The Siege of Panhala, 1660

13 July, 1660.

It must have been an important day for Siddi Jauhar, as he would have watched Shivaji make his way back to Panhala Fort. Shivaji had descended the fort to seek terms of surrender, and it was now, only a matter of hours before Siddi’s siege would be successful.

Shivaji had captured Panhala on 28 November 1659, just 18 days after the death of Afzal Khan at Pratapgad. Two of Bijapur’s great commanders had failed in the task to capture Shivaji. First, Afzal Khan, who was killed and his army defeated at Pratapgad, then Rustam-e-Zaman, with Fazal Khan and other commanders, who were squarely defeated and made to flee, just a month after Shivaji’s capture of Panhala.

Bijapur was going out of options, at this growing influence of Shivaji, which had reached their capital city, and it was upon Siddi Jauhar to finish this task, once and for all. Siddi Jauhar having taking upon himself to lead this important campaign, would finally find favour at the Bijapur court and the Kurnool district would be restored to him. Shivaji had succumbed, offered surrender; it was time for respite from the arduous siege that had lasted five months. His men could now take it easy. Everything was going his way.

He could not have been more wrong.

Background

After the utter rout of the Bijapur army at the Battle of Pratapgad on 10 November 1659, Shivaji and the Maratha forces kept up the momentum and captured several forts that were under Bijapur control. Of these, the taking of Panhala fort was most significant. Panhala is an impregnable and a massive fort, with the means to withstand a long siege. Geographically, it is strategically located; the master of this fort controls the passes between the Deccan plateau and seaports of the Konkan region. Shivaji had already captured the twin forts of Chandan-Vandan. Soon after, the Maratha Armies captured Vasantgad, Rangna, and Khelna (which Shivaji renamed to Vishalgad), and other minor forts. Of these, Pavangad was a key acquisition, which lies on the spur of Panhala, east of the main fort.

Exactly a month after the capture of Panhala, 28 December, 1659, Bijapur ordered Rustam-e-Zaman to attack Shivaji and recapture Panhala. He was joined by Fazal Khan, son of the slain Afzal Khan, who was desperately seeking revenge for his father’s death. Some records mention that Rustom-e-Zaman, probably fought this battle half-heartedly.

A quick note about Rustam-e-Zaman may not be out-of-place here. He was the son of Randaullah khan, a famous noble at the Bijapur court, the viceroy of the southwest Bijapur kingdom, holding fiefs of South Konkan and Karawar districts. Randaullah Khan was considered to be a mentor of Shahaji, father of Shivaji, and they had friendly relationship, often working together on campaigns in the south. Rustam-e-Zaman was a hereditary title conferred on Randaullah Khan by Bijapur, and it passed to his son. It won’t be too far-fetched to imagine that the son of Randaullah Khan and the son of Shahaji also had cordial relationships. In fact, English Factory Records, refer to them as “friends” and cite instances of collusion. During Shivaji’s Konkan campaigns, Rajapur—a dominion of Rustam-e-Zaman—was spared, while nearby territories were overrun.

Afzal Khan was killed and defeated at Pratapgad. Rustam-e-Zaman and Fazal Khan had to flee and retreat at the Battle of Kolhapur. Ali Adil Shah, eventually decided to launch an attack on Shivaji, himself, with all the might of the Bijapur army. At this time, Siddi Jauhar presented himself as a contender for this campaign.

Siddi Jauhar was an African slave of a Bijapuri noble, Malik Abdur Wahah. After the death of this noble, Siddi Jauhar, proclaimed himself the master of Kurnool and independent of Bijapur. Seeking favour and reconciliation, Siddi Jauhar offered to lead the campaign against Shivaji, if only Bijapur would recognise his fiefs and grant royal pardon for dissension. Ali Adil Shah granted this pardon on the condition that there would be a “complete overthrow” of the Maratha leader, and as added incentive, lent legitimacy to the campaign by assigning Siddi Jauhar the title of Salabat Jung.

The confident Siddi Jauhar, marched towards Panhala with a large army [a]. Shivaji was campaigning in Konkan, when he heard of the movements of Siddi’s army. He turned towards Panahala and himself took command at the fort. It was not, however, a matter of a single large army marching towards Panhala. Bijapur, relentless and seeking victory at any cost, sought to surround Shivaji. Shivaji’s troubles were three-fold: One, they reached out to the Mughals, (who, incidentally had recently besieged Bijapur) to attack Shivaji from the north, Two, Fateh Khan was asked to charge from Janjira and retake Konkan, and Three, the Sawants of Sawantwadi moved towards the south-west frontiers of Shivaji’s lands.

