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Strategic foundation of Ahmad Shah Abdali’s Foreign Invasions

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What makes Ahmad Shah distinct from other Afghan conquerors in the past was that he intended to conquer other lands to build his own state and not to follow the example of past Afghan rulers of India or the Hotaks who chose to preside over empires in foreign lands. Alexander Dow (1735-1779), a British orientalist and a contemporary of Ahmad Shah wrote that the Afghan monarch was the only leader at that time that could restore the imperial power to Delhi if he would assume sovereignty in India and rule as king from Delhi.[1] It was a tempting proposition, but the situation in India was changing and the balance of power rapidly shifting. Ahmad Shah did try to legitimize his claim to the throne of Delhi as the heir of previous Afghan kings of India who “ruled the vast land with honor, leaving good names, until the invasion of Amir Timur Saheb Qiran.” He specifically named the Lodi and Suri monarchs as the Afghan ruling predecessors.[2] But as Ahmad Shah’s real actions indicated, he knew that getting tied up in India would undermine his plans to build an Afghan state between the Indus and Amu Darya rivers. During 26 years of rule, he never compromised any part of this territory in order to expand to northern India or into the depths of Persia in the west. In one of the poems attributed to him, he strongly states that “I forget the throne of Delhi when I remember the mountain tops of my Afghan land. If I must choose between the world and you, I shall not hesitate to claim your barren deserts as my own.[3]

The deep changes in the balance of power in India hardly supported a permanent Afghan occupation of the territory while the center of the Ahmad Shah’s kingdom was in Afghanistan. Several competing powers arose in the subcontinent and hindered any foreign power’s attempt to establish an enduring rule there. While the Mughal Empire was significantly weakened and had lost influence in the south and in the east, the Marathas of Deccan, The Sikhs of Punjab, the Europeans in general, and other large and small groups were rising into prominence.

The Third Battle of Panipat, 14 January 1761, Hafiz Rahmat Khan, standing right of Ahmad Shah Abdali, who is shown sitting on a brown horse.

To the west of Afghanistan, the disintegration of the Afsharid Empire and the continuing power struggle among several contenders made Persia vulnerable to outside intervention. Ahmad Shah could exploit the situation by leading his disciplined and experienced army (supported by the Afghan tribes) to make major gains in Persia. However, he was unwilling to repeat the mistake of the preceding Afghan dynasty by winning an easy victory but failing to rule the empire. The limits of Ahmad Shah’s expansion to the west were defined by the vital security considerations of Afghanistan. He did not advance beyond Mashhad and Nishapur. Sir John Malcolm (1769-1833) wrote that “Ahmad Khan was now in a condition to attempt the reduction of all Persia, but the prospect was not inviting. Every province was exhausted. The Afghans were still deemed the original authors of the misery which the nation endured; and the unsuccessful attempt to alter their religion and revived the hatred which the Persians entertained from that race as Sunnis. In addition to these obstacles, the example of usurpation which Nader Shah had given had inspired every governor of a province and every chief of a tribe with the desire of rule, and Persia abounds with pretenders to regal power. Under such circumstances, we must admire that wisdom which led the Afghan prince to withdraw from this scene of turbulence, that he might exclusively direct his future exertions to the nobler and more legitimate object of establishing a power in his native country, which while it gave a crown to his descendants, raised his nation to a rank and consideration far beyond what they have ever enjoyed.”[4]

Based on a similar argument, Ahmad Shah considered the Amu Darya River as the practical border of the Afghan state in the north. In spite of the vulnerability of the Uzbek Khanate caused by continued power struggle between the Khiva, Bukhara and Khoqand khanates, Ahmad Shah did not want to be drawn deep into Central Asia beyond the Amu Darya.

But expansion through attacks on surrounding states became a requirement for the Afghan state, not merely to build as some would term a “raiding polity” and find a better distraction for his feuding and turbulent subjects, but also as a means to wield power in a very competitive environment where the “survival of the fittest” found its political meaning. Realistically, moving east was more advantageous to Ahmad Shah than venturing west into the unsettled vastness of Persia. To the east, down to the Indus River basin, the land was inhabited by fellow Afghan (Pashtun) tribes who would add to the influence and legitimacy of the Afghan state and provide a rich source of recruitment for his army of conquest. Further east, there were large pockets of Afghan tribes in India who had migrated into the subcontinent in the wake of victorious armies from Afghanistan. Over the centuries they had established numerous spheres of political influence through sharing power with several Afghan dynasties that ruled India at different periods. They served as natural allies of the Afghan expeditionary armies. Finally, the political confusion that befell India following the Nader Afshar invasion and plunder of Delhi, made India an attractive target of conquest – a land poorly protected and temptingly rich.

Imperial Expansion

Ahmad Shah’s military conquest to the east was aimed at establishing the political limits of the Afghan kingdom based on the geographic and cultural boundaries of the Afghan tribes. These borders had not been independently defined by any ruler in the past. There were also Afghans settled in the west but the largest tribal concentration was in the east down to the Indus (Sind) River. Once the Durrani armies reached the banks of the Indus and asserted their authority, Ahmad Shah turned west and annexed the Afghan provinces of Herat and Farah and secured them by establishing control over Mashhad and Nishapur in Khorasan. No border, however, could have been secured unless the lands beyond it were stable and not threatening. With the weakening of the Mughal Empire in India and the emergence of rival contenders in the subcontinent the edges of the Durrani state became insecure forcing Ahmad Shah to extend his conquests far beyond the natural geography of his kingdom. In fact, rising empires are like fast moving torrents that overflow the decaying banks of the stream.

