Of Demand, Supply, and Hunger

A few decades should count as a small blip in the long history of human civilization. The last few decades, however, have been immensely transformative for the human race. Many objects and experiences that were a persistent part of human story in the preceding millenniums are fading away quite fast. Mass hunger was one of them. It came often, it came hard and it left some deep hollow spaces in the tree of humanity.

The story of an officer’s efforts in dealing with mass hunger in a small town in Central India in 1833, and eyewitness accounts of other famines offer us an insight into what it was like to live through a calamity like this.


The end of Anglo-Maratha wars in 1818 effectively concluded the British conquest of India, with the British now gaining control of most of India. Among the newly conquered territories a large portion was what is now known as the state of Madhya Pradesh. The ancient land of Gonds, Satavahanas, Guptas, Chandelas, Bundelas, Mughals and Marathas was now ruled by the mega corporation: the East India Company.

The company which was initially chartered to explore the “trade of merchandize” with India was now deeply ensconced not only in the matters of Diwani (Revenue and Civil Administration), but also for Nizamat (Criminal and Police Administration). People in central India who recognised their rulers through clans, now saw officers coming from far away lands as representatives of the faceless corporation. Some of these officers found themselves in a position where their actions had a very significant impact on a large number of people. Many officers were acutely aware  of the burden tied to their bureaucratic strings. Among them, there was Sir William Henry Sleeman.

William Henry Sleeman
See page for author [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
Born in Stratton, in Cornwall, Sleeman had come to India in 1809 at the age of 21 as an infantry cadet in the Bengal Army. He participated in the Nepal war during 1814-16 as a lieutenant. By the end of this war he had learned Arabic and Persian and had gained expertise in the religious customs and traditions of India. He moved to a civil posting in 1820 and was appointed Junior Assistant to the Agent of the Governor-General, in the Sagar and Nerbudda territories.

Sleeman soon found himself tackling the wide array of administrative tasks in the course of his postings in the region. Among them were matters of revenue collection, law and order, Sati burnings and other social reforms, treasury and mint, agriculture, thuggie and famines.

The Hunger Spiral

Famine was a frequent occurrence. Droughts, floods, warfare, locusts, monsoon, and many other factors caused frequent famines in medieval India. The Jataka tales, Jain literature, and other ancient texts mention severe famines in India. Contemporary writings during Mughal period mention severe famines of great intensity. During the reign of Shah Jahan some three million people are said to have perished due to famines.

It often started with crop failures, which led to food shortage, and increase in the price of food grain. In those closed loop economies, without much transportation and communication links with the outside world, speculation played a vital role. Nearly every generation had seen serious famines and people relied on old tales to make significant decisions that weighed heavily on their families’ fate. One old saying went:

सावन कृष्ण एकादशी, यदि गरजै अधिराक। तुम पिय जाओ मालवा, हम जावें गुजरात।।
(If there are heavy thunders during the Krishna Ekadashi of Sravan month; oh father, you go to Malwa and I will go to Gujarat)

Malwa was seen as a more fertile land where famines were less frequent. With the spread of panic, started a trail of migrations. Not knowing what to do, poor families abandoned their farms, homes, and cattle and often moved towards the centres of authority – local rulers or the administrative headquarters. Many rulers organised charity kitchens. As the famines intensified, torrents of poor, famished people flowed to cities.

At the sight of scarcity, the agriculture economy froze like a scared animal. The value chain consisted of farmers, traders, transporters, financiers, and consumers. Traders would often hoard the grain, sensing headwinds. Shortage of cattle added to the transportation challenges. The produce was carried on bullocks, covering 6-8 miles a day. Prices doubled for every 100 miles of transportation, and tripled in a season of scarcity. Insolvency of any debtors crippled the money supply in the markets dominated by small, closed communities. With the complete shutdown of a functioning society, the focus eventually came to the one and only essential commodity – FOOD

Those Sights, Sounds and Stench

Contemporary observers of famines describe a society stricken with hunger in chilling detail.

