On the history trail: Tulja Bhavani and The Battle of Pratapgad

The capture of the hill forts of Purandar, Kalyan and Bhiwandi and the death, ruin and defection of feudatories like the Mores of Javli and the Sawants of Wadi respectively effected by Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj and his able aides brought the crippling Bijapur kingdom to its knees. The construction of the new hill fort of Rajgad and the birth of his son, Sambhaji Raje was not well received by either Aurangzeb or the Bijapur Adil Shahis. Aurangzeb was in a constant state of unease over the rising position of young Shivaji.


Badi Saheba or Queen Dowager of Bijapur wrote a strong letter to Shahaji Raje, the father of Shivaji asking him to punish his son but Shahaji wrote back saying he repudiated Shivaji as his son and left it to the Government’s discretion to deal with him in a manner they deemed fit without considering his feelings. Badi Saheba called her counsel to decide who would undertake the mission to subjugate Shivaji. It was discussed that Shivaji will have to be crushed by force and this was no mean task. None of the generals present were keen on facing Shivaji and his mighty army in the hilly terrain and thick forests of the Western Ghats and refrained from accepting the command of the expedition.


Finally, Abdullah Bhatari surnamed Afzal Khan, a noble of the first rank and a general of the highest standing in the court of Bijapur known for his bravery and skill in the wars against the Mughals accepted charge of this mission. The Bijapur kingdom was facing severe financial crunch because of wars and administrative disorder and could only spare 10,000 strong force besides infantry to accompany Afzal Khan. Afzal Khan did not fancy his chances with Shivaji in open battle and Badi Saheba reading his mind instructed him to effect the capture or murder of Shivaji through a pretence of friendship and a pardon from Adil Shah.


The general’s vanity outweighed his common sense and he made a declaration to Badi Saheba that he will capture Shivaji without dismounting from his own horse! Afzal Khan pondered over the strategy to be employed to break the strong bonds of loyalty of Shivaji’s Mavali Deshmukhs by striking terror in their hearts. Many captains like Ambar, Yakut, Muse Khan, Ankush Khan, Hasan Pathan and Maratha sardars like Ghorpade, Pandhare, Kharade, Mambaji Bhosale and others joined him with their contingents.


Afzal Khan crossed the Krishna with his troops and arrived at the ancient temple of Bhavani at Tuljapur. On hearing that Bhavani of Tuljapur was sacrosanct for the Marathas and the guardian deity of many noble Maratha families, he went on a rampage and desecrated the temple. The original stone image of Goddess Bhavani was hidden by the priest under water but the larger deity was grabbed and flung on the ground and powdered to pieces in a hand mill!


The moment the image of Bhavani Devi was pounded to dust, a heavenly voice was heard, “Afzal Khan! You mean wretch! On the twenty-first day from this, I will behead you, your whole army will be destroyed!” Afzal took no notice of this warning and proceeded to Pandharpur desecrating the temple of Mankeshwar on the way. He descended to the valley of Bhima as the straight road over the mountain ghats was rendered impassable due to heavy rains.


He had resolved to destroy all that Shivaji held dear and proceeded to demolish the temple of Vithoba. The priests of the temple concealed the image and the alarmed citizens of the city deserted their homes and fled to the nearby forests. Afzal wreaked as much havoc as he could and marched towards Pune. He wrote letters to several Deshmukhs of Wai to join him and prove their loyalty. One among these was sent to Kanhoji Jedhe, a loyal aide of Shivaji who was threatened with dire consequences should he fail to join his cause. Kanhoji Jedhe however stuck to Shivaji even though he was warned by Maharaj that he may lose his hereditary holdings for siding with him. But that did not deter Kanhoji who rallied many others to join hands with Shivaji. Meanwhile, his arch enemy Khandoji Khopade joined Afzal Khan along with others who had begun to fear the dominance of Shivaji.