This lithograph was taken from the frontispiece of ‘Afghaunistan’ by Lieutenant James Rattray. Two Afghan nobles of the Durrani tribe are depicted, fully armed, with their helmets decorated with peacock feathers.
Rattray wrote: “This costume of the Douranee warriors gives a fair idea of the style of armour worn by the Afghaun noblesse, though it was not a common occurrence to meet with them so completely clothed in clinquant mail as they are represented in the frontispiece.” Peacock feathers were a symbol of royalty. Egret plumes were specially presented by the Emir as a mark of honour to the chiefs who merited the distinction. Rattray had often been shown the shirts of mail worn by the Afghans under their silk kameezes (shirts) as a protection against assassins’ daggers. Sometimes they also wore a “shawl around the steel head-piece, the nose-plate and the plume alone attracting attention to the fact of their being helmeted at all”.
The British Library

Expansion to the east features two sets of military campaigns with monumental consequences. The first contains military actions to establish the Afghan control over Punjab that lasted until the first quarter of the next century. The second series comprise Ahmad Shah’s wars to defend its eastern imperial boundaries against rising power of the Hindu dynasty of the Marathas and their allies in India.

As a result of four military conquest in India (1747-1756) the Durrani Empire established control over large territories stretching from Panjab to Delhi. The Afghan conquest came against the backdrop of rapid expansion of the Marathas that rose to imperial power in central and southern India, in the 17th century and made fast inroads into northern India as the Mughal Empire declined.


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The Afghan Durrani Empire

A confederacy of the Hindu warrior caste, the Marathas, dominated central and southern India covering vast parts of the Deccan Plateau. It predominantly encompassed the modern Indian states of Maharashtra, Madhya Pradesh, Gujarat and Karnataka. The empire was founded and consolidated in 1674 by Shivaji. He made Fort Raigad, located 175 kilometers south of Mumbai (Bombay), its capital. He successfully defended his territory against the Mughal Empire during a 27-year war until the death of Aurangzeb in 1707. Shivaji’s grandson Shahu, who ascended the throne in 1707, instituted the office of Peshwa that functioned as prime minister and improved its governmental structure. The Marathas were inspired by the aspirations of the Hindu communities who were frustrated with the domination of the Muslims across the subcontinent. Although Shivaji’s father served under a local Muslim dynasty, he was determined to end the supremacy of the Muslims and regain full social and religious freedom. Initially the Maratha movement was not a general uprising of the Hindus but soon it became the vanguard of such movement. However, the more they wielded political and military power, the more they oppressed and taxed toward both the common Hindu and Muslin populations of India. Despite the admirable military prowess of the Marathas against the Muslim rulers of India they did not appeal to the common public because of their arrogance, excesses and oppression.[5] Nevertheless they raised the standard of freeing the Hindus from the yoke of the Muslim rulers who had dominated the subcontinent for more than six centuries.

The sources of the Maratha power were its highly motivated and disciplined military forces and its skills in waging effective guerrilla war against conventional forces of their enemies. The irregular warfare method developed by Shivaji employed guerrilla tactics (Ganimi Kava) which leveraged strategic advantages of the populace (demography), knowledge of the terrain (speed, and targeted surprise attacks at night) and geography (rugged mountain terrain) to defeat more numerous forces. The effectiveness of Shivaji’s asymmetric war against the Mughal armies, earned him the title of “Mountain Rat” from his royal enemy Aurangzeb. But, with the expansion of the Marathas power, their military establishment diversified through recruitment within other nationalities and by adopting European military systems. As they become more and more imperial, they lost most of their earlier skills in irregular warfare and became dependent on heavy cumbersome baggage trains. The Maratha army consisted of cavalry, infantry and artillery organized in units of different sizes. The smallest cavalry (Page) unit was Bargir made up of 25 troopers commanded by Hawaldar. Five Bargirs were grouped into a squadron headed by Jumladar and ten squadrons were organized in a regiment commanded by a Hazari. The Sari-Naubat commanded the entire cavalry corps. In the infantry corps, nine foot soldiers (Payak) were under a section leader called Nayak and five sections grouped under Hawaldar. Two or three Hawaldar served under Jumladar and ten Jumladars were subordinated to a regiment commander called a HazariA Sari-Naubat was in charge of all infantry troops.[6]

With the weakening of the Mughal Empire, following the death of Aurangzeb, the Maratha’s influence grew significantly and they planned to invade northern India which they considered the political and cultural hub of Muslim India. Baji-Rao (d. 1740), one of the aggressive Maratha Peshwas, explained his northern policy by saying “the tree should be cut from its roots as the branches and leaves will drop by themselves.” The tree was Delhi and the branches were the Muslim principalities in provincial India.

Baji Rao II

The capture of Delhi by Ahmad Shah in 1756 brought the Marathas into direct confrontation with the Durrani Empire on the edges of their claimed territories. Before returning home in 1757, Ahmad Shah reconfirmed the weak Mughal emperor Alamgir II on the throne in Delhi and appointed his fellow Indian-based Afghan leader Najib ud-Daulah his viceroy and Military commander in Delhi while putting his son Prince Timur in charge of the provinces east of the Indus assisted by Sardar Jahan Khan.[7]

