The Marathas Part 7 Sambhaji Bhonsle Section II: Capture and Execution


The decline of power under Sambhaji was such that the Marathas were in no position to offer any meaningful resistance to the Mughals when Aurangzeb arrived in the Deccan. At the end of the monsoon rains in 1684, the Mughal armies began to move. An army under Shahabuddin Khan advanced towards Raigarh with the intention of taking the fort. However, Raigarh was very strongly defended and was built atop an unassailable spur. The Mughal siege mechanism, based on science and a great deal of patience, could not overcome the physical difficulties, and more importantly, the dauntless courage of the defending Marathas. They were forced to raise the siege.

Hambir Rao Mohite, the Maratha cavalry commander now made a counter move. He attacked the Mughal stables in Pathdi and captured some elephants. In the meantime, Shahabuddin captured Chakan and Supa, and descended into the Konkan. The Mughals defeated a large Maratha cavalry contingent at Pachad, near Raigarh. In retaliation, Sambhaji send an army of 10,000 cavalry in February 1685 under Niloji Pandit into Khandesh, where they sacked Dharamgaon. However, by this time Shah Alam’s army had captured Gokak, Hubli, Dharwar and Karwar. Although subsequently Shah Alam was hounded out of the Konkan by the Maratha army, the forts remained in Mughal hands.

Reports reached Aurangzeb that left to himself, Sambhaji would abandon himself to drink and women, which was probably true. Further, Aurangzeb’s primary aim in coming into the Deccan personally was not only to defeat the Marathas, but to annex both Bijapur and Golconda. The fundamental ethos of the Mughals did not condone the existence of other Muslim kingdoms who were not in their vassalage. The Mughal emperor now changed focus and turned his attention to the destruction of the remaining two Deccan Shahi kingdoms. Both the Adil Shahi kingdom of Bijapur and the Qutb Shahi Golconda were old and effete, and Aurangzeb did not expect his entire Deccan campaign to last more than two years. In October 1685, when the Mughal forces started to concentrate around Bijapur, the Marathas sacked Broach, one of the oldest ports in the sub-continent.

Bijapur surrendered to the Mughals on 12th September 1686 and Golconda was overrun on 27 September 1687. (The details of the Mughal attack on Bijapur and Golconda, the battles fought, and other tactical actions taken are superfluous to this narrative. The flow of events have been described in the previous volume of this series – From Indus to Independence: A Trek through Indian History Volume VIII: A Chronicle of the Imperial Mughals)

Prelude to the End

Historians are perplexed by Sambhaji’s behaviour pattern in the closing years of his young life. He displayed two distinctly different persona—alternating between complete apathy towards all matters of state and initiating decisive action against the Mughals. The reality is that Sambhaji was caught between two powerful factions in his court, each vying for influence over him. The first was Kavi Kalasha who was trying to make the king a complete debauch incapable of ruling so that he himself could hold power over the kingdom; and the second was a group of Shivaji’s old comrades, the old guard, who wanted Sambhaji to take responsibility for the kingdom and become a decisive king like his father. The king’s behaviour at any point reflected the faction under whose influence he was at that time. The vigour and activities of Sambhaji’s earlier years as king can be attributed to the greater influence exercised by the older generals from Shivaji’s generation.

The complexity of the situation could be seen as the result of a difficult challenge that Sambhaji had to face, an issue that Shivaji never had to face in his entire life. Sambhaji faced, irrespective of the reasons for the situation, betrayal and treason from his own officers from the first years of his reign. To further muddy an already complicated situation, Aurangzeb a ruthless and master manipulator was personally operating in the Deccan and was concentrating on bringing the Maratha king down. Secondly, Kalasha, the Chief Operative of the kingdom appointed by Sambhaji was an outsider Brahmin, intensely disliked by the down-to-earth Marathas, both nobles and the common man. It was not surprising that fresh conspiracies sprang up with monotonous regularity in the Maratha kingdom.

