Bijapur, 4th November 1656

The royal palace inside the Bijapur citadel was enveloped in a pall of gloom. Everyone walked with heads hung low, speaking in whispers. No one dared to smile, let alone laugh. In his chamber, Muhammad Adilshah lay in a near stuporous state. Several hakims fussed about, monitoring his condition and preparing various concoctions. Adilshah’s personal attendant stood at the foot of the bed, massaging his master’s feet. Adilshah’s chief consort, Badi Begum, sat on a stool next to her dying husband, holding his hand. She wiped away her tears, praying to Allah for his recovery. Several of her maids fritted about doing various chores. Bijapur’s chief nobles, Khan Muhammad and Afzal Khan, stood in silence to one side, hands folded. They all knew the end was inevitable, but each fervently hoped for a miracle.

Adilshah’s breathing became more laboured and slowed. Badi Begum looked towards the chief hakim, who sadly shook his head. The weeping Sulatana began rubbing her husband’s hand gently, as if trying to infuse life into it. Alas! Providence had other designs. Adilshah took one final breath and then became still, his head to one side.

The quiet of the royal bedchamber was broken by the wailing of the women and the muttered prayers of the men. Bijapur’s monarch of three decades was dead, leaving behind the difficult issue of succession.

The day after Adilshah’s burial, Badi Begum held a closed-door meeting with some of her most trusted nobles. She sat behind a jali screen, dressed in black and devