A Tale of Two Cities: Pune and Nagpur

Peshwa Madhavrao I

The mighty Maratha Confederacy was brought to its knees due to disunity and intense infighting. After Shivaji passed away, the ambitions of individual leaders caused irreparable damage to the Maratha cause, even at the apex of Maratha glory. This led to fundamental weakness in Maratha polity and economy. The Maratha chiefs fought each other for power and petty jealousies, while the scions of the Peshwa and the Chhatrapati families indulged in kin-slaying and other conspiracies. This was indeed the kind of chaotic situation that the British used to their advantage in India. Today we look at an episode where Pune and Nagpur were razed in succession by opposing Maratha factions, in alliance with Hyderabad, their mortal foe.

The Maratha cities of Pune and Nagpur already had dark pasts. Nagpur, an important city of the Gond kingdoms, had seen several bloody wars of succession. Raghoji Bhosale, a Maratha chief and the governor of Berar, mediated multiple rounds of conflicts between two warring Gond princes. He had also been slowly claiming parts of the Gond kingdom as arbitration fees. The conflict finally ended when Raghoji marched into Nagpur and seized power in 1743. Raghoji Bhosale’s energetic rule and encouragement of immigration made Nagpur a major city.

Pune city also had a violent history. It was the fiefdom of Maloji Bhosale (the grandfather of Chhatrapati Shivaji) who served the Ahmednagar Sultanate. The Bhosales of Nagpur were distantly related to these Bhosales of Pune. In 1630 Pune was plundered, razed and the land thoroughly ploughed by a Maratha general of the Bijapur Sultanate. In 1637, Maloji Bhosale’s son Shahaji entered the service of the Sultan of Bijapur and got back the wasteland that was once his home. Shahaji rebuilt Pune and soon it became a thriving city again. By the 1710s, the Peshwas who were based in Pune made it the capital city.

Following the Maratha defeat in the 3rd Battle of Panipat in 1761, the surviving chieftains tried to recoup lost power and wrest control over the confederacy. The Nagpur Bhosales had been campaigning elsewhere and did not get decimated at Panipat. The new Peshwa was the young but brilliant Madhavrao. His uncle Raghunathrao was also capable, but he lusted for the Peshwa office. Tensions began to rise, and civil war was brewing. The Nizam of Hyderabad, great foe of the Marathas, used this situation to invade the Maratha heartland with a massive army. Within weeks the Nizam’s forces reached Pune. The Maratha chiefs came together at this point and the Nizam was defeated. However, the wily Nizam soon roped in Nagpur’s current ruler, Janoji Bhosale. Janoji had succeeded Raghoji Bhosale in 1755, after prevailing over his brother Madhoji. However, the Peshwa had pried off some of Janoji’s lands and bestowed them to Madhoji. This had made Janoji Bhosale very resentful.

In 1763, the Nizam and Janoji Bhosale invaded the Peshwa’s lands. Their combined forces sacked and burnt Pune in a swift campaign. The frantic Maratha chiefs promised the Janoji Bhosale great riches if he turned against the Nizam. Janoji agreed and his army fell upon his unsuspecting allies. The Nizam’s forces fled suffering heavy losses. Peshwa Madhavrao kept his word and offered rich prizes to Janoji, but the Peshwa secretly resolved to punish Janoji for burning down Pune. Moreover, Janoji openly favored the Peshwa’s uncle and rival, Raghunathrao.

The Peshwa got his chance soon. In 1768, Janoji attempted to raise Raghunathrao to the office of the Peshwa. Peshwa Madhavrao quickly imprisoned his uncle and marched into Nagpur. He decided to pay back Janoji in his own coin. The Peshwa invited the Nizam, the last victim of Janoji’s treachery, to join the expedition against Janoji Bhosale. The Nizam was only happy to oblige and sent his forces to aid the Peshwa. Janoji fled Nagpur, leaving the city undefended. The destruction of Pune by Janoji was avenged when the Peshwa’s and Nizam’s armies plundered and burned Nagpur. Soon, the humbled Janoji accepted the Peshwa’s suzerainty in return for amnesty.

This episode is representative of Indian rulers’ short-sightedness and the chaotic scramble for power in the 18th-19th centuries. Pune and Nagpur rebounded in time – and even these events pale in comparison to later Maratha misfortunes. However, the point is that these city destructions happened right after the great catastrophe at Panipat – which was clearly due to errors stemming from disunity and hubris. This was the kind of chaos that was quickly utilized by the British, who were united and driven by singular purpose. It might be harsh to judge such events with using the luxury of hindsight; nevertheless, this episode perhaps shows that shared ethnicity or caste or faith is not enough bind together various groups to create a nation. Perhaps there are other ingredients that are required to forge a unity that overpowers base instincts.