Still fresh in memory’s eye the scene I view,
The shrivelled limbs, sunk eyes, and lifeless hue ;
Still hear the mother’s shrieks and infant’s moans,
Cries of despair and agonizing groans.
In wild confusion dead and dying lie;–
Hark to the jackal’s yell and vulture’s cry,
The dogs’ fell howl, as midst the glare of day,
They riot unmolested on their prey !
Dire scenes of horror, which no pen can trace,
Nor rolling years from memory’s page efface.

~ Charles John Shore Baron Teignmouth (referring to the Bengal famine of 1770)
(Memoir of the Life and Correspondence of John, Lord Teignmouth, Volume 1)

Poor people, now homeless, without any possessions, were seen wearily dragging themselves along major roads. Those left behind in their villages, each passing day played Russian roulette with death; weighing the odds of improvement in the situation against the risk of abandoning their home, while they had the means and physical energy to do so. The definition of “food” started changing. Seed-grain was consumed, damaging the prospects of next year’s crops. Shrubs like Jharberi and many plant seeds became a large portion of diet. Grass, tree leaves were consumed. When the famines intensified, many cattle were slaughtered or abandoned by their owners.

The abandoned animals howling in agony of thirst and hunger went eventually silent. The stench of animal carcasses was felt in the air. The surviving animals, in their bare bones, scourged for food in shrubs, roots, and trees in extreme desperation. F.H.S. Merewether describes:

As we were coming back from the court-house, the Commissioner pointed out to me a few frameworks of cattle on the wayside; they were absolutely burrowing in the ground, like pigs, to get at the roots.

And it subsequently moved to humans. Younger children, in absence of prolonged absence of meals, were the most vulnerable and often perished quickly. In desperation, many children were sold into slavery. The practice of selling children during famines was an old one. Ain-e-Akbari mentions that Akbar had legalised the practice during the times of famines and distress, and gave their parents an option of buying them back later.

The malnourished children developed a swollen abdomen due to protein deficiency, a symptom known as Kwashiorkor. This was a fatal stage and very few children survived after that. The children tottered with a feebly, bereft of any childlike demeanour. Merewether describes:

One of the first objects I noticed on entering was a child of five, standing by itself near the middle of the enclosure. It’s arms were not so large round as my thumb its legs were scarcely larger; the pelvic bones were plainly shown; the ribs, back and front, started through the skin, like a wire cage. The eyes were fixed and unobservant; the expression of the little skull-face solemn, dreary and old. Will, impulse, and almost sensation, were destroyed in this tiny skeleton, which might have been a plump and happy baby. It seemed not to hear when addressed. I lifted it between my thumbs and fore-fingers; it did not weigh more than seven or eight pounds. Probably its earliest recollections were of hunger, and it could never have had a full meal. It was now deserted by those who had brought it into the world, or they were dead; its own life would be gone in a day or two. Its skin was quite cold. dry and rough. Pain had been its only experience from the first; it had never known or imagined the comforts that babies have.

As for adults, death came in many forms. Tribals wandered into forests in search of food, disoriented, and died of exhaustion there. Shortage of herbivorous animals caused wild beasts to wander into human territories and many people were killed by tigers. Many families chose to kill themselves with opium or other means after having all provisions exhausted. Pandita Ramabai, a famine survivor describes:

At last the day came when we had finished eating the last grain of rice – and nothing but death by starvation remained for our portion. Oh, the sorrow, the helplessness, and the disgrace of the situation •••• We assembled together and after a long discussion came to the conclusion that it was better to go into the forest and die there than bear the disgrace of poverty among our own people. Eleven days and nights – in which we subsisted on water and leaves and a handful of wild dates – were spent in great bodily and mental pain. At last our dear old .father could hold out no longer the tortures of hunger were too much for his poor, old, weak body. He determined to drown himself in a sacred tank nearby and thus to end all his earthly suffering ••• It was suggested that the rest of us should either drown ourselves or break the family and go our several ways.

Weakened bodies crawled around waiting to die, trying to avoid being mauled by impatient jackals and vultures. Sleeman wrote about the famine in Sagar:

At Sagar, mothers, unable to walk, were seen holding up their infants and imploring the passing stranger to take them in slavery, that they might at least live. Hundreds were seen creeping into gardens, courtyards, and old ruins, concealing themselves under shrubs, grass, mats, or straw, where they might die quietly, without having their bodies torn by birds and beasts before the breath had left them.

