The Marathas Part 6 Shivaji Bhonsle Section VI: Troubled Last Days

Canberra, 30 August 2021

Aurangzeb devised a plan to isolate Shivaji by initially attacking and annexing Golconda, since they were allied to the Marathas. The Mughals would deal with Shivaji after he was so isolated. Bahadur Khan who had earlier accommodated a truce with Shivaji was recalled and Dilawar Khan appointed as the viceroy of Mughal Deccan. Dilawar Khan made Abdul Karim, the regent in Bijapur, an ally and a combined Mughal-Bijapur army attacked Golconda at Malkhed, a frontier fortress of the Qutb Shahis. The fort resisted the Mughal siege, while reinforcements marched out of Golconda. Malkhed was still holding out when unusually heavy monsoon rains started. The Mughal forces were not prepared for the onslaught of the monsoon and soon their supplies started to rot. Mughal resupply efforts were interdicted by Golconda cavalry.

The besieging force was in dire straits. In the combined army, the Mughal forces were disciplined and held on but the Bijapur troops, most of them unpaid for several months, lost heart and a majority deserted. With the prospect of resupply from Bijapur diminishing daily, Dilawar Khan was unable to withstand the constant probing attacks of the Golconda army and withdrew to Gulbarga. The retreat, which took 12 days, was traumatic—the rear-guard was attacked repeatedly by Golconda forces and the Mughals suffered heavy losses. From Gulbarga, the Mughal Rajput army counter-attacked and Abu Hussein Qutb Shah was forced to retreat to his own territories. Taking advantage of the respite, Dilawar Khan fell back to Aurangabad.

Aurangzeb was unhappy with these developments. Dilawar Khan was removed from being the viceroy and Prince Muazzim brought back. However, Dilawar Khan was placed in command of the Mughal forces under the new viceroy. Aurangzeb devised a new plan in which his duplicitous treachery and unscrupulous cunning was in full display. He asked Dilawar Khan to entice the Afghan commanders in the Bijapur army to desert on the promise of monetary rewards, after which Dilawar was to attack the depleted Bijapur army. Even the attack was couched in double-dealings. Some time earlier, an Adil Shahi princess, Padshah Bibi, had been betrothed to one of Aurangzeb’s sons. Now Dilawar Khan moved towards Bijapur on the pretext of taking and escorting the princess to the Mughal harem. Understanding the trouble her kingdom was in, the princess volunteered to go to Delhi. However, Dilawar Khan did not stop his attack. (For a detailed account of this attack on Bijapur read From Indus Independence: Volume VI: Medieval Deccan Kingdoms, pp. 175-179)

The people of Bijapur were furious at this affront and continued to support the defences against the siege. Dilawar Khan was kept at bay, but reinforcements from Delhi started to arrive, making the situation dangerous. At the end of his tether, the new regent in Bijapur, Masud Khan, appealed to Shivaji for help. Shivaji was already aware of the precarious condition of the Adil Shahi kingdom and wanted to make sure that its treasures did not get taken by Delhi. Therefore, he issued out of Panhala, left a large force near Bijapur to interdict and keep the Mughal forces there at bay. He led an army himself, crossed the River Bhima and started to move north towards Khandesh. The plan was to severe the Aurangabad to Delhi communication connections. He knew that this move would compel Dilawar to divert some forces to the north and thereby relieve the pressure on Bijapur. More importantly, this was a less risky overall strategy since it did not involve direct confrontation with the much better equipped and numerically superior Mughal army.

Offensive Action

Aurangabad was the de facto capital of Mughal Deccan and considered impregnable. Shivaji moved in its general direction and plundered Dharangaon and Chopra, two towns to the north of Aurangabad, located before Burhanpur. Then he turned south-east and attacked Jalna, about 50 miles east of Aurangabad. Shivaji was also hoping to provoke Prince Muazzim, the viceroy, into taking action, which did not eventuate. It was only when Shivaji started his return journey that Muazzim gave a 10,000-strng cavalry to Ranmast Khan and asked him to harass the returning Maratha column.

The Mughal force overtook Shivaji at Sangamner and a fierce pitched battle ensued. The battle remained indecisive and Hambir Rao Mohite, the Maratha commander, was injured in the melee. At this juncture in the battle, Shivaji personally led an attack with great valour and the tide turned in favour of the Marathas. Ranmast Khan was captured. The encounter hung on the balance for a long time and the Marathas suffered heavy losses, although they inflicted similar casualties on the Mughal forces. The Marathas then took a little-known track and after a long march reached the safety of Patta in Khandesh. Although the Mughal forces had continued to follow the Maratha column, Patta was far too strong for the Mughals to attempt seizing. Therefore, they returned to Aurangabad. Prudently, Shivaji did not attempt to pursue them during their retreat.

During this period, despite Maratha reinforcements, Dilawar Khan had reached the main fortifications of Bijapur. Masud Khan pleaded with Shivaji for help. He requested the direct intervention of the Maratha king, which was the only possibility of saving the day. Shivaji had built a reputation of never letting down or betraying a friend. He now sent an army under the command of Moropant Pingle and Hambir Rao Mohite, who had recovered from his injuries, to attack the Mughal forces outside Bijapur. Shivaji personally proceeded to Panhala. On the way he learned that his eldest son Sambhaji had defected to the Mughals and was physically in Dilawar Khan’s camp.

