Third battle of Panipat- Did Abdali win or Marathas lose?

Today is the 255th anniversary of the third battle of Panipat, which was fought between the Afghans and the Marathas in 1761. There is a plethora of information available on the third battle of Panipat, down to the exact dispositions of the men and officers. This has been the most analysed battle in the ancient to medieval era in India. Thus this story can be recounted in exact detail.

The roots of the expedition lay in Afghan king Ahmad Shah Abdali’s repeated invasions of India. In 1757, he invaded again at the invitation of Najib Khan Rohilla, the leader of the Afghans who had settled in the Katehr region of UP.

Because these Afghans had come from Roh in Afghanistan, Katehr’s name was changed to Rohilkhand, needless to say that the name has not yet been changed by the ‘secular’ govts. that regularly trample upon the rights of Hindus and it still remains Rohilkhand.

The 1757 invasion of Abdali was a particularly brutal invasion, as not only Delhi was looted, but the Mughal princesses, some of the most beautiful ones, were forced into the bed of Abdali and his son. Mathura was sacked and women were raped in the thousands. Many drowned themselves in the Yamuna to escape and the nights were filled with sounds of women shrieking as Afghans penetrated their youthful bodies. The Yamuna was turned red for several miles with the bodies of dead people. Eventually the pile of dead corpses was infected as they were not buried or cremated , and diseases broke out in Abdali’s army, which finally prompted him to retreat back to Afghanistan.

How it started?

The Wazir of Delhi, Imad-ul-Mulk had kept a force of Marathas in his pay under Antaji Mankeshwar. They had been borrowed from the Peshwa. These gave a good account of themselves as they killed two thousand Afghan soldiers, but had to retreat as they were numbering only four thousand and were outnumbered.

The Indian Afghans under Najib Khan Rohilla now dominated not only Delhi, Haryana and the region between the Ganga and Yamuna, but also Rohilkhand. The Wazir Imad-ul-Mulk realised that only the Marathas could deliver Delhi from this menace and invited them to Delhi with a powerful force.

Marathas conquer Delhi and Punjab

The peshwa sent his brother Raghunathrao (popularly called Raghoba) with a powerful force into North India. Raghoba immediately captured Delhi and Najib Khan became a prisoner in his hands. This was the right moment to kill Najib as he was one who was inviting Abdali and could invite again. Besides, he had the blood of innocent people of Mathura on his hands.

But Najib paid Malhar Rao Holkar, the Maratha ruler of Malwa, huge bribes to
save his life. Malhar Rao prevailed upon Raghoba to spare Najib and thus Najib was set free! This was the greatest mistake of Raghoba as the treacherous Najib was to invite Abdali again.

Now Raghoba made a surprising decision and invaded Punjab, which was Abdali’s territory. His forces conquered Lahore and then advanced on to Attock on the Indus, which was considered by Hindus to be the boundary of India. Abdali’s son Taimur, the Afghan governor of Punjab was defeated in the battle and he fled. According to the historian Grant Duff, this was a glorious episode in the history of Marathas-

The Deccan horse had slaked their thirst in the waters of the Indus!

he had said. In the Maratha capital Pune, there was wild jubilation and the Peshwa talked about capturing Kabul and Kandahar and ambassadors were sent by Iran on hearing this news. But this actually made Abdali the deadly enemy of Marathas, for Punjab was the breadbasket of his empire, which was otherwise made of arid regions like Afghanistan and Baluchistan.

Having captured Punjab, Raghoba however could not face the biting cold of Lahore as winter came and decamped back to the Deccan with the majority of his army, leaving only 15,000 troops behind. Sabaji Scindia was sent as governor, who went even further and captured Peshawar and garrisoned it with 10,000 men, thus bringing the actual Pathans under his control. But the total troops that remained in the province numbered only 32,000 and hardly enough to face Abdali if he came in full force. Thus the Peshwa had sanctioned a provocative frontier extending to Peshawar but did not leave enough troops to garrison it.

Truth was that the Marathas did not have enough troops to man Punjab as they had created enemies in India without destroying them. Like the Nizam of Hyderabad, Najib Khan, Hyder Ali of Mysore (Tipu’s father) etc. So troops were needed to garrison other parts of the empire. Defence of Maharashtra from Hyderabad itself required 70,000 troops. So in hindsight Raghoba’s expedition to capture Punjab must be called a mad expedition.

