On the history trail: Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj’s miraculous escape from Agra

It was imperative for Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj to maintain the pretence of submissiveness towards Mirza Raja, Jai Singh I to effect the famous Treaty of Purandar on 11 June 1665. It was quite clear that Mirza Raja was favourably disposed towards Maharaj and sanguine about a permanent understanding between Aurangzeb and Maharaj.


As time passed, Mirza Raja decided that it would be in the best interest of the Mughals to adopt the policy of their predecessor, Akbar and make friendly overtures to Hindu kings especially Maharaj. In a letter dated 16 February 1666, Jai Singh writes to Aurangzeb asking him to call Shivaji immediately to his court as it would not be prudent for Shivaji to remain any longer in the Deccan. The combined forces of Govalkonda and Bijapur had risen against the Mughals and Jai Singh expressed his concern that Shivaji might join them. Aurangzeb accepted the proposal and according to the recommendation of Jai Singh, issued orders for Shivaji to be treated with the honour and etiquette due to royalty. Shivaji was privy to the content in the letters written by Aurangzeb to Jai Singh in 1665 censuring him for his conduct and failure to imprison him when he had come to visit him personally.


Jai Singh was blissfully ignorant of the diabolical nature of Aurangzeb and thought himself to be clever for playing the part of a mediator and reconciling two opposite views into a beneficial union. Shivaji on the other hand, was bereft of such delusions and had grave doubts about the sincerity of Aurangzeb whose ways and methods were already well-known. Aurangzeb had deceitfully betrayed his own brother Murad, cruelly effected the ruin of Dara Shukoh and Shuja, artfully confined his father and selfishly stolen the throne for himself, not even sparing his own sons from his wrath.


It was highly unlikely that Shivaji being a Hindu and seeking independence for his country from the tyrannical regime of the invaders would be received favourably by Aurangzeb. However, a personal visit to Aurangzeb and his court would give him a realistic picture of the power of the invaders and an opportunity for him to judge and assess his friends and foes and most importantly, the direction he should take for the ambitious goal of Hindavi Swarajya to be fulfilled.


As Shivaji contemplated on the impending visit for days, Bhavani Devi gave him the much-needed assurance, “Great is the peril that is threatening you now. Jai Singh is not fated to taste defeat in your hands. You will have to make terms of peace and amity and go to Delhi. Dark clouds gather round you at Delhi, but I shall shield you from all harm and restore you safe and victorious again to your realm.”


Jai Singh and his son Kirat Singh offered him solemn oaths and written promises that both he and his son Ram Singh would guarantee his life and safety. The wheels were in motion and the die was cast!


Shivaji prepared for the worst and made arrangements for his work to be carried out in his absence. Jija Bai was to be the head of the administration with Moropant Peshwa, Nilopant Muzumdar and Prataprao Gujar Senapati forming the executive council. Shivaji made an extensive tour of all his districts, encouraging and inspiring his men to stay focussed on their path.


On 5 March 1666, Shivaji left Raigad with Sambhaji and his retinue. Tanaji Malusare, Yesaji Kank, Baji Sharzerav Jedhe, Hiroji Farzand, Balaji Avji, Niraji Raoji, Raghunath Ballal Korde, Trimbak Sondev Dabir and Madari Mehtar were some of the distinguished Marathas who accompanied Shivaji to Aurangabad. A corps of expert swordsmen and a Mavali brigade of three to four thousand warriors accompanied him.


Aurangzeb wrote in his letter dated 5 April 1666 to Shivaji assuring him that he would be received with honour and granted permission to return after his visit to the darbar. People turned up in large numbers to receive Shivaji when he reached Aurangabad. Governor Shaista Khan was conspicuous in his absence and Shivaji observed this affront and headed straight to Jai Singh’s quarters. Shaista Khan was severely reprimanded by Jai Singh for his conduct and the former came to meet Shivaji the following day offering apologies for his remissness.


Shivaji left Aurangabad in the middle of March and proceeded to Agra. He arrived in Agra on 9 May 1666 and was received with great pomp by Ram Singh. Shivaji was received by Aurangzeb in the Agra Fort on 12 May 1666 which incidentally was also his birthday. After the famed interview of Aurangzeb by Shivaji and Shivaji’s public humiliation in the grand darbar, Aurangzeb decided to either kill Shivaji or to confine him in a fortress.


He ordered Siddi Faulad to move Shivaji to the residence of Radandaz Khan who was the commandant of the Agra Fort. Faulad Khan arrived with five thousand men to guard Shivaji and presented him a letter that debarred Shivaji from coming to the darbar again. Ram Singh was asked to sign a bond of security for Shivaji, that he might not escape or commit any harm.


