Sunday, December 10, 2006

Guerrilla Warfare-III (Turks and Rajputs)

The success of Sikh guerrilla warfare in the 18th Century and of Maratha guerrilla warfare in the 17th Century led to the establishment of defined states that entered into a feverish activity of political expansion. In the 14th Century the guerrilla warfare by Rajput clans southwest of Delhi also had a similar result---unlike the former two stories conventional history bypasses the success and expansion of the Rajput clan-kingdoms. This is because other events, like the break-up of the Delhi Sultanate (1350-1400), the formation of the Vijaynagar Empire (1336), and the invasion of Timur (1398) disturb the historian's vision.

This article will view these other events through the perspective of the newly established Rajput states. It will describe the two combating groups and will follow the growth of the Turk power, particularly under the tribes pushed out of their homes by the Mongol invasion. The resistance of the Rajput clans will be studied in detail. The success of that resistance, the formation of strong states, and the impact of both on later history will be described at length. Some myths and misconceptions of that period, which have arisen in the modern writing of Indian History, will then be demolished.

The ancestors of the Turks and the ancestors of the Rajputs first came into contact at the beginning of the Common Era. Five hundred years later the Turks had embraced Islam and were competing for power in the ruins of the Sassanian Empire of Iran along with other groups like the invading Arabs, native Persians, the Kurds, and the Baloch. In these wars Turkish men, women, and children were taken as slaves to be traded in the markets under the control of Muslim Arabs---this is how many Turks may have been converted to Islam. Even so the Turks eventually emerged as the dominant group in the region due to certain military factors. Their skill in archery and their strong horses that could bear the weight of armored soldiers marked out the Turks from the other groups. These factors would prove to be an even bigger advantage when these Turkish chiefs began expanding their power into India.
Turk horses
The ancient Indians had preferred local breeds of horses for the task of pulling chariots and carts but their medieval counterparts noted the better performance of foreign horses in cavalry operations---Indian empires had thus begun importing these horses from central and western Asian lands[1]. The establishment of strong Turk states increased the demand for horses within the armies of those lands and simultaneously the smaller kingdoms that succeeded the Indian empires could not afford the now high-priced foreign breeds. A vast gulf thus appeared between Indian and Turk armies at least on the question of mobility. The Turks could avoid pitched battles with Indian armies and simply raid the rich cities and return to their mountainous homes without fear of being caught. Their attempts to conquer Indian kingdoms however were slow and bloody and were marked by dogged resistance in a succession of battles.

The destruction of the old Hindu kingdoms in North India also cleared the way for a new phenomenon that would dominate Indian history for the next six hundred years---the Rajputs. The word Rajput (raajpoot) is the Apabhramsa form of the ancient Sanskrit Rajaputra (Sanskrit putra>>>Prakrit paotra-putta>>>Apabhramsa pot-poot).....a term found in ancient Sanskrit texts and given to princes since the days of the Gupta Empire.
Marwari horse
The history of the Rajputs really begins with the rise of the Pratihars and allied clans (8th Century CE) in the Rajasthan-Gujarat-Malwa region. These clans formed a defined hierarchy (miscalled feudalism) with hereditary claims to lands and titles——a great change from the past centuries of organized empires and centrally distributed ranks and estates. This feudal system, which eroded the unity of the nation but actually strengthened the local defenses, spread out to modern UP by the time of the Islamic invasion and was a major reason why these particular regions maintained their local independence and religious identity in the face of continuous war and forced conversions. Centrally organized areas like Punjab (Hindu Shahis), Bengal (Senas), and Kashmir, on the other hand were completely crushed and lost their ancient culture and identity to Islam.

New clans were continually being formed by migrations and the grant of separate hereditary estates to the younger sons (Rajaputras) in a large kingdom. With titles of Rana, Rai, or Rawal these Rajaputra [2] families also controlled the outlying forts in the old kingdoms---in Ajmer the Rajaputras were all Chauhans while in Kannauj they belonged to various clans that had formerly ruled that kingdom or had migrated there from other parts of India. The name Rajaputra, which is found in inscriptions and the literature of an earlier period, now evolved into Rajput and replaced the word Kshatriya as a designation for the independent Hindu warriors. With the simultaneous demise of those two kingdoms and their ruling families these Rajputs now became the first line of defense against further Muslim expansion after 1192.

