Indian History Part 84 Aurangzeb Section VII: The Curtain Falls

Canberra, 23 February 2021

After the capture and execution of Shambhuji, it would have been logical for Aurangzeb to return to Delhi—the three major powers in the Deccan, the Adil and the Qutb Shahis and the Marathas, had been effectively destroyed or subdued and their territories annexed to the Empire. There was nothing more to be achieved. Asad Khan, the vizier, said as much in a petition to the emperor, stating, ‘It is now good policy that the imperial standard should return to Paradise-like Hindustan, so that the world may know that nothing more remains for the emperor to do’. Aurangzeb dismissed the suggestion, replying that if men felt no work remains to be done, it would be contrary to truth.

Although the Deccan would ultimately prove to be Aurangzeb’s undoing, this bitter truth was not self-evident in 1689. In reality, the beginning of the end had already started. For a decade after Shambhuji’s execution, Aurangzeb enjoyed relative quiet and peace, concentrating on consolidating and administering the new acquisitions while his generals were engaged in mopping up the remnants of the demolished Deccan kingdoms. The small Maratha bands of raiders were of no serious consequence, or so Aurangzeb thought. He was spending leisurely and contemplative time camped near small villages like Galgala on the River Krishna south-west of Bijapur, and Brahmapuri on the River Bhima near Solapur.

Re-emergence of the Marathas

Aurangzeb had always been a shrewdly observant and calculating monarch. Therefore, it is paradoxical that he underestimated the Marathas and their resolve; and surprising, since he had personally witnessed the audacity of Shivaji’s daring exploits even before he became emperor—the Maratha sacking of Junnar in 1657 being a classic example. After coming to the throne, he had relied on his viceroys and generals to contain the rise to further strength of the Maratha chief. Always a subtle adversary, Shivaji’s life’s ambition was to establish a Maratha national state, ‘swarajya’, which he assiduously pursued. Aurangzeb’s absence from the Deccan gave this ambition a further fillip.

Only the flight of the rebel prince Akbar to Maratha territory where Shambhuji gave him shelter made Aurangzeb come to the Deccan. However, in the more than two decades that had gone by, the Marathas had become far too powerful to be fully eliminated. Therefore, Aurangzeb’s assessment that Shambhuji’s execution had put an end to Maratha power was completely wrong, both at the tactical and the strategic level. Aurangzeb was slow to fathom the extraordinary depth of the Maratha antagonism against him and Muslims in general. It is doubtful whether he ever fully understood this factor. For a person who harboured very strong religious hatred against all but the ‘true believers’, this was a surprisingly naïve attitude to adopt. Opting to stay and fight the Marathas was a strategic mistake—Aurangzeb made the first stroke in digging his own grave, and along with it, that of the broader dynasty and Empire.

The Maratha rebellion took hold even as the consolidation of Bijapur and Golconda territories was being undertaken. Aurangzeb was once again surprised by the vehemence of the rebellion. After Rajaram’s flight to Gingee, it became the de facto capital and the centre of Maratha activities in the east coast of the Peninsula, with Prahlad Niraji as the king’s trusted general in this theatre. In Maharashtra proper, other leaders emerged to fill the vacuum. Ramachandra Bhavdekar was created ‘dictator’ assisted by Shankarji Malhar and Parshuram Trimbak. In the Deccan itself, two outstanding Maratha generals, Santaji Ghorpare and Dhanaji Jadav took charge of operations against the Mughals.

The Mughals were baffled by the Maratha attacks and unable to respond effectively. They were fighting a guerrilla army that struck at will and then disappeared; there was no visible or discernible centre of gravity that a regular army could engage and crush; and in every encounter the imperial army ended up suffering disproportionately heavy losses. Further, the Mughals were confused because they could not keep track of the different Maratha bands that swept across the land. They would not engage in battle, their primary aim being plunder and not power—the Marathas were not interested in inflicting ‘defeat’ on the adversary, but only to pillage and vanish. The imperial army was going round in circles, chasing one and then another band in futile attempts to tie them down. Extreme confusion prevailed in the Mughal army.

