Rani Durgavati of Gondwana 1524 - 1564 AD

v.1.1 July 27, 2007

Ravi Rikhye

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[The Gondwana region has given its name to the supercontinent that existed in the southern hemisphere half-a-billion years ago. On drifting apart the continent became South America, Africa, India, and Australia; at one time it also included parts of Europe and the American southeast.]

Sources, aside from our standard 10-volume reference book by Dr. R. C. Majumdar include

Rani Durgavati is famous in Indian history for refusing to submit to the Mughul emperor Akbar as he pushed ever deeper into Central India as part of his goal of dominating all of India.

Her kingdom, Gadha, was one of 5 traditionally independent Gond states.

The 5 Kingdoms of Gondwana [NOT YET ACTIVE]

She was offered the choice of peacefully becoming a vassal of the Mogul Emperor, but she refused and prepared to fight him.

Her advisors told her from the start that resistance was a losing strategy. Her army was, in common with most Indian armies of the day, a gathering of poorly armed infantry levies, hastily collected as needed. A small corps of cavalry and elephants formed the professional core of her army. We do not know its size, but judging by the regional armies of the time, it was unlikely to have exceeded a few thousand cavalry and a few hundred elephants.

 By contrast, Akbar commanded the mightiest armies in South Asia.


Akbar's Armies


"Better to die free than live as a slave" - Rani Durgavati is said to have cried out when her advisors suggested negotiations; alas, death is what this brave woman got as her due.


Rani Durgavati was born October 5, 1524, at the fort of Kalanjar (Banda, U.P.). She was descended from the  Chandel emperor Vidyadhar, a doer of great deeds: he was one of the few Indian kings to successfully repulse Mahmood Ghaznavi, who first invaded India in the closing years of the 12th Century.

In the West, the Chadel Dynasty is best known for building Khajuraho, where 85 temples - of which 22 survive - celebrated, among other themes, the principle of Eros.


In 1542, Durgavati was married to Dalpatshah, the eldest son of the Gond king Sangramshah. This united the  Chandel and Gond dynasties, and enabled her father, the Chandel king Keerat Rai, to get help from the Gonds  at the time Shershah Suri invaded.

Durgavati  gave birth to a son, Vir Narayan, in 1545 A.D.  Dalpatshah died in about 1550 A.D. As Vir Narayan was too young at that time, Durgavati took over the throne. She was helped by two dedicated ministers, Adhar Kayastha and Man Thakur. Her administration saw an enhancement of economic and cultural life for her subjects; by all accounts, she was an effective ruler. The Rani moved her capital to Chauragarh from its traditional location at Singaurgarh. Chauragarh was a fort of strategic importance situated in the Satpura hill range.

The portrait of Rani Durgavati is done in the Mughul school, late 16th Century. http://www.chennaimuseum.org

[Though the hills in this part of India average only 6-700 meters in height, the ravines and forests made hill forts formidable places of defense.]


This is a low-resolution photograph of Chauragarh, located on the 1000-meter high plateau of Panchmari in the Satpura Hills, Madhya Pradesh.  The summit is about 400 meters from the base. The tourism site mentions only a temple on top, so we do not know if this is the same Chauragarh of Rani Durgavati's time. Nonetheless, the photograph gives some idea of the terrain in the Gond kingdoms.

Regional Politics

Sher Shah Suri,  the emperor of Afghan lineage who seriously challenged the expansion of the Mughals in Northern India,  captured the Malwa region in 1531. This ended the Malwa Sultanate The region was governed by his appointee, Sujat Khan. On Sher Shah Suri's death, Sujat declared his independence. On his death he was succeeded by his son Bajbahadur in 1556 A.D.

(Bajbahadur is best known to history for his tumultuous love affair with his queen, Rani Roopmati).

Bajbhadur & Rupmati

After ascending to the throne, he attacked Rani Durgavati but she repulsed him, inflicting heavy losses to his army. This defeat effectively silenced Bajbahadur and the victory brought name and fame for Rani Durgavati.

Rani's contemporary Mughul Subedar was Abdul Mazid Khan, an ambitious man who vanquished Ramchandra, the ruler of Rewa. During Mughul times, a subedar was the highest-ranking provincial deputy of his emperor.

The riches of Rani Durgavati's state drew Abdul Mazid Khan's attention. He sought and gained permission from Akbar to attack the Rani.  Akbar's interest in the invasion was his wish to expand his rule over Central India.

Photograph http://www.tradewingstravel.com/mp/mpforts.jsp


This Gond fort is located on a plateau, providing an excellent view of the surroundings. The fort itself is built onto/into an enormous boulder which appears to about 12  meters high, and extends to a total height of about 20 meters


Rani Durgavati's Army

As is usual with Indian history, no halfway decent records exist giving the strength of the army. Some have credited it with 1000 elephants, others have said it had 20,000 cavalry. The infantry is said by some to have been too many to count.

Now, the Gond kingdom of Garha, over which the Rani ruled, was a prosperous land, said to contain 70,000 villages. if the latter is true, she would undoubtedly have had sufficient resources to oppose the invasion.