The Intervention Dilemma

In 1833 Sleeman was in the middle of his famous Thuggie trials, while serving as a magistrate in Saugor (Sagar) district in Bundelkhand. The autumn rains failed, and the spring crops could not be sown owing to the hardness of the ground, caused by the premature cessation of the rains, followed by the outbreak of famine. As the famine intensified in the countryside, streams of people started migrating towards Sagar, causing the all too familiar explosive situation.

Sagar was a major cantonment centre. Major Gregory, the military officer posted in Sagar, unsure of the future supply of grain and apprehensive of discontentment among his soldiers, decided to procure a large supply of grain at high prices. Everyone, consumers as well as traders, saw this as a certain signal of an impending crisis. Soon the markets got exhausted of any known supply of food, and the trade stopped.

Hoarding compounded the problem. The merchants hid the grain in underground granaries, pits inside their homes and warehouses. The greed for profit caused the merchants to accumulate grain, and the fear of rioting or coercive action by authorities caused them to hide it. This made it hard for authorities to estimate the actual quantity of grain available in the market. Quite often the grain rotted in the traders pit without reaching the markets. This led to authorities raiding the traders storage, confiscating it or forcing them to sell it at a discounted prices. Arthashastra by Kautilya recommended making the rich “vomit (वमनं)” their wealth during harsh famine.

With the intensifying famine, shortage of food and arrival of migrants, Sleeman faced the pressure to act against the traders. The kotwal of Police declared that a crisis was impending and the police and others would be unsafe unless such action is taken.

Sleeman had been a long advocate of free trade. His concern was that the forcing a trader to sell his stock deprived him of his cash flow. In absence of incentives and the fear of such actions discouraged the traders to import grains from elsewhere, which in the ensuing period made things much worse.

But was there any grain from other districts to import? Sleeman got an estimate of stock in Jabalpur and other places, which indicated that there was stock.

Graphic Famine Natives Buying Grain 1897
By F. C. Dickinson (drawn) from sketches by Lieut. C de W. Crookshank (The Graphic, March 27, 1897) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
With that confirmation, Sleeman issued a formal proclamation, with a pledge that a trader’s right to sell his grain whenever and wherever will be respected. He expressed hope that people will be assured that his solemnly pledged word would never be broken, and that people would sell what stores they had, and apply themselves without apprehension to the collecting of more.

He showed his pledge to Major Gregory, assuring that no amount of clamour should ever make the administration violate the pledge given to the traders, and he was prepared to risk his situation and reputation as a public officer upon the result.

This proclamation was issued in the city in the afternoon and further police force was deployed to provide assurance to the traders.

As Sleeman had hoped, the markets started to open. Grain started to appear in the market, and traders, with their apprehensions reduced and cash flows operating again, sent out to import grain from other districts. The high prices attracted more people to venture into the trade, and soon the prices started coming down.

The crisis, at least for a while, was avoided.


A lot of water has passed under those medieval bridges crossed by Sleeman in the 1800s.

Ruins of the Old Collectorate, Sagar. Sleeman’s headquarter
Ruins of the Old Collectorate, Sagar. Sleeman’s headquarter

He went on to become the Commissioner for the Suppression of Thuggee and Dacoity, and later a resident a Gwalior and eventually at Awadh, with Wajid Ali Shah. After spending 47 years in India, he died in February 1856 near Ceylon (Sri Lanka) at the age of 67, on the way home. He was buried at sea.

Sleeman’s footprints can be traced across the landscape of central India. Among them, a bounty of literature describing the world he saw. Statistical records of his time, a variety of sugarcane he brought from Fiji, first Dinosaur fossils in India found by him, the modifications he made in the Indian penal code, the institutions he establishe and a little village called Sleemanabad near Jabalpur.

The British administration presided over many severe famines, causing several millions of deaths. India gained independence in 1947. The Food Corporations Act of 1964 resulted in the establishment of Food Corporation of India in 1965.

