The Marathas Part 13 Peshwa Baji Rao I Section III Visions of Northward Conquests

Canberra, 22 December 2021

As soon as the Peshwa returned to the Deccan, the Mughals started to push back, and the negotiations were broken. The Mughal emperor withdrew forces that were guarding the north-western borders and passes to reinforce the contingent fighting in Central India. This decision was to have disastrous consequences for the empire not long after. Even with this reinforcement, the Mughal forces studiously avoided getting into direct conflict with the Maratha armies, while the Maratha light cavalry manoeuvred at will and attacked without restraint.

After taking a brief respite in the Deccan, Baji Rao once again moved north at the head of a 50,000-strong army. He overran Bhopal and Bhilsa, held by Rohilla chieftains, and then turned north-east. He attacked the Jat Raja of Bhadawar, made him submit and levied a heavy tribute of 20 lakh rupees. While the Peshwa was on a rampage, Holkar crossed the River Yamuna and entered the Doab; he sacked the towns of Itimadpur and Firozabad opposite to Agra. The Peshwa’s arrival on the northern borders of Bundelkhand, a mere 70 miles from Agra, created consternation in the Mughal court. The two Maratha armies converging on Agra constituted a threat of the greatest magnitude to the empire.

In response to the Maratha threat, the Mughals placed large armies in the field. However, these armies lacked courageous leadership and the capacity for concerted efforts to oppose the Marathas effectively. The Mughal forces continued to concentrate in the Delhi–Agra region but without venturing much further. There was only one Mughal commander of calibre, Sadat Khan the governor of Awadh, who opposed Malhar Rao Holkar at Jalesar and inflicted heavy losses on the Maratha forces. Sadat’s success and the withdrawal of Holkar across the River Yamuna after the setback was erroneously seen by the Mughals as the end of the Maratha threat.

Even though Holkar was forced to withdraw, the Peshwa was not done with the campaign. He too moved south from Agra and send his baggage trains and camp-followers further away, deliberately creating the impression that the main body of Marathas was retreating to the Deccan. This further reinforced the Mughal belief of having achieved victory over the Deccan ‘rebels’. Sadat Khan now boastfully wrote to the Mughal emperor that he was going to drive the Marathas out of the Chambal. Sadat also advised him to break-off any on-going negotiations for peace.

Marathas in Delhi

Sadat’s boast reached Baji Rao and he is reported to have said at that time, ‘I shall prove to the emperor that he has not heard the truth, by showing him Maratha horse and burning villages at the gates of Delhi.’ (As quoted in C. A. Kincaid & Rao Bahadur D. B. Parasnis A History of the Maratha People, Volume II, p. 222) While the Mughals were still celebrating Sadat Khan’s so-called ‘victory’, Baji Rao moved swiftly. He took a wide detour, moved through Jat and Mewat country, passed to the rear of the camped Mughal army and arrived near Delhi on 29th March 1737. Leaving the Barapula and Kalika temples near Okhla to his right, he reached the plains near the capital with his cavalry force. Having displayed his military acumen and establishing his camp near Delhi, the Peshwa decided to resort to coercive diplomacy to achieve his objectives. There are conflicting reports regarding how he pursued his selected way forward.

One narrative states that the Peshwa, cognisant of the peace overtures that had been made by the Mughal emperor and his Vazir, decided not to attack and sack Delhi. Such a move would have forced the emperor’s hand to oppose the action and would have led to the definitive breakdown of negotiations and further conflict. This narrative states that he send new demands to Delhi, while forbidding his own troops from creating any disturbance in Delhi or destroying any part of the town. The second version seems to be more probable in terms of applying coercive diplomacy. Baji Rao initially camped at Tughlaqabad and plundered the surrounding areas, then moved to the Qutb Minar and sacked the town before moving closer to Delhi and camping at the south-western part of Delhi.

