The Marathas in the ‘Land of Five Rivers’

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    The 18th century marked a turning point in India. The decline of the Mughal Empire coincided, naturally, with the rise of new regional power centers. Marathas under the command of their capable general Baji Rao I, became the de facto rulers of Delhi. Under his sons, Nanasaheb and Raghunath Rao, the Maratha power reached its greatest extent, stretching from Thanjavur in the South to Attock in the North. This set off a chain of events triggering the raid by Afghan invader, Ahmad Shah Abdali. This culminated in the third battle of Panipat in 1761. Dr Uday S Kulkarni, the author of the bestseller 'Solstice at Panipat' recounts the lesser-known tale of the Maratha sojourn into Punjab -

    The province of Punjab on India’s north-western frontier has braved all intruders in the long history of this ancient nation. From Alexander to Ahmed Shah Abdali, invaders crossed the five mighty rivers to reach the rich and vast Gangetic plain. Their aims differed from age to age and with every newcomer, the outcome of the invasion was also not always the same. Some came for loot, others settled here. In different ways, they affected the course of history and made us what we are today. However, among these, the story of the Maratha sojourn in the Punjab remains a lesser known one.

    The Road to Delhi

    The year 1751 was a watershed in Indian history. The Mughal Empire was tottering and its Wazir or Prime minister, Safdar Jung was under attack by the Rohilla chiefs north of Delhi. With the Mughal emperor Ahmad Shah (r. 1748-1754) depended on the Wazir for his sustenance, the defeat of his chief deputy meant his own defeat. In Kasganj, northeast of Agra, Safdar Jung sustained just such a defeat in 1750, and before long, the beleaguered Wazir sent his aides to the Maratha chiefs Malharrao Holkar and Jayappa Scindia seeking their help. Extravagant promises of money and the cession of Mughal subahs were made and the two chiefs who had just placed Madho Singh on the throne of Jaipur wrote to the Peshwa at Pune that -

    ‘agents of the Wazir had come to seek help of the sardars and it would be opportune to take advantage of it and create an impact in the north’.

    Just before this, the succession struggle for the Jaipur throne, between Ishwari Singh the elder and Madho Singh the younger son of Sawai Jaisingh of Jaipur, had drawn Maratha compatriots Holkar and Scindia into opposing sides. Seeing his chiefs ranged against each other, Nanasaheb Peshwa asked Scindia to withdraw. With Madho Singh promising Holkar an annual tribute for his help, the Maratha chief marched towards Jaipur. Ishwari Singh found no way out of his predicament but to take his own life, paving the way for Madho Singh to take charge of Jaipur. However, Madho Singh did not wish to be burdened by the promised payment to the Marathas Instead he locked up a few thousand Maratha soldiers within the walls of Jaipur, commanding a slaughter of his benefactors. The Maratha response could have been quick had the Wazir not sought their help at this critical juncture. Letting Madho Singh alone for now, Scindia and Holkar rushed to Safdar Jung’s help.

    The Wazir then signed the Ahadnama, as the treaty that followed was called, which formed the basis of relations between the Mughals and the Marathas over the next five decades. The Marathas helped Safdar Jung defeat the Rohillas and the happy Peshwa heaped accolades on his chiefs; In one of his letters Peshwa Nanasaheb remarked

    ‘It is not an ordinary thing that our Deccan forces crossed the Jamuna and the Ganga, fought with the Pathans and Rohillas and obtained victory over them’.

    The victory also signalled a fresh configuration of powers with the Marathas firmly protecting the Mughal Emperor against his enemies. Ironically things had changed within the Mughal empire too. By the mid-eighteenth century, the Emperor had become a mere figure-head while the Wazir wielded real power.

    Following the fall of Lahore in 1758, the Maratha armies conquered Multan, Peshawar, and Attock

    Meanwhile the North was also under attack from the Afghan ruler Ahmed Shah Abdali who had first invaded India in 1748 and been defeated near Ludhiana by Safdar Jung. Thereafter Abdali returned in 1752 and claimed tribute from the Punjab. Treaty bound to help the Emperor, the Marathas reached Delhi with the Wazir, but before that Abdali was homeward bound with the promised tribute. A few years later in 1757, Abdali attacked the Punjab again, and finding little resistance there, attacked Delhi. This time, helped by the powerful first generation Afghan immigrant Najib Khan Rohilla, Abdali easily took Delhi defeating the small five thousand strong Maratha force in Delhi and the Jat army of Raja Surajmal. Delhi was stripped of its wealth, the mansions of the rich dug up for hidden wealth and powerful ministers forced to disgorge the wealth of generations. He then descended on the pilgrimage places of Mathura and Vrindavan, looted the towns and killed thousands of its inhabitants. By the onset of summer, he was back in Delhi where he requisitioned all the animals he could find to carry the immense wealth he had looted back to his homeland. A contemporary account says, ‘Even a washerman’s donkey was not left behind’.

