The Chauhan Clan of Rajputs: Destroying the Myths

Anasagar lake view from Taragarh fort, Ajmer

More than 1400 years ago Kshatriyas belonging to the Chauhan[1] clan established a small kingdom around the town of Sambhar[2]. In the 9th Century, as tributaries of the Imperial Pratihars of Kannauj, the Chauhans fought the Palas of Bengal (in the east) and the Arabs of Sindh (in the west). As their power grew, younger sons of each Chauhan Raja, known as Rajaputras[3], established their own strongholds and principalities around the parent kingdom.

The Chauhans did not suffer any loss during the 11th Century invasions of Mahmud Ghaznavi but they had several fights with his successors who established their rule in the neighboring region of Punjab. In the early 12th Century Ajayraj Chauhan built a fort near the Holy Town of Pushkar. The site commanded a strategic gap in the Aravalli hills—to the west was Sambhar and the trade routes leading to the southern ports, while to the east was the fertile basin of the River Ganga and its tributaries. This hill-fort was named Ajay-meru[4] (Ajay’s hill), which with the passage of time was pronounced Ajmer, and which became the site for a new capital city for the Chauhans.

Prithviraj Chauhan III

The descendants of Ajayraj captured the then small town of Delhi[5] from the Tomars and southern Punjab from the Ghaznavi Turks. At the close of the 12th Century, Prithviraj III ruled from Ajmer with ambitions in the south (other kingdoms mostly of his own clansmen in southern Rajasthan and Gujarat), in the north (Punjab and the hill-chiefs of Himachal Pradesh[6], and the south-east (northern Madhya Pradesh).

Further in the west the Turkish Sultan of Ghor captured Ghazni and deputed his brother, Shihab-ud-din Muhammad, to rule there. The elder brother then turned his energies against other Turk tribes of Iran and Central Asia while the younger led expeditions into India. Passing through Baluchistan Muhammad captured Multan and Uch and then sent a proposal to Prithviraj asking for a joint campaign against the ruler of Gujarat. This proposal was rejected since the Chauhans had enough resources to tackle the Chaulukyas of Gujarat on their own.

Muhammad Ghori went ahead with his invasion in 1178 but the Chaulukyas, in alliance with the Chauhans of southern Rajasthan, defeated him. Prithviraj, who at that time was a teenager, had resolved to fight the Turk invader first, but his minister Kadambvas suggested that the Ghori - Chaulukya conflict would exhaust both these enemies and leave the field clear for the Kingdom of Ajmer. A few years later Prithviraj embarked on digvijay (conquest in all four directions) and won victories—but no major territory.

Muhammad Ghori rebuilt his armed strength and captured Peshawar from the Ghaznavi Turks—continuing his operations against his fellow Muslims Ghori finally ended the Ghaznavi dynasty in 1186 and came into direct contact with the Kingdom of Ajmer. For a few years, he probed the defences of the northern region through cavalry raids—finally in 1190 Muhammad Ghori attacked and captured the frontier fort of Sarhind[7]. While he was busy garrisoning the fort and arranging for his return to Ghazni, Muhammad learnt to his consternation that Prithviraj was already marching against him.

Muhammad Ghori resolved to strike the first blow and marched south to intercept the Chauhan army. At Tarain, near modern Thanesar, the two armies met in 1191. In the head-on fight, the Hindu cavalry charged and enveloped the two wings of the Turk army—the favorite maneuvers and mobile archery of the Turks were impossible in that cramped position. The superior swordsmanship of the Chauhans gave them a rapid victory and the two routed wings of Muhammad Ghori fled for their lives. In the center the Hindu elephants and infantry came up to the contest—a javelin struck Muhammad Ghori in the shoulder and a Khalji soldier carried the swooning Sultan away to safety. When their commander fled the rest of the Muslim center too broke down and fled after him.

The combined arms (elephants, cavalry, infantry) force of Prithviraj chased after the enemy but the Turkish cavalry easily outpaced them. The Chauhans surrounded the important fort of Sirhind—after 13 months when the food supply ran out the Turk garrison surrendered. Prithviraj returned to his capital, while his generals returned to their forts and towns to rest their army and replenish their equipment, elephants, and horses. They also needed to keep a watch on their neighbors who had taken advantage of the recent battle to encroach on Chauhan lands.

In all this time Muhammad Ghori collected a fresh army and returned to Punjab. Once again he captured the bone of contention Sarhind and sent a message to Prithviraj to submit and convert to Islam. The Chauhans were then involved in some other battles but Prithviraj boldly collected an army and marched to Sirhind—Muhammad Ghori again intercepted him at Tarain. Prithviraj had by then learnt of the loss of Sarhind and of the large cavalry with Ghori—he used diplomacy to buy time so that his other generals could join him with their forces. He told Muhammad to be content with Sarhind and withdraw his army to Ghazni.

Shihab-ud-din went along since the earlier defeat at this same place was heavy on his mind. He pointed out that his brother was the real ruler and without consulting him Muhammad could not take any major political decision—he too was playing for time and for information on the enemy. The two armies camped in sight of each other—one night Muhammad Ghori left the campfires burning and took his army by a roundabout route to attack the Chauhans. But once again the cavalry of Prithviraj met them in a headlong clash and repulsed the Turks.

