The Marathas Part 9 Triumph of the Marathas

Canberra, 16 October 2021

Sambhaji’s brutal execution and Rajaram’s hurried flight to Ginji were events that severely shocked the Maratha psyche. However, the Marathas are one of the most resilient of peoples, oriented towards action and therefore, the despondency did not linger for long. In May 1690 a combined Maratha army, commanded by many military leaders as a sort of confederacy, defeated a Mughal army commanded by Sharza Khan near Satara and captured him. From this victory, the Marathas never looked back, even when faced with defeat and flight as in Ginji eight years later. However, unity eluded the Marathas and the in-fighting between senior military commanders, especially between Santaji Ghorpade and Dhanaji Yadav, which bordered on the civil war, continued to weaken Maratha strength, dissipate their focus and provide respite to the harried Mughal forces.

The Warring Generals

Santaji Ghorpade, who had been made the Senapati, was a military genius and an unrivalled master of guerrilla warfare, who terrorised the Mughal forces. No Mughal general wanted to face him in battle because of the surety of defeat. Santaji was renowned for his meticulous planning of each encounter, leaving no chance for failure, relying on precise timing and coordination to achieve certain victory. Success in such circumstances demanded central control and instant obedience by the rank and file. As a result, Santaji was a ruthless disciplinarian. While enforcing discipline may have been acceptable considering his successes, he had certain other character flaws. He was arrogant, hot-tempered and an egomaniacal dictator, who was intensely disliked by his soldiers. Although nobody liked him, all stood in awe of his military genius.

Dhanaji Yadav was the great-grandson of Shivaji’s maternal uncle and was suave, gracious, courteous and generous. He was also a good military commander, brave and calculating, but not in the same league as Santaji. He was a lesser general, but a greater human being, well liked by the Maratha forces. The two generals were at logger heads and had been vying for the position of the Senapati, when Rajaram appointed Santaji as the commander-in-chief. This did not stop the personal feud. Prahlad Niraji had managed to contain the animosity between the two top generals and make them work in tandem, but on his death, their mutual dislike spilled out in the open.

The two factions fought a battle near Satara in 1697, where Santaji was defeated and his forces abandoned him, mainly because of his insolence and ill-treatment of the soldiers. He fled the battlefield, almost alone, but was followed and murdered in June of the same year.      

Santaji Ghorpade’s death was a great loss to the overall Maratha military command—for seven long years he had been the scourge of the Mughal forces, never giving an inch.

Aurangzeb’s Folly

If Aurangzeb had not been such an obstinate bigot, he would have made peace with the Marathas after the fall of Ginji, when they were at a low ebb, and returned to Delhi claiming victory in an oblique manner. At that stage in the war, it is also certain that Rajaram would have accepted a negotiated peace. Further, the regions of North and Central India were erupting in rebellion and Aurangzeb’s presence there had become an absolute necessity to stabilise the volatile region. The empire was teetering on the edge of collapse and fragmentation. The long Deccan campaign had drained the empire of its great wealth and the flower of its brilliant military commanders had been squandered in the wilderness of the Western Ghats, its untamed hills and trackless forests. 

In 1698, when Ginji fell to the Mughals, Aurangzeb was 79 years old, living on borrowed time, relative to the life-expectancy of the time. Physically, and mentally, he was unfit to lead the arduous Maratha campaign that he was planning to unleash in the Deccan. His Prime Minster, Asad Khan, advised and urged the emperor to end the war with the Marathas in an honourable manner and return to Delhi, where other challenges to the well-being of the Empire loomed large. However, the royal court was controlled by a lobby of militarist generals who personally benefitted from the on-going war through the great profits from military contracts. They urged the emperor to continue his conquering march to get rid of the infidels from the sub-continent, sweeping them into the sea. They manipulated his ego, emphasising that loosing sight of this was his ‘God-given’ objective would be a sacrilege.

