The Third Anglo Maratha War (1817/1818) dealt the final blow to whatever was left of the Maratha Empire after the debacles of the Second Anglo Maratha War (1803). The East India Company combined its armies to raise a force nearly one lakh strong to essentially obtain two goals – crush the Pindaris operating from central India and secondly, to cut Peshwa Bajirao II to size or annex his territories altogether. The battles of Kirkee and Koregaon, of Mahidpur and Sitabuldi as well as the killing of Bapu Gokhale at Ashti near Solapur all formed part of the Third Anglo Maratha War. The military cantonments at Mhow, near Indore, and Sitabuldi, near Nagpur, are both relics of the events of 1818.
One aspect of this war was the British campaign to reduce the Maratha hill forts – which were still in the hands of Bajirao and which he had been trying to strengthen with a view to oppose the British.
The campaign to capture the hill forts in the Sahyadris began in February 1818. The capture of the fort of Ajinkyatara or Satara fort on the tenth of that month was a shot in the arm for the EIC. They were now in control of the Chhatrapati of Satara, a descendant of the great Shivaji himself, and a well-respected power centre in the Deccan. Here, Monstuart Elphinstone played his card. He hoisted the Union Jack on Ajinkyatara, then immediately took it down and once again unfurled the zari patka, signifying that the British respected the Chhatrapati’s authority! Any kind of animosity that may have been created amongst the people by abolishing the land’s most illustrious dynasty was nipped in the bud. Also, it created a power centre which could be played against the Peshwa, if needed. Then a proclamation was issued by Elphinstone on the same day which promised to treat every jagirdar and Sardar who had allied with the Peshwa as an enemy of the East India Company. The same proclamation declared war on Bajirao II. It was enough to sow doubt and dissent into an empire already riven with animosity. Many Maratha sardars and jagirdars chose to stay neutral in the conflict.
The diplomatic battles were won; the EIC then turned attention towards the lofty and impregnable hill forts of the Sahyadris. Forts which had enabled a war with the Mughals to last nearly thirty years. This was the last throw of the dice by Bajirao II, there was little else left to bet on in the once vast empire.
The fall of Sinhagad and Purandar
“ The British flag will be hoisted on the fort of Poorandar, at twelve o’clock, under a royal salute from the park and an extra dram (alcohol) will be issued to Europeans!”
( Dated 16th March 1818, Brig-Gen Theo Pritzler, Camp near Purandar)
Sinhagad and Purandar, the two hill forts closest to Pune had retained their earlier importance even in the nineteenth century. They were regarded, as both, watchtowers to defend the city and also as places of refuge were Pune to come under a devastating attack. A fact not lost on the East India Company, who had even earlier demanded exactly these two forts along with Raigad in connection with the Trimbakji Dengale case. Brig Gen Theo Pritzler laid siege to Sinhagad on the 20th of February 1818. Four mortars and two larger cannons opened fire from the southern side two days later. Cannons opened fire from the west a day later. From the east, two more breaching batteries of guns, mortars and cannons were put into service, such that by the end of the week, Sinhagad was being hit from all four sides. Meanwhile, the 9th Regiment of the Bombay Native Infantry held off the northern side. Cannons opened fire on the Konkan darwaja, severely damaging it and the fortifications around it. In fact, some of the ruins that we see on Sinhagad today, especially the Konkan darwaja, date from this very February 1818 bombardment. The garrison, consisting of about twelve hundred men mainly made up of Arabs and Gosavis, did put up some defence for the ten odd days of the continuous bombing. A brisk return fire was kept up by the garrison on Sinhagad causing some of the guns of Pritzler to fail. One attempt was made to dislodge the British guns from a nearby spur, in which around fifteen persons died, and unfortunately, that was the first and last effort of its type. The cannons continued firing for nearly a whole week.
