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


Canberra, 18 March 2022

Peshwa Balaji Rao’s Circumstances

News from the North Indian expedition was slow to reach Pune. The Peshwa was sanguine under the illusion that he had provided all resources required for Sadashiv Rao Bhau to succeed in his mission. A few favourable titbits reached Pune, such as the easy victory over Kunjpura, which only helped to cement the Peshwa’s belief in the assured success of the northern expedition. Such was his firm belief in Sadashiv Rao’s victory over Ahmad Shah Abdali and of bringing North India fully under the Maratha flag that in October 1760, during the Dussehra festival time, he moved north to oversee the political settlement of Delhi and surrounds after Abdali was evicted. He moved to Ahmednagar, then Daund, which he left for Karmala on 17th November.

Peshwa’s last communication with Bhau was a letter dated 14th November, which indicated that the Maratha contingent in the north was in an advantageous position vis-à-vis the invading Afghan forces. However, subsequent lack of communications with the Northern Army had started to worry Balaji Rao—the fact was that Bhau’s letters to the Peshwa were being cleverly intercepted by Abdali, now starting to establish his camp between the Maratha forces and Delhi. Other Maratha commanders operating independently outside the ambit of the main Maratha force under Bhau, such as Naro Shankar and Govind Pant were aware that Bhau was bottled up at Panipat. It is highly unlikely that they did not know of the food shortages afflicting the Maratha forces from mid-December. However, for some unfathomable reason they never communicated this piece of critical information to Balaji Rao. It could be that they did not appreciate the dire situation that Bhau’s army had reached, and they were unaware of the real conditions in the Maratha camp at Panipat.

Only in a letter dated 28th December did Nana Phadnis write candidly to his cousin, ‘The enterprise has turned out heavier than expected. There is no money, and the prices are high so the army is rattled’. Even in times of peace a letter took three weeks to reach the River Godavari from Panipat. Therefore, even if Bhau had sent requests for financial assistance and military reinforcements to the Peshwa in early December, and even if Balaji had responded immediately in a positive manner, the additional help would not have reached Panipat before the day of the battle, 14th January 1761. The battle was already playing out from the first week of December.

In the event, the Peshwa was already in dire financial straits and could not have undertaken another expedition to support Sadashiv Rao, even had he wanted to make an attempt. He was also having domestic troubles with his wife and had decided to marry a second time, even though both his sons were already married. Balaji went on to marry a rich money lender’s daughter, which could also have been an opportunistic move to lighten his financial debt burden. In the meantime, Bhau was being advised by his friends in Pune that the Peshwa had ‘no memory’ of the army of the Hindustan and that he should not expect any assistance. That assistance would not be forthcoming from Pune was a fact, but the report that Balaji had ‘forgotten’ about the North Indian expedition was a clear exaggeration. The opposite was true—Balaji was constantly fretting about the lack of communications from the northern army. His concern reached a stage wherein the lack of news made him set out personally with an army to bring relief to Bhau—he entered Malwa on 18th January 1761 and send a message to Sadashiv Rao to contain Abdali till he himself arrived on the scene to take charge of the expedition.

When the Peshwa reached Bhilsa, his forces intercepted a banker’s private message on 24th January. This letter, in metaphor, indicated that some great mishap had befallen the Maratha army of North India. The letter contained the enigmatic words, ‘… two pearls dissolved, 25 gold mohurs lost, and the silver and copper the total cannot be cast up …’. While the actual meaning of these words was being debated, the news of the debacle at Panipat reached the Peshwa’s camp. On hearing the news, Balaji retired to his tent with a broken heart. Over the next one month, with more men of the ill-fated expedition trickling back to the Maratha camp, a broader and fuller picture of the battle and the defeat began to emerge. By early February, Balaji Rao had received confirmed news of the death of his eldest son, the destruction of his splendid army, and the death of his dearest brother Sadashiv Rao Bhau in battle—the news drove him to inconsolable grief.

The Battle of Panipat was the first great defeat of a Maratha army, it was also the first time that someone from the immediate family of the Peshwa had been killed in battle. Even before this event the Peshwa’s health had been frail, and his constitution declining. It is rumoured that he was suffering from consumption. The shock of the defeat and the deaths proved too much for Balaji to bear and he decided not to continue north to Delhi as per the original plan.

