The Third Battle of Panipat took place on January 14, 1761 at Panipat (Haryana State, India), situated at about 80 miles (130 km) north of Delhi. The battle pitted the French-supplied and trained artillery of the Marathas against the light cavalry of the Afghans led by Ahmad Shah Durrani, an ethnic Pashtun, also known as 'Ahmad Shah Abdali'.
The decline of the Mughal Empire had led to territorial gains for the Maratha Confederacy. Ahmad Shah Abdali, amongst others, was unwilling to allow the Marathas' gains to go unchecked. In 1759, he raised an army from the Pashtun tribes with help from the Baloch people and made several gains against the smaller garrisons. The Marathas, under the command of Sadashivrao Bhau, responded by gathering an army of 100,000 people with which they ransacked the Mughal capital of Delhi. There followed a series of skirmishes along the banks of the river Yamuna at Karnal and Kunjpura which eventually turned into a two-month-long siege led by Abdali against the Marathas.
The specific site of the battle itself is disputed by historians but most consider it to have occurred somewhere near modern day Kaalaa Aamb and Sanauli Road. The battle lasted for several days and involved over 125,000 men. Protracted skirmishes occurred, with losses and gains on both sides. The forces led by Ahmad Shah Durrani came out victorious after destroying several Maratha flanks. The extent of the losses on both sides is heavily disputed by historians, but it is believed that between 60,000–70,000 were killed in fighting, while numbers of the injured and prisoners taken vary considerably. The overriding legacy of the battle was the halting of the Maratha advances in the North.
...We have already brought Lahore, Multan, Kashmir and other subahs on this side of Attock under our rule for the most part, and places which have not come under our rule we shall soon bring under us. Ahmad Khan Abdali's son Taimur Sultan and Jahan Khan have been pursued by our troops, and their troops completely looted. Both of them have now reached Peshawar with a few broken troops...we have decided to extend our rule up to Kandahar.
-- Raghoba's letter to the Peshwa, May 4, 1758
The Marathas had gained control of a considerable part of India in the intervening period (1707–1757). In 1758, they occupied Delhi, captured Lahore and drove out Timur Shah Durrani, the son and viceroy of the Afghan ruler, Ahmad Shah Abdali. This was the high-water mark of the Maratha expansion, where the boundaries of their empire extended in the north to the Indus and the Himalayas, and in the south nearly to the extremity of the peninsula. This territory was ruled through the Peshwa, who talked of placing his son Vishwasrao on the Mughal throne. However Delhi still remained under the nominal control of Mughals, key Muslim intellectuals including Shah Waliullah and other Muslim clergy in India and Punjab who were alarmed at these developments. In desperation they appealed to Ahmad Shah Abdali, the ruler of Afghanistan, to halt the threat.
Ahmad Shah Durrani (Ahmad Shah Abdali) angered by the news from his son and his allies was unwilling to allow the Marathas spread go unchecked. In 1759 he raised an army from the Afghan (Pashtun) tribes with help from the Baloch and his Rohilla ally Najib Khan. By the end of the year they had reached Lahore as well as Delhi and defeated the smaller enemy garrisons. Ahmed Shah, at this point, withdrew his army to Anupshahr, on the frontier of the Rohilla country, where he successfully convinced the Nawab of Oudh Shuja-ud-Daula to join his alliance against the Marathas.
"The lofty and spacious tents, lined with silks and broadcloths, were surmounted by large gilded ornaments, conspicuous at a distance... Vast numbers of elephants, flags of all descriptions, the finest horses, magnificently caparisoned ... seemed to be collected from every quarter ... it was an imitation of the more becoming and tasteful array of the Mughuls in the zenith of their glory." -- Grant Duff, describing the Maratha army
The Marathas under Sadashivrao Bhau (referred to as the Bhau or Bhao in sources) responded to the news of the Afghans' return to North India by raising an even bigger army, and they marched North. Bhau's force was bolstered by some Maratha forces under Holkar, Scindia, Gaikwad and Govind Pant Bundela, contingents of the Rajputs and Suraj Mal of Bharatpur. This combined army of over 100,000 regular troops captured the Mughal capital, Delhi, from an Afghan garrison in December 1759. Bhau ordered the sacking of the already depopulated city and is said to have planned to place his nephew and the Peshwa's son, Viswasrao, on the Mughal throne. The Jats (with the exception of Ala Singh, the first Maharaja of Patiala), did not support the Marathas. Their withdrawal from the ensuing battle was to play a crucial role in its result. |The Sikhs particularly Ala Singh of Patiala played both sides with Ala Singh actually being granted and crowned the first Sikh Maharajah despite the Sikh holy temple being destroyed by the Afghans
“The Shah is said to have recited some verses of the Holy Quran,
and, having blown them on an arrow, discharged from his quiver into the river.
