“And how can man die better,
than facing fearful odds?
For the ashes of his fathers
and the temples of his gods”– Thomas Babington Macaulay in Lays of Ancient Rome.
By 1573, Akbar had become the master of North India. He had also conquered Gujarat and now his ambition was to equal the feats of Chakravarti kings of old. Imitating Vikramaditya, he had appointed his own navratnas. His court poets were already writing his paens. The only place not under his dominion in the north was Mewar. Mewar, which under Bappa Rawal, had stopped the Arab invasions in India in 8th century. Mewar, which had defied the self declared second Alexander/Sikandar-e-Sani Alauddin Khilji, and written a heroic chapter in the annals of India by its Jauhar-Saka in 1303. Mewar, without capturing which the route to Gujarat could not be safe.
Mewar was now ruled by Maharana Pratap. Pratap was not a King. In Mewar, God Ekling ruled the country and Maharana was the deputy of God. Akbar had been sending envoys to Maharana Pratap for years. He had sent Jalal Khan, and Man Singh of Amber and lastly Todar Mal. Pratap had politely refused every time. Honour and independence to him was greater than any wealth. The imperialist Mughal king was not amused. He had wanted to add another piece of land to his domain and another bunch of girls to his harem. Battle lines were drawn and war was inevitable.
Mewar had shifted its capital to Gogunda since the capture of Chittorgarh by Akbar in 1568. The capture had been marked by merciless killing of 30000 unarmed civilians by the ‘Great’ Emperor. Haldighati pass was a strategic place en route to Gogunda and it was to defend it that Maharana waited there for the vast armies of Akbar. It was 18th of June 1576, the height of Indian summer. Mughal army was led by Man Singh of Amber, Asaf Khan and Ahed Khan Barha. Rana was leading from the front along with Ramdas Rathor, Ramsah Tanwar, Bhamashah and Hakim Khan Sur.
A small contingent of patriotic Bheel bowmen under Chief Punja was also on his side. The Mughal army by all accounts was at least three times the Mewar army and had better arms and supplies. At that time, Akbar was probably the most powerful King on that face of earth. It takes a special kind of courage to fight when defeat seems certain. Maybe, the courage came from strong religious beliefs or maybe it came from pride in the honour of family. All told, Rana did not leave the field.
The story of battle is too well known to be related here. The heroics of Jhala Sardar, the loyalty of Chetak, the daring of Maharana Pratap and the return of Shakti Singh are stuff of legends. The inevitable happened. Mughals won on the basis of their superior numbers and better arms. How numbers impacted this particular battle can be seen in one particular quote. Al Badayuni the historian, who was accompanying Mughal army asked Asaf Khan, the Mughal commander how he can tell which Rajputs to shoot arrows at. He replied:-
“Shoot at whomsoever you like, on whichever side they may be killed, it will be a gain to Islam.”– Asaf Khan quoted by the historian Badayuni
By noon, the battle had been decided. Rana and a substantial part of the Mewar Army was in retreat. It is a testament to their valour that the victorious Mughal Army could not summon the courage to pursue them that day. They were tired and wary of ambush in the jungles.
After a few days, with the full might of Mughal Empire behind him, Man Singh captured Gogunda, Udaipur and the fort of Kumbhalgarh. Slowly and surely the Mughal army captured most of the territory of Mewar. Rana was forced to seek shelter in the forests of Mewar. There he lived and there he waited for the right time. He left all the Kingly comforts. Akbar sent expeditions every year against him with armies of more than 1 lakh. The famed generals of Akbar had to be content with the dust of Mewar. Rana fought a guerrilla and imposed heavy damage on the Mughals. Slowly, he regained many cities and forts and towns.
Financially supported by the wealthy Bhamashah, he recruited and trained a new army. By 1582, he was confident enough to take on Mughals in open field again. His battle hardened troops were flush with multiple victories and confident of expelling Mughals.
Dewair is a sleepy town now, but it was a strategic place. It overlooked a ridge through which one could enter Mewar. Mughals were aware of this and kept their strongest garrison there. Pratap made a bold plan. He would attack Dewair in force, capture it and force the Mughals to surrender. The other Mughal garrisons were expected to fall in line. At that time Mughals had 36 garrisons/posts inside Mewar.
A rumour was circulated that Pratap had left the Kingdom. The relaxed Mughals did not expect any surprises. On Vijayadashmi of 1582, Dewair was surrounded by Maharana Pratap’s army. One wing was being led by Rana himself and another one by his son, Amar Singh. The Mughal rout was complete. Its two commanders, Bahlol Khan and Sultan Khan were killed in personal combat by Pratap and Amar. The remaining 36000 soldiers of Mughal army surrendered. It was the final and complete defeat of Mughals in Mewar. All 36 garrisons of Mughals surrendered. Rana Pratap was able to capture almost all the areas of Mewar except Chittor, which had been lost in his father’s time.
Akbar had become very powerful by 1580. He had even cowed down the religious Mullahs by proclaiming Mahzar, the infallibility decree, which made him Supreme Religious leader in Kingdom as well as Emperor. He was shaken by Dewair. Multiple attempts were made by him to win Mewar after that. He himself camped six months in an effort to defeat Maharana Pratap. But, Mughal armies lost every time in front of a rejuvenated Mewar. At long last, they stopped trying. Akbar died without having his dream of conquering Mewar fulfilled.
This glorious tale of resilience, patriotism and victory is not told in our school text books, our public discourse has no place for Rajput victories, but its importance is underlined by Col. Tod in his magnum opus in this manner:
“Huldighat (Haldighati) is the Thermopylae of Mewar ; the field of Deweir(Dewair) her Marathon”Col. James Tod in Annuls and Antiquities of Rajputana.