The Fall of Gingee

Aurangzeb viewed Rajaram as the overall leader of the Marathas and send a large force under Zulfiqar Khan to capture the fort at Gingee. It took Zulfiqar eight year to overrun the fort, not because of Maratha opposition, but because he was in no hurry to capture the fort and thus end the campaign. Herein lies a paradox of Mughal campaigns. A general or a noble was given enormous and independent power when in command of an army in the field, while back in the court he was yet another flunkey, almost a nonentity. Therefore, over time it had become customary for Mughal army commanders to drag on campaigns as much as possible. Zulfiqar was merely continuing this venerable tradition. He did not so much besiege Gingee, as camp beside the fort.

Chronicles of the English merchants in Madras in 1696 confirm that Zulfiqar could have captured Gingee in truly short order, had he wanted to, but he opted to negotiate with the Marathas, entering into secret correspondence with Rajaram. Zulfiqar was ambitious and was toying with the idea of setting up his own principality in the Deccan, anticipating the old emperor’s imminent demise. He was later joined in Gingee by his father, Asad Khan the vizier, and by Prince Kam Baksh. Their arrival increased the tensions and intrigue within the Mughal camp. The Marathas roamed the land, dominating the countryside and almost besieging the besieged. On Aurangzeb’s implicit orders to capture the fort or return, Zulfiqar informed Rajaram of his intentions and permitted him to ‘escape’ after which he stormed and took the fort in 1698. Rajaram initially proceeded to Vellore and from there moved to Satara, which then became the seat of power of the Marathas.

Maratha Disunity

Although the bands of roving Marathas recorded few victories, they continued to be factionalised because of a lack of central control and guidance; at times even fighting each other. Even so, in a joint action by Ramachandra, Shankarji, Santaji and Dhanaji on 25 May 1690, the Mughal general Sharza Khan was captured with his entire family near Satara. Shankarji then went on to capture the forts at Pratapgarh, Rohira, Rajgarh and Torna, while Parshuram recovered Panhala in 1692. Santaji Ghorpare divided his force and simultaneously raided Berar and Malkhed, collecting ‘chauth’ from both the regions. The next few years were militarily bad ones for the imperial forces, making their continuation in the Deccan almost untenable.

Santaji Ghorpare was a military genius and a master of guerrilla warfare, becoming a terror for the Mughal forces. The key to Santaji’s success was meticulous planning, coordination and rapid movements. Success, therefore, depended on instant and unquestioning execution of his orders by subordinate commanders. Partly stemming from this critical requirement and partly because of his inherent character, Santaji was a disciplinarian, bordering on the martinet. He was believed to be egomaniacal and arrogant, perhaps an unfair assessment. He was therefore not liked by anybody—both friend and foe alike—but equally feared by both. There was no Mughal general who wanted to try and bring Santaji to heel. Even the bravest of them quaked at the very mention of Ghorpare’s name.

In 1695, Santaji surprised the Mughal general Qasim Khan and inflicted a severe defeat on him, decimating one-third of his large army. The Mughal camp was plundered and the army forced to pay a ransom of two crore rupees, while Qasim Khan committed suicide in shame. In 1696, he attacked and defeated an army under Himmat Khan, who was killed in battle and obtained great plunder.

Dhanaji Jadav was the great-grandson of Shivaji’s maternal uncle. He was almost the complete opposite of Santaji in demeanour, courteous to a fault, cool and gracious, and was obviously well-liked by all. The two generals, equally competent, were both contenders for the position of senapati, commander-in-chief, of the entire Maratha army, and therefore harboured intense jealousy for each other. So far Prahlad Niraji had been able to coerce them to work in tandem towards a common goal, but on his death their animosity burst into the open and they clashed. In March 1697, there was a skirmish between the two groups near Satara. Santaji’s followers deserted him because of his insolence and he was forced to flee the battlefield in defeat. He was eventually assassinated.

Nothing of significance took place in the Mughal-Maratha contest for a few years. In July 1687, the River Bhima in spate washed away the imperial camp on its banks with great loss of life and treasure, creating havoc amongst the Mughals. 

