The Marathas Part 6 Shivaji Bhonsle Section III: A Decade of Conquest

Canberra, 13 July 2021

Even though Shivaji had emphatically asserted his independence, he carefully maintained peace with the Mughals for two primary reasons. First was that from 1653, the Mughal territories in the Deccan were being governed by Aurangzeb, a prince of singular efficiency and vigour who no one wanted to offend. The second, Shivaji was acutely aware that his own powerbase and military structure was still not mature and was incapable of withstanding an all-out Mughal assault.

Aurangzeb had two separate tenures as governor of the Mughal Deccan. During the first, a stint of eight years 1636–44, he was mainly occupied in consolidating Mughal power in the annexed territories and establishing orderly government in these provinces. Shivaji was still young and there was no Maratha uprising in these years. Aurangzeb had moved the Mughal official residence to Aurangabad in the vicinity of Daulatabad and the city built by Malik Ambar, called Khadki. Between 1644–52, Aurangzeb had been deputed by his father, the emperor Shah Jahan, to fight the imperial wars in the north-west of the empire and was physically away from the Deccan.

During the nearly nine years of his absence a great deal had changed in the Deccan—six separate governors had ruled the Mughal holdings in the Deccan, although none had left any noticeable or conspicuous legacy of their rule behind. Mughal policy and strategy had meandered aimlessly. During this time Shivaji had consolidated his father’s jagir and held it as a personal fiefdom. Aurangzeb returned to the Deccan in 1653 as the Mughal governor and continued there till the beginning of the war of succession in 1658. However, it was only in 1657 that he seems to have taken serious notice of Shivaji’s activities around Pune. This timeframe coincides with Shivaji’s expanding vision of creating an independent Hindu kingdom.

When Muhammad Adil Shah died in November 1656, Shah Jahan sanctioned the Mughal invasion of Bijapur. The objectives laid down were two-fold—Aurangzeb was to reduce the Bijapur kingdom completely, failing which he was to annex the ex-Nizam Shahi territories that had been handed over to Bijapur in 1636. These territories included both the Konkan and Pune regions. Shivaji realised that he had to make sure that his territorial holdings were safe. Accordingly, even prior to the sultan’s death, Shivaji had been in correspondence with Aurangzeb, from mid-1656, convinced in his mind that the Adil Shahi dynasty was on the verge of extinction. In March 1657, Shivaji’s envoy Sonaji, had met Aurangzeb in his siege-camp in Bidar. Through his envoy, Shivaji had humbly made two submissions to the Mughal governor. One, a formal recognition by the Mughal of Shivaji’s right to hold all the Bijapur forts, villages and territories that was already in his possession; and two, permission to annex the port of Dabhrol and the territory that formed its hinterland. In return Shivaji would remain loyal and true to the Mughals. Aurangzeb, while not officially committing himself, vaguely accepted the proposals and asked Shivaji to render armed assistance to the Mughal campaign.

A Raid into Mughal Deccan

The vague promise of Aurangzeb did not satisfy Shivaji. He was astute enough to understand that imperial promises were never sacrosanct, and in this case the prince had only very loosely accepted the proposals put forward. Further, acceptance made to ensure that assistance was provided in an on-going military campaign was even less reliable. Shivaji took time weighing the pros and cons of the emerging situation and finally decided that it would be more profitable for the Maratha cause to mount a diversionary attack on the Mughals in favour of the Adil Shah. He launched action in end-April 1657.

Shivaji launched his expedition by initially sending two of his captains, Minaji Bhonsle and Kashi, across the River Bhima into the Mughal sub-districts of Charnargunda and Raisin, where they plundered the villages and reached the outskirts of Ahmednagar. Simultaneously, Shivaji himself led a force that assaulted Junnar on the night of 30 April and looted the town. Aurangzeb immediately sent reinforcements to the region, initiated defensive measures, and started to concentrate his commanders towards Ahmednagar. When the Maratha forces were coming within striking range of Ahmednagar, the Mughal commander of the fort Multafat Khan sallied forth and defeated Minaji who was forced to retreat. The Marathas continued to harass the region for some more time before withdrawing.

