In the Royal Armories at Leeds is a remarkable suit of armour, it is the suit used for a Mughal war elephant. It is not a complete set but it is close to complete and is displayed on a life size elephant mannequin. I visited the Royal Armouries recently and this was one artifact I really wanted to see. It was upstairs in the Oriental Gallery, dominating the space that it was in. The elephant and riders looked like they were ready for action. On the information boards around the actual armour were recreations of parts of the armour to give visitors a feel of what the armour was like.
The armour is remarkable and is comprised of over 8 450 iron plates. According to the Royal Armouries Souvenir Guidebook it was entered into the Guiness Book of Records as the largest and heaviest suit of armour in the world. You can see from the picture below how the armour was assembled, with strips of iron and chain mail, as well as square, decorative pieces. The armour is not complete and the front two holes in the armour above the eyes probably would have held some form of shield like protection for the driver.
The signboard accompanying the display says that it was acquired between 1798 and 1800 by Lady Clive, wife of Edward, the Second Lord Clive. The armour was sent to England in 1801 where it was displayed at Powis Castle until it was presented to the Royal Armouries in 1962. Stories that it had been captured at the Battle of Plassey in 1757 are not true.
Close up of armour
I did a bit of reading to find out more about the use of elephants in the Mughal Army as I thought the armour left me with a burning question as to why have it. Why encase an elephant in armour like this in the 1600s, what was the role of the elephant on the battlefield.
The book on Mughal Warfare by J.J.L. Gommans was the best source of information on Mughal war elephants. The elephant had a ceremonial and almost power status in the traditional Mughal court. It did have a primary role on the battlefield in early Mughal armies but was supplanted by the faster horse archer. Despite this there were often several thousands, if not tens of thousands of elephants in the Mughal army. The elephant could serve the role of a command platform to keep the general above the crowd of the battle, although it also meant that if the the soldiers saw an empty seat on top of an elephant that they may think that the general was dead and flee. The elephant at the Royal Armouries is unlikely to be a command elephant because it lacks the special seat for a commander to sit on. Elephants were also kept in the reserve to move in as a very obvious block or counter penetration force if the Mughal battle line was broken. As gunpowder weapons became more prevalent on the Indian battlefield the elephant lost its place even more. It was relegated to being a beast of burden to move weapons and supplies to the front line. It did however maintain the besieging role to pull down fortifications.
The elephant was as much a victim of gunpowder as was the European knight. Unlike the knight however, the elephant did not evolve on the battlefield to a new role but disappeared from the front lines and was pushed further back. The armour at the Royal Armouries is probably for a transport or supply elephant just as modern armies place armour on some supply vehicles.
The armour is an impressive sight and well worth a visit.
The elephant from the top