The Marathas Part 14 Peshwa Balaji Rao Section IV The Battle of Panipat

A Fateful Day

Canberra, 9 March 2022

After their easy victory at Kunjpura, the Marathas camped at Pasina Kalan, anticipating that Abdali would attempt to cross River Yamuna upstream. However, the Afghans crossed the river at Bhagpat, between the Maratha camp and Delhi. Although they suffered some losses during the crossing, the entire army was on the right bank by 25th October 1760. The next day the Maratha vanguard attacked Afghan outposts but were repulsed with some loss of life, a not very successful attack. Another attack planned immediately after was stayed by Holkar who argued that the Marathas should resort to traditional guerrilla tactics for future actions. However, the artillery commander Ibrahim Khan Gardi opposed this proposal, fearing that his artillery guns would be useless in a guerrilla war and therefore his importance would reduce. He is reported to have threatened to open fire on Maratha forces if the tactics were changed.

This episode exposed the disunity in the Maratha high command and the confusion that prevailed regarding the best tactics to be adopted in the battlefield. The Maratha army was at this juncture in the process of assessing and evaluating European tactics. Although no decision had yet been made, it was apparent that if Sadashiv Rao Bhau opted to fight in the foreign manner, he would be forced to keep the lines of communications between his forces in the field and Delhi open. On the other hand, if he went into battle to fight in the traditional guerrilla manner of Maratha armies, then he would have greater flexibility and independence of manoeuvre. Bhau was still enamoured with the artillery and wanted to employ the guns and the trained infantry that Ibrahim Khan had gathered with him. However, they could not fight in the traditional Maratha way. It is obvious that there were many discussions regarding the tactics to be adopted when the battle was finally joined. Holkar repeatedly petitioned Sadashiv Rao to revert to traditional Maratha warfighting methods. However, Bhau remained adamant that the artillery would be a war-winning element and that the European trained infantry when effectively employed would be a critical factor.

This somewhat blind faith in the efficacy of European tactics was a bit misplaced since the Maratha leadership had not yet made a relative analysis of the two methods of warfare and therefore was not yet in a position to discern the differences between them or to delineate the advantages that would accrue for the Maratha army by continuing to adopt the traditional tactics. The Marathas committed another tactical blunder at this stage—they permitted the Afghans to severe their lines of communications with Delhi. To compound the error, Bhau did not march south to reopen the communications channel, but opted to march north towards Panipat with Abdali doggedly following in his footsteps.

The Marathas fortified themselves at Panipat. Panipat was a medium-sized village located about 52 miles north of Delhi with the River Yamuna flowing a few miles to the east of it, across which lay the Doab. Several tombs of famous Muslim saints were located in Panipat, and the population was predominantly Muslim, many claiming to be the descendants of the holy men and living on rent-free land grants. They resented the Maratha incursion and there was an angry swell of strong anti-Hindu feeling in the region.

The Afghans, following the Marathas, established themselves across the Delhi Road. The positions of the armies were the reverse of normal—the northern invaders were nearer to Delhi with the entire sub-continent behind their back, while the southern defenders of the country were marching down from the north-west with the arid and war-wasted lands of the Punjab behind them as their catchment area. Further, Abdali had fertile plains to his right, which were controlled by his allies, Najib Khan and Shujah-ud-Daulah, whereas behind the Marathas, the Punjab was controlled by Afghan warlords owing allegiance, however tenuous, to Abdali. The Maratha support base was now behind the Afghan army. Bhau was in a position of great disadvantage and the Maratha force was actually in grave danger.

Panipat was a fertile, wheat-growing region and the Maratha army was able to sustain themselves well, requisitioning sufficient stores and grain. Ibrahim Khan Gardi fortified the camp, building a ditch 50 feet wide and about 12 feet deep, with the dug-up soil being used to create high ramparts upon which cannons were mounted to guard the encampment and the township. Traces of this ditch can still be seen around Panipat. Abdali also fortified his camp attempting to bar Maratha access to Delhi. The armies were positioned such that the Marathas could be considered the invaders into India and the Afghans the local defenders. At this juncture neither side was prepared to attack the other directly, instead resorting to light cavalry actions to interdict enemy supplies and to take control of the open country. Logically, whoever controlled the open country could gradually starve the other force into submission.

The Opposing Armies

The Maratha force consisted of 55,000 cavalry and more than 15,000 infantry with about 300 pieces of artillery of different calibre. They were accompanied by around 70,000 irregular Pindari militia.

