A research-based, blow-by-blow account of the day “the best blood of Mewar irrigated the pass of Haldighat”.
Few battles of Indian history have captivated the collective psyche of modern India as the Battle of Haldighati, fought from dawn till noon on a hot summer day of the 18th of June, 1576 between the hegemony-seeking Mughal forces of Akbar, then 34, led by the 26-year-old Kuwar Mān Singh of Amber and the forces of Mewar striving to preserve their freedom and independence, led by Maharana Pratap Singh, aged 36. The courage of the protagonists and the glory of the day that kindled the heart of generations has been enshrined in evocative verses of folklore, which afford careful comparison with, and scrutiny of contemporary accounts, principally left by Mughal chroniclers.
From the available contemporary accounts of the famous battle, the only eye-witness record is the one authored by Abdul Qadir Al-Badayuni, historian and chronicler of Akbar’s court who participated in the battle, as recorded in his ‘Muntakhab ut Tawarikh’. Another contemporary and important account is the official record dispatched to the Mughal court by Mān Singh shortly after the battle, from whence Abu Fazl has recorded in his Akbarnama. In parallel, important grains of subject-history are carried in the verses of contemporary poets of eminence such as Dursa Adha, Prithviraj Rathore, Mala Sandu and Rama Sandu, whose spontaneous and lavish outpourings, though rich in admiration are markedly devoid of hyperbole, and those of later poets such as Ranchhod Bhatt and Sadashiv Bhatt. Based on studies of the above, historians of note such as James Tod, Kavi Shyamaldass, Gauri Shankar Ojha, Sir Jadunath Sarkar, Professor G N Sharma and others have expressed their own interpretations of the battle, its prelude and aftermath. Kesri Singh Barath of Soniyana authored a detailed work entitled ‘Pratap Charitra’ and perhaps the best-researched work on the subject of the Battle of Haldighati in modern times is his namesake Kesri Singh Mundiyar’s assiduously compiled treatise entitled Maharana Pratap- The Hero of Haldighati, 1976, a scholarly work that brings forth details on the locale, the protagonists and events of the battle.
The fortunes of the Mughals and the Mewaris had swung inversely proportional in the decades preceding the battle of Haldighati. While the Mughals had risen from being rulers who had to flee their ancestral lands in strife to getting firmly entrenched in and thereafter constantly expanding their suzerainty over large parts of northern, western and central India, Mewar had reduced from being the leader of Rajput confederacy in India to one left fighting to retain control of its independence while getting encircled by subjugated provinces brought under the Mughal fold. Peace was pursued by both sides in repeated parleys in years preceding the battle- through Mughal envoys such as Raja Bhagwan Das, Todal Mal and Jalal Khan meeting the Mewaris, but inevitably ending in a deadlock for Maharana Pratap although unfailingly courteous and hospitable, was resolutely disinclined to accepting Mughal supremacy.
Perhaps the most famous of episodes in such parleys as preserved in folklore is that of Mān Singh meeting Maharana Pratap with a proposal for an alliance on the banks of the lake Udaisagar. The rulers of Amber had until recently theretofore been vassals of Mewar, and at the feast that was laid out for the parley Pratap would not condescend to treating Mān as an equal, and instead sent his son Amar Singh to join in at the ceremony, expressing his regret under the pretext of being indisposed. Mān demanded in no uncertain terms that Pratap himself join the feast, to which the Rana responded in the negative. This and other rancorous exchange led to Mān leaving the feast abruptly, with the ominous warning ‘’Abide then in peril, if such be your resolve; but remember- I shall come again and if I do not humble your pride, my name is not Mān!’’ as Tod records, to which the Rana replied ‘’he should always be happy to meet him’’ while someone-Dodiya Bhim according to Kesri Singh- added in plainer parlance desiring Mān not to forget to bring his ‘Phoopha’ (father’s sister’s husband), Akbar, along!
