The imposing persona of Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj, undisputedly the greatest, most astute strategist the world has seen is imprinted in the lush green picturesque Sahyadri mountains. He possessed all the virtues extolled by Vidura Mahātma in his treatise Vidura Neeti of a king who can oversee the three worlds and it is unsurprising that he is considered to be one of the most inspiring personalities to have walked this earth.
Young Shivaji’s ambition of Hindavi Swarajya, saw him at the centre of many important events and military campaigns in his lifetime. One of the most interesting battles which was won on the sheer strength of his intelligence network is the Battle of Umberkhind in 1661.
Aurangazeb knew that he could not ignore Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj’s valour and rising power any longer and decided that it would be in his interest to strike the fatal blow. General Shaista Khan despatched Kartalab Khan known be his right-hand on the orders of Aurangazeb with a singular goal of decimating the growing popularity of Shivaji and his loyalists.
Kartalab Khan had already proven his competency by capturing the forts of Chakan, Kalyan, Bhiwandi, Panvel, Chul and Nagothane by 1661. Kartalab was accompanied by a brave warrior who was the wife of an old general who had rendered distinguished service to Jahangir and Shah Jahan and her full contingent. Aurangzeb had the highest regard for her and conferred the title of Rai Bagan (The tiger princess) upon her.
Kartalab Khan was a shrewd army commander with years of experience waging wars against armies that fought not particularly for an ideal but because they had been instructed to do so on the relatively flat topography of North Central India. Kartalab had 20,000 troops, artillery pieces, horses and elephants at his disposal.
Kartalab Khan left Pune in January 1661 and descended the Western Ghats by what is known as Umberkhind at the foot of the fort of Lohagad. The pass is extremely narrow and about 8 miles in length and for more than 15 miles from the eastern plain to the western plain, hardly allowed for more than two men walking abreast!
The steep path runs through a barren waterless stretch with huge precipices on the two sides. Maharaj studied the intricacies of this path and monitored the movements of the Mughals through his spies. His well-trained groups of infantry stayed hidden from sight ready to attack on command.
Shivaji decided to allow the entire invading army to reach the plain which is encircled by high mountains and thick jungle. The unsuspecting Mughals leisurely descended through the narrow pass with guns, ammunition and supplies. As soon as the whole force had been trapped between the narrow pass with the two entrances above and below closed by the Marathas, missiles of stones and arrows began to fall upon them from the adjoining rocks.
Khan was now completely surrounded with Shivaji’s army having a bird’s eye view of his movements from the top of the pass as well as waiting in the dense cover of the trees. Kartalab and his men were numb with shock unable to comprehend the attack with rolling boulders, arrows flying past and the deafening sounds of the bugles.
When Kartalab Khan found no way out for his men, Rai Bagan interceded and asked him to make peace with Shivaji and beg for a safe retreat. The entire battle was over in less than three hours with the Mughal army completely routed.
Shivaji consented to his request when Kartalab Khan and his army laid down their arms in front of him and in return demanded that their entire armoury and essentials which included, rifles, guns, gunpowder, swords, arrows, shields, horses, wagons, food grains, gold, jewellery and others be left behind. Khan also allowed his men to join the cause of Shivaji if they so wished.
The victory of Umberkhind is one of crowning glories in the illustrious life of Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj and is commemorated every year on February 2 since 2001.
One needs to visit the Umberkhind pass to understand and appreciate the brilliant strategy employed by Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj. The Umberkhind trek is one of the most scenic treks in the Sahyadri that both naturalists and history buffs would enjoy. The trek starts from the base village of Chavani and takes you through streams and meadows till you finally climb up to the plateau below Duke’s nose.
Written by Lakshmi Subramanian
* Photos are only symbolic (Taken from public domain/internet and any copyright infringement is unintentional and regrettable)
* Information about the Battle of Umberkhind is taken from archives