The Afghan army was built around 42,000 cavalry, and 38,000 infantry with 70 cannons. They were augmented by several groups of irregular militias.

Initial Skirmishes

In the early days of the campaign, the advantage rested with the Marathas, whose light cavalry—commanded by Govind Pant Bandela—was more adept than the Afghan horsemen. For a period of time, Govind Pant managed to cut off the supply lines into the Afghan camp. He was, however, the most unlikely cavalry commander, being a civilian officer and not a military general. This is clear from the fact that his title was ‘Pant’ since soldiers were normally given the title ‘Rao’. He was also an older person, beyond 60 years, a bit overweight and is reported as not having been an adept rider, a surprising trait in a cavalry commander. It was difficult for him to sustain the stress and strain of leading the life of a light cavalry officer.

On 22nd November 1760, the day of the lunar eclipse, Janakoji Scindia raided the Abdali camp, inflicted severe losses on the Rohilla faction and captured several guns and horses. The raid forced Abdali to move his camp further back and several reports indicate that he seriously considered withdrawing from the contest. In retaliation, on 7th December, a specially selected group of Afghan soldiers attacked the Maratha camp. The local commander, Balwant Rao Mehendale, resisted stoutly and drove the attackers back but was shot and killed in the battle. On his death, the Maratha forces fell back in confusion with the Afghans pursuing them as far as the great defensive ditch from where they were driven back with the loss of nearly 3,000 men.

A month later, on 22nd December the Marathas suffered a further calamity. By this time Govind Pant had been effectively stifling the Afghan camp, bringing their food supplies to starvation levels. Abdali was being coerced by his allies to either launch an outright battle against the Marathas or to withdraw across the River Yamuna. However, he was an experienced and calculating general who played his cards close to his chest and refused to do either. He had been surreptitiously monitoring Govind Pant’s movements and on 22nd December send a crack force to attack the main light cavalry camp. The Afghan forces duped the Maratha guards by carrying Holkar’s flags and pennants on their lances and arriving at the camp after sunset. They managed to enter the Maratha camp and surprise the Bandela soldiers and started to cut them down. Govind Pant, was wounded and while trying to escape fell off his horse, was captured and beheaded. It is reported that Abdali send the head back to Sadashiv Rao. The light cavalry headquarters was completely destroyed.

There were consequences of Govind Pant’s death in battle. Although not a ‘soldier’, his tactical ability to control the countryside and restrict the Afghan forces’ foraging was gradually leading to a sort of uneasy peace agreement between the warring armies. With his death, this possibility receded completely. With the destruction of the core of the Maratha light cavalry, the Afghans rapidly gained command of the open countryside—the situation was reversed with the Maratha forces being besieged in terms of availability of food and fodder. However, the two armies together had exhausted the natural resources of the entire region around Panipat. The supplies were now at starvation point for both the camps.

Even though both sides were constrained, the Marathas were under a distinct disadvantage. Their camp was crowded with the wives and families of both noblemen and middle-level military commanders, in some cases even by those of the common soldiers. Taking families on extended campaigns had by now become a normal practice in the Maratha army, sanctioned by the Peshwa himself. The encumbrance of the increased numbers was an added burden on the resource requirements of the Marathas. Second, the army of the Deccan was adversely affected by the onset of the severe northern winter, which was bitter in the open plains of Panipat and the Punjab. Although Sadashiv Rao Bhau was fully aware of the deteriorating circumstances, he conducted himself with calm courage. He continued the efforts to bring Shujah-ud-Daulah into the Maratha camp. However, in every Afghan council meeting, Najib Khan bitterly opposed any accommodation with the Marathas, especially now that the tide seemed to be turning in their favour. The Marathas continued to organise foraging parties to gather food and fodder but were opposed and often defeated by the Afghan troops, who had started to hold the upper hand in the open countryside after the defeat and death of Govind Pant Bandela.

Dire Financial Situation

By now the Maratha treasury in North India had been completely exhausted and there was no money available even to pay for basic food. Adopting an extreme measure, Bhau, Holkar and Scindia melted down all ornaments of both the men and women in their camps, irrespective of rank and status, and minted rupee coins stamped with the words ‘Bhaushahi’, ‘Jankoshahi’ and ‘Malharshahi’, in their three names. However, even these rupees lasted only for payments worth 15 days.

