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June 22, 2021


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Battle of Panipat 1761- Abdali Durrani-Maratha War

12 min read

Previously we have covered 2 battles of Panipat, but the third battle that happened here was as decisive and important for the history of India. As the winner of the first 2 battles of Panipat, the Mughal empire, was slowly weakening due to constant internal strife and external incursions, new powers were rising in the region. 2 of them – the Afghan Durrani and the Indian Maratha Empires – would meet at the height of their power at Panipat in 1761. By that point, you probably have watched everything on your streaming services, are bored and in need of more content.

The Mughal Empire reached its zenith during the rule of Muhi-ud-Din Muhammad, better known as Aurangzeb, in the late 17th and early 18th centuries. Under his rule, the Empire expanded greatly, encompassing almost the entirety of the Indian Subcontinent. The economy also flourished at the time, with the Mughals overtaking Qing China as the world’s largest manufacturer and economy.

His rule, however, wasn’t without problems– the Empire was overextended, and many of his reforms, as well as the executions of the Maratha King Sambhaji and a Sikh Guru Tegh Bahadur, led to widespread dissent among the general population and the nobility alike. In 1707, Aurangzeb was succeeded by his son, Bahadur Shah I. The new padishah tried to resolve the Empire’s mounting problems, but he proved to be far less capable than his father. The decline of the Mughal Empire was only exacerbated after his death in 1712, as almost a decade of succession crises ensued, sending the once prosperous Empire towards a perpetual state of decline.

In 1719, also known as the year of four emperors, Muhammad Shah captured the throne, ending the succession crisis. His lengthy reign did not bring stability though, and the Empire continued disintegrating. Muhammad Shah, although initially showing great potential, was uninterested in ruling. Due to his inactivity, parts of the Empire gained significant autonomy or became functionally independent. By 1724, the Nizam of Hyderabad, Asaf Jah I, had defeated two Mughal armies and made his realm independent in all but name. In 1726, Punjab became de facto independent, Awadh followed the same course, and Bengal also slipped away from Mughal control. As always, where one Empire falls, another begins its rise – the realm which would profit the most from Mughal decline was the Maratha state. After Muhammad Shah’s ascension to the throne, the Marathas slowly began expanding and capturing Mughal forts in the Deccan.

Under one of their most energetic leaders, Baji Rao I, during the next few decades, the Marathas expanded greatly at the Mughals’ expense. In the early 1720s, Maratha armies invaded Gujarat and subjugated parts of it, though their hold on the area would remain weak. Disputes with Hyderabad over the right to collect tribute in the Carnatic region led to war as well. The Maratha armies defeated Nizam-ul-Mulk’s forces at Palkhed in 1728 and he was forced to pay tribute and acknowledge Maratha right to collect tribute in the disputed areas. The implications of this battle were far more important than the immediate results. Baji Rao defeated the best equipped Mughal army, led by their best general, proving the superiority of Maratha forces. The knowledge learned from Palkhed also made the conquest of Malwa relatively easy after that point. The Marathas spent most of the 1730s involved in minor campaigns and consolidating their newfound power.

The only larger campaign, in 1737, was indecisive, even though Baji Rao attacked Delhi and held the Emperor for ransom. Seeing no other choice, Muhammad Shah called Nizam-ul-Mulk to his aid. Once again, the Maratha forces proved superior and they decisively defeated a Mughal army at Bhopal, forcing the Emperor to pay a large tribute and acknowledge Maratha control over Malwa. Bad fortune rarely comes alone, and the 1730s also saw the rise of one of the most powerful rulers in Persian history – Nader Shah Afshar. After consolidating his realm , the shah, who has been called Iranian Napoleon, and who saw himself as the successor of Tamerlane and Genghis Khan, began eyeing the riches of India. He used the pretext of his Afghan enemies of the Hotak dynasty taking refuge in India to invade the militarily weak but still extremely wealthy empire . In a lightning campaign, Nader Shah captured much of the Indus valley and Afghanistan , and advanced towards Delhi, prompting Muhammad Shah to raise a massive army in response. At the battle of Karnal, in 1739, Nader Shah decisively defeated a numerically superior Mughal army and captured the Mughal Emperor as well. A prominent commander in the Iranian army during the invasion of India was one Ahmad Shah Abdali, a young nobleman of Pashto origin. As he was one of Nader Shah’s personal attendants, and followed him during the occupation of Delhi. During the following period, the Marathas would continue their aggressive expansionism. Successful campaigns in the South and East by Raghoji Bhonsle expanded Maratha influence

