Akbar versus Maharana Pratap: What really happened at Haldighati

The Rajasthan government is reportedly planning to tweak the history of the battle.

 |  14-minute read |   28-07-2017
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In the year 1568, all of Rajasthan (and almost all of what we now know as Punjab, Pakistan, Central India all the way to Bengal) had been conquered by the Mughals led by Akbar. It was either a direct rule or vassals ruled on behalf of the Mughal court.

In Rajasthan almost all major kings/chieftains had accepted Mughal suzerainty except Udai Singh (Maharana Pratap's father and the founder of... you guessed it, Udaipur). Akbar, who was a brilliant military commander, was quite annoyed at this pesky little kingdom holding out against his forces. In terms of scale, think about the little Gaulish village of Asterix and Obelix holding out against mighty Caesar.

There is another reason he wanted to crush this resistance movement. This kingdom of Mewar had a history of producing great leaders (Rana Kumba, Rana Sangha, Udai Singh, among others) who had a habit of holding out repeatedly against invasions, retreating into the hills and coming back stronger than before. Many guerrilla leaders, from Shivaji to Scottish kings including Bruce and William Wallace to Fidel Castro and Che Guevera, all adopted pretty much the same tactics.

In 1568, Akbar grew tired of his generals failing and led his armies himself, crushed all opposition and sieged Chittorgarh. Akbar was a giant in the league of Caesar or Napoleon when it came to military and administrative skills, and when he took to the field, his opponents mostly fled... but not the Sisodia's of Mewar - the clan Maharana came from.

They chose to make one last sally - every able man - against the numerically overwhelming Mughals while the women after exhorting the men to not return jumped onto mass funeral pyres. To look at historical parallels, this is kind of similar to what some Gallic tribes did against Caesar, the Teutons and Cimbri took it to another level with the women killing any retreating soldier and in the end killing themselves. It must be pointed out here that Maharana Udai Singh II survived the battle, and lived out the rest of his life in Gogunda.

Rise of Maharana Pratap, bloody intrigue, brother betraying brother and a lot of drama

Akbar went back to Delhi thinking there was peace in his eastern territories... but nope, a greater leader than the previous Rajput leaders took charge. He was Maharana Pratap.

His ascension was not that easy as his elder half-brother Jagmal Singh had been promised the throne, but in a coup Udai Singh's advisers removed him - he fled, with his army to Akbar where he was given a Jagir (title and land) and swore revenge on his brother.

Peace offers and war

Pratap Singh became Maharana Udai Singh and took charge of Mewar. Akbar wanted to avoid war and unnecessary loss of life. He did of course want Pratap Singh to become his vassal - this was non-negotiable. As expected, this was not acceptable to Pratap Singh. Akbar is said to have sent eight messages of peace, in one he even offered to marry a woman from Pratap Singh's household and become relatives, this was a tactic Akbar had mastered, marrying into Rajput royal houses to make peace.

Pratap Singh rejected them all... outright. Akbar STILL did not want war, so he played what he thought was his trump card (bad miscalculation on his part) and sent the leading Rajput in his court, Raja Man Singh, as his emissary.

The Maharana was insulted, he saw Man Singh as an absolute traitor (and again, from his perspective... rightly so) and even refused to see him, let alone break bread with him. On this though, the sources are rather confusing, some of the oral traditions and stories suggest the meeting was charged and contentious, Mughal sources however suggest the meeting was cordial, but the Maharana point blank refused to accept Akbar's overlordship, let alone present himself in the Mughal court.

All this while the Maharana was not quiet. He used guerrilla tactics and hit Mughal supply columns or weaker Mughal outposts, vanishing before reinforcements could arrive.

Chess moves before the war, pawns gained and pawns lost

Akbar finally lost it and decided on war. Akbar used his strategic guile and using money, diplomacy and bribes got some of the Mewars’ leading allies to turn against the Maharana. He mobilised his troops and started marching on Mewar and Chittorgarh.

The Maharana struck back diplomatically by offering refuge to the kings (and their armies) who had been dispossessed by Akbar's conquests of Gujarat/Pakistan (what is now known as), so he lost allies, but gained allies as well.

Now strategically, Chittorgarh is not very easily defensible (which is why Akbar took it rather easily); also, based on different sources, the Maharana’s army was outnumbered by Man Singh's (Akbar still hadn't taken the field yet) by almost 1:5, so he decided that a field battle or a siege battle would result in his annihilation and he abandoned it, and continued ruling from a strategically more defensible place called Gogunda - which was accessible only via the pass of Haldighati.

Even today, looking at Gogunda on a satellite map tells us how impregnable it must have been. Surrounded on three sides by the hills, and thick forests in front of it, it would have been a formidable stronghold back then.

