these same dress made of many layers of stiff baffolo hide and the chains and necklaces and bells etc not only provided the protection but also was Clinking and the sound of bells of a hundred Tuskers  into battle would have driven fear into the enemy and a morale booster to own troops. This effect was recorded off the microphone attached to the parade commander at the 62 nd Army anniversary parade, by the clinking of his medals heard very clearly over the loud speakers during – “ parikshana pilivalin Perata Ya“.

f. In 1596 the Portuguese Captured 5 Elephants laden with Larins [ Silver Coins] and two elephant laden with Gold Venetians Coins[100,000 of 53 grains each] the part of Sri Lankan Kings Treasury.

Elephant mounted war fare and Foot-soldiers providing cover to Dutugemunu -from a painting of the Dambulla cave, depicting the combat between Kings Dutugemunu and Elara  at the battle of Anuradhapura.



The first mention of Horses in battle is that of Pandukabaya. The two Damedas Sena and Guttila [ Sanskrit names] were Assa -Navika  and historians believe them to be Horse{Assa} traders from India. They may even be the Navy Commander of the Assaka Tribe [ Later Satavahanas Tribe] who were been driven from their lands due to the expansion of the Mayran Empire under Chadragupta and Bindisara.  Prince Gemunu  fought his brother Tissa who fought on the elephant Kandula on horse back.

The Sword and Shield of Asvin- Anuadhapura period.Dress of a cavalryman early Anuradapura


The inscription of  Aggibhuti a brother of an Anikatasa [ A Cavalry officer ]  from Pilikutuva in  17 km from Colombo from the first cent AD.

A Cavalry officer carrying a spear from the paintings of Ajanta Cave in India. Notice the stirrups for better control of the horses.

Dutugemunu’ Senapati Velusumana was a famous fighter on Horseback[RasavahiniII p 83] and may have well been the Commander of Cavalry.


After the arrival of Moors a Ottu-panthiya or Camels were introduced to the Sinhala army. In devale painting of the Elephants,the swords , Javalins, throwing discs and a Camels from Hindagala Temple Paintins is shown below.

A Camel in a Battle scene- Hindagala.

FOOT SOLDIERS.According to the ancient text Arthasastra in Black and reference to the same subject from the Mahavamsa  in Red is given below

Foot soldiers.

The Role of ancient Infantry according to the book was

Bearing arms in all places and seasons, military are the functions of the Infantry.”

Also in the book is

Duties of Superintendent of Foot Soldiers, he should be conversant with the strength or weakness of hereditary , hired, banded, allied, alien and forest troops, with Military operations in water or on high ground, with open or tactical fighting, in trenches or in the open, by day and night and with the employment or absence of employment of foot soldiers in different type of work[.Kangle].

The Book by LN Rangarajan  states that


The special qualifications of the Chief Commander of Infantry

He shall know the use, in Warfare, of Bows and Arrows, Striking Weapons like the Mace and Clubs,Armour and other equipment.[ Basic  requirement to Commander of the other three arms]l


The Chief Commander of Infantry shall know:

(i).The [relative] strengths and weaknesses of the standing army, the territorial army, organised militias, friendly troops, alien troops a tribal forces;

(ii) the tactics to be used for fighting – in valleys or on high ground, of open and covert attacks, trench fighting or from above and  day or night.

(iii) how to keep control over the fitness or otherwise of troops :battle and in peacetime

The Deployment of Foot Soldiers.

Foot soldiers were deployed alone only when the terrain was not conducive to another arms and the troops employed by enemy.

The Military books state that troop was fielded in open and closed order. In close order for troops equipped with Swords, Lances or Spears they were separated from each other by only 26.5 cm, measured by stretched arms. How ever Archers were deployed at a bow string distance[ 225 cm]- Kautiliya.


 Names of used in the ancient world for Weapons of the Foot soldiers     [ Click to read more about weapons of Sinhala  Soldier]

It may be interesting to consider the type of weapons and machines of war used in the Indian sub continent from the very early period, then  look for any evidence if such innovations  or weapon were used by Sri Lankan armies or those armies that invaded us from India or by the mercenary troops employed by our ancient kings, and tactics adopted in the employment or defense of such weapon.


