Women and children first. That is a fundamental principle of chivalry within a male-dominated society. Had you been a woman on the Titanic, you would have had a 54% greater chance of survival than any given man on that sinking ship. If you were under 15 years of age, you would have had a 32% better chance of making it out alive than if you were over 50. Neither would have been the case had you been among the unfortunate passengers on the Lusitania when it was hit by a German torpedo a few years later. The two ships make for an interesting comparison, since they were of similar size and carried a comparable number of passengers on their last voyage, which, in the case of the Titanic, was also a first voyage. The gap in female survival rates is attributable to the Lusitania going down very fast, leading to a general panic and rush to lifeboats. The Titanic sank slowly after hitting an iceberg, allowing for socially mandated behaviour to emerge, and ensuring women and children got a degree of precedence.

The principle of women and children first applies in death as in life. When Rajput men chose death over perceived dishonour, they ensured women and children were killed, or killed themselves, before launching their own suicidal final assault. In Sanjay Leela Bhansali’s Padmaavat, the soldiers of Chittor ride out to face the enemy while women inside the fort perform final rituals. This is necessary in a commercial film. Cross-cutting between two locations has been a standard way of building drama and suspense since DW Griffith perfected the technique over a century ago. Constructing the sequence in this fashion emphasises the voluntariness of the women’s actions. This, again, is to be expected in a film like Padmaavat. Those who went into a theatre hoping for a critique of jauhar did so having failed to absorb basic conventions of big budget Indian cinema. In the real world, it remains important to highlight the true sequence of events, (of jauhar generally, not of the specific, fictional, case of Chittor under Ratan Singh) so as to place a question mark before its nature.

We have no accounts of jauhar by insiders, since all insiders died before they could write a description of proceedings. What has come down to us are the words of witnesses in the enemy ranks, and of historians recording what such witnesses told them. From Amir Khusrau to Abu’l Fazl, these narrations are unanimous about the chronology of events. The women always die before the men. In one instance, that of Chauragarh fort, Abu’l Fazl records two surviving princesses, Kamala Devi, sister of Rani Durgavati, and an unnamed princess who was due to wed the queen’s son. Both are treated with honour, and become part of the emperor’s harem, probably an acceptable conclusion for them.

Jauhar in the Baburnama

One account of jauhar comes from a person we can be certain saw its aftermath within a few hours of the ritual’s completion. This is from the Baburnama, composed by the emperor himself. After defeating Rana Sanga in 1527, Babur set out consolidating and recapturing territories that had been part of the sultanate. Among the foes he overcame was Medini Rao, who held the fort of Chanderi in Central India. On January 29, 1528, Babur’s forces attacked the well-guarded fort. After his artillery made no impression on the citadel’s stone walls, he concentrated on a vulnerable spot where a conduit had been constructed to supply water to the fort. Once this location was taken, Rajput resistance melted away. Babur writes:

“The reason so many were hastening from the ramparts was that they had realised they were going to lose and, having put their wives and womenfolk to the sword and resigning themselves to death, came out stripped to fight... Two or three hundred infidels entered Medini Rao’s quarters where they killed each other almost to the last one by having one man hold the sword while the others willingly bent their necks. And thus most of them went to hell. Through God’s grace such a famous fortress was conquered within two or three gharis without standards or drums and without any fighting in earnest.”

A few things stand out about Babur’s account. First, he mentions no death by fire, instead indicating the soldiers killed the women. Second, his account of the saka, or suicide assault by Rajput males, reveals its essentially ritual nature. The Rajputs do not attempt to inflict maximum casualties on their foes. Instead, they make it easy for the Mughals by discarding their armour.

Third, at the start of the Chanderi chapter, Babur mentions a deal he offered Medini Rao:

“Since Arayish Khan had some acquaintance with him [Rao], he and Shaikh Ghuran were sent to assure him of my favour and compassion toward him and promise him Shamsabad in lieu of Chanderi. One or two of his important men came over to us. I don’t know whether he himself mistrusted us or whether he was overreliant on the fastness of his fort, but in any case the overture did not succeed.”

The Baburnama has an account of jauhar during the siege of Chanderi fort. (Credit: Baburnama / Wikimedia Commons)

A disproportionate response

Normally, one would expect a resolve to fight to the death to make it harder for the enemy to win. In the Rajput case, however, at least the occasion Babur cites, the suicide impulse hastened the Mughal victory. If one presumes the honour system of the Rajputs dictated that the worst fate of all was for the women in a besieged fort to be captured, it would cause soldiers to surrender too early, for, if they waited too long, the enemy might enter the fort leaving insufficient time to kill all the women. Abu’l Fazl’s description of Chittorgarh’s capitulation after Rao Jaimal’s death matches Babur’s account of the unexpectedly easy victory at Chanderi. The Rajput forces accept defeat and get busy dying long before it is required. As a military strategy, the practice of jauhar and saka seems gravely sub-optimal.

As an alternative to the Chanderi jauhar, we have Babur’s own story of surrendering Samarkand to his foe Shaybani Khan in 1501. After five months during which Shaybani Khan’s forces cut off supplies to residents within the town’s walls, Babur accepts a truce and departs. He writes, “My sister Khanzada Begum fell into Wormwood Khan’s hands while we were leaving.” Wormwood Khan is Babur’s nickname for the Uzbek general Shaybani Khan, and the account of the Samarkand truce is one of the few places in the Baburnama where he is dishonest. Rather than his sister falling into enemy hands, it is likely she was part of the deal offered to Babur, one humiliating enough for him to abandon his usual candour even when writing of it years later.

Khanzada Begum became Shaybani Khan’s wife and bore him a son, who was granted a territory of his own. In 1510, the Uzbek forces were defeated by Iranian Safavis, and Shaybani Khan’s skull became Shah Ismail’s bejewelled drinking cup. Of his sister, Babur writes, “For my sake, Shah Ismail treated her well and had her honourably escorted to Konduz, where she joined me. We had been parted for ten years; when I arrived, the Begum and those with her didn’t recognise me, even when I told them who I was.”

Forts and walled cities were always hard to conquer. Kings valued good soldiers and wanted to lose as few as possible. They usually offered a reasonable deal to the besieged party, as Babur did at Chanderi, and usually stuck to the terms, as Shaybani Khan did with Babur even though he despised the Timurids. Reneging on an agreement would ensure it was the king’s last. The betrayal would max out his truce credit. The experience of Rajputs has been in line with this. In most cases where they surrendered (as they often did) to Muslim adversaries, they got reasonable terms, which the opposing side fulfilled. In this light, the resort to saka and jauhar appears an extraordinarily disproportionate response to the nature of the threat, on par with the Karni Sena’s response to Sanjay Leela Bhansali’s film, but far graver considering the lives it took of willing as well as unwilling women and men.