The Largest Battle of the 18th Century – The Saga of Mastaani & The Opening for the British

How did a private English company annex a huge sub-continent called India? India was not an undeveloped place. It was a rich land. It had a tradition of warfare, diplomacy and administration. So how did a private British company manage this colossal feat? There are two primary reasons, one is the decisive battle between the Marathi Empire of Pune & the Afghan-Durrani Empire of Kabul and the second is Outsourcing. We shall leave Outsourcing for another article on another day.

Today, we focus on the main event of the 18th century in India and the World. We use the term “World” deliberately and with good reason. The establishment of the British Empire was the most important event of the 19th Century. We consider this fact to be self-evident. If British leaders like Curzon are to be believed, the control of India was the core strength of the British Empire. Therefore the event that essentially created the window and the opportunity for the British to take over India has to be considered the central event of the 18th century.

That event was the 1761 battle at Panipat between Marathe and Afghans, one of the largest battle anywhere in the 18th century. Look at the map of India-Afghanistan in 1758 below (source – wikipedia). The orange area was the territory controlled by the Marathi Empire and green area was the territory controlled by the Durrani Empire.


Peshwa Baji Rao , the second Great Man of the Indo-Afghan Continuum, died in 1740 at the young age of 40. His son, Balaji Baji Rao , took over as the Peshwa or Prime Minister. Balaji Baji Rao was more of an administrator. He consolidated Pune into a major city and the Marathi Empire reached its zenith under his rule.

But this rule came with a heavy price, as events would prove. Baji Rao had established plenipotentiaries like Shinde & Holkar to capture and rule provinces in North & Central India. Shinde and Holkar had sworn total obedience to Baji Rao, first because they were his chosen men and second because Baji Rao’s unquestioned military genius. But his son Balaji did not inspire such military respect or personal loyalty. So the ties of loyalty to the Peshwa regime in Pune became less binding on the plenipotentiaries in the 20 years from 1740 to 1760.

As we discussed last week, Baji Rao’ second son, Raghunath Rao, had fulfilled Baji Rao’s dream of capturing Attock and attacking up to the Khyber Pass, today’s mountainous border between Pakistan & Afghanistan. In the process, they had defeated the son and generals of Ahmed Shah Abdali, the Durrani King of Kabul.

So after the Marathi Army had returned to Pune, Abdali raised a large army and mounted a campaign into North India. In response, Peshwa Balaji Rao had to dispatch a Maratha Army to North India to meet Abdali.

The Decisions & Decision-Making of the Marathi leadership

Nothing sets the rot into a society like fast or continuous success. In the 1930, the German Blitzkrieg (Lightening War) against Europe and the French had succeeded so fast and so decisively that Germans began calling it Sitzkrieg (Sitting War). In 2003, the US Military conquered Iraq in a Shock & Awe campaign that not only shocked the world but lulled the Bush Administration into complacency.

Unlike these, the success of the Marathi Armies was over a 40 year period. Baji Rao waged about 41 battles and won every single one. Even after his death, the Marathi Armies won battles in the North and established what the above map shows to be sway over 80% of today’s India. The victory of Raghunath Rao in today’s Pakistan was spectacular as well. It was the first time in about 1,000 years that an Indian Army had attacked Afghanistan. So victories by the Marathi Army were slowly taken for granted by Marathi society of Pune.

The Peshwa and his council knew the military challenge posed by the Ahmed Shah Abdali campaign. Abdali was a veteran, seasoned general. He had been a slave of the Turkmen-Iranian Nadir Shah who had sacked Delhi and taken the Peacock Throne to Tehran. When Nader Shah died, Ahmed Shah declared his independence and the various Afghan tribes got together to make him their King. Even to this day, Ahmed Shah Abdali is considered to be the father of modern Afghanistan.

In addition, the Hindu kingdoms of North India had been used to the rule of Afghan-Muslim rulers for about 500+ years. To them, the Marathi Armies from the South were more of an outsider force than Afghans from Kabul.

So it was essential for the Marathi Army to have a veteran General with a track record of military victories. But family politics intervened. The earlier campaign against the Afghans had been waged by Raghunath Rao, a son of Baji Rao. The family of Baji Rao’s younger brother Chimaaji Appaa demanded the opportunity to command the military venture against Abdali. So Sadashiv Rao, the son of Chimaaji Appaa and a cousin of the Peshwa Balaji was chosen to command the Marathi Army.

