The walls had been breached. The Mogul forces were closing in on the gallant Rajput defenders inside Chitor Garh, the fort of Chitor. Suddenly, flames were seen rising up in the air from three places inside the fort. The courtiers of Akbar the Great, the Mogul emperor, gave various explanations for the fires. Then Raja Bhagwant Das, a Rajput leader who had allied himself with the Moguls, said that the fires could only mean one thing. The johar–the Rajput custom of burning their women to death in the face of impending defeat–had been performed. Now the Rajput warriors sallied forth to meet the invaders in a desperate last stand with their traditional cry of ‘death for all before dishonor.
It was Tuesday, February 23, 1568. For more than four months, the Mogul army had undertaken a costly and grueling siege of the fort, directed personally by their commander in chief and emperor, Akbar. Now the campaign had reached its apocalyptic climax.
Abu-al-Fath Jalal-ud-Din Muhammad Akbar was born on October 15, 1542. His grandfather and the first of the Mogul emperors, Babur, was a Chaghatai Turk who came from an area in what is now Uzbekistan in Central Asia–and was a descendent of the Mongol conquerors Genghis Khan and Tamerlane. Akbar became emperor at the age of 14 upon the death of his father, Humayun, in 1556. In his nearly 50 years on the throne (15561605), Akbar proved to be a tolerant statesman, a shrewd administrator and an avid patron of the arts. He was also a strong-willed individual and a brilliant military commander whose courage and determination enabled him to become master of a vast empire that covered almost two-thirds of the Indian subcontinent. One of the greatest testaments to Akbar’s military and political skills was his subjugation of the martial Rajput kingdoms.
The domain of Rajputana or Land of the Rajputs (in what is now the desert state of Rajasthan) occupied the northwestern portion of India and had presented special difficulties for preceding Muslim rulers, as well as the Moguls. The hostile Rajput kingdoms lay across the routes that ran south from the principal Muslim centers of Delhi and Agra and were uncomfortably close to Dehli and Agra themselves. Mogul rulers also feared that the independent Rajput kingdoms could provide a safe haven for rebels plotting against them. Furthermore, Rajputana bordered on Gujarat, an important center of commerce with western Asia and Europe. To Akbar and the Moguls, therefore, there were potentially huge political and economic advantages to be gained by securing Rajputana.
The Rajputs (sons of kings) had begun to settle in northern and northwestern India after the breakup of the mighty Gupta empire in the late 5th century. They were probably descendants of Central Asian invaders who had contributed to the fall of the Gupta dynasty. Others believe that the Rajputs were the descendants of the kshatriyas (warrior caste, the second tier of the Hindu caste system), who had lived during the Vedic period between 1500 and 500 bc, when an Indo-European people from Iran, called the Aryans, settled in India.
The Rajputs were governed by a chivalric warrior’s code not unlike that of the knights of medieval Europe. It emphasized compassion for defeated foes, generosity toward the helpless, fair play in battle, respect for women, and conduct of warfare by elegant forms and ceremonies. The Rajputs were renowned for their courage on the battlefield.
Their proud martial tradition and passion for war enabled the Rajputs to become the dominant power in northern India by the 9th century, but internecine conflicts led to the emergence of numerous petty kingdoms within their own domain. From time to time, the Rajputs would form confederacies to repel the Turko-Afghan armies that invaded India from the 8th century onward. Such unity tended to be only temporary, however, and their internal discord would ultimately prove to be their undoing.
The victory of Turkish forces from Afghanistan under Muhammad of Ghur over the Rajputs in the second battle of Tarain in 1192 firmly established a Muslim presence in northern India. Nevertheless, the Rajputs maintained their independence in Rajputana and remained a power to be reckoned with in northern India until the arrival of the Moguls in the 16th century.
