Part 42 THE RAJPUT CLANS Section I: The Origins

Canberra, 7 July 2015

The death of Emperor Harsha Vardhana, and a little later the early Islamic invasions, stirred the affairs of North India. Internecine wars with kings and clan leaders of limited merit and vision scrambling for power, created a sense of disquiet and instability. In fact instability dominated North India across the great Gangetic Plain, all the way east to Bengal. In this state of confusion, a warlike people who belonged to different and independent clans gradually came into prominence, creating a number of dynasties. They were called the Rajputs. In chronological terms the rise to power of the Rajput clans creates a clear demarcation between ancient and medieval Indian history. The ancient dynasties like the Guptas and the Mauryas have not left any living tradition behind. They are only remembered in coins, books and other archaeological finds. On the other hand the Rajput dynasties that took hold starting from the late 6th century are still alive and continue to be an influential section of contemporary Indian society. The demarcation between ancient and medieval Indian history therefore is the clear line between the dead and living traditions.

Since the Rajputs play a decisive role in this move towards medieval history, the question rises, ‘Who were the Rajputs? Where did they originate?’ As is common in Indian history, this is yet another question that is thrown up, and which is difficult to answer comprehensively. Imperfect chronology, confusing facts, and conflicting information combine to make it extremely difficult for the researcher to arrive at answers that can be asserted as being correct with the necessary assurance. In the case of the Rajputs, the large number of clans and dynasties that evolved over a period of time make the task even more difficult. The remote origins of the Rajputs is difficult to guide a reader through accurately and therefore a certain amount of reasonable assumptions and conjunctures in the narrative must be accepted.

In Indian history the connection of ruling families, especially in ancient and medieval times, to the broader Hindu society at large is most of the time unclear. It is seen that a number of capable individual adventurers were able to lay the foundation for dynasties that went on to produce a long and distinguished line of kings ruling extensive empires before fading from the firmament. Similarly it is seen that some heads of prominent clans were also able to consolidate power and emerge as the undisputed rulers of other allied clans who went on to become subservient to the major clan. The rise to power of the Kushans is a vivid example of this tradition.

In the more remote days of Indian history the ruling clans of Kshatriyas were continually forming new states through conquest and through constant adaptation of clan-based alliances. It is certain that once the Rajputs burst on to the scene in medieval times they continued this tradition, although there are no records to fully establish such a progression as fact. The posited continuation of the earlier tradition must therefore remain conjuncture, derived from an understanding of the subsequent flow of events. The ancient times term Kshatriya had a very vague meaning and denoted the ruling class who were not of Brahmin descent. The Brahmins were the learned class and traditionally became the minsters of the king.

The Brahmin-Kshatriya Connection

In ancient times the demarcation and separation between the Brahmins and Kshatriyas were not as rigid as it became in later days when the concept of Hindu religion by itself was under attack. One represented the learned group of people clubbed into a caste and the other represented the warrior-class who protected the general population and the boundaries of the country. Their profession led to their gradually being accepted as hereditary rulers. The two groups often crossed over through change of profession or by intermarriage. Normally the Brahmins were content to be the ministers and advisers to the kings, although all through ancient history there are instances of Brahmin ministers usurping power and ruling as kings. The early Sunga dynasty is one such, wherein the Brahmin minister took over the kingdom and went on to found a dynasty of no mean stature.

Even in later times Hieun Tsang, the famous Chinese Buddhist pilgrim traveller, notes that Brahmin kings were ruling in Ujjaian and Jijhoti (Bundelkhand). When a Brahmin succeeded in founding a dynasty, the successors of the original king were normally recognised as Kshatriyas and intermarriage with established Kshatriya families were permitted. In fact it is noteworthy that the Brahmins themselves were of diverse origins. The Nagar Brahmins were descendants of the learned class amongst the foreign invaders; and the Maga Brahmins are believed to have originated from the Iranian Magi.

When a Brahmin family was transitioning to the Kshatriya class or caste, they were often referred to as Brahma-Kshatri. In the early part of their rule, the Sisodias of Mewar were called Brahma-Kshatri.