A demonstrative example of the disloyalty that troubled Sambhaji was the case of 2000 Maratha cavalry, who in November 1684 decided to defect to the Mughals. They went to bathe in the River Godavari, waiting for an opportunity to go over to the Mughal lines. Coming to know of their plan to defect, Sambhaji captured and massacred the entire lot. What becomes apparent is that these episodes created a vicious cycle—treachery or disloyalty by the Marathas brought on by Sambhaji’s favouritism towards the despised Kalasha, which in turn drove him further into the Kalasha camp worsening an already bad situation.

The fall of Bijapur and the siege of Golconda made Sambhaji realise that he would be the next in the Mughal sights. Even so, the Maratha attacks on the besieging Mughal forces at Golconda were only designed to prolong the siege, not lift it. With the Mughal forces tied down in Golconda, the Marathas had the freedom to overrun Bijapur’s southern provinces and increase their own territorial holdings and resources. Sambhaji had appointed Harji Mahadik, his brother-in-law married to his own sister Ambikabai, as the viceroy of Maratha territories in the south and south-east, with his headquarters in Ginji. In 1687, he asked for reinforcements to safeguard his territories from attacks by Vyankoji, who was still in Bijapur ‘service’. Sambhaji send a force of 12,000 cavalry under Keshav Pingle, Moro Pingle’s brother, to Ginji. Forever trying to undermine the relationship between Sambhaji and the Maratha nobles, Kalasha insinuated to the king that Mahadik had been attempting to become an independent ruler in the south. Falling into this sinister trap yet again, Sambhaji ordered Keshav Pingle to arrest Mahadik.

Harji Mahdik became aware of this secret order and therefore distrusted Keshav Pingle and his senior officers from the time they reached Ginji. The Maratha leadership was divided. Viewing this discord as an opportunity, Aurangzeb attacked Bangalore. When attacked by the Mughals, Harji Mahdik and Keshav Pingle buried their differences and mutual mistrust and marched to the aid of Bangalore. However, before the column could reach Bangalore, the town and fort fell to the Mughals in August 1687. Seeing that the Mughal forces were still besieging Golconda and was busy in Bangalore, Hardik decided to annex Mysore. The old viceroy of Mysore had taken the opportunity of the defeat and dismemberment of the great Vijayanagara Empire after the Battle of Talikota in 1564 and declared himself an independent ruler. His successors had continued the tradition for a century. However, before the Maratha forces could act, Golconda had fallen and the Mughal armies were free to take on other objectives.

Mughal cavalry now took possession of all the territories between Masulipatam and River Palar. Since the Qutb Shahis had been eliminated, several Golconda viceroys in South India found it advantageous to switch sides to the Mughals. This included the Hindu chiefs of Poonamalai and Kanjivaram in the Deep South.    

Maratha Advantage

Thwarted from annexing Mysore, Mahdik and Pingle turned their attention to the region between North Pennar and River Palar. Several chiefs in the region abandoned their allegiance to the Mughals and became vassals of the Maratha king. The fall of Bijapur and Golconda had benefitted Sambhaji in an unexpected manner. There had been many Maratha chieftains with their military forces in the service of both the Adil Shahi and Qutb Shahi rulers. On the fall of the two kingdoms, these ‘Hindu kafirs’ were received very coldly by Aurangzeb the bigot. From their side, the Marathas were also not keen to serve under an emperor known for his treachery and religious fanaticism. The leading Maratha families in Bijapur and Golconda—Dafle, Mane, Ghatge, Nimbalkar etc., —had stood loyally by their kings throughout the Mughal invasion. Now they flocked to Sambhaji’s side bringing with them considerable warfighting skills and experience as well as sizeable and battle-hardened feudal contingents.

Sambhaji was at this point in one of his cohesive moods. Taking advantage of his enhanced military power, brought about by the newly joined Maratha chieftains, Sambhaji swept through the erstwhile Bijapur provinces south of Panhala. By end-1687, Maratha forces had reduced more than 120 strongholds and towns—a resounding military success. The defeat and destruction of Bijapur and Golconda by the Mughals had brought a windfall to Sambhaji and facilitated the expansion of the Marath kingdom. Aurangzeb was livid with anger at the Maratha success in South India. It is reported that the normally iron self-control that he exercised broke and he swore that he would not leave the Deccan without having killed Sambhaji. He started to single-mindedly focus Mughal actions against the Marathas.

