Sringeri temple attack and the genocide of Karnataka’s Hindus by the Maratha Empire (1791)
Research and author: Mr. Ameen Ahmed, Canada
Acknowledgement: I thank the scholars whose works have helped me research and write this document. I am grateful to Prof. Dr. Nazeer Ahmed, USA and Nidhin George Olikara, India.
In 1791 CE, India trembled in horror. Maratha raiders pillaged Sringeri, in south-western India. The town is home to Sri Sringeri Sharada Peetham, popular as Sringeri Mutt, one of the four education sites originally established in 8th century CE by Adi Shankaracharya to spread the faith (1). A mid-20th century Hindu nationalist historian described this attack as ‘an affront to Hindu religion by a brother Hindu, the sad memory of which long remained fresh in Maratha memory’ (2). On Jul. 6, 1791, Tipu Sultan, wrote a letter to Sri Sachidananda Bharati Swamy, the head of this institution, condemning this attack by the Maratha cavalry. Tipu was ruling Mysore Kingdom then, in whose domains this holy site was situated. According to AK Shastry, historian, and translator of historical correspondence of the Sringeri Mutt, Pindaris and looters accompanying Maratha army plundered the holy town. It resulted in desecration of the centuries’ old holy idol of Sharadamba, the Hindu Goddess of Knowledge, massacre of priestly Brahmins and looting of about sixty lakh rupees worth of objects. The Peshwa, Chief of the Maratha Empire, asked Parshuram Bhau, his General, to compensate for the damage and have the looted articles returned to the Mutt, to which the later agreed. Shastry, who translated and published Tipu’s above and other letters to the Sringeri Swamy, concluded that this gave an ‘impression that the foolish plunder of Sringeri was not due to deliberate intention on his part, but a result of the predatory habits of the Pindaris in his contingent‘ (3). But was that the case?
Let us look at the military events associated with the presence of Maratha armies in Mysore Kingdom, during the Third Anglo Mysore War, in the run-up to the Sringeri massacre, as well those in the immediate aftermath. Let us also understand the wider context, that of the century long Maratha invasions of Karnataka. I refer to contemporary, eye-witness accounts of English soldiers who invaded Mysore Kingdom during this war alongside Maratha Peshwa’s regular army and hired soldiers, and a few secondary sources, to narrate the story.
Events in the Third Anglo-Mysore conflict in the run up to the attack on Sringeri
At the onset of the Third Anglo Mysore War, a detachment of Bombay Army led by Captain Little joined Parshuram Bhau led Maratha Army on 19 Jun. 1790 (4) near Tasgaon, in present day Maharashtra. It is to be noted that the combined armies were led by Parshuram Bhau, as agreed by the Marathas and the British. The other Maratha General Hari Pant or Haripant Phadke, with an army of 12,000, started his march to Srirangapatna from Pune, taking the route of Gooty, Rayadurgam and Sira.
On Sep. 14, Bhau’s army had swelled to a cavalry of 15,000 and an infantry of 3,000, as it crossed the boundaries of Mysore Kingdom and approached the town of Dharwar and the adjoining fort. The armies camped near Narendra village about five miles north-east of Dharwar. The Mysorean forces at the fort and the town were commanded by its Qilledar Badruzzaman Khan, one of Tipu Sultan’s most loyal soldiers and ‘a man of science’ according to Edward Moor, an English soldier who participated in this war and wrote a detailed account of it (5). There were 10,000 men defending the fort and the town with an array of weapons, from matchlocks to cannons and Mysorean rockets. Probably realising the scale of invasion, the Mysoreans seem to have focused on defending the big town, instead of meeting the enemy at the kingdom’s borders. The nearby town of Hubbali was attacked the same day. Although its inhabitants resisted initially, the next day they surrendered to Bhau after paying him protection money. The town and its inhabitants were therefore left unharmed. Meanwhile at Dharwar, skirmishes began between the invaders and defenders.
On Dec. 13, after a bloody hand-to-hand combat, Mysorean troops quit the town. Bhau’s eldest son Appa Saheb entered it with his troops, who started setting it afire at various places. After a few skirmishes, Bhau’s men got complete control of the town on 18th and plundered it ‘so completely that not a piece of wood was left standing‘. For over a century, this had been the custom of Peshwa Maratha soldiers with towns and villages that resisted them. The adjoining Dharwar fort continued to hold off the combined armies’ assault. Running out of provisions, and upon hearing the devastating news of the fall of Bangalore fort on Mar. 21, Badruzzaman finally surrendered on Apr. 4. For six long months, he had held off the combined might of the Marathas and the British Army and prevented their attack on the heart of Karnataka.
The attack on Sringeri probably happened between then and Jul. 6 of the same year, when Tipu wrote the letter about it to the Sringeri Swamy. The raid is mentioned in the correspondence of the Indian contemporaries of these two men. It has been attributed to a detachment of cavalry commanded by Raghunath Rao, a brother of Parshuram Bhau (6).
There is a possibility Raghunath Rao knew of the attack, for two reasons:
1) Pindaris, as the English soldiers eye-witnessed at many places during this war, operated upon the orders of Maratha chieftains. They would be let loose on those towns whose residents refused to pay them ransom.
2) The Maratha cavalry was under the command of various chieftains. While most took direct orders from Bhau, some chieftains bypassed him and acted upon the war plans of the Peshwa council that accompanied Bhau.
Either way, the Pindaris or the cavalry could not have acted without knowledge of their masters.
Need, greed, and Maratha style of warfare were reasons for the attack on Sringeri
Armies those days were accompanied by camp followers- non-fighting men and women, who were many times numerous than the combatants. Their pay varied too. During their campaign in 1790-92, English irregular troops were paid half the salary of a regular soldier. Soldiers had to not only buy their own grain and food, but also feed their horses and animals, if they had any alongside. Whenever a siege was prolonged, soldiers and their animals would suffer from want. This was seen a few times during the Maratha campaign, particularly during the siege of Dharwar, between Sep. 1790 and Apr. 1791, and also when the armies of Marathas, Nizam and Cornwallis united near Srirangapatna in May 1791. About the latter place, since the main Madras Army and its camp followers had exhausted their supplies unable to penetrate Tipu’s defences, they had no option but to buy the same from the Maratha Camp, who sold them at exorbitant prices.
It is to be noted that throughout their history, from Shivaji’s plundering of Karnataka’s towns and trading centres in 1660s and 1670s (7) to the Bargis’ laying waste to countryside in Bengal in 1740s (8), and the devastation of a prosperous Mysore Kingdom during this war, Maratha armies were known for their indiscipline and excessive plundering of enemy territory.
Evidence of this was seen everywhere during this Maratha invasion right from the start. As soon as they entered Mysore Kingdom and marched from Saundatti to Betgeri village, north of Dharwar town, on Sep. 10, Bhau’s Pindaris attacked the village. But the residents beat them back. An angry Bhau then unleashed his Rohilla Gardee troops, who plundered the village without mercy and captured many of its residents. Four days later, a nearby village was burnt by Marathas. David Price, an English soldier who was part of the siege of Dharwar wrote this on the evening on Sep. 14, ‘To complete the interest of the scene, that ordinary accompaniment of Mahratta warfare, an unfortunate village in flames, embellised the back ground, like the moon among the stars of Heaven.‘
Moor observed something similar during the armies’ march from Chennagiri to Holehonnur, in Dec. 1791, “This part of the country was the richest we had yet seen, abounding in villages and towns, so thick that the night we came to this ground we counted ten villages in flames at the same time. It was by no means uncommon to see six or eight burning at once in several parts of this fine country. In this style do the Mahrattas carry on a war: it is indeed the only way in which, as enemies, they are at all formidable; they can pour on an enemy’s country an inundation of a hundred thousand horse; and when we consider the ruin and devastation spread by such a host of locusts, we are inclined to think that the curse of God could not have fallen on Egypt in a more destructive form.”
Prolonged sieges and resolute defense by villagers meant the invading armies required more investment of time and resources, often at the risk of life. Why would the Maratha soldiers attack a fortified town, when they could get easy money by plundering a defenseless temple? Even the fact that the Sringeri Mutt was the centre of Smartha Brahmins and that the Peshwas were Brahmins themselves, did not save the Mutt. The need, or perhaps, the greed for money was so great.
Thay said, it needs to be remembered that the Maratha Chiefs almost always had control over the Pindaris. In Aug. 1791, when Raghunath Rao and Bala Saheb captured Rayadurgam, in present day Andhra Pradesh state, they showed mercy to the people around. Except to sustain their cattle, they did not destroy the countryside. They ensured that towns and villages were neither looted nor burnt.