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Initial moves

Akbar's armies marched from Delhi while an advance army (of around 50,000 to 1,00,000 based on various sources) led by Man Singh camped near Haldighati. The belief among the Mughals was that, outnumbered, the Maharana would prefer to play a defensive game like the previous rulers of Mewar. They were wrong.

The Maharana took to the field with between 15,000 to 30,000 men, and marched on Man Singh - this in hindsight was a very Napoleonic manoeuvre - if there are two strong forces marching on you, attack the weaker of the two (even if they outnumber you), then use manoeuvre to get to the second force in a geographically weaker point and then destroy that also).

A word of caution on the numbers - these numbers could still be inflated and might in reality have been around 10,000 Mewarians versus some 30,000 Mughals, but ancient and medieval sources had a tendency to exaggerate army sizes, and hence we might never get a reliable figure for the Battle of Haldighati.

However, the contemporary source, Abul Fazl in his Akbarnama, estimates that the causalities were 150 Mughals dead for 500 Mewarians. However, given that there never was a rout, which is when most medieval armies took massive casualties, this is not indicative of the size of the armies.

The battle

Man Singh got intel that the Maharana might take to the attack, and he formed his ranks. Man Singh took the prestigious and all important centre Barha Saiyids (a Mughal vassal group) on the right, Generals Ghazi Khan and Rai Lonkarn on the left, other capable generals on the all-important Altamash. In addition to these standard formations, Man Singh also had a contingent of Uqci (cavalry archers) and lastly, the all-important reserve.

Opposed to him, the Rana took the centre, the Raja of Gwalior on the right and presumably a Bhil/tribal force on the left. Maharana Pratap, according to Fazl, was eager to get to grips with the enemy and left the arraying of his men (a process that could take hours) into battlelines to his subordinates. Man Singh then sent an advance party uphill (he was camped on a plain) - no sooner had he done this when the first wave of Mewar cavalry came crashing down on the Mughal vanguard and destroyed it. Round 1 to Mewar.

To picture this scene, think of the charge of the Rohirrim in The Lord of the Rings. You had this massive army on a plain, a much smaller, but larger in heavy cavalry formed up in the heights of the Aravalis. The Maharana himself led the charge.

With their blood-curdling Rajput war cry (the Indian Rajput regiment uses “Bajrang Bali ki Jai”, so it might still have been the same), they crashed onto the left flank of the Mughal army. For those not into battle and tactics, it might help to understand how battles in that era (and indeed from the first battle till gunpowder came to the scene) were fought.

In the meantime, the right wing of the Rajputs had made contact with the left wing of the Mughals and defeated them - but the line did not break.

Digression into tactics 101

Battles in the medieval era (and before that) were not the stylised 1-1 fights you see in Hollywood movies. Armies formed up in lines, typically they were massed three-four lines deep (to prevent the first line from crumbling and running). Once formed up, they pushed, jostled and slashed in a group against the opposition till they forced a gap. Once a gap was forced, troops would be forced into this opening to exploit it. If the line was exploited, it was game over. Most casualties happened during the chase or the slaughter after the gap was forced.

Now, the centre was usually heavily reinforced, but they also usually had the newer units placed there while the thinner flanks had the more veteran units. The objective of any army was to encircle the enemy (check battle of Cannae in the Roman eras for a classic encirclement battle. The Germans adopted this brilliantly to modern times in WW-II) as any enemy army was most vulnerable in the rear.

To this aid, most generals tried to "turn the flank" of the enemy. This meant destroying the units in the flanks and then turning on the harder centre. To counter this, the more advanced armies held reserves. Units they could use to plug a breach in the line. The Mughals planned for this contingency by having a special unit called the Altamash, this unit was placed between the centre and the vanguard (forward elements) and if the vanguard was separated from the centre (thus weakening the centre), the Altamash would fill in the gaps.

One of the few generals who used an opposite tactic was Raja Hemu, he preferred to use shock troops to break through the enemy centre as opposed to the flanks, but he was an exception to the rule.

Back to the battle

The initial line shattered, but the Mughal reserves held. The Maharana's gambit had failed. He needed to break through the Mughal lines to create a gap to introduce his limited war elephants into the rear of the Mughal lines. They pulled back, reformed and charged again. More cavalrymen died, the Mughal line held. The Maharana now introduced his infantry.

The battle was being lost - the Maharana led his cavalry in YET another charge, this time against what he knew was overwhelming odds. No dice, the Mughal line held. He then threw his elephants into the mix, Man Singh countered with his own elephants.

The elephants according to Fazl performed marvels. The Rajput elephant, Lona, took to battle, and disrupted the Mughal lines; to counter Lona, the Mughals deployed Gajmukta, and just when it looked like Lona was winning and the Mughal frontline troops were losing heart, a bullet took the mahout of Lona and Lona took to flight.

At this point, the Rajputs introduced Ram Prasad, the head of their elephant force and this elephantine warrior again caused distress in the Mughal lines when the Mughals introduced Gajraj into the fight when the mahout of Ram Prasad was killed and shortly, the mighty Tusker also slain.

