On the history trail: The heroism of Sarsenapati Santaji Ghorpade

As the siege of Jinji dragged on languidly, Aurangzeb became increasingly exasperated with both Zulfiqar Khan and his father, Asad Khan. He bemoaned the inability of his army to overcome the guerrilla tactics of the Marathas. Zulfiqar Khan had been given two clear tasks namely to capture Gingee and Chhatrapati Rajaram Maharaj and so far, had failed on both accounts.


To remedy the situation, he despatched Kasim Khan, his trusted and competent general to position himself midway on the road to Gingee so as to take on the forces of Santaji Ghorpade and Dhanaji Jadhav and thereby, allow Zulfiqar Khan to plan a decisive incursion into Gingee.


On the occasion of the Dasara celebration of October 1695, Ramchandra Pant Amatya called a meeting of his trusted Maratha leaders at Vishalgad. The meeting was to address the siege of Gingee and arrive at a solution for cohesive action by the various scattered units of the Marathas. Effective measures to conduct a crippling offensive on Aurangzeb to counteract his appointment of Kasim Khan and to secure a rapid victory was discussed.


They decided to form two parties – one to attack the northern part of the Mughal dominion and the other to move in the region of the Tungabhadra to stop Kasim Khan in his tracks and relieve the mounting pressure on Chhatrapati Rajaram Maharaj at Gingee.


Santaji Ghorpade accepted the difficult task to cover the south while Dhanaji was asked to remain in the region of Bijapur to keep an eye on the Mughal movements and support Santaji if the need arose.


Aurangzeb had set up camp at Brahmapuri and waited patiently to receive information on the Marathas. When he became apprised of the plans formed by Ramchandra Pant Amatya, he sent Himmat Khan to stop Santaji.


The two Mughal generals employed the legendary pincer movement strategy to trap Santaji. Dhanaji caught wind of this and made rapid marches towards the Karnatak to prevent the situation from becoming dangerous for Santaji.


Aurangzeb was worried about the fate of his two trusted generals and their men before the combined strength and guerrilla warfare tactics of Santaji and Dhanaji. Kasim Khan also sent urgent notes on the situation developing against him and pressed him for more troops and supplies.


Aurangzeb sent another rising star of his court, Khanazad Khan, son of Ruhulla Khan to the south with a select army of his own bodyguards and experienced officers like Saf-shikan Khan and Muhammad Murad Khan. These handpicked generals marched forward through the Karnatak region and joined Kasim Khan at the beginning of November 1695.


Santaji soon realized the perilous situation that was rapidly developing. He used his wide network of spies to gather their exact locations along with the number of troops and supplies with them. When Kasim Khan was informed that the high-ranking officer Khanazad Khan was coming to his aid, he planned a reception to welcome him. He ordered opulent tents, furniture and dining sets and made arrangements for an elaborate camp for his honoured guest.


He however, failed to take into account the dangers of having a celebration in this terrain that Santaji knew by the back of his hand. The Nayaka of Chitradurga had been wronged by Kasim Khan and secretly informed Santaji of the vulnerable points of the Mughal arrangements.


Santaji assessed the situation and decided to take full advantage of it. He arranged his troops into three parties assigning each a specific task, so as to launch an attack on the various Mughal chiefs separately.


Moments before Kasim Khan’s arrival at the decorated camp for the reception of Khanazad Khan, Santaji made his way in the early hours of the morning and suddenly stormed in, setting the whole place on fire. No sooner had this been reported to Kasim Khan that the latter hurriedly attacked Santaji and was joined shortly by Khanazad Khan.


Santaji had prepared himself for this eventuality and had kept a reserve force nearby hidden from sight. This reserve force suddenly fell upon the Mughals and caught them unawares. The Mughals were now well and truly caught between these two mighty forces and were unable to withstand the assault.


The two Khans just managed to escape to Dodderi Fort but Santaji was hot on their trail and reached the fort and laid siege to it. The fort had no water, food or provisions and was not prepared to stand a long siege.


The Mughals found themselves in an untenable situation and after three days of want and starvation and exposure to the deadly gunfire of the Marathas begged for peace. Kasim Khan, an opium addict was unable to sustain himself without his vice and died after consuming poison on 20 November 1695.


Khanazad Khan was reduced to tears and appealed to Santaji to spare him. Santaji agreed and accepted Rs 20 lacs by way of ransom in addition to all the belongings of the camp worth more than Rs 30 lacs. He even sent his own escort to accompany Khan back to Aurangzeb with a personal message to him to take back his human treasure.


Kasim Khan was no match to the superior genius of Santaji and this battle of wits has been marked as a dazzling episode in the history of Indian warfare. How Santaji overcame a terrific ordeal is a marvel in the art of war and his well-thought-out tactics to suit the changing circumstances and steal a victory from an impossible situation is an inspiration to all.


Written by Lakshmi Subramanian


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

* Information about Chhatrapati Rajaram Maharaj is taken from archives

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