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Rajputs with the golden guns

(Clockwise from top) A Sindhi percussion rifle, an 18th century Rajput powder flask with embroidered velvet, and a painting of a Devgar ruler with a matchlock gun   | Photo Credit: Special Arrangement

The skyline of Jodhpur is pinned in place by the mammoth silhouette of Mehrangarh on Bhaucheeria Hill and the regal dome of the Umaid Bhawan Palace on Chittar Hill. Between the two is defined the spirit of Marwar, forged by the sword in a thousand bloody battles in the heat of the Thar.

Through the centuries down to the First World War’s Haifa in 1918 — considered the last great cavalry action in military history — the Jodhpur Lancers were known for their reckless charge with only sword and lance. The Rajputs first encountered the firearm at the battle of Khanwa (1526) fought between Babur and Rana Sanga of Mewar. “The Rajputs had never seen anything like it before,” says Gaj Singh II, erstwhile ruler of Jodhpur (and head of the House of Rathore) in his foreword to Robert Elgood’s The Maharaja of Jodhpur’s Guns.

The book, published by Niyogi Books and Mehrangarh Museum Trust, is an amalgamation of historic Indian firearms, and is said to be the first on the subject. Mehrangarh, built in 1452 by Rao Jodha and described by English writer Rudyard Kipling as ‘the work of angels, fairies and giants… built by titans and coloured by the morning sun’, has been home to an extraordinary museum and centre of culture since 1972, when Gaj Singh II transformed the fort. It is also where some of the 350 guns whose images feature in the book, rest.

Author Robert Elgood and the book cover

Author Robert Elgood and the book cover   | Photo Credit: Special Arrangement

By the barrel

The UK-based Robert Elgood, an expert on the historic arms of Hindu India and the Islamic world, brings to his work a lifetime of passion for medieval armoury. With a degree in Islamic History from the School of Oriental and African Studies, London, a DPhil in Indian Anthropology from Oxford, and work experiences with Sotheby’s and the Wallace Collection, Elgood says, “My interest in arms and armour began at an early age. Islamic Arms, which I edited, comprising articles by international scholars, was published in 1979. I was invited to work in the newly-formed Islamic Department at Sotheby’s as an expert on Oriental arms.” Those years set off a series of books — on the arms collection of Shaikh Hasan al Thani in Qatar; Arms and Armour of Arabia; and the first book on Islamic firearms by the owner of the Tareq Rajab Museum, Kuwait in 1995.

Reading The Maharaja of Jodhpur’s Guns is like travelling from the 15th to the 20th century at a steady canter on a hardy Marwari horse. The first aspect of the book that strikes the reader is Elgood’s extraordinary research, spanning centuries, continents and private collections. In discussing the transfer of military and firepower technology through war and trade, he makes the subject integrated across Europe, the Arab and Turkish worlds, India and China.

A rare pair of Chalembrom pistols

A rare pair of Chalembrom pistols   | Photo Credit: Special Arrangement

However, the detailed conquests of marauding horsemen and warriors in chain mail may interest only the avid historian. For the lover of the aesthete, there is the rest of the book — over 300 pages of fine pictures of miniature paintings sourced from the Chester Beatty Library, Dublin; the Musee Guimet, Paris; and the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York; among others. There is also a detailed catalogue on every kind of gun that has been fired on the subcontinent.

With fine brushstrokes, Elgood discusses the invention of gunpowder, its arrival in India, the matchlock guns of the Portuguese Eastern empire, the Sindhi jezails with their exquisite muzzles, powder flasks made of mother of pearl, and sporting guns that were the highlight of game shooting expeditions.

Elgood, who had earlier catalogued the Maharaja of Jodhpur’s edged weapons, says he worked his “way through the maharaja’s personal possessions selecting any object that seemed interesting and high quality”. British gunmakers Holland and Holland and Purdeys also made their records available to him.

Tales of the brave

The book names many of the early guns of Jodhpur as matchlocks made in India. The design was essentially Mughal, copied from the Safavids of Iran, who, in turn, copied from the Turks who were inspired by the weaponry of the European armies they fought.

“The Rajput warriors despised guns, believing that a brave man should fight his enemy up close. They were usually paid more for a wound with a sword than the same wound caused by a gun,” says Elgood.

This, however, did not discourage Gaj Singh II’s grandfather, Maharaja Umaid Singh, from possessing some fine weapons, including a priceless enamelled 12-bore gun. His father, Maharaja Hanwant Singh, set up a gun factory in Mehrangarh.

A late 19th century Punjabi shot flask

A late 19th century Punjabi shot flask   | Photo Credit: Special Arrangement

“In the 19th century, the use of European guns became widespread in princely India and the Jodhpur armoury contains examples of the very best hunting guns,” says Elgood, adding, “Maharaja Umaid Singh was a great shikari and Maharaja Hanwant Singh was an expert gun designer. The Jodhpur collection, therefore, includes superb 20th century guns including a gold Colt automatic. The ivory grip bears the inscription as given by Umaid Singh to his son on his 21st birthday.”

There are also pages from the 1926 hunting diary of Maharaja Umaid Singh that make for some interesting and humorous reading, and tales of how a disguised .22 pen pistol came to be auctioned as part of the Mountbatten Collection.

Be it history that draws you or stories of brave adventure, the book is a record of why India’s royalty continues to remain the stuff of legend and how the firearm came to be for the Rathores, as treasured as the “Marwari horse and the sacred sword”.

Published by Niyogi Books, The Maharaja of Jodhpur’s Guns is priced at ₹4,500.

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Printable version | Dec 2, 2020 10:19:24 PM | https://www.thehindu.com/books/books-authors/rajputs-with-the-golden-guns/article33100056.ece

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