The Extraordinary Exploits of CHIMAJI APPA

  • By Uday S. Kulkarni
  • December 17, 2017
  • @MulaMutha
Chimaji`s statue inside the fort of Vasai. Picture courtesy Author

Chimaji Appa, younger brother of Baji rao Peshwa, is a personality the likes of which appear rarely in Indian History. He lived for barely thirty-four years and largely under the shadow of his famous brother, yet his career is marked by events that put the famous Baji rao in the shade.


Chimaji was born around 1706, and we hear little of him until his father Balaji Vishwanath Peshwas death in April 1720. At this time, Maratha troops had returned from Delhi, where they had helped Sayyid Husain Ali and Wazir Abdullah Khan retain their hold on power by removing Farrukhsiyar from the Mughal throne and placing a puppet Emperor who signed the sanads authorising the Marathas to collect revenue from the six subahs of the Deccan. The Maratha king Shahu appointed Baji rao as the next Peshwa or Prime Minister with the title Pandit Pradhan and the teenaged Chimaji was titled Pandit.


Chimaji was at first at the kings court in Satara learning the nuances of the administration, the diverging pulls in the court and shoring up his brother Baji raos interests. By the time he entered his twenties he began his military career. The first major threat to the Maratha state was the invasion of the Mughal Viceroy Nizam ul mulk who had established his rule in Hyderabad in 1724. Considering Baji rao to be his chief obstacle, the Nizam began his invasion of Pune and Satara taking Shahus cousin Sambhaji with him. Chimaji had to protect his king and carried him to safety on the strong fort of Purandar near Pune. Meanwhile Baji rao with his cavalry fanned out in a large area of the Deccan, plundering the Nizams territories. The Nizams efforts to pin him down with his ponderous army failed and finally Baji rao choosing his battlefield carefully brought the Mughal subedar to his knees at Palkhed in 1728. Baji raos manoeuvring is considered a masterpiece in strategic mobility by no less a person than Field Marshal Montgomery. The hitherto invincible Nizam had to concede Maratha demands and abandon support to Shahus rival.


The very next year Chimaji Appa led an army into Malwa, the crucial suba that linked Hindustan with the Deccan. Here, he employed an unexpected approach to confront the Mughal subedar Giridhar and his brother Daya Bahadur near Amjhera. In a fierce face to face battle, both the brothers were killed. From here, Chimaji proceeded to Ujjain where he placed a siege around the city before returning to Pune through Gujarat. In the meanwhile, Baji rao moved to Bundelkhand where he defeated and chased away Muhammad Khan Bangash who had attacked the aging Chhatra Sals kingdom. This double strike by the brothers practically brought Malwa and Bundelkhand into the Maratha fold. In the very next year Baji rao and Chimaji became the de facto masters of Gujarat before they had to return a part of it to the family of the Maratha Senapati Dabhade.


The Indian scene thus changed rapidly between 1728 and 1730. From a few districts around Pune, the Marathas were knocking against the bank of the Yamuna and the Chambal. A letter by Pilaji Jadhav rao at the time plainly states, Our realm has reached the Yamuna. However, the two brothers had set their mark much higher and having established their reputation, they decided to succour the long suffering population of the Konkan which was also their ancestral homeland.


The Konkan had long been under Portuguese rule north of Mumbai up to Daman. From Alibag a stretch of nearly two hundred kilometres was under the sway of the Siddi of Janjira. The Peshwa and his brother finally found an opportunity to enter the fray in 1732. Baji rao made the initial foray taking the entire Konkan from the Siddi except the island of Janjira and a few forts further south. He was ably assisted from the sea by Sekhoji Angre, the son of Kanhoji Angre. At the same time, the old Maratha capital Raigad, which was lost in 1689 to Aurangzeb, was also captured from the Siddi.


The battle with the Siddi petered out with the death of Sekhoji Angre. Siddi Sat from the fort of Anjanvel had grown in power and in the past had destroyed a temple built near Chiplun by a spiritual person named Brahmendra swami. The swami had the Maratha king and the Peshwa as his disciples and he often wrote to them to avenge the desecration. In 1636, Siddi Sat left Anjanvel and travelled north to attack Manaji Angre near the fort of Colaba. Chimaji Appa was waiting for just such an opportunity. In a flash, he descended the mountain passes and reached Konkan and in a fierce battle Siddi Sat was killed. The Siddis power in the Konkan was broken and later Anjanvel was captured by Tulaji Angre leaving him with only the island fort of Janjira.


The other power in the Konkan was that of the Portuguese. Having arrived here in the 16th century, they had built a string of forts that defended their territory. They had a strong artillery and mounted guns on the bastions of their forts. Of late, they had begun building a massive fort at Thane across the narrowest part of a creek that separated the mainland from the island of Sashti north of Bombay, which was an English possession. This fort would seal the last entry point into Sashti. It was necessary therefore to act before this fort was ready and manned. In March 1737 therefore, Chimaji Appa reached the Konkan and sent a small group of Maratha troops to land near the incomplete fort and occupied it. Within weeks they had captured the island of Sashti save a small fort on the west coast.