in those regions, most notably the Carnatic . Bhonsle would not be satisfied with his victories and would also capture Nagpur and
establish his own dynasty there. A bold and decisive leader, Bhonsle saw the troubles of other states as possibilities for his own expansion. He invaded Bengal twice and had conquered Orissa by 1755, including the prosperous city of Cuttack. The new Chief minister – Peshwa of the Maratha Empire, Balaji Bajirao – was not inactive either. He crushed a rebellion by a disloyal Gujarati clan.

He also invaded Hyderabad after a succession crisis erupted following the Nizam’s death , unsuccessfully however. Balaji Bajirao fared much better in the North though, pushing the border closer and closer to Delhi as the years passed. Also, by interfering in a succession crisis in Rajasthan, he managed to stabilize Maratha influence over that area as well. As Nader Shah’s assassination in 1748 created a power vacuum in Persia, the now experienced Ahmad Shah Abdali used this chance to take his army into Afghanistan and establish his own independent Kingdom there. In the same year, Abdali, who now called himself Durrani, coveting the riches of India and seeking to expand, invaded the Mughal Empire and plundered the prosperous city of Lahore. In the next decade, the Afghans successfully invaded India three times. In those campaigns, Durrani conquered the Indus valley down to Sindh and all of Punjab too. He also ravaged Delhi and many other prosperous regions within the Mughal Empire, allegedly even taking some Mughal princesses as slaves. While these events were happening in the heartland of India, European powers were gaining more of a foothold on the subcontinent, especially its coastal regions, with the British benefitting the most, especially in the aftermath of the battle of Plassey in 1757 against the Nawab of Bengal Siraj ud-Daulah. The Marathas continued their expansion during much of the 1750s, with most of Northern India falling under their control. This brought them into conflict with the Rohillas , and later their allies, the Afghans. The Marathas launched an incursion into Punjab in 1759, however, this coincided with a Sikh revolt so they retreated later that year.

In 1759, the grand vizier of the Mughal Empire removed Emperor Alamgir from the throne and replaced him with the much more easily controllable Jahan Shah III. Alamgir, wishing to recapture his throne, wrote a letter to Ahmad Shah and asked him for protection and to drive back the Marathas. With the Marathas away from Delhi, Durrani marched southwards and laid siege to various forts in Rajasthan. Simultaneously, Durrani’s envoys were actively engaged in securing allies for the upcoming battles with the Marathas.The most important of these was the Oudh State in Lucknow. The Maratha and Durrani leaders tried to make peace for months, however, both sides were unwilling to make any concessions. This was only worsened after the proud and stubborn leader of the Maratha forces, Sadashiv Rao, captured Delhi in the summer of 1760. The monsoon season was hard on the large Maratha army – many of their horses and men died due to disease and they were running out of funds. With his men starving, Sadashiv Rao decided to capture the well-provisioned fort of Kunjpura, some 100km north of Delhi. The fort was taken relatively easily and the Afghan commanders were executed. Afterwards, Sadashiv Rao moved his army to Panipat and fortified his position there. Durrani did not have it any better either – he was virtually unable to communicate with the heartland of his Empire, Afghanistan, because the Sikhs held Punjab. In addition, his army was also starving as foraging devastated the surrounding areas. Enraged after hearing of the brutal way in which the Marathas took Kunjpura, Ahmad Shah sent scouts to find a suitable crossing point over the overflowing Jamuna river. On the 27th of October, Afghan forces crossed the river and on the 31st Durrani arrived at Sambhalka. Finally, the two commanders were face to face.