Maharana Pratap spots Man Singh in the field and charges at him, mano-a-mano, and overall at this juncture, the battle was tilting towards the Maharana and Mewar, but it is important to note that the Maharana had no reserves, while Man Singh had fresh reserves he could throw into the fray, and this is exactly what he did.

Along with the reserves, also went up a cry that Akbar himself was leading the reserves, which shored up the morale of the Mughal army. The Rajputs saw the way the wind was blowing and began one of the most difficult tasks in any battle, ancient or modern - a tactical retreat under fire.

At this stage, sources again vary - the Maharana was either wounded badly or his advisers persuaded him to flee the field and continue the fight. What we do know is that the Maharana retreated with his core group while a rearguard held off the Mughals.

The bards and poets will say that he was alone, chased by the entire Mughal army etc, etc... but it was not that dramatic. The distraction followed by Man Singh's (correct?) guess that the narrow pass of Haldighati might hide an ambush, the Mughals decided to not give chase and retired for the night. Fazl also says the Mughal forces were exhausted and tired and saw no merit in chasing down a still powerful force, in unknown terrain, in the dark.

Aftermath

He retreated into the hills of the Aravali, and took his now famous vow of penury and penance, that till he retrieved Mewar he would eat from the floor, sleep on the floor, not shave or indulge in any pleasures of the body.

Akbar (once again) sent emissaries offering peace, and all of Mewar but the Maharana had to declare themselves a vassal. No dice, the Maharana now once again gathered his allies about him; his army which had been totally destroyed in the battle of Chittorgarh (his father fought it) and Haldighati was rebuilt, and all this time he initiated guerrilla warfare against Mughal camps and supply trains and made their life an absolute misery. Akbar himself took the field for a short while, but the Maharana did not engage him in open battle and once again took refuge in the hills.

He gathered enough troops and when Akbar and his army were busy in Bengal, Bihar and later Punjab, he struck. Defeated a stronger Mughal army in the battle of Dewair, gained more allies and won back most of Mewar... the castle of Chittorgarh though forever remained Mughal.

He towards the end gave up the fight (the offensive battle) and took to governing his territories. Akbar, busy by now in what is Afghanistan (and I like to believe as a mark of generosity and respect which he was eminently capable of) backed off his campaigns in Mewar and the Maharana ruled in peace... till a fall from a horse on a hunting expedition (Robert Baratheon anyone?) killed him.

You might wonder, why didn't the Maharana simply surrender?

Academically, integration into the Mughal empire under Akbar was a solid positive. This is how it roughly worked. You retained your lands, the right to farm them, tax them and administer them. You had to commit to a certain number of soldiers to be sent to the Mughal army if it was on a campaign and you paid a portion of the tax revenues (which under Akbar was very fair) to the central treasury.

In return you were guaranteed peace, you were not harassed for your religion which tyrannical despots like Aurangzeb or even Babar did, and he would even call you into court and you could have debates on life, religion, philosophy, eat good meals and retire peacefully.

However, look at it from the Rajput perspective. They were losing their freedom, they had to call a Muslim an overlord, and this tested their martial nature to the maximum. It was not even a notion, but an absolute belief and a willingness to die in battle for that belief (or jump into a fire if you were a woman). I think we must respect them for that. They fought for what was right - their freedom.

To answer the question, did Maharana Pratap lose Haldighati and is it revisionist to suggest otherwise?

Definitely yes, by any yardstick, Mewar lost that battle. The fact that Maharana Pratap did not surrender, and he would go on to defeat the Mughals in other battles and take back a lot of his territory, is besides the point as the unequivocal fact is that the Maharana lost the battle, and to suggest otherwise is sheer revisionism.

Sources

- James Tod, Annals and Antiquities of Rajasthan - Volume 1

- John F Richards, The Mughal Empire - pp 25-27

- Carl Waldman and Catherine Mason - Encyclopedia of European Peoples, Volume 2 - pp 177

- Irmgrad Meininger - The Kingdom of Mewar: Great Struggles and Glory of the World's Oldest Ruling Dynasty

- Akbarnama - pp 244-247

- Dr Kaushik Roy - Military Transition in Early Modern Asia, 1400-1750: Cavalry, Guns, Government and Ships - pp 67

- Daniel Coetzee - Philosophers of War: The Evolution of History's Greatest Military Thinkers - pp 45

- Dr Bhawan Singh Rana - Maharana Pratap

- Satish Chandra - Medieval India, from Sultanate to the Mughals

Also read: What makes Akbar 'great' and not Maharana Pratap 

Writer

Sudharshan R Garg Sudharshan R Garg @podaaaanga

The writer is a project manager by profession and arm-chair warrior by hobby, who spends his free time reading or playing Dota2.

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