The tyrannical reign of Akhanda Bharat’s worst and most radical Islamic barbarian, Aurangzeb finally came to an end on 20 February 1707. The fanatical Mughal had spent more than twenty-five years of his life draining the coffers while attempting to subdue the indomitable Marathas.
The long-drawn war of independence would start taking shape under the leadership of Chhatrapati Shahu Maharaj who was still a prisoner in the Mughal camp. On hearing Aurangzeb’s demise, his son, Azam Shah made a hasty retreat to Ahmednagar and performed the last rites. He proclaimed himself as emperor on 5 March 1707 and started with all his father’s army for the north to fight his brother Shah Alam.
Shah Alam was making his way from Lahore to contest the throne. Young Shahu had no other option but to accompany Azam Shah. He had formed a strong friendship with Zulfiqar Khan who was eager to become the undisputed chief of the Deccan.
Upon reaching Burhanpur, Zulfiqar Khan presented Shahu Raje to Azam Shah, who pleaded his cause and requested his immediate release. Several Rajput princes of the camp were sympathetic towards him and urged Azam Shah to be generous.
Azam Shah honoured Shahu Raje with gifts but kept putting off the release for some reason or other. His main focus was to take down his brother and he left Burhanpur on 13 March 1707. Azam Shah crossed the Rewa River at the end of April and reached Sironj on 4 May 1707.
Shahu Raje became increasingly anxious and restless about his release and was advised not to wait for the formal release edict by Azam Shah, but instead to leave the camp and proceed to his homeland. He readily acted upon this advice and left the Mughal camp on 8 May 1707 at Doraha leaving behind his mother, wife and Madan Singh, an illegitimate brother.
Jotyaji Kesarkar was asked to obtain the formal sanads which were being prepared. Azam Shah did not pursue Shahu Raje and instead signed off on the terms of his release which were:
- That he was to rule over the small swarajya of his grandfather as a vassal of the Mughal empire.
- That he was to serve his liege lord whenever called upon to do so with his contingent of troops.
- That he was permitted to collect chauth and sardeshmukhi from the six Mughal provinces of the south.
A month after Shahu Raje’s departure from Azam Shah’s camp in Malwa, a bitter contest between the two sons of Aurangzeb began on the battlefield of Jajav near Agra on 8 June 1707. Azam Shah was killed and Shah Alam became emperor assuming the title of Bahadur Shah. After his accession, Bahadur Shah came to the Deccan in the year of 1708, killed his brother Kam Bakhsh on 3 January 1709, returned to Delhi and died on 17 February 1712.
Meanwhile, Shahu Raje who had left the Mughal camp with two hundred followers and servants, Mahadaji Krishna Joshi, a banker and Gadadar Pralhad Nasikkar, a priest wrote several letters to the Maratha chiefs informing them of his expected arrival and demanding their help and obedience.
He crossed the Rewa and took the shorter route through Bijagarh and Sultanpur into Western Khandesh. He arrived at Bijagarh and was joined there by Mohansinh Rawal who had allied with the Marathas against Aurangzeb. Shahu Raje was provided with troops and funds by Mohansinh and proceeded to Sultanpur on the Tapti River where he was joined by several Maratha chiefs like Amritrao Kadam Bande, Sujansinh Rawal of Lambkani, the Bokils, the Purandares and representatives of other affluent families who favoured the cause of the declared heir of the late Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj.
Shahu Raje was welcomed in Maharashtra as the legitimate scion of the Bhonsle family. Parsoji Bhonsle, the ancestor of the later Bhonsles of Nagpur was then in possession of the territory of Berar and offered to help Shahu Raje and the same was extended by Nemaji Shinde, Haibatrao Nimbalkar, Rustumrav Jadhav, Chimnaji Damodar and others who worked extensively in Khandesh and Baglan.
Shahu Raje spent the months of June and July in Khandesh collecting troops and strengthening his position and proceeded to Ahmednagar early in August with high hopes of a smooth transfer of power.
Written by Lakshmi Subramanian
* Information about Chhatrapati Shahu Maharaj is taken from archives