Why were the Rajputs unable to defeat the Muslim invaders?

Murad Ali Baig

Muslim chroniclers record that the Indian soldiers were brave and resolute in battle and that the Afghans and Turks had initially been terrified by their huge armies led by gigantic elephants. They however also record that Indian armies were not trained to combine effectively. Rajput armies relied on one crushing victory and their martial pride could not face the ignominy of losing small tactical battles in order to win a greater war. Becoming a captive also entailed an unacceptable loss of caste that made death preferable to defeat. So whenever the prospect of victory faded the morale of the Rajput armies would be totally crushed. They fought according to inflexible rules of war and did not understand the principles of strategy and the importance of surprise.

Indian armies had also always been deficient in war horses and placed great reliance on their elephants that slowed them down and could often disrupt their own ranks if they were wounded. Muslim armies were much better mounted and their quick hardy ponies trained in rugged mountain areas were trained to make fast battlefield maneuvers. Indian armies always advanced slowly in big blocks according to a fixed, and thus predictable, science that had hardly changed since it had been defined in the third century BC in Kautilya’s Arthashastra. Pomp and show was more important than strategy.

The hot Indian summer resulted in Indian armies choosing to only fight during the campaigning season between the end of September and the end of March usually marked by the festivals of Dusshera and Holi. Armies rested in cool palaces during the appalling heat of summer and with the result that both soldiers and their horses were weakened whenever they had to face invading armies.

Enemies had to be awed by the might and magnificence and the tactics of shock had no place. Surprise, a key element in warfare, had little part in their set piece planning. Their brightly decorated tents and elaborate arrangements for food, religion and comfort required a huge train of camp followers including wives and servants with the result that they moved slowly with a low ratio of fighting teeth to supporting tail.

The caste system also played a big role as the huge battalions of infantry were almost always poorly armed and badly trained low caste infantry mustered from their fields. Though they were very numerous they were poorly trained and easily demoralized. Caste Hindus always rode on horses or elephants and the disorderly masses of undisciplined foot soldiers often hampered their movements.

The short re-curved bow, shot by mounted archers, was another big factor in the success of Afghan and Mughal armies. Indian archers who had been feared by Alexander’s Macedonians had degenerated into poorly skilled low caste infantrymen who were never a major factor in Indian armies. A trained mounted archer could let loose six arrows in as many seconds while at full gallop. It was the mounted archers that mopped up Ibrahim Lodi’s army and later crushed Rana Sangha and Hemu. The eye of the latter was pierced by an arrow.

The courts of Indian rulers were also hotbeds of intrigue where courtiers, priests and womenfolk jostled for position and influence. These efforts for selfish personal advancement meant scorning anyone with ability, sincerity or integrity. Truth was also dangerous in the courts of sycophants. It was an environment that completely undermined the cooperation and teamwork so vital for sustained attack or defense. Rajput pride and the chronic sycophancy of the courtiers were barriers to learning any lessons from the past. New ideas, new weapons and new battle tactics were not welcome and there was great comfort in old traditions. Rulers were easily flattered to overlook their own weaknesses and to believe in their invincibility.

Astrology was another major problem. The Brahmins in all the royal courts had no conception of the importance of the opportune moment and would not allow any military movement except at times that were deemed auspicious and after conducting elaborate religious rituals for success. The Rajput princes were also so focused on their own kingdoms that they had no sense of a greater national identity. They were also so inward looking that they had little awareness of external threats and did not appreciate the fact that the Afghan and Turk invaders were a terrible menace that would destroy the very fabric of their way of life.

Rai Pithora (1149–1192 AD), who later called himself Prithviraj (world ruler), belonged to the Chauhan lineage but had received the kingdom of Ajmer from his maternal grandfather Anangpal of the Tomar lineage. So he ruled from his twin capitals of Ajmer and Delhi. Prithviraj quite easily defeated Muhammad Ghori in the first Battle of Tarain in 1191. Ghauri however attacked the following year and Prithviraj despite having an army alleged to have 3,000 elephants and 300,000 soldiers was defeated at the second Battle of Tarain and later executed.

Ghori’s victory was partly due to guile for he had by now learned that Hindu soldiers liked to only go to battle after sunrise subsequent to performing the rituals of their ablutions and prayers. A dawn attack therefore caught the great army off guard and unprepared. Prithviraj’s armies did however rally but were deceived into chasing a fake retreat to be hit by Ghori’s mounted reserves who routed them.

Prithviraj had also been let down by Rajput allies that he had been waiting for. The most important Rajput ruler was Raja Jaichandra Rathor of Kanauj whose honour, according to legend, had been deeply offended when Prithviraj had eloped with his daughter Samyukta seventeen years earlier. According to some legends her irate father had even invited Muhammad Ghori to invade India to punish Prithviraj. His name soon became a metaphor for treachery. There had been a number of battles between Rajput rulers and their audacious Muslim adversaries in which the latter almost always triumphed. Despite a long period of several hundred years from the first plundering Afghan raids to the time the Turks settled down, the Rajputs learned nothing from their setbacks but forgot no insult to their pride.

Paradoxically, although there was a large religious and cultural chasm between Hindus and Muslims, they were remarkable tolerant about hiring mercenary soldiers of the other faiths. There were many Muslims in all the Hindu armies and vice versa. Maharana Pratap, was one of the few Rajput maharajas to staunchly oppose the Mughals till the end but his army at the famous battle of Haldighati (1526) had a large contingent of Afghan warriors led by a Muslim commander, Hakim Khan Sur. At a later time even the great Hindu hero Shivaji had many Muslims in his army while his adversary Aurangzeb’s army was commanded by a number of Rajput generals including Raja Jaswant Singh of Jodhpur and Raja Jai Singh of Amer. War was seen as a profession and religion did not appear to affect the loyalties of soldiers towards their rulers.

(this is a draft of a chapter from the author's  forthcoming book titled "80 More Questions to understand India".)

Feb 24, 2017

Murad Ali Baig may be contacted at

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