Abdali was ready for a policy of ‘live and let live’ and his ambassadors made it clear that he was ready to accept Maratha domination over Delhi, Haryana and western UP, if they gave up Punjab but the Maratha ambition was boundless and they rejected it. Marathas did another mistake by not properly taking the help of the Sikhs who were natural allies for them. The Maratha-Sikh co-operation was haphazard, primarily due to Maratha ignorance of Sikhs.

Abdali first sent his general Jahan Khan with an army to invade Punjab, but Sabaji Scindia gave this force a crushing defeat, killing Jahan’s son and wounding Jahan. Then Abdali himself decided to invade.

Abdali invades India again; Battle of Barari Ghat

Najib Khan Rohilla had already been making calls to Abdali that Islam in India was in danger and he must come to save Indian muslims from the Maratha menace. Abdali assembled a force of 60,000 storm troopers, one of the finest cavalry in all Asia, all battle hardened troops and especially cruel ,ferocious and merciless.

With this force he advanced from Kandahar along the Indus to Peshawar. Looking at the size and ferocity of his force, the Maratha garrison had to flee. Now he was joined by another force and with 70,000 troops, he invaded Punjab.

The Maratha garrison in Punjab was divided to patrol the whole province and was outnumbered. They fled before Abdali’s troops and the local population rose to take away their weapons and treasures. Though Maratha soldiers were able to escape but they escaped with their bare lives, with almost nothing on them.

As Abdali advanced to Sirhind, the news reached Dattaji Scindia, the Maratha Governor of Delhi. Dattaji had been besieging Najib at a place called Shukartal, but this was a strong position and well defended. Dattaji found himself unable to dislodge Najib in such situation. With Abdali invading India, he was now faced with a superior force of Afghans and Rohillas (70,000 Afghans and 30,000 Rohillas) totalling more than 1 lakh men. He had about 50,000 men with him, but these were clearly insufficient to fight the enemy. The only choice was to retreat , but Dattaji was a proud man.

As Abdali and Najib linked up on the eastern side of the Yamuna, he got ready on the west bank to fight. It was at Barari Ghat that Abdali’s forces along with Najib’s troops tried to cross the Yamuna. To fight them Dattaji first sent his heavy baggage- women, servants etc to safety in Rajasthan and then prepared to fight. He now led his troops with him in front, to attack the Afghans. As his soldiers clashed with Afghans, he was right in the forefront. This was a serious mistake. Ideally a general should be at the back of his troops to guide them and should not be in direct danger.

But Dattaji threw caution to the winds. As the battle progressed, he was shot at by Rohilla troops who had muskets, and the shot killed him. Immediately panic seized his army and they began to flee. Maratha re-enforcements now arrived, but they found Dattaji shot dead and could not influence the outcome of the battle.

The Aghans gave hot chase to the Marathas , but the Deccan horses proved superior in flight to the famed horses of central Asia ,which the Afghans had. This proved the soundness of Dattaji’s decision to send all heavy baggage to Rajasthan, which allowed his troops to be light and thus escape. In Panipat, this very factor, the vast number of women, heavy baggage, was to prove an impediment to the Marathas, as instead of fighting, the army had to spend time in protecting them. Also once defeated the Maratha army could not retreat fast as they moved slowly. But more about that later.

As the Marathas retreated, the Afghans found the body of Dattaji. Najib’s minister Qutub Shah cut his head and took it away as trophy and the Marathas had to cremate his headless body. Later the Marathas would take revenge on Qutub Shah for this perfidy.

The Afghans now occupied Delhi. Abdali now wanted to return home but najib quailed before him that the Marathas would return to take revenge and he must stay to protect India’s muslims. Abdali was asked to go back to the eastern bank of the Yamuna river, as that territory was directly under Najib’s control. Here all arrangements were made to quarter Abdali’s troops, food, tents etc. Delhi was now garrisoned with only a few Afghan troops and they waited for the marathas to return in a mission of revenge.

Maratha expedition to Panipat

The news of Dattaji’s death fell like a thunderbolt on the Marathas when it reached Pune. Immediately, great preparations were made for war. The Peshwa’s cousin , Sadashivraobhau was selected as the commander, for he had recently won a splendid victory over the Nizam at Udgir. Raghoba was neglected as his expedition to Punjab had only brought debt to the Peshwa and had proved financially unprofitable.

Sadashivrao Bhau, popularly known as Bhau, as he will be called in this narrative,was a great believer in the European style warfare using long range muskets (rifles) handled by well-drilled and disciplined infantry troops. He had defeated the Nizam using these troops, under a great commander, Ibrahim Khan Gardi.

