The Marathas Part 8 The Regency of Rajaram: Taking on the Mughals

Canberra, 07 October 2021

Even though there was no denial of Sambhaji’s character flaws and grave faults in his behaviour pattern, the Maratha nobles fully resented the way he had been treated by the Mughal emperor—after all, he was the king of the Marathas. Sambhaji left behind his wife Yesubai and a six-year-old son Shahu, born in 1680. As soon as news of Sambhaji’s execution reached the Marathas, the military commanders, Brahmin ministers and senior Prabhu officials convened a council to decide on the next course of action. The council was presided over by Yesubai. Many of the assembled nobles had loyally served the great Chhatrapati Shivaji but had been treated shabbily by Sambhaji and Kalasha. Some of these nobles had been together with the Bhonsle family for four generations. Irrespective of their relationship with Sambhaji, these senior Maratha leaders were incensed with the brutal killing of their king—no thought was given to initiating any sort of peace overture with the Mughals.   

The council took up the issue of succession. Yesubai proposed that Shahu be considered the king, without a formal coronation, while Rajaram, now 19 years old, be appointed the Regent. This suggestion met with the approval of the nobles. Next, the plan for a campaign against the Mughals was taken up. Although they had been sidelined by Sambhaji, the sagacity of the council was apparent in the unanimous decisions that they made: they wanted discipline to be restored in the army and therefore decided to reinstitute Shivaji’s regulations regarding plunder to be centrally deposited in the royal treasury; they initiated action to start rearming the forts, to strengthen their defences, and for all of them to be strongly garrisoned. More importantly, they decided to create a field army and place it under the command of Rajaram, while Yesubai and Shahu were to be safely ensconced inside the impregnable Raigarh fort.    

Rajaram – The Regent

Ever since the failed plot hatched by his mother and her family to place him on the throne on the death of Shivaji, Rajaram had been a ‘free’ prisoner in Raigarh, permitted to move around within the confines of the fort. Rajaram had grown into a young man with a commanding presence and was courteous to everyone. Having been in confinement for several years during the formative phase of his life, he had not picked up any vices. He had vigour and strength and a discerning mind that dealt with emerging challenges in a logical manner.

Rajaram accepted the Regency being offered to him in a speech to the council, parts of which have been preserved in antiquity for posterity. He started by asking the council that there should be no resentment against Sambhaji, nor any retribution to his followers. He requested that all loyalty be transferred to young Shahu and promised that he himself would remain a loyal servant of the young prince. He reminded the council that it was believed that the young prince was a reincarnation of the great king Shivaji Maharaj and then swore an oath to serve to prince loyally, all his life, an oath that he faithfully carried out.

Since Bijapur and Golconda had fallen and had been annexed to the Mughal Empire, Aurangzeb was now focusing on destroying the Marathas. The council felt that Rajaram was not safe in Raigarh or, for that matter, anywhere in the Deccan Maharashtra. It was decided that he was to be physically removed from Mughal proximity, at least for the time being. The Maratha defences were still in shambles, and it would require time to build them back to effectiveness. Accordingly, Rajaram left Raigarh with his two wives, made a quick trip to Pratapgarh to invoke the blessings of Goddess Bhavani, the family deity, and then paid homage at the sage Ramdas’s shrine. Ramdas had died in 1681. On the way he was well received by the people. However, the ‘pilgrimage’ was hurried since the entourage was in flight, moving steadily away from core Maratha country. There is a report that he inspected the forts along the way, effecting repairs and provisioning for them, which seems a far-fetched claim, since the Regent was being moved away from imminent danger as fast as possible.

An Alternative Narrative

A different version of the succession story is also available. This narrative states that a week or so after Sambhaji was captured, and nearly a month before his execution, the Brahmin ministers and other oligarchs brought Rajaram out of confinement and unanimously crowned him king in Raigarh. This story sort of corroborates the ill-feeling towards Sambhaji amongst the ministers, who did not make any attempt to rescue the captured king, either during his long trek to the Mughal court through Maratha country as a prisoner or after his incarceration.

If this story is correct, it would seem that the Brahmins in the court who had been ill-treated by Sambhaji were now exacting their revenge. Even though no rescue attempt were made, this interpretation of the crowning of Rajaram does not ring true, especially considering the subsequent actions by the Maratha council and generals.  

