Beyond swinging swords and twirling moustaches


If ‘the moral effect of history depends on the sympathy it excites,’ the annals of these states (Rajputana/Rajasthan) possess commanding interest. The struggles of a brave people for independence during a series of ages, sacrificing whatever was dear to them for the maintenance of the religion of their forefathers, and sturdily defending to death, and in spite of every temptation, their rights and national liberty, form a picture which it is difficult to contemplate without emotion.1

Jab Rajput apni mitti aur man ke liye ladta hai to uske talvar ki gunj sadiyon tak rehti hai. Jab bhi duniya mein andhakar badha, Rajput yoddhaon ne jvala ki tarah jalkar apna balidan diya, par dharam ko bujhne na diya.2

The above quotes might as well appear to be rough translations of one another to any reader bereft of either historical or contemporary context. But surprisingly (or not!) they are separated by two centuries and vastly different historical contexts. The latter constitutes a dialogue of the very popular and recent Bollywood movie Padmaavat. In terms of its theme and narrative tone, this dialogue is not vastly distant from the former, which was written by Colonel James Tod, the British political agent to the western Rajputana states in the 19th century.

Tod’s lines represent a moment of epistemic rupture spearheaded by the ‘investigative modalities’ of the colonial state.3 This rupture was part of a larger colonial project of translating pre-colonial pasts into a synthetic history of an indigenous ‘Hindu’ civilization rendered into a state of cultural atrophy by the ‘foreign’ ‘Muslim’ invaders.4 It is within this larger narrative that Tod envisioned the Rajputs as a distinct race and nation heroically resisting the Islamic conquests. Such a depiction of the Rajputs as a monolithic and immutable social group, in perpetual conflict with the Sultanate and Mughal elites, abstracted them from their historical context. Bhansali’s Padmaavat and (counterintuitively!) the Karni Sena are the post-colonial legatees of this same discourse as they attempted utilizing this notion and emotional appeal of a timeless Rajput valour for cinematic effect and parochial pride respectively. In the light of the inherent ethnographic, sociological and contemporary problems associated with the study and perception of the Rajputs, the rather basic question lingers: who were the Rajputs? The recent controversy surrounding the movie Padmaavat only makes this query more relevant. This essay aims to answer this question only partially as it looks at the social processes of 15th century northern India which imbued this body of regional elites with certain specific socio-cultural traits which would become critical in identifying them as the Rajputs of the following centuries. Perched between the declining Delhi Sultanate post Timur’s invasion and the yet to manifest Mughal empire, this was a time of the emergence of several regional political formations characterized by an intense mobilization of resources and personnel. This was also an age remarkable for the ways in which claims to status were narrativized in textual forms, more so than they had ever been in the past.

This essay attempts to analyse this political culture by approaching texts like the Hammira-Mahakavya (1400?), Kanhadade-Prabandha (1453) and Prithviraj-Raso (early 16th century), texts authored by litterateurs who narrated the ambi-tions of their patrons aspiring to be Rajputs. Authored by Nayachandra Suri, Padmanabha and Chand Bardai respectively, these narratives represent a new historical context where reading and writing of texts created new contexts where the protagonists could be presented as ideal ksatriyas/ Rajputs. It is these literary productions sponsored in these regional 2 courts that are vital in deciphering the meaning and content of the evolving term ‘Rajput’.

Within this configuration of a ‘textualized milieu’ it would be essential to locate the changes in the representation of the protagonists as well as the nature of claims made in these three narratives spread over a span of almost a century. How are the authors responding to historical changes in these narratives? Were the responses of these authors distinct from one another? And how is this response informing this emerging Rajput identity? The significance of these authorial responses in inflecting this emerging Rajput identity with certain distinctive traits would become clearer as we proceed further in this piece.

The texts in question are essentially discourses on idealized kingship based on norms of warrior-like conduct.These texts become a potent means for their patrons and prospective audiences for prescribing certain norms that are essential for a ruler seeking a ksatriya status.These norms are encompassed in what these texts define as ksatriya-dharma. An essential aspect in this warrior-like code of conduct is the valorous and loyal service of the retainer to one’s master both within and beyond the battlefield, the failure of which invites eternal infamy and shame.

Ksatriya-dharma as a concept is significant here because it does not just apply to the ideal king. It also becomes crucial in defining who is an ideal ksatriya or a warrior par excellence regardless of his/her kingly status. Attempts at unpacking this aspect would reveal how this aspirational ksatriya status was being appropriated in this period. Consequently, it would also throw light on the nature of tensions that inflected this emerging Rajput identity.

Ksatriya-dharma in these narratives draws its sustenance from its projected ability to protect and preserve a brahmanically conceived realm. While the Hammira-Mahakavya and Kanhadade-Prabandha are discreet in their discourse on ksatriya-dharma, as they resort to narrative explanations of modes of permissible and impermissible conduct interspersed with karmic logic, the Prithviraj-Raso is distinct in its elaborate articulation of it.

