The Marathas Part 10 The Mughal – Maratha Hopscotch

Canberra, 25 October 2021


During his long tenures as the viceroy of the Deccan during his father’s reign, and subsequently as the emperor, Aurangzeb had felt the deep-seated mistrust of the Deccan kingdoms towards the Mughals. In the two decades that he had been away from the Deccan, initially during the war of succession and thereafter stabilising the empire from Delhi and Agra, Maratha power had increased exponentially. While the Mughal civil war was being waged in North India, Shivaji had conquered Purandar, Panhala and Adil Shahi territories in the Konkan coast. Maratha control of the Konkan coast was one of the contributory factors in the disruption of Bijapur’s commercial activities and the subsequent decline in its prosperity.

Aurangzeb had always been an astute observer of potential adversaries and friends. As the viceroy he had recognised Shivaji’s aggressive attitude, although the Maratha chief had not yet taken any steps against the Mughals as such. He understood that Shivaji’s future activities would disrupt the fragile peace of the Deccan. Aurangzeb had tried to negotiate an alliance with Shivaji while battling Bijapur and he had confirmed his impression regarding Shivaji’s ambitions. He confirmed that the Maratha chief wanted to increase his territorial holdings and craved legitimacy for himself. As part of the negotiations Shivaji had demanded possession of all the forts already controlled by the Marathas and the Bijapur territories of the Konkan coast. The demand for the Konkan coast was unacceptable to Aurangzeb, who had recognised the importance of the region to continuing foreign trade, especially after Goa had been captured by the Portuguese.

Aurangzeb’s attitude towards the Deccan varied greatly between the time he was the viceroy and after he became the emperor. As the viceroy he had planned to annex the entire Deccan, whereas in the early years as the emperor he adopted a more cautious approach of limited offensive. His demands after becoming emperor were for the Adil Shah to hand over all Nizam Shahi territory in his possession, to oust Shivaji from any Mughal territory that he may have usurped, and to move Shivaji from the Mughal frontiers. Aurangzeb’s Deccan policy as the emperor could be divided into three distinct phases—Raja Jai Singh’s tenure; the changing alternatives; and Aurangzeb’s personal command.

First Phase – Raja Jai Singh’s Tenure

Raja Jai Singh was an accomplished diplomat as well as a military commander of note. He decided to adopt a divide and rule policy to neutralise Bijapur and contain Shivaji. He wanted to keep Bijapur as an ally to fight Shivaji, while not ceding any benefit of consequence to the Adil Shah. At the same time, he continued a diplomatic offensive on the Maratha chief that bore fruit a few years later. In 1664, he concluded the Treaty of Purandar with Shivaji according to which Shivaji was forced to return 23 of the 35 forts that he controlled in Mughal territory. Further, he ceded territory to the Mughals, and was compensated by equivalent territory in the south, carved off Bijapur’s southern holdings. The treaty also envisaged a joint Mughal-Maratha campaign against Bijapur.

Aurangzeb on the other hand had slightly different ideas from that of his Deccan commander and did not want to compensate Shivaji for the surrender of either the forts or the territories being handed over. Jai Singh had organised Shivaji’s trip to Agra to be presented to the emperor with the ultimate aim of making him a Mughal ally. However, the entire plan backfired because of Aurangzeb’s recalcitrant attitude towards any reconciliation with the Maratha chief. Further, he was not supportive of any compensation being given to Shivaji at the expense of a Muslim kingdom, in this instance the Adil Shahi kingdom of Bijapur. The emperor and his local commander viewed the solution to the Deccan challenge through different prisms. Jai Singh considered the primary objective of the Mughal offensive into the Deccan to be the eventual annexation of Bijapur and Golconda. He was building a strategy to achieve this end-state wherein Shivaji was an essential, if not pivotal, ally. Aurangzeb on the other hand was ambivalent about who was allied with him as long as Mughal interests were safeguarded and achieved. He was notorious for the lackadaisical manner in which he treated his ‘allies’ after they had served their usefulness.

