One question snaked throughout the land under Aurangzeb - How long? For how long do we endure the hateful Jiziya, the slaughter of Brahmins, forced conversions, and destruction of temples? How long will this genocidal ogre wallow in luxury while we drown in oceans of agony?
From an unlikely place came the answer - the sleepy Deccan. It opened its eyes and sent the heroic Shivaji, who lighted a fire under the land of the Mughals and set it right with his fists and fury.
For a long time, the Deccan had been stirring from its slumber by the booming wake up calls of Sant Tukaram, Dhyaneshwar, Eknath and Varkari Sampradaay. From the somber awakening and soul churning came Shivaji, a bold decisive force that shone an un-trod path to peace – The Way of the Warrior.
Mentored by his guru Sant Ramdas and steeped with the rejuvenating ideals of pristine Hindu classics, Shivaji loosened invisible fetters of his people and showed the world that he could draw blood. A talent this big is bound to generate a lot of sound and fury, and the throne of Aurangzeb started rattling. Shaking with rage he turned his attention to squashing the “mountain rat,” Shivaji. How the undaunted Shivaji retaliated and built a formidable Maratha empire that brought Aurangzeb to his knees, is the stuff of legends and an ode to the terrain that was an unshakeable ally in a wrenching odyssey against all odds.
Born in 1627 A.D to Shahji Bhonsle, a jagirdar (revenue collector) of Pune under the Sultan of Bijapur, Shivaji was inspired by his mother Jijabhai. Imbued by the warrior blood of her ancestors, the Yadavs who resisted the Arabs in the 13th century, Jijabhai spurred up his fervor to free the rugged land rife with injustice and misery. Under her guidance and the pragmatic wisdom of Sant Ramdev, Shivaji developed the political antenna and military skills to transform the Deccan from a rustic van stuck on neutral, to a military machine beating the drums of war.
Shivaji started small. With a few trusted companions, he raided the fort of Thorna and gathered enough treasure to raise an army. More forts followed – Raigarh, Singarh, Kondana and Purandhar. A pioneer in guerilla warfare (some of his techniques are still in use by Special Forces in modern India), he unleashed a firestorm of fiery action conquering many more forts and as a result getting many more enemies. Master of both, slow motion tactics and fast, furious action, he was able to bleed his powerful enemies and tie up major portions of their resources. The first enemy, the Sultan of Bijapur, sent his general Afzal Khan equipped with a large army to wipe out Shivaji. Shivaji took the initiative to arrange a meeting with Afzal Khan for navigating terms of war and peace. Afzal Khan came with treachery in his heart and murder in his veins. He carried a concealed dagger to stab Shivaji and waited for an opportunity to embrace him. At the precise moment when Afzal Khan embraced him, Shivaji struck with lightning speed the giant frame of Afzal Khan and plunged his tiger-claws (wagh-nakh) into his stomach leaving him stretched lifeless on the ground. Losing no time, the Maratha soldiers swooped on the Bijapur army and routed them to every man. Nothing succeeds like success and the fall of Bijapur resulted in a quantum leap in prestige and adulation from the Maratha nation.
Aurangzeb then sent Shaista Khan. With an army numbering over 150,000 men backed by a powerful artillery, Shaista Khan scaled the ramparts of the Chakan fort and besieged Pune. Adding insult to injury, he set up residence in Lal Mahal, the residence of Shivaji’s palace. Unfazed and defiant, Shivaji used another tactic. With a band of 200 followers, Shivaji infiltrated Pune using a wedding procession as a camouflage. Under cover of darkness at midnight the wedding guests woke up silently and quickly overcame all the palace guards and entered the quarters of Shaista Khan. In the surprise attack that followed, the Mughal troops were slain and Shaista Khan barely escaped with three missing fingers. He also lost his son.
Even when defeat stared him in the face in the next battle with Jai Singh, and he had to surrender several forts and go to Agra with his son, he did not lose heart. And when the haughty Aurangzeb humiliated him and later imprisoned him, Shivaji found a way to escape hidden in fruit baskets. After his return, the war with the Mughals continued. Shivaji recaptured many of the lost forts and acquired more territory. In 1674, Shivaji was crowned King of the Marathas. The “mountain rat” had now become a roaring lion. And the Deccan echoed his thundering roar all the way across the Arabian Sea and sands of Rajasthan to the walls of Imperial Delhi.
