Battle-lizards of the Maratha

A story of sultans, sieges and warrior reptiles that fight for both Hindus and Muslims. No wonder Disney is infatuated with India.

Published April 17, 2007 10:16PM (EDT)

India is hot, hot, hot. Wes Anderson filmed "The Darjeeling Express" in Rajasthan three months ago. Johnny Depp is set to star in a Mira Nair-directed film on location in Mumbai. Disney is planning a major "historical" that begins with the Aryan arrival in India and goes all the way to Independence. Over at the blog Interim Thoughts Neelakantan applauds the historical inevitability of global pop-cultural Indianization, and makes his own pitch for a big-budget movie spectacular: the heroic 17th century assault on Sinhagad fort by Tanaji Malusare, the favorite general of the legendary Maratha warrior Shivaji.

Shivaji made an appearance in How the World Works last week in the context of an Indian Supreme Court decision that ruled that a biography of the Hindu proto-nationalist by an American academic was not guilty of inciting racial hatred. Never one to ignore an omen, I followed some links and discovered, to some little amazement, that Tanaji Malusare's chief claim to fame was his infiltration of the supposedly impregnable fort by tying a rope to the back of Shivaji's pet monitor lizard, Yaswanthi. The lizard scaled a sheer cliff face beneath an unguarded section of the fort, secured itself in a crevice, and allowed Tanaji to climb up behind. Unfortunately, although the assault was successful, Tanaji died in the fighting.

I must have led a sheltered life, because prior to today I was unaware that monitor lizards were once used as siege weapons in 17th-century India. But then again, there's a lot I didn't know about monitor lizards -- including every single assertion in the following paragraph, taken from Daniel Bennett's "Little Book of Monitor Lizards":

Monitors can bestow bad luck on people in a number of ways. In Borneo they are sometimes depicted on the shields of warriors in order to strike dread into the hearts of opponents. If one crosses the path of an advancing army mutiny may result unless the battle is postponed. If one is seen at a wedding the union is presumed doomed from the beginning. In parts of Pakistan it was considered essential to keep your mouth tightly closed in the presence of a monitor lizard; one glimpse of the teeth and the reptiles' spirit could infect your soul. If a monitor ran between your legs in Khazakstan your chance of having children in the future was rated as zero. In parts of Thailand some people dare not even pronounce the name of the monitor lizards, whilst others use it as a term of abuse. Further south, when the moon is full, some unfortunate people break out in scales and develop a long forked tongue. These "weremonitors" prowl about searching not for beetles and caterpillars, but for warm human flesh.

Weremonitors. Weremonitors!

But I digress. Although one source calls the tale of how Tanaji and Yaswanthi stormed Sinhagad Fort "a persistent myth that has little support from zoology or history," the legend, as with anything that has to do with Shivaji, endures in the state of Maharashtra -- yet another feel-good tale for Hindu nationalists endlessly scouring history for evidence of patriotic heroism against Islamic invaders.

But here's a historical twist. As I combed the Web for every reference I could find to the role played in Indian history by monitor lizards, I ran into some confusion. For one thing, the Marathi word for monitor lizard is "ghorpad," which is also a Maratha clan name -- Ghorpade. One of Shivaji's other famous generals, Santaji Ghorpade, was a member of the clan. In the fog of war, distinguishing who was doing the actual fighting, clansmen or lizards, can get tricky. For another, I kept running into references to a separate instance in which an army used monitor lizards to scale an impregnable fort, only this one occurred some 200 years earlier than Shivaji's time, and it involved two Maratha brothers who were fighting for a Muslim ruler against Hindu locals.

As far as I can tell, and given the confusions of multiple different Romanizations and the intense political disfigurement of history that occurs when Hindu and Muslim interpretations of the past intersect, here's what seems to have happened. (I look eagerly forward to actual Indian history experts arriving here to shed more light on the matter -- there are still some things that a world-class research library does better than the Internet.)

In the late 15th century, the brothers Karna Sinh and Bhim Sinh, known locally for their prowess as ghorpad breeders, are said to have employed one of their stock to scale a wall and allow them entry into the fort Vishalgad. The brothers did so in service of Adilshaha of Bijapur, a Muslim sultan. Karna Sinh died in the assault (just as Tanaji did, 200 hundred years later), but Adilshaha was sufficiently grateful that he elevated Bhim Sinh to the title Raja Ghorpade Bahadur, and henceforth, he and his descendants were known by the clan name Ghorpade.

It's not clear whether Shivaji himself was directly descended from one of the Sinh brothers, as one account put it, or was just closely affiliated with the clan, to the point of having his own special pet monitor lizard. There's also something that's just a little too convenient about how the latter-day lizard fought against the Muslims, in this case, the tyrannical Aurangzeb, as opposed to his unpatriotic ancestor. Are we looking at a little historical revisionism, an attempt to rehabilitate the Ghorpade family name?

I promise to keep Salon readers posted on further developments in this saga. But in the meantime, to return to our initial starting point: What's not to like about this lizard business from a Hollywood producer's vantage point, or even better a Disney animator's? (Think of it: Yaswanthi, with voice acting by John Goodman and a plum role for Sanjaya Malakar. Make it so!) You've got two brothers, regarded by some Hindu historians as traitors, who found a clan that features the monitor lizard on its family crest while in the service of the sultan against their own kin. A couple of centuries later, their descendants win a great battle, again using a nimble-footed giant lizard, but this time, fighting as guerrilla warriors against their Muslim overlords.

Who cares if it is fact or fantasy, myth or legend: It's great stuff, no matter how you slice it.

By Andrew Leonard

Andrew Leonard is a staff writer at Salon. On Twitter, @koxinga21.

MORE FROM Andrew Leonard

Related Topics ------------------------------------------

Globalization How The World Works India