Tales of passion, murder, remorse and revenge have littered the pages of history across time but one such dramatic story, which centres on the invasion of Gujarat by Sultan Alauddin Khilji, is special in more ways than one. It is the theme of the first original novel in Gujarati, penned by a headmaster from Surat. Titled Karan Ghelo (Foolish Karan), the story has been immortalised in plays, movies and translations ever since.
Also incorporated into the school curriculum in Gujarat, the book was written by Nandshankar Mehta (1835 – 1905) in 1866. Interestingly, Mehta wrote it on the urging of the British administration, which at the time was keen to make education accessible to the ‘natives’.
This was a time when Gujarat was a part of the Bombay Presidency and Mountstuart Elphinstone was Governor. He was a progressive administrator and made significant changes to the education system. As part of his plan, Elphinstone wanted locals to have access to libraries but this would require ‘indigenous’ textbooks to be written.
Educated Indians were thus encouraged to write or translate regional works on Indian culture and history in exchange for handsome rewards. The then Educational Inspector of Surat, one Mr Russell, took notice of Mehta, the first Indian headmaster of an English-medium school in Surat (and later the Diwan of Bhuj), and urged him to participate in this campaign.
Mehta was well-read in English literature and happily agreed. But, he wondered, what should he write about? Mehta mulled over a few ideas, including the fall of Champaner and the destruction of Somnath, but finally chose a tale that had all the drama of a classic book – the story of Karan Vaghela, an important ruler in Gujarat.
Here’s how the story goes.
Karan Vaghela (reign 1296-1304 CE) is the ruler of Anhilwad Patan, a large kingdom located in north Gujarat, and relies on his trusted Prime Minister Madhav. (The early members of the Vaghela family served the Chalukyas of Gujarat and claimed to be a branch of that dynasty. Their architectural contribution to Gujarat is immense as a number of temples like Girnar Jain temples and the Dilwara temples at Mount Abu were funded during their reign by court ministers.).
Karan is married to Kaularani but is besotted by a woman called Roopsundari. When Karan learns that she is Madhav’s wife, he abandons his conscience and hatches a plot to seduce her.
The king sends Madhav away on a mission and instructs his men to abduct Roopsundari. This sets in motion a series of tragic events, which includes the death of Madhav’s brother Keshav, who is killed while trying to save his sister-in-law from Karan’s men.
Roopsundari is kidnapped and taken to the palace even as Keshav’s wife Gunasundari makes her way towards her husband’s funeral pyre to commit sati. While on her way, she curses the king and his kingdom.
When Madhav learns of the king’s dastardly and despicable deed, he leaves Patan and wanders around aimlessly, plotting and planning revenge. Eventually, he reaches Delhi and secures an audience with the then ruler Sultan Alauddin Khilji (reign 1296–1316), who has just seized the throne from his uncle Jallaluddin Khilji.
Madhav persuades the Sultan to ransack Patan, luring him with the land’s richness. He also promises all the help he would need. At the time, Gujarat was one of the wealthiest regions in India thanks to its fertile soil and Indian Ocean trade. Khilji, eager to expand his empire, grabs the opportunity and sends an army led by his generals, Ulugh Khan and Nusrat Khan, in 1299. (This account seems plausible based on the fact that besides Madhav’s request, there could be no other reason for Alauddin Khilji to invade Gujarat without subjugating the kingdoms that acted as a buffer zone between Delhi and Gujarat. The army not only raided Anhilwad Patan, but also Khambhat, Surat and Somnath).
Caught completely unaware, Karan is unable to put up any resistance. Khilji and his men also take away his wife. After his defeat, Karan and his daughter Devaldevi take refuge with an old friend, Ramachandra, the Yadava ruler of Deogadh (later Daulatabad in modern-day Aurangabad). Years pass and Karan manages to retrieve some of his territory and the dust is finally beginning to settle – when he is faced with another horror.
In Delhi, Alauddin Khilji has married Karan’s wife Kaularani and she has become his favourite queen. One day, she tells the Sultan that she misses her daughter and wants him to bring her to Delhi. Alauddin instructs his army to get her and says they are not to return till they succeed.
