Maharaja Yeshwantrao Holkar I - The Forgotten General

Yeshwantrao Holkar I
  • Yeshwantrao Holkar I was shrewd, brave and a tactician par excellence. This book extract tells how Holkar I forced the British Colonel Monson to surrender. It is worth the long read.

Holkar I was born in 1776 at village Waf in Maharashtra. His mother was the second wife of Tukoji Holkar, a trusted General of Ahilyabai Holkar. 

“Did those victories come easily as being boasted by British? Did they not ever run away from battle field leaving their equipment?

The moment we get beneath the surface and probe deeper, we notice that the facts are bewildering. Yes they defeated us, but their victories did not come easily, the British faced stiff opposition at every level and we did not capitulate meekly at any stage despite our inherent divisive tendencies, poor state of military equipment and military organisation. 

During this span of time, right from the advent of Britishers in India, although we produced many gallant soldiers who gave a tough fight to Britishers but the contribution of Yeshwantrao Holkar- I, in my view, was the most remarkable, because, of his audacity, determination and ability to fight an enemy, who is immensely superior to him and yet exploit enemy’s weaknesses to his advantage. He made the British run around more than thousand kms, tired them, and inflicted such heavy casualties that the British had to recall Wellesley, the then Governor General and instead, appoint Cornwallis, who immediately directed his staff to call truce with Yeshwantrao. He was the only king with whom the British signed a truce at equal terms.” 

The above is an extract from chapter 2 of book ‘The Forgotten General - Maharaja Yeshwantrao Holkar’ titled The Only Bright Star. To read full chapter CLICK  To read extracts from chapter 8 of the same book, titled Catching the Bull by its Horns read on.

“Yeshwantrao despite all the handicaps decided to Catch the Bull by its horns and gave British a dose of their own medicine and that was the harrowing time that he gave to Col Monson’s army.



Yeshwant’s huge cavalry of some 60000 horses and some 200 odd guns particularly after his victory over combined armies of Daulatrao Scindia and Peshwa at Pune ( Battle of Hadapsar) have been taken into account by the British for whatever worth they were while deciding a course of action vis a vis Yeshwantrao, esp. after Daulatrao Scindia’s forces were almost annihilated by Britishers.. Although, the British did not take Yeshwantrao as a security threat then, but at the same time, did not also wish to antagonize him either and thus thought of not getting involved in the family feud.


William Thorn in his Book; Memoirs of War in India conducted by Army Chief Gen Lakes, gave an indication of this thought process that might have prevailed amongst the British top brass about Yeshwant;


 “It was natural to have concluded after the complete triumph of British army over the two most formidable Maratha chieftains (Scindia and Bhonsle) that no other chieftain in India would be found hardy enough to take on the might of the British army.”

However, he added later, that; “One turbulent spirit still remained who could disturb the tranquility urged on by the madness of his ambitions.”


Thus the British did not bother to track Yeshwantrao as was indicated by Gen Lakes in his letter dated 11Oct 1803, to Wellesley Governor General, just prior to capture of Agra, which was under Scindia. He wrote; “Where Holkar is, I know not, having heard no more about him since I sent you Mr Gardner’s letter….”


Yeshwant keeps them Guessing                       

It was only in the later part of 1803 when the English had already subdued Scindia and Bhonsle and Yeshwantrao moved to Rajasthan ; Kota, Bundi area and started extracting money from the Rajas and thereafter marched towards the territory of the Raja of Jaipur, who promptly approached the British for help, that the British started taking a note of developments. However, Governor General Wellesley’s reply to Gen Lakes letter on 18 Nov1803, indicates that Brits even at that stage did not take him as a security threat. 


However, the moment Raja of Jaipur requested Gen Lakes for protection and sent his ambassadors for signing an agreement, things changed, it then became an issue of prestige for British. They also recognized the threat that Yeshwantrao can impose, if he was allowed to collect huge sums of money and get other kings on his side in the name of religion.  