Raising then the cry “Bismillah-i-Allah-o-Akbar” meaning,
‘in the name of God the great God’ he plunged into the river,
followed by his bodyguards and the troops.”
-- One report of Ahmad Shah's crossing of the Yamuna river.
With both sides poised for battle there followed much maneuvering, with skirmishes between the two armies fought at Karnal and Kunjpura. Kunjpura, on the banks of the Yamuna River sixty miles to the north of Delhi, was stormed by the Marathas and the whole Afghan garrison was killed or enslaved. Ahmad Shah was encamped on the left bank of the Yamuna River, which was swollen by rains, and so was powerless to aid the garrison. The massacre of the Kunjpura garrison, within the sight of the Durrani camp, exasperated him to such an extent that he ordered crossing of the river at all costs. The Ahmed Shah and his allies on 17 October 1760, broke up from Shahdara, marching South. Between the 23rd and 25th they were able to cross at Baghpat, a small town about twenty-four miles up the river, unopposed by the Marathas who were still preoccupied with the sacking of Kunjpura.
After the Marathas failed to prevent Abdali's forces crossing the Yamuna river, they set up defensive works in the ground near Panipat, thereby blocking his access back to Afghanistan just as his forces blocked theirs to the south. However, on the afternoon of 26 October, Ahmad Shah's advance guard reached Sambalka, about half-way between Sonepat and Panipat, where they encountered the vanguard of the Marathas. A fierce skirmish ensued, in which the Afghans lost a thousand men, killed and wounded, but drove back the Marathas to their main body, which kept on retreating slowly for several days. This led to the partial encirclement of the Maratha army. In skirmishes that followed, Govind Pant Bundela, with 10,000 light cavalry on a foraging mission, was surprised and slain by an Afghan force near Meerut. This in turn was followed by the loss of another 2,000 Maratha soldiers, who were delivering salaries for the soldiers from Delhi. This completed the encirclement as Ahmad Shah had cut off the Maratha Army's supply lines.
With supplies and stores dwindling, tensions also rose in the Maratha camp as the mercenaries in the Maratha army were complaining of lack of pay. Initially the Marathas then moved in almost 150 pieces of modern long-range rifled French-made artillery. With a range of several kilometres, these guns were some of the best of the times. Their plan was to lure the Afghan army to confront them while they had close artillery support.
During the next two months of the siege constant skirmishes and duels took place between parties and individual champions upon either side. In one of these Najib lost 3,000 of his Rohillas, and was very near killed himself but ran away. Facing a seeming stalemate Abdali decided to seek terms, which Bhau was willing. However Najib Khan delayed any chance of an agreement with an appeal on religious grounds and threw doubt into whether the Marathas would honour any agreement.
The Marathas’ difficulty in securing supplies worsened as the local population became hostile to them. As after becoming increasingly desperate for supplies, they had pillaged the surrounding areas.
While Sadashivrao Bhau was still eager to make terms, a message was received insisting on going to war and promising that reinforcements were under way. Unable to continue without supplies or wait for the reinforcements any longer, Bhau decided to break the siege. His plan was to pulverise the enemy formations with cannon fire and not to employ his cavalry until the Afghans were thoroughly softened up. With the Afghans broken, he would move camp in a defensive formation towards Delhi, where they were assured supplies.