    The Road to Punjab

    At this time the Maratha armies were divided in Malwa and Rajputana but soon came together and marched towards Delhi. In August 1757, led by Nanasaheb Peshwa’s brother Raghunath Rao and the veteran Malhar Rao Holkar, the Marathas recaptured Delhi from Najib Khan, who had been left in charge by Abdali. Here, Najib fell into Maratha custody. However, Holkar prevailed upon the young Raghunath Rao to release him. Najib defiantly left the Maratha camp confident of Holkar’s support, to who he was ‘like a son’. The recapture of Delhi was a triumph no doubt, however with Abdali’s Indian allies still at large, the danger had not passed. In the circumstances, the Marathas appointed Ahmed Khan Bangash as the Mir Bakshi and Imad ul mulk, grandson of Asaf Jah, as the Wazir to Emperor Alamgir II.

    From Delhi, the Maratha army along with its Mughal elements proceeded north and took the important city of Sirhind, near present day Chandigarh. Many chiefs from the Jullunder region joined the Marathas. Principal among them was Adina Beg, who invited the Marathas along with the Mughal and Sikh armies to invade the Punjab. Lahore was then being ruled by Abdali’s son Taimur Shah, supported by his General Jahan Khan. Adina Beg promised to finance the invasion with a sum of one lakh rupees a day and the cash strapped Maratha chiefs decided to advance beyond Sirhind.

    Fall of Lahore

    As the large Maratha army approached Lahore, Jahan Khan who was readying for war, abandoned the effort and decided to flee. Discontent with the Afghan rule among the people made matters easier. Taimur Shah and the Afghan army crossed the river Ravi and moved towards Kabul. The city of Lahore fell to the Marathas in April 1758. The city welcomed the victors. Adina Beg constructed a magnificent platform in the Shalimar garden on which Raghunath Rao was seated and given a public reception. A contemporary account states,

    The fountains of the garden were made to spray rose water and the whole city was illuminated’.

    The Marathas did not stop at Lahore. Traditionally the river Indus marked the border of Punjab and the area west of it was the province of Kabul. While Kabul had been part of the Mughal empire until it was lost to Abdali, Kandahar, further south, had been lost to the Persians a hundred years earlier. The Marathas sent their troops with select commanders and took the fort of Attock on the Indus before capturing the city of Multan and the all-important city of Peshawar, which guarded the Khyber Pass.

    In Lahore, Raghunath Rao appointed Adina Beg as the Governor of Punjab. His own chiefs Sabaji Scindia, Tukoji Holkar and others were sent to Peshawar, Attock and Multan. Renko Appaji and Rayaji Sakhdeo were placed in charge of Lahore. Holkar and Raghunath Rao made the best arrangements they could with the forces at their command, leaving the region with their own forces along with the Mughal armies. Abdali was by now hard-pressed at home with revolts and facing an invasion by the Persian army on his own western front. Indeed, at this stage it appeared as if his rule might soon end. The Shah of Persia Karim Khan (r. 1751-1779) wrote to Raghunath Rao complimenting him on his success and suggested they attack Abdali on two fronts and then divide his territory among themselves, the Persians keeping Kabul and Kandahar while ceding Peshawar and Lahore to the Marathas.

    Reporting his success to the Peshwa at Pune, Raghunath Rao wrote -

    Lahore, Multan, Kashmir and so on, subahs before Attock, ought to be brought under control. Some has been achieved, some more is left which I will soon complete. Ahmed Shah Abdali, his son Taimur Shah and Jahan Khan our army chased, and looted their armies. With the residual force, with difficulty, Taimur Shah and Jahan Shah reached Peshawar which is beyond Attock’.

    In his letter, Raghunath Rao also conveyed the Persian king’s proposal. However, he added, ‘The subahs of Attock and Kandahar have been part of Hindustan from Akbar to Alamgir’s time. Why should we give those to Vilayet*? (*Persia) Meanwhile a nephew of Abdali named Abdul Rahim Khan had come over to the Marathas and Raghunath Rao sent him to Pune to meet the Peshwa. The Peshwa sent him back to Raghunath Rao who promised him charge of Kabul and Kandahar. The Maratha rule had reached its furthest extent. However, from their capital Pune in the Deccan, it was a logistical nightmare to protect these distant regions.

    Punjab remained under Maratha control only for 18 months

    Najib Khan’s stand at Shukratal

    Raghunath Rao and Malharrao Holkar then began their journey to Pune to be replaced in the north by Dattaji and Jankoji Scindia. Coincidentally, Adina Beg died by the time Raghunath Rao reached Pune. The Peshwa gave Dattaji specific instructions about his conduct in the north;

    Najib Khan must be punished. Adina Beg has died and the province of Lahore must be properly protected. Dattaji is to go and manage the affairs. The work in Bengal is also important…One can take Shuja (of Awadh) with a large army, liberate Patna and Bengal (then under English control). Take the wazir with you. From Shuja, take Kashi and Prayag. Secure Lahore. Obtain funds to retire Government debt’.