The Maratha Challenge

During the absence of the Afghan monarch the Martha armies poured into Delhi drove out Ahmad Shah’s appointed officials. Assisted by their local allies, the Maratha forces pushed further north into Punjab forcing Prince Timor out of the province in 1758. Seeing the Marathas on the doorsteps of his kingdom, Ahmad Shah returned to India at the head of large army in 1759 and made several gains against separate Maratha garrisons in Panjab and around Delhi. The successive defeats of the Marathas in Punjab and around Delhi frustrated the arrogant Maratha nobles and their allies in northern India. They urged the Peshwa (Prime Minister) to send a larger army to drive out the Afghans and permit the Hindus to overthrow the Muslim domination of India. In the spring of 1760, the Peshwa, Balaji Bajirao, mobilized a huge army under the nominal command of his young son Viswasrao with actual command exercised by Sadashiv Rao Bhao, accompanied by a large crowd of up to 300,000 noncombatants and camp followers. The slow moving army headed north reaching Delhi on 1 August 1760 from where it moved further north to encounter the Durrani army five months later in the fateful battle of Panipat. In order to face the main Maratha army, the Afghan leader formed a broad coalition with his Indian allies including the Rohilla Afghans of the Gangetic Doab and the Nawab of Oudh, Shuja-u-Dawlah.[8]

The Prelude to the Battle of Panipat

The two armies faced each other for over two months at Panipat, during which time each side made attempts to cut the supply lines of the other in order to choke its logistic lifelines. Each side was trying to get the enemy into battle under conditions unfavorable to him. Having strongly entrenched in their encampment, the Marathas would have liked the Afghans to attack their camp and be pounded by their heavy guns firmly positioned on the ramparts. But Ahmad Shah was not in hurray. He resisted his Indian Afghan allies’ constant demand for immediate action advising them to wait until he shaped the tactical situation for a favorable opportunity that would lead to successful conclusion of the conflict.[9] The Maratha command too tried to force the Afghans to attack by cutting off their supplies. Ahmad Shah, however, was in better opposition to choke the enemy camp since the Durrani army was sitting on the supply routes of the enemy and had easy access to resources of its Afghan allies across the Jumna.

The Maratha army with its heavy baggage trains, artillery equipment and large hordes of families and camp followers was more vulnerable. Eyewitness accounts indicate that the camp was populated by a half million souls.[10] Bhao supplied his forces from Delhi which was his forward logistic base. The base was replenished daily by large convoys of stores moving through a long supply route stretched from Pune to Delhi. Other sources of procurement were the districts around Delhi. The Durrani army was sitting on a key position able to disrupt both supply routes of the enemy. The Maratha camp was also fed by the Sikh leaders of Punjab and the Raja of Patiala through the Sirhind-Patiala supply route. Ahmad Shah eventually disrupted that route too as the Afghans recaptured Kunjpura behind the Maratha camp. Thus The Afghans targeted the enemy’s supply lines within a large circle whose diameter extended from Delhi to Sirhind. Ahmad Shah wrote that the width of the inner circle of interception was 30 miles.[11]

 

Ahmad Shah Durrani – Father of Afghanistan

Ahmad Shah Durrani – Father of Afghanistan➥www.mundigak.com/en /subscribe our channel for more videos… https://bit.ly/33Ba4Fl📜Hikma History✔❶Like✔❷Comment✔❸Share••• ═══ ༻✿༺═══ •••#AfghanistanHistory #mundigak_historical_society

Geplaatst door Mundigak Historical Society op Donderdag 7 mei 2020

 

On the other hand, the Maratha command was overconfident due to their large numbers and the strength of their forces including hundreds of artillery pieces. They were further encouraged by their successive military victories in northern India over the past year. Bhao hoped to wait-out Ahmad Shah and believed that his Sikh allies, sitting in key locations in Punjab, would cut the Afghans off from their bases in the west and force their Rohilla allies and the Nawab of Oudh to abandon the isolated Afghan forces. According to Mahmud al-Husseini, (the official historiographer of Ahmad Shah Durrani who completed his work in 1773-74, right after the death of the Afghan monarch), the Afghan king moved parts of his camp several times during the stalemate to place his forces in positions suitable for cutting the enemy communication lines and intercepting its supply convoys.[12]

Meanwhile, Ahmad Shah kept the enemy camp under pressure by continuing cavalry attacks on its flanks and rear. Accordingly, every night a detachment of 5,000 horse would advance to the Maratha camp and keep it under surveillance until dawn. Meanwhile, two other detachments each of similar strength (5,000 troopers), moved every night around the enemy camp from two sides, one to the right and the other to the left, to intercept supply columns heading to the camp.[13] These night patrols, led by senior commanders such as Shah PA sand Khan and Sardar Jahan Khan, cut off every provision convoy that attempted to sneak into the Maratha camp and every party of camp-followers that left the camp under cover of darkness to gather firewood and fodder in the neighborhood woods.

Sitting on the main Delhi route, the Afghan forces succeeded in closing the southern route and continued their efforts to cut the other supply line reaching the enemy camp from the north. The Marathas made a similar effort to cut Ahmad Shah’s lines of communication. Bhao ordered one Gobind Pundit to raid the Rohilla Afghans territories in Doab (the land between the rivers Jumna and Ganges) and cut off the supply of all provisions in the rear of Ahmad Shah’s army. Gobind moved with ten or twelve thousand horse and ravaged the area as far as Meerut. The operation caused supply problems in the Afghan camp. Ahmad Shah ordered Attai Khan, a nephew of Vizier Shah Wali Khan, and Haji Karim-dad Khan at the head of 5,000 horse to march day and night and attack the Maratha force in Doab. The Afghan detachment moved rapidly, crossed the Jumna at Baghpat on December 16, 1760 and covered one hundred miles in a day and night. At daybreak, the Afghans fell like lightening on the unprepared camp of the Maratha force. Taken by surprise the Marathas fled wildly and were cut down by the raiding Afghans. Gobind Pundit was captured as he was trying to flee and was beheaded by the pursuers. The Afghan detachment returned to its camp on the fourth day with the head of Gobind Pundit.[14]