Aurangzeb was nobody’s fool, even in his old age, and must have realised the ulterior motive of the military chiefs egging him on. However, deeply embedded bigotry and unending ambition combined to make him decide in favour of continuing the campaign to conquer South India and annihilate the Marathas, who were disunited and definitely on the backfoot. The emperor decided to start the campaign by subjugating western Deccan, the Maratha homeland. His strategy was to capture the Maratha forts one-by-one, drive the soldiers into the plains and then utilise his numerical and materiel superiority to overwhelm them. The concept was worthy of the tactical ingenuity of a younger Aurangzeb—but it was conceived too late; the Mughal army had lost the chutzpah necessary to implement it effectively, in a manner that would lead on to victory.

The Mughal army was now only a shadow of its former robust mass, depleted by death, disease and desertion, with sagging morale and numerically almost equal to the Maratha army. The concept required fortresses that were captured to be garrisoned by Mughal forces, which meant that the number of soldiers available to lay siege to and assault the next fort was reduced. Even if the reduction in numbers were only a few hundred, the overall size of the Mughal army had come down to an extent that even the loss of a few hundred soldiers was noticeable. The end result was that the forts that were captured with great effort with accompanying loss of life and resources, would often be back in Maratha hands even before the next fort fell.

Marathas Seize the Initiative

Rajaram called a council of war of his senior officers in Satara, which was his residence now and therefore the de facto capital. He had managed to keep the Maratha hopes alive by avoiding capture in the immediate aftermath of Sambhaji’s execution and then arriving at Satara in Maratha heartland when Ginji fell to the Mughals. Rajaram conceived a counter-strategy: he would fight the Mughals for every fort, but withdraw before excessive casualties and damage were inflicted on his forces; at the same time the Maratha cavalry would continue their campaign of harassment and interdiction of Mughal forces. He also now decided to send the Maratha cavalry to raid and plunder Mughal territories to the north—in effect, while the Mughals were trying to destroy his country, he would do the same to the Mughal territories.

In 1699, disaster struck the Mughal forces. For some years now Aurangzeb had established his headquarters at Brahmapuri on the banks of the River Bhima. In 1699, the monsoon rains were particularly heavy, River Bhima rose high and overflowed its banks sweeping away large parts of the unprepared Mughal camp, with immense loss of life, war-animals and materiel. While the Mughal camp was recouping from this disaster, the Marathas launched their counter-offensive. The Maratha army was under their new Senapati, commander-in-chief Dhanaji Yadav, and numbered in excess of 60,000 soldiers. They moved towards the valley of River Godavari, easily overwhelming the Mughal garrisons enroute. Rajaram attacked, sacked and burned Jalna and then entered the Godavari valley. He then plundered Paithan and Bhid, townships on the banks of the river, and then enforced Chauth and Sardeshmukhi on the provinces before moving on to Khandesh and Berar.

Although they plundered and pillaged to a certain degree, this time around, the Marathas did not come as mere raiders in search of loot. Rajaram set up military districts with administrative infrastructure to provide protection to the local people and to establish Maratha sovereignty. As an aside, one of the first mention of the great house of Scindia dates to around this time. It is reported that Nemaji Scindia was made the governor of the captured regions of Khandesh. Nemaji Scindia subsequently won a battle near Nandarbar, about 80 miles east of Surat, defeating a Mughal force commanded by Hussein Ali Khan who was captured and was later ransomed.

Mughals Capture Satara

Meanwhile Aurangzeb had continued with his new campaign to capture Maratha forts. In October 1699, he took Vasantgarh, situated at the confluence of the Rivers Krishna and Koyna and then made a feint towards Panhala. He then turned away from Panhala and moved towards Satara, the de facto capital of the Marathas. On 8th December 1699, Aurangzeb pitched camp at Karanja and the Mughal army laid siege to Satara fort. The siege was pressed home with utmost vigour and resisted by an equally strong defence.

