The Marathas Part 4 Shahji Bhonsle Section I: Entrenching Maratha Power

Canberra, 2 June 2021

Till the last few years of Malik Ambar’s defiance of Mughal invasion into the Deccan, the Muslim chronicles hardly mention the local Maratha chieftains and soldiers fighting against them. However, by about 1625, the loyalty of the Maratha chiefs was sufficiently important for the Nizam Shah to surreptitiously have Lakhoji Jadhav Rao murdered because he had defected to the Mughals. Following this murder, the widow of Lakhoji fled back to the Mughal camp and the Jadhavs remained loyal to the Mughals thereafter. They also fade from the mainstream history of the Marathas.

Maloji Raje Bhonsle was steadfast in his loyalty to Malik Ambar and the Nizam Shahi dynasty till the time of his death in 1619–20. During this time of extreme strife for the Ahmednagar kingdom, Maloji greatly enhanced his reputation as a capable and dependable military commander. Although celebrated with great pomp and show, Shahji’s marriage to Jija Bai was strained and not a happy union. Lakhoji’s defection to the Mughals and his subsequent murder further widened the gulf between the two families. Even so, Jija Bai bore six sons to Shahji, of whom only two survived to manhood—Sambhaji (b.1619) and Shivaji (b. 6 April 1627). Shahji subsequently took a second wife from the Mohite family of Supa, called Tuka Bai, and started to ignore Jija Bai.

When Maloji died, Shahji inherited both his position and jagir. Shahji’s younger brother Sharifji, named after the Muslim saint, was completely loyal to his elder brothers and the two jointly hated the Jadhav clan. Maloji’s brother Vithoji had eight sons who were also loyal to Shahji, accepting him as the head of the family. The Bhonsle clan was now large and strong, a group much prized by Malik Ambar in his fight against the Mughals.

The Battle of Bhatavadi. The first Mughal succession war could be said to have started in 1622, when Shah Jahan entered the Deccan as a rebel and fugitive from his father Jahangir’s forces. He was pursued by Shahzada Parvez, who had been ordered by Jahangir to put down Shah Jahan’s rebellion and then to subdue Malik Ambar. In November 1624, the Mughal army met the forces of Malik Ambar in the fields of Bhatavadi, a village about 10 miles east of Ahmednagar. In the encounter, the Mughal forces were dealt a crushing defeat. The Nizam Shahi success was the result of the superior tactics employed by Malik Ambar, who was ably supported in the battle by Shahji, whose military genius was now on display.

The Battle of Bhatavadi is important in Maratha history for two reasons. First, it demonstrated that the Mughal army was not an invincible force as they had so far been made out to be and second, it provided clear opportunities for the Maratha chiefs to carry out a realistic assessment of their own strength, fighting skills, capabilities and effectiveness vis-à-vis the conquering Mughal army. In this battle, Shahji was also exposed to the intelligent employment of asymmetric tactics to overcome an adversary who was both numerically and capability-wise superior. He was able to study and imbibe lessons in guerrilla tactics from a master tactician—Malik Ambar. In subsequent years, Shahji would put to good use the understanding that he gained during this critical battle. The treatise, Shiva-Bharat by Parmananda, provides a detailed description of this battle and also explains all aspects of the tactics that were used.   

There is no doubt that success at Bhatavadi was definitely crafted by Malik Ambar, but touched-off glory also fell on Shahji, whose importance in the military hierarchy increased appreciably. The result was that Malik Ambar became uncomfortable with the increasing influence of Shahji and very soon the two fell out with each other. Sometime in 1625, Shahji was almost forced to quit Nizam Shahi service and moved to Bijapur, joining the Adil Shahi forces. However, he retained the ancestral jagirs of Pune and Supa. Around this time, in 1630, Tuka Bai gave birth to a boy who was named Ekoji—Vyankoji in colloquial usage.

Troubled Period. While Shahji was in Bijapur, Malik Ambar died on 14 April 1626 and the fortunes of the Nizam Shahis went into rapid decline. The extinction of the Ahmednagar kingdom was hastened by two other political events that took place in rapid succession. The first was the death of Jahangir on 29 October 1627 followed by Shah Jahan’s succession to the throne. Second, and more relevant to Shahji’s fortunes, was the death of his patron in Bijapur Ibrahim Adil Shah on 12 September 1627. Ibrahim had always pursued liberal tolerant religious policies, whereas his immediate successor, Muhammad Adil Shah, was a religious fanatic. 1627 was a turning point in the history of the Deccan.