Shivaji continued in Junnar but came under pressure from Mughal forces moving into the region and marched to the Ahmednagar region. However, Mughal forces under Nasiri Khan had also reached there and by end-May Shivaji and his forces were being gradually encircled by Mughal armies arriving in the region. In the ensuing skirmishes many Maratha soldiers were killed or wounded and in dire straits, Shivaji barely managed to extricate himself and flee the region.

Not unexpectedly Aurangzeb was furious, and he ordered his commanders to elicit revenge by ruining Shivaji’s possessions of Pune and Chakan. He posted powerful and capable commanders on his south-west frontier with instructions to raid Shivaji’s territories at every available opportunity. Then Aurangzeb instructed Nasiri Khan to take the offensive and ‘extirpate’ Shivaji and the Marathas. Fortunately for Shivaji and his followers, the monsoon intervened, they were able to disengage and return to their own territories, while the Mughal forces had to be content with holding their line at the border. At the end of the monsoon rains but before the Mughals could resume their campaign, in September 1657, Shah Jahan fell ill and the anticipated war of succession between his sons became inevitable.

Perceiving a possible shift in the campaign against him, the Adil Shah sought and accepted peace with the Mughals—he had temporarily staved off the inescapable flow of events towards the ruin of his dynasty. Shivaji was shrewd enough to realise that it would be ruinous for him to continue battling the Mughals single-handedly—in any case he had only initiated action in ‘support’ of Bijapur—and send off a letter to Nasiri Khan indicating his willingness to submit to the Mughals. Subsequently he despatched Raghunath Pant as his envoy directly to Aurangzeb laying out the conditions that would permit him to submit to Mughal overlordship.

When the envoy reached him, Aurangzeb was starting his march north to claim the Mughal throne. He did not consider Shivaji’s proposals either seriously or in detail, perfunctorily agreeing to Shivaji’s request to confer Shahji’s jagir as well as all the forts and territories in the Konkan that the Maratha chief had conquered so far on him. Aurangzeb, his mind preoccupied with calculations of the on-coming war of succession, demanded that in return Shivaji send Sona Pandit as a permanent envoy to the Mughal court and also provide 500 cavalry to serve in his army. The acceptance of Shivaji’s proposals and the demands in return were laid out in a letter from Aurangzeb to Shivaji dated 24 February 1658. However, the letter was physically despatched to Shivaji only in late-April after Aurangzeb had won the Battle of Dharmat and was sure of gaining the Mughal throne. Aurangzeb was nobody’s fool and was canny enough to realise that Shivaji would not be kept under check by conferring these minor grants. It is interesting that although the negotiations were conducted before Aurangzeb left for Delhi, he actually left the Deccan without granting pardon to Shivaji or declaring peace with the Maratha king; the letter offering a pardon and peace was delivered at a much later date. Fortunately for Shivaji, for a little more than the next two years Aurangzeb was busy in Delhi, stabilising the throne that he had fought for and won at great cost to his own and the Mughal dynasty’s reputation, well-being and future prospects. The first blow to the foundations of the Empire had been struck deep into the core of its ethos; Aurangzeb had perpetuated the first steps in the dissolution of the Empire.

The Expanding Kingdom

Aurangzeb’s departure from the Deccan removed the only obstruction and check on Shivaji’s activities to expand his territorial holdings. On 31 July 1657, Shivaji sent Raghunath Pant to attack the Siddis of Janjira, and in October when the monsoon had retreated, he personally joined the campaign. The Marathas easily seized Kalyan and Bhivandi and in January 1658 also annexed Mahuli. With these conquests Shivaji established a strong foothold on the North Konkan and started to move further south into the Kolaba region. The Siddis were easily removed, and they lost control of the region. The Maratha forces then plundered the neighbouring Portuguese territory of Daman and enforced an annual tribute on them. Kalyan and Bhivandi were turned into naval dockyards to support the budding Maratha naval forces.