The battlefield in all the three narratives is a crucial arena which tests the efficacy of ksatriyahood of different figures. The potency of ksatriya-dharma here is not just defined by the honourable conduct of particular figures but also by their martial prowess. Thereby, battles in these narratives are not just strategic engagements but also an edifying activity where both participation and spectatorship are of critical importance. The battlefield in the Prithviraj-Raso is termed as dharatirtha or ‘pilgrimage on the razor edge of the sword’.5 Thus, death in battle is treated as nothing short of a pilgrimage or a spiritually uplifting experience.

Such a discourse articulates an image of normative and aspirational ksatriya values which this emerging Rajput identity was attempting to appropriate. But what happens when these normative values are ruptured in the narrative? What happens when the authors’ ideational universe of ksatriyahood collides with the historical processes?

A closer reading of these texts reflects the less than definite character of who constituted a ksatriya. A cursory reading would indicate towards the functioning of binaries approximating the modern denominational categories of ‘Hindu’ and Muslim. Yet a closer look at these texts would indicate towards fractures of precisely these very binaries. Figures in these texts who do not appear normatively ksatriya-like, often become one by the end of the narrative. Thus, in the Hammira- Mahakavya, Mahimasahi, the Mongol who sought refuge in Hammira’s court dies like a ksatriya. He fights till the very end and lays down his life battling Khalaji’s forces alongside Hammira. On being reminded by the protagonist of his foreign roots; and thereby his lack of a role in the impending battle between Hammira and Ala’ al-Din; Mahimsahi, in order to give fight to Khalaji’s forces alongside Hammira, slays his entire family.

This martyrdom of Mahima- sahi’s household appears strangely similar to the ksatriya/Rajput ritual of jauhar; an act of self-immolation by ksatriya/Rajput women in face of imminent defeat to save oneself from apparent dishonour at the hands of the enemy. This episode provides a narrative window to incorporate Mahimasahi, a Mongol, within the confines of ksatriyahood.6

Similarly, in the Kanhadade- Prabandha, Firoza, Ala’ al-Din’s daughter, falls in love with Kanhadade’s son, Viramde. This is attributed to their previous births as husband and wife. This occurrence is mitigated in the present birth due to Firoza’s birth in a Turkish family owing to her past sins. On the death of Viramde, his severed head is brought to Delhi, whom Firoza wishes to marry. As Firoza attempts to symbolically marry Viramde, the latter’s dead head turns away from her. Even as she performs Viramde’s last rites by consigning his head into the fire, she is unable to bear Viramde’s posthumous rejection and consequently jumps to her death into the river Yamuna, a practice oddly reminiscent of sati.7

This open-ended character of ksatriyahood becomes much clearer at the very beginning of the narrative itself. Madhava Brahman after being insulted by the ruler of Gujarat proceeds to Delhi to invite Ala’al-Din Khalaji to invade Gujarat on the pretext of a vanishing ksatriya- dharma there.8 This throws light on the possibilities of a seemingly non- ksatriya monarch possessing the cultural resources to lay claim on ksatriya-dharma. By bestowing the responsibility of ksatriya-dharma on a Turkish Sultan like Ala’ al-Din Khalaji, he is made the protector of the same brahmanically conceived realm which is also claimed by figures like Kanhadade. This implies towards the possibility of a Turk becoming like a ksatriya.

Thus, these texts represent a universe where there could be multiple claimants  from varied socio-cultural backgrounds to the ksatriya status. They reflect towards a historical context where this emerging Rajput identity based on the efficacy of the martial values of ksatriya-dharma to be under intense flux as varied bodies of people aspiring for the elite ksatriya status were attempting to appropriate it. As multiple aspirants from different socio-cultural backgrounds were attempting to tap on to this elite identity, they were also in the process redefining ksatriya values and status. Ksatriya and varna were not static categories as they were feeding into each other as well as plugging into this historical process. This porosity of the emerging Rajput identity provided it with an open-ended and assimilative character.

While certain elements from the 15th  century  narratives  of  the Hammira-Mahakavya and Kanhadade-Prabandha continued to persist in the fashioning of this identity, the narrative response of the Prithviraj- Raso in context of the historical processes of the early 16th century imbued this emerging Rajput status with a distinct texture. The protagonists of the Raso in comparison to their predecessors were not the same body of people even if they shared certain similarities in terms of normative martial values. This draws our attention towards the non-linear nature of the process of acquiring a Rajput status. The distinct response of the author of the Raso in projecting a particular kind of Rajput identity, textured by his historical location, elucidates on the nature of this process.