In 2012, Madhya Pradesh became the second largest wheat-producing state in India, much of the wheat comes from the region around Sagar. There has not been a single large-scale famine in India since independence. That stench, those shrieks and groans, howling of animals and that stench of death have been largely forgotten.

Sleeman’s collectorate in Sagar was demolished in 2016 to make way for new construction. Few other relics of that era survive.

Etched in the DNA of humanity, there are traces of events that created major voids in the genealogy trees. Somewhere around them there are also markers of a day in a bygone era when some hungry people were able to eat.


  1. Memoirs on the History, Folk-lore, and Distribution of the Races of the North Western Provinces of India Link
  2. Rambles and recollections of an Indian official
    by Sleeman, Sir, William Henry Link
  3. Indian Famines: Their Historical, Financial, & Other Aspects, Containing Remarks on Their Management, and Some Notes on Preventive and Mitigative Measures Link
  4. The Starvation Process: Dearth, Famishment and Morbility. Link

Baji Jaat Bundel / बाजी जात बुंदेल

In the Bundelkhand region of modern-day Uttar Pradesh, about 150kms east of Jhansi, is the tiny village of Jaitpur. At Jaitpur, during the winter of 1728-29, the 79-year old sovereign, Maharaja Chhatrasal Bundela was cornered by Muhammad Shah Bangash; Chhatrasal having lost all his forts one by one during the last two years. Jaitpur was the last bastion for the iconic Bundela warrior. The nearby Bundela kings of Datia and Chanderi had refused to help. In desperation the seasoned warrior sent a letter to Peshwa Bajirao I, with these lines, now a part of popular folklore:

जो गति ग्राह गजेन्द्र की सो गति भई है आज ।
बाजी जात बुन्देल की बाजी राखो लाज ।।

I am in the same plight in which the elephant king was, when caught by the crocodile. This Bundela is on the brink of losing, O Bajirao, come and save my honour

The letter triggered a series of events that led to significant geopolitical consequences in Central India and beyond. At a personal level for Bajirao, it resulted in his union with Mastani. A union, which had its own implications in Maratha history.

The story though, is bigger than that. It involved an ageing icon’s fight to protect his legacy, a gritty contest between two seasoned warriors, countless sacrifices in battlefield, and strategic masterstrokes by a legend on the rise.

The Key Players

Raja Chhatrasal: See page for author [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
Raja Chhatrasal: See page for author [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
Maharaja Chhatrasal Bundela (4 May 1649 – 20 December 1731) was the founder of Panna State and an iconic figure in the history of Central India. He lost his parents Champat Rai and Lal Kunwar at a young age when they killed themselves to avoid capture by Aurangzeb’s forces. Chhatrasal later joined the services of Mirza Raja Jai Singh, and through him served the Mughals. He participated in the siege of Purandar against Shivaji in 1665 and received a Mansab in recognition of his services. He was later sent on campaigns against Bijapur and Deogarh. However, he found it difficult to adjust in the Mughal hierarchy, partly due to his father’s legacy. One day he left the Mughal camp on the pretext of hunting and proceeded to meet Shivaji, whom he admired. He made a long journey through the difficult terrain to meet Shivaji and received a warm welcome in Shivaji’s camp in the winter of 1670-71. Chhatrasal stayed with Shivaji for a few months. A letter written by Chhatrasal towards the end of his life he proudly talked about learning archery with Shivaji’s forces. Chhatrasal wanted to serve under Shivaji, but Shivaji advised him to start his independent resistance in Bundelkhand so that the Mughal energies could be divided. Returning to Bundelkhand, he started with a small band of 25 soldiers and a few horses. While he didn’t get the support of other Bundela clans initially, Aurangzeb’s religious policy, especially his drive towards temple demolitions drew a strong opposition from Bundelas and many of them united under Chhatrasal’s banner. At the time of Bangash war, Chhatrasal was at the peak of his career, ruling over a large territory in Bundelkhand, carved out, over the last sixty years.