The Mughal Onslaught

In February 1688, around 12,000 Mughal cavalry and several local levies, under the command of Mahomed Sidik, entered the Carnatic seaboard with the aim to drive out the Marathas. The Marathas retired from Kanjeevaram to a line of forts along the River Palar. Subsequently, a sort of cat and mouse game started being played out—the Marathas did not want to engage in a pitched battle against the heavy cavalry of the Mughals, where they would be at a disadvantage and Sidik did not want to besiege any of the forts, since his cavalry would be useless in siege warfare. Both the sides resorted to ravaging the countryside to deny each other resources. Sidik’s campaign was not the only initiative of the Mughals against the Marathas. Aurangzeb had already initiated another campaign in December 1687 under Sarja Khan, a Bijapur noble who had joined the Mughals after the fall of the Adil Shahis.

Sarja was initially successful in driving back the Marathas. However, Hambir Rao Mohite, the valiant Maratha cavalry commander drew the Mughal forces into the dense forests around Mahabaleshwar and inflicted a decisive defeat on Sarja Khan. The resounding victory, however, came at a high price—Hambir was killed in the action. Thus was lost the only voice in the Maratha court that could silence Kavi Kalasha and neutralise his venomous influence over the king. After Hambir Rao Mohite’s unfortunate death, Sambhaji became a slave to profligacy and intemperance. He came under the complete control of Kalasha and descended into sloth and vice, with disastrous consequences for the Maratha kingdom and its once glorious armies. The Mughal forces went on to recapture all the Bijapur and Golconda territories that the Marathas had acquired recently. Poonamalai was lost with the viceroy once again switching sides to the Mughals.

Simultaneously, Aurangzeb also send an army into the Deccan, where the Mughals captured the line of forts that Shivaji had created between Tathvada and Panhala. The Mughals were now mainly headquartered at Bijapur, where a plague broke out. The headquarters were moved to Akluj near Sholapur on the banks of the River Nira and the plague was contained. It was obvious that Aurangzeb was keen to take all the Maratha strongholds and forts.

Sambhaji’s Blunder

During the Mughal three-pronged and prolonged assault, Sambhaji was ensconced in Raigarh. Raigarh was the heart of the Maratha kingdom, containing Shivaji’s relics as well as Maratha treasure and trophies. The Mughals could scarcely declare victory as long as Raigarh was not captured. As a corollary, as long as a Maratha king dwelt in Raigarh, irrespective of the territorial spread of the kingdom, Maratha independence would continue to burn, even if from the embers. Further, Raigarh if properly defended, was impregnable—it rose at the end of a spur to 4000 feet in height, impervious to direct assault and even to siege artillery. 

This is when Kalasha’s selfish machinations brought about a debacle. Being from the Gangetic plains, Kalasha detested the heavy monsoon rains and the accompanying humid dampness that was endemic to Raigarh. He had not been able to acclimatise himself to the tropical mountain climate of the Western Ghats. In the summer of 1688, he persuaded Sambhaji to move to Sangameshwar before the monsoon rains set in and put the king up in his own opulent palace in the township. Even after the monsoon rains had receded and the campaign season had started, Kalasha managed to keep Sambhaji in Sangameshwar inducing him to stay through the age-old combination of wine, women and song. By this time Sambhaji had sunk into leading a completely debauched life. There is even an unconfirmed report that in one instance, he seized the beautiful bride of a Maratha noble who was journeying to join her husband and took her to his harem. Sambhaji was crossing all limits of decency and correctness in behaviour. It is believed that this incident, if it did take place, elicited a storm of condemnation. In any case, Sambhaji now hunkered down in Kalasha’s palace instead of returning to Raigarh and assuming his kingly duties.

