The Marathas Part 15 Peshwa Madhav Rao Section II The Mysore Wars

Canberra, 30 May 2022

While the Marathas were focusing on North India and playing the role of the king-maker, in the Carnatic, Haidar Ali’s power in Mysore was growing. The continuing internal struggles of the Marathas facilitated the rise of a new Muslim power on the ruins of the older Hindu dynasty that had so far ruled Mysore. The new ‘ruler’ Haidar Ali Khan planned the conquest of the southern districts of the Maratha kingdom.

In 1760, Haidar Ali, with the help of Khande Rao, managed to displace the powerful Dalwa of Mysore, Nandraj, at the request of the Queen-mother, whose son the king Chikka Krishna Raja was still young. Having removed the Dalwa, Haidar Ali assumed all the powers of the administration and kept the king as a mere puppet, fully dependent on him. He neutralised Khande Rao, his co-conspirator, through a skilful combination of military strength and pure trickery—imprisoning him in a cage and starving him to death. He thus became the sole master of the Mysore kingdom.

On receiving information of the Maratha defeat at Panipat, Haidar Ali reneged on the promise he had made to Peshwa Balaji Rao to surrender Baramahal. He then started to push north and east from his borders to expand his territories towards River Krishna. He also induced Basalat Jang, another disenfranchised brother of Nizam Ali, to join him in this move north. Basalat was keen to carve out an independent principality for himself in the Carnatic. Together, the duo captured Hoskote, Dod Ballapur and Sira. In 1762, Haidar drove the Maratha garrison out of Sira and installed himself as the Nawab of Sira, assuming the title Haidar Ali Khan Bahadur.

Subsequently a lieutenant of Haidar Ali, Fazl Ali Khan, continued the aggressive moves in an attempt to extend the Mysore borders to the banks of River Krishna. He occupied Maratha lands, driving the garrison out of Dharwar in 1763 and annexing the district. The loss of such a large swath of territory deprived the Maratha state of revenue in excess of 50 lakh rupees per annum. Haidar Ali’s offensive was made possible by the fact that the Maratha administration was paralysed by internal strife and by the second invasion of the Nizam from the east. By 1763, the frontier of Mysore had been pushed to River Krishna.

After containing and defeating the rebel forces at Rakshasabhavan, the Peshwa was free to stabilise the Carnatic and bring the affairs there to order. After hostilities with the Nizam had been satisfactorily concluded, Madhav Rao proceeded towards River Tungabhadra. He ordered Gopalrao Patwardhan, the chief of Miraj whose territories extended to the northern banks of River Krishna to check Fazl Khan’s advance into Maratha territory. To aid him, the Peshwa send a strong contingent of troops to Miraj.

First Maratha–Mysore Encounter

Even without the reinforcements, Patwardhan’s army was numerically superior to the Mysore forces facing them. However, there was a distinct difference in the quality of the soldiers, with the Muslim forces being decidedly superior in capabilities. Even the Peshwa’s reinforcements did not alter this equation. Buoyed by the reinforcements from the Peshwa, in April 1764 Patwardhan engaged Fazl Ali Khan’s forces on his own without a proper plan and was soundly defeated. Madhav Rao arrived immediately after this defeat and crossed River Krishna with 30,000 cavalry, sufficient infantry, and a great train of artillery. In the face of overwhelming forces, Fazl Khan fell back and joined Haidar Ali’s main camp. The Mysore forces were heavily outnumbered by the Maratha army.  

Haidar Ali was entrenched in his camps at Savnur and Bednur and hoped to entice the Peshwa to attack his well-prepared defensive positions. However, Madhav Rao saw the trap and refused to attack fortified camps. He took swift action with his cavalry and cut off all communications channels of the Mysore army. His detachments recovered Maratha territories that had been captured earlier. Subsequently Haidar Ali attempted to lure the Peshwa to attack his camp by leading out a 20,000-strong force in a feigned attack. Madhav Rao turned the tables, leading Haidar Ali and this force further away from his camps than was expected, while the main Maratha army closed in on its flanks. Almost surrounded, Haidar Ali extricated himself with great difficulty and fell back to his camp while suffering immense casualties.

