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A hero’s guide to Indian archery

A painting of Arjuna and Krishna riding in a chariot pulled by four white horses

This painting is from the 1800s and shows Arjuna and Krishna in a chariot. If you look really closely, you can see a bow and quiver of arrows behind Arjuna (to the right) © The Trustees of the British Museum/(CC BY-NC-SA 4.0)

What weapon should a hero have? You might think a sword or an axe would be a good choice but in Ancient India the answer was a bow and arrow. Dhanurveda, or ‘the science of archery’ was one of the most prized skills a warrior could have. If you wanted to be a member of the Indian warrior-elite you needed a vehicle, a weapon and a very clear way of shooting.

Riding in style

Ancient Indian armies had loads of archers who fought on foot but these were generally low-ranking soldiers. If you wanted to be one of the best archers, the true elite, you rode into battle in a chariot. The chariots rushed towards the enemy, the archers shot their arrows and were then carried away at speed, hopefully before the enemy could respond. As time went on and they bred bigger and stronger horses, Indian archers rode into battle on horseback. Some went even one bigger and shot their arrows from the back of elephants!

Elephant armour with two riders on the back

This is a suit of armour for an elephant…have you ever seen something like it before? It is from India and dates from 17th-18th century. You can see how someone might ride on the back of the elephant into battle.

Fun Fact: Arjuna was not the only Indian religious hero who was shown to be a master archer. The Hindu demigod Rama, the tenth Guru of Sikhism, Guru Gobind Dingh Ji, and the founder of Buddhism, Siddhartha Gautama, are all depicted as being skilled with a bow.

Choose your weapon!

Composite bow without string used by archers from India 1700-1799

This composite bow is from India was made in the 1700s. The bow is not strung, which means it is curved the opposite way how it curves when strung. It looks a bit like a crab with its claws in front of its body.

There were lots of types of bow in India through history. Some Indian bows were similar to medieval English bows, like the ones that Robin Hood might have used (go to this article so you can read all about them), but they used different types of wood or even bamboo to make them. Some were made of solid steel to make them tougher than the wooden ones. The most widespread and popular type of Indian bow, the composite bow, was different again! It was made of wood, horn and sinew (bits of animal muscle, yuck!) glued together. The horn and sinew made the bow stronger and more springy which gave the bow more power. But which type did Arjuna use? The Mahabharata does not say, although we can rule out steel bows. They were only made in the 1700s and 1800s. So a few thousand years too late.

Fun Fact: India was ruled over by the Mughal Empire between the 16th and 18th centuries and there are surviving bows from this time in our collection. Lots of them are  ‘crab bows’. They are called this because when the bow does not have a string on it and the limbs of the bow are not pulled tense, the limbs relax. They make a sharply angled shape that looks like a crab with its front claws. Just like the collection piece pictured above.

Shooting like a demi-god


Pale green jade thumb ring

This thumb ring is made from a very pale green jade (a type of stone). It is extended out at one side so the archer can hold the bow string with their thumb and not rip the skin off their thumb. It is from India and was made in the 1700s

Just like the bows, the Indian way of shooting was different to the technique used by Robin Hood and most European archers. And this is not even taking into consideration that the Indian archers would shoot from horse or elephant back! Instead of using three fingers to pull the string, most archers in Asia (including India) wrapped their thumb around the string and pulled. While this technique is a lot quicker, it really hurts after a while because you are using one thumb to pull the bow’s full weight. So, the archers wore a special thumb ring made of a strong material like leather, jade, metal, ivory or bone to help take the force of the bow and protect their thumbs.

Fun Fact: Some pictures of Indian archers have thumb rings on each hand. Why? Because they could shoot a bow using either their right or left hand! Showoffs.

Hit the bullseye

It is safe to say, the mounted archers of Ancient India were incredible skilled warriors. They trained for years to master bowmen and riders. Arjuna, frankly, makes all of this look easy! It is no wonder that he is looked up to as a hero.

Other fun things to do

Watch the story telling of how Arjuna helped the God of fire, Argni against Indra, the God of War. Then read all about the epic story of Arjuna and the Mahabharata. Then download the Arjuna Fun Activity Pack (pdf, 2MB) to dive into the world of Mahabharata and the Pandavas brothers, and see how to sign ‘Archer’ in British Sign Language and Makaton.

Alternative communication formats

Please contact us if you require any of our downloadable documents in an alternative format.

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