Maharana Pratap and Akbar: Despite lifelong enmity, the two adversaries had much in common
The rivalry and conflict between Rajputs and Mughals, between Maharana Pratap and Emperor Akbar was not as tempestuous and bitter as it is made out to be today.
The battle between Maharana Pratap and Emperor Akbar, between Rajput and Mughal, seems to continue to this day. Just recently, Yogi Adityanath, chief minister of Uttar Pradesh, declared in a speech at a Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) gathering that Akbar was not great, only Maharana Pratap was; that the Maharana refused to bow to Akbar because he a was Turk who could not be trusted. Loud applause and chants of Bharat Mata Ki Jai greeted his pronouncement. A few months earlier, the road signs of Akbar Road in the capital were blacked out, and painted over with a new name: Maharana Pratap Marg.
But in reality, the rivalry and conflict between Rajputs and Mughals, between Maharana Pratap and Emperor Akbar was not as tempestuous and bitter as it is made out to be today. The Mughal emperor needed the Rajputs on his side and under his control, in order to consolidate and stabilise his empire. The battle-hardened armies of the Rajput kingdoms, famed for their bravery and fighting skills, could then be harnessed in service of the Mughal empire. To win over the Rajputs, Akbar and later Mughal rulers made marriage alliances with Rajput kingdoms and gave their rulers titles and high positions at the Mughal court.
The enmity between Maharana Pratap and Akbar is legendary. They fought each other relentlessly for years, with Maharana Pratap refusing to submit to Akbar. And yet over the years, Akbar developed respect and admiration for Pratap. Indeed, he even felt a strong emotional connection with him...
It was a cold winter morning in early 1597. Mughal Emperor Akbar was in the Hall of Audience at his court in Lahore, when news reached him that the man he had battled for over twenty years and failed to subdue was dead. Among those in attendance at the emperor’s durbar was a famous poet, Dursa Adha of Marwar, renowned for his verses eulogising great Rajput warriors and rulers. Dursa now stood up to recite a poem on Maharana Pratap of Mewar, composed spontaneously at that moment, and famous to this day in the literature and folklore of Mewar.
Silence fell in the Mughal durbar as Dursa began his recitation, eulogising Pratap for his refusal to bend before Akbar. As the news of Pratap’s death sank in, the assembled crowd in the durbar hall noticed the effect this had on Akbar, which Dursa described as he continued his recitation:
“And now as the Badshah learns of your passing
He does not rejoice
Behold all, see how he has fallen into deep silence…
And he has bowed his head in sorrow
Even as tears well up in his eyes.”
According to Rajasthani sources, Akbar generously rewarded the poet at the end of his recitation.
Maharana Pratap was perhaps the worthiest adversary Akbar ever had. He made many attempts to win over the ruler of Mewar, the oldest and most respected of the Rajput kingdoms, for he knew that if Mewar accepted an alliance with him, other Rajput rulers would follow his lead and accept Mughal sovereignty. In 1573, one year after Pratap became ruler of Mewar, Akbar sent Man Singh of Amber, one of the luminaries of his court and commander of his armies, in an attempt to win over Pratap. According to Mewar folklore, when Man Singh arrived in Mewar to meet Pratap, he found a lavish banquet laid out in his honour at the banks of Lake Udaisagar and Pratap’s eldest son Amar Singh appointed to wait on him. But Pratap himself did not appear. Man Singh declared he would not eat a morsel unless Pratap sat with him and ate from the same plate. At which Pratap said he could not eat with a Rajput who had given his relative in marriage to a Turk (Man Singh’s father’s sister was married to Akbar). Man Singh, deeply insulted, then got up and left, with the angry riposte: “It was for the preservation of your honour that we gave our sisters and our daughters to the Turk, but abide in peril if such be your resolve.”
A few months later, Akbar tried again, sending Raja Bhagwant Das of Amber (Man Singh’s father) as his emissary. Pratap agreed to send his son to the Mughal court with the raja, but refused to go himself to pay homage to the Mughal emperor. And he also demanded the return of his ancestral capital Chittor fort, which Akbar had captured after a long siege during Pratap’s father’s reign in 1568. Since these conditions were unacceptable to Akbar, nothing came of this effort either.