As Yeshwant’s forces were now encamped few miles away from Jaipur and his forces were ravaging the villages of the Raja now a British ally, the situation was becoming precarious for the British. In Feb 1804, the British thought it to be prudent to mobilize their forces in order to deter Yeshwant from exacting tax from the territory of Raja of Jaipur. Thus, Gen lakes with his army moved from Kanpur to Jaipur via Hindan near Agra. A position which commanded the main roads into the Company's territory, and afforded an easy movement in any direction which the forces of Holkar might pursue. 


Meanwhile Yeshwant to keep British guessing about his real intentions, addressed letters to the British Commander-in-Chief, Gen Lakes containing assurances to cultivate the friendship with the British government. Yeshwant through his maneuvers and letters created enough confusion in the minds of the British. Gen Lakes also in his letter to Governor General had mentioned;


“I cannot reconcile the conduct of Holkar for if he had intended any hostile measures against us, he could have inflicted heavy casualties on us when we were in the process of marching towards Agra. I can scarcely believe such an idea wouldn’t have come to his mind. As per my reports, Holkar is shrewd, sensible man, with an extra ordinary firm mind and supposed to be ever watchful and always ready to seize a good opportunity to execute his plans, should he be a man as represented, he surely cannot have intention to attack us when we have possession of entire Hindustan.”

View of Maheshwar, on banks of river Narmada.

Possessing a great military mind Yeshwant would have carefully assessed his military capabilities vis a vis British. And this he had already reflected to Daulatrao Scindia in his earlier letter that; If he fights like a sovereign ruler he would lose but if he fights like a Maratha an exponent of mobile warfare he stands a chance to win.


He had so timed his entry into Rajasthan intentionally so as not to allow British any time for rest and refit. He also with an aim to confuse the British as to his real objectives, started writing letters to Gen Lakes, using at times language which would have appeared arrogant, egoistical, threatening, over ambitious with an aim to annoy him. His choice of words while putting across his demands need to be seen as a deliberate attempt by Yeshwant, prompting British to act against him. In a letter addressed to General Wellesley, containing demand of certain territories, which he said belonged to his family in Deccan he  concluded his letter  with a threat;


“Notwithstanding the greatness of the British power, a war with him would not be without its evils; for “Although unable to oppose their artillery in the field, countries of many miles (coss) would be over-run, and plundered, and burnt; that they would not have leisure to breathe for a moment, and that calamities would fall on lacs of human beings in continued war by the attacks of his army, which overwhelms like the waves of the sea.’


Yet in another letter he showed interest in seeking peace rather than hostilities, therein sowing seeds of confusion. While Yeshwant was projecting himself as a power ; displaying his audacity and arrogance, he was through these letters, also buying time, seeking peace and friendship with Brits so that his efforts to unite other Indian Kings to join hands against the Brits gets materialized.


However, unfortunately, Yeshwant’s letters written to other local kings in North (Ghulam Mohhamad and Rundgall Singh) wherein he was urging them to withdraw from the British alliance and help him to run over the British territory from Haridwar to Benaras and Allahabad, got into the hands of Brits which sort of raised their hackles. Having realized the duplicity of Yeshwantrao made Brits to think about him seriously.


So, on the 16th of March two vakeels from Holkar arrived in the British camp. They projected demands, which he knew the Brits would not agree to.  As expected the Brits found these demands as extravagant; and the vakeels, departed from the camp, bearing to him another letter from the Commander-in-Chief.  However once again, On 22 Mar 1804 his two vakeels came to the British camp established enroute Jaipur and here again they put forth the same demands that were called extravagant by Brits a month ago. This peeved Gen Lakes and what might have annoyed him no end was the arrogance that his letter displayed.  Yeshwant stated that;


The capital and assets of his kingdom are on the saddle of his horse and in which ever direction it turns his soldiers will overrun miles and miles of that territory causing great harm to your interests.”


Undoubtedly the British did not like this open threat, as no other Indian king had ever dared spoken to them in this manner.  This off course shows another perspective of Yeshwantrao’s personality. Besides the confidence and audacity, he had also this uncanny neck of getting beneath the skin of his rivals. The course of action that British wanted to avoid but were compelled to take subsequently also vindicates that Yeshwant finally succeeded in infuriating the Brits and this exasperation became the cause of their misery as well.