Relief Attempts

On 2nd January 1761, Govind Pant’s son Balaji Pant made a determined effort to transport some treasure from Delhi to Bhau’s camp in Panipat to ease the situation. During this desperate attempt, the force carrying the money wandered into an Afghan camp and were attacked and killed, while the treasure was captured. The Rajputs and Suraj Mal, although not officially allied with the Marathas, continued to aid with finances and supplies. Even this was not sufficient to tide over the looming calamity. The situation had deteriorated to an extent that Ibrahim Khan’s gunners and infantry were on the verge of mutiny, demanding their arrears of pay. Even at this critical juncture there were differences of opinion in the Maratha leadership regarding the further course of action to be initiated.

By now it was clear to both sides that battle was inevitable. Bhau was optimistic that the Maratha agents operating in the Doab would devastate the territories and thereby lure Shujah-ud-Daulah to the Maratha camp. He also believed that the Peshwa would arrive behind the Afghan camp from the Deccan, thus surrounding Abdali and forcing him to surrender. Unfortunately, both these events did not take place. Sadashiv Rao celebrated Makar Sankranti on 10th January 1761 with lesser pomp and show than he would have liked. He then called a war council on 13th January.

War Council

The Maratha generals, feeling the inordinate strain of resource scarcity and inaction, pleaded to be led out into battle. Both Holkar and Scindia, the senior-most generals, urged Bhau to abandon the artillery and the entourage of women and camp followers and make a dash to Delhi where a Maratha contingent still held the fort. This proposal had the agreement of most other Maratha chiefs. In the council, Bhau seemed to accept these proposals and advised all the sardars, chiefs, to prepare for individual movements to Delhi and to plan to re-form the army there.

After the council had been dispersed, Ibrahim Khan met with Bhau personally. It is presumed that he was unhappy with the proposal to abandon the guns and may have shown invitation letters from Najib Khan to defect to the Afghan camp. He may also have threatened to open fire on the Maratha forces if the plan to decamp to Delhi was put into action. Sadashiv Rao was already on the horns of a moral dilemma having made the decision to abandon the women and families and the artillery commanders threat seems to have made him change his decision. He cancelled the previous orders and instructed that a general assault, in the European style, would be made on the Afghan camp the next day—14th January 1761. The die was cast.

Throughout the months of minor skirmishes and the contest for control of the open country, Bhau had kept a line of communication open with Shujah-ud-Daulah through a double agent/emissary of his called Kashirai (raj?), in an attempt to at least keep the nawab of Awadh out of the battle even if he did not join the Maratha camp. Bhau now made a tactical blunder. He sent a letter to Kashirai stating, ‘The cup is now full to the brim; it cannot hold another drop. If anything can be done, do it or answer me plainly at once. Hereafter there will be no time for writing or speaking’. The epistle further laid bare the Maratha plans and was shown to Abdali through Shujah and Najib. Abdali now knew that the battle would break out in the immediate future if not on the next day, the element of surprise if there was one, was completely lost.

The Date of the Battle of Panipat

Dates to the approach to the battle as well as the battle proper, given in this narrative is taken from the detailed account of Maratha history authored by Mr G S Sardesai (Sardesai, Govind Sakharam, Maratha Riyasat, in Eight Volumes, Popular Prakashan Press, Mumbai, 2012, as translated by various authors).

James Grand Duff gives 7th January as the date of the battle. This date cannot be correct since the Marathas celebrated Makar Sankranti and then held a war council three days later, before going into battle. In the 18th Century (1761), the date of Makar Sankranti was 10th January and therefore the war council would have been held on 13th January. Duff’s 7th January date is a mistake of conversion from one calendar to the other. Some Muslim chronicles give the date of the battle as 12th January, once again probably making a calculating mistake in converting between the Muslim and Hindu calendars.

The dates given by Mr Sardesai can be assumed to be correct, since it is corroborated by a letter written at that time. A letter from Anupgir Gosair to Peshwa Balaji Rao that survive to date clearly gives the date of the battle in Hindu calendar nomenclature as Budhwar, Paush Sud Ashtami, which corresponds to Wednesday, 14th January 1761.

Sadashiv Rao now opened his granaries and distributed what remained of the food stores to the soldiers. The next day the Maratha forces woke early, carried out their prayers before dawn and donned saffron robes—an custom adopted from the Rajputs that indicates that the soldier would either conquer or die in battle—and moved into battle array. There was some distance to be covered between the forces and the Marathas set out. The Afghans, forewarned by the Bhau’s inopportune letter, carefully watched every move of the mighty Maratha army.

