Remembering Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj — 5
Abracadabra By K. B. Ganapathy, Columns

Remembering Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj — 5

March 7, 2020

Shivaji becomes a political force in Deccan and a challenger to Aurangzeb

[Continued from Feb. 26]

After capturing three Forts that belonged to the Bijapur Sultan without a fight, using his raw courage as an youngster, through cunning, bribing the greedy Governor of a Fort and by his Machiavellian methods, Shivaji was strong enough to venture into the Konkan coast with 20,000 men in his service. Thus he posed a threat to the Bijapur Sultan who commanded his General Afzal Khan to march an army against the Marathas.

It was intriguing that instead of the two armies confronting each other, Afzal Khan had sent an envoy to Shivaji for an interview and a negotiation of surrender. Shivaji agrees for a meeting inside a huge tent that was erected for the purpose. Afzal Khan entered the tent with his followers. But, Shivaji was surprised to see Afzal Khan with his swordsmen. Shivaji demanded swordsmen be kept out of the tent for which Afzal Khan agreed. Then, Shivaji entered the tent.

Historian Dennis Kincaid writes, “Afzal Khan seemed determined to pick a quarrel at once. Without even referring his mission, he began to complain that it was intolerable to find a petty land owner’s son aping the airs of a prince…”

Afzal Khan expressed wonder at the luxurious furnishing of the tent by Shivaji. For this Shivaji said that it was a compliment to the envoy from Bijapur, Afzal Khan himself. Naturally, Afzal Khan was flattered. The historian writes, “He nodded slowly and opened his arms to offer Shivaji the embrace customarily exchanged between opposing leaders at a peace conference. Shivaji stepped forward to accept the embrace. He was more than a head shorter than Afzal Khan.”

“As soon as they were locked in an embrace, Afzal Khan moved his arm up Shivaji’s back and clutched him around the neck. It was a restless grip. As soon as Shivaji felt that strong arm close suddenly upon his neck, he felt faint with sudden fear. He wriggled in Khan’s grasp but the grip further tightened…”

“Shivaji got his right arm free and dug the steel tiger-claws concealed in the palm of his left hand deep into Afzal Khan’s back. Then, with his right hand, he drew his scorpion dagger from his belt and drove it into Afzal Khan’s side. The Afghan, Afzal Khan, staggered back shouting with rage and pain.”

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Immediately, the attendants of both Afzal Khan and Shivaji came running into the tent. There was a short fight between the two forces. The Bijapur soldiers carried their wounded leader away to his camp even as Maratha soldiers went after them fighting. One by one, the attendants of Afzal Khan were wounded or killed. Then a Maratha cut off Afghan Khan’s head and lifted it up in triumph.

After this, Bijapur was never again able to challenge Shivaji’s independence. In the meanwhile, Shivaji had made acquaintance with the English who were the main suppliers of guns to Bijapur to build the artillery. Though the English factories supplied defective guns to the Marathas, Shivaji ensured they were operational and every Fort of his was garrisoned by Maratha hill-men under a Maratha Commandant. Shivaji’s capital was Raighad Fort and the Fort engineer was of the Prabhu caste. I have heard that a leading political family of Maharashtra today belongs to this Prabhu caste.

In the meanwhile, Aurangzeb had never forgotten Shivaji’s raid in his rear, port of Surat, during his advance on Bijapur. In 1663, he ordered his uncle Shayista Khan, to go to Bijapur and the South with an army to tame the rebels. So, hardly had Shivaji made his peace with Bijapur when he was forced to enter on a long struggle with the great Mughal, a far more formidable adversary than Bijapur. Shivaji was just 33 years old. Maratha forces, at this period, was less than 10,000 compared to the huge Mughal forces. Naturally no battle was possible for Shivaji in the plains with the Mughals.

Therefore, a smart strategist that he was, Shivaji headed towards the mountains (remember the epithet he got from Aurangzeb as the “mountain rat?”). As a result, Shayista Khan occupied Shivaji’s Palace ‘Lal Mahal’ in Pune without resistance. Monsoon soon set in giving respite to the forces of both sides. During this period many myths were created about Shivaji — about he being helped by a spirit to escape from the temple in Pune where he had gone incognito to listen to a discourse by Sant Tukaram, about his being seen in one place and then vanishing suddenly etc.

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Then there was a ruse set by Shivaji to attack Shayista Khan in Pune by holding a fake marriage procession. The legend is that Shivaji had himself approached the Mughal Civil Governor for permission and walked in the procession as a drummer! Shivaji managed to enter the Palace, his own, now occupied by the Mughal General. Naturally, Shivaji knew every nook and corner of his Palace and that was his great advantage. Killing for Shivaji, as a great warrior, had become his second nature, just as his acts of kindness and human compassion — depending upon the situations. He felled many cooks in the Palace kitchen, Palace attendants and security to enter the chief room in the Palace where Shayista Khan was sleeping.

The noise of breaking into the room woke up Khan. Shivaji, sword in hand, sprang towards Khan’s bed. With panic-agility Shayista Khan rolled off his bed and Shivaji’s stroke fell short, severing only Khan’s thumb. In the darkness Khan escaped.

But in the desperate fight that took place in the harem, where Khan was hiding, his son was killed though Khan escaped from here. The whole Palace was now in uproar. The ruthlessness of Shivaji, his grit and courage were probably the reason for his success in the face of mighty enemies like the Mughals. For example, while he was making a hurried get-away with his men from the Palace, the sentries at the city gate stopped him using a war-elephant. But Shivaji with a single stroke cut off the trunk of the elephant, opened the gate and escaped into the night.

Imagine, Shivaji creating an illusion of having huge forces with him by ordering his men to tie lit torches to every tree in the forest of the Fort. When the Mughals saw the blaze of torches across their path in the night, they withdrew thinking that the whole of Maratha army was there!

The news of Shivaji’s extraordinary exploits caused utmost consternation in Delhi where magic powers were attributed to Shivaji by the superstitious. He was imagined to be having an “airy body”. A Portuguese writer had wondered at Shivaji’s feats in these words: “The question is still unsolved whether Sevagy (Shivaji) substituted others for himself or he is a Magician or the Devil.”

[To be continued]

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