Khan Jahan Lodi’s Rebellion

Jahangir had appointed Khan Jahan Lodi (1587–1631) as the governor of the Mughal territories in the Deccan. He was an able Afghan general, diplomat and a trusted lieutenant to the emperor. When Shah Jahan had rebelled against his father and fled to the Deccan, Khan Jahan had been ordered to hunt him down and subdue the rebellion. For his actions in pursuance of this direct order from the emperor, Shah Jahan hated Khan Jahan. Lodi was a consummate diplomat and understood the difficulty that he faced when Shah Jahan came to the throne, and tried to appease the Shahi sultans, especially the Nizam Shah as an antidote to the Mughal ire against him.

After coming to power, Shah Jahan’s first act was to punish Khan Jahan. Having led expeditions to the Deccan as a prince, Shah Jahan knew the region well, in terms of the terrain as well as the political intrigues intrinsic to the Shahi kingdoms. He understood the double game that Khan Jahan was playing—on the one hand being the Mughal governor, while also appeasing the Shahi kings. Shah Jahan decided on further expansion southwards and invaded Ahmednagar, expecting a short campaign on conquest. In his earlier expedition, Shah Jahan (then Prince Khurram) had captured Balaghat from the Nizam Shah. Khan Jahan Lodi had returned it the Nizam Shah for the price of three lakh rupees (one lakh is 100 thousand). Shah Jahan now ordered Lodi to recapture Balaghat, who dragged his feet in completing the royal instructions. That he would do so was obvious considering the deal he had earlier struck with the Nizam Shah.

Irritated with the lack of progress, Shah Jahan ordered Khan Jahan to report to the royal court. However, fearing or his life, Lodi fled from his headquarters further south, hotly pursued by Mughal forces send to arrest him. Lodi arrived at Ahmednagar and sought the protection of Murtaza Nizam Shah, who readily provided assistance and also conferred the district of Bid on him to defray his personal expenses. Realising that his actions would lead to an inevitable clash with Mughal forces, Murtaza recalled Shahji from Bijapur to prepare for the oncoming Mughal onslaught. His open defiance of the Mughal injunctions indicate that Murtaza obviously was not fully aware that the five years of confusion that prevailed after Jahangir’s death was over. The Mughals were a rejuvenated force under Shah Jahan, the new emperor who was a strong and inflexible opponent. Unknown to him, Murtaza was writing the epitaph of his kingdom.  

Shah Jahan Invades Ahmednagar

Shah Jahan marched out of Agra and crossed River Narmada on 12th February 1630, initiating a dual-purpose campaign into the Deccan—to capture Khan Jahan Lodi and subjugate Murtaza Nizam Shah. Shah Jahan coerced Muhammad Adil Shah of Bijapur to send him reinforcements, which included a Maratha contingent led by Kanhoji Jedhe, the Deshmukh of Kari. Khan Jahan Lodi lost a series of encounters with the Mughal forces and by the end of 1630, he was on the run as a fugitive. On 10th June 1631, he was intercepted in his flight to Kabul where he hoped to get assistance from fellow Afghans and killed in the Battle of Kalinjar. Shah Jahan had achieved his first objective.

Shah Jahan had shrewdly realised the importance of Shahji in the Ahmednagar defence and had send an invitation to the Maratha chief to defect to the Mughals. Shahji had however continued to assist Lodi, but on the latter’s death saw the writing on the wall and decided to follow the example of his mother-in-law, who had fled to Mughal safety after the murder of her husband Lakhoji. Shahji decided to abandon the rapidly declining fortunes of Murtaza Nizam Shah and accept a mansab from the Mughal emperor. Accordingly, he went to the Mughal court, paid his respect to Shah Jahan, and was promoted to the rank of 6000, and commander of 5000 cavalry. His jagirs was reconfirmed and he was also granted additional districts. His cousin Kalloji Bhonsle who had accompanied him was also granted a mansab.

