On the history trail: Aurangzeb’s Surat plundered by Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj

The night attack on Shaista Khan however spectacular did not inflict any discernible damage on Aurangzeb. Shaista Khan’s seizure and occupation of Pune and its surrounding districts for over three years and the siege of Kondana (December 1663 to June 1664) by Mirza Raja, Jashwant Singh or Jai Singh I had crippled the Maratha empire to some extent.


The battle of wits had reached a crescendo and a decisive reply to the invader was in order! During the rainy season of 1663, Shivaji’s spies and agents were keeping a close eye on the northern territories of the Mughals, specifically between Pune and Burhanpur looking for the weakest point for a fresh infliction, as open war had broken out between them. Maharaj sent his spies to ascertain details of prized Mughal lands both far and near.


The captain of his spies, Bahirji Naik after an arduous journey brought him news about the inestimable wealth of distant Surat, the prosperous gateway of India where most of the seaborne trade of the Mughals passed. At least twenty merchants had wealth that ran in crores and were coined as the richest in the world.


Maharaj decided to strike at Surat to inflict such immeasurable damage that Aurangzeb’s name will be blackened forever. As Shivaji planned his attack, the main worry was how to succeed in a place that was at least two hundred miles away and bereft of good roads and communication. The only highway to Surat lay through Burhanpur which must be avoided at all costs.


Shivaji set up two military camps in the vicinity of Danda Rajpuri and Pen which would appear to all that he was planning an attack on the Siddi of Janjira and the Portuguese. Another camp was set up near Nashik with his trusted men assigned to this secret task. Part of the troops numbering about four thousand in all were asked to move out at an auspicious time from their respective stations. Maharaj left Nashik on 1 January 1664 and his men marched through Mahuli, Kohoj, Jawhar and Ramnagar. They united at Gandevi, 28 miles south of Surat on 5 January 1664.


The alarming news that Shivaji’s banners were seen at Gandevi sent the wealthy port city into a state of panic. Citizens began to flee away across the river to villages on the northern bank with their wives and children. The Governor, Inayatulla Khan had no troops for the protection of the town depending largely on the Dutch and English though he drew a cash allowance for 500 soldiers.


Surat Fort stood on the south bank of the Tapti River about 12 miles from the sea and was considered to be impregnable. However, the city close to the fort did not even have a wall to defend it.


When the Governor was informed that Shivaji was now barely 5 miles from Surat, he sent a messenger to make peace with Maharaj. He was quickly informed that the messenger had been detained, as also those sent by the Dutch and English. Hearing this, the Governor sought refuge in his fort leaving the town and the Dutch and English to defend themselves. Rich men bribed their way into the safety of the fort taking all that they could with them.


Shivaji had already sent his messengers to inform the Governor and the merchants of his arrival and assured them that he meant no harm to them and that he was at open war with Aurangzeb. He intended to obtain funds from those who made their wealth by trading under Aurangzeb’s protection. He went on to state that Aurangzeb had driven him out of his home at Pune and appropriated all his treasure and belongings. He expected a handsome amount of 50 lakhs that could be easily given by the wealthy merchants. Letters to the Governor and three merchants namely Haji Saiyad Beg, Bahirji Bohra and Haji Kasim asking for contributions was sent with a clear warning of severe consequences should they refuse.


“Tomorrow”, he said, “we shall be at Surat when you should pay me a visit and deliver the specified amount. If you fail to comply, we shall have to use severe methods of collecting money such as plunder and arson, for which the responsibility is yours.”


The Governor sent an impertinent reply and Maharaj himself arrived at 11 a.m. on 6 January 1664 camping with his men in a garden outside the Burhanpur gate of Surat. No one came to receive Maharaj as they did not take his threat seriously. The English and Dutch were at their factories within their fortified enclosures at the river wharf while the Indian merchants hid in their palatial houses.


Maharaj had not brought heavy artillery with him and was not in a position to fight had the Governor chosen to do so. Shivaji sent for some local merchants and asked his men to use peaceful and persuasive methods to force out funds from them. Some of them refused and were imprisoned.


On 7 January 1664, Inayatulla Khan sent a young man to Shivaji with an offer of peace. After conversing for a few minutes, the young man came closer to Maharaj claiming he wanted to share some confidential information. He rushed forward to stab Maharaj with a concealed dagger. A Maratha bodyguard cut off his hand and the assassin hurled himself upon Maharaj. Maharaj’s clothes were stained with blood.


The guards became wild with fury and sought permission to start a massacre which Shivaji sternly prohibited. Had the three merchants Haji Saiyad Beg, Bahirji Bohra and Haji Kasim responded respectfully to the letter and come personally to meet Maharaj, their subsequent miseries could have been avoided.


Maharaj ordered a sack of the houses of the rich and the Marathas gleefully descended into the city. Throughout the 8th and 9th of January, the work of plunder and devastation continued with unabated fury. Houses were burnt and nearly two-thirds of the town destroyed. The Marathas broke open the doors of houses and chests filled with treasures were carried off. Heaps and heaps of articles found their way to Maharaj’s camp.


The mansion of Bahirji Borha was plundered for three days and an incredible amount of money and precious stones like rubies, diamonds and emeralds was carried away along with twenty-eight seers of large pearls. They dug up the floor and set fire to the mansion.


This mansion stood next to the Dutch factory with the mansion of Haji Saiyad Beg close to the English factory. The Marathas plundered Haji Saiyad’s house for two days until the English sent a guard to protect it. This enraged Maharaj as he had already warned both the Dutch and English to stay away from this war that was between himself and Aurangzeb. Night and day, the town was engulfed in fire and smoke that could be seen from miles.


Maharaj made the best of his four days’ run at the town but desisted from wanton cruelty for extracting money. The loot obtained was estimated at about a crore of rupees and consisted of gold mohurs, pearls, jewels etc., and was taken away in bags by 3000 coolies.


On 9 January 1664, he received news of a Mughal force advancing rapidly to the rescue of the town that finally arrived a week after his departure. He left on 10 January 1664 to Raigad and faced no resistance from the Mughals.


Shivaji wrote a letter to Aurangzeb on his return that ran thus, “I have reprimanded your uncle, Shaista Khan. I have defiled the prosperous city of Surat. Hindustan is for its citizens and not for invaders. You have no business to be here and impose your cruel beliefs and intolerances upon us. The Deccan belongs to us as well and is under my care.” Needless to say that this letter was ignored by Aurangzeb who continued in his tyrannical ways.


In retrospect, the famous Sack of Surat can be attributed to the impudence and cowardice of the Governor and the three merchants and their refusal to pay a ransom which would have ensured peace for all, with the attack by the assassin becoming the tipping point. Maharaj had publicly declared that he only intended to plunder Aurangzeb’s treasure in the city, a declaration that he assiduously stuck to during the four days.


In 1657, Aurangzeb true to his nature, issued an order to the subedars to invade the lands of Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj and lay waste the villages. What followed was horrific to say the least – rivers of blood flowed and people slayed mercilessly, robbed and enslaved.


Written by Lakshmi Subramanian


* Photos are only symbolic (Taken from public domain/internet and any copyright infringement is unintentional and regrettable)

* Information about The Sack of Surat is taken from archives

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