The core of the army, as well as the most well paid part of it, was 9,000 Gardis, as they were known. Along with them were 200 heavy cannon, which were useful to destroy heavy fortifications very quickly. Bhau had a lot of expectations from his 200 cannons. But this style of warfare, though effective, went completely against the Maratha style of mobile warfare on horses and many Marathas were completely unused to it. This fact was to have grave implications for the war.

But the Peshwa accepted Bhau’s decision and added to it a vast retinue of servants, dancing girls, wives of soldiers and camp-followers, totalling more than 200,000 people, thus totally changing the Maratha style of making war with only light cavalry. This was to have disastrous results in the coming conflict. This army now aped Mughal splendour, with its vast array of splendid tents, magnificently caparisoned elephants and horses and well-dressed troops.

To the 9,000 disciplined Gardis, were added 22,000 of the Peshwa’s own troops, the famed Huzrat horsemen, the very flower of the Maratha army. As the army moved north, to it was added the various Sardar troops and the fighting men totalled 85,000 men.

Scindias of Gwalior, Holkars of Indore and Gaikwads of Baroda, all added lustre to the names of the galaxy of generals who accompanied the expedition. Considering the vast numbers, the army moved slowly and by the time it reached across the Chambal river, which it had taken more than two months to cross, the rainy season was at hand.

Arrogance of the Bhau; the friendless Marathas in north India

Once the Marathas had crossed the Chambal river, the politics in north India came to full swing, as they had come into the theatre of operations. Bhau sent ambassadors to all princes in north India to join him. Only the Jat Raja of Bharatpur joined him temporarily. Otherwise no one was ready to join him. On the other hand, the ruler of Awadh, Nawab Shuja-ud-Daula joined Abdali. So did the Pathans of Farrukabad. But no Hindu was willing to join the Marathas.

The reason for this was not far to seek. Everyone knew that if the Marathas won at Panipat, they would become the rulers of India and that meant destruction of everyone, muslims or hindus. On the other hand if Abdali won, not only would they be free of the Maratha menace but Abdali himself would go back. The Afghans did not have the staying power of the Marathas and were not about to create an empire in India. So everyone would survive in the event of an Afghan win.

The Maratha behaviour of looting even the hindus had not endeared them to the hindus. So even the hindus rooted for Maratha defeat. Abdali and Najib were ever-ready to raise the bogey of Islam to win muslim rulers. Thus the Marathas were now friendless.

The next step Bhau took was to invade Delhi. As the Yamuna was impassable in the rains due to floods and Abdali was on the opposite bank of Delhi, he could do nothing as the Maratha cannons bombarded Delhi, and it surrendered. This recovered the lost prestige of the Marathas.

At Delhi, a war council was held, in which both Malhar Rao Holkar and Jat Raja Suraj Mal gave sound advice to Bhau. They asked that the heavy baggage, women, camp followers,etc which they had brought should be sent southwards, as it would prove a major impediment in the expedition. In event of defeat, they could run away if the army was on light horses and escape to fight another day.

But Bhau rejected this advice! He insulted Malhar Rao by calling him a shepherd (as he belonged to that caste of Dhangars) and insulted Jat Raja Suraj Mal by calling him a mere Zamindar (landlord)! Thus Bhau resolved to take the women and camp followers into the zone of battle.

Suraj Mal was so incensed by this that he abandoned the Marathas and went back to his domains. Malhar Rao secretly said that if these Pune Brahmins were allowed to go on like this, they would one day finish off all of Maratha caste! He realised that Bhau was a foolhardy commander and began secret talks with Najib Khan to save his own skin. Najib agreed to not fight Malhar if he also did not attack Najib.

With the Jat Raja gone back, the Marathas were all alone in north India, without allies and against a foe who outnumbered them and had all the muslim rulers on his side. The whole of north India, hindu or muslim was rooting for a Maratha defeat, except the Sikhs. But again the Marathas did not have the political acumen to make contact with the Sikhs.

As Marathas advance too far north, Afghans deliver the masterstroke of the war

From Delhi, Bhau now moved northwards with his overloaded retinue as it had finished the food in Delhi, and the capital was starving. From here, he moved north to Kunjpura near the Himalayas. Thus he was now moving too far to the north and over extending his line of communications. This worked only because the Yamuna was flooded due to heavy rains that year and Abdali, being on the other side was not able to cross it. But Abdali was now to his south and if he was able to cross the Yamuna, he would be able to cut the Marathas supply lines. But he found it impossible to cross at the moment.

