We separate the truth from the myths about some indomitable Rajput women of the 16th century.
We often hear of tales of valour of the Rajput women, but most of them consist of women dying heroically in defence of their honour, or of amazing sacrifice, or of mothers or wives inspiring their menfolk to greater heroism. Very seldom do we come across tales of women as doers and warriors.
Here it is interesting to look at the royal house of the Sisodias in Chittor in the early 1500s. There was a slew of unusual women who were married into the family or associated with them, and went on to become known, in a time when women were anonymous. They were famous not for their children, or for self-immolation, or mindless sacrifice; they were warriors, administrators, rulers and poets, and showed decisiveness and independence of thought. This cannot have been an accident. There must have been some encouragement of freedom of expression in the House of Sisodia in that period. These women were not suppressed, but allowed to express themselves. What is also interesting is that many of them were trained to fight.
I would like to recount the stories of Tarabai, Karmavati, Jawaharbai and Mirabai, who were daughters-in-law and granddaughters-in-law of Rana Raimal of Chittor, and who lived as members of the same family in the early 1500s. A point to note is that Karmavati, Jawaharbai and Mirabai were all widows who did not commit sati, and came into prominence as widows. I would also like to debunk two of our favourite legends—the legend of Rani Karmavati sending a rakhi to Humayun and his chivalrously rushing to succour her, arriving too late to save her from Jauhar, as also the one of Akbar going in disguise along with Tansen to listen to Mirabai sing.
Both these much beloved stories are unfortunately not borne out by cold facts, which point to a totally different account. The stories are based on legends recounted by bards, some of which were popularised by Colonel James Tod, who recorded the legends of Rajasthan during his stint as British Resident in the early 19th century in his extensive Annals and Antiquities of Rajasthan.
To give an idea of the context: at the beginning of the 1500s, India was divided into many warring states which had formed when the Tughlaq empire broke apart following the destruction of Delhi by Timur in 1398. The Sultanate in Delhi, ruled by the Lodis, was one of these states, by no means the most powerful or the richest. Two of the most powerful and richest kingdoms were those of Mewar with its capital at Chittor, and Gujarat, with its capital at Ahmedabad. Other kingdoms in the north were the numerous Rajput kingdoms, Bengal, Malwa, Jaunpur, Gondwana and Sindh, who all warred against each other. The Deccan Sultanate and Vijayanagar faced off against each other in the south.
The story of Tarabai, the warrior wife of Prithviraj, the second son of Rana Raimal, is recounted by Tod, and of course must be taken with a pinch of salt. Tarabai was the daughter of Rao Surthan, the ruler of Toda near Ajmer, who had been dispossessed by Pathans. It is certainly a romance with a difference. As Tod puts it: “Stimulated by the reverses of her family, and by the incentives of its ancient glory, Tara Bai, scorning the habiliments and occupations of her sex, learned to guide the war-horse, and throw with unerring aim the arrow from his back, even while at speed. Armed with the bow and quiver, and mounted on a fiery Kathiawar, she joined the cavalcade in their unsuccessful attempts to wrest Toda from the Afghan. Jaimall, the third son of Rana Raemall, in person made proposals for her hand. ‘Redeem Toda,’ said the star (Tara) of Radnor, ‘and my hand is thine.’ He assented to the terms: but evincing a rude determination to be possessed of the prize ere he had earned it, he was slain by the indignant father.” Jaimal was looked upon as the heir to the throne as both his older brothers, Sanga and Prithviraj, were in exile.
When Rana Raimal heard, in the words of Tod: “The Rana, when incited to revenge, replied with a magnanimity which deserves to be recorded, ‘that he who had thus dared to insult the honour of a father, and that father in distress, richly merited his fate’; and in proof of his disavowal of such a son he conferred on the Solanki the district of Radnor.”
Prithviraj, the Rana’s second son, now came forward to help Tarabai. They joined the cavalcade in Toda during Moharram with 500 horseman. They managed to kill the Afghan leader viewing the procession from the balcony: “the lance of Prithiraj and an arrow from the bow of his Amazonian bride stretched him on the floor.” In the ensuing confusion they captured the fort, Tarabai successfully chasing off a war elephant with her sword. They restored the city to Rao Surthan, and were granted Kumbhalgarh by the Rana, where they lived happily, attacking nearby forts together.