Akbar fully realized that the Rajputs were tenacious opponents, so he adopted a shrewd policy that combined both military action and diplomacy. For instance, he married Hindu princesses and arranged similar marriages for his heirs. After he defeated a Rajput chieftain, Akbar would make him an ally rather than depose him. As long as they acknowledged Akbar’s suzerainty, paid tribute and supplied troops when required, the Rajput rulers were allowed to retain their territories. That policy of conciliation and compromise won a number of Rajput kingdoms over to Akbar’s side and further weakened whatever remained of Rajput unity. Even as they watched their brothers surrender their independence, however, the Sesodia Rajputs of Mewar refused to bow to Mogul authority.
The Sesodian clan was considered the most powerful and recalcitrant of the Rajputs, carrying the banner of Rajput independence and zealously opposing the Muslim invaders. The Rana of Mewar (rana was a royal title, and rani was the female equivalent) was recognized as the foremost among the 36 royal tribes of the Rajputs. The formidable fortresses of Chitor and Ranthambhor, both in Mewar, were regarded as bastions of Rajput sovereignty and strength.
Mewar, however, had the misfortune of being ruled in 1567 by a weak and incompetent ruler, Rana Udai Singh II. Udai Singh’s defiance was one of the main reasons that Akbar marched against the Sesodias. Akbar also realized that without establishing his suzerainty over the dominion of the Sesodias, he could not hope to be the master of northern India. He was determined to capture the fort of Chitor in particular, thereby setting an example so that no other fortress would dare to resist his army in future.
On October 20, 1567, Akbar arrived at the outskirts of Chitor Garh and pitched camp. A ferocious thunderstorm greeted the Mogul army, as if to serve as an ominous warning against their undertaking. When the storm calmed and the sky cleared, the fortress of Chitor became visible in the distance.
Chitor was the capital of Mewar and had served as the stronghold of the Sesodias since 728. Chitor was formerly called Chitrakut after Chitrang, a Rajput chieftain. Located in present central Rajasthan in northern India, 111 kilometers from Udaipur, Chitor Garh (garh means fort) is the finest medieval Hindu fortification to survive in any state of completeness.
Chitor was situated on a steep, isolated mass of rock that rose some 558 feet from the plain, and was 31Ž4 miles long and 1,200 yards wide in the center. On the summit of the rock stood Chitor Garh. The principal approach to the fortress was from the southeast angle of the present-day location of the lower town (the town was built at the foot of the escarpment after the Sesodias abandoned the fort in 1568) by a steep road that ran for nearly a mile, then made two zigzag bends that were defended by seven massive gates. The summit of the rock, which sloped inward on all sides, collected rainwater that filled several tanks, ensuring an abundant water supply that added to the fort’s capacity to withstand a protracted siege. Unlike most forts in Rajputana, which only enclosed the residence of the clan’s ruler, Chitor Garh held a veritable city within its walls: magnificent palaces, temples, houses and markets. Some of the remains of Chitor Garh can still be seen today.
A 9th-century Hindu chronicle, the Khoman Rasa, described Chitor Garh as the chief amongst eighty-four castles, renowned for strength…it is within the grasp of no foe. Formidable as it was, Chitor had, in fact, been sacked twice before by Muslim forces. It was first taken in 1303 by the Delhi Sultan Alauddin Khalji and was sacked again in 1535 by Bahadur Shah, the sultan of Gujarat. On both occasions, the johar or ritual death by immolation was performed when defeat seemed imminent, after which the Rajput warriors, having taken a vow of death, staged a desperate final charge. Ironically, it was Akbar’s father, Humayun, who intervened and restored the Sesodias after the second sack. That enabled Udai Singh to become rana in 1541.
When he got wind of the Mogul army’s approach, Udai Singh fled to the relative safety of the distant hills, after using scorched-earth tactics to devastate the countryside. When Akbar was informed of the rana‘s flight, he considered pursuing him but decided against it because of the distance involved and the inhospitable terrain.
The rana left the fort in command of two teenage Rajput princes, Jaimal and Patta, ages 15 and 16 respectively. Chitor was defended by a garrison of 8,000 warriors, supported by 40,000 peasants. Several other Rajput clans and their chiefs were also at the fort during this time. The garrison was evidently prepared for a long siege, since it had a well-stocked supply of ammunition, grain and other provisions. And the fort had plenty of firepower, including archers, a corps of crack musketeers and a number of artillery pieces.