Sambhaji’s Escapade

Sambhaji was without doubt brave and able. However, unlike his father who had led a strenuous early life, he had been born into luxury and grew up in a life of ease. During his growing up years he had sufficient time to acquire the vices of the rich and had started to indulge himself, at the cost of honing his skills to be a worthy successor to his enormously capable and hardy father. Shivaji had finally confined him to the fort at Panhala, presumably to break and wean him off his bad habits. While Shivaji was out campaigning, on 13th December 1678, Sambhaji escaped from Panhala with his wife Yesubai assisted by Dilawar Khan. He managed to avoid the pursuing Maratha cavalry and on reaching the Mughal camp was raised to be a commander of 7000 cavalry by the emperor Aurangzeb.

Sambhaji was directed by the Mughal commander to capture Bhupalgarh, a Maratha fort east of Satara that had earlier been captured by Shivaji from Bijapur. Sambhaji was aware that Shivaji had deposited some treasure in the fort and moved some Maratha families there for safety. The fort was commanded by Phirangoji Narasala, earlier the gallant defender of Chakan. Narsala could not get himself to declare the young prince a rebel, after all in normal circumstances he would have been the crown prince, and therefore was reluctant to fight him. Rather than defend his fort, Narsala left his command to go personally to Panhala to seek guidance from his king. While he was away, the leaderless fort was overrun by Sambhaji and the Mughal forces in April 1679. There is one report that after the fort fell, there was fearsome slaughter of the inhabitants by the Mughal forces. This report is not corroborated by any other mention of a slaughter and considering that Sambhaji was independently in command, such an action is highly unlikely to have happened. Shivaji was incensed by the fall of the fort and executed Phirangoji Narsala for dereliction of duty.

Aurangzeb’s ever active and treacherously suspicious mind now came into play again. Sambhaji’s success against a Maratha fort brought to the fore all his devious thinking. He now suspected that Sambhaji would try to make the Hindu officers and soldiers of the Mughal army defect, thereby depleting the imperial force, while himself would become a strong warlord. He ordered Dilawar Khan to arrest Sambhaji and send him to Delhi as a prisoner. Dilawar Khan was an Afghan and completely loyal to the Mughal emperor. However, there was still some honour and honesty left in the man, and his integrity would not let him stoop so low. He informed Sambhaji of the emperor’s orders and advised him to return to his father. To avert suspicion, Dilawar insulted Sambhaji in public and also stopped his monthly allowances. Sambhaji contacted Shivaji and with the help of Maratha agents escaped from the Mughal camp. He returned to Panhala on 4th December 1679 and was cordially received by the king. However, Shivaji refused to give him command of Maratha forces and once again confined him to the fort. 

Bijapur is Saved … yet again

Hambir Rao Mohite and Moro Pingle moved with an army towards Bijapur in 1679. They encountered Mughal reinforcements of 10,000 cavalry under Ranmast Khan proceeding to support Dilawar Kahn. A running battle ensued in which the Mughals were comprehensively defeated. Mohite with half the army started to interdict Dilawar Khan’s lines of communications while Pingle with the other half blockaded Aurangabad. Dilawar Khan’s forces were isolated, and he now made a desperate attempt to storm Bijapur. The attack was effectively repulsed without any gain. Dilawar retreated north, harried all the way till he reached the relative safety of Aurangabad. Bijapur had once again been saved by effective Maratha intervention, a clear demonstration of the dominance of Maratha power in the Deccan. The Adil Shah invited Shivaji to participate in the festivities being organised to celebrate the ‘victory’.  

Bijapur’s Gratitude. Shivaji demanded a price be paid if he was to attend the victory celebrations—he laid out two conditions. First, Bijapur should cede to the Maratha king the entire territory that stretched between River Krishna and Thanjavur, which Shivaji had conquered during the great southern campaign; and second, Vyankoji was to be recognised as a vassal of Shivaji, not in any way beholden to the Adil Shah. The regent Masud Khan had no option but to accept the conditions. Shivaji attended the celebrations for a few days and then retired to his capital.

Maritime Ambitions

Shivaji had proven without doubt that he was triumphant on land. However, his efforts in the maritime sphere were not as successful. Having a long coast on the west of his kingdom made it imperative for the king to build a strong enough navy to protect its integrity. Further, Shivaji was irritated with the English since they regularly accepted favours from the Mughals in the maritime region. Shivaji wanted the English to be neutral but being based at Surat and Bombay meant that they had to maintain reasonably good relations with the Mughals, who controlled the seas around those ports.

As mentioned earlier, the Maratha fleet was substantially increased and strengthened in 1679. The Marathas also captured two islands, Khanderi and Underi (mentioned in English records as Kenery and Henery) about 16 miles from Bombay. On 15th October 1679, the English attacked the Maratha fleet. In the ensuing battle five English ships were damaged and the Maratha fleet also suffered similar damage. The Maratha fleet commander, Daulat Khan, decided to withdraw to the island of Khanderi.

