Rani Karnavati of Garhwal defied Mughal emperor Shah Jahan, devastating and humiliating his formidable army as no other monarch did.
A little known story of Indian history is that of Rani Karnavati of Garhwal (1631-1640), called “Nak kati Rani” by the Mughal emperor Shah Jahan, and numerous Mughal chroniclers like Manucci, Bernier, Tavernier and Shahnawaz Khan.
The small hill kingdom of Garhwal shot into prominence in Mughal imagination when a Mughal invading force was trapped in the mountain defiles by the troops of Rani Karnavati. Forced to surrender, they were not killed but allowed to go albeit with their noses cut off.
In the aftermath of Muslim invasions of India, older kingdoms survived only in the difficult terrains of the hills and the desert where they were able to defend themselves effectively with smaller forces as the terrain gave tremendous advantages to defending forces over attacking forces. Many of the erstwhile rulers from the plains also fled here to found kingdoms, like the Rathores of Kannauj went on to Jodhpur. Garhwal was ruled by Paramar kings who had migrated from Dhara, the city of Raja Bhoj, in Central India. Many of these kingdoms survived right till 1947.
Mountainous terrain confers a tremendous defensive advantage across the world. Three hundred Spartans (along with some Thespians and Thebans— the Spartans got all the press) held off a Persian Army of hundreds of thousands at Thermopylae in 480 BC for many days. Mountainous countries like Switzerland, Afghanistan and Vietnam are the graveyard of reputations for invading empires— extremely difficult to conquer, and still harder to hold.
Thus, was it for the Mughals and the hill states of Uttarakhand, particularly Garhwal. Garhwal actually defied three Mughal emperors— Jahangir, Shah Jahan and Aurangzeb and survived.
Garhwal in the time of Shah Jahan had its capital in Srinagar on the Alaknanda, a hundred kilometres from Rishikesh. Its 52 garhs had been unified by the Paramar King Ajaypal in 1358, and a later descendant, Balbhadra, took the Persian title Shah. Ferishta described it as a prosperous kingdom made rich by the gold it collected from its rivers. Garhwal had mines of gold, copper and lead, as well as collecting gold wash from the rivers Alaknanda, Bhagirathi and Sona. William Finch, the English traveller in India (1608-1611), said that the king dined off solid gold plates.
Though invasions from the plains were held off, the local rulers fought incessantly amongst themselves, with Garhwal regularly fighting the kingdoms of Kumaon, Sirmaur and Tibet. They had friendly, though not subservient relations with the Mughals. Jahangir’s memoirs, the Tuzuk-i-Jahangiri, mentions the presentation of gifts to King Shyam Shah of Garhwal.
Mahipat Shah, Karnavati’s husband, ascended the throne in 1622. He succeeded Shyam Shah, a pleasure-loving king, who had drowned while indulging in a favourite pastime— moonlit boat parties— on the Alaknanda. This was certainly a risky pastime, since today people go white water rafting in this region, even as far as 100 kilometres downstream (of course there were quieter stretches). It is said that 60 queens committed sati on his pyre!
Mahipat Shah was a quintessential warrior obsessed with conquest. He was considered a very arrogant and headstrong man. A local saying about him was “Trin barabar sabko janahi/ Kahi kahuki kahu nahi manahi” (he considers everybody as equivalent to a piece of straw, and never listens to what anybody else has to say).
There is a legend that on Shah Jahan’s accession to the throne in 1628, he sent an invitation to all kings and feudatories to attend the ceremony. When the Mughal messenger reached Garhwal with the invitation accompanied by rich gifts, Mahipat chose to interpret the invitation as an attack on his sovereignty and a signal that Shahjahan considered Garhwal a feudatory, and gravely insulted the messenger. This was in spite of the fact that earlier Garhwal rulers had called on the Mughal emperor and even attended him at his court. This gratuitous rudeness certainly created bad blood with Shahjahan.
Mahipat now started on a course of warfare with his neighbours. In 1624, to punish Tibetan raids, he attacked Tibet with 12,000 men, but had to retreat because of heavy snowfall. The Portuguese Jesuit missionary Antonio de Andrade who passed through Srinagar that year on his way to Tibet, mentions that Mahipat invaded Tibet three times. Andrade incidentally also mentions that Jahangir’s decree to provide assistance to him in his travels was ignored by the people in the Garhwal region, which indicates its independence from the Mughals.
Mahipat Shah, after nine years of incessant warfare with his neighbours, died on the battlefield in 1631, invading Kumaon.
His seven year old son Prithvipat Shah was crowned in 1631, with Rani Karnavati as regent. Little is known about the origin of Rani Karnavati, though she is supposed to be a princess from Kangra, which had been conquered by Jahangir a couple of decades ago.
