• By Uday S. Kulkarni
  • December 6,2017
  • @MulaMutha
The Pillar Marks The Site Of The Black Mango Tree near which was fought the Third Battle of Panipat.

The third battle of Panipat, fought on 14 January 1761 between the Marathas led by Sadashiv rao Bhau and a coalition of the Afghan ruler Ahmed Shah Abdali supported by Najibuddaulah, the Rohilla chiefs Hafiz Rehmat and Dunde Khan and the Nawab of Awadh Shujauddaulah, was arguably the largest battle fought anywhere in the world in the eighteenth century. The battle was fought on a large plain near the site now known as Kala Amb near Panipat city with the Yamuna river to the east and the old Shah nahr about six miles to the west at the village of Khukhrana. The city and fort of Panipat was behind the Maratha army and the Afghans stood on the road towards Delhi. In this manner the two armies blocked each other’s paths to their homeland from the end of October 1760 onwards till the decisive battle on 14 January 1761. About six lakh men including camp followers, and several lakh beasts: horses, bullocks and elephants were in this close area for two and a half months utilising all food and firewood in the entire neighbourhood, until the battle began.


The battle between an Afghan king nearly a thousand miles away from his capital at Qandahar and a Maratha army at an equal distance from their base at Pune seems an extraordinary event. The antecedents of the battle were long and the differences appeared unbridgeable. From 1739, when Nadir Shah attacked Delhi and looted the accumulated two hundred-year treasure of the Mughals, the invasions recurred at intervals of a few years. In 1739, Ahmed Khan was Nadir Shah’s personal servant.


On Nadir Shah’s death in 1747, Ahmed Khan assumed the role of an Afghan king and called himself Ahmed Shah Durrani or Abdali. He first attacked India in 1748 for its wealth but was defeated at Manupur near Sirhind by an army where Safdar Jung first showed his valour. However, Abdali returned better prepared in1749, 1752 and again in 1757 when he finally reached Delhi. Here he treated the royals and the common people with extreme cruelty forcing them to give up their wealth. He also attacked Mathura and Brindavan, killing Hindus in a holy war. His return in 1758, saw the Marathas come to the north and take Delhi evicting Abdali’s nominee  Najibuddaulah. Najib was let off and asked to return to the Saharanpur

region, even as the Maratha armies with some Mughal and later some Sikhs undertook the invasion of Punjab that Abdali had annexed.


The 1758 expedition pushed back Abdali’s son and General from Lahore and the Marathas took charge of Lahore, Multan, Attock and Peshawar placing local officers supported by small number of their own troops. Delhi seemed to be out of reach of Abdali and the Maratha chief Raghunath rao – who was the younger brother of the Maratha Prime Minister Nanasaheb Peshwa – wrote to his brother that he had feelers from the Shah of Iran to attack Abdali from either side and share Qandahar and Kabul between them. However, Raghunath rao and Malharrao Holkar were recalled by the Peshwa and Dattaji Sindia was asked to take his place.


Dattaji and Jankoji Sindia accordingly left for the north with some clear instructions from the Peshwa. The securing of the border of Punjab was to be followed by crossing the Ganga by building a bridge of boats. The army was to crush the power of Najibuddaulah before proceeding east towards Awadh. Here Shujauddaulah – whose father Safdar Jung had once been a recipient of Maratha aid – was to be recruited for their cause and a combined expedition led into Bengal. It must be remembered this was just two years after the battle of Plassey.


In the circumstances, Sindia met the returning elderly subedar Malhar rao Holkar who advised him to take Najib’s help to build the bridge of boats on the Ganga. Dattaji accordingly began talks with Najib who delayed the job until the commencement of monsoons. Meanwhile he sent missives to Abdali beseeching him to come to his help in India. By September Dattaji realised Najib had no intention of making the bridge and decided to attack him. Najib came to the west of the Ganga at Shukratal and took shelter in the natural fort there. Here he also used his ‘bridge’ to get supplies from his capital Najibabad. Najib also wrote to Shuja asking for help and telling him that if he did not do so, the Marathas would attack him next. Maratha forces meanwhile crossed the Ganga at Hardwar and began attacks on Najib’s capital.


Shuja set out to help Najib, once his arch enemy, and the Marathas were surprised to find his well-equipped army led by the Naga gosains. They were pushed back across the Ganga. Just then, came news of Abdali’s massive invasion and taking over the towns of Peshawar, Attock, Multan and Lahore. Moving across the doab, Dattaji crossed the Yamuna and readied to stop Abdali at Yamuna-nagar. He sent away his dependents also towards Kotputli in Rajputana. At Yamunanagar after a brief skirmish, Abdali crossed the Yamuna in December 1759 and joined Najib in the doab. To protect Delhi, Dattaji fell back towards Burari and posted soldiers at the fords on the river. He also sent letters to Holkar who was near Jaipur to hurry to his aid. However, Madho Singh of Jaipur – who Holkar was dunning for tribute – was in league with Abdali and would not allow Holkar to disengage so easily.