Few days later Haidar Ali led out a detachment of over 1000 cavalry in a raid. The force was intercepted and defeated by the Maratha army. It is reliably reported that only Haidar Ali and 50 troopers managed to escape and return to camp. The Marathas laid siege to the Mysore camp, which was only lifted at the onset of monsoon rains. Meanwhile, the Peshwa crossed River Tungabhadra with a large force and captured eastern districts of Bednur and some of the western districts of Mysore.

Early in 1765, Haidar Ali’s camp was besieged again, and he was forced to retreat to Mysore. The Mysore forces faced the normal fate of all retreating armies in front of the ferocious Maratha cavalry. Three days into the retreat, Haidar Ali was forced to give battle and was emphatically defeated. His army was broken and fled to the woods in disarray, with Haidar Ali taking refuge in Bednur. The garrisons of Ikkeri, Anantpur and Bednur surrendered meekly to the Peshwa. The time was ripe for crushing Haidar Ali’s power once and for all.

As so often happened in the long narrative of Indian history, internal dissentions and a lack of loyalty to higher purposes like national sovereignty and religion, brought about a change in circumstances in the Maratha camp at this juncture. Ever conciliatory with his recalcitrant uncle clamouring for power, Madhav Rao placed him in command of the victorious forces, asking him to follow up on the inroads already made and to put an end to Muslim power in Mysore. Raghunath Rao, incapable by now of thinking beyond his own parochial interests and wanting to establish his own independent position, granted a favourable peace to Haidar Ali instead of destroying his power. The golden opportunity to crush the rising Muslim power in Mysore had been irrevocably lost. The ulterior motive for this action was that Raghunath Rao wanted to ensure a safe retreat for himself and his entourage if his attempt to usurp power in the Maratha kingdom failed. It is noteworthy that the offer of peace to Haidar Ali and its terms were not discussed with the Peshwa. Incensed with this act of ‘treachery’ by his uncle, but honourable as always and wanting to demonstrate unity within the ruling hierarchy, Madhav Rao accepted the peace with Haidar Ali. By June 1765, the Peshwa was back in Pune.

Janoji Bhonsle

Even though a peace deal had been accepted with Haidar Ali, Madhav Rao knew that his power had to be crushed properly if the Carnatic was to stabilise. He was anxious to achieve this objective before the Maratha nobles started to create internal divisions that would require his personal attention to subdue and reconcile. Accordingly, he made a conciliatory approach to Nizam Ali, granting him territories that yielded revenue of 15 lakh rupees, in return for an agreement to cooperate against Haidar Ali.

Meanwhile, Janoji Bhonsle was continuing to stir trouble within the Maratha kingdom by instigating Raghunath Rao to mount a fresh rebellion. Madhav Rao was aware of these activities and acted to nip it in the bud. In the winter of 1765–66, a combined army of the Marathas and the Nizam invaded Berar, the Bhonsle stronghold. Janoji’s resistance was easily brushed aside and on 4th January 1766, he was forced to surrender three-quarters of his total territorial holdings to the Peshwa. A majority potion of the surrendered lands was given to the Nizam in return for promised assistance against Haidar Ali. However, the Nizam had never been trustworthy and simultaneously had opened secret negotiations with the English to plot the downfall of Haidar Ali and then to take on the Marathas. At the same time, he was aligned with Haidar Ali to conquer Arcot. Seeing the duplicity of the Nizam, Madhav Rao decided to act on his own against Haidar Ali.

