How the Marathas captured ATTOCK in modern day Pakistan

  • By Uday S. Kulkarni
  • October 21 2019
  • @MulaMutha
  • Attock’ has a special meaning in Maharashtra. Phrases such as ‘Atakepaar jhende’ – or ‘flags beyond Attock’ - have persisted in Marathi to this day. The year 1758 was the time when the Marathas entered Punjab and drove out Ahmed Shah Abdali’s army from Lahore, and stationed their armies in Multan, Peshawar and Attock.

From the beginning of the eighteenth century, the Deccan became a difficult ground for the Mughals to hold. Having captured Bijapur and Golkonda as late as in the 1680s, and having subdued the Marathas by 1689, the Mughals went deep into the South in pursuit of Chhatrapati Rajaram, who took refuge at Ginjee, a fort strengthened by Chhatrapati Shivaji. After Rajaram returned to Maharashtra, the war shifted back to the Maratha homeland. After Rajaram’s death, it was Tarabai who led the war effort with the able assistance of Ramachandra Pant Amatya and Dhanaji Jadhav. These crucial years, saw Aurangzeb trudge across the land with his armies, and eventually realising he had failed. With his death in 1707, the Mughals withdrew to the north.

By 1715, Chhatrapati Shahu had emerged as the new Maratha ruler. Having returned from a long period of Mughal captivity, and with his mother still a prisoner at Delhi, Shahu decided he would not confront the Mughals and later enunciated the policy of helping them in their distress. Although Peshwa Bajirao I, in his pursuit of Empire, crossed into Malwa and attacked Delhi in 1737 to secure a cession of that province, he did not harm the weak edifice of the Empire. 

Just two years later, taking a cue on this first unprecedented attack on Delhi in two hundred years, the Persian ruler Nadir Shah looted and massacred the city’s inhabitants, scarring it forever and leaving it a pale shadow of itself. Indeed, imperial Delhi was thereafter a symbol without substance.

With increasing threats from the north-west in 1740s and 1750s, the Mughal Wazir Safdar Jung, defeated by the Rohillas, sought Maratha help to succour his position. The Scindia and Holkar forces defeated the Rohillas – who were immigrants from Afghanistan – and even signed the ahadnama with Safdar Jung in 1752, promising to protect the Emperor against all internal and external enemies in exchange for the right to collect revenues in many Mughal provinces. In 1754, Mughal Emperor Ahmed Shah was deposed by the new Wazir Imad ul mulk with the help of Maratha troops under Raghunath Rao and Holkar, and Alamgir II was set up as the new king.

Ahmed Shah Abdali, the new ruler of the Afghan people had been invading India regularly, inching closer and closer to Delhi. After raids in 1747, 1748 and 1752, Abdali found an ally in Najib Khan Rohilla, who welcomed him into Delhi.

In 1757, with only a small Maratha contingent at Delhi under Antaji Mankeshwar putting up a fight, Abdali stripped the city of all the wealth it had. Its nobles and their ladies were ‘exposed’, their houses dug up and brutalities on women - right from the royal family to the common people - were inflicted by the Afghans. The holy cities of Mathura and Vrindavan were attacked, and calling this a ‘jihad’, the Afghans played Holi with the blood of the pilgrims and sadhus of Vrindavan. Eventually, it was the Indian summer and a Cholera epidemic that forced Abdali to retreat back to Afghanistan. Every animal from Delhi was taken to carry his massive loot; even the washer-man’s donkey was not left behind. Najib Khan was put in charge of Delhi as Abdali’s representative.

The Maratha armies were dispersed at the time in the Indore and Jaipur regions and began to organise a counter-attack. The English were at this time reclaiming Calcutta from the Nawab and in July 1757, the battle of Plassey was fought. At this time the Maratha armies were focussed on regaining Delhi and in early 1758, they captured Delhi after defeating Najib Khan. This set off wild scenes of jubilation at Pune. They now moved on to the next phase of their conquest.

