How Marathas contributed to the Decline of the Mughal Empire-period 1752 to 1761

  • During 1752 to 1761 know how successive Maratha victories over the Mughals weakened them, Marathas assisted in placing titular kings in Delhi and Maratha-Sikh armies against the Afghans. Who invited Abdali to invade Delhi and Why i.e. cause of the Third Battle of Panipat.

The first part  included what were the reasons for the decline of the Mughal Empire and what was the Maratha contribution? How did Marathas acquire Bundelkhand, Malwa and Orissa and rise in the 18th century? And How Marathas made a treaty with the Mughal King Ahmed Shah for the ‘protection’ of Mughal ‘Empire’. 


But the infighting between the King and Wazir has reached such a height that Ahmed Shah feared Wazir more than the invaders.1 Hence, when Abdali’s envoy reached Delhi King Ahmed Shah, in 1752, concluded a separate treaty at the instigation of Javed Khan (favourite Khoja of Ahmed Shah), formally ceding Punjab and Multan to Abdali. This sowed the seeds of conflict between Abdali and Marathas.2


Safdarjang (Mughal Wazir) tried to control the faction favorable to Abdali by assassination of Javed Khan. But anti-Safdarjang faction led by Udham Bai (the Queen) got more impetus when prime nobles like Ghaziuddin, Intizam-ud-daula joined her.3 Unfortunately, Marathas who had entered into the agreement with Safdarjang to ‘protect’ the Mughal king landed in a situation where the former himself became an internal threat. The chaotic situation in Delhi and how both the parties were trying to pull him to their side was described by Antaji Mankeshwar (Maratha commander in Delhi) in his letter of April 1753. Many Afghan nobles who were bitter enemies of Safdarjang, now rushed to join Ahmed Shah, the chief amongst them was Najib Khan.4  


After long indecisive fighting, finally, both sides reached an agreement whereby Safdarjang was allowed to keep Prayag and Ayodhya provinces but on the condition of leaving Delhi. With his (November 1753), suddenly the young Mir Bakshi Ghaziuddin became powerful in Delhi politics. Now, Ahmed Shah became fearful for himself due to the increasing influence of Ghaziuddin. Hence, within 6 months, he started a confrontation with Ghaziuddin (April 1754).5 Ghaziuddin, called Marathas for help.


Raghunathrao (younger brother of Peshwa Nanasaheb) who had just made a truce with Jat King Surajmal and was present in the vicinity responded positively. Their combined army marched towards Delhi and defeated the Mughal forces under Ahmed Shah at Sikandara. The rout was so severe that the king fled the battlefield leaving behind his harem, treasure, and cannons, though not a single woman was molested by the Maratha army (the pindaris (auxiliaries) who tried were killed by Malharrao himself).6


The incident where Mughal army fled the battlefield in disarray and the domination of resurgent Hindu powers made a deep impression on Malika Zamani (step-mother of Ahmed Shah). In June 1754 Ahmed Shah was deposed by Ghaziuddin and Alamgir II (great-grandson of Aurangzeb) was placed on the throne of Delhi.7


The Mughal Empire was already weak in early 1750’s.


The Gathering Storm                

In Part 1, we read how Mir Mannu, the Mughal Subedar of Punjab was defeated by Abdali in 1752. However, Abdali was so impressed by his bravery that he appointed Mir Mannu as his Subhedar of Punjab. In November 1753, when Mir Mannu died, his wife Mughlani Begam declared her minor son Subhedar and continued to administer in the name of Abdali. From 1752-1755, the events in Punjab were completely overlooked by the higher echelons of Mughal administration in Delhi. Safdarjang was planning to remove Mir Mannu, who had now accepted Abdali as overlord, and seal the border from Afghan incursions but he was forced out by the short-sightedness of Ahmed Shah. Later Ahmed Shah was deposed by Ghaziuddin. So, in this game of coups and countercoups, a large portion of Punjab remained under occupation of Abdali.           