Besides infuriating Gen Lakes, he also created confusion in their ranks by sending an emissary to Scindia, demonstrating the Brits that he is hatching a conspiracy to patch up with Scindia and make a union of forces to take on the Brits.                          


But when the Vakeel of Scindia arrived, Yeshwantrao had already moved to Ajmer, leaving balance of his army near Jaipur, Being aware that this was Scindia’s territory. 


This indicates that Yeshwant at this stage was not very keen to have any treaty with Scindia but was only instigating the British and cleverly sowing the seeds of confusion in their minds like the British confused the various Maratha Chieftains Post Treaty of Bassein.


Yeshwantrao was now adopting the same tactics as he employed against Daulatrao Scindia; threaten the weak spot and force the enemy to agree to his terms or chase him. He might have appreciated that British after a grueling battle against Scindia and Bhonsle would avoid a warfare with him and they might come to agree to his terms sooner or later.


To avoid any loss of face, on 16th of April 1804 Governor General issued orders to the Commander-in-Chief, and Major-General Wellesley, to commence hostile operations against Holkar, both in the North and in the South. For this decision of his, he had to pay for it dearly when the war became too expensive for the East India Company.


In his despatch to the Secret Committee of the Court of Directors, dated 15th of June, 1804, the Governor-General while expressing his anguish and justifying his action against Yeshwantrao said:


“Jeswunt Rao Holkar being justly considered as an adventurer, and as the usurper of the rights of his brother Cashee Rao Holkar—consistently with the principles of justice no arrangement could be proposed between the British government and Jeswunt Rao Holkar, involving the formal sanction of the British government to that chieftain's usurpation, and to the exclusion of Cashee Rao Holkar from his hereditary dominions.”                                           


Finally, it was now when their ally at Jaipur was almost pushed to a corner that the British realized the enormity of threat posed by Yeshwantrao. On receiving the instructions to begin hostilities, Gen Wellesly commanding the Brit army in South, however, was faced with a predicament.


The Deccan was facing acute famine.  Hence to conduct the operations of an army, in a country facing famine, appeared to General Wellesley very hazardous, and so advancing against Yeshwant’s strong holds in that region, he thought, as almost impossible till the commencement of the rains. In the mean time, he augmented the force in Gujarat by three battalions of native infantry, and instructed Colonel Murray, the commanding officer, to march towards the territories of Yeshwantrao Holkar in Malwa, and, either by meeting and engaging his army, or acting against his country, to accelerate, as much as possible, his destruction.


Action Commences

General Lakes on 06 Apr 1804 moved with his army towards Jaipur. By the time Col Monson reached about 15 miles short of Jaipur, Yeshwantrao had already moved out of Jaipiur.  So, they got nothing except that the British army on its return had to face a severe sand storm. Yeshwantrao moved back at such a fast pace that it became difficult for Lakes forces to catch up with him.


Thus, Lakes thought it better to leave Col Monson with a sizeable force; infantry, artillery and cavalry to guard Bundi, Kota area and wait for arrival of Murray from Gujarat and move his rest of tired army back to barracks, thinking that Yeshwant has escaped and was avoiding a confrontation. British army having marched in hot summers through Rajasthan faced extreme health problems and cattle also were at their extreme limits.


Col Monson thought that Yeshwantrao was fleeing out of fear and was avoiding a contest, probably grew over confident and decided to pursue Yeshwantrao and entered his territory through Mukundra pass, South of Kota with a strong detachment ; consisting of five battalions of infantry, with artillery in proportion; and two units of irregular horse - about three thousand strong, one led by a Britisher, under Lieutenant Lucan and the other a detachment sent by Scindia, Col Monson, visualizing that soon he will be able to link up with Col Murray who was advancing from Gujarat and so they would be able to easily destroy Yeshwant’s forces. He reached Hinglajgarh a fort near Bhanpura and captured it without any resistance in July1804.