The Battle Array

The Maratha army was arranged with the centre held by Sadashiv Rao Bhau himself, assisted by Jaswant Rao Powar. Holkar and Scindia held the right wing, while on the left wing the cannons and other artillery pieces, covered by the Gardi infantry, held firm a bit ahead of the main line. Behind this main body stood the Gaikwar horse and the Peshwa forces under Viswas Rao, followed by the contingents of Shamsher Bahadur, reinforced by the remnants of the Holkar and Scindia battalions.

The Afghan right wing was formed by Rohillas under Ahmad Khan Bangash; the centre held by Afghans under the Vazir, Shah Wali Khan, with the Awadh forces under Shujah-ud-Daulah to his left, reinforced by a body of Rohillas under Najib Khan. In the extreme left, barring access to the route to Delhi was a body of specially selected Afghan cavalry commanded by Shah Pasand Khan. The Afghans had made the extremes, both left and right move a bit ahead of the centre and therefore presented a slightly hollowed out main line.

The Battlefield – The Antiquity of the Great Plains of Panipat

The plains of Panipat are full of memories for epic Hindustan or Bharat Varsha. It contains the village of Basthsali (Vyasa Sthal)—where the venerated sage Vyasa is supposed to have lived and dictated the thousands of lines of the great epic poem Mahabharata to the god, Ganapati. Within the plains is also located Gondor, where Rishi Gautama had send out the thousand sores to torment Lord Indra for attempting to steal his wife Ahalyabai and darkened the unsullied beauty of the moon with black marks indicating his curses. The five villages that the Pandava king Yudhishthira had requested as a meagre fief for himself and his brothers to avoid war—Indraprastha (Delhi), Swarnprastha (Sonipat), Panprastha (Panipat), Vyagraprastha (Bhagpat), and Tilprastha (Tilpat)—all lay within the greater plains of Panipat. Sadashiv Rao Bhau’s attempts at avoiding all-out pitched battle was as futile as Yudhishthira’s last-ditch attempt to avoid a catastrophic war and maintain peace in Bharat Varsha.

To the north of Panipat stretched the field of Kurukshetra, the immense battlefield where the Kuru scions, the sons of Pandu and Dhritarashtra, fought the greatest of all battles in which the valiant sons of Bharat Varsha had fallen almost to a man in the quest for their own truth and dharma. Kurukshetra is also the field where the most generous of warriors, Karna, was slain by the ultimate archer of all times, Arjuna his own brother; where the great patriarch Bhishma had lain on his death-bed of arrows, guarded day and night by the paramount warriors of the time who listened reverentially to his wisdom. It was at the Parasir Tank at Balapur in the Panipat plains that the brilliant, brave but wicked Duryodhana had hidden from the wrath of Bhima. Again, it was at the Phalgu Tank at Bharal near Panipat that the Pandavas had conducted the funeral rites of the slain warriors after the most terrible of all wars.

Even though the Muslim connection to Panipat did not go back into antiquity, it is certain that the Muslims remembered, with pride, more recent events that had defined their arrival and stay in Hindustan. They celebrated Babur’s victory over the Tughluq king in the same field, and the young Akbar’s victory over King Hemu. Now a Muslim army—a combination of foreign Afghan forces, homegrown Muslims and the hybrid Rohillas—was in the field to protect the last vestiges of the nearly three-centuries-old Delhi Empire, which had at its zenith encompassed the entire North India; from Peshawar in the north-west to the Bay of Bengal in the east, from the foothills of the lofty Himalayas in the north to the Deccan Plateau and beyond in the south.

The Hindu warriors, led by the Marathas, now fought to throw off, once and for all, the yoke of foreign rule and oppression by the adherents of a rigid and alien religion that did not espouse even an iota of tolerance for other beliefs. The oppression had been continuous for nearly five centuries and the Hindus wanted to re-instate a Hindu prince/king to rule Bharat Varsha—from the throne of Bharata, Ramachandra, Dasharatha and Dushyant.