Soon after the defeat of Gobind Pundit, the Maratha commander Bhao dispatched a body of 2,000 horse to Delhi to receive and escort the transfer of some treasure to pay for his rising expenses. The troops were ordered to march secretly at night over unfrequented roads with each man carrying a bag of 2,000 rupees on the return trip. The troops reached Delhi uninterrupted but during the return, out of bad luck, they missed the designated road in the darkness and stumbled into the Durrani camp instead of taking the road to their forces. The Afghan surrounded them, cut them to pieces, seized the treasures and made it a “pay day.”[15]

Kasi Raj, who was present during the whole course of the battle, wrote that from day one, Ahmad Shah had a small red tent pitched about two miles in front of the camp and he moved there at sunrise after performing his morning prayer. He then mounted his horse and accompanied by his son Timur and forty or fifty horsemen toured all the posts of his army. He also surveyed the enemy camp and assessed the situation of his forces. The tour covered usually about 100 miles every day. The party would return to the small tent in the evening and sometimes dined there before moving to the camp. This was Ahmad Shah’s daily routine which kept him up to date on the battlefield. Meanwhile every day the troops and cannons on both sides were brought forward and distant cannonade with many skirmishes of horsemen took place with both armies withdrawing to their camp in the evening.[16]

Three serious combats/incidents took place during the two months leading up to the battle. The first was on November 29, when a body of some 15,000 Marathas attacked the Vizier Shah Wali Kahn’s sector in the Afghan camp. The Marathas pressed hard before reinforcements arrived and the Marathas were repulsed and pursued to their camp with great slaughter. The second action came on December 23 when Najib ud-Daulah advanced too close to the Maratha camp and was attacked by overwhelming enemy forces under Bulmont Rao. During a fierce encounter the Afghan troops gave way and the Rohilla leader was left with only fifty horsemen. He held his ground, however, until reinforcements came to his aid and he renewed the action with more intensity and about 1500 Afghan troops were killed[17]. The battle continued into the night until Bulmont Rao was killed by a musket-ball during an Afghan cavalry charge against the enemy lines. Both parties then broke contact and returned to their camps. In the third incident about 20,000 Maratha camp followers had gone “out of the wire” at night to gather wood and fodder in the jungle. Some distance from camp, they were intercepted by a routine roving body of 5,000 Afghan horse under Shah Pesand Khan. They were surrounded on all sides. Although no rescue troops were sent from the Maratha camp, all the camp followers were put to the sword. The psychological impact of the massacre was enormous and terrified the Maratha camp. Even the brave-heart Bhao began to “give way to fear and despondence.” [18]

Concentration of large Maratha military forces and camp followers in a relatively limited space of the camp was causing an acute problem of lodging and hygiene with adverse impact on the army morale. The longer the standoff continued the greater was the anxiety and discomfort. The Durrani army eased the adverse condition of long encampment by moving the camp in the last week of November about four miles away to the southeast crossing a water channel and set up a new camp near the village of Bapauli close to the Jumna River. This took the Afghan forces out of the enemy artillery range, easing of obtaining supplies from across the Jumna from the Najib ud-Dawlah territory as the river water went down in the winter. Further the new location offered fresh water. The move of Durrani camp was perceived by the Marathas as a weakness and a success of its artillery fire. Bhao wrote on December 6, 1760 that “Abdali has no strength to attack us. Our firing hurt him and killed men and horses in his camp. Out of fear he moved away two kos (four miles) and has taken his guns. This is his courage, which is reducing each day. We will soon defeat him.”[19]

The increasing shortage of supplies and the interdiction of the supply lines plunged the Maratha camp into growing confusion. The local Banjara (Indian nomadic peoples) vendors in Panipat were charging high prices for the limited amount of provisions that they supplied under difficult conditions. By the end of December the distress in the Maratha camp became so serious that the troops plundered the town of Panipat for grain. Faced with increasing pressure from the troops, Bhao appealed to Shuja ud-Daulah to mediate a peace agreement with the Durrani Vizier. He showed readiness “to submit to any conditions if he could but preserve himself and his army and would by every means manifest his gratitude to the mediators.” While the Vizier and all other chiefs including the Rohillas were not opposed to peace, Najib ud-Daulah was against it arguing that the Marathas should not be trusted as their overtures for peace was due to their weakness which should be exploited. The Marathas, he stressed, should be dealt with once and for all. He suggested to Ahmad Shah that the Marathas were “the thorn of Hindustan; and if they were out of the way, this empire might be your Majesty’s whenever you should please.” Ahmad Shah approved his counsel and overruled the party of peace in his camp.


Najib-ud-Daula, a brilliant Yousafzai |

The Strength of the Opposing Forces

The political significance of the Battle of Panipat for both sides of the conflict and the massive Maratha losses of life and property following their disastrous defeat in the battle has prompted exaggerated estimates about the size of the forces that fought on that fateful January day. Ahmad Shah Durrani put the number of the Maratha troops at more than one million including six hundred thousand horse and five hundred thousand foot musketeers.[20] Given the size of the battlefield, the actual combat action and the logistic considerations, the numbers seem highly inflated. Further, the Abdali king claimed that the enemy forces were supported by one thousand cannons and light guns and half million rockets (ban). The battlefield expanse, the constraints of command and control and logistical limitations support the estimate of modern writers suggesting that each side deployed between 60,000 to 85,000 cavalry and infantry troops on the battlefield,[21] which excludes the baggage trains and camp followers that were estimated over half million in the Maratha camp. It is likely that some chroniclers of the event counted non-combatants as part of the fighting forces and came up with the exaggerated numbers.

