Letters of Marque


by Rudyard Kipling


THERE is a certain want of taste, almost an actual indecency, in seeing the sun rise on the earth. Until the heat-haze begins and the distances thicken, Nature is so very naked that the Actæon who has surprised her dressing, blushes. Sunrise on the plains of Mewar is an especially brutal affair.

The moon was burnt out and the air was bitterly cold, when the Englishman headed due east in his tonga, and the patient sowar behind nodded and yawed in the saddle. There was no warning of the day’s advent. The horses were unharnessed, at one halting-stage, in the thick, soft shadows of night, and ere their successors had limped under the bar, a raw and cruel light was upon all things, so that the Englishman could see every rent seam in the rocks around. A little further, and he came upon the black bulk of Chitor between him and the morning sun. It has already been said that the Fort resembles a man-of-war. Every distant view heightens this impression, for the swell of the sides follows the form of a ship, and the bastions on the south wall make the sponsons in which the machine-guns are mounted. From bow to stern, the thing more than three miles long, is between three and five hundred feet high, and from one-half to one-quarter of a mile broad. Have patience, now, to listen to a rough history of Chitor.

In the beginning, no one knows clearly who scarped the hillsides of the hill rising out of the bare plain, and made of it a place of strength. It is written that, eleven and a half centuries ago, Bappa Rawul, the demi-god whose stature was twenty cubits, whose loin-cloth was five hundred feet long, and whose spear was beyond the power of mortal man to lift, took Chitor from ‘Man Singh, the Mori Prince,’ and wrote the first chapter of the history of Mewar, which he received ready-made from Man Singh who, if the chronicles speak sooth, was his uncle. Many and very marvellous legends cluster round the name of Bappa Rawul; and he is said to have ended his days far away from India, in Khorasan, where he married an unlimited number of the Daughters of Heth, and was the father of all the Nowshera Pathans. Some who have wandered, by the sign-posts of inscription, into the fogs of old time, aver that, two centuries before Bappa Rawul took Chitor the Mori division of the Pramar Rajputs, who are the ruling family of Mewar, had found a hold in Bhilwara, and for four centuries before that time had ruled in Kathiawar; and had royally sacked and slain, and been sacked and slain in turn. But these things are for the curious and the scholar, and not for the reader who reads lightly. Nine princes succeeded Bappa, between 728 and 1068 A.D., and among these was one Alluji, who built a Jain tower upon the brow of the hill, for in those days, though the Sun was worshipped, men were all Jains.

And here they lived and sallied into the plains, and fought and increased the borders of their kingdom, or were suddenly and stealthily murdered, or stood shoulder to shoulder against the incursions of the ‘Devil men’ from the north. In 1150 A.D. was born Samar Singh, and he married into the family of Prithi Raj, the last Hindu Emperor of Delhi, who was at feud, in regard to a succession question, with the Prince of Kanauj. In the war that followed, Kanauj, being hard pressed by Prithi Raj, and Samar Singh, called Shahabuddin Ghori to his aid. At first, Samar Singh and Prithi Raj broke the army of the Northern somewhere in the lower Punjab, but two years later Shahabuddin came again, and, after three days’ fighting on the banks of the Kaggar, slew Samar Singh, captured and murdered Prithi Raj, and sacked Delhi and Amber, while Samar Singh’s favourite queen became sati at Chitor. But another wife, a princess of Patun, kept her life, and when Shahabuddin sent down Kutbuddin to waste her lands, led the Rajput army, in person, from Chitor, and defeated Kutbuddin.

Then followed confusion, through eleven turbulent reigns that the annalist has failed to unravel. Once in the years between 1193 and the opening of the fourteenth century, Chitor must have been taken by the Mussulman; for it is written that one prince ‘recovered Chitor and made the name of Rana to be recognised by all.’ Six princes were slain in battles against the Mussulman, in vain attempts to clear the land from the presence of the infidel.

Then Ala-ud-din Khilji, the Pathan Emperor, swept the country to the Dekkan. In those days, and these things are confusedly set down as having happened at the end of the thirteenth century, a relative of Rana Lakhsman Singh, the then Rana of Chitor, had married a Rajput princess of Ceylon—Pudmini, ‘And she was fairest of all flesh on earth.’ Her fame was sung through the land by the poets, and she became, in some sort, the Helen of Chitor. Ala-ud-din heard of her beauty and promptly besieged the Fort. When he found his enterprise too difficult, he prayed that he might be permitted to see Pudmini’s face in a mirror, and this wish, so says the tale, was granted. Knowing that the Rajput was a gentleman, he entered Chitor almost unarmed, saw the face in the mirror, and was well treated; the husband of the fair Pudmini accompanying him, in return, to the camp at the foot of the hill. Like Raja Runjeet in the ballad the Rajput he—


‘. . , trusted a Mussulman’s word
Wah! Wah! Trust a liar to lie.
Out of his eyrie they tempted my bird,
Fettered his wings that he could not fly.’

