Karan Raja, the brave but thoughtless and pleasure-loving Rajput king, abducts Roopsundari,the wife of his trusted prime minister Madhav. Madhav’s brother is killed as he tries to protect her.
In revenge, Madhav goes to Delhi where he persuades Sultan Allauddin Khilji to attack Gujarat. The attack succeeds and Karan loses not only his kingdom but his wife Kaularani and, a few years later, his daughter Devaldevi as well, to the Turkish sultan. And gains the epithet, ‘Ghelo’ (Foolish).
The Turkish conquest was a turning point in the history of Gujarat, and it was not long before the story of Madhav’s betrayal, the humiliating defeat of Karan Vaghela, and the fall of the great city of Anhilpur-Patan became a staple of bardic repertoire, to be told and retold by the bhats and charans of Gujarat over the centuries. Apart from oral tradition, Allauddin Khilji’s invasion was recorded in contemporary Jain chronicles such as the Prabandhachintamani of Merutunga (1305), in the Dharmaranya (written between 1300 and 1450), and in the Tirthakalpataru of Jinaprabha Suri. Padmanabha’s famous medieval epic, Kanhadade Prabandha, written in 1455, gave a graphic account of Allauddin’s invasion and the response to it.
Karan Vaghela’s story was not confined to Gujarati sources alone. The events that led to his fateful second encounter with Allauddin Khilji’s forces and the capture of his daughter Devaldevi were described in considerable detail by Amir Khusrau, Allauddin Khilji’s famous and prolific court poet, in the masnavi Deval Devi Khizr Khan, popularly known as Ishqia. The episode, which forms the background to the tragic romance between Deval Devi and Allauddin’s son Khizr Khan after she is brought to Delhi, was later summarised in prose by the renowned 16th-century historian Ferishta.
It is perhaps not surprising, therefore, that when Nandshankar Mehta published his historical novel Karan Ghelo in 1866, it was an immediate success. As the first modern novel written in Gujarati, the book was a landmark in Gujarati literature. It remained immensely popular right into the twentieth century and, until a few decades ago, was used as a textbook in Gujarati-medium schools.
The lyrics “Karan Raja, O husband mine, why have you left me, where do you hide?” were put to music and became so popular that students learnt the Lalit metre to its words. The novel was translated into Marathi and serialised in a widely-read magazine, Vividhadnayanavistara. What is remarkable is that Karan Ghelo has never been out of print. It has gone through nine reprints, the last one in 2007. Recently, the novel has caught the attention of academics seeking to probe the roots of Gujarati regional identity.
The story of the ill-fated Karan was a source of inspiration to others as well. As early as 1868, the Parsi Theatre in Bombay enacted Gujaratno Chhello Raja Karanghelo (Karanghelo, the Last King of Gujarat). Karan’s misadventures were the subject of a film (Shree Nath Patankar’s Karan Ghelo, 1924), and a play (Chandravadan Mehta’s Sandhyakal). Two new interpretations of his life were written in the 1950s during the agitation for a separate state of Gujarat: K. M. Munshi’s Bhagnapaduka (1955), and Dhumketu’s Rai Karanghelo (1960).
A short biography of Nandshankar
Nandshankar was headmaster of an English-medium school in Surat when he began writing Karan Ghelo in 1863. “I wrote in the mornings and late evenings, afternoons I spent at school,” Nandshankar says. “Only occasionally did I have to score out what I had written.” His wife, Nandagauri, adds: “There was a room in the attic of the house with plastered mud floors. He would keep his written work there. Seated on the floor, paper on his knee, he wrote with abandon. The room contained neither chair nor table; himself and the chattai on the floor were sufficient. So absorbed was he in the writing that the time to be at school would arrive, and I’d have to go upstairs and awaken him from his trance.”
“When Karan Ghelo was published,” Narsimhrav Divetia (son of Nandshankar’s close friend, Bholanath Sarabhai) would recall later, “all his friends, including my father, were surprised to discover that this man of few words had managed to write, in complete secrecy, such a fine novel. When my father chided him for his reticence, Nandashankar simply laughed in his usual way.”