The second narrative is more credible. Baji Rao had demonstrated both intent and capability to sack Delhi, if he so desired, by sacking two towns. The refugees from both these towns flooded into Delhi and the emperor asked one Amir Khan to march against the Marathas. As the Mughal forces came out, Baji Rao send a small contingent of cavalry to meet them. These forces lured the Mughal army out of range of the protection of the Delhi artillery, surrounded them, and inflicted heavy casualties. While this action was being undertaken, the Peshwa was also aware that messages had been send to the main Mughal army that he had bypassed earlier and that they were gradually moving towards Delhi to block his retreat. On the diplomatic front, he was now offered the viceroyalty of Malwa. Unwilling to engage in a pitched battle with the heavier Mughal forces so far from his home base, Baji Rao accepted the offer and decided to return to the Deccan.

The Peshwa retired through Jaipur territory into Bundelkhand, sacked the towns of Rivadi and Basoda and then moved south into the Deccan. Other than for the show of force and a demonstration of the impunity with which the Marathas could reach Delhi, the end result of this campaign was that the anti-Maratha Turani faction of the nobles in the Mughal court was completely discredited. The Mughal court once again came under the influence of the Hindustani nobles, like Sawai Jay Singh and the Vazir, who advocated negotiations with the Marathas.

Victory at Bhopal

At this juncture a new combination of forces threatened the Peshwa’s plans for North India. Although he had reached an agreement with the Nizam-ul-Mulk in 1732, to keep out of each other’s activities, the Nizam had been following Baji Rao’s progress in the north with growing alarm and concern. By reaching the gates of Delhi and holding the empire to ransom, Baji Rao had demonstrated the power of Maratha arms. The Nizam was now anxious to ensure that the Mughal emperor did not bestow control of the Deccan on the Peshwa in order to placate him and remove his army from the vicinity of Delhi.

Although he had been declared a rebel, the Nizam now made overtures to the Mughal court requesting that they make common cause to curtail the rise of Maratha power by creating a joint front. The danger being physically so close to him had softened Muhammad Shah, the Mughal emperor’s hatred for the Nizam-ul-Mulk. Moreover, he was looking for assistance from any quarter that was offering it. He raised the Nizam to the command of 8000 and asked him to report to the royal court. The Nizam left the Deccan and marched north. He encountered part of the Peshwa’s army under the command of Pilaji Jadhav, one of Baji Rao’s deputies, near Sironj. He made friendly pronouncements to Pilaji and slipped away to the north, reaching Delhi on 22nd June 1737.

The Mughal emperor showered favour on the Nizam, raised an army of 35,000 for him to command and tasked him with pushing the Marathas beyond the River Naramada to the south. The fact that the Mughals could only raise a medium size army for such an onerous task is indicative of the low status of Mughal resources at this stage. The Nizam collected his entire train of artillery, to compensate for the numerical inferiority of his army, crossed the River Yamuna at Allahabad and entered Bundelkhand. He was joined by his nephew Safdar Jang, the ancestor of the future kings of Awadh, who was now in command of Sadat Khan’s army, and the Raja of Kotha, a Rajput prince still faithfully adhering to the Mughal cause. The Mughal force now swelled to over 70,000 and by mid-December they arrived at Bhopal.

The Nizam devised a strategy to catch the Maratha forces in a pincer between his own army and another arriving from the south under the command of his son. The southern force was also to capture the outposts on the River Narmada to keep the Marathas from being reinforced from the Deccan. However, before the Nizam’s son could accomplish this objective, the Peshwa at the head of 80,000 tested soldiers re-entered Malwa, reached Bhopal and confronted the Nizam. Chimnaji Appa was tasked to stop the southern reinforcements from reaching the Nizam at the River Tapti. Similarly, Raghuji Bhonsle neutralised the Mughal forces in Khandesh and ensured that the Nizam would not get any support from that quarter. Delhi had scraped the barrel and given him everything that they could and therefore no further assistance would be forthcoming from the Mughal court.

The Nizam and his army were fully isolated and holed up in the town of Bhopal. He did not venture out to confront the Maratha army that was now besieging the town. The Nizam was not confident of his army’s capabilities to wage war against the Maratha forces—after all, for the past two decades the Mughal army had always fled in front of the Marathas. The Mughal army gradually started to be starved in Bhopal. Unable to withstand the siege much longer, the Nizam asked for terms of surrender on 7th January 1738 at Durhan Sarai. The Peshwa was promised: to be made the subahdar of Malwa; permission to levy tribute from all rajas and chieftains in the region between River Narmada and Chambal; to be given imperial grants confirming the above; and 50 lakh rupees as compensation to defray the war expenses.