In order to properly assess the size of the Maratha army and their military tactics, Ahmad Shah ordered his army to dig trenches and fortify their position. As the Marathas were under the impression that Durrani’s forces were in horrible condition, they were surprised to find them in that strong a defensive position. During the following two months, both armies skirmished often and exchanged artillery fire, however, no significant progress was made. Seeing the damage that the hit and run tactics of the Maratha light cavalry could cause, the Shah placed 5000 heavy Afghan cavalry close to the Maratha camp each night and had another force patrol the outskirts of the Maratha camp. In an effort to dislodge the Marathas, a Rohilla commander also captured the grain stores of Kunjpura in December of 1760. During mid-December, the Marathas sent raiding parties from an outpost near Delhi into Rohilla lands, trying to provoke unrest and desertions among those troops. The raiders were also defeated by the Afghans and the outpost was captured, with significant amounts of food and other supplies being taken in the process.

These failures, along with the vigilant night patrols of the Shah, which cut off Maratha supply lines on all sides, made Sadashiv Rao realize the gravity of his situation. He offered generous peace terms to the Afghans, however Ahmad Shah declined. As conditions in the Maratha camp became unbearable, officers petitioned the high command to go and fight an open battle rather than starve to death. Left with no choice, he agreed to fight. Although the numbers of both forces are often interpreted as massive, this is most likely a misconception due to the fact that there were many non-combatants on both sides. The Afghan forces are generally considered to be around 60000 strong, with a large part of those forces being from the Oudh and Rohilla states. The Marathas, on the other hand, had around 45000 troops. The Shah’s own troops numbered around 42000, with 28000 heavy Afghan cavalry, 10000 infantry, 40 cannons and 200 camel-mounted swivel guns. Shuja-ud Dawla, from the Oudh state, had around 3000 men with him, with similar numbers of infantry and cavalry. He also brought 20 guns. Najib-ud Dawla of the Rohilla state had about 15000 men under his command, with roughly a third of them being cavalry. The Shah placed his elite Afghan heavy cavalry in the center and on the extremes of the flanks, and the forces of his allies were placed between them. This move was not just a battle tactic, but was also meant partially to prevent his Indian allies from fleeing the field of battle in case it didn’t go well.

His center stretched between the villages of Risalu and Ujah and was led by Shah Vali Khan. Besides the 15000 elite Afghan heavy cavalry,Vali Khan also had a significant amount of camel-mounted artillery with him and 1000 Afghan infantry. The Afghan left was placed on the plains between Risalu and Siwah and it was led by Najib-ud Dawla, who commanded 5000 elite cavalry and 15000 footmen, including a large number of dismounted cavalry. The Durrani right was led by a multitude of commanders and stretched from Chajpur Khurd to Ujah. It consisted of 10000 footmen and around 7000 horsemen, out of which 3000 were elite heavy cavalry. Ahmad Shah stayed behind the battle lines with the rest of his troops, so that he could observe the battle and send aid where it was needed. The Maratha numbers added up to 45000, with the vast majority of the army consisting of cavalry and some 8000 elite musketeers under Ibrahim Gardi . Sadashiv Rao made sure to isolate the unpopular Gardi infantry and placed them on the extreme left. The Gardi infantry had most of the heavy artillery with them, while the light artillery was mixed between the right and center. Sadashiv Rao, led the center. The cavalry on the left was commanded by Damaji Gaikwar, while the right was led by Malhar Rao Holkar.