 What and how were they deployed in Battle by our Kings. The actual small groups are not known, but the troop strengths of an army during the Dambedeniya period mid 13 Cent AD as per the book Dambedeniya Asna, states that the Sinhala at that time numbered  24, 25,000 soldiers, 990 Elephants and 890 Cavalry. more likely is correctly interpreted it should be 24 Division consisting of 25,000 soldiers with the horses and elephants.The other incident given by Portuguese Writer of the 16 Cent AD , states that the King of Koote attacked the Portuguese Stockade at the present Colombi harbour under Proyatela rala who had a small battle group of 2000 Foot, 30 Elephants and 150 cavalry. So the ratio is selected for battle according to the terrain, time and might of the enemy forces.


Fixed Machines  according to LN Rangarjan

Saratobhadra,- A machine using a wheel  principle for hurling stone at enemy.

– A similar machine as above to threw Logs. The Sinhalese had some type of simple machines, this was used as Described by PE Peries in Ceylon Portuguese Era-    ” Unaccustomed as  were to deal with walled forts defended by Cannon, the entrenchments of the Sinhalese progressed slowly, but step by step they drew nearer. Earth works were thrown up, and on these were mounted several hundred machines[ Espingardoes- in words used by De Barros(iii.iv.6), some of the calibre of Portuguese bercos, throwing wooden darts ten palms in length  with  feathers made of wild boar hide, which caused much damge at 200 paces. Others threw fire bombs on the thatched roofs with in the fort and thus kept the garrison in a constant state of alarm.

Jamadgnya,- A Machine to shoot arrows- Distance ? or rate of fire?

Bahumukha,-A fixed tower with protection for Many Archers to fire at enemy.

Visvasaghatin, A Preset Beam with release mechanism to fall on enemy

Bahu,- Two beams released to block passage or kill animals

Urdhvababahu-Heavy Pillar released by mechanism.

Arahabahu- Half size of above

samghati- ,A machine used to set fire to Mobile Turrets of enemy.

Parjanyaka, .A fire extinguisher- a machine to pump water


Mobile Machines of War

Pancalika, A Nial studed planks used as obstacle in Moats.

Devadanda,-A beam projectile placed on fortress wall, with nails or without nils..

Sukarika, A leather bag filled with cotton o wool placed on ferret???

Musalayasti,-  A machine to hurl a pike

Hastivaraka, A multiple point Pike -a defense against elephnats.

Talavrnta,A Machine to blow dust – Perhaps a smoke screen or blind the enemy.

Mudgara- A machine that throws a Hammer,

Gada- A machine that hurl a Mace,

Sprktala, A machine that hurl a Mace with sharp nails.,

Kuddala-  Spade ?.,

Asphatima,A catapult

Utpatima,  A machine to pull down pillars

Udghatia, A machine to pull down Towers.

Sataghni,A mobile pillar studded with spikes.

Trisula – A Trident,

Chakra– a Discuss

Catapults Yantamutte

The Chapter and verse number in the ancient Text  Mahawansa  given below , refers to the use of these weapon in battles etc.

Chapter 72. verse 251; King Parakramabhu In  the attack of Pollonnaruva Fortifications “ There followed a Hail of Stones which were hurled by engines, flew here and there vast in size.

The Large Stone Ball from Medamaha-Nuwara now at the Colombo Museum were probably thrown from such machines- Ceylon Portuguese Era- Pg 61. PE Peies.

Ch 83.  V.44- Parakramabahu II , his Nephew  Virabahu battles and defeats the Chandabanus of the Javaka army

“ The good Sinhala warriors, sure in aim, the Archers, shattered in pieces with sharply pointed arrows, in the battle the countless numbers of arrow whizzing against them with their poisoned tips which were  shot swiftly one after the other by the  Javaka soldiers from a machine’.


Weapons with piercing points

Sakti, A  leaf shaped Tip.  on a long pole[ 4 Hastas]

 Prasa, A weapon about Two feet in length  wielded by both arms.

Trasika- A weapon like the above with a tail.

Kunta-    A Long sharp weapon used by Cavalry.

Hattaka- A Three pointed weapon

Bhindipala,-A Broad bladed weapon of Cavalrymen.

Sula- A Spear

TomaraA Weapon 4-5 hastas long with arrow shaped tip. ,

Varahakarna – A weapon with a tip like Pigs ear,

Karpana – A throwing weapon with triangular tip at the two ends with a grip in the middle,

Kanaya –  Arrow like throwing weapon.,


Tese names are mentioned in the following verses in the Mahawansa

Spear: Kunta

25. 1;Dutugemunu places a relic in his Spear and uses it as a royal Standard.