The fort was only provisioned for two months and would not have been able to withstand a severe siege. A senior Maratha commander, Parshuram Trimbak, managed to bribe the emperor’s son Azim Shah, to permit convoys of food and ammunition to pass into the fort. At the same time, the Maratha cavalry was denying provisions to the besieging army. Aurangzeb attempted to breach the fort wall with explosives. However, the explosives were wrongly laid and the explosions, incorrectly controlled, destroyed the Mughal storming party standing by in readiness, instead of destroying the walls.

Azim Shah’s activities were reported to the emperor, and he was suitably reprimanded. With that the provisions coming into the fort stopped and the defenders were forced to open negotiations. The fort finally surrendered on 21st April 1700, after holding out for nearly six months. Satara fort was surrendered as the monsoon rains were setting in and thereby delayed Aurangzeb’s plan to reduce the Maratha forts of western Deccan during the dry season.

A Regent’s Death and the Aftermath

After successfully plundering the valley of River Godavari and then appointing a Maratha governor, Rajaram decided to stop further eastward advances to ensure that his lines of communication would not become overextended and thus vulnerable. As the Marathas were turning around, Zulfiqar Khan arrived with an army to intercept them and inflicted a heavy defeat on the Maratha force. Zulfiqar Khan, one of the ablest Mughal commanders of the time, had already defeated Dhanaji Yadav and forced his army out of the South-Eastern Peninsula. He had moved north-west from there to intercept Rajaram.

Rajaram was now forced to fall back towards Sinhgarh, pursued by the Mughal forces. Harried throughout this fighting withdrawal, Rajaram managed to reach Sinhgarh after fighting a fierce rear-guard action for almost 50 miles. The Maratha forces were almost completely decimated, but Rajaram’s extraordinary courage and leadership had kept the core group fighting throughout. Earlier, while at Ginji, Rajaram had contracted a lung disease. The strain of the extended campaign and the fighting retreat now aggravated his condition. He started having high fever and was also haemorrhaging and knew that his end was near. Rajaram gathered his council of ministers and exhorted them to continue fighting the Mughals till Prince Shahu was freed and the Mughals were driven out of Maharashtra. The Regent/King died on 5th March 1700.

Rajaram was a prince of implacable temper and generous to a fault, while being completely loyal to his nephew, who he considered the legitimate king, although Shahu had been in Mughal custody from boyhood. Rajaram left behind two sons, Shivaji from Tarabai and Sambhaji from Rajasbai, and a daughter, Soyarabai, from his deceased first wife. The third surviving wife, Ambikabai, was childless and committed sati on Rajaram’s death.

It seemed likely that the Marathas would succumb to a civil war of succession on Rajaram’s death, since both the queens made claims on the throne for their respective sons. However, Tarabai had a genius for diplomacy, administration and even military matters and with spirited craftiness saved the day, taking charge of Maratha destiny at a critical juncture in its history. Tarabai, who had claimed the throne on behalf of her son Shivaji, brushed aside the protest of a group of nobles who claimed that Shahu was the rightful king, and had her infant son crowned in early 1701. She herself assumed the position of Regent. Immediately after the coronation, she reduced the ranks of the nobles who had opposed her and placed Rajasbai and her son in prison. Even though no serious civil strife is reported after Rajaram’s death associated with the succession, it is obvious that there was a dispute and for some time the fate of the Maratha kingdom hung in the balance. This is confirmed by the fact there is a long 10-month gap between Rajaram’s untimely demise and the official succession of his son Shivaji to the throne.

Mughal Advances

With senile obstinacy, Aurangzeb continued pursuing his strategy of besieging and personally capturing Maratha forts one after the other. By now it was obvious that even though forts were being captured, the campaign would not be won since at the fall of one fort, the Marathas recaptured another that had fallen earlier. While the Marathas continued their guerrilla warfare unabated, they also adopted an innovative strategy devised by Parshuram Trimbak that stemmed from the siege of Satara. The strategy was to ensure that any fort that were besieged would try its utmost to withstand the siege till the onset of the monsoon rains. The torrential rains were more damaging to the besieging forces in the open than to the garrison in the fort, who would make good their escape at an opportune moment. They would come back to recapture the fort when the main body of Mughal forces had moved on to another objective. By delaying the surrender of each fort, the Marathas were delaying the progress of the already ponderous Mughal campaign.