Moreover, in the initial decade of his reign, Aurangzeb seemed to be content with taking over all Nizam Shahi territories and was inclined to limit the Mughal advance into the Deccan. He may even have let Bijapur and Golconda continue as vassal states, if circumstances had connived to make such a situation come to pass. In these years Aurangzeb continued to remain detached from dealing with the Marathas, seemingly unsure about how to deal with the ‘rebel’ Shivaji. However, it is seen from available records that the emperor considered Shivaji unreliable and ambitious and therefore not conducive to building a stable bilateral relationship. Further, deep in his bigoted heart Aurangzeb could not bring himself to align with an ‘infidel’ on a semi-permanent basis. The irony that Aurangzeb, and through him the Mughal entity, was also an unreliable ally, especially for the Rajputs and the Deccan kingdoms, seems to have been lost on the self-centred emperor. Aurangzeb’s less than complimentary assessment of Shivaji was the reason for the debacle of the Maratha chief’s visit to the royal court in Agra.

Second Phase – Changing Alternatives

Till the death of Ali Adil Shah of Bijapur in 1672, the Mughals undertook only limited activities in the lower Deccan. Strategic inactivity had so far suited the Mughal policy of limiting the advance into the Peninsula. With the death of the Adil Shah and the accession of the boy-king Sikandar to the throne in 1672, the internal dissentions within Bijapur bubbled out and the geo-strategic circumstances deteriorated rapidly. The internal decay of a decadent dynasty was thrown open for public view. Ever the opportunist, Aurangzeb recalibrated his Deccan policy alternatives.

After the fiasco of Shivaji’s visit, imprisonment and escape from Agra, Raja Jai Sing had been ignominiously removed from command of the Deccan campaign. In 1673, Aurangzeb appointed Bahadur Khan, considered an ‘energetic and successful’ commander, as the viceroy of Deccan. This was the start of the start of the second phase of Aurangzeb’s Deccan policy. Initially, the Mughals continued to pursue limited objectives, although Bahadur Khan’s strategic objectives were twofold—to annex Bijapur; and the subdue Shivaji, who was now at the height of his power. Earlier, Jai Singh with a larger force and the cooperation of Shivaji had attempted and failed to take Bijapur. Therefore, it would have been impossible for Bahadur Khan with a slightly smaller force, and with no chance of extra reinforcements, to accomplish the tasks allocated to him.

Bahadur Khan bribed the Deccani faction of Bijapur nobles and made them his allies. Then he took on the Afghani faction with limited success. In 1677, the Mughals captured Naldurg and Gulbarga, within striking distance of both Bijapur and Golconda. However, Bahadur Khan was still only toying with the outer fringes of the Shahi kingdoms even after four years and Aurangzeb was impatient for visible results to the expensive campaign. He replaced Bahadur Khan with his assistant Diler Khan. Diler Khan upended his predecessor’s policy and aligned with the Afghani faction in Bijapur. Immediately on being appointed in 1677, he invaded Golconda, which was a disastrous failure. The only consequence of this invasion and the reversal of policy was that the Deccani faction in Golconda now made common cause with Shivaji and aligned themselves jointly against the Mughals.

Shivaji’s growing power and influence was now openly visible. Shivaji was promised an annual subsidiary of 100,000 huns (100,000 is also termed ‘one Lakh’ in Indian accounting) to defend Golconda. This was accepted and Prahlad Niraji was based at Hyderabad as the Maratha representative. Around the same time, Bahlol Khan, the leader of the Afghan faction in Bijapur arrived at a treaty with Shivaji for protecting Bijapur against the Mughals for the consideration of an annual subsidy of one lakh huns. Bahlol also confirmed Maratha possession of lands west of River Krishna, including the district of Kolhapur.

The Hun (Hon) Currency Explained

 The Bahmani/Shahi currency was limited in circulation whereas the coinage of the Vijayanagara Empire had a much wider circulation and acceptance throughout the Deccan. There was high demand for the small, conveniently sized gold coins of Vijayanagara called ‘hon’, which were uniform in weight and purity. These were customarily used in the Deccan to pay taxes from the 10th century onwards. By the early years of the 16th century, both agricultural and commercial taxes within the Deccan Shahi kingdoms were both assessed and paid in Vijayanagara hons. The hon gradually became an integral part of the Shahi economy.