26.9 ; Places same  engaging in water sports, place where Mirisavetiya stands.

36. 47;

96.14; Rajasinghe II

99. 49.

Satti, sattha  69. 20; 70.116;  90.7.

Tomara  24.35; 70.116

Salla  70. 307 –

Lasso 7.20; 10. 55.

Bows  &  Arrows


Made of Tala, Capa, Wood and Horn and known as Karmuka, Kodanda and Druna are Bows.

Murva, Arka, Sana, Gavedha, Venu and Sinews of animals are Bow Strings.

Venu, Sara, Salaka, Dandasana and Naraca are Arrows.

Bow and Arrows   Mahavansa  refreances  6. 29 ; 7 19 ; 25.89 ff,  99. 33; 63.65 ; 35.31; 55. 6; 57.43; 66.27; 70. 114; 72.134; 72.246.

72.250; 74. 96, 74.117 ; 83. 44 ; 96. 14

Poisoned arrows  76. 49; 83.38,83.45.

Gokanna arrows 76. 48.

Archers – 25.82;

69.19; Of one thousand  he made moonlight archers, versed in night fighting.

70. 116; 72.244, 72.322.

The Tips for cutting, piercing and striking re made of Iron, bone or hard wood.

Swords are Nistrimsa, Mandalagra and Asi-yasti.

The Hilts for Swords  are made of Horn of Rhinocerous and Buffalo, the Tusk of Elephants, Wood and Bamboo  Root.

Warrior 4

Sword: [asi] 10.59 f; A palm leaf floating in water Turns into sword in Pandukabya’s hand.

22. 44; 22 53; Queen Viharamaha devi longed to drink the water that cleansed  the Velusumana’s Sword that cut off the head of King Elara General

66. 108 ; Parakramabahu’s Sword

72. 84. Parkraambhu use clash of sword with Gen Rakka forces.

Khagga   25.63; 25.89; 30. 93; 3l. 79; 64. 4; 66.24; 31, 49; 72.102; 88. 74 &c’

Tharu used  in Ch  24.verse 1;Dutugemunu was versed in bearing the Tharu or Sword

69. 22- During Parakrambahu I  he wished people skilled in handling of Swords  should increase in number amoung others

Royal swords  72. 102-4). The Sinhala Sword

Razor type  Weapons are Parasu, Kuthara, Pattasa, Khanitra, Spade, Saw and Kandacchedana.

Stone weapons – Stones for use in Sling Machines, and Hand Slings and Mill stones Machine shooting  stone.

Catapults Yantamutte

72.251; King Parakramabhu In  the attack of Pollonnaruva Fortifications “ There followed a Hail of Stones which were hurled by engines, flew here and there vast in size.

Armour for Soldiers.

Vests/ Helmets, Neck Guards, Cuirss a piece of armour with breast plate and back plate  joined., Robes, Coat of Mail, Breast Plate and Thigh Guard

a. A coat of Mail or metal rings or metal plates,

b. Armour of Fabrics combined with skins , Hoofs and Horns of Dolphins, Rhinocerous, Dhenuka, Elephants and Bulls are armoured vests.


Box, Leather Shields, Hastikarna, Talamula, Dhamanika, Kapata, Aparatihata and balahakanta

Armour (kavaca) 69. 7, 69.38.

Shield  25.58, 25.62 ff.; 67. 42; 99.48.

Doublet of buffalo hide 74. 73

CIubs  clubs 1

23. 58; Theraputtabaya , a General  of Dutugemunu  who  used a Club to break down Coconut and Palm trees. King Kavantissa bade him and other 9 Warriors to raise ten each, like the ten raise warriors , who in turn raised 10 each ,formed thousand one hundred and ten Warriors.

69. 17-He raised several thousand  soldiers armed with Clubs, tall men and strong and the war appliance.

The battle of Dutugemunu and Elara is shown below from Dambulla caves.Foot Soldiers carrying Swords and circular small Shields. Scabbards too are slung on a cross-belt. The uniform worn seems to be tight fitting short trouser. The soldiers depicted has military cut  mustaches.



  1. These facts are amazing. Who is the writer?

  2. Pingback: Roar Life A Time Before Tuk Tuks And Buses Hit The Streets: How Our Ancestors Travelled The Island

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