The Maratha Plan

Available Maratha chronicles provide an insight into Bhau’s battle plans. Bhau planned to march past the right-hand corner of the Afghan camp, keeping the river to his back and meet the enemy on the right side which would then become the main battlefront. There were three advantages that accrued with this move: one, it would open a path to the south that led to Delhi; two, there would be minimal exposure of the non-combatants that accompanied the Maratha army; and three, by attacking the flank of the Afghan army, Bhau expected to increase the exposure of the Afghan frontal area. Since the main road to Delhi was effectively blocked by Abdali, this was a brilliant move by Bhau, which ensured an escape route for the civilians accompanying the army to move rapidly to the Deccan. The strategy was great, its success depended on the accompanying tactics being executed correctly by the different commanders.

Several factors influenced the adroit exploitation of Bhau’s plan to bring it to an optimised conclusion. The plan needed swift and coordinated movement of forces, which was unfortunately hampered by the slow progress of the heavy siege guns that had to be hauled to their positions. More importantly, the force suffered from a lack of cohesive command and control arrangements, which could overrule the antagonistic attitude of the second-tier commanders who had to fight side-by-side and come to each other’s assistance on an as required basis. Cohesion, mutual trust, belief in the central command and loyalty were of the utmost importance for the success of the strategy—a lack of which was apparent at the junior commanders’ level.

On 14th January 1761, the Maratha army, awesomely arrayed in all its splendour, was ready for battle an hour before sunrise and set out from camp accompanied by the glorious war cries of ‘har har mahadev’. They moved forward in a south-easterly direction in a triangular formation with the artillery in front, arranged by Ibrahim Khan, but at a pace that was slower than would have been optimum. The pace was obviously set by the speed of movement of the siege guns. The intention was to reach the west bank of the River Yamuna, at a point where it was easily fordable, ina an early enough time.

The Battle Proper

Although the date of the battle had been inadvertently leaked, Abdali was unsure of when and where the main battle would erupt since Bhau had managed to keep this information secret. However, when the Maratha forces moved out in strength, Abdali was able to confirm that this was not preparations for the regular daily skirmishes of the past two months but that a full-fledged battle in full force was in the offing. Accordingly, he arranged his battle lines to face the enemy. At sunrise the Afghan forces positioned themselves as per Abdali’s instructions: the centre of the force was held by elite troops under the Vazir Shah Wali Khan; immediately to the left were the Awadh forces and further to the left the Rohillas under Najib Khan. The extreme left flank was under the command of Shah Pasand Khan, Abdali’s ‘chief of staff’, and consisted of heavy cavalry intended to block the Maratha passage to Delhi. The right flank was a mixture of Rohillas and Pathans under several minor commanders. Behind this main line of cavalry, the infantry was arraigned in rows.  

From the arrangement of the forces, it is certain that Abdali harboured serious suspicions regarding the reliability and loyalty of his Indian allies. He positioned both the Rohillas and the Awadh forces wedged between his own Afghan forces commanded by his trusted lieutenants, who could avert any untoward action by the ‘Indian forces’ to desert or flee. The line of battle was seven miles long and at least two deep and overlapped the Maratha lines on both the flanks. The flanks of the Afghan line were bend inwards, like the horns of a crescent, purposely arranged to be able to outflank and threaten the adversary battle line at its extremities.

Initial Phase

The Maratha heavy artillery opened fire with the sunrise, the main objective being to breach the front lines of the Afghans. However, the guns had been moved forward from their pre-calculated positions and therefore their range settings were incorrect and needed to be altered. Resetting the range was a cumbersome process and could not be carried out in time and the barrage was not accurate enough to create the damage expected. Undeterred, Ibrahim Khan a fiery field commander, prepared his infantry—consisting of about seven battalions totalling more than 6000 well-trained soldiers—for a direct assault. The infantry, with the support of Dammaji Gaikwad’s cavalry of more than 2,500, attacked the Afghan flank. This concerted attack by the infantry-cavalry combine fought their way forward step-by-step in an effort to annihilate the Afghan right wing, thereby creating an opportunity for the Maratha army to gradually wheel in a south-westerly direction towards the River Yamuna.

The fighting was intense, and Ibrahim Khan personally led a bayonet charge that is reported to have inflicted around 8,000 casualties in the Rohilla ranks, although the Maratha infantry was outnumbered one to three. At the tactical level the bayonet charge was extremely successful. However, two events of consequence went wrong. First, the heavy guns could not keep pace with the much more rapid advance of the infantry and started to fall back. Second, the cavalry that had been left to protect the guns saw the infantry breaking the Afghan lines and spontaneously charged along with the infantry and thereafter overtook them. On becoming the vanguard, they came under withering and accurate fire from the Rohillas and were initially stopped and then forced to withdraw—they retreated to take shelter behind the heavy guns, out-fought and exhausted. This cavalry force thereafter remained static and non-contributory to the battle.

