Indian History Part 84 Aurangzeb Section VI: The Last Foray into the Deccan

Canberra, 23 February 2021

On 8th September 1681 Aurangzeb, 63 years old and having been on the throne for 23 years, made a hasty peace with Mewar and set out from Ajmer for the Deccan, reaching Burhanpur on 13th November 1681. This was the culmination of a sequence of events in Rajputana, most of which were outside the control of the Mughal emperor. With this march of the seat of Mughal power to the south, the centre of gravity of the Empire also shifted. It heralded the broader transfer of the Mughal emperor’s rule, usually emanating from the stable settings of the capital Delhi or Agra, to the unproductive and nomadic existence of the emperor, intent on an unintended permanent campaign. For the imperial Mughal dynasty, the move south had completed the circle—the founder of the dynasty, Babur, had also spent most of his time in nomadic wanderings, fighting interminable wars in a quest to find a kingdom and 150 years later, his successor was also embarking on a search of conquest and embracing a nomadic life.

Aurangzeb was destined to spend the remainder of his life, the next 26 years, in battlefields across the Peninsula waging incessant wars, chasing and failing to achieve his vaulting ambition of creating an Islamic India. In this quest, he would go deep into South India, reaching the River Krishna, more than 1700 kilometres from his capital Delhi. Some of his generals would venture a further 700 kilometres south, crossing the River Kaveri in their conquering march. The Mughals were victorious in most of the battles that they fought, at least in the initial part of the campaign, but unsuccessful in winning the war, primarily aimed at annexing the Peninsula to the Mughal Empire.

In 1658, when Aurangzeb set out to claim the Mughal throne, he had been on the verge of a complete conquest of the Deccan. The war of succession had interrupted his campaign. Even though he stayed on in Delhi as the emperor, subconsciously he had always wanted to complete the task. After more than two decades of rule from Delhi, he once again set out to annex the Deccan. By this time, the Deccan Shahi kingdoms had almost self-destructed, their resistance was broken and they were only a shadow of their earlier status and power. The rising power of the Marathas was considered only a nuisance, at least in Delhi. In a strategic analysis, therefore, there was no reason for the emperor to personally lead the army to intervene in the Deccan. The immediate cause for the emperor’s precipitate action was that his son, the rebel prince Akbar, had taken refuge with the Marathas. Aurangzeb wanted to be in the Deccan personally before a Maratha-Akbar combine could take shape and threaten the very legitimacy of his rule.

The Maratha Situation

On Shivaji’s death there was a minor succession struggle, but by 18th June 1680, his son Shambhuji had secured the throne. Shambhuji continued his father’s policy of raiding Mughal territories—plundering north Khandesh in the winter of 1680-81 and in November 1681, making an unsuccessful attempt at capturing Ahmadnagar. The Mughal prince Akbar, continued to stay under Maratha protection, hopeful of their assistance to capture the throne of Delhi. Aurangzeb’s move to the Deccan was a tacit acknowledgement of his appreciation that the gravity of the situation in Deccan warranted concerted action. He had abandoned the vain attempts at subduing the lawless tribes of Afghanistan, and reluctantly come to terms with the Rajputs. In both cases he knew that peace was temporary, but in his mind the decision to take Deccan in hand had assumed priority, perhaps rightly.

Immediately on arrival in the Deccan, Aurangzeb initiated a frenzy of activities, based on an extensive plan that he had already contrived for the invasion of the Maratha country. The army of the Deccan was divided and sent out in different directions under senior generals—Sayyid Hasan Ali was sent to north Konkan, Dalpat Rai to Nasik, Prince Shah Alam to Ahmadnagar as a holding force, and Prince Azam to Bijapur. However, throughout 1682 none of the armies made any tangible progress and no gains were made. Aurangzeb recalled all the detachments in April 1683. At this stage of his Deccan campaign, Aurangzeb was going through an uncharacteristic period of domestic challenges-induced mental crisis. His faith in his immediate family had been shaken by Akbar’s actions and he was in a situation wherein he did not know whom to trust. His policies became hesitant and watchful. In a vicarious manner, it could be said that he was reaping the aftermath of the events that he had initiated two decades back.

Although formally recognised as Shivaji’s legitimate successor, Shambhuji was having difficulties in exercising his authority over the entire Maratha nation. There were two underlying reasons for the reluctance of the Marathas to function under Shambhuji’s central control. One was that on being anointed the king, Shambhuji had started to enjoy a luxurious life, openly indulging in vulgar entertainment, which met with the disapproval of the Maratha nobility. Second, Kavi Kalash, Shambhuji’s prime minister, was a Brahmin from Kanauj and therefore disliked in court as a foreigner. Shambhuji’s inability to enforce central authority led to desertions from the ranks and even to minor rebellions.