The second Maratha attack was on the fort of Vasai (known as Bassein at the time) north of the Ulhas river estuary. This fort was surrounded by water on three sides and had strongly fortified walls and towers. The Portuguese garrison was strong. The fort facing the land had a long open stretch before it making any approach an invitation for a fusillade from the guns on the fort walls. The attempt failed, with many casualties and had to be abandoned.


In 1738, Baji rao had to chastise the Nizam ul mulk who came from Delhi with a large army. Chimaji therefore had to leave the battle of Vasai and support him near the Tapi river, where he prevented the Nizams son Nasir Jung from joining his father in Malwa. The Nizam decided to take shelter in the fort of Bhopal and here Baji rao trapped him. Without food the army began to seek relief and the Nizam had to agree to the Peshwas terms.


The year 1739 dawned with an all-out attack on the fort of Vasai. Chimaji Appa with Holkar and many important Maratha chiefs gathered in the Konkan determined to extirpate the tyrannical Portuguese power. A separate army was sent towards Goa so no succour could be sent by the Viceroy to the garrison at Vasai. Every inch was fought by the Portuguese. In the sandy soil to the north of the fort it was difficult to lay mines. The other three sides were protected by the sea and the creek. A steady fire from the fort walls prevented the Marathas from getting very close. Surreptitiously long burrows to lay the fuses for mines had to be laid under fire. Mines barely reached the fort walls. Many sallies by the Maratha cavalry were beaten back. Mortars were continuously fired inside the fort causing considerable damage to the buildings and the men and families inside. However, the Portuguese refused to relent.


Chimaji, although not in good health at this time, also refused to withdraw. Nadir Shah had invaded Delhi and unseated the Mughal king Muhammad Shah. There were calls to the Marathas to rush to the aid of the Mughal power. The Rajput princes sent emissaries to Baji rao asking him to move north. However, the bulk of the Maratha army remained occupied in the fight at Vasai. Chimaji told his men, either capture the fort or stuff my body in a cannon and fire it inside the fort.


The determination began to pay off. The Marathas inched closer and closer to the fort walls. Heavy casualties were taking a toll from the incessant fire from the fort. However, in early May the Marathas managed to lay mines under the fort walls. Of the five mines laid, three were blown up and a part of the wall was breached. Just as the Marathas rushed into the breach, another mine exploded killing scores of them. However, the fight now reached the inside of the fort. The Portuguese knew that the time had come to surrender.


The fierce battles to liberate Sashti and Vasai had cost the Marathas no less than twelve thousand lives over three years. Along with the chief fort of Vasai, a string of lesser forts like Asheri, Arnala and Tarapur had also been taken at heavy cost. On 4 May 1739, the Portuguese hoisted the white flag of surrender. Chimaji was magnanimous in victory. He allowed the Portuguese to evacuate over a seven-day period with all their belongings and families. The garrison marched out with the band playing and boarded ships that took them first to Bombay and then to Goa. The Viceroy at Goa appealed for peace and an agreement was signed with him. In this manner, the only possession left with the Portuguese on the west coast was the province of Goa.


The victory at Vasai was a dharma-yudh. For moral and religious reasons, the Peshwa had determined to fight the Portuguese and liberate the people living in their oppressive rule. It was also the first time in many centuries that an oriental power had defeated a European power in battle. Chimaji Appas triumph was thus hailed as a great victory. In his letter to Brahmendra swami Chimaji wrote, The Lords sudarshan hit the head of the fanatics who harbour religious ill will, and they were cast down.


Chimaji Appa is often considered the Laxman to Baji raos Ram. He gave himself up entirely to his brothers welfare and fought for the state without any selfish interest. Baji rao won his battles, but Chimaji was his shield. His electrifying victories at Malwa and over Siddi Sat as well as the stubbornly won battle against the Portuguese power changed the perception of the Marathas and helped convert a small kingdom into an Empire. Baji rao died suddenly in April 1740 and Chimaji helped Nanasaheb to take his first steps as the new Peshwa. However, due to his illness, in November 1740 he had to return to Pune from a campaign to the north. He died on 17 December 1740, leaving his son Sadashiv rao Bhau who was to take on his fathers onerous responsibilities for the next two decades of the eighteenth century.


Note - Chimaji Appa's 277th death anniversary is in 2017 since he died in 1740. His samadhi is at the Omkareshwar temple, Pune.


Author has written ‘Solstice at Panipat’, ‘Bakhar of Panipat’ and ‘The Era of Baji rao’.


To read more articles by Author


Also read

1. The Maratha Military Genius: The Battle of Palkhed 

2. Why Bajirao Peshwa is India's greatest cavalry general

3. Maratha Supremacy in the 18th century 

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