Jauhar - The History of Collective Self Immolation during War in India
Sadly, the fate of civilians in war has often been harsh, perhaps even more so in the past. Men would invariably be killed, and children were often sold into slavery. As for the women, they might be raped and then killed, or sometimes taken as prizes by the victors. One practice was developed by the Rajputs of India in order to prevent such a fate from befalling their queens and noble women. This rite was called Jauhar.
Although the Jauhar is related to the more well-known historical Indian practice of Sati (the self-immolation of widows on their deceased husbands’ funeral pyres), there are some important differences between the two. The Jauhar was only carried out during a war, involved not only women but also children, and was committed when both husband and wife were still alive.
Painting depicting the practice of sati (suttee) or widow-burning. It was applied to the Hindu widow who followed her husband onto the funeral pyre. The practice was officially outlawed in the 1800’s. Public Domain
The Jauhar would be performed when the Rajputs saw no hope of victory over their enemies.
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During the Jauhar, which was said to take place during the night, Brahmin priests would chant Vedic mantras, and the Rajput women, wearing their wedding dresses, would commit suicide with their children via self-immolation. On the morning after the Jauhar, the men would carry out the Saka; after taking a bath, the men would wear saffron clothes, smear the ashes of their wives and children on their foreheads, and put a tulsi leaf in their mouths. Then, they would sally out either to annihilate their enemies or be annihilated by them.
It has been claimed that the Jauhar and Saka were never carried out when the Rajputs were at war with other Hindus, such as the Marathas, as the defeated could expect to be treated with dignity. It has also been claimed that on several occasions, the Rajputs sued for peace, and the Mughals agreed to their terms. When the Rajputs, their wives and children came to surrender, however, they were slaughtered by the Mughals. This treachery and deceit may have been the reason for the Jauhar and Saka to be established by the Rajputs.
Detail, An illustration of the Jauhar in Hutchinsons History of the Nations. Wikimedia Commons
When faced with their enemy, the Rajputs were inclined to commit Jauhar and Saka in the face of defeat, as they are said to have feared the reputation of their enemy, and dreaded what might befall their families.
One of the most famous Jauhars in Indian history took place in 1303 at Chittorgarh Fort. This is one of the largest forts in India, and is located in the north-western part of the country. Believed to be built by the Moris (who claimed descent from the Mauryans) in the seventh century A.D., Chittorgarh Fort changed owners several times throughout its history, and came into the possession of Sisodia dynasty, which ruled over the kingdom of Mewar, possibly sometime in the 12 th or 13 th century A.D.
In 1303, the fort was under the rule of the Rana (monarch) Rawal Ratan Singh, whose wife was Rani (wife of a monarch) Padmini. During the same year, the Sultan of Delhi, Alauddin Khilji, decided to besiege Chittorgarh Fort.
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According to a fictionalized account of the siege in the 16 th century epic poem Padmavat, the Sultan heard of Rani Padmani’s beauty, and sought to add her to his harem, therefore spurring his siege of Chittorgarh Fort. The Sultan sent messengers to the Rana, saying that he would spare the fort if he was given a glimpse of the Rani. Rana Rawal Ratan Singh agreed to his request, and Alauddin Khilji came into the fort unarmed, and had a glimpse of Rani Padmini through a set of mirrors. When the Rana was sending his guest off, he was treacherously ambushed and captured by the Sultan’s men at the outer gates of his own fort.
Illustration of Alauddin Khilji in the foreground, as the women commit suicide in the background. (1825) Public Domain
As news of Rana Rawal Ratan Singh’s capture reached the fort, the poetic account follows that Rani Padmini devised a plan to rescue her husband. Sending messengers to the Sultan, the Rani agreed to join Alauddin Khilji, on the condition that she was accompanied by 700 women who befitted her status. In each of the palanquins used to carry these women, however, the Rani hid several well-armed Rajput warriors. By doing so, the Rani was able to sneak several thousand warriors (which included the palanquin bearers) into Alauddin Khilji’s camp and rescue her husband.
Although the Rana was rescued, a fierce battle ensued at the outer gate of the fort, and the Rajput warriors, along with the Rana, were killed. Rather than surrendering to Alauddin Khilji, Rani Padmini, the women and the children are said to have all committed Jauhar, while the remaining men committed Saka the following morning.
The Burning of the Rajput women, during the siege of Chitor. This page of the Akbarnama depicts the 'jauhar', or burning, of the Rajput women following the fall of the fortress of Chitor in 1568. The women preferred to perish rather than be captured by the enemy, and it is thought that as many as 300 women died in the event. Public Domain
In the following centuries, the Jauhar would be carried out in the Chittorgarh Fort on two other occasions, namely during the siege by Bahadur Shah in 1535, and the siege by Akbar in 1567/8. Still, it is the Jauhar of 1303 that is the most well-known, perhaps due to the story associated with it, which depicts the bravery of the Rajputs, the wit and courage of Rani Padmini, and the treachery of Alauddin Khilji.
Featured image: 17 th century illustration of a woman committing sati: self-immolation on her husband’s funeral pyre. Public Domain
Archaeological Survey of India, 2011. Ticketed Monuments - Rajasthan: Chittaurgarh Fort, Distt. Chittaurgarh. [Online]
Available at: http://asi.nic.in/asi_monu_tktd_raj_chittor.asp
Meyer, W. S., Burn, R., Cotton, J. S. & Risley, H. H., 1909. Imperial Gazetteer of India, The Indian Empire, Vol. II: Historical. Oxford: Clarendon Press.
Roy Rosenzweig Center for History and New Media, 2015. Sati. [Online]
Available at: http://chnm.gmu.edu/wwh/modules/lesson5/lesson5.php?s=0
Sanskriti, 2014. The Haunting Tales of Chittorgarh. [Online]
Available at: http://www.sanskritimagazine.com/history/haunting-tales-chittorgarh/#
www.chittorgarh.com, 2015. History of Chittorgarh. [Online]
Available at: http://www.chittorgarh.com/chittorgarh_history.asp
www.indian-heritage.org, 2015. Places of interest in Rajasthan: Chittorgarh. [Online]
Available at: http://www.indian-heritage.org/states/rajasthan/chittor.html