Limitations of Rajputs

The previous posts have described a brief history of the Chauhan clan, the rise of the Chauhan Rajaputras, and the evolution of the word Rajput from the Vedic texts. These posts have also described the development of Rajput military tactics (the cavalry charge) and the ferocious response to the converting zeal of Islam (the tactic of Jauhar ).

The later conflict between Turks and Rajputs, which ended with the formation of Rajputana and the fall of the Turk empire, has been described in an earlier article (guerrilla warfare). The later history of the Rajput states and armies in the Mughal Empire and of the princely states in the British Raj is fairly well known.

The Rajaputra families naturally traced their own history back to the origin of their individual clans, which in turn were branches of older clans, going back to the Vedic era. They carry the historical baggage of several millennia down to the 20th Century and today all the positives and negatives from this long span of Indian History are applied to them.

However since the positives of the Rajputs (relating to their resistance to the Islamist onslaught) have been described here only after the actual rise of the Rajaputra families, it’s only fair to also look at the negatives, but from this later period alone.

Failure to form an empire

The Rajput state was formed by one dominant clan. If that particular clan was successful and managed to extend its territories, other clans came under its rule—but even then the structure of the state was dominated by the original ruling clan. This prevented most Rajput states from extending their kingdoms into large empires—the Rajput state that came closest to forming an empire was the Kingdom of Mewar in the 16th Century[1]

The ruling Sesodia clan was served by Hadas, Rathors, and Jhalas; other ruling clans that had been devastated by the Turk invasion were left to their lot as common farmers. The Sesodias remained in the dominant positions of the state and in the army—but as the state expanded further, the population of the ruling clan could never be able to keep pace and would soon become a minority even in the combined Rajput population! This prevented Rajput clan-states from staking claims to empire unless they commanded a coalition of other states—the limitations of such coalitions are given below.

Command and control of coalitions

Like every other community of clans and states, the Rajputs have formed coalitions to fight off a common threat. Some of these coalitions have failed, like the Chaulukya-Parmar union against Qutb-ud-din Aibak, but others have been successful, like the Chaulukya-Guhilot alliance against Sultan Balban. In the earlier case the clans assembled at one place and fought as one unit…but in the latter instance the allies fought separately from their own bases (which were hundreds of miles distant) and only coordinated their movements against the Turks.

Camping in one place, marching together, and forming for battle brings up issues of the command and control of the different clan-armies[2]. This invariably gives rise to jealousy and can lead to quarrels that break up the order of the allied army—this is also seen in military campaigns of other cultures. In the 13th Century the allied Russian princes, similarly camping and marching together to the Battle of Kalka River, began quarreling and soon lost that fight to the Mongols.

Such jealousies and quarrels are far more magnified in the Rajput clans but for a very sound reason. In their ferocious response to the Islamist aggression, when they saw their cherished faith being uprooted, the Rajputs clung desperately to their clan-identity. They even gave up their lives for it. This caused a heightened sense of clan purity, which in turn led to ideas of clan supremacy (over the Muslim invader and over other Rajput clans), laced with the steely determination of not submitting to others.

Related to this is the ability to raise a large army at short notice. The Turk invaders, and even the Marathas and Sikhs commanded large armies on the strength of their ability to pay these soldiers. An ambitious chieftain, when initially successful in a military campaign, could then attract other soldiers to his side and command them into battle for the sake of money. But a Rajput chieftain had to be dependent only on his clan—even if successful he could not recruit soldiers from other clans since the whole notion of clan supremacy would then be overthrown. The only way for a Rajput commander to recruit other Rajput clans was by negotiating with their chieftains—this was how the Mughal Empire under Akbar brought the Rajput clans into their army. But even when fighting together in these armies, the clans were driven purely by self-interest as illustrated in the [Battle of Dharmat]

Preference for legend and romance

The bard ( bhat ) was the most crucial member of every Rajput army. He sang out loud the valiant deeds of their forefathers to inspire the warriors into making the fiercest exertions in battle. The bard was also an observer of events but he did not make a historical record…rather such events were related in poems, which were passed down through generations of bards by word of mouth.