Foreign Origins

The term Rajput was the collective name of a large number of clans, mostly of different races and origins. The name was replaced at times with ‘chhattri’ which is the vernacular equivalent of the Sanskrit Kshatriya, and also by the term ‘Thakur’ meaning, in a broad manner, Lord. The Rajputs were a social group and did not belong to the same race. A ‘race’ would indicate a common descent and/or blood relationship, which was not the case with the Rajput clans. In this instance the term only denotes a group of tribes or clans whose only common feature was their war-like habits. The leaders of the clans claimed aristocratic rank and status and were treated by the Brahmins, in an opportunistic manner, as representing and being equal to the Kshatriyas of olden times.

In ancient and medieval times there was a belief that the Rajputs were descendants of the foreign invaders that poured into India during the 5 and 6 centuries. Older literature mentions their origins from the ‘Scythians’, who came to be known in Indian history as the Sakas. Recent research has authenticated that the Kushans in the 1st century and the Sakas in the 2nd century were both ‘Hinduised’ and became part of the Kshatriyas, being admitted into the ruling class of the sub-continent. Although there is no distinct proof that a similar process brought about the beginning of the conspicuous Rajput clans, it can be inferred from analogy to be correct.

There were three large scale invasions into the sub-continent through the North-West passes before the Islamic invasions of the 10th and 11th century. The primary elements leading these three invasions were the Sakas, Kushans and the Huns, but also included many other races, tribes and clans. Although there is a definitive gap between the three major incursions, immigration from Central Asia was a continuous process throughout the first five centuries of the millennia. Unfortunately there are no records available to provide information to study these events in detail, especially since they have influenced Indian history for centuries and have a bearing even today on contemporary happenings. Along with the paucity of identifiable records of these emigrations, the tradition of the Rajput descend from the Sakas and Kushans have been lost in antiquity and is only conjuncture through circumstantial evidence. It is also interesting to note that no Indian dynasty or ruling family claims descend or relationship with the Kushans, although they were a great and stabilising force during their rule. Only the Turki Shahiya kings of Kabul, who ruled that region till the 9th century, claim descent from the Kushans.

The Hun invasion was more savage than the earlier incursions and the culture of the invaders were such that there are very limited sources that provide information about the times. The scraps of information that can be gleaned come from archaeological excavations and numismatics. It is certain that the viciousness of the Hun invasion deeply disturbed the equanimity of the till-then fairly tranquil Hindu traditions, institutions, society and polity. The ferocity of conquest of the Huns and other foreign tribes that came with and after them in the 5th and 6th century, even in small areas that they corralled for themselves, was such that the entire Hindu society was shaken to its roots in North India. Age-old traditions were severed and discarded with no possibility of reconnection at a later stage necessitating a profound rearrangement of the society itself. In order to bring a semblance of stability it was seen that the ruling ‘foreign’ clans had somehow to be embraced within the traditional Hindu fold.

The Flaw in Hindu Records

Contemporary Hindu writers and chroniclers during these incursions were reluctant to provide detailed information of the ‘barbarian’ invasions, perhaps because of the false sense of protecting the status of the defeated indigenous kings or because of an inherent abhorrence to describing brutal savagery that was part and parcel of these invasions. For example, even Alexander’s famous incursion across the River Indus is not mentioned in any detail in the Indian accounts of the defeat of the Indian king Porus, other than to glorify the ‘kingly’ behaviour of their fallen king.

The famous and repeated sackings of the Somnath temple by Mahmud of Ghazni (details given in a later chapter), and the extreme cruelty that accompanied it, hardly rates a mention in the Indian chronicles. The details of the repeated raids are available only from the Muslim authors and other scribes who accompanied the Ghazni invasion.

In this chaotic era, the rule of Harsha Vradhana is a brief but brilliant interlude of achievement, stability and tranquil prosperity. On his death, the period of unrecorded anarchy resumed almost immediately making one believe that mayhem was only waiting in the wings for the cue to make its appearance on centre stage in a pervasive manner.

The Hun group of tribes—the main ones being the Huns, Gurjaras and Maitrakas in order of importance and influence—settled permanently in Rajputana (the region around today’s Rajasthan in a loose manner) and Punjab. The upper echelon, the leadership, of these three and other lesser known tribes of the invading hordes, became ‘Rajputs’ the ruling class equated with the Kshatriyas. The lower ranks gradually developed into traceable Hindu castes but of less honourable status like the Gujars, Ahirs and Jats. Rajput therefore is essentially a clan-caste, and as mentioned earlier, a common term applied to a number of races.