By this time the East India Company had been ruling over Bombay Presidency for nearly 50 years. The appointment of Mountstuart Elphinstone as governor of the Presidency in 1819 had spearheaded significant changes in the educational system of Gujarat. The need to impart western education to the local population was keenly felt and the lack of indigenous textbooks was seen as a major impediment to its spread. In response to this need, in 1825, Col George Jarvis, head of the Board of Education, tried to encourage educated Indians to come forward as translators and writers of textbooks by promising handsome rewards for those willing to take up this challenge.
In his preface to the first edition of Karan Ghelo, Nandshankar describes the impulse behind the writing of the book: “Most people of this province are fond of reading stories set in poetic form, but only a very few examples of these stories are readily available in prose; and the available ones are not well known. In order to fulfil this lacuna and to recreate versions of English narratives and stories in Gujarati, the Educational Inspector of this province, Mr Russell Sahib, urged me to write a story along these lines. On that basis, in approximately three years, I wrote the book.”
Born in 1835 in a Nagar Brahmin family, Nandshankar was sent to an English school at the age of ten. The young student soon became the protégé of Mr Green, the headmaster (who would later go on to become the principal of Elphinstone College, Mumbai). Green’s close friend, Captain Scott, opened up his well-stocked library to the bright young student.
“I gazed at this storehouse of knowledge with thirsty eyes and like the chataka bird, eagerly lapped it up. I began to feel a kinship with the wider world,” Nandshankar confessed. He soon became an avid reader of English novels, histories and essays, the works of Scott, Lytton, Gibbon and Macaulay becoming special favourites. Shakespeare, too, had a great impact on him.
After Nandshankar’s marriage in 1855 to Nandagauri, he began work as an assistant master in the same school where he had studied and, in 1858, became its first Indian headmaster. Later he would become the principal of the Teachers’ Training College in Surat. Fondly addressed as “Mastersaheb”, Nandshankar was a frequent visitor at the home of Bholanath Sarabhai, the founder of the Prathana Samaj in Gujarat. He would sit “along with five or ten of my father’s other friends in our living room,” Narsimhrav remembers. “Leaning on a bolster, taking frequent pinches of snuff from his snuff box, he would speak little, but now and then his laughter, as nasal as his speech, would fill the room and his head would shake from side to side, his hair flying.”
When Sir Theodore Hope, associated with the Government Textbooks’ Committee, joined the Surat Municipality, he recognised Nandshankar’s abilities and urged him to join the Civil Service instead of wasting his talents as “a mere pantuji” (humble teacher). He was convinced that Nandshankar, whose standards of integrity and efficiency were very high, had the capacity to advance to great heights in the Civil Service. Nandshankar joined the Revenue Department as a mamlatdar of Ankleshwar. In 1880 he became the Diwan of Kutch, and in 1883 the Assistant Political Agent at Godhra.
Despite the success of Karan Ghelo, Nandshankar did not write another novel. (Though he translated RG Bhandarkar’s Sanskrit Margopadeshika and an English textbook on trigonometry into Gujarati, and was a frequent contributor of articles to newspapers.)
Narsimhrav met him for the last time at his home in Dummas in 1903. “As usual, he was entertaining himself with mathematical problems, erasing each from his slate as he solved it. He stopped what he was doing and we spent a pleasant time chatting with each other. Not long after that, in 1905… I heard that he had fallen ill. My wife and I immediately rushed to his house but we were unable to see him. We learnt… that he had suffered a third stroke and was in unbearable pain. Exactly a month later, on the 16th of July, I stopped in Surat on my way to Ahmedabad and went to visit him. He was hovering in that twilight state between life and death. I paid him my respects at this solemn spiritual moment, and left. What would I have not given to know for sure that he could hear the call of the divine.”
Nandshankar’s “love of history”, writes his son and biographer Vinayak Mehta, “knew no bounds”. This interest in history is clearly reflected in his meticulous use of historical material, whether indigenous histories, heroic tales of the bhats and charans, Jain chronicles or Persian sources, in his novel. Unlike some later nationalist Gujarati authors, he generally sticks closely to the story described in these sources and does not gloss over or reinvent inconvenient episodes.
Karan Raja’s story
According to Vinayak Mehta, Nandshankar decided to write a historical novel which would focus on a pivotal moment in the history of Gujarat, a moment that signalled the end of one period of history and the dawn of another. He had considered writing about the destruction of Somnath or the fall of Champaner, but finally decided to write about the conquest of Gujarat in 1298 by Alladuddin Khilji.