Yeshwantrao by then had reached Mandsaur; Scindia’s territory to extract as much money as possible for the ensuing battle. Meanwhile, Col Murray realizing the futility of taking on Yeshwantrao in this hot weather with insufficient and tired troops marching all the way from Gujarat a dangerous proposition wrote to Monson that he is moving back. He also had reportedly received information that Holkar was planning to attack Gujarat, as Yeshwant had already reached Mandsaur.  So on July 08th Monson decided to pull back as he was also short of logistic support. However, subsequently when Murray came to know that Yeshwant was not intending to attack Gujarat he moved to Ujjain but by then the disaster had already struck Monson.

Yeshwant having come to know that Hinglaj fort has been captured and a British detachment was encamped at a place near Bhanpura at Garoth under Capt Lucan. Yeshwantrao and Harnath Singh carried out a surprised attack on the Brit camp at Garoth on 08 Jul and captured all their equipment and took Lt Luncan as prisoner.  He also captured all of their horses and few elephants and guns, as well. 


Yeshwantrao, not one of those to miss an opportunity like this, He immediately sent a strong detachment to chase Monson who had by now crossed the Mukundra pass and had almost reached Chambal to effect a crossing.


“On the morning of the 10th July, Yeshwant’s cavalry carried out a vigorous attack on the retreating Brit force. By noon the following day, Yeshwant’s cavalry grew in size. Holkar summoned the Monson’s detachment to surrender their arms. But the Brits did not surrender so he divided his force into three teams, and made a vigorous attack on the front and flanks of the British force. The Brit troops held on to their position till night, against numerous attacks launched by Yeshwant’s cavalry. Monson realized that by next day morning Holkar’s guns and infantry would also join in and this position would then be untenable to hold on, he also feared that the enemy may get in to his rear and block his route of withdrawal, so he decided to move to Kota.” 


However, Raja of Kota having paid huge fine to Holkar for having supported Brits earlier, refused to support them anymore and allow entry. With Yeshwant at his heels and heavy rains from heavens, it became difficult for Col Monson to cross the river Chambal so he left his heavy baggage including many of his guns on the muddy bank of the river. When after two days rains stopped, Yeshwant reached the river bank, Monson by then had crossed the Chambal but as the banks were still soft much of his equipment was stuck on the near side.


However, Yeshwantrao not willing to let go this golden opportunity immediately deputed his Commanders Ganpatrao, Chiman Bhau, Kusaji Bakshi along with 25000 troops to cross the river with the help of 40 boats that he summoned for this purpose and chase Col Monson’s force. He also sent Harnatah Singh to capture all the equipment that the Brits left on the near side of the bank. By sun set Yeshwant rao’s cavalry had surrounded Col Monson’s force.


As crossing the swollen Chambal was not easy, it took almost 10 days for Monson’s forces to cross over all the troops under repeated attacks by Yeshwant’s cavalry and also by Bhils, supporting Yeshwantrao who had taken up position on the surrounding hills. Somehow the remnants of Monson’s forces kept trickling in to Rampura across Chambal by 27 Jul1804. 


When the news came that Col Monson, has reached Rampur (Near Aligarh) and some reinforcements have reached Monson, Yeshwant forthwith decided to march towards Rampur. Rampura, near Aligarh, provided a strong defense to this beleaguered British force and so Col Monson remained here for the reorganization of his forces for almost 20 days, but as Yeshwant’s forces were growing in strength and he was short of supplies, Monson decided to march on, leaving a few guns and troops for the defense of Rampura. Moreover as he was expecting some six battalions more as re-inforcements enroute, he decided to now cross river Banas.


On 23 Aug 1804 when the news came that Monson is planning to cross river Banas, Yeshwant moved speedily and in order to avoid his cavalry getting stuck in slush on the banks of river asked his cavalry to dismount and attack.


Some of his commanders objected to this but in front of Yeshwantrao their plea did not work and they had to dismount and attack. Heavy artillery fire by the British guns from the far bank inflicted casualties on them and so the attack did not have much impact on the enemy. Yeshwantrao, meanwhile finding a ford immediately ordered his cavalry to cross over and charged the British on the far bank. Monson’s force was surrounded now from both flanks. 


However despite being surrounded they counter attacked and seized some of Holkar’s guns. Yeshwant this time led the charge himself and pulled eight of his guns to the front and brought down heavy fire on the enemy. He himself with his hand applied the match to the hole of the gun and drove back the charging British soldiers and slew them, he not only recovered his lost guns but forced the enemy to run. Some got drowned in the river, losing all their guns and other equipment.


