Anything that moves

No fight to the death, just a tame surrender: Why jauhar was a bad military tactic

By Mughal accounts, women always die before men. And the Rajput forces accept defeat and get busy dying long before required.

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)
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.

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Swara Bhasker: Sharp objects has to be on the radar of every woman who is tired of being “nice”

The actress weighs in on what she loves about the show.

This article has been written by award-winning actor Swara Bhasker.

All women growing up in India, South Asia, or anywhere in the world frankly; will remember in some form or the other that gentle girlhood admonishing, “Nice girls don’t do that.” I kept recalling that gently reasoned reproach as I watched Sharp Objects (you can catch it on Hotstar Premium). Adapted from the author of Gone Girl, Gillian Flynn’s debut novel Sharp Objects has been directed by Jean-Marc Vallée, who has my heart since he gave us Big Little Lies. It stars the multiple-Oscar nominee Amy Adams, who delivers a searing performance as Camille Preaker; and Patricia Clarkson, who is magnetic as the dominating and dark Adora Crellin. As an actress myself, it felt great to watch a show driven by its female performers.

The series is woven around a troubled, alcohol-dependent, self-harming, female journalist Camille (single and in her thirties incidentally) who returns to the small town of her birth and childhood, Wind Gap, Missouri, to report on two similarly gruesome murders of teenage girls. While the series is a murder mystery, it equally delves into the psychology, not just of the principal characters, but also of the town, and thus a culture as a whole.

There is a lot that impresses in Sharp Objects — the manner in which the storytelling gently unwraps a plot that is dark, disturbing and shocking, the stellar and crafty control that Jean-Marc Vallée exercises on his narrative, the cinematography that is fluid and still manages to suggest that something sinister lurks within Wind Gap, the editing which keeps this narrative languid yet sharp and consistently evokes a haunting sensation.

Sharp Objects is also liberating (apart from its positive performance on Bechdel parameters) as content — for female actors and for audiences in giving us female centric and female driven shows that do not bear the burden of providing either role-models or even uplifting messages. 

Instead, it presents a world where women are dangerous and dysfunctional but very real — a world where women are neither pure victims, nor pure aggressors. A world where they occupy the grey areas, complex and contradictory as agents in a power play, in which they control some reigns too.

But to me personally, and perhaps to many young women viewers across the world, what makes Sharp Objects particularly impactful, perhaps almost poignant, is the manner in which it unravels the whole idea, the culture, the entire psychology of that childhood admonishment “Nice girls don’t do that.” Sharp Objects explores the sinister and dark possibilities of what the corollary of that thinking could be.

“Nice girls don’t do that.”

“Who does?”

“Bad girls.”

“So I’m a bad girl.”

“You shouldn’t be a bad girl.”

“Why not?”

“Bad girls get in trouble.”

“What trouble? What happens to bad girls?”

“Bad things.”

“What bad things?”

“Very bad things.”

“How bad?”

“Terrible!!!”

“Like what?”

“Like….”

A point the show makes early on is that both the victims of the introductory brutal murders were not your typically nice girly-girls. Camille, the traumatised protagonist carrying a burden from her past was herself not a nice girl. Amma, her deceptive half-sister manipulates the nice girl act to defy her controlling mother. But perhaps the most incisive critique on the whole ‘Be a nice girl’ culture, in fact the whole ‘nice’ culture — nice folks, nice manners, nice homes, nice towns — comes in the form of Adora’s character and the manner in which beneath the whole veneer of nice, a whole town is complicit in damning secrets and not-so-nice acts. At one point early on in the show, Adora tells her firstborn Camille, with whom she has a strained relationship (to put it mildly), “I just want things to be nice with us but maybe I don’t know how..” Interestingly it is this very notion of ‘nice’ that becomes the most oppressive and deceptive experience of young Camille, and later Amma’s growing years.

This ‘Culture of Nice’ is in fact the pervasive ‘Culture of Silence’ that women all over the world, particularly in India, are all too familiar with. 

It takes different forms, but always towards the same goal — to silence the not-so-nice details of what the experiences; sometimes intimate experiences of women might be. This Culture of Silence is propagated from the child’s earliest experience of being parented by society in general. Amongst the values that girls receive in our early years — apart from those of being obedient, dutiful, respectful, homely — we also receive the twin headed Chimera in the form of shame and guilt.

“Have some shame!”

“Oh for shame!”

“Shameless!”

“Shameful!”

“Ashamed.”

“Do not bring shame upon…”

Different phrases in different languages, but always with the same implication. Shameful things happen to girls who are not nice and that brings ‘shame’ on the family or everyone associated with the girl. And nice folks do not talk about these things. Nice folks go on as if nothing has happened.

It is this culture of silence that women across the world today, are calling out in many different ways. Whether it is the #MeToo movement or a show like Sharp Objects; or on a lighter and happier note, even a film like Veere Di Wedding punctures this culture of silence, quite simply by refusing to be silenced and saying the not-nice things, or depicting the so called ‘unspeakable’ things that could happen to girls. By talking about the unspeakable, you rob it of the power to shame you; you disallow the ‘Culture of Nice’ to erase your experience. You stand up for yourself and you build your own identity.

And this to me is the most liberating aspect of being an actor, and even just a girl at a time when shows like Sharp Objects and Big Little Lies (another great show on Hotstar Premium), and films like Veere Di Wedding and Anaarkali Of Aarah are being made.

The next time I hear someone say, “Nice girls don’t do that!”, I know what I’m going to say — I don’t give a shit about nice. I’m just a girl! And that’s okay!

Swara is a an award winning actor of the Hindi film industry. Her last few films, including Veere Di Wedding, Anaarkali of Aaraah and Nil Battey Sannata have earned her both critical and commercial success. Swara is an occasional writer of articles and opinion pieces. The occasions are frequent :).

Watch the trailer of Sharp Objects here:

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This article was published by the Scroll marketing team with Swara Bhasker on behalf of Hotstar Premium and not by the Scroll editorial team.