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Review Corner

Book Review – Gujarat’s Last Rajput

About 700 years back Patan was the capital of a powerful kingdom.The greatness and splendour of the town have been described by a number of poets and chroniclers. Anhilpur covered an area of eleven kos; and within this had several temples and schools. It had 84 squares, 84 bazaars, and a mint to manufacture gold and silver coins. Different castes lived in their respective localities and there were specific areas where ivory, silk cloths, diamonds, pearls, rubies, aromatic bath oils and other merchandise were sold. 

There was a separate market for bankers, Doctors, artisans, goldsmiths, sailors, bards, genealogists, each had a market of their own. The description might be exaggerated but it is undeniable that Anhilpur-Patan was once a prosperous, sprawling and attractive town. Seated here were Kathis of the lineage of Raja Karan — terrifying figures over six feet tall, strong limbed, cat eyed and brown haired; Kolis, short statured but well built, bow and arrow at their waists; dark and vigorous Bhils, professional looters and fearless warriers; and Rajput soldiers of more refined visage and superior status but valorous nonetheless. 

Madhav was effectively the ruler being Karan Raja’s Prime Minister. He managed all the business of government. The King was a mere puppet and Madhav the defacto ruler. In the book “Gujarat’s last Rajput King — Karan Ghelo’, Dalpatram Dayabhai like many other liberal Western educated Gujaratis including the author Nandshankar Mehta was convinced that whatever the drawbacks of British Rule, it would restore Gujarat to its former glory. Lamenting the passing away of a glorious past he wonders who would believe that the indolent weak and the decadent Rajputs of today descended from the valiant race that once ruled the land? Who would believe that the weak starving illiterate Muslims of today have descended from the Muslims of yore? And as for the Marathas no trace of their former glory survives. However Mehta does not despair and prays under British rule Gujarat may rise from the ashes once more to become a garden of paradise, the abode of Lakshmi, the storehouse of all virtue. 

The story of Karan Vaghela is a tale of love and passion, revenge and remorse. The Raja was brave but thoughtless and a pleasure loving Rajput King, abducts Roopsundari, the wife of Madhav whose brother is killed as he tries to protect her. In revenge Madhav goes to Delhi where he persuades Sultan Allauddin Khilji to attack Gujarat. The attack succeeds and Karan loses not only his kingdom but his wife Kaularani and a few years later his daughter Devaldevi as well to the Turkish sultan. He gains the epithet ‘Ghelo’ (foolish). 

The Turkish conquest was a turning point in the history of Gujarat, and it was not long before the story of Madhav’s betrayal, the humiliating defeat of Karan Vaghela and the fall of the great city of Anhilpur-Patan. Khilji’s invasion was recorded in contemporary Jain chronicles. Karan Raja’s story was not confined to Gujarati sources alone. The events that led to his fateful second encounter with Khilji’s forces and the capture of his daughter Devaldevi were described in considerable detail by Amir Khusrau, Khilji’s famous court poet. Then there is the tragic romance between Devaldevi and Khilji’s son Khizr Khan after she is brought to Delhi. 

Mehta’s historic novel Karan Ghelo in 1866 was a runaway success. As the first modern novel written in Gujarati, the book was a landmark in literature. It remained immensely popular right into the twentieth century and until a few decades ago was used as a textbook in Gujarati medium schools. Interestingly the novel has never been out of print. It has caught the attention of academics seeking to probe the roots of Gujarati regional identity. 

The second half of Karan Ghelo is based in Baglan where he managed to establish himself with the assistance of Ramdev, the Maratha ruler of Devgadh. Here he lives a solitary life, his only consolation being his daughter Devaldevi. Kaularani, now a favourite of Khilji, asks the sultan to get her daughter Devaldevi back either willingly or by force. The sultan orders the generals to secure Devaldevi. 

When Karan refuses to give her up he is attacked by the sultan’s forces. In need of Maratha support Karan reluctantly agrees to marry Devaldevi to Shankaldev, the prince of Devgadh, though he deems him to be inferior in status. Before she can reach her new home she is captured and taken to Delhi. 

The author sees Devaldevi’s clandestine meetings with Shankaldev from her point of view. Her feverish longing reveals Devaldevi as more than just a prize to be fought over by Turks and Hindus but a young woman capable of independent thought and feelings. The blossoming of love between Devaldevi and Shankaldev gives Mehta an opportunity to make an impassioned plea against arranged and child marriage in particular. They reflect the reformist agenda of the 19th Century with which the author was so closely involved.

Mehta was part of the English educated intelligentsia of the nineteenth century Gujarat. He joined hands with other colleagues to establish the Manav Dharma Sabha and was an enthusiastic member of the 

Buddhivardhank Sabha which was set up in Bombay in 1851. Both organisations were strong champions of issues such as women’s education, widow remarriage, and the removal of the caste ban on foreign travel. They were vocal in their condemnation of untouchability and challenged superstitions, the belief in magic spells and ghosts and spirits. Perhaps even more daring is the manner in which Mehta portrays the relationship between Madhav and Roopsundari. As a woman who was abducted and had to become part of the kings’s harem, she is a fallen woman, a ‘polluted commmodity’. Yet Madhav does not reject or abandon her after Patan falls and she is rescued. On the contrary the two embrace passionately…..laughing and weeping with ‘joy’, their love as strong as before. The couple undergo the mandatory purificatory rites and treat it as a mere formality.

In the first edition of Karan Ghelo, the author disclosed his intention of writing the book to draw as accurately as possible a picture of how things were at the time of the story — the manners of the men and women of the time and their way of thinking; the principles of government of the Rajput kings of Gujarat and the Muslim emperors of Delhi; the heroism and the pride of caste of the men and women of Rajasthan and the passion and religious fanaticism of the Muslims. A highly readable book which provides the flavour of age old love, passion and palace intrigues of the times. 

By TIS Staffer
the authorBy TIS Staffer

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