On 10 January 1760, the Afghans led by Najib’s troops crossed the Yamuna at Burari through low water and small islands in the river bed with tall jhau grass. Dattaji’s small parties were losing ground. Eventually Dattaji Sindia himself rode out and began pushing back the invaders. However, he was shot and fell to the river bed where some of Najib’s men cut his head and sent it to Abdali. Jankoji Sindia too suffered a bullet wound to his arm. The entire Sindia army retreated to Kotputli where they met Holkar. Abdali meanwhile reached Delhi and took possession of the city.


Holkar now began to raid the territories around Delhi. However, in early March 1760, he was caught unprepared at Anupshahr by Abdali’s army and had to flee across the Yamuna to the territory of Surajmal Jat in Bharatpur. Here matters rested with the Maratha chiefs separately defeated and Abdali with Najib in possession of Delhi and the doab.


In the Deccan, Nanasaheb Peshwa and his cousin Sadashiv rao Bhau had won a famous victory over the Nizam at Udgir in February 1760 and a large part of the Nizam’s kingdom was ceded to them. However, as news of the debacle in the north poured in, it became necessary to send a strong army north. A one-week conference near Aurangabad was held and it was determined that Sadashiv rao Bhau would lead the army with a large and well equipped artillery with European gunners headed by Ibrahim Khan Gardi. The army set out for the north in March 1760.


Sadashiv rao sent letters and emissaries to all the princes of the north stating that Abdali – now on his fifth invasion of India – should not be allowed to grow roots in India and that the Chugtai dynasty (Mughal king) at Delhi should be preserved. However, the Rajputs remained aloof, Shuja and Bangash joined Abdali and Najib, while Suraj Mal Jat joined them till they reached Delhi by the end of July only to leave them in early August over differences of strategy as well as not granting his wish to be given charge of the city of Delhi.


The city of Delhi was captured by the Marathas from Abdali’s men. Abdali himself was cantoned at Anupshahr, well provided by his Indian allies – essentially all the Rohillas, Bangash and Shuja. Madho Singh of Jaipur was corresponding with Abdali as was Bijay Singh of Jodhpur. Negotiations between the Marathas and Abdali through emissaries failed. Abdali demanded the Marathas should stay south of the Chambal while the Marathas asked that Attock should be the border of their territories. The monsoon months of inactivity used up all Maratha reserves who also had to look after the Mughal princes. Eventually in October, with the Yamuna still flooded Bhau decided to move north and attack Kunjpura where a strong Afghan force with plenty of money and food were waiting to cross the Yamuna and join Abdali.


Kunjpura was attacked in mid-October 1760 and several thousand Afghan soldiers killed. Huge stores of food were obtained for the starving Maratha army. Qutb Shah and Abdul Samad Khan were killed and the fort demolished. From here, the Marathas decided to move north to Kurukshetra, to meet the Sikhs and seek their help before crossing into the doab to fight Abdali.


However, Abdali who was at Shahdara marched along the eastern bank of Yamuna looking for a place to cross and at Gauripur north of Baghpat crossed the flooded Yamuna on 26-27-28 October 1760 to reach Sonepat and block the Marathas path back to Delhi. Hearing this, the Marathas turned back and the two armies camped at Panipat. The Marathas camped with a big trench on which they mounted their big guns. Seeing the array, Abdali did not attack and camped about three kos away.


Over the month of November 1760 many skirmishes took place. Initially, the Afghans appeared to be losing more men in the battles until on 8 December Balwant rao Mehendale, one of Bhau’s chief aides was killed in a battle. The Marathas began running out of food as the supplies from Delhi were blocked and the supply of money was running out. Govind Punt. Bundele now crossed into the doab and began attacking the regions around Meerut and Ghaziabad to collect food and money besides creating a fear in Abdali’s soldiers who had their homes in that region. However, on 22 December 1760, Govind Punt was ambushed at Ghaziabad by a ten thousand strong army sent by Abdali and beheaded. The Marathas at Panipat had no support thereafter.


As the winter cold increased and days became shorter, it led to a siege like situation for the Marathas who ran short of supplies. The negotiations did not bear fruit. It was decided after a meeting of chiefs on 13 January 1761 that they would come out of the camp and give battle. Accordingly, on 14 January 1761, early in the morning, the Marathas followed Ibrahim Khan Gardi’s advice to form a square placing their non-combatants in the centre and moving towards to Yamuna, eventually aiming to go through the Afghan army and reach Delhi.