The lower strata of the invaders, especially the group that became Gujars, have become the diffused middle class in North-West India today. They are mainly pastoral people, engaged in agriculture. The Jats are similar to the Gujars, but more inclined towards agriculture, although the relationship and/or any connection between the two are still unclear. It can however be surmised that they formed part of the same invading group at some far away time in history. Although they originated in the same tribe as some of the more prominent Rajput clans, the Gujars and the Jats are not Rajputs.

It is only in the 18th century that it was discovered that the kings of Kanauj during the 9th, 10th and 11th centuries were from the Rajputs descended from the Gurjara clan. Definitive proof of this fact came with the discovery that King Bhoja of Kanauj (ruled approximately 840-90) belonged to the Pratihara clan which derived its origin from the Gurjaras. Earlier history placed the Pratiharas as rulers of a small kingdom in Bharoach (Broach) in Gujarat. The name Pratihara has been loped into Parihar, a subsequently well-known clan of Rajputs and a branch of the Gurjaras. The Parihars ruled a large part of Rajputana from Bhinmal about 50 kilometres north-west of Mount Abu. Around 800 Nagabhatta, the Parihar king of the Gurjara country invaded and conquered Kanauj and for strategic reasons of status and legitimacy shifted his capital to the newly acquired city of ancient glory. He was the founder of a line of Parihara kings ruling from Kanauj, till they were defeated and almost eliminated by Mahmud of Ghazni in 1019. This line of Pariharas ruled North India for more than two centuries.

The Legend from Chand Raisa

There is a legend mentioned in the chronicle, Chand Raisa, that details the story of a sacrificial fire from which four major Rajput clans emerged—Pawar (Paramaras); Parihar (Pratiharas); Chauhan (Chahumana); and Solanki (Chaulukya). Since they originated from the sacrificial fire pit at Mount Abu in southern Rajasthan, they are commonly also called ‘agnikula’ or fire born. This myth is corroborated by the historical fact of the four clans being related and also originating from the southern part of Rajasthan.

In his authoritative book, The Early History of India (p. 412) Vincent Smith observes, ‘[The myth] represents a rite of purgation by fire, the scene of which was in Southern Rajputana, whereby the impurity of the foreigners was removed and they became fitted to enter the Hindu caste system.’ (The same explanation for the myth is given in J Roy in Rajputs and Mahrattas, published by the Anthropological Institute in 1911, p. 42.)

The Parihars have been proven to have originated from the Gurjara clan and there is strong presumption that the others also have their origins in the Gurjaras themselves or in other tribes that accompanied the Hun-Gurjara invasion of North India. Unfortunately there is no records that indicate where in Asia the Gurjaras came from or any information regarding the origin of the tribe. The historian has to be content with starting the narrative at the period of their invasion into the Indian sub-continent. Most other prominent Rajput clans have similar history but they have not been worked out with the same certainty and details as has been done in the case of the Parihars.

Irrespective of the route that they took to becoming locally accepted, the simple truth is that all the foreign tribes or clans which started to rule even small holdings in the north-western, western and northern parts of the sub-continent gradually became Hinduised. The ruling family and its extended group were readily recognised by the local people as Kshatriyas, and generally called Rajputs. The common people of the tribe gradually lost their tribal identity and were assimilated into the existing Indian society and caste system. Lacking the status, resources and power available to the clan leadership, they were not regarded or recognised as aristocrats.

The tribes that came into India were originally nomadic and pastoral people who underwent a major transformation in their lifestyle during the period between the 7th and 9th century, during which period their assimilation into the Hindu fold gathered momentum. At this stage they shed the last vestiges of being foreigners and started to be recognised as Kshatriya-Rajputs.

The Clans of Indian Origin

In the extreme south of the Rajputana territory, some clans of indigenous origin also started to move up the social structure to claim Kshatriya and subsequently Rajput status. There is an established and proven close connection between the Gonds and Bhars, both indigenous tribes of North and Central India, and the Chandels. The inference is that the Chandel Rajputs were Hinduised Gonds/Bhars who gradually achieved recognition as Kshatriya-Rajputs when they became independent rulers of small kingdoms. The Gaharwars are also associated with the Bhars and the both the Bundelas and Rathores are considered to be offshoots of the Gaharwars.

