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Some years ago, after I confessed to an abiding interest in India’s “warrior women,” an elderly Hindu lady gave me a lecture about the ideal Hindu woman. According to her, Hindu women strive to emulate Sita, and, so she declared, always exhibit a docile compliance with all demands, and quietly and meekly submit to the “slings and arrows of outrageous fortune.” In the course of her lecture this earnest lady seemed to have forgotten such legendary Indian women as Lakshmibai, the Rani of Jhansi, whom even her British antagonists saluted for her bravery and her almost intuitive grasp of military tactics in the 1857 rebellion. No docility, no quiet and meek submission there. I must confess my interlocutor failed to convince me, and I continue even now to admire those Indian women, both Hindu and Muslim, who have taken up arms against outrageous fortune.
Of course, Lakshmibai of Jhansi holds a very high place in my esteem, but my favorite among these is Kuramdevi, the 12th century queen of Chittorgarh. Her story appears in the Prithviraj Raso, the long poem originally composed by Chand Bardai, companion of Prithviraj III, maharaja of Ajmer and Delhi, and chronicler of the maharaja’s life and times.
Kuramdevi was born a Solanki Rajput in Anhilwara-Patan (Gujarat), a princess, and daughter of another of India’s warrior women, Nayakidevi, regent of Anhilwarra-Patan during the minority of her son. Nayakidevi is the one who led the army to counter Muhammad Ghori’s invasion of Anhilwara-Patan’s territory. In a battle at Kayadra, a village near Mount Abu, she administered such a severe drubbing to Muhammad Ghori and his army that the Muslim prince never again came anywhere near Anhilwara-Patan.
Sometime in the 1170s, the young princess Kuramdevi (she could not have been much over 13 years of age, the age considered maturity at the time), became wife of Samar Singh Deva, the rawal of Chittorgarh, a Sonagira Rajput. Samar Singh was a Chauhan Rajput, a descendant of the heroes who had captured Chittorgarh, probably the most famous fortress in all India, sometime in the middle of the 12th century.
Historical records suggest that Kuramdevi was Samar Singh’s second wife. In or about 1171, Samar Singh had married Prithabai, sister of Prithviraj III, the Chauhan maharaja of Ajmer and Delhi. Soon after her marriage, Prithabai had born a son, Kalyan Rai, but then, the evidence suggests, in the following years failed to bear any further sons. As we all know, in such instances, no matter where in the world at that time, and in some places even now, the woman gets all the blame. Following this infallible principle, to ensure the succession, Samar Singh married again, hoping for more sons, in about 1178 or 1179, approximately around the same time Nayakidevi administered that resounding defeat to Muhammad Ghori. The new bride did not disappoint her husband. Within the year she gave birth to his second son, Karna. One can infer the date of marriage by the fact that Karna was still about a year shy of maturity (i.e., age 13) in 1192.
Meanwhile, after his defeat at Kayadra, Muhammad Ghori had fallen back on his base at Multan, which he had conquered in 1175. There, he nursed his wounds and his wounded pride until 1186 and then launched an attack that carried him triumphantly into Lahore. Five years later (1191) he marched toward Prithviraj’s borders. The maharaja of Ajmer and Delhi marshaled his allies, among them, Samar Singh Deva of Chittorgarh, and marched out to counter the threat. The two armies met at Tarain (near Thanesar in present-day Haryana) where the combined Rajput forces defeated the invaders and drove them back toward Lahore, the victory due in part to the presence of the army of Jaichand, raja of Kannauj.
The following year (1192), the Muslim prince once again threatened Prithviraj’s empire.
Once again, the maharaja of Ajmer and Delhi marshaled his allies, among them Samar Singh Deva of Chittorgarh, and marched out to counter the threat. Once again the two forces met at Tarain. But this time the victory went to Muhammad Ghori, partly because of the military genius of Qtub-ud-Din, Muhammad Ghori’s favorite general, partly because Jaichand, raja of Kannauj, failed to come to Prithviraj’s aid.
Both Samar Singh Deva and his eldest son, Kalyan Rai, died in the second battle of Tarain, and, when Prithabai received the news of her double loss, she immediately mounted the pyre to rejoin her husband. Kuramdevi would eventually follow her, but first she had unfinished business to tend to. She had to ensure that her son Karna seamlessly succeeded his father and that his seat on the throne of Chittorgarh was secure. When his father died, Karna was still a minor, around 12 years of age. The succession encountered no serious obstacles, and Kuramdevi became regent during the remaining year of her son’s minority.