Shivaji’s Chivalry – An Episode

Abaji Sondev Mahadev was the commander of the Maratha forces that attacked and captured Kalyan. In Kalyan, the Adil Shahi commander’s pretty daughter was taken prisoner and Abaji considered her to be an apt present for his overlord Shivaji, for his royal zenana. She was brought to the royal court and presented to him. Shivaji bent over to have a look at the girl/lady and is said to have remarked, ‘If my mother had been as beautiful, I who was born to her would have looked as handsome.’

He arranged for the lady to be send back to her father in Bijapur with an escort appropriate to her status. Other than for the oral traditions and the story being written down at a later stage, there is no fool-proof evidence to corroborate this story.

Irrespective of the veracity of the above story, and whether or not the episode actually took place, the narrative has been used repeatedly by many historians of different hue to demonstrate and exemplify Shivaji’s policy towards women. It is a corroborated fact that Shivaji had declared that no woman should be taken against her will, irrespective of the circumstances. Abaji it appears was embarrassed by the faux pas that he had committed. However, here again the analyst is given a demonstration of the personnel management skills that Shivaji always exercised. He put Abaji at ease by thanking him in the open court for the capture of Kalyan and made him the governor of the province with immediate effect. Thus, he diffused a tense situation and ensured the continued loyalty of an extremely capable commander without alienating him.

So, what was the exact extent of this infant Maratha kingdom that Shivaji had carved out? When he started to consolidate the territory of his father’s jagir in 1647–48, which also included limited annexations from Bijapur territory, it mainly covered the southern Pune district. The northern boundary was the old Mughal frontier that gave Chamargunda and Junnar to the Mughals and Chakan to the Marathas. The southern boundary was marked by the line of hill forts of Indapur, Barramati, Rajgarh and Torna. Within a decade, by 1659, Shivaji had moved his borders outwards, in the south to the southern limits of the Satara province; and in the Konkan he had taken Mahuli and the extreme north of Thane district. The Maratha cavalry now numbered in excess of 10,000 of whom 7000 were mounted on government horses; the Mavle infantry was also in excess of 10,000 under the overall command of Yesaji Kank; and the Marathas now held more than 40 forts independently. Amidst this increasing prominence and stature, Shivaji’s son Shambhuji was born on 14 May 1657.

Bijapur Takes Action

Ali Adil Shah II (r. 1656–1672) wo had succeeded his father to the throne was furious at Shivaji’s annexations and ordered that he must be crushed immediately. However, the Bijapur military commanders were not so taken in by the prospect of campaigning in the hills and jungles of the Western Ghats, which were home grounds for the Maratha forces. The sultan was also convinced that there was collusion between Shahji and his son Shivaji, even though Shahji serving in the Carnatic, had so far been totally loyal to the Adil Shahis. However, he kept his misgivings regarding Shahji a secret shared with only his intimate circle of nobles since he could not afford to alienate the powerful governor of the Carnatic while preparing to take on Shivaji in the Pune region.

Abdullah Bhatari, titled Afzal Khan, a very senior and well-known Bijapur general was appointed the commander of the Adil Shahi forces earmarked to defeat Shivaji. At this time Bijapur, at the end of the protracted struggle with the Mughals, was low on available resources. On the other hand, Shivaji was going from strength to strength, while also recruiting from the disbanded Bijapur cavalry of Pathan mercenaries. Considering the terrain and the relative strengths of the two forces, Afzal Khan knew that a direct confrontation with the Maratha chief would not yield the sought-after result. He therefore decided to adopt diplomatically devious means to either capture or murder Shivaji.