Maratha Crisis of Leadership

Rajaram died at Sinhgarh on 2nd March 1700, and the already emerging leadership crisis among the Maratha warlords deepened immediately. Rajaram left behind two widows, each with an infant son, who set up their respective sons as rival kings, thereby splitting the Maratha loyalty. A third group also entered the fray by claiming the throne for Shahuji, Shambhuji’s son who was still in Mughal captivity.

Tara Bai Mohite, Rajaram’s senior queen was a woman of ‘spirit, sagacity and finely tuned Maratha craftiness’. Even during Rajaram’s lifetime, Tara Bai had gained a reputation for knowledge of civil and military matters of state. She quickly established rapport with the senior nobles, asserted herself and the right of her infant son Shivaji II to be the king. She was able to rapidly consolidate power and place the junior queen Rajas Bai in confinement. She then appointed Parshuram Trimbak as the ‘pratinidhi’, prime minister, and herself took charge of the Maratha administration, as regent on behalf of her infant son. By her swift and decisive action Tara Bai saved the Maratha nation from a destructive and probably existentialist crisis. Tara Bai rightly deserves a place among the great women of history.

The Maratha Resurgence

Tara Bai’s actions that prevented the splintering of the Marathas confounded Aurangzeb. He had considered Rajaram’s death as the final victory over the Marathas, considering in his misogynistic manner, an infant with a woman regent to be weak, contemptible and helpless. To his chagrin, the Queen displayed great powers of courage, command and administration. The Maratha attacks on the Mughals increased in frequency and ferocity, their power spreading across the land uncontrollably.

Aware of the great strength still inherent in the imperial army, Tara Bai initially attempted to buy peace with Aurangzeb, with some caveats of her own, in return for the surrender of several forts. She wanted her son recognised by the Mughal emperor as Rajaram’s legitimate successor and granted the rank of commander of 7000 horse. There is a possibility that she was trying to buy time to consolidate her hold on power before embarking on any new enterprise against the Mughals, although this assertion is speculative. In any case, Aurangzeb rejected the proposal outright—he did not want peace, which would mean leaving the fledgling Maratha ‘Hindu’ kingdom to flourish, which was anathema to the bigoted emperor.

Even though he rejected the peace overture, Aurangzeb also knew that he was not making any progress in destroying the Marathas and could not see an end to the conflict; the Mughal army in the Deccan had been engaged in a continuous war now for nearly two decades. Aurangzeb was expending the treasure accumulated by his ancestors at an alarming rate and sacrificing thousands of lives, just to continue to hold on to the concept of ruling the land. Having penetrated to the heart of Maratha territory, he was stuck in an unwinnable position with no honourable exit in sight. At the same time, the Marathas continued their audacious raids, plundering and destroying Mughal assets. Their confidence was such that they plundered royal caravans a mere 30 kilometres from the royal camp with impunity. The Marathas were growing from strength to strength. They could also enforce the payment of ‘Chauth’ wherever they wanted, irrespective of the proximity of the province to the seat of central Mughal power. The country south of the River Narmada, the entire Deccan, was invested by Maratha bands under independent but efficient warlords.

Under these conditions, many Mughal officials in control of provinces agreed to pay the Chauth to the Marathas. Some of them even entered into private agreements to share the plunder and not oppose the Maratha raiders.

‘The Mughal administration had really dissolved and only the presence of the emperor held it together, but merely as a phantom rule.’

—Sir Jadunath Sarkar,

History of Aurangzeb, Volume IV, p. 296.

Tara Bai did not initiate or attempt to control any of the insurgent activities of the Marathas, but merely provided strategic direction while remaining the figurehead as the regent. There is no doubt that the Deccan was in complete chaos. However, the beginning of a gradually emerging Maratha military confederacy could be gleaned. This had no semblance of a unified kingdom, far from it. However, the incipient confederacy was very informally linked to a vague central authority but not governed by it. The central bureaucracy established by Shivaji had long since vanished and the Marathas were controlled by independent warlords, who at their discretion paid a small percentage of their plunder to the king.