Kasi Raj Pundit, who participated in the battle and recorded the event as secretary of Nawab Shuja ud-Daulah, visited the Maratha camp in Panipat as the Nawab’s envoy. He recorded the breakdown of the opposing forces using the accounts of Maratha military daftars (office of musters) and his interviews with the officials there. His account of the Afghan army lists the following elements: 24 cavalry Dastahs (regiments) each consisted of 1200 horsemen. This included six Dastahs (regiments) of the king’s slave guards. Other elements of the Durrani army included 2,000 camels each with two mounted musketeers and a Zanbourak gun, 40 cannon and a large number of Ushturnals or smaller swivel guns mounted on camels. The allied contingents consisted of Shuja ud-Daulah’s 2000 infantry and 20 cannon of different calibers; Najib ud-Daulah’s 8,000 horse and 18,000 Rohilla foot and a large number of rockets; Dundi Khan and Hafiz Rahmat Khan’s 15,000 Rohilla foot and 4,000 horse with some cannon; and Ahmad Khan Bangash’s 1,000 cavalry and 1,000 foot with some cannon. These forces added up to 41,800 horse and 38,000 foot with between 70-80 cannon. Kasi Raj’s estimate puts the number of irregulars who accompanied the troops at four times that of the army. These irregulars usually moved in the wake of a successful charge by the regulars to fall on the broken enemy with swords in hand to complete the route.[22]

The list of the Marathas army contingents included Ibrahim Khan Gardi’s 2,000 horse and 9,000 foot with firelocks trained and disciplined after the European style, together with 40 pieces of artillery; 6,000 horse of household troops, 5,000 horse under Malhar Rao Holkar; 10,000 horse commanded by Jankoji Sindhia; 3,000 horse each under Damaji Guickwar, Shumashere Bahadur, Balaji Jadoon, Rajah Betul Shudeo’s contingent (a total of 12,000horse); 7.000 horse under Bulmont Row, 5,000 horse of Viswasrao’s own cavalry and 2,000 horse commanded by Antaji Mankeser. The allies provided about 24,000 troopers and the army had 200 cannon and numerous rockets and swivel guns (Ushturnals). Thus, the total number of the Maratha army was 79,000 horse and 15,000 foot.[23] The number of accompanying family members and camp followers was estimated at over half million.

The Battle of Panipat

By the first week of January 1761, the growing famine pushed the Maratha camp to the brink. The army chiefs appealed to Bhao to let the army go to battle instead of perishing through starvation and misery. They wanted to move immediately against the Afghans and face their destiny honorably. Marathi sources painted a bleak picture of the Bhao camp on the eve of the Panipat Battle: “The strength of Abdali was growing while the Maratha army was growing weak without supplies. Horses were dying and even army chiefs had to move on foot. It was best to leave this camp, but thick forests all around meant the army could only move along the road toward Delhi. The gilcha (Ahmad Shah) [24]was blocking the road, so it was best to move towards the Jumna five kos (ten miles) away and putting the river at one’s back and the guns toward the gilcha in the front…move to Delhi, get supplies, rejuvenate the army, make our camp by the Jumna…. Holker felt when the gilcha is blocking the road, how will you make a path through his army? So it was decided, everybody including the banagas fighting their way would proceed forwards.”[25]

After Bhao agreed with his general to move into battle, he sent his last note in his own hand writing to Nawab Shuja ud-Daulah as an effort for peace. He wrote “the cup is now full to the brim, and cannot hold another drop. If anything can be done, do it, or else answer me plainly at once; thereafter there will be no time for writing or speaking. “As the note reached the Afghan camp about three in the morning it was assumed that the Marathas were going to initiate the battle in a few hours. The Nawab went to Ahmad Shah and woke him up to report the situation. In a few hours the Afghan army moved into battle formation.

According to the eyewitness account of Kasi Raj, “The Shah came out directly, and inquired ‘what news`? The Nawab replied that there was no time for explanation, but desired his Majesty to mount his horse and order the army to get under arms. The Shah accordingly mounted one of his horses, which were always ready saddled at the tent-door, and in the dress he then had on, rode half a coss (a little over a mile) in front of his camp, ordering his troops under arms as he went along. He enquired from Nawab, from whom he had his intelligence, and he mentioned my name (Kasi Raj). The Shah immediately dispatched one on a post-camel to bring me. After I made my obeisance he asked me the particular of the news. I replied that the Marathas had quitted their lines and would attack his army as soon as it should be light. Just at this time some Durrani horsemen passed by, with their horses loaded with plunder which they said they had taken in the Maratha camp, and added that the Marathas were running away. The Shah looked at me and asked me what I said to that? I replied that a very short time would prove the truth or falsehood of my report. While I was speaking, the Marathas having advanced about a coss and half from their lines (nearly 3.5 miles) and got their cannon drawn up in line, all at once gave a general discharge of them. Upon hearing this, the Shah, who was sitting upon his horse, smoking a Persian qallian, gave it to his servant, and with a great calmness said to the Nawab ‘your servant’s news is very true, I see.’ He immediately sent for the Grand Vizier and Shah Pesand Khan who came accordingly.”[26]

The Afghan army was drawn up facing west towards the town of Panipat and it included the Durrani contingents on both flanks as well as in the center of the line. The gaps between the flanks and the center were occupied by Rohilla and Indian allies. Thus, the alignment of the troops alternated the Indian allied chiefs with the Durrani Afghan generals to ensure that all elements under the close watch of Ahmad Shah’s loyal troops. The divisions were arrayed from left to right in the following order: the regiments of Shah Pesand Khan, the cavalry and infantry of Najib ud-Daulah and Shuja ud-Daulah, the main Durrani forces under Vizier Shah Wali Khan in the center, the regiments of Ahmad Khan Bangash, Hafiz Rahmat Khan, Dundi Khan, Amir Beg Khan and other Persian regiments and those of Barkhordar Khan. The camel mounted guns were lined up in front of the ranks behind the 70-80 cannon (map).

Most Muslim sources indicate that the Marathas were moving in battle order to attack the Durrani lines. Primary Afghan and Indian, including Marathi, accounts, however, offer a different picture regarding the battle plan adopted by the Maratha command. According to these sources, when the cut-off of supplies and famine “cast a shadow of death on the Maratha camp,” their leaders debated how to end the siege. Finally on January 13, 1761, they decided to march toward Delhi where supplies could be found and the army would be in a much stronger position to fight the Afghans.[27] Accordingly, the battle plan suggested by Ibrahim Khan Gardi was what is known in Europe as the “Hollow Square.” It was a wide square formed by combat troops on outer lines with non-combatants moving within the square protected by the troops around them. The Marathas put infantry with guns and muskets on the outside and moved the non-combatants, supplies and families inside the square. With such a clumsy formation, the Maratha intended to march southeast across the field toward the Jumna River, 8-10 miles away, and thence follow the right bank of the stream to Delhi.

The aim of the Maratha’s “Hollow Square” was to march past the Afghan formation, hoping that the Afghans would not block the passage of their army once it began moving and choose not to attack them, since the battle would be costly and destructive to both sides. The two armies were at an angle to each other, with the leading Maratha division under Ibrahim Khan Gardi close to the Afghan right regiments under Barkhordar Khan and the Rohillas, while the rear Maratha divisions commanded by Sindhia and Holkar marched nearly four or five miles apart from Shah Pesand Khan and Najib ud-Daulah contingents (map) on the Afghan left flank. They presumed that the square would continue its march to its destination if not attacked or blocked by the Afghan army. In case the army was attacked, the exposed side of the square was to turn toward the enemy and repel the opposing forces by heavy gun fire and musketry and resume the march. In such a contingency the Maratha army would wheeled right outflanking the Durrani army for a deadly blow.[28]

The highly trained infantry regiments of Ibrahim Khan Gardi was the leading side of the square and tasked to open any obstacle in front of the marching columns.[29] Bhao’s instruction to his men was to “march straight along the chosen path. If the gilcha (Afghans) moves out and gives way, there is no reason to fight. If he does not, we fight and pass through his army fighting.”[30]

Given the sequence of the combat and the description of primary sources, the battle took place as a ‘Meeting Engagement” (in modern terms) with the Maratha square moving southeast and hit the right flank of the Afghan line, which was drawn up obliquely to the Maratha line of march. Maratha sources indicate that the Maratha army had to wheel to its right to face the onslaught. Consequently, “the last night’s plan of a square was given up.”[31] The description of the battle by Ahmad Shah Durrani also supports, to some extent, the marching order of the Maratha army in the “Hollow Square” formation.[32] Mahmud al-Husseini the court chronicler of Ahmad Shah also refers to the battle as the Marathas’ attempt to escape the siege and march to Delhi for relief.[33]

The Maratha order of battle faced east as it advanced behind a long line of cannons soon after sunrise. The regiments deployed in columns from front to rear under the following commanders: Ibrahim Khan Gardi, Damaji Guickwar, Shu Deo Patel, Bhao and Viswasrao with the household troops, Jaswant Rao Powar, Shumashere Bahadur, Malhar Rao, Jankoji Sindhia and others (map). The two armies were facing each other obliquely with the Maratha left flank closer to the Afghans right.

The eight-hour battle on January 14, 1761, featured six overlapping actions. First, the battle opened with a barrage by Maratha cannons, musketry and rockets as it advanced southeast across the field toward the Jumna River. Since the guns were large and heavy and firing on the move, their sighting level was not easily adjusted and soon their shots began to fly over the Afghan ranks and landed a mile or two in the rear. On the Afghan side few cannon, except those in the center under the Vizier, fired as they moved toward the enemy. The Afghan battle line was deployed in a semicircle with its right flank facing the leading Maratha division.

Second, after the opposing forces covered the few kilometers that separated the two camps, the Maratha forward columns under Ibrahim Gardi advanced against the Afghan right. Gardi deployed two battalions to contain the Afghan regiments of Barkhordar Khan and Amir Khan to prevent them from outflanking his troops, and then he led his seven battalions in attack with fixed bayonets against the Rohilla divisions commanded by Dundi Khan and Hafez Rahmat Khan. In the ensuing close combat, the Marathas pushed the Afghan right flank back but failed to penetrate the lines. The two battalions that Gardi left to contain the Afghans flank divisions repulsed Durrani forces’ flanking attacks. However during the three hour fierce fighting Ibrahim Khan’s six battalions of the main body were almost entirely wiped out and he himself was wounded in several places with spears and a musket-ball and was eventually taken prisoner. Damaji Guickwar, who was on Ibrahim’s right, rushed to help the failing Maratha left. The action  stabilized the line until Damaji himself was also wounded. Thousands of Rohilla soldiers were killed or wounded on the Afghan side.

Third, as the Afghan right was heavily engaged in fighting off Ibrahim Gardi’s attack, the right side of the Afghan center, under Shah Wali Khan, was exposed. Exploiting the situation, the Maratha center under Bhao and Viswasrao charged the Afghan divisions in the center and broke through a line of 10,000 horse, 7,000 Persian musketeers and 1,000 camel-mounted Zanbouraks– killing and wounding three thousand. Among the killed was Attai Khan, Shah Wali Khan’s nephew who had gained so much fame earlier by defeating Gobind Pundit. Once the lines intermingled, the fighting continued at different points for hours. The right flank of the center was covered by Nawab Shuja ud-Daulah’s division of 2,000 horse, 1,000 musketeers, 20 cannon and some swivel guns. As his division stood in close order, the enemy made no attempt to attack there. This situation helped stabilize the flank of the center.