Whether Rajaram took over the kingdom as king or Regent, cannot be clearly established. However, he took charge of the kingdom either on the 8th or 18th February 1689. It was already clear that he would have no chance to rule over the Maratha kingdom.

The Mughal Offensive

With Sambhaji’s execution, Aurangzeb considered the conquest of Deccan complete. However, instead of going back to Delhi, he decided to stay on in the Deccan till such times as Raigarh, the Maratha capital, was captured. Accordingly, a large army was send to besiege and capture Raigarh. While this effort was on-going, Santaji Ghorpade, one of the two senior commanders of the Maratha army, devised a daring plan to take the fight to the Mughals. The forces available to him were numerically far inferior to the Mughals laying siege to Raigarh. Therefore, the intrepid general decided to once again resort to classic Maratha tactics—guerrilla warfare. Santaji carried out a night raid on Aurangzeb’s camp at Tulapur and attacked the emperor’s tent. Aurangzeb escaped only because he was sleeping in another tent that night. After creating sufficient chaos in the Mughal camp, Santaji joined Rajaram, who was by then in Panhala. Rajaram appointed Santaji Ghorpade the Senapati, commander-in-chief, of the Maratha army, to replace Hambir Rao Mohite who had died in battle about a year ago.

In October 1689, the Mughals stormed Raigarh and seized Sambhaji’s family, including Yesubai and the young Prince Shahu. 

A Story of Internal Treachery

After Raigarh had been placed under siege, the Mughal commander, Itikad Khan send a message to Yesubai that if she surrendered the fort, he would ensure her and the young prince’s safety. Yesubai was sceptical and unsure of the Khan’s intent and therefore made him swear on the Quran that he would keep his word and ensure their safety.

However, before she could act on any decision that she had made, she was pre-empted by the military commander of the fort, Suryaji Pisal, who send word to Itikad Khan that he would surrender the fort if he was made the ‘deshmukh’ of the province of Wai. The Khan accepted the offer, and the gates of the fort was thrown open. The Mughal forces occupied Raigarh on 19th October 1689.

Aurangzeb made Pisal convert to Islam before appointing him the Deshmukh of Wai. Itikad Khan, kept his word to the queen and ensured their safety while being taken into captivity.  

Maybe because of the influence of Itikad Khan, Aurangzeb was uncharacteristically courteous in his treatment of Yesubai and the young prince. He conferred the title ‘raja’ on the young prince and gave him the rank of 7000, two steps higher than what had been offered to his grandfather, the great Shivaji. However, Shahu remained a captive for 18 long years, till the death of Aurangzeb. It is reliably reported that Zinatunnisa, Aurangzeb’s unmarried daughter who was the first lady of the court after the death of Aurangzeb’s own sister, protected Yesubai and the young prince, proclaiming Shahu as her ‘adopted son’. She was also instrumental in persuading Aurangzeb to not insist of Shahu being converted to Islam.

Itikad Khan was suitably rewarded and then ordered to capture Panhala. The fort was gallantly defended by Ghatge of Kagal. However, since Santaji could not send him any reinforcements, he was asked to arrive at a negotiated peace with the Mughals. By this time Aurangzeb had personally joined the siege and Ghatge’s position was untenable. Aurangzeb offered to confirm Ghatge as the chief of Kagal, give him the title of Sarjerao and a position in the imperial staff. Aurangzeb was being gradually worn down by having to fight and overcome one fort at a time. Ghatge accepted the offer and surrendered Panhala, but only after sending his family and all the treasure to Ginji. This was a clear indication of his future plans to join the Maratha king.

Rajaram’s Escape

Rajaram was at Vishalgarh and knew that Aurangzeb would next target him. He decided to adopt the strategic plan that had been devised by Shivaji, to abandon Deccan Maharashtra and fall back into the Carnatic possessions. It was calculated that Ginji fort could be defended and if the Mughals attempted to besiege it, their lines of communications would be extended and could be interdicted. Further, plans were made to leave an army outside the fort to continue the on-going guerrilla warfare. One part of this army was to remain in the Deccan and organise resistance to Mughal occupation. This was essentially the strategic last-ditch plan conceived by Shivaji to cater for just the kind of eventuality that was transpiring.