Shivaji was under confinement from 12 May to 17 August which became more rigorous as the days passed. As Aurangzeb was unwilling to allow Shivaji to leave and all requests for a compromise had been declined, Shivaji knew that he had to send his men back home if he had to plan a daring escape. He released Ram Singh from his bond of security and began to ponder over the next course of action.


He sought refuge in Bhavani Devi and prayed to her for guidance. Bhavani Devi appeared in his dream and said thus, “Be not in anxiety. I will take you and your son away from here to safety.”  He then wrote to Aurangzeb of the hardship of detaining his men in the north as the climate did not agree with them and sickness was rife in their ranks. He sought permission to send them home, retaining only the services of those that were required as this would greatly decrease the burden on his exchequer.


Aurangzeb was only too pleased to grant passports for their return. His loyal followers reluctantly left Maharaj on 25 July to return to the Deccan. It was becoming increasingly evident to Maharaj that the bitterness and malice spread by Shaista Khan, the wife of Shaista Khan and her brother Jaffar Khan had convinced Aurangzeb that Shivaji was both insincere and untrustworthy. The threat of an insurrection by the Rajput nobles was the only reason Aurangzeb shrank away from putting him to death.


By the middle of July, a plan was formulated by Shivaji. He asked for a loan of Rs 66,000 from Ram Singh. Shivaji, under the pretence of a religious vow began to follow certain customary obligations on every Thursday of the week of sending sweets and confectionery to the nobles of the court. Ten large baskets were filled with sweets and hung by ropes from a bamboo pole that rested on the shoulders of two men.


Initially, the sentinels used to order the carriers to lay down their burden and inspect it thoroughly before allowing them to pass. As this went on from Thursday to Thursday, the sentinels got tired of the needless search and merely looked into a couple of baskets.


Shivaji gradually sent away his remaining followers who had stayed back with him using the passports given by Aurangzeb on the pretence of sickness, or wanting a change in climate, or because they had become weary and desired a change of leader. Thus, on one pretext or another, the number of followers dwindled from day to day. They were instructed by Shivaji to await his arrival at certain appointed places.


Shivaji was left only with his son Sambhaji, Hiroji Farzand and one or two attendants. Shivaji then feigned illness and sent for physicians. Pretending to get worse, he avoided company and instructed anyone coming to speak to him from a distance. After a few days, he began sending large baskets of sweets to Brahmins and courtiers. Alms were distributed to Brahmins, the poor and the fakirs.


This occurrence became so common that the guards allowed the baskets to pass unchecked. One evening, Shivaji ordered four to five baskets to be made ready with sweets. On 17 August, Shivaji sent word to the guards in the afternoon that he had taken very ill and did not wish to be disturbed.


At 4 p.m. on that day, Shivaji and his son Sambhaji concealed themselves in two baskets along with other baskets carrying presents and sweets. They passed the guards unchallenged. Hiroji Farzand looked a lot like Shivaji and put on Shivaji’s robe and lay on the bed covered with a quilt with his right arm outstretched adorned with Shivaji’s gold wristlet.


He lay all night covered by the bed clothes till next day noon while a young page rubbed his feet. It appeared to the guards that Shivaji was terribly ill as he was still in bed at broad daylight. The page replied saying that he was in a lot of pain. The sentinels returned to their posts.


Hiroji rose from the bed and put on his dress and left the residence with the page instructing the guards not to disturb Maharaj as he was finally sleeping after a restless night. When the guards made further inquiries, Hiroji put them off saying that his master was very sick and that he had to rush off to see the physician. Hiroji met Ram Singh and informed him of Maharaj’s escape and bade him a hasty adieu.


Meanwhile, the baskets were carried three miles out of the city of Agra where Niraji Raoji, Tanaji and others were waiting with horses. After a hurried consultation in the jungle, Shivaji with Sambhaji and Niraji Raoji, Datta Trimbak and Raghumitra decided to smear themselves with ashes and make their way to Banaras and Mathura in the guise of ascetics before heading to Raigad. The others headed home to share the news of his great escape.


Meanwhile, the guards became suspicious when they found no one entering or leaving the house. They entered the residence the following morning only to discover that he had disappeared. The news was conveyed to Aurangzeb who could scarcely believe his ears. He ordered a search in every nook and corner of Agra but by then Shivaji was well and truly out of danger and inching closer to Benares.


Shivaji’s startling escape is yet another example of his indomitable spirit, firm resolve, consummate stratagem and outstanding courage.


Written by Lakshmi Subramanian


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

* Information about Shivaji at the Mughal Court is taken from archives

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