All the three texts persistently reflect upon the open-ended character of the Rajput. Yet what distinguishes the Raso from its predecessors is its conscious emphasis on the importance of genealogy in ascribing a Rajput identity to its protagonists.A cursory reading of some of its verses would indicate towards an inherent contradiction between the constant attempts of claiming this Rajput status by people from varied and humble social backgrounds and this constant emphasis on the efficacy and purity of lineage in shaping this identity.9 But a more sustained textual engagement would indicate towards the author’s attempts at responding to this very social flux by legitimizing the claims of these socially varied aspirants by ascribing them with genealogies. This he achieves by establishing the primacy of ksatriya-dharma as essential norms of warrior-like comportment. Adherence to these norms bestow on these multiple aspirants with the legitimacy of ancient genealogies.

The Raso by constituting the idea of genealogical purity, inscribes this elite regional identity with kin and kindred ties based on the myth of a common origin. But just like ksatriya was not a static social category, kin and clan structures here cannot be assumed to be timeless and biologically conceived organizing principles of a society.10 Rather the connecting thread of genealogy and kinship are a means utilized by the author to conceive his response towards this emerging Rajput identity. This response is framed in terms of inclusions and exclusions based on the adherence
to normative martial codes of the ksatriya-dharma.

The texturing of this status group through the lexicon of genealogy indicates towards the emergence of sharper distinctions in the fashioning of the term Rajput in comparison to the ‘textualized milieu’ of the past century. The construction of Prithviraj Chauhan’s authority in comparison to the protagonists of the earlier two texts is also indicative of the historical context inflecting the narrative. Unlike Hammira and Kanhadade who are merely local chiefs protecting their domains from an invading Sultan, Prithviraj is a conquering monarch of a transregional scale. While all the three protagonists are ideal ksatriya kings, it is Prithviraj’s claim to authority which is unprecedented. Far from a local chief, Prithviraj’s comportment is rather Sultan-like. This literary reimagination of anexpanding  Rajput  kingship  was contemporaneous to several structural changes that were happening in the emerging states of pre-modern Rajasthan.

One such change was a greater availability of horses to these states by the late 15th/early 16th century, enabling some local lineage-chiefs to mobilize logistics, men and resources on a massive scale and thereby make claims to authority in an unprecedented manner. The changes in the constitution of authority of these chiefs also led to a shift in the nature of land tenures as the earlier patrimonial and inheritable land holdings of the other cadetlines gave way to a more transferable prebendal system of patto. This also marked a shift towards a more hierarchical construction of monarchical authority.11 These structural changes played an important role in the emergence of several important states like Marvar and Mevar by the 17th century. The author of the Raso by reimagining the heroic/historic figure of Prithviraj Chauhan constructs a protagonist whose portrayal is inflected by this new political and social change.

While this open-ended status group was acquiring more definitive features, it was still riven with tensions. The Raso demonstrates this emerging Rajput identity as a highly contested terrain. Its conception of Prithviraj’s monarchical authority does not go unopposed by his samants/vassals. Even as these samants prove to be critical for the military successes of Prithviraj, there are several instances where they challenge their lord’s authority. Thus, several of his samants question Prithviraj’s military acumen when his quest for Sanyogita leads to catastrophic military losses.12 The inter-samant relationships are also imbued with tensions. This becomes evident from the jealousy of Jaitra Parmar and the other retainers from the successes of Dhir Pundir, one of Prithviraj’s most notable samants.

The struggle between Prithviraj and Jaichand of Kanauj by far constitutes the most notable conflict in the narrative. Prithviraj and Jaichand are, however, maternal cousins and their conflict is essentially a fratricidal struggle to control the larger Chauhan Gahdavala-Tomar kin networks.13 These narrative tensions reflect the challenges the local lineage-chiefs like the Rathors of Marvar and Sisodiyas of Mevar, might have been facing in asserting their authority at this time. This was a milieu when a shift to a more hierarchically conceived idea of kingship among these Rajput elites was just beginning to take roots. Unlike the 17th century, also characterized by the Mughal intervention, many of these elements were yet to take a more mature form.

The challenges to Prithviraj’s authority by his samants in the narrative demonstrate the non-linear nature of the process of conception and assertion of authority among these claimants of senior bloodlines who would eventually fashion themselves as the great Rajput Raos and Ranas of the late 16th and 17th century.

Rajput as a status category remained open-ended throughout the 15th century. It, however, began to be ascribed in new ways which highlights the complex means by which this aspirational identity was being confirmed by litterateurs. The increasing use of the lexicon of genealogy was one such element. The Mughal insistence of having Rajputs of royal lineages in their court was not a result of imperial idiosyncrasies, rather it partially resulted from the Mughals tapping on to this process where claiming a Rajput identity based on genealogical purity and legitimized through the agency of bards and litterateurs was gaining roots.