The emergence of warlords and the slow progress towards centralisation was accompanied by another interesting development. After years of pillage and banditry, having become proficient and almost invincible in the art of guerrilla warfare, the more powerful of the Maratha warlords started to move away from pure plunder to the ‘capture’ of territories. The senior Maratha leadership took the first steps to bridging the gap between plunder and conquest, distributing the ‘captured’ land among their generals. The result was that Maratha forts started to come up across the Mughal Deccan and with the building of each new fort, the end of Mughal rule in the Peninsula came that much closer. Village headmen across the entire region started to ignore the Mughal officials, heeding only the local Maratha chieftain, especially in making the payment of revenues.

Aurangzeb’s Last March

Aurangzeb was acutely aware of the deteriorating situation in the Deccan and the gravity of it, clearly understanding the strategic repercussions of a defeat in the south to the greater empire. Even before Rajaram’s death, he had taken direct command of the operations against the Marathas and put in place a double-pronged strategy to deal with them. The imperial army had been divided into two parts: one part was dedicated to engaging the Marathas in battle; and the other, under his own command, was to be used to reduce the Maratha forts through attack and siege. Aurangzeb appointed his grandson Prince Bidar Bakht, son of Prince Azam, and Zulfiqar Khan as his deputies.

In October 1699, the imperial army issued out of the temporary capital at Brahmapuri, to go into battle to besiege, capture and reduce the Maratha forts. The force was led by the 81-year-old Aurangzeb personally. Nobody in the royal camp had any false hopes or impressions regarding the campaign—the task was daunting, to say the least.

The Mughals had the numbers and the weight of attack necessary to bring down any citadel. In pitched battles, the imperial army was almost always victorious, and their sieges were conducted skilfully leading to more successes than failures. However, by now there were a large number of Maratha forts, each requiring months of labour to subdue. Further, the climate of the Peninsula was not conducive to continuous campaigning. The imperial army at times marched through the blinding rains of the south-west monsoons, the old emperor leading the way, uncomplaining and stoic. Some of the nobles accompanying him had to trudge on foot through mud to keep pace. The army suffered heavy non-battle casualties and losses in elephants, horses and camels.

Unfortunately, the imperial army had become ‘soft’ and its effeminate soldiers rebelled, wanting to return to the comfort and luxury of their camps at Bramhapuri and Burhanpur. The Marathas on the other hand did not care for luxuries and for them hard work was normal. They defended every fort till the end and then defended the next one in a similar fashion. Even when on the run they were not daunted, and between sieges they came out to harass the Mughal army, intercepting their supply columns. However, the Marathas would never commit to a decisive engagement. The imperial army limped along, winning a series of petty victories, which were normally followed by much larger losses.

‘The subjugation of the Marathas, even with Aurangzeb himself in command, was a daunting task. Predicted Manucci: “It may … be asserted that if the monarch (Aurangzeb) maintains his design of becoming the master of all Shiva Ji’s (Maratha) fortresses, he will need, before he succeeds, to live as many years more as he had already lived”.’

—Abraham Early,

Emperors of the Peacock Throne, pp. 501-02.

With the change in tactics to ‘capture’ of territory, another transformation began to manifest itself in the Maratha military forces. Over time they stopped their hit and run tactics and now stood and fought the imperial forces—in a gradual reversal of roles, most often it was the Mughal forces that fled. The military operational initiative—where, when and how to fight—now perceptibly shifted to the Marathas. Middle level Mughal commanders started to come to personal agreements with the opposing Maratha commanders and some even colluded directly to enrich themselves. These operational changes manifested in the need to implement organisational changes to the broader Maratha military machine. The Marathas now started to form regular military formations and inducted artillery and even elephants into the army. They were no longer purely light horsemen, adept at guerrilla warfare and little else. Maratha confidence and mastery of the region reached a level wherein many Mughal nobles started to send their families back to North India for their safety.

