Mughal decline: Maratha-Sikh rise

The process of decline of Mughals can be divided into some milestones.


Leaving aside the religious rhetoric, Aurangzeb made some strategic mistakes, which sowed the seeds for uprooting of the Afghan-Turk-Mughal empire.

  1. Shivaji had come to his court as an ally, Aurangzeb tried to snub him and antagonise him to a point of no return. He arrested Shivaji. Shivaji escaped and became the most strident force against him. Marathas grew in power exponentially thereafter. However, the main incident that converted Marathas into an angry force was the torture of Shivaji’s son Sambhaji by Aurangzeb. In the name of religious superiority, a Mullah sentenced Sambhaji to death for insult of Islam. But Aurangzeb didn’t stop there, he arrested Sambhaji’s son – Sahuji Maharaj, as well. The seeds of enmity were sowed too deep. And the way that Aurangzeb did it, the political conflict was converted into a war between two religions. The call for protection of Hindus went far and wide and people rallied towards the Maratha cause.
  2. Aurangzeb got Guru Tegh Bahadurbeheaded as a religious call, resulting in the tenth Guru converting the Sikhs into a warrior clan. Later, Aurangzeb’s governor in Sirhind – Wazir Khan – killed innocent children of Guru Gobind Singh. This converted the political Mughal-Sikh conflict into a war for survival of the religion. Sikhs, who till then had even forgiven the murder of Guru Tegh Bahadur, rallied into an avidly anti-Mughal force and attracted thousands of Hindus into their fold from all caste groups. In a short duration of time, Sikhs became a headache for Mughals and took away a lot of their energy.
  3. Shivaji had come to Aurangzeb’s courts on the promised protection of Jaipur’s Jai Singh who was the commander in chief of Aurangzeb’s army. After Aurangzeb ordered arrest of Shivaji, Jai Singh’s son – Ram Singh – being true to the Rajput code of honour, helped Shivaji escape and this sowed the seeds of conflict between Aurangzeb and Jai Singh. Mughal power had risen in India on the back of alliances of Mughals with Rajputs, especially with Jaipur’s Man Singh and his descendants. After Aurangzeb tried to move away from Jaipur, Rajputs of all houses of Rajputana united and stopped having marital alliances with Mughals, thus denying the Mughals of a readymade army of Rajput warriors. They moreover combined forces with the Ranas of Mewar who had never fully given in to Mughal dominance.


Soon after Aurangzeb died in 1707, the religious antipathy generated by Aurangzeb had a serious counter-reaction across all sections of Indian subsidiaries and states.

  • Rajputs set aside the suzerainty of the Mughals and started declaring themselves into independent kingdoms. Marathas however asserted their power over the Rajputs and started harassing the Rajputs and seeking protection money from them.
  • The Mughal governors who till then had been tied to the Mughal throne too stopped toeing the line in Bengal and Oudh. Hyderabad too rebelled and declared itself independent and established the seat of the Nizam.
  • Sahuji, the grandson of Shivaji asserted himself. The house of the Peshwa started gaining power and taking independent decisions bypassing the house of Bhonsle (Shivaji’s descendants). Peshwa Baji Rao-I was a wonderful general and he ran through most of Mughal dependencies and by 1740 had won over almost the entire India south of the Yamuna.
  • North of the Yamuna, Sikhs rebelled and started acquiring power gradually, first under Banda Bahadur (who was defeated within a couple of years by Mughal Emperor Farooq Siyaar), and then under the Khalsa forces led by Sardar Kapoor Singh and thereafter by the formidable trio of Baghel Singh, Jassa Singh Ahluwalia and Jassa Singh Ramgarhia and the Khalsa forces of the Taruna Dal and the Buddha Dal.
  • Jats of Trans Yamuna too started displaying independence, also Mysore and the likes.


One of the most significant events that changed the course of history was the invasion of India by Persian Emperor, Nadir Shah. Seeing weakened Mughals, Nadir Shahof Persia saw an opportunity to win India. He invaded India in 1739, thus weakening the Mughals further. More than the area that he won, he left a lasting legacy by totally looting away the wealth of the Mughal emperors. He looted the Mughal treasury completely and took away the crown jewels, tons of gold and silver, he took away the Peacock throne of the Mughal Emperor as well as the Kohinoor diamond. The loot was of such proportions that Persia removed all taxes in its empire for the next three years. Mughal emperors thereafter lost the monetary capacity to pay salaries for maintaining large scale armies.

