In 2004, Sher Singh Rana staged a sensational escape from Delhi’s Tihar jail. He was in prison for murdering, three years earlier, Phoolan Devi (then a sitting Parliamentarian and, in a previous avatar, a bandit in UP’s Bundelkhand region). Rana sought fame or notoriety – depending on one’s perspective – as he travelled a circuitous route, via Kolkata, Dhaka and then Dubai, to reach Kabul and Kandahar in Afghanistan.

His intention, apparently, was to bring back the remains of Prithviraj Chauhan, the ruler of Ajmer and Delhi between 1178 CE and 1192 CE. As most conventional histories go – and this is one of the essential points Cynthia Talbot’s book, The Last Hindu Emperor: Prithviraj Chauhan and the Making of the Indian Past 1200-2000, brings up – Chauhan was defeated in the second battle of Tarain by Shihab al-din, Mohammad bin Sam (Mohammad Ghuri), in 1192 CE.

The legend of the king

In his book on the ruler, Prithviraj Raso, his (putative) bard Chand Bardai wrote that the king was imprisoned and taken to Ghazni, accompanied by the bard-narrator himself. There Chauhan was blinded and imprisoned, but later, in a demonstration of his archery skills, he struck the Ghurid ruler instead of aiming his arrows at the metal gongs. Thus was the legend made. It was one that endured and was added onto over the centuries.

In the early 19th century, the British administrator in Ajmer, Colonel James Tod, relying on Raso, then available widely in many recensions (versions of varying length, with different subplots) added to Prithviraj Chauhan’s name the epithet of the “last great Hindu emperor”. The epithet has struck, making Chauhan an enduring icon and a symbol, co-opted by the Hindu Right, along with the Rana Pratap and Shivaji, of those who stood up for the preservation of Hinduism and Hindu. Indeed, the first and last chapters of Talbot’s book talk of a memorial park in Ajmer inaugurated in 1996 (by the BJP government then in power), and the statue of Prithviraj Chauhan in Delhi’s Birla Mandir dating back to the 1930s – both of them 20th century constructs.

Cynthia Talbot’s book investigates in clear historical manner how the legend of Prithviraj Chauhan was created, and looks also at the origins of the book Prithviraj Raso. It is the latter examination that makes this book almost a resolution of a historical mystery. Talbot takes up the story right from the late 12th century – the period after the battles of Tarain (near modern Bhatinda in Punjab) were fought. Her intention, as stated in the book’s introduction, is not to recreate Chauhan’s life but to establish how his story has travelled through time and how he is remembered.

The making of historical memory

The book is thus an excursion in historical memory – how a story travels, adapts and mutates, building on the past, to make itself relevant to present-day concerns. Chauhan’s story had different resonances at different points of time, in the courts of the Mewar kings of the early 18th century, for instance, or in Abul Fazl’s account about him in the late 16th century, as described the provinces (subahs) in his Ain-i-Akbari.

Talbot’s early investigations begin with textual evidence, inscriptional material being limited in the 11th and 12th centuries. Talbot relies not merely on original sources, but also explains how these were interpreted by later historians of the region, including the renowned historian from Rajasthan, Dasharatha Sharma. These early texts include one in Sanskrit, Prithviraja Vijaya, written in Kashmir, dated to immediately after the first battle of Tarain (1191 CE), and Persian works written in the decades immediately afterwards – the Taj al Maasir and the more important Tabaqat I Nasiri, written by Minhaj ul Siraj in the initial years of the Slave dynasty rule (1220-1230s).

What happened after the battle?

These texts establish that Chauhan was neither taken to Ghazni as prisoner nor blinded. It is most likely that he was killed in battle or executed when Shihab al din’s overtures to him were rebuffed. His son, as these accounts go, was also made ruler in his place, and did indeed rule Ajmer for a while. Both the Sanskrit and the Persian versions are acrimonious in their descriptions of the opponent, the former bitterly reviling the Ghurid ruler as an “eater of cows”. It describes the first battle of Tarain, when Prithviraj wrested back control of the fort of Bhatinda, and his earlier victories over the Chandellas and the rulers of Gujarat.

The Persian texts, however, state that before the battle, the Ghurids made diplomatic overtures, hoping for Chauhan’s acceptance of the other king’s power. These Persian texts were written with the intention of legitimising the presence of the Sultanate in north India, to enunciate clearly the fact that they came to rule and settle down. Moreover, the stories contained and made popular in Chand Bardai’s Raso do not figure in these texts – just as they don’t in the Sanskrit one.

Talbot moves next to the Sanskrit texts dated somewhat later, i.e., between 1320 CE and 1400 CE, and preserved in the Jain libraries of Rajasthan and Gujarat. Surprisingly, these portray Chauhan as inept and ineffectual, plagued often by hypersomnia. He overslept at critical junctures and, as in the battle against the Ghurids, was caught off guard and unable to defend himself.

One of the texts attribute this to his fatigue after his campaign against a rival ruler. Another claims that Chauhan was lulled into complacence and unpreparedness because of his misbehaviour against a minister who subsequently betrayed him. The heroic death attributed to him by Chand Bardai is not mentioned in these texts. Talbot’s conclusion: Bardai wrote his text between 1580 CE and 1610 CE, i.e., a full five hundred years after the time of Chauhan’s reign.