Pudmini’s husband was caught by a trick, and Ala-ud-din demanded Pudmini as the price of his return. The Rajputs here showed that they too could scheme, and sent, in great state, Pudmini’s litter to the besiegers’ intrenchments. But there was no Pudmini in the litter, and her following of handmaidens was a band of seven hundred armed men. Thus, in the confusion of a campfight, Pudmini’s husband was rescued, and Ala-ud-din’s soldiery followed hard on his heels to the gates of Chitor, where the best and bravest on the rock were killed before Ala-ud-din withdrew, only to return soon after and, with a doubled army, besiege in earnest. His first attack men called the halfsack of Chitor, for, though he failed to win within the walls, he killed the flower of the Rajputs. The second attack ended in the First Sack and the awful sati of the women on the rock.

When everything was hopeless and the very terrible Goddess, who lives in the bowels of Chitor, had spoken and claimed for death eleven out of the twelve of the Rana’s sons, all who were young or fair women betook themselves to a great underground chamber, and the fires were lit and the entrance was walled up and they died. The Rajputs opened the gates and fought till they could fight no more, and Ala-ud-din the victorious entered a wasted and desolated city. He wrecked everything except only the palace of Pudmini and the old Jain tower before mentioned. That was all he could do, for there were few men alive of the defenders of Chitor when the day was won, and the women were ashes underground.

Ajai Singh, the one surviving son of Lakhsman Singh, had, at his father’s insistence, escaped from Chitor to ‘carry on the line’ when better days should come. He brought up Hamir, son of one of his elder brothers, to be a thorn in the side of the invader, and Hamir overthrew Maldeo, chief of Jhalore and vassal of Ala-ud-din, into whose hands Ala-ud-din had, not too generously, given what was left of Chitor. So the Sesodias came to their own again, and the successors of Hamir extended their kingdoms and rebuilt Chitor, as kings know how to rebuild cities in a land where human labour and life are cheaper than bread and water. For two centuries, with Tod, Mewar flourished exceedingly and was the paramount kingdom of all Rajasthan. Greatest of all the successors of Hamir was Kumbha Rana, who, when the Ghilzai dynasty was rotting away and Viceroys declared themselves kings, met, defeated, took captive, and released without ransom, Mahmoud of Malwa. Kumbha Rana built a Tower of Victory, nine stories high, to commemorate this and the other successes of his reign, and the tower stands to-day a mark for miles across the plains.

But the well-established kingdom weakened, and the rulers took favourites and disgusted their best supporters—after the immemorial custom of too prosperous rulers. Also they murdered one another. In 1535 A.D. Bahadur Shah, King of Gujarat, seeing the decay, and remembering how one of his predecessors, together with Mahmoud of Malwa, had been humbled by Mewar in the years gone by, set out to take his revenge of Time and Mewar then ruled by Rana Bikrmajit, who had made a new capital at Deola. Bikrmajit did not stay to give battle in that place. His chiefs were out of hand, and Chitor was the heart and brain of Mewar; so he marched thither, and the Gods were against him. Bahadur Shah mined one of the Chitor bastions, and wiped out in the explosion the Hara Prince of Boondee, with five hundred followers. Jowahir Bae, Bikrmajit’s mother, headed a sally from the walls, and was slain. There were Frank gunners among Bahadur Shah’s forces, and they hastened the end. The Rajputs made a second johur, a sacrifice greater than the sacrifice of Pudmini; and thirteen thousand were blown up in the magazines, or stabbed or poisoned, before the gates were opened and the defenders rushed down.

Out of the carnage was saved Udai Singh, a babe of the Blood Royal, who grew up to be a coward, and a shame to his line. The story of his preservation is written large in Tod, and Edwin Arnold sings it. Read it, who are interested. But, when Udai Singh came to the throne of Chitor, through blood and misrule, after Bahadur Shah had withdrawn from the wreck of the Fort, Akbar sat on the throne of Delhi, and it was written that few people should withstand the ‘Guardian of Mankind.’ Moreover, Udai Singh was the slave of a woman. It was Akbar’s destiny to subdue the Rajputs, and to win many of them to his own service; sending a Rajput Prince of Amber to get him far-away Arrakan. Akbar marched against Chitor once, and was repulsed; the woman who ruled Udai Singh heading a charge against the besiegers because of the love she bore to her lover. Something of this sort had happened in Ala-ud-din’s time, and, like Ala-uddin, Akbar returned and sat down, in a huge camp, before Chitor in 1568 A.D. Udai Singh fled what was coming; and because the Goddess of Chitor demands always that a crowned head must fall if the defence of her home is to be successful, Chitor fell as it had fallen before—in a johur of thousands, a last rush of the men, and the entry of the conqueror into a reeking, ruined slaughter-pen. Akbar’s sack was the most terrible of the three, for he killed everything that had life upon the rock, and wrecked and overturned and spoiled. The wonder, the lasting wonder, is that he did not destroy Kumbha Rana’s Tower of Victory, the memorial of the defeat of a Mahometan prince. With the Third Sack the glory of Chitor departed, and Udai Singh founded himself a new capital, the city of Udaipur. Though Chitor was recovered in Jehangir’s time by Udai Singh’s grandson, it was never again made the capital of Mewar. It stood, and rotted where it stood, till enlightened and loyal feudatories, in the present years of grace, made attempts, with the help of Executive Engineers, to sweep it up and keep it in repair. The above is roughly, very roughly indeed, the tale of the Sacks of Chitor.