Kunjpura was a base of Abdali’s communications with Afghanistan. Here he has no less than 9 ,000 troops, and also had his treasures and large amounts of food and supplies. Bhau therefore resolved to capture it. Cannon were placed near its walls  and a full-scale bombardment commenced. The walls of Kunjpura were breached by cannon shells and the fort and town was captured in fierce hand-to-hand fighting. The entire Afghan garrison was put to death, which set the tone for brutality in the upcoming war. Qutub Shah, who had cut off Dattaji Scindia’s head was found and tortured to death.

Abdali was stunned by the capture of Kunjpura and shocked at the loss of so many soldiers and supplies. But he simply found that he could not cross the flooded Yamuna river. All he could do was to chaff silently while the Marathas relentlessly progressed.

Meanwhile, the Marathas enjoyed the huge foodstuffs found at Kunjpura and stayed there till the end of rainy season. They celebrated Dussehra there and planned to go to Kurukshetra for a pilgrimage. Thus, the army which had come to deliver north India from the menace of the cruel Afghan hordes was forgetting its main task and wasting its time in praying.

They were not destined to reach Kurukshetra, the fabled land where the Mahabharat had allegedly been fought. Instead ,they were in for a Mahabharat of their own. With the end of the rains, the level of Yamuna was steadily going down. To be honest, it was going down only slowly, for the rains had been very heavy that year. But an increasingly frustrated Abdali was now desperately searching for a way to cross it. The capture of Kunjpura had cut off his path to Afghanistan and he had to find a way out.

Bhau had made a serious mistake in not keeping strong patrols on the Yamuna to detect and stop Abdali from crossing it and this was a fatal error. After desperate searching, a way for crossing the Yamuna was found at a shallow point and the Afghan army crossed it. They lost some 500 men to drowning but they were finally across and ready to get to grips with the enemy.

This was truly the masterstroke of the war! For now Abdali was south of the Marathas  and in a position of cutting off their way to the south!

The Marathas were now trapped. They themselves were blocking Abdali’s way back to his homeland, but he was being supplied food and other provisions by Naijb and his other allies in north India. On the other hand, the Maratha supply line was now cut. The Marathas had not expected Afghans to cross the Yamuna, whose level was still high and news that they had crossed it was received as a thunderbolt from the heavens. All plans for Kurukshetra were dropped as the army turned south.

As they moved south, they found their way blocked by the afghan hordes to the south of a super-unlucky place which had already seen the defeats on Indian armies defending there twice before. This was the third time an army defending india had come face-to-face with an invader here. Of course, it’s name was panipat.

This was going to be the third battle of Panipat. But the drums of battle were not yet sounded, as both sides were not psychologically ready for full scale conflict.

The rival armies at Panipat

The two armies now encamped at Panipat. While the Maratha army encamped beside the town, the afghans did so a few miles south. The Marathas built ditches around their camp and built ramparts to prevent a surprise attack. The cannons were kept at regular intervals all round to smash any attack to pieces.

The first few weeks were dominated by the Marathas. The Maratha artillery kept on firing cannon shells which fell onto the Afghans and killed some of them. The Afghans lacked such long range guns. Abdali had to move his camp farther south and out of range of Maratha guns. The marathas then began to launch raids onto the afghan camp which greatly exasperated the Afghans. Finally a plan was hatched to stop them. In the dead of night, 5,000 Rohillas quietly slipped through a weak point into the maratha camp and started slaughtering them. This created great confusion in the camp. Finally, the Gardi musketeers opened fire on the Rohillas, which killed more than 3,000 of them. The remaing rohillas fled but still taunting the marathas as to how they had slipped in. However Bhau’s personal friend and right hand man Balwant Rao Mehendale was killed while fighting the Rohillas and this filled Bhau with gloom.

From this point the Afghans began to dominate the plains between the two armies. All supplies to the marathas were stopped and the marathas began to feel scarcity of food. To add to the problems, a large force carrying treasure for the Bhau in the middle of the night accidently went into the Afghan camp instead of the Maratha camp as they could not identify it in the dark. They were instantly attacked and annihilated, with all treasure confiscated.

Now the level of the Yamuna fell down and regular supplies started coming to the Afghan camp, resulting in a plenty of food there. On the other hand the marathas began to starve as abdali tightened the noose around them by regular patrols which prevented any food coming to them. Actually panipat had enough food to last the maratha army for months. But the vast retinue of servants, women and camp followers quickly finished the food and scarcity now prevailed.

To prevent supplies to the Afghan camp, the Maratha Governer of Bundelkhand, Govind Pant Bundele now moved from Bundelkhand with 10,000 men towards Rolhilkhand, which was undefended as the Rohillas were all at Panipat. This struck terror among the Rohillas, as their families were now threatened . But abdali the master general hatched a plan.