In 1755, the reports of the growing power of Sikhs, and the failure of governance by Mughlani Begum reached Abdali. To prevent any interruption in the cash flow from Punjab, he sent Jahan Khan to replace her. Reluctant to cede the power, Mughalni immediately called Ghaziuddin who came to Lahore but instead appointed Adina Beg, as the new Subhedar in February 1756. Within three years, there were nine changes in the position of governor of Punjab, and the entire executive branch collapsed. The loss of power and position drove the ambitious Mughlani to Abdali’s camp.9


The infamous letter

The dominance of Hindu powers, the dismantling of the Mughal ‘Empire’ from parts of India, the Mughal ‘Emperors’ now puppets in the hands of kingmakers, all these events were observed intently by Shah Waliullah, a Sunni scholar from the Naqshbandi sect (Aurangzeb belonged to the same sect).10

In his infamous letter to Abdali written in 1756, he mourns, “What a degradation of the throne of Delhi! Its enemies refrain from fiddling with it only because of antique value and not because they cannot demolish it’. He further wrote ‘It is your majesty’s bounden duty (farz-i-ain) to invade Hindustan, to destroy the power of the Marhatas, and to free the down-and-out Muslims from the clutches of non-Muslims.”11

Similarly, Mughlani and Malika Zamani also wrote to Abdali to invade India and defeat Marathas.12

The loss of Punjab and the growing power of Marathas was hard for Abdali to digest, hence he quickly marched in November 1756. The Mughal administration in Punjab was so broken, that Abdali’s march was like a hot knife through butter. The Mughal army was paralyzed by the inaction of top leaders including king Alamgir II and due to intrigues of Malika Zamani, Mughlani, and others who were planning to remove the interference of Hindus in running the ‘Mughal Empire’. Rohila Afghans under Najib were supporters of Abdali and joined hands with him as soon as the Afghan Wazir Shah Wali Khan reached the outskirts of Delhi in January 1757. The surrender of Mughals was then complete. When Gaziuddin went to negotiate, Abdali reprimanded him for surrendering the whole ‘Empire’ without drawing a sword.13

The resistance to Abdali was offered only by the Maratha army under Antaji Mankeshwar, Maharaja Surajmal, and the Naga Gosains at Gokul. Antaji’s army of 5,000 was not even a fraction of the Rohila-Afghan combine. He lost more than 3,000 in three battles and barely escaped alive through the tight cordon of Jahan Khan towards Mathura. As a reward, Abdali paid Rs.8 per head to Afghan soldiers.14

Pillar close to where Battle of Panipat was fought. Pic by Uday Kulkarni.

Similarly, when Jahan Khan was marching to the holy city of Mathura, Jawahar Singh (son of Surajmal) tried to mount a desperate defense at Chumuha (13km from Mathura) with around 5000 soldiers but had to retreat after losing close to 3,000 in the day long struggle.15                   

Technically Marathas and Abdali were looking to protect their ‘rubberstamp’ by placing their puppet on the Delhi throne. However, the puppet whose strings were in the hands of a foreigner was a threat to India’s long-term civilizational prospects. Hence, the religious overtone of Abdali in this campaign could hardly be missed. In Delhi, every Hindu citizen was ordered to paint his forehead to show a clear distinction, and fines were levied on those who failed to obey (Eerily similar to the compulsion of wearing a Jewish badge during the Nazi era).16

Like Delhi, in Mathura and Vrindavan, destruction of temples, plunder, and rapes were carried out by the Rohila-Afghan army, with every severed Hindu head carrying a reward of Rs.5. However, Gokul was saved by the fierce attack of Naga Sadhus who killed over 2,000 Durrani soldiers. This combined with information of no material gain at the place prompted the recall of his forces by Abdali.17

A foreign King was called by a clique to destroy indigenous powers and bring back the ‘glory of Mughals’. Instead, he deposed Alamgir II, proclaimed himself emperor, read khutba and struck coins in his name, dug the foundation of every dwelling and looted close to 25 crore, forcibly got married himself and his son Taimur to Mughal princesses, took land up to Sirhind in dowry and left for Afghanistan by installing Alamgir II as his puppet but without expelling Marathas from Delhi’s politics.18

So now questions were raised on the judgment of those who called Abdali to invade India. To pacify this chorus of opposition, Shah Waliullah assured Sheikh Muhammad Ashiq. It appears that Ahmad Shah Durrani would come to this country again and crush the infidels here. This is why he has been kept alive by God despite his oppressions.”19

Aim was to weaken the Marathas and strengthen the Mughals. Instead Abdali looked at self-benefit.