On the second of March 1818, Ramchandra Chowdhary, the killedar of Sinhagad surrendered to Brig Gen Theo Pritzler after a siege of twelve days, in which the British lost about fifteen men. The garrison was disbanded and ordered to move to Elichpur. Half of it consisted of Arabs, the remaining Gosavis and Marathas. Much wealth was found in the fort, including a solid gold idol of Ganpati which had jewels for eyes. The EIC also gained a total of seventeen brass and twenty-five iron guns and cannons from the fort, not to speak of the various articles which were for the Peshwa’s usage.
Over fifteen hundred shells and nearly twenty-three hundred pieces of cannon shot were fired at the fort, much of which could still be found lying around even in the twentieth century! The 1862 Government List of Civil Forts describes its condition as “ruinous and deserted”. Thus, on the 3rd of March 1818, Sinhagad ceased to be a military garrison. A sad commentary on the times, that the fort was lost with so little a fight.
Purandar was next to fall in that same month. Major Elridge with four companies of the Bombay European regiment and Major Thatcher with troops from the Bombay and Madras Native Infantry marched towards the fort. The former took up positions to the north and the latter to the south. Brig Gen Theo Pritzler, moving down the road to Purandar from Sinhgad was met with some fierce resistance at Saswad. A two hundred strong contingent mainly made up of Sindhis blockaded the British army at a strongly built stone wada in the village, a place with walls so thick that Brig Gen Theo Pritzler had to move in his heavy artillery to attack it! But the sight of the huge guns was sufficient to provoke a surrender and Brig Gen Theo Pritzler’s way to Purandar was clear. The battle tactic used to capture Purandar was eerily similar to the one used by Diler Khan! The British got their guns up the col which separated Vajragad and Purandar and commenced bombing the former around the eleventh of March 1818. Vajragad fell early on the fifteenth of the month and Purandar surrendered later that day. The following day, the Union Jack was hoisted on the fort of Purandar.
Lohagad, Visapur, Korigad
Almost simultaneously with Pritzler laying siege to Sinhagad, Col Deacon attacked the fort of Chakan near Pune. After a brief attack by mortars which damaged some parts of the fort, the garrison surrendered in a couple of days to Col Deacon and the Union Jack unfurled over the fort. Unlike many other forts which were ordered destroyed by Elphinstone, the fort at Chakan maintained a British garrison right up to 1858, after which the garrison was disbanded and the fortifications destroyed. The work at Chakan done, the artillery force which had arrived from Pune to assist Col Deacon now moved on the Bombay – Poona road to Lohagad, which was being attacked by Lt Col Prother.
The day after Sinhagad fell, Lt Col Prother had laid siege to Lohgad near Lonavla. Battalions of the 6th and 1st Native Infantry were assisting him, and were soon joined by artillery from Poona – seven cannons and four heavy guns. The attack was started on both Visapur and Lohagad, with the former capitulating first. Marks of this bombardment are visible on the route to the top of Visapur even today. The trekking path can be seen strewn with neatly cut stones – a relic of the 1818 bombardment of the fort.
The capture of Visapur enabled a better position to attack Lohagad, which sustained some damage under Lt Col Prother’s guns, with the munitions magazine on the fort also exploding. Around the tenth of March, Lohagad fell to the EIC. Some of the fortifications were destroyed. Prother also drained a large tank constructed by Nana Phadnis based on the rumour that it contained hidden treasure. None was found. One wonders how many such places on various forts were dug up, drained or destroyed to look for buried treasure!
A British garrison was stationed on Lohagad right up to 1848, with the famous “Vinchu Kata” fortification being studded in all directions by brass cannons! Doesn’t it look like a well preserved Maratha fort even today? That is perhaps because it is one of those rare places not ordered destroyed outright by Elphinstone. The Civil List of Forts 1862 cites it as slightly damaged with sufficient water for five hundred persons.
Seeing the fall of Lohagad and Visapur, the nearby forts of Tung and Tikona surrendered on their own, without waiting for Lt Col Prother. Only the fort of Korigad resisted for three full days before the killedar Janoba Bhau surrendered to Lt Col Prother and the troops of the 89th Foot Regiment.
