The death of Sambhaji marked the beginning of the next chapter of the war between the Marathas and the Mughals. His half-brother, Rajaram, assumed the throne of the Marathas empire following his capture and death at the hands of Aurangzeb. Sambhaji’s death had thrown the Maratha regime into disarray but now, there was a newfound resolve to prevail over the forces of Adharma.
It wasn’t just a battle for territorial sovereignty anymore, it never was, to be honest, but now more than ever, the gravity of the situation dawned upon the Marathas. It was a war for the victory of Dharma over Adharma, it was a war for the victory of honour over treachery, it was a war for the soul of the very nation over those who were consumed by fanaticism.
The strategic Maratha response every time they suffered a crushing blow was retaliating with an attack so audacious, it would appear they were not entirely in their right minds to conceive of such a plan had not been so tremendously successful. Shivaji Maharaj had displayed such traits when he attacked the very palace Shaista Khan was residing in and forced him to flee without a thumb in his hand. And again, when Aurangzeb was revelling in his execution of Sambhaji, the Marathas under the command of Santaji Ghorpade launched an attack that would send the Mughal forces trembling in their very hearts. The attack was not merely on Mughal forces but at Aurangzeb himself. It was sheer luck that saved the Mughal emperor from being slaughtered at the hands of the Marathas.
During the attack, the brave Marathas managed to sack the very tent in which Aurangzeb slept! Only because he was not present there at the time did he evade certain death. His men were not so lucky. Many from his private force and bodyguards were slaughtered that night. And although Aurangzeb had survived, the message could not have been clearer: Sambhaji may have been executed but the fire that burnt in his belly was very alive and cackling in the hearts of the Marathas. He may have abandoned his worldly abode but his men would carry forward the fight on his behalf. If Aurangzeb believed he would have it easy after the death of Sambhaji, he was wrong. His real troubles had only begun.
Things didn’t work out too well for the Marathas in the immediate future. Raigadh had been captured by the Mughals and Panhala had fallen as well but not before inflicting heavy losses on the Mughal army. The Marathas were forced to shift their capital from Vishalgadh to Gingee. By late 1691, Aurangzeb had managed to secure four significant forts in the Sahyadris. Therefore, the Marathas again improvised and decided to engage Mughals in multiple fronts to keep them occupied. Thus, the war again turned into a battle of hit quickly and retreat even faster for maximum impact with minimum casualties.
The reason the Marathas were never daunted by the prospect of losing forts is that the purpose of the forts was to keep Mughal forces engaged for long periods of time while allowing others the opportunity to attack the supply lines and inflict considerable damage. Thus, it turned out more often than not that the cost of securing a fort far outweighed the gains. Additionally, the locations of some of these forts were such that they became uninhabitable during particular seasons. Therefore, the Marathas would continue occupying these forts while the Mughals laid siege and desert them only when they were sure that their enemies wouldn’t gain much even if they managed to acquire them at that point.
All of this was demonstrated extravagantly when the Mughals laid siege to Gingee. The fort had been under siege for seven years, keeping a significant chunk of their forces occupied. In the end, Rajaram had managed to escape to Vishalgadh. However, the Mughals had incurred tremendous losses during the siege which had caused a significant strain in the Mughal purses. All of this was difficult for Aurangzeb to swallow. The Marathas had suffered the deaths of two Kings, incurred severe losses in terms of territory and yet, they were on the offensive on several fronts, inflicting severe damage to the Mughal army and fast depleting the royal treasury. Aurangzeb realized, maybe for the first time since the conflict began, that this was not merely just another war that could be negotiated with. It was an existential threat that the Mughals were currently facing and there was no certainty that they would come out on top.
The Marathas, meanwhile, continued to consolidate their victories. After a brief period of infighting which could have had severe consequences and saw Dhanaji attacking and killing Santaji, the Marathas regained their senses and mounted a new counter-offensive under Dhanaji. However, in 1700, the Marathas suffered another tragic demise, the death of Rajaram. And thus, came the occasion when Queen Tarabai assumed the charge of the Maratha Army.
The writing was on the wall for many years but the religious fanaticism of Aurangzeb blinded him towards an obvious fact. Years had passed and yet there was nothing to indicate that the defeat of the Marathas was imminent. He was urged by his counsellors to withdraw but his ego prevented him from treading on a wiser path. He had spent more than two decades in the war against the Marathas and what did he have to show for it? A mere few forts, that was all. On the other hand, the royal treasure had been bled dry and it appeared almost certain that the sun had set on the Mughal empire in India.
The final Maratha counter-offensive began sometime around 1705. One after the other, Mughal provinces fell and the centuries-old empire was crumbling like a house of cards as there was no money in the royal treasure to fund armies. At one battle, Dabhade with his 8000 men defeated 14,000 of the Mughal army which allowed the Marathas to tighten the Mughal supply chains. Soon after, Aurangzeb realized he had to retreat to ensure his own safety. But on the way, Dhanaji descended upon him with the Kesari Dhwaj flying high and rampaged through the rearguard of his imperial army. Again, Aurangzeb luckily managed to reach Burhanpur, his intended destination.
The Mughal empire had crumbled in front of his very eyes and Aurangzeb’s obsession with teaching Pagans a lesson they would never forget only led to his ruin. The Hindus had taught the Islamic tyrants a lesson they would do well not to forget.
There are times when Dharma is at its lowest ebb and the wicked might revel under the delusion that it would last forever, but in the end, Karma comes for us all and we have to reap what we sow. Aurangzeb killed Sambhaji and many others in the cruellest manner and there he was towards the end of his days, alone, far away from home, a pauper king who had destroyed his own empire with his single-minded obsession. And the people he had sought to destroy with all his might had conquered him after all.
The Kesari Dhwaj was flying high across the skies of Bharata and Aurangzeb ultimately passed away in March 1707, knowing fully well that the Maratha Empire that had vanquished him had risen to the very top right under his nose and there was nothing he could do to stop them.