A tremendous innovator and administrator, Shivaji’s enlightened rule boasts of many firsts. He was the first to realize the importance of a potent navy and is credited as being “the father of Indian navy.” Also, he was the first to militarize large swathes of the population across all castes including the peasants near forts who were actively involved in their own defense. And most important, the first to introduce realpolitik, that is “battle to win” versus battling using tools of chivalry such as honor, pardoning the enemy and not destroying him when he was down and out. An enemy that fights as dirty as the Mughals, he reasoned, must be fought with a laser like focus to win no matter what it takes, never giving up the fight even at the most adverse of circumstances, and not stopping till the enemy is eradicated. To achieve this, he pioneered guerilla warfare. The main components of this warfare involved quick and daring attacks, taking the enemy by surprise, destroying advance guards and outposts, avoiding long and prolonged battles, luring the enemy to fight in terrains advantageous to the Marathas, lightning raids on supply lines, slowly wearing down the enemy using forts as bastions of resistance, weatherproofing their guns, developing capabilities to fight through monsoons and destroying the land owned by Mughals.
These tactics have enabled the Marathas to take on the most powerful war machine of that time in a protracted war lasting 27 years often in the most adverse of circumstances.
Shivaji’s ingenuity, military genius, and administrative prowess not only established the blueprints of modernity, such as good governance, religious harmony, erasure of caste based discrimination, effective central and provincial administration, and equitable revenue collection but also established highly mobile and light infantry, and a cavalry excelling in commando tactics. He also introduced a centralized intelligence department, swift flanking attacks, innovation of weapons and firepower, and innovative use of traditional weapons such as tiger claw (wagh-nakh) and vita. In addition he promoted Sanskrit and Marathi versus Persian and instilled pride in the Hindu nation.
By the time of his death in 1680, the Marathas were sitting pretty with hundreds of forts functioning as a backbone of defense, and a naval control of trade routes that helped in strangling imports of weapons and horses from Europe and Arabia to the Sultans and the Mughals. Therefore, when Aurangzeb turned his eyes on the Deccan after subduing the Rajputs, the Marathas were all fired up and ready to go with a standing army, a potent navy and guerilla skills marching to the battle hymn of “Har Har Mahadev”, to take on the greatest military power of the time.
After Shivaji’s death in 1680, the throne passed to his son Shambaji after a brief power struggle. In 1681, the mighty Mughal army was hammering on the borders of the Deccan. They came down like the “wolf on the fold”, thinking that their army of half a million would outnumber and easily destroy the fledgling Marathas surrounded by enemies. In addition to half a million soldiers, it had lakhs of horses and thousands of elephants, a powerful artillery, abundant wealth, and powerful allies such as the Portuguese, British, Siddis, Golkonda and Bijapur sultanates all willing and ready to strangle the 50 year old Maratha empire. The Marathas were outnumbered 3 to 1, and were surrounded by enemies to the right and left, north and south, but they never lost their gutsy verve and robust spirit. Their commando tactics and astonishing grit sustained the longest war fought on Indian soil, a war that lasted for 27 long years. To this day it remains an inspirational classic on the axiom “the strength of the enemy is not in its numbers or wealth.”
Even after his death, Shivaji’s legacy continued in the 27 year war or the Maratha wars, which put the brakes on India turning into an intolerant Islamic nation. Historians look at it as a crucial war that occurred in 3 phases. The first phase began in 1681 with Aurangzeb attacking the Marathas and Shambaji’s men responding with relentless harassment of the Mughal troops by daring hit and run raids on their supply lines. This forced four generals Shah Alam, Azam Shah, Sahabuddin Khan, and Ruhulla Khan to retreat to their base in Ahmednagar. Shambaji also hindered Aurangzeb’s negotiations with the Portuguese regarding the use of the Goa harbor for supplies. The Mughals were left with no reliable supply line. By 1688, the Mughals had suffered heavy losses and signs of possible defeat stared them in the face. But Aurangzeb used a weapon that Hindus rarely suspected – treachery. He got his jackpot when Shambaji was betrayed by one of his own and handed in chains to the Mughals. The savagery of Aurangzeb came out in all its hideousness. Captured in Sangameshwar, Shambaji was paraded on a donkey, his tongue was cut, his eyes were gouged out, and his body was hacked to pieces and fed to dogs.