She now inherited a kingdom ravaged by war. She was lucky to have capable and loyal ministers and commanders from all communities, like Madho Singh Bhandari, Rikhola Lodi, Banwaridas and Daulat Beg. Garhwal also allowed churches to be set up, though a little later. Though she did not share her husband’s passion for warfare, she had to contend with her neighbours, who with the usual perception of a woman ruler as weak, attacked her time and again.
There are many pawadas, folk songs, about Madho Singh Bhandari. In the battle of Chhota Chini with Tibet in 1635. he fell fatally sick, and decided that his army had to retreat. However, rumours of his death emboldened the Tibetans to attack. He asked his commanders to embalm him in hot oil (he died in the process, of course), tie his body to the horse and show it to the enemy (a la Hari Singh Nalwa and El Cid, with the hot oil as an extra). The enemy held back and the army could retreat safely.
The Rani concentrated on public works, especially irrigation, and many tanks and canals were built by her. The Rajpur canal of Dehradun, the first canal to irrigate that region, is supposed to have been built by her. She also established the village Karanpur in Dehradun.
In 1638, the interestingly named Baz Bahadur Chand ascended the throne of Kumaon. He was a devout Hindu who built many temples. However, he was an aficionado of Mughal culture, and introduced many elements of it to his court—dress, court customs, and clearly names. He also attacked Garhwal repeatedly. It is said that he convinced the Mughal governor of Kangra, Najabat Khan, to attack Garhwal, promising rich pickings, and full cooperation on his part and of the Raja of Sirmaur.
Najabat Khan convinced Shah Jahan that this would be a lucrative conquest, and had additional troops sanctioned. Shahjahan had also been insulted by the Garhwal. Najabat set off with 30,000 troops with the king of Sirmaur as guide, and crossed the Ganga at Hardwar.
Though the Rani could have asked for truce and paid off the Mughals, she chose to fight and defy the might of the Mughals.
This is what the Italian traveler Manucci has to say, though confusing the gender:
“The purpose that Shahjahan had of righting with the Rana was diverted to a campaign against the Hindu prince of Srinaguer, which is in the midst of lofty mountains in the north, covered all the year with snow. But it did not happen to him as he had hoped. To effect his purpose he despatched a general at the head of thirty thousand horsemen besides infantry.
“The prince allowed his enemy to penetrate into the mountains, retiring as they advanced. When the soldiers of Shahjahan had got a certain distance he closed the roads, so that they could neither advance any farther nor retreat, and there was no way of deliverance for them. Finding himself in this danger, the general sent proposals for peace negotiations, but the Hindu prince returned the answer that his resolve to retreat was too late. Already the commander had a deficiency of supplies, and all his camp was in great confusion. He therefore requested from the prince permission to withdraw, and although the rajah could have destroyed them every one, he did not wish to do so. He sent to say that he would grant them their lives, but his soldiers required all their noses as a memorial of having given them a gift of their lives.
“Shahjahan’s soldiers finding themselves in such dreadful straits, rather than lose their lives, were content to lose their noses. They abandoned their arms, throwing them down where they stood, and issued one by one, leaving their noses behind them on the spot. From this Shahjahan out of shame never again attempted to make war against the rajah, and he gave an order that ever afterwards this prince should be spoken of as the Nactirany—that is to say, ‘ Cut-nose’—and until this day he is known by this name. The general, who could not endure coming back with his nose cut off, took poison, and put an end to his life before he got back to the plains.”
The story is repeated in essence by Tavernier, and the Ma’asir al-umara, though there are differences over whether the general escaped before losing his nose, and whether he committed suicide, or went back to court and was stripped of his rank and possessions.
A digression on cutting off noses. This has been a means of punishment since yore, especially in India. It is mentioned in the Ramayana, meted out to Shurpanakha, and was the way to truly humiliate a defeated enemy. “Nak katana” is still a colloquial phrase used in Hindi for utter humiliation. Hence, nasal reconstruction was always good business in India because there were plenty of clients. It started early—plastic surgery tracts by Sushruta from the 5th century BCE describe the process. The first plastic surgery technique, reconstruction of noses, went to Britain from India in an interesting way. East India Company surgeons Thomas Cruso and James Findlay saw a nose reconstruction process carried out on a Company bullock cart driver called Cowasjee, whose nose had been cut off when he was captured by the Mysore troops during the Third Anglo–Mysore War (1789–1792). This procedure was carried out by a potter in Poona using hereditary knowledge. The surgeons minutely documented it and published it in the Madras Gazette, and in 1794 in London, giving birth to the flourishing plastic surgery industry today. We hope that there were plenty of Indian surgeons skilled in plastic surgery in Shah Jahan’s time as well.
Other cultures also used this mode of punishment. There are accounts of ancient Egypt. The Byzantines used blinding or cutting off noses to make contenders ineligible to rule. There is a tale of a deposed king Justinian II “Slit Nose” who had his nose cut off, but had it reconstructed (by an Indian surgeon presumably) and came back to power in the seventh century.