Maratha Counterattack

In February 1758, after the treaty with Adina Beg, the Maratha contingent under Raghunathrao started moving in the direction of Punjab from Delhi. Many prominent Sikh misl heads like Charat Singh (Grandfather of Maharaja Ranjit Singh), Jassa Singh, joined hands with the Maratha army for this expedition.20 In March 1758, Sirhind was liberated from the Afghan domination by joint Maratha-Sikh force.21


The fall of Sirhind, greatly alarmed Jahan Khan and Taimur. On receiving the news that the allied army was camped only a day’s march from Lahore, Durrani’s fled the city and it fell to Marathas without any resistance. Forces were dispatched immediately to pursue the fleeing Afghans. Though Afghans were guarding the crossing at Ravi, the Marathas, with the help of allies were able to cross the river undetected. They suddenly fell on the Afghan troops, defeated them, and captured Mir Hazar Khan. The battle of the Ravi River was won.22


From the prisoner’s interrogation, Marathas came to know that Taimur had yet to cross the Chenab. Without a moment’s delay, the allied forces marched forward. When the Afghan survivors from the Battle of Ravi reached the camp at Wazirabad, Taimur was so worried that he hastily crossed Chenab with only his Durrani tribesmen; leaving behind Uzbek and Turkish auxiliaries with all their loot and cannons. Before the rest of the Afghan army commenced the crossing, the allied force appeared at the rear and encircled them. In this battle, out of 20,000 soldiers under Taimur’s command, only 4 thousand were able to escape the carnage as they had already crossed Chenab, the rest were either killed or captured.  


In November 1757 Jahan Khan killed a large number of Sikhs during Diwali and destroyed the sacred Sri Harmandir Sahib with the tank around it filled with cow carcasses. Marathas and Sikhs were enraged by this act hence during the battle, only those Afghans who dropped their weapons remained alive. They were marched back to Amritsar in chains and were forced to clean out all the mess under the blows and whips.22

Battle of Attock. 

The Maratha forces reached up to Peshawar after capturing Attock in 1758. This was the highest point of Maratha expansion in the northwest. It was an important milestone in Indian history as for the first time in centuries, an indigenous force had marched on this territory and attempted to liberate it. The attempts to dislodge them by Afghan commanders Nur-ud-din Bamezai (defeated), Khushal Khan (killed at Hasan Abdal), and Jahan Khan (fled when severely wounded) failed disastrously.23


Marathas reached Peshwar in Northwest Frontier Province, then part of Punjab. Need one say more. 

Prelude to Panipat III

Sensing the threat of Maratha expansion, Abdali marched out in October 1759. Dattaji Shinde, the Maratha in-charge of northern areas was engaged by Najib Khan at Shukratal (35km from Muzaffarnagar). At this critical moment Shuja-ud-daula (son of Safdarjang) who was more concerned about his fief, helped Najib against Dattaji as he was reluctant to cede Hindu holy places like Kashi, Prayag, and Ayodhya which Marathas were demanding.24


By the time Dattaji realized the two-pronged threat, Abdali’s forces had reached up to Sirhind, defeating various Maratha-Sikh garrisons in Punjab. Meanwhile, Alamgir II (Mughal titular king) and Intizam-ud-daula were assassinated by Wazir Ghazi-ud-din when their role in calling Abdali to invade India was uncovered and Shah Jahan III (great-grandson of Aurangzeb) was installed at Delhi.25 