Second Encounter

The Maratha forces advanced into Mysore territory. Haidar Ali feared to face the Marathas on the field and continued to withdraw while following a scorched earth policy. By end-March 1766, the Marathas had captured Sira and Madgiri, with Haidar Ali’s commander at Sira taking up service under the Peshwa. Independent of the Maratha offensive, the Nizam in conjunction with the English was threatening the southern borders of Haidar Ali’s territories. Unable to withstand the double onslaught, Haidar Ali sued for peace with the Peshwa. Unknown to Haidar Ali, this peace overture he put forward came at an opportune moment for the Peshwa. Madhav Rao was running out of finances to continue further advances into Mysore territory. He was also anxious to get back to his support base before the onset of the monsoon rains since there were a number of rivulets to cross, difficult operations when they were in spate.

Peace was agreed with Haidar Ali paying an indemnity of 35 lakh rupees, paying half upfront and pledging Kolar district in lieu of the other half, which was paid in full in May 1767. Madhav Rao returned in triumph to Pune.

Second Civil War

As mentioned in the previous chapter purely to maintain the flow of the narrative, while Madhav Rao was triumphantly stabilising the Carnatic, Raghunath Rao was leading an expedition to North India, ostensibly to avenge the defeat at Panipat and to reclaim Delhi. The expedition fared badly because of faulty and faltering leadership, especially after the death of Malhar Rao Holkar on 10th May 1766 deprived Raghunath of an experienced counsel. The expedition had returned to the Deccan in June 1767 with a depleted treasure chest and having suffered many casualties, while having achieved nothing of significance.

Raghunath Rao almost immediately entered into correspondence with the disgruntled Janoji Bhonsle, conspiring against the Peshwa. The Peshwa, an astute statesman, had offered Raghunath Rao the jagir around Trimbak along with the fort for him to ‘retire’. However, Raghunath Rao, haughty and overestimating his own power and status, demanded half the Maratha empire for himself. Madhav Rao rejected the demand outright and a civil war was in the offing.

Raghunath Rao raised an army of 15,000 and received support not only from Janoji, but also from Gaikwar and the Diwan of the Holkars. Madhav Rao did not waste any time marching north and surprised Raghunath Rao on 10th June 1768 in the open ground near Dhodap fort, close to Nasik. Lacking cohesion and led by inept commanders, the rebel army was easily defeated. Raghunath Rao was taken prisoner and send to Pune, where he was imprisoned in a small palace. He was allowed no visitors other than his wife and was declared a state prisoner, under the charge of Nana Phadnavis. The menace of a rebel who cared for nothing else but his own power had been temporarily put to rest. 

The Peshwa next turned towards Janoji Bhonsle. He renewed his alliance with the Nizam and a combined army invaded Berar. Unable to fight back, Janoji sued for peace. He was forced to sign an agreement on 23rd March 1769 handing over large parts of his territories to the Peshwa, reducing him effectively to a position of a subordinate ally. Further, Janoji Bhonsle was prohibited from independently interacting with any foreign power, thus conclusively bringing this rebel also to heel. In the division of spoils between the Marathas and the Nizam, once again the Nizam was the one who gained more. A narrative in the Pune archives mentions that the uneven division was done ‘for the firm establishment of peace and friendship’. It also points to the agreement with the Nizam being for the conduct of further joint operations in the Carnatic, obviously against Haidar Ali. However, changing political circumstances did not permit such actions to eventuate.

Having settled all challenges domestically, Madhav Rao, now firmly ensconced on the throne, was ready to focus on Maratha affairs abroad.

Impact of the First Anglo–Mysore War

By August 1767, the first Anglo-Mysore war was festering with the principal actors manoeuvring openly to create advantages for themselves before hostilities broke out. This situation thrust the Marathas as the decisive factor in South Indian political developments. The Peshwa was being courted on the one hand by the English and their ally Muhammad Ali, Nawab of Karnatak and on the other by Haidar Ali and the Nizam. Both the protagonists wanted the Marathas to be aligned in their camp.

