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What our textbooks don't tell us: Why the Rajputs failed miserably in battle for centuries

They were defeated by Ghazni, Ghuri, Khilji, Babur, Akbar, the Marathas and the British.

The 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.

Specialists 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.

Ossified 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. 

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Celebrated architect Hadi Teherani tells us what luxury in the living space means to him.

Hadi Teherani is best known for designing iconic buildings in Germany including the famous Dockland office in Hamburg and the Kranhaus in Cologne. But he’s also left his mark on the landscape of Abu Dhabi with the Zayed University, and has designed a luxury residence that will soon grace the skyline of Mumbai—Lodha Altamount. We spoke to him about the challenges of designing luxury living spaces in India.

Q. In your opinion, what is the definition of luxury specifically in the area of private residences? Is it a lot of fresh air, space and daylight? Is it the room composition? Or is luxury something completely different?

Hadi Teherani (HT): For me, luxury is first and foremost to have space, not just enough for what you need but enough space to really thrive. And luxury has always been defined that way. If you look at Art Nouveau houses, those rooms have incredible heights. So yes, space is definitely an important factor when it comes to luxury. In Europe people pay attention to every square metre and here in Mumbai it is the same. There are slums where 4 people live in one room and just across the street somebody is living by himself on 1000 square metres. Once you have space, luxury can be in the features, in using certain materials, and there is no limit. Some things, of course, are simply not available here: the luxury of fresh air and a clean sea. No matter how much money you are willing to spend, you cannot get those. Therefore, you are limited to what is available.

Q. Have you incorporated this concept of space into previous projects?

HT: Yes, in different ways, no matter if you are working on government-sponsored housing projects or in the luxury segment. Usually our projects are more in the luxury segment, where space is crucial. We are currently designing a building where luxury can already be sensed at the parking level. You reach with your car and you are already supposed to have the feeling that you’ve arrived at a hotel lobby. This is how far luxury has come. That the arrival in a garage already gives you the feeling as if you are coming to a palace—you get out of your limousine into this stunning lobby and this feeling continues as you go up into the apartment where you have a bathroom that is 20-30 square metres and not just 5-10. The idea of really designing your bathroom or kitchen has not yet reached India. Bathrooms are still rather compact and practical since the idea of spending quality time in your bathroom doesn’t seem to exist yet. Customers definitely do not request a spacious bathroom when we discuss their projects. For me, personally, a great bathroom is extremely important, as it is the first thing you use in the morning. Afterwards you go to work, and you come back home. But I believe the areas that you use most need to have enough space for you to move and thrive in.

Q. Do you have any role model in the field of architecture? Maybe a building or a person?

HT: The Bauhaus is still my role model. Back then they designed products for day-to-day life, affordable for the general population. But those products have become classics today like the lounge chair by Le Corbusier. Those were project works but Bauhaus thought further ahead. The idea was to give people light, air and space, and to free them from elements that were poorly designed and uncomfortable like big stucco ceilings. The focus needs to be light, air and sun. For them, architecture and product design were always very fluent concepts. Le Corbusier, for instance, designed fantastic buildings as well as whole cities, but on the other hand also designed furniture. Gropius had even designed a car once and furniture, too. This school of thinking has influenced me, and once you have all those “tools” and this way of thinking, you get very far. With this “toolbox” of modern design, you can create anything and influence society. The times back then aided this development; everyone was opening up, living in and with nature, not hiding away in little holes. And the world evolved from there. And today you can see they are daring even more spectacular things in Asia than they used to in Old Europe.

Q. You have already gained quite some experience in India. Is there something that you would define as a typical “Indian palate”, and if so, how does it differ from the international projects? You already mentioned the differences in bath and kitchen design, but are there, for instance, taboos like colours you wouldn’t use or something in room composition?

