Sadashiv Rao Bhau – the commander of the Maratha army at Panipat

Ratnakar Sadasyula


Quite often history judges some people rather harshly for their one big failure.  These people have had great stellar achievements to their credit, but the one big failure, in their life, ensures that either they are forgotten in ignominy or judged harshly. When one looks at the history of the Maratha Empire, two people who have been judged harshly, one is Sambhaji and the other one has been Sadashiv Rao Bhau.  Sambhaji had to live up to his father’s glorious legacy, and that can often be a trying task. It did not help, that his own wayward ways, rash behavior led historians to judge him as a wayward son. But then this was the same man, who stood steadfast in the protection of Dharma, even when he was brutally tortured to death.  Bhau is more remembered for the disastrous rout at Panipat, where he was the commander in chief. And for good reasons, his arrogant attitude, poor strategies, played a major role in the rout. But it was under Bhau, that the Maratha Empire expanded further, as he consolidated on the gains of Baji Rao 1’s conquests, and the same with the Peshwa Balaji Baji Rao, who actually built up Pune, took the empire to it’s zenith, and yet Panipat left him not just broken hearted, but ensured, he would be remembered for the wrong reasons.

Sadashiv Rao Bhau was born near Pune on August 4, 1730, into an illustrious legacy,  his father Chimaji Appa, had secured the entire Western coast from Portuguese,  and spread the Maratha empire all over the Konkan. His uncle, was none other than the legendary Baji Rao 1, one of the greatest heroes of the Maratha empire, who expanded it all the way up to the Khyber.   Having lost his parents at an early age, Bhau grew up in the care of his aunt Kashibai, who treated him like her own son. He was tutored by Ramchandra Shenvi, one of the shrewdest political brains among the Marathas then. So as can be seen, he had a solid grounding right from the start.

When Babuji Naik and Fateh Singh Bhonsle, failed in the task to capture Karnataka, it was Bhau who took it up.  Leaving Pune on December 5 with Mahadoba Purandare and Sakharam Bapu, at just 16 years of age, he embarked on his mission. Ajra, south of Kolhapur was where Bhau had his first major victory, defeating the Nawab of Savnur, capturing fort of Bahadur Bhenda. Chauth was levied and around 36 Parganas became a part of the empire.  That started the victory march for Bhau,  as city after city in Northern Karnataka fell, Kittur, Gokak, Bagalkot, Badami, Basavapatna, Navalgund, all overran by him. Yamaji Shivdev’s revolt was crushed, and soon he became the Diwan of the Peshwa, Balaji Baji Rao his own cousin. The Nizam of Hyderabad was decisively routed in the Battle of Udgir in 1760 by Bhau, and had to surrender Ahmadnagar, Daulatabad, Bijapur to him. By now Bhau was the master of the Deccan, having overran both Karnataka as well as routing the Nizam.

Just when he was lording over the Deccan, the news of Ahmed Shah Abdali’s arrival reached the Marathas. Dattaji Scindia was killed at the Battle of Burari Ghat, and with Abdali on the way to Delhi, in alliance with the Nawabs of Avadh, Rohillkhand as well as the Rajput rulers of Jodhpur and Amber, a major crisis was on hand.  Recalled from Udgir to Partur, Bhau was choosen by the Peshwa to  lead the Maratha campaign in the North against the Afghans, a decision that turned out to be rather hasty.  While Bhau was pretty much at home in the Deccan, the North was not really a familiar territory to him, especially the politics there. And this proved to be a major disadvantage, as he failed to get the powerful Rajput, Jat, Sikh chieftains on his side. While Bhau was a brilliant warrior, he was not the best of strategists,  and negotiation, was not exactly his forte. Matter of fact he was disastrous as a strategist, nothing better to explain his act of carrying 100,000 civilians, including family members and pilgrims wanting to visit the temples in North on a military campaign.  It was a totally disastrous tactic, as they became a burden on the army, who had to take care of the logistics as well as supplies for them.

