Rana Pratap’s fight against the Mughals, his pledge to win back Chittor from them and the famous battle of Haldighati (1576) are some of the most well-known incidents from Indian history. But this cannot be fully understood without knowing its backstory – the Mughal conquest of Chittor in 1568. While Sultan Aladdin Khilji’s conquest of Chittor in 1303 CE and the tale of Rani Padmini are quite well known, few are aware of the events the final and cataclysmic fall of the Chittor Fort in 1568 from which it could never regain its former glory.
In his new book ‘Allahu Akbar. Understanding the Great Mughal in Today's India’, Author and journalist Manimugdha Sharma, drawing on first hand Mughal sources, pieces together the fascinating story of Emperor Akbar and rule, in context of India politics today. Here is an excerpt on how the great Mughal conquered India’s most famous fort – Chittor.
The Mewar campaign began on 19 September 1567. We do see the 25-year-old Akbar as a strategist and master tactician in this. He didn’t make a dash at Chittor; he started taking one fort after another and posting Mughal garrisons there so that his rear was never threatened in his quest for Chittor.
He first moved to Hindwara, where the army encamped near a fort that Abu’l Fazl calls Sivi Supar. This fort was under the control of Rao Surjan Hada of Ranthambore, but the garrison abandoned it when it heard Akbar was coming. The fort was secured, and a new garrison posted under Nazr Bahadur. Akbar then went to Kota, which was easily taken and another garrison posted under the command of Shah Muhammad Qandahari. Then Akbar conquered the imposing Gagron Fort (a UNESCO World Heritage Site today).
Akbar’s commanders, Asaf Khan and Wazir Khan, next took the powerful fort of Mandalgarh, which was held for Mewar by Rawat Balvi Solanki. Abu’l Fazl gives no details of the fight, but hints at it being a tough one as it was conquered ‘by the prestige of the Shahinshah’.
At this point, Abu’l Fazl says, the emperor’s army wasn’t big. But Akbar decided to push ahead in the hope that Rana Udai Singh would be tempted to come out of his defences to attack a numerically inferior enemy. However, this didn’t have the desired effect. On the contrary, when the Rana learnt that Akbar didn’t have a siege train (heavy artillery, including mortars and howitzers, meant for sieges) with him, he assumed that Akbar wouldn’t be foolhardy enough to attack Chittor. To be doubly sure, he strengthened the fort, posted a garrison of 5,000 Rajputs, stocked up supplies that could sustain the people inside for years, and laid the areas around the fort waste so that the approaching Mughals couldn’t live off the land. Not even a blade of grass was left standing, it is said. This was the scorched earth policy that Imperial Russia would successfully employ against the Grande Armee of Napoleon in 1812, and the Soviet Union would repeat when invaded by Nazi Germany.
Siege of Chittor
The Rana withdrew further deep into the hills while leaving the Chittor garrison to face the Mughal might. Jaimal Rathore of Merta, the former Mughal ally who once led Mughal armies against fellow Rajputs, commanded the garrison. His task now was to defend the crowning glory of Mewar even with his life, if need be.
Akbar wisely avoided following the Rana into the hills. Instead, he chose to lay siege to the fort. On 20 October 1567, the Mughal army camped around the fort in what must have been an intimidating sight for the garrison. The terrain outside the fort even today is flat. From the imposing heights, the garrison must have spotted the imperial army approaching when it was miles away.
As Akbar set up camp, a storm broke accompanied by thunder and lightning. In that open country, the intensity of a storm must have been more acutely felt than in the Mughal walled capitals. The ‘earth was shaken’, Abu’l Fazl writes. Going by the superstitious society of the time, it could have been perceived as a bad omen, we don’t know. But Akbar was of sterner mind. In any case, the storm lifted in an hour and made it possible for the imperial camp to plan a siege.
The following morning, Akbar rode out towards the fort that was atop a hill and went around it. It was a recce. The Mughals figured out that the circumference of the fort was over 2 kos (6 km) and was about 5 kos at the part used by the people. Today, we know that the circumference of the existing fort is 13 km—a huge, formidable fort even today. Akbar must have realised by now that he had an uphill task at hand, literally. So, at the end of the recce, he ordered the artillery to be brought ahead and asked his engineers and artillery officers to select spots to erect the batteries. Additional artillery was also called for. And even though Napoleon was still several centuries in the future to tell the world that ‘God fights on the side with the best artillery’, it must have been apparent to Akbar that the fort will have to be taken by the might of his guns. It took Akbar a whole month to set up his artillery.
Akbar’s zealous generals, in a bid to rise in the emperor’s favour, subjected reason to over-enthusiasm and risked life and limb in making intrepid yet fruitless charges at the fort. Akbar reprimanded them for being rash and lectured them on the true meaning of courage. Good commanders are also the ones who don’t unnecessarily put the lives of their men at risk.
Akbar’s counsel, though, had limited effect on these spirited troops who carried out mindless sallies at the fort but were felled by its defenders. Abu’l Fazl says the bullets and arrows fired by the Mughals couldn’t go past the fort walls but the hail of bullets and arrows showered by the garrison claimed many Mughal lives. This prompted Akbar to change position and also order the placing of mines under the fort walls to breach them. To offer protection from enemy fire, Akbar ordered the construction of a sabat or approach trench.
