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A Not-so-great Great Man History of Jaipur

Jadunath Sarkar and Raghubir Sinh (ed.), A History of Jaipur, c. 1503-1938 (1984; repr. Hyderabad: Orient Blackswan, 2009).


In the 1930s, the Maharaja of Jaipur State, Sawai Man Singh II, commissioned well-known Indian historian Jadunath Sarkar to write an official history of his state and his own ruling family, the Kacchawaha Rajputs. In undertaking this commission, Sarkar had access to the official records of Jaipur State, which had never been used by historians before. By 1940, Sarkar had finished his manuscript, but because of opposition by the nobles of Jaipur State (who generally come across negatively in the narrative), publication of the book had to be shelved indefinitely. It was not until more than forty years later, in 1984, that Sarkar’s book finally saw the light of day. By this time, the author and the commissioning Maharaja had both passed away. Sovereign Jaipur State also was no more; now it was just a district in the state of Rajasthan. Sarkar’s History of Jaipur was eventually published in a very different world than the one in which it was written.

I had been hearing about A History of Jaipur for a while when I finally got my hands on a copy recently and excitedly started reading it. My excitement did not last long, though. After the first few chapters, I had gotten thoroughly bored, and it ultimately took me more than a month to slog through the book. Had I known a little more about the context of the book and the background of its author, I would have been better prepared for the disappointment.

The most disappointing aspect of the book was that the title did not accurately reflect the contents. It isn’t A History of Jaipur; it is actually A History of the Rulers of Jaipur. Most of the book is just a dynastic history of the Kacchawaha house, from the early sixteenth century to Man Singh II. The narrative follows the Raja wherever he goes. In the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, Man Singh I, Mirza Raja Jai Singh I, and Ram Singh I served as generals in the Mughal army, often spending years away from their capitals at a stretch. Sarkar wrote in tiresome detail about all these campaigns, completely ignoring whatever might have been happening on the home front at this time. I would love to know about economic and cultural life in the Kacchawaha kingdom, but Sarkar had nothing to say about these topics.

It isn’t really surprising that Sarkar wrote a Great Man history of the Kacchawaha house, since he was commissioned to write his history by the ruler of that clan. Surely Sawai Man Singh II wanted to be portrayed as a Great Man from a long line of Great Men.

Jadunath Sarkar was best known for writing about the reign of the Mughal emperor Aurangzeb (r. 1658-1707, contemporary with Jai Singh I and Ram Singh I). His magnum opus was the five-volume History of Aurangzeb (1912-24), which I now have absolutely no desire to read. As Mohammad Shah points out, Sarkar thought that (Islamic) Mughal rule in India had been oppressive, and British rule was an improvement.1 Aurangzeb comes across in Sarkar’s histories as a temple-smashing religious fanatic, emblematic of the broadly oppressive policies of the Mughal Empire.

In writing the official history of Jaipur State, Sarkar had to change his tack. The reason is that the Kacchawaha house was the first Rajput kingdom to join the Mughal Empire, when the daughter of Raja Bharmal of Amber married Mughal Emperor Akbar in 1562. Condemning the Mughal Empire would, in effect, condemn the Kacchawaha house, because they had willingly joined the empire through a marriage-alliance. Instead, Sarkar restricted his criticism to certain aspects of Mughal policy. Aurangzeb comes across badly in A History of Jaipur as well, but mainly because of his supposed mistreatment of Jai Singh I and Ram Singh I.

In contrast with Mughal rule, British rule in India was, in Sarkar’s eyes, a great blessing. As a princely state, Jaipur was technically sovereign. A treaty signed in 1818 surrendered responsibilities of defense and foreign relations to the British, but the Maharaja of Jaipur could theoretically do whatever he wanted within the confines of his own kingdom. In reality, the British meddled in the affairs of the princely states, posting residents in the capitals and arbitrating in succession disputes. It was in the best interests of the princes to maintain good relations with the Paramount Power (as the British rulers styled themselves). When the Indian Mutiny broke out in 1857, the princes stayed on the side of the British, providing essential support for the suppression of the rebellion.