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Also Bhau adopted new tactics of infantry and artillery, as against the traditional Maratha reliance on hit and run tactics, which he felt would not work in an open plains warfare like in the North. However some like Holkar were not ready to accept Bhau’s tactics of using artillery and infantry, as they felt the army was not adequately trained. He neverthless went ahead, in spite of objections, and formed an artillery of 10,000. Though Holkar and Scindia tried to get the Rajput rulers, the Jat chieftain Suraj Mal and the Sikhs on the Maratha side, it did not work out.  The Maratha tendency to interfere in the succession battles of the Rajput rulers did not go down well with the latter, as also their collection of tribute.  In the meantime Holkar and Scindia persuaded Bhau to strike an alliance with Suraj Mal, who did join, inspite of the fact that he had no love lost for the Marathas. However Bhau’s rather overbearing nature, meant that the Jats did not give full fledged support, while some of the Rajput rulers, openly sided with Abdali.  The Jat rulers controlled the food supplies around Delhi, and Bhau’s attitude towards them would cost them really bad at Panipat. He also rejected the offer of Sikhs to aid him against the Afghans and that meant he lost one of the most vital support ever. Again another disastrous tactic,  as the Sikhs were battle hardened when it came to the Afghans, they knew their strategies well, Bhau missed out on a great opportunity here.

Bhau took Delhi with a strong artillery attack in 1760, driving out Durrani from there, however they got no support from the local chieftains in and around there. He advanced further north, and the fort of Kunjipura near Karnal was taken in a blitzkrieg attack, using artillery and infantry.  Durrani was forced to flee from Kunjipura, as his entire garrison was massacred by the Marathas.  It was a comprehensive victory for the Marathas over the Afghans at Kunjipura, some of Abdali’s best generals were killed. Once again presence of a large number of civilians in the Maratha contingent meant the supplies at Kunjipura were exhausted fast.

Exasperated by the loss, Ahmed Shah Abdali himself entered the fray, making a daring cross across the Yamuna at Baghpat.  The Marathas however managed to block Abdali’s return route back to Afghanistan, and soon there was a fierce skirmish at Sonepat. Though the Afghans lost 1000 men, they managed to drive the Marathas back, and completely cut off their supply lines. By Nov 1760, Durrani cut off the Maratha’s access to Delhi, and they were now trapped from all ends. Besieged in Panipat, the Afghans, managed to cut off all food supplies to the Marathas, who were now trapped at all ends. Finally with his soldiers morale running out, and starvation rampant, Sadashiv Rao Bhau had no option but to call for war.

Jan 14, 1761 on Makar Sankranti, the 3rd Battle of Panipat, as the Marathas and Afghans clashed in one of the most decisive battles ever. Till 2 PM, the Marathas actually managed to break the Afghan forces, Bhau himself leading a spirited attack.  So fierce was the assault of the Marathas led by Bhau, that the Afghans ran from the battle field.Just when the Marathas seemed to be gaining the upper hand, Vishwas Rao, the Peshwa’s son was hit by a stray bullet, and that was the turning point.Taking advantage of Vishwasrao’s death, Durrani attacked the Marathas, with 10,000 troops, totally encircling them. Bhau along with Ibrahim Khan Gardi and Jankoji Scindia was surrounded by the Afghans, while Holkar fled from the battlefield.

Bhau along with Ibrahim Khan Gardi put up a spirited fight against the Afghans, however Vishwas Rao’s death demoralized the Marathas. When he saw his nephew Vishwas Rao dead Bhau dismounted from elephant and plunged straight into the battle.However the Marathas seeing the empty howdah thought Bhau too had fallen and were demoralized further now. He fought to the last, even though he knew it was a losing cause, before he finally fell like a hero on the battle field. One of the greatest Maratha heroes, Sadashivrao Bhau, perished on the field of Panipat, fighting till the last. He in many ways revolutionized the Maratha army, bought in artillery and infantry, moved away from their traditional hit and run tactics. It was Bhau who bought in Ibrahim Khan Gardi, who played a vital role in the artillery segment, and fell fighting on Panipat along with him. He also bought in European mercenaries, employed the latest artillery, in a way modernized the Maratha Army. He might be judged harshly by historians, but he lived, fought and died like a true hero on Panipat.

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