Grant in History of Marathas described the operation on river Banas as follows;


“ On the 23rd August Holkar's cavalry again made their appearance in force, and on the 24th, the river being fordable, Brigadier-General Monson began to send over his baggage and one battalion. Holkar at the same time, took possession of a village on Monson's right, but was promptly dislodged from it. The river having decreased considerably, the Marathas were able to pass it to the right and left, and most of Monson's baggage having got across, his main body, consisting of three battalions with one of the howitzers, followed. Major James Sinclair was left with one battalion, the 2nd battalion, 2nd regiment, and the pickets of the four corps which had crossed, to protect the passage of the remaining baggage and camp-followers. 


At 4 P. M, however, Holkar's infantry and guns came up, and opened a heavy cannonade. Major Sinclair desperately charged the guns with the small party that remained, took several of them, and for a moment was victorious ; but the enemy, rallied by Jeswunt Rao Holkar in person, charged in turn with overpowering numbers, and the gallant 'handful of sepoys were nearly annihilated by Holkar’s attack. Of the brave European officers who led them, 12 fell with their commander, and the wreck of the party escaped under cover of the fire of their comrades, who lined the opposite bank.”


Monson forces managed to reach Malarna Hills near Malarna Dungar on the night of 24Aug. He halted at night here and moved to Kushalgarh where he expected some more reinforcements arriving from Agra. But here the unexpected happened. The reinforcements that came were from Scindia’s forces, they arrested the British Captain and joined Yeshwant’s force. So, Brig Gen 

Monson preferred to continue his retreat towards Agra.

Omkareshwar. Main temple built by Holkars.

PE ROBERTS in his memoirs India under Wellesley writes that due to successive attacks by Yeshwant’s army, Monson lost all his equipment and baggage , and suffered heavy casualties, some even drowned in river while crossing River Chambal and Banas, and his Force continued the retreat and reached Hindaun Fort On 28August , worn out of fatigue, hunger and almost at the end of their tether, the broken army streamed into Agra on 31 August totally demoralized and under disorder, 50 days after the retreat had commenced.


The Brits were all along continuously chased and attacked by Yeshwantrao and his cavalry, almost till the British reached Agra and all the troops left behind were killed and equipment seized by Yeshwant’s force. At one stage when surrounded at Sikri, Monson sent a message to Yeshwant that he is willing to surrender, Yeshwant rao ordered his troops to relax taking Monson’s offer seriously but Monson using the night escaped and managed to reach Agra. This retreat brought huge disgrace to British army particularly after boasting of success at Asayyee and else here. Yeshwantrao had punctured their ego.


Colonel Monson attributed his disaster to the failure of Colonel Murray to join him from Gujarat and Colonel Murray attributed it to Colonel Monson. Both of them, as General Wellesley observed, were apparently afraid of Holkar, and fled from him in different directions. Colonel Monson advanced without reason and he retreated without cause. 


Although Monson had received reinforcements and spent almost 24 days at Rampur but he never thought of fighting back. Meanwhile Yeshwantrao also did not launch a full blooded attack but kept harassing him so as to avoid any casualties from British artillery. And the moment Monson tried crossing the river, Yeshwant attacked him with complete resources at his disposal catching Monson with its forces divided on both sides of his river. The already demoralized force was just decimated. The casualties suffered were huge, the British lost some 21 officers and not less than 300 soldiers.


PE Roberts in his Book; History of India under East India Company writes that Brits lost five battalions and six companies, implying that their casualties were so heavy that hardly anything was left in these Battalions and had to be disbanded.   Grant in his book The Maratthas, while praising the character of native sepoys and officers wrote;


“During the most harassing days many of the old sepoys and native officers of Brit army were often heard encouraging the younger European officers, when sinking under the fatigues telling them to cheer up, for that they would carry them safely to Agra,"


John Clark Marshman IN his Book, History of India wrote;

“This was the most signal disgrace inflicted on the British army since the destruction of Colonel Baillie's force by Hyder, in 1780, and its effect on the prestige and influence of the Company was felt throughout India. The defeat was celebrated in ribald songs in every bazaar, and one couplet, describing the utter confusion of the rout has survived the lapse of more than half a century.