Shivaji, aware of these oncoming onslaughts charged his commanders thus: Raghunathpant Korde was to fight Fateh Khan in Konkan. Abaji Sondev was to defend Kalyan and Bhivandi districts. Baji Pasalkar was to repulse the attack of the Sawants. The plateau region of the Sahyadri mountain range, that consisted of the forts of Purandhar, Sinhagad, Pratapgad and nearby areas was commanded by Moropant Pingle. Shivaji took residence in the fort on 2 March 1660, and Kadtoji Bargujar[*] conducted the defence of Panhala from within. Shivaji sent a message to Sarnobat (Commander-in-Chief) Netaji Palkar, who was campaigning close to Bijapur, to attack the army of Siddi Jauhar from outside.

Fazal Khan and Rustam-e-Zaman, earlier defeated by Shivaji’s armies joined Siddi Jauhar and marched their armies towards Panhala. This already large army was then joined by Baji Ghorpade, Pid Nayak – the Bedar chief of Shorapur, Sadat Khan, Siddi Masood, Bhai Khan, and Bade Khan.

Siege of Panhala - Bijapuri Armies
Siege of Panhala – Bijapuri Armies

In early March 1660, Panhala was under siege.

Shivaji expected that the onset of the rains would slacken the siege and the harassment by the light cavalry of his Commander-in-Chief – Netaji Palkar, would further weaken the besiegers. This was not to be.

Siddi Jauhar did not relent even as it rained, instead he continued the siege with renewed vigour, as he saw his position strengthen. Netaji Palkar could not reach Panhala in time with the necessary force that could have changed the outcome of the siege[b]. As if this was not enough, Siddi Jauhar added a crucial factor to this event by procuring heavy artillery from the English at Rajapur. The chief of the factory, Henry Revington, along with two others (probably gunners) William Mingham and Philip Gyffard, came to Panhala with the guns and ammunition, and publicly supported Siddi Jauhar, though at the time, the East India Company was strictly neutral. Needless to say, this enraged Shivaji, who had till now maintained cordial relationships with the English.

In the north, Shaista Khan, who had been appointed the Viceroy of the Deccan by Aurangzeb, was creating havoc in Shivaji’s lands. By May 1660, Shaista Khan had occupied Pune and taken residence in Lal Mahal, Shivaji’s palace. Shivaji’s position was altogether untenable. While Panhala had the resources to withstand the siege for a while, the shelling from the English artillery and the closing in of the Mughals required that he change tact. It was now the fifth month of the siege.

He made pretence of submission, and sent message to Siddi Jauhar that he would like to discuss terms of surrender.

13 July 1660

In the cover of the night, Siddi Jauhar and Shivaji met outside the fort, and began their talks. Agreeing to meet again the next day, and finalise terms, Shivaji made his way back to the fort, leaving Siddi Jauhar in a false sense of security and closure.

While Siddi Jauhar relaxed and his armies took a much sought break, Shivaji escaped from Panhala.

Two teams left Panhala that night. In one was Shivaji, along with the Baji Prabhu Deshpande and few hundred soldiers. In the other was a barber – Shiva Kashid who resembled Shivaji, with a few other soldiers. The imposter’s team made way through the main road that led to Vishalgad, while Shivaji’s team made way through a side route, across the Masai plateau – a trek of about 60 kilometres. However, the news of the escape reached Siddi Jauhar’s camp and they pursued the fugitives. Fortunately, they caught up with the imposter’s team, which was taken back to Panhala. The imposter was soon discovered, and probably beheaded[c]. Yet the purpose was achieved and Shivaji’s team got the vital lead. Siddi Masud and Fazal Khan went again in pursuit and nearly caught up with the rear of Shivaji’s small army, just at daybreak.

Shiva Kashid - Statue at Panhala
Shiva Kashid – Statue at Panhala

In what is now regarded as classic rearguard action, Baji Prabhu Deshpande, along with his brother Fulaji, and a few hundred soldiers, defended a narrow pass -— Ghodkhind, while Shivaji and the remaining soldiers hastened to Vishalgad, which was still seven to nine kilometres away. The very large Bijapuri army led three major assaults on this rearguard, but was repulsed each time. Baji Prabhu Deshpande’s rearguard held for almost four hours, determined not to open that narrow pass till they got the signal that Shivaji was safe : three cannon shots from Vishalgad. The third assault, from the Karnatic infantry of Fazal Khan, proved to be fatal and half of the defending Maratha army was lost. The battle now turned to a hand-to-hand combat, and Baji Prabhu Deshpande, wielding two dand-pattas[d] continued the struggle in spite of being severely wounded. Finally he heard the three cannon shots, and succumbed to his injuries. His loyal soldiers carried the mortal remains of their valiant captain back to Vishalgad. Shivaji renamed this gorge to Paawankhind and offered the “first honour of the court” to his family.

