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

Published by Aneesh Gokhale

Author - "Brahmaputra - The Story of Lachit Barphukan, Assamese contemporary of Chhatrapati Shivaji" , "Sahyadris to Hindukush" and " Battles of the Maratha Empire". Written over thirty five articles for a history column in DNA Newspaper. Published on many occasions in online publications such as IndiaFacts , Swarajya , TFI , Creative India , Indic Today and others. Given talks on Maratha and Assamese history at Pune Intl Lit Fest , INTACH (Delhi), Wadia College (Pune), Indian Institute of Democratic Leadership (Mumbai), Thakur College's TCET Talk (Mumbai), Pondy Lit Fest (Pondicherry), various Rotary Clubs and educational institutions in Pune and Mumbai. Also, qualified to navigate a ship.

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