What Is Jauhar and Why Did Rajput Queens Do It?
The long-dead practice is still celebrated with the Jauhar Mela in Rajasthan’s Chittorgarh every year.
Rani Padmavati's Story
The fabled and now controversial Rani Padmavati, the woman who protected the honour of the Rajputs after the siege of Chittor in 1303, did so by committing jauhar – or jumping into a pit of fire to avoid being raped and captured by the invading army.
Rajputs’ strong sense of honour made Padmavati take the drastic step of self-immolation, so that the victory of Alauddin Khilji, the powerful ruler of the Khilji dynasty of Delhi Sultanate, would have been a hollow one, for there would be no royal women left for him and his army to enslave.
What Is Jauhar?
Being captured and raped by enemies was unconscionable to Rajput women, who upon getting word that their armies had lost, would voluntarily jump into flames and commit jauhar to avoid capture. Historians have even touted the practice as being a precursor to the practice of sati, as Margaret P Battin noted in her book Ethics of Suicide.
The practice was common among the Rajputs, who were known to place honour higher than the value of their own lives.
The wives of the warriors would take their children and jump into the fire after being faced with defeat. It’s also believed that the women would don their bridal attire before stepping into the flames.
The term jauhar is the loose Arabic translation of the Persian word jivhar, which means gem, jewel and merit, as noted by John S Hawley in his book Sati, the Blessing and the Curse.
Women chose to burn themselves for the sake of preserving royal lineage and defending territory, as Hawley also noted in his book. Fire is also a symbol associated with purity, which is why these rituals were performed.
Jauhar vs Sati
The fundamental difference between jauhar and sati is that sati was obligatory on Hindu women, whereas jauhar was the prerogative of Rajput royal women, if they so chose.
Of course, they could also choose to immolate their children along with them. Jauhar could be performed before, or without knowing, that the husband was dead and defeat was imminent, so long as there was a risk of capture that the women did not wish to take. Jauhar would be performed en masse, with many Rajput women immolating themselves at once.
Sati on the other hand was the obligatory, often forced burning of a widow on her dead husband’s funeral pyre, and was a practice performed by Hindus.
How Many Jauhars Took Place in Chittor?
The palace of Chittor saw three instances of jauhar by Rajput women. The most widely acknowledged is the lore of Rani Padmavati’s jauhar in 1303. Another took place in 1535 when Bahadur Shah of Gujarat besieged the palace that was under Rani Karnavati, who committed jauhar after which the Rajput army subsequently walked the ritual of Saka (to be explained below).
Abu’l Fazl, one of the most famous scholars of medieval India, wrote in Ain-i-Akbari about the third siege of Chittor in 1567 – and the jauhar that took place then.
Though Fazl was not present during the siege, he recorded that numerous fires around the Chittor fort were visible within an hour of the death of the fort’s governor.
What Was Saka?
Saka was a ritual associated with jauhar, in which the men would simultaneously or subsequently march to their deaths at the hands of their enemies, as Fazl noted in Ain-i-Akbari.
Fazl described the men as coming out in “twos and threes” to “throw away their own lives” after the Rajput women performed the jauhar in 1567.
Why Did Padmavati’s Jauhar Take Place?
As the lore of Padmavati goes, written by Malik Muhammad Jayasi, Chittor’s king Ratnasen married the “perfect woman of unparalleled beauty” Padmavati. One of the king’s many subjects was Raghav Chaitanya who was banished by him, upon hearing about illegal activities done by him.
To take his revenge, Chaitanya reached the court of Allauddin Khilji to inform him about Padmavati’s unparalleled beauty.
As legend goes, Khilji went to Chittor to see the queen and saw just her reflection and was besotted with her.
It’s what motivated the siege of Chittor in 1303, which became a hollow victory as the queen chose to end her life than to become captive to the enemy.
An Extinct, Yet Glorified Practice
Even as the practices no longer exist and the incident of Padmavati’s jauhar is recognised as more folklore than fact, one of the biggest celebrations of the year in Rajasthan’s Chittorgarh is the “Jauhar Mela” that happens in February-March.
The celebration is held to honour the sacrifice made by Rajput women to uphold their clan’s honour. Even surviving descendants of the princely families attend the festival.
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