At the crack of dawn on Wednesday, January 29, 1528, a man known as Medini Rai, along with thousands of troops he commanded, died defending the fort of Chanderi, in present-day Madhya Pradesh, against the forces of Zahir al-Din Muhammad Babur (1483-1530), the Timurid prince who would go on to become the first Mughal emperor.

We know the details of the battle from Babur’s personal memoir, written in Chagatay Turkish, the language spoken in the wider Turko-Mongol world at the time. Babur notes that Medini and his men – 4,000 or 5,000 of them – tried to prevent Babur’s armies from entering their fort. Unlike their adversaries, these warriors did not have firearms; instead, Medini’s band hurled rocks and flung fire at Babur’s forces to stop their approach. But eventually they were defeated.

Who was this Medini Rai and why did Babur come in person, all the way from Delhi to Chanderi, to fight him?

Medini Rai’s story takes us to the kingdom of Malwa, in the early decades of the 1500s. In 1510, when the new Khalji Sultan (no relation of Alauddin Khalji), Mahmud II (1510-1531) ascended the throne in the region where his ancestors had ruled for a century, he faced strong opposition. Finding himself in dire straits, Mahmud turned to a military official based in northeastern Malwa named Rai Chand Purabiya, well-known by the title, Medini Rai.

Medini Rai, according to contemporary sources, was able to recruit thousands of warriors – around 40,000 from all over India – many of whom were the best Purabiya, or Easterner, soldiers by some accounts. They helped the Sultan out of his troubles.

Soon Medini was appointed wazir, or prime minister and with the help of his appointees and soldiers, he rapidly took over the Malwa sultanate from within. So powerful did Medini Rai become that Sultan Mahmud was forced out of his own capital and was compelled to move his base 500 km south from Chanderi to Mandu. In the meanwhile, Medini went on to ally with Rana Sanga, the Sisodiya Rajput ruler of Mewar, and fought along his side against Babur at the famous battle of Khanua in 1527.

A lost narrative

Medini Rai is one among the many remarkable and diverse cast of characters who are lost not just in popular memory but also in the grand narratives of history. There are two reasons this.

First, though Medini was a crucial part of historical transformations in northern India during the period between the fall of the Delhi sultanate and the rise of Mughals, this is an age that is much ignored as a murky “twilight zone” between empires. However, the fact is that this long “century” – 1398 to 1555 – was an era of creative political and cultural innovations. The basis of many ideas that made the later Mughal empire so expansive, culturally influential, and prosperous can be traced directly to this era: for instance, the Sultans of Gujarat, who ruled for over 150 years from 1407 until Akbar’s conquest of the region in 1570s, emerged as patrons of several languages including Sanskrit, and despite being Muslim kings, they also fully adopted a number of Indic traditions of kingship in their court.

Another reason that history books, particularly those intended for non-academic readers, have no place for a character like Medini is that he was an outlier. He was not the descendant of a prestigious royal or even a well-known lineage. He was simply a skilled soldier who had built a reputation of success in war and diplomacy that were vital for sustaining power in uncertain times.

Rana Sangha. Credit: Public domain.

The tussle between the “commoner” Medini and Babur is an important part of the re-organisation of power in the period between the empires of North India. Medini was a kingmaker because he controlled a consequential band of armed men who though small in number could make the difference between victory and defeat. In the absence of a large centralised power that could support standing armies, men like Medini Rai and his followers could take advantage of the various political contestants’ need for military resources.

What they had to offer were resources desired by all the different competing kingdoms of the era including the sultanates of Gujarat and Malwa, as well as Rana Sanga of Mewar, and the soon to be emperor of northern India, or Hindustan as it was then known, Babur.

Military entrepreneurs

This ability to gather troops, weapons, and horses expanded Medini’s own power-base, establishing him as a local warlord. Historian Dirk Kolff, who has written in detail on Medini and others like him, describes these men as “military entrepreneurs” who were operating in what can be viewed as a “military labour market”. By the 1570s, however, things would change as a new imperial order emerged under Akbar, eliminating the need for mobile power brokers such as Medini Rai who opposed and allied with Hindu and Muslim rulers alike.

The complex life stories of men like Medini Rai, illuminate historical processes in ways that conventional accounts focused on the so-called big picture miss. Richard Eaton’s study of the Deccan between 1300 and 1761 is an excellent example of how much such biographies can reveal. Consider just one of the eight lives that make up Eaton’s portrait of Deccan’s past: Mahmud Gawan (1411-1481), an Iranian horse trader who arrived on India’s western coast in 1453 and went on to become the most important statesman in the Bahmani sultanate with links to Cairo, Damascus, Herat, and the wider Perso-Arabic world. One of the greatest achievements of his 25-year-long career was a massive building complex in Bidar that originally held 3,000 volumes and multiple suites of rooms on several floors to house students and professors. The remains testify to this little-known figure’s “cosmopolitanism and devotion to scholarship”.

The most astonishing of Eaton’s biographical sketches is of the Maratha noblewoman, Tarabai (1675-1761) and her vigorously political eight-decade-long life that spanned an entire epoch of Maratha history – from the rise of the Maratha kingdom under Shivaji in 1674 to its disruption at the battle of Panipat in 1761. Married to Shivaji’s second son, Rajaram, Tarabai, at different times in her career personally directed Maratha forces to challenge the Mughals not just in the Deccan but deep into north India. Hers was the first instance of this deliberate aggressive strategy that eventually expanded to establish the Maratha confederacy over much of the subcontinent above the Vindhyas.

Tarabai. Credit: VR Raghu, Wikipedia

Medini Rai, Mahmud Gawan, and Tarabai, despite their notable lives, are precolonial figures who do not fit into the grand narratives of history. This is a problem because even the best argued grand narratives are often susceptible to an oversimplified “clash of civilisations” world view. And these ideas take over and shape public discourse in ways that were not as common in the pre-social media era. The biographical genre’s literature-like quality provides an alternative way to connect public discussion with rigorous analytical history.

Small-picture approach

In his memoir, Babur notes that anticipating their defeat at Chanderi, Medini’s troops killed their own women folk and came out to face the enemy forces head on.But it was not long after this loss that Medini’s successor, Silhadi, formed an alliance with Bahadur Shah, the Sultan of Gujarat. Together, they overpowered Mahmud Khalji, effectively bringing an end to the Khalji sultanate of Malwa. How should we understand these events? How much of these decisions were based on the individual friendships and connections built on the trust between men? What role did religious identity or pragmatic economic and political considerations play?

Close examinations of original sources most often reveal a poignant answer: almost everything depends on the context of the specific time and place. Yet the reality is that in the popular imagination these battles and alliances are now reduced to simple religious binaries. The fantasia of grand narratives flattens the entirety of our variegated pasts. Taking the “small-picture” approach, biographical histories can offer an important corrective – a much-needed reminder that at the very core of what differentiates the current din of viral “memes” from history is acknowledging and accepting the complexity of the people who shaped it.

Aparna Kapadia teaches history at Williams College, Massachusetts. She is the author of In Praise of Kings: Rajputs, Sultans and Poets in Fifteenth-Century Gujarat.