Sunday, January 10, 2016

Mewar at War

Why would 16,000 women throw themselves into a giant bonfire?

This is a question that has troubled me. History is replete with instances where kingdoms have gone to war, where cities have been beseiged, of armies saughtered and people enslaved. Carthage, Rome, Cuzco, Babylon, Jerusalem, Vijayanagara, Delhi...the list goes on an on.

However in the Rajputana kingdoms of Mewar and Marwar, the endgame has always been marked by huge fires lit in palaces where the women are said to have killed themselves en masse, while their menfolk went down on a final, suicidal charge into the waiting enemy flanks.

Chittorgarh Fort (Western ramparts)
In the popular annals of Indian history, the defenders of one fort have used this as a standard procedure across centuries - Chittorgarh. This first time this happened was in 1303 CE when Sultan Allaudin Khilji beseiged the fort for six months before it capitulated. Over 16,000 woment went up in flames in the first recorded "Jauhar" in Mewar. The scene was repeated in 1535 CE, when Mohammad Shah of Gujarat took the fort, and then again in 1568 CE when the Mughals led by Akbar blew up Chittor's fortifications using gunpowder.

Chitrtorgarh Fort - Suraj Pol (Eastern Entrance)
The mass suicide is often portrayed as the outcome of a Rajput "Code of Honor", of "Death before Dishonor". Yet, whichever way you look at it, it seems rather bleak to be in a situation where you forego the option of living to fight another day. What is it that really made these mass suicides worthwhile?

One answer to this question comes from V.S. Naipaul's book, "Among the Believers". In a chilling description of a new type of warfare that arrived on Indian shores, he describes how in 710 CE the 14-year-old "General" Md. Bin Qasim ordered the execution of all fighting men, enslavement of all the women and children in Sindh.

Once this was set as a standard procedure in the medeiva; "all out war", it left the combatants with very limited choices. Either you die in your own home, among family and friends, or got raped and killed while being flogged on an ardruous trek across the Hindu Kush mountains, or to the streets of Arabia.

For the women and children in a city that had already under seige for many months, it may not have been a difficult choice. Was it the women of Chittor who set the precedent? Or is remembered because it happened on such a large scale, repeatedly, at the same site?

Somehow, this does not be a topic of interest to our historians. Its a pity that there is so little information on this either online, or at the actual site.

A layout map of Chittorgarh near the ASI ticket office

Unanswered Questions:

Q1: How is it that the Jain temples and towers survived the military assaults that had flattened almost all buildings in Chittorgarh? One of the oldest structures in Chittor is the Kirti Sthambh built in the 11the century, and it still looks as though it were completed yesterday!

Q2: What did the place look like when it was a flourishing city, with elephants, horses and bullock-carts carting up goods up and down the hill? Who designed the lovely ponds and water bodies inside the fort complex with striped marble slabs cladding on the side walls? Is there a book that brings the life and times of Chittorgarh back to life?

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