So a brave but inexperienced and hot tempered Sadashiv Rao set forth to meet the highly experienced, veteran leader Ahmed Shah Durrani. This was not all. Here is where the saga of Mastaani intervenes.

The Revenge of Mastaani?

Last week , we described the love between the all conquering Baji Rao and Mastaani, the most beautiful woman of his time, a daughter of a Muslim Mother and a Hindu King. The orthodox society of Pune never accepted Mastaani and in the end, essentially banned its own Hero, its own Prime Minister Baji Rao from his own capital. Baji Rao died at a young age of 40 in the midst of his troops, a broken hearted man.

Baji Rao had been dead for 20 years but the Pune society had not forgotten the saga of Mastaani. The wife of Sadashiv Rao, the chosen commanding general, insisted on accompanying Sadashiv Rao in the campaign. And so did the wives of most Marathi generals. Not one of these wives was willing to take the chance that her husband might find another Mastaani-like beauty in the north.

Here enters the orthodox society with its “Sitzkrieg” mentality. Various religious personalities thought that this campaign would be a great chance for a pilgrimage to the holy Hindu sites of North India. So they demanded of the Wives that they should be allowed to accompany the Marathi Army for a holy pilgrimage. The wives forced the generals and leaders to accept this utterly asinine and dangerous demand.

So the Marathi Army of about 70,000-80,000 soldiers under Sadashiv Rao marched to the North burdened with the responsibility of taking along 100,000 plus pilgrims and family members.

This is how the saga of Mastaani created the seeds of the disaster that was to befall the Marathi Empire.

The Difference Between Successful Conquests of Baji Rao and the Army of Sadashiv Rao

As we wrote last week, Baji Rao had developed a style of fast, mobile
cavalry warfare in which his army would attack when he wanted and where he wanted. His army did not depend on established lines of supply but found its own supply by its mobility. This is what Field Marshal Montgomery described as “Strategic Mobility” in his article about Baji Rao.

In total & stark contrast, the Marathi Army of Sadashiv Rao was a slow, ponderous force with 100,000 plus pilgrims & family members. Mobility was the last attribute this army possessed. Besides, this army needed vast quantities of food and supplies to meet the dietary needs of women and religious pilgrims.

In other words, this Marathi Army resembled the vast ponderous armies of the Mughals that the Marathe had destroyed for the past 100 years.

The Disastrous Battle of Panipat – 14 January 1761

The pre-battle maneuvers took several months and both armies tried to seize advantage. Slowly, the ponderous Marathi Army and its inexperienced commander was outgeneralled. The Marathi Army found itself stuck in the village of Panipat with its supply lines cut by the mobile Durrani Army. The Marathi Army soon ran out of food and water became scarce.

The only solution was to launch a frontal attack on the Afghan Army. Despite this sordid saga of arrogance, stupidity and tactical failure, the Marathi Army had the advantage of artillery. During the morning of the battle, the Marathi Artillery under the Indian Muslim General Ibrahim Khan created havoc among the Durrani Army with thousands of casualties.

The experienced Ahmed Shah conducted his army from the rear but Sadashiv Rao, with his nephew Vishwas Rao, commanded from within his own Pune based army called Huzuraat. This is where the desire of personal glory and dreams of valor overrode tactical norms of generalship. So Sadashiv Rao had less control of his own army than Abdali had of his army.

The dreams of personal glory of the generals led to the decisive and catastrophic mistake of the battle. When it was clear the battle was going their way, the cavalry generals of the Marathi Army wanted to claim the glory of the battle. They discarded the battle plan and charged into the ranks of the Durrani army. In doing so, they came in front of the Marathi artillery. There was no choice for the Marathi Artillery but to stop firing.

This was a decisive moment in the battle. When the Marathi Artillery shut down, the Durrani Army with its muskets could shoot down the charging Marathi cavalry and the battle turned.  Now it became a pitched battle of cavalry and infantry. Ahmed Shah Abdali could not believe his fortune. He now had a chance.

Later in the afternoon, the fatigue began slowing down the battle. Ahmed Shah had kept an experience  reserve of 15,000 for such an opportunity. In contrast, the inexperienced Sadashiv Rao had kept no reserve troops. Besides he had made the mistake of making a force of captured north Indian Muslims to guard the Marathi women and pilgrims at his rear.

Abdali released his 15,000 reserve into battle and spread the rumor that it was a part of a large Afghan army coming in support. Like the French Army at Waterloo about 54 years later, the fatigued Marathi Army could not cope up with fresh crack troops and began falling back. At this very time, the captured North Indian Muslim force turned on the Marathi women and pilgrims creating havoc at the rear of the Marathi Army. Convinced that the battle was lost, the Maratha plenipotentiaries like Holkar, Gaikawad left the battle to preserve their forces.