A small but swift force under Atai Khan and Karimdad Khan went at amazing speed, covering 200 km extremely fast and surprised Govind Pant in a small town he had just sacked. In the morning, the marathas were all cut down and Govind was killed. His head was sent to Bhau as gift to strike terror among the Marathas.

If bhau had attacked in the early stages, he had a good chance of success as maratha morale was high at that time. But he proved to be a pullisanimous commander as he did not even try to attack as the marathas began to starve. Animals began to die for want of forage and the men themselves began to become weak for want of food.

At last all men began to feel so weak that they felt that their half starving bodies would not able to fight if the wait was prolonged any more without food. They all gathered around Bhau’s tent clamouring for a fight to save their honour. At last, Bhau agreed to fight although his men were now weak in body due to starvation. Next morning the Marathas marched out with their faces pasted with saffron, as defenders of Hinduism. The date was 14 january 1761.

Dispositions of the rival armies as they come face to face

In front of the Maratha army were the cannons, ranged along the whole maratha line. Behind them- on the left were the gardi muskeeters, led by a great commander, Ibrahim Khan Gardi. As the marathas believed in light cavalry tactics and were not amenable to disciplined tactics, Ibrahim Khan had recruited his troops from the Hindu population of Andhra Pradesh. Thus the Gardis, as they were known were Telgu troops in the service of Marathas and were called Gardis due to the surname of their famous commander.

To his right, in the left-center were Maratha cavalry troops under Vitthal Shidev and Damaji Gaikwad. Their task was to support and protect the Gardis from a cavalry assault. In the center was Bhau, along with the Peshwa’s son Vishwasrao, who had been sent to keep Bhau in check, as the Peshwa was afraid that Bhau would create an independent kingdom in the north. He was a mere figurehead, as he was only 17 years of age. With bhau was the famous Huzrat cavalry of the Peshwa, the best troops of the Maratha empire, in the center.

To the right of center was Antaji Mankeshwar with his troops and Shamsher Bahadur, the son of Bajirao and Mastani. He had been brought up as muslim as the Pune Brahmins detested the Muslim Mastani  and refused to accept her son as a Hindu. To the right were the forces of Yeshwantrao Pawar, Malhar Rao Holkar and the Scindia troops under younger brother of the dead Dattaji, Jankoji Scindia. And behind this, came the vast retinue of servants, camp followers and women.

On Abdali’s side, the center was commanded by Shah Wali Khan, his Wazir, with the royal cavalry. With him were 2000 Zamburaks, which were small cannons placed on camels, and were light and more mobile than the static maratha cannons. In the extreme right, were the superb Persian horse led by Barkhurdar Khan and Amir Khan and Labuli infantry. n between the center and right were the Rohilla troops led by Hahiz Rehmat Khan and troops of Ahmad Khan Bangash of Farrukabad. To the left of center were Najib Khan Rohilla and Shuja-ud-Daula with their troops. The extreme left flank was composed of royal mobile cavalry of Shah Pasand Khan. Indian muslim troops were in between the Afghan toops to prevent any defection from them in case of the fight going badly for them.

Above all, a reserve was kept by Abdali to deal with any dire situation. A special feature of his army was military police, who were behind the troops and would capture any deserters and bring them back. These reserves and military police numbered 10,000 men. They were the highest paid troops and considered themselves the Afghan king’s personal slaves. Special scouts on horseback ranged the whole front to keep Abdali informed of what was happening in each sector. On the other hand, the Marathas had no reserves which showed that they had learned nothing from history. Prithviraj had lost the battle of Tarain because he had no reserves.

The battle of Panipat- phase I

The Marathas opened the action as they saw the Afghan army coming, by opening fire with their cannons. The cannons were fired by elevating them as the Afghans were quite far at that time. But the rapid movement of the Afghans meant that by the time the cannon were elevated and fired, the Afghans were ahead of the position on which the cannon were fired. The cannonballs fell harmlessly behind the Afghan troops.

Now to fire on the new positions required the troops to lower the cannons, but as the afghans were approaching fast, by the time the 200 cannons would be lowered the Afghan army would be on them. Thus ,the weapon Bhau held as his trump card over the afghans had failed him at the decisive moment. The cannons of course, had their uses as delhi had quickly fallen due to the bombardment of the cannons and the same had occurred at Kunjpura, whose walls had been breached by the cannons. But they proved to be useless on the fluid battlefield as against their success against static targets.