The Konkan Campaign – 1683

Aurangzeb, observing the lack of coherence in the Maratha kingdom, decided to take advantage of the confusion and organised another offensive in 1683. Prince Shah Alam was given command of a large army and send out to attack Maratha country and penetrate south Konkan. Another detachment was moved to Pune, from where the Mughals raided Nizampur and Kolaba districts. Prince Azam was sent to Nasik to effect a defensive posture in the region. The imperial army blocked the routes through Bidar and Akalkoall, which were the primary routes through which aid from Bijapur and Golconda could reach the Marathas. The emperor himself relocated to Ahmadnagar.

Shah Alam leading the main thrust entered Belgaum district and captured few forts and then went through the Ramghat Pass into the plains of Savantvadi. At Bicholim he demolished the mansions that had belonged to Shambhuji and Akbar. Then he decided to take Goa from the Portuguese by treachery. This was a calamitous decision with long-term repercussions for the nascent campaign. The Mughal army’s land-based logistical chain was long and prone to interdiction by the guerrilla-tactics-favouring Marathas. Therefore, they had entered into an agreement with the Portuguese for supply by sea, with the chain being established from Surat and other Gujarat ports to Goa. This Portuguese-facilitated sea route was the lifeline of the Mughal campaign in the Konkan. Once the Portuguese got wind of Shah Alam’s plan, they stopped the supplies from the sea from reaching the Mughals, cutting off critical material to the imperial army. However, the Mughal offensive rolled on till the forward forces reached north of Goa, plundering and burning the villages that came in their way.

At this stage in the campaign, the lack of supplies began to be felt and the wanton ravaging of the local countryside manifested in the beginning of a local famine. Shah Alam, left with no other choice, decided to return to Mughal strongholds through the Ramghat Pass. During the crossing at the Pass, the imperial army lost one-third of the total force including horses and elephants. The imperial army in retreat was continually harassed by the Marathas and the tattered remnants of the force reached Ahmadnagar on 18 May 1684, not having achieved anything tangible in almost a year of campaigning.

In the aftermath of this second failure, the Mughals left the Marathas to themselves, and although the Maratha forces remained volatile, they too did not make any meaningful raids into Mughal territory. An uneasy peace prevailed for about three years. In February 1687, Prince Akbar sailed for Persia, where he would be well-received but not provided any assistance to invade Hindustan. With Akbar’s departure, Aurangzeb seems to have been lightened of his burdens and he was no longer concerned about a Maratha-Akbar challenge to his legitimacy and sovereignty.

Extinction of Adil Shahi Bijapur

From the time of his accession to the throne, Ali Adil Shah II attempted to propitiate Aurangzeb with gifts and later by cooperating with Shayista Khan and Raja Jai Singh in operations against Shivaji. Essentially, Ali Adil Shah was playing a well-crafted role, the central theme of which was his own and his kingdom’s survival. There was no doubt in his mind that a direct confrontation with the imperial Mughals was inevitable and the outcome of such a conflict was a pre-gone conclusion. Therefore, while remaining overtly subservient to the Mughal emperor and his viceroy in the Deccan, he covertly encouraged the Marathas to resist the Mughal advance. The Adil Shah also encouraged the Qutb Shah of Golconda to finance Shivaji in his fight against the Mughals.

The Mughals were no fools and were fully aware of the double game being played by the Adil Shah. These were the reasons for Jai Singh to invade Bijapur, described in the previous chapter. For nearly six years after the debacle of Jai Singh’s disastrous invasion and retreat, Bijapur remained untroubled by the Mughals and the Marathas. However, this period could not be counted as peace, it was a mere respite from war. When Ali Adil Shah II died in December 1672, his kingdom also went into its death throes. Shivaji was quick to react and captured few forts from Bijapur territory.

The Mughal viceroy, Bahadur Khan, was slow to react and he managed to wangle control of only two forts from the Bijapur administration. Frustrated by his inaction, Aurangzeb replaced him with Dilir Khan, who was known for his penchant for precipitate action. Bijapur was now nominally ruled by Ali Adil’s son, the ten-year old Sikandar Adil Shah. Dilir Khan manipulated the situation to place one of his lackeys, Sidi Masud, as the Vizier and de facto ruler in Bijapur. This was not appreciated by the people of Bijapur. Dilir’s subsequent attempt to have a popular princess of the Adil Shahi dynasty married off to Prince Azam further infuriated the people, who were loyal to the ruling royal family. Dilir was unpopular and there were riots and uprisings. In this confusion, Masud severed his connections with Dilir Khan and entered into a secret pact with Shivaji. When the pact was revealed, Dilir Khan had no option but to invade Bijapur.