Baji Prabhu Deshpande
Baji Prabhu Deshpande

*

The armies of Siddi Jauhar then, camped at Gajapur, at the base of Vishalgad and considered laying siege to Vishalgad. However, it cannot be invested from the west — it’s a straight drop of 2000 ft, into Konkan and there isn’t a way depriving supplies to the fort. The siege at Panhala continued. By this time, Ali Adil Shah who had received news of Shivaji’s escape, had reached Miraj, and by most accounts, relieved Siddi Jauhar of his responsibility. He suspected collusion on Siddi’s part, for how else could Shivaji escape from such a tight siege.

Panhala was surrendered to Bijapur on 22 September 1660, following a truce, between Shivaji and Ali Adil Shah, along with Pawangad and nearby forts. However, Rangna and Vishalgad remained with Shivaji.

Shivaji recaptured it in 1673.

Notes:

[a] The number of soldiers and the composition varies in almost every source. The range that we see in different sources varies from 20,000 to 60,000. It’s possible that certain sources refer to the army that belonged to Siddi Jauhar, whereas other sources add up the armies of the various commanders. The most common occurrence across sources is approximately 40,000

[b] There are two versions of the role of Netaji Palkar for this event. Shiv Charitra says that he never made it to Panhala, for which he was stripped of his rank (Sarnaubat) and it was invested in Kadtoji Bargujar (later entitled Prataprao Gujar). Most other versions mention his arrival, even if late, but definitely ineffective.

[c] There is no definitive entry in any sources we have seen. This is a popular, folklore version, derived of oral history.

[d] Some sources refer to these as flexible swords. The general usage in most text refer to the flexible sword as patta and to the gauntlet sword (long straight blade) as the dand-patta

[*] Only Sen, S. N. mentions Kudtoji Gujar as the one assigned to the defence of the fort. Shiv Bharat Ch. 25 (1-24) mentions Trymbak Bhaskar.

References:

  1. Keḷakara, Narasĩha Cintāmaṇa, and Dattetraya Vishnu. Apte. English Records on Shivaji: (1659-1682). Poona: Shiva Charitra Karyalaya, 1931. Print.
  2. Kincaid, Charles Augustus, and Rao Bahadur D. B. Parasnis. A History of the Maratha People. Vol. I. Oxford: Longmann, Rees, Orme, Brown and Green, 1925. Print.
  3. Krishna, Bal. Shivaji the Great. Vol. II. Bombay: Taraporevala, 1932. Print.
  4. Patwardhan, R. P., and H. G. Rawlinson. Source Book of Maratha History. Calcutta: K.P. Bagchi, 1978. Print.
  5. Sardesai, Govind Sakharam. New History of the Marathas. Vol. I. Bombay: Phoenix Publications, 1946. Print.
  6. Sarkar, Jadunath. Shivaji and His times. London: Longmans, Green, 1920. Print.
  7. Sarkar, Jadunath. House of Shivaji (studies and Documents on Maratha History: Royal Period). Calcutta: M.C. Sarkar, 1955. Print.
  8. Sen, Surendra Nath. Siva Chhatrapati: Being a Translation of Sabhasad Bakhar with Extracts from Chitnis and Sivadigvijaya with Notes. Calcutta: Bagchi, 1977. Print.
  9. Shivaji, and Govind Sakharam Sardesai. Shivaji Souvenir. Bombay: K.B. Dhawale, 1927. Print.
  10. Takakhav, N. S., and Kr̥shṇarāva Arjuna Keḷūsakara. The Life of Shivaji Maharaj: Founder of the Maratha Empire. Bombay: Manoranjan, 1921. Print.
  11. आपटे, दत्तात्रय विष्णु. महाराष्ट्र इतिहासमंजरी. पुणें: चित्रशाळा प्रेस, १८४५. Print.

A Brief History of Wootz

If we look at history before firearms came on the scene, we see much romanticism associated with swords and other blades. They were revered and even worshipped. The weapons themselves had stories and were often as well-known as the bearer. The swords that great men and women wielded, had legends of their own. The sword, now, however, is reduced to a ceremonial adornment, seldom drawn from the scabbard.