اړوند پوسټونه

Fourth, on the Afghans left flank, Najib ud-Daulah’s 8,000 foot and 6,000 horse advanced steadily against the Maratha right under Jankoji Sindhia which was 4-5 miles distant from the Afghan right. The Afghan column advanced in bounds preparing earthworks for the infantry at each stop using groups of bildars (shovel men). When the wings reached the effective range of muskets and rockets, the Najib’s division unleashed a barrage of musket fire and rockets discharging two thousands volleys at a time, which not only terrified the enemy horses by their dreadful noise but also caused so much terror that the enemy could not advance. Further on, the outer flank of Najib ud-Daulah’s Rohillas, the Afghan division under Shah Pesand Khan, advanced in good order containing the Maratha’s right.

Fifth, around noon, Ahmad Shah decided to commit his reserves in order to stabilize the center and the right flank which were under Maratha pressure and push the left wing forward to outflank the enemy with a sweeping attack to his rear. He assembled every possible body of troops and his slave guard troops for a final decisive effort. He moved 4,000 troops to cover the right flank and dispatched 10,000 horse to the center to Vizier Shah Wali Khan-with instructions to charge the enemy in close order at full gallop. He ordered Najib-ud-Daulah and Shah Pesand Khan on the left flank to launch a simultaneous attack on the enemy’s flank. About one o’clock the reserve joined the battle. The Vizier charged the Maratha army where Bhao commanded in person. In support, three regiments of mounted slave troopers used their usual fire and maneuver drill firing their muskets and galloping off to reload and then returning to repeat the attack. The enemy was now massed together and falling under the withering fire and cavalry charges. Meanwhile, Najib ud-Daulah and Shah Pesand Khan charged the Marathas flank with a decisive impact. The combat in the center lasted for one hour during which both sides fought with spears, swords, battle-axes and even daggers. Shortly after two o’clock, Viswasrao was killed by a musket-ball and the Marathas, who for religious reasons were fighting on empty stomachs, lost all hope and were on the verge of collapse. Half an hour later Bhao, under whom three horses had been killed, fell while fighting.

Sixth, at around three o’clock, the fate of the battle became obvious when all at once the whole Maratha army turned their backs and fled at full speed leaving the field of battle covered with heaps of dead. As Kasi Raj relates, the moment the Marathas gave way the victors pursued them with utmost fury giving no quarter. Consequently the slaughter was “scarcely to be conceived” as the pursuit continued for 25-30 miles in every direction in which the wretched victims fled. Reportedly five hundred thousand men, women and children of the Maratha camp were killed or taken prisoner.[34] The hatred caused by the lengthy war was so deep that a large part of 40,000 prisoners were murdered by the Abdalis in cold blood. Among the senior Maratha commanders, Jankoji Sindhia and Ibrahim Khan Gardi were taken prisoner and executed at the Afghan camp. The bodies of Viswasrao and Bhao were recovered on the battlefield and were cremated according to Hindu custom by the Abdalis. Inspecting the battle ground on the day after, Ahmad Shah found thirty two heaps of the slain of different numbers, most of them killed near each other as they had fought. Moreover, the bodies of fallen Marathas were spread all over the Bhao camp and the woods around the area.

The plunder taken from the Maratha camp was great. Reportedly, in addition to millions of rupees and treasure of every kind, 50,000 horse, 200,000 oxen, many thousand camels and five hundred elephants were captured.[35] One of Afghan horsemen was said to have driven off eight or ten camels loaded with valuables. Captured horses were driven away in herds like cattle.

The news of the Maratha defeat sent shock waves across India. The Peshwa Balaji Baji Rao, who was unaware of the destruction of his army while he was crossing the Narmada River with reinforcements, received this cryptic message from a tired runner: “Two pearls (his son Viswasrao and Bhao) have been dissolved, 27 gold coins (senior leaders) have been lost and of the silver and copper the total cannot be cast up.” The Peshwa never recovered from the shock of the total debacle at Panipat. He returned to Pune and died a broken man in a temple on the nearby Paravati Hill.

On the fifth day, Ahmad Shah returned to Delhi. Shuja ud-Daulah had sent all the Maratha fugitives who had taken refuge with him under guard to the safety of the Jats dominion. Contrary to all expectations, Ahmad Shah refused to occupy India and ascend the throne of Delhi. He was more interested in ruling his own homeland and avoiding getting caught up in the complex affairs of India. He kept the Mughal state as a vassal of his kingdom and put Prince Ali Gauhar, son of the murdered Alamgir II, as Emperor under the title of Shah Alam. He appointed Shuja ud-Daulah the vizier and Najib ud-Daulah the commander-in-chief of the army. On March 20, 1761 Ahmad Shah left Delhi with the treasures of Hindustan and returned home.

The Third Battle of Panipat is widely considered as one of the decisive battles of the world. The Afghans stopped the Marathas’ expansion and defeated the most formidable indigenous power on the subcontinent which changed the history of India forever. This battle was so fatal to Maratha power that they immediately abandoned their designs on northern India, and it took them many years before they resumed their enterprise under a new leader and with new tactics. In spite of their partial recovery after a generation, they never regained any unity as infighting broke out within the weakened empire facilitating the conquest of India by the British some 50 years later. Panipat was a source of inspiration for Rudyard Kipling’s poem – “With Scindia to Delhi:

“Our hands and scarfs were saffron-dyed for signal of despair,

When we went forth to Paniput (sic) to battle with the Mlecha (alien),

Ere we came back from Paniput and left a kingdom there.”