The King is Captured …

During the Mughal siege of Golconda, a noble, Makanab Khan with the title Shaikh Nizam Haiderabadi and his son Iklas Khan had opportunistically defected to the Mughals. Makanab was treacherous but considered a highly skilled soldier. Aurangzeb had made him the commander of 5000 and Iklas had been give the position of commander of 4000. Early in December 1688, father and son were dispatched to besiege Panhala. On his way to Panhala, Makanab Khan came to know that Sambhaji was in Sangameswar and decided to make an attempt at capturing the Maratha king. He secured the assistance of some hillmen who were familiar with the terrain and the paths through the dense jungles, took 2000 cavalry with him and rode at full speed towards Sangameswar. The rest of his army followed at a slower pace.

On 28th December, Maratha scouts brought information to Sambhaji that a large body of Mughal cavalry was approaching Sangameswar at full gallop. Sambhaji was sleeping off the effects of the previous night’s drinking and revelry and asked them to report to Kalasha. All attempts to make the king realise the grave danger that he was in failed—Sambhaji was too drunk physically and euphemistically drunk on power. Nothing could touch his persona. Since the king was not responding to the imminent threat some of the Maratha officers took flight and reached Raigarh. Seeing this contingent leaving Sangameswar, Shaikh Nizam believed that Sambhaji was about to escape and conceived a plan to delay his departure till the main body of the Mughal army arrived. He decided to make a ruse of negotiating with the Maratha king. However, the ruse did not have to be played out.

On reaching the palace, Iklas Khan realised that the king was still in his chambers and barged in, after killing the guards. It appears that Sambhaji had by now roused himself from his stupor and made a belated attempt to escape by shaving his beard and smearing ash over his face to look like a mendicant. However, his ornaments gave him away and he was captured, put in chains, placed on an elephant, and taken in a procession to Aurangzeb’s camp. There is speculation even today that by their inaction, the Brahmins of the Maratha court tacitly approved of Sambhaji’s capture since he had always treated them with disdain. There may be some truth to this belief, since the five-day trek with Sambhaji a prisoner was done through the hills and forests of the Maratha country and not even one attempt was made to rescue the king. The inaction speaks volumes about the rift within the ruling hierarchy of the Marathas and the extreme dislike of Kavi Kalasha, who was also a prisoner with his king. After a five-day trek, the prisoners were presented in chains to Aurangzeb at Akluj the temporary headquarters of the Mughals at that time.

… and Executed

Sambhaji’s capture was a euphoric event for the Mughal forces who now felt that the Deccan campaign was coming to an end, since all the major objectives had been achieved. By now completely sober, Sambhaji had once again started to display his natural courage, even though in captivity. During the five-day journey, he had repeatedly requested Rajput soldiers and officers whom he encountered to kill him so that he would be spared further humiliation. This thinking indicates that Sambhaji knew in his heart that no attempt to rescue him would be forthcoming and he was destined to die in prison. It is also possible that he was now fully aware of the misdeeds of his rule and the miscalculations that had antagonised the Maratha nobles and Brahmins.

When Sambhaji and Kalasha were presented in the Durbar in chains, Aurangzeb is reported to have descended from his throne to show gratitude to the Almighty for their capture. Both were placed in prison and their future was not yet decided. Shaikh Nizam and his son were monetarily rewarded; the Shaikh being elevated to command of 6000 and Iklas Khan to 5000 cavalry respectively. Aurangzeb’s advisers pressed him to spare Sambhaji in return for surrendering all the Maratha forts, a suggestion that the emperor reluctantly accepted. However, when the proposal was put to Sambhaji, he refused to accept such demeaning terms and in return passionately abused Aurangzeb and the Prophet. This outburst gave Aurangzeb the necessary reason to reject all suggestions from his nobles on how to deal with the Maratha king in a humane manner.

The Mughal camp was now moved to Tulapur, about 16 miles north-east of Pune. At Tulapur, further humiliation awaited Sambhaji. He and Kalasha were dressed as clowns in the dresses of wandering minstrels and were made to ride camels facing backwards, through the streets of the town. Aurangzeb told Sambhaji that all would be forgiven if he converted to Islam. Sambhaji retorted that he would convert if Aurangzeb gave his daughter in marriage to him. He also added further insults to the Prophet for good measure. Enraged at the afront to the Prophet, Aurangzeb had Sambhaji’s tongue cut out, he was then blinded and killed by tearing the heart out of his body while he was still alive. Subsequently, the limbs were separated from the body. The heads of both Sambhaji and Kalasha were stuffed with straw and paraded across the Deccan. Aurangzeb’s cruelty was shocking and revolting even by medieval standards; but then he had treated his own brothers and nephews similarly. For a man professing complete surrender to God and practising the tenets of his faith as a humble human being, his treatment of his brothers and other adversaries was a surprising flaw in his character. 