Follows an interlude, for the study even of inaccurate history is indigestible to many. There was an elephant at Chitor, to take birds of passage up the hill, and she—she was fifty-one years old, and her name was Gerowlia—came to the dak-bungalow for the Englishman. Let not the word dak-bungalow deceive any man into believing that there is even moderate comfort at Chitor. Gerowlia waited in the sunshine, and chuckled to herself like a female pauper when she receives snuff. Her mahout said that he would go away for a drink of water. So he walked, and walked, and walked, till he disappeared on the stone-strewn plains, and the Englishman was left alone with Gerowlia, aged fifty-one. She had been tied by the chain on her near hind leg to a pillar of the verandah; but the string was coir, and more an emblem of authority than a means of restraint. When she had thoroughly exhausted all the resources of the country within range of her trunk, she ate up the string and began to investigate the verandah. There was more coir string, and she ate it all, while the carpenter, who was repairing the dak-bungalow, cursed her and her ancestry from afar. About this time the Englishman was roused to a knowledge of the business, for Gerowlia, having exhausted the string, tried to come into the verandah. She had, most unwisely, been pampered with biscuits an hour before. The carpenter stood on an outcrop of rock, and said angrily: ‘See what damage your hathi has done, Sahib.’ ‘’Tisn’t my hathi,’ said the Sahib, plaintively. ‘You ordered it,’ quoth he, ‘and it has been here ever so long, eating up everything.’ He threw pieces of stone at Gerowlia, and went away. It is a terrible thing to be left alone with an unshackled elephant, even though she be a venerable spinster. Gerowlia moved round the dak-bungalow, blowing her nose in a nervous and undecided manner, and presently found some more string and thatch, which she ate. This was too much. The Englishman went out and spoke to her. She opened her mouth and salaamed; meaning thereby ‘biscuits.’ So long as she remained in this position she could do no harm.

Imagine a boundless rock-strewn plain, broken here and there by low hills, dominated by the rock of Chitor, and bisected by a single metre-gauge railway track running into the Infinite, and unrelieved by even a way-inspector’s trolly. In the foreground put a brand-new dak-bungalow, furnished with a French bedstead, and nothing else; in the verandah place an embarrassed Englishman, smiling into the open mouth of an idiotic female elephant. But Gerowlia could not live on smiles alone. Finding that no food was forthcoming, she shut her mouth, and renewed her attempts to get into the verandah, and ate more thatch. To say ‘Hi!’ to an elephant is a misdirected courtesy. It quickens her pace, and if you flick her on the trunk with a wet towel, she curls the trunk out of harm’s way. Special education is necessary. A little breechless boy passed, carrying a lump of stone. ‘Hit her on the feet, Sahib,’ said he; ‘hit her on the feet.’ Gerowlia had by this time nearly scraped off her pad, and there were no signs of the mahout. The Englishman went out and found a tent-peg, and returning, in the extremity of his wrath smote her bitterly on the nails of the forefoot.

Gerowlia held up her foot to be beaten, and made the most absurd noises—squawked infact, exactly like an old lady who has narrowly escaped being run over. She backed out of the verandah, still squawking, on three feet, and in the open held up near and off forefoot alternately to be beaten. It was very pitiful, for one swing of her trunk could have knocked the Englishman flat. He ceased whacking her, but she squawked for some minutes and then fell placidly asleep in the sunshine. When the mahout returned, he beat her for breaking her tether exactly as the Englishman had done, but much more severely, and the ridiculous old thing hopped on three legs for fully five minutes. ‘Come along, Sahib,’ said the mahout. ‘I will show this mother of bastards who is the driver. Fat daughter of the Devil, sit down. You would eat thatch, would you? How does the iron taste?’ And he gave Gerowlia a headache, which affected her temper all through the afternoon. She set off, across the railway line which runs below the rock of Chitor, into broken ground cut up with nullahs and covered with low scrub, over which it would have been difficult to have taken a sure-footed horse, so fragmentary and disconnected was its nature.