There’s more, however, to these swords than their legends. The oldest record of a sword-like weapon, or long-daggers, goes back to 3300 BCE, in the Bronze Age. What we would consider a proper sword was not practical in the Bronze Age, due its tensile strength. Some innovations followed in China, but it wasn’t until the Iron Age that swords started getting their due, 12th century BCE, onwards, when smiths discovered that by “adding carbon during smelting, they could improve produce an improved alloy”, which we now know as steel.

This painting is in the guest house of the largest R&D steel laboratory in the world, the Steel Authority of India, in Ranchi.
This painting is in the guest house of the largest R&D steel laboratory in the world, the Steel Authority of India, in Ranchi.

The first proper mention of steel, in India, comes around 326 BCE when Alexander defeated Puru (often called Porus, in Western texts) at the Battle of the Hydaspes (modern-day River Jhelum). King Puru, though he lost the battle, did not lose his rival’s respect, and continued to rule his kingdom, Paurava. In-spite of the battle, there was mutual respect between these two kings. Puru offered to Alexander, as a token of respect, his sword, and a 100 talents of steel. If we assume that contemporary chroniclers used Greek standards, one talent is equal to 26kgs. That’s close to 3 tonnes of steel!

But why steel? Well, at those times, steel was rare, and therefore, more precious than gold. And this was not just any steel, these 100 talents were of Wootz Steel.

The word, Wootz, has its etymology in Urukku, or Ukku. Ukku is a Kannada word, but perhaps has its origins in classical Tamil, with “Ekku.” In the middle ages, in Russia, they were called the “Bulat” steels. In Persia they were known as “Pauhad Janherder”. Clear similarities, then, between these words and the common word for steel in India today: फ़ौलाद (Faulad).

According to Pliny The Elder, a Roman author, naturalist, and natural philosopher, as well as naval and army commander of the early Roman Empire, we read of import of iron from the ‘Seres’ kingdom during the first century BCE, which would refer to the Ancient Chera kingdom of South India. Another popular Roman travelogue, the Periplus of the Erythrean (Red) Sea, also mentions trade with the Chera kingdom, along the Malabar Coast of Kerala. Various accounts refer to Wootz as ferrum candidum (bright iron), ferrum indicum, sericum. Sericum, no doubt comes from Seres, or the Cheras. Yet, it became popular world over as Damascus Steel, perhaps because the finished product was seen in Damascus, Syria. While Wootz was cast in India, the fine swords made of this material were forged in Persia and Arabia, and probably seen (and sold) in Damascus. This is not to say that swordsmithery was absent in India. In the 12th century CE, the Arab traveller and cartographer Al Idrisi, wrote:

‘The Hindus excel in the manufacture of iron, and in the preparations of those ingredients along with which it is fused to obtain that kind of soft iron which is usually styled Indian steel (Hindiah). They also have workshops wherein are forged the most famous sabres in the world. …It is not possible to find anything to surpass the edge that you get from Indian steel (al-hadid al-Hindi)’

Elsewhere, Al-Biruni (973-1048 CE) says:

“There will never be another nation, which understood separate types of swords and their names, than the inhabitants of India…”

Arab accounts refer to Hindvi, Hindiah, or Hinduwani steel, which later got stylised to the European Ondanique, as well as Teling Steel, which undoubtedly refers to the Telengana region. This points us to the source; “…wootz ingots were produced in Southern and South Central India and Sri Lanka. The area of Hyderabad, formerly Golconda, was perhaps the most reputed area producing wootz.”

Damascus Steel - Pattern; CSMVS, Mumbai
Damascus Steel – characterised by distinctive patterns of banding and mottling reminiscent of flowing water; CSMVS, Mumbai. Click to see larger version.

Due to the nature of Wootz and the forging method, swords made of Wootz are “characterised by distinctive patterns of banding and mottling reminiscent of flowing water.” Further, “Such blades were reputed to be tough, resistant to shattering and capable of being honed to a sharp, resilient edge.” [Link] The word, ‘Damas’ in Arabic language means water. Another reason, why, possibly, the swords got their name.

The romanticism of the sword, then, is no mystery. Before becoming a favourite sword, the material travelled many lands, passed through many hands. The steel, the forging, the beauty of the swords must have captured imaginations around the world. This wondrous alloy, of all things, has inspired poetry. The Russian poet, Alexander Pushkin immortalised ‘bulat‘ with a poem when he wrote in 1830:

All is mine, said gold;
All is mine said bulat;
All I can buy said gold,
All I will take, said bulat.