A treasure of over one lakh was obtained from the fort. Interestingly, the ornaments of the temple on the fort were made over to the Mumba Devi temple after the garrison evacuated the place.
Where were the formidable forts of Rajgad and Torna in the midst of all this, you must be wondering! Both belonged, as of 1818, to the Pant Sachiv of Bhor who had decided to stay out of the Peshwa – British battle with the result that not a shot was fired towards or from these forts. Even so, they were emptied of their military garrisons in the following few years and left to the elements. Some of the cannons left on Rajgad were dislodged and thrown into the valley by one Mr.Rose in 1858, in apprehension of something similar happening there in conjunction with the great revolt happening in north India!
The capture of Raigad
“ The Jemmadar engages to having the fort evacuated by three o’clock P.M on the 10th May, at which time Lt Col Prother may send one hundred of the Honourable Company’s troops to take possession of the gateway.”
– 9th May 1818, Ryghur
The capture of Raigad formed part of Lt Col David Prother’s campaign, which as seen before, included Lohgad and Visapur too. In this direction, he took Tale, Ghosale and Mangad in April 1818. On the 23rd of April, Major Hall of the 89th Regiment moved from Indapur to Pachad. At Pachad, he was opposed by a force of 300 sent from the fort, which was defeated. Lt Col Prother asked for help from the Bombay Govt and was granted a further 6 companies of the 67th Foot. These managed to reach Raigad by the 4th of May 1818. At the time, the Peshwa’s wife Varanasibai was staying in the palace on the fort. She was offered safe passage out of Raigad, but she preferred staying on and fighting from the fort. After this, started a general bombardment of the fort from the nearby spur of Kalkai. A Maratha force from Kangori and Pratapgad, sent to relieve Raigad, was routed by Lt Crossby who was stationed at Poladpur. The artillery fire continued almost continuously from 4th to the 9th. On the 6th, a huge cannonball caused a tremendous fire to break out on the fort. This fire destroyed most of the old palace on the fort as well as its extensive market. Time did the rest, and today, we can see merely the foundations of the place. The continuous shelling also destroyed the Potnis and most other ministers’ houses. Raigad was in a so – so condition when the siege began, after it, there was nothing of note left. The large fire forced the fort’s Arab jamadar – Shaikh Abud to sue for term on behalf of the killedar Nana Panlowtia. A day later, on the tenth, the famed mahadarwaja of Raigad was in the hands of the EIC. The Peshwa’s wife – Varanasibai who was at the time staying on Raigad (and if Lt Col Prother is to be believed) was found dressed in all her regal finery amongst the still smouldering ruins of the place. She was granted a peaceful exit to Vishrambaugwada in Pune.
The garrison had consisted mainly of Arab mercenaries, along with some Sindhis, Gosavis, Pathans and Marathas. A treasure totalling five lakhs was found in the fort, mainly in coins.
The nearby fort of Lingana surrendered soon afterwards and its difficult access route was destroyed.
The forts of Satara
Although the British were in a position to watch every move of the Chhatrapati of Satara, they still went ahead and got hold of the forts in the Satara region, starting with Ajinkyatara itself in February 1818. One reason being that many of them, such as Vasota, were actually under the Peshwa.
A few days after Raigad fell, Pratapgad surrendered to Maj Thomas Thatcher. The nearby fort of Makarandgad surrendered at the same time. James Grant Duff, Resident of Satara, played a role in the bloodless capture of Pratapgad. First, communication was opened with Nilkanthrao Deshpande, the killedar of Pratapgad with the aid of one Vithalpant Bokil. A couple of days later, Pandurang Atre, the karkun at Pratapgad arrived for an audience with Duff. The Satara Resident bluntly asked for a surrender, showing a long (and growing) list of fallen forts as a threat.
On the eleventh of May, a letter was issued by one Govindpant, brother of the aforementioned killedar, agreeing to surrender the fort. Accordingly, the next day, Maj Thatcher arrived with some troops and replaced the garrison on the fort with that of the EIC.