Muhammad Khan Bangash: By Anonymous (http://expositions.bnf.fr/inde/grand/exp_039.htm) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
Muhammad Khan Bangash: By Anonymous (http://expositions.bnf.fr/inde/grand/exp_039.htm) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
Mohammad Khan Bangash (1665 – December 1743) was a Pashtun (Pathan) warrior of fame in the 18th century. The Bangashes hailed from the Karlani-Kagazi clan in the North West Province. During Aurangzeb’s reign many of them had settled in Ruhelkhand part of modern-day Uttar Pradesh. The Pathans had served in Mughal armies for several generations, but very few were given high ranks. Muhammad Khan was one of the few who had made it big in the Mughal court. He started his career as a part of the mercenary army of Yasin Khan Bangash. Every year, post-monsoon, Yasin Khan crossed the Yamuna with an army of 4-5 thousand soldiers and offered his services to various kings. They were often employed by Bundela Rajputs who were engaged in disputes with each other. Yasin Khan died in the battlefield in one such expedition, after which Mohammad Khan started on his own. Living as a freebooter with a sizeable army until the age of 48, his fortunes changed when he backed Farruksiyar’s successful bid for the Delhi throne, and thrived under subsequent rulers. During the reign of Muhammad Shah, he was appointed as the governor of Allahabad. The court of Muhammad Shah (nicknamed ‘Rangila’ for his merry ways) had a good share of political hustlers and conspirators. Bangash, however, was seen as a simpleton by many for his rustic lifestyle, but he had managed to hold his own because of his military skills.

Peshwa Bajirao I: By Amit20081980 (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0], via Wikimedia Commons
Peshwa Bajirao I: By Amit20081980 (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0], via Wikimedia Commons
Bajirao I (18 August 1700 – 28 April 1740) was the 6th Peshwa (Prime Minister) in the Maratha empire. He was appointed Peshwa by Chhatrapati Shahu at a young age of 20 on the death of his father Peshwa Balaji Vishwanath. Bajirao’s appointment as Peshwa had been a contentious issue, as this was the first hereditary appointment of a Peshwa. Balaji Vishwanath reportedly needed assistance while getting on a horse. He compensated for his lack of horsemanship by providing his sons training in horse riding and use of weapons. Bajirao’s initial assignments as Peshwa were mostly diplomatic in nature, but he eventually started leading military campaigns. He proved to be a natural at it and soon a team of able commanders like Pilaji Jadhav, Malharrao Holkar and Ranoji Shinde converged around him. Some unresolved matters of finance and revenue put the Shahu’s house in confrontation with Nizam, the Mughal governor of Deccan. Bajirao argued against a compromise on lesser terms for Marathas, which led to a war with Nizam, who was forced to surrender tax assignments at Palkhed on February 1728.

Clouds of Conflict

During the reign of Farrukhsiyar Bangash was granted the Jagirs of Sehand and Maudah in Bundelkhand. Diler Khan, a close aid of Bangash, was appointed to the charge of these Jagirs. Later, during the first year of Mohammad Shah (1719-20), the territories of Kalpi and Irichh were also assigned to Bangash. During the same year reports came that the Bundelas plundered Kalpi and some towns and killed one of the administrators. Diler Khan was sent with a sizeable force to punish the enemy, and he managed to drive the enemy away from the plundered towns. The matter was pressed further by Diler Khan, against the advice of Bangash, which led to a war against Chhatrasal. In the ensuing battle Diler Khan and five hundred soldiers were killed while charging against a much larger army.

Around the same time Bangash was appointed the governor of Allahabad province. His territory included the eastern part of Bundelkhand, which was annexed by Chhatrasal during his expansion and where he exercised effective sovereignty. Bangash received an imperial order to act against Chhatrasal in 1723. He started with a force of 15,000 but halted the campaign after making initial gains. Later, in 1727, another imperial order was obtained to march against Chhatrasal and his sons who had overrun more territories in Bundelkhand.