The failure of parleys and the defiance of the Rana made Akbar decide on war. Holding the Mughal court at Ajmer, he chose Mān Singh whom he considered one of the ablest and bravest among his grandees to lead an army to force Mewar into submission. He was entrusted with this responsibility at the shrine of Khwaja Moinuddin Chisti, where Akbar, “treating him with kindness and showing him the greatest favour, presented him with a robe of honour and a horse with all its appointments, and ordered him to proceed to the hostile district of Gogoonda and Kumbhalmer which was a dependency belonging to Rana Kika” as Badayuni records. (Rana Pratap is called Rana Kika in Mughal records, as in many records of the period. Ranas of Mewar were often called by their nicknames. Sangram Singh was Sanga, Kumbhkaran Singh was Kumbha. Pratap was thus Kika)
Asaf Khan was made second-in-command of the five thousand-strong Mughal army, which entered Mewar from the north-east in the summer of 1576 and encamped at the town of Mandalgarh to prepare and reinforce. Ghazi Khan Badakshi, Syed Ahmad Barha, Syed Hashim Barha, Qazi Khan, the Shaikhzadas of Sikri, Mihtar Khan, Ali Murad Uzbek and Rajputs such as Lonkaran Kachhwa, Madhav Singh and Jagannath Kachhwa were commanders of various units of the invading army
To counter this imminent onslaught the Mewar forces prepared at their base in Gogunda(called Kokandah by Badayuni), about 20 miles from Haldighati- a narrow gorge so-called since the rock-sand at the place is of such colour, as to appear to an onlooker to be covered with turmeric
Maharana Pratap’s resources, although slender in comparison, lacked nothing in fortitude. The various Rajput chieftains who had rallied to his cause included Jhala Mān Singh of Badi Sadri, Krishnadas Chundawat of Salumbar, Rawat Netsi and his son Mān Singh, Jhala Mān Singh Sajjawat of Delwara, Dodiya Bhim Singh of Lava, Raja Ramshah Tomar of Gwalior (grandson of the famous Raja Mān Singh Tomar) and his sons Salivahan Singh, Bhan Singh and Pratap Singh, Rathor Sankar Das and his son Narhari Das and two brothers Keindas and Ramdas, Rathore Ramdas of Badnor (son of the famous defender of the Chittor fort, Jaimal), the Charans Rama Sandu, Barhat Jaisa and Barhat Keshav of Soniyana and the Bhil tribal chief Rao Poonja. An important leader of the Mewar army was Hakim Khan Sur- a descendant of the Sher Shah Suri family who nursed a hereditary grudge against the Mughals. Hakim Khan was most probably a free-lancer who joined the Mewar army due to a common cause, for there is no mention of him prior to or after this battle in any record
Once fully prepared, the Mughal forces advanced west and south-west all along the Banas river up to the village of Molela, where they encamped. It would be natural to presume that their every move was being carefully watched and relayed to the Mewar forces by pickets of Bhil tribals atop the surrounding hills.
On the night preceding the battle, barely 6 miles separated the rivals, presumes Kesri Singh Mundiyar in his book- with the Mughal forces encamped at Molela and the Mewar forces, having approached north and north-east from Gogunda via Loseeng encamped at Balicha.
On that day of days, both camps were astir well before sunrise, and cautiously the Mughal forces started their advance from Molela south and south-west crossing the Banas river while the Mewar army a few miles away manoeuvred to inflict maximum damage on their foes, who outnumbered them 2 to 1. The theatre of the battle is most likely to have been between the upper end of the Haldighati gorge which runs east and north-east, where the battle started and the open grounds around the village of Khamnor to the north of the pass where it moved to, which itself is bordered on the northern side by the Banas River and to the south/south-west of which lies the Haldighati pass
The Mughal formation was classical, imaginable as an arrow-head- Mān Singh was seated on his elephant in the centre surrounded by cavalry led by Madho Singh and other Rajputs, Muhammad Rafi Badakshi, Murad Uzbek and other ‘youths of renown’ as Badayuni describes them. The left-wing was led by Qazi Khan and the Shaikhzadas of Sikri, the right-wing was led, as per tradition, by the Saiyyads of Barha commanded by Ahmad Khan Barha. The rear of the Mughal formation, which eventually played a critical role, was led by Mihtar Khan. The ‘vanguard’ or advance body in front of the centre was manned by Asaf Khan, Jagannath Kachhwa and Ghiasuddin Ali and in front of this advance body was sent a body of 80 soldiers under Hashim Barha which Badayuni fittingly calls chuza-i-harawwal, translated by Lowe as ‘the chickens of the frontline’. Badayuni was present with Asaf Khan in the van.