When Akbar arrived at the summit of Chitor hill on October 21, 1567, he pitched his camp, which extended 10 miles to the northeast of the hill. The site of the camp was marked by a 30-foot limestone pyramidal column, or tower, known as Akbar’s lamp, which served as a beacon to stragglers at night and denoted the imperial headquarters (such markers were a regular feature of Mogul camps of significant size).
The Mogul army included some 3,000 to 4,000 horsemen and 300 war elephants. The soldiers were armed with swords, lances, matchlocks, and bows and arrows. In addition, there were about 5,000 builders, carpenters, stonemasons, sappers and smiths to construct siege engines and to mine the fort’s walls.
Accompanied by his courtiers and surveyors, Akbar made a reconnaissance of his target and ordered batteries to be set up at various strategic points around the fort. It took about a month for the whole circumference of the fort to be invested.
There were three principal batteries, one of which was Akbar’s, located opposite the Lakhuta gate in the north. The second battery, under Shujaat Khan and other officers, and the third, under Asaf Khan and other officers, were emplaced at unspecified locations. Meanwhile, Akbar sent his officers to devastate the rana‘s territory, hoping to find Udai Singh in the process, but they found no trace of the rana.
The opening phase of battle began when some overzealous Mogul troops launched a reckless direct assault upon the fort. Not surprisingly, the Moguls’ arrows and bullets glanced off the surface of the walls and battlements, whereas those the garrison discharged exacted a heavy toll on them.
After that minor debacle, Akbar decided that strategic planning rather than reckless courage was what was needed if the fortress was to be taken. Accordingly, the emperor adopted a two-pronged strategy. One entailed mining the walls of the fort in front of the royal battery, whereupon a party of selected Mogul troops would rush into the fort as soon as the breach was made. While the sappers dug mines under the walls, stonemasons opened the way by removing obstacles with their iron tools.
The other strategy called for the construction of sabats, or covered passageways, an ingenious siege contrivance that was peculiar to India. A sabat was a sinuous sheltered passageway that was constructed out of gunshot range, with earthen walls on both sides and a roof of planks strongly fastened together and covered with rawhide. When a breach was made by mines, troops would rush in under the cover of the sabat. Akbar ordered the construction of two sabats: one to be commenced from the royal battery and the other to be built in front of Shujaat Khan’s position.
At the same time, in the emperor’s presence, an exceptionally large mortar was cast to demolish the walls of the fort. When the defenders became aware of this and saw that the Moguls were making daily progress toward the destruction of the fort, they sent out two representatives to Akbar to bargain for peace, offering to become subjects of his court and to send an annual tribute. Several Mogul officers advised him to accept the offer, but Akbar was adamant: Nothing short of the rana surrendering in person would persuade him to lift the siege. As they were unwilling–or perhaps unable–to deliver the rana, the Rajputs had no choice but to continue the defense of their fort with renewed fervor.
While the sabat in front of the royal battery was being constructed, artillerymen and marksmen inside the fort kept up such a fusillade that about 200 Mogul laborers were killed daily, even though they protected themselves with rawhide shields. The corpses were buried in the walls of the sabat. But the workers were kept going by lavish gifts of gold and silver coins from the emperor–the amount of which was calculated according to the number of containers of earth added to the sabat. The sabat opposite Akbar’s position was soon completed near the fort. It was reported to be so extensive that 10 horsemen abreast could ride along it and so high that an elephant rider with his spear in his hand could pass under it.
At the same time, two mines close to each other were brought to the wall of the fort and filled with large quantities of gunpowder. A party of fully armed and accoutered Mogul soldiers, noted for their bravery, stationed themselves near the wall, ready to rush in when it was breached. On December 17, the gunpowder of both mines was set to explode at the same time. One part of the bastion was blown up, inflicting heavy casualties on the defenders. Unknown to the Moguls, however, only one mine had exploded. When the soldiers rushed toward the large breach and were about to enter, the second mine exploded (apparently, the match used to ignite the gunpowder of the mine that exploded first had been shorter than the other match, so the mines failed to discharge simultaneously).