When the “nak kata” troops straggled back to the Mughal court, it was a huge blow to Shah Jahan’s prestige. He sent a couple of punitive expeditions, specially one under Khalilullah Khan, but none of them were able to reach Srinagar, as the fighting season was very short—a few months, after which the terrain became impassable. The Rani’s guerilla troops would delay them until the rains came, which would soon be followed by the snows of winter.
When Prithvipat Shah ascended the throne, he came to a truce with the Mughals. He sent his son Medini Rai, to the Mughal court and managed to get Princess Jahanara and Dara Shikoh to intercede with Shah Jahan and normalise the relationship.
There was an unexpected fallout of the Rani’s defeat of the Mughals. Srinagar became a symbol of defiance to the Mughals.
When Dara Shikoh lost in the battle of Samugarh, his son Suleiman Shikoh fled, and took shelter in the court of Garhwal in 1658, hoping, based on past history, that the king would be bold enough to defy Aurangzeb. Prithvipat gave him sanctuary, both as gratitude for Dara’s interventions for him, and as his duty as a king to protect anyone seeking sanctuary.
Manucci has this to say about Suleiman:
“Soliman Chacu, the eldest son of Dara, was a prince of great promise. Well made, liberal, conducting himself with moderation, and wise above his years, he possessed all the good qualities of his father, without his defects.
“Suleiman settled in Srinagar with his small retinue, setting Mughal fashions in this isolated court. Salimshahi shoes are still made there as a handicraft. He was also accompanied by two painters, Sham Das and Har Das, who became the founders of the Garhwal school of painting.”
Meanwhile, Aurangzeb asked the Jaipur king Raja Jaisingh to handle the matter.
The French traveler Bernier, in the book Voyage to East Indies says: “He maketh the raja Jesseingh write one letter after another to the Raja Serenaguer promising him very great things if he would surrender Suleiman chekouh to him…The Rajah answers that he would rather lose his estate than do so unworthy an action. And Aurangzebe, seeing his resolution, taketh the field and maketh directly to the hills…But the Rajah laughs at all that, neither has he more cause to fear on that side. Aurangzebe may cut long enough, but these mountains are inaccessible to an army, and stones would be sufficient to stop the forces of four Hindustan, so that he was constrained to turn back again.”
Aurangzeb wanted to make a clean sweep of all the descendants of his brothers, sending troops as far as Burma chasing Shah Shuja. He sent troops to Srinagar, and the local Rajas, under his instructions, attacked from all sides, but the attacks failed— they could not reach Srinagar. Mughal troops did however occupy the Doon area, which were allotted to two local nobles, Chaturbhuj and Nagardass.
Unsuccessful at direct attack, he decided to use kutniti. His attempt to poison Suleiman was foiled when the vigilant Suleiman fed his food to a cat which died. Aurangzeb finally managed to bribe Medini Rai, the king’s son, who had been dazzled by the power and grandeur of the Mughal court, to treacherously help him in kidnapping Suleiman. He was finally successful in 1660. Suleiman Shikoh had been in Garhwal for two years. He was sent to the fort of Gwalior, where he died by slow poisoning by 1662.
Manucci says: “Sultan Chacu, the eldest son of Dara, was not safe in the kingdom of Sirinagar, from the artifices of Aurengzebe. This prince had too much merit, to hope to escape the enmity of the usurper… Aurengzebe was interested in preventing a shoot of the royal family from taking root in the neighbourhood of his states. The difficulty was to wrest him out of the hands of the king of Sirinagar, who loved him tenderly, and guarded him from the dangers that menaced him with the greatest vigilance… The difficulty was still greater to wrest him out of his hands by force. The Moguls had formerly made some attempts upon this kingdom; but their armies, unable to obtain subsistence in an uncultivated country, had either perished from hunger, or the soldiers had returned with the loss of their ears and noses, through the severity of the climate. Aurengzebe, unable to succeed in obtaining the co-operation of the father, endeavoured to carry off the Mogul prince through the assistance of the son of the king of Sirinagar. He engaged him by presents, and by still greater promises, to betray Chacu into his hands. A hunting party was proposed; the two young princes separated from each other among the mountains, in the pursuit of their prey; soldiers, placed in ambuscade, seized upon Sultan Chacu, and conducted him to Aurengzebe. The fortress of Guallier became finally the place of his imprisonment; where a prince of the greatest merit, and who had given the highest hopes to the empire, was destined to be buried alive forever.”
Prithvipat was absolutely struck with horror at the betrayal of the chivalric code by his only son. However, Medini Rai had fled to Delhi and was given rich gifts and a mansab. He however did not live long to enjoy it— he died in 1662. There is, in the archives, a letter of condolence from Aurangzeb to Prithvipat, sending back Medini Rai’s effects, enjoining the king to adopt the right path of obedience and submission for the greater prosperity of the empire.