During this time she raised a new army from among her son’s vassals, and as soon as Karna’s 13th birthday passed and he reached the age of maturity, she led the army and marched northward in search of the man who had killed her husband—this probably in 1193 or 1194 in the month of Asoj (Asvin) following Dassera, the traditional beginning of the warfare season. Nine rajas and eleven chiefs with the title of rawat with their men accompanied her. The Prithviraj Raso gives no details of her route. Because by now she knew that Qtub-ud-din ruled in Delhi, one can surmise her route took her straight towards Delhi.
The Raso tells us she and her force encountered Qtub-ud-din and his army near the old Amber fort. It does not tell us exactly where, but, having visited the area, I like to imagine that the encounter occurred in a narrow gap in the hills about 900 meters west of Amber village and about seven kilometers (2.8 mi.) north of Jaipur. The gap of which I speak makes an ideal spot for a small force to fight a much larger force on more equal terms, for it is not much more than 250 meters wide, and north and south of it a high and steep-sided ridge extends some four or so miles, far enough to block any flanking maneuvers. Even further in her favor is the fact that the Muslim general would be unable to squeeze his entire battlefront into a gap so narrow. Warriors of the time did need room to swing their weapons. Here, as with the Spartans and their allies at Thermopylae, a small force could do as well as a much larger one, and because of the ridges on either side the larger one, the Muslim army, could not use one of its favorite tactics. Fielding huge forces, the Muslims liked to spread the wings of their armies wide and envelop the smaller enemy forces in a deadly embrace. Sometimes they would even feign retreat in the center, drawing back as if recoiling from the enemy attack, thus enticing the enemy center forward, tricking him into exposing his flanks. But, if, as I suspect, the battle occurred at this narrow gap, Qtub-ud-din could not use such tactics. He had to meet the Rajputs on a front no wider than the gap itself.
However it may have been, the two forces met near the old Amber fort, and the Rajputs won. At the head of her army, Kuramdevi drove deep into the Muslim ranks, deep enough for her to confront the Muslim general himself and to engage him in a personal duel during which she managed to bury her sword deep into his flesh, wounding him so severely that he tumbled from the saddle. In alarm his attendants carried him away. Seeing him fall, seeing his body thus carried from the fight and, consequently, believing him dead, others in the Muslim ranks near the site gave way to panic. The panic spread, and soon Qtub-ud-din’s entire army was in full flight.
Kuramdevi believed she had killed Qtub-ud-din. The battle thus ended, she regrouped her army and led it back south. Returning to Chittorgarh, she mounted the pyre and, like Prithabai, became sati. But Qtub-ud-din did not die from his wounds. He eventually recovered and returned to Delhi, and subsequently declared himself not viceroy but sultan.
How true is this story? It’s hard to say. ThePrithviraj Raso was originally written by Chand Bardai, who died around 1200 AD. That is, he was still alive when Kuramdevi carried out her attack on Qtub-ud-Din. Therefore, he could well have added the episode to his text. But all extant versions of the Raso date from the 15th century or later, and range in size from the 1,300 stanzas of the Bikaner text to the 16,306 stanzas of the Udaipur text. Scholars generally agree that the Bikaner text is closest to Bardai’s text, but there’s no guarantee of this, and I have been unable to discover whether or not the Kuramdevi story appears in that version. It does, I know, appear in the Udaipur version, but the very size of the Udaipur text is a guarantee that it contains much added material beyond what Chand Bardai actually wrote himself. The first step toward authentication is to discover whether or not the Kuramdevi episode does indeed appear in the Bikaner version. If it does and the scholars are correct that that text is closest to Chand Bardai’s, there’s a high probability that the Kuramdevi story is true. But, if the story does not appear in the Bikaner text, there’s no guarantee that it is false if only because 300 years elapsed between Chand Bardai’s death and the creation of the text.
However, two facts point toward the story’s truth. One is the fact that throughout the history of the various Hindu and Muslim kingdoms of India one finds here and there thoroughly verified instances of Indian women taking up arms against their enemies and very often succeeding. The other is the fact that Kuramdevi’s own mother, Nayakidevi, set a strong example as a powerful and militant woman in an age when women traditionally stayed behind the curtains.
Frank Rogers, a retired university professor, was an amateur student of India’s history.