The Mughal Empire depended heavily on the fidelity, valor and skills of Rajput princes, nobles, and countless Rajput soldiers. Mughal alliances with key Rajput clans were established and maintained through marriages, modes of formal patronage – and sometimes by force. Even as the Empire unraveled, many Rajput clans continued to serve the Mughal Emperor. A scion of one such clan, the very young Raja Tej Singh Bundela, lord of Gingee in Tamil Nadu, entered Tamil folklore as the brave and virtuous “Desing Raja” – the Tamil moniker being a corruption of his real name.
The Carnatic province – comprising of parts of Tamil Nadu and Andhra Pradesh – was the Mughals’ southernmost possession. Gingee was critical to its control and was wrested from the Marathas in 1698 with great difficulty. Shortly after the conquest, the Rajput lord Raja Swarup Singh Bundela, was appointed as Commander of Gingee. Nine additional forts and substantial lands were also bestowed. Swarup Singh’s clan was a key Mughal ally for generations. He apparently had a good relationship with the Nawab of Arcot, the provincial Mughal governor. Swarup Singh was also respected by the Nawab’s superior, the Mughal Viceroy of the Deccan, Nizam-ul-Mulk Asaf Jah (who later became the first Nizam of Hyderabad). Swarup Singh’s son, Raja Tej Singh, was a famed young warrior who also served the Empire. Swarup Singh died in late 1713 and the question of succession arose. On the ensuing events, there are four versions, with key commonalities but different content, tone and style.
Firstly, European records mention that in 1714 C.E., the Arcot Nawab suppressed the rebellion of Gingee’s new lord, the son of the previous Rajput lord. He had claimed Gingee as a hereditary right granted by the Emperor. This was not accepted by the provincial governor, who also raised the issue of tax arrears. The new lord was killed in an ensuing battle. Even these ostensibly unbiased records vary on the origin of the conflict. Perhaps the Nawab feared Tej Singh and used a pretense to destroy him, perhaps Tej Singh was guilty after all. Nevertheless, these sources describe Tej Singh’s stubbornness, daring exploits, and his heroic death.
The second narrative is provided by imperial chroniclers sympathetic to Arcot and Hyderabad. They blame Tej Singh’s rashness and pretenses of sovereignty for the war. The Emperor had never bestowed Gingee to Tej Singh: the latter had broken faith with his ultimate liege lord. These sources also mention the fidelity and courage of Tej Singh – and that of his friend and feudatory, Mahabat Khan. The Nawab is portrayed as chivalrous and compassionate. He pardons Tej Singh’s followers and even organizes the Sati of Tej Singh’s wife after futile attempts to convince her to live.
The third narrative from certain Marathi chronicles diverge significantly. Tej Singh – also termed Jai Singh – is portrayed as a flawless hero and Asaf Jah is the main villain. This narrative incorporates dubious claims of pedigree and many fantasy elements, and Muslim rulers are shown negatively. This is unsurprising as Mughals and Hyderabad (ruled by Asaf Jah’s successors) were the Marathas’ mortal enemies. The Emperor is also portrayed as rather malevolent.
Finally, we have the ornate and fantastic Tamil folklore. This incorporates themes of Vaishnavism, and even more fantastic and dubious episodes. The Mughals as portrayed as wholly steeped into Hindu traditions. Desing Raja’s bride, the Sati-mata, is the daughter of the Mughal Emperor himself and Mahabat Khan invokes Narayana along with Allah. At the end of an epic battle caused by miscommunication and pride (and tax arrears), Tej Singh dies by his own hand – heartbroken by Mahabat Khan’s death – after annihilating his enemies. The popularity of the Desing Raja emanates from this folk narrative, which wove together many popular themes. Artists and poets undoubtedly helped popularize this version regionally to inspire and entertain.
In India young warriors who attain Veergati have been canonized – or even deified. Folklore, artistic interpretations and colored chronicles play a great part in this. Even in modern times we have the shrine of Jaswant Singh Rawat in Tawang. In some cases, communities once preyed by such personalities in life have later turned out to worship their old enemy. The “Ghazi Miyan” of Bahraich, and the “Nikal Seyn” Sect are case in point. Tej Singh’s reputation, his qualities and accomplishments, and his heroic death at a very young age made such an impression that legends blossomed.
Raja Tej Singh, however did not become a saint like Jaswant Singh, Ghazi Salar Masud and John Nicholson. Regardless of the origin and course of his war – and the question of the rightness of his cause – the Rajput Raja Tej Singh has been immortalized in the regional memory as the valiant “Desing Raja” through numerous literary works, art forms and even movies.
PS: This is my article in DNA, published on May 27, 2018. Here’s the link to the original article.