It seems incredible that Nandshankar chose to write, not about one of the great Rajput kings of Gujarat, like Mulraj or Siddharaj, but about a man who had failed his land and its people. Unlike traditional hagiographies, he would write, he decided, a historical novel in the Western sense, one in which historical fact would be enriched with psychological insights and a poetic vision.
The contemporary Persian historian Ziauddin Barni (who goes into great detail while describing the political and administrative conditions of Allauddin’s reign) dismisses the Sultan’s conquest of Gujarat in five sentences: “At the beginning of the third year of the reign, Ulugh Khan and Nusrat Khan, with their amirs, and generals, and a large army marched against Gujarat. They took and plundered Nahrwala and all Gujarat. Karan, Rai of Gujarat, fled from Nahrwala and went to Raja Ram Deo of Deogir. The wives and daughters, the treasure and elephants of Rai Karan, fell into the hands of the Muhammadans. All Gujarat became prey to the invaders…”
Whether iconoclastic zeal, political ambition or plain greed provided the main motive for Allauddin’s invasion of Gujarat is a subject still debated by historians. There is however little doubt about the effects of the unprovoked attack on the people of Gujarat. A century and a half after the event, Padmanabha recalled the horror: “After the flight of Karan, Patan fort was destroyed, its well-filled stores and treasures captured… What took place in Anhilpur had never happened earlier, nor would happen again… Everywhere in Gujarat terror spread…” “Where Shaligram was worshipped and Hari’s name recited, where yagnas were performed and charities given to the brahmins, where Tulsi plant and pipal tree were worshipped and Vedas and Puranas were recited…in (sic) such a country Madhav brought the Mlecchas!”
Allauddin’s invasion and the displacement of Rajput rule by the Turks was a traumatic blow to Rajput pride and swept away many old certainties. Rajput chroniclers trying to make sense of Madhav’s treachery and the subsequent attack came to terms with it in their own way – by suggesting that it was divine retribution for the decline of kshatriya dharma, with Madhav, Karan’s prime minister, as the agent of Providence. In their version of the events, Karan has neglected his duties as a Rajput king, and has provoked Madhav beyond endurance. “Kshatriya dharma has disappeared from Gujarat,” Madhav tells Allauddin.
Nandshankar too follows this line of reasoning. He describes how Karan’s peasants are oppressed, how the Raja alienates an important and influential section of Gujarati society, the Jains, how he is absorbed in sensual pursuits and neglects his duties as a king. While Karan himself attributes his misfortunes to the working of fate, Nandshankar never lets us forget that the raja is in fact hostage to his own deeds.
Wilfully disregarding the warnings of the female spirits and against all norms of kshatriya honour, he abducts the beautiful Roopsundari, wife of his prime minister, in a thoughtless moment of lust, thus setting in motion a chain of events that leads to his defeat, the loss of his kingdom and his chief queen Kaularani.
It is interesting that while Nandshankar makes no attempt to absolve Karan of his responsibility for the invasion of Gujarat, and criticises his notions of honour that held valour as preferable to strategic withdrawal and death to defeat, he does – against all evidence – credit Karan with heroic qualities. No source, Rajput, Jain or Persian, suggests that Karan put up any semblance of opposition to the invaders. Yet Nandshankar depicts him fighting valiantly till he is grievously wounded and carried away from the battlefield.
The second half of Karan Ghelo is based in Baglan in southern Gujarat where Karan has managed to establish himself with the assistance of Ramdev, the Maratha ruler of Devgadh. Here he lives a solitary life, his only consolation being his daughter Devaldevi.
In the historian Ferishta’s account, Kaularani, now a favourite of Sultan Allauddin Khilji, asks the sultan to get her daughter back from Karan. The sultan orders his generals to secure Devaldevi, “either willingly or by force”. When Karan refuses to give her up, he is attacked by the sultan’s forces. In need of Maratha support, Karan reluctantly agrees to marry Devaldevi to Shankaldev, the prince of Devgadh, though he deems him inferior in status. But it is too late. Before she can reach her new home, she is captured and taken to Delhi.
