The Marathas Part 4 Shahji Bhonsle Section II: Later Career

Canberra, 6 June 2021

[The later career of Shahji Bhonsle and the early development of his son Shivaji overlap in several areas and took place in parallel. This chapter only examines the aspects of Shivaji’s early activities that had a direct bearing on Shahji’s actions and the progress of his career. Shivaji’s actions will be covered separately in subsequent chapters of this volume and will likewise only connect to Shahji’s activities in as much as they had a direct influence on, and made a substantial difference, to Shivaji’s early years.]

At the end of nine years of Mughal oppression and continuous interference, Golconda and Bijapur were the only independent kingdoms of consequence still standing in the Deccan and the Deep South. They realised the danger they were in, understanding the Mughal Empire’s inexhaustible hunger for territory and their voracious appetite for conquest. Both had already ceded territories to the Mughals and therefore needed to expand to become more viable as independent states. The Adil and Qutb Shahi kings decided to mount a joint expedition into the Carnatic to conquer the region and divide the territories—the eastern parts to go to Golconda (Qutb Shahi) and the western region to Bijapur (Adil Shahi). The territories being contemplated for conquest had once belonged to the great Vijayanagara Empire, which had fractured under the combined Shahi onslaught in mid-16th century.  

After the famous Battle of Rakshasa-Tangadi (also called Battle of Talikota) in 1565 when the Vijayanagara emperor was defeated and killed, the Shahi sultans had plundered the splendid capital and then returned, making no effort to move into or annex the territories of the defeated kingdom. Even so, Vijayanagara had broken up rapidly and was now ruled by various provincial branches of the old dynasty. These petty chieftains were fully engaged in internecine warfare, completely absorbed in themselves and oblivious of external developments, even when such developments became direct threats to themselves. However, these ‘independent’ principalities—Penukonda, Vellore, Chandragiri, Shira, Ikkeri, Jinji—were individually rich and prosperous. 

Bijapur was ruled by Muhammad Adil Shah (r. 1627–1656) who had reversed his father’s policy of religious tolerance. He was a religious fanatic who detested Hinduism as a religion but at the same time cultivated capable Hindu chieftains to be his military commanders and administrative heads. He ordered the destruction of a number of Hindu temples, ostensibly carrying out the so-called injunctions prescribed for committed Muslims, but in reality for the plunder of the wealth that came with the destruction of ancient Hindu temples.

Muhammad Adil Shah sent an expedition to the Carnatic, the Deep South, on an exploratory mission under the command of Ranadullah Khan. Shahji was made the second-in-command. The direct descendant of the erstwhile Vijayanagara dynasty, Venkatapati II (r. 1635–1642) was ruling a small fiefdom from Penukonda and he was followed on the throne by his son Sriranga Rai III (r. 1642–1673). On getting to know of the Bijapur expedition, Venkatapati tried to organise the various chiefs, now styled Nayaks, to unite and face the fresh Muslim onslaught. He was not successful in creating the much-needed unity between the small-time Nayaks; on the contrary some of them welcomed Bijapur interference in their domestic affairs and sought assistance to sort out their internal dissentions. The age-old Indian trait of welcoming outside interference in trying to put down a local rival had surfaced once again in the Deep South.

The Nayaks of the Deep South

At the time of the Bijapur expedition slowly moving into the Carnatic the ruling Nayaks and their territories are listed below:

Virabhadra Nayak ruled Ikkeri, a decayed town now known as Sagar in Shimoga district; Keng Nayak administered Kongu near Coimbatore; Jagdev Rai controlled Kaveripatnam; Kanthi Rao Naras Wodiyar ruled Srirangapatnam; Vijay Raghav was entrenched in Tanjore; Tirumal Nayak governed Madura; and Venkata Nayak ran Jinji. 

This was the ideal time for a bold and unifying Hindu chief to emerge on the scene, to take charge and organise the opposition to the Muslim onslaught and arrange the defence of the last bastion of Hindu culture in South India. Unfortunately, such a visionary leader did not appear, and the squabbling chiefs were individually subsumed, with no one to mourn their demise.

Three Expeditions

Between 1637–40, Bijapur send out three expeditions to the Carnatic under the overall command of Ranadullah Khan with Shahji as the effective assistant. Each of these campaigns departed Bijapur immediately after the monsoon had stopped and returned before the onset of the next monsoon season.