The battle began on the morning of the 14th of January 1761 with artillery volleys from both sides. Following the cannonade, Gardi ordered his heavy artillery to fire directly on the Afghan right, however, the cannons were not precise and minimal damage was done. Seeing that, he ordered his musketeers to advance and fire on the enemies. The Rohillas on the Afghan right suffered significant casualties, however, their counter-fire killed many Gardis and forced them to retreat behind their artillery. Gaikwar attacked the cavalry on the Afghan right as well, however, he was driven back, with only Gardi musket volleys saving his units from a complete rout. Simultaneously, the centers of the two armies started fighting as well, with artillery barrages being exchanged. The Maratha artillery was effective, however, the lighter camel-mounted swivels of the Afghans dealt many more casualties and even disabled some of the Maratha guns. All of a sudden, the Maratha cannons stopped firing and a loud war cry was heard, signaling a massive charge of the elite Maratha cavalry. The momentum of their charge was overpowering and they almost broke through the Afghan lines. The Maratha offensive in the center caused confusion within the Afghan forces, with only the commander’s guard holding their ground. Nevertheless, the light Maratha cavalry was not able to maintain their momentum for long and the fighting drew to a stalemate. Ahmad Shah observed the battle from 2km away and kept regular lines of communication between the battlefield commanders and himself. Having learned of the casualties sustained on the right and of the center almost crumbling, he sent around 3000 men from his reserve to aid the Rohillas and another 4000 to reinforce Vali Khan. This proved to be the crucial point of the battle, as Sadashiv Rao neither had any reserves nor did he keep any contact with his commanders. Najib-ud Daula, a clever commander himself, ordered most of his cavalry to dismount and his artillery core to fire lasting barrages at the enemy lines.

These barrages were not meant to do any damage but to provide cover for his footmen as they advanced. Every 400m, his infantry erected small walls of sand and soil to hide behind as their artillery prepared for a new barrage. By 1pm, Najib-ud Daula’s forces were 1km away from their counterparts. This was an ingenious move for several reasons – their proximity to the Maratha right caused fear among their troops and it inhibited them from aiding the other flanks. Around 1pm, as soon as the reinforcements reached the battle lines, the momentum of the battle started to shift.

Ahmad Shah ordered all of his commanders to start a massive offensive against the Maratha forces. Shah Vali Khan started putting pressure on
the Maratha center with his fresh troops,however, the Maratha forces held their ground. Ahmad Shah finally sent 2000 of his elite

On the other flank, musket fire from the Afghan forces drew a wedge between two parts of the Maratha line, which made their advance easier. Surrounded and under constant fire from all sides, all semblance of order broke down in the Maratha center. Sadashiv Rao, though wounded three times, fought bravely before he, too, was killed. This was the final nail in the coffin for the Marathas, as the rest of their forces were subsequently slaughtered or routed. The Afghan forces chased the fleeing Marathas, and slaughtered many during the retreat. Accounts regarding the number of casualties vary depending on the sources, though modern estimates agree that the Maratha losses were around 30000. Over 20000 of the non-combatants were enslaved, and the Afghans also took 700 elephants and thousands of horses and camels. The Afghans lost between 10000 and 20000 men, most of whom were from the Rohilla or Oudh state. As both sides were exhausted by war, the peace treaty was fairly mild. The Marathas lost control over parts of Northern India and had to recognize Alam II as Mughal Emperor, but besides that, not much changed.

Though Durrani won, his position was not enviable either, as he was unable to follow up on this victory and quickly retreated to Afghanistan. In the following decades, the Afghans and Rohillas struggled with the Sikhs in Punjab and failed to capitalize on their new position. In contrast, the Marathas under Madhav Rao began a revival and expanded their influence once again over the North. In the end, this did not last either. Decentralization and infighting among Maratha nobles severely weakened the Empire in the decades after Madhav Rao’s untimely death and the Maratha Empire, as well as Indian independence, met their ends at the hands of the British in 1818 , ushering in a new age for India We have more videos on the history of India on their way, so make sure you are subscribe to our channel and have pressed the bell button We would like to express our gratitude t our Patreon supporters and channel members who make the creation of our videos possible Now, you can also support us by buying our merchandise via the link in the description This is the Kings and Generals channel, and we will catch you on the next one.

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