PS: This is my article in DNA published on February 24, 2019. Here’s the link to the original article.

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The Pundits on the roof of the world


The “Great Game” was an Anglo-Russian conflict over the control of Tibet, East Turkestan, and Central Asia.  In the 19th century, this vast region was a patchwork of backward states and tribal confederacies. The Russians feared British inroads into this region from India. On the other hand, Britain feared Russia’s steady conquest of Central Asia. A cold war, peppered by minor confrontations, raged between the two empires from the 1830s to 1895. The Great Trigonometric Survey of India, a project to measure the entire Indian subcontinent with scientific precision, was also a part of the Great Game. Great feats of diplomacy, deceit, espionage and violence were accomplished in the Game – and Indian subjects also played an important part. Today we look at the “Pundits” who explored mysterious Tibet for the British Empire.

Tibet, the “roof of the world”, banned all foreigners in 1850 when the Great Game heated up. But Tibet was too important; it was the source of Asia’s great rivers. It also lay between the Raj, the weakening Chinese Empire and the Russian Empire. By 1862, multiple attempts by Englishmen to enter Tibet failed due to border brigands and vigilant Tibetan soldiers. The British now decided to utilize Indians from the border regions – after all they had been crossing the Tibet border for centuries! Buddhist pilgrims even traveled to towns and monasteries deep inside Tibet. British officers began to scout for talented (and loyal) Indian subjects from the borderlands. ‘Pundit’, which normally implies a high-caste man of learning, became the term for these recruited agents. The agents’ names were withheld from all government records till they retired; they were instead marked as “Pundit Number One”, “Pundit Number Two”, etc.

The Pundits learned to survey geographic features, estimate distances, determine altitude (by measuring the temperature of boiling water), and celestial navigation. They were trained to use code language and concealable parchments. The Pundits also received basic medical training. They were trained to walk two thousand paces to a mile to estimate distances. To keep count they used a modified Buddhist rosary, but instead of the usual 108 beads it had 100 beads – with every tenth bead being slightly larger. For every 100 steps, the 100th larger bead was removed. The Buddhist prayer wheel hid the parchments on which the records were made in code. Other ingenious instruments were also utilized for the Pundits’ covert activities. The first Pundit, a Punjabi named Abdul Hamid, was sent to survey the route to Yarkand in East Turkestan. The most famous Pundit, called “Chief Pundit” was Rai Bahadur Nain Singh Rawat, who hailed from present-day Uttarakhand. An astute student of tradecraft and scientific surveying, Nain Singh soon became the Empire’s greatest assets in Tibet. Nain Singh soon recruited his brother Kalian Singh and his cousin Mani Singh. More Pundits were recruited from other border regions of the British Raj.

Pundits disguised as pilgrims and holy men began to slip into Tibet successfully. They took detailed records of their journeys, often at night time to avoid detection. In their long missions, they measured terrain, and recorded resources and notable geographic features. The Pundits also analyzed Tibet’s people, economy and military strength. Nain Singh conducted multiple missions into Tibet, the last one being an epic journey from Leh to Guwahati via Tibet’s capital, Lhasa. His brother Kalian, cousin Mani and another cousin Kishen Singh recorded vital information of other regions. A Pundit named Kinthup from Sikkim discovered that the Tsangpo River in Tibet was actually a tributary of the Brahmaputra. Until then it was not known if the Tsang-Po flowed into China or into South East Asia. Mt. Kailas and the early courses of the Indus and the Sutlej rivers were also surveyed by the Pundits.

The Tibetan endeavor continued for decades. Some Pundits were caught and imprisoned or executed. However, the Pundits’ dogged efforts enabled them to map the approaches and key regions of Tibet with precision. This became very valuable when the British launched the infamous Younghusband expedition to Tibet in 1903. The Pundits were rewarded with titles and posts on retiring from covert work. However, imperialism, racism and reasons of security kept their names out the limelight for years. Nain Singh himself was publicly feted years after his retirement.

While it is true that their missions were undertaken to further British aims, the Pundits deserve to be commended for their accomplishments. In fact, in 2004 the Government honored Nain Singh for his survey of the Himalayan region by issuing a stamp featuring him. For years Tibet was represented as a blank zone in all maps, the Pundits changed that. In a time without satellites or aircraft, these intrepid men provided collected vital information, against heavy odds.  This enabled the opening up of Tibet and peeled off layers of mystery surrounding that land.

PS: This is my article in DNA published on February, 2019. Here’s the link to the original article.

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