The Maratha line was to be formed up some 12 km across, with the artillery in front, protected by infantry, pikemen, musketeers and bowmen. The cavalry was instructed to wait behind the artillery and bayonet wielding musketeers, ready to be thrown in when control of battlefield had been fully established. Behind this line was another ring of 30,000 young Maratha soldiers who were not battle tested, and then the roughly 30,000 civilians entrained. Many were middle class men, women and children on their pilgrimage to the Hindu holy places and shrines. Behind the civilians was yet another protective infantry line, of young inexperienced soldiers.
On the other side, the Afghans formed a somewhat similar line, probably a few metres to the south of Sanauli road of today. Their left was being formed by Najib's Rohillas, and their right by two brigades of Persian troops. Their left centre was led by the two Viziers, Shuja-ud-daulah and Ahmad Shah's Vizier Shah Wali. The right centre consisted of Rohillas, under the well-known Hafiz Rahmat and other chiefs of the Indian pathans. Pasand Khan covered the left wing with a choice body of mailed Afghan horsemen, and in this order the army moved forward, leaving the Shah at his preferred post in the centre, which was now in rear of the line, from where he could watch and direct the battle.
The initial attack was led by the Maratha left flank under Ibrahim Khan, who in his eagerness to prove his worth; advanced his infantry in formation against the Rohillas and Shah Pasand Khan. The first salvos from the Maratha artillery went over the Afghans' heads and inflicted very little damage. Nevertheless, the first Afghan attack was broken by Maratha bowmen and pikemen, along with some famed Gardi musketeers stationed close to the artillery positions. The second and subsequent salvos were fired at point blank range into the Afghan ranks. The resulting carnage sent the Rohillas reeling back to their lines, leaving the battlefield virtually in the hands of Ibrahim Khan for the next three hours.
In the second phase, Bhau himself led the charge against the left of center Afghan forces, under the Afghan Vizier Shah Wali Khan. The sheer force of the attack nearly broke the Afghan lines, and soldiers started to desert their positions amidst the confusion. Desperately trying to rally his forces, Shah Wali appealed to Shuja ud Daulah for assistance. However, the Nawab did not break from his position, effectively splitting the Afghan Army's center. Despite Bhau's success, the over-enthusiasm of the charge saw many of the half starved Maratha horses exhausted long before they had travelled the two kilometres to the Afghan lines; some simply collapsed. Making matters worse was the suffocating odour of the rotting corpses of men and animals left on the field from the fighting of the previous months.
Ahmad Shah sent his body guards to call up his reserves of 15,000 highly trained troops from his camp and arranged it as a column in front of his cavalry of musketeers (Qizilbash) and swivel mounted shaturnals or cannons on the back of camels. The shaturnals, because of their positioning on camels, could fire an extensive salvo over the heads of their own infantry and at the Maratha cavalry. The Maratha cavalry were unable to withstand the rifled muskets and camel-mounted swivel cannons of the Afghans. Ahmad Shah had 2,000 such shaturnals. They could be fired without the rider having to dismount and were especially effective against fast moving cavalry. He therefore sent 500 of his own body-guards with orders to arise all able-bodied men out of camp, and send them to the front at any cost. He sent 1,500 more, to encounter those who were fleeing, and slay without pity anyone who would not return to the fight. These extra troops, along with 4,000 of his reserve troops, went to support the broken ranks of the Rohillas on the right. The remainder of the reserve, 10,000 strong, were sent to the aid of Shah Wali, still labouring unequally against the Bhao in the centre of the field. These mailed warriors were to charge with the Vizir in close order, and at full gallop. As often as they charged the enemy in front, the chief of the staff and Najib were directed to fall upon either flank.
With their own men in the firing line, the Maratha artillery could not respond to the shathurnals and the cavalry charge. Some 7,000 Maratha cavalry and infantry were killed before the hand to hand fighting began at around 14:00. By 16:00 the tired Maratha infantry began to succumb to the onslaught of attacks from fresh Afghan reserves, protected by armoured leather jackets.
This gave opportunity to the Rohillas to encircle the Gardis and outflank the Maratha centre while, Shah Wali pressed on attacking the front.