Sringeri plunder by Maratha soldiers was waiting to happen
It is indeed an irony that during this war, the Marathas observed many Brahminic rituals including celebrating Hindu festivals like Diwali and waiting for an auspicious time before venturing into a battle. There was an instance, in October 1791, when even a Sati was practiced in Bhau’s camp. Yet, on the other hand, the Marathas had no qualms about the English soldiers slaughtering cattle for beef throughout the campaign (9). On one such occasion, on Christmas 1791, Captain Little’s detachment celebrated the festival by slaughtering an ox and consuming it amidst the Peshwa Brahmins.
This brings us to the following questions:
- a) Was Sringeri attack really an accident?
- b) Were there no earlier precedents and similar attacks on Hindu temples in Karnataka, that made it certain that something like this was waiting to happen?
- c) In its aftermath, and after its acknowledgement by the Peshwa, were there no attacks by his soldiers on other Hindu holy sites in Karnataka?
- d) Did the Peshwa’s Maratha war generals make any attempts at all to prevent harm to Hindus elsewhere in Karnataka after this barbaric attack, let alone not actively participate in more such massacres?
The answer is a ‘No!’ to each of these. There were dozens of towns and villages, populated by Hindus, including two Hindu temple towns, that were looted/ burnt by Maratha soldiers in 1790-92, particularly after the Sringeri temple ransacking. This does not include dozens of unnamed villages that were burnt and looted during this time.
Summarized below is a sequence of events that lists, in chronological order, twenty-six such places affected by Maratha soldiers’ brutalities, as witnessed by contemporary sources.
Aug. 6: Maratha General Parshuram Bhau approaches Gokak to invade Karnataka (present day Mysore Kingdom) with a detachment of East India Company’s Bombay Army commanded by Captain Little. Marathas have upward of 10,000 fighting men including 5,000 Pindaris marauders.
Sep.10: Betgeri villagers, north of Dharwar town, beats back Bhau’s Pindari marauders. Bhau sends his Rohilla Gardee troops who plunder the village without mercy and capture many villagers.
Sep. 14: Bhau’s army swells to a cavalry of 15,000 and an infantry of 3,000. Armies camps at Narendra village a few km north of Dharwar. English soldier David Price witnesses burning of a village by Maratha soldiers at night.
Sep. 15: Hubbali Town surrenders to Bhau after paying him protection money. Town and its inhabitants not harmed. Maratha and English armies start their attacks on Dharwar.
Dec. 13: Bhau’s eldest son Appa Saheb enters Dharwar town, as its defenses crumble. His troops start setting afire to the town at various places.
Dec. 18: Bhau’s men get complete control of the Dharwar town and plundered it ‘so completely that not a piece of wood was left standing‘.
Apr. 04: Badruzzaman Khan, Qilledar of Dharwar, surrenders the fort after a siege of six months. Several small towns and villages in vicinity razed to the ground by the Maratha soldiers.
Between Apr. 04 to Jul. 06: Maratha cavalry led by Raghunath Rao, brother of Parshuram Bhau pillage Sringeri. Tipu Sultan, writes a letter to Sri Sachidananda Bharati Swamy, the head of this institution, condemning the incident and sends money to repair it apart from numerous gifts to replace the looted items (10).
May 20: Captain Little’s detachment joins the route taken by Bhau’s army to Srirangapatna, near the town of Harihar. English soldier Moor wrote ‘The route of the army is marked by rain and devastation; every village and town being burned and razed with the ground…In the distance of ten miles, perhaps, as many villages destroyed will be seen, without an inhabitant to tell their names: such is the havoc this destructive army has caused in this fair country.’
May 27: Chikkanayakanahalli (present day Tumakuru District). Maratha soldiers always pick up fights with village heads and inhabitants. They take away things from the Kannadiga villagers without paying.
May 29: Maratha soldiers sell grains and commodities looted from Kannadiga villagers during their march from Dharwar to Srirangapatna, at exorbitant prices to desperate soldiers of Cornwallis’s army.
Attacks on towns, villages, and agricultural lands, mostly dominated by Hindus, after the pillage of Sringeri
Jul. 8: After marching up from Melukote near Srirangapatna, Bhau and Captain Little march north-west from Bangalore intending to take Sira.
Jul. 13: Hindu holy town of Devarayanadurga, in present day Tumakuru District, is taken by assault. Looted and burnt by Maratha soldiers.
Jul. mid: Sira fort is the base of Parshuram Bhau’s solders. They raid nearby villages. Buchanan, who visited the place about a decade later, found all the villages around the town plundered. Bhau’s soldiers attack Mooka Nayakanahalli Kote (MN Kote) village (in today’s Tumakuru District). On failing to capture and loot the town, they abduct young Kannadiga girls (11).