The Heavy Artillery

The heavy guns of the Maratha artillery were unwieldy and were the main causes for the disruption in the army’s marching order. To ensure greater range, they had been cast far too heavy, with the result they were unwieldy to handle on the ground having sacrificed their agility for mass and range. The accuracy of these guns was also not optimum. In Panipat, the difficulty in altering the range made their barrage fall behind the enemy lines and did not break the main Afghan line as anticipated. In an overall assessment, the heavy guns turned out to be a disadvantage to the Marathas.

By noon, Ibrahim Khan’s infantry had all but destroyed the right wing of the Afghans and would have completely routed them if they had even minimum support from an adept cavalry force. But the cavalry had charged at an inopportune moment, failed, and retreated. The entire burden of beating the flank now fell on the musketeers. There was no efficient cavalry commander available on the scene to take advantage of the successful thrust of the Gardi musketeers. A sharp cavalry charge at this moment would have carried the day—for nearly two hours, the gap created by the intrepid infantry of Ibrahim Khan went begging to be exploited.

In the centre an artillery duel took place between Bhau’s guns and those of Shah Wali, in which the Afghan gunners turned out to be more accurate and created more damage while also starting to advance. Bhau send the cavalry to stop the Afghan advance. The Maratha cavalry charged into the Afghan lines, broke through their screens and a desperate hand-to-hand combat ensued. The Vazir was on the verge of being overwhelmed. Several historians who have analysed the battle have opined that victory was within Maratha reach at this time. However, they do not provide further explanations as to why victory was not achieved, if it was indeed the case. The claim of victory being within Bhau’s grasp does not take into account the utter confusion in the Maratha command and control channels that existed at this critical point in the battle. The Maratha advantage was only a momentary gain, which did not even register with the Maratha commander. Further, even if the advantage was recognised at the middle-level leadership, neither was the information passed up the chain, nor was it instinctively exploited. Moreover, no Maratha reports or chronicles mention that a distinct advantage had been crafted by this prodigious charge of the Maratha cavalry. The historical claim of victory being within the Maratha grasp seems to have been built on wishful thinking.

Even though Shah Wali’s forces were badly mauled, he was backed by heavy reserves. The strategic Maratha plan, as explained by Bhau in the war council, required the centre to advance south-east following the left flank, which on hindsight seems to have not been fully understood by the middle-level commanders who had the operational responsibility to carry it out. Instead of advancing to outflank the enemy, they stayed put at Ugar Khedi, conceptualising on their own an alternate plan to destroy the enemy forces facing them. However, this plan was also not actioned. This plan was obviously not in line with the broader strategy as envisaged by Bhau and would not have worked, even if put into practice.

A Moral Dilemma. A moral dilemma now played out for Sadashiv Rao. The Marathas perceived the breach in Shah Wali’s front through which Bhau could have led his own troops with Viswas Rao and the main body of the womenfolk and made an ‘escape’ to join up with the Delhi contingent. But such a move would have meant breaking his promise to Ibrahim Khan that he would not leave the Gardi artillery in the lurch, abandoned in the field. Further it would have also meant breaking the marching square that protected the camp-followers, abandoning them to an unsafe future and the Maratha camp to be looted. On hindsight, considering how the second half of the day played out on the battlefield, the attempt to join with the Delhi camp may have been the best option—the military and political leadership would have escaped unhurt, and the Maratha ‘defeat’ would have been of a minor nature. However, Bhau characteristically refused to go back on his word to Ibrahim and also to abandon his non-combatant camp followers—he did not take the option to decamp for Delhi.

The Afghan left where Najib Khan was stationed now started to advance on foot. Najib dismounted his cavalry to create a 15,000-strong infantry to oppose the Scindia forces. Unfortunately, the Maratha right wing stayed inert, obeying orders Bhau had given earlier to not engage in battle unless directly attacked. There is also speculation in some contemporary reports that since the Scindia-Holkar forces had been beaten by the Afghans thrice in the past few months, Bhau had purposely kept them at the back to ensure that their possible ‘chicken-hearted’ behaviour in battle would not demoralise the forces next to them. However, this allegation regarding Bhau’s suspicion cannot be confirmed. In any case, the non-performance of the right wing contributed directly to the impending defeat. Even with Najib’s slow advance, the advantage even at this time after noon rested with the Marathas—the Afghan centre was split with a noticeable gap and the right wing had been almost completely destroyed by Ibrahim Khan’s forces.