There have been later-day speculations amongst analysts that had Holkar and Naro Shankar stayed on in Delhi, Abdali would have returned to his country from Panipat instead of taking over and ransacking the Mughal capital. This hypothesis cannot be substantiated and would have to be discounted as wishful thinking, especially since available Maratha forces were few in number and the Peshwa was too far away to be of any immediate assistance. Sawai Madho Singh of Jaipur send out a feeler to the Peshwa exploring the possibility of joining forces to oppose Abdali, which was rejected by Balaji Rao. Madho Singh subsequently sided with Najib Khan instead of the Marathas and stayed neutral during the conflict. This was another opportunity lost to bring about Hindu unity to oppose external aggression into the sub-continent.

Abdali started his journey back on 20th March, fearing a rebellion by his own troops; Shujah-ud-Daulah returned to Awadh; and Najib Khan retired to the foothills of the Kumaon. All the main opponent of the Marathas in the Battle of Panipat ‘retired’ within a few months of the battle, not having achieved any substantial advantage in terms of territorial gains or harbouring resources. A broken Peshwa started his return to the South on 22nd March 1761, his health deteriorating at a rapid rate. He crossed the Rivers Narmada and Tapti and was suffering from loss of weight, failing memory and irritable temper. He died in the early part of the night of 23rd June 1761, aged 43 years. His second son, Madhav Rao, was vested with the robes of the Peshwa with the blessings of the king on 17th July 1761.

Balaji Rao – An Appreciation

The general good fortune of the Marathas is often clubbed with the Peshwa tenure of Balaji Rao, although it actually originated much before he came to power. Because of the prevalent national prosperity and being an accepted nobleman and celebrity purely by virtue of his birth, Balaji is often credited with achieving Maratha greatness, beyond what he actually deserves. There is no doubt that Balaji was a person of considerable political sagacity—a wise and far-sighted politician. He was very refined in his behaviour, which automatically enhanced his stature and gave him a statesman-like demeanour, and he possessed great wisdom, tinged with a streak of cunningness. However, by no means was he solely responsible for the rise and greatness of the Maratha Empire.  

Although considered sensuous and even indolent at times, he was generous and charitable, and invariably kind and considerate to relatives and dependents. A prominent characteristic trait was that he was vehemently against violence in all dealings, especially when employed in an oppressive personal manner. He balanced the exercise of power of the highest order.

Balaji paid particular attention to the administration of the territories under his direct control, as well as in a general manner across the kingdom. He brought the collectors of revenue under his control and made the revenue system as equitable as possible. The success of this endeavour and his ensuring that the administration of justice was speedy and impartial made him almost an object of worship for the common peasants of the kingdom. The Maratha dominion saw its greatest spread and prosperity under his stewardship. The entire South India was under his control till the defeat at the Battle of Panipat laid him low. The accounts written by English historians have not given due credit to Balaji for his rule and achievements.

On the debit side, he was indirectly (and perhaps unknowingly) responsible for the rise of English power in the sub-continent. By leading the charge to destroy the maritime power of the Angre family, by defeating and banishing Tulaji Angre and paralysing de Bussy in the Deccan, he freed the English military machine, led by Robert Clive, to deal with Bengal and thereby establish the first foundation of the British Empire in the Indian sub-continent.

Unusually for a Peshwa, Balaji Rao was a great builder. He spent vast sums of money in bettering his favourite city, Pune. He encouraged trade, built fountains to beautify the city, improved the roads and created new suburbs called ‘peths’—Sadashivpeth and Narayanpeth are examples of the Peshwa’s building spree and continue to be populous and fashionable suburbs in the old part of Pune. He also built temples on Parvati Hills, also converting the venerated hill into a monument for the Maratha kings. He also built a personal palace on the hill in which he finally breathed his last. Parvati Hill continues to be a place of worship and pilgrimage, from where the great city of Pune can be viewed in all its glory and the greatness of Peshwa Balaji Rao appreciated.

‘Thence can be seen, like a map unrolled, Poona city, her sister rivers, the Muta and Mulla, the shrine of Alandi, and the silver thread of Tukaram’s Indryani; while far away to the west the dark hill forts of the Sahyadris recall the days when Maratha armies rode forth to Delhi, and the fame of Balaji the Peshwa resounded from the Indus river [sic] to the southern seas.’

—C.A. Kincaid & Rao Bahadur D.B. Parasnis,

A History of the Maratha people, Volume III, p. 77.            