Jul. mid: Bhau marches to the hill fort of Ratnagiri situated today along the Karnataka – Andhra Pradesh interstate border. Buchanan travelled along the same path a decade later and witnessed a scene of devastation due to Bhau’s soldiers from which it had yet to recover. Buchanan also wrote about similar scenes of destruction at the neighbouring Badavanahally village in Madhugiri Taluk of Tumakuru District.
Jul. end: Maratha and British soldiers approach the prosperous town of Hiriyur. The people of town pay a considerable sum of money to Bhau, who promised it protection from his Pindaris. Yet, the town is looted by marauders of one of the Maratha chiefs.
Aug.: Bhau camps in the vicinity of Chitradurga through much of August while his cavalry goes around for forage and his marauders plunder Kannadiga villages. Around the same time, Captain Little’s detachment leaves for the British hospital set up at Harihar town. A detachment of Maratha troops under Raghunath Rao and Bala Saheb rides north-west and captures Rayadurgam. Rao ensures his troops do not loot towns and villages, unlike Sringeri. Both stay back to capture Molakalmuru the month after.
Aug. 12: Bhau’s soldiers take the village of Talaku, Chitradurga District by assault. Loot and burn it.
Sep. 16: Moor leaves the British hospital at Harihar for Chitradurga, to join Bhau. From Mayakonda Moor walk and fellow soldiers march and camp near Sirigere, a deserted village, when they sight Bhau’s marauders nearby.
Sep. 20: They join Bhau’s camp near Hireguntanur, Chitradurga District. Find the village burnt.
Dec. 14: Bhau marches from Chennagiri to Holehonnur. A short distance away from Chennagiri is Dondraghatta village, which is found burnt.
Dec. mid: Moor finds it common to sight six to eight villages burning at once. He sights ten villages burning one night. He compares the destruction caused by Marathas to ‘the ruin and devastation spread by such a host of locusts.’
Dec. 17: Bhau’s army camp on the east bank of Tungabhadra River, eight miles from Holehonnur, near Kudli Mutt. According to Moor, a married Dalit woman is sexually assaulted and murdered by a member of Maratha Army’s Brahmin advisor near Shivamogga. Instead of punishing the offender, Bhau, has himself ‘purified’ by bathing in Tunga Bhadra river. He gets himself weighed in gold and silver and distributes the equivalent worth, about ten thousand rupees, among Brahmins. Around the same time, Maratha armies do a more brutal enactment of their Sringeri massacre. They ransack Kudli Mutt and massacre all non-Brahmins. The Kudli Swamy threatens to expel Bhau from the Smarata sect of Brahmins, after which Bhau donates a rupee each to Brahmins of the Mutt and compensates the Swamy with four lakh rupees.
Dec. 18: Pindaris start to loot around Holehonnur town.
Dec. 21: Holehonnur falls. Town is looted and burnt.
Dec. 23: Armies camp at Kagekodmagge village, which is burnt.
Dec. 25: English soldiers celebrate Christmas by sacrificing an Ox amidst the Peshwa Brahmins’ camp.
Dec. 26: Armies camp near the plundered village of Byadarahosahalli.
Dec. 29: Gajanur village plundered by Bhau’s people, just like the fort nearby, which was in is addition burnt.
Jan. 03: Shivamogga Qilledar Moiddin Khan surrenders. Maratha soldiers loot the six thousand houses inside. Most houses are burnt, and many Kannadiga women abducted.
Jan. mid: Bhau marches west towards Bidanur but returns after learning about an approaching Mysorean army detachment.
Feb. 10: Bhau leaves Shivamogga and marches south via Ajjampura toward Srirangapatna.
Mar. 10: Bhau reaches Cornwallis’ camp near Srirangapatna. Armies prepare to leave after Mysore Kingdom accepts terms of peace on the terms set by English, Nizam and Marathas.
Maratha Armies’ continued destruction after the peace
Apr.: Despite getting money and territory, Bhau instead of retreating peacefully begins destroying Karnataka’s towns and crops as if it was the beginning of the war and not its end.
Apr. 17: Ajjampura town plundered.
Apr. 19: Ramadurga (Chitradurga District) plundered.