Thus, fell Pratapgad and along with it a dozen more forts of Satara, two dozen forts in Satara. A total of sixteen forts were ordered destroyed – among them Vasota, Jungli Jaigad, Chandan Vandan, Kenjalgad and Kamalgad. Of these, Vasota had proved to be of some difficulty in capturing, but the usual strategy of opening cannon fire to subjugate the fort in a few days was used here too. Another source puts the number of forts ordered to be demolished outright at twenty-five.
Pratapgad was restored to the Satara Chhatrapati in 1823 with Grant Duff (Resident at Satara) playing a role in it. A few years later, the Chhatrapati of Satara assisted in the building of a road to Mahabaleshwar, thus, helping in the establishment of a novel concept in India – the hill station!
The forts of Kolhapur and the Gadkari revolt
Since the Kolhapur ruler had also remained neutral in 1818, the forts in that region were not attacked and retained their former glory. Only in 1829, owing to differences with Bawasaheb the then ruler, the British took the fort of Panhala in their possession and stationed a garrison there. On the suggestion of Malcolm, it was soon returned to the Kolhapur Chhatrapati. In 1844, the gadkaris or killedars of Panhala, Vishalgad, Rangana, Pavangad, Samangad, Bhudargad – rose in revolt against the British for their unjust taxation policies. Their leader was Babaji Ahirekar and suddenly the British found that half a dozen strong forts were no longer in their possession. The British sent Gen Delamotte accompanied by Col Outram and Col Evans to restore order in Kolhapur; the last name being the Resident of Satara. Fierce battles were fought at all the above-mentioned forts for nearly six months. But Ahirekar had the upper hand when he attacked. He captured and imprisoned Evans at Panhala. The fort, soon, became the scene of fierce fighting as Col Outram and Gen Delamotte struggled against the gadkaris. Col Outram finally blasted a breach into the fort and entered it, only to have Babaji Ahirekar escape to Pawangad nearby. Here, after a fierce battle, Ahirekar was killed and the nearly six-month-long campaign to reduce a handful of forts was brought to a close. In contrast, during February and March of 1818, it had taken them merely six weeks to annex ten forts, some of them the strongest in the country!
The ‘gadkari’ revolt was one of the three examples of freedom fighters sincerely using hill forts and hilly terrain against the British. The other two being Umaji Naik and Vasudev Balwant Phadke. All of which required considerable effort to put down on the part of the British.
The fortifications of Panhala were destroyed, including a beautifully carved “char darwaja”, as were those of other forts such as Pawangad and Vishalgad ; thus, bringing to an end the last few forts in Maharashtra.
Jivdhan , Shivneri and other northern forts
The fate of forts to the north of Pune was similar to those in the south. Major Elridge, who had in March captured Purandar, appeared before Shivneri a couple of months later on the 20th of May. With assistance from Lt White of the 1st Auxiliary Battalion, he captured the fort the following day. The killedar, Annabhai Ratikar fled to Hadsar which also fell in a short time. The fort was ordered destroyed by Elphinstone in the next few months.
Chavand also fell the same month as did Jivdhan. Jivdhan was attacked by Maj Elridge on the 3rd of May 1818. The killedar vowed to fight for eight days, but finally succumbed in two. Like at Sinhagad, the large mortar guns did the trick for the EIC. In spite of being a rather insurmountable fort with sheer walls of stone on all sides, Jivdhan surrendered within a few days. A large, well-stocked granary was found on the fort, which was set on fire by the British.
The famous quartet of forts in Junnar done, the British moved towards Harishchandragad which Capt Skyes got hold of in the same month.
In the previous month, the fort of Trimbak was attacked by Col McDowell . Anyone who has travelled to Nashik must have seen the sky high and invincible forts of the region, their near perpendicular natural walls of stone making their capture seem like an impossible achievement on first sight. A five hundred foot scarp guards the summit of the hill and only two doorways provide access. “Sieges of the Madras Army” gives a detailed account of this British siege of Trimbak, right from its reconnaissance and battle plans adopted! On the 23rd of April , the British cannons were well and truly in place around the fort and began firing the next day, being met with resistance from the fort. The ruins of an old village were used as a staging point to launch attacks, but cannon fire, shaturnals and plain simple boulders thrown from the fort were enough to keep the English guns at bay for a considerable time. But by the night of the 24th, four large cannons had been firmly established and commenced bombing the fort walls, inducing an unexpected surrender!