Rana Pratap strategised to wait until the Mughal army crossed the river and moved right up to where the undulating terrain starts and extends till the mouth of the Haldighati. He then divided his cavalry of three thousand into two divisions, the smaller one led by Hakim Khan Sur and warriors such as Ramdass Rathore, Krishnadas Chundawat and Rawat Netsi. The main division, commanded by Pratap himself had Raja Ramshah Tomar in the right wing and Jhala Mān Singh commanding the left wing. Barhats Jaisa and Keshav are believed to have led the rear of the Mewar army.
The forces clash and the initial Mughal rout
At the crack of dawn, both forces commenced their cautious approach, and about an hour after daybreak, they met! The ‘Chickens of the front-line’ under Hashim Barha, who had approached westward of the pass, were met with a lightning-like charge of the smaller Mewar division coming from the west of the pass and were hurled back towards the Mughal advance body a few hundred meters behind them, sustaining a complete rout. Says Badayuni, witnessing the scene at close quarters
“on account of the broken and uneven state of the ground, and the number of thorns and the serpentine twistings of the road, the skirmishers and the advance-body of our troops became hopelessly mixed up together and sustained a complete defeat”.
The skirmishers, unable to bear the onslaught, fled helter-skelter back onto the advance body, leading to a commotion that went out of control. Badayuni describes in vivid detail
“And the Rájpúts of our army, the leader of whom was Rájah Loun Karan, and who were most of them on the left, ran away like a flock of sheep, and breaking through the ranks of the advance-body fled for protection to our right wing”.
Abu Fazl’s record admits on the initial Mewar domination thus
“The enemy’s right wing drove off the left wing of the imperialists, and their vanguard also prevailed. Many of the imperialists gave way.– The enemy’s left wing also prevailed over the imperial right” in a ‘market of life-taking and life-surrendering’.
Thus, saving the rear, all Mughal formations were thoroughly dominated by the Mewar forces
A treacherous scene then played out, Mān Singh perhaps watching helplessly from behind. With the skirmishers under Hashim Barha and the Mughal advance body having hundreds of Rajputs being shoved back in close combat with the Mewar army, Asaf Khan and Badayuni from close behind could not distinguish anymore between friendly and hostile Rajputs, and aiming for the right one became a question. Writes Badayuni. At this juncture, the author, who was with some of the special troops of the advance-body said to Ásaf, “How are we now in these circumstances to distinguish between friendly and hostile Rájpúts?” He answered,
“They will experience the whiz of the arrows, be what may, on whichever side they may belong, their being killed will be a gain to Islám. So we kept firing away, and our aim at such a mountain-like mass of men never missed. And it became certain that my hand prospered in the matter, and that I attained the reward due to one who fights against infidels.”
Thus many of the Rajputs fighting from the Mughal side were slain by their own army commanders.
While the Mughal advance body and skirmishers were cowering under the onslaught of the smaller Mewar division, the main division under Rana Pratap in person charged out from the pass and met the Mughal left wing under Qazi Khan and the Sheikhs of Sikri at the entrance of the pass, who were instantly blown away by the ferocity of the charge. Admits Badayuni
“The other division of Ráná Kíká’s army, under the Ráná in person, charged out of the pass, and meeting Qází Khán, who was at the entrance of the pass, swept his men before them, and bearing them along broke through his centre. Then the Shaikh-sons from Síkrí all fled at once. And an arrow struck Shaikh Mānsur, (son-in-law of Shaikh Ibráhím) who was the leader of this company, in the seat of honour as he was in the act of flight, and he bore the wound for a considerable time. But Qází Khán, although he was but a Mulla, stood his ground manfully, until receiving a scimitar blow on his right hand, which wounded his thumb, being no longer able to hold his own, he recited [the saying] ‘Flight from overwhelming odds is one of the traditions of the prophet,’and followed his men [in their retreat].”
