Prithviraj Raso: The Man & the Legend

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    “Night came: the beam of moon arose. The lord of men descended from his steed, and placed Sunjogta on another. The blood-stained arrows fly: one pierced the casque of the Chohan. Then did the bard demand to wield the sword; but his prince exclaimed, ‘Strong are our swords, of bard, leave thou the fight, that we may live in song.’

    Extracted from the famous medieval epic poem Prithviraj Raso, translated by British officer and Oriental scholar James Tod, the stanza above refers to an episode in which the 12th century Chauhan dynasty ruler Prithviraj III kidnapped the princess of Kanauj, Sanyogita, from the middle of her swayamvar (wedding), as a mark of rebellion against her father King Jaichand, who frowned upon their love. While our hero and heroine advance on a steed, Prithviraj’s army, led by his political advisor and alleged author of this poem, Chand Bardai, fight back the Kanauj forces.

    The 12th-century king, Prithviraj Chauhan (1166 CE to 1192 CE), is among the most well-known of Indian rulers. Stories of his daring exploits, romance with Princess Sanyogita and battle against Muhammad Ghori have inspired dramas, popular literature, television series and even movies.

    But most of these stories are taken from the epic poem Prithviraj Raso, which cleverly combines fact and fiction to create a compelling narrative that endures even today. The poem follows the life of Prithviraj Chauhan, whose popularity stems mainly from his confrontation with invader Muhammad Ghori in the Second Battle of Tarain (1192). Chauhan’s defeat paved the way for the Ghurid forces to advance into the Ganga-Yamuna Doab and lay the foundation of Muslim rule in the Indian subcontinent, which lasted for several centuries.

    The Raso is not the only account of Prithviraj Chauhan’s life. There are a few others, although not as well-known. According to historians, the most reliable is the Prithviraja Vijaya composed around 1191-1192 CE by Jayanaka, a Kashmiri poet-historian of Prithviraj Chauhan’s court. There are also accounts by Jain authors – Prabandha Chintamani (1304 CE) and Prithviraja Prabandha (1471 CE) – that are far more ‘critical’ accounts of his reign. But Raso is undoubtedly the most popular and well-known.

    According to these accounts, Prithviraj ascended the throne in c. 1178 CE at the tender age of 11 after the death of his father, the Chahamana/Chauhan ruler, Someshvara. His mother, Karpuradevi, a Kalachuri princess, was his regent. His capital was located at Ajayameru (Ajmer) and it is believed that his empire covered much of present-day Rajasthan, Haryana, Delhi and some parts of Punjab, Madhya Pradesh and Uttar Pradesh. Historian Dashratha Sharma, who has extensively researched the history of Rajasthan and authored many books on the Chauhan dynasty, says that Prithviraj’s territory extended from Thanesar (in Haryana) in the north to Jahazpur (in Mewar) in the south.

    The Chauhans were predominant although not the only power in Rajasthan.

    During this period, Prithviraj’s chief minister was Kadambavasa, also called ‘Kaimasa’ by certain accounts, and he was responsible for many victories during the early years of the young king. The first military achievement of Prithviraj was his suppression of a revolt by his cousin Nagarjuna, son of Prithviraj’s uncle Vigraharaja IV. The struggle for the Chahamana throne had sparked a rivalry between the two branches of the family. Nagarjuna captured Gudapura (possibly Gurgaon), and Prithviraj immediately marched against him with a huge army and recaptured Gudapura.

    Soon, many minor chiefs and independent rulers were brought under Chauhan rule and wars raged against the Chandelas of Jejakabhukti, Paramaras of Abu, Solankis of Gujarat and Gahadavalas of Kannauj, among others.

    But Prithviraj’s biggest enemy was Muhammad Ghori. The conqueror had shifted his base from Ghazna in Central Afghanistan to Punjab and was expanding his empire eastwards. This brought him in conflict with Prithviraj and both the camps engaged in two major battles. The First Battle of Tarain was fought in 1191 when the Ghurid forces captured the Tabarhindah fort (probably present-day Bathinda). Prithviraj marched against them with infantry, cavalry and an elephant force, and successfully forced them to retreat. However, to avenge this defeat, Ghori came back with a well-equipped army in 1192 and attacked the not-so-prepared Prithviraj’s army.

    Prithviraj Raso blames the 25-year-old Prithviraj for his inattentiveness. It says that the king had become so infatuated with his new wife Sanyogita that he spent most of his time with her, ignoring the state affairs and a further threat from Ghori. Other than this one critical reference, the poem eulogises the king and his heroic exploits, creating an aura, that ensured that Prithviraj remains a well-loved hero even today.

    Written in Pingal, an eastern Rajasthani variant of Brajbhasha, the Raso presents court poet Chand Bardai as its writer.

    He appears to have been an active participant in the momentous events of the 12th-century ruler. Because of this, British scholar James Tod, an East India Company officer and who wrote the magnum opus Annals And Antiquities of Rajas’than, considered Raso a valuable eyewitness account.