[1]In an interesting parallel the Chinese Empires also imported horses from Central Asia (ferghana)---the native Chinese horses were of a short stature and were used in the ancient times for pulling chariots.
[2]Literally King's son i.e. Prince, this title was known since ancient times; the Buddha was called a Rajaputra; Harshvardhan of Thanesar called himself a Rajaputra before succeeding his brother on the throne of Kannauj. The other words for princes in North India were Rajanya, Rajkumar and Yuvraj but by the time of the Pratihars (Circa 8th Century) Rajaputra had also come to designate an administrative office in several Northern and Central Indian dynasties. For more see evolution of Rajaputra.


This Muslim expansion---namely completing the conquest of Ajmer (above) and Kannauj by occupying the forts and towns of those kingdoms---was a failure and the Rajput resistance was successful. Ruling small fiefs and collecting limited revenue the Rajput chiefs could not afford to raise large armies comprising a mass of infantry, supporting cavalry, and dozens of elephants as in the old Hindu kingdoms. Moreover their small armies were now organized purely on a clan basis---thus these Rajputs found it convenient to maintain compact units of cavalry. From their experience of fighting the Turk invaders the Rajputs made other numerous changes in their military organization and equipment.

The successful Rajput resistance turned the initially spectacular Muslim invasion of India into a gritty and long-drawn affair. The Turks were now bogged down in certain towns and districts of North India surrounded by innumerable Rajaputra chieftains. The two sides fought each other repeatedly over the next century with sometimes the Turkish Sultans and sometimes the Rajputs emerging victorious---however the end result was that there was absolutely no change in the territories dominated by the two sides. This balance of power was altered by certain events that took place outside India in that same period.

Turkestan and Turan were the medieval terms for Central Asia and as the names suggest that vast region was the homeland of the Turks. Soldiers, slaves and horses from this region streamed out south and west into the kingdoms set up by their brethren who were by then the dominant peoples among the converts to Islam. At the beginning of the 13th Century that dominance of the Turks suddenly ceased to exist---the Turkish Shah and his soldiers had been crushed into defeat and were on the run, their cities and forts had been ransacked, and even the Amirzadas[3] had been ejected from their strongholds. This massive and sudden upheaval was caused by the Mongol army of the mighty Chingiz Khan. To escape this fierce invasion and the subsequent conquest Turkish tribes like the Khaljis[4] and the Tughlaks moved en masse to the safety of India. There had been Khalji soldiers in the armies of early Islamic invaders of India but now a flood of refugees poured into the outlying towns and strongholds of the Delhi Sultanate. Initially the Khalji leaders occupied subordinate positions in the army of the Sultanate but the numerical superiority of these new arrivals made the rise of their chiefs inevitable. In 1290 the main Khalji chief, with the typically Turkish name of Malik[5] led a coup to ascend the throne at Delhi---after becoming the Sultan he adopted the Arabic, and hence more Islamic, title of Jalal-ud-din.

The new ruler continued the aggressive policy of the former Sultans but with their vastly increased army the Khaljis were able to thwart the Mongol raids and launch simultaneous attacks on the Rajput forts. While Jalal-ud-din was exerting himself in the western portion of the Sultanate his ambitious nephew Ala-ud-din was busy scheming in the eastern regions. Rather than exhaust his army in the difficult task of collecting revenue from rebellious peasants or in launching bloody campaigns against the sturdy Rajputs, Ala set his eyes on the rich Hindu kingdoms of the south, which had remained mostly untouched by Turk armies.

After carefully obtaining his uncle's permission Ala-ud-din raided the Kingdom of Malwa (1292) and returned with much wealth looted from the town of Bhilsa. With that wealth he raised a larger army and in 1296 attacked the Kingdom of Devagiri south of Malwa and returned not only with gold but also with the allegiance of the Devagiri ruler. This time he had misinformed the Sultan about his plans but with his larger army and all the looted wealth Ala had no scruple in murdering his uncle and buying the loyalty of the other nobles. Ala-ud-din Khalji thus became Sultan of Delhi in 1296.
[3]Literally King's son, this title was the precursor of Mirza. Just like the Rajaputras in India these Amirzadas held outlying forts and villages in the Turkish Empire but in this instance they failed to hold the line against the foreign Mongol invaders.
[4]These were Turks who had been living in the Khalj district of Afghanistan for some time and had thus acquired the surname of Khalji. Due to their early migration from Turkestan orthodox opinion in Delhi suspected them to be of non-Turk descent.
[5]Malik was the Turk title for chief.