HT: I haven’t encountered anything like that. What I do experience is that many projects are influenced by religious thoughts and by Vaastu, something like Feng shui. So the master bedroom has to be in the south-west and the kitchen has to have a certain location. Those rules need to be followed exactly, no matter if it makes sense for the building or not. Here in Mumbai it’s a little more liberal but in other regions, Hyderabad for instance, every centimetre has to be exact as per Vaastu. Sometimes they want a dedicated room for pujas. All this changes while designing a project, of course. But overall the ground plans are not that different. The families might be bigger so houses and apartments are bigger as well, or they are trying to utilize each and every square metre and avoid hallways, for example.

Those projects are also in the centre of a lot of marketing. We are not used to that in Europe but here in Mumbai or even more in other cities like Bangalore, along the entire highway from the airport into the city you only see 50-metre-high billboards announcing new real estate projects. You don’t see anything else! And it’s very creative marketing with catchy headlines and slogans. That isn’t happening in Germany. One more difference: when designing upper class buildings in India, they require a maid or servant room, maybe a separate entrance from the staircase and so forth. Here, you can still afford having a maid. In Europe you might have someone coming by for three hours once a week but certainly not living in.

Q. Let’s talk about the Lodha Altamount. What was the challenge?

HT: The design of Altamount was strongly influenced by being a Lodha project and by its location. Next to Altamount stands a luxury highlight of architecture, the Ambani tower, the most expensive home in the world. How do you want to top that? The Ambani tower is very structural. It shoots through the air, it combines all sorts of crafts and structural design elements with gaps and open spaces. You can’t top that and definitely not with our type of design. That’s why we decided to hold back and instead develop a dark and sleek building. That type of building doesn’t exist a lot here in India. Usually buildings have many structural elements like beams and balconies. By creating a calm building in the skyline of Mumbai, we will make Altamount stand out. Plus, the top of the building is very unique. Many structures are either simply cut off straight or completed by a dome. We have two geometric pointy tops so that the building is properly completed and doesn’t look as if it could grow further. It has a head and feet and is finished. So for us to hold back was our way to stand out. It doesn’t devalue the building design in anyway. It is meant expressively in the sense of “less is more”. And the interior is of course very luxurious: it is designed through and through, there is the green car parking podium, each balcony has a mini pool. So all those luxury features are present but the architectural design is based on the idea of “less is more”.

Lodha Altamount (Mumbai) designed by Hadi Teherani.
Lodha Altamount (Mumbai) designed by Hadi Teherani.

Q. Luxury can drift into the eccentric, depending on the client. Have there been any projects that were very eccentric which you still accepted or projects that you had to turn down because they were too eccentric?

HT: As architects, we create a space. What happens, of course, is that people buy an apartment in a great contemporary building and then furnish it in a baroque style. But that freedom has to be there, of course, because we can’t also tell the client which curtains to use or clothes to wear. At a certain point our job is done. However, when it comes to public buildings, the public is supposed to benefit from, so I have to be strict and dictate. In private buildings you can leave it up to the individual but publicly I have a responsibility and cannot consider each and every taste. I have to do a clean job so that in the end every individual can find himself or herself in my design. Anyway, taste always stems from a certain upbringing, culture and environment, so I also have the duty to educate and that’s what I do with my projects. When a small child walks by a building, she recognizes when the proportions are right even if she has no idea about architecture. But if the proportions are off, the child will pick that up too, because every building also exudes energy, either of unease or comfort. So we have quite a big responsibility as well. I always say doctors have it easier than us. Their mistakes get buried, but our mistakes will always be there for everyone to see.

With one residence per floor and a host of bespoke luxury services, Lodha Altamount is the epitome of unrestricted luxury. Designed by Hadi Teherani, and a part of the Lodha group’s Luxury Collection that has homes present at only the globe’s most-coveted locations, Lodha Altamount is the last word in luxury in India. For more information about Lodha Altamount, see here.

This article was produced on behalf of Lodha by the Scroll.in marketing team and not by the Scroll.in editorial staff

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