Bhau had another card up his sleeve in the form of the Gardi musketeers on his left. these now opened fire on the Rohillas and Afghans in front of them (Afghan right ). The Afghans and Rohillas also had muskets and opened fire but they neither had the discipline nor the accuracy of the Gardi musketeers. Above all, they were short-range compared to the French muskets of the Gardis. Their shots simply could not reach upto the Gardis.

On the other hand, the Gardis began to mow down the Afghans working with clock-like precision. One line of them fired the muskets and as it went behind to reload, the next line fired. The afghans on the right began to be decimated  and between 8 to 9,000 of them lost their lives. The afghan right seemed to be collapsing. Actually the gardis were outnunbered by 2:1 by the opposite Afghans and Rohillas, yet they got such success.

All this was due to the training given to the Gardis by Ibrahim Khan Gardi, their brilliant and patriotic commander. Earlier he had been enticed by the Afghans by trying to give him bribes and appeals to common religion. But he had rejected them saying, ”my loyality lies to the land which I have made my home, not from which I come”. He was a Pathan.

However as success went to the Gardis, so did jealousy grow among those who were posted to their immediate right, namely the cavalry of Damaji Gaikwad of Gujrat and the forces commanded by Vitthal Shivdev. They saw that the battle was being won by the Gardis, while the traditional Maratha cavalry was doing nothing. If this continued, the role of the cavalry would diminish in future and so would their importance.

Now the job given to them was to see them opposite side being mowed down by the Gardi bullets and when the Gardis finished firing, to charge the defeated and decimated Afghans (of the right side) and finish them off. But now they disregarded orders and charged the Afghan lines before the they had been fully decimated. This in fact brought them within range of the short-range Afghan muskets. The Afghans could hardly believe their luck as the enemy who was out of range earlier was now stumbling within range. Immediately the remaining Afghans opened fire and the entire charging force was cut to pieces at point-blank range before even reaching the Afghan lines as the cavalry borne by Marathas had no muskets, only swords and spears and could not return fire.

As the horse-borne Marathas were now between the Afghans and the Gardis, the Gardis had to stop firing so as not to hit their own comrades. Meanwhile in the center, the afghans charged the maratha lines but were sent packing by the famed huzrat cavalry of the Peshwa, perhaps the best troops of the Maratha empire. Then the huzrat cavalry charged on the Afghans themselves. The Afghans did the mistake of not galloping ahead to meet the Maratha charge and bore the full brunt of the Maratha charge while static. They were scattered by the sheer force of the maratha attack and thousands were killed on the spot.

Those who survived fled from the battlefield and both in the center and on the right where the Gardis were attacking them, it was becoming an Afghan rout. Shah Wali Khan, the Wazir, ran after them shouting, ”whither do you fly friends, our country (Afghhanistan) is far away”. But no one listened to him.

For the Marathas, this was their chance- the golden opportunity of a lifetime. The Afghan right was turned and on the backfoot due to the Gardi musketeers and the center had melted. Considerable gaps had opened in the Afghan lines and through them they could safely pass to the south, to safety and where food and supplies awaited!

But how could they! How could they!

If they escaped to the south, they would have to leave behind the multitude of women, including their own wives , old and infirm people and servants who depended on them for safety. Could a Maratha soldier show his face in Maharashtra if he came back leaving behind these people to the tender mercies of the rapist Afghans? No. The Marathas after this charge had to RETURN BACK to their original positions.

The situation in the Afghan camp was one of panic and even Abdali was momentarily confused. But if it was anyone who could keep his cool while the world was collapsing around him, it was Abdali.

He immediately sent his reserves and military police, who as yet were idle and numbering 10,000 strong, behind the fleeing Afghans with orders to browbeat them into coming back. These set after the fugitives, and upon reaching them, they were beaten, coerced, forced and cajoled back into the battle. The situation was explained to them, that they were in a far off country and if defeated had no where to run. So they had to stand and fight.

Finally they were brought back and the reserves and military police joining them, they were divided into two groups. The larger one went to the centre and the other to the right which had been hammered by the Gardis to bolster that side. Abdali had done well to bring these troops back , for the fortunes of war were about to change.

Battle of panipat– phase II

The Afghan troops were back in their positions by afternoon. On their right , they saw that the Gardi troops were alone without cavalry escort. Immediately the Gardi troops were charged by the Afghans in full force. Normally, the cavalry troops of Damaji Gaikwad and Vitthal Shivdev would have easily repulsed this charge, but we have already seen that they had foolishly expended themselves by attacking the musket carrying Afghans and thereby got slaughtered.

