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.
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.