Thus, in 1304, led by the Sultan’s famous general Malik Kafur, a military invasion engulfs Gujarat and Karan is completely destroyed. This marks the end of Rajput rule in Gujarat and the beginning of the Sultanate reign in the region. Apparently it this defeat that earned Karan the epithet ‘ghelo’ or ‘foolish’.
The story then follows the life of Devaldevi, who becomes a pawn in the royal court politics of Delhi.
She is first married to Alauddin’s eldest son Khizr Khan. But when he is executed by his brother Mubarak Shah, Devaldevi is forced to become a member of his harem. But Mubarak Shah is stabbed to death by his military leader, Khusro Khan, who then marries Devaldevi.
This was a complicated but pivotal chapter in the history of Gujarat and Mehta chose his subject well. Not only did the story make for edge-of-the-seat drama, and was thus riveting, the protagonist was already the subject of the oral tradition of bards of the Bhat and Charan folk literature of Gujarat. In fact, this was also one of the major sources of research for Mehta’s work.
Starting in 1863, Mehta took three years to complete his novel and worked frenetically, for he was fastidious about his research. The headmaster-turned-novelist referred to contemporary Jain chronicles like Prabandhachintamani (1305) by scholar Merutunga and Tirthakalpataru of Jinaprabha Suri. He also sourced information from poet Padmanabha’s Kanhadade Prabandha (1455), which describes in great detail the conquest of Gujarat.
For scenes in Delhi, Mehta referred to Persian texts by author Amir Khusrau and scholar Ziauddin Barni. However, his most important source was Rasmala, a historical-literary-cultural work on Gujarat published in 1858 by Ahmedabad’s Assistant Judge, Alexander Forbes, with the help of Kavi Dalpatram. You could say that Mehta’s book was an amalgamation of languages and voices across the subcontinent.
This book, written for educational purposes, became the first original novel in Gujarati and set the stage for historical prose writing in that language. Until then, only essays or long poems were the norm. Mehta used the Western style of story-telling infused with the local style of incorporating multiple mini-stories with religious and philosophical monologues.
Though not fiction, Mehta did take some creative liberties in the narrative.
For example, no historical source suggests that Karan put up any kind of resistance to the invading army. But Mehta writes that in the 1304 attack, the king fought valiantly and did not leave the battlefield until he was grievously injured and had to be taken away. He eulogizes the king but also gives the story a moral tone by saying that Karan was a prisoner of his own deeds. He portrays him as a man who failed his land and his people.
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The novel takes us back to medieval times as Mehta beautifully brings out the flavour of life then, with vivid descriptions. There is mention of the condition of peasants and the trading community, a commentary on the fierce Rajput pride and debates between the Jains and the Brahmins, among many other topics.
Mehta was a member of the Buddhivardak Sabha, a reformist organisation set up in Bombay in 1851, and actively promoted the cause of widow remarriage, women’s education and caste ban on foreign travel. He advocated these causes in his novel too by touching on the social taboos of sati and child marriage, and delicately presenting his arguments against these practices.
Karan Ghelo was Mehta’s only novel, though he did translate R G Bhandarkar’s Sanskrit Margopadeshika and an English textbook on trigonometry into Gujarati. His pioneering effort of a novel that was thrilling, absorbing, fascinating, delightful and infuriating, all at the same time, was an immediate success. The classic tale was reprinted many times and also adapted into plays and films.
Two years after it was published, the novel was adapted into the play, Gujarat No Chhello Raja Karan Ghelo (Karan Ghelo, the Last King of Gujarat), by Parsi theatre of Bombay. The story was also the subject of the silent film, Karan Ghelo (1924), by Indian cinema legend S N Patankar. In 2015, the book received a new lease of life when it was translated into English by Tulsi Vatsal and Aban Mukherji and published in Viking by Penguin Books India. It also was used as a textbook in Gujarat’s schools until very recently.
While the study of history is imperative to understand people and societies, and provide us with an identity, the challenge is to make historic events interesting and accessible. But here was a successful attempt in the mid-19th century by a Gujarati headmaster, who took a 700-year-old event in Gujarat straight into the hearts and minds of the people.
Cover Image: A royal Rajput procession / Wikimedia Commons
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