By now the news of Nadir Shah’s invasion of the North-West region of the Mughal empire had already reached Bhopal. The Nizam hurried to Delhi to assist the Mughal emperor to face a new and even more terrible enemy. This unfettered victory at Bhopal was the high point in the Peshwa’s triumphant career.

Baji Rao had forged a powerful army, blending and combining divergent Maratha groups and clans, which repeatedly defeated the Mughals in the field during the concerted invasions of Central and North India, gathering immense territory to the Maratha kingdom in the bargain. The Maratha control now reached the southern banks of the Rivers Chambal and Yamuna. A noteworthy feature of this new Maratha army was that they no longer resorted to guerrilla warfare against the more heavily armed Mughal forces but confronted them in open battle and defeated them. Gradually the Mughal military might had been whittled down till the Mughal army was not a viable force anymore.  

The Maratha invasions were also facilitated by the inability of the Mughal army to put up any meaningful opposition—the Mughal efforts to confront the Marathas were feeble, half-hearted and inconsistent. Further, all Mughal efforts to push the Marathas back into the Deccan were destined to fail because of the pusillanimity of their senior military commanders and the lack of focus and energy in the administration in Delhi.

The victory at Bhopal established Maratha supremacy in Hindustan, trumpeting the arrival of a new power in the sub-continent.

After Bhopal, Malwa became an indelible part of the Maratha kingdom. However, the victory and its aftermath also bring out a kernel of doubt regarding Baji Rao’s military genius and his overall military strategy. After arriving at peace terms, the Peshwa permitted the Nizam to move away with his army almost completely intact. He had done the same a decade ago at Palkhed in 1728 and repeated it again now in 1738. An enemy’s military strength must be drained and destroyed after a victory, otherwise his admission of defeat has no real meaning. Baji Rao’s dealings with the Nizam-ul-Mulk remains an enigma in an otherwise stellar military and diplomatic career.

The Nadir Shah Interlude

The invasion by Nadir Shah in early 1739 into the Mughal empire through the passes of the North-West shook the foundations of the decaying empire and hastened its eventual obliteration. After Nadir Shah’s tempestuous sweep over North India, the Mughal emperor was reduced to exercising direct control over only Delhi, Agra and the surrounding areas. More important to this narrative, the invasion challenged the grand design of the Maratha Peshwa to assume full control of the erstwhile Mughal Empire.

Nadir Shah

Nadir was from humble origins. Shah Hussein was the last of the Safavid dynasty, who was captured by the Ghilzai Afghans in Isfahan when they invaded Persia. His son Tamasp managed to escape to the Caspian, where a freebooter warlord named Nadir Kuli provided him shelter and assistance. Nadir Kuli had been carrying out an unrelenting war against the invading Afghans. The alliance of the warlord and the heir apparent managed to drive out the Gilzais, have their king killed, liberate Persia and capture Kandahar. Subsequently, there was a quarrel between Tamasp and Nadir Kuli during which the troops deposed Tamasp and crowned the warlord as their king—Nadir Shah.

Nadir Shah’s military victories considerably expanded Persian territory to the east and brought him to a shared border with the Mughal Empire, which at that time also encompassed Kabul. This was also the time that the Mughal emperor Muhammad Shah had withdrawn the majority of forces from his north-west frontier to counter the Maratha invasion into Central and North India. Some of the Afghans escaping from Nadir Shah’s recapture of the Persian kingdom had fled to Kabul. Nadir Shah protested and asked Delhi not to provide safe harbour to these fugitives who were his enemies. He send envoys to press the case at the Mughal court. However, the Mughals disregarded the protest and one of the envoys was murdered on his way back to Persia. Nadir Shah had already noticed the helpless condition of the Mughal Empire, although it was still tremendously wealthy. He coveted the wealth of Hindustan, and the rejection of the protest was reason enough for him to decide on invading the Mughal Empire. He pretended to be enraged at the treatment meted out to his envoys and invaded India at the end of 1738.

