Peshwa Bajirao Ballal won this battle without even giving a single drop of blood merely on his intelligence and speed of his army!
Written by Major General Shashikant Pitre (the author served the Indian army and is a notable scholar of War studies and strategies).
Translated by Raj Kamble.
Peshwa Bajirao Ballal, in his career of 20 years, fought 39 battles undefeated. The war of Palkhed is considered as his best battle in terms of his strategies, leadership skills and intelligence.
Supreme Commander Mont Gomery of World War 2 referred this War of Palkhed as, “Masterpiece of Strategic Mobility”.
After the sudden demise of Balaji Vishwanath, Shahu Maharaj defied the opposition and gave the responsibility of Peshwai for Swarajya to a 19 year old Bajirao in 1720.Bajirao did not just learn politics from his father, but also accompanied Balaji Vishwanath in many battles and gained valuable knowledge of war while he was just an adolescent. Immediately after accepting the throne, he went to help his acquaintances in a battle along with Alamkhan. He first met his competitor of Palkhed, Nizam Ul Mulq, on 4th of January, 1721 in Chikhalthane and later on 23rd of February, 1723 in Balasha. During these meetings, Nizam observed the intelligence of Bajirao who was 30 years younger to him. He understood the challenge he is likely to face from the young captain of Marathas in Deccan. When Mughal Badshah sent Mubarijkhan to destroy Nizam, Scared Nizam called Bajirao for aide and the Peshwa was quick to respond in style. Mubarijkhan was defeated on 1st October, 1724 in the battle of Shakkharkheda. Nizam promised to give Chauth area to Marathas in honour of their aide and victory. Moreover, the young Bajirao got an opportunity to be alongside Nizam and to learn his strategies and ideology. Bajirao later used this experience against none other than Nizam in his future encounters with the king.
The then Mughal Badshah nominated Nizam as a Mughal subhedar of Deccan on 20th June, 1725. Selfish Nizam, in order to extend his territory, immediately started attacking Marathas. Bajirao initiated his campaigns in Karnataka in 1725 and 1727. Shahu Maharaj’s cousin, king of the Kolhapur throne, Sambhaji Maharaj, started pressurising Shahu to divide the kingdom amongst them after the attacks of Nizam. Originally, Shahu Maharaj had already given the territory between the rivers Krishna and Ghataprabha to Sambhaji Maharaj. Sambhaji Raje however, never accepted it. Witty Nizam declared, as a subhedar of Badshah Mughal, that he will decide the matter between Shahu and Sambhaji Maharaj after talking to the representatives of them both. Shahu Maharaj did not like this interference of Nizam. Later, he heard of the possible attack on his throne (Satara) by the army of Nizam and Sambhaji Maharaj. He got information that his biggest enemy Udaji Chavan, marching against Satara, had already reached Rahimatpur.
Bajirao did not like Nizam’s strategy of bribing key officers to free Hyderabad from taxes. Nizam offered them the Jagir of Berar as bribe. He also tried to mislead Shahu Maharaj against Bajirao. But as Shahu was a peace loving king, he did not wish any enmity from Nizam. After such cruel tactics, Shahu Maharaj was convinced about the evilness of Nizam. Marathas felt important to teach Nizam a lesson. Maharaj immediately sent orders to Bajirao and commander general Purandare to return from their campaign of Karnataka. It was August of 1727 already when Bajirao returned. After his meeting with Maharaj, he got full authority to counter and defeat Nizam!
Bajorao’s strength was his Horse riders (Cavalry). It was very similar to the Kingdom of Rohan of the Lord of the Rings. His army was just 25 to 30 thousand in front of Nizam’s 1 Lakh army. Bajirao never cared about the number of enemy’s army. He relied on intelligence and strategies. He was a master in Guerrilla warfare. Usually he used to surround enemy, break the enemy’s water and food supply and force them to surrender. He had this amazing ability to play with enemy commander’s mind and defeat him without losing a single man.
His strategy was to make full use of his speed, to make Mughal army follow him, to bring the mughal’s at his desired location; break their food and water supply and make them surrender.
The Tophkhana (Artillery) of the Marathas was weak as compared to the huge and powerful Tophkhana possessed by the Nizam’s army. Marathas had only one chance to demolish the Nizam Tophkhana. They had to somehow stop the Nizam Tophkhana before it could enter the battlefield. Bajirao had an excellent plan to implement this strategy.
It can be said that this tactic of Bajirao to nullify the existence of Nizam’s tophkhana turned out to be the game setter for the Marathas.
There were two aspects of Bajirao’s strategy when It was confirmed of the attack of Nizam and Sambhaji Raje (Kolhapur) on Marathas (Satara, ruled by Shahu). First was to make sure Nizam follows the Marathas outside the Swarajya (Territory named to be ruled by the Marathas since Shivaji) to a place where Marathas would be more comfortable to fight. The responsibility of incorporating this was taken by Bajirao himself. Second was to hold Swarajya from Nizam’s annexation in the area south to Nasik. This responsibility was given to Bajirao’s brother Chimaji Appa.