The glowingly positive terms in which Sarkar describes the British read almost comically nowadays. Take, for instance, this statement about the modernizer Ram Singh II:

The dawn of the modern age in Jaipur was due to the initiative and fostering care of a number of British officers of exceptional ability and generous sympathy, and it was the good fortune of Maharajah Ram Singh II to have been trained by them at the formative stage of his life and to carry to full maturity the reforms for which they had done the spadework.2

Or this one, about Madho Singh II’s visit to England to attend the coronation of Edward VII:

The unifying force of such an Empire [the British Empire] rises above caste, creed, and locality.3

If nothing else, A History of Jaipur is a reminder that the way we interpret history can change drastically over time. No Indian alive today would prefer the British Raj over independence. This attitude can too easily be imposed onto the past, so that all Indians at all times seem to have desired independence. But many members of the privileged classes in India—including Sawai Man Singh II and Jadunath Sarkar himself—benefited from British rule. A History of Jaipur is a relic of a period that most Indians now are willing to forget.

  1. Mohammad Shah, “Jadunath Sarkar’s interpretation of Aurangzeb’s reign,” Journal of the Asiatic Society of Bangladesh 28 (Dec. 1983): 133-41. []
  2. Sarkar, A History of Jaipur, 325-36. []
  3. Ibid., 355. []

Soldiers of Misfortune

Like Ralph Fitch, Robert Coverte was another English merchant who brought back to England tales of danger and adventure from his eastward journey.1 Coverte departed from England in 1607 in the ship Assention, which sailed around Africa to reach India. In Aden, several of Coverte’s traveling companions, who “unadvisedly” went ashore, were arrested by the governor and ultimately executed. After almost two months in port, Assention weighed anchor and continued eastward.

Off the coast of Cambaya (in present-day Gujarat), the ship foundered, the merchants saving what little treasure they could. The locals initially thought that the Englishmen fleeing in their lifeboats were part of a Portuguese invasion force. Once this misunderstanding was clarified, the English merchants were received cordially.2

As Fitch had done, Coverte and John Frenchman made their way toward Agra to meet with the Mughal Emperor. Coverte was impressed by the richness of the country through which he passed: “The Country is so plentifull, that you may have a gallon of milke for a halfe penny, a Hen for three half-pence, & 16 Eggs for a penny.” At the bazaar of one city he passed on the way to Agra, he marveled at the variety of goods for sale: “Pots, Kettles, Shirts of Male, Swords and Bucklers, Lances, Horses in Armour and Arrowe proofe, Camels, and all manner of beasts.”3

At the city of Brampor, Coverte and Frenchman had to obtain a pass from the Mughal authorities to continue on to Agra. The Mughal general (whom Coverte does not name) asked if the Englishmen would join his army. When the men declined, saying that they were only poor, shipwrecked merchants, the general replied incredulously that he thought all Englishmen were warriors. He ultimately granted passes to the men after they sold him some jewels “for his Ladies.”4

At last, Coverte and Frenchman reached Agra. William Hawkins, the English ambassador to the Mughal court, met the merchants and brought them before the emperor, Jehangir. Coverte presented the emperor with two small gifts: a gold whistle and a picture of John the Baptist after his decapitation. Jehangir took the whistle “and whistled therewith almost an houre.”5

Coverte remarked in his account about the richness of life in the Mughal capital. Agra’s markets were full of every variety of fruit. Jehangir was in the process of building a great tomb for his predecessor, Akbar. It was made of “very fine marble, curiously wrought.” In Coverte’s eyes, Jehangir lived “in as great state and pompe as may be desired, both for majesty and princely pleasure.”6

Rather than retracing their sea route back to England, Coverte and Frenchman traveled overland through Persia and Arabia to the Levant, where they found a ship bound for England. As the English merchants were taking their leave of Jehangir, the emperor asked them if they would serve him in the Mughals’ wars. The Englishmen refused this request once again.7

Jehangir’s request was not an idle one. Significant numbers of Europeans served as officers in the Mughal army as the empire attempted to expand its frontiers. Some were even poorer shipwrecked merchants than Coverte and Frenchman, and they were not given the choice of whether or not to serve.