Sadashiv Rao and Vishwas Rao were caught up in the middle of the battle and were unable to control the situation. Vishwas Rao was killed and the Marathi Army became rudderless. The battle that had been nearly won by early afternoon turned into a disastrous rout by evening. An utter total defeat.

The Strange Aftermath of the Defeat – Who ended up Winning and Who ended up Losing?

The battle of Panipat was a total disaster for Marathi Empire and for the entire state of Mahaa-Raashtra. Ahmed Shah Abdali had won a major victory. But he realized that he was fortunate to have won. He also knew that he had defeated one Army of the Marathi Empire, not the Empire itself which was secure several hundred miles to the south. Abdali is known to have expressed amazement at the bravery, the heroics of the Marathi soldiers and its leaders Sadashiv Rao & Vishwas Rao who chose to die fighting with their troops. He had no desire to fight another war with the Marathi Empire.

So after Panipat, Ahmed Shah Abdali went back to Kabul and swore never to come back to India. Panipat proved to be the last invasion by Afghans into India. What began with Mahmoud of Ghazni in the 9th century ended finally with Ahmed Shah Durrani at Panipat in the 18th century.

Peshwa Balaji was heartbroken and died an year after Panipat. His sixteen-year old son Madhav Rao took over as Peshwa. Madhav Rao proved to be brilliant like his grandfather Baji Rao and in his brief reign, the Marathi Army marched back into North India and recaptured Delhi.

Within a few years of Panipat, the Sikhs established their kingdom in Panjab and defeated Abdali and the Afghans. 

The Real Result of Panipat that Opened the Door for the British

The biggest result of Panipat was the damage to Huzuraat, the Army units of the central command of the Peshwa. Though Baji Rao had created the plenipotentiaries, the central Huzuraat was the most potent force under him and under his successor. In Panipat, the plenipotentiaries left the battle with their forces and the Huzuraat kept fighting until the last. As a result, the Huzuraat bore the brunt of the massacre.   

The result was that, post-Panipat, the Huzuraat or the central forces of the Peshwa administration in Pune was no longer the predominant force of the Marathi Confederacy. Yes, the Marathi Empire had become a Marathi Confederacy, a long-term consequence of Panipat.

Madhav Rao was deeply respected and all Maratha plenipotentiaries wanted to avenge Panipat and recapture North India. And they did under Madhav Rao’s leadership. Unfortunately, Madhav Rao died of TB in 1771, ten years after Panipat at the tender age of 27. As Grant Duff, the British Historian wrote ” And the plains of Panipat were not more fatal to the Maratha Empire than the early end of this excellent princeā€¦

After Madhav Rao, the Maratha plenipotentiaries essentially became independent. The ten years after Panipat had allowed the British to establish their outsourcing strategy and embark outside Bengal. Six years after the death of Madhav Rao, the first battle took place between the Marathi Army and the British. The Marathi Army won this battle decisively.

But, during the next 40 years, the forces of the Marathi plenipotentiaries dwindled while the forces of the British increased. Finally after defeating or coming to terms with the major plenipotentiaries separately, the final decisive battle between a weak Peshwa and the British led army took place in 1818.

Would the British have succeeded in India had Panipat been won?

We don’t think so. There is enough historical evidence to establish that the Marathi Leadership for at least 50 years before Panipat considered the English to be their final and eventual enemy. Had the Marathi Empire won the battle of Panipat as they nearly did, they would have eliminated the Afghan-Muslim forces as rivals for power. They had already captured Delhi and most of the north.

Following a victory at Panipat and consolidation of Marathi power in Delhi, the Marathi Leadership would have launched a campaign against the British in Bengal. Look at the map above. The British in 1760 were tiny and restricted to Bengal with an Indian army of ex-princelings of the Mughal empire. The Briti
sh would have been in no condition to fight or resist the Marathi armies. They would have been forced to surrender and remain as traders. In other words, the British would have been reduced to the state of the Portuguese in India.

In a poetic sense, we cannot but think of Mastaani, the most beautiful woman of her time. Her rejection by the orthodox society of Pune set forth a chain of events from the early days of Baji Rao to the wives of Pune Generals accompanying their husbands in the ponderous and disastrous Panipat campaign.

The annexation of India by the British might well have been the revenge of Mastaani.

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