But what is the significance of the 15th/early 16th century in studying this process which spans over a much longer timeline? To hint towards a declining Delhi Sultanate as a factor enabling the rise of ambitious chiefs claiming a Rajput status obscures the detail that the production of this literary archive was not coeval with the collapse of the administrative and military prowess of the Delhi regime.14 Neither were instances of local/rural gentry groups with access to resources taking advantage of fissures in the Sultanate networks of power, historically exceptional.15 What distinguished this period was a noticeable presence of litterateurs talking about claimants to localized power that included not just the rural gentry aspiring for a nascent but formidable Rajput/ksatriya status, but several other bodies of people such as the new pietistic groups among Muslim immigrant settlers in the ‘frontier’ towns of north Indian hinterlands.16


These aspirations to authority are represented in several classical Sanskritized literary genres such as the premâkhyâns/kathâs and local Sufi hagiographies. This is historically significant precisely because these aspirants to ‘local matrices of power’had remained almost invisible in the past Sultanate court chronicles. The historical developments constituting the ‘provincialization’ of the Delhi Sultanate17 in the late 14th century forms the immediate prehistory to the increasing visibility of this specific body of literature by the 15th century.

It is in this context of a larger historical process of socially mobile groups striving to gain authority at localized levels and eventually acquiring literary representations, that the emergence of literary traditions, in the 15th century, shaping a Rajput sensibility becomes interesting.The eventual appropriation of these incipient literary sensibilities by several groups of aspiring politico-literary elites across northern India forms a crucial part of the evolving Rajput identity and political culture of the following centuries.18


1. James Tod, Annals and Antiquities of Rajasthan (2 Vols). Rupa Publications, New Delhi, 2014; Vol 1, xix.

2. Sanjay Leela Bhansali, Padmaavat, Bhansali Productions and Viacom 18 Motion Pictures, 2018.

3. Bernard S. Cohn, Colonialism and its Forms of Knowledge: The British in India. Princeton University Press, Princeton, New Jersey, 1996.

4. Manan Ahmed Asif, The Loss of Hindustan: The Invention of India. Harvard University Press, Cambridge, Massachusetts, 2020.

5. Chand Bardai (edited by Dr Manoharsingh Ranavat), Prithviraj-Raso. Rajasthani Granthagar, Jodhpur, 2013, 4 Vols, translated into Hindi by Kavirav Mohansingh, Sahitya Sansthan, Udaipur, 1954, Vol 2,  p. 264.

6. Nayachandra Suri, Hammira-Mahakavya, p. 46.

7. Padmanabha, Kanhadade-Prabandha, p. 102.

8. Ibid, p. 3.

9. Bardai, Prithviraj-Raso, Vol 2, p. 309.

10. Rudi Paul Lindner, ‘What was a Nomadic Tribe?’, Comparative Studies in Society and History 24(4), 1982, pp. 689-711.

11. Norman Ziegler, ‘Evolution of the Rathor State of Marvar: Horses, Structural Change and Warfare’ in Karine Schomer, Joan L. Erdman, Deryck O. Lodrick, Lloyd I. Rudolph (eds.), The Idea of Rajasthan: Explorations in Regional Identity, Vol 2: Constructions. Manohar Publications, New Delhi, 1993, pp. 192-216.

12. Bardai, Prithviraj-Raso, Vol 4, p. 219.

13. Ibid., Vol 1, p. 67.

14. Peter Jackson, The Delhi Sultanate: A Political and Military History. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 1999 and Sunil Kumar, The Emergence of the Delhi Sultanate, 1192-1286. Permanent Black, New Delhi, 2007.

15. Kumar, The Emergence of the Delhi Sultanate, pp. 283-298, 334-350 and ‘[And] he proceeded into the mawâs’, Unpublished, and, ‘Delhi Sultanate as Empire’, in Peter Bang (ed.), Oxford World History of Empire. Oxford University Press, London, 2 vols, Ch. 20 (forthcoming).

16. Simon Digby, ‘Before Timur Came: Provincialization of the Delhi Sultanate Through the Fourteenth Century’, Journal of the Economic and Social History of the Orient 47(3), 2004, pp. 298-356.

17. Ibid.

18. Ramya Sreenivasan, ‘Alauddin Khalji Remembered: Conquest, Gender and Community in Medieval Rajput Narratives’, Studies in History 18(2), 2002,  pp. 275-296; ‘The Marriage of “Hindu” and “Turak”: Medieval Rajput Histories of Jalor’, The Medieval History Journal 7(1), 2004, pp. 87-108 and ‘Rethinking Kingship and Authority in South Asia: Amber (Rajasthan), ca. 1560-1615’, Journal of the Economic and Social History of the Orient 57, 2014, pp. 549-586.