The Rajputs were a group of Hindu warrior princes and their followers who came to prominence in the north-west of the Indian subcontinent in the centuries after the fall of the Gupta.
Their origins are disputed. Many scholars think that they came from outside India. The preferred theory is that their ancestors were Hun chieftains who settled in India in the 6th century CE in the wake of the fall of the Gupta. It is possible, however, that they were an indigenous aristocracy who adopted a militaristic identity and culture in the continuous warfare of 6th to 8th century northwest India. They were stoutly Hindu, an affiliation strengthened by centuries of resistance to the dominant Muslim powers of the region.
The Gupta aftermath
The early 6th century saw the rapid decline of the Gupta empire, its powers weakened by devastating raids by the Huns from central Asia. By the time that the Hun attacks waned, by c. 565, Gupta power had vanished and northern India was covered by numerous rival kingdoms.
These kingdoms were forcibly reunited under a single ruler in the first half of the 7th century. This was the achievement of the warrior-emperor, Harsha Vardhana (ruled 606-647). He launched a series of campaigns from his capital, Kanauj, and brought the whole of northern India under his control.
The struggle for Kanauj
At Harsha’s death his empire at once fell apart, as the vassal rulers asserted their independence. Again northern India became divided into numerous kingdoms. Harsha’s former capital city of Kanauj, however, retained a certain aura of imperial glory about it, and to possess it was to lay claim to supremacy over the whole of north India. Three kingdoms in particular fought for control of the city, and for regional supremacy: the Gurjara-Pratiharas, based in the northwest; the Palas, in the northeast; and the Rashtrakutas, in the Deccan. The history of northern India from the 8th to 10th centuries was dominated by their struggles.
One complicating element in this situation was the coming of the Arabs to the Indian subcontinent. These had burst out of their Arabian homeland in the 7th century, impelled by their new faith, Islam, and conquered a vast empire in the Middle East and North Africa. In the early 8th century they occupied the westernmost parts of the Indian subcontinent, and the regions of Multan and Sindh became provinces of the mighty Islamic empire (the Caliphate).
The kingdom of the Gurjara-Pratiharas stood in the way of further Arab encroachments into India, and Gurjara victories over the invaders brought them to prominence. The Gurjaras are usually viewed as the first major Rajput dynasty.
At the end of the 8th century and in the early 9th century the Gurjaras expanded to control Kanauj and northern India except the east. They established a loose control over their feudatories, many of whom counted themselves members of the Rajput aristocracy.
The Gurjara-Prahitas were not left in undisputed overlordship for long, however, as their position was contested by the Pala dynasty of Bengal. This dynasty is notable for being the last major Buddhist dynasty in India (and therefore not Rajputs). It maintained strong religious and diplomatic ties with the Buddhist states of South East Asia, and under them the great university of Nalanda reached its peak of influence.
The struggle for control of Kanauj and northern India between the Gurjara-Pratiharas and the Palas, as well the Rashtrakuta dynasty of the Deccan, swung this way and that throughout 9th and into the 10th centuries.
By the end of the 10th century, the situation was changing. The Rashtrakuta dynasty collapsed in 973, by which time Gurjara power was also on the wane. The Paramas of Malwa, another Rajput dynasty, rose to power at this time to cover a large part of northwestern India.
The Rajput kingdoms
In the early 11th century, new attacks by Islamic armies, now from central Asia rather than the Middle East, began. They ranged deep into the Ganges plain, and wrought immense destruction on well-known Hindu centers. They sacked the city of Kanauj and destroyed Gurjara power. New Rajput powers rose to meet this challenge, notably the Chauhanas and the Chandellas, and also to contest control of northern India amongst themselves. None rose to the position the Gurjara-Pratiharas had held.
Being further away from the rising Islamic states of central Asia, Pala power outlasted that of the Gurjaras, but it rapidly collapsed in the 12th century.
In northwestern India, the Rajput kingdoms remained a force to be reckoned with. The new Muslim power in India, the Delhi sultanate, never succeeded in completely subduing them. They had a much closer relationship to the Mughal emperors, who, although Muslim, relied on them for their support and assistance, and came to be bound to them by multiple family ties. So far as their own territories were concerned, they were left them very much in charge of their own affairs.
As Mughal power weakened, in the 18th century, the Rajputs reasserted their independence. In the 19th century, the Rajput princes formed alliances with the British, and, as under the Mughals, were again left largely in control of their own affairs, so long as they kept their treaties with the British. The latter came to greatly respect the Rajputs for their martial qualities.