Swarajya Durbar and Shahu Raje were temporarily shifted to Purandar Fort.
Responsibility to Guard Shahu Maharaj was laid on the Shinde Battalion in Pune Province. Chimaji Appa took the responsibility of the Khed, Junnar, Padgaon and Patas area. Both the brothers decided to restrict enemy outside Pune no matter what so that Maharaj remains safe.
Movements Before The Battle:
The war started when Aiwajkhan attacked Sinnar in July-August 1727. Nizam’s army was settled in Bhir-Dharur between June to September in 1727. He started Marching to Satara from Bhir in October. Bajirao openly declared to go towards Aurangabad. Later he crossed Parner and Ahmednagar and turned left to reach Puntambe. Then he crossed the river Godavari, turned East and attacked Jalna, which was then under Nizam’s rule. After Jalna, he created rumours of his attack on Burhanpur. Burhanpur was the main trading and commercial centre of Nizam. However Bajirao instead of going Burhanpur, went to Washim and gathered army in December 1727.
Nizam was shocked after hearing the news of Bajirao’s attack on Burhanpur. He ordered his army to march towards Burhanpur immediately thus forcing him to abort his mission to attack Satara. Bajirao expected Nizam to do this. He left Washim and turned North West to cross Tapi River via Manglur – Mahur. He reached Kakarmuda on 17th December 1727. Later he crossed Narmada river to turn his march towards Bhadoch (Modern day Bharuch in Gujarat). Nizam, too turned his marched towards Bhadoch to follow Bajirao. By the time his slow army could cover a few kilometres towards Bhadoch, Nizam heard of Bajirao’s march towards Chhota Udaypur in Gujarat. By now it was already January of 1728. Nizam’s huge army was exhausted with the movement of 3 long months. Nizam understood his mistake of following the flying horses. He decided to attack Pune in order to make Bajirao follow him.
Nizam turned back to march on Pune. There was one more reason to it. Nizam feared to attack Gujarat Province. He had a healthy competition with Gujarat’s Mughal Subhedar Sarbuland Khan. Clever Bajirao knew that Nizam would avoid going to Gujarat. Nizam’s army reached Pune after winning Junnar, Khed, Udapur and Narayangad. Nizam also initiated the marriage of Sambhaji Maharaj in Pune at 8th January, 1928. He expected Bajirao to come to Pune in fear. Least he knew that Bajirao had complete trust in Chimaji Appa. He turned his march towards Nizam’s former capital Aurangabad to divert Nizam. He crossed Khandesh and reached Belwad near Dhule on 14th February, 1728.
Nizam was forced to turn north towards Aurangabad after hearing of Bajirao’s attack. He reached Aurangabad on 12th February, 1728. Everything was going well with Bajirao’s plan. He decided to make a trap in Palkhed when he was sure that Nizam is coming to cross Godavari River. Finally after the hard work of 4 months and directionless movement, Maratha’s prey was coming in their trap. The war cry of the Battlefield of Palkhed was all set.
The Maratha Army:
The Maratha army was full of people boosted with aggressive and proud nationalism towards the Swaraj. The number of soldiers in Bajirao’s army was 25 to 30 thousand only, heavily consisted of cavalry (horsemen). They were used to survive with whatever food they get to head. Horse’s food was carried on horse’s back. This helped them to travel as fast as light with high flexes. All Maratha army lacked was artillery (Tophkhana). Though this helped to improve their speed, but also made them weak against the mighty and powerful artillery of the Mughals.
Chief Commander of the Marathas, Bajirao Ballal Peshwa had a mighty, encouraging and respectful personality. Six feet tall, huge unit, earned muscles, grey eyes, white skin, pleasant face and an expert horse rider. Such was his persona. He was a real Soldier’s general in all manners. He used to influence his warriors with his sharp mind, vocabulary skills and solemnity. He had an amazing charisma on his soldiers. Grand Dough, an English historian has summed up Bajirao well in his words, “Brain to pain, muscle to execute”.
An army with Horsemen is fast. To witness the speed, you can watch the second of the lord of the rings series movie, “The Twin Towers”, and analyse the speed of the Rohan Army. Bajirao’s enemies always feared of Bajirao’s surprise attacks. He had this excellent ability to change his plans according to the enemy’s strategy quickly. Bajirao believed, in his entire lifetime, that an enemy can be defeated only by attacking him and not defending. Mobility, Flexibility and Aggressive Spirit were the soul of Bajirao’s actions.
To attack in the place we are comfortable with, to divide the enemy’s army and to attack the enemy without a single hint, are the qualities of a cunning and smart commander. Bajirao fits to this description totally. He was an expert to measure the geographical fixtures and bring the enemy where he wants to. Half of the battle is already won when you are flawless in deciding the battlefield which suits you. Bajirao never gave the privilege to the enemy to decide the battlefield.
