The Marathas Part 7 Sambhaji Bhonsle Section I: Accession and Early Rule

Canberra, 28 September 2021

On hearing of his father’s illness, Sambhaji hurried from Panhala to Raigarh but could not reach the fort before Shivaji’s death. He carried out the last rites and then returned to Panhala. The mourning period was followed by a short, but vicious power struggle for succession. The 23-year-old Sambhaji, as the eldest son, was the rightful heir. However, even before Shivaji’s untimely demise, Soyarabai, his second wife had been lobbying to get her son Rajaram, who was still a minor, declared as the crown prince.

A Plot is Hatched …

The council of ministers, the Ashta-Pradhan dominated by Brahmins, was against Sambhaji being anointed the successor, since he was known for his anti-Brahmin views and rash pronouncements. Further, being in Raigarh it was easier for them to interact with the Queen, than with Sambhaji in Panhala. The queen managed to sway them in favour of Rajaram. The Ashta-Pradhan sided with Soyarabai and jointly they started to plot to raise the 10-year-old prince, Rajaram, to the throne. Soyarabai now took vigorous action, especially after the council of ministers had thrown its weight behind her claim. She agreed to the council being the advisers for the boy-king, while she herself would be the regent, thus enhancing the power of the Ashta-Pradhan. The prospect of entrenching their power made the council support Rajaram wholeheartedly.

Soyarabai also evoked the inherent fear of a Mughal assault, pointing out that Aurangzeb was about to mount an assault on Maharashtra. She also played on the fact that Sambhaji had earlier joined the Mughals and therefore could not be trusted to defend the Maratha kingdom. Many nobles willingly joined this kitchen plot and some others, who harboured a residual loyalty to the house of Bhonsle represented by Sambhaji, came in reluctantly. Even so, with the Ashta-Pradhan fully committed, they felt they had no option but to be part of the plot. However, their reluctance robbed the plot of any decisiveness in action and foredoomed it to failure.

The plotters did not immediately seize Sambhaji, instead they wrote letters to the various fort commanders intimating them of the decision that the Queen had made to raise Rajaram to the throne. They also send instructions to the senior commanders in Panhala to imprison Sambhaji. Unfortunately for the plotters, the rank-and-file soldiers in Panhala were devoted to the prince, the son of their great king. Sambhaji was made aware of the missive and arrested the senior members of the plot, who confessed and were then imprisoned. He took over the Panhala fort and knowing that there would be further attacks, strengthened its defences. In the meanwhile, the plotters were putting together an army to capture Sambhaji.

… and Thwarted

The army send to capture Sambhaji was commanded by Janardan Pant Hanumante, the celebrated victor of the Carnatic. He was not inclined to take Sambhaji prisoner. He therefore brought the army to Panhala and left them to invest the fort, while himself retiring to his home grounds in Kolhapur. Sambhaji was easily able to win over the besieging, but leaderless, army to his side. Then he took decisive action. He marched overnight to Kolhapur and arrested Hanumante. Then he started towards Raigarh—the decisiveness of Sambhaji’s actions panicked the Raigarh plotters. As he approached Raigarh, two senior commanders defected to his side and opened the fort gates for him, enabling him to march-in unopposed. By now the senior leadership in Raigarh was divided and when Sambhaji arrested the fort commander, he changed sides. In the meantime, some of the Ashta-Pradhan houses were ransacked by Sambhaji’s supporters.

Observing the turn of events some of the garrisons that had sided with the plotters now declared in favour of Sambhaji. It was not difficult for Sambhaji to take Rajaram into custody and arrest Soyarabai. It is reported that Sambhaji insulted the queen by barging into her personal quarters and accusing her of poisoning Shivaji to raise her own son to the throne. Soyarabai was arrested and placed in solitary confinement, where she is supposed to have died a few days later. Unconfirmed stories of the harsh conditions of her imprisonment and foul play in her death continue to be discussed for their veracity. However, it can be confirmed that Sambhaji took revenge on several noble houses that had sided with Soyarabai and also that he executed the heads of some of the rebel clans.

A New King is Inaugurated

Sambhaji delayed his formal coronation to enable his taking full control of the kingdom. The date of the actual crowning varies in different accounts, given as either June 1680 or February 1681. However, considering that the attempt to usurp the throne was very short-lived and that Sambhaji has been confirmed as ruling the kingdom from July 1680, this analyst is inclined to support mid-1680 as the time of the actual coronation. (However, the actual date does not have any influence or impact on the broader narrative.) By end-June the entire plot had been fully undermined, and the plotters had either joined Sambhaji or been dispersed.