Unfortunately Prithviraj was poisoned by his brother-in-law, whom he punished for mistreating his sister, and Tarabai thereafter committed sati. Rana Sanga then succeeded Rana Raimal, and was an extremely powerful ruler. He was however defeated by Babur in 1527 in the battle of Khanua, and died in 1528 of his wounds. His heir apparent, Bhojraj, who had been married to the saint poet Mirabai, had already died on the battlefield the previous year. Rana Sanga was thus succeeded by his son Ratansingh, who died in a quarrel with Rani Karmavati’s brother in 1531. The ruler now was Rana Sanga’s teenage son, Vikramaditya, under the aegis of his mother Rani Karmavati of Bundi.
Vikramaditya was extremely unpopular. He insulted the Rajput chiefs, often playing practical jokes on them like getting their clothes stitched together stealthily while they sat in court, so that they would trip when they stood up. Not surprisingly, the nobles soon stopped attending court, and went back to their provinces. Vikramaditya maintained an army of pahalwans or paiks, who were not from the feudal nobility. Bahadurshah, the king of Gujarat, saw this as an opportunity. The two kingdoms had been feuding for centuries, and he was still smarting from his father’s defeat by Rana Sanga, where the royal crown had been carried away. Bahadurshah had briefly taken shelter in Chittor when he was fleeing from his father, and had collaborated with Rana Ratansingh during the conquest of Malwa. Clearly, in politics, there are no permanent enemies or permanent friends, only permanent interests.
When Bahadurshah ascended the throne of Gujarat in 1526, he set out on an extremely successful career of conquest. The Portuguese were now in Gujarat, and he inducted foreign guns and gunners, especially Portuguese in origin. Cannon had an explosive introduction into India after Babur had won the battle of Panipat in 1526 using the firearm. Actually, after the invention of cannon, forts stopped being able to resist prolonged sieges. Any wall would eventually crumble with prolonged bombardment—the walls of Constantinople which had held out for a thousand years against hundreds of invasions and sieges fell before the cannon of Mehmet II in 1453.
In Europe, this is when you see the spacious palaces and mansions of the nobility now being built on the plains, as there was not much advantage in living in cramped forts any more. So in 1533, Bahadurshah moved on Chittor with a vast army, for his first siege of the fort. Rana Vikramaditya faced him en route with his pahalwan troops, lost the battle, and fled. Bahadurshah was now camped around Chittor. Rani Karmavati asked for help from many quarters, including the Mughal emperor Humayun. Humayun had ascended the throne of Delhi in 1530, and was having a hard time containing the wars across the country. The Afghans who had dominated India under the Lodis had fled to neighbouring kingdoms and were attempting to win back their kingdom. His own family members were also fomenting rebellion.
To contain Bahadur, in January 1533, Humayun moved to Gwalior with his troops and camped there for the next two months. He was a threatening presence for Bahdurshah, though that did not prompt him to raise the siege. Despairing of help, in March 1533, the rani concluded a humiliating treaty with Bahadurshah which entailed the surrender of the conquered districts of Malwa, the jewelled crown and belt taken from Mahmud II of Gujarat, 10 elephants, 100 horses, and five crores of tankas. Bahadur also conquered and kept the territories of Ranthambor, Ajmer and Nagore. Rana Vikramaditya came back to rule. In legend, he is the king who tormented his elder brother’s widow Saint Mirabai, who was living in Chittor at this time; as recorded in her poems, he sent her snakes, and bowls of poison. Her cousin Jaimal, the prince of Merta, came and took her to Merta in 1534 to keep her safe.
This was actually a blessing in disguise for her because of what was to transpire. (Rao Jaimal of Merta attained fame later as the leader of the defence of Chittor against Akbar in 1567. He was killed by a shot fired by Akbar himself one morning while inspecting the defences, and Chittor soon fell. Impressed by his defence of the fort, Akbar had a statue made of Jaimal, and his co-commander Patta, riding elephants, and had them placed outside his fort in Agra. These statues later stood outside the Delhi gate of the Red Fort right until the demise of the Mughal empire.) In 1534, Humayun founded the city of Dinpanah in Delhi—the Purana Qila almost exactly imitates in style the buildings of Samarkand built by his ancestors. He received a beautiful letter from Bahadurshah congratulating him on the completion of Dinpanah in June, 1534, and he responded by generously permitting him to retain all his late conquests—Malwa, Raisen, Ranthambhor, Ajmer and Nagore—and generally professing amity and goodwill.