Normally a musket carrying infantry needs some cavalry to protect it in case of cavalry assault from opposite direction, after they have expended their musket ammunition. The gardis were close to finishing their musket ammunition now and needed cavalry protection to protect them from assault by the Afghans. But the cavalry protecting them was already destroyed by its own foolish assault and they were left to fend for themselves.

They fought as best as they could but they were slaughtered to every single man, but not Ibrahim Khan Gardi, whose dream of dying a true general’s death along with his soldiers was not accomplished. He was captured by the Afghans. But it must be remembered that they and their gallant commander had honoured themselves on the battlefield by taking on a numerically superior force and nearly decimating it. Only maratha cavalry’s foolishness had prevented them from grasping complete victory, at least on its side of the front.

Now for events on the right of the Marathas. While all this action had been going on, the Maratha right wing and the Afghan left wing in front of it were silent. By merely remaining opposite each other, they had contained each other and prevented the opposite side from going into action.

Here Malhar Rao Holkar had deliberately taken position, so as to be opposite Najib Khan Rohilla, who was his secret friend. Both had agreed not to attack each other. Furthermore, at a pre-arranged signal, Malhar Rao left his position and escaped from the battlefield. Najib did not attack him and thus Malhar Rao made it to safety by his cunning methods and went back home.
About 1500 Maratha troops made it to safety with him.

His departure suddenly exposed the flank of the Scindia troops who were to his immediate left and now they were attacked from the side rather than from the front, where they had expected Malhar Rao’s troops to be defending positions and were caught by surprise. They were immediately cut to pieces by the Afghans and Jankoji Scindia himself had to run to safety towards the center with the remainder of his troops. Thus the Maratha left wing was defeated and the right wing was turned towards the center. The action now moved towards the maratha centre as the Afghans attacked from all sides.

Battle of Panipat- phase III

First abdali ordered his zamburaks, that is swivel-cannons fitted on camels to attack the Marathas. These were mobile and therefore more capable of firing than those of the Marathas. These produced a heavy toll on the Maratha forces. Then he ordered Shah Pasand Khan to attack with his kizilbash troops, who were Iranian troops with distinctive red headgear, to attack with full force in the flank of the the Maratha center.

The marathas retaliated with full vigor and a titanic battle developed between the rival armies of the two forces. ”There arose such a cloud, that nothing could distinguish the heavens from the earth”, according to an observer. Nothing could be heard above the din of battle except the clash of arms and the battle cries of the two forces. A close and violent contest developed in which both sides fought with swords, spears, battle axes and even daggers. This continued for more than two hours. Abdali then sent his own tribe’s soldiers, called Bashgulls  to engage the Marathas.  Yet the marathas were unyielding and rivers of blood began to flow on both sides.

The Peshwa’s son, 17 year old Vishvasrao, the nominal commander of the expedition, now fought like a true warrior by the side of his uncle, on horseback and personally killing manygilchyas, as the Marathas called the Afghans. The crisis of the battle occured when he mounted an elephant to bolster his forces. Now both armies had muskets and he should have known from the manner of the death of Dattaji Scindia, that this made him a tempting target for musket fire. No surprise, he was shot dead by an Afghan musket.

At this point, Bhau lost his head and forgot his duty as a general and commander of the Maratha forces. He knew that now he could not show his face in Pune, especially to his sister-in-law, Vishwasrao’s mother, who had weepingly put Vishvasrao’s head on his lap before starting off from pune, as Vishwasrao being the oldest son of the Peshwa was heir to the Maratha empire. He now ordered his bodyguards, numbering hundreds, to accompany him as he plunged into the Afghan lines to fight a desperate battle.

As he disappeared into the Afghan lines, word spread among the Marathas that he had died in the Afghan lines. Actually he was alive but the rumour spread and many Marathas began to flee. Some Rohillas and Afghans, who had joined the Maratha camp after being captured at Kunjpura and were protecting the non-combatants behind, now threw off their Maratha headgear and began to loot the Maratha camp, further adding to the confusion.

Abdali now ordered a troop of 8,000 Khans to attack Bhau and his bodyguards and an obstinate battle developed. But the marathas were overwhelmed by sheer numbers. Bhau was identified by the bejewelled sword he held and his rich clothes and finally found peace.

His death precipitated the final defeat of the Marathas. They all began to flee and were mercilessly hounded by the Afghans. As they fled into the town of Panipat, they were chased and savagely massacred. The scene of the battle itself was an astonishingly gory sight. Every last man among the Marathas was hunted down. Piles of corpses littered the battlefield. In the camp, even the old people were killed and women became a prey to the lust of the Afghan conquerors.

