Schoolchildren in India learn a very specific blend of Indian history. This school version of history is stripped of all the vigor and pride. The story of Indian civilization spans thousands of years. However for the most part the schoolbook version dwells on the freedom struggle against British and important role played in there by the Indian National Congress. We learn each and every movement of Gandhi and Nehru, but not even a passing reference is made to hundreds of other important people and events.
My objection is not to the persons Gandhi or Nehru. They were great men. However the attention they get and the exposure their political views and ideology gets is rather disproportionate.
And thus it comes no surprise to me that rarely we talk about an epic war that significantly altered the face of Indian subcontinent. The war that can be described the mother of all wars in India. Considering the average life expectancy that time was around 30 years, this war of 27 years lasted almost the lifespan of an entire generation. The total number of battles fought was in hundreds. It occurred over vast geographical expanse spanning four biggest states of modern India- Maharashtra, Gujarat, Madhya Pradesh and Karnataka. For time, expanse and human and material cost, this war has no match in Indian history.
It started in 1681 with the Mughal emperor Aurangzeb’s invasion of Maratha empire. It ended in 1707 with Aurangzeb’s death. Aurangzeb threw everything he had in this war. He lost it all.
It’s tempting to jump into the stories of heroics, but what makes the study of war more interesting is the understanding of politics behind it. Every war is driven by politics. Rather war is just one of the means to do politics. This war was not an exception.
Shivaji’s tireless work for most of his life had shown fruits by the last quarter of seventeenth century. He had firmly established Marathas as power in Deccan. He built hundreds of forts in Konkan and Sahyadris and thus created a defense backbone. He also established strong naval presence and controlled most of the Western ports barring few on end of Indian peninsula. Thus tightening the grip on trade routes of Deccan sultanates, he strangled their weapons import from Europe and horses import from Arabian traders. These Sultanates launched several campaigns against Shivaji, but failed to stop him.
On the Northern front, several Rajput kings had accepted to be the vassals of Mughals. Aurangzeb had succeeded to the throne after brutal killing of his brothers and imprisonment of his father. With Rajput resistance mostly subsided and the southern sultanates weakened, it was only matter of time before Marathas were in his cross-hair.
At the time of Shivaji’s death in 1680, Maratha empire spanned an area far more than the current state of Maharashtra and had taken firm roots. But it was surrounded by enemies from all sides. Portuguese on northern Coast and Goa, British in Mumbai, Siddies in Konkan and remaining Deccan sultenates in Karnataka posed limited challenge each, but none of them was capable of taking down the Marathas alone. Mughal empire with Aurangzeb at its helm was the most formidable foe.
For the most part, Aurangzeb was a religious fanatic. He had distanced Sikhs and Rajputs because of his intolerant policies against Hindus. After his succession to the throne, he had made life living hell for Hindus in his kingdom. Taxes like Jizya tax were imposed on Hindus. No Hindu could ride in Palanquin. Hindu temples were destroyed and abundant forcible conversions took place. Auragzeb unsuccessfully tried to impose Sharia, the Islamic law. This disillusioned Rajputs and Sikhs resulting in their giving cold shoulder to Aurangzeb in his Deccan campaign.
Thus in September of 1681, after settling his dispute with the royal house of Mewar, Aurangzeb began his journey to Deccan to kill the Maratha confederacy that was not even 50 years old. On his side, the Mughal king had enormous army numbering half a million soldiers, a number more than three times that of the Maratha army. He had plentiful support of artillery, horses, elephants. He also brought huge wealth in royal treasuries. Teaming up with Portughese, British ,Siddis, Golkonda and Bijapur Sultanates he planned to encapsulate Marathas from all sides and to form a deadly death trap. To an outsider, it would seem no-brainer to predict the outcome of such vastly one sided war. It seemed like the perfect storm headed towards Maratha confederacy.
Enormous death and destruction followed in Deccan for what seemed like eternity. But what happened at the end would defy all imaginations and prove every logic wrong. Despite lagging in resources on all fronts, it would be the Marathas who triumphed. And at the expense of all his treasure, army, power and life, it would be the invading emperor who learned a very costly lesson, that the will of people to fight for their freedom should never be underestimated.
Filed under: Hinduism, History, India, Karnataka, Maharashtra, Marathi, Politics, Shivaji, Strategy, Thoughts, Warfare Tagged: | 27 year war, aurangzeb, dhanaji, kanhoji angre, Karnataka, Maharashtra, maratha, Mughal, panhala, pratap gad, raigad, rajaram, rajgad, sambhaji, santaji, shahu, Shivaji, tarabai, vishalgad