              "Placing the houda of the elephant on the horse, and 

                       the saddle of the horse on the elephant,

                       did Colonel Monson fly away in haste." 

Yeshwant took the Britishers on a merry go round trip, like he did with Scindia’s forces in 1802.. The British marched from Kanpur to Jaipur almost 500 kms and then to Bhanpura in hot sun almost 350 kms and thereafter ran for their lives crossing two rivers and after having suffered huge casualties and walking almost more than 1000 kms reached Agra in a totally disorganized and a disheveled state. 

Ahilyabai Holkar is the most famous Holkar. 

Marshman in his Book History of India describing the disaster wrote;

“Governor General Wellesley’s military perceptions led him to urge General Lake to continue the pursuit with rapidity, even though there might be little hope of bringing Holkar to action.  He remarked, If Juswantrao is pushed with vigour, the war will not last a fortnight; if not, God knows when it will be over. But, by an act of unaccountable imprudence, General Lake, instead of continuing the pursuit, broke up his encampment, and withdrew his army into cantonments in Hindostan, sending Colonel Monson with a single brigade to follow the steps of Holkar. This was the fatal blunder of the campaign, and it entailed a tremendous catastrophe. 

Lord Wellesley, it is true, approved the retirement of General Lake’s army, but it must not be forgotten that he also advised him, either to withdraw the force under Colonel Monson, or to strengthen it with a regiment of Europeans and two or three of cavalry. General Lake did neither. He had detached Colonel Monson, who was as remarkable for professional incompetence as for personal gallantry, into the heart of Holkar’s territories, on the eve of the rains, with a small force, unaccompanied by a single European soldier, or any cavalry except 2,000 or 8,000 irregular horse recently raised, and utterly inefficient, to encounter a force ten times its number, and commanded by the most daring soldier of the day. 

As if in emulation of this error, Colonel Monson made no arrangements on his march for supplies, and no provision for crossing the various streams in his rear, which cease to be fordable after the rains commence. He still farther augmented the perils of his expedition by advancing through the Mokundra pass, and even fifty miles beyond it, for the idle object of capturing an unimportant fort, and thus put 200 miles between his force and its nearest support.”

Whatever reasons and justification the British can ascribe to the disaster, one thing is certain that after having defeated Scindia & Bhonsle a few months ago comfortably, the British had under estimated the valour, audacity and the tactical acumen of Yeshwantrao. The British now realized what Yeshwantrao meant by; 

“The capital and assets of his kingdom are on the saddle of his horse and in which ever direction it turns his soldiers will overrun miles and miles of that territory causing great harm to your interests.”


Author is a professional with nearly 34 years of versatile experience in the areas of HR operations, training and development in the Indian Army and industry.


EditorThe book Forgotten General is fast paced, looks at Holkar I objectively, exposes the British fault lines and is written from a military history angle. The book outlines Yashwant Rao’s decisions ‘as a military leaders. He was one person who shook the British in the early 19th century.’ 


Book also gives ‘shortcomings of Indian Armies that fought the British and appreciates Holkar I’s indomitable spirit’. If he fought the Battle of Assaye against the British, along with Scindia and  Bhonsle, the outcome might have been different. He ‘had a strong desire to throw the British out of India, was an inspiration to many Indian soldiers who left Scindia and joined him, made the British coffers empty besides inflicting heavy casualties.’ 


Like Bajirao Peshwa he died early, 40 vs 30. A tragedy for India!


Do read about The Battle of Deeg. Holkar I and Ranjeet Singh, the Raja of Bharatpur, ‘managed to create history by defeating a much superior British force’. Book has details of the battle.  


To buy the book - THE FORGOTTEN GENERAL click Here


Also read

1. Battle of Salher between Shivaji’s Generals and Aurangzeb Army

2. Battle of Assaye between the Marathas and British 1803

3. Maheshwar, ruled by the Holkars

4. Rajwada Indore where the Holkars lived after moving from Maheshwar


Also read by author Army Tales To read about and buy book click Here

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