Next day, the survivors were pitilessly put to death and women put on sale. It was verily the doomsday of the Maratha people. Like the Mahabharat, an entire generation of warriors died on that day. Some 75,000 of the 85,000 fighting men lost their lives and the tragedy was increased by the presence of non-combatants, who added to the list of dead. In all 2 lakh Marathas lost their lives. In Maharshtra not a single home was left which did not have to mourn the loss of a member and many had lost the head of the house.

Damaji Gaikwad survived the battle to return to Gujrat and recover his hold on that province, so did Vitthal Shidev. Malhar Rao Holkar had already escaped. Generally the earlier generation of guerilla leaders were able to save their lives, while those who fought Bhau’s kind of warfare lost their lives. His wife Gopikabai, who used to ride with a unsheathed sword was saved by her bodyguards and returned to Pune and still kept on wearing a suhagan’s clothes, hoping against the hope that her husband was alive. Her hope was bolstered by the simple people of Haryana, who said that a sadhu who appeared in that neighborhood, and who established a gadhi there  was giving people military training to protect them from afghan invaders. The myth goes that Bhau had not forsaken the people whom he had arrived to protect, but was staying among them to complete his task- Bhau ki Gadhi still exists in Panipat district.

Jankoji Scindia was captured alive, but buried alive on Najib’s orders. Thus started the blood fued between Najib khan and the Scindias, which was ended only when Mahadji Scindia killed Najib’s grandson Ghulam Qadir, but not before he had tortured and blinded Qadir. Jankoji Scindia himself was rumoured to be alive, but actually, both he and Bhau had ascended to heaven, if there is such a place.

Shamshar bahadur , the gallant son of the beautiful Mastani and the current Peshwa’s father Bajirao was killed. His dynasty, still muslims, formed a princely state and still survive carrying Bajirao’s genes while the Peshwa’s legal heirs are long extinguished.

The news reached Shrimant Peshwa Nanasaheb, son of Bajirao, when he was at Sironj. An enigmatic letter came saying,

Two pearls have been lost, so have been 27 gold mohurs and the count of the copper lost is beyond count!

 

Needless to say, the gold were the sardars and the pearls were Bhau and Vishvasrao. Shocked by the news, the Peshwa breathed his last.

On the other hand, Abdali was not able to hold on to punjab for which he had fought such an epic battle. The sikhs took advantage of his weakened condition due to the losses at panipat and wrested it from him in the coming years.

But in bengal, the race of white men were raising a union jack and were smiling at their good fortune!

References:

 1) Advanced study in the history of modern India- by Punjabi historian J L Mehta

2) Fall of the mughal empire- volume 2 , by Bengali historian Jadunath Sarkar

3) Panipat 1761- by Marathi historian T S Shejwalkar

4) Panipat (Marathi novel)- by Vishvas Patil

5) The battle of Panipat-by British historian Elphistone.

6) History of Mahrattas- by British historian Grant Duff.

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  • Time Is Up

    Marathas (and Peshwas) understand Muslims thought process. Muslim invaders (not rulers), failed to build plural societies, all they looked towards was supremacist Islam to dictate the day to day rulings. Typically Muslim thought process is all about revenge. Even now, Revenge for Kashmir, babri, revenge for Godhra, Muzaffarnagar etc., same goes in Israel and the arabs who call themselves Palestinians.
    I am not surprised that Peshwas and Scindias eventually got it, in future Hindus need to understand this while dealing with restive Muslim populations. While revenge may keep the cycle going, at one point, one has to completely eliminate the enemy or get eliminated. We will be seeing Kashmir and struggle against Israel going till a serious incident happens.

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  • Imnindian Imnindian

    wow. simply brilliant. it’s almost as if you were there to witness the whole event.

    I think we can conclusively say that Hindus have never been able to work together, instead they harbour ill-will and jealousy. We need to understand and rectify this soon enough or else we will be just footnotes in history.

  • Lalitaditya Muktapida

    What a Depressing episode! We are Freaking Doomed!

  • This is one of the most interesting mysteries of Maratha History.. thanks a lot for shedding light on this topic.. I love collecting Maratha coins and was reading about it on websites like Mintage World, I found your article when I was doing my bit of research on Maratha history..

  • gl7rwh35

    copy paste.i hope isme information corruption kiya gaya hai,aur kuch cheezon ko common sense se explain bhi nahi kiya.
    iska ek analysis likha jana chahiye.