“Two pearls have been dissolved, 27 gold coins have been lost and of the silver and copper the total cannot be cast up” – These words describe the outcome of the Third Battle of Panipat fought between Marathas and Ahmed Shah Abdali. The epic battle, considered as one of the largest in the 18th century resulted in a disaster for the Marathas and had long lasting ramifications on India’s politics.
Panipat. The word invokes such strong memories among Maharashtrians that even after 250 years my hands tremble while typing these words. What Waterloo is to French or Stalingrad to Germans, Panipat is to Maharashtra. Vishwas Patil’s renowned novel recounts this legendary battle fought exactly 250 years ago on this very same day between the Marathas and Ahmed Shah Abdali.
The decline of the Mughal Empire after a long war fought over 27 years (1980-1707) with Marathas left Marathas strongly in saddle to rule India south of Narmada river. Soon under Peshwa Bajirao I they made a dash in North as far as Attock. This brought them in direct conflict with Ahmed Shah Abdali. Abdali invaded India and with his allies Rohillas under Najib Khan formed a coalition against Marathas. Najib Khan was shrewd and cunning enough to understand the political implications of this confrontation and helped Abdali to obtain support of Shuja-ud-Daula, Nawab of Awadh. Marathas bound by their treaty with the Mughal Emperor sent a strong force under Sadashiv Rao Bhau.Maratha force entered Delhi in August 1760. This was followed by constant skirmishes and battles between the two forces. After Marathas stormed Kunjpura, 60 miles to the North of Delhi, Abdali taking a calculated risk crossed Yamuna secretly. Both the armies were now placed in a deadlock with Marathas at Panipat blocking Abdali’s way back to Afghanistan and Abdali blocking Maratha’s road towards Delhi. Marathas set up defence at Panipat but they were surrounded by enemy from all sides and their supply lines were cut. After two months of constant fights Maratha army was exhausted and desperate without any support from their friends in North and reinforcements from South, they went to War on 14th January 1761.
Marathas made some strategic and tactical errors before the actual battle began. Their traditional allies Rajputs and Jats in North had deserted them due to Maratha’s meddling in their internal affairs. Sikhs who could have been very strong ally were ignored in the beginning. Abdali’s siege ensured that Marathas could not seek reinforcements from Sikhs afterwards. Marathas were almost 1000 miles away from their homeland and though they had very strong cavalry and artillery, they were saddled by many civilians who had come with army for pilgrimage in North. This proved fatal as it slowed the pace of the army and added more mouths to feed. Marathas formed a spherical formation with their heavy artillery in front supported by cavalry. The idea was to use the superior artillery to break Abdali’s ranks and open the road to Delhi at the same time protecting the civilians behind the lines. But some of the old generals used to traditional Maratha Guerrilla Warfare were opposed to this.
When the actual battle started, Marathas fought ferociously and were in command by noon. Victory beckoned them but at this critical juncture Maratha cavalry left its position in its jubilation to chase the enemy leaving the flanks open. The cavalry was now between the artillery and the enemy leaving the Maratha artillery ineffective. Abdali seizing this opportunity used his reserve force and cannons mounted on Camels effectively to break Maratha ranks. During battle Vishwas Rao, son of Peshwa Nanasaheb was killed. Seeing the tide turning some senior Maratha generals including Malhar Rao Holkar left the battlefield. Sadashiv Rao Bhau fought with valour till end but could not save Marathas from defeat. After Bhau fell Marathas were completely routed. It is said that almost every household in Maharashtra lost someone on the battlefield of Panipat.
There are moments… moments in lives of nations when time stops and one wonders “What if?” Panipat was such a moment. What if Marathas had won the battle? We can only surmise but will never know the answer to this question. I have always felt that the importance of this battle has not been completely understood by many in India. Abdali won, but he suffered heavy casualties and fearing fresh Maratha attack from South soon went back to Afghanistan never to return. This was last of the attacks on India from the Northwest. The defeat of Marathas left a void in North which the British, buoyed by their victory in Bengal just four years earlier quickly began to fill. After Panipat, Maratha’s enemies in South, The Nizam and Haider Ali reared their heads again and young Madhav Rao Peshwa spent most of his short career fighting them. Marathas under Madhav Rao soon regained their strength and came back to power in Delhi in 1771, but their success was short lived. Crippled by Madhav Rao’s untimely death at the age of 28, infighting ensued among Maratha chiefs. A spate of deaths of Peshwa Sawai Madhav Rao, Mahadaji Shinde and Nana Phadnis in quick succession weakened them and resulted in their defeat at the hands of British in 1818.
The persona of Sadashiv Rao Bhau has remained an enigma. Many consider him responsible for the defeat at Panipat. He is regarded as haughty and arrogant. He was thought of more as a pen pusher than a general though he had proved his mettle at the battle of Udgir thereby granting him the helm of the Maratha army. Others consider him as a competent soldier and statesman. The truth, I am sure, is standing as usual somewhere between the two arguments.
History is a cruel judge who lets his judgement known only after a considerable time has elapsed. But as long as Marathi language lives, the word Panipat will be spoken with greatest pride.