Several Gujarati writers have cast doubts on the story of Devaldevi’s capture and marriage to Prince Khizr Khan, regarding it as little more than poetic fiction. Describing Amir Khusrau’s masnavi as an “absurd story of a lecherous woman asking her paramour to snatch her daughter from her natural guardian into a life of infamy”, AK Mujumdar says that the poet “seems to have been suffering from a delusion that the Hindus had no sense of honour and their women no sense of chastity.”
Nandshankar obviously did not share these sentiments, and follows Ferishta’s account of the events that lead to her capture. But he gives a completely different slant to the story by inventing a love affair between Devaldevi and Shankaldev. As described in Ferishta, Devaldevi is nothing but a trophy to be fought over by Allauddin and Karan. Her marriage to Shankaldev is a matter of political expediency – an option to which Karan agrees as the lesser of two evils: it is better she is married off to a Maratha rather than fall into the hands of a mleccha.
However, in Karan Ghelo Nandshankar makes us see the issue from Devaldevi’s point of view. His moving account of her clandestine meeting with Shankaldev, her feverish longing, her dreams of love shattered because fate wills otherwise, make us see Devaldevi as more than just a prize to be fought over by Turks and Hindus, but as a young woman capable of independent thought and feelings.
The blossoming of love between Devaldevi and Shankaldev gives Nandshankar an opportunity to make an impassioned plea against arranged marriages and child marriage in particular. It is one of the many digressions and asides which are interspersed in the tale of Karan Raja. They reflect the reformist agenda of the nineteenth century with which Nandshankar was so closely involved, and provide an added dimension to the novel.
Born into the Nagar Brahmin caste, which was known to value education and which prohibited bigamous marriages, Nandshankar was part of the English-educated intelligentsia of nineteenth century Gujarat. He had joined hands with reformers like Durgaram Mehta, Dalpatram and two other colleagues to establish the Manav Dharma Sabha, and was an enthusiastic member of the Buddhivardhak Sabha which was set up in Bombay in 1851.
Both organisations were strong champions of issues such as women’s education, widow remarriage, and the removal of the caste ban on foreign travel. They were vocal in their condemnation of untouchability and challenged superstitions, the belief in magic spells, ghosts and spirits. By reflecting some of these issues in his novel, Nandshankar engaged his readers at two levels – grappling with a traumatic period of Gujarat’s past and providing a new perspective on issues churned up by the social and religious reform movements of the nineteenth century.
At a time when even some renowned Gujarati social reformers believed in the innate superiority of men, and defended child marriage on the grounds of protecting women against their innate unbridled sensuality, Nandshankar advocated the desirability of marriage based on mutual respect and consent.
In a lengthy aside in Karan Ghelo he makes a strong case in support of a relationship where the lover works hard to be worthy of his mate even if it means a wait of several years before they can marry. The lover’s determination to stand on his own two feet before proposing marriage reflects some of the values the Victorian age glorified: self-discipline, hard work and self-control.
Perhaps even more daring is the manner in which Nandshankar portrays the relationship between Madhav and Roopsundari. As a woman who was abducted and had to become part of the king’s harem, she is a fallen woman, a “polluted commodity”. Yet Madhav does not reject or abandon her after Patan falls and she is rescued. On the contrary, the two embrace “passionately…laughing and weeping with joy”, their love as strong as before. The mandatory purificatory rites that custom demands the couple undergo are treated as a mere formality.
Nandshankar appears to be clearly uncomfortable with customs such as sati and jauhar, which were common among the upper castes even in his time. While remaining true to the traditions of thirteenth century Gujarat, and describing the immolation of Gunsundari, widow of Madhav’s slain brother, in vivid detail, he puts persuasive arguments against the custom in the mouth of Gunsundari’s mother. In contrast to writers like KM Munshi who censure Karan’s chief queen Kaularani for not upholding Rajput traditions and preventing her daughters from jauhar, and laments her “misfortune” for being captured alive, Nandshankar is far more understanding of Kaularani’s plight and presents her predicament in a more sympathetic light.