By 10th November, the Sidi fleet from Janjira reached Bombay, ostensibly to assist the English, but in reality, to capture Khanderi and convert it into a Mughal naval base. (The Sidis had earlier thwarted Shivaji’s attempt to capture Janjira and aligned themselves with the Mughals.) The English had suspected this motive and made overtures to Shivaji to initiate combined action to defeat the Sidi fleet. However, Shivaji had been pre-occupied with the defection and return of his son Sambhaji and did not reply to the English. Sidi Kasim commanding the fleet, landed on the Maratha coast and carried away some slaves, claiming to be acting on behalf of the English. Subsequently Kasim captured the island of Undery. The Maratha fleet engaged the Sidi’s fleet and in the encounter that ensued, the Marathas suffered a decisive defeat. Their fleet took refuge in the Rajapur creek. In March 1680, the English again approached Shivaji to create an alliance against the Sidi-Mughal fleets. Shivaji now understood that only with English assistance would he be able to control the maritime region and was inclined to negotiate further. However, other domestic challenges force him to put this initiative on the back burner for the time being.

The Death of the Chhatrapati

By now Shivaji was at the height of his powers. He had almost single-handedly freed the Marathi-speaking people from Muslim rule and created a Hindu kingdom; he had built or strengthened a chain of fortresses from Bednur to Thanjavur to secure his conquests; and Bijapur and Golconda had both been reduced to a state where they were incapable of any meaningful interference in Maratha affairs. These were astoundingly great achievements, considering the socio-political, military and religious environment within which Shivaji was forced to operate.   

However, the days were troubled for the great emperor and full of anxieties. On 2nd April 1679, the Mughal emperor Aurangzeb reimposed the jaziya tax on all Hindus within the greater Mughal Empire, a tax that had been abolished by Akbar, almost a century earlier. In effect this meant that almost all Hindus living in their ancestral homeland within the Indian sub-continent would have to pay a tax to practice their religion. This was a direct challenge to the Rajput chiefs in North India and to Shivaji in the Deccan. The Rajputs went into open revolt, which Aurangzeb was hard put to contain. Shivaji immediately wrote a strong letter rebutting the imposition of the tax and was contemplating the next suitable step to be initiated. However, circumstances prevented him from taking any further steps.

There was a more important domestic matter that was consuming the great king’s energies. Shivaji’s eldest wife Saibai was dead and her son, his eldest Sambhaji, had repeatedly proven to be unfit to be made the crown prince and to follow him to the throne—the latest episode being his defection to the Mughals for a year. However, Shivaji continued to entertain hopes of Sambhaji becoming more responsible. Shivaji’s third wife and the mother of his second son Rajaram, Soyarabai, was pressing the king to declare her son the heir apparent, superseding Sambhaji. There were two reactions to this incessant ‘nagging’: one, it is reported that Shivaji started to entertain thoughts of dividing his kingdom between his two sons; and two, the council of ministers became divided on the issue of succession. Hambir Rao Mohite, the commander of the Maratha army supported Sambhaji, while the rest of the ministers supported Soyarabai and Rajaram. Adding to the king’s grief was the behaviour of Vynkoji. Aggrieved by Bijapur placing him as a vassal of the Maratha king, which he considered a relegation in status, he stopped interacting with Hanumante, the Maratha king’s representative in Thanjavur, and was in the process of gradually becoming a religious recluse.

There is an unexplained matter in the narratives of the time, and their further analysis. Shivaji at this time was only in his 53-rd year. He should have been able to rule for at least another decade, if not longer. Therefore, the above developments bring out few unanswered questions. Why was there a debate regarding succession at this stage, when it is also agreed that he was at the height of his powers? Why would the council of ministers become ‘divided’ on the question of appointing a crown prince or declaring one of his sons the heir apparent? Was there some indication at this stage that the king was unwell and unlikely to survive much longer? If so, there is no mention of any illness in the available records. However, in retrospect, considering that when he finally fell ill, he died within a week of taking to his bed, it could be that he was suffering from some kind of terminal illness, which was known only to the inner circle of the Maratha leadership. In the absence of any records that mention such a likelihood, this consideration must remain in the realm of speculation.

It appears that Shivaji had a premonition of his impending death. He visited his spiritual guide and mentor, Ramdas, and bid him farewell. On 28th March 1680, after he returned from a minor expedition, he experienced painful swelling of the knee joints. In spite of prompt medical aid, the trouble grew worse, and fever and dysentery set in. Within seven days of the first medical challenge, the Chhatrapati died on 3rd April 1680. He was only 53 years old.

‘Much of what Shivaji did, especially in his early years, was little different from banditry. That cannot be denied. But as his power grew, so did his vision, transforming his role from that of a warlord to that of a great king. Shivaji was the right man at the right time in the right place. More than that, he created his own opportunities: transcending his circumstances he gathered into himself the Maratha energies, and gave his people an enduring historic role. By his achievements as well as by the example he set, Shivaji spun the strands from which the fabric of post-Mughal Indian history would be woven.’

—Abraham Early,

Emperors of the Peacock Throne, p. 476.

© [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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