Why the Rajputs failed miserably in battle for centuries – Girish Shahane

Girish Shahane“What made Rajputs such specialists in failure [in battle]. … The question hardly ever comes up. … The Rajputs themselves never lacked commitment, and their courage invariably drew the praise of their enemies. Even a historian as fundamentalist as Badayuni rhapsodised about Rajput valour. Babur wrote that his troops were unnerved, ahead of the Khanua engagement, by the reputed fierceness of Rana Sanga’s forces, their willingness to fight to the death.” – Girish Shahane

India Home Minister Rajnath SinghThe home minister, Rajnath Singh, wishes our school textbooks told us more about the Rajput king Rana Pratap, and less about the Mughal emperor Akbar. I, on the other hand, wish they explained why Rajputs fared so miserably on the battlefield.

A thousand years ago, Rajput kings ruled much of North India. Then they lost to Ghazni, lost to Ghuri, lost to Khilji, lost to Babur, lost to Akbar, lost to the Marathas, and keeled over before the British. The Marathas and Brits hardly count since the Rajputs were a spent force by the time Akbar was done with them. Having been confined to an arid part of the subcontinent by the early Sultans, they were reduced to vassals by the Mughals.

The three most famous Rajput heroes not only took a beating in crucial engagements, but also retreated from the field of battle. Prithviraj Chauhan was captured while bolting and executed after the second battle of Tarain in 1192 CE, while Rana Sanga got away after losing to Babur at Khanua in 1527, as did Rana Pratap after the battle of Haldighati in 1576. To compensate for, or explain away, these debacles, the bards of Rajputana replaced history with legend.

Maharana PratapSpecialists in failure

It is worth asking, surely, what made Rajputs such specialists in failure. Yet, the question hardly ever comes up. When it does, the usual explanation is that the Rajputs faced Muslim invaders whose fanaticism was their strength. Nothing could be further than the truth. Muslim rulers did use the language of faith to energise their troops, but commitment is only the first step to victory. The Rajputs themselves never lacked commitment, and their courage invariably drew the praise of their enemies. Even a historian as fundamentalist as Badayuni rhapsodised about Rajput valour. Babur wrote that his troops were unnerved, ahead of the Khanua engagement, by the reputed fierceness of Rana Sanga’s forces, their willingness to fight to the death.

Let’s cancel out courage and fanaticism as explanations, then, for each side displayed these in equal measure. What remains is discipline, technical and technological prowess, and tactical acumen. In each of these departments, the Rajputs were found wanting. Their opponents, usually Turkic, used a complex battle plan involving up to five different divisions. Fleet, mounted archers would harry opponents at the start, and often make a strategic retreat, inducing their enemy to charge into an ambush. Behind these stood the central division and two flanks. While the centre absorbed the brunt of the enemy’s thrust, the flanks would wheel around to surround and hem in opponents. Finally, there was a reserve that could be pressed into action wherever necessary. Communication channels between divisions were quick and answered to a clear hierarchy that was based largely on merit.

Contrast this with the Rajput system, which was simple, predictable, and profoundly foolish, consisting of a headlong attack with no Plan B. In campaigns against forces that had come through the Khyber Pass, Rajputs usually had a massive numerical advantage. Prithviraj’s troops outnumbered Ghuri’s at the second battle of Tarain by perhaps three to one. At Khanua, Rana Sanga commanded at least four soldiers for every one available to Babur. Unlike Sanga’s forces, though, Babur’s were hardy veterans. After defeating Ibrahim Lodi at Panipat, the founder of the Mughal dynasty had the option of using the generals he inherited from the Delhi Sultan, but preferred to stick with soldiers he trusted. He knew numbers are meaningless except when acting on a coherent strategy under a unified command. Rajput troops rarely answered to one leader, because each member of the confederacy would have his own prestige and ego to uphold. Caste considerations made meritocracy impossible. The enemy general might be a freed Abyssinian slave, but Rajput leadership was decided by clan membership.

