Contemporary records speak of Chhatrapati Shivaji’s resolve to liberate Hindu holy places, and the later Maratha rulers carried forward his legacy, Colonel Anil A Athale (retd) reveals in a forthcoming book.
Effective Mughal control over large parts of India died with Aurangzeb in 1707. In the words of Lord Macaulay, ‘Soon after Aurangzeb’s death every corner of his wide empire learnt to tremble at the name of the mighty Marathas!’
The Marathas held sway over large parts of Central and North India right till the Second Anglo-Maratha war of 1803.
Liberation of Hindu holy places was always a part of the Marathas’ political agenda throughout this period.
The roots of this go back to the days of Shivaji the Great. In 1669, reversing the tolerant policy laid down by Emperor Akbar, Aurangzeb destroyed the Kashi Vishwanath temple in April 1669 and the temple at the birthplace of Krishna in Mathura in December of the same year.
Jijabai and Shivaji were greatly dismayed at this news.
This also led to the realisation on Shivaji’s part that peace with Aurangzeb was impossible. Contemporary records speak of his resolve to liberate Hindu holy places, and the later Maratha rulers carried forward his legacy.
In an attempt to change Aurangzeb’s policy and anticipating a future conflict with the Mughals, Shivaji wrote: ‘Your great grandfather had been a tolerant ruler. Hindus ring a bell and the Muslims say azaan, what is the difference? Both pray to one almighty in their own way.’
In a farsighted prediction Shivaji added, ‘My land is harsh and unyielding. The people born in this land, like its nature, are hardy. Your elephants and big guns cannot move freely in this area. There is very little you can gain from the poor country of mine.’
‘Should you try to subjugate my people, you will meet with fierce resistance, so why venture on this foolhardy course?’
Immediately after Shivaji’s death in 1680, Aurangzeb did precisely this, for which he and the Mughal empire paid the price. The rest, as they say, is history.
By the middle of the 18th century, the Marathas had consolidated their hold over Central India, the Malwa plateau. The Marathas wished to test the waters as well as establish the rights of all Hindus to go on pilgrimages.
In a planned move Bajirao’s mother Radhabai went on a year-long visit to Hindu holy sites in the north in February 1735. Such was the awe Bajirao commanded that the Mughal emperor not only welcomed her visit but also deputed a guard of 1,000 soldiers to accompany her throughout her stay.
Radhbai returned to Pune in June 1736 after a prolonged stay at Kashi.
In 1737 Bajirao made a successful dash to Delhi and defeated the Mughal army. As Nizam Ul Mulk tried to come to the emperor’s rescue, Bajirao moved against him and defeated him in the battle of Sironj in January 1738.
The Mughals ceded the province of Malwa to the Marathas. Bajirao in turn appointed the Shindes (now the Scindias) to look after Gwalior and the Holkars to take charge in Indore. Once the base in Malwa was secure, the Marathas began forays into the Indo-Gangetic plains.
On June 27, 1742, Malhar Rao Holkar, the Maratha general, with a cavalry force of over 20,000 soldiers reached the vicinity of Kashi.
Holkar planned to pull down the Gyanvapi mosque that was constructed at the site of the Kashi Vishwanath temple by Aurangzeb and rebuild the temple.
The people of Kashi were alarmed and sent a delegation requesting Holkar not to do so. The delegation argued that the Mughals were too strong in Kashi and the residents would be killed once the Marathas left.
Holkar acceded to their request and left without restoring the Kashi temple.
By 1750, after Nadir Shah’s devastating raid in 1739 and the plunder of Delhi (during which he carried away the famous Peacock throne and Kohinoor diamond), the Mughal emperor was reduced to a puppet in the hands of various nobles and the Marathas. The latter had become virtual kingmakers in Delhi.
In 1752, the Mughal wazir (prime minister) Safdar Jung sought Maratha help. They agreed, but demanded more provinces and the liberation of Hindu holy places.
Safdar Jung agreed to the first condition but made various excuses to deny the Hindu holy places to the Marathas.
One of the akhbars (news reports) mentions that the general opinion among Muslims was against the move as the control over Kashi, Mathura and Ayodhya was seen by them as symbols of conquest of Islam over Hinduism.
At that time as well as in the 21st century, Shia Muslims were more accommodative than Sunnis.
Nadir Shah’s invasion and Ahmed Shah Abdali’s invasion in 1759 forced the Marathas to change their policy of basing only small forces in the north.
On April 14, 1760, a large force under Sadashiv Bhau marched from Pune to deal with the threat of an Afghan invasion.
Bhau was instructed to first defeat Abdali at Delhi and then turn east and liberate Hindu holy sites.
He was to further proceed to Bengal to drive away the English who had begun to pose a serious threat to Maratha domains in the north and the south.
The aim to liberate holy places had one rather unfortunate effect. Attracted by the opportunity to conduct a pilgrimage to the holy places, a large number of non-combatants joined the Maratha force.
This was contrary to Bajirao’s practice of maintaining a nimble-footed army that had so successfully conquered Malwa. This was to prove a great hindrance when the Marathas faced Abdali at Panipat on January 14, 1761.
In a closely fought battle the Marathas suffered a major defeat. The Afghan losses were also considerable and Abdali returned to Afghanistan soon thereafter.
The resultant power vacuum was soon filled by the English who advanced from Bengal and established their sway over most of Doab (the Ganga-Yamuna valley).
The Marathas under the able General Mahadji Shinde re-established themselves in Delhi by 1765. However, they could never again muster sufficient strength to conquer the rest of north India.
In the second Anglo-Maratha war fought in 1803, the English defeated the Marathas in the battles of Delhi, Aligarh, Lassawari and Assye.
The English did not tinker with the ownership of Hindu holy places and the status quo established by Mughal emperors Babar and Aurangzeb continued under their rule till 1947.
Excerpted from Mighty Marathas: The Last Indian Empire by Colonel Anil A Athale (retd).
Colonel Anil A Athale (retd)