Dear friends, over the course of a fortnight, I am going to narrate a fascinating story – a tale of ambition and trickery, of battles fought for pride and of alliances forged in secret – a historical saga that very few remember today. You will meet a wily king, one who was worth one and a quarter of an average man, and learn how he outwitted the Great Mughal Empire. You will join in the construction of one of the most accurate astronomical observatories of its time. You will hear why a priest from Calcutta played an important role in the Rajput courts. This is India’s history like you have never heard before. This is the story of one of the most extraordinary cities in India, the beautiful capital of Rajasthan: Jaipur.
The year is 1700 AD. A young boy named Jai Singh ascends the throne of Amber, the royal seat of the Kachchwa clan, following the death of his father, Bishan Singh. The title was, however, ceremonial. The Kachchwas had, since the reign of Akbar in the 16th century, pledged their allegiance to Mughal Emperors and remained vassals of the Islamic Empire. (For those of you who have watched the movie, Jodhaa Akbar, Jodhaa’s father, Raja Bharmal, was the first Kachchwa to seek Mughal suzerainty.) For generations since Raja Bharmal, the House of Amber had supported the Mughals in their military campaigns and received protection and monetary support in return for their services.
Jai Singh had barely sat on the throne for six months when he was called to support the Emperor Aurangazeb, who was engaged in a desperate and costly war with the Marathas, later known as the Deccan Wars. Jai Singh struggled to put together a sizable army and set out, with considerable delay of nearly a year, to support the Mughal forces in the South. His men were further setback by a heavy monsoon and Jai Singh incurred the formidable wrath of the Emperor. His pay was slashed and he was given the command of a mere 500 troops. Afraid to enrage the Emperor further, Jai Singh rushed to join the command of Bidar Bakht, son of Prince Azam Shah, at Khelna, where the Mughals were engaged in a long and strenuous siege of a Maratha fort. The Siege of Khelna had, by then, gone on for five months with no end in sight. Jai Singh was posted near a postern-gate, a concealed entrance to the fort. Tunneling their way to the outer walls, Jai Singh’s troops managed to ambush an enemy sortie and force their way in to capture the fort for the Mughal Army. He lost two of his generals and suffered heavy losses in the process, however, the victory helped restored his dignity in the eyes of the Emperor.
Aurangazeb was, in fact, quite thrilled by the small victory in a war he was surely losing that he deigned to meet the boy-king. At court, the aging Emperor held Jai Singh’s hand and asked menacingly if he had anything to fear from his overlords, the Mughals. The young royal courageously pointed out that the Mughal’s gesture was akin to a bridegroom taking his bride’s hand in protection and therefore, the House of Amber had nothing to be afraid of. Aurangazeb laughed out loud and was so pleased with the boy’s humor that he bestowed the title of ‘Sawai’ on the young king, declaring that the teenager was worth one and a quarter of any man.
Sadly, this cozy moment did not last long. In the coming months, the relationship between Jai Singh and Aurangazeb deteriorated and Amber was subjected to the increasingly vengeful whims of the Emperor. Having reduced his monetary support further, Aurangazeb declared the gift of Malwa to Amber by Bidar Bakht as un-Islamic and announced that Jai Singh was not fit to sit on a cushioned throne. Jai Singh was reduced to begging the Mughals for money to support his troops and court and often received a curt ‘no’ in reply. In 1707, at perhaps the lowest point in their alliance, Jai Singh received news that proved to be a momentary respite: the nearly ninety-year old Aurangazeb was dead.
Very soon, it became clear that things were taking a turn for the worse. In Delhi, civil war broke out, with Aurangazeb’s sons fighting each other for the throne. Jai Singh was loyal to Prince Azam Shah, who was unfortunately, neither the legitimate heir nor the eventual victor in the decisive Battle of Jajau. Azam Shah was routed by his elder brother, Shah Alam, who declared himself Emperor and took the title, Bahadur Shah. The new Emperor decided to teach his opponent’s allies a lesson and as punishment for his loyalty to the losing side, Jai Singh was disposed of his kingdom and forced to join the Emperor’s convoy as a prisoner. An Imperial garrison was sent to stand guard at the royal House of Amber while its young king’s fate hung in the balance.
What happens next? Stay with me to learn how Jai Singh manages a daring escape and joins forces with the Maharana of Mewar, only to play a very dangerous game with the Mughal Empire. Till next time!
Sarkar, Jadunath (1984, reprint 1994) A History of Jaipur, New Delhi: Orient Longman
Tillotson G, (2006) Jaipur Nama, Penguin Books, 2006
Maharaja Sawai Man Singh Museum, http://msmsmuseum.com/index.php
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