In the meantime, Murtaza Nizam Shah had been confined in prison by his reinstated prime minister Fath Khan, the son of the loyal Malik Ambar, and subsequently strangled on Fath Khan’s orders. At this stage in the campaign against Ahmednagar, Shah Jahan, headquartered at Burhanpur, received the news of the death of his favourite wife, Mumtaz Mahal, the lady of the Taj, in childbirth and was distraught with grief. He handed over the campaign to bring Ahmednagar into the Mughal fold to his general Mahabat Khan and retired to Agra in November 1632.

Shahji Makes a Stand

With Shah Jahan leaving the Deccan, Shahji’s position in the Mughal camp became untenable. He left Mughal service and re-joined the Nizam Shahi army. At the same time he also made overtures to his old master Muhammad Adil Shah in Bijapur through the principal minister Morar Pant. Shahji proposed to the Adil Shah that he could retake Daulatabad with Bijapur assistance, since the city was in a state of confusion and thinly defended. Accordingly, a Bijapur army with Shahji as its commander reached Daulatabad. After murdering Murtaza Nizam Shah, Fath Khan had placed a child, Hussain Nizam Shah, on the throne and had been consolidating his power as the regent. Fath Khan realising the strength of the Bijapur force, surrendered to Mahabat Khan along with the boy Nizam Shah, promising to hold Ahmednagar as a vassal of the Mughals. Even though Mahabat Khan had send an advance force to rapidly reach Daulatabad, Shahji had arrived there before the Mughal forces. He managed to convince Fath Khan that his real interest lay in making common cause with Bijapur. Fath Khan was asked to rescind all claims on Sholapur and allied districts in return for retaining Daulatabad and the remnants of the Ahmednagar kingdom as regent, which was readily accepted.

Shahji immediately fortified the garrison and readied it to be defended against the Mughals. Thus Shahji, a small-time Maratha chieftain threw down the gauntlet against the Mughals, displaying extreme self-confidence and resourcefulness. Enraged by Fath Khan’s treachery, Mahabat Khan attacked Shahji’s garrison and drove away the Bijapur troops and then besieged the central fort. The Daulatabad fort was considered impregnable, but the Mughal army, which also consisted of a large force of Rajputs, stormed the nine citadels and captured the fort after a siege of 58 days. Fath Khan sued for peace and was granted terms—in return for a sum of 10 lakh rupees, Fath Khan surrendered Daulatabad and the boy-king Hussein Nizam Shah to the Mughals. Hussein was sent into imprisonment in Gwalior fort and Fath Khan to Delhi, where he was pensioned off.

Shahji made one last desperate attempt to retrieve the fortunes of the failed campaign. As soon as Mahabat Khan departed Daulatabad with the spoils and captives, Shahji reoccupied the entrenchments outside the fort and tried to storm the fort. He was again defeated by the garrison commander Khan Dauran and Mahabat Khan turned back to relieve the fort. Shahji was forced to retreat towards Bijapur with all haste. By this time, the Mughals considered Shahji to be the most capable Bijapur military commander and an expert in guerrilla warfare.

The Story of Jija Bai’s Capture and Release

It is reported that Mahaldar Khan, the commander of the Nizam Shahi fort at Trimbak defected to the Mughals and was ordered to capture Shahji’s first wife and family, resident nearby. There are two versions of what followed. One story is that before Mahaldar could act, Jija Bai was warned by some friendly forces and managed to conceal her son Shivaji and also evade capture herself.

The second version is that although she managed to hide Shivaji, Jija Bai herself was captured and confined in the fort at Kondhana (Sinhgad) for some time till she was ransomed by her Jadhav relatives. This story cannot be corroborated, and no details are available in any chronicle of Jija Bai’s capture and incarceration.  

Mahabat Khan continued to pursue Shahji, who was continually forced to retreat with the remnants of the Bijapur army but incessantly fought rear-guard guerrilla warfare against the Mughals to great effect. Tactical withdrawals and hit and run engagements continued till the time that Mahabat Khan and the Mughal forces entered Bijapur territory. Since the Mughal general was now far away from Daulatabad, Shahji with the Bijapur forces attempted a diversionary attack on the fort but was again defeated and thrown back.