There is a story that Sambhaji went personally to invite Ramdas, his father’s spiritual guide, to attend his coronation. However, the saint did not grant him an audience feigning illness, but actually because of the revulsion he felt for the cruelty that had been on display in securing the throne. (If this is indeed true, then there is some substance to the stories of Sambhaji’s ruthlessness in stamping out the rebellion.) Ramdas is supposed to have finally relented to his followers’ request and send a letter to Sambhaji full of sage advice on how to rule the kingdom wisely. (The entire text of this letter is available in the Ramdas Charitra.) The coronation was conducted with great pomp, with most of the ceremonies conducted during Shivaji’s coronation being replicated. However, Maratha chronicles mention ill omens that were observed during the ceremonies. For example, they mention that the day was fully clouded and that the sun (Sun God) did not show even for a single minute during the entire time. Sambhaji ignored the ‘divine displeasure’, completed the coronation ceremonies, and became the king of the Marathas.

Fighting the Mughals

Frustrated by the lack of progress in the Deccan, Aurangzeb once again replaced his viceroy. Khan Jehan was brought back, although his previous tenure had been an abject failure. Aurangzeb’s repeated discarding of capable generals and antagonising the Rajput princes, who were also some of his most efficient senior commanders, had by now started to impact on the performance of the Mughal army. The pool from which to draw a senior general for appointment had been considerably depleted. In an initial frenzy of activity, Khan Jehan attacked a Maratha fort in the Chandod region, but was immediately repulsed.

Almost as a reprisal, in October 1680, the Maratha army mounted a three-pronged attack on the Mughal positions. One division approached Surat, another was sent to Khandesh and the third was designated to harass Khan Jehan near Aurangabad. However, all three initiatives were only moderately successful. In February 1681, Sambhaji decided to sack Burhanpur, then the capital of Khandesh and the wealthiest Mughal city in the Deccan. The fort itself was unassailable, but the town and its suburbs were open to the Marathas. The marauding hordes captured great treasure and wreaked havoc on the township. Khan Jehan hurried from Aurangabad to confront the Marathas and relieve the town, but as he neared Burhanpur Sambhaji retreated via Chopra and Salhar to his own territory.

The people of Burhanpur were so affronted by the assault and sacking, as well as the perceived inaction of Khan Jehan, that they wrote directly to Aurangzeb informing him of their plight. In addition, they also intimated the Mughal that Burhanpur would no more carryout the Friday prayers in his name. This action was a great insult to the emperor. This letter was akin to the proverbial last straw that tipped Aurangzeb’s decision. He sacked Khan Jehan from his viceregal position and decided to proceed to the Deccan personally. Aurangzeb would never return to Delhi after this, destined to spend the next nearly 30 years of his life wandering and fighting in the Deccan—never losing a battle while never winning the war and finally losing the campaign. While the sacking of Burhanpur was the catalyst, the main reason for Aurangzeb’s move to the Deccan was that his rebel son Prince Akbar had by this time taken refuge with Sambhaji and threatened the stability of the Mughal Empire. (For a detailed account of the rebellion of Prince Akbar and Aurangzeb’s fall-out with the Rajputs read, From Indus to Independence: A Trek through Indian History Volume VIII: A Chronicle of the Imperial Mughals) Aurangzeb was fully aware that the combination of the rising power of the Marathas and the rebellion of Prince Akbar would be strong enough to shake the foundations of the Mughal Empire. The possibility of such a calamity had to be nipped in the bud.

A Sub-Plot Comes to Naught

Even though he had been crowned as the king, Sambhaji’s intemperate and haughty behaviour, and his immoral ways with women had not made him a popular ruler. There was also a core of the original plotters who continued to harbour ambitions on behalf of Rajaram, who had not been imprisoned by Sambhaji, but was being kept in a sort of loose custody. This group, led by the senior members of the great house of Shirke, the clan to which Soyarabai had also belonged, saw the presence of the rebel Mughal prince as an opportunity to undermine Sambhaji’s rule. They approached Prince Akbar with a proposal to get rid of Sambhaji and handing over the Deccan for him to rule, with a minor land grant for Rajaram. [The self-serving treachery of the Hindu clans, which was the bane of Hindu unity through the ages, is once again demonstrated here. The plotters were willing to hand over the hard-won kingdom once again to a Muslim ruler to spite the current incumbent. Lack of strategic vision is so apparent.] Prince Akbar disdained to betray his friend who had given him refuge and reported the plot to Sambhaji.

