Maratha Empire raids are one of the hushed up chapters in modern India’s history. In today’s Karnataka state, which encompasses much of Mysore Kingdom that Haidar Ali and later Tipu Sultan ruled between 1761 and 1799 CE, one occasionally gets to hear about the pillage in 1791 of Sringeri Mutt. This is one of Hinduism’s holiest sites. Tipu Sultan wrote letters to the Mutt expressing his anguish at the desecration of this holy site and offered to repair it (1). Attempts have been made to brush aside this Maratha raid as a one off incident that happened due to a band of unruly military irregulars. However, buried in the cacophony of this mainstream narrative built over a century by protagonists of the Maratha Empire, are stories of atrocities on millions of non-Maratha Hindus across India, particularly the Kannadigas. This presentation traces some of the destruction the Maratha Armies carried out in Karnataka, even as Haidar Ali first and Tipu Sultan later tried to prevent the same.
Maratha – Mysore conflicts in 1600s
The conflict between Maratha soldiers and Mysore Kingdom dates back to the days of Maratha warrior Shahji, father of Shivaji who founded the Maratha Empire. In 1639, Mysore Hindu King Kanthirava Wodeyar is said to have defeated the troops of Bijapur Sultanate led by Randaulah Khan and Shahji at Srirangapatna, capital of Mysore Kingdom (2). The Hindutva nationalist narrative tells us that Shivaji is a pan-India role model for today’s Hindus. However, contemporary sources of Shivaji as well the later Marathas’- both European and Indian, paint a different picture of him. He is said to have led many attacks on the towns and manufacturing areas of Karnataka according to the Gazetteer of the Bombay Presidency, 1883 quoting eyewitness accounts by European traveler Fryer.
When Aurangazeb dismantled the Muslim Bijapur Kingdom in 1680s, the Mysore Kingdom under Chikkadevaraja Wodeyar formed an alliance with the Mughals. Just a few years after Shivaji’s death, Maratha Empire soldiers en route to their territory in Ginjee, Tamil Nadu attacked Srirangapatna, in 1696. The pillagers were defeated by this Hindu king.
Given the suffering of non-Maratha Hindus like Kannadigas under his administration, it is unclear if the concept of pan-Hindu unity existed during the time of Shivaji. And it is therefore doubtful if he was a fore bearer of such an idea.
Aurangzeb and Chikkadevaraya passed away within a few years of each other in the first decade of 18th century. Across the Indian sub-continent the Marathas quickly gained territory at the cost of the Mughals and also other kingdoms.
Destruction by Peshwa Balaji Baji Rao’s men in 1750s
Haidar Ali’s rise to power was in a big part due to the Maratha raids. In 1750s, Marathas laid waste to farms and towns and forced Maharaja of Mysore to pay a ransom of Rs. 1 crore, according to contemporary writer Kirmani (3). Haidar Ali, who then was still subservient to the Maharaja, led resistance of Mysore Kingdom. Thanks to his efforts, a few towns, particularly the economically important Bengaluru, did not to fall into the hands of the Marathas.
After taking over the reign of Mysore Kingdom in early 1760s, Haidar Ali built village defenses in the kingdom. For example at Nagapuri village in present day Hassan District, Karnataka state, he built a fort amidst hills and moved the village population into it.
Destruction by Peshwa Madhava Rao’s men in 1770s
Haidar Ali was fresh from his victory over the English after the First Anglo Mysore War. The treaty that ended the war in 1769 promised mutual support to each other in case of invasion by an external force. When Maratha Peshwa Madhava Rao attacked Mysore Kingdom in 1770, the British didn’t adhere to the treaty’s terms. After the rout of the Mysorean armies at Moti Talab (Tonnur Kere) near Srirangapatna, Tipu fled the battle field dressed as a Fakir or a holy man. As Haidar and Tipu’s defense failed, the Peshwa’s men moved about a dozen miles north of the battle site to the Hindu holy town of Melukote. There they looted and burnt its many Hindu temples.
British traveler Francis Buchanan (4) during his travel in 1800-1801 across Mysore Kingdom noted how many settlements were affected by the Maratha invasions over the decades. On 29 August 1800, he visited Melukote and wrote that the town had not yet recovered from the Maratha invasions.
Destruction by Parasuram Bahu & Hari Pant led Maratha Armies in 1790s
The Third Anglo Mysore War (1790-92) saw large scale invasion of Mysore Kingdom from all sides by the British, Marathas and the Hyderabad Nizam. Contemporary sources speak of the misery of inhabitants of Mysore Kingdom. Maratha General Parasuram Bahu’s name appears numerous times in these sources associated with burning, looting, plundering, mass-murders, rapes, abduction of young girls, particularly the lower caste Hindus or Shudras as they were referred to by these sources.