The first expedition moved via Dharwar and Laksmeshwar, to reach Ikkeri ruled by Virabhadra Nayak. The stone ramparts of the old fort could not withstand the Bijapur army’s battering. After a brief two-month siege Virabhadra sued for peace. On 3rd December 1637, Ikkeri was occupied and then razed to the ground. Virabhadra ceded half his territory to Adil Shah, paid a large fine and retired to an obscure small-town, Nagar, now called Bednur. The destruction of Ikkeri gave the peaceful population of the Deep South their first taste of the Islamic doctrine of intolerance as well as the religious hatred and violence that accompanied it. The Bijapur forces harassed the common people and there are authentic reports of widespread violation of Hindu women and of their being dishonoured.

The second expedition of 1638 penetrated even further south and east. This time Shahji was accompanied by Afzal Khan, a ruthless and bigoted commander. Afzal Khan attacked Shira, then under the rule of Kasturiranga Nayak, who was defeated after a short battle. Kasturiranga submitted and went to meet Afzal Khan on the latter’s solemn oath and promise of his personal safety. On Kasturirangan reaching Afzal’s camp, the promise was immediately broken, and he was murdered in cold blood. Afzal Khan took possession of the city and all its wealth. With the passage of time Afzal Khan established a reputation for treachery and the violation of promises that he had willingly sworn. This was perhaps the reason for Shivaji’s not accepting Afzal Khan’s promise of safety 20 years later. (The episode being referred to here will be narrated in a later chapter) Simultaneously Shahji had deployed to Bangalore (Bengrul) and captured the fort from Kempa Gouda. Bangalore was conveniently located to control the southern territorial conquests and Shahji was permanently based there on the Adil Shah’s orders.

Shahji was made the governor of the newly conquered territories, which was an autonomous role and he now started to assume the trappings of a semi-independent royalty. He went on to reduce Wodiyar of Srirangapatnam to vassal status. In the third expedition between 1639–40, Keng Nayak of Coimbatore was defeated, and his fiefdom annexed. Thereafter, Tumkur and Vellore were captured and annexed followed by smaller principalities functioning at the periphery. Shahji’s role in the third expedition is unclear, but it is certain that he would have taken part at least in the Coimbatore campaign.

Shahji in Bangalore

On taking up the governorship, Shahji established himself in Bangalore as a great chief in royal splendour. He stayed mostly in Bangalore, occasionally visiting Kolar and Balapur. In order to build the administrative machinery necessary to control and rule foreign lands, Shahji imported Brahman and Maratha families into the region and trained them as hereditary officials owing personal loyalty to him. He also introduced Marathi as the court language, patronised the arts and encouraged Hindu religious teachers. Gradually he created a miniature Maharashtra around Bangalore. Some of the cultural impact of this action is visible even today after nearly four centuries.

Ensconced in Bangalore in splendid conditions, Shahji started to prepare for the eventual invasion of Thanjavur (Tanjore), the last Hindu stronghold in the Deep South. However, this invasion took place only after his death. All through his governorship in Bangalore, Shahji remained scrupulously loyal to the Adil Shah of Bijapur, ever mindful of the assistance he had received from the Bijapur ruling house earlier when he was being hounded by the Mughal forces. He regularly remitted the required funds to Bijapur and gave the Adil Shah no reason for complaint or suspicion. However, he ruled as a ‘Hindu Chief’ and had the whole-hearted support of the people, so much so that they even compared his rule to the golden period of the Vijayanagara Empire.

Family Matters

Shahji’s second wife Tuka Bai, her son Ekoji and Sambaji, his elder son from Jija Bai, lived with him in Bangalore. Sambaji, around 20 years old by now, was directly working with his father in the governance of the territories under their control. His third son, Shivaji, was growing up in Pune with his mother Jija Bai, Shahji’s estranged first wife, under the tutelage of Dadaji Kondadev. Although Shivaji was under his father’s control and therefore nominally and indirectly under the Adil Shah’s control, Shivaji enjoyed great freedom and built up an independent character. Shivaji received the best training to assume greater responsibilities later in life under the care of a loving, doting mother and a wise guardian. [Greaer details of Shivaji’s early life, education and development will be provided in subsequent chapters.]

