MARATHA ARTILLERY

Zahir ud din  Babur arrived from faraway Samarkand in 1526 and annihilated Ibrahim Lodi’s army at Panipat . Lodi was no pushover . What made the difference ? Babur’s guns , the likes of which the Indian sub continent had never seen . Thanks to superior artillery , a person known more for his skills as a poet had managed to conquer Delhi and start the Mughal dynasty ! . The event should have been breaking news all over the land , with kings and princes falling over themselves trying to match or better the Mughal artillery and in the process create a name for Indian artillery as a whole . Sadly , nothing of that sort happened . Indian rulers always ended up being several steps behind top of the line artillery . Even today , we are dependent on the Swedish Bofors guns and there is talk of American Howitzers and Tomahawks being inducted . The year 2026 will mark 500 glorious years of India not being up to speed in this crucial arm of any army . Which is sad , considering the pivotal role artillery has played in many a battle.

Anyways , that is the larger picture . My topic is a short talk on Maratha artillery .

Development of Maratha artillery could be said to have been started with Shivaji . Although involved mainly in guerilla warfare , Chhatrapati Shivaji understood the potency and importance of a strong artillery division . Real life experiences like the siege of Panhala , where the long – range English guns made a huge difference , shaped his opinion . Constrained as he was by a hundred things , he still went out of his way to ensure that his soldiers had access to the best weapons . Be they cannons or cannon balls . Much of this was procured from the Portuguese who had set up factories in Goa , Vasai , Daman and Diu .

Post Shivaji , with the Maratha embroiled in the war of independence with the Mughals , which was a 27 year long guerilla war , artillery and large guns were once more on the back burner . The Marathas neither had the time , nor the money and neither the desire to set up an effective artillery arm during those trying times.
Under Bajirao I , the Marathas finally began foraying into the north . Bajirao’s methods though , put more emphasis on rapid movement of his cavalry , rendering the enemy’s artillery rather ineffective . The Battle of Palkhed is a prime example of this . All this was fine as long as the Marathas were in someone  else’s territory and harassing and evading their way to victory . Bajirao managed to reach Delhi in a few days from Pune , a measure of his cavalry’s capability . In comparison , the Mughal armies in their prime under Akbar and Aurangzeb could manage only around 5 – 8 kos ( 1 kos = 2.25 km ) a day , encumbered as they were with heavy , slow moving guns .
But , as the Marathas went from being invaders to rulers , requiring to hold territory in the vast expanses of the north , artillery became all the more important . The old notions about soldiers considering life in the artillery as something inferior could not continue . Bajirao established a factory for producing cannons in the 1730s .

Even so , the Marathas lacked the expertise to build and operate the latest guns , primarily because they were a product of the industrial revolution in Europe , which the Marathas had no clue about . Still , considering that they had come into contact with British guns as early as 1660s , it is surprising that they hadn’t cracked the code to good artillery even 150 years later ! . Says a lot about both , the Europeans and Marathas . As a result , Maratha artillery divisions continued to be manned by Europeans and if not Europeans , then Arabs , Habshis etc . A Panse or Patwardhan were rare , and no match for a DeBussy or DeBoigne .
Apart from a few sporadic incidents , Marathas continued to be a cavalry – centric army right upto the late 1750s . One change happened though . The superiority of the French artillery , which they saw in action at various places , made them induct Frecnh trained artillery men like Muzzafar Khan . And after him , the famous Ibrahim Khan Gardi . Both DeBussy trained men . Udgir in 1760 marked the first time that the Marathas put up a co ordinated cavalry – artillery attack on the Nizam . The genius of Balwantrao Mehendale ensured a crushing defeat for the Nizam . Sadly , the Marathas never found the time to perfect this new method, and Mehendale died before 14th Jan 1761 . Which is why the Panipat disaster is often blamed on the lack of artillery – cavalry co ordination .

Post Panipat , Madhavrao I went about trying to rebuild the Maratha confederacy . He paid special attention to guns and cannons . A factory for making cannon balls was established at Ambegaon near Otur ( Junnar ) as  also a workshop for producing cannons was set up at Pune in 1769 . The cannon balls were 7 to 20 sher ( 1 sher = 1.25 kg ) . The cannons had colourful names like  Jaywanti , Jwalabhavani etc . They played a part in Madhavrao’s victory over Haider Ali at Seringapatnam .
But , even then , Maratha artillery still lacked both in quality and quantity . Most of the cannon balls were wrought , not cast . The sizes of neither the cannon balls nor the bore of the cannon was standardised . One can one imagine the time and effort spent in creating such custom made artillery . Cannon balls had to be hammered into shape before being put into a cannon . This was damaging to the cannon too , as smooth bore cannons lasted longer . Many cannons burst while being created  , killing the workers around them . As a result , even Madhavrao was forced to buy cannon balls from the British . The Brits , shrewd as they were , never supplied the requisite quantity ! Infact they only supplied only 10 % of what was asked for . By this time , their star was on the ascent in India , and they did not want to give their  ‘ enemy ‘ the sinews of war .
Another issue was the carriages used . They were large , cumbersome and many times overloaded with other things . As a result , a Maratha gun took more than half an hour to get ready for battle ! . Many carriages broke en route . And they never got around to using horses . Maratha guns were always drawn by a huge number of bullocks .
The death of  Peshwa Madhavrao in 1772 was a huge blow to the Marathas . Among other things , it greatly affected the artillery division too .
To the north however , Mahadji Scindia had started making rapid strides in this direction . A certain Count Benoit  DeBoigne was put in charge of the artillery . A division of 10,000 musketeers was also raised . From the late 1780s , Maratha artillery started having a telling effect on the neighbouring Rajput states . Jaipur  , Alwar , Chittor , Ajmer  etc quickly toppled . The nominal hold which Nanasaheb had over the Rajputs was further cemented by Mahadji . The Battle of Patan is a telling example of this . Sadly , Mahadji died in 1794 , leaving his job unfinished . Five years later , Nana Phadnavis passed away at Pune , bringing to an end the Nana – Mahadji combine . Sawai Madhavrao too died in the meantime . Their successors , Daulatrao Scindia and Bajirao – II were not a patch on these stalwarts . The British , with their far superior artillery , annexed whatever was left of the Marathas in 1818 .

Ref : Marathyancha itihas – vol 1,2 ,3 : BG Khare

        Military Systems of the Marathas   – SN Sen
© Aneesh Gokhale

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