Mughals were thought to be invincible in an open field battle. But February 1672 changed that decisively !
The years between 1670 and 1672 are perhaps a turning point in India’s history. Chhatrapati Shivaji began a grand counter offensive against the Mughals that saw more than a dozen forts retaken through tact and daring , followed it by lightning raids into Baglan , Khandesh, Surat and topped it with a total rout of the Mughal army totalling upwards of 40,000 on the open fields near Salher ! A naval attack on Jinjee was also carried out and another threatened on Bharuch. All within twenty four months !
The theatre of war :
Events of these two years, which culminated with the Battle at Salher happened roughly in the area between Nashik and Satara, with the coast forming the third side. As the map will show, it is a hilly area, with many a hill fort. The regions near Nashik are also known as Baglan and Khandesh. As per the Treaty of Purandar (1665) , Chhatrapati Shivaji had to cede twenty three forts to the Mughals, of which the forts of Sinhagad, Purandar, Lohagad, Karnala and Mahuli were fortified with strong powerful garrisons. At the time of the treaty, the Nashik region was already firmly in Mughal hands, having got it from the erstwhile Nizamshahi in 1636 itself. In this region were the high lofty forts such as Salher , Mulher etc . Salher was the highest mountain with a fort on top of it. As we can see in the map, the forts of Sinhagad and Purandar were shouting distance from Rajgad and Torna, presenting a constant threat to Shivaji Maharaj at Rajgad. Important forts such as Mahuli and Lohagad which overlooked crucial passes and trade routes were also with Aurangzeb. With everything north of Kalyan with the Mughals, Shivaji Maharaj had been well and truly hemmed in by the Treaty of Purandar. It was a treaty he had signed to save whatever he could. Taken a step backwards to be able to pounce ahead when the opportunity came. The Treaty of Purandar was followed by his famous visit to Agra, where Chhatrapati Shivaji where he found himself confined by a thousand Mughal soldiers ! Who would think that less than than four years later, the Mughals would lose all they had in the Sahyadris !
Some of the Mughal forts in Western Maharashtra at beginning of 1670
From top to bottom – Mulher , Salher , Ahiwantgad , Aundha , Patta , Mahuli , Lohagad , Sinhagad , Purandar , Rohida . Orange is Rajgad.
The build up to 1670 :
Chhatrapati Shivaji famously escaped from Agra in August 1667 and returned to the Deccan. He spent the next couple of years rebuilding the army. In the meanwhile, in 1669, Aurangzeb passed a firman calling for the destruction of Hindu temples and demolished the Kashi Vishweswar temple in the same year. Furthermore, still smarting over the slip given by Shivaji in the monsoon of 1667, he sent orders to his son in the Deccan to capture Shivaji. But the order was not carried out, because the said prince did not want to risk war as also due to some astute diplomacy by Shivaji Maharaj ! In short, it was clear as daylight to Chhatrapati Shivaji, that if he let things continue as they were, he would soon find a large Mughal army waiting to capture him and produce him before the Padishah sitting in Agra.
The campaign for the forts –
Chhatrapati Shivaji was one of the few Indian kings who showed the foresight and daring to attack and reclaim what was rightfully his, having been taken away by force. The two years from February 1670 to February 1672, saw the Marathas fighting the Mughals in a host of different environments – from hill forts near Pune to ravines and passes. From the waters of the coast to the plains near Salher ! Moropant Pingle captured numerous small forts, with in sufficient garrisons but still the Mughals held Lohagad , Sinhagad , Purandar , Karnala , Mahuli with powerful killedars and strong armies. Further more, these forts overlooked crucial passes and were very close to Rajgad, the then Maratha capital.
Perhaps the bugle for what would turn into a grand symphony of events was sounded one cold winter night in February 1670, when Tanaji Malusare successfully scaled the fort of Sinhagad and slaughtered the Mughal garrison inside. A renowned Rajput general named Uday Bhan was killed, and Shivaji’s standard once again fluttered atop the ramparts of Sinhagad.
It is famously said that Jijamata, perturbed over the Mughal presence on Sinhagad, had asked Shivaji to grant him that fort after winning a game of dice. Tanaji Malusare had left his son’s wedding mid way to carry out his Chhatrapati orders as soon as he was asked to do so. The price had been heavy, but the capture was a resounding success.
