An ode to Marathas

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1. Today, 13 Jul 22 is the 362nd anniversary of the epic escape as well as rear-guard action by Maratha soldiers under Shivaji Maharaj. Unfortunately, vast majority of our countrymen are not aware of this epic feat. Hence, this small write up.

2. By the first week of Jul 1660, Shivaji had been trapped in the fort of Panhala (approximately 20 Km North West of Kolhapur) by Adilshahi forces of Bijapur for almost Five months. The nearest Maratha fort; Vishalgarh was approximately 62 Km away. However, this fort was also surrounded or invested by allies of the Adilshahi forces. With food supplies dwindling, Shivaji Maharaj decided to make a dash for Vishalgarh fort. However, success depended on three pre-requisites.

(a) Escape had to be based on stealth since Adilshahi forces were much larger in numbers. This meant moving on foot and covering maximum distance during hours of darkness.

(b) Requisite physical endurance to cover 60 Km of broken country in one go, while bearing arms and being ready to fight at any instant.

(c) Fight and break the enemy encirclement at Vishalgarh after covering these 60 Km. 
In effect, a mission which would test the best of Special Forces or Ghatak units.

3. Shivaji went about planning this great escape using his trademark combination of guile and fearlessness. Shivaji agreeing to meet Afzal Khan in a one on one meeting, where he killed Afzal Khan who was almost twice Shivaji's size and leading his troops in undertaking raid into Lal Mahal Palace in Pune to target Shaista Khan are examples of Shivaji's lead from the front ethos and daredevilry. Indians from all parts of India have historically shown and continue to show similar levels of bravery. But unfortunately, we have not learnt from the shrewd military stratagem which was always employed hand in hand with physical bravery by Shivaji Maharaj.

4. Shivaji realised that it would be difficult for Marathas to escape while the enemy troops encircling them were vigilant. So, he first planned to fool the enemy by informing them that he would be surrendering to them. Enemy troops were also tired after five months of encirclement, their problems compounded by the incessant rains. To buy more time, Shivaji's brave-heart barber Shiva Kashi, who resembled Shivaji in height and physical appearance volunteered to play the part of Shivaji in the deception planned by Shivaji.

5. So, on the night of 13 Jul 1660, under heavy rains, Shivaji Maharaj along with his sardar Baji Prabhu Deshpade and 600 Maratha troops sneaked out of Panhala fort. In the morning, the party masquerading as Shivaji's party set out for Adil Shahi commander's camp. However, once the Maratha ruse was found out, brave Shiva and the party accompanying him were killed by the Adil Shahi troops in rage. However, their sacrifice had gained some time for Shivaji and his troops.

6. A large contingent of around 10,000 enemy cavalry set off in hot pursuit to intercept Shivaji. As Shivaji's party neared Ghod Khind or the narrow ravine/pass in the mountains, around 12 Km short of Vishalgarh fort, they realised that they would not be able to outrun their pursuers. At this time, hemmed by Bijapuri forces from two sides, ordinary military commander would have either surrendered or fought as one body of 600 troops. As a professional military soldier when I try to visualise the decision being taken in those difficult times, when none of the Marathas including Shivaji knew that how many hours they would be alive, I am awestruck. Shivaji took the most offensive option.  300 troops under Baji Prabhu Deshpande were to hold the Ghod Khind ravine in a desperate rear-guard action while Shivaji would move with balance 300 Troops towards Vishalgarh fort, undertake fighting break-in against enemy troops who had invested Vishalgarh and get inside the fort. This also tells about the supreme fitness levels of the Maratha troops and their confidence in their own military prowess. Salute! Baji Prabhu's parting request to Shivaji was to order firing of a cannon once Shivaji was safely inside Visahalgarh fort. 

7. Baji Prabhu and his gallant band of 300 held the vastly superior Bijapuri forces at bay for almost Five hours, while desperately waiting for the success signal. As Maratha troops were getting killed in repeated charges by the enemy to break through the pass, Baji Prabhu himself lead the battle. Badly wounded in repeated enemy assaults, legend says that he somehow kept fighting, though mortally wounded, awaiting the success signal. Once the canon sound was heard, Baji Prabhu fell; along with his brother Fulaji Prabhu and majority of his soldiers, satisfied that they had been able to accomplish their duty. They had killed almost 1000 of the enemy troops before they fell. The few remaining soldiers slipped back into the jungles and lived to tell the tale of gallantry of this band of 300. 

8. Once enemy troops came to know that Shivaji had fought his way through their encircling troops and entered the impregnable Vishalgarh fort, they lost heart and returned back to Bijapur. Shivaji later went to the house of Baji Prabhu to meet his family and honour them. He also changed the name of Ghod Khind(Horse Ravine) to Pavan Khind (Sacred Ravine or pass).

9. During the 17th Century, chieftains and troops had very little loyalty to their rulers, often switching sides based on who payed or bribed better. In sharp contrast, Shivaji's troops had such tremendous love and affection for Shivaji that they would willingly lay down their lives for him. These leadership lessons from Shivaji's life are also topic for serious study by our young military leaders.

10. As I sign off, I bow my head in deep reverence and gratitude to Shivaji, his Maratha troops and countless of our country men and women, through the centuries and from all parts of the country including parts which presently are not under our political control for their selfless sacrifices.

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