Abdali is Reinforced

Abdali was informed of the perilous state of his army, the loss of nearly 12,000 men and that they were on the verge of defeat. However, he could not pull-out forces from any place in the main line to reinforce somewhere else without weakening that place and creating a break in the line. He had a small contingent of 2000 heavy cavalry, called ‘nasaqchis’, a sort of military police force, normally deployed to stop any soldier fleeing the field, who had not been committed to battle. Abdali now deployed them to stem the retreat of nearly 7–8,000 soldiers, who were forced to form into a reserve wall behind the main lines. Further, he added his own retinue to this group to strengthen them and moved about two-thirds of this group to the right flank where the Rohillas had been broken. The remaining were sent to reinforce Shah Wali.

Post–Noon Battle Resumes

Having managed to gather the main line together and slow the retreat of his forces, Abdali gave orders for his reinforced flanks to charge the Maratha centre. A detailed analysis of the tactics deployed by the Afghan warlord in his previous battles reveals that he invariably committed his second-rung troops early in the battle to wear out the adversary. Thereafter at a critical point in the battle he would unleash his crack forces who were still fresh, not having been committed till then. He would personally lead this fresh charge if the balance of the battle was still undecided. In Panipat, a little after 12 noon Abdali unleashed his fresh reserves.

The Afghan charge eventuated at a time when the Maratha cavalry was standing sheltered behind the heavy guns without even attempting to reap the tactical benefit by exploiting the gaps that had been created in the Afghan main line by the Gardi forces. After nearly four hours of strenuous close combat the Maratha centre was subject to another galloping charge by about 10,000 fresh Afghan heavy cavalry and an enveloping move by an infantry contingent held as secondary reserves.

Abdali had developed what could be termed revolutionary tactics in the employment of cavalry by contemporary standards. He divided his cavalry into contingents (squadrons) of not more than 1000, each under a semi-independent commander. These squadrons would charge forward, discharge their muskets, and immediately withdraw while the next squadron would take their place and so on in a circular pattern set up by a group of four or five squadrons, coordinated by a senior commander. The arrangement gave time for each squadron to rearm, reorganise and charge forward again in battle array. In Panipat, this tactic had the additional effect of bunching together the Maratha forces that in turn became a wholesome target for the charging squadrons.

Repeated Maratha charges were withstood by the Afghans, although they suffered very heavy casualties. The Afghan squadrons were relentless in following their circular pattern and in the hour between noon and 1 PM, all hopes of a Maratha victory vanished. The Maratha leadership, now getting the bitter taste of defeat in their mouths decided on their final gambit. They decided on a final charge. Young Viswas Rao, true to his ancestry, led the charge into the middle of the fiercest fighting.

Final Phase and Defeat

The Maratha forces had started their march before sunrise and had now been fighting for more than five hours. The soldiers had also been on a basic diet for more than a month and they started to show signs of exhaustion. Around 3 PM, Viswas Rao, already wounded in the neck and forehead, fell to a bullet, dying instantly. This was the result of a considered decision by Abdali who had placed his best sharpshooters in the front of the infantry with clear instructions to target the Maratha sardars. Viswas Rao’s body was brought to Bhau, who placed it on his own elephant. The news of Viswas Rao’s death spread like the proverbial wildfire within the Maratha army with disastrous effect on the morale of an already exhausted force.

Now Sadashiv Rao Bhau made perhaps what could be considered the biggest tactical blunder of the battle, without realising the import of his actions. He wanted to rally the forces and therefore, dismounted from his elephant and mounted his charger—a cardinal mistake. The troops, already reeling from the news of the death of Viswas Rao, saw the ‘empty’ seat on Bhau’s elephant, thought that he too had fallen and instinctively took flight. The battle was lost.

The Ethos of the Hindu Army

Starting from the great Battle of Kurukshetra in the Mahabharata, in all battles of note, the commander of the army always led from the front. Consequently, the death or incapacitation of the general invariably led to the rout of the forces he commanded and the end of the battle. The battle was always fought for the general and the common soldier was not motivated to continue fighting once the commander had fallen. This ethos remained entrenched in the medieval Hindu armies.