The English, controlled from Madras, wanted the Peshwa on their side and in return promised to let him annex Bednur and Sonda, provided he assigned Salsette and Bassein to the English. The Peshwa was also to support the English in their action against Haidar Ali. If Madhav Rao would not actively support the English, they wanted assurance that he would remain neutral in the emerging contest. They promised to restore the Hindu dynasty of Mysore, who would pay chouth to the Marathas while remaining an English protectorate. The Peshwa wanted the English to assist him in replacing the untrustworthy Nizam Ali with his loyalists in Hyderabad, a proposal that was opposed by the English high command in Bengal. They feared that such a move would make the Marathas dangerously powerful and a hinderance to the further expansion of English power and influence in the sub-continent. The victory in Bengal had made the English ambitious to gain further territories and their naked avarice was open for all to see in their actions. The origins of the Anglo–Maratha rivalry and clashes that were to take place in the future can be discerned in these deliberations.

At this juncture, Madhav Rao was only recovering from the civil war and was low on finances. Hemmed in by circumstances, he had no option but to opt for neutrality. In February 1768, the English in Bombay send an expedition against Haidar Ali and simultaneously send an envoy to the Peshwa’s court in Pune—a diplomat called Thomas Mostyn—to ensure that the Peshwa remained neutral. The political situation was confused with the four principal players—English, Marathas, Nizam and Haidar Ali—continuing secret negotiations with each other. Because of the uncertainty that prevailed, a few months into the expedition, the English came to believe that the Peshwa was about to join forces with Haidar Ali. This was obviously an incorrect observation and conclusion. In reality the Peshwa was continuing his negotiations with the Nizam, planning a joint expedition against the Nawab of Arcot.

The English in Madras was low on resources and wanted to ensure a favourable peace at all costs. They revived the old plans to use Haidar Ali as a barrier against the increasing power of the Marathas. He agreed to a peace deal with the English on 2nd April 1679 with the proviso that the English would defend him against the Marathas, which was tacitly agreed. These covert manoeuvrings demonstrate the convoluted state of the political situation in the Deccan and South India during this time. No one was anyone else’s friend, and all were looking for alliances to better their own positions—alliances that could be, and often were, broken without any qualms when it suited a party.

This narrative is not going into the details of the First Anglo–Mysore War (which will be covered in a future volume) and will only examine its effect on the Maratha polity. In retrospect, it is obvious that Madhav Rao failed to exploit the volatile situation to his advantage. No doubt he was just recovering from an unnecessary civil war. However, by not taking decisive action he failed to extract any tribute from Haidar Ali for his neutrality and did not obtain control of any territory from the English for the same. The fact remains that although the Maratha entity remained the most powerful in the sub-continent, the unpatriotic and opportunistic actions of Raghunath Rao and Janoji Bhonsle had left the Peshwa with no spare capacity to enforce his will on the other bit-players on the stage. The Maratha state was crippled vis-à-vis resources, unity and cohesiveness towards achieving a common objective, depriving the enterprising young Peshwa of an opportunity to advance and fully establish Maratha supremacy in the sub-continent.

In less than a decade, multiple opportunities to create a greater Maratha polity were frittered away by in-fighting and individual ambition. It was only after Raghunath Rao and Janoji Bhonsle were well and truly contained that Madhav Rao could turn his full attention to matters outside the Maratha state.

Third Mysore War

After successfully containing the internal revolts, the Peshwa decided to lead an expedition against Haidar Ali. Taking advantage of the Maratha leader’s preoccupation with internal matters, Haidar Ali had lapsed in paying the promised annual tribute and had also lured Mir Reza, the commander who had entered the Peshwa’s service after the fall of Sira, to return to service with the Mysore army. Reza went on to occupy Bagepalli and Talpula. With his newfound confidence Haidar Ali forced the English in Madras to reiterate the defensive alliance against the Marathas, although they were not specifically mentioned in the new treaty.

