On the history trail: Conquest of the Koli territory by Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj

The Second Sack of Surat paved the way for Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj to make preparations for his ambitious missions by land and sea. The raid into Khandesh and Berar followed by Baglana and Karinja led to the bloody toil of Salher. The spirit of the Marathas was greatly roused by their comprehensive victory over Ikhlas Khan in Salher in February 1672, capture of Mulher and expulsion of Bahadur Khan and Diler Khan from Poona.

 

They worked hard during the hot summer as well as the rainy season that year to ensure that the Mughals would be morally deflated by these resounding victories. Moropant Peshwa was ordered to march towards Surat with ten thousand horse. Aurangzeb who had previously enrolled the Abyssinians under the protection of the Mughal dominion had issued orders for the construction of a fleet at Surat with the view of making inroads in the Konkan region that was under Maharaj and destroying his sea power.

 

Maharaj had received news from his spies that the Mughal fleet at Surat was nearing completion and Moropant was instructed to destroy this naval force before it could combine with the formidable force of the chief of Janjira but, the fleet had already set sail for Janjira before Moropant’s arrival.

 

So Moropant aggressively placed himself and his men threatening the approaches of Surat, cut off all their supplies and trade communications and demanded a heavy tribute. The Governor of the city pretended to agree to this condition and extorted exorbitant sums of money from the rich citizens of which only a part was paid to Moropant while he pocketed the rest.

 

Maharaj realised that time was of the essence and resolved to capture the territory surrounding Surat so that he will be in a commanding position to bring Surat entirely under his control. He decided to invade the princely states of Jawhar and Ramnagar in North Konkan. On the previous two occasions when Maharaj had invaded Surat, he had marched through their territories having purposely taken the circuitous mountain route to evade the attention of the Mughal commanders and divert them from his real objective, which was the flourishing town of Surat.

 

The services of these kings were handsomely acknowledged by Maharaj on the return of their victorious armies. Maharaja Vikramshah I Munke had been vacillating between the Mughals and the Marathas for some time extending his help to either as per his whims and fancies.

 

Around 5 June 1672, Moropant Peshwa led a large army towards Jawhar and captured it from the Koli Raja without much effort. He seized a treasure amounting to seventeen lakhs of rupees. Jawhar is about 100 miles from Surat and adjoins the Nashik district, from which it is separated by the Western Ghats.

 

Moropant advanced further north and threatened the other Koli state of Ramnagar which is about sixty miles south of Surat. Maharaja Soma Shah fled with his family around 19 June 1672 to Chikhli, six miles south-east of Gandevi and thirty-three miles south of Surat. Gandevi soon wore a deserted look when people heard that the Marathas were closing in. The Marathas retreated to Ramnagar on hearing that Diler Khan was gathering his forces to combat them.

 

Heavy rain stopped the activity of the Marathas for a few days. Soon afterwards, Moropant renewed the attack and took Ramnagar in the first week of July 1672. Maharaja Soma Shah was forced to concede defeat and welcomed Maharaj into the fort of Ramnagar. Maharaj decided to retain the fort permanently, for this stronghold was the key to maintain a strategic hold over Surat.

 

Maharaja Soma Shah had no alternative but to acquiesce in this demand. The territory of the Koli king comprised a few mountain forts and the remote territory on the sea coast that formed the district of Daman which was under the Portuguese. The Portuguese were accustomed to paying a hefty chauth to the king of Ramnagar to secure his protection.

 

Maharaj having occupied these lands and the mountain forts turned his attention to the Portuguese power at Daman. The Portuguese were in a state of panic knowing full well that they were in no position to oppose the military might of Maharaj and his men. The fort ramparts had just been completed and yet to be fitted with the cannons. The garrison erected a few guns on the bastions and sent an officer to inquire the purpose of the Maratha visit.

 

They were informed that the annual tribute made previously to the king of Ramnagar should now be made to Maharaj. The Portuguese willingly agreed to avoid any conflict with the Marathas.

 

The annexation of Jawhar and Ramnagar by the Marathas meant that Surat now lay helplessly open to invasion from the south. This sent the citizens into a tizzy for they were constantly expecting the Marathas to turn up unannounced at the gates of Surat demanding a ransom.

 

Moropant sent three letters to the Governor and affluent traders of Surat from Ramnagar demanding four lakhs of rupees and threatening to visit the city if they refused. The third letter sent was very peremptory in tone. Maharaj wrote thus, “I demand for the third time, which shall be the last, the chauth or quarter part of the king’s revenue under your government. As your king has forced me to keep an army for the defence of my people and country, that army must be paid by his subjects. If you do not send me the money speedily, then make ready a large house for me, for I shall go and sit down there and receive the revenue and custom duties, as there is none now to stop my passage.”

 

The Governor of Surat on hearing the arrival of the Maratha army in Ramnagar summoned the wealthy merchants of the port city and proposed that they should contribute forty-five thousand rupees to maintain five hundred horse and cavalry to guard the town. However, the Governor did not enlist any soldiers putting this money into his coffers.

 

The third letter of Maharaj was met with great trepidation. The rich merchants met the Governor in the night seeking permission to remove their families to Broach and other towns. The Governor first kept them waiting till after midnight, then gave his permission only to retract it the following morning. He asked them instead to raise more money to meet the demands.

 

But the merchants were well aware of the agenda of the Governor and refused to part with any more money. Every time news came in that the Marathas were in the vicinity, the merchants tried to escape but the Governor shut the gates of the city to keep them in.

 

In conclusion, Maharaja Vikramshah I fled to the adjoining district of Nashik in June 1672 after losing his kingdom. He tried to disturb the lands of the Marathas but was defeated and put to death in January 1678 when Moropant Peshwa invaded Nashik. His son escaped and joined another Koli king, Dhara Rai Koli taking to brigandage and causing considerable loss to the Maratha territory and military routes. They were captured and executed.

 

Maharaj implemented the practice of chauth seen in Ramnagar in his successive missions. It soon developed into an impressive instrument for the expansion of the Maratha empire after his demise.

 

Written by Lakshmi Subramanian

 

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

* Information about Conquest of the Koli territory is taken from archives

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