Consequences of the Defeat

The Indian Pathans and the Rohillas of the North gained the maximum from the Maratha defeat at Panipat. The Maratha controlled areas in the Doab, particularly the province of Etawah, was taken over by the Pathans. Before departure, Abdali appointed Hafiz Rahmat Khan as his ‘Vakeel-i-Mutalik’, Special Agent, at the Delhi court. With a sort of power struggle going on between various nobles in the court, Najib Khan became the most powerful man in Delhi. The loser in all this was Shujah-ud-Daulah, who not only did not gain any territory but also lost the support of the Marathas who had been trying to wean him to their side.

The Jats profited greatly from the absence of both the Marathas and the Afghans from North India. They first took over the territories around Bharatpur and on 12th June 1761, took over Agra from the nominal Mughal commander occupying the fort. Subsequently Suraj Mal recovered Jat holdings in Aligarh and Bulundshahr, which had been seized by Abdali in March 1760. He also made fresh conquests from Rajput holdings. Suraj Mal consolidated the Jat kingdom by defeating rebel Jat chiefs, spreading his control to Sarai Khawaja Basant about 20 miles south of Delhi. He further created a separate holding west of Delhi for his son to rule, covering Mewar and some Baluch territories. Although the Jats did not participate in the battle, Suraj Mal having withdrawn from the Maratha alliance because of differences of opinion with Sadashiv Rao and the younger leadership, they benefitted most from the defeat of the Marathas and the confused political situation that followed in North India.

The Maratha defeat reverberated in the Deccan and South India also. On Balaji Rao’s death the Nizam and Haidar Ali both reneged on their agreements with the Marathas and repudiated the treaty made after their defeat at Udgir. The Marathas could not institute any immediate remedial measures. They had now lost interest in holding on to Punjab and there was no leader of calibre willing to go to the faraway province and tame it. The reason for this apathy was both social and geographical—the people of the Punjab were antagonistic and the terrain and weather not conducive to traditional Maratha campaigning. The Marathas reappointed Adina Beg as the governor.

The defeat at Panipat led to the untimely death of several brilliant and younger generals of the Marathas. This loss could not be ignored. Other than the loss of pedigreed leadership, and the accompanying loss of stature, nothing more of significance was lost. Sadashiv Rao, while being the most trustworthy person in the kingdom for the Peshwa and his cousin, was at the fundamental level only an employee and not legally an heir to the Peshwa’s property or offices. Therefore, his death, while of significance, did not have any long-term impact. Viswas Rao’s death was more intimate and an emotional blow to Balaji Rao, from which he never recovered. The Scindia family suffered the most in terms of casualties—two sons and a grandson of Ranoji Scindia perished in the debacle.

The most difficult consequence from the battle to absorb was the death of Peshwa Balaji Rao. If he had lived in full vigour for another two decades, it is highly likely that the Maratha Empire would have withstood the ravages of invasions and time for a few centuries more before the inevitable disintegration set in. While the defeat at Panipat was not the primary reason for Balaji’s untimely death, it accelerated the poor health conditions that he suffered from and advanced his death, becoming the proverbial ‘last nail in the coffin’.

Peace Negotiations

Abdali was keen to make peace with the Marathas immediately after the battle. His primary and only aim was to ensure that the promised tribute from the Punjab was delivered punctually without Afghan forces having to be send to collect it forcefully. He also hoped to establish a status quo between the Marathas and his proxies in North India, Shujah-ud-Daulah and the Rohillas. Knowing that the Peshwa was already at Bhilsa with a large army and acutely aware of the open rebellion in parts of his army, Abdali could not afford an open war with the mighty Marathas. The defeat at Panipat had in no way diminished the power of the Marathas. Therefore, he put out feelers to achieve a negotiated peace.

Abdali wrote to the Peshwa apologising for the battlefield deaths of Viswas Rao and Sadashiv Rao Bhau. Even though the victor in the battle, he also accepted Maratha administration and control of Delhi, wanting only the control of western Punjab up to the River Sutlej for himself. The letter finished with Abdali soliciting the friendship of the great Peshwa. This message was perhaps a unique correspondence in the annals of medieval Indian warfare, where the victor was soliciting the good graces of the vanquished.