Prahlad Niraji now took charge of the safety of the Regent, the de facto king. He had removed Rajaram from Panhala before the Mughal siege had commenced. He waited out the monsoon rains with just 300 escorts and then travelling as religious mendicants moved to Tamil country, reaching Ginji on 11th November 1689, after a hazardous journey of nearly seven months. Considering the initial fall of Raigarh and then Panhala, Prahlad Niraji must be credited with saving the fledgling Maratha kingdom. If Rajaram had not been moved safely to Ginji and a temporary capital set up there, the Maratha people and the kingdom would not have had a nucleus around which to coalesce and fight on. The possibility of the people scattering was very high, which was kept in check by the actions of this one loyal, brave and farsighted nobleman. The move of the Regent to Ginji was the low point after the creation of the kingdom by Shivaji Maharaj.

‘Thus by the end of the year 1689, Aurangzeb was the unrivalled lord paramount of Northern India and the Deccan alike. Adil Shah, Qutb Shah and Raja Sambhuji had all fallen and their dominions had been annexed to his empire.’

—Jadu Nath Sarkar,

History of Aurangzeb, Vol IV (1930), p. 484

Maratha Resurgence

Aurangzeb had hoped to break up Maratha unity by keeping Prince Shahu in custody and sowing the seeds of discord within the Maratha nobility through bribes and other inducements. Thus gradually, the strength of the Marathas would be diluted and dissipated. However, this did not eventuate because of two reasons—Rajaram’s steadfast loyalty to his nephew and Yesubai’s foresight and commitment to the Maratha cause. At a critical time in Maratha history, two people of exemplary character and unerring judgement were on hand to guide the kingdom.

From captivity in the Mughal court, Yesubai wrote to Rajaram to assume the kingship to ensure that the Maratha people always had a king, an important symbol of their independence. After considering the advice, Rajaram assumed royal insignia in Ginji, announcing that he would be king only for the duration of Prince Shahu being in captivity. He then turned to the administration of the disintegrating kingdom. Rajaram appointed a new Ashta-Pradhan, the council of eight ministers, with Nilo Moro Pingle, son of Moro Pingle, as the Peshwa and Santaji Ghorpade being reconfirmed as the Senapati, the commander-in-chief of the Maratha army. Prahlad Niraji, who had rendered such outstanding service to the kingdom, was installed as ‘pratinidhi’, the king’s representative in the council with equal status to the Peshwa, a newly created appointment.

Rajaram’s physical safety and his assumption of the throne provided a new impetus to the Maratha resistance, which had been flagging because of the incessant battering by the Mughals. Maratha commanders and minor chieftains loyal to Rajaram were divided between Ginji and the Deccan. During the chaotic rule Sambhaji, the countryside had been ravaged by groups of free-lancing Hindu soldiers disbanded from the Bijapur and Golconda armies, and also from the Mughal army itself on orders from a bigoted Aurangzeb. The practice had not stopped, but Santaji Ghorpade gradually brought these gangs under control, folding them into the regular Maratha army.

Aurangzeb was now in a dilemma. If he tarried in the Deccan, subjugating one fort at a time, Rajaram in Ginji would recuperate Maratha strength, conquer the rich, eastern seaboard and become invincible. Ginji in turn would be impregnable. On the other hand, if he moved to besiege Ginji, the Deccan was certain to go up in flames, ignited by the Maratha forces still operating in the region. Faced with two unsavoury choices, Aurangzeb decided to continue the fort-by-fort subjugation of the Deccan. At the same time, he sent a small force to contain and keep Rajaram under check, till he could personally engage the Maratha king. The strategy may have worked but for the actions of the Maratha commanders. Prahlad Niraji counselled Santaji Ghorpade and Dhanaji Yadav to rapidly raise and ready an army, which attacked and destroyed the Mughal forces sent to contain Rajaram within Ginji.

