What Is a Sepoy?

Sepoys were the local Indian soldiers during British colonization of India.
An Indian sepoy stands sentry duty at a fort on Khyber Pass in 1895. Library of Congress Prints and Photos Collection

A sepoy was the name given to an Indian infantryman employed by the armies of the British East India Company from 1700 to 1857 and later by the British Indian Army from 1858 to 1947. That change of control in colonial India, from the BEIC to the British government, actually came about as a result of the sepoys — or more specifically, because of the Indian Uprising of 1857, which is also known as the "Sepoy Mutiny."

Originally, the word "sepoy" was used somewhat derogatorily by the British because it denoted a relatively untrained local militia man. Later in the British East India Company's tenure, it was extended to mean even the ablest of native foot-soldiers.

Origins and Perpetuations of the Word

The term "sepoy" comes from the Urdu word "sipahi," which is itself derived from the Persian word "sipah," meaning "army" or "horseman." For much of Persian history — from at least the Parthian era on, — there was not much distinction between a soldier and a horseman. Ironically, despite the word's meaning, Indian cavalrymen in British India were not called sepoys, but "sowars."

In the Ottoman Empire in what is now Turkey, the word " sipahiwas still used for cavalry troopers. However, the British took their usage from the Mughal Empire, which used "sepahi" to designate Indian infantry soldiers. Perhaps as the Mughals were descended from some of the greatest cavalry fighters of Central Asia, they did not feel that Indian soldiers qualified as real cavalrymen.

In any case, the Mughals armed their sepoys with all the latest weapons technology of the day. They carried rockets, grenades, and matchlock rifles by the time of Aurangzeb who reigned from 1658 to 1707.  

British and Modern Usage

When the British began to use sepoys, they recruited them from Bombay and Madras, but only men from the higher castes were considered eligible to serve as soldiers.

Sepoys in British units were supplied with weapons, unlike some of those who served local rulers.

The pay was approximately the same, regardless of the employer, but the British were much more punctual about paying their soldiers regularly. They also provided rations rather than expecting the men to steal food from local villagers as they passed through a region.

After the Sepoy Mutiny of 1857, the British were hesitant to trust either Hindu or Muslim sepoys again. The soldiers from both major religions had joined the uprising, fueled by rumors (perhaps accurate) that the new rifle cartridges supplied by the British were greased with pork and beef tallow. Sepoys had to tear the cartridges open with their teeth, which meant that Hindus were ingesting sacred cattle, while Muslims were accidentally eating unclean pork. After this, the British for decades recruited most of their sepoys from among the Sikh religion instead.

The sepoys fought for the BEIC and the British Raj not only within greater India ​but also in Southeast Asia, the Middle East, East Africa and even Europe during World War I and World War II. In fact, more than 1 million Indian troops served in the name of the U.K. during the First World War.

Today, the armies of India, Pakistan, Nepal and Bangladesh all still use the word sepoy to designate soldiers at the rank of private.