By 1576, with Pratap refusing to submit to the Mughals and spurning all the Imperial titles and honours offered to him, Akbar decided to force Mewar’s submission. The stage was now set for the Battle of Haldighati. On the morning of 18 June, the two armies met at the base of Haldighati, a narrow defile flanked by turmeric-yellow cliffs that gave the area its name. The Mughal army commanded by another Rajput warrior prince, Man Singh of Amber, far outnumbered the Mewar forces, but Pratap’s men fought fiercely and bravely, several times routing the Mughals, until at one point in the battle, finding himself surrounded on all sides by the Mughals, Maharana Pratap decided on a tactical retreat. He managed to fight his way through and galloped off the battlefield on his wounded horse Chetak who took him to safety before he dropped dead. Pratap then rode towards Gogunda fort to command non-combatants go towards safety, while he himself rode off towards hideouts deep in the rugged Aravali hills. From there he would continue to wage a guerrilla war against the Mughals, harrying and ambushing their troops for the next nine years, repeatedly retaking tracts of Mewar that the Mughals had captured. All Akbar’s attempts to track down and capture Pratap failed.
Why was Akbar so set on subduing Mewar? Bringing the Rajput kingdoms under Mughal control was an essential part of Akbar’s policy to consolidate his empire, and strengthen his army. His alliances with the Rajputs were cemented through marriage, and eventually many of the Rajput kingdoms accepted his sovereignty. But Maharana Pratap of Mewar, pre-eminent among the Rajput states as head of a thousand-year-old kingdom with a great tradition of valour in battle, held out. Pratap’s intransigence was, of course, a blow to Akbar’s pride, and an inspiration to the Rajput chiefs who had not yet succumbed to Akbar. But there was another reason for Akbar’s determination to control Mewar: it was strategically crucial to Akbar as the trade, commerce and military campaign routes from Delhi and Agra to the ports in Gujarat, and to the Deccan via Malwa, passed through the Maharana’s kingdom.
And why did Pratap continue to fight Akbar, suffering enormous hardship for years as he and his family moved from one hideout to another in the forested hills of Mewar, living in caves and disused mines, keeping starvation at bay by living off the wild fruits and plants of the jungle? Pratap had grown up steeped in the code of honour and chivalry instilled in him by the bards and charans who were an important part of court life in Mewar. Every evening, they would recite verses and ballads about the sacrifice and courage of ancient Mewar warriors to uphold the kingdom’s honour, and about the ruler’s duty to uphold Mewar’s independence and its traditions of valour, justice and chivalry. This code was perhaps too deeply embedded in him to shake off.
Akbar had himself witnessed the legendary valour of Mewar warriors during his siege and capture of Chittor in 1567-68, and he had been so impressed by the heroic fight put up by two Mewar chieftains, Jaimal and Patta, that he had statues of them made and installed at his fort in Agra (sometime in the early 20th century these were removed by the Archaeological Survey of India). And over the years, as he fought Pratap, he must have grown to admire Pratap’s military strategy and indomitable spirit, as he managed to evade and outmaneuver the Mughal army despite his much smaller force and firepower.
Perhaps Pratap, too, had grown to respect and admire Akbar’s military prowess, as well as the wise statesmanship and magnanimous spirit that enabled him to weld together a vast, prosperous and stable empire which, when he inherited it at as a mere 14-year-old, was in steep decline, beset by rebellions and internal intrigue.
Indeed, despite being lifelong adversaries, the two men had much in common — both spent their youth in exile, both were strong-willed men of principle, courageous and generous-hearted, great warriors and tacticians, and great leaders with an extraordinary capacity to evoke fierce loyalty from their people. Akbar’s lifelong enemy was also his beloved adversary, the warrior-king he most admired. No wonder Akbar wept when he learnt of Pratap’s death.
Dr Rima Hooja, a leading historian of Rajasthan, is author of the new biography, Maharana Pratap: The Invincible Warrior, published by Juggernaut Books.
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