Fearful vengeance followed. Several nobles who were part of the plot, and some who were thought to be part of it, were summarily executed.  Sambhaji proscribed the entire Shirke clan and had each one of them tracked down and killed. The numbers killed were such that the term ‘Shirkan’, meaning the ‘massacre of the Shirkes’ is still a term used in Marathi for largescale and ruthless murder of a group of people. Thus ended the second attempt to get rid of Sambhaji.

Maritime Ambitions

Sambhaji knew that he did not have the resources to directly confront the Mughal forces and was forthright with Prince Akbar, informing him that a move to place him on the throne of Delhi would not be forthcoming any time soon. Sambhaji then decided to secure his coastal flank before he marched north to confront Aurangzeb. He also harboured an ambition to conquer Janjira, which his father had failed to accomplish. Ever since his accession, there had been desultory skirmishes between the Maratha naval forces and the Abyssinian Sidis controlling Janjira and the navy they maintained as vassals of the Mughals. The English controlling the port of Bombay, gave the Sidis access to the facilities, while professing neutrality to Sambhaji.

The Sidis of Janjira controlled the island of Underi, captured by them during one of their skirmishes with Shivaji. In May 1681, the Marathas attempted to retake the island, but was beaten back with great loss in men and materiel. The Sidis then went on to plunder nearby Maratha territories. In December 1681, Sambhaji reached the opposite shore from the island of Janjira with 20,000 men and a siege train. He started daily bombardment of the island’s defences, while starting to build a mole from the mainland towards the island. Simultaneously, he unsuccessfully attempted to infiltrate the island. The Sidis controlled the sea and therefore the mole project was difficult to pursue. Seeing an opportunity when the Maratha king was preoccupied with the siege of Janjira, Mughal forces under the command of Hussein Ali Khan attacked and ravaged north Konkan. Sambhaji immediately left the coast and drove the Mughal forces back to Ahmednagar. The monsoon seas of 1682 destroyed the unfinished mole that was being built.

In August 1682, in the thick of the monsoon rains, the Marathas made a desperate direct assault on Janjira. The attack was a brave but foolhardy effort and failed miserably. Repeated failures to capture Janjira made Sambhaji realise that command of the seas was a prerequisite to capturing the island. He therefore started to collect and build naval vessels. While the Maratha navy was being built up, Sidi Misri, who was related to the Sidi chief of Janjira defected and joined Sambhaji. Considering his vast seafaring experience, Sidi Misri was placed in-charge of the Maratha fleet. Soon Sidi Misri, in command of 30 Maratha warships, attacked the Janjira fleet lying outside Bombay. The Janjira fleet was outnumbered but through superior tactics and skilful manoeuvring achieved a decisive victory over the Maratha fleet. Sidi Misri’s flagship was captured and Misri fatally wounded. With this debacle, the Marathas under Sambhaji withdrew from further maritime adventures. Sambhaji now turned his attention to the Mughal-Portuguese alliance that was oriented against him.

The Portuguese War

From the time of Akbar’s reign, the Portuguese viceroys of Goa had been careful to be on friendly terms with the Mughals. Successive emperors had been kept humoured by subservient behaviour and presents when the occasion demanded it. Aurangzeb’s active, but convoluted brain, now decided to take advantage of this generational friendship. He demanded that the viceroy, Francesco de Tavora, permit Goa to be used as a second port to support Mughal forces about to embark on yet another Konkan campaign. Francesco agreed, without thinking through the possible consequences of the Mughals operating from Portuguese territory and becoming entrenched there. Sambhaji was aware of the Mughal-Portuguese alliance and almost as a counter to it, made an alliance with the English in 1683, granting them trading rights in Ginji.