For nearly a year after Sambhaji’s execution, the Marathas were relatively quiet, observing, calculating and biding their time. Then they erupted. Since Aurangzeb had managed to almost neutralise central Maratha leadership, there was a breakdown of central control that had been imposed by the Maratha kingdom. The flames that erupted now were fuelled by the inherent predatory tendencies of the Marathas and fed by myriad small-time chieftains. The common people started to own the battles and skirmishes, since they were fighting under minor chieftains for limited objectives.

Aurangzeb and the Mughals were completely baffled since they had never come across such a phenomenon. Here was a kingdom and a dynasty that had been comprehensively defeated in repeated battles; its king captured and executed; its capital overrun; its prince imprisoned; and its army scattered. However, the scattered army came together rapidly and continued to fight ferociously before once again vanishing into the wilderness. They had no interest in defeating the fielded forces of the Mughals, but only in plunder and killing as many soldiers as possible before fleeing. The Marathas did not have a recognisable centre of gravity for the Mughals to attack and after the fall of their capital no main base that could be targeted. Gradually the Mughal army was reduced to chasing phantoms in all directions, going round in ever widening and contracting circles with no set aim.

Rajaram now felt sufficiently in control of the situation to send for both his wives to join him in Ginji. They came by sea to the eastern coast and then travelled to Ginji, since the inland Peninsula was far too dangerous even for the royal family to traverse. In 1691, the elder wife Tarabai gave birth to a son named Shivaji and in 1693, the younger queen Rajasbai gave birth to another son called Sambhaji.

Aurangzeb continued his Deccan campaign, hindered at every step by Maratha light cavalry and auxiliary levies. However, he managed to capture Sinhgarh and Purandar forts at great cost in materiel and personnel. To strengthen the opposition in the Deccan, Rajaram send both his senior commanders—Santaji Ghorpade and Dhanaji Yadav—to Maharashtra, since there was no immediate Mughal threat to Ginji. Santaji surprised the Mughal garrison at Wai and captured it and followed up by taking the Miraj fort. Rajaram adopted a process that Babur had put in place immediately after winning the Battle of Panipat in 1526. He granted large tracts of land, which had been part of the great king Shivaji’s kingdom but were now under Mughal control, to deserving Maratha nobles with the injunction to recapture them. This encouraged the nobles to equip troops at their own expenses and capture at least some part of their grants, leading to the establishment of Maratha strongholds within the spread of Mughal country in the Peninsula and the Deccan. Very soon Maratha nobles were seen to be controlling tracts in the erstwhile Golconda kingdom, Khandesh, South Gujarat, the valley of Patan, the River Godavari valley and the western hill territory.

Mughal Reaction

With the Maratha opposition to Mughal occupation increasing in its ferocity, regularity and spread, Aurangzeb rather belatedly realised a fundamental fact. As long as a member of Shivaji Bhonsle’s family assumed the role of king, even if it was in a nominal fashion, conquering the Marathas would be an impossible task. As a shrewd tactician he knew that Ginji had to be captured and Rajaram captured or killed. He now send a large force under the command of Zulfiqar Khan to besiege Ginji, the de facto Maratha capital. The Mughal forces arrived and camped around Ginji, in no hurry to either besiege or storm the town and fort.

Zulfiqar was the epitome of a Mughal nobleman of the time. He was a competent general and personally brave. However, like all other noblemen, he preferred to be a field commander where he wielded enormous power rather than be in the royal court where he was yet another of the emperor’s flunkeys of no great consequence. Further, the income from the plunder of the countryside was an additional incentive to drag on a campaign as much as possible. In this case, Zulfiqar realised after an initial survey that his force was not large enough to storm Ginji and that the fort could not be battered down by siege artillery.

Zulfiqar Khan, like others of his ilk, was ambitious if anything. He was also pragmatic. The Mughal commander arrived at a pact with the Marathas in Ginji to avoid any real fighting, to ensure there were no unnecessary casualties. Zulfiqar also had an ulterior motive to avoid fighting the Marathas. He had plans to set himself up as the ruler of an independent principality as soon as the aged emperor died, which seemed to be a possibility sooner rather than later. Rajaram accepted this clandestine covenant since it permitted him to send more troops to the Deccan.

