By the middle of the third decade of the 18th century, Peshwa Bajirao I of the Marathas had already established a formidable reputation as an outstanding cavalry general. The year 1737 would again prove his ability as the ‘Master of strategic mobility’.
The negotiations of the Peshwa with the Mughal Emperor Muhammad Shah took up a major part of 1736. The demands of the Marathas, albeit from a position of strength, were quite exhaustive- in effect, a demand to concede almost the entire region from Bengal to Marwar. The Emperor, to buy time, first acquiesced to the demand and later did a masterly job of evasive replies and watered down acceptances.
The Peshwa moves north:
Exasperated, the Peshwa, with a strong force of fifty thousand cavalry, left Pune at the fag end of 1736 and paused at the kingdom of his allies from Bundelkhand, Hirde sa, and Jagatraj, the sons of Maharaj Chhatrasal.
At that time, two strong Mughal armies, led by the Wazir Qamruddin Khan and Khan Dauran, and a separate one of Sadat Khan of Awadh, were marching or camping in the environs of Agra or the Yamuna doab.
The Peshwa planned a diversionary attack to stop Sadat Khan from joining the other two and sent out a force under his able general Malharrao Holkar for that purpose. However, the smaller Maratha force, while pursuing a part of Sadat Khan’s forces, came up against the main army of Sadat Khan, of the number of 50,000. The Maratha army fell back to save itself, losing one and a half thousand men in the bargain.
Sadat Khan was overjoyed by the turn of events and he immediately wrote to the Emperor saying that he had defeated the Marathas and chased them south of the Chambal.
Onward to Delhi:
Bajirao took stock of the situation from his perch in Malwa. Option 1-turn back to the Deccan due to the fact of three large armies blocking his way to Delhi. Option 2- move on and attack Delhi against these seemingly insurmountable odds.
The Peshwa firmly chose the second option. Apart from all other considerations, he was determined to let the Emperor know how empty was the boast of Sadat Khan and how little reliance could be placed on his words. More importantly, withdrawal at this critical hour could have proved a setback to the nascent Maratha power in the north.
So, determined to cut the Gordian knot, the Peshwa sent his heavy baggage and non -combatants to Bundelkhand and started on the journey to Delhi, swiftly but secretly. None of the Mughal commanders had a whiff of his movements. Avoiding the direct Delhi- Agra highway, the Marathas followed an unfrequented route through the hilly kingdom of the Jats and reached the outskirts of Delhi on the auspicious day of Ram Navami. They had covered a distance of nearly two hundred km on horseback, in just four days and nights.
The events at Delhi:
His sudden appearance nearly at the gates of Delhi was like a whirlwind on a day of calm. Amidst the consternation, there was also a sense of disbelief that this had happened when two large armies were moving around the south of Delhi.
However, faced with the initial restraint shown by the Marathas (they did not launch a full-fledged attack and initially contented themselves with minor looting skirmishes), some Mughal chiefs mistook it for hesitation or even a plan of falling back.
Thus, a group of young nobles including Mir Hasan Khan Koka, Raja Shivsingh, and others led a force of eight thousand troops and engaged the Marathas. The battle ended in a resounding victory for the Marathas in which Raja Shivsingh and numerous Darbari nobles were slain. Very few men were lost on the Maratha side.
The ancient city of Delhi was open to ransacking and despoiling by its new conqueror. However, the civilized Peshwa was not a barbarian of the ilk of an Attila the Hun or a Nadir Shah. His chief motive was to establish the imprint of the Maratha strength of arms and cajole the Emperor into the acceptance of his demands.
Furthermore, Wazir Qamruddin, who was moving towards Agra, heard of the Peshwa’s march and the rout of the imperial forces, and immediately rushed back to Delhi. The Maratha forces turned back from Delhi, and avoiding any engagement with the Wazir’s army, which itself was loath to fight in its present disarray, travelled all night till they reached Rewari and Kot Putli in Rajasthan.
Aftermath and effect:
By the next day, the armies of Khan Dauran and Sadat Khan joined the Wazir forces at Delhi. But, as Bajirao had already reached the territory of Rajputana, the three found it expedient to go to court and with the Emperor on the occasion of Id before making further plans. However, the annoyed Emperor was quite brusque with them, especially with his earlier hero- Sadat Khan, who was unceremoniously packed off to his kingdom of Awadh.
Apart from the lack of artillery and a chronic shortage of funds which was a perennial thorn in the warfare of the Peshwas, Bajirao also had to be mindful of Chhatrapati Shahu’s injunction not to harm or overthrow the Mughal Emperor.
Also, the Mughals had put in the field many fine armies amounting to more than a hundred thousand soldiers in all, with ample funds and war material. However, in the absence of able generals, these armies had merely tired themselves out of marching and countermarching without actively engaging the enemy. By his daring and clever strategy, the Peshwa had completely outmanoeuvred his opponents and confirmed the Marathas as a force to be reckoned with in the political space of north India.
And needless to say, this event added to his reputation as a daredevil adventurer as well as the foremost ‘lightning strike’ cavalry general in the country. This spurred his descendants to pursue his ‘look north’ strategy which went beyond Delhi to the waters of the Indus at Attock.
The era of Baji Rao- Uday S KulkaA new
New history of the Marathas- G. S. Sardesai
Peshwa Bajirao I & Maratha expansion- V. G. Dighe
About the Author
Kranti Sardesai, has spent her formative years in Goa and is now working in a senior managerial position with the Securities Market Regulator, in her Karmabhoomi, Mumbai. She is a voracious reader, with interests ranging from history, music, and cookery. She manages to hold on to one of her early loves, history, and culture, amidst her daily corporate hustle.