At Delhi, Najib Khan Rohilla was captured by the Marathas. However, not realising his potential for mischief, Holkar let him off when the Rohilla said that he was like a son. From Delhi, the Marathas moved north with the Mughal forces in tow and captured the town of Sirhind. Here, the Mughal officers defeated by Abdali, appealed to the Marathas to enter Punjab and evict Abdali from Lahore. Soon, many Sikh misls – to who Abdali was the common enemy – joined Raghunathrao and Malharji Holkar and the armies entered the Punjab. As the armies approached Lahore, Taimur Shah Durrani, Abdali’s son and his General Jehan Khan, abandoned Lahore crossed the Ravi and departed to the west.

On 19 April 1758, the Marathas took charge of Lahore with Manaji Paigude, a veteran Maratha chief, being the first to enter the city. Raghunath rao, the Peshwa’s brother, was welcomed as a liberator and rose water was made to flow from the fountains of Shalimar Bagh in a public celebration of the liberation of Lahore. By October 1758, the Marathas, along with the Mughals and Sikhs, commenced their march westwards. Adina Beg Khan, a Mughal officer supported them and was appointed the Governor at Lahore.

A nephew of Abdali named Abdur Rehman went to Pune where he met the Peshwa. Nanasaheb promised him support and sent him back to Raghunath rao with instructions to give him charge of the captured territories on their behalf. Meanwhile, Attock was captured and crossing the Indus, Maratha armies under Tukoji Holkar and Sabaji Scindia reached Peshawar from where the last vestiges of the Afghans were evicted.

Map of modern day Pakistan that shows Peshawar , Attock is 98 kms away.

The Shah of Persia, who was also fighting against Abdali, made an offer to Raghunath rao, to make Attock the border between India and Persia and the two of them would together destroy Abdali between them. Raghunath rao wrote to Nanasaheb Peshwa that although the offer had come, he felt it would not be a good idea to hand over Kandahar and Kabul to Persia since these provinces had been part of the Mughal Empire and of India until recently. By early 1758, Raghunath rao had completed the administrative and military arrangements in Lahore, and begun his return journey to Pune.

Passing through Thanesar in June, Raghunath rao reached Pune in September 1758. The same day, Adina Beg Khan died in Lahore. Pune welcomed Raghunath rao as a true conqueror. With him returned Holkar and in their place the Peshwa nominated Dattaji Scindia to go north. Dattaji, who had just got married, was a valiant young man, and although the chief of the Scindia family was Jankoji, it was Dattaji who led the armies. There had been a brief falling out between the Scindia and Holkar families, and Nanasaheb gave Dattaji very specific instructions on his duties in the north.

Dattaji had to first secure the Punjab, crush Najib Khan – who the Peshwa felt 'was a snake' – and then crossing the Ganga head east towards Bengal, where Clive had won his famous victory over the Nawab and appropriated a vast treasure. Here, Holkar advised Dattaji to spare Najib Khan and use him to cross the Ganga. 

Eventually, after sending some part of the army to the Punjab and spending January 1759 in securing indemnities promised around Delhi, Dattaji began to move towards the Ganga. Here, he met Najib Khan, who promised him a bridge across the river at Shukratal. However, while the monsoons set in, Najib Khan entrenched himself at Shukratal to prevent the Marathas from crossing the Ganga and wrote to Abdali asking for help.

Holkar was at this time dunning Sawai Madho Sinh of Jaipur for pending tribute. Dattaji soon realized Najib’s duplicity and immediately after the monsoon, attacked Shukratal. The Maratha armies also crossed the Ganga at Hardwar and began to march towards Najib’s capital Najibabad. Najib Khan was now in between two Maratha armies and withdrew to save his capital. At the same time, he prevailed upon Shuja ud daulah of Awadh to come to his aid, saying if he is defeated, the Marathas would march to his region next.