The Panhala fort played out a typical such encounter. The fort had been surrendered by Ghatge, as mentioned earlier, and then retaken by Trimbak. Aurangzeb again laid siege to the fort. Dhanaji, ranging outside the fort with his cavalry harassed the besieging force at every opportunity, while the garrison inflicted maximum loss on the besieging army, resisting for two months. Then they cut their way through the besieging forces on 28th May 1701, as the monsoon rains were setting in, and made their escape leaving an empty fort for the emperor to ‘capture’. Similarly, Vishalgarh garrisoned by Trimbak in December 1701, held out till June 1702, when a few hillmen surrendered the fort to the Mughals while the main Maratha force had already made their escape. The capture of Vishalgarh was expensive for the Mughals in both blood and treasure.

Aurangzeb rested his forces for the monsoon of 1702 and moved to Pune. There he established the siege of Sinhgarh, which fell in April 1703 after nearly four months of resistance. However, the fall of Sinhgarh cannot be counted as a Maratha defeat. The Maratha commandant of the fort had to be given a purse of money and permitted to march out with honours of war, for him to accept the hand over. The Mughal war machine had lost its fighting edge, it had to purchase nominal victories even with the emperor himself in command of the forces.

Aurangzeb continued in Pune for the monsoon season of 1703. He then captured Raigarh on 16th February 1704 and Torna by assault in end-March 1704. At this stage Aurangzeb was in possession of the main Maratha strongholds but was further than ever from conquering the Maratha people. On Rajaram’s death Aurangzeb had boasted that he would crush the great king Shivaji Bhonsle’s house into oblivion since only two infants remained to be dealt with. However, Rajaram’s death in no way weakened the Maratha government, its military or the resistance.

Tarabai – The Regent

From the time of the coronation of her infant son, Tarabai had been acting as the Regent. She was energetic and vigorous, having inherited her father Hambir Rao Mohite’s military talents and diplomatic acumen. As the Regent she travelled from fort to fort and from military camp to camp, sharing the hardships of the common troopers, many times even sleeping on the ground. She was tireless in encouraging military commanders and assisting in planning campaigns. Although in medieval times, it was unusual, and a novelty, for women to accompany marauding forces, the soldiers welcomed Tarabai’s presence. Her vision for the future of the kingdom was clear and steadfast and her judgement unerring; in the battlefield she was brave and gallant, while in council she was sagacious.

Almost single-handedly Tarabai took hold of a faltering and somewhat ineffective Maratha counter-offensive against the Mughals and turned it into an unstoppable torrent, directly threatening the heart of the Mughal Empire. The Mughal provinces towards the northern Deccan had been denuded of effective troops, since the majority had been withdrawn to reinforce the ‘grand’ army in the field being commanded by the emperor himself. The local Mughal administration was in no state to offer any significant resistance. Perceiving a great opportunity, Tarabai ordered the Maratha forces to cease being marauding raiders but to become conquering forces, annexing the provinces, collecting taxes and establishing permanent administrative machinery. These were first steps towards rebuilding Maratha sovereignty. Tarabai’s farsighted vision was one of the foundational stones upon which the great Maratha kingdom started to be built.

Maratha Ascendancy

In 1705, two Maratha armies simultaneously crossed the River Narmada. The first, commanded by Nemaji Scindia, crossed the Vindhya Mountain ranges and ravaged Central India up to a place called Seronj, about 50 miles from Bhopal. The second, led by Khanderao Dabhade, turned from attacking Surat and Broach and threatened the entire Gujarat region. A Mughal army was sent from Ahmadabad to push the Marathas back, but they were defeated by Dabhade, who went on to plunder the region all the way to Ahmadabad.