Although wary of Mughal intentions and dependent on the Maratha military power for protection, both Bijapur and Golconda wanted to keep Shivaji and his army away from their territories. Therefore, they assiduously encouraged him to expand southward into Karnataka and the Tamil country, rather than eastward into Shahi territory. However, two factors worked against the Maratha-Shahi treaties and the anti-Mughal policy coming to fruition. First was Shivaji’s overarching ambition and the second, the increasingly belligerent factional fight between the Deccani and Afghani nobility factions in the Shahi courts.

The treaties finally did not find the necessary traction to make good, mainly because of Shivaji’s recalcitrance to be fully engaged in the process of containing the Mughals for the mutual benefit of the three Deccan powers. The Golconda prime minister Madanna and his brother Akkanna worked diligently for some time to create a united Deccan alliance against the Mughals, consisting of Golconda, Bijapur and the Marathas. Such a combine would perhaps have been the only viable opposition against the Mughal military juggernaut. However, Shivaji kept his distance from the alliance, forcing Bijapur and Golconda to attempt to confine him to the Konkan. Gradually, containing Shivaji rather than creating an anti-Mughal alliance became the primary goal for Golconda. Shivaji would not formally declare the Mughals as the common enemy and continued his depredations of Bijapur territory. These actions finally drove the Adil Shahis to seek an alliance with the Mughals to counter the Marathas and destroy them. Thus, for some unfathomable reason, Shivaji failed to take advantage of an emerging situation that would have placed the Mughals at a distinct disadvantage and led the Marathas to emerge as the most powerful Deccan kingdom.

In 1679, Diler Khan made an all out attempt to capture Bijapur. The campaign was an abject failure mainly because of Shivaji’s timely intervention. From the time of Raja Jai Singh’s withdrawal in 1666 to the arrival of Aurangzeb in the Deccan in 1680 in pursuit of Prince Akbar, the Mughal record in the Peninsula was pretty dismal. There was no appreciable progress towards achieving any of the objectives—the Marathas were not contained and no reasonable effort to conquer either of the Shahi kingdoms had been mounted.

The second phase of the Deccan policy was one of changing tactical objectives, of inaction, or at best desultory action. However, the reason for this inaction is inexplicable, especially considering that there were no substantial challenges or threats to the empire in North India, and the Mughal hold of territories in the north-west and in Bengal in the east was as strong as ever. The second phase is one laced with a lack of consistency in the Mughal policy. Aurangzeb, always an astute analyst, knew that the conquest of the two Deccan Shahi kingdoms would be long-drawn affairs and that the campaigns would need large forces, which would suffer high casualty rates, and that they would also be a great drain on the exchequer. More importantly, he was aware of the perennial infighting among the senior Mughal commanders. He also knew that cohesive command was possible only by the appointment of an energetic, capable and forceful prince as the viceroy and commander—someone like he himself had been as a prince and viceroy. Unfortunately, even though aware of the requirements, Aurangzeb was unwilling to give this kind of freedom of action to any of his sons, lest the prince become too powerful. Mistrust ran deep in Aurangzeb’s veins, and he could not countenance giving free rein to a prince to run the Deccan campaign. Knowing the volatile situation in the north-west and Rajputana, he was reluctant to proceed to the Deccan personally. However, his hand was forced with Prince Akbar taking refuge in the Maratha court.

Third Phase – Part One –Early Years of Aurangzeb’s Command

Aurangzeb’s arrival in the Deccan did not immediately manifest in any changes to the policy. Since Prince Akbar was sheltering with the Marathas, his focus was in containing the Marathas. The Mughals attempted to pressurise Bijapur to join them in operations against the Marathas but, fearing Maratha repercussions, the Deccanis refused. After nearly four years of futile attempts at bottling up the Marathas, Aurangzeb reached the conclusion that the Marathas could be contained only after both Bijapur and Golconda had been neutralised, meaning that these two Shahi kingdoms would have to be annexed outright. Thus commenced the first part of the third phase of the Mughal Deccan policy.