Absent meritocratic promotion, an established chain of command, a good communication system, and a contingency plan, Rajput forces were regularly taken apart by the opposition’s mobile cavalry. Occasionally, as with the composite bows and light armour of Ghuri’s horsemen, or the matchlocks employed by Babur, technological advances played a role in the outcome.

AkbarOssified tactics

What’s astonishing is that centuries of being out-thought and out-manoeuvred had no impact on the Rajput approach to war. Rana Pratap used precisely the same full frontal attack at Haldighati in 1576 that had failed so often before. Haldighati was a minor clash by the standards of Tarain and Khanua. Pratap was at the head of perhaps 3,000 men and faced about 5,000 Mughal troops. The encounter was far from the Hindu Rajput versus Muslim confrontation it is often made out to be. Rana Pratap had on his side a force of Bhil archers, as well as the assistance of Hakim Shah of the Sur clan, which had ruled North India before Akbar’s rise to power. Man Singh, a Rajput who had accepted Akbar’s suzerainty and adopted the Turko-Mongol battle plan led the Mughal troops. Though Pratap’s continued rebellion following his defeat at Haldighati was admirable in many ways, he was never anything more than an annoyance to the Mughal army. That he is now placed, in the minds of many Indians, on par with Akbar or on a higher plane says much about the twisted communal politics of the subcontinent.

There’s one other factor that is thought to have contributed substantially to Rajput defeats: the opium habit. Taking opium was established practice among Rajputs in any case, but they considerably upped the quantity they consumed when going into battle. Several ended up in no fit state to process any instruction beyond, “kill or be killed”. Opium rendered some soldiers incapable of coordinating complex manoeuvres. There’s an apt warning for school kids: don’t do drugs, or you’ll squander an empire. Scroll.in, 20 May 2015

» Girish Shahane has degrees in English literature from Elphinstone College, Bombay University, and Oxford University. He is on the faculty of art history courses run by the Bhau Daji Lad Museum and Jnanapravaha. He has been a columnist for Time Out magazine, DNA newspaper, Yahoo India and writes a column for Scroll.in.

Rana Pratap & Man Singh

16 Responses

  1. Rajputs were brave.

    And stupid.

    Apropos comments, Rajputs are no longer brave.

    But still stupid.

    From 1200 till 1700 something, Muslims ruled in Bharat.

    British saved us from Muslims on land, Portuguese saved us from Muslims on sea.

    No Rajputs found anywhere.

    Except in bed.

    So brave! So stupid!

  2. Mr. Shahne while I do agree with you that Rajputs lacked shrewd tactics and adaptation (this a rajput is saying); but you’ve got your facts wrong at too many places in this article. If you have patience to bear with me I can correct each one of them. Do you have that much?

  3. Mr. Shahne clearly u dont know jack abut north India’s history come to UP n i will show u what what Rajput History is all abut forget abut Rajputana (Rajasthan)… If we were such a big lossers ur ancestors would hv been circumcized… Ur name would hv been some Mhd. Shahne… Such a biased n pro muslim type article which certainly appeases communists n congressis breed idiots…

  4. We seem to go gaga over the Rajput valor and moral code etc – we should also read this link to have a different perspective http://www.ambedkar.org/research/Rajput_Period_Was_Dark_Age_Of_India.htm

    • Myatanu… Coumunists n pseudo secular morons will luv to read ur version of history… Thrza word to define mindsets of shahanes n ur kinds… Stockholm syndrome … U shuld be glad that today u all are not circumcized or baptized… Thanks to the Rajputs who stood defended our nation from Islamic invaders

      • in fact , they are sad that they are not circumcised or baptized ( and , they are already circumcised mentally , or dream themselves to be eunuch guards in harems ) — they feel very bad that Rajputs defended our land

  5. Before people get carried away with this Hinduphobic writers article read this

    Response to Girish Shahane on Rajput ‘Failure’ or Victory ?

    http://www.hinduhistory.info/response-to-girish-shahane-on-rajput-failure-or-victory/

  6. Rajputs were bad military strategists.

    And man singh was a great general and military strategist…… So you can only be a great strategist if and only if you are siding with the mughals……

    What about the defeat of caliphate in the battle of Rajasthan the vibrations of which were felt in Europe….