On the morning of 14 January 1761 Abdali was woken up with the news of movement in the Maratha camp and began arranging his forces too. On his right wing was Barkhurdar Khan and the Rohillas of Bareilly. In the centre was his Wazir Shah Wali Khan and to the left were Bangash, Shujauddaulah, Najibuddaulah and Shahpasand Khan. The Afghans had a numerical superiority besides having good supplies from the Rohilla homelands nearby. The Maratha cannons boomed to begin the engagement. The infantry trained in the French fashion led by Ibrahim Khan attacked Abdali’s right wing towards the Yamuna. A fearful massacre took place as most of Barkhurdar Khan, Rohilla chiefs Hafiz Rehmat and Dunde Khan’s divisions were killed and pushed back. Then the Maratha centre led by Sadashiv rao Bhau and Vishwas rao (son of Nanasaheb Peshwa) led a cavalry charge into the Afghan centre pushing it back. Jadunath Sarkar describes the Maratha onslaught like a knife through butter. The Abdali wazir’s men fled as he sat on the ground trying to stem the retreat. The left wing of Abdali was still at a fair distance from Sindia and Holkar on the Maratha right wing. The Marathas were close to the rear of the Afghan centre from where Abdali directed the battle. Seeing the reverse, Abdali sent his military police to round up the deserters on pain of death.


At about one'o clock the first vigour of the Maratha attack began to wane. They had been attacking for four hours. Just then, the Afghan deserters were pushed back into the field. Fortuitously at this time a bullet hit Vishwas rao who was on an elephant and he died immediately. The debacle affected the army’s morale and Sadashiv rao Bhau plunged further into the Afghan centre. Meanwhile about two thousand Afghans who had sought refuge with the Marathas earlier and had been given head gear to identify them as belonging to them, changed sides and began to fight against the Maratha host. It appeared as if the Afghans were now in the midst of the Maratha army. The death of Vishwas rao, the fresh infusion of ten thousand men in the Afghan army and the panic is the army led to flight and the right wing of the Marathas with stalwarts like Malharrao Holkar and Mahadji Sindia took

the battle as lost and began to move away towards Delhi with small groups of men.


The collapse of the Maratha army that was on the verge of pushing through the Afghan army at this critical moment in the afternoon led to a fearful slaughter around the area that Sadashiv rao Bhau was fighting. Camel borne guns began waves of attacks on this Maratha centre that reduced in numbers with every wave. Nana Phadnis who was witness to the battle wrote later that he was by the side of Bhau until he had barely one hundred and fifty men around him. Then he turned back towards Panipat and later returned safely to Pune. The aftermath of the battle was a slaughter of those who had surrendered or were non-combatants. Thousands of men were beheaded and pyramids of their heads were raised outside Afghan tents. Many thousand women were taken captive and handed over to the soldiery. Abdali permitted his men to slaughter all those who were found in the vicinity. Many were chased down and killed. Mahadji Sindia sustained an injury that caused him to be lame for the rest of his life.


The Afghans took Ibrahim Khan Gardi and Jankoji Sindia prisoner and killed them in custody. Bodies of Vishwas rao and Sadashiv rao were cremated by the Gosains in Shuja’s army. Sadashiv rao was found a few days later. He fought a group of Afghans who had beheaded him. His head was recovered from a Afghan and cremated. Many other Maratha chiefs like Antaji Mankeshwar and Shamsher Bahadur – the son of Bajirao and Mastani died on the way or of their wounds.


The Jats of Bharatpur offered the Marathas shelter at this time. Nanasaheb Peshwa reached near Jhansi in early February when Abdali was in possession of Delhi. Abdali sent his envoy to negotiate a peace with the Peshwa. However, no peace was signed then. In March, Abdali hurriedly left Delhi as his troops clamoured for pay. The Maratha returned to Pune where the Peshwa died soon after leading to a period when administration and their Empire was attacked by their adversaries in the doab, the Nizam, the Rajputs and Hyder Ali – the new star in the south.


The battle of Panipat was fought to protect India from the raids that began with Nadir Shah in 1739 and to protect the effete Mughal dynasty. Bhau declared Shah Alam as the absentee Mughal Emperor and Shujauddaulah as the Wazir. These arrangements were eventually confirmed by Abdali.


The death of over a hundred thousand Marathas at Panipat ended the long chain of attacks on Delhi from the north west. Ten years later the Marathas were back in Delhi and continued to defend the city until 1803 when it was lost to the East India Company. The battle of Panipat of 14 January 1761 was the battle that defined the Indian nation-state. In Sadashiv rao Bhau’s words to fight for an India by Indians where outsiders ought to have no say.


Author has written ‘Solstice at Panipat’, ‘Bakhar of Panipat’ and ‘The Era of Baji rao’. Picture courtesy Author.


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