Aurangzeb’s decision to annex the Shahi kingdoms before averting the threat that could be posed by Sambhaji and Akbar indicates his confidence in being able to deal with the Marathas even while the bulk of the Mughal army would be engaged in a prolonged and simultaneous siege of Golconda and Bijapur. Religious prejudices were never far from Aurangzeb’s thoughts and had a prominent influence in his decision-making process. For example, since the prime minister Madanna and his brother were all-powerful in Golconda, the Muslim nobility was peeved with the situation. They complained to Aurangzeb that the Qutb Shah had handed over the kingdom to ‘infidels’. This was sufficient for the Mughal to plan the invasion of Golconda. However, there were differences of opinion in the Mughal court, with one faction arguing against attacking a fellow-Muslim ruler, which was considered unlawful in Islamic law.

In 1683, Aurangzeb wanted to return to North India, since instability was gradually creeping into the region. However, the situation in the Deccan was also not stable and the Mughals lacked a commander of calibre who could be left in-charge of the on-going campaign. The Marathas had become far too powerful to be contained without the personal presence and leadership of the emperor. 

Third Phase – Part Two – Beginning of the Mughal Debacle

The second part of the third phase unfolded from Aurangzeb’s decision in 1684 to personally take charge of the campaign and annex the two surviving Shahi kingdoms. As a historical analysis of this decision, being carried out four centuries later with the full benefit of hindsight, it becomes apparent that this decision came 20 years too late. Successful completion of the campaign would have been possible during Raja Jai Singh’s command tenure with minimal reinforcements, especially since he had made allies of the Marathas. Now in 1684, the Marathas were much stronger and decidedly anti-Mughal. The concept of ‘swarajya’—a kingdom for the Marathas, ruled by a Maratha king—still a vague idea two decades ago, was well-entrenched now. Shivaji had also built a second line of defence in the deep south centred on Ginji. The most important change was that the Marathas now had a crowned king and could no longer be considered mere rebels. They were a kingdom, with all the legitimacy that it invoked. Both Bijapur and Golconda actively sought Maratha assistance against the Mughal invasion.

At the same time as the power equation was subtly changing against the Mughals, Aurangzeb was sunk in religious bigotry. His religious beliefs and policies emanating from them had alienated the most powerful allies of the Mughals in the Indian sub-continent—the Rajputs. Over the rule of three previous Mughal emperors, the Rajputs had become the brains and the sinew that bound the powerful Mughal army together as an invincible entity. With the alienation of the Rajputs, the Mughal army, especially the senior leadership, lacked depth, commitment and experience. As if these challenges were not sufficient disadvantages to an army setting out on a campaign of conquest, Aurangzeb the supreme commander was 74 years old—an advanced age by the standards of the time to be undertaking a strenuous military campaign. Aurangzeb was now an inflexible bigot, without trust in a single human being. He was hard and bitter, having already got used to failures and disappointments.

It is to the credit of the tenacity of Aurangzeb that even with so many disadvantages, he achieved a series of successes in the first five years of the campaign. He conquered both Bijapur and Golconda and captured and executed the Maratha king, Sambhaji. These circumstances actually provided the emperor with a brief window of opportunity to declare victory, however transitory, make peace with the Maratha leadership, and return to Delhi, as a ‘victorious’ emperor. However, Aurangzeb was carried away by the feeling of triumph and made a series of ill-considered decisions that denied him victory in the long run and doomed him to failure.

Aurangzeb made three strategically inept decisions. First, he decided to annex both Golconda and Bijapur to the Mughal empire. This was against the advice of his son, Shah Alam, and some of the Mughal nobility who urged Aurangzeb to let the Shahi kings continue to rule the southern parts of their kingdoms as vassal states. Aurangzeb reacted to these suggestions by charging Shah Alam with treason and imprisoning him. The second wrong decision was to initiate the conquest of Karnataka even before the newly acquired territories of Bijapur and Golconda had been properly stabilised and incorporated into the Empire. Further, bringing extensive regions under direct Mughal rule and administration brought the Mughals into direct conflict with regional and local chiefs whose power, status and privileges were being ignored. The third was the brutal execution of Sambhaji, an act that made the Marathas implacable enemies of the Mughals forever. Combined with Aurangzeb’s inherent and increasing inflexibility, these three decisions paved the way to disaster.

