The Third Battle of Panipat

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The Third battle of Panipat was fought on 14th January 1761, between the Afghan commander Ahmed Shah Abdaliand the Maratha general Sadashiv Rao Bhau, cousin  of the Maratha Peshwa  BalajiBaji Rao . After the death of Aurangazeb the last of the formidable of the Mughal Emperors the later Mughals failed to keep glory and the mighty Empire finally started to disintegrate. The Marathas soon gained an important place in Indian history and became an enormous power. A much cherished dream waiting to be realized lay before them- the overrunning of the Mughal Empire. But in Afghanistan a similar dream was cherished for a long time by the master general Ahmad Shah Abdali, who once had been the trump-card of Nadir Shah.  And who after his master’s assassination became the premier of the Durrani Empire.

                    In September 1759, Ahmed Shah set out for Hindustan; by December 1759 the Afghan army was at Karnalwithout much opposition from the Marathas. They had done a terrible mistake by leaving the north-western gates of India open especially around the Punjab region and that allowed this easy tress passage.  After few rounds of skirmishes around the neighborhood of Delhi, the Maratha contingent in North India dwindled and was time for full and final solution.  Once battle became the only way out, both sides started to win over allies, Rajputs, Sikhs, Nawabs of Oudh etc. But the Maratha diplomacy could do very little in this crucial situation since they had sour relationship with all most all rulers in the North especially with the Rajputs. And it was here Ahmed Shah had huge gain because he got the support of Shuja-ud-Daulah, the Nawab of Oudh, and Najib Ud Daulah of the RohillaAfghans in India.  This alliance with two strong Muslim rulers in India strengthened his army and determination.

                The Marathas began their advance from Deccan on March 27th, 1760 to reach Delhi by October, the movements of the Maratha army is shown in the map. Ahmad Shah’s force after sacking the Maratha forces in the North had camped in Aligarh; from there they marched on to Delhi and reached Panipat on October 31st. By November the belligerents worked on their defenses constructing earthwork and placing cannon in front to stop frontal assault. Both sides were anxious and camped almost five miles from each other, waiting for the final juncture. Meanwhile the Maratha resources and supplies were soon depleting which they reinvigorated by snatching some tits and bits from Abdali, but largely a great number of men lay starved and half fed.  The Maratha force was spread over a length of six miles from west to east and a depth of about two miles. Abdali on the other hand deployed his forces seven miles across and also constructed defenses to curb the Maratha cavalry. When the supplies fell  alarmingly low  the Marathas were left no other choice than to fight.

                The Maratha army comprised mainly of cavalry, they had about 55,000 horses with 15,000 infantry and about 200 guns. The details are given in the table have a look. The Maratha army wasn’t sort of good commanders but the communication and partnership among them wasn’t great. Ibrahim Khan nicknamed Gardi (in French “Garde”) was a hired general who had displayed splendid valor in previous battles; furthermore he was trained by the French artillery officer BussyGardi’s regiment was of 9000 infantry and artillery, trained in French drilling techniques supported by Damaji Gaikwad’s 6000 horse. Sadashiv Rao Bhau the commandant of Maratha army had kept the choicest and the best of the Maratha 10,000 Huzurat  (household)  cavalry under his command, and he was also a splendid general.  The other officers Janokoji Scindhia, Malhar Rao Holkar, Yashwant Rao Pawar held almost 17,000-18,000 cavalry.  The Marathas did not have reserve force but they had about 6000 Pindari horsemen who were no good except looting enemy camps.
India’s camel gunners

                The Afghans under the supreme command of Ahmad Shah Abdalicomprised of 42,000 horse and 38,000 infantry with good number of reserve under his command. They also had about 1500-2000 swivel guns mounted on camels, this sort of camel mounted guns are called zamburaks. They are obviously lighter, faster than normal artillery and are devastating when firing against a trapped enemy be it cavalry or infantry.  Before going forward with the battle I must do a pre battle analysis. Now that we have both the forces itching to go, one thing comes into the mind; the Afghans do have an edge over the Marathas. Seeing the Marathan battle records in that period and few decades before that, one gets the impression that they weren’t made for fighting pitched battles. Battles in wide open terrain, with full flanks spread what we call as a classical battle format their know-how could not match with the vast experience of the Afghans.  It will not be a hit and run here the settings are completely different, to sustain in a battle of this type the horses must be prepared for a long and sustaining charge, which obviously wasn’t a celebrated practice of the Marathas.
Swivel Gun