Aurangzeb spent the next five years besieging eight major Maratha forts—Satara, Pari, Panhala, Khelna (Vishalgarh), Kondhana (Sinhgarh), Rajgarh, Torna and Wagingera—and five other minor ones. One by one the forts fell to the Mughals, not by a feat of arms, but by bribery. Unable to storm the forts, Aurangzeb had reverted to his old tactics of bribing the local fort commanders to surrender. But unlike in earlier days, he was unable to ensure that a commander who surrendered remained under Mughal sovereignty, in a subservient state. For Aurangzeb, each of these surrenders were ‘victories’, satisfying his longing to conquer Maratha forts and acting as a balm to his ego. He was not aware of, or in all probabilities knowingly ignored, two starkly visible facts. First, most of the Maratha commanders recaptured their forts immediately on Aurangzeb’s ‘victorious’ departure from the scene—the victories being shown up for what they were, mere hollow proclamations. Second, by bribing the Maratha commanders to surrender Aurangzeb had lost sight of the basic objective of the campaign—the destruction of Maratha power. He was leaving Maratha power untouched and also providing an impetus to grow further through the injection of finances.

Around 1703, Aurangzeb seems to have realised the folly of his march against the Maratha fortresses. It is reported that he considered releasing Shahji, primarily to create disunity among the Marathas. He also considered making the Marathas the viceroys of the Deccan, granting them ‘sardeshmukhi’ rights to the entire region. However, these plans were not initiated or even seriously discussed since Aurangzeb did not trust the Marathas to hold up their end of the bargain. The fact was that the emperor did not trust anyone anymore.

The last of the major forts, Wagingera in Gulbarga district, was bribed into submission on 27th April 1705. This fort was the seat of the aboriginal Berad chief, Pidia Nayak. The great Mughal emperor, supposedly at the height of his power, was personally leading the imperial army against a petty tribal chief, deep in the Peninsula, hoping to bring him to submission not through military action, but through bribery. There is no better illustration that demonstrates how far the pendulum of political and military impotency had swung for the Mughal emperor.

… and the Curtain Falls

After nearly six years of arduous campaigning, a final solution to the Maratha challenge remained elusive. After the fall of Wagingera, Aurangzeb, triumphant at least in his own eyes, started his long journey back to Delhi. The 87-year-old emperor had not been defeated, but he was at the end of a campaign that could not be labelled anything other than ‘utter failure’. He was bent with age but still the all-powerful Mughal emperor. It is certain he must have dreamed of reaching his capital and ‘home’ through this slow journey back. He fell ill at his camp at Devapur on the banks of the River Krishna, and had to stay there for six months, before recovering sufficiently to continue his homeward journey.

There is no doubt that Aurangzeb’s last campaign was a colossal failure. One of the reasons for this was the distinct difference in character of the invading Mughal forces and those of the defending Marathas. Through a speculative extrapolation it can be seen that the Mughal army would have prevailed against the Marathas, if two conditions had been met. First, if the Mughal army was of the same mettle as the hardy warriors who accompanied Babur from the mountains of the Hindu Kush into Hindustan; and second, if the imperial army had been bolstered by the hard sinew of Rajput commanders and soldiers. Unfortunately, both these conditions were not being met. Around five generations of luxurious court life had diluted the ruggedness of the Mughal nobility. The officers surrounding Aurangzeb were adorned as if for a ceremonial procession even when riding into battle—they were luxury-loving and averse to rough campaigning. It is certain that Babur, or for that matter Akbar, would have refused to command this current lot of dandies masquerading as soldiers. Further, even the loyalty of the nobility was in doubt. A classic example of this trait is Zulfiqar Khan’s delaying tactics during the siege of Gingee and his pursuit of personal ambition. The Mughal nobility had become completely self-serving.

By imposing his bigoted religious policies, Aurangzeb had permanently alienated the Rajputs. They would never again risk their lives and spill their blood for the Mughals. More so when the fight was against Hindus, however different and lower the caste of the defender.

While Aurangzeb was concentrating on moving north, albeit at a slow pace because of the cumbersome entity that the imperial army had become, the exultant Marathas dogged his footsteps throughout. They were only a few kilometres behind the Mughals and attacked the main force at will, inflicting casualties at every turn. They also interdicted the supply lines at will. The Marathas were not plundering light horsemen anymore, they had transformed into a regular army conducting an orderly operation against a demoralised adversary withdrawing in disarray.