Apr. 21: Destruction wreaked by Bhau’s soldiers induces a famine in which many Kannadigas begin to perish. The shortage of grains is so severe that even Bhau’s soldiers now began to die, as they do not find food to eat. Afraid of dying of hunger, a Bombay army party accompanying Bhau decides to part ways and march by themselves to get out of Mysore Kingdom’s boundaries, which now are at Tungabhadra River at Harihar town.
Apr. 22: Santhe Bennur burnt.
Apr. end: Bhau’s army finally leaves Mysore kingdom.
There are many later British writers who corroborate the accounts of British soldiers, having themselves visited these places at a later period and finding themselves desolate and devastated. Among such authors are Buchanan, who visited these many of these places within a decade. Lewin Botham Bowring wrote similarly about Chitradurga and Shivamogga districts, having visited them about 80 years later (12). Rice wrote a similar account of Madhugiri town, a century later (13).
Sringeri desecration, a chapter in over a century-long Maratha Empire genocide of Kannadiga Hindus
India is a nation of many histories. Heroes of one state are many a time villain in the neighbouring state or even some parts of the same state. One such controversial entity is the erstwhile Maratha Empire. The origins of Maratha Empire can be traced to Shivaji, a master guerilla fighter who troubled his contemporary Alamgir Aurangzeb, the Mughal Emperor. Just like Shivaji, the later Maratha soldiers raided non-Maratha territories across India. From present day Bangladesh and West Bengal in east to present day Punjabs of India and Pakistan in east. And, from present day Haryana in north to Tamil Nadu in south, the Maratha raids resulted in largescale deaths of civilians and non-combatants and destruction of towns, agriculture, and places of worship, often belonging to Hindus. In Karnataka, Sringeri was not the first temple town to be destroyed by the Peshwa Maratha soldiers, nor the last. Hindu temples at Melukote town were burnt in 1772 by Peshwa Madhava Rao’s men led by Triumbak Mama. The Hindu temple town of Devarayandurga was looted and burnt just a month or two after the Sringeri attack, so was Kudli Mutt a few months later. To understand Sringeri attack, one needs to go through similar Maratha Empire invasions of Karnataka in 17th and 18th centuries and see the larger context of the brutal attacks by this entity on non-Maratha Hindus across India.
The word genocide is said to have been coined in 1944 by Raphäel Lemkin, a Polish lawyer. United Nations defines it as ‘any of the following acts committed with intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnical, racial or religious group‘ (14). The destructive acts of Maratha Empire against Kannadigas would fit within this definition. Maratha Empire was a self-centered, and a self-serving entity. The concept of a unified Hindu nation, where all Hindus would be equal, was alien to it. Its genocide of Kannadigas, a predominantly Hindu linguistic group, in 17th and 18th centuries CE, of which Sringeri pillage was a part, is one glaring proof of it.
1) Website of Dakshinamnaya Sri Sharada Peetham, Sringeri. Downloaded on Oct. 13, 2020 from this link https://www.sringeri.net/history.
2) Shastry, A.K., ‘The Records of the Sringeri Dharmasamsthana’, Sringeri Matha, Sringeri, 2009.
3) Sardesai, Govind Sakharam., ‘New History of The Marathas’, Vol. 1 of 3, Bombay, 1946.
4) Price, David., ‘Memoirs of the Early Life and Service of a Field Officer, on the Retired List of the Indian Army‘, J. Loder, printer, Woodbridge, 1839.
5) 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.
6) Wellesley, Richard Colley., Notes relative to the late transactions in the Marhatta Empire, 1804.
7) Gazetteer of the Bombay Presidency, vol. XV, Part 2 – Kanara, 1883.
8) Sarkar, Jadunath., ‘Fall of Mughals’, vol. 1, 1964.
9) Dirom, Alexander., ‘A narrative of the campaign in India, which terminated the war with Tippoo Sultan in 1792′, published in 1793.
10) Olikara, Nidhin., ‘The Goddess and a Sultan: Hindu Coinage of Tipu Sultan‘, Accessed on Oct. 15, 2020 from this link https://toshkhana.wordpress.com/2015/05/26/the-goddess-and-a-sultan-hindu-coinage-of-tipu-sultan/
11) Buchanan, Francis., ‘A journey from Madras through the countries of Mysore, Canara, and Malabar’, in 3 volumes, 1807.
12) Bowring, Lewin B., ‘Eastern Experiences’, 1871.
13) Rice, B.L., ‘Mysore A Gazetteer compiled for Government’, 1897.
14) Website of United Nations. Accessed from this link https://www.un.org/en/genocideprevention/genocide.shtml on Oct. 12, 2020.