Dilir Khan could not storm the fort but skirted it and ravaged the countryside on the Karnataka side of the kingdom, focusing on the destruction of lands owned by Shivaji. In March 1680, the tribal Berads, living in the strip of land between the Rivers Krishna and Bhima, inflicted a decisive defeat on Dilir Khan’s army, and he was forced to retreat in disgrace. Soon after this third retreat of the imperial army from Bijapur, the strategic circumstances changed—Shivaji died; Prince Akbar arrived in the Deccan as a fugitive seeking assistance; and chasing him came the Mughal emperor himself. Bijapur’s days became numbered.

Even before Aurangzeb’s arrival in the Deccan, once he had decided on annexing both Bijapur and Golconda, the fate of the two remaining Shahi kingdoms had been sealed. The tidal swell of imperial Mughal might and its expansionist policies could not be stemmed by either of these kingdoms, either individually or even collectively. However, the first few years of Aurangzeb’s presence in the Deccan did not inflict any greater pressure on either Bijapur or Golconda. The Mughal focus was on the activities of the rebel prince Akbar, with Aurangzeb monitoring the situation personally to ensure that an Akbar-Maratha nexus did not take root.

Even before Akbar’s final departure from India, in 1685, Bijapur was under siege once again. However, as in previous cases, the fort defied the imperial army for 13 months. In July 1688, Aurangzeb personally reached Bijapur and took command of the expedition. Two months later, the Bijapur army that had heroically withstood the Mughal might for 15 months, but now with only 2000 soldiers left, finally surrendered. On 22nd September 1686, Sikandar Adil Shah, the boy-king, now 18 years old, last of the two-hundred-year-old dynasty, walked out of his fort and into Mughal captivity. He would spend the next 14 years being transported with the Mughal emperor’s entourage across the Deccan and would die a premature death in 1700, unsung and unmourned. The Adil Shahi kingdom of Bijapur was annexed to the Mughal Empire.

‘Aurangzeb entered Bijapur seated on a portable throne, scattering gold and silver coins. He was, it turned out, performing the last rites of this once gracious and prosperous city. A devastating bubonic plague felled half the city’s population soon after its fall, and Bijapur became a ghost city, its nobility impoverished, its artisans, scholars and poets scattered and without sustenance.’

—Abraham Early,

Emperors of the Peacock Throne, p. 489.

Destruction of the Qutb Shahis of Golconda

After Bijapur was annihilated, it was Golconda’s turn. Nominally Abdullah Qutb Shah ruled the kingdom, but initially his mother wielded power and on her death, his eldest son-in-law. Abdullah was a complete debauch and died in 1672, leaving no sons to succeed him. Although his eldest son-in-law had exercised power till then, he was arrogant and therefore disliked by the nobility. The nobility contrived to bring the youngest son-in-law Abul Hasan to the throne since he was also pleasure-loving and pliable. All matters of state were left to the discretion of the Vizier, Madanna, a Vaishnavite Brahmin wo ruled Golconda for 12 years. The predominance of Hindu influence in Golconda inflamed the religious righteousness of Aurangzeb and when Golconda made an alliance with the Marathas, the Mughal emperor was infuriated.

A letter from Abul Hasan promising assistance to Bijapur and blaming Aurangzeb for attacking Sikandar Adil Shah, a ‘helpless orphan’ fell into Mughal hands. This provided the immediate cause for the Mughal invasion of Golconda. In July 1685, Shah Alam started with a large force towards the capital Hyderabad but was held up at Malkhed for two months by the resistance of the Qutb Shahi forces. Finally, the Qutb Shahi commander was bought off by the Mughals, upon which the rest of the forces fled. Abul Hasan fled to the impregnable fort at Golconda. Shah Alam triumphantly occupied Hyderabad and the Qutb Shah also surrendered.

Peace prevailed for some time, but on the terms of peace not being met by the Qutb Shah, and more importantly, Aurangzeb not wanting to leave Golconda independent any longer, the Mughals began another further offensive. Aurangzeb reached Golconda territory from Bijapur on 28th January 1687, and laid siege to Golconda fort on 7th February 1687. The emperor personally led the siege. Meanwhile Shah Alam had started secret negotiations with Abul Hasan, which greatly annoyed Aurangzeb. He imprisoned Shah Alam and his family and confiscated all the prince’s property. The Qutb Shahi forces were tenacious in their defence and Aurangzeb fell back on his usual practice of bribery to achieve military success. He once again bought off a senior Qutb Shahi commander, who opened one of the gates of the fort at night, and the Mughal forces were able to storm the fort. On 21st September 1687, Abul Hasan was taken prisoner, the Qutb Shah surrendering with solemnity and dignity. He was sent in captivity to Daulatabad fort, marking the end of the Qutb Shahi dynasty. Aurangzeb acquired booty in excess of 70 million rupees and a horde of other treasure. Golconda was annexed to the Mughal Empire—the last of the Deccan Shahi kingdoms had bitten the dust.

