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Jauhar (also spelled jowhar) is the burning to death of the queens and female royals of Rajput kingdoms when facing defeat at the hands of an enemy. The roots of this practice lie in the internecine warfare among different Rajput clans. The most famous Jauhers in recorded history have occured at the end of Rajput battles with Muslim empires. It was followed by the Rajput clans in order to avoid capture, enslavement and dishonour at the hands of invaders. The term also describes the practice of mass suicide carried out in medieval times by Rajput women to save their honor from invaders. The term is derived from two sanskrit words, 'Jiv' meaning life & 'Har' meaning 'defeat'. 'Jivhar' was later conflated with the Arabic word 'Jawhar' meaning 'mettle', 'jewel' or 'property'.
Jauhar is often described in terms of the women and children alone, but should correctly be understood as including the death of the men on the battlefield. Jauhar and saka involved:
- A defending Hindu army being besieged inside a fortification, typically by an invading Muslim army
- The realization by the defenders that defeat was both imminent and inescapable
- The realization by the defenders that the Muslim army would capture women and children and enslave them.
- The immolation, en masse, of women and young children to avoid dishonour and tyranny
- The men of the besieged army riding out to a certain death on the battlefield
It was considered proper for the men to fight to the last breath when defeat became certain in a war but jauhar was committed to avoid capture and dishonour of women. When defeat at the hands of a more powerful enemy was imminent, the women, dressed in wedding finery, immolated themselves, then the men, bearing Kesariya Bana (saffron coloured dress), attacked the enemy. For men who had been raised their whole life as warriors, nothing was considered more honourable for the Rajput male than to fight and die on the battlefield. Though they might occur at different times jauhar and saka were always performed together.
This practice is culturally related to sati although it occurs at a different occasion. While both practices have been most common historically in the territory of modern Rajasthan, sati was a custom performed by widowed women only, while jauhar and saka were committed while both the partners were living and only at a time of war.
Jauhar and Saka were not just limited to the Hindus who formed the nobility and ruling classes and castes of Rajasthan and northern India. People of all castes and classes practiced it. There is extensive glorification of the practice in the local ballads and folk-histories of Rajasthan.
There are many instances of jauhar (and saka), but these are not well recorded. Maharani Samyukta, wife of Prithviraj Chauhan the last Hindu king to rule Delhi, along with her ladies committed jauhar rather than surrendering to the Afghan invaders. King Vijaipal's wife committed jauhar at the fort of Bayana, but this is based on ambiguous information from the fort of Timan Garh, now in the Karauli district of Rajasthan. The women-folk of the family of Silhadi, the military power-broker committed Jauhar led by his queen who was the daughter of Mewar's King Rana Sanga.
There are a number of other instances of jauhar on record, especially in the Khilji and Tughlaq times. Jauhar was committed during the Tughlaq campaign against the state of Kampili in the Raichur Doab and the siege of Anegondi – later to be famous as Vijayanagar. Searching for other instances of jauhar would help us to understand whether Jauhar was a Rajput prerogative or was practiced by other military peoples as well.
The best known cases of Jauhar are the three occurrences at the fort of Chittaur (Chittaurgarh, Chittorgarh), in Rajasthan, in 1303 AD, 1535 AD, and in 1568 AD. Jaisalmer has witnessed two occurrences of Jauhar, one in the year 1304 AD during the reign of Alauddin Khilji and second during the reign of Firuz Shah Tughlaq. Another occurrence was in Chanderi.
Jauhar of Jaisalmer
Bhatnair, Tanot and Jaisalmer, capitals of Bhati Rajputs witnessed the scene of Jauhar thrice, the last time men did not have enough time to build the pyre and hence slit the throats of Women and hence it is considered half Jauhar. In the time of Maharawal Jait Singh, Alauddin Khilji besieged the fort of Jaisalmer and after 7 months, 24000 women committed Jauhar. Jaisalmer paid a huge price for saving the family of Pratihar King of Mandore after Khilji attacked Mandore.
First Jauhar of Chittor
In 1303 AD, Ala-ud-din Khilji, the Muslim Sultan of Delhi besieged Chittor fort, which was under the control of Rana Rawal Ratan Singh. According to Rajput legend, the Rana allowed Khilji one glimpse of his wife, Rani Padmini, in a mirror, before he was at the gates and held hostage for Padmini. Padmini sent misleading information that she would join Ala-ud-din, but she was to come with 700 women as befitted her status. The Rajputs were thus able to infiltrate about 2000 men into Ala-ud-din's camp. Each Palaqi Palanquin contained two Rajput soldiers and four men to lift it. Gora and Badal were leading this team. Ala-ud-din allowed Padmini one final meeting with her husband, which allowed the Rajputs to whisk Ratan Singh out from under the Khilji king's nose. Beaten, Ala-ud-din returned to Delhi, only to come back better equipped early the next year. The Rajput defence failed as a result of this second attack and, to a man, perished on the battlefield while their womenfolk, led by Maharani Padmini, performed Jauhar.
The siege of Chittor, its brave defence by the Guhilas, the saga of Rani Padmini and the Jauhar she led are legendary. This incident has had a defining impact upon the Rajput character and is detailed in a succeeding section.
Second Jauhar of Chittor
Rana Sanga died in 1528 AD after the Battle of Khanua. Shortly afterwards, Mewar and Chittor came under the regency of his widow, Rani Karnavati. The kingdom was menaced by Bahadur Shah of Gujarat, who besieged Chittorgarh. Without relief from other forces and facing defeat, the Rani committed Jauhar with other women on March 8, 1535 A.D. while the Rajput army rallied out to meet the besieging Muslim army and committed saka.
Karnavati importuned the assistance of Humayun the son of Babur, her late husband's foe, by sending him a Rakhi and a request for his help as a brother. Humayun started for Chittor but stopped midway as he found it against basic tenets of Islam to help an infidel against a Muslim. This is the occasion for the second of the three Jauhars performed at Chittor. 
Third Jauhar of Chittor
Emperor Akbar besieged the fort of Chittor in September 1567. Changing the strategy, Rana Udai Singh II, his sons and the royal women, using secret routes, escaped soon after the siege began. The fort was left under Jaimal Rathore and Patta Sisodiya's command. One morning Akbar found Jaimal inspecting repairs to the fort which had been damaged by explosives, and killed him. That same day the Rajputs realized that defeat was certain. The Rajput women committed Jauhar in the night of February 22, 1568 AD, and the next morning, the Rajput men committed saka. (Abul Faz'l has given an account of the event as seen by Akbar in his biography in 1568 AD.)
Jauhar of Gwalior and Raiseen
Salivahan Purabiya, a Tomar king, was a close confidante of Maharana Sanga and related to him by marriage. He treacherously deviated to Babur and this resulted in the loss of Rajput confederacy against Babur at the battlefields of Khanwa. Later Babur forced him to surrender as well, but his brother Lakshman singh and ladies of the house which included a daughter of Rana Sanga refused the order and self immolated themselves. A few members of royal family were smuggled out and given shelter at Mewar.
Jauhar of Ajmer
After, Prithviraj Chauhan was defeated at the Second Battle of Tarain by Shahabuddin Muhammad Ghori. He was caught as a prisoner and after he was blinded and killed by Ghori. When this message was sent to his wife Sanyogita, she committed Jauhar with rest of all the ladies present in the palace.
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- R.K. Gupta, S.R. Bakshi, Studies In Indian History: Rajasthan Through The Ages The Heritage Of ..., page 125
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- persian.packhum.org – The Akbarnama, part II, chapter 65, H.M.'s Siege of the Fortress of Citũr