    If brutality and slavery is the only defenition of military strategy then rajputs were surely lacking in both

  7. and this is the same guy who wrote the following

    I’ve put my name to a PIL filed in the Bombay High Court against Maharashtra’s criminalisation of beef consumption, but the state’s ban on cattle slaughter is unlikely to be rolled back even if possession of beef (presumably imported) is decriminalised. I am unhappy with the beef ban on personal, philosophical and utilitarian grounds. I enjoy eating beef, but I’d object to the law even if I were vegetarian because, contrary to the spirit of democracy, it privileges the views of caste Hindus over those of other communities. Beef is a cheap meat, a rich source of complete protein for the poor in a nation whose diet is seriously protein deficient.
    http://scroll.in/article/722302/why-i-have-put-my-name-on-a-pil-opposing-maharashtras-beef-ban

  8. Well least sita ram goel did his research unlike this writer where he misses the battle of rajasthan that kept out invasions out of india for 300 years or the battles later under Raja Bhoja against the last of Ghaznavids under Sultan Masur leading to their defeat and so many other battles the rajputs also won.Usual badly researched article

    • Battle against Gaznavids – who fought this is still under debate. People assign this to Raja Sukhdev who was probably a Pasi and not a Rajput.

  9. Twenty three years ago Sita Ram Goel told this observer a story of Rajputs very similar to the one above. Nobody wanted to hear it then, and few will want to hear it today. Nevertheless, the historical narrative has some hard truths we should reflect on. Mistakes made by Hindu leaders then are being made again today by their political descendants.

    In their person, the rajas were courageous and full of valour and as Dr Elst has noted, Hindu warriors have never displayed a fear of death. But the rajas much preferred to fight each other than join together under a leader to fight a common enemy. This went so far as for a raja to join the enemy in order to defeat his neighbour. An early example is Ambhi Kumar of Taxila who joined Alexander’s forces against Poros (Puru) of Paurava. A later example is Man Singh of Amber who led Akbar’s forces against Rana Pratap at Haldhighati—and won.

    The early rajas adhered to certain outdated traditions which they regarded as dharma. They were not willing initially to give up these traditions. One was an unwillingness to fight after sundown, another was an unwillingness to adopt new technology—namely the saddle and stirrups for horses.

    The early rajas rode bareback and had to use their hands to hold on to the horse. They could not fire arrows unless the horse was standing still. The invading Muslims used saddle and stirrups which allowed them to ride hands free. They could stand in the saddle and fire arrows from a bow even when the horse was running.

    In hind-sight, the rajas appear to have been too dependant on war elephants and the use of brute forward force. They lacked a more sophisticated strategy (as described in the article above). Both Greek and Muslim armies were terrified of elephants and their trumpeting, as were their horses. But they soon learned to keep a distance and were able to do so because of the saddle and stirrups. They could shoot arrows from afar and did not have to engage the rajas or their elephants at close quarters.

    Having said this, remembrance of Rana Pratap as a national hero is very much in order. He was a great king who loved his land and people and definitely should be honoured by the State.

    • I have not seen evidence that Indians cavalry did not use saddles and stirrups in medieval times.a constant problem was that horses were constantly imported from central and west Asia.

      • If I remember correctly, SRG’s reference was to the early rajas. He was quite emphatic about the saddles and stirrups and some rajas not wanting to adopt them.

      • Rajputs were the notable exception who bred Marwari and Kathiawari breeds locally. That was one of the major reasons why they could withstand and beat swift and armored Turkish cavalry that otherwise had north India in a terror grip.

    • The stirrup theory holds no water….the only reason the turks won was because of brutality and slavery combined with no war ethics……perhaps rajputs lacked political acumen but the were tigers on the battlefield

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