In June 1683, Sambhaji laid siege to the Portuguese fort at Chaul, but unable to sustain it to its logical conclusion and had to withdraw. In reprisal, Tavora rode out of Goa and ravaged the Maratha lands surrounding it. Sambhaji now lured the Portuguese viceroy out of Goa to attack Phinda fort. Since the Portuguese lines of communication was rather extended, the Marathas interdicted them and isolated the force. The Portuguese forces barely managed to fight their way back to the safety of Goa, suffering heavy casualties in the bargain. Prince Akbar attempted twice to infiltrate Goa through subterfuge but both attempts were discovered in time and frustrated. He was reconciled now to the fact that Sambhaji did not have the power, nor the inclination, to place him on the throne of Delhi. Prince Akbar decided to go to Persia and take refuge in the Shah’s court.

Sambhaji was determined that Goa should not become a safe haven and supporting port for the Mughal army poised to invade his country. Therefore, he decided to employ force and invaded the Portuguese territory. The Marathas initially overran Bardes and Salsette and on 25th November 1683, captured the island of Santo Estavo. This was also the anniversary of Albuquerque’s capture of Goa in 1510. In a night attack at low tide, Sambhaji took the garrison by surprise and occupied the main island citadel. Portuguese attempts to retake the fort was unsuccessful and the Marathas went on to capture the forts at Rachol, Tivim and Chapora.

The Portuguese viceroy, Tavora, was a man of great resolve and courage. He gathered his forces and was on the verge of launching yet another attempt to recapture the main fort, when the Mughal forces who had been alerted by the Portuguese arrived to offer assistance. There is also a story that before the critical battle was to be joined, Tavora invoked the blessings of the patron saint of Goa, Francis Xavier, who is supposed to have facilitated the timely arrival of the Mughal forces. The Mughal forces were led by Aurangzeb’s son Shah Alam, and they swelled the Portuguese ranks. Under threat of a double onslaught, Sambhaji was forced to retreat and so failed to annex Goa, as was the original plan.

The Mughal Onslaught

Late in 1683, Aurangzeb moved from Burhanpur to Ahmednagar and placed two armies under his tow sons Azam Shah and Shah Alam, to mount a two-pronged attack on the Maratha country. Azam Shah was to overrun Khandesh and Nasik, and then take Salhar, all of which was accomplished. Shah Alam had a more complex task. He was to move south and capture territory or harass the Maratha holdings. When the plight of Goa became known, Shah Alam was already in Belgaum district. This facilitated his rapid arrival to assist the Portuguese and defeat the Maratha attack on Goa. After the withdrawal of the Marathas, Shah Alam who was already in Goa with his army, wanted to bring the Mughal fleet into Goa harbour. The viceroy had by now become wary of Mughal duplicity, especially under the current emperor. He therefore tactfully but totally refused to give permission for any Mughal vessel to come into port.

Shah Alam, who obviously had ulterior motives in wanting to bring his navy into port, was angered. He proceeded to follow a scorched earth policy, starting by burning part of Goa and some other Portuguese villages while carrying away Portuguese women and children. Thereafter he went on to burn most of south Konkan. The foolishness of this wilful act soon became apparent. The southern Mughal army had so far been reliant on the port at Goa for their resupply and reequipment. Now the viceroy prohibited any Mughal ships from coming into harbour and Shah Alam’s army started to be unsupplied, very rapidly reaching starvation point since the region had already been burned by them. In addition, the Maratha light cavalry started to harass the Mughal forces at every opportunity.

Shah Alam initiated a retreat along the Konkan coast, while his army was stuck by pestilence and marauding attacks by the Marathas. It is reported that at least 500 Mughal soldiers died every day during this march. Shah Alam send a desperate plea for help to his father Aurangzeb. The emperor reacted and sent a relief army while food was despatched from Surat by ship. Unfortunately for the Mughals, these food-bearing merchant ships were captured by the Maratha navy and were not able to alleviate the plight of the Mughal army. Finally, on 18th May 1684, Shah Alam along with his battered and almost decimated army reached Ahmednagar.

Kavi Kalasha

Ever since the Shirke plot, Sambhaji could not get himself to trust Maratha officers, the only exception being Hambir Rao Mohite, the cavalry commander, who had spoken up for Sambhaji from the beginning. For sentimental reasons Moro Pingle was retained as the Peshwa, because of respect for having been Shivaji’s Peshwa, but he was not given any actual power or responsibilities, becoming a figurehead. Real power lay with Kalasha, a Brahmin from Allahabad. Kalasha, given the title Kavi by Sambhaji belonged to the traditional family priests of the Bhonsle clan from Allahabad and had played a leading role in Shivaji’s escape from Agra. He had developed a close relationship with Sambhaji, who was a minor in his care during the escapade.