Wootz and swords made of Wootz continued to capture the imagination of the world. It was the subject of many stories, like the one between King Richard the Lion Hearted and Sultan Saladin the Saracen. This story, perhaps best explains what it meant to have a Wootz sword and what it is capable of.

The trade of Wootz continued in the 17th century, with accounts of Persia and Golconda trading this marvellous alloy, during the Qutb Shahi reign.

In recent history, Wootz finds mention again, during the Revolt of 1857. The swords had such a reputation that the British decided to destroy all Wootz swords. They had to build a special machine for this, because the shearing blades meant to cut the Wootz swords, themselves got cut by the tough Wootz blades.

*

India, today, is the 4th largest producer of steel, with 86.5 million metric tons of crude steel production. Given that this is the place where the finest steel was invented, there’s a long way to go. Sure, we don’t make swords anymore, but it is unimaginable to imagine a world without steel. Pretty much the same way, as it was, since the first Wootz sword was forged thousands of years ago.

*

I must make a special mention of the book, “India’s Legendary Wootz Steel—An Advanced Material of the Ancient World“, by Sharada Srinivasan and Srinivasa Ranganathan. This book has been the major source of reference for this post.

References

  • Srinivasan, Sharada, and Srinivasa Ranganathan. India’s Legendary Wootz Steel: An Advanced Material of the Ancient World. Bangalore: National Institute of Advanced Studies and Indian Institute of Science, 2004. Print.
  • Forbes, R. J. “The Early Story of Iron.” Studies in Ancient Technology. 2. Rev. ed. Leiden: Brill Academic Pub, 1964. 238-140. Print.
  • Jeans, J. Stephen. “Early History.” Steel: Its History, Manufacture, Properties, and Uses. London: E. & F.N. Spon, 1880. 8. Print.
  • Rickard, T. A. “The Primitive Smelting of Iron.” American Journal of Archaeology (1939): 100-01. Print.
  • Sasisekaran, B., and B. Raghunatha Rao. “Iron in Ancient Tamil Nadu.” India; Metallurgy in India: A Retrospective. NML Jamshedpur. Web. 17 July 2015. .
  • Sherby, O.D., and J. Wadsworth. “Ultrahigh Carbon Steels, Damascus Steels, and Superplasticity.” (1997). Web. 17 July 2015. .
  • Sinopoli, Carla M. “Craft Products and Craft Producers.” The Political Economy of Craft Production: Crafting Empire in South India, C.1350–1650. Cambridge UP, 2003. 192-193. Print.

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 met Shivaji probably at the Sinhgad Fort and received a warm welcome there. 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. Chhatrasal stayed with Shivaji for a few months. He proudly mentions learning archery with Shivaji’s forces. 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. They were kept at a certain distance, partly due to the legacy of Sher Shah Suri — a Bihari Pathan, and partly due to continuous skirmishes between Mughals and Pathans at the empire’s western frontier. 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 battle sequence 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.

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. 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.

Endgame

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.

Aftermath

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“.

Notes

  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’

References

  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

 

Link | Monson’s Retreat: India,1804

An interesting account of the disastrous retreat of Lieutenant Colonel William Monson, at the The Battle of Mukandwara Pass (July 1804), often called “one of the greatest and most disgraceful setbacks to the British military reputation in India.”

“Lieutenant General Lord Gerald Lake (1744-1808; commander-in-chief in India from 1801 to 1805) and Arthur Wellesley (1769-1852; the future Duke of Wellington), in command of the British forces in the Deccan, received letters from Holkar which they found impudent with oriental braggadocio. At the same time Holkar was in communication with the vacillating British allies, Sindhia and Bhonsle, urging them to rise up against their British overlords. Lake, complaining to governor-general Richard Wellesley (1760-1842) that it would be impossible to dictate terms to Holkar without resorting to force, wrote, “I was never so plagued, as I am with this devil; he just, nay hardly, keeps within the letter of the law, by which means our army is remaining in the field at an enormous expense … ” Lord Wellesley, although already in trouble with the governors of the East India Company over the expense of his aggressive territorial ambitions, decided nonetheless that a quick victorious campaign would be cheaper than paying for an army of observation. It “…was manifestly a measure not only of just policy and necessary security, but of ultimate economy with reference to the finances of the honourable company,” he wrote to the government in an exercise of self-justification. Hostilities against Holkar commenced in April of 1804.”

(Via. The Napoleon Series; read the full article at Monson’s Retreat: India,1804)

Image from Wikipedia Commons. Arthur William Devis [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons