A brief review of Indian warfare.
When we talk about the genesis of Indian warfare, it goes back to the Battle of Kurukshetra mentioned in the Mahabharata. While the dates may be contested, there is no doubt that such a battle took place between 2 sects, namely the Kauravas and Pandavas. One thing to remember is that the story of Mahabharata has come in the form of poetry and not prose. This gives the artistic license to the poet to exaggerate and showcase certain events in history. This is important because we might tend to be taken off track while hearing accounts of someone blasting a chariot with an arrow or snakes emerging from the arrows to kill the enemy. These are simple events in an exaggerated sense. This war taught Indians the need for ethical warfare. This might have been a disadvantage to Indians, but it is what made us a civilization of non-aggressors, i.e.there was no lust for immeasurable territorial or cultural expansion. They were limited just to the Indian sub-continent.
If we look at the geographical distribution in India, the south is covered with 3 sides of water and the North-East side contains the Himalayas while the North-west portion contains the Hindu- Kush region. This region was most prone to invasions from foreigners. The first invader of India was Alexander, ‘the so-called’ great. He came to conquer India in 326 BC believing that India was the end of the world. He crossed the Hindu-Kush mountains and reached the river Jhelum, where he encountered the Indian king of the Pauravas (who the Greeks called Poros).
The Pauravas courted the region between the rivers Jhelum and Sutlej. Surprisingly, or rather unsurprisingly, many of the local Indian Kings sided with Alexander to defeat the Pauravas. A repeated problem with Indians. We fail to realize where our loyalties lie and side with outsiders, weakening the inside. The Pauravas and the army of Alexander met at the Jhelum River. It was believed that the Greek military had highly refined tactics after all the wars they had fought throughout Europe, Africa, and Asia, but the Indian army was the first of its kind to resist the Greeks, stalemating the war. Alexander then proposed a truce. Despite a draw, the Greeks record this war as the fiercest and the Indian opponents, the strongest among the 3 continents they ventured to. Alexander’s army mutinied as a result of the war and refused to head further, thus sending them back to Europe, and Alexander’s goal of world conquest was curbed.
India has a long history of at least 4000 years and does not start with invaders and end with colonizers. The Period until the 10th century AD was called the Golden age of Indian history due to the presence of various empires like the Mauryas, Guptas, Rashtrakutas, Cholas, and many more. Internal wars were very much prevalent but on a global scale, there was no comparison to Bharat. Just to give an estimate, India’s GDP during this Golden age was as high as 1/3rd of the world’s GDP, which is the highest the world has ever seen. The turning point came around the 7th-8th century with the arrival of Mohammad Bin Qasim which went to take a steep fall with the defeat of Maharaja Prithviraj Chauhan by Mohammad Ghori at Tarain in 1192. Mohammad Ghori had come to India not once but many times over a 10 years period and was defeated in 3 major battles. Unfortunately, he was given mercy in the last battle and was sent back. This trait of Indians to not fight a weakened opponent came as a disadvantage. In the battle between the Rajputs and Ghori, Prithviraj Chauhan was captured, sent to Kabul, tortured, and killed. Starting from that point no indigenous ruler of India had ever sat on the throne of Delhi. This is not to say that the South was also vanquished. Many of the Southern and North-Eastern Kings still prospered, but the seat of power, that was Delhi, was taken up by an outsider. This state continued until 1526. Then came Babur.
Babur leads India to one of the most tragic situations in Indian history. Ironically Babur was invited to India by local rulers to overthrow the then Delhi ruler, Ibrahim Lodi. Babur had brought with him something that India had never seen before: gunpowder. Babar had a well-planned army structure. The process of preparation before any war went like this. They would dig trenches, behind which the infantry would lay with cannons and muskets. The sides were filled with light cavalry and the rear was filled with heavy cavalry. Ibrahim Lodi’s army released war elephants as the primary front which, upon hearing the canons turned back and rampaged upon Lodi’s ranks. Then the light cavalry circled out, covering and killing every single one within the formation. The Rajputs too were defeated in a similar fashion leading to the establishment of the Mughal empire in India which was the second turning point. The Mughals ruled India for as long as 300 years and saw a gradual decline in the advent of which saw the rise of 2 major Indian empires: the Sikhs and the Marathas. The Marathas were more so dominant led by the great Chhatrapati Shivaji. The way Shivaji carried out the Maratha empire practically out of nothing is to be recognized. He had excellent people who followed him, namely the Peshwas. The Maratha empire had a period of 70 years of glory after Shivaji. But this discussion is not about Shivaji, as it would be a great injustice to reduce his story, so that will be for another time. This time, the focus will be on the Peshwas and their King Bajirao.