Sabat – A Mughal Military Tactic
There are no intact specimens of a Mughal sabat today, but it appears the Mughals, whenever faced with the necessity to lay siege to a fort, extensively used these. We can also surmise how it must have looked if we look at the concept of al-fina and sabat as they appear in Islamic architecture. A sabat, even today, is an arched and roofed pathway or a street in countries of the Mediterranean and Middle East that funnels in air to offer shelter from heat and the sun. Usually these are attached to or extensions of buildings. An example of a grand sabat is the Chhatta Bazaar at Red Fort, Delhi, which is the first building upon entry from the Lahori Gate. It was a covered market place for the palace and even today is dotted with shops, many of whose owners claim descent from Shah Jahan’s shopkeepers.
Akbar’s sappers started making a robust sabat that was wide enough to let 10 men pass through walking side-by-side and tall enough for a mounted elephant to pass. The construction work was carried out under heavy fire from the fort, which resulted in 200 workmen getting killed daily. This must have been terribly demoralising for the Mughal army and its workforce, but the workers were paid in gold and silver coins to risk their lives repeatedly. And by sacrificing their blood and sweat, life and limb, the workers managed to build robust mud walls on either side of the sabat that could absorb the impact of cannonball hits.
The work of the sabat was done under the supervision of Raja Todar Mal and Qasim Khan Mir Barr-u-Bahr. Todar Mal’s credentials as a builder of defensive works had been burnished during Sher Shah Suri’s time when he had been tasked to build the Rohtas Fort. Qasim Khan, on the other hand, had built the Agra Fort for Akbar. It is no surprise, therefore, that these two men were chosen for such a challenging task of building the sabat while facing tremendous enemy fire.
As the sabat kept on moving forward, the fort’s defenders realised that it was just a matter of time before Mughal artillery would be in a position of delivering devastating blows on the fort walls. Akbar was casting a massive siege gun on site, and the garrison must have managed to put two and two together: that the gun would be brought forward through the sabat. If that happened, the fort would fall. So, the garrison commander, Jaimal Rathore, decided to parley with the Mughals.
Negotiations for surrender
He first sent one Sanda Silahdar to negotiate terms of surrender. The talks failed and Silahdar returned empty-handed. Then another commander named Sahib Khan Rathore was sent to resume dialogue. Abu’l Fazl writes that the Chittor officers resorted to ‘entreaties and lamentations’ to make the Mughals accept their surrender. They also offered to recognise Akbar’s suzerainty and also send an annual tribute. Akbar’s officers found the terms agreeable and beseeched their emperor to accept the surrender of the garrison. Akbar refused. He imposed the condition that Rana Udai Singh would have to come himself and surrender.
Any self-respecting king would not accept such a demand. Besides, it appears to this author that Akbar had made it personal—he had to personally slight the Mewar king who had been a constant thorn in his side and who would regularly offer refuge to his enemies or those rebelling against his authority, Baz Bahadur of Malwa and Jaimal Rathore being two notable examples. Otherwise, there was no reason why he would ignore such a generous and desperate offer of surrender when he had and would continue to be very lenient with other Hindu and Muslim chieftains when they parleyed with him.
This shows that the Chittor garrison was actually a pragmatic lot and not a bunch of rash and excitable soldiers who were set on a suicidal course of action right from the beginning, as is often suggested by proud but less-informed right-wing commentators, weekend historians in the media and on social media, and poorly researched TV programmes. It wasn’t their fault that they had to eventually choose to fall with the fort. Akbar was being uncharacteristic of himself and any other Indian king of his time who would prefer to buy out or secure the surrender of enemy armies instead of annihilating them.
With their surrender terms rejected, the Chittor garrison had no other option but to fight on till the last man. And they defended the fort with all their might and ferocity. The artillery fire and musketry from the fort really wreaked havoc on Mughal lines with Akbar himself escaping injury and even death by a whisker several times.
Chittor fights back
The musketeers were Muslims from the eastern part of the country or the Purbias. Their fire was accurate and devastating, and Akbar was particularly angry with them. Their leader was a man named Ismail, who was reportedly a crack shot himself. One day, while Akbar was watching the battle progress from the safety of a defensive position, Ismail managed to hit Jalal Khan, a trusted servant of Akbar who was standing near him. Akbar was so enraged by this that he vowed to avenge Jalal Khan if the musketeer showed up. Akbar kept his promise and Ismail was felled by a shot fired by the emperor himself.
But that didn’t solve the problems of the Mughals. Taking out members of the garrison by ones and twos wasn’t helping, and whatever damage the Mughal guns were making to the fort’s walls were being repaired by the garrison overnight. The walls or a wall would have to be taken down in one forceful strike. So, the sappers and miners came forward and started placing mines. On 17 December 1567, the miners placed two mines under a fort bastion. The first one exploded, bringing down the bastion and killing the defenders on it.