                Being outnumbered the only hope for commanders would mainly shift to the artillery than anything else. Here as well the Marathas did not have a clear edge, instead their cannons were still following the Mughal tradition of pomp and show.  One must remember three things concerning artillery- where to use, how to use and when to use. All these understanding are of great importance many times even with the best artillery corps, the whole artillery train can get decimated by a furious assault of enemy cavalry.  Standardization in Maratha artillery was reserved for future, and this made the artillery an experimental unit in the ensuing battle.  On the other hand I would say the cavalry of the Afghans and the Maratha were head to head, if the Afghans had best breeds and heavily armored horses, the Marathas had light armor and incredible pace.

As a matter of fact the Marathas were great believers in pace, they preferred offense than defense, and I have to say they were quite good at it. So the way to deal with this offense loving army is to push them to defense by shock and wait until they make a mistake. This sort of thing is not unusual in modern battle as well, in Afghan war, some of the US contingent agreed that they fumbled when put into defense than into offense.  This happens in games too, in cricket for example, you bowl good balls to an attacking batsman, keep him tied down, and then he will be impatient enough to play a loose shot or two. But beyond all these calculations and pre battle strategy, there remains another great aspect in battle and that is the art of conducting a battle. That is of prime importance, and here who makes the wisest decision he wins the day.

As you can see in the battle map the Maratha formation was a typical Indian formation with left flank, centre and right flank. The left under Ibrahim Gardi and Damji Gaikwad’shorse, the centre under Sadashiv Rao Bhau, the right under ScindhiaHolkar and PowarGardi had the bulk of the artillery (about 45-60) and the infantry while the rest of the commanders relied on cavalry. The Afghan formation was similar to the Maratha right flank under Hafiz Rahmat Khan, Dundi Khan and Banghas Khan, centre under Wazir Shah Wali  and left under Najib Ud Daulah, Shah Pasand Khan and Shuja Ud Daulah. Both the armies had artillery backed by infantry at the front.  It is true to that Marathas were indeed outnumbered by Abdali and company, but cut off from supplies which actually hastened them to a do or die situation.

Morning Session: (9.00 am to 12.00 am)  Marathan Offense

                The battle began at 9.00 am with brisk cannonade from both ends,  but failed to bring any convincing results for the Maratha’s since the balls from their cannons would land at the rear of the enemy causing little or no casualty. So it was the time for Gardi from the left to attack the right of Abdali, he stationed the guns at a place well guarded by two battalions, and moved forward with his infantry regiments (while his guns offered the covering fire) to engage Hafiz Rahamat Khan and Dundi Khan’s   14000 strong Rohilla contingent. This move of Gardi did prove effective as 8000 enemy lay dead and quite a few of the enemy took to their heels, just at this point he needed a cavalry charge from Gaikwad. But Gaikwad refused to make the charge as he had made a preemptive charge before but gained nothing apart from heavy casualties and bayonet wound. This lack of faith and understanding lost the day for Gardi as the golden moment to crush Abdali’s right was lost. Perhaps this apparently strange incident is understandable if we look at the composure of the Maratha Army.  This was an army which was following half-European half-Marathan way of attack, and a lack of understanding was bound to come. The army has to follow one code and one code only else there will be these sort of issues.
1847 portrayal of Afghan soldiers

                Seeing the stand still situation on his left Sadashiv Bhau threw his best cavalry regiment onto the Abdali’s centre. Beyond numbers, arms, firepower and everything else there is another thing which goes in a battle and that is nervousness in the minds of commanders. When nothing is happening a shock treatment is the best way. So I would give full marks to Sadashiv Bhau for this move, seeing the stand still condition on the left he threw his best cavalry regiment upon Abdali’s centre. This move I believe took Abdali by surprise and his centre under Wazir Shah Wali started to crumble against the deadly Maratha attack. Both sides were suffering tremendous casualties, and in dust, yell and blow confusion prevailed everywhere.  Sadashiv Bhau was stationed on an elephant which stood under the shade of a mango tree, and from there he could hear two distinct battle cries, Har Har Mahadeo of his own army and Din Dinof the Afghans.

