Love thine enemies because they are the instruments of your destiny,’ said the mythologist Joseph Campbell. A powerful mystique surrounds the 16th century warrior-king-hero, Pratap Singh of Mewar, celebrated for his lifelong struggle against the Mughal empire. For instance, there is a story that when the news of his death reached his adversary, Emperor Akbar, at his court in Lahore, the poet Dursa Adha, from Marwar, spontaneously composed an elegy.
The final stanza goes: ‘And, now as the Badshah learns of your passing/He does not rejoice/Behold, all see how he has fallen into deep silence.’ These words speak volumes about the human equation that lies at the heart of historian Rima Hooja’s recent work, Maharana Pratap: The Greatest Rajput Warrior.
A crisp, well-researched retelling of the life of the legendary fighter, the book attempts to balance the glorification around Pratap with the perspective of historians, ancient and modern.
The Sisodias, a clan with a genealogy going back to Lord Rama, counted among its number such personages as Bappa Rawal, the eighth century chieftain who established Chittor as the capital; Rana Sanga—Pratap’s grandfather—who led the coalition against Babur, and Rani Karnavati, his grandmother, who preferred the flames of jauhar to being taken prisoner by Bahadur Shah of Gujarat.
In the bardic tradition, with which Pratap grew up, were tales of the chivalric code that ‘eulogised the virtues of loyalty and courage in the face of adversity’, and ‘the readiness to choose death over dishonour’. They included the story of the loyal maid Panna Dhai’s sacrifice and rescue of Pratap’s own father, Prince Udai, from death at the hands of the usurper Banbeer. Much of Udai’s youth was spent in hiding, and exile was to become the leitmotif in Pratap’s life, too.
Though the eldest son of the chief queen, he was not the chosen successor; that position was given to Pratap’s younger half-brother Jagmal, whose mother was Rana Udai’s favourite queen. Thus, Pratap was deprived of the privileges due to the firstborn son. Instead of living in the palace, he was told to live in a village at the base of the hill—an experience that taught him stoicism.
On his father’s death, he refused to stake a claim to the throne and was about to leave with his retinue, when his senior kinsmen stopped him by saying that he was the people’s choice as king, and theirs too.
Pratap inherited a troubled realm. Mewar, pre-eminent among the Rajputana kingdoms, had defended itself against sieges in the past. Though Chittor had been attacked thrice, Rana Udai’s policy of ‘building alternative semi-capitals in less accessible parts’ of his kingdom had allowed him to trade space for time against invaders. Pratap’s own strategy of guerrilla warfare against the Mughal army was enabled by his familiarity with the hilly, forested parts of Mewar.
Drawing from oral and written sources, the book engages with several key questions: Whose was the victory at the Battle of Haldighati? How did Maharana Pratap hold out against the Mughal army for decades? Instead of negotiating an honourable peace, why did he persist in fighting a war he could not win? In doing so, it presents us with a reality more subtle than the romanticism of the legends.