Seeing this, a Mughal contingent dashed forward to enter through the breach without waiting for the second mine to explode. When it did, moments later, it killed 200 Mughals on the spot, half of whom were worthies personally known to the emperor. 40 other imperial troops who were waiting for their opportunity nearby were crushed under the falling debris. The garrison lost 40 men too.
Another mine elsewhere near the fort also prematurely exploded on the same day, this time killing 40 men of the garrison and nobody among the Mughal ranks. But the fallen bastion couldn’t be taken advantage of as by the time confusion among the Mughal ranks ended, the garrison had repaired it. The mining operation backfired and quite badly. It put Akbar on the backfoot even though he didn’t let his or his troops’ morale down. He focused on completing the sabat. Abu’l Fazl writes that ‘excellent quarters were constructed on the top of the sabat’ where the emperor spent two nights and a day and personally supervised the completion of this covered trench.
When the sabat was completed, it helped the Mughal troops to attack the fort from a closer distance. Akbar would himself take position at the sabat and shoot his matchlock. On 22 February 1568, the Mughals unleashed an artillery barrage on the fort from all sides, which created several breaches. Right in front of the sabat, the wall was destroyed, which resulted in the defenders closing the gap with their own bodies and placing flammable materials at the breach to set fire to when the Mughals attempted to break in.
Directing his men from the ramparts was an officer whose special chain mail armour topped with a cuirass called the hazaar mikhi (thousand nails) gave out his special status as a man of eminence. It wasn’t known immediately who he was, but Akbar, figuring out that he was a key person in the defence, picked up his favourite musket called Sangram (struggle in Hindi) and shot at the man. At that time, Akbar’s commanders Shujaat Khan and Raja Bhagwan Dass were with him. The man disappeared from the ramparts, suggesting that he had been hit.
In an hour’s time after that, one Jabbar Quli Diwana told the emperor that the fort’s defenders had disappeared. At the same time, fires erupted all over the fort, confusing the Mughals even more. Then Raja Bhagwan Dass pointed out that it was jauhar that was happening, and that means the Rajputs are getting ready for saka or their final battle.
By morning, it became clear that the man Akbar shot was Jaimal Rathore and he was dead. Jauhar fires raged in the houses of Patta Sisodia, Sahib Khan Rathore and Aissar Das Chauhan. In these were killed 300 women of these chiefs. It’s important to note that Sahib Khan was now the leader of the Rathore clan in the fort and his women, too, committed jauhar while he got ready for saka. This suggests that Muslim Rajputs also shared the martial practices of the Hindu Rajputs and that way were joined at the hip with the Hindus.
And yet no modern depiction of Rajput glory at Chittor mentions Sahib Khan or Ismail or the Muslim musketeers and artillery men. Mughal troops entered the fort as the Rajputs fought to death. Akbar brought forward his war elephants some of which were named Girdbaz Dhokar, Madhukar, Jangia, Sabdiliya and Kadira. About 300 elephants wreaked havoc on the garrison. The elephants trampled men
or tore them asunder with huge daggers attached to their trunks. But some of them had their trunks cut off by the Rajputs too and dying eventually of the wounds. Jangia and Madhukar shared a similar fate.
The Fall of Chittor
But the war elephants killed many prominent Rajputs too. Akbar, who himself entered the fort on an elephant, was shown a Rajput warrior who had been trampled by an elephant near the Govind Shyam Temple. The man was still alive but died shortly after. He was Patta Sisodia. It was total carnage going on, yet Abu’l Fazl notes there were chivalrous exchanges too. He says Akbar was impressed to see a duel between a Rajput soldier and one of his own when the former challenged him. Another Mughal soldier who came to assist was asked not to intervene by this Mughal soldier as it went against the code of chivalry. This one-on-one fight ended with the death of the Rajput.
The fort had 8,000 soldiers and over 40,000 peasants. As the battle ended, Abu’l Fazl informs that nearly 30,000 were killed. But later on in the text, he contradicts himself by saying that ‘a large number were made prisoners’. Why this discrepancy? It may have been due to a desire to appear greater than Alauddin Khilji.
Abu’l Fazl explains that when Khilji had taken the fort on 16 August 1303, after a siege of six months and seven days, he had spared the lives of the peasants as they weren’t involved in the fighting. But during the Mughal siege, the peasantry allegedly collaborated with the garrison and showed great zeal in fighting off the Mughals. In giving out the time taken by the Delhi Sultan to conquer the fort, Abu’l Fazl also subtly hinted at Akbar achieving a greater feat by conquering the fort after a siege of five months and four days.
Akbar spent three days in Chittor and then marched off to Ajmer to pay obeisance at the tomb of Moinuddin Chishti. At Ajmer, on March 9 1568, was issued a victory proclamation or ‘fatehnama-i-Chittor’ in his name.
The Chittor victory stunned the whole of Rajputana. Anybody who had any doubt about the permanence of the Mughal rule or in their ability to impose their writ on the country was by now convinced that Akbar meant business.
Excerpted with permission from the book ‘Allahu Akbar: Understanding the Great Mughal in Today’s India’ by author Manimugdha Sharma.