Looking Through Broken Glass: Rajput Victories In Indian History
In light of the ongoing trashing of Rajput history, we revisit some important historical events relating to the Rajputs that do not find space in our school history books and thus don’t get to shape our idea of Indian history.
One of the first texts that students of history encounter in their formal education is a famous book titled What is History by the English historian E H Carr. In its first chapter, Carr lays bare the surprisingly arbitrary process through which historians filter events from the past, depending on various factors ranging from the easy accessibility of certain historical data to the historian’s bias, and how, over a period of time, these events acquire the status of established historical fact.
This, of course, doesn’t mean that each history is as good as the other, Carr warns us, but simply that the histories that get passed down to us are heavily influenced by the biases – conscious or unconscious – of those who wrote them.
With the outrage over Padmavaat and the actions of the Karni Sena, ostensibly to protect the ‘values’ and ‘history’ of the Rajput community, a scathing debate has opened up on these supposed ‘values’ and the history that the community represents.
While there have been various perspectives put forward, certain commentators on social media have unfortunately resorted to a gross oversimplification and, in some cases, outright falsification of historical fact to show the history of the Rajput community in a poor light.
According to such commentators, the history of Rajputs has been one of continuous defeats at the hands of all adversaries, and the dastardly acts of the Karni Sena at the present moment are an extension of the same.
Any serious student of history knows that history is rarely a linear sequence of events with clear lines drawn between the victor and the vanquished, the good and the evil, the noble and the treacherous. Like life, history too is complex and multifaceted and resists being bracketed into simplistic categories. However, within such a subjective interpretation of history, certain events stand out, which we then treat as historical fact and choose to pass on to later generations as ‘the history’. Which of these events we choose to pluck from the infinitely vast fabric of history, plays a determining role in how a society and a nation come to view their past.
In light of the ongoing trashing of Rajput history, it would perhaps serve a useful purpose for all of us to revisit some important historical events relating to the Rajputs that do not find space in our school history books and thus don’t get to shape our idea of Indian history.
Presented below is a list of a few of the major victories that Rajputs achieved over some of their adversaries through the centuries, selected arbitrarily over different periods of time across Indian history.
1. Nagabhata 1 Pushes the Arabs Across the Indus (c 740 AD)
Nagabhata 1 was the founder of the imperial Gurjara-Pratihara dynasty that ruled most of present-day Rajasthan, Gujarat, Sindh and Madhya Pradesh from its capital at Ujjain and later Kannauj during the seventh to eleventh centuries AD. The Gurjara-Pratiharas are believed to be the ethnic predecessor of the modern-day Rajputs. It was under Nagabhata 1 that the first waves of Arab invasions rocked the south-western frontier of the Indian subcontinent. Led first by Muhammad bin Qasim and later by Al Junayd, the Arabs not only conquered Sindh and Multan but also made inroads into Rajasthan and Gujarat, thus bringing them into conflict with the Gurjara-Pratiharas. However, the Gurjara-Pratiharas under Nagabhata 1 not only checked the Arab advance into Gujarat but also forced them to retreat as far as the west bank of the Indus River.
The Gurjara-Pratihara kings apart from being renowned warriors, were also magnificent builders. The famous Khajuraho temples, now a UNESCO world heritage site, were built by them, so were a number of similar temples all across western India including the temples at Osian near Rajasthan. The imperial Pratihara king bore the title ‘Maharajadhiraj’ of Aryavarta.