In the Battle of Burari Ghat (Delhi), Dattaji Shinde lost his life while fighting against the combined Afghan-Rohila onslaught (January 1760). The remaining Maratha army, with wounded Jankoji, took shelter in the territory of Maharaja Surajmal until Malharao Holkar reached the scene. However, the combined strength of Afghan-Rohila was such that only fresh reinforcements with good artillery could counter this threat. Hence, Nanasaheb Peshwa decided to send his cousin Sadashivrao (son of Chimaji Appa) for this campaign.26


The menace of fake news and a call to Holy War

The merciless acts of Abdali during 1757, even after a warning from Shah Waliullah had created a gaping hole in his overall planning. Hence a two-pronged strategy was designed. One- clear the image of Abdali and the second- plant fake news against Marathas so as to incite the population against them. Two of the most crucial pieces of fake news planted were-27

One, Destruction of jewel-encrusted Mughal throne. The sacking of Delhi by Abdali, sparked zero protests from usual suspects, over only an allegation of the destruction of Mughal throne by Maratha army. In fact, Shah Waliullah on hearing the Durrani’s plunder of Delhi exclaimed that ‘the putrid matter of money that had accumulated in the disposition of the rich people, was cleansed completely’.27

Two, Marathas are planning to overthrow the Mughal Emperor, and the son of Peshwa is going to be the new Hindu King.


At the core of this devastating propaganda, there was dormant fear about resurgent Hindu power and the disintegration of the Mughal Empire. The killing of Alamgir-II by Ghazi-ud-din was also used to further this narrative. Bhau realized the gravity of the situation; hence Shah Jahan III (puppet of Ghaziuddin) was deposed and in October 1760 Prince Ali Gauhar was declared the Mughal ‘Emperor’ Shah Alam II. 

But the propaganda has already taken a root across many villages around Delhi, hence when a call to ‘holy war’ was given by the likes of Qazi Idris, it created a hostile environment for Marathas. Also, the fact that Shuja who had inherited enmity with the Rohilas also joined hands with Abdali, despite his misgivings of being Shia and offer of Wizarat from the Marathas shows the power of propaganda.28    



After capturing Delhi, in October 1760, Sadashivrao moved towards Kunjpura which has become a supply base for Durrani’s. The fort was captured in a day by a combination of artillery and cavalry tactics. Along with cash and horses, Durrani’s lost all supplies of grain stored at Kunjpura. Also 10,000 fresh troops sent as reinforcement from Afghanistan, who camped at Kunjpura on the way to join Abdali, were killed in the Maratha onslaught.29  

Since Yamuna was uncrossable due to the rainy season the Marathas camped in old Delhi (Western) whereas Abdali was across the river (Eastern). However, the loss of Kunjpura geared Abdali into action. He found a crossing near Gauripur-Baghpat and moved his army across. Now he had blocked the path of Marathas towards Delhi, whereas, Marathas had chosen Panipat for the encampment to block Abdali’s path towards his domain.30

Regular negotiations including the attempts for honorable peace were ongoing between Marathas and Abdali. But Abdali’s demand to hand over the reins of imperial administration to Najib was not acceptable to Bhau under any circumstances. This would have resulted in not only Durrani domination at Delhi and over a large part of the north and northwestern India but also wasting the efforts of earlier generations from 1719 onwards for the liberation of India.31 The last peace proposal, when both the armies were encamped at Panipat were shot down by the intervention of Qazi Idris when he chided Abdali ‘to remain steady on the path of jihad against infidels’.32

Hence, the stalemate continued with some minor and then major engagements until the War of Panipat (January 14, 1761).       

Madhavrao Peshwa the Great.


In a letter written to Madho Singh after the War of Panipat, Abdali had compared this battle with the legendary battle between Rustam and Isfandiyar, ‘The fight with cannon and zamburak soon gave way to that with swords and arrows. From the use of swords, it passed on to the plying of daggers and knives. Later they grasped each other by the neck and crushed their opponent’s chest. Those dauntless blood-shedders (Marathas) also did not fall short in fighting and doing glorious deeds’.33


Though Abdali took efforts for peace with the Marathas by sending his envoy to Nanasaheb with a condolence letter and approving Shah Alam II as ‘Emperor’ (tacitly accepting the Maratha policy), he ensured the dominance of Afghans remained in Delhi by completely reneging the promise of Wizarat to Shuja, appointing Najib as Mir Bakshi, Governor of Delhi, and his own regent of the imperial administration.34  

This way the Marathas even in loss, made the Mughal king only a titular king and continued to the weakening of the Mughal Empire post Aurangzeb 1707.