Such fright did the fierce Mewar aggression give the Mughal army, that many terror-stricken soldiers fled the battle-field and did not bother to look behind until they were miles away from the scene, describes Badayuni thus
“Those of the army who had fled on the first attack, did not draw rein till they had passed five or six crosses beyond the river.”
The battle continues
Once the battle moved back a few hundred metres from the uplands to the plains around Khamnor, ever-since called Rakht-tal (field of Blood) the clash continued in right earnest. In the words of Abu Fazl, ‘the price of life was low, that of honour high’. Although the savage onslaught of the Mewar army did throw the Mughal forces into complete disarray, the Sayyids of Barha on the right resolutely held their ground despite the various fleeing formations racing to them for protection and avoided an out-and-out Mughal defeat. Says Badayuni “if the Sayyids had not held their ground firmly, such confusion did the retreating advance-body cause in their ranks, that the affair would have turned out a disgraceful defeat.” Shortly thereafter, Badayuni himself fled, blaming the retreating Rajputs of Mān Singh ‘for the flight of Asaf Khan’ and that of ‘our worthy author’ as translator Lowe gently put it. Seeing the rout of the advance body and the left wing, Mān Singh hastened to join the fight, and it was in the nick of time that his Altamsh arrived and saved the life of Jagannath Kachhwa. Records Abu fazl: “Jagannāth behaved bravely and was about to sacrifice his life when the Altamsh arrived, and Kuar Mān Singh in person joined in the fight.” Ramdas Rathore in the Mewar van fought in hand to hand combat and lost his life to Jagannath Kachhwa.
War elephants from both sides then joined in the fight. Jamal Khan Faujdar brought forward the elephant Gajmukta, which was countered by Mewar’s ‘rank-breaking’ Lona. The Mewar hulk dominated and grievously wounded the Mughal elephant, which was about to fly when a bullet struck and killed the Mahawat of Lona, and rider-less it wandered out of battle. Just then, the most famous elephant of the Mewar force, Ram Prasad, which had been the subject of discussion and wonder several times in Akbar’s court, and which Rana Pratap repeatedly declined to submit to the collection of the Mughal King was brought forward by Pratap Singh, youngest son of Raja Ramshah Tomar and it took down several men of the opposing force. Amidst the disarray caused in the Mughal ranks by its vicious attacks, Kamal Khan brought forward the elephant Gajraj and Panjoo brought forward Ran Mandar- both these elephants got simultaneously dominated by Ram Prasad and in the words of Abu Fazl, Ran Mandar too ‘was letting the foot of his courage slip’, when perchance an arrow killed the Mahawat of the elephant, and it too became driver-less. Just then Panjoo, in Badayuni’s words ‘leapt from his own elephant, and took his seat on that of the Rana, and performed such a deed as none other could have’. The famed Ram Prasad thus came under Mughal control, becoming the only war-trophy for the Mughals from the battle.
Rana Pratap’s heroics
Mewar chroniclers have left vivid accounts of the exploits of Rana Pratap in battle, to a degree the Mughal chroniclers did not venture to relate, beyond Abu Fazl’s clipped admission that the Rana ‘did valiant deeds’. Nizamuddin Ahmad, another contemporary Mughal chronicler, offers only a brief description of the battle in his Tabaqat-i-Akbari, adding on Rana Kika that “he fought so hard on that day, that he received arrow and spear wounds..” Brijendranath De, the ICS officer who translated Ahmad’s work adds his own footnote to Badayuni’s description inferring that ‘various segments of the Mughal army were defeated and fled’.
Mewar chronicles describe the scenes of Pratap’s valour vividly. In the thick of battle, Pratap ranged striking terror in the imperial ranks all around, ‘thirsting for the luxury of revenge upon his Rajput foe’ as Tod aptly put it. Dodiya Bhim Singh first picked out Mān at a distance atop his elephant and casting caution to the wind, made a wild charge for his elephant, & pausing at a distance, flung his lance at the imperial commander who, swinging to the side, caused it to fly past harmlessly. The bodyguards of Mān Singh and the Mughal Altamsh surrounded Bhim Singh who fought the warriors on all sides in a daring display of bravery before succumbing to overwhelming numbers.