In April 1659, Ali Adil Shah issued a letter to all the Deshmukhs of the Maval region exhorting them to join Afzal Khan in subduing the ‘rebel’ Shivaji. Further, all vassals of Bijapur were to join forces with the Bijapur army or risk losing their hereditary lands and jagirs. The Maval Deshmukhs were divided with few joining Afzal Khan—the prominent chief being Khandoji Khopde of Utroli who was made the commander of Afzal Khan’s vanguard. A number of Deshmukhs remained loyal to Shivaji.

Afzal Khan’s Plan of Action

Since the Bijapur treasury was almost completely depleted, Afzal Kahn’s first objective was to collect sufficient resources to sustain his military campaign. The way to do so was simple, sack as many Hindu temples as needed. In September 1659, after the monsoon had subsided, Afzal Khan embarked on a vindictive spree of wanton destruction and desecration of Hindu temples. He first sacked and destroyed the temple of Bhavani at Tuljapur, which was the patron saint of the region and also the Bhonsle family deity. He broke up the idol, although the priest saved the smaller idol of the goddess by hiding it. The Bijapur forces then went on to sack and demolish the famous temples of Vithoba and Pandharpur on the banks of the River Bhima, destroying their idols after collecting all the accumulated wealth in these temples.

Afzal Khan then proceeded to Phaltan and imprisoned the Deshmukh Balaji Nayak Nimbalkar. On his threatening to have Nimbalkar trampled by elephants, the Deshmukh was ransomed for 200,000 rupees. Afzal Khan proceeded on his march towards the Pune region, all the while continuing to desecrate and loot famous, and not so famous, temples on his way. Such iconoclastic frenzy was unusual in the Deccan and therefore Afzal Khan’s actions stood out, making the Hindu population apprehensive about their future safety. He perpetuated great atrocities on the people of the region, mainly through religiously bigoted and all-round persecution. Afzal Khan’s plan was to intimidate and cow down Shivaji to a situation where he would submit without fighting.

Afzal Khan’s intention was to forcibly demonstrate the strength of Bijapur and also physically destroy the people’s impetus to oppose the Adil Shah. However, the atrocities that were committed against the Hindus only served to stiffen the common people’s resolve—the war that Shivaji had started as one of political liberation, gradually changed into a religious crusade for the Maratha people.

Afzal Khan planned to move north towards Pune and confront Shivaji in the plains, where the numerically stronger and much heavier Bijapur forces would easily prevail over the light cavalry and skirmish infantry of the Marathas. At the same time, the Mavals in Bijapur service would take-on the southern Mavle country owing allegiance to Shivaji. Shivaji immediately realised the plan and the danger that it posed to his army—he rapidly withdrew to Javli district where the terrain was broken and hilly, which was more conducive to his warfighting tactics. He started to concentrate his forces there and was joined by the loyal Mavle chiefs.

With Shivaji moving away, Afzal Khan was forced to alter his campaign plans and strategy. His heavy cavalry, the spearhead of his army, would not be effective in the broken territory around Javli. More importantly, Shivaji’s guerrilla tactics would be devastating in the terrain and therefore Afzal Khan wisely kept away from entering the Javli morass. He camped at Wai, where he was the governor, and decided to rely on diplomacy to lure Shivaji into a trap. Shivaji was now residing in Pratapgarh. Afzal Khan sent a conciliatory message to Shivaji, first elaborating on his great affection for Shahji and then promising to use his influence with the Adil Shah to have all Shivaji’s demands met, especially accepting all his territorial conquests.

Shivaji was in a quandary. So far, he and his forces had attacked and captured isolated forts where opposition was low and the chances of reinforcements were minimal. Now for the first time they faced the regular Bijapur army, which had marched out in strength to defeat the Marathas under the command of the redoubtable Afzal Khan. Further, Afzal Khan’s march from Bijapur to Wai had been an unqualified success, freely looting Hindu temples and laying waste Maratha country. Now his conciliatory approach was hesitantly welcomed by Shivaji’s commanders who felt that the prudent course of action was to attempt to make peace with the Bijapur general. Word of his ruthlessness had spread, and the commanders felt that there was no assurance of success if they resorted to hostilities, while it was certain that opposition would lead to great loss of life and result in avoidable bloodshed.