The loss of top leaders was a critical factor in shaping the next events. The Peshwa family lost 3 persons (4 if we count Nana Saheb Peshwa), apart from 27 ranking nobles in this campaign. After the defeat at Panipat, and the retreat of the Maratha army remnants, suddenly area beyond the Chambal seemed lost.

Enemies like Nizam and Hyder were looking for a suitable opportunity to settle scores with the Marathas. On the home front, Raghunathrao was appointed as a regent, but he was coveting the position of Peshwa. In this grim situation, the reins of Maratha Empire were handed over to Madhavrao - Nanasaheb’s son and a young man of 16, who restored the Maratha supremacy again.35  


Continued in Part 3


To read all articles by author


Also read

1. Battle of Panipat

2. About Maharaja Surajmal of Bharatpur

3. Madhavrao the Great

4. Malharrao Holkar

5. Sacking the Subcontinent Abdali Part 4


1. A.L. Shrivastava, The first two Nawabas of Oudh, Pg-202.

2. ibid

3. Sardesai, Marathi Riayasat-VI, Pg-230-31.

4. ibid, 231-35, Najib-Pg-3-5.

5. A.L. Shrivastava, The first two Nawabas of Oudh, Pg-245.  

6. Sardesai, Marathi Riayasat-VI, Pg-250-52.

7. Ibid, Pg-252-53.

8. Ibid, Pg-286-288.

9. H. Gupta-History of the Sikhs-Vol-II, Pg-123

10. A.A. Bisati, Shaikh Ahmed Sirhindis thought and its impact on the development of Sufism, Pg-230.

11. A.D.Muztar, Shah Wali Ullah-A saint-scholar of Muslim India, Pg-144-45, & 154-56.

12. Sardesai, Marathi Riayasat-VI, Pg-288.

13. Ibid, Pg-291, G. Singh, Ahmad Shah Durrani, Pg-159-161.

14. Ibid, 170-71, Sardesai, Marathi Riayasat-VI, Pg-292-94.

15. G. Singh, Ahmad Shah Durrani, Pg-177.

16. G. Singh, Ahmad Shah Durrani, Pg-165.

17. Ibid, Pg-179.

18. Ibid, Pg-Pg-161-70.

19. SA Nadwi, Saviors of Islamic Spirit-Vol-IV, Pg-225.

20. T. Khan, Tahmas Nama, Pg-64. & G. Singh, Ahmad Shah Durrani, Pg-206.

21. Ibid, Pg-200.

22. H. Gupta-History of the Sikhs-Vol-II, Pg-143-44, G. Singh-206.

23. Chandrachud Daftar-L49, G. Singh-216, 222-24, SPD-21-163

24. Sardesai, Marathi Riayasat-VI, Pg-326, 331-34.

25. Ibid, Pg-337.

26. Ibid, Pg-341-347.

27. Ibid, Pg-376. & A.D.Muztar, Shah Wali Ullah-A saint-scholar of Muslim India, Pg-156.

28. Kashiraj Bakhar, Pg-9, A.L. Shrivastava, Shuja-ud-daulah-Vol-I, Pg-90., Sardesai, Marathi Riayasat-VI, Pg-376.

29. Ibid, Pg-378-80.

30. Ibid, Pg-384-85.

31. Ibid, Pg-371,75,76.

32. N. Hussain, An Account of Najibuddaulah, Pg-48.

33. S H Askari, Durrani-Rajput Negotiations, ICHR-9th Session- Pg-268.

34. N. Hussain, An Account of Najibuddaulah, Pg-59.

35. Sardesai, Marathi Riayasat-Madhavrao, Pg-13-14.   

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