The Long War

Chhatrasal’s letters from late 1726 show a mad scramble to arrange defenses against Bangash’s invasion. Finally, on 3rd January 1727, Chhatrasal wrote a letter to his son Jagatraj:

You have written that Bangash has arrived. He is encamping at Nadpurwa and has sent a message to you asking when you desire to give battle for he wants to fight with you with pre-intimation and not to catch you unawares. He has also asked to fix the place. He has an army of 73,000 and 89 guns. And you have asked me to come at the earliest.

The auspicious day for our march from here is Mah Badi 9, so I will start accordingly from here. I have dispatched 35 rockets and 29 guns which would reach (in due time). Mah Badi 7, Samwat 1783, place Mau.

Bangash was at the door and was asking for a pitched battle.

The war was on!

The first battle became an insignificant footnote in what was going to become a gruelling campaign for both sides. Early momentum was with Bangash. He knew the territory well from his days as a mercenary. In the initial thrust he captured the forts of Luk, Chaukhandi, Garh Kakarelie, Kalyanpur, and Ramnagar. A long siege began at Tarahwan by Bangash’s son Qaim Khan against Chhatrasal’s grandson, defending from inside. While this siege was on, Bangash continued to overrun other forts. A fierce battle in Ichauli (12th May 1728) resulted in nearly 5,000 casualties for Bangash and 13,000 for the Bundelas. After each battle, the harrowed Bundelas moved to the next fort or took shelter in the jungles and ravines. Bangash’s army pursued them vigorously.

This pattern of battles continued until Chhatrasal was cornered in Ajhnar in July 1728. Fortunately for Chhatrasal, monsoon arrived, which made placing of explosive mines quite difficult for the enemy to force a breach, for the next 4 months. Bangash was also starting to feel the shortage of funds and was getting disappointed from the lack of interest from the Imperial court. The action continued regardless. On 1st November 1728 Ajhnar fell. Chhatrasal shifted to Jaitpur, his last bastion. Tarahwan, in the east, also fell on 12th December 1728. This siege had resulted in more than 2,000 casualties for the Bundelas who offered tough resistance.  The whole focus now shifted to Jaitpur, the last arena of this long drawn war.

Two years had passed under great difficulties and losses for both parties. During the course of this war, the nearly 80-year old Chhatrasal and his sons had received injuries. On one occasion his wife had led the action. The loss of life ran in several thousands for both sides.

Finally, Chhatrasal decided to surrender. Negotiations were opened and Bangash sent a message to the Mughal Emperor asking for terms of the settlement. He was hoping to bring his prisoners personally to the Imperial court. Chhatrasal and his family waited for their fate camping in the hills outside the fort. Sometime in December 1728 news arrived, that Giridhar Bahadur, the Mughal governor of the neighbouring province of Malwa had been killed by the Marathas in a battle led by Chimaji Appa, Bajirao Peshwa’s brother. Bangash probably kept an eye on the situation but didn’t see an immediate threat. He was so certain of his victory, he allowed a large part of his army to go back on leave.

Holi was approaching on 15th March, 1729. Chhatrasal’s sons requested that the family be allowed to move to Suraj Mau. Bangash consented, confident about his position and partly on account of Chhatrasal’s old age. On 12th March, 3 days before Holi, Bangash got the shocker.

Bajirao was just 11 kos (approx 22 miles) away, ready, with a large army.

Peshwa’s Arrival

Back in August 1728, Dado Bhimsen, one of the Maratha envoys in the Mughal court, wrote a letter to Bajirao. The letter was largely about Mughal preparations against the threat of Maratha invasion in Malwa. But it also contained the following lines:

“येक पत्र  छत्रसाल बुंदेला त्यांसी बंगसासी लड़ाई आहे दसरा जालियावरी आमच्या फौजा त्या प्रांतास येतील, तुमची कुमुक होईल म्हणून लिहिले पाहिजे”

You (Bajirao) should write a letter saying that “Chhatrasal Bundela and Bangash are engaged in a battle. Our armies will come to that region after Dussehra and help you.

Bhimsen’s letter also mentioned Sawai Jai Singh’s support to the idea of Bajirao’s intervention.