Shivaji on hearing that Afzal was close to Wai left Rajgad for Javli with his army to forestall Afzal Khan should he decide to change his route. On hearing that Shivaji and his army were already at Javli, Afzal Khan thought it better to secure his objective through peaceful negotiations rather than fighting Shivaji in the hilly region where he would be at a great disadvantage. Meanwhile, an envoy Krshnaji Bhaskar who was an old friend of Shahaji was summoned and instructed to ask Shivaji to come for an interview with all assurances for his safety provided and the added incentive of a pardon for his rebellious activities against the Bijapur kingdom.


Meanwhile, Shivaji was gathering his army but his counsel was not in favour of war but peace and advised him accordingly. On the other hand, Shivaji was of the opinion that if peace is suggested and an interview is granted, then he would suffer the same fate as his brother Sambhaji in the hands of Afzal Khan.


Shivaji prayed to Bhavani Devi and sought Her advice and blessings. The Divine Goddess appeared in his dream and assured him of Her help and victory and the inevitable death of Afzal Khan. Shivaji called for his trusted men like Gomaji Naik Pansambal Jamdar, Krshnaji Naik, Subhanji Naik, Moropant and others the next morning and appealed to their sense of honour and revealed Bhavani’s blessings and help. The generals saw that Shivaji was of the firm resolve to fight with honour rather than plead for mercy and got ready for battle. Shivaji took blessings from his mother who reiterated the words of Bhavani Devi and left for Pratapgad. He left his mother and son in charge with strict orders to all the sardars to fight on if he were to lose his life.


He instructed Netaji Palkar Sarnobat to come up the ghats with his forces and block the roads. Raghunath Ballal Sabnis was sent with him while it was arranged that Moropant Peshwa should have Rav Nilkanth and Trimbak Bhaskar would come from the Konkan.


The envoy carrying the honeyed messages of Afzal Khan and commanded to employ any means to induce Shivaji for a personal discussion was received by Shivaji with all pomp and ceremony due to his citadel. Krshnaji Bhaskar seeing his old friend in Shivaji confided the evil machinations of Afzal Khan and advised him to agree for the interview on the pretext that he was in fear of Afzal and his bravery and prowess. Sensing an ally in him, Shivaji agreed to this and despatched his trusted man, Pantaji Gopinath to accompany Krshnaji to confirm this proposal and represent Shivaji’s views and fears.


On the advice of Krshnaji, Gopinath was instructed to tell Afzal that Shivaji wanted to pay his respects to him but his timid nature and fear of their mighty army prevented him from complying with the tenets of diplomatic etiquette. He was asked to meet near Javli as a gesture of good faith.


After much deliberation with Krshnaji and seeing the difficulty in deploying the army in Javli, Afzal finally agreed to the proposal to meet Shivaji at Javli on the condition that Shivaji must descend from Pratapgad. Shivaji took every necessary measure to ensure that Khan’s movements were unobstructed while clearing a large part of the area for his camp.


Netaji Palkar was ordered to bring his battalions from Konkan to the ridge of the ghats and remain hidden in the thick foliage to the east of Pratapgad. Moropant was asked to loiter around the clearing where Afzal Khan was to encamp and watch their movements. Raghunath Ballal was to be Netaji’s lieutenant and Trimbak Bhaskar Moropant’s.


After Shivaji would safely return, five cannon shots would be fired upon which Netaji was to descend on the army while Moropant was to attack on those encamped in the valley. At the foot of the fort, a magnificent pavilion was erected with a richly decorated canopy and adorned with riches and bejewelled seats befitting the stature of his guest.


On the historic day of 10 November 1659, Afzal Khan filled with pomposity sure that he will achieve his task left with 1,500 men to meet Shivaji but was dissuaded by Krshnaji who felt that Shivaji might get frightened on seeing this show of strength and instead finally left on his palanquin with his bearers and Sayyid Banda, a renowned swordsman. He was attired in just a vest and a cloak with no protective gear inside wearing a flowing robe of thin muslin.


Shivaji on the other hand wore a coat armour (steel chain armour) under his tunic, placed a steel cap under his embroidered turban, wore his short trousers and tucked a sash around his waist. He concealed the wagh nakha (tiger claws) in his left hand fastened to the fingers by a pair of rings and hid his thin sharp dagger aptly named vinchu (scorpion) up his right sleeve. Accompanying him were Jiv Mahala, an expert swordsman and Sambhaji Kavji, with each man carrying two swords and a shield.