A month later, in the month of March 1670, the fort of Purandar was recaptured. A daring night time raid This was the fort which had stood months of siege against Diler Khan and Mirza Raje Jai Singh and the Marathas had lost one of their bravest sardars – Murarbaji Deshpande in the process. As the saffron standard unfurled once again on the fort, it was an emotive moment for the Marathas and justice had been done to Murarbaji Deshpande.
A few months later, in the month of August 1670, the fort of Mahuli fell to Shivaji’s Peshwa – Moropant Pingle. Thus in the span of only six months the strong forts of Sinhagad , Purandar and Mahuli had been retaken. Compare this to the six year long Mughal siege of just one fort – Ramsej (1680s) . Merely having a fort in one’s hands did not make it impregnable.
During the same time, the forts of Lohagad and Rohida were also re captured thus freeing the important pass known as the Bhor ghat from Mughal influence. Chhatrapati Shivaji could now easily move between forts around Pune and the Konkan. The Mughal garrison at Kalyan was attacked and driven out in 1670 / 1671
Opening the sea front and Mughals pay with the sack of Surat :
Even as they were scoring one victory after another in the hills of the Sahyadris, Shivaji’s navy attacked the fort of Janjira, off the coast of Murud in the Konkan. The spirited Maratha navy bombarded the fort till finally its Abyssinian ruler appealed to the Mughal emperor for help, and declared himself his vassal ! Aurangzeb bestowed the title of Yakut Khan on the Siddi of Janjira and ordered the governor of Surat to attack Shivaji from the coast.
The Maratha Navy, thus faced with an attack from the rear, had to withdraw – but as Aurangzeb and the governor of Surat would realise in a very short while – they had merely put their hands into a hive of honeybees. This lifting of Janjira’s siege was perhaps the only setback received in the two years.
As soon as the monsoons ended , at the end of September 1670, Shivaji personally led an attack on Surat itself.. The ransacking of Surat – the richest city under the Mughals continued for a full three days from third to the fifth of October ! The revenge for various insults, and for helping the Siddi of Janjira – was complete. This trait of Shivaji – of invading enemy territory to settle scores is extremely rare to find.
Route taken by Shivaji to raid Surat
As was obvious, the Mughals were not going to sit idle. Almost immediately, an army of eight to ten thousand under Daud Khan and Mahabat Khan set off from today’s Aurangabad to attack Shivaji Maharaj. They moved via Barhanpur and crossed Chandwad, hoping to intercept Shivaji from the west
The Marathas were quickly descending south via the ghats and passes, and quickly made its way past Salher , looted Mulher and crossed the Kanchan Manchan range . But Chhatrapati Shivaji got information of the impending Mughal attack and quickly divided his army into four or five parts. As with many other situations, his extremely efficient intelligence department had made the job of fighting the Mughals much easier !
Prataprao Gujar was to guard the rear of the Maratha army , couple more divisions were to disperse into the ghats and jungles and defend the flanks. Chhatrapati Shivaji himself accompanied that part of the army which was holding much of the loot from Surat.
Between the villages of Vani and Dindori , the Marathas and Mughals clashed. (See map above)
Chhatrapati Shivaji turned around to face Daud Khan. He put on his armour and adorned his head with a metal helmet of the battlefield instead of the jire top of the durbar. Mounting his horse, he attacked the Mughals sword in hand. Like at the time of Pratapgad , Lal Mahal and Surat Chhatrapati Shivaji once again displayed a quality which had made him such a great leader – that of leading from the front. Maratha and Mughal clashed in the narrow pass, where the Marathas ferociously attacked the armies of Daud Khan. At the end of the day – three thousand Mughal soldiers lay dead. The Battle of Vani Dindori was immortalised in many portraits and paintings of Shivaji fighting sword in hand, clad in metal armour. Another stunning victory had been scored against the Mughal empire.
The Battle of Salher –
My readers must be wondering, when am I going to start talking about the topic mentioned in the title ? But I believe that it is necessary to explain the situation at the start of 1670 to better appreciate the achievement in 1672. From a situation wherein the Mughal controlled fort of Sinhagad could be seen with bare eyes from nearby Maratha fort of Rajgad , Shivaji had pushed them back hundreds of miles and sacked Surat. The yoke of Mughal rule in swarajya had been thrown off. Now was the time to invade and drive home the advantage, for attack after all is the best defense.
In 1671, Chhatrapati Shivaji placed twenty thousand soldiers under the command of his Peshwa – Moropant Pingle and his Sarnobat – Prataprao Gujar. Prataprao proceeded all the way to Khandesh where he attacked and captured the town of Karanjia. Moropant Pingle, with about fifteen thousand under his command – swiftly captured the Mughal forts of Aundha , Patta , Trimbak and attacked Salher and Mulher. Within months, these two forts also fell to Shivaji’s Peshwa and the rout of the Mughals was complete in the Baglan region. This was in January 1671.
The news was alarming for Aurangzeb to put it mildly. For while Sinhagad and Purandar had been his for barely a few years, Mughals had been in charge of Baglan for over thirty ! Almost immediately, he recalled the Rajput king of Jodhpur – Jaswant Singh – from Aurangabad and appointed Mahabhat Khan in his place. He also sent his most renowned warrior – Diler Khan to assist Mahabhat Khan.
Diler Khan was arguably the best general Aurangzeb had. He was present in the siege of Purandar of 1665 , he was present with Mir Jumla on the latter’s invasion of Assam few years earlier. He was at hand to put down rebellions by the Frontier tribes. And in each, victories had been scored. In December 1671 Diler Khan rapidly descended towards Pune and savagely attacked it, slaughtering all residents above the age of nine.
The attack by Diler Khan and Mahabhat Khan was huge – bringing into play more than thirty thousand soldiers in total. Ahivantgad and Kanerigad were soon attacked, and the latter captured.
Meanwhile, from Gujarat, the subhedar of that province – Bahadur Khan swooped down on Salher and laid siege to the fort. The fort was situated at a most opportune place and if it fell, most of Shivaji’s success in the Baglan region would be quickly undone.
Diler Khan proceeded north from Pune to aid Bahadur Khan and the siege of Salher was complete.
It was a grim situation. If Salher fell, the boost in the sagging morale of the Mughal troops would be immense. They would automatically hold a crucial route leading north. Perhaps the Mughal armies would then descend on Shivaji and obliterate his gains of the past two years. The Mughal siege of Salher could not be allowed to win.
Moropant Pingle started from the Konkan and swiftly galloped north to the besieged fort. Prataprao Gujar also quickly marched from another direction. Together they totalled over twenty thousand, facing an army twice their size.
Battle of Salher took place on a plain between Salher and Mulher
Prataprao Gujar attacked the Mughals first , but feigned retreat when attacked in turn by Ikhlas Khan, sent by Bahadur Khan to check Prataprao Gujar. Moropant Pingle had reached the precints of Mulher, and readily joined Prataprao Gujar’s army. Ikhlas Khan was in for a rude shock as the retreating army of Prataprao Gujar turned and faced him. They were now on a flat plain near Salher, one army twice the size of the other. Another version says that Ikhlas Khan knew that Salher was being attacked from the east and the west , and proceeded to place himself in between the Sarnobat and Peshwa. This plan having failed, the Marathas united into one grand army numbering into the many thousands.
But about the total rout of the Mughal army there are no doubts.
The Sabhasad Bakhar a contemporary source, describes this battle in detail. In a battle that lasted over twelve hours in which more than ten thousand soldiers died on either side. The number of soldiers involved easily topped sixty – seventy thousand. A cloud of dust a few square miles wide covered the whole battlefield, whipped up by the pounding of horses hooves. More than six thousand horses , elephants, camels and a lot of wealth was captured. Twenty two commanders of various ranks were captured , and a few such as Amar Rao Chandawat killed in the battle. Blood flowed like rivers on the battlefield. On the side of the Marathas – it was a massive victory, though the death of Suryarao Kakde, one of Shivaji’s childhood friends dampened the mood in the Maratha camp.
Bahadur Khan, totally unnerved by the sound thrashing his armies had received merely a few miles from Salher, lifted the siege. Maratha armies then chased him all the way to Aurangabad.
Thus in February 1672, almost exactly two years after the capture of Sinhagad, the Mughal rout in the Deccan was complete. It had come at a great cost – the loss of Tanaji Malusare and Suryaji Kakde being the greatest for Shivaji, for he had lost two of his dearest childhood friends.
But in return, Chhatrapati Shivaji’s stature grew in every durbar of the country, and he came to be recognised as the pre eminent power in the Deccan. Those two years saw him face and defeat the Mughals in every conceivable scenario.
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- Salher photo courtesy Bhushan Kotakar / Wikimedia commons