Sambhaji appointed him ‘Chief Executive’ of the kingdom. While he was obsequious and even sycophantic towards Sambhaji, he was arrogant, condescending and openly disdainful while dealing with the Maratha aristocracy. To add to this grave character flaw, he was ignorant of basic administrative principles and had absolutely no clue regarding the administrative requirements to rule the vast empire that spread from the Deccan deep into South India. His administrative acumen can be gauged from the fact that he advocated giving up Shivaji’s far-flung conquests because they were too far to be of any use.

Kalash’s influence and hold over Sambhaji was vice-like, and he dominated all strategic decision-making processes of the kingdom. The Marathas believed that Kalasha influenced Sambhaji through magic and obscure tantric rites. However, the reality was that he kept Sambhaji plied with wine and opium and a constant supply of young women. Sambhaji’s character flaw that had been visible in his younger days had now become a debilitating weakness. This was a disastrous state-of-affairs for the kingdom and the main fall-out was that the finances declined into dire straits. Unable to pay the army, Sambhaji permitted them to loot and pillage at will. In one stroke he had neutralised the iron discipline of Shivaji’s exemplary army, which had made it into a formidable force. The great Maratha army was now incapable of winning any engagement, as was demonstrated in Goa. The Maratha elan had vanished in less than a generation. No doubt, it would be built up again, but the struggle to do so would be an enormous up-hill task.

Change in Maratha Spirit

Sambhaji remained under the sinister influence of Kavi Kalasha throughout his reign. With Sambhaji coming to the throne and his impetuous actions, the basic spirit of the Maratha polity changed for the worse. Shivaji was daring, but never a daredevil. He believed in long and meticulous planning of each campaign and battle and was abundantly cautious in all his actions. He also had a finely balanced sense regarding the consequences of his actions. This was the reason that he never even threatened, let alone directly attack, the Mughal political centres in the Deccan. He knew that terrible retribution would follow such an action. Sambhaji seems to have been completely unaware of the need for such considerations and in the second year of his reign attempted to capture Ahmednagar, one of the main seats of Mughal power. This attempt acted as the catalyst for the Mughal emperor to move down into the Deccan, with all the consequences for the Maratha kingdom that will be described in this volume.

The most striking factor that influenced the change in Maratha polity was the marked difference in the characters of the father and the son. Shivaji, despite his predatory activities was an extremely honourable man and led an exemplary personal life. In addition, while being true to his Hindu faith, Shivaji was broadminded enough to let his subjects practice their own faith as they saw fit. On the other hand, Sambhaji was a man of wanton ways and yet a religious fanatic, a somewhat dichotomous combination of character traits. The issue was not even his religious fanaticism, but the fact that he was as bigoted as Aurangzeb about ‘being a Hindu’. Sambhaji was intemperate in his actions to ‘promote’ Hinduism. For example, he wrote to Raja Ram Singh of Amber, Raja Jai Singh’s son and Shivaji’s companion in Agra, taunting him for not doing enough to safeguard the religion.

Even a cursory examination of the military campaigns that he initiated reveals that Sambhaji was incapable of resolute action, his bravado was restricted to talk. All his campaigns were unplanned, haphazard, impulsive and ill-conceived. He was quickly ‘turned off’ from a campaign when it was not going in his favour. The limited battlefield victories that he achieved in the early part of his career is attributed to the competence of his military officers and mid-level commanders, not to his own military brilliance. Sambhaji spent more time drinking and womanising than in running the kingdom. Moreover, Sambhaji was confounded by clan and family feuds throughout his reign; feuds that almost fractured the Maratha kingdom.

When the Rajput chief Durgadas reached Maharashtra with the rebel Mughal Prince Akbar, a small window of opportunity opened for the two major Hindu entities in the sub-continent—the Rajputs and the Marathas—to form an axis to jointly oppose Muslim domination. However, Sambhaji was incapable of the cool-headed negotiations and elaborate planning that would have been required to bring such a concept to fruition; the golden opportunity was permitted to go untaken. In this analysis, being done centuries later, one is forced to ask the question whether Sambhaji was even aware that a window of opportunity had come and gone, an opportunity which would have permitted him to do great things that knocked on his door and then rapidly opened and shut.

© [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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