Afzal Khan arrived first with Sayyid Banda, Gopinath and Krshnaji and was astonished on seeing the luxurious tent prepared in his honour. There were exquisite carpets, diwans and gaddis, cushions made in expensive silk and pearls and other precious stones hung in garlands. He was outraged that Shivaji was not waiting for him but Krshnaji spoke sweet words of how all these riches and wealth will soon be theirs and calmed him down.


As Shivaji descended the fort, he came to know of the presence of Sayyid Banda. He immediately requested that he be asked to wait outside and this was agreed upon. Each side had four men – one envoy, two armed guards and the principal. When Shivaji entered the bedecked tent, he saw Afzal sitting on the honorary seat on the raised platform. Shivaji mounted the platform and bowed to Afzal while the attendants waited below.


Afzal rose from his seat and opened his arms to embrace Shivaji. Now, Afzal was a big strapping man at least 6′ 7″ in height while Shivaji was wiry and shorter than Afzal. Shivaji only came up to the shoulders of Afzal. Afzal placed Shivaji’s head under his armpit on the pretext of hugging him, tightened his grip over his neck, unsheathed the jamdad (a short sword) from his right hand and thrust it into the side of Shivaji. The sword merely grazed the armour under the robe.


Shivaji who was getting slowly strangled in the firm grip groaned in agony distracting Afzal. Afzal slightly loosened his hold and immediately Shivaji pressed the wagh nakha into the belly of Afzal and tore his bowels open effectively disembowelling him and leaving a blood trail. Afzal held on to his abdomen while Shivaji used the vinchu hidden under his sleeve and struck him repeatedly finally extricating his head from under Afzal’s arm.


Afzal lunged forward with his sword but Shivaji warded off the blow and jumped off the platform with great agility. Afzal cried out for help screaming murder and treachery. The attendants ran up to defend their man. Sayyid Banda faced Shivaji and with one stroke cut his turban into two hitting the steel cap that he wore. Shivaji took the patta given by Jiv Mahala and warded off four blows of Sayyid by holding the patta and vinchu crosswise. At the fifth blow, Shivaji aimed to kill him but Jiv dealt the fatal blow severing his arm which held the sword.


Meanwhile, the palanquin bearers got ready to make a hasty retreat with Afzal. But Sambhaji Kavji struck the legs of the bearers in one stroke making them drop the palanquin and beheaded Afzal Khan. He brought the head of Afzal to Shivaji who along with Jiv Mahala started moving quickly to the fort.


On reaching the fort safely, the cannon shots were fired and the sound of the bugles were heard from the armies of Moropant, Trimbak, Netaji and Mavalis who commenced their attack on the Adil Shahi forces from all the sides. The soldiers reeling from the death of their general ran helter-skelter and a frightful battle ensued for six hours, more of a desperate attempt to offer some resistance even though it was a foregone conclusion.


The Adil Shahis were decisively routed and Shivaji was seen as a great threat by all the invaders.  Though the material gains were significant, the greatest accomplishment of this battle was the severed head of Afzal Khan that was laid down at the feet of Bhavani Devi at Tuljapur.


Pleased with the service of Shivaji, Goddess Bhavani appeared in his dream and said, “I got Afzal killed with your hands and those who came afterwards, I was the cause for their defeat. Great deeds will be performed in the future. I shall live in your kingdom. Build a home for me in your kingdom and worship me.”


The next morning, Shivaji Maharaj loaded a cart and asked for five pieces of marble to be brought from the Gandaki to build the temple. A beautiful image of Bhavani Devi was created and the Divine Being was consecrated in Pratapgad.


This battle made Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj the undisputed ruler of the Konkan and the strength of the Marathas would only increase setting in motion the goal of Hindavi Swarajya. Kanhoji Jedhe was honoured with talwarichya pahilya panache maankari (Sword of Honour) by Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj for his outstanding courage and loyalty.


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 Pratapgad is taken from archives

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