(For a detailed account of the Deccan Shahi kingdoms, their rise to power, battles and the causes of their decline and downfall, read From Indus to Independence: A Trek through Indian History Volume VI: Medieval Deccan Kingdoms)

Capture and Death of Shambhuji

There is an opinion amongst modern historians that the annihilation of Bijapur and Golconda was a miscalculation on the part of Aurangzeb. They believe that the emperor should have created goodwill with these two kingdoms and co-opted them to fight and crush the rising menace of the Marathas. The removal of the Shahi kingdoms is seen as having freed the Marathas from rivalry and allowed them to build their strength. This is an incorrect assessment and remains a flawed opinion based on wrong assumptions. The Shahi kingdoms were never going to operate in conjunction with the Mughals, their mutual distrust and antagonism went too far and too deep for such a turn of events to take place. Second, by the time the Marathas reached the level of being a recognised national state, both Bijapur and Golconda were spent forces, having lost their ‘bite’ to the sustained decadence of the royalty and nobility. They would not have been effective against the rising power of the warlike Maratha people.

While Aurangzeb was preoccupied with demolishing Bijapur and then Golconda, Shambhuji wasted the time in the pursuit of revelry and celebration, instead of taking advantage of the reprieve from military action to plan the next moves, strengthen the army, and shore up resources. On 1st February 1689, while carousing in the vicinity of Sangameswar, Shambhuji was surprised and captured by a Mughal general, Muquarrab Khan, along with his minster Kavi Kalash. They were brought to the Mughal court, then sitting in Bahadurgarh. Shambhuji and his minster were subjected to public ridicule and insult and in return abused Aurangzeb. Further, he refused to surrender any forts, give out the names of his accomplices in the imperial army or disclose the location of the hidden Maratha treasures.

For their bravery under extreme conditions, Shambhuji and Kavi Kalash were blinded, tortured for three weeks, and finally put to death on 11th March 1689. The Marathas had elevated Rajaram, Shambhuji’s younger brother, to the throne on 6th February 1689, immediately on his capture. The imperial forces now laid siege to Raigarh. Although Rajaram managed to escape disguised as a holy man, Raigarh was overrun and Shambhuji’s young son Shahji as well as some ladies of the royal family were taken prisoner. The Marathas were once again on the backfoot, but not for long.

An Overview

Aurangzeb, now aged 71 years, ruled an empire with an immense sweep of land—from Kabul to Bengal and across the Deccan and South India to the River Kaveri. Only the southern-most tip remained outside Mughal control. However, at this moment of supreme triumph, Aurangzeb was beset with the nightmare of the resurgence of the Marathas. The edifice he had created was already rocking under the swell being created by the new power on the horizon—the Marathas.

Shambhuji’s nine-year rule marked a distinct transformation in the Maratha progress to power. Shivaji had converted an easy-going peasantry into a nation of tough warriors, not averse to plunder, but always inspired by a universal hatred of the Muslim. By the end of Shambhuji’s rule, the concept of a central command of a ‘Maratha army’ was a myth. The strong cohesive army of Shivaji had splintered into independent bands of warriors under warlords, each acting in his own interest. However, each band fought, captured, plundered and pillaged in the same common cause—to destroy the Muslims; they were fighting a national war against the alien Muslim invaders. Therefore, the effect of these independent actions on the Mughal forces in the Deccan was as if the Marathas were still functioning under the central leadership and guidance of one king. Although independently mounted, the collective impact of their actions on the invading forces was enormous and alarming.

For anyone who stopped to step back and analyse, the writing on the wall was clear—this was the beginning of the end of the imperial Mughal dynasty. The Empire, although it stood at its zenith, would not last more than a decade.

‘But at the moment of his supreme triumph, Aurangzeb found to his horror that the very ground on which he stood was crumbling. The Maratha dragon which he thought he had slain, turned out to be a hydra: each head that he cut off grew as two, the serpent slithering and pullulating in eerie, maddening chaos. It was a nightmare form which Aurangzeb would not awaken.’

—Abraham Eraly,

Emperors of the Peacock Throne, p. 495.

© [Sanu Kainikara] [2021]
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About Sanu Kainikara

Sainik School Kazhakuttam (Kerala), National Defence Academy 39/A, 108 Pilot's Course IAF, fighter pilot, QFI, FCL, psc, HACC, Voluntary Retirement as Wing Commander. Canberra-based Political and Defence Analyst specialising in military strategy, national security, and international politics. PhD in International Politics from University of Adelaide Executive Masters in Public Adminsitration (ANZSOG) Adjunct Professor, University of New South Wales, Distinguished Fellow Institute For Regional Security (IFRS) Distinguished Fellow Centre for Air Power Studies (CAPS)

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