The other stories

The main motifs of these texts, primary among which is the Prithviraj Prabandha, include the Chauhan’s killing his minister Kaimbasa (he appears as Kaymas in the Raso), and the role of Chand Bardai, his bard. In the Prabandha, Bardai is seen to betray his master to the sultan who is thus prepared for Chauhan at the time of the archery contest. There is also the story of Samyogita (later called Samyukta) – the princess whom Chauhan won against the wishes of her father, Jaichand, the king of Kannauj. The king proceeds to become so infatuated with his new bride that he neglects the threat at the border as well as the traitors in his own vicinity.

It is from Abul Fazl’s works in Akbar’s time that Prithviraj Chauhan came to be more associated with Delhi. Earlier, Chauhan, who was born in Gujarat, was defined as a ruler from Ajmer, where his illustrious predecessor Visaldeva was known for his good work. Chauhan’s maternal grandfather, who ruled Delhi, had no direct male heir, which brought the former to the throne. Abul Fazl relied on these older texts available to him to emphasise the fact that the Mughals were only the latest of a long line of rulers who had ruled from Delhi.

Abul Fazl began with the Mahabharata and the city of Indraprastha, before moving on to Prithviraj Chauhan, who, he says, was defeated by the better equipped Ghurid forces. It was around this time during Akbar’s reign that the Prithviraj Chauhan story became popular in the courts of present-day Rajasthan. As Talbot suggests, it was an exercise in reinventing themselves, to stress their role in the new regime, which also saw active Rajput-Mughal collaboration in several spheres.

The mystery of Chand Bardai

The story gets more fascinating as it draws nearer our own time. Unearthing the Raso story shows how stories are rewritten to present heroes and communities in a radically different light. So it was with the texts written in the courts of Bundi (Rajasthan) for instance. The role of the Rajput warriors who gave up their lives in valiantly defending Chauhan was stressed more than Chauhan’s own role.

Such aspects of the story were added on to the Raso tale as it was written in the late 16th and early 17th century. So Chand Bardai (who remains a mysterious shadowy figure) had three main motifs in his Raso: The battle for Samyogita, when Prithviraj Chauhan lost many loyal warriors fighting Jaychand of Kannauj. The killing of his minister Kaymas, who was known to be quite a voyeur and womanizer and had secretly coveted the princess. And the battle with the Ghurid ruler, followed by the blinding and imprisonment of Prithviraj Chauhan.

In the early 18th century, the longest, most popular recension of the Prithviraj Chuhan story was written in the court of Mewar’s Amar Singh II. By this time the Raso text was also well known. The Mewar text, for its part, highlighted the role of one of its own rulers, Samar Singh, who was related to Chauhan by marriage, and fought valiantly against the Muslims.

Tod’s machinations

Colonel Tod championed the Mewar version of the Raso in the early 19th century. An Orientalist keen to reach out to “natives”, and unlike officials in Calcutta who upheld the cause of Sanskrit, Persian and Arabic, Tod believed that the Raso and other related Prithviraj Chauhan texts was written in the language of the people. Pingal, as Talbot writes, was related to Brajbasha and Avadhi, and one of the earliest languages used by bards of the region. Tod evoked the heroic, martial qualities of the Rajput (the term became even more accepted from here on), by his narration (via his teacher Gyanacharya) of how Rajputs emerged from a sacrificial fire, and that they also constituted a distinct “nation” of their own.

From the mid-19th century onwards, as more versions of the Prithviraj Chauhan story emerged, so did the controversies. With history developing into a systematic, evidence-based subject, the Raso came to be regarded as an inauthentic historical text. It was not clearly dated, and for Prithvira Chauhan’s own time, the Persian texts were seen as more “reliable”, for they appeared to follow western standards of clear historical scholarship, with dates and clear attributions.

What really is history, then?

At the same time, while the Raso was no longer seen as a historical text, it assumed literary importance as the Hindi-Hindustani movement emerged in the late 19th century. For instance, poet Kaviraj Shyamaldas, who documented the history and culture of Rajasthan, insisted with evidence that the Raso wasn’t historical and that Chand Bardai himself had concocted most of the story.

However, his rival, Mohanlal Vishnulal Pandya – whose patron was the “father figure” of Hindi literature, Bharatendu Harishchandra – spoke glowingly of Prithviraj Chauhan as an upholder of chivalric values, and of his bravery against an enemy. Writers like Pandya had to, in those times of rigid censorship enforced by colonial rule, present the enemy as someone from the past (much like Bankim Chandra Chattopadhyay) a clearly identifiable “other” – not the British, and hence, the Muslim.

Seen in this context, the story of Prithviraj Chauhan,as a brave warrior fighting Mohammad Ghuri comes to the fore as a popular literary text, first in Bangla adventure-and-romance novels and soon in texts made popular by the many local presses in north India from the early 20th century onward. The other subplots in the story – apart from his kidnapping of Samyogita – do not figure any more.

The statue of Prithviraj Chauhan in the Birla Temple must be seen in this context. It depicts the ruler with images associated with Delhi such as the Qutb Minar and the Iron Pillar – symbols signifying rule over Delhi but also putting forward the controversial claim that these were once Hindu sites.

Talbot’s vitally tells us that our past is never been handed down to us – it is always created. And so that past can be manipulated in very many ways and, thus, must always remain open to question.

The Last Hindu Emperor: Prithviraj Chauhan and the Indian Past 1200-2000, Cynthia Talbot, Cambridge University Press.