                But this is where the nerve of a commander is tested, here is a nervy situation, the centre is panicking, soldiers are fleeing, and it can go all the way the down to a decisive loss. Abdaliconquered his fear, and ordered his police corps into action, there were some thousands of them, and they had this divine orders- do not let soldiers to flee, if you find them running cut them down. And this what the Nasaqchisdid, Abdali divided them into groups one would support the right and the maximum would secure the centre. The Nasaqchiswere public executioners, they grabbed few running soldiers cut them down and others become alarmed. Routing stopped, next Abdali sent 8000 troops from his reserve to consolidate the Afghan centre and help Wazir Shah Wali  . By this time the half fed Maratha soldiers and horses have been fighting for over five hours and there were no chance for fresh troops to come in. Abdalihad offered a stiff resistance backed by reserve troops and now it was Marathas who fell tired and were slashed down.  A further 4000 reserve troops was sent by Abdali to assist his right pressed against Gardi.  The influx of almost 12,000 men wasn’t good sign for the Marathas and this reversed the situation soon.

             Afternoon Session (12.00 to 3.00 pm)     Afghan Counter-attack   

Post noon was payback time for Abdali he ordered Wazir Shah Wali  to counter attack the Maratha centre and asked his left flank under Najib Ud Daulahto fall upon the Marathan right. The Rohillaforce bifurcated the Marathan right like an axe through a piece of wood. One part of the right flank under Holkarwas taken away at the extreme, and another part curved in towards the Marathan centre pressing the centre from the right, opening up a huge gap between Maratha centre and right.  Having a taste of Rohilla onslaught Holkar realized that he had enough for the day assembled his troops and fled from the battlefield, endangering  Janokojito fight alone in the right and leaving wide  a space open for the Rohillasto encircle  the Maratha centre from the rear. However Sadashiv Bhau and Janokoji continued to fight until the latter’s army was decimated by the fresh attack of Shah Pasand Khan.   On the Maratha left, Gardi crumbled under the fresh attack of Afghan right soon he was captured and taken prisoner later he was beheaded.  Nine battalions of Gardi  were put to the sword, including the guards protecting  the guns, after which the Maratha left was completely outflanked and so was the right and much of the attention went on in the centre, where immediately a renewed attack began. Abdali himself rushed into the situation for better coordination.

                While all this was happening and repeated news of the failure at the flanks  started to arrive, the Marathas at the centre were putting up some valiant fight knowing that it was only a matter of time. Seeing that Maratha centre was trapped from all sides, the Zamburaks were ordered to fire upon the enemy which poured bullets like rain upon the Maratha centre. One of the bullets had already taken the life of Vishwas Rao the 17 year old son of the Peshwa and sent chilling sensation around the Maratha defense. The commander Sadashiv Rao fought like a lion rallying his fleeing troop into the thick of the battle launching several counter attacks but ultimately cut down by Afghan sword.  Abdali had released his 6000 slave-soldiers Bash Guls who were not up to fighting but murdering Marathas everywhere the battleground and at the end of the day a huge pile of dead bodies lay open in Panipat.  Such casualty well over 50,000 was rarely seen in those days.

                Peshwa Balaji Baji Rao was crossing the Narmada with reinforcements few days after the massacre at Panipat when he heard the news- Two pearls (Sadashiv Rao and Vishwas Rao) have been dissolved, twenty seven gold mohurs (Janokoji Rao and other commanders) have been lost, and of the silver and copper (soldiers and camp followers) the total cannot be cast up. The Peshwa could not bear the shock he died broken hearted months after this event of Panipat.

 A sketch of third battle of Panipat


1. Artillery: the battle-winning arm, by Jagjit Singh (Major General)
2. India’s historic battles: from Alexander the great to Kargil by Kaushik Roy.
3. The state at war in South Asia, by Pradeep Barua.
4. Calcutta review, Volume 51.


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Sumit Soren is the founder of Livelystories. Basically an Agricultural Engineer, Sumit has interest in varied topics. He regularly writes on tribal history, internet and science related topics.

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