AT THE OUTSET, we are deeply grateful to our discerning readership for their overwhelming response to our essay on Jaitra Simha, the forgotten hero who singlehandedly safeguarded South India from Islamic depredations for nearly half a century. As readers of this journal, you are all familiar that excavating the annals of Hindu history in order to offer such real-life stories of Hindu heroes and warriors who stood up to defend our Dharma has been a tradition with The Dharma Dispatch.
In the same tradition, we present before you another thrilling and inspirational story of yet another Sanatana hero who not only stood up to the might of the so-called Delhi sultanate but became a source of constant dread to it.
THE STORY OF VAGBHATA begins with the Jauhar of the undaunted Hariraja who in one final burst of valour, had wrested Ajeyameru (Ajmer) back from the “hated Muslim whose face he had vowed not to see.” The hated Muslim was none other than Muhammad Ghori.
However, the revenge was short-lived. Boxed in by the overwhelming Muslim forces of Muhammad Ghori who stormed into Ajeyameru once again, Hariraja ascended the funeral pyre and burnt himself along with his family.
The Hindus in Ajeyameru did not recover from the blow for a long time.
Leaderless and confused, Hariraja’s followers and loyalists migrated to Ranasthambhapura, which had now emerged as the newest Hindu power centre under the sturdy helm of Govindaraja IV, son of Prithviraja Chahamana. He gave them refuge and appointed them to high offices.
Over time, he acquired enough heft and built up a tough deterrence to prevent fresh Turushka depredations from Delhi and stabilized his rule. Govindaraja IV was succeeded by his son Balhanadeva (or Gadhapati Valanadeva) who proved a worthy son to the intrepid father.
On his deathbed, Balhanadeva appointed his eldest son Prahlada as his successor and his younger son Vagbhata as the Prime Minister. Not destined to live long, Prahlada was killed in a hunting expedition and his minor son, Viranarayana became king.
When he reached adulthood, Viranarayana distinguished himself as a formidable threat to Iltutmish, who had become the sultan at Delhi after murdering his benefactor, Qutub-ud-din Aibak’s son. Unable to counter Viranarayana with military force, the sultan beguiled him with a sugary invitation to partake of his fabulous hospitality in his palace at Yoginipura or Delhi.
The Hammira-Mahakavya narrates what happened next.
In a way, Viranarayana had invited his own doom, and the episode is not only similar to but is actually characteristic of the psyche of Hindu kings of north India after the fall of Prithiviraja Chahamana: overconfidence in their own infallibility and a fatal myopia with regard to the patented art form of political deception which in turn was characteristic of Muslim kings. However, Viranarayana’s life wouldn’t have been short-circuited in this fashion had he heeded his uncle and Prime Minister, Vaghbhata’s sage advice. Even as Viranarayana was wallowing in the Delhi sultan’s flattery, Vagbhata cautioned him:
Predictably, the advice didn’t penetrate Viranarayana’s flattery-addled skull and he shot back at his wise uncle in a tone of undisguised contempt: “your age and enfeebled mind has rendered you unfit for the affairs of the state. Mind your own business or retire. Remember, I am the King.”
A humiliated and wounded Vagbhata left Ranasthambhapura and travelled down to Malwa.
And now, with both Viranarayana and Vagbhata out of the way, Ranasthambhapura was ripe for the picking by Iltutmish, who marched towards the leaderless city and captured it. He had simultaneously sent a threat to the Hindu ruler of Malwa: kill the infidel Vaghbhata living in your domain.
But Vagbhata fired the peremptory shot by murdering the frightened king of Malwa and occupied his throne. The daring feat transformed him overnight into a gallant stalwart in the eyes of the “distressed Rajputs,” according to the Hammira-Mahakavya. They quickly rallied around him as did the various other Hindu victims of the Delhi sultan who were patiently waiting for such a solid leadership. This once again is a superb indicator of a recurrent theme of medieval Hindu history: the moment the Hindu community spotted a sturdy leadership, it wasted no time in putting its might around it.
And now, it was time to wreak vengeance.
Vagbhata now possessed a country (i.e., Malwa) and an army plus the combined force that included his new allies. He marched towards Ranasthambhapura and easily reduced the Muslim garrison to “such a plight that they vacated the fort” en masse. The Hammira-Mahakavya concludes the event thus: “Vagbhata and the Rajputs once more became masters of Ranathambhor.”
Vagbhata’s rule which lasted a full twelve years from 1237-53 is notable for his splendid foresight at safeguarding this great bastion of Hindu rule in one of the toughest terrains of north India. During the period of the bloody succession battles in Delhi that followed Iltutmish’s death, Vagbhata was instrumental in reconquering numerous Hindu territories lost to the alien sultanate. His valour, foresight, statesmanship and his overall legacy deserves detailed treatment and the fact that his name—like hundreds of other such Hindu stalwarts—has been eclipsed in the mainstream histories of India is rather unfortunate. For example, like the last great frontier Hindu hero, Jayapaladeva, Vagbhata accurately understood the intrinsic nature of the Turushkas and solidified Ranasthambhapura in an unprecedented fashion. He identified all the vulnerable points in his dominion and stationed large military contingents and secured his frontiers. The deterrence worked not only in his lifetime but for the better part of half a century. It is to Vagbhata’s lasting credit that he made the perilous landscape and fortress of Ranasthambhapura impregnable.
In fact, a backhanded compliment to Vagbhata’s prowess emanates directly from the enemy’s mouth. The Muslim chronicler Minhaju-s-Siraj calls Vagbhata as Bahar Deo Rai (a corruption of Vagbhata Deva Raja), and in a rare act uncharacteristic of such chroniclers, praises him as “the greatest of the Rais, and the most noble and illustrious of all the princes of Hindustan.”
The occasion for this praise was a military campaign that Balban had launched in 1248-9 against Ranasthambhapura, Bundi and Chittorgarh, a straight line stretching southwards from Delhi. This was when Balban was still christened Ulugh Khan—he was still not the sultan but merely the powerful father-in-law of sultan Nasir-ud-din Mahmud.
His campaign would teach him not to mess with Vagbhata.
Minhaju-s-Siraj downplays the outcome of the fierce battle because the forces of Islam confronted failure. Balban’s vast army met its match, and in Siraj’s words:
Two elements stand out in this episode.
One: Balban’s soldiers were worsted and had to return without capturing Ranasthambhapura, and two, Balban had stationed himself at Nagor, and it appears that he did not directly participate in the battle. However, he had learned his lesson. The infidel Vagbhata was a dangerous and powerful enemy and Balban’s preparation had been inadequate.
For about five years, Ranasthambhapura remained an eyesore for the Turushkas in Delhi and in 1253, the last year of Vagbhata’s reign, Balban returned with an even greater force. And met an even worse fate. The clobbering was severe, leading to enormous losses on the Muslim side and one of Balban’s chief Maliks, Baha-ud-din Aibak and a Khwaja (a Sufi) were killed by Vagbhata’s soldiers.
Balban never looked in the direction of Ranasthambhapura again.
Vagbhata remains one of the greatest beacons of defiant Hindu resistance against the Delhi sultanate in an era when other Hindu kings were falling like ninepins throughout north and western India. He held his own against Iltutmish, his weak successors and Balban.
In fact, an independent monograph can be written about the extraordinary quadrangle of Hindu resistance coming off in waves from Rajasthan: the Chahamanas of Ranasthambhapura, the Guhilas of Mewar, the Chahamanas of Jalor, and the Bhatis of Jaisalmer.
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