One such soldier of misfortune was W. Glanius, a Dutch merchant whose account A Relation of an Unfortunate Voyage to the Kingdom of Bengala was published in London in 1682. Glanius’s merchant ship, Ter Schelling, and three other ships departed the Netherlands in 1651, laden with silver coin and copper plate. Ter Schelling wrecked off the coast of Bengal, and the survivors washed up on an island. At length, Glanius and a few of the other survivors managed to escape the island on an improvised boat; they were picked up by a Bengali bark. Glanius was pressed into service in the Mughal army, as Bengal was at this time the easternmost province of the Mughal Empire.8

Glanius came into the Mughal army’s service during a flare-up in the intermittent conflicts between the Mughal Empire and the Ahom kingdom. For much of the seventeenth century, the Mughal and Ahom armies battled over what is now lower Assam, alternately gaining and losing ground against the opposing army. During this campaign, the Mughal army was under the command of Prince Jemla (Mir Jumla), who was also the Mughal governor of Bengal.9

As Glanius described, a formidable Mughal force advanced against the Ahoms. On land, the army had 300,000 cavalry and 500,000 infantry, by Glanius’s figures. The Mughals also had a formidable force on water, which navigated up the Brahmaputra10 to attack Ahom positions. The main elements of the Mughals’ water-borne force were gourapes, which were boats with fourteen guns and crews of between fifty and sixty men. Each gourape was attended by four kosses, oar-powered boats that towed the gourapes against the river’s current. The Mughal river navy also had flat-bottom boats with no masts but many guns, as well as barges that transported the provisions as well as the officers’ wives.11


The Mughal army had many European mercenaries who served as technical advisers and officers. On the boats, most of the officers were Portuguese. Furthermore, Englishmen and several other Dutchmen were also involved in the conflict. In addition, a force of between three and four thousand Muscovites fought in the conflict.12 Glanius does not mention whether Europeans served in the Ahom army as well.

During Glanius’s service, the Mughal forces captured Gauhati and went on to occupy the Ahom capital of Garhgaon. After Glanius had served for fifteen months, the Dutch consul managed to get a discharge for Glanius and the other Dutch soldiers of misfortune. Glanius then went into the service of the Dutch East India Company, where he worked until 1673. When he finally returned to his native country, he had been gone from the Netherlands for twenty-two years.13

  1. Robert Coverte’s narrative was published as A True and Almost Incredible report of an Englishman, that (being cast away in the good Ship called the Assention, in Cambaya, the farthest part of the East Indies) Travelled by Land through many unknowne Kingdomes, and great Cities (London, 1614). []
  2. Coverte, A True and Almost Incredible Report, 24. []
  3. Ibid., 26. []
  4. Ibid., 28-9. []
  5. Ibid., 35-6. []
  6. Ibid., 37, 39, 41. []
  7. Ibid. []
  8. W. Glanius, A Relation of an Unfortunate Voyage to the Kingdom of Bengala (London, 1682), 1, 109. []
  9. For an overview of the Mughal-Ahom wars, see “The Period of the Muhammadan Wars,” in Edward Gait, A History of Assam (1906; repr. Delhi: Surjeet Publications, 2006), 108-63. []
  10. Glanius calls the river “Ganges.” []
  11. Glanius, An Unfortunate Voyage, 144-45. []
  12. Ibid., 141, 144, 146. []
  13. Ibid., 160, 183. []

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