The Peshwa acted in October 1769 and marched into Mysore territory. Haidar Ali retired south to Seringapatam, sending an urgent message to the English for assistance. In this expedition the Peshwa had organised his army for conquest and occupation rather than the usual Maratha plundering raids that imposed the Chauth—which was more often than not unenforceable—and then retired. He had created separate garrison forces, outside of the field forces, to accompany him and occupy the principal forts that would be captured. The English, astutely observing the Maratha manoeuvres recognised that the intrepid Peshwa had subtly changed his objectives from raiding to the subjugation of the entire Peninsula.

With the promised English help not materialising, Haidar Ali sued for peace. Madhav Rao was determined to destroy Haidar Ali’s power and demanded a crore rupees as indemnity and a further 14 lakh rupees as annual tribute (A crore is 10 million or 100 lakhs). Haidar Ali being unable to meet these demands, the negotiations broke down, as the demand was intended to do. The Maratha advance continued, with experienced civil officers accompanying the Peshwa taking over the administration of the districts as they were being conquered. In just two months, January and February 1770, the Peshwa occupied several important bastions of Mysore—Budihel, Kandikere, Handikere, Chikanayakanhalli, Bhairavdurg, Balapur, Nandigarh and a few more.

Haidar Ali, acutely aware of Madhav Rao’s military skills, acknowledged them by refusing to confront him in the field in open combat. He again resorted to his old tactics of following a scorched earth policy, devastating his own territories and taking refuge in the forest of Udagani. He sent his son Tipu to evacuate Seringapatam and make the city uninhabitable. In January 1770, Haidar Ali moved under cover of darkness and attacked a Maratha force commanded by Gopal Rao. The Marathas inflicted a crushing defeat on the attacking force and Haidar Ali rapidly marched to Seringapatam to avoid being caught between two Maratha armies—that of the Peshwa and Gopal Rao. At Seringapatam he barricaded himself in the fort, which was an island on the River Kaveri and almost impregnable.

In May 1770, the Peshwa captured the major forts of Devarayadurg and Nijgal. However, in June Madhav Rao’s health deteriorated and he was forced to return to Pune, accompanied by his brother Narayan Rao, who had been injured in the battle for Nijgal. Trimbak Rao Pethe was left in command of the Maratha expeditionary force, assisted by Gopal Rao. Trimbak continued the success of the expedition by capturing the great fortress of Gurramkonda in the Eastern Ghats. Madhav Rao had intended to resume command of the expedition in October 1770, but his continued ill-health prevented him from doing so. Instead he send a large reinforcement to Trimbak Rao.

By end-January 1771, Haidar Ali had reliably learned of the Peshwa’s illness and confirmed that he was not in command. Emboldened, he attempted to recover Balapur and was soundly defeated by Trimbak Rao. Haidar Ali now took up position at Malighat in entrenched positions, hoping to lure Trimbak Rao to attack, based on the numerical superiority of the Marathas. However, like his Peshwa, Trimbak did not succumb to the bait to attack a well-defended camp and continued to overrun district after district, placing them under Maratha administrative control. The Maratha conquest of the Carnatic was proceeding according to plan.

In a carefully planned move on 5th March 1771, Trimbak Rao mounted a surprise attack on Haidar Ali’s camp. The attack was a shock to the Muslim forces, who scattered and fled into the Cherkoli hills in disarray. Haidar Ali and a few of his mounted guards managed to reach the safety of Seringapatam. Trimbak following behind besieged the fort but could not overrun it. Haidar Ali, surrounded on two sides by large Maratha armies, left the protection of the Seringapatam fort and moved out. This move was perhaps prompted by Haidar’s need to prevent the Marathas from invading Bednur. The two armies met at Moti Talav, about 10 miles to the north-west of Seringapatam, on 7th March 1771. The Marathas achieved a decisive victory and captured enormous military booty, including some of Haidar Ali’s principal officers. It is reported that Haidar Ali had to flee back to the safety of Seringapatam disguised as a begging monk.