In 1640, Shivaji was married to Sai Bai from the Nimbalkar family of Phultan. At the same time Shivaji started to have regular contact with the turbulent people of the Mawals, the mountain valleys around Pune. Considering the somewhat isolated upbringing, it is not surprising that Shivaji was greatly influenced by Dadaji Kondadev and received a unique education in the art of governance.

Shivaji’s Education – A Brief

Dadaji Kondadev was careful to provide appropriate education to Shivaji, as befitting the son of a chief. The early Maratha chiefs were disdainful of learning to read and write, labelling such education undignified, if not outright degrading. Based on this common trait, it has been opined by some European historians, that Shivaji could hardly write his own name. This assessment is incorrect. Ever mindful of his responsibilities towards his ward, Dadaji insisted on Shivaji learning to read and write. While he may not have been totally fluent or addicted to reading, it is certain that Shivaji could read and write to a passable degree.

Shivaji was a good archer and marksman, skilled as a lancer and in the use of various daggers and swords; and he excelled in horsemanship. Kondadev insisted that Shivaji be conversant with all the ceremonies and observances of the Hindu religion, particularly pertaining to those required of him as the son of a chief. He was brought up on the stories of heroism from the Mahabharata and Ramayana. Early in life, the religious feelings of a Hindu were strongly implanted in Shivaji. As a corollary, he had an entrenched hatred for the oppression of the Muslim rulers, and the intolerant doctrine of Islam. 

[The following is a very brief narrative of Shivaji’s activities in Pune that brought him to the notice of the Adil Shah. The circumstances will be described in much greater detail in subsequent chapters that deal with Shivaji’s early life and development. In this chapter the narrative is restricted to detailing the events that affected Shahji and his career in the service of the Bijapur sultans.]

The liberal education that he was being given inculcated a great sense of independence in the young Shivaji. As he grew into manhood, he started his own organisations—military, civil and revenue—to administer and control his jagir, which did not go unnoticed in Bijapur. He was well on his way to becoming an independent warlord, although Dadaji unsuccessfully tried to rein in the young and impulsive princeling. Shivaji gradually rose in power in the Pune region, with some prominent families starting to pay him respect. However, there were whispers that Shivaji was sharing in the profit of some extensive robberies and dacoities in the Konkan. These ‘rumours’ were sufficient to make senior Bijapur officials notify Shahji in Bangalore of his son’s activities and advise him to restrain the young ‘prince’. They wanted Shivaji brought back to the straight and narrow path of absolute loyalty to the Adil Shah.

Egged on by Bijapur, and under the watchful eyes of Muhammad Adil Shah himself, Shahji summoned Shivaji, Jija Bai and Dadaji Kondadev to Bangalore, under the pretext of wanting to meet Shivaji’s new bride. The exact dates are not known, but between 1640–43, Shivaji, his mother and their entourage spent two years away from Pune, mostly in Bangalore. In 1643, Adil Shah invited the Bhonsles to Bijapur. However, by this time Shahji’s friend and mentor, the Bijapur general Ranadullah Khan, had died and he had no support in the royal court. To make matters worse for Shahji, in his absence an anti-Muslim rebellion spread across the Deep South in the territories that he governed. Already suffering a deficit of trust with Muhammad Adil Shah because of Shivaji’s actions in Pune, the rebellion made the Adil Shah believe that Shahji had been disloyal to him. His implicit trust in the Maratha commander was fully compromised.

Muhammad Adil Shah organised an expedition to the Carnatic to quell the rebellion, under the command of Mustafa Khan, fully bypassing Shahji. Further, he himself moved south to Bankapur to supervise the campaign. In the Carnatic, the rumour spread that Shahji had been disgraced in the Adil Shahi court, which was confirmed by a Royal Firman, a royal order, on 1st August 1644. Mustafa Khan was successful in subduing west Karnataka, although some of the Nayaks offered stiff resistance.