Humayun was continuously struggling to fight with the Afghans, especially in the rich province of Bengal. The problem was growing serious with his sister’s husband Muhammad Zaman joining the rebels in Bengal. His troops successfully defeated the mirzas. However, the problem in Bihar was growing worse, and in September 1534, Humayun set out from Agra to go east. With Humayun out of the way, Bahadurshah now thought he had a good opportunity to actually become the most powerful king in India. He besieged Chittor in November 1934, and sent troops under Tatar Khan, a scion of the dispossessed Lodi family, to attack Delhi. Many think that Sher Khan in Bihar and Bahadurshah were coordinating activities. Chittor was now surrounded. Neither Vikramaditya nor Karmavati’s infant son Udaysingh was in the fort—they had been sent off to Bundi for safekeeping.
The defences were led by Rani Karmavati. She had managed to convince many nobles to join her for the honour of Chittor. This, now, is the story as per Tod. Bahadurshah, the Sultan of Gujarat, attacked Chittor. When Karmavati asked the Rajput nobles for help, they agreed on the condition that Rana Vikramaditya, who had offended many of them, was sent away. She sent both her sons, Vikramaditya and Udaysingh, away from Chittor to Bundi. Realising the danger, she sent a rakhi to Humayun in Bengal, claiming him as her brother who should come to rescue of his sister. Humayun rushed back. However, he did not reach in time. The fort was breached by cannon with the help of firanghi gunners (probably Portuguese) and the defenders of Chittor commited Jauhar in March 1535—13,000 women hurriedly burnt themselves, and the men fought to the death. This is the second shakha of Chittor. Humayun, grief-stricken, reached in April and defeated Bahadurshah. He conquered Gujarat and Malwa, and restored Rana Vikramaditya to the throne of Chittor.
However, many histories written in that period tell differently, and also the dates of Humayun’s movements are available. The version recounted by Kaviraj Shyamaldas in the Vir Vinod, the official history of Mewar commissioned by the Rana in the 19th century, which he based on Mewar documents available to him, and the Baburnama is as follows. Rani Karmavati had moved to the fort of Ranthambor with her sons Vikramaditya and Udaysingh when her stepson Ratansingh became the Rana in 1528. Worried for her children’s safety, she sent a rakhi to Humayun, and asked Babur for protection for her children against their stepbrother, and promised territory in return for help to secure the kingdom for her son. Here one must remember that her husband Rana Sanga had died fighting Babur! Babur mentions this incident in the Baburnama, dating it to 1528 (though calling the queen Padmavati).
Nothing much came of it, because Babur was busy fighting battles in the east, and he died in 1530. Finally Ratansingh was killed by Rani Karmavati’s brother Surajmal Hada, when the Rana attacked him during a hunt, and Vikramaditya came to the throne in 1531. To return to Humayun, he had only reached Kalpi, not far from Agra, when he heard of Bahadurshah’s siege of Chittor, and the attack on Delhi. Humayun also learnt that Bahadurshah had given shelter to the rebel Muhammad Zaman, and he and Bahadurshah wrote poetic letters to each other, in which Humayun asked him to return Muhammad Zaman, and Bahadurshah refused.
Humayun’s letter is in the form of an allegory in which two philosophers are questioned: “Who is the most helpless person in the world?” One of them answers, “He who has no friend.” The other, however, corrects him, “No! the most helpless man is he who had a friend but has managed to lose him.” Humayun himself then pointed at the moral of the story by saying that a thousand friends were too few and one enemy was too many, meaning that Bahadur should not be so foolish as to lose his friendship. He ended with the oft-quoted verse: “Plant the tree of amity, that it may bear fruit, namely, (the fulfilment of) the heart’s desire, Uproot the sapling of hostility that yields countless ills.” A rude reply by Bahadurshah contained the following verse: “If thy sword hast no tongue (to speak of your valour), Do not trouble the sword of thy tongue by mere boast. If thy sword hast no lustre, my son! Do not brag of thy father’s noble descent.”
Another verse attributed to Humayun in this correspondence is: “From grief every fold of my heart has turned into blood (To think) that in spite of our oneness, duality is attributed to us. I never recollect you without weeping bitterly, (Nay), I seldom recollect you (for fear) that I may have to weep much.” In spite of the histrionics, Humayun had to take action. He sent his brother Hindal to Delhi, where Hindal thoroughly defeated Bahadurshah’s forces under Tatar Khan, and Humayun himself moved toward Chittor in January 1535.