2. Prithviraj Chauhan Crushes Mu’izz-ud-Din Ghori – First Battle of Tarain (1191 AD)
Perhaps the most well-known of all Rajput victories, the story of Prithviraj Chauhan hardly needs retelling. Prithviraj inherited the north Indian dominions of the erstwhile Gurjara-Pratihara dynasty and expanded them to include territories as far north-west as Punjab. By this time, successive Arab invasions of the subcontinent had fizzled, both due to internal dissensions within the Caliphate and the stiff resistance faced by the Arabs from Indian kings such as the Gurjara-Pratiharas, Rashtrakutas and Chalukyas. However, Islam had by now spread to most of Afghanistan, and the kings of Ghor, having newly been initiated into the young Islamic creed, swept down into the Indian plains with all the zeal of the newly converted. Having taken the Chauhan fortress at Bathinda in Punjab, Mu’izz-ud-Din Ghori was confronted with the wrath of the Rajput army that marched north from Delhi to meet him. The battle took place in a small town called Tarori, in present-day Haryana, in which Ghori was decisively routed. Prithviraj decided not to pursue his enemy, settling instead to retake his fortress at Bathinda. As history stands witness, it was to be a costly mistake.
3. The Katoch Rajputs of Kangra Annihilate Muhammad bin Tughlaq’s China Army (1333 AD)
Muhammad bin Tughlaq has been described as the Caligula of India – a man possessed by megalomania, ambition and ineptitude in equal measure. Tughlaq dreamed of being a world conqueror like Alexander, but sadly possessed neither the skill nor the temperament of an Alexander or a Genghis Khan. The result was that his reign was marked by one spectacular military and administrative failure after another. What he lacked in ability, Tughlaq made up for with cruelty. Needless to say, his ruthless reign was filled with rebellions all over the country.
One of Tughlaq’s most fantastical schemes was to conquer China and Tibet by way of Punjab and modern-day Himachal. Mughal geography, especially of trans-Himalayan regions, was not very well-developed, and Tughlaq believed that all he needed to do was cross the kingdom of Kangra in the Shiwalik foothills and he would be in China. Convinced, he set about preparing a large army of 100,000 men under the command of a certain Malik Nikpai to subdue the kingdom of Kangra, which would then supposedly open the gateways to the conquest of China. However, sitting in the simmering heat of the Delhi plains, Tughlaq had not accounted for the harsh Himalayan cold or the pluckiness of the Katoch Rajputs who ruled the kingdom of Kangra from their seat at the ancient Kangra fort.
As Tughlaq’s grand army advanced into Kangra, the fort defended by a few thousand Rajputs quickly fell, but the Rajputs dispersed into the hills higher up the Kangra valley, from where they led a continuous assault on the invaders. The imperial army soon learned the importance of geography as the gentle foothills of Kangra gave way, without warning, to the majestic, snow-clad peaks of the Dhauladhar range of the Himalayas, where some of the prominent peaks rise as high as over 5,500m above the sea level. Unable to find their way through the high mountains, and pushed to their limits by the inclement weather, the army was forced to take shelter in a narrow pass.
However, unknown to them, the hills above the pass were commanded by the Katoch Rajputs and the local hill men who began raining upon the Tughlaq army an avalanche of arrows, boulders and tree trunks. Unable to extricate themselves from the narrow pass they had entered, the army was now left like sitting ducks under the assault of the hill men. The result was that the imperial Tughlaq army was destroyed almost to a man. Of the entire invading army of 100,000, only the commander, Nikpai, and 10 other men managed to return to Delhi.
This expedition was perhaps the biggest embarrassment the Tughlaq dynasty was to suffer.
4. Rana Hammir leads the Rajput Renaissance Against Muhammad bin Tughlaq (1336-1340 AD)
Brought back to earth by his humiliating defeat against the Katoch Rajputs of Kangra, and his fanciful dreams of conquering China shattered, Muhammad bin Tughlaq now set his mind to deal with a more pragmatic and immediate problem – subduing the Rajputs of Rajasthan.
Rajasthan had been annexed to the Islamic Sultanates ruling from Delhi after Alauddin Khilji’s famous conquests of Chittor and Gujarat. However, the Rajputs soon recovered from their losses and set about regaining their territory, piece by piece. The leader of this Rajput renaissance was Rana Hammir Singh of Mewar (southern Rajasthan including Chittor and Udaipur).
Believed to be a distant kinsman of Rana Ratan Singh, who had perished during the earlier jauhar at Chittor, Hammir first reclaimed his native Mewar before assisting the rulers of neighbouring Marwar (Jodhpur) in reclaiming their territory. The Rajputs got some indirect assistance from the Vijayanagara kingdom to the south that had arisen in direct challenge to the increasing Muslim authority in the south. As Harihara and Bukka Raya of the Vijayanagara dynasty harassed the southern dominions, Muhammad bin Tughlaq’s empire, the Rajputs under Hammir Singh simultaneously pushed back the Tughlaqs bit by bit from Rajasthan. The result of this two-fold assault was that the Tughlaq empire folded in like cardboard in front of Tughlaq’s eyes.
Certain Rajput sources also talk of a Battle of Singoli fought in 1336 between Rana Hammir and Muhammad bin Tughlaq in which the latter was defeated. However, we do not find any mention of the battle in the otherwise detailed and reliable Muslim sources. What we do know for a fact, however, is that Muhammad bin Tughlaq lost control of most of Rajasthan including Mewar and Marwar due to the resistance put up by Rana Hammir.
Rajasthan would stay clear of Muslim rule throughout the rule of the next two dynasties that came to power in Delhi – the Sayyid and the Lodi dynasty. The Lodis repeatedly tried to reassert their control over Rajasthan; however, they lost, once again, to the Sisodia Rajputs of Mewar.
5. Battles of Khatoli and Dholpur – Rana Sanga Defeats Ibrahim Khan Lodhi (1518-19 AD)
The Afghan Lodis replaced the Tughlaqs and the Saiyids as the reigning monarchs in Delhi at the start of the sixteenth century. However, Rajputs continued to remain a thorn in their flesh. Liberated in the 1330s from Muslim rule, most of Rajasthan continued to remain independent, operating politically as a loosely bound confederacy of Rajput states under the informal but widely acknowledged suzerainty of the Maharanas of Mewar.
Alarmed at the power of the Rajput confederacy, Ibrahim Khan Lodi was left with no choice but to take to the battlefield. The resultant battles of Khatoli (1518), fought near present-day Kota, and the battle of Dholpur (1519) resulted in the complete rout of the Afghans. The victory brought the Rajputs within a day’s march from Agra and Delhi, while also putting them in control of almost all of Malwa (central India).
The Lodis spent the next few years that were left to them, by providence, in constant fear of the Rajputs. By the time the Lodis were finally extinguished by Babur, at the first battle of Panipat in 1526, their empire had shrunk to only a fragment of the early Islamic conquests of Alauddin Khilji and Qutb-ud-Din Aibak.
The Rajputs meanwhile had grown to be the strongest military power in north India, having outlived and outlasted all their adversaries – the Arabs, the Turks and the Afghans – over the last 500 years. They were soon to be engaged in another fight unto death with the latest arrivals to the subcontinent – the Mughals. The latter brought to the battlefield new military technologies, especially gunpowder, which became the deciding factor in their early successes against the Rajputs.
In fact, so important was the knowledge and use of gunpowder to the establishment of Mughal Empire in India that collectively the Mughal, the Ottoman and the Safavid Empire (Iran) are known as the Gunpowder Empires.
However, Rajputs would fight against, and eventually outlast, this latest adversary too.
6. Mewar’s Victories over Malwa and Gujarat Sultanates (Fifteenth and Sixteenth Centuries)
Although the Rajput Confederacy led by Rana Sanga of Mewar lost to Babur at the Battle of Khanwa, it was but a temporary setback to Rajput power in north-central India. Content to let the Mughals consolidate their control over Punjab, Gangetic Plains and Bengal, the Rajputs of Mewar (Udaipur) established regional hegemony in central and western India by repeatedly subduing the Muslim sultanates of Gujarat and Malwa.
The Malwa sultanate was ruled by a branch of the Khilji Afghans (no relation to Alauddin), who, for a brief time, became the paramount power in north India before falling to the Rajputs. The Gujarat sultanate controlled the lucrative coastal trade of Gujarat and had enviable financial resources at its disposal, which it used to fund its constant warfare against the Rajputs.