He divided his army to various battalions according to the needs. His leaders of the battalions were young like him. Most of them were groomed by Bajirao himself. Their self belief, king worship and loyalty was of highest order. People like Majhaji Holkar, Udaji Pawar, Ranoji Shinde and Udaji Gaikwad were picked by Bajirao from the commons, and were promoted to the post of leaders on the basis of their performance. He had sardars like Kanthaji kodambade and Dalvaji Somvanshi to support him. His younger brother Chimaji Appa was no less clever than Bajirao.
Nizam’s army was huge and the strength was in Lakhs. Despite of being superior in numbers and ammunitions, they were inferior to the Marathas in optimisation and lethality. They had all comforts due to excessive money and richness. They used to drive the food materials and other things on animals. This made them rusty. The size of the servants used to be more than the actual army. They however had mighty artillery. They had power to just destroy the enemy at one go. With huge army, mighty artillery and large number of food materials and other needs, the Nizam’s army became less immobile and lacked flexibility. They travelled with the speed of an elephant.
Nizam-Ul-Mulq, was a great and legendary Mughal Commander. He is recognized as best Mughal commander of 18th century. His father, Gaziuddin, was a trusted friend of Aurangazeb, his real name was Chin Khilichkhan. He was awarded with the degree of Nizam-Ul-Mulq and was made the subhedar of 6 provinces of the south by Farooksiyar Badshaha. All his sardars were Marathas except Turkajkhan and Aiwaj khan.
Palkhed was a ground battlefield 1600 feet above the sea level. Godavari River was at North West for about 15 kilometres. Later it was mixed up to Pravara River. Godavari was full and wide. Thus there was only one place to cross it, Puntambe. To Palkhed’s east and North East, there flowed a Shivnala (Shiv creek). It was the only source for drinking water in Palkhed’s vicinity. The land was at rise in the north of Palkhed, followed by a dense forest, which was difficult to cross. Godavari at West and South, dense forest to north and Shiv Nala to the east and North east covered the Palkhed with all sides and gave the best battlefield to Bajirao.
Strategy: There were three important aspect of Bajirao’s strategy. According to his calculations, Nizam would require three days to cross his big army over Godavari. On first day, important battalions would come for strategy and planning, followed by the main army and certain servants carrying food on the second day and later by the artillery on the third day. Bajirao’s main plan was to detach the Tophkhana or artillery from the main army of Nizam. Artillery was the strongest part of Mughal army. He wanted to stop it somehow from crossing the Godavari River while the entire army already crosses. Thus, it was the first aspect of his strategy to freeze the place of Puntambe on the third day when the artillery would have been 1.5 kilometres away.
Second aspect was to break Nizam’s food supply. Nizam’s food and other materials were always tied on donkeys and Horses. Bajirao’s plan was to do a surprise attack on these animals at night and make them run. This could destroy the food supply for Nizam. Third aspect was to kill the enemy by blocking its drinking water resources. Shiv nala has anyway less water in February. Bajirao deployed his army near Godavari and the Shiv nala area so that nobody comes to get water from Nizam. Bajirao was sure that Nizam would surrender after his food and water supply was cut off. He was set to trap the Nizam by blocking the Godavari from south.
Battle and Treaty of Palkhed:
Bajirao’s army surrounded and trapped Nizam’s army by the end of second week of February. Pilaji Jadhav was at north, Malharrao Holkar at West, Dawaji Somvanshi at South and Bajirao himself at east. After the settlement, they waited for Nizam. Nizam army’s initial part reached Puntambe with great exhaustion on 17th February, 1728. Nizam himself crossed Godavari the next day. The remaining army, animals crossed the river on 19th and 20th February. Now only Nizam’s artillery (Tophkhana) was remaining to cross the river and was still to cover 4 to 5 miles.
The passage which was used to cross Puntambe was blocked by Bajirao’s army on 22nd of February. Thus, Tophkhana was restricted from reaching the battlefield. Gunshots were fired on People who went to fetch water from Shiv Nala. Suddenly out of nowhere the animals carrying the food and other material were attacked in the evening and they began to run for their lives. The army troops of Nizam were attacked, without a hint, in the night. This continued for few days until the trap was fully executed.
Nizam’s army began to starve. His people and animals started giving up without water. He had no choice but to surrender to Bajirao. He sent Aiwajkhan and Chandrasen Jadhav to speak to Bajirao. Finally the treaty was signed on 6th March, 1728 at Mungi Shevgaon. Out of all clause, most (17) of them were favourable to Shahu Maharaj. Nizam also gave up the authority of the villages and places he captured from Swarajya. It was also agreed that Sambhaji Raje would accept the area given to him earlier.
To defeat Nizam’s huge army without dropping a single blood requires courage, power and intelligence. This is the reason why Field Marshal Mont Gomery has mentioned this battle of Palkhed initially in his famous book where he had written about the best battles fought in the world.
Written By Major General Shashikant Pitre
Translated by Raj Kamble
Thank you Dr. Abhiram Dixit.