On the other hand, Afzal Khan’s reputation for treachery in all his dealings and wanton cruelty had preceded him. It was common knowledge that in 1639, he had lured Kasturi Ranga the king of Sera, to his tent with a personal guarantee of safety and then butchered him mercilessly. He was also known to have hatched, engineered and executed many plots in Bijapur. Therefore, the conundrum facing Shivaji and his commanders was to determine how much of Afzal Khan’s promises and assurances were to be believed. They were also aware, based on previous history, that a meek submission would not bring peace and stability to their region.

This was the second critical point in Shivaji’s career, a momentous decision had to be made. Submission to Afzal Khan meant the end of the dream of independence and a lifetime of vassalage to one or the other Muslim rulers of the region, either Adil Shahi or Mughal. Open defiance of the Bijapur army now meant that there would be no more opportunities for reconciliation with Bijapur or the Mughals—in turn the Marathas would have to permanently defend their independence from then on, single-handedly against much greater forces. The story goes that the goddess Bhavani appeared to Shivaji in his sleep and promised him victory and divine protection. On waking up the next day, Shivaji persuaded his commanders to fight back, and the decision was made to wage war. Meanwhile, Afzal Khan sent word to Shivaji through Krishnaji Bhaskar, then in the service of the Bijapur sultan, inviting him to a conciliatory conference in Wai. At the same time, the head of Shivaji’s secret service, Viswasrao Nanaji Khorekar, had already infiltrated Afzal Khan’s camp and send intelligence to Shivaji that Afzal Khan planned to capture and imprison him at the conference that was being proposed.

A Meeting is Arranged

Shivaji decided to play the same game as Afzal Khan and told the envoy that he would prefer to meet the Khan in Javli rather than in Wai. During the night, Shivaji met Krishnaji alone and by evoking Hindu religious feelings and emotions, made the envoy confess to the real plans that Afzal Khan had arranged in Wai. Further, Shivaji was assured by Krishnaji that he would now work to favour the Maratha chief and persuade Afzal Khan to visit Shivaji than the other way around. Shivaji send an invitation to the Bijapur general to meet him at Pratapgarh after a fortnight. Krishnaji and Shivaji’s envoy convinced Afzal Khan to go to Javli to meet Shivaji claiming that the Hindu king was timid and that if Afzal Khan offered his personal protection, Shivaji would accompany him to Bijapur. Afzal Khan, sensing an easy victory, accepted the invitation.

Shivaji had a road cleared through the Radtondi Pass and laid out provisions for the Bijapur army for their journey into Javli territory. Afzal Khan marched to a village called Par in the Koyna valley at the foot of Pratapgarh and camped. The meeting was scheduled for the afternoon of 20th November 1659 and a huge shamiana (a ceremonial tent) was set up about one-quarter of a mile from the fort walls. Shivaji had devised his tactics for the meeting and took into confidence only his three trusted companions.

For the meeting Shivaji wore a chain mail concealed under his normal clothes and a steel cap under his turban; he hid steel claws called ‘waghnakh’, tiger claws, in one hand, and a vicious crooked dagger called ‘bichwa’, scorpion, in the other hand. He went out for the meeting with just three companions and Afzal Khan was carried forward in a palanquin, also with three attendants. Once they were in the shamiana, Afzal Khan did not waste any time and attacked Shivaji, holding him under his arm in a wrestler’s hold in an effort to break his neck. Shivaji although prepared for some similar act by the treacherous Khan, was somewhat taken by surprise by the suddenness of the attack. He responded by ripping Afzal Khan’s stomach with the claws and then stabbing him with the dagger. In great pain, Afzal Khan released Shivaji, but grabbed his sword and struck him in the head cutting through the steel cap and inflicting a scalp wound. As this melee progressed, Afzal Khan’s attendants tried to carry the wounded general away but were intercepted by Shivaji’s companions who cut off Afzal Khan’s head. The dreaded general was dead.