The rivalry between the two Muslim sultanates, on the one hand, and the Rajput state of Mewar, on the other hand, was in fact over a century-old and throughout the fifteenth century, the sultanates had variously attempted to conquer the Rajput Kingdom of Mewar – fighting no less than 10 major wars – but ended up defeated on almost every occasion.
In 1448 AD, the Rana Kumbha of Mewar (after whom the famous fort of Kumbhalgarh is named) defeated a combined army of the Sultanates of Malwa and Gujarat. In commemoration of this victory, he had the famous Vijay Stambh (victory tower) erected at the fort of Chittorgarh. A remarkable feature of the Vijay Stambh is that apart from odes to Hindu and Jain gods, it also pays homage to the Muslim mercenaries who served in the Rana’s armies as well as the Muslim subjects who lived in his dominions by having the word Allah carved in Arabic around two stories of the pillar.
7. Durgadas Rathore and The Thirty Years War Between Marwar and the Mughal Empire (1678-1707 AD)
Durgadas Rathore is one of those figures of Indian history whose name remains alien to most Indians, but who would have been justly celebrated as a national hero had he been born in any other nation.
A loyalist of the king of Marwar (Jodhpur), Durgadas Rathore stood up to the might of Aurangzeb as the latter tried to deviously annex the kingdom to his domains. The kings of Jodhpur had earlier made their peace with the Mughals in return for nominal suzerainty over their domains. The ruler of Marwar, Jaswant Singh, was serving the Mughal state as a high-ranking general posted in Jamrud, Afghanistan. However, when Jaswant Singh died in Afghanistan, and factional feuds among the Rathore nobles broke out over the control of the kingdom of Marwar, Aurangzeb saw an opportunity to annex the kingdom completely to the Mughal state and depose of the ruling Rathore Rajputs. As the Mughal armies advanced on Jodhpur, Durgadas Rathore fled the city with the sole surviving son and heir of Jaswant Singh – the infant Ajit Singh.
For the next three decades, as the young Rajput Ajit Singh came of age, Durgadas Rathore lived as a fugitive and fought a series of battles against the Mughal army with his faithful band of followers. He also attempted to forge alliances with various powers in his fight against Aurangzeb – including the Marathas and Aurangzeb’s rebellious son, Prince Akbar. Though he achieved limited success in these battles, his continued rebellion remained a constant source of concern to Aurangzeb, who tried to entice him to enter the Mughal service by making repeated offers of land and rank. Eventually, after the death of Aurangzeb in 1707, Durgadas seized Jodhpur and expelled the occupying Mughal forces. Ajit Singh Rathore was installed as the rightful heir to the throne of Jodhpur and Marwar regained its independence.
8. Siege of Auwa During the Great Rebellion of 1857
Auwa is a principality located some 120km to the south of Jodhpur in the Pali-Marwar region. When the great rebellion broke out in 1857, Auwa was ruled by the Champawat clan of the Rathore Rajputs. The city of Neemuch in nearby Madhya Pradesh had been a major British cantonment with a large number of sepoys stationed there. As some of the rebel sepoys fled from the Neemuch cantonment after shooting their British officers, they took shelter in Marwar. The Rathores of Auwa, already unhappy with the overwhelming British control over their affairs, raised the standard of revolt against the British. Led by their chief, Thakur Kushal Singh Rathore, some 5,000 Rajputs of Auwa rose up in arms against the British.
British reinforcements soon arrived from Jodhpur, led by Captain Mason, who was the British residency officer at Jodhpur. However, Mason was shot dead by the Rajputs, his head cut off and hung on the walls of the fort of Auwa. As the fighting grew intense and the Rajputs showed no sign of breaking, close to 30,000 troops arrived from the British governor general for Rajputana stationed at Ajmer. At the end of a nearly six-month-long siege, the fort of Auwa was stormed and most of the Rajputs killed. The leader, Thakur Kushal Singh, managed to escape and continued to rouse the Bhils and Rajputs in the countryside to rise in revolt against the British, though with little success.
Kushal Singh eventually surrendered to the British in 1860 and was exiled to Udaipur, where he died a broken man.
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