Muhammad Ghori’s plan had failed and he retired to his own camp but he now had a correct estimate of Prithviraj’s army and had realized how weak it was. Forming his cavalry into four divisions of 10,000 he sent them to harass the Chauhans from all sides. The Turks were now in their element with hit-and-run cavalry maneuvers and horse archery—the combined arms of the Hindus could not chase after one and repel another division simultaneously. The order of the Chauhan army broke down, along with the communications between its various elements, and Ghori charged with his main division and finally defeated Prithviraj. The Chauhan King was either killed or captured according to the different accounts.

Why spend so much time discussing this one clan you may ask?

Because they straddled the gap between the ancient and medieval India and were witness to a momentous turning point in Indian History…also because they were part of an important battle, which changed Indian society and military tactics for the next few centuries. Comparison is also needed with the story in Punjab, Sindh, and Afghanistan, all of which fell earlier and more completely to the assault of Islam. This comparison will come later.


The most popular accounts about Prithviraj were written centuries later by a Muslim (the book Gulshan-i-Ibrahimi by Ferishta ) and by a Hindu (the book Prithviraj Raso by Chand Bardai ). Both of these are full of exaggerations and myths.

According to Ferishta Prithviraj had an army of 300,000 cavalry (!), 3000 elephants (!), and innumerable infantry (what could be more innumerable after 300,000 horsemen? The entire population of the Kingdom of Ajmer?). Later Rajput Kingdoms (when cavalry had become the most important formation in the army) of similar large size had at the most 20,000 cavalry. By this comparison, Prithviraj could not have had more than 10,000 horsemen.

Chand Bardai states that after the First Battle of Tarain Prithviraj fell in love with, carried away, and married Sanyogita, daughter of Jaychand Rathor of Kannuaj. His love for her caused the defeat in the second battle, which is not borne out by the facts related above. According to contemporary literature, inscriptions, and coins, the rulers of Kannauj were Gahadvals…the Rathors of Badaun were their tributaries. There is no record of a conflict between Ajmer and Kannauj for the simple reason that they did not have a common border.

Tarain I was fought in early 1191, for thirteen months after this Prithviraj was busy in the siege of Sarhind (early 1192); Tarain II was fought only a few months later. When did Prithviraj have the time to correspond with a princess, admit his love to her, and make arrangements to carry her away from a place hundreds of miles in the east[8].

The more contemporary, and accurate, account is the Prithviraj-vijay written by Jayanaka . This man was a Kashmiri who had settled down in Ajmer and was a poet in Prithviraj’s court. The names of the Chauhan Kingdom’s ministers and generals are given here—interestingly one of these generals, named Udayraj, was from Bengal. The [ Prithviraj-vijay ] also describes the early communications between Ghori and the Chauhans, and the advice given to Prithviraj by the minister Kadambvas.

There are two other books that mention these events in passing. The Prabandha-chintamani by Merutunga Acharya claims that Prithviraj was taken prisoner but was restored to the throne of Ajmer by Ghori. On a visit to Ajmer the Turk chief happened to see a wall painting in the palace that showed the Muslim soldiers being crushed by a charging horde of wild boar[9]. The humiliated Ghori had Prithviraj killed.

The Viruddhavidhi-vidhvamsa by Laksmidhar describes the absence of the main Chauhan general Skanda in another battle (the enemy is not described). But it goes on to say that Prithviraj was killed by the Turushkas[10] and his brother, the Rajaputra Hariraj became King.

The Hammir-Mahakavya of Nayachandra Suri is a later work but it was written on commission from the Chauhans of Ranthambhor (who will be described in later posts). It has many internal details of the Chauhan clan but exaggerates Prithviraj’s victory (it claims several victories) over Ghori by describing the repeated capture and release of the Turk chief. The Hammir-Mahakavya also claims that Prithviraj was taken prisoner but to Delhi —the Bengali general Udayraj attacked Delhi to rescue his master but Prithviraj died in captivity and Udayraj was killed in battle. This work confirms that the Rajaputra Hariraj became the next King of Ajmer.

next: The Chauhan Rajaputras

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

  1. Original pronunciation is Chahaman. ↩︎

  2. Originally Sakambhari, the town is near a salt lake of the same name. In those days it was a wealthy city located on important trade routes. ↩︎

  3. Literally King’s (Raja) son (putra). The history of this word and its modification into Rajput will be described in another post. ↩︎

  4. Meru is a Sanskrit word for hill. Sumeru was the good or blessed (Su) hill (meru) of the Vedas. ↩︎

  5. Known in those times as Dhillika. After its capture by Muslims it was also called Yoginipura, the city of witches. ↩︎

  6. According to the Prithviraj-raso Kangra and its mountain chiefs were allies of the Tomars of Delhi. ↩︎

  7. The Muslim historians call this place Tabarhind or Tarrhind. ↩︎

  8. The Prithviraj Raso in a complete departure from all other accounts states that the Chauhan King was taken to Ghazni. When he refused to lower his eyes in front of Shihab-ud-din the latter had him blinded. While demonstrating his skill in archery the blind Hindu King shot an arrow into the throat of Muhammad Ghori and killed him. After this, the author of the Raso and Prithviraj killed each other. ↩︎

  9. The wild boar is regarded as the bravest animal in Rajasthani lore. ↩︎

  10. The ancient word for the Turks. According to Indian tradition one of the sons of Bharat, named Turvasu, had migrated to Central Asia and his descendants (Turvasu-ka) became the Turks. This remains mere conjecture and speculation since there is no material evidence to back this story—somewhat similar to the speculations of the Aryan Theory. ↩︎

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