The previous chapter in our story ended with the death of Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj. His death was seen by the Mughals as a great opportunity to demolish the Maratha confederacy for good. And why wouldn’t they like their chances? The Mughals had an army which numbered at half a million, more than three times the Maratha numbers. They had more artillery, more elephants, more horses and more importantly, the royal treasury possessed wealth far more than what the Marathas could cope with. To turn the tides further in their favour, their enemy no. 1 was gone, a man who had thwarted them at every step in his life.
If the rise of a small-time Mansabdar’s son under the all-pervasive Mughal empire to the stature of a King in charge of Hindu Rashtra appears extraordinary to you, what happened after the death of Shivaji will leave you further disbelief. Through meticulous planning and sheer talent, Shivaji had firmly established the Marathas as a strong power in the Deccan. He constructed a series of forts for defence which would prove extremely crucial in the wars that were to come.
After a brief spell of a power struggle in the royal family, Sambhaji assumed the throne as Shivaji’s successor. For all his ability, Sambhaji did have his problems with his father leading Shivaji to confine him to Panhala twice. However, he did demonstrate that he had inherited the same ingenuity that his father possessed in such large measure when he escaped from his first confinement and then returned after a year, unrepentant. And again, he was promptly confined to Panhala. Nevertheless, he was Shivaji’s eldest and the rightful heir to the throne and as it turned out, the crown did kill the boy and a man was born.
1681 was the year when war finally began between the Marathas and the Mughals in its true sense. It became obvious that the vast lands under his control was not enough to satiate Aurangzeb’s lust for power and the ambition to unfurl the Kesari Dhwaj across the lengths and breadths of Bharata meant that the Marathas could not and would not back away from the war.
That year, Sambhaji attacked Janjira but without much success. During the same time, a Mughal general, Hussein Ali Khan, attacked Northern Konkan. However, Sambhaji managed to push him back to Ahmednagar. It was now 1682 and monsoons had begun forcing both sides to halt their military operations. However, Aurangzeb was conspiring to secure a deal with the Portuguese which would have allowed the Mughals a supply route to Deccan via the sea. Of course, the Marathas could not let that happen and thus attacked the Portuguese and penetrated deep into their territory. However, the Portuguese were able to secure their headquarters.
The Marathas, for an overwhelming majority of the War, were terribly ill-equipped when compared to the Mughals. Therefore, they could not afford a head-on battle. They would be obliterated. And, as the situation with the Portuguese demonstrated, they were surrounded by enemies from all sides.
What they did have working in their favour was their superior knowledge of the territory they ruled and were acutely aware of the unique features of the terrain which they could exploit to maximize their gains. Thus, it turned out to be a war of attrition and under those circumstances, a war of attrition was the only one they could win.
Aurangzeb had a good beginning to the war. Using a pincer move, he attempted to surround the Marathas from the North and the South. Shah Alam, Aurangzeb’s son who commanded one of the two divisions entered Goa and marched North via Konkan. However, soon enough, the Marathas increased their pace of attacks on him, attacking his supply chains reducing his forces to starvation.
Ultimately, he had to be rescued and brought back to Ahmednagar. Thus, Aurangzeb’s first pincer move had failed miserably. In 1684, Mughal invasions suffered a similar fate. Instead of clashing with the Mughals directly, the Marathas resorted to harassing their forces with sharp swift attacks that rendered them incapable of carrying forward their march.
Thus, a year later, Aurangzeb was forced to rethink his strategy. Instead of further attacks on the Marathas directly, he attempted to consolidate Mughal power in the south by conquering Bijapur and Golkonda. The rulers of those empires were Shia Muslims and being the fanatic Sunni that he was, Aurangzeb did not hesitate to sever his treaty with them. However, the Marathas saw an opportunity to take the offensive to Mughals in the North Coast while the latter was busy in their expeditions in the South.
They suffered minimum damage but inflicted maximum destruction. It became the dominant theme in the battles to come. The Marathas were quick and sharp in their attacks while the Mughals, vast as their resources were, were often caught unaware until the very last minute. In many ways, the Marathas had successfully implemented a very cunning strategy, using the resources of the Mughals themselves to wage war against them.
Bijapur and Golkonda, however, soon fell to Mughals and their rulers were captured and imprisoned. With the Shia empires out of his way, he could again shift his focus to his primary target: The Marathas.
The next couple of years Aurangzeb was unable to make any major dent on his Hindu foes as the latter continued to strengthen their position. However, in 1687, at the battle of Wai, the Mughals succeeded in inflicting a severe blow to Maratha aspirations. The key Maratha commander Hambirao Mohite fell in battle and troops began deserting the Maratha forces. The real tragedy, nevertheless, befell the Hindu empire in 1688 when Sambhaji was captured by Mughal forces at Sanghameshwar. The events that followed would perhaps definitively seal the fate of the Mughal empire in India and of Aurangzeb himself.
There has been a certain code of conduct that honourable men have tried to adhere to during war across the ages. These codes are difficult to adhere, especially since you have to apply them while dealing with a sworn enemy. But then, having the resolve to adhere to them is what honour is all about. And it’s also a fact that invariably, it has been monotheistic rulers who have demonstrated time and again that their religious zeal often prevents them from honouring such dignified traditions. Aurangzeb was no different. His treatment of Sambhaji would resonate across the ages and would serve as a testament to the grave peril our forefathers suffered under and the great threats they braved in their battle to restore Dharma in the ancient land of our Gods.
Following Sambhaji’s capture, which was felicitated by treacherous men in his own ranks, he was presented in front of Aurangzeb who presented him with the option to convert. Accounts differ as to what exactly transpired but it’s well accepted that Sambhaji refused to convert which led to the brutal treatment he was subjected to.
In addition to conversion, it is said, he was asked to surrender all his forts and treasures as well.
Following such failed attempts, Aurangzeb had him paraded on a donkey wearing the clothes of a clown. His eyes were plucked and so was his tongue. The nails on his fingers were removed and so was his skin. Sambhaji was made to rot in prison under such circumstances and his torture was prolonged over a fortnight. He was finally killed in March 1689 by having his body torn apart with metal “tiger claws” and beheading him with an axe at Tulapur.
In hindsight, Aurangzeb had sealed his fate with this act of exceptional barbarity. There were many, previously, who were averse to siding with the Marathas openly due to their personal dislike for Sambhaji. However, the horrid cruelty that the Maratha King was subjected to inspired everyone to rally underneath the banner of the Kesari and swear a sacred vow that they would not rest until the last vestiges of the Mughal empire were uprooted from this sacred land of ours.
Those not of a religious disposition would not lay many stores in sacred vows but for those who are sufficiently aware know that the history of humanity has been defined through the ages by sacred vows sworn by great men to vanquish their foes. Thus began a new chapter in the war between the Marathas and Mughals. And this time at the helm was Rajaram who assumed the throne that his half-brother had vacated.
(This is the second article in a series of three. You can read Part 1 and Part 3 here)