There are two interesting hypotheses that have so far remained unproven and which must be mentioned to provide a holistic appreciation of the stories and myths that surround the debate concerning the origin of the Rajputs. First is regarding the great Rashtrakuta dynasty of the Deccan (described in detail in Volume III of this series of books). The name Rashtrakuta is etymologically identical to Rathore and therefore there are claims that they were Rathores who moved into the Deccan. However, no racial connection between the two have been established and therefore the hypothesis has no basis for serious argument or consideration. It is most likely that the Rashtrakutas originated from some indigenous tribe of the Deccan or the Peninsula. The second concerns the unceasing wars of the medieval times in Rajasthan and North India. It is claimed that this was the result of a secular struggle between the ‘foreign’ Rajputs of the north and the ‘indigenous’ Rajputs of the south. It is an interesting hypothesis but without any factual basis. It is true that there was always a divide between the Rajputs who originated from the indigenous ‘aborigine’ tribes and the ones who were descended from the ‘barbarian’ foreigners. However, this divide was more related to social promotion in the first case and acceptance through assimilation in the second. It was not the cause for internecine wars.

The prominent clans of the north were the ‘agnikula’ Rajputs—the Powar, Chauhan and Parihar clans and also the Tomars; while the southern clans were represented by the Chandels, Kalachuris, Haihayas and Gaharwars. The origin of the Solankis (Chaulukyas), although also ‘agnikula’, are disputed and there are claims that they originated in Oudh. However, it is almost certain that they were also of foreign origin.


The fundamental point to be understood is that the Rajputs were an occupational group. Further, they were not a single independent race but diverse races clumped together under one common and generally used term. Since they were doing the work of governance, which included protection of the people and the territorial rights of the kingdom—traditionally the duty of the Kshatriyas—they were accepted as Kshatriyas and brought into the local fold through complex Hindu rituals. Even within Rajasthan the clans were descendants of distinct and different racial stocks. The only common features of the different groups were the similarities in the warlike occupation and some social habits.

The Brahmins treated the new aristocracy, irrespective of racial or territorial origin, as Kshatriyas in line with the ancient scriptures. The reasons could have been many, not the least being individual and collective gain for the Brahmins who benefitted from the largess of the newly anointed rulers. There could also have been an altruistic aim to ensure that the land was governed with care, which brought in stability, a commodity that was receding during the convulsion that were taking place during this transformational period. To assimilate the newly anointed Kshatriya class into the broader Hindu society, a novel term ‘Raja-Putra’ meaning ‘son of a king’ was coined and over a period of time it lapsed into Rajput, used synonymously with Kshatriya.

Over centuries these clans intermarried, creating customs and traditions that became unwritten rules governing such unions. More importantly they created and extensive network of blood relations between the clans that gradually came to be recognised as sub-castes within the broader ‘Rajput clan’. This was a process that started in the mid-6th century and took a long time to become acknowledged norms.

Their actual points of origin, whether foreign or indigenous, is displeasing to the great Rajput clans. Therefore, they claim descend from a Brahmin-assisted orthodox Hindu pedigree—from the Sun, Moon or the sacrificial fire pit—which is more in tune with the illustrious kings of the past. It is also perhaps justified considering the illustrious kings that the Rajput clans produced and the valiant heritage to which they can honestly lay claim to, in the process becoming more Indian and Hindu than any other ruling class and the epitome of all that the traditional Kshatriya class of the ancient land strived to become.

© [Sanu Kainikara] [2015]
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About Sanu Kainikara

Sainik School Kazhakuttam (Kerala), National Defence Academy 39/A, 108 Pilot's Course IAF, fighter pilot, QFI, FCL, psc, HACC, Voluntary Retirement as Wing Commander. Canberra-based Defence Analyst specialising in air power and national security. PhD in International Politics from University of Adelaide Executive Masters in Public Adminsitration (ANZSOG) Adjunct Professor, University of New South Wales, Distinguished Fellow Institute For Regional Security (IFRS) Distinguished Fellow Centre for Air Power Studies (CAPS)

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