The Maratha army was routed and fled under the devastating attack. Only 15,000 soldiers managed to reach Gwailor, while the rest including the large numbers of non-combatants were either killed or captured.
It is also said The Maratha army had captured some Afghan soldiers earlier during the siege of Kunjpura. Amidst the general melée the slaves revolted. This brought confusion and great consternation to loyal Maratha soldiers, who thought that the enemy had attacked from their rear.
The Afghans pursued the fleeing Maratha army and the civilians, while the Maratha front lines remained largely intact, with some of their artillery units fighting till sunset. Choosing not to launch a night attack, many escaped that night. Bhau's wife Parvatibai, who was assisting in the administration of the Maratha camp escaped to Pune with her bodyguards.
The Afghan cavalry and pikemen ran wild through the streets of Panipat, killing any Maratha soldiers or civilians who offered any resistance. About 6,000 women and children sought shelter with Shuja (ally of Abdali) whose Hindu officers persuaded him to protect them.
The Afghan officers who had lost their kin in battle were permitted to carry out masscres the next day in Panipat and the surrounding area. They arranged victory mounds of severed heads outside their camps. About 10,000 Maratha civilians and soldiers alike were slain this way on 15 January 1761. Many of the fleeing Maratha women jumped into the Panipat well rather than risk rape and dishonour.
The main reason for the failure of Marathas was that they went to war without good allies. Though their infantry was based on European style contingent and had some of the best French made guns of the times, their artillery was static and lacked mobility against the fast moving Afghan forces. They had failed to acquire allies in North India. Their earlier hegemonistic behaviour and their political ambitions, which led them to loot and plunder, had antagonized all the other powers. They had interfered in the internal affairs of the Rajputana states (present day Rajasthan) and levied heavy taxes and huge fines on them. They had also made huge territorial and monetary claims upon Awadh. Their raids in the Sikh territory had angered the Sikh chiefs whilst some of the Sikh chiefs like Ala Singh of Patiala were working with the Abdali and were subservient to him. Similarly the Jat chiefs, on whom also they had imposed heavy fines, did not trust them. They had, therefore, to fight their enemies alone, except for the weak support of Imad-ul-Mulk. Moreover, the senior Maratha chiefs constantly bickered with one another. Each one of them had ambitions of carving out their independent states and had no interest in fighting against a common enemy.
By contrast the Afghans started the battle with many disadvantages, they were in hostile territory, and facing a well trained, western equipped Army, that was undefeated and led by a single leader. Ahmad Shah Abdali compensated for this by his use of shaturnals, camels with mobile artillery pieces at his disposal. He was also diplomatic striking up agreements with Hindu leaders and former rivals like the Nawab of Awadh appealing to him in the name of religion. He also had better intelligence on the movements of his enemy, which played a crucial role in his encirclement of the enemy army. Abdali had also kept a fresh force in reserve, which he used when his existing force was being slaughtered.
"Suddenly the breeze of victory began to blow,
and as willed by the divine Lord,
the wretched Deccanis suffered utter defeat.."
--excerpt from Ahmad Shah's letter to Madho Singh, Raja of Jaipur
The body of Vishwasrao and Bhau were recovered by the Afghans and under Ahmad Shah's personal direction were cremated according to Hindu custom. Bhau's wife Parvatibai was saved by Holkar as per the directions of Bhau and eventually they returned to Pune.
Peshwa Balaji Baji Rao, uninformed about the state of his army, was crossing the Narmada with reinforcements when a tired Charkara arrived with a cryptic message "Two pearls have been dissolved, 27 gold coins have been lost and of the silver and copper the total cannot be cast up". The Peshwa never recovered from the shock of the total debacle at Panipat. He returned to Pune and died a broken man in a temple on Paravati Hill
Jankoji Scindia was taken prisoner and executed at the instigation of Najib Khan. Ibrahim Khan Gardi was tortured and executed at the hands of enraged Afghan soldiers. The Marathas never fully recovered from the loss at Panipat, however they remaining the predominant military power in India and managing to retake Delhi 10 years later. However their claim over all of India ended with the three Anglo-Maratha Wars, almost 50 years after Panipat.