At this time, Bajirao was busy collecting Chauth, exercising the recently acquired right from the battle of Palkhed. Peshwa’s ledger entries show an interesting pattern in his movements in subsequent months. He started from Pune in October 1728 and accompanied Shahu on pilgrimage to Tuljapur on 9th November 1728. From then on he moved north-east, all the while addressing administrative issues and collecting chauth. He maintained constant correspondence with Chimaji in Malwa. The Marathas had recently conquered Malwa and were besieging Ujjain where the slain Mughal governor’s nephew had put up a resistance.

The correspondence between Bajirao and Chimaji shows how Bajirao thought and worked. Bajirao and Chimaji shared a close bond with each other, were in constant touch, and carefully coordinated their moves.

Map design courtesy Sandeep Patil (@pppsandeep)

On 29th December, 1729 Bajirao wrote to Chimaji that he intends to go “wherever hunger can be satiated (“Poat Bharavayas Jikade Jaane Tikde Jaaun”). It referred to collecting money. Shahu had incurred a large debt in raising the army and fundraising was a huge priority for the Peshwa. Subsequent letters show Devgarh to be the next destination of his march. Devgarh was ruled by a Gond tribal king, and covered the territory between Nagpur and Jabalpur. Finally, on 4th January 1729 Bajirao wrote about his intentions to proceed towards Bundelkhand after settling Deogarh. In another letter he asked Chimaji to be ready to proceed towards Bundelkhand, if needed. A small battle took place at Deogarh, and the matter was settled with ease. Sometime in February 1729, in Garha, he received the famous letter from Chhatrasal seeking help.

Map design courtesy Sandeep Patil (@pppsandeep)

Bajirao now moved with his trademark speed, crossing great distances in a day. Accompanied with a 25,000 strong cavalry force under 12 commanders, he went via Khajuri, Pawai towards Bikrampur. Peshwa’s ledger for 9th March at Bikrampur mentions sending two messengers towards Chhatrasal and one scout to conduct reconnaissance on Bangash. The intent was clear from then on. Next day, Bhartichand, a son of Chhatrasal, met him in Rajgarh. He reached Mahoba on 12th March, where Chhatrasal’s sons welcomed him. On 13th March he met Chhatrasal who presented of 80 mohars to him. The combined force, now swelled to 70,000, was now moving towards Bangash’s encampment in Jaitpur. Many local rajas and zamindars who were on the fence throughout the war, recognised the momentum and added to the numbers.


The rescue force reached within 1 Kos from Bangash’s camp and set about its business right away. This was a battle hardened army, very well experienced in lean warfare tactics. The first day, they raided the cattle of the camp followers. Small skirmishes occurred resulting in the loss of 3 soldiers from the besieging army. The next day, Bangash’s camp was surrounded from all sides. Camels and bullocks who had ventured out grazing from the camp were driven away. This was followed by a few skirmishes and casualties. The enclosure tightened further. All roads were closed and supplies were completely cut from all side. Prices of foodgrain rose rapidly with the worst quality of grain selling at rupees 20 per ser. Bangash’s army tried to force their way out with surprise raids. The Marathas made their incursions in the Bangash camp and retreated in the hills of Ajhner where they were largely camped. But this was a lost cause for Bangash. Qaim Khan, Bangash’s younger son, who had been engaged elsewhere, rushed to his father’s rescue with supplies and reinforcements. Bajirao sent a strong detachment under Pilaji Jadhav to intercept Qaim Khan, which created a gap in the perimeter. Thousands of Bangash’s soldiers used this opportunity to escape, leaving their commander to fend for himself. Pilaji Jadhav engaged Qaim Khan at Supa, which resulted in an utter rout of Qaim Khan’s army and a large booty for the Marathas.

Bangash had meanwhile barricaded himself inside Jaitpur fort. The besieged suffered severe shortage of food. Gun-bullocks and horses were slaughtered for food. Bajirao’s orders to his guards were to allow a safe passage to anyone surrendering his arms. A great many did, leaving Bangash with a skeleton of a force.

Bangash sent urgent messages to Delhi seeking help. After repeated SoS, the Emperor ordered his Bakshi, Khan Dauran to proceed towards Jaitpur. Khan Dauran dragged his feet and halted after a short march.