Thus died, on the 11th or 14th March 1689, Shivaji’s eldest son and the ruling Maratha king, at the age of 32.

Sambhaji – An Enigma

Sambhaji led a short but eventful life, with extra doses of misfortune, most of them self-inflicted. Before any other assessment is attempted, it must be acknowledged that his one-year defection to the Mughals was an unpardonable treason to the cause of independence that his father had assiduously championed throughout his life. This one irresponsible act initiated a cycle of events that spiralled out of control rapidly, leading to the sorry state of affairs during the last days of his rule that has been described above. The defection brought on the Shirke rebellion that made Sambhaji develop a distrust of Maratha nobles and generals, which in turn drove him to collude with the lewd and scheming priest, Kalasha. This basic character flaw was his undoing.

There is no denying the detrimental effect of Sambhaji’s irresponsible rule on the broader Maratha kingdom. His reign transformed the kingdom from Shivaji’s highly disciplined and centrally controlled, almost model kingdom to a barely functioning anarchy, with the state on the brink of economic bankruptcy. As the soldiers could not be paid regularly, they were officially encouraged to take the field on their own, with the result that indiscriminate plundering where and when they pleased became the order of the day. The Maratha soldiers were often accompanied by auxiliary marauding bands of irregulars, who later transformed into the infamous Pindaris. It is at this stage that the term ‘Maratha’ started to become synonymous with ‘bandits’, and with sufficient reason.

‘The term Maratha thus became a generic term for all bandits, irrespective of their community. Soldiers disbanded from the crumbling Bijapur and Golconda sultanates joined the Maratha warlords, and occasionally even formed gangs of their own and took to the field. No loyalty bound any of them, no law or morality restrained them, and in a short time they turned the Deccan into a hellish jungle, where the omnivorous, predatory, humanoid animal roamed and hunted as he pleased. So the very name Maratha came to evoke a nameless terror among the people. Maratha lawlessness, more than anything else, was responsible for the ruination of India in early modern times, and they so vandalized India’s political fabric that it crumbled at the mere touch of the British.’

—Abraham Early,

Emperors of the Peacock Throne, pp. 482-83.

Several Maratha chroniclers depict Sambhaji as a ‘monster of inequity’. This extreme assessment is somewhat unreasonable. It can be argued that in different circumstances, Sambhaji’s life and, by extrapolation, the fate, of the Maratha kingdom would have been different. This account is not trying to smooth over the quirky and downright abhorrent character traits that Sambhaji displayed. However, to balance the narrative, the better aspects of Sambhaji’s character as is known in antiquity also needs to be brought to light.

Sambhaji spent most of his short life in military campaigns. Even so, he did not neglect his intellectual development. He employed a scholar, Keshav Pandit Adyaksh who was also a friend of his father, to teach him and also read the epics along with him regularly. Sambhaji himself wrote two books of Hindi poetry, even though they were on the art of love and the beauty of the female form. When he had to deal with the soldiers, he was always liberal and just. What emerges when viewed holistically is that outside the influence of the vile Kalasha, Sambhaji displayed the good traits that make a responsible king. Of course, there are no doubts that he had a fundamental character flaw of being excessively suspicious and distrustful, which drove him into Kalasha’s despicable machinations.

At the end, Sambhaji’s one redeeming factor was what made his subjects forgive him his thousand trespasses—the stoic courage and the dauntless manner in which he met his capture, humiliation, torture and a hideous death. His subjects swept away his wanton, debauched and viciously revengeful behaviour. They remembered only the golden youth—who had come out of a plot to dethrone him; the victor against the Portuguese viceroy; of the king who had hunted down and decimated the Mughal army of Prince Shah Alam along the Konkan coast.

The Maratha’s mourned their ill-fated king. 

 © [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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