After 20 years of continuous war, the Mughal forces in the Deccan—once considered the best army in the world—had become worn out by attrition and the constant guerrilla attacks by the Marathas. They had been brought low by a thousand cuts. Their dash, elan and steadfast performance had been overtaken by slackness, disorganisation and dismay—the Mughal spirit had been broken. Further, the much-vaunted Mughal administration of Akbar had given way to indifference and dissolved into ineffectiveness. The administrative machinery was apparent only in the small area surrounding the headquarters that Aurangzeb established in various places through the campaign. It was a small bubble that surrounded the emperor wherever he went.   

The Mughal emperor now employed the good offices of his youngest and favourite son, Kam Baksh, recently released from imprisonment to open peace negotiations with Dhanaji Yadav. Dhanaji laid out two preconditions to initiating negotiations; first was the unconditional release of Prince Shahu and second, granting the Maratha administration the right to levy Chauth in the whole of Maharashtra and the southern provinces of the Deccan. This demand itself demonstrates the changed power equation in the Peninsula, the Marathas could dictate terms to the Mughals, a situation that would have been unimaginable even a decade earlier. Even so, Aurangzeb was inclined to agree to the preconditions but his natural distrust of everyone came in the way. He now suspected Kam Baksh of being treacherous and wanting to join Shahu and the Marathas to usurp the Mughal throne. Aurangzeb, therefore, called off the negotiations and dismissed the Maratha envoys who had already reached his court.

Still pursuing his ambition of conquering the entire Peninsula and egged on by opportunistic military advisers who continued to stoke his monumental and bigoted ego as the saviour of Islam in the sub-continent, Aurangzeb set out to lay siege to Wakinkera (Wakinkheden), a fort held by the tribe called Berads near Sagar at the confluence of the Rivers Bhima and Krishna. Thus, in April 1705, the Mughal emperor left Deccan proper to conquer and inconsequential fort belonging to an obscure hill tribe, in a fit of obstinacy and cantankerous spite. Reasoned and logical action had become a rarity in the imperial Mughal court.

The Marathas were overjoyed with this development. Tarabai immediately directed the generals to retake as many of the Deccan forts as possible. As an immediate measure, Tarabai deputed a dedicated force to harass the Mughal forces besieging Wakinkera. Panhala and Pawangarh were retaken by bribing the Mughal garrison commanders; Satara was stormed and Parali conquered; while simultaneously Sinhgarh, Raigarh and Torna were recaptured by Maratha forces. Aurangzeb brought in reinforcements and Wakinkera was captured on 27th April 1705. However, the Berad chief had already decamped with all the treasure, leaving an empty fort behind for the Mughal emperor to seize. In order to capture an obscure and strategically inconsequential fort, Aurangzeb had let the Marathas re-take the crucial Maratha forts of Satara, Parali, Panhala, Raigarh, Sinhgarh and Torna, the initial siege and capture of which had decimated the Mughal army. Aurangzeb’s unfathomable and egotistic obstinacy in ‘winning’ had brought the great Mughal army to defeat and to its knees in the far south-east of the Deccan.

In his heart, Aurangzeb a visibly old man now, knew that he was beaten. The loss of the Maratha forts and with them the effective control of the country preyed on his mind continually. Camped at Devapur on the banks of the River Krishna—a place he did not even attempt to rename with an Islamic name as was his custom—Aurangzeb fell ill and was laid up for more than a fortnight. On recovery he decided to retreat to Ahmednagar, attempting to plan an orderly move.

An Emperor Dies … and … A Prince is Freed

Aurangzeb’s prime concern now was to withdraw with minimum further damage to his ragged army. In order to allay the impression that the Mughals were affecting a final withdrawal from the Deccan, Zulfiqar was asked to recapture Sinhgarh, which was duly achieved. However, as soon as Zulfiqar left to re-join the main body of the retreating Mughal army, the Marathas took back the fort. The Mughal forces were harried by Maratha cavalry every day in the long journey from Bahadurpur to Ahmednagar, the rear-guard was destroyed repeatedly and the emperor’s own baggage train captured. Aurangzeb finally reached the safety of Ahmednagar with the remnants of his army in January 1707, after wandering the Deccan for 21 years.

