The 3rd of November, the day when Aurangzeb was born, is the most opportune moment to tell a story. It’s the story of a boy who dreamt of a Hindu nation free from the clutches of Islamic tyranny, it’s the story of brave sons who sacrificed their lives carrying forward their legendary father’s cherished legacy. It’s the story of a Queen under whose reign a centuries-old Islamic empire was brought to its knees. It’s a story of undaunted valour, of undying loyalty and above all, it’s a story of upholding Dharma in the face of certain death.
Our story begins on a fortuitous night in 1630 when the Gods smiled upon the Hindu civilization on the decline. A blessed baby boy was born to an honourable Maratha General who served under the Deccan Sultanates on the hill-fort of Shivneri. The boy grew up in the image of his father, strong and virtuous and sturdy.
As the years went by, it became obvious that the young teenager would not be satisfied being a reputed general serving under an Islamic emperor. It was the year 1645 when Shivaji made his first move. With his unique ability as a commander of his forces, he managed to acquire the Torna fort. Soon after, the Maratha Firangoji Narsala, who held the Chakan fort, professed his loyalty to the young Shivaji. The fort of Kondana was acquired as well with acute diplomatic skills employed by the young Maratha who appeared destined for great things. Thus was set in motion a series of events which would go on to definitively end the reign of the Mughals in India.
There were many historic episodes during the life of Shivaji the Warrior and great were his achievments. But none more so, perhaps, than his slaughter of the Adilshahi veteran general Afzal Khan. The Adilshahi, who were ostensibly displeased with the manner in which Shivaji had made a name for himself by acquiring one fort after the other, dispatched the fearsome general Khan to reign in the meddlesome Maratha King. In his pursuit of Shivaji, Khan demonstrated the iconoclasm that’s so intrinsic to followers of monotheistic faiths that he destroyed the Tulja Bhavani Temple, sacred to Shivaji’s family and the Vithoba Temple at Pandharpur, another pilgrimage site of note for Hindus.
At one point during the confrontation, the Maratha warrior was forced to retreat to Pratapgarh where he was urged to surrender by many of his comrades. Instead, what transpired would send shock-waves throughout all the regions of the Indian subcontinent under Islamic dominion.
Forced into a stalemate, a suggestion was made for a private meeting outside between the two leaders for parley. Expecting some form of treachery from the Adilshahi general but concluding that the private meeting could be the only solution to the stalemate, Shivaji had prepared a contingency plan for the situation. Thus, when the leaders met in a hut at the foothills of the Pratapgarh fort, Shivaji was well aware that only one of them would leave the tent alive.
Perhaps it was fated to happen, perhaps it was mere coincidence or it could very well be that the Gods themselves descended from the heavens to inspire the actions of their favoured son. And so it happened that during the course of the meeting, a violent clash ensued between the two and by divine intervention or merely through the merit of his meticulous planning, Shivaji struck down the towering Khan.
In the battle that commenced soon after, the Maratha army completely routed the Bijapur Sultanate’s forces. 3000 soldiers of Bijapur were slaughtered on the battlefield on that fateful day, two sons of Afzal Khan were taken captive as well. And from there on, the Maratha King went from strength to strength, unleashing the wrath of the very Gods themselves upon those who stood against his dream of Hindavi Swarajya.
The next great episode of Shivaji’s war for Hindavi Swarajya came in 1660 when he was trapped under siege at the Panhala fort by the Adilshahi forces, enraged by the series of defeats the Maratha had served them on a platter. Adding to his problems, the Mughals had set aside their differences with the Adilshahis and had decided to align with them on this particular occasion to snuff out the audacious Shivaji.
Ingenuous as ever, the Maratha King managed to flummox his adversaries when they were at their most vulnerable and set out in an attempt to reach his intended destination, Vishalgadh where a Mughal garrison was already stationed with a force of merely 600 men. Shivaji did, of course, succeed in reaching Vishalgarh but the glory of the moment was owed to other men, Shivaji’s second-in-command of that contingent, Baji Prabhu and the brave 300.
There are certain moments, it is said when mere mortals defy the three old ladies of Fate themselves and lay claim to the elixir of immortality. Those are the moments when the Gods themselves are inspired to infuse their own strength in the arms of their devotees and the mere mortals with the Gods on their sides perform such acts of valour that their names are etched across the sands of time for eternity. The Battle of Pavan Khind was one such occasion. It became clear after Shivaji made his escape in the dark of the night that it was impossible to defeat the Adilshahi forces on their trail and the Mughal forces simultaneously.
