Makar Sankranti: Marathas’ Loss at Panipat Resonates Even Today
14 January 1761, Panipat, Haryana
Makar Sankranti festival day.
It would have been a day of festivities as usual, had the Maratha army vanquished the invading army of Afghan tribesman warrior Ahmed Shah Abdali, also called Durrani. Instead, it became a day of massacre and loss.
‘Dedh Laakh Chooriyaan Tooti’
Vishwas Patil, the author of the phenomenally successful Marathi book Panipat, said in a TV interview that since it was Dakshinayan time, the Sun's rays were directly incident on the eyes of the starving soldiers and horses of the Maratha cavalry. Dakshinayan is a celestial event that happens on Makara Sankranti, and marks the transition of the Sun into the zodiac sign, Makar (Capricorn). Sadly, it became the Maratha army's undoing.
The Marathas comprised farmers and tradesmen who usually cultivated crops in the monsoons and on Dussehra (before winter sets in), sharpened their swords and set out to fight in the battles of the motherland.
Abdali, meanwhile, had collected a huge army under the pretext of jehad. The two armies clashed for about six hours and over a lakh (nearly half) soldiers died that day.
That is the origin of the Marathi saying: "Deed lakh baangdya footlya" or in Hindi "Dedh lakh chooriyaan tooti" literally meaning a lakh and a half bangles were broken that day, to mourn the men who died.
The Loss At Panipat Was Language’s Gain
- Also, since it was the day of Sankranti that turned on them, any mammoth disaster befalling a person has since come to be called "Sankrant Kosallaney" (सक्रांत कोसळली), literally ‘Sankrant has befallen him/her/them’ in Marathi.
- Though some say Marathi culture prescribes wearing black on Sankranti day as a means of absorbing the Sun's warmth at the peak of the winter chill, another school of thought also argues that the 'inauspicious' black colour is to ward off the evil and ills that beset them since that Makar Sankranti day over 250 years ago.
- The Waterloo of India: The colossal loss of the otherwise powerful and undefeated Marathas at Panipat gained an important mention in Indian history. Panipat is the Indian equivalent of Waterloo. The usage is: "Panipat zale" (पानिपत झाले) i.e. a major loss has happened.
- Paved way for the British Raj: Marathas, possibly one of the only two real Indian military powers left capable of challenging the British, were fatally weakened by the defeat and could not mount a serious challenge in the Anglo-Maratha wars 50 years later. Many historians, including British historians of the time, have argued that had it not been for the weakening of the Maratha power at Panipat, the British might never have had a strong foothold in India.
- Inspiration for Rudyard Kipling's poem "With Scindia to Delhi": It is however also remembered as a scene of valour on both sides – Sadashiv Bhau was found with almost twenty dead Afghans around him. Santaji Wagh's corpse was found with over forty mortal wounds. The bravery of the Peshwa scions (Sadashiv Bhau the nephew of Bajirao I and Vishwas, the grandson of Bajirao I & Kashibai) was acknowledged even by the Afghans. Yashwantrao Pawar also fought with great courage killing many Afghans. He killed Ataikhan, the grandson of the Wazir of Abdali, by climbing onto the latter’s elephant.
- "Aamchaa Vishwaas Panipataat gela" (आमचा विश्वास पानीपतात गेला) The word Vishwas signifies the brave 17-year-old grandson of Bajirao as well as the word meaning faith. Since the boy died like Mahabharat’s brave warrior Abhimanyu, and since the faith that the Marathas were invincible was shaken rather rudely with this loss, the Marathi saying goes: Our faith died in that battle of 1761.
Marathas had Propped up Mughal Emperor Shah Alam
The Marathas under the prime-ministership of Peshwas like Bajirao-I had come to acquire significant power across India. The Mughal power in northern India had been declining since the reign of Aurangzeb, who died in 1707. It is well-known that Aurangzeb laid to waste the Mughal might by focusing only on vanquishing the Marathas instead of governing from Delhi. After a long and losing campaign of 26 years in the Deccan, he died in Maharashtra, as the last Mughal of significance.
In 1751–52, the Ahamdiya treaty was signed between the Marathas and Mughals, when Balaji Bajirao (the son of the great warrior Bajirao I) was the Peshwa of the Maratha Empire.
Insiders vs Invaders, Not Hindus vs Muslims
Muslim brave-hearts like artillery ace Ibrahim Khan Gardi too were part of the muscle in the Maratha army.
To defend the northern frontiers and Delhi from Afghan invader Abdali, the Marathi forces travelled 1,200 to 1,400 km up north to take on the invaders. Wearied by the biting cold of the north, a prolonged campaign, shortage of food supplies and thousands of civilians to protect, the Marathas were just not battle-ready.
Villain of the piece
Najib ad-Dawlah was the insider who joined the invading Afghan army. He was also known as Najib Khan and he was from the Rohilla clan. He was the founder of the city of Najibabad in Bijnor district.
Najib had earlier served as a Mughal serviceman but he deserted the cause of the Mughals and joined Afghan invader Ahmed Shah Abdali. Author Vishwas Patil equates Najib to Shakespearean villain Iago from Othello.
But after the battle, when the Afghan soldiers tried to carry away the bodies of the fallen teen warrior Vishwasrao Peshwa and his uncle Sadashivrao Bhau as a trophy, it was Abdali's temporary ally Shuja-Ud-Daulah, the Nawab of Audh, who 'bought' the bodies from the Afghans to conduct last rites as per Indian traditions. Shuja-Ud-Daulah had fought against the Marathas from Abdali’s side only because Abdali reached him earlier and coerced him to join forces. Otherwise the Nawab of Audh was clear that the Peshwas (Marathas) were his real allies.
The Mastani-Bajirao Hangover
One last interesting fact. Around 50-60,000 strong civilians and pilgrims had accompanied the Maratha military campaign at Panipat. They wished to visit Hindu places of worship like Mathura, Prayag, Kashi, etc and felt secure travelling with the army.
Author Vishwas Patil says in a TV interview that the tradition of allowing civilians or family to travel with the army began when decades earlier the valiant Peshwa Bajirao I had returned home with Mastani after a long-drawn campaign in the north.
His righteous mother decided that it was better that the men take their women or family along instead of falling prey to vices and temptations while on the military campaigns. For the Peshwa descendants, the burden of the ‘sins’ of the fathers had come to haunt.