Shahji in Disfavour

Although his loyalty to the bigoted Muhammad Adil Shah was now in question, Shahji was permitted to return to his old post in Bangalore. In 1646, a combined Bijapur–Golconda army under Mustafa Khan defeated Sriranga Rai—the last of the unfortunate Vijayanagara dynasty, still clinging to the decadent glory of that dead empire—and reduced Vellore. Although the campaign was taking place in the region that he governed, Shahji was not asked to take part, he was left behind, side-lined in Bangalore. The situation underlined the precarious status of Shahji in Bijapur eyes.

Almost immediately on the Shahi forces withdrawing, Sriranga Rai recaptured Vellore. Earlier Shahji had been negotiating with Sriranga Rai to arrive at a settlement, which made the Adil Shah furious. His anger was exacerbated by the insinuations of disloyalty that the courtiers who disliked the ‘Hindu’ Shahji regularly fed to the king. At the same time, Shivaji who was now back in Pune had captured the fort at Sinhgad. Adil Shah reasoned that this could not have happened without Shahji’s knowledge, although in reality Shivaji had not kept Shahji informed.

Muhammad Adil Shah sent out another expedition under Mustafa Khan to subdue Sriranga Rai, with secret instructions to also arrest Shahji. Ignorant of the duplicity of the Adil Shah, Shahji joined the expedition against Sriranga Rai, which went on to defeat Rai and recapture Vellore. Shahji did attempt to broker a peaceful settlement, which was rejected by the Bijapur commander. Although Shahji had not committed any overt act of disloyalty, Mustafa Khan reported to the Adil Shah that Shahji was disloyal at heart and that he supported the Hindu insurrection. At the same time, Shivaji continuing his activities, compelled the chief of Torna fortress, around 35 kilometres south-west of Pune, to hand over the fort to him. Shivaji now wrote to the Adil Shah in Bijapur that he was acting on the Adil Shah’s behalf with the objective of bringing advantage to the Bijapur government. He also sent representatives to Bijapur to argue his case and promised a larger rent for the territory, than what was being paid earlier.

Muhammad Adil Shah was now convinced that there was collusion between father and son and ordered another expedition into the Carnatic, again under Mustafa Khan, this time moving from Vellore to Jinji. The force was joined by a detachment from Golconda under Mir Jumla. Shahji, as usual, joined the expedition but fell out with Mustafa Khan on some minor point of honour. He threatened to withdraw with his forces. Mustafa Khan enlisted Baji Ghorpade of Mudhol as his assistant and arrested Shahji in Jinji on 25th July 1648. Shahji’s trusted lieutenant, Kanhoji Jedhe, was also imprisoned. Muhammad Adil Shah was now bedridden with paralysis and realised the serious consequences of alienating the most powerful Hindu Maratha chief in his service, especially when the son, Shivaji, was running free around Pune in Maharashtra.

In November 1648 Mustafa Khan died and the Adil Shah despatched his vazir, Afzal Khan to take charge of the Jinji campaign. Afzal Khan managed to capture Jinji and transported enormous wealth and treasure to Bijapur, along with the captive Shahji and his lieutenant.

Shahji is Released and Reinstated

In 1649, Bijapur forces raided and plundered Thanjavur, Madura and some other towns in the Deep South. However, the shrewd Muhammad Adil Shah realised that two challenges were looming simultaneously for him. One, although Shahji was a prisoner in Bijapur, in the south Bangalore was in the hands of his capable son, Sambaji and in the north-west Shivaji held many forts, even though he proclaimed he was doing so on behalf of the Adil Shah. The quandary was the need to reduce these two Maratha strongholds without creating too much disturbance to the stability of the kingdom. Two, Shahji in captivity was more bothersome than when he was governor in Bangalore, since there was a perception in the Carnatic that he was being unfairly treated. Religiously provoked rebellions were not out of the question.

The Adil Shah’s first instinct was to take military action against both the brothers, although actions initiated against Bangalore and Sinhgad were both unsuccessful. In the meantime, Shivaji approached Shahzada Murad Baksh, at that time the Mughal emperor’s representative in the Deccan, to secure the release of his father. In Bijapur, Khan Ahmad was made in-charge of Shahji as a prisoner, and he negotiated a settlement. According to the arrangement, Shahji wrote to both his sons to surrender to the Adil Shahi forces. On 16th May 1649, Shahji and Kanhoji Jedhe were released and all Shahji’s titles, honours and status were restored. However, Shahji was kept in Bijapur for the next few years. Shivaji kept a low profile for those years to ensure that his father was not harmed.