    However, matters seldom go the way they are planned. Against the Peshwa’s advice, the veteran Holkar suggested to Dattaji that it was better to seek Najib Khan’s help to cross the Ganga and then go eastwards. Dattaji therefore decided to accept Najib’s offer to help the Marathas cross the Ganga by building a bridge of boats at Shukratal, in present day Muzzaffarnagar district of UP. However, this proved to be a costly mistake. Nearly four months were spent in the process during which Najib Khan stitched together a coalition of the Rohillas and also obtained the Nawab of Awadh Shuja ud daulah’s help. More important, it had given time to Ahmed Shah Abdali to extricate himself from his troubles at home and begin preparing for yet another campaign to India. Najib Khan had urged Abdali to come to his aid and the Shah decided to oblige his protégé.

    Dattaji had realised his folly by the end of monsoons and began his own campaign against Najib in September 1759. The siege at Shukratal dragged on until early December 1759. However, in the midst of this battle with Najib, Dattaji was shocked to find the bedraggled Maratha army of the Punjab reaching him at Shukratal. A letter to Pune said -

    a great disaster has affected us’.

    Ahmad Shah Abdali’s invasion

    Abdali, having gathered a strong force of sixty thousand men poured into the Punjab through the Khyber and Bolan passes in October 1759, routing the small Maratha contingents at Multan, Attock and Lahore. Fleeing before the huge army, they streamed into Dattaji’s army in the doab. Quickly realising his dangerous position, Dattaji sent away his dependents to Kotputli and prepared his army to face the invasion. Punjab was lost. However, the capital city of Delhi had to be protected. Crossing the Yamuna, Dattaji’s vanguard had a short skirmish with Abdali before he crossed the river and joined Najib at Shukratal. The two armies then began to move towards Delhi on the two banks of the Yamuna. Dattaji was outnumbered and sent urgent messages to Holkar to leave Rajputana and join him.

    In 1757, Afghan ruler Ahmad Shah Abdali looted Delhi so thoroughly that ‘Even a washerman’s donkey was not left behind’.

    However, before Holkar could come to his aid, Najib Khan and Abdali’s armies crossed the Yamuna at Burari just north of Delhi on Makar Sankranti day of 1760. The Maratha troops were pushed back by the Afghans. Before long Dattaji himself rode up to Burari and his vigorous attack began to push the Afghans back across the Yamuna. Here, he was fatally wounded. Najib’s chronicler reports -

    ‘Dattaji and his men charged, with Scindia using his spear and cutting down the Rohilla infantry. Many of the Rohillas were killed and others pushed back as the Marathas charged towards the Rohilla flag. Just then a bullet hit Dattaji in his eye and he collapsed from his horse. The Rohillas rushed forward and cut off his head’.

    With Dattaji’s death, the battle was lost. The Afghans entered and took possession of Delhi. Holkar mustered his forces and led a guerrilla war against the invaders for a few more weeks. However, he was routed in early March and retired to Suraj mal’s territory.

    Looking Back

    The Maratha campaign in the Punjab on behalf of the Mughal Emperor had been ambitious and they had won the province without much ado. The province had remained under their control for nearly eighteen months. Finally, it was the distance from home that had prevented them from sustaining a powerful presence in the region, thereby rendering it difficult to hold the country against an overwhelming force.

    It was a wave of nationalist fervor which swept the Marathas into Punjab, to reclaim the province from the Afghans

    The Maratha entry into Punjab after the capture of Delhi was in order to reclaim the province for the Mughals. In the process, they came into direct conflict with Abdali, whose interests centred on the possession of the rich province. The Mughal Emperor was by then a figurehead and the defence of his possessions was in reality a protection of Maratha interests. At the same time, a wave of nationalistic fervour swept the Marathas into Punjab to win back that lost province of India. The stretched supply lines to the distant province eventually proved too tenuous, and protecting the province without sufficient feet on the ground was always a difficult proposition.

    With the fall of Delhi and the defeat of Scindia and Holkar, calls were sent to the Deccan to send a large army supported by a powerful artillery to regain control of the north. The Maratha response was vigorous, and the moves and counter moves over the next year finally led to what can justifiably be called the 'bloodiest battle' of the eighteenth century at Panipat on 14 January 1761.

    But that’s another story.


    What followed was the third Battle of Panipat, one of the bloodiest battles in Indian history in which the Maratha army was routed by forces of Ahmad Shah Abdali. It was a terrible blow to the Maratha prestige, but within a decade the Marathas made a comeback under Mahadji Scindia and were a force to reckon with till 1818.


    Dr Uday S Kulkarni is a practising surgeon based in Pune and also an expert on Maratha history. He has authored six non-fiction books on 18th century India and tweets @MulaMutha


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