The lack of a concerted war plan and cohesive forward planning at the higher echelons of command in the Maratha army came to the fore at this juncture. Instead of crushing the defeated army, they permitted the remnants of the Mysore forces to withdraw to Seringapatam without pressing home the victorious attack. Further, they did not pursue the retreating force and gave Haidar Ali 10 days to prepare the defences of his fort. Only after nearly two weeks did Trimbak attempt a half-hearted siege of the Mysore capital, which was by now easily repulsed by Haidar Ali.

Minor and indecisive encounters and fruitless negotiations continued till the onset of the monsoon rains. By then Trimbak Rao had lost focus on the primary objective of the broader expedition, and he responded by an appeal from the Maratha chief ruling the principality of Tanjore for assistance against the Nawab of Arcot. By pulling out his forces from Seringapatam to assist Tanjore and the arrival of the monsoons gave Haidar Ali a badly needed respite and breathing time. He had actually reached the end of his tether and would have capitulated within weeks. Another opportunity lost and the status quo continued.

In Pune the Peshwa’s illness had by now become serious. To add to the uncertainty, the treasury was now exhausted and could not continue to support the expedition in the Carnatic, even though it had not suffered any setbacks. In April 1772, the Peshwa instructed Trimbak Rao to conclude a favourable peace treaty with Haidar Ali expeditiously. Haidar Ali, aware of the increasing constraints on the Marathas attempted to exploit them but was unsuccessful in the face of the overwhelming Maratha forces and the determination of their commander. The terms imposed on Haidar were severe. He was forced to surrender all Shivaji’s former conquests within Mysore control—Kolar, Bangalore, Balapur and Sira. He had to pay an indemnity of 36 lakh rupees and an annual tribute of 14 lakh rupees. The Mysore kingdom was reduced to being smaller in area than when Haidar Ali had come to power—the territory being small enough to be insignificant and therefore ignorable in larger strategic considerations.

On Hindsight …

The expedition could have been a much greater success and could have wiped out Haidar Ali’s power completely, if Trimbak Rao had exploited the splendid victory at Moti Talav. Unfortunately he failed to press home his attack after having conclusively defeated the adversary. This inability or reluctance among Hindu commanders and their armies to exercise the ruthlessness required to deal a ‘deathblow to an already vanquished enemy’ or to fight with the ultimate aim of ‘annihilating the enemy’ can be noticed through the entire Indian history narrative and has been one of the fundamental reasons for the long-term failure of the Hindu armies. The dichotomy is that this fighting quality of having to completely destroy the enemy in the battlefield has been extolled as an essential characteristic of great warriors in none other than the great treatise Bhagavad-Gita.

The Peshwa’s fatal illness and the perennial financial crisis in the Maratha treasury contributed directly to the less than optimum outcome. The financial strain of the Maratha treasury is also difficult to understand since, taken in totality, the Maratha state was rich beyond measure. However, the peculiar manner of fighting wars in which one commander was made responsible for marshalling all resources for an expedition while others did not contribute or participate led to financial shortages during military campaigns on a regular basis. More than the reason for the shortfall, what surprises an analyst is that no Peshwa, with supreme power over the polity, tried to rectify this situation—they continued to fight individual wars, borrowing finances from money-lenders at exorbitant interests.

The English played no role in the conflict. Although obliged by treaty to assist Haidar Ali, the Madras government demurred, wanting to maintain a ‘balance of power’ in the Carnatic. As narrated in the records of the English Madras Presidency (Madras Military Consultations, Volume 36), they thought it best to follow the policy of ‘keeping alive the hopes and fears of both parties by not determining in favour of either and without assuring assistance to the one or the other’. The beginnings of the English proclivity—which was gradually turned into policy at a future date—to play one ruler against the other, while keeping alive both their hopes for assistance, is clearly demonstrated. The end result was that the Madras government policy alienated Haidar Ali permanently and could not conciliate the Marathas. An early failure of English diplomacy.       


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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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