Aurangzeb and the remnant of the imperial army reached Ahmadnagar on 21st January 1706. He pitched his camp at the same spot where he had camped 22 years earlier, when he had entered the Deccan as the emperor of Hindustan to conquer the Peninsula. His fruitless campaign had come full circle. Aurangzeb died on 3rd March 1707, after having been the Mughal emperor ruling Hindustan for half a century. He was interred near the tomb of saint Zain-ul-Haqq at Khuldabad, about four miles to the west of Daulatabad.

At the time of death, failure had been his constant companion for many years. The emperor’s long absence from the capital Delhi and the inefficiency of the officers he had left behind to administer the core of his empire had given impetus to the Rajputs and the Jats to come out openly in revolt; the Sikhs had rebelled into semi-independence in Multan; and the Marathas left behind a burning streak wherever they rode in Mughal territory in the Deccan. The imperial army was enfeebled and demoralised and in arrears of pay by as much as three years, which in any case could not be paid. The finances of the Empire were in hopeless confusion.

Conclusion

Around 1695 or a little after, Gemelli Careri a Neapolitan doctor, was admitted to an audience with the emperor at Aurangzeb’s camp at Galgala. He has left behind a vivid description of Aurangzeb: that of a simple, dignified, cheerful and busy monarch, leading an austere life of devotion and asceticism in the middle of a great and pompous camp in the Deccan. It paints a wonderful portraiture of vigorous old age, of an indefatigable king going about his duties of ruling a sprawling Empire. The reality was something entirely different. Behind this serene mask lay a gloomy, lonely soul. This Mughal emperor was destined to live and die alone—solitary because of his rank and heritage, alone because he had not permitted anyone to come close to him.

Aurangzeb’s last few years were pathetic. For six long years, the octogenarian emperor had continually moved from one battlefield to the next, proclaiming victory even when he must have known that such proclamations were hollow, resolute in will while the physical body was disintegrating. When he reached Ahmadnagar on his return journey, he knew that he had reached the end of his tether. In reply to a welcome letter from the commander of Aurangabad, which was to be his next halt before going on the Delhi, Aurangzeb wrote, ‘Ahmadnagar … [is] my journey’s end’.

At this time he was 89 years old, all his siblings as well as some of his sons and even grandsons were dead, but he continued to work as well as he could. The fate that he had imposed on his father, Shah Jahan, preyed on his mind constantly—he kept reminding his sons that he was not to be treated like his own father. Aurangzeb wanted to avoid a succession struggle after his death and send the two prime contenders for the throne to Bijapur and Malwa, so that they would not be in the same place at the same time. However, there were 17 princes of the royal family, each of whom could lay a claim to the throne; tragedy was bound to follow the death of the old emperor.

The loneliness and misery of his last years tend to make people sympathise with Aurangzeb; but sentimentality aside—Aurangzeb deserved no one’s sympathy.

‘Thus it was that when Aurangzeb stood at the pinnacle of the Mughal imperial glory, he was looking into the abyss.

It had been, for Aurangzeb and his forebears, a long, arduous climb to the summit. For his successors, it would be but one step into the abyss.’

—Abraham Early,

Emperors of the Peacock Throne, p. 514.

Theoretically, at the time of Aurangzeb’s demise the Mughal dynasty was only half-way through its history. The previous 181 years had seen the rule of six Mughals, whose achievements when narrated in continuity from father to son was greater than that of any other dynasty in world history before them; and it would not be equalled by any that came after. The successes and accomplishments of the six imperial Mughals remain unrivalled on the world stage to this day. In the following 150 years, 11 more Mughals would claim rulership of Hindustan, but Aurangzeb would be the last of the Imperial Mughals. ‘Az ma-st hamah fasad-i-baqi’, Aurangzeb had once said: ‘After me, chaos!’ … and that is how it turned out to be.  

© [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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