Moguls and Rajputs alike, battling in the breach, were hurled into the air together, while others were crushed by falling debris. The blast was so powerful that limbs and stones were hurled a great distance from the fort. Mogul reinforcements and Rajput troops then engaged in a brief skirmish until the Rajputs succeeded in quickly repairing the demolished part of the wall. About 500 Mogul soldiers, including a significant number of noteworthy men, were killed, while a large number of Rajputs also perished. On the same day, another ill-timed mine exploded in front of Asaf Khan’s battery and claimed 30 more lives.
Akbar viewed these botched undertakings as temporary setbacks that should serve to inspire even greater exertion and resolve on the part of the Moguls. To ensure that the assault on the fort would continue unabated, he ordered the construction of the sabat in front of Shujatt Khan’s battery to be speeded up.
The emperor also frequently visited the sabat in his sector and fired at the garrison from loopholes in the sabat. One day, Akbar saw that some of his men were admiring the marksmanship of one of the musketeers of the fort when, at that very moment, a shot from that marksman hit Jalal Khan, one of Akbar’s attendants. Akbar was reported to have said to his injured attendant, Jalal Khan, that marksman does not show himself; if he would do so, I’d avenge you. Although he could not see the marksman, Akbar took aim at the barrel of the musket that projected from a loophole. He fired but could not determine whether his shot had found its mark. It was only later that Akbar learned that his shot had indeed killed the sharpshooter, who was identified as Ismail, head of the musketeers.
Akbar proved to be quite a marksman himself, killing many noted members of the garrison. But the emperor also came close to losing his own life on a few occasions. Once, a large cannonball that fell near Akbar killed 20 soldiers but left him unscathed. On another occasion, a soldier standing near Akbar was hit by a bullet, and the emperor was saved from the same round only by his coat of mail.
When the second sabat was completed, the Mogul forces prepared to launch a full-scale assault on the fort. The Mogul troops went about their operations with such vigor and intensity that for two nights and a day they had neither food nor sleep, inspired by the personal example of Akbar, who was supervising the operations and keeping up a fusillade upon the garrison from the sabat. Special quarters had been erected for Akbar on top of the sabat, and the emperor stayed there during this crucial period.
On the night of February 22, the Moguls attacked the fort from all sides and created several breaches in the walls. The Rajput warriors put up a stubborn resistance. At one point in the fighting, Prince Patta’s mother commanded Patta to don the saffron robe, which would indicate his desire to die for his gods and his country. She also armed his young bride with a lance and accompanied her down the rock. The defenders of Chitor saw mother and daughter-in-law die heroically, fighting side by side.
The Moguls had destroyed a large part of the wall at the end of the sabat that faced the royal battery. The defenders collected such combustible materials as muslin, wood, cotton and oil to fill the breach, intending to set fire to the heap when the Mogul troops approached to prevent them from entering the fort.
Akbar was in a vantage point inside a specially made gallery on top of the sabat at the time, and he saw a man wearing a chieftain’s cuirass directing the proceedings at the breach. The emperor took out a matchlock he had christened Sangram (Akbar was said to have killed a few thousand birds and animals with this gun during his hunting trips). He then fired at the Rajput chief, but no one could be certain whether the chieftain had been hit.
An hour had passed when Akbar received reports that the Rajputs had inexplicably abandoned their defenses. At about that time, fire broke out in several places in the fort. Akbar’s Hindu adviser, Raja Bhagwan Das, told the Mogul emperor that the Rajputs must be performing their custom of johar.
It came to light later that Akbar’s shot had indeed found its target–none other than Jaimal. The Rajputs, disheartened by the death of their leader, had gone back to their homes to gather their wives, children and property in preparation for the johar. As many as 300 women, including nine ranis and five princesses, and an unknown number of children perished in three houses that served as fiery furnaces.
