Deepa Agawal

Rajput Tales of Valour - A popular Subject for Children’s Stories

By Deepa Agarwal

   Char bans, chaubis gaj, angul ashta praman,
   Ta upar hai sultan, mat chuke Chauhan!

  Twenty feet ahead, twenty four yards to your right, is seated the Sultan,
  Don’t miss him now, Chauhan!
 (an approximate translation)

This couplet, attributed to the poet Chand Bardai and the story behind it, contain the essence of the Rajput tales of valour. The famous warrior Prithviraj Chauhan, blind, a prisoner in Kabul, does not hesitate to take on his powerful captor Muhammad Ghori. Knowing he cannot escape, he still maintains the code of honour so important to a true Rajput, right to the end. And another legend is born.

Historical fiction is usually written to make the past come alive for children in a more entertaining manner than the dry presentation of facts usually found in textbooks.

In India, however, the legends of Rajput warriors, kings, queens and their loyal followers have traditionally been narrated with an objective that goes beyond the mere communication of historical facts.  These tales celebrate heroic deeds and are part of our living folklore. Folk epics like the Prithviraj Raso on the life of the king, written by the same Chand Bardai, who was Prithviraj Chauhan’s court poet and Alha, the tale of two brave brothers continue to be performed by itinerant bards in rural areas.

Why do the Rajput tales have such a strong hold on the Indian psyche? The course of our history has made them particularly relevant.  India has been invaded and come under foreign rule numerous times. Native Hindu rulers lost their kingdoms first to Turkish, Afghan, Iranian or Mongol attacks, then fell prey to the imperialistic designs of the British.  Consequently, stories about men and women who fought courageously against foreign aggression became essential for fostering national pride. The Rajput legends were tailor made for this purpose.

Who are the Rajputs? An important “martial race” of northern India, the word Rajput is actually a corruption of Raja-putra or “the son of a king”. This royal connection means that the community occupies the highest rung amongst the kshatriya or warrior caste in India.

What are Rajput tales about? Honour, loyalty and patriotism are the main themes of these stories, which illustrate the Rajput code of conduct. Courage in battle, chivalry, generosity towards the vanquished and a deep sense of self-respect was part of this code. A Rajput would always prefer death to dishonour. When all was lost the men would don saffron, symbolising renunciation and fight till they were killed. The women would commit jauhar or mass self-immolation in a funeral pyre.

The Rajput tales have always fascinated children. I read them as a child and no doubt my parents read them or listened to them too. So have my children. They are published in many Indian languages today—compiled in collections, included in school readers and many have appeared in the popular Amar Chitra Katha (Immortal Picture Story) comic book series, which was actually launched to make children more aware of their own culture.  

Among these, some of the best-known tales are about the exploits of the above-mentioned Prithviraj Chauhan, the second last Hindu ruler of Delhi who ruled in Rajasthan and the region of Delhi in the eleventh century AD. To return to this story, which celebrates Prithviraj’s extraordinary skill in archery: after being defeated by the Afghan invader Muhammad Ghori, it is said that the king was taken as a prisoner to Kabul. When presented as a prize in court, his Rajput pride would not permit him to lower his eyes and he stared back boldly at his conqueror. Enraged, Ghori had him blinded. Hearing of his plight, Chand Bardai headed for Kabul in disguise. He managed to win Ghori’s favour with his flattering poems. Then he told him about Prithviraj’s prowess as an archer, claiming that Chauhan could hit his target just by following a sound. The sceptical Sultan arranged a test. To his astonishment, Prithviraj’s arrows struck several shields accurately when they were beaten.  Then Chand Bardai composed the couplet that indicated where Ghori was seated. The moment the Sultan congratulated him; Prithviraj killed him with a well-placed arrow. Then, knowing they could not escape he and the poet stabbed each other.

The most popular story, however, is about his romance with Sanyukta, the daughter of a rival king, Jaichand.  Sanyukta and Prithviraj fell in love. When Jaichand found out, he immediately made plans to marry her to someone else. He organised a swayamvara, a ceremony in which a girl chooses a husband from among the suitors selected by her father. Jaichand invited many princes, but deliberately left Prithviraj out. To insult him further, he installed a statue of the king at the entrance as the doorman.  But Sanyukta went and placed the bridal garland around the statue’s neck.  The moment she did, the real Prithivraj burst out from behind it, swept her onto his horse and galloped away.   

