On the history trail: The legendary guerrilla warfare of the Marathas

The tragic death of Santaji Ghorpade brought great joy to the Mughal camps who had lived in constant fear of him and his wrath on the battlefield. Santaji Ghorpade is undoubtedly one of the greatest masters of guerrilla warfare Akhanda Bharat has ever seen.


His brilliant tactics, unwavering courage in the most perilous situations and outstanding leadership helped the Marathas attain a formidable reputation in the art of war. The death of this unmatched hero was a mighty blow to the rapid rise of the Maratha sovereignty.


Santaji Ghorpade left behind a large family of brothers and nephews who swore their allegiance to Chhatrapati Rajaram Maharaj. They exerted themselves along with Senapati Dhanaji Jadhav to conquer the distant lands of Karnatak after the fall of Jinji. Many of these gallant warriors served the Marathas for over half a century and are remembered even today for their significant contributions and sacrifices.


The Marathas took pride in being called plunderers and developed their own method of fighting the Mughals in accordance with the lay of the land. The Mughal forces though huge in numbers preferred to fight only in open ground. The Marathas on the other hand moved about in small numbers, travelled light and long distances overnight.


They had a remarkable ability to be in one place in the morning and another the following day. They would come around in circles, thereby deceiving the Mughals and execute unexpected raids. This pattern of a show of flight, plunder and fly away was done to such precision that the Mughals would be left bewildered after every attack not knowing what had happened.


The Marathas fell upon foraging parties, attacked the slow-moving Mughal contingents and captured strategic passes. They displayed extraordinary confidence while devastating the Mughal territory from the Godavari River to Bhagyanagar (Bhagnagar), carrying away horses, elephants, cattle and supplies. They would wait patiently for the Mughals, hidden in the thickets and make a sudden dash upon the Mughal armies. Their surprise attacks led to confusion among the ranks and the retaliation would begin after the Marathas had carried away their riches.


The Marathas very rarely engaged in open encounter and largely preferred to prevent reinforcements from reaching besieged forts. Aurangzeb on his part was clueless on tackling this type of warfare. The Marathas appeared from thin air and disappeared in the same fashion. Illusive like the wind, the Mughals would find themselves encircled by scattered Marathas who had apparently fled but instead had circled back and surrounded them.


The Mughal officers soon began to bribe the Marathas, preferring this method rather than a battle that they were destined to lose. Aurangzeb caught wind of this and tried to dismiss a few of them, but it became increasingly difficult to inspire the officers not to break ranks as the ransom to be paid when captured was too high.


As Aurangzeb grew older, he found his own men robbing innocent traders and subjects to save themselves from the Marathas. The Marathas thus, effectively weakened the Mughal dominion, defended their Motherland and were rewarded with lands and titles.


Written by Lakshmi Subramanian


* Information about Chhatrapati Rajaram Maharaj is taken from archives

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