Edward Moor was part of Captain Little’s detachment that supported Parasuram Bahu’s invasion of Mysore Kingdom in 1790-92. He documented the destruction of over 22 towns and Hindu temples (5). At Shivamogga town which was looted and burnt, a Dalit’s wife was raped and killed by an accomplice of Bahu. Moor also witnessed 10 villages burning at a single time near Channageri (in present day Davanagere District). He wrote that ‘A number of small towns and villages in the vicinity of Dharwar‘ were ‘razed‘. Apart from this, mulberry cultivation of the farmers was destroyed by the Grand Army that comprised of the Marathas, English and their allies.
Other eyewitness account of the war comes from another English soldier Major Dirom in 1793 (6). Buchanan also documented the destruction by Maratha armies carried out between 1791 and 92. He lists at least 28 villages and towns that were destroyed.
Now, what did Tipu do protect his subjects during this war? Stretched and clearly unable to protect every inch of their territory, forces of Mysore Kingdom concentrated on protecting big towns and fortifications. There were many tales of Mysorean bravery against the invaders led by none other than Charles Cornwallis, a man who was second in command of British forces in America and who fought the might of George Washington. Bahadur Khan, killedar of Bangalore fort died after a heroic struggle of three weeks and was honoured by Cornwallis for his bravery. Badruzzaman held off the combined forces of Marathas and Bombay Army at Dharwar fort for six months. The brave unnamed killedar of Hutridurga fort, Tumkur District refused to surrender having famously said ‘I have eaten Tipu’s salt and will not surrender till he does’. Banke Nawab or General Reza Khan followed the scorch earth policy and burnt the fodder of Cornwalis’ army and forced him to burst his big guns and retreat from Srirangapatna. But the Cornwallis finally prevailed as Maratha Armies joined him. Maratha armies swept through the region and repeated on a mass scale what they had done to Kannadigas since Shivaji’s burning and plundering of Karnataka’s towns and markets in mid 17th century. They did not spare Hindu temples. They looted the mutts of Sringeri and Kudli. At the later place they massacred all non-Brahmins.
Later British sources
Chief Commissioner of Mysore Province and Coorg, Lewin Bowring wrote in 1871 about the destruction by the Maratha Army in 1790-91 (7). While Buchanan visited many towns and farms 10 years after Bahu’s destructive campaign and claimed they had not recovered, it is interesting to note that Bowring observed that even 80 years later, many towns like Shivamogga Town had still not recovered from the ravages.
Writing in 1897, BL Rice observed that Madhugiri town, which was besieged for 3 months in 1791 by Maratha Army led by Balavant Rao, had still not recovered from the destruction, over a century later (8).
Like the Mughals, the expansionist aims of Maratha rulers put them in conflict with the many kingdoms- Hindu as well as Muslim. Peshwa armies displayed their ruthlessness and people who suffered at their hands were often fellow Hindus. Jadunath Sarkar one of India’s prominent historians of the early 20th century has detailed the suffering of ordinary residents across India, most of who were Hindus, at the hands of the Maratha armies (9). Although a largely forgotten chapter a search of literature by contemporaries reveals many unheard stories of Maratha army atrocities in Karnataka, as elsewhere. In this context, it is worthwhile mentioning the role played by Haidar Ali and Tipu Sultan in safeguarding the people of Mysore Kingdom from Maratha empire invasions for nearly half a century in between them.
- Website of Dakshinamnaya Sri Sharada Peetham, Sringeri
Downloaded on 15 June 2020 from this link https://www.sringeri.net/jagadgurus/sri-sacchidananda-bharati-iii-1770-1814
- Imperial Gazetteer, vol.18, 1908.
- Miles, W., ‘The history of Hydur Naik‘, Meer Hussein Ali Khan, Kirmani, 1842.
- Buchanan, Francis, ‘A journey from Madras through the countries of Mysore, Canara, and Malabar‘, in 3 volumes, 1807.
- Moor, Edward,. ‘A narrative of the operations of Captain Little’s detachment, and of the Mahratta army, commanded by Purseram Bhow; during the late confederacy in India, against the Nawab Tippoo Sultan Bahadur‘, J.Johnson, London, 1794.
- ‘A narrative of the campaign in India, which terminated the war with Tippoo Sultan in 1792‘, published in 1793
- Bowring, Lewin B., ‘Eastern Experiences‘, 1871.
- Rice.B.L. ‘Mysore A Gazetteer compiled for Government‘, 1897.
- Sarkar, Jadunath., ‘Fall of Mughals’, vol. 1, 1964.