Recreating the ambience
In 1858, about a decade before Karan Ghelo was published, a British administrator, Alexander Kinloch Forbes, with the help of the poet Dalpatram Dahyabhai, had compiled Rasmala, a rich repository of bardic tales, Jain chronicles, Persian texts and folklore relating to Gujarat. What Forbes had done for his English-speaking audience, Nandshankar wanted to do for his Gujarati readers.
In the first edition of Karan Ghelo he wrote: “My intention in writing the book was to draw as accurately as possible a picture of how things were at the time of the story – the manners of the men and women of the time and their way of thinking; the principles of government of the Rajput kings of Gujarat and the Muslim emperors of Delhi; the heroism and the pride of caste of the men and women of Rajasthan, and the passion and the religious fanaticism of the Muslims.”
Nandshankar owes a debt to Forbes’s Rasmala not only for the core story in Karan Ghelo but many other details. In several instances, (e.g., the description of the condition of peasants and the trading community in Gujarat in Chapter1, or the description of the shami puja) it seems as if Nandshankar has simply translated the English Rasmala passages, without paraphrasing or changing the text. However, since Forbes himself quotes extensively from Rajput bardic sources and early texts, it is impossible to say whether Nandshankar also referred to the same sources, or simply relied on the Rasmala. What we do know from Nandshankar’s biographer is that the author “steeped himself in the poetic study of the annals of Gujarat and her oral story-telling traditions” since he wanted to give his readers “a true vision of the past”.
Accordingly, we are given a flavour of medieval society through vivid description: Kalikamata’s devotees suspended by ropes from iron rings inserted in their bellies, Brahmins and Jains engaged in acrimonious debate, a bard who impales his son and himself in protest over non-payment of a debt, Harpal straddling a rotting corpse in performance of a Tantrik ritual. We get a picture of the fierce (and often self-destructive) Rajput pride in lineage and tradition, their chivalry, code of honour, and elaborate etiquette through the sentiments expressed by the characters, and accounts of customs, rituals and war scenes.
Nandshankar is so concerned with familiarizsng his readers with the history and culture of their land (he wrote at a time when very little prose literature, fiction or non-fiction was available in Gujarati), he does not mind breaking his narrative flow by launching into long descriptions at the most improbable moments – for instance, he breaks off from Madhav’s journey to Delhi in search of revenge by making him go on an extensive tour of the sites at Mt Abu. The inclusion of digressions and stories within stories within the narrative is a traditional storytelling device and one which would have been familiar to Nandshankar’s readers.
For scenes set in Allauddin Khilji’s Delhi, Nandshankar relies heavily on contemporary Persian sources. Amir Khusrau’s description of how Allauddin Khilji had Mongol prisoners “tied into bundles” to be “pounded into meat for birds and beasts” by elephants; and Barni’s account of the sultan’s murder of his uncle Jallaluddin serve as the basis for Nandshankar’s portrait of the Turkish sultan. His description of the condition of Allauddin’s Hindu subjects echoes that of Barni. “To pre-empt any attempt at rebellion” writes Barni, “Allauddin decided to tax them to poverty.” Regulations were so harsh that the people were “not able to ride on horseback, to find weapons, to get fine clothes or indulge in betel… and in their homes no sign of gold or silver…was to be seen.”
One of the verses of the nineteenth century poet Dalpatram Dahyabhai’s poem Harak havé tu Hindustan (Now rejoice, O Hindustan) reads:
Look! Even the timid goat wanders at will without fear.
Thank the Lord for such blessings O India, and rejoice.
Dalpatram, like many other liberal, western-educated Gujaratis, including Nandshankar, was convinced that whatever the drawbacks of British rule, Pax Britannica would restore Gujarat to its former glory. In the last paragraph of Karan Ghelo Nandshankar laments the passing away of a glorious past.
“Who would believe,” he asks “that the indolent, weak and decadent Rajputs of today are descended from the valiant race that once ruled the land? Who would believe that the weak, starving, illiterate Muslims of today have descended from the Muslims of yore? And as for the Marathas, no trace of their former glory survives.” But Nandshankar does not end on a note of despair. He prays that under British rule Gujarat may rise from the ashes once more to “become a garden of paradise, the abode of Lakshmi, the storehouse of all virtue.”
Excerpted with permission from Karan Ghelo, Nandshankar Mehta, translated by Tulsi Vatsal and Aban Mukherji, Penguin Books.