Unfortunately, the figures give us no clue as to how many infantry, cavalry, and elephants were actually maintained and could deploy for operations at short notice. Alexander's Macedonia was a small and poor land, yet his father Philip and Alexander himself maintained a remarkably well trained standing army, strong out of all proportions to the numbers. The Rani's army is supposed to have been poorly armed, and we can guess it was not particularly well trained either.

While we, at least, are inclined to credit her with less than half the cavalry and elephants she is supposed to have, there is less doubt about the opposing force, which had 50,000 cavalry - the cavalry of the Islamic kings being highly trained and forming the core of their armies - and possibly p to 1000 elephants. We should not impute precision to these figures, as attackers were prone to exaggerate as much as defenders, but since the Muslims kept better records, the figures are likely to be closer to the mark.

Of one thing we can be certain. The Rani had a reputation among her people as a warrior, thanks to her defeat of Bajbhadur. Yet, she was "only" a woman, and Asaf Khan would have thought he would have an easy time of it. Though he won, historians say he had to pay a price in lives for his victory.

Three Battles

The short campaign between Rani Durgavati and Asaf Khan developed in the three phases.

Her resources permitted her to fight only a defensive battle. Accordingly, in the first phase she drew up her forces at Narrai. The place was protected by hills on one side, and the rivers Gaur and Narmada on the other. Thus, her forces were in no danger of being outflanked. 

The natural strength of the position permitted her to defeat a force much larger and much better trained and armed. But at first she had to overcome a major setback: her leading general, Fauzdar Arjun Daswas was killed in the initial stages of battle. Rani Durgavati herself took charge, attacking the adversary columns from both sides as they entered the valley. This classic maneuver gave her the first victory.

In the process of pushing back the attacker, the Rani's forces emerged from the valley and were, at nightfall, in open positions. A better general than her male officers, after a review of strategy with her counselors, she decided on a night-attack. Unfortunately, the men would not agree and prevailed on her to stand where she was. Readers will recognize in the strategy conducted the standard manner in which Indian armies fought, and why they suffered so many defeats over the centuries.

Sure enough, the adversary general, Asaf Khan, used the night to bring up reinforcements, including his heavy artillery. Thus the stage was laid for the second phase.

The Rani's son, Vir Narayan, despite his youth led the army in three charges, pushing back the Mughul army each time. We may be certain that these attacks were conducted in the usual brave and reckless manner the Hindus of the times fought, with no attempt to outflank the frontal defenses. Though we lack evidence, it is reasonable to suppose the three charges actually strengthened the Mughuls because they were pushed back on themselves and their army became a more coherent and compressed mass.

At this point Vir Narayan was wounded by an adversary arrow, and forced to retreat from the battlefield. His mother, Rani Durgavati immediately came up on her elephant, named Sarman, to take charge, and thus held the Hindu army together.

Unfortunately now great misfortune struck: she was hit by two arrows, one through her jaw near the ear, and the other through her neck. She lost consciousness, and when she regained it, she saw immediately the battle was about to be lost. The mahout of her battle elephant pleaded with her to let him take her back to safety. That meant acknowledging the inevitable defeat and surrender.

Instead of retreating, she killed herself with a dagger. It was the 24th day of June in 1564.

Now came the third phase of the battle. The son, Vir Narayan, retreated to one of the two strongest forts in his country, at his capital Chauragarh, and locked himself in.

To no avail: the Mughul Army took the fort, and Vir was killed.

Akbar now offered the Kingdom of Gadha to Chandra Sah. The latter accepted Akbar's over-lordship and swore his fealty as a vassal.

An enormous booty was taken by the victors and divided between the emperor and the victors according to the custom of the times.


The Gond country was wild forests and hills, its people well-skilled in hiding themselves and making life enough of a nuisance for would be outside rulers that the Gond kingdoms were usually left alone.

Given the terrain and nature of the people, why did Rani Durgavati not resort to guerilla war against Asif Khan, instead of meeting head on in a conventional battle where he held all the cards?

Mainly because until the advent of Shivaji, organized guerilla warfare was not seen as a realistic option. The ruler was the state: if the ruler left his capital and disappeared from view, that was the end of the matter. It is only when states became entities unto themselves that guerilla war became possible. And even in Shivaji's case, we should keep in mind that it was only toward the end of his life he crowned himself king: all the time previously he was a vassal, albeit a very troublesome and impossible-to-control vassal.

In itself Rani Durgavati's attempt to preserve the kingdom for her son was not a major event in the history of those times. Her real importance lies in her becoming an icon, three and four centuries later,  for the Indian independence movement.

At the same time, we should consider that at the time, Indians did not think of themselves as a Hindu state/s overrun by Muslims. Men of both faiths fought their co-religionists. Commanders, princes, generals, and kings were motivated by local politics, not by theology: they made alliances and broke alliances on tactical and strategic grounds, not on religious considerations. India continued to be known as Hindustan, the land of the Hindus, even after the arrival of Islamic kings who ruled the sub-continent for seven hundred years; the Mughul ruler Akbar was the King of Hindustan.