Aurangzeb was a broken man—his once great army decimated, his treasury empty even after so many ‘victories’, his administration bereft of all power—knowing that his sons were waiting for his death to start the power struggle for succession. Fully surrounded by the Maratha army, even Ahmednagar was a precarious citadel. Minor efforts by Zulfiqar and Iklas Khan to revive the Mughal fortunes met with only indifferent success, if that. Aurangzeb fell ill on 15th February and died on 3rd March 1707, aged 89 years. The emperor was the classic example of a human being driven by ruthless, but prejudiced, ambition who saw his life’s effort being blown away in front of his eyes—turning overnight into a lonely old man. Even before his death, his three surviving sons had started to manoeuvre to usurp the throne, an event that the old man had dreaded throughout his life.

Other than for his blind religious faith, which was also fully bigoted, there is nothing good to be said about Aurangzeb, especially from a point of view of providing a narrative of Maratha history. His personal and official conduct in dealing with both Shivaji and Sambhaji was treacherous, cruel, stained with inhuman actions and perfidy. The limited kindness he displayed towards Shahu, the young prince in his custody, was the result of purely expeditious political cunning rather than genuine humaneness. On Aurangzeb’s death, Shahu was immediately released to ensure that the Marathas would stay away from the evolving succession struggle for the Mughal throne. Although not as vicious as in the case of Aurangzeb coming to the throne, his sons entered an intense succession struggle. It took almost a year for Shah Alam, with the regnal title Bahadur Shah, to assume the throne in February 1708.

Tarabai used the lull in Mughal activity in the Deccan to increase Maratha territorial holdings. Dhanaji defeated the Mughal commanders at Pune and Chakan. Further planned initiatives had to be shelved because of Shahu’s release and return to the Deccan after a lengthy incarceration in the Mughal court. He had promised Azim Shah, one of the brothers contending the Mughal throne, that he would rule the Deccan as a Mughal vassal as a precondition for being released. With Shahu’s arrival in the Deccan another succession struggle started to gather momentum in the Maratha political sphere.

State of the Maratha Kingdom

By the time Bahadur Shah came to power, the Maratha kingdom had spread. Every village and pargana from the River Narmada southwards, through the entire Deccan and further south into Tamil country was controlled by the Marathas. However, central control was very informal. Tarabai as the Regent only provided general directions to the ministers. What emerged over time was a loose-knit military confederacy, linked to the central authority and deriving part of their legitimacy from it, but not controlled by it. The military system established by Shivaji—of a central army commanded and manned by salaried officers and troops paid centrally—had vanished completely. Maratha military commanders now supported themselves through opportunistic plunder, paying a small amount to the nominal king at their discretion.

Two gradual changes in the overall Maratha polity became noticeable at this stage. First was that military commanders started to transition from being oriented towards pure plunder to conquest; they did not raid, gather wealth and flee, but stayed and started to establish administrative mechanisms—a clear indication of their intent to become the rulers. This trend inexorably replaced the Mughal officers as the authority for levying taxes and collecting revenue. The second was the change in Maratha military tactics. The Maratha force did not rely on hit and run guerrilla tactics anymore. They faced the Mughal forces in pitched battles and by now it was the Mughal forces that scattered and ran in battle. Inevitably, the military initiative shifted in favour of the Marathas—they could dictate the time, place and type of encounter to be fought. In turn, this development necessitated radical changes in the Maratha military organisation and its equipment. The Marathas now created regular military formations, as opposed to their earlier light cavalry forces fitted for quick attack and a rapid getaway. The Maratha army was now moving around the countryside with confidence—for they owned the region.

The Marathas had arrived as a force to be reckoned with in the Indian sub-continent, permanently.   

© [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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