Pratap, who had heard the war cry of his Rajput chieftain, then saw the object of his wrath and the subsequent scenes are best described by quoting Kesri Singh at length:
“Toward that thickening throng, impelled by an irresistible urge that filled his heart, the Maharana now wheeled his exhausted and bleeding steed, and with a shout that rang clear above all the awful din of battle, announcing his arrival to Kanwar Mān and daring him to display his prowess at arms, Pratap launched his gallant warhorse into a reckless burst of speed that seemed to carry everything before it. Neither lance nor sword nor the arrows that rained thick as hail around him could stem the course of that intrepid charge. The guards who tried to block his path were swept away and scattered like chaff before a powerful gust of wind; and as the charger closed in upon the tusker, skidding to slow down in a cloud of dust, Chetak reared up against its ponderous bulk so that for a moment his forelegs impinged on the great tusks of the elephant; and from that singular angle, somewhat obscured though his adversary was behind the person of the mahawat, the long-armed Pratap propelled his lance at the Kachhwaha commander of the imperial corps. The shaft passing clean through the body of the driver, who was killed instantaneously, struck a terrific blow on the metal plates of the howda, behind which a thoroughly shaken Mān had dived with alacrity to save himself. The driverless elephant swung around and made off in a wild rush through Mughal ranks, with Mān first recumbent in the howda and later scrambling down his precarious perch on to the driver’s seat to control his fleeing mount,”
adding Pratap had the satisfaction, however short-lived or erroneous of concluding that his lance had, after all, found its mark.
Reading between the lines, we find confirmation of these events in the Mughal chronicles. Abu Fazl concedes Kuar Mān Singh and Rana Pratap approaching each other and doing ‘valiant deeds’, while Badayuni plainly validates the Mewar account thus
“And Mán Singh, springing into the place of the elephant-driver, exhibited such intrepidity as surpasses all imagination.”
The fighters of the Mughal centre including Madhav Singh soon raced to the rescue of their commander, Badayuni mentioning the Rana squaring off against Madhav Singh and ‘a shower of arrows being poured on him’. It is here that the redoubtable Raja Ramshah Tomar ‘repaid the debt of gratitude to Mewar with his life-blood’. Continually shielding the Rana from frontal attacks, and showing ‘extreme obstinacy of resistance’, he earned lavish praise even from the bigoted Badayuni, thus:
“And Rájah Rámsháh of Gwályár, who always kept in front of the Ráná, performed such prodigies of valour against the Rájpúts of Mán Singh, as baffle description”, with Abu Fazl adding “Rajah Rām Shāh with his three sons Sālbahān, Bhān Singh and Pertāb Singh fell, fighting bravely.”
Mewar folklore describes, concurrent to this engagement, Pratap’s famous duel with the burly warrior Bahlol Khan, ending with the heavy sword of Pratap crashing ‘like lightening on to Bahlol’s headpiece cleaving the Mughal vertically and disembowelling his steed as well’.
The Mughal ruse and the end of the battle
Watching the debacle unfold with a bird’s eye view of the proceedings was a wily Mihtar Khan, who held-back near the river with the Mughal rear. He then devised a ruse that, together with the stand of the Sayyids of Barha saved the day for the Mughal forces. Hastening up, he asked his forces to beat kettle-drums announcing the arrival of Akbar onto the battlefield, with great reinforcements, which put heart into the dismayed Mughal forces. Describes Abu Fazl in his classic obsequious style:
”In the opinion of the superficial the foe was prevailing, when all at once the lightning of the Divine aid—which supports the eternal fortune—flashed out victory– A report circulated that the world’s lord had come on his steed swift as the wind and had cast the shadow of his might on the battlefield. A cry went up from the combatants, and the enemy who were continually becoming more and more predominant, lost heart.” Badayuni confirms this ruse thus:” In the midst of all this confusion, Mihtar Khán hastening up from the rear with his reserves, and beating his kettle-drums, called on the imperial troops to rally. And this shout of his was to a great extent the cause of the fugitives taking heart again, and making a stand.”