Abdali’s peace emissary, Gulraj, met the Peshwa on 10th February 1761. The Peshwa in turn send Gangadhar Chandrachud to Delhi to progress the peace deal and appointed Malhar Rao Holkar as his representative to conclude the agreement. Both the Peshwa and Abdali recognised the need to have relative peace and their intentions in making the initial movements were correct. However, intermediaries on both sides, operating at the periphery of power and trying to further their own vested and sectarian interests continuously thwarted the good intentions of their principals. With the Peshwa’s rapidly declining health used as a ruse, his ‘representatives’ managed to ensure that Abdali’s personal emissary never met the Peshwa individually and therefore could not convey Abdali’s personal regret and condolences for the slaughter at Panipat, which would have been a salve to the grieving Balaji Rao. After nearly two months of futile talks the peace negotiations broke up. Peace initiatives would continue sporadically and was finally concluded by Peshwa Madhav Rao more than a year later.

Analysing the Battle of Panipat

The Third Battle of Panipat was one of the saddest episodes in the history of not only the Marathas but that of the sub-continent itself. The earlier two major battles fought on the plains of Panipat were both of enormous political significance but were never followed by the kind of wanton massacre that accompanied the Maratha defeat. There is continuing debate, even today, regarding the religious nature of the battle and the broader conflict of the time. A careful analysis of all the events and factors of influence brings out clearly the fact that the Marathas were not fighting a war of religion or language; whereas Abdali used the religious card at all opportune moments and propagated the myth of the Marathas wanting to wipe out the Muslims in Hindustan. In reality, the Marathas had no ill-will towards the Muslims of Delhi or Panipat, never desecrated any of their tombs or mosques and had a large contingent of Muslims in their army. On the other hand, Abdali had not one Hindu soldier in his army.

For Abdali and his Muslim allies, the Hindus, represented by the might of the Marathas, were the enemy whereas the Marathas were relatively mild in their treatment of the Muslim population. The Marathas never slaughtered disarmed soldiers or civilians in any of their battles unlike the invading Muslim armies, like the Afghans led by Abdali, who made a habit of post-battle slaughter of unarmed non-Muslim soldiers and even non-combatants. It must also be made clear that the Marathas after becoming the predominant power in Delhi never appointed a Hindu, even of North Indian origin, to a high position in the Delhi court. They reserved all such positions for Muslim nobles.

At Panipat, the Marathas fought with distinct bravery. Viswas Rao was only 19-years old when he led the final charge from the front and his bravery is acknowledged even by Afghan commanders. There are many ballads and legends prevalent in the Panipat region regarding the bravery and stature of Sadashiv Rao Bhau and Janakoji Scindia, still being passed on by word of mouth and sung by jogis—both Hindu and Muslim. This tradition is ample proof of the religiously tolerant policies practised by the Maratha leadership, even when they were in dire straits.

As happens occasionally in history, the debacle at Panipat made the Marathas become even stronger and to shine better in the historical analysis of the Indian sub-continent, instead of dampening their spirits. The new leadership that took over after the battle of Panipat analysed and imbibed a unique experience of politics and war that contributed directly to a heightened appreciation of national pride and cultural sentiments. The valiant generals—Sadashiv Rao Bhau, Viswas Rao, Dattaji and Janakoji Scindias, Ibrahim Khan Gardi—did not die in vain on the plains of Panipat. They left an indelible mark on the firmament of their nation’s future and ennobled it to greater efforts at achieving political, cultural and religious independence. A younger generation, who had witnessed the struggles, triumphs and the defeat of their elders, stood ready to shoulder the enormous responsibilities that came with the untimely and tragic deaths of their senior leaders. The disaster at Panipat was felt in every Maratha home and stirred every Maratha soul to give its utmost when the clarion call from the nation to defend its honour came soon after.

From a purely unbiased analysis it emerges that there was no need for the Marathas to have fought the Battle of Panipat. Abdali had not harassed the Marathas or even entered Maratha territories. The confrontation was a contest for control of the Punjab—the Marathas wanted to use Punjab to improve their somewhat precarious and heavily debt-ridden financial situation. There was no other reason for their foray into the Punjab. In fact, Abdali had accepted the Maratha-backed appointment of Shah Alam to the Delhi throne and accepted the Maratha demand for him to stay north of Sirhind. The Marathas fought at Panipat as nothing more than proxies for an already defunct Mughal dynasty.


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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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