To begin with, after the death of Aurangazeb in 1707, the Mughal state of affairs became highly volatile. Various subjugated Kingdoms rebelled against the center and internal factionalism further strained The Mughal’s stronghold, gradually depleting the army and treasury. During such a period, Nizam Ul Mulk, who had authority over the Deccan region remained neutral while conserving forces. He was called upon to mediate over the internal feuds of the Mughals and was made Wazir of the Mughal empire in 1921. Alarmed at his growing power, he was transferred from Delhi to Awadh against which he rebelled and resigned as Wazir and marched back south. During this time, he was stripped of authority over Deccan and declared a rebel, and an army was sent under the command of Mubariz Khan. Nizam was forced to request aid from the Marathas, through which he was able to defeat Mubariz Khan at the Battle of Sakhar-Kheda in 1724. The emperor was thus forced to accept Nizam’s dominance over the Deccan, around which he wanted to create an independent sphere of influence. He then began to set himself free from the Maratha demands. Peshwa Bajiro, the then leader of the faction of Marathas who helped Nizam defeat Mubariz Khan, was angered by the constant interference of Nizam into the internal affairs of the Marathas. Subsequent attempts at negotiations failed. Bajirao convinced his side of the Marathas to expand the Maratha empire towards the north, in evident fact of the declining Mughal power. The stage was all set in Palkhed (near present-day Nashik).
Initial moves began when one of Nizam’s generals tried to invade the northern territory of the Maratha empire. He was eventually repelled by an exclusively mounted army of the Marathas, forcing him to return to his base in Aurangabad. Meanwhile, Bajirao was hurrying up from the south, with many Maratha contingents joining him along the way. In Mid-October 1927, he moved as if to threaten Ahmednagar, to divert the then moving Nizam’s army and bypassed the Godavari, which placed him in the heartland of the Nizam’s territory. The Nizam, realizing the diversion he had fallen into, turned east towards the city of Jalna and tried to keep up with the disorienting and rapid pace of the Marathas. By this time, Bajirao had already sacked Jalna and moved east toward the more prosperous districts, while Nizam was trying to keep up with the pace. Bajirao sacked city after city, taking advantage of his significantly superior mobility. Bajirao suddenly turned west towards Barhanpur, which was one of the prosperous trading centers. Nizam detected this move and tried to check his advance. However, Bajirao’s move towards Barhanpur was a diversion. While the Nizam focused his move towards Barhanpur, Bajirao ravaged North-west towards Khandesh and Bharuch, eventually reaching Gujarat. His intention was crystal clear, fight in the enemy territory with his superior mobility and lure the Nizam into a place where he could be separated from his heavy guns which were the trump card of his army.
Bajirao realized that a river crossing must be the ideal location for this and hence, crossed many rivers hoping to find an ideal location. Nizam’s slow-moving army was unable to keep up, being steadily exhausted by the constant chasing of the Marathas over devastated territories already stripped of supplies. Nizam changed his strategy and marched south into the Maratha heartland capturing various Maratha forts and pillaging the vicinity areas intending to lure Bajirao, where he could use his heavy artillery. Bajirao didn’t take the bait. Instead of heading towards the south, they marched towards Aurangabad, the greatest city of the Mughal Deccan, thus turning the Nizam’s strategy against him. The Nizam hurried north leaving behind many of his heavy guns to save Aurangabad from devastation.
But to do this, he would have to cross the Godavari at a specific point near the town of Palkhed. This was the opportunity Bajirao was waiting for. The Nizam had sent scouts beyond the Godavari, near the town of Palkhed to set up camps. Slowly over many days, the main body of the Mughal army moved while the heavy guns were at the rear guard on the other side of the river. The vanguard moved to set up a camp around Palkhed, unaware that Bajirao’s forms were already positioned nearby, tactically surrounding the Mughals’ camp in a horseshoe formation. The Marathas forces then started attacking the Mughal vanguard alternately. This was the Nizam’s wake-up call, that he had caught himself right into the Maratha trap. What’s more, is that the Mughal guns being the most difficult to transport were still stuck on the opposite river bank with the rear guard. While the Marathas engaged the Mughal vanguard, another Maratha contingent moved in between the river and the campsite, completely cutting off the Nizam from the rear-guard artillery. With a simple maneuver, Bajirao successfully separated Nizam from his greatest battlefield asset and surrounded him in a place with rapidly decreasing supplies and water. Realizing his position, the Nizam was forced to open negotiations with the Maratha commander.
With a masterpiece of strategic mobility, Bajirao was able to nullify the army of the most powerful Mughal warlord of the Deccan. Nizam Ul Mulk was forced to accept all of Maratha’s demands. The Battle of Palkhed not only demonstrated the strategic genius of Bajirao but in all, ensured the role of the Marathas as a prominent power in the Indian subcontinent. Various prominent figures in our history have played their role in preserving this land of Bharath. It’s not about whether we try to learn about them, but the fact that many of them have not been given their due credit for all that they have done. India is the country with the world’s oldest and continuing civilization. This is a world where invaders and colonizers completely changed the culture as well as demographics of various civilizations, and if our country’s heritage has persevered, it is due to our heroes who had given their lives fighting for it.
Let’s not forget that.