“Had the garrison resisted with firmness, success could scarcely have been anticipated”, says Col Edward Lake, who was part of this siege. A sentiment echoed throughout the campaign. A staggering seventeen forts surrendered to the British on the fall of Trimbak, making their conquest of Khandesh nearly complete.
The fort of Mulher was the last to surrender in July 1818, when Ramchandra Janardhan Fadnavis, its killedar surrendered to John Briggs, the British political agent in Khandesh.
This completed the British conquest of the Sahyadri hill forts.
“These forts shall be destroyed”
Within the span of a few months, the East India Company found itself in possession of over a hundred hill forts. The forts which had defied half a dozen powers all at the same time were now in British hands. How would things turn out under their new masters – Europeans in the nineteenth century.
Here, Monstuart Elphinstone made a broad departure from his predecessors. He ensured that the Sahyadris did not merely change rulers, but that their lives as forts was brought to an end.
Says he in 1819, the year after the Third Anglo Maratha War was brought to a close.
“It is evident that these forts, if kept up must be extremely expensive both in garrison, provisions and repairs. If merely abandoned by us, would be liable to be occupied by insurgents or hill bandits, and being almost all exceedingly strong, might require a regular army to reduce them. By this rule, almost all the hill forts in the chain of ghauts and many in other ranges are to be destroyed.”
Likewise, over two hundred forts were destroyed by the East India Company in the following few years. Most of this destruction involved blowing away the access routes and parts of the fortifications with cannonballs. After that, the vagaries of nature did their job on the deserted monuments. Documents related to Henry Pottinger, the first British collector of Ahmednagar, are indicative of how this demolition was carried. Dated 14th June 1818, it talks about how the kamavisdar of Shivner taluka – Ramrao Narsiva handed over six forts – Shivneri, Jivdhan, Chavand, Hadsar, Harishchandragad and Kunjirgad to one Mr Boite for demolition. Two hundred men had been brought by Boite for the demolition. A further document of December of the same year mentions a Capt Estner who was going to continue the demolition work. Ramrao Narsiva was instructed to provide milk and rations to the demolition party ; as also, was asked to move out all the remaining stores, articles etc on the forts to Junnar. It reads like a municipal corporation carrying out a demolition. Furthermore, the Bombay Gazetteer of 1884 notes, how in 1820, the steps leading up the forts of Jivdhan and Chavand were blown away by mines and guns. Thus, rendering the forts completely inaccessible. These ‘broken steps’ continue to provide a challenge to modern day trekkers on many a fort, although iron railings and crude steps have made the job easy on a few of them. Fascinating to know that they were in perfect condition until two hundred years ago, till being blown apart by an East India Company gun. The blown away steps and filled up tunnel ways on Jivdhan, for instance, have stayed that way since 1820.
The plans to raze the forts were perhaps laid out during the war itself. A letter to Elphinstone, sent from Hubli in 1818, mentions how without the hill forts near Belgaum being demolished, British authority could never be assumed to be fully established.
The first question that springs to the mind is why did these invincible forts buckle in less than six months? Was the technological superiority of the EIC such that it rendered them obsolete? Or was it because the EIC was better organised? The reasons are various, each contributing in its own way.
When Bajirao II decided to stockade the forts and increase their garrisons he had well and truly decided to oppose the British. Well stocked forts which would harass the British as they tried to capture Bajirao II seems to be the strategy adopted. But guerrilla warfare needs many things together to succeed. Support of the people and an efficient intelligence department, for starters. On both counts, Bajirao II was found wanting. His strategy of using hill forts might have been useful twenty years earlier, but now it was simply a case of closing the door when the horse had already bolted.