Here it is necessary to mention that if the Mughal nobles were working at cross purposes to the emperor to establish their own independent positions, the Marathas were also not as united as one would have hoped. There was widespread dissention in the Maratha ranks, with every minor commander assuming the title of ‘sardar’ and initiating plundering raids on their own accord. Equally important was the fact that some senior Maratha clans—prime examples being the Jadhav clan, Shivaji’s mother Jijabai’s family; and the Shirke family, Rajaram’s mother Soyarabai’s family—fought on the side of the Mughals during this critical period. Even amongst the senior commanders loyal to the king, there was no unity, each nurturing their own egos and being extremely touchy about their individual ‘status’ and ‘protocol’. Prahlad Niraji, one of the most mature, sagacious and respected leaders of the Marathas, made great efforts to enforce central authority but was able to achieve only a tenuous unity. With his death the subdued tensions between the senior commanders came out in the open. The most destructive of these squabbles and feuds was the long-standing rivalry between Santaji Ghorpade and Dhanaji Yadav.

The Siege of Ginji

Aurangzeb was impatient to finish the Deccan–South Indian campaign and was unhappy with the lack of progress in the siege of Ginji under Zulfiqar. In 1693, he placed his youngest son, Prince Kam Baksh, as the commander and asked Zulfiqar Khan to be his second-in-command. This slight infuriated Zulfiqar, who outwardly accepted the demotion, but made life extremely difficult for the inexperienced Kam Baksh. The siege made no progress and dragged on through 1695. Even from within the fort, the swift moving Maratha cavalry dominated the surrounding countryside by making numerous sorties outside. At the same time, the Maratha army in the Deccan decided to raise the siege of Ginji. Santaji Ghorpade, ranging across the Deccan started to capture isolated Mughal garrisons spread across the Deccan.

Aurangzeb send Asad Khan, his Prime Minister and Zulfiqar’s father, to assess the reason for the non-progress of the Ginji siege. Father and son discovered a supposed plot. A report states that they discovered that Kam Baksh was in secret communications with Rajaram who had promised him Maratha support to become the emperor on Aurangzeb’s death. Prince Kam Baksh was promptly imprisoned by Zulfiqar. However, the Mughal army, greatly diminished after years of besieging the fort, was forced to sue for peace. Rajaram promised safe passage for the Mughal army to withdraw, perhaps hoping that this gesture would prompt Aurangzeb to release Shahu from prison. However, Aurangzeb was indignant at the peace treaty and immediately broke it, asking Zulfiqar to renew the siege and sending him reinforcements.

Skirmishes with Ghorpade’s guerrilla’s continued unabated, but now Zulfiqar took the siege seriously. With the additional resources under his command, and being a decidedly superior military commander, Zulfiqar pushed ahead forcefully with the siege activities. Santaji, unable to cope with this new initiative moved away to the southern provinces of the erstwhile Bijapur kingdom. In that region, he won two important and decisive victories—one, he defeated a large Mughal force under the command of Kasim Khan after a month-long siege of the Dundheri fort; and two, another large force under Himmat Khan was defeated and put to flight. Buoyed by these victories, Santaji decided to relieve Ginji. However, Zulfiqar met the Maratha forces a few miles to the north of Ginji and inflicted a severe defeat on the Ghorpade forces.

The siege of Ginji was now serious and Zulfiqar was strict about his activities, gone was the easy-going attitude. Aurangzeb was pressuring him to overrun Ginji, which now seemed inevitable. With the tacit approval of Zulfiqar and the active assistance of the Shirke family in service with the Mughals, Rajaram was spirited out of Ginji and escorted to Vellore by Dhanaji Yadav. In December 1697, he was taken to Vishalgarh. On 8th January 1698, Ginji surrendered to Zulfiqar Khan.

The siege had taken nearly eight years to complete and a large amount of resources and manpower had been expended. Of note was the fact that the Maratha forces had repeatedly demonstrated that they were equal to or even superior in capabilities to the Mughal army, which had so far been considered ‘invincible’. The deterioration of Mughal capabilities was laid bare in Ginji. The other fact was that the Maratha sanctuary made of a long line of garrisoned forts, conceived by the great Shivaji Maharaj to cater for just such an eventuality had done its work. The Mughals had taken Ginji, but they were now stretched to breaking point, although Aurangzeb does not seem to have realised the precariousness of his situation.

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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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