The legend of Rani Padmini is another very popular tale. She was the beautiful queen of Rawal Ratan Singh of Chittor, a city in the Mewar region of Rajasthan, whose rulers came to epitomize Rajput valour. In the 13th and 14th centuries the Khilji dynasty, Afghans of Turkish origin ruled in north India.  Sultan Ala-ud-din Khilji heard about Padmini’s beauty and wanted to marry her. Offering his friendship to Ratan Singh, he requested just one glimpse of his lovely wife. Padmini agreed to let the sultan see her face, reflected first in a pool, then in a mirror. Even more enamoured, Ala-ud-din managed to capture her husband by deceit and demanded that she hand herself over to save his life. Padmini agreed and the next morning a cavalcade of seven hundred palanquins left for Khilji’s camp. But instead of women, armed men led by two heroic warriors Gora and Badal burst out and rescued Ratan Singh.  

Khilji returned to take his revenge and laid siege to Chittor in 1303. When the Rajputs ran out of supplies, all the women committed jauhar or mass suicide by jumping into a huge pyre. The men donned the saffron of sacrifice and fought to the death. Victorious, Khilji entered the fort to find that Padmini had escaped him. All that remained of her was a heap of ashes.

Apart from kings and queens, members of their households did not lack courage either. To this day, the brave Panna dhai is celebrated as a symbol of infinite loyalty and sacrifice. She was the faithful nurse of Udai Singh, the infant son of Rana Sangram Singh, also of Chittor. A doughty warrior, the king was said to have been wounded eighty times and had lost an eye and an arm. He died after fighting the first Mughal emperor Babar in 1527. His brother Banbir, who was appointed regent, coveted the throne. When Panna dhai learnt that Banbir was on his way to kill Udai Singh, she quickly hid him and placed her own child in the cradle. Her son was murdered, but she escaped with the prince. She brought him up in hiding and when it was safe, took him to the fort of Kumbhalgarh where he grew up and later became king. 

Udai Singh lost the fort of Chittor to the Moghul emperor Akbar in 1568 and built the city of Udaipur. But his heroic son Maharana Pratap became an enduring icon of Rajput resistance.  Akbar conquered most of India and many Rajput rulers abandoned their principles and became his vassals.  Rana Pratap did not give in, however.

Most Indian children are familiar with accounts of the famous battle of Haldighati and the king’s exploits on his beloved horse Chetak, who died in combat. Aided by the faithful Bhil tribe, the Rana inflicted heavy losses on the huge Moghul army. He fought with a Rajput traitor Man Singh and almost killed him. Then he retreated into the forests and vowed to live there till he regained his kingdom.

Life in the forests meant enormous hardship, and a particularly touching story concerns an incident when a dog snatched a chapatti made of grass from the Rana’s hungry son’s hand.  Overcome with despair, Pratap sent a letter to Akbar asking for peace. But another ruler Prithviraj Rathore, who had been forced to submit to the emperor, heard and begged him not to surrender, since he was the only one upholding the honour of the Rajputs now. He wrote a letter to Rana Pratap saying:
‘Pratap utters "Badshah" now! Has the sun begun to rise in the West? Am I to twirl my mustache proudly or kill myself in shame?’

Jolted, Pratap replied: “With Lord Eklingji’s blessings(his family deity), I will always address him as "Turk ". The sun will always rise in the east. Twirl your mustache proudly, oh Prithviraj Rathore. Till Pratap stands, his sword will hover over the invaders’ heads.’

There are many stories about Pratap’s brave followers too, like Jhala Manna, who disguised himself as the Rana during the battle of Haldighati and lost his life to save the king. This story is included in a recent collection, Kesariya Bana and other Tales of Valour written by Nimish Dubey and published by Ponytale Books.

These are just a few of the most enduring Rajput tales, which continue to be retold over and over again. It is worth pondering  why these rather violent tales appeal so much more to children than other stories from history. Perhaps because of the ideals they project through the exploits of their larger than life heroes, ideals to which we all aspire but few can exemplify in their lives. Thus they strike a deep emotional chord. Their effectiveness in keeping the flame of patriotism burning is also widely acknowledged. Some of these heroes, particularly Maharana Pratap, inspired many of our leaders during the freedom movement against British rule, proving the power of such stories.

India has been a free country for over six decades now, but these stirring legends still retain their relevance. One hopes they will continue to enthuse children and provide them with role models that are even more essential in today’s confusing and complex environment.