Wellesley and Elphinstone made more use of the Treaty of Vasai than did Bajirao. They improved connectivity between Bombay and Pune, something which had cost them heavily in the First Anglo Maratha War. They spread their influence deep into Shaniwarwada and, later, Vishrambaug wada. Above all, with Bombay secure and the Peshwa on their side, they could focus on defeating Shinde and Holkar to the north. Defeats in the battle’s at Kirkee and Koregaon followed by the Peshwa’s exit from Pune did not help matters. Loss of the capital city could have well affected the garrisons set up on every fort. Another turning point came in February the next year, at Ashti near Solapur. In that battle, Bapu Gokhale, the Peshwa’s senapati was killed, thus, ending the last chance of anyone uniting the Marathas just on basis of military prowess. At the end of the same battle, EIC captured the Chhatrapati of Satara. They took his fort, too, a few days later, but did not make a show of it, being fully aware of the importance of the gaadi to the Marathi mind. Instead, they recognised his kingdom, instantly fudging the minds of many between the British and Bajirao II. Unlike in the Mughal – Maratha war where Santaji and Dhanaji wreaked havoc on besieging Mughal armies by attacking them from the outside , the forts were more or less fighting all alone with little hope of succour coming from elsewhere. All these factors together contributed to the whole of the Sahyadris folding in quick time.
Another problem was that the jagirdari system which Chhatrapati Shivaji had strived to abolish and instead appointed killedars and army commanders on a salaried basis was well and truly alive once again. The zeal to defend “swarajya” was missing. The EIC issued a carrot and stick proclamation which kept many influential sardars and jagirdars out of the contest. A contrast may be made with Afzal Khan and his firman which asked for people to leave a little known person called Shivaji and join him or face brutal consequences. But Bajirao II was no Shivaji and more importantly there was no Kanhoji Jedhe around to dispatch the British firman to the dustbin. The British played off the Chhatrapati, the Peshwa and assorted Maratha jagirdars against each other and the result was obvious. The strongest hill forts in the whole country collapsed in under six months!
In the end, it was Chhatrapati Shivaji who made the forts, the forts did not make Chhatrapati Shivaji. As Lt Edward Lake of the Madras Engineers who played a huge role in subjugating the hill forts of the Sahyadris says himself – “But the spirit was wanting with which the great founder of the tribe had armed his people for conquest. Thirty fortresses each of which with Sevajee as a master would have defied the whole Anglo Indian army fell unresistingly within a few weeks.”
The destroyed forts were never resurrected, being replaced by modern, city-based cantonments. As warfare and technology progressed, forts became more and more obsolete. The forts, hence, still bear the telltale marks of their last struggle in 1818. The destroyed steps of Ratangad or the sheer wall of Alang leading to a flight of steps! The missing fortifications on many a fort or the desolate ruins of Raigad.
As the “Bombay Miscellany”, magazine of 1861, laments about the forts which have by then ceased being military garrisons for over forty years – “Alas they are nothing now. In a very few of them, a havildar and a few sepahis still keep the gate, but hundreds of them – by far the larger number – are marked in the lists of the Quarter Master General as “deserted” or “destroyed”. They are all silent now, witnessing indeed to later times, and degenerate races, of the great deeds of their forefathers of self-sacrifice, heroism and desperate courage.”
1. Papers respecting the Pindari and Mahratta Wars (1824)
2. Memoir of the Operations of the British Army in India, During Maratha War of 1817, 1818 & 1819 – Col Valentine Blacker. (1820)
3. Journals of the Sieges of the Madras Army – Lt Edward Lake (1824)
4. Gazetteer of Bombay Presidency, Vol XVIII Part III – Poona (1884)
5. Local history of Poona and it’s battlefields – Col Shakespeare (1916)
6. Panhala – Parasnis
7. Indian History Congress proceedings
8. Bombay Miscellany (1862)
9. Good reads and Sunday magazine (1878)
(Aneesh Gokhale is the author of ‘Brahmaputra- Story of Lachit Barphukan’ & ‘Sahyadris to Hindukush’)