For Ahmad Shah, the battle became an epic since it was an exceptional military feat and accomplishment.  His exploit raised the image of the Durrani Empire far beyond the borders of India and Persia. The Afghan military prowess inspired hope among many orthodox Muslims and Mughal royalists and caused fear among the British. However, it did not secure the eastern borders of the Durrani state, which was one of the main purposes of the campaign. The security threat to the Durrani dominions in Punjab was posed mainly by the Sikhs who lived there while the Maratha’s power center was 1500 miles to the south. The destruction of the Maratha army left the Sikhs mostly untouched. The growing Sikhs’ Dal Khalsa Army soon retook Lahore, forcing Ahmad Shah to launch three successive campaigns to quell the Sikh rebellions temporarily.

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[1] Dow, Alexander Esq., The History of Hindustan, the Third Edition, in three volumes, vol. II, John Murray, London, 1792, pp. 408-409.

[2] Nama-ye Ahmad Shah Baba Banam-e Sultan Mustafa Thales Osmani (Ahmad Shah’s letter to the Ottoman Sultan Mustafa III), Jalali, G. Jailani, edAfghanistan History Society, Kabul 1967, P. 15

[3] Ahmad Shah, Diwan-i Ahmad Shah Abdali (Collection of Ahmad Shah Abdali Pashto Poetry), Kabul, 1963.

دډیلی تخت هیرومه چی را یاد کړم

زما د ښکلی پښتونخوا د غرو سرونه

که هر څو می ددنیا ملکونه ډیر سی

زما خوښ دی ستا خالی تش ډګرونه

[4] Sir John Malcolm, Major General, The History of Persia from the Most Early Period Containing an Account of the Religion, Government and Character of the Inhabitants of that Kingdom, Vol. II, London: John Murray 1829, PP. 56-57

[5] Grant Duff, James, A History of the Mahrattas, Vol. I, London: Longman, Rees. Orme, Brown and Green, 1826, pp. 357-358; Vol. III, pp. 427-428.

[6] Alfred David, Indian Art of War, Delhi 1953, P. 21.

[7]Ibid, p. 12.

[8] Rohilkand was a region in the northwestern Indian state of Uttar Pradesh that was named after Afghan highlanders, known as Rohilla (mountaineers) who had settled in the area during the reign of Shah Jahan (1628-1658) and later. The area included the cities of Bareily, Moradabad, and Rampur, Bijore, Farahabad, Shahjahanpur and others. Their major leaders in the middle of 18th Century were Najib ud-Daulah, the governor of Saharanpur, Hafiz Rahmat Khan, Dundi Khan, and Ahmad Khan Bangash.

[9] Kasi Raj P. 26

[10] Kasi Raj Pundit, p. 40.

[11] Nama-ye Ahmad Shah, p. 64.

[12] Mahmud al-Husseini al-Munshi, Tarikh-I Ahmad Shahi (1753), rotograph of the manuscript, Ed. Sayed Muradov, Moscow: Nauka Press, 1974, Vol. II, pp. 938, 940, 942, 952, 958.

[13] Kasi Raj, p. 25.

[14] Ganda Singh, p. 235; Kasi Raj, P. 23; Faiz Mohammad, Seraj u-Tawarikh, Vol. I, p. 24.

[15] Sultan Muhammad Barakzai, Tarikh-i Sultani, Bombay, P. 140; Kasi Raj, p. 24.

[16] Kasi Raj, pp. 24-25.

[17] An account of Najib ud-Daulah, pp. 44-45.

[18] Joglekar, Jaywant D., Decisive Battles India Lost (326 BC to 1083 AD), First Marathi edition, Somaiya Publications Ltd., English version, Lexington, KY, 2012, pp. 90-91

[19] Sardesai GS, Selections of the Peshwa dater, Vol. 2, P. 134, op. cit. Uday S. Kulkarni, P. 185

[20] Nama-ye Ahmad Shah, pp. 55-56.

[21] Ganda Singh, pp. 256-257; Reisner, Razviti Fiodalizma u abrazavani Gosodrstva Afgantsef, [the Development of Feudalism and the Establishment of the Afghan State], Moscow, p. 284;

[22] Kasi Raj Pundit, pp. 17-19.

[23] Ibid, PP. 19-20.

[24] Gilcha is seemingly a local pronunciation of Ghilzai Pashtuns who were among the major players in the medieval Indian history. They were instrumental in founding and ruling several Muslim dynasties in India including in the southern provinces. The Marathas referred to all Afghans (Pashtuns) including the Abdalis as gilcha or the Ghilzais (Ghiljais). Apparently for this reason they called Ahmad Shah and his tribes the gilcha (See Chapter Nine)

[25] Bhausaheb-anchi Kaifiyat, P. 33 , Hervadkar Rv, 1990. op. cit. Uday S. Kulkarni, P. 195

[26] Kasi Raj, PP 31-32.

[27] Joglekar, Jaywant P.92.

[28] Uday S. Kalkarani, Solstice at Panipat 14 January 1761, Pune: Mula Mutba Publishers, , 2011, pp. 198-199.

[29] Kalkarani, Solstice at Panipat 14 January 1761, pp. 194-198.

[30] Ibid, p. 198.

[31] Bhausaheb Bakhar, cit. Uday S. Kkalkarani, p. 201.

[32] Nama-ye Ahmad Shah, pp. 65-76

[33] Mahmud al-Husseini al-Munshi, Tarikh-i Ahmad Shahi (1753), rotograph of the manuscript, Ed. Sayed Muradov, Moscow: Nauka Press, 1974. Vol. II, PP. 965-966.

[34] Kasi Raj, P. 40.

[35] Azad Bilgrami, Mir Ghulam Ali, Khizanah-i-‘Amirah, Indian publication, Kabul Public Library, P.109; Seraj u-Tawarikh, Vol. I, p. 25.  

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