By October 1759, Abdali began his march towards India with a huge army of 60,000 men. Pouring through the passes at Khyber and Bolan, he quickly overcame the Maratha outposts at Peshawar, Attock and Multan and took the city of Lahore. Dattaji left Shukratal and headed to Thanesar across the Yamuna to confront him. However, after a short sharp skirmish, Abdali crossed the river and joined Najib Khan at Shukratal. From here they moved towards Delhi on the eastern bank of the Yamuna.

Dattaji sent away the women in his camp to Kotputli and retraced his steps to Delhi in order to defend the Mughal capital. He also sent urgent summons to Holkar to come to his aid from Barwada near Jaipur. However, the Afghans took positions to cross the Yamunaa when its water was at its lowest in January.

On the Makar Sankrant day of 10 January 1760, the Afghans began to cross the river at four points. Finding that the main attack was at Buradi, just north of Delhi, Dattaji sent a larger force to prevent the crossing. However, soon the number of casualties began to mount and Dattaji himself led his entire army into the Yamuna river bed. Pushing back the Afghan army, he personally led the charge.

A bullet hit Dattaji at this time and he fell off his horse. The Rohillas began to crowd around the injured chief and in this injured state he was derisively asked, ‘So Patel, will you now fight?’ Dattaji replied, ‘if I live, I will fight’. Dattaji head was cut off by Qutb Shah, the spiritual head of Najib Khan and it was sent to Abdali. This killing of an injured captive enemy was avenged in October 1760 when Qutb Shah was captured by the Marathas at Kunjpura – and beheaded.

The defeat of Dattaji sent his army fleeing towards the south, and soon they reached Kotputli where, they met Malhar rao Holkar. Holkar comforted them and began his own plans to lead a guerrilla war into the Afghan camp around Delhi. From January to March 1760, Holkar ambushed many an Afghan picket, finally reaching Anupshahr on the bank of the Ganga. Here, in early March 1760, he was surprised by a fast moving Afghan force and had to flee across the Yamuna to Mathura.

The Scindia and Holkar armies had been the instruments of Maratha policy in the north. Their defeats lead to a major threat to the Maratha power over Delhi, which had been achieved over the previous two decades. It became mandatory then for another strong army to go north to confront Ahmed Shah Abdali. The Peshwa and his cousin Sadashiv rao had won a famous victory over the Nizam at Udgir. It was with the help of a powerful European artillery led by Ibrahim Khan Gardi that this victory had been achieved. It was no surprise therefore, that the Marathas decided to incorporate this new arm into their grand army that was to go north and confront Abdali. It was also to proceed under their victorious commander Sadashiv rao Bhau, who had not been to the north before.

The Maratha armies marched north one more time in March 1760, just a few months before the monsoons to the north to confront an enemy who had all the support he needed in the fertile doab of the Ganga and Yamuna.

The 1758-59 conquest of Punjab by the Marathas was when they were at their zenith. 

The Maratha occupation of Peshawar and Attock was their furthest spread to the north-west. It may have lasted for about fourteen months. The Punjab was a boundary too far to defend for the Deccan based Maratha power.

It was however, a vital and fertile province for Abdali to earn revenue. The subsequent battle of Panipat in 1761 owed its origin to this clash of interests. Had the Marathas won the fiercely fought and narrowly lost battle on 14 January 1761, the course of sub-continental history might have taken a different turn. In the circumstances, it led to the creation of a power vacuum in the north until the Marathas returned in 1769 and captured Delhi as well as Najib’s capital Pathargarh. It was the East India Company that benefitted from the weakened position of the Marathas, although it was another five decades before they could overcome a fractious and leaderless Maratha power in the early nineteenth century.

All Empires are destined to fade away, and the Mughal, Maratha and British Empires did disappear into the sunset. The glory of the capture of Attock however, is remembered with pride in many a Maratha heart to this day.

To read all articles by author

Also read

1. The Third Battle of Panipat

2. Sacking the sub-continent Ahmed Shah Abdali

3. Sacking the sub-continent Nadir Shah

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