The inevitability of it prompted Baji Prabhu to offer to stay back with half the contingent to fight the Adilshahi forces with the prospect of certain death awaiting them while the rest marched to the safety of Vishalgadh. The strategic location of Pavan Khind (Horse Pass) was chosen as the spot where the brave 300 would make their final stand. And so it transpired that 300 brave Marathas fought against hundreds and thousands of Adilshahi men and every man battled till the last ounce of strength in their muscles had forsaken them to ensure that the King that they had sworn their loyalty to made his ground to safety.
It is said, Baji Prabhu fought like a man possessed by the very spirit of the Gods. Every time he was struck by the weapon of an enemy, he fought stronger than before and his sword put down one man after the other with the enemy retreating in his wake. It was only when the cannon that signalled Shivaji’s safe passed passage was heard that Baji Prabhu finally succumbed to the mortal wounds that he had suffered during the course of battle.
Thrice, it is said, Baji Prabhu was struck fatally by Adilshahi’s men on that sacred night and thrice did he rise like a phoenix from its ashes to serve the cause of Dharma. And only when was his purpose served did he abandon his mortal body to attain Moksha for the piety of his actions. Only a handful of the brave 300 are believed to have survived the Battle of Pavan Khind but more than a thousand Adilshahi men perished when the brave Marathas unleashed the wrath of the Gods fighting under the banner of the Kesari Dhwaj.
Shivaji’s next great feat came in April 1663 after Aurangzeb had sent his maternal uncle Shaista Khan to defeat him working in conjunction with the Adilshahi forces. Equipped with a much more well-provisioned army, Khan succeeded in making several in-roads into the Maratha territory. He had even managed to seize Pune and establish his residence at Shivaji’s place, Lal Mahal.
Again, when defeat seemed imminent and hope was lost, Shivaji had to resort to his ingenuity again to get out of a tricky situation. In what can only be dubbed as a Shivaji-esque raid, he launched an attack on the very palace Khan was residing in. A band of 200 Marathas had managed to infiltrate Pune and under the cover of night, slaughtered the palace guards and breached the walls.
The palace witnessed a lot of bloodshed that night and the Mughals suffered great losses. One of Khan’s son was killed and so were many of his wives. The Mughal, himself, did manage to escape but not before his thumb by the valorous Shivaji. The Maratha then retaliated against the previous attacks of Khan by attacking the port city of Surat, a wealthy Mughal trading centre.
Shivaji’s next great flash-point with the Mughals came in 1666 when he was invited to Agra by Aurangzeb. Previously, the Maratha was forced to sign a treaty with the Mughals which would require him to assist the latter in its military conquests. It is said that when Shivaji was called to Agra, Aurangzeb wanted to send him to Afghanistan to help consolidate the Mughal empire’s northwestern frontier. However, during that fateful meeting, Shivaji was insulted by the Mughal by having him stand behind the Mabsabdars, much lower in rank than him. Shivaji, rightly took offence and stomped out of the Court, and was promptly put in house arrest by Aurangzeb. But, as fate would have it, Shivaji again managed to escape under extraordinary circumstances, by hiding himself in sweet baskets that were meant for religious figures in the city.
An uneasy peace was maintained with Mughals until 1670. But as any wise warrior knows, peace is merely a euphemism for preparations for war. Thus, consolidating his gains without giving any inkling to the Mughals regarding his plans, Shivaji waited for the opportune moment to strike again. In 1670, he launched an offensive against the Mughals while Aurangzeb’s army was busy in Afghanistan and recovered almost all territory that was surrendered to them previously in a matter of mere four months. That year, Surat was again sacked by the brave Maratha and the Englishmen also suffered his wrath for their treacherous ways.
Shivaji had accomplished all of this and more and yet, he wasn’t crowned a King yet, officially. So, technically, he was yet a Mughal zamindar. But, it was all mere technicality. For we know, not everyone who wears the crown is worthy of the title and if you are a true King, you don’t need a crown on your head to justify your authority. And so it was only in 1674, almost three decades after he had ably demonstrated his capabilities as a King was he officially crowned King of the Marathas in a lavish ceremony at Raigad. And thus, after one of the darkest period in Hindu history when the ebb of Dharma was at its lowest, there was once more a strong Hindu sovereign in a region dominated by Muslims for so long.
The Hindavi Swarajya that Shivaji had dreamt of had indeed materialized, much to the dismay of the Islamic tyrants. And at the helm of it was a King who had made it a habit of embarrassing them.
Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj laid the foundation of Hindavi Swarajya but the destruction of the Mughal empire was not fated to be through his hands. In 1680, after sowing the seeds of the Maratha empire, Shivaji the Valiant passed away in unfortunate circumstances. With Mughals sensing the opportunity for an easy victory after his death, it would fall to his eldest son Sambhaji to carry forward the legacy of his father.
Sambhaji fought bravely, against all odds and registered mighty victories and like the birds who dare to fly too high, his end came suddenly and terribly. But that is a story for another time.