Shahji – The Regent

Shahji now discovered an infant descendant of Ahmed Nizam Shah, titled him Murtaza Nizam Shah III, placed him on the throne and himself assumed the role of the regent. He made the fort at Mahuli, north of Kalyan, the de facto headquarters of the newly re-established Nizam Shahi dynasty and started to rule the remnants of the erstwhile Ahmednagar kingdom with the help of some Brahmans. Shahji also started to raid Mughal territory, focusing on the difficult terrain of the Konkan and initially met with some success. With the help of Bijapur forces, he defeated Mahabat Khan at Parenda and drove the Mughal forces out of Ahmednagar into Khandesh, where Mahabat Khan died of natural causes. Enraged at this military setback Shah Jahan decided to take the field himself.

Shah Jahan correctly assessed that so long as Bijapur continued as an independent entity, the insurrections in Ahmednagar would continue. Once again, he devised a dual-purpose campaign to subdue Shahji and then the Bijapur king. He divided his large force into two commands of 20,000 soldiers each—one under command of Khan Dauran to overrun Bijapur and the other under Khan Zaman, son of Mahabat Khan, to overwhelm Shahji and thereafter to join up with the Bijapur attack. It is obvious that he felt that Shahji would be easier to subdue, and that the Maratha would collapse first. However, Shahji proved to be too skilful an adversary to be conclusively defeated. He avoided pitched battles in which the numerically superior and heavy Mughal forces would easily prevail over his own light army and resorted fully to guerrilla tactics. He would routinely outmarch the Mughal forces and inflict reverses on their rear-guard at will. This harassment could not be contained and was debilitating for the Mughal forces.

Assessing the developing situation, Shah Jahan changed his strategy and asked Khan Zaman to abandon his on-going skirmishes with Shahji and join Khan Dauran in his invasion of Bijapur. Even though no decisive victory was won by the Mughals, Muhammad Adil Shah agreed to come to terms. On 6 May 1636, the Adil Shah agreed to abandon support for Shahji. In return he was granted Parinda, Sholapur and its districts, the Konkan coast as far north as Bassein, the districts of Kalyani, Naldurga and Bidar in central Deccan and the region between the Rivers Bhima and Neera as far north as Chakan. This was a great gain for Muhammad Adil Shah, even though in the bargain he had left Shahji as the proverbial sacrificial goat for the Mughals to deal with at leisure.

Even though Shahji was now alone to face the Mughals and the Bijapur forces, he conducted a gallant defence. But the Mughal–Bijapur treaty actually sealed his fate. Shahji managed to evade capture at Junnar and retreated through the Sahyadri Ranges to the Konkan. He then doubled back and took refuge in Mahuli, where the Mughals besieged him in August 1636. After few months of resistance, with the fort near starvation, Shahji asked for terms in October 1636. His lonely battle against the Mughals had run its course. He was granted reprieve on condition that he would surrender the infant Nizam Shah and six of his forts to the Mughals. This was done and Shahji was asked to surrender to Muhammad Adil Shah, rather than to the Mughal commander. Obviously, the Adil Shah had intervened with Shah Jahan on behalf of the best Maratha commander that Bijapur had yet seen. Shahji’s young protégé, whom he had declared Nizam Shah, was taken by the Mughals and incarcerated in Gwalior—the third young Nizam Shahi prince to be so treated.

Upon the surrender of Shahji, the remaining outlying provinces of Ahmednagar were also annexed into the Mughal empire, completing the subjugation and extinction of the Nizam Shahi kingdom of Ahmednagar. This left only Bijapur and Golconda out of the five original Shahi kingdoms into which the Bahmani kingdom had originally fractured.  

Shahji was welcomed at the Bijapur court since Muhammad Adil Shah was well aware of his military and administrative capabilities. The Adil Shah restored Shahji’s jagirs of Pune and Supa and as per the terms of surrender, Shahji took up service with Bijapur. The Adil Shah gave personal assurance to Shah Jahan regarding Shahji’s future good conduct. With his surrender in October 1636, the nearly nine-year war—to save the Nizam Shahi kingdom of Ahmednagar and stop further Mughal advance into the Deccan—came to an end. Shahji had on his own stood up to the Mughals for nearly three years, fighting them without ever being defeated decisively. Indirectly he had served the cause of the Deccan Shahi kingdoms and they were grateful. In Bijapur he was lionised and general Ranadullah Khan the commander of Bijapur forces, became his friend and great supporter in the royal court. Muhammad Adil Shah now proposed making Shahji in-charge of the southward push into the Carnatic that he wanted to initiate. Shahji made the best of a bad bargain and accepted this role, thus starting his second career.    


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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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