After a few years, Shahji send Kanhoji Jedhe to Pune to assist Shivaji in his efforts and himself went back to the Carnatic. This time he spent his time in the Raichur Doab, making Kanakagiri his headquarters. (Kanakagiri is situated about 20 kilometres north-west of the town of Gangavati in the Koppal district of Karnataka State) Sambaji joined him in Kanakagiri and Ekoji remained in Bangalore to administer the region. The treasure that was plundered in Jinji was so great that Golconda and Bijapur entered into conflict over its equitable division. Shahji defeated Mir Jumal in battle and collected a large indemnity from Golconda as the cost of war. From 1953, Shahji was the sole Adil Shahi commander in the Deep South.      

In 1657–58, there was a serious Muslim revolt in Kanakagiri against the Adil Shahi rule. Shahji was unable to contain it. Afzal Khan was deputed by the Adil Shah to assist Shahji and together they managed to put down the rebellion. However, during the battle, Sambhaji was killed in action. It is reported that he was killed because of the negligence, wilful or otherwise, of Afzal Khan who did not deliver the promised reinforcements to Sambhaji at a critical time in the battle.

Shahji carefully stayed away from being caught up in Shivaji’s renewed efforts at carving out an independent principality for himself. Gradually he regained the trust of the Adil Shah and of the royal court. However, the death of Muhammad Adil Shah on 4th November 1656 and the intrigues for succession had weakened the Adil Shahi rule, which in conjunction with Aurangzeb’s aggression brought Bijapur to its knees. Shahji threatened to resign but was placated and continued his loyal service to the Adil Shahi dynasty.

Last Days

In 1658, Shahji and Ekoji attempted to overrun and capture Thanjavur, but were thrown back by the extreme opposition from the forces of the local Nayak. In 1659, Shivaji killed Afzal Khan (the episode will be described in detail in a later chapter) and Bijapur woke up to the emerging danger to its well-being. The new ruler, Ali Adil Shah II (r. 1656–1672) deputed Shahji to bring about a reconciliation with his rebellious son and Bijapur. Around 1662, Shahji returned to Maharashtra and spent time with Shivaji. He also reconciled his differences with Jija Bai. Although Shivaji was meeting his father after a break of 12 years and had become a powerful chief in his own right, he venerated his father, giving him all the respect that was prescribed by religion and tradition. Shivaji agreed with his father’s insistence that he stop attacking Bijapur territory and to form a Deccan confederacy to oppose the Mughal invasion.

It is certain that after reconciling with Shivaji, Shahji also passed on to his son his extensive accumulated knowledge of the Deccan, where he had been militarily active for the past 40 years. It is definite that Shivaji benefitted greatly from the discussions with his father and learned the nuances of the art of war, diplomacy and governance. In 1663, Shahji returned to Bijapur. From there he started his journey back to Bangalore. During this journey, on 23rd January 1664 while on an antelope hunt at the village of Basavapattam on the banks of the River Tungabhadra, his horse stepped into a hole, and he was thrown—he died instantly. His eldest son with Jija Bai, Sambhaji, had already died in battle. He left behind Shivaji and Ekoji from his two wives and four illegitimate sons, Bhivji, Paratpji, Santaji and Raibhanji.

An Assessment

Shahji was the creator of a Maratha culture in South India. He was instrumental in transplanting a large number of Maharashtrian families—Brahmins, Marathas and artisans—to the Deep South, whose descendants are found there even today. Historically, Shahji demonstrated the strength of uniting to withstand oppression, even if the oppressor was a great power. He also developed the art of guerrilla warfare that he passed on to his son, who developed it further into a sophisticated art form of incredible effectiveness. At the height of his career, Shahji was the kingmaker for the failing Nizam Shahi kingdom of Ahmednagar. It is definite that he was the person from whom Shivaji imbibed the seed of creating a Maratha ‘swarajya’, an independent homeland. Shahji fully understood the culture and traditions that had made the Vijayanagara Empire great and managed to transmit it to the broader Hindu audience of South India.

Shahji was the first Hindu chief, or leader, after the Vijayanagara kings, to effectively stand up to the Islamic invasions, by the Mughals and the Shahi kingdoms. 

© [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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