The Marathas had reached a low point and seemed to stare at defeat. But the barbaric treatment given to Shambaji when he refused to convert to Islam, roused the fury of the Marathas and forged their mounting resolve to fight to the last man and drive out the tyrannical Mughals back to their shores. Just when Aurangzeb arrogantly assumed that the empire of the Marathas had crumpled to dust, they bounced back with steely nerves and a do-or-die spirit. The war against the Mughals was reinvigorated under Rajaram, the stepbrother of Shivaji, who inspired his troops with a rousing speech from the heart of the Maratha stronghold, the fort of Raigarh. There would be no more peace offers. It was war to the finish. Thus the second phase of the war began.
Aurangzeb pressed his advantage with the death of Shambaji by sending Zulfikar Khan who captured the key fort of Raigad due to the treachery of Suryaji Pisal. He then continued his offensive to capture another fort Panhala, and was on his way to lay siege to Rajaram in Vishalgad fort. The Maratha generals who anticipated this, arranged to move Rajaram to fort Jinji and sound the bugle call of defiance from that fort. Meanwhile the resourceful and bold generals Santaji Ghorpade, Dhanaji Jadhav, Ramchandra Bavadekar, Pralhad Niraji, Shankar Narayan, Parshuram Trimbak, Sidhoji Gujar, and Kanhoji Angre fought several battles both individually or in groups. They wreaked havoc on the Mughal army, with their mastery of lethal strikes, sudden ambushes, brilliant military maneuvers and disruptions in the supply line, which turned the tide of the war, and forced heavy losses on the Mughals.
For seven years the three hills of Jinji, in present day Tamil Nadu, had tied down a mammoth force of Mughals and their resources. It bled the Imperial army and the strains were showing. Aurangzeb grimly realized that he was no match for the native genius of the Marathas. However, impelled by messengers of doom, he stubbornly refused to follow the advice of his generals, and continued the fight.
In March of 1700, the Marathas had another setback. Their King Rajaram died and his queen Tarabai was in charge. For the next seven years, Tarabai, proved her mettle as the courageous daughter of the gallant Maratha Commander-in-chief Hambeerrao Mohite. The Marathas continued their brilliant strategy of defending forts and surrendering them just before the monsoon after using up all the food and water. This tactic tied down the resources of Mughals for several months as surrendering a fort in the monsoon is no loss due to the logistics of maintaining a fort amidst torrents of flooding water bleeds more resources. As soon as possible they regained the forts often stocked with food and water by the retreating Mughal forces. Thus the Marathas responded to the siege of Sajjangad, Panhala and Vishalgad. By 1704, Aurangzeb had only a couple of forts, Torana and Raigad, after 24 years of war with humongous loss of men and material.
Marathas continued their counter offensive in the North under the bold leadership of Tarabai. The Mughal provinces tumbled one after another like dominoes as the Mughals were in no position to defend with no army and no money. The Marathas marched north meeting little resistance. In 1705, two Maratha army factions crossed the Narmada and a Maratha general Nemaji Shinde managed to reach Bhopal. Dabhade and his 8000 men defeated Mahomed Khan’s forces numbering 14000 in the West and this left the entire coast of Gujarat in Maratha hands and more supply routes were in their tight grip.
The Marathas moved fast. Dhanaji won back all the major forts in Sahyadris, Parshuram Timbak won all the forts in Satara and Parali, and Shankar Narayan took Sinhgad.
For the first time, Aurangzeb despondent and bogged down, thought of retreating. But it was too late. Dhanaji Jadhav swooped down ferociously and dismantled the rear guard of the Imperial army. Aurangzeb barely escaped with the help of Zulfikar Khan to Burhanpur. The Mighty Mughal was all alone far away from home, with no money and no resources. He died lonely and penitent on 3rd March 1707. “I hope God will forgive me one day for my disastrous sins,” were his last words. With his death, the foundation of Mughal India broke into pieces and soon disappeared. From the Deccan rose a shiny new empire, The Maratha Empire.
Thus the rule of the bloody Aurangzeb and his Islamic hordes came to an end. One man stood against the plunder, terror, loot, and forcible conversions of large swathes of India. He glared at the bigoted bully, made him repent, and drove him to his death. Yet, Shivaji, the gritty warrior, rarely gets even a passing glance in our collective subconscious. Instead, the Mughals are put on a lofty pedestal and made to occupy all our mental spaces.
But, we the people, know better. We can ill-afford to forget the mighty colossus that spared us from becoming a part of the Islamic Empire. As events have proven, the winds and waves are always on the side of people who learn from the past, to navigate the stormy seas of the present.