Around the 17th century, the European way of war had started to move away from this ethos—the generals did not physically take personal part in the battle proper but ‘directed’ their forces from a safe distance. The concept of the general leading his forces into battle, originated within the ancient Hindu armies that adhered to the age-old concept of Dharmayudha—war conducted according to certain laid down and accepted laws of war and rules regarding its moral conduct.

The Muslim armies that started the medieval invasion of Hindustan wavered from this norm of Dharmayudha to the consternation of the Hindu armies. However, the established Muslim dynasties in Hindustan gradually tended to adopt the Hindu ethos of leading from the front and the generals led their forces into battle.

Ahmad Shah Abdali had studied the European warfighting techniques and did not lead his forces into battle personally. He directed the conduct of the fighting from a vantage point, thereby lessening the chances of personal danger to himself.

As panic spread amongst the Marathas along with the news of Viswas Rao’s death, a contingent of around 2000 Afghans, employed by a Maratha sardar, turned against the Maratha camp followers and started to loot the camps indiscriminately, turning the turmoil in the Maratha ranks even more intense. It is reliably reported that Bhau was taken by surprise by the behaviour of the soldiers and more so by the fleeing of the middle level commanders of the force. He was abandoned on the battlefield with only around 200 loyal bodyguards. Meanwhile Holkar started to move with his forces towards Delhi along with the women’s entourage. There are two different explanations for Holkar’s actions, both of which cannot be confirmed with any level of assurance.

The first is that Bhau had pre-arranged with Holkar to make this move if the battle was going against them and had now given the signal to Malhar Rao to initiate this action. The second, given mainly in the reports that Muslim chroniclers have written, is that Holkar had made a secret pact with Najib Khan to quit the field and took this precipitate action. The real reason for Holkar’s withdrawal cannot be established with any certainty. What is certain is that Holkar left the field only after Viswas Rao’s death became known, which would be after at least 2 PM in the afternoon.

Bhau now felt that defeat was imminent. He was emotionally drained by the death of his favourite nephew and the uncalled-for desertion of his soldiers and junior commanders—he took to the field along with the normal soldiers. The Maratha forces were now collapsing on all fronts; Ibrahim Khan was wounded and captured; and Shamsher Bahdur, although badly wounded was fighting bravely while being surrounded, gradually being forced to retreat with his decimated forces. Sadashiv Rao was hard-pressed in the centre but attempted to rally the forces around him. Many sardars of note—Tukoji Scindia, Jankoji, and others—attempted to make Sadashiv Rao retreat, but the brave Bhau refused to do so. He was slaughtered in the melee by some unknown Afghan soldiers and his head cut off. His body was later identified, and the decapitated head recovered for a ritual funeral to be held.

The battle ended around 4 PM with most Maratha sardars either dead, wounded, captured or having left the field. Afghan soldiers pursued the fleeing Marathas for up to 20 miles from Panipat, slaughtering as many as possible. The Marathas, soldiers and non-combatants alike, were subject to cold-blooded, vengeful and savage massacre with the tacit approval of Abdali. Men were beheaded and their heads piled up, while the women were reduced to slavery irrespective of rank or birth. Shamsher Bahadur succumbed to his injuries in Dig; Ibrahim Khan was executed; and Holkar made it to Suraj Mal’s kingdom, where he was cordially received.

The defeat at Panipat inflicted on the Marathas a heavy loss in military power, resources and political prestige. They forfeited control of India and lost the only chance to have created a Hindu Empire in Delhi. It was not only a political set-back but equally a moral disaster for the Marathas. Their support and prestige in North India came crashing down and had to be built back from scratch. Sadashiv Rao Bhau’s objective was to create an India for Indians—the land all the way to the River Indus was to be ruled by Indians themselves, not by Persians, Turks or Afghans. Drawing his authority from the great Peshwa in Pune, he strove to deliver on his lofty dream. He fell short because his captains did not fully understand his higher objectives and the strategy and the tactics to achieve it; the Maratha traditional warfare methods were not up to the enormous task; the army was unable to adapt sufficiently to the modus operandi of the more modern military equipment which required the adaption of different tactics; and finally the bane of Indian politics, internal strife and the selfish and aggrandising attitude of minor chiefs and princes.    

© [Sanu Kainikara] [2022]
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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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