It was then that Pratap, already heavily outnumbered, made the judicious decision of a tactical retreat, to avoid further loss of precious men that would inevitably attend the arrival of Akbar and his additional forces into the battle. He then turned and was carried out of the battlefield and into history books by his gallant Kathiawari stallion Cheytak, who despite being grievously wounded through a deep gash made by the sword affixed to the trunk of Mān Singh’s elephant, rode his master to safety before collapsing and meeting a glorious end. The Bhil Tribals led by Rao Poonja oversaw the speedy dispersal of the Mewar fighters into the hills. Mewar folklore records Pratap’s estranged brother Shakti Singh as assisting his brother in his retreat, however, historians are divided on this subject.
One of the bravest deeds of the battle was performed at the penultimate stage of the battle by Jhala Mān Singh of Sadri, who decided upon a brave last stand to enable the Mewar army to withdraw from the battlefield. With Pratap ordering the army to retreat, the Jhala, ‘rearing aloft the royal standards kept the field with his gallant band, while the rest of the army of Mewar melted away into the hills’
Once out of the theatre of battle, Pratap looked back for a while in a lingering gaze at the battlefield, where he could see the ‘sublime spectacle of the crimson umbrella floating and tossing above the surging tumult of the struggle, and whilst that standard stayed aloft’ as Kesri Singh Mundiyar so eloquently puts it, ‘he knew his right arm was uplifted and striking for victory’. Once confirmation of the army’s safe exit became known to him, the Jhala, he adds,
“pressed on with undiminished ardour, cutting a wide swath deep into the serried ranks of the foe, where at long last he met the glorious end he had coveted. Not one of his clansmen who charged with him survived their leader; like scattered pearls of a necklace cut asunder, they strewed the field around him”.
The Mughal army, in shock from the hammering they received, did not attempt to follow the Mewar army, and a testament to the result of the battle is found in Badayuni’s words who writes on the hesitation of the army in following the Rana for fear of being ambushed, thus:
”The idea became prevalent, that the Ráná, by stealth and stratagem, would keep himself concealed behind the mountains. This was the reason why they made no pursuit, but retired to their tents and occupied themselves in the relief of the wounded.”
The following day at Gogunda, Mān Singh and the other commanders ordered digging of deep trenches and a wall high enough to prevent leaping of horsemen of Rana Pratap over it, hardly reactions to a foe vanquished, and for all the world typical preparation in fear of another attack. The Mughal army faced considerable strife and want of food during its stay at Gogunda, so much so, combined with the outcome of the battle, it miffed Akbar enough for him to banish Mān Singh and Asaf Khan from the court for a considerable time upon return. The Mughals had failed at their avowed object of subjugating Mewar while the Maharana had come into battle, inflicted telling chastisement that his foes were compelled to admit, and retreated to safety albeit at the cost of ‘the best blood of Mewar’ as Tod eulogized.
Badayuni accounts about five hundred slain on the battle-field, out of which he claimed one hundred and fifty were ‘the champions of Islam’ and the rest Hindus. The Hindu tally certainly included Rajputs of the Mughal army, many of whom were slain by the treacherous ‘friendly fire’ of Asaf Khan and Badayuni. Considering this, Kesri Singh Mundiyar speculates a figure of about 275 slain on the Mughal side versus 225 of the Mewar army. As Kesri Singh aptly puts,
‘The field no doubt remained with Mān. But for the Emperor’s army no victory was ever more like defeat; for Mewar no retreat more glorious’
Maharana Pratap Singh was relentlessly pursued by Mughal forces but remained unconquered and undefeated, continuing his guerrilla warfare and reclaiming most of his dominions from the Mughals, save Mandalgarh and Chittor itself, even going to the extent of incursions into the domain of Amber. James Tod has called Haldighati the Thermopylae of Mewar, and Dewair her Marathon, borrowing from the epic battles between the Greeks and the Persians. Trying to subjugate the Mewaris, in the words of the eminent historian Abraham Eraly, was ‘like trying to tether the wind’. Maharana Pratap passed away a freely reigning king in January 1597 at Chavand, steadfastly devoted to and basking in the freedom of Mewar, twenty-one years after the Battle of Haldighati. As Maharana Bhagwat Singh describes in his appreciation of Kesri Sigh’s book, his was ‘a fight for freedom, not a communal war’ and his memory has continued to inspire and ignite the hearts of champions of freedom and defenders of honour, for generations.