Legendary and romantic stories are easier to relate in poetic form hence Rajput history is full of these stories, which today have been faithfully reproduced in the Amar Chitra Katha series. But even in an earlier age myth and legend managed to unseat bland historical fact—the evolution of the Agnikund legend will illustrate this point.

The Parmar clan ruled from Dhar (in modern Madhya Pradesh) in the 10th Century…their earliest epigraphic record is the Harsola grant, which relates that these Kings were born in a family of the Rashtrakutas (in the Deccan). But sometime later, as the power of the clan increased, the poet Padmagupta Parimal created a legendary story for his patrons:

The Vedic sage Vasishtha had a wish-fulfilling cow called the Kamadhenu , which was stolen by his rival, the sage Vishvamitra. To recover it Vasishtha made offerings to a sacrificial fire on the heights of Mt. Abu while chanting holy verses…a warrior emerged from the fire and recovered the cow for his creator. In acknowledgment of his immense service Vasishta named this warrior Paramar, which means enemy-slayer ( para-maar ).

This legend, being so exciting to hear and read, was now inscribed on all subsequent Parmar records. Their original statement of belonging to the Rashtrakuta family was lost for a long time until the said Harsola grant was recovered and translated in the 19th Century. But before that the legend went through another twist in the 16th Century…by this time the power of the Parmars had gone and new clans (Sesodias and Rathors) dominated the landscape of that region. In this period the Prithviraj Raso of Chand Bardai related another version of this legend which gave pride of place, not to the Parmars but to the Chauhans (and which subsequently became the most popular legend):

Vasishtha kindled a fire-pit ( agnikund ) at Mt. Abu to create warriors for fighting off the demons. The first to emerge was the Pratihar; he was placed to guard[3] the sacred site. A second emerged from the chullu (palm) of the sage and was called the Chaulukya. The third warrior eagerly sought out the demons but could not prevail over them—he was called the Pra-maar (first-striker), which evolved later into Parmar. The fourth warrior carried weapons in four arms and destroyed the demons—he was called the Chauh-maan because of this.

In another version of this story, the sage Vishvamitra is substituted for Vasishtha suggesting that the root of this story is derived from the earlier legend of the Parmars. The origins of the names of the four clans that are given in this legend are not based in history or accurate linguistics. Unfortunately, such legends became the stuff of Rajput history.

Interestingly the colonial historians, who normally rejected legendary stories in their works, immediately latched on to this legend. But in their version, they substituted Vasishtha with “the Brahmins” and the demons with “Saka and Hun invaders”. They also suggested that the warrior clans emerging from the fire were Hinduised foreigners…ignoring the basic fact that the earlier legends were created merely to glorify that particular clan and the date of the even the earliest legend was 500 years too late to tally with the Hun invasions!

So the Rajput preference for legend and romance, which can be seen in other examples, has dropped a shroud over their actual history and has been used by their modern detractors to discredit and manipulate their origins.

Credits: Original Post by Airavat Singh on Horses and Swords blog

  1. The other examples are Marwar (also in the 16th Century), Jaipur (in the 18th Century), Bundelkhand (17th Century), and lastly J&K and Nepal (both in the 19th Century). ↩︎

  2. In the [Battle of Khanua] (1527) between Rana Sanga and Babur the fighting on the Rajput side was done mostly by the clans in the Kingdom of Mewar. When no progress could be made against Babur’s defense works for the other clans in the coalition left for their own homes without taking part in the battle. ↩︎

  3. This is the implied origin of their clan-name since the word Pratihar means ‘guard’. However, there are other stories for this word becoming a clan-name: the Imperial Pratiharas originated in the Gurjara province and defended it from the invaders and are hence called Gurjara-Pratihar by some historians, although only one inscription uses this particular phrase, and that inscription is of a feudatory of the Imperial Pratiharas. ↩︎