Nadir Shah first advanced on Kabul, which he took with little difficulty. On 26th November 1738, he occupied Khyber Pass, then crossed the River Indus at Attock and reached Peshawar on 29th November. The Persians advanced and captured Lahore on 25th January 1739, laid waste the surrounding country and reached Karnal. At Karnal, Nadir Shah defeated a Mughal army send to halt his advance with the accompaniment of great slaughter on 13th February. Although he was not personally leading the army, the Mughal emperor was not far behind, and he had taken the Nizam-ul-Mulk and Sadat Khan with him as his lieutenants. The Nizam started to resort to diplomacy to stop the Persian advance by suggesting an indemnity of 50 lakh rupees to be paid to Nadir Shah. This initiative may have succeeded but for the bane of Indian treachery raising its head again. Sadat Khan was jealous of the Nizam’s influence over the emperor and effectively thwarted the diplomatic overtures. He secretly informed Nadir Shah of the untold wealth in Delhi and induced him to march on the capital.

On 24th February the Mughal emperor was ‘captured’ by Nadir Shah when he went personally to plead for mercy. With the information from Sadat Khan, Nadir Shah now insisted on escorting Muhammad Shah to his capital. The Maratha envoy to the Mughal court managed to escape and wrote to the Peshwa from Jaipur on 6th March, ‘The Chagatai empire is gone. The Irani rule has commenced’. Nadir Shah entered Delhi on 20th March 1739 and was declared the emperor of Hindustan from the Jama Masjid the next day. He forced the Mughal emperor to hand over the nearly two centuries of accumulated treasure of the dynasty. 

A rumour that Nadir Shah was dead kindled a revolt against Persian soldiers in the marketplaces of Delhi. Nadir Shah was enraged at this rebellion and ordered a general massacre of the population. For an entire day the citizens of Delhi were slaughtered and suffered unimaginable horrors—property was looted, houses burned and levelled, women dragged outside and dishonoured, men put to the sword indiscriminately. There is no account of how many people perished in this frenzy of vengeance, Maratha letters of the time put the figure at between 300–400,000 killed and thousands of women carried away.

After 58 days of ‘rule’ Nadir Shah realised that there was nothing more to loot in Delhi, either from the treasury of the Mughals or from the personal property of the citizens. He then decided to return to Persia. Before departing he married his son to a Mughal princess, a direct descendant of Shah Jahan and ‘placed a worthless crown on Mahmud Shah’s head’. He also send a letter to Baji Rao, exhorting him to ‘obey’ his nominee ruling from Delhi. He left Delhi, carrying with him the famed Peacock throne and treasure worth 2,000,000 pound-sterling at that time’s value. The wealth of a dynasty accumulated over nearly two centuries was dissipated in two months. The Mughal Empire was left in the dust as a heap of ashes.

Maratha Reaction to the Invasion

Nadir Shah had cleverly couched his invasion as an effort to protect the failing Mughal Empire from the ravages of the Marathas and hence the warning letter to the Peshwa. Baji Rao however saw through the ploy and realised that the Hindus, especially in North India, were facing a calamity. Reports that Nadir Shah was threatening to punish the Marathas had been circulated and had reached the Peshwa’s ears. Baji Rao started to gather his forces and deploy them to hold the line at the Chambal against any move by the Persians to move south. He had also been appraised of the disgraceful conduct of the Nizam-ul-Mulk during the invasion and decided to put an end this dignitary’s nominal presence in the Deccan.  

Ever the opportunist, Baji Rao considered it a good time to establish Hindu rule and sovereignty if the Chagatai rule had indeed been removed and replaced. However, he may not have factored in the real effect of Nadir Shah’s invasion into his calculations at that time. The north-western gates into India, which had been zealously guarded by the Mughals for nearly two centuries had suddenly been thrown open. This development created a serious challenge to the Maratha design to control Hindustan.  


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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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