Shahaji Raje Bhonsale, father of Shivaji Maharaj . (William Darlymple/HT)
Shahaji Raje Bhonsale, father of Shivaji Maharaj . (William Darlymple/HT)

Sutradhara’s tales: “Political terrorism” leads to the darkest time in Pune’s history

Western Deccan became a fierce battleground where the Mughals, Adishahi and Nizamshahi dynasties were engaged in a constant power struggle. Kasbe Pune stood in the middle of the violent crossfire
By Saili Palande-Datar
PUBLISHED ON JUN 09, 2021 04:10 PM IST

The medieval times were indeed barbaric! Wanton destruction of towns and settlements was not an uncommon sight in medieval Deccan. Western Deccan became a fierce battleground where the Mughals, Adishahi and Nizamshahi dynasties were engaged in a constant power struggle. Kasbe Pune stood in the middle of the violent crossfire.

Today, we shall sadly witness the harrowing account of Pune’s destruction due to “political terrorism”.

Pune’s association with the Bhonsale family began when Maloji Raje Bhonsale, grandfather of Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj, was granted the jahagir of Pune Pargana (subdivision consisting of a group of villages), in 1595 by the Nizam of Ahmednagar.

The sultanates of the Deccan in the 17th century. (William Darlymple/HT)
The sultanates of the Deccan in the 17th century. (William Darlymple/HT)

Around 1600, Delhi emperor Akbar descended south and took over a large part of Ahmednagar’s Nizamshahi. For a short period, the Pune Pargana became part of the Mughal territory. But, before it could stabilise, within 20 years, Malik Ambar, the able prime minister of the Nizam re-conquered the territory and brought it under the Nizamshahi thus, overthrowing the Mughal rule.

Like his father Maloji, Shahaji served in the army of Malik Ambar of the Ahmednagar Sultanate.

At the time of Maloji’s death in 1606, the 12-year old Shahaji was a minor commander in Malik Ambar’s army. He, however, rose to the level of “Sar-lakshar” commander in few years.

In 1601, he defeated Adishahi Sardar Ramrao to capture the territory of Pune and included the Pargana in the Nizam’s domains.

Shahji soon became a trusted commander under the encouragement of Malik Ambar and was granted the jahagir of Pune and Shirval Pargana. However, there arose a discord between the two, and Shahaji Maharaj established an independent rule over the two Parganas.

Malik Ambar tried overthrowing Shahaji’s rule by sending in armed forces, but Shahaji did not heed. He, in turn, joined the Adilshahi domain and served as commander under Bijapur’s Adilshah. Shahaji served Adilshahi wholeheartedly during the period of 1625 to 1628, till the demise of Ibrahim Adilshah.

After the death of the king, Shahaji suffered due to unpleasant politics brewing in the kingdom and, at the same time, he as invited by the Nizam of Ahmednagar to return. The pressing reason for such an invitation was that the Mughal emperor Shahajahan was marching towards Ahmednagar to conquer the Nizam’s territory.

Malik Ambar, who was the original reason Shahaji left, had passed away in 1626. So, it was natural for Shahaji to return to the Nizamshahi, and he took charge of his core territory around Pune in 1628.

The violent betrayal and murder of his father-in-law, Lakhuji Jadhav (father of Jijabai), at the hands of Nizamshah in 1630 came as a rude shock to Shahaji, and he was compelled to resign from service under the Ahmednagar’s Nizam. He declared his independence and rebelled against the Nizamshahi and the Adilshahi at the same time. He sided with the Mughals for a while and was awarded the jahagir of Junnar and Pune.

This move angered both parties, Nizamashahi in the north at Ahmednagar, and Adilshahi in the south at Bijapur. To crush Shahaji’s rebellion, Adilshahi commander Murar Jagdeo attacked Pune in 1630 and captured the town. Moro Tandeo Honap Deshpande, who was in-charge of Pune, was hiding underground on the banks of the river Bhima. He was captured by Murar Jagadeo’s forces, severely tortured with needles and nails, and badly beaten-up.

The entire city was terrorised. Wadas, public buildings and crops were destroyed. The walls of the fort Killa-e-Hissar were brought down, and the city was literally killed. Residents were harassed and looted. Most inhabitants fled and took shelter in the hills around Pune.

The wealthy merchants of Pune were taken to Bhuleshwar hill near Saswad as prisoners, where a new fort of Daulat Mangal was built and made the new administrative centre of the Pune region.

It was not enough that the entire settlement was destroyed. The “terrorism” was such that the deepest fear of inhabiting the land was implanted through the installation of a gruesome symbol.

The phrase “gadhavacha nangar firawane” (to plough a piece of land using a donkey), comes into existence because of this act. It is believed that a stone called “gadha gadhav”, or a medieval version of the gadhegal – literally translated as the “curse stone of an ass”, which also served as a royal decree, was installed near Kumbhar ves.

The stone was marked by a pinning a broken sandal to its surface, symbolising no habitation allowed.

The donkey is the only animal which copulates with a horse to produce a mule, which cannot reproduce again, and is considered inauspicious. The donkey is the mount of the Vedic man-woman god, Nirruti, and symbolises sinful behaviour and destruction.

During early medieval times, when a king wanted to declare any piece of land uncultivable or inhabitable, he would get the piece of land tilled by yoking donkeys to the plough. Thus, the donkey was understood as a symbol of a non-productive waste land which would not yield any agricultural produce, and nor would people inhabit it. And if someone occupies such a land against the royal decree, they would be rendered childless.

This nasty threat instilled deep terror in the minds of Pune’s inhabitants. They feared severe action by Adilshahi forces if they dared occupy the land.

In addition to this, “sultani” (political) calamity, the “asmani” (from the skies) calamity too was eminent for Pune. All of Pune region suffered acute drought and famine in the early decades of the 17th century. Water and food was difficult to come by and it led to mass deaths and an exodus.

The period from 1630 to 1638 is the darkest time in the history of Pune. Was there any hope left for Pune? Would any saviour arrive? That we will see in the next column.

Saili Palande-Datar is an indologist, environmentalist, history researcher and farmer. She can be reached @ sailikdatar@gmail.com

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