Although the defenses appeared to have been abandoned, the Moguls decided to proceed cautiously. They took advantage of the lull in the fighting to regroup in preparation for an organized assault on the fort. When the Mogul forces were massed, the soldiers entered the fort through several breaches.
The Rajputs, meanwhile, had finished eating their last betel nuts together and donned their saffron robes. They then sallied forth to meet their enemies and their destiny. Akbar, who was watching the close hand-to-hand combat from atop the sabat, then ordered his war elephants to be taken into the fort to join the onslaught.
At dawn on February 23, the Mogul emperor, accompanied by several thousand men, entered the fortress mounted on a majestic elephant. By then the Rajputs had been routed. People were fighting everywhere, and bodies lay in every street, lane, passageway and bazaar. Some Rajputs died fighting in temples, while others fought to the death in their own homes. Many Rajput warriors had made their last stand in the rana‘s house, from which they emerged in twos and threes to die fighting.
Initially, only about 50 elephants entered the fort, but by the battle’s end, there were as many as 300. The elephants did much damage, and a few were singled out for special praise. One such elephant, named Jangia, had its trunk cut off by a Rajput’s sword. Despite the severe injury, Jangia, who had killed 30 men before he was wounded, crushed another 15 before dying of his wounds.
On another occasion, an elephant trampled a Rajput, rolled him up in its trunk and brought him before Akbar. The mahout (elephant driver) said he did not know the man’s name, but he appeared to be a leader, as a large number of warriors had fought around him. That leader turned out to be the 16-year-old Patta.
The emperor also witnessed an act of Mogul chivalry in the battle. A Rajput warrior had challenged a Mogul soldier to combat when another Mogul decided to come to his aid. But the Mogul soldier waved his compatriot away, saying that it was against the rules of chivalry to render assistance when an opponent had challenged him. The Mogul then single-handedly disposed of the Rajput.
Nearly 30,000 Rajputs were killed, the majority mercilessly slaughtered when Akbar ordered a general massacre of the population. This uncharacteristic barbarity was to remain the only major blemish on the emperor’s otherwise enlightened reign. The peasantry had evidently incurred Akbar’s wrath when they participated as auxiliaries in the fighting. Akbar also may have been exasperated by the fierce resistance put up by the tenacious Rajput defenders. Many, mostly peasants, were made prisoners; few Rajput warriors survived to, in the words of their creed, stain the yellow mantle by inglorious surrender. The Mogul troops also engaged in systematic pillaging of the palaces, temples and residences.
Akbar had particularly wanted to punish the musketeers who had exacted such a heavy toll on his troops when the sabats were being built. Apparently, they had managed to escape by a clever stratagem. In the confusion of battle, they tied up their wives and masqueraded as Mogul soldiers escorting prisoners of war. Mogul losses may have been small, but it is hard to believe the claims of Mogul sources of the time that only one soldier, Zarb Ali Tuwaci, had died in the fighting that followed the final storming of the fort.
After he fled from Chitor, Udai Singh II and his small band of followers took refuge among aboriginal hill tribes and later founded the city of Udaipur, which was named after him. He died four years after the fall of Chitor at the age of 42. In 1616, Akbar’s son and successor, Jahangir, handed Chitor back to the Sesodias, but they had already comfortably settled at Udaipur. Jahangir would not–or dared not–allow them to rebuild the defenses of the fortress, and Chitor was abandoned.
Akbar had known that Chitor would be difficult to take. If his efforts were successful, he had planned to make a thanksgiving pilgrimage to the tomb of Khwaja Muiddin Chisti in Ajmer, about 120 miles from Chitor. Akbar set out on his trek on February 28, 1568. In 1571, when he built his new capital city of Fatehpur Sikri, 24 miles west of the old capital of Agra, Akbar erected statues of Jaimal and Patta in front of one of his gates–as much a testament to the merits of his gallant foes as to his great conquest.
This article was written by Jeffrey Say Seck Leong and originally appeared in the February 1999 issue of Military History magazine. For more great articles be sure to subscribe to Military History magazine today!