However, instead of rushing to the Rani’s rescue as per legend, he dawdled in Sarangpur and Ujjain (only 250 km away from Chittor) for months, waiting for Chittor to fall. Bahadurshah did not abandon his siege of Chittor this time, because his ministers assured him that Humayun would not attack a fellow Muslim when he was engaged in a war with an infidel. A more likely reason for Humayun waiting patiently was that both these kingdoms of Gujarat and Mewar were enemies for Humayun. As a strategy, it made sense for him to let them fight each other, and then he would easily defeat the weakened and exhausted victor.
The Rajputs heroically defended the fort. However, the walls were breached in March after constant bombardment by cannon. We hear the tale of queen mother Jawaharbai (from the Rathore family of Jodhpur), the widow of Rana Sanga and mother of Rana Ratansingh. She decided that to fight the enemy and kill as many of them as possible was more glorious (and useful) than dying by Jauhar. She apparently led a cavalry charge of other like-minded Rajput women, in male dress and armour, and they died defending the breach. Meanwhile 13,000 women including Rani Karmavati conducted Jauhar by entering the fire live. The gates were then thrown open, and the men fought to the death. On March 8, 1535, Chittor fell.
After a few days, when Bahadurshah started to return, he found that his way home was blocked by Humayun who had moved to Mandsaur, about a 100 km away from Chittor. Bahadurshah’s troops fortified their encampment with rings of carts. The two armies faced each other for days. When supplies ran out, Bahadurshah fled, after destroying some of his possessions. Before leaving, the Sultan shed bitter tears when his favourite elephants, Sharzah and Patsingar, and his chief cannons, Laila and Majnun, were destroyed.
As he entered the abandoned encampment, Humayun was stunned at Bahadurshah’s royal enclosure which was left behind, one mile in circumference, consisting of velvet, silk, and brocade, ropes of silken cords, and tent pegs of gold and silver. At the sight, Humayun is said to have exclaimed, “Why should it not be so, Delhi relies on its wheat and millets for revenue while Gujarat counts upon its corals and pearls.” He then followed Bahadurshah’s army, and conquered Gujarat and Malwa, while Bahadurshah took shelter with the Portuguese. When Humayun returned to Agra, leaving his incompetent brother Askari in charge of Gujarat, Bahadur recouped the territories within a year. However, Bahadurshah soon came to a sticky end. He had gone aboard a Portuguese ship in 1537 to negotiate terms. There was a quarrel and the Portuguese simply threw him overboard, and he drowned. An ignominious end to the conquerer of Chittor!
An interesting aside is that Bahadurshah had asked for the help of Ottoman Turks against the Portuguese. The Ottomans came to Gujarat with a large fleet and besieged Diu in 1538. However, they lost to the Portuguese and had to retreat. The Ottoman navy actually used to intervene in the western coastal ports of India! Meanwhile, Vikramaditya and a small contingent of Rajputs had quickly reoccupied Chittor almost immediately after the flight of Bahadurshah from Mandsaur. The demoralised Gujarati contingent gave it up without much of a fight. However, Vikramaditya was as disliked as ever by the nobles, and was finally murdered by his cousin Banvir. Banvir also tried to kill Udaysingh, who was saved by Panna Dhai by substituting her own son for the sleeping child. She then smuggled Udaysingh out in a basket, and trekked with him secretly through the forests of the Aravalis to chieftain after chieftain, asking for protection, unsuccessfully, as they were too scared to take on Banvir.
Finally the governor of Kumbhalmer agreed to rear the little prince in disguise as his nephew. Udaysingh was later acknowledged by a conclave of nobles. Banvir was exiled and exited to the south. He is supposed to have been an ancestor of Shivaji. The saint poet Mirabai had left for Merta just before the siege started; had she stayed in Chittor, she would probably have perished in the Jauhar of Chittor in 1535. As it is, she lived till circa 1547, and wrote many more poems in these 12 years. The story that Akbar sneaked into Chittor in disguise to hear her sing is clearly false. When she died, Akbar was barely five years old. Akbar never heard her sing, in disguise or otherwise.
So these are glimpses of the stories of these unusual women—Tarabai, who fought battles in male dress, not under duress but as a noble pastime; Jawaharbai who preferred to die leading a cavalry charge, rather than by committing Jauhar; Karmavati, who held together the nobles and frankly intrigued for the safety of her children and of her kingdom; Panna Dhai, who managed to save the heir of Chittor; and Mirabai, whose voice is still heard all over our land, six centuries later.
They were not ostracised, but were part of the most respected Rajput dynasty, and they are still revered.