    Since the 16th century, Rajput rulers had patronized the Raso for its elements of heroism, romance and revenge. The epic poem presented Prithviraj’s conflict with Ghori as an act of valour and patriotism, and this soon became a potent symbol of Rajput identity.

    Amazingly, Mughal chronicler Abul Fazl too referred to Raso when writing his book Ain-i-Akbari, which pertained to Akbar’s empire. His work contains a section that covers the 15 provinces of Mughal India and for each of them there’s a short geographical introduction, historical background and statistical information on economic revenues and the human population. For the Delhi province, he uses the Raso as a reference.

    But there are many glaring ‘loopholes’ in this epic poem, and it is only in modern times that they have been identified by scholars such as Kaviraj Shyamaldas, G H Ojha and Cynthia Talbot.

    The Raso equates Prithviraj with Lord Ram and assigns him larger-than-life characteristics. The king is said to have had 32 accomplishments besides 72 graces of minor description. Raso also claims he was fluent in 14 languages!

    Next, Prithviraj’s mother is said to be the daughter of the Delhi ruler, Anangpal Tomar. Since he did not have any sons, he gave the kingdom to Prithviraj, who made Delhi his primary base. Historians say neither is is backed by facts.

    According to Frances Pritchett, a professor of South Asian Literature at Columbia University in the US, the kidnapping of Princess Sanyogita is only one of three key episodes integral to the plot of Raso. The other two are the killing of Chief Minister Kadambavasa and the murder of Ghori, both by Prithviraj.

    According to Raso, Kadambavasa falls in love with a maid working in the queen’s palace and visits her regularly. When the king learns of this, he considers it a violation of the women’s quarters and shoots an arrow at Kadambavasa during one of his nocturnal visits. Both the lovers are secretly buried, but Bardai learns about the king’s dishonourable act in a dream.

    For the part following the Second Battle of Tarain, Raso says that Prithviraj was taken to Ghazna in Afghanistan as a prisoner and blinded. When Bardai heard of this, he travelled all the way to Ghazna to save his king. Somehow, he talked Ghori into letting a blind Prithviraj put on an archery performance. Ghori agreed. Just before the ‘performance’, Bardai indicated where Ghori was seated to Prithviraj through the following lines:

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

    (Four measures ahead of you and twenty four yards away as measured with eight finger measurement, is seated the Sultan. Do not miss him now, Chauhan)

    According to the Raso Prithviraj shot an arrow in the direction of Ghori and killed him. Prithviraj and Bardai also died shortly after. In the Raso’s narrative, Prithviraj thus regains his honour, if not his kingdom.

    However, all these episodes appear to be fictional, as suggested by other chronicles of the medieval king. The oldest and historically most reliable is the Prithviraja Vijaya composed by Jayanaka, a Kashmiri poet-historian in his court.

    Meanwhile accounts by Jain author of Prithviraj Prabandha says that Kadambavasa was killed by the king as he had allied with the Ghurid forces. Also, historical records suggest that Ghori continued to rule for more than a decade after Prithviraj’s death.

    The most suspicious claim is that if Bardai died along with his king in Ghazni, far away from the court, who knew of the events that had allegedly taken place there, and by adding them to the poem, gave it a perfect ending? Legend says that the concluding part of the poem was composed by Bardai’s son Jalna.

    The final and biggest challenge with Raso is its date. Most modern scholars believe it was not composed during Prithviraj’s time and date it at least 300-400 years later, to the 16th century. But some believe that Bardai had composed a text which formed the basis for the current version of the epic poem.

    Even since the 16th century, the size of the text has swelled greatly because of several interpolations and additions, resulting in multiple recensions or revised versions. The poem now exists in four major manuscript traditions – text and the description of events varying in each of them.

    Only a small portion of the existing recensions is likely to have been part of the original version. The closest to the original is believed to be a small, 1,300 stanza manuscript discovered at Dharanojwali village in Gujarat and dated to 1610. Its language is more archaic than other versions and was copied for a grandson of Kalyanmal, the Rathore ruler of Bikaner.

    The longest available version is the Udaipur (Mewar) manuscript, which is an epic comprising 16,306 stanzas!

    The language of the texts available today appears to be the post-15th century. The most popular and the first printed version of the text is based on a 1703 CE manuscript commissioned by Amar Singh II in 1703, the Sisodiya ruler of Mewar.

    The details are different in each version and the longer ones are the most questionable. For example, the shortest one mentions Sanyogita as Prithviraj's only wife, while the Mewar version claims Prithviraj married 12 other princesses, many of them presented to him by his nobles.

    But in spite of its obvious drawbacks, Raso is undeniably a valuable piece of literature. It throws great light on the political, military and socio-economic structure of the Rajasthan clans immediately before the establishment of Turkish rule in India. And it is a testimony to its lyrical brilliance that it is still read, enjoyed and treasured by so many millions!

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