While Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj and the Marathas raided Berar and Khandesh, Moropant Peshwa made his way through North Konkan into Baglana wresting the forts of Trimbak, Aundha, Patta and Ramnagar from the Mughals and passed through Mulher into West Khandesh levying contributions wherever he went. He reached Salher Fort on the border of Khandesh and Gujarat. Daud Khan arrived near Mulher in the night but could not advance as most of his army were lagging behind.
Now, this fort was of utmost strategic importance and therefore, the united forces of Shivaji Maharaj who was returning from the plunder of Karinja and Moropant Peshwa’s division besieged the fort of Salher. Daud Khan urged his troops to get ready to move to Salher to raise the siege. But, his army had other plans and spent most of their time in the camp attending to their own needs. Daud Khan decided to head out on his own and heard on the way that Salher had been taken and returned to Mulher disappointed.
He then decided to set up camp at a new base near Kanchan-Manchan in the Chandor range. Shivaji had invested a twenty thousand strong force of cavalry and horse to capture the fort. One day, he found the garrison off their guard and scaled the walls using rope ladders. The Mughal commander Fathullah Khan fought valiantly but lost his life and his wife’s brother surrendered the fort to the Marathas. The fort was captured on 5 January 1671.
This victory opened new doors for the Marathas and Aurangzeb decided to take an active interest in the increasing confusion of the Mughal administration of the Deccan. The Second Sack of Surat and conquest of Baglana forced Aurangzeb to send Mahabat Khan to the Deccan in November 1670. Bahadur Khan was ordered to move from Gujarat to aid Mahabat Khan to tame the Marathas.
Daud Khan and Diler Khan were already stationed there along with many distinguished Rajputs. Mahabat Khan, Jashwant Singh, Daud Khan and others assembled in January 1671 to pay their respects to Muhammad Mu’azzam, son of Aurangzeb and deliberated on how to tackle the rising power of Maharaj.
During the monsoon months of 1671, the Mughals encamped at Parner where the various commanders kept their spirits up with music and dance while the soldiers and animals died through pestilence in the camp. Four hundred dancing girls from Punjab and Afghanistan lived in the Mughal camp and entertained the officers.
Aurangzeb was already dissatisfied with the poor campaign of Mahabat Khan in the early months of 1671 and began to suspect him of entering into a secret understanding with Maharaj. He recalled him from the Deccan and appointed Bahadur Khan and Diler Khan instead. They both came rapidly from Surat and laid siege to Salher. Further, Bahadur Khan and Daud Khan left Ikhlas Khan in charge of the siege and proceeded to Poona with a view to stop any reinforcements from proceeding to Salher.
Bahadur Khan advanced towards Supa and Diler Khan entered Poona in December 1671 and massacred a large number of innocent inhabitants. Meanwhile, as shortage of food supplies was reported by the garrison stationed in Salher, Maharaj had to exercise all his ingenuity in making good the deficiency.
As the siege lines lay all round Salher, there was no easy path to deliver the necessary provisions. Maharaj mustered a large army and drew nearer to Salher. Diler Khan, then under the orders of Bahadur Khan was quick to rise to the challenge. He diverted a large part of his army from the siege to face Maharaj.
This was exactly the outcome Maharaj was looking for. For, no sooner were the siege lines relaxed in consequence of the lure of battle, the forces carrying the supplies and ammunition charged into the fort from the north.
Two thousand horse were sent to raid Diler Khan’s camp but the Mughal commander moved quickly and cut them to pieces. The situation had become grave. Moropant was ordered to march towards Salher with his men and Prataprao Gujar rode quickly to Salher to help out. A total of twenty thousand horse descended upon the Mughals.
Ikhlas Khan who now had a larger army under him was deputed to oppose their approach. Prataprao saw the advancing Mughals from a distance. Ikhlas Khan decided to halt and get ready for battle. The Mughals charged while Prataprao chose to maintain a rigid defensive formation. The battle raged on for some time.
Prataprao sounded a retreat and the Marathas began to turn back dispersing like the wind. The Mughals seeing the fleeing Marathas broke ranks to pursue them. Meanwhile Anandrao Makaji was waiting with his army hidden from sight.
Once Prataprao and his men had managed to lure the Mughals far away from Salher into a narrow stretch of land, he suddenly turned round in flight and drew his men in order. This along with the fresh force of Anandrao Makaji who had blocked the pass wreaked havoc in the disarrayed ranks of the pursuing Mughals.
Moropant also arrived at this opportune moment with his men and the united forces of the various Maratha Generals added to the confusion of the Mughals. Bahadur Khan and Diler Khan hearing the fierce battle at Salher hurried back. Maharaj led his men to attack the division left to besiege Salher.
Ikhlas Khan regrouped his forces and with the addition of fresh troops renewed the battle. The Mughals began to fall back unable to sustain the fiery attack of the Marathas. Soon, they lost courage and began to flee.
Five thousand men and twenty-two officers were killed. Several commanders were wounded and captured by the Marathas. They were properly nursed and released with presents after their wounds had been treated. Among these were Ikhlas Khan himself and Mukaham Singh, son of Rao Amar Singh Chandawat. They were released after some time and sent to Ahmednagar. Some willingly accepted Maharaj’s service.
Around ten to fifteen thousand Marathas were slain. Surya Rao Kakde, Maharaj’s childhood companion lost his life and Maharaj received the news of his death with great sorrow, exclaiming that he had lost an old, valiant and devoted officer. The comprehensive defeat of Ikhlas Khan and the loss of such an enormous army took the edge from Mahabat Khan’s offensive. He did not possess the courage to persevere in the campaign with his remaining army. Bahadur Khan raised the siege of Salher and rode fast to Aurangabad. The Marathas hung on his rear almost to the gates of the town.
The Marathas acquired by way of plunder six thousand horses, seven hundred camels, one hundred and twenty-five elephants and jewellery, ammunition and some valuables. All the Maratha Generals were presented with dresses and jewellery for their courage and resolve.
The Battle of Salher was an open action by Shivaji and his men opposing the best equipped and most ably led Mughal armies, by no means partaking of the nature of guerrilla warfare. This was the most decisive and considerable victory hitherto gained by Shivaji over the Mughals. It exceeded every other success of the Marathas and enhanced the prestige of Shivaji in the eyes of the nation.
The outstanding chivalry and leadership exhibited by Maharaj and his prominent generals had never been seen before even drawing praise from the Mughals. Many flocked to the camp of Shivaji to join his ambitious cause of Hindavi Swarajya.
The Battle of Salher was fought in February 1672. Thus, Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj, in a few years not only recovered his former position but became a formidable opponent for the best generals and administrators of the invaders.
Written by Lakshmi Subramanian
* Photos are only symbolic (Taken from public domain/internet and any copyright infringement is unintentional and regrettable)
* Information about Battle of Salher is taken from archives