Nadir Shah’s protegy, Ahmad Shah Abdali, an Afghan, followed on the footsteps of Nadir Shah and routinely started raiding India and looting it’s wealth whenever he felt short of money. His first invasion of India was in 1748 where he totally obliterated the power of the Mughal Empire.


Mughals were totally decimated as a power by the repeated invasions of Abdali and they had to seek the protection of Marathas for protecting their titular emperor-ship. Marathas had a free run of the country with no significant power challenging them. Marathas however came into direct conflict with Afghans after they helped depose the Afghan Governor of Lahore, an act they did with the support of the bands of Sikh chieftains of Punjab who were a law unto themselves in the Trans Yamuna area by then.

Abdali and Marathas had a major conflict at Panipat in 1761, which significantly weakened the forces of Marathas as well as Abdali. We know this war as the Third Battle of Panipat. Marathas were defeated but Abdali too lost heart to rule India. He withdrew back to Afghanistan leaving the Mughal Emperor Shah Alam – II as a titular head in his name.

Abdali’s forces were always attacked (in guerilla tactics) by Sikh forces led by stalwarts like Baba Deep Singh while retreating to Afghanistan, presumably to liberate the Hindu women and slaves being taken to Afghanistan, but also to loot his caravan of the riches, thus bringing the wrath of Abdali on to the Sikh forces. In 1762, Abdali returned to India and thoroughly thrashed the Sikhs, almost into oblivion, an event where tens of thousands of Sikhs were butchered; only a handful of Sikhs were left alive, Abdali blew up the Harmandir Sahib of Amritsar and filled the Sarovar with carcasses of cows


After 1760s, the place vacated by Mughals to the South of Yamuna was immediately filled up by the Marathas and Mughals became protectorates of the Maratha Peshwa. Though initially weakened in the defeat of 1761, the Marathas bounced back with a vengeance and re-asserted their domination of India. They took care however to never come into direct conflict with the Sikhs. Led by the Peshwas, the major Maratha kingdoms emerged and consolidated under the Scindias of Gwalior, Holkars of Indore and Bhonsles of Pune. Marathas forced their suzerainty over the Rajput domains of Rajputana, Oudh, Bengal and even on Hyderabad, taking a tax they called the ‘Chauth’. The Mughals never had any control over areas South of Delhi, once the Marathas took them under their protection.

To the North of Delhi, in 1764, the Sikhs in revenge for the sacrilege of Harmandir Sahib, joined forces and consolidated themselves into a joint fighting army. Charat Singh, a Sikh chieftain attacked Lahore and removed the Afghan governor; they won almost entire area North of Yamuna and divided the area under 12 chieftains, independent of each other but bound under a larger Sikh brotherhood of the Sarbat Khalsa. Sikh domination extended upto the areas of Rewari, Gurgaon, Karnal, Jind, Bharatpur and other areas bordering Delhi as well. They too stayed clear of any major direct conflict with Marathas barring a few skirmishes. The Mughals never had any control over areas north of Delhi thereafter. Afghans kept on attacking bordering outposts of Punjab off and on, but the joint Sikh forces always defeated them. With the emergence of Ranjit Singh as the emperor of Punjab however, the hole in the Khyber Pass was totally plugged forever and it stays plugged till date. They removed the remnants of Afghan power from Kashmir as well.

The island of an area outside of Maratha domination was Mysore however, where Hyder Ali and Tipu Sultan retained their independence till 1790s.


Meanwhile, in a corner of India in Bengal, the British had won at Plassey in 1757, started munching up territory from Maratha influence. Rest is history. While the Indian Chiefs were busy worrying about the Afghans and about each other, a non-entity, a company started acquiring power. It started eating away the Mughal territories of Oudh and Bengal, then propagated conflicts with Marathas, Tipu and by 1818 had defeated all big and small powers south of Sutlej. By 1849 they crossed the Sutlej and the British flag flew till Khyber.



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