The consequences of these decisions were not long in becoming apparent. Aurangzeb had thought that with Sambhaji’s execution, the Marathas would collapse, ending the short-lived kingdom. However, the Marathas reacted rapidly and forcefully to Sambhaji’s execution, which took the Mughals by surprise. Total annexation of the Shahi kingdoms, contrary to the advice of the senior courtiers and even his own son was again unexpected. Creation of smaller vassal states would have reduced the administrative overheads for the empire and kept the volatile region under check. The arbitrary decision to annex the kingdoms led the more strategically oriented nobles to start doubting Aurangzeb’s wisdom and the sagacity of his decisions, especially considering his advanced age. With the Marathas entrenched in Ginji and Zulfiqar Khan not making any real progress against them, the war-weary Mughal nobility did not consider Karnataka to be of vital importance to the Mughals. The senior nobles harboured the feeling that Aurangzeb was not fully in control of unfolding events, a feeling that percolated to the rest of the nobility and the royal court at large.              

The Impact of the Marathas on the Mughal Failure

The primary reason for the failure of the Deccan policy was Aurangzeb’s inability to understand the nature of the Maratha movement. From the beginning of Shivaji’s struggle for independence, Aurangzeb considered him an upstart, a rebel who had to be pushed back into his place. He considered Shivaji’s descendants also to be the same. The reason for this disdain can be traced to Aurangzeb’s belief that Shivaji was socially inferior to the supposedly high-caste Rajput princes with whom he had so far dealt. Not having paid enough attention to the power manoeuvrings in the Deccan, he did not have a clear estimate of the power that Shivaji and the Marathas wielded in the region when he arrived to take charge of the Mughal campaign.

Aurangzeb’s misunderstanding of the nature and underestimation of the strength of the Maratha movement was demonstrated by his treatment of Sambhaji, who was the ‘crowned’ king of the Marathas. He was certain that the Marathas would be stricken with terror at the brutal execution of their king and that without a head the Maratha ‘rebellion’, as he termed it, would wither away. Aurangzeb, never a man of the people, did not have a feel for the agrarian relationship that existed between the land-owning and the land-cultivating classes in traditional Deccan society. There was a multi-generational connection in this relationship, often not visible to an external observer. Similar to modern day grass-roots movements, the Maratha uprising could not be contained by military force alone. Unfortunately for the Mughal dynasty, Aurangzeb considered his supreme military forces to be the final arbitrator in any struggle. This belief was his undoing.     

The belief that his military power would deliver all his objectives was the reason for his inability to come to terms with Tarabai after Rajaram’s death. The slight turmoil after Rajaram’s death was the second opportunity for Aurangzeb to wind down his Deccan operations and claim success. The challenge to Mughal imperialism in the Deccan was no doubt spearheaded by the Marathas. However, they did not create the untenable situation that Aurangzeb reached in the Deccan at the ripe old age of 80 years. It was a self-created situation made infinitely more difficult by the activities of the Marathas. By the time Aurangzeb reached the last few years of his life, the growth of Maratha power perpetuated Mughal policy failures. By this time neither could the Marathas be conclusively defeated, nor could they be relegated to a vassal state, or assimilated as a junior partner like how the Rajputs had earlier been accommdated.

Akbar had initiated the crafting of a cautious Deccan policy after the Battle of Sonpat in 1597, followed by the treaty of 1600, which held true till the reign of Shah Jahan. However, when the Mughals aligned themselves with Bijapur to partition the Nizam Shahi lands in 1636, the old order was irrevocably broken, and it set Mughal Deccan policy on a flimsy foundation. Aurangzeb’s inability to understand the nature of the Maratha movement, which was based on popular support, and his overreliance on military power to contain challenges stemmed from a misunderstanding of the complex Indian social reality, even though the Mughals had been in the sub-continent for nearly 150 years. The situation was a clear indication that the Mughals never considered themselves to be ‘Indians’ but were ‘outsiders’ ruling a conquered country populated by a race of a different religious persuasion.  

A number of factors—both major and minor, with long-term as well as immediate short-term repercussions—contributed to the failure of the Mughal Deccan policy and to the development of a political and administrative crisis that spun out of control very rapidly. Combined with the fratricidal wars of the Mughal royalty and the perennial factionalism of the Mughal nobility, the crisis tore the Empire apart a few years after Aurangzeb’s death.      


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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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