Shivaji had cleverly hidden part of his army along the route that the Bijapur force would take and now on his blowing his horn, the pre-arranged signal to attack, these soldiers pounced on the Bijapur forces. A large number were killed, those who surrendered were spared and the Marathas in the Bijapur army were given a choice of joining Shivaji’s forces. Afzal Khan was buried on the slopes of Pratapgarh, and his entire treasury, horses and equipment fell to Shivaji.

James Grant Duff, considered by many to be an authority on medieval Maratha history, states in his account of this encounter that Shivaji bribed a Hindu aide of Afzal Khan to lead the Bijapur general into a trap and then treacherously murdered him. This account, irrespective of the stature of Duff as a narrator of history, is blatantly false. He has obviously been misled by the accounts of the Muslim chroniclers of the encounter and shares their bias against Shivaji in his retelling of this heroic episode. All accounts by Muslim chroniclers, whether Adil Shahi or Mughal, of Shivaji’s actions paint him as an unscrupulous brigand, even if the narration is not an eye-witness account but removed in time. The evenness of the bias against Shivaji and the attempts at ‘white-washing’ the treachery of the Muslim generals are obvious even to the casual reader of these Muslim accounts. The surprising part is not this bias, but the fact that a careful student of Maratha history such as Duff was duped into repeating these false narratives.

In killing Afzal Khan Shivaji was extremely brave and willingly placed himself in mortal danger to achieve his goal of getting rid of the troublesome general. There is also no doubt that Afzal Khan initiated the struggle by grabbing Shivaji and attempting to break his neck. The Afzal Khan episode made the 32-year-old Shivaji a living legend. He was emboldened now to strike deep into Bijapur territory, ranging as far as Kolhapur. Shivaji backed off only when Ali Adil Shah himself took to the field to counter the Maratha raids, although he continued minor forays of convenience.

The Aftermath

By 1661, Ali Adil Shah was weary of the continuous skirmishes in which Bijapur was almost always being bested. He sent Shahji to Pune to arrange for an amicable settlement with Shivaji. Father and son had not seen each other now for almost 20 years and had been only in irregular contact. However, Shivaji was punctilious and emotional on receiving his father, even refusing to sit down in front of him till ordered to do so by Shahji. The differences between Shahji and Shivaji had dissipated through time and Shahji was proud of his son, even though he himself remained loyal to the Adil Shahs of Bijapur. On his part, Shivaji had also matured with age and experience and was highly receptive to his father’s advice.

Shahji arranged a peace of mutual convenience between Bijapur and Shivaji. Shivaji knew that he had to prepare to deal with the emerging Mughal menace in the form of an army led by Shayista Khan, Aurangzeb’s uncle and a pre-eminent noble of the regime, who had been deputed to the Deccan to clean up what the Mughal emperor considered an unholy mess. Bijapur from their perspective wanted to create a buffer between them and the advancing Mughals as a first line of defence. The Adil Shah was under no illusion and knew that sooner rather than later he would have to content with the Mughals. Accordingly, Bijapur kept up a pretence of fighting the Marathas for the consumption of the Mughals but entered into a secret pact with Shivaji. Ali Adil Shah and Shivaji agreed that the Maratha king could operate against the semi-independent hill federations in the outlying provinces of Bijapur and Shivaji agreed not to enter the central provinces of the Adil Shahi kingdom, which were directly administered by the sultan himself. Essentially Shivaji promised not to trouble Bijapur and kept his word till Shahji’s death in 1664.

Shivaji was now the master of extensive territories and commanded an army of more than 10,000 cavalry and an equally large infantry force. More importantly, the pact with Bijapur confirmed him as a Deccani power of equal status to the Adil Shah. The Maratha kingdom had been established in all but name.      


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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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