The siege went on for 4 months. Monsoon was about to set in, when cholera broke out in the Maratha army, resulting in over thousand deaths. Bajirao decided to return back. The job was done. Chhatrasal continued


 with the siege. Negotiations were again opened between Bangash and Chhatrasal. Finally, Bangash signed a covenant to never invade Chhatrasal’s territories again. In August 1729 he was allowed to leave, letting him out of his misery. Qaim Khan met him en-route to Mahoba, urging to resume the fight again, but Bangash was not interested in it anymore. He crossed Yamuna at Kalpi on 23rd September, and never looked at Bundelkhand again.


The battle ended Bangash’s connection with Bundelkhand. He retained the nominal authority of those Jagirs in Mughal books but never obtained any revenue from it. He continued to plead with the emperor and wazir to recover his battle expenses without success. During Nadir Shah’s invasion of India, Bajirao had sent a letter urging all Indian nobles to unite. Bangash was one of those who agreed with the cause, but in his letter to Bajirao he referred to the futility of his life in a couplet “dunya nakshe ast bat-ab o ziyada az sirab nast” (The world is nothing but an imprint on water, there isn’t much thirst left now). Once in a while he wrote to Harde Sah to recover a cannon and dues promised by Harde Sah in some previous agreements. He referred to Harde Sah as his friend and instructed him to take care of his properties. The legitimacy  of Bangash’s claims remained jumbled in the 18th century world of fluid sovereignty. His ability to enforce his right only as strong as his sword, which he had lost decisively at Jaitpur. Though it can be argued that the intrigues and politics of the Mughal court failed him more than his sword. Irrespective of these setbacks, the warrior Pathan had clearly traversed a great journey since his days as a small time mercenary. He remained a somewhat significant figure in the Mughal court until his death in December, 1743. His death was likely caused by an abscess in his neck. Lying on his deathbed, he shot an arrow at the roof to prove his God given strength. He died 3 hours later. He is interned in the village of Nekpur Khurd in Farrukhabad.

A grateful Chhatrasal offered approximately one third of his kingdom to Bajirao, adopting him as his son. Chhatrasal died in December 1731, less than two years after the battle. The poet-warrior had lived a lived a long, vigorous life and his career trajectory had emulated that of his role model Shivaji in many ways. In hindsight, Shivaji’s advice had worked out quite well for him. His giant footprints can be seen in the landscape of Bundelkhand and in the oral traditions of Bundeli people. A memorial for him was built in Dhuvela, the expenses for which were shared by his sons – Hirde Sah, Jagat Raj and Bajirao.

Between 1728 and 1729, all of central India had gone out of Mughal control, never to return. Marathas were now staring in all directions – especially Orissa, Bengal and … Delhi.

The Mughal Empire was crumbling and it’s foundation was being hammered hard by a young and impatient Peshwa who, clearly, had the “head to plan and the hand to execute“.


  1. The much cited phrase about Bajirao “head to plan and the hand to execute” was first used by J. Grant Duff in ‘A History of the Mahrattas’


  1. Sardesai, Govind Sakharam. (1931-34). Selections from the Peshwa Daftar, Vol 13 & 22
  2. Gupta, Bhagwan Das. (1980). Life and Times of Maharaja Chhatrasal Bundela
  3. Gupta, Bhagwan Das. (1999). Contemporary Sources of the Medieval and Modern History of Bundelkhand,  Vol 1
  4. Irvine, William. (1878). The Bangash Nawabs of Farrukhabad. Journal of the Asiatic Society of Bengal, Part 1- IV, 259-383
  5. Dighe, Vishvanath G. (1944). Peshwa Bajirao I and Maratha Expansion
  6. Sarkar, Jadunth (1932). Fall of the Mughal Empire, Vol 1


Of Custom of Customs

Sir Thomas Roe’s visit to the Mughal Emperor Jahangir’s court in 1615 was a breakthrough moment in the story of British occupation of India. His visit opened the English engagement with India, which eventually became the crown jewel of the mighty British Empire. But his landing involved a bizarre series of events which offer an interesting glimpse of the era. Continue reading “Of Custom of Customs”