The Jats under Suraj Mal benefited significantly from not participating in the battle of Panipat. They provided considerable assistance to the Maratha soldiers and civilians who escaped the fighting. Suraj Mal himself was killed in battle against Najib Khan. Ahmad Shah's victory left him, in the short term, the undisputed master of North India. However, his alliance quickly unravelled amidst squabbles between his generals and other princes, as well as the increasing restlessness of his soldiers over pay and the increasing Indian heat. Before departing, he ordered the Indian chiefs, through a Royal Firman (order) (including Clive of India), to recognize Shah Alam II as Emperor. He left Delhi two months after the battle, heading for Afghanistan with his loot of 500 elephants, 1500 camels, 50,000 horses and at least about 22,000 women and children.
Ahmad Shah also appointed Najib-ud-Daula as ostensible regent to the Mughal Emperor. In addition, Najib-ud-daulah and Munir-ud-daulah agreed to pay to the Abdali, on behalf of the Mughal King, an annual tribute of forty lakh rupees. This was to be Ahmad Shah's final major expedition to North India, as he became increasingly pre-occupied with the increasingly successful rebellions by the Sikhs.
After the battle of Panipat the services of the Rohillas were rewarded by the grants of Shikohabad to Nawab Faiz-ullah Khan and of Jalesar and Firozabad to Nawab Sadullah Khan. Najib Khan proved to be an effective ruler in that time. However, after his death in 1770, the Rohillas again faced the Marathas, this time without Afghan support and were crushed finally.
The Third Battle of Panipat saw an enormous number of casualties and deaths in a single day of battle, perhaps unmatched even today in the later wars. It was the scene of uncommon valour, unwanted strategic blunders, internal bickerings, enormous brutality by the Afghans, and remained the last major battle between two major indigenous South Asian military powers, until the creation of Pakistan and the Battle of Lahore in 1965.
The battle changed the course of India’s history.
To save their kingdom, the Mughals once again changed sides and welcomed the Afghans to Delhi. The Mughals remained in nominal control over small areas of India, but were never a force again. The empire officially ended in 1857 when its last emperor was accused of being involved in the Sepoy Mutiny and exiled.
The Marathas expansion was stopped in the battle, and soon broke into infighting within their empire. They never regained any unity, and were soon under increasing pressure from the British. They recoverd their position under the next Peshwa Madhav Rao and by 1772 were back in control of the north finally defeating the attempts of the Afghans to control Delhi.Their claims to empire were only officially ended in 1818 after three wars with the British.
Meanwhile the Sikhs, the original reason Ahmad invaded, were left largely untouched by the battle. They soon re-took Lahore. When Ahmad Shah returned in March 1764 he was forced to break off his siege after only two weeks due to rebellion in Afghanistan. He returned again in 1767, but was unable to win any decisive battle. With his own troops arguing over a lack of pay, he eventually abandoned the district to the Sikhs, who remained in control until 1849.
The Marathi term "Sankrant Kosalali"(सक्रांत कोसळली) meaning "Sankranti has befallen us", is said to have originated from the events of the battle. There are some verbs in Marathi language related to this loss as "Panipat zale"(पानिपत झाले)[a major loss has been happened] This verb is even today used in Marathi language. A common pun is "Aamchaa Vishwaas Panipataat gela" (आमचा विश्वास पानीपतात गेला) [we lost our own (Vishwas) faith since Panipat]. 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.
It is however also remembered as a scene of great valour - Sadashiv Bhau was found with almost twenty dead Afghans around him. Santaji Wagh's corpse was found with over forty mortal wounds before he fell. Vishhwa Rao, the Peshwas son's bravery was even acknowledged by the Afghans.
However, the strength of Afghan military prowess was to both inspire hope in many orthodox Muslims, Mughal royalists and fear in the British. Hwoever the real truth of so many battle hardened Afghans killed in the struggle with the Marathas never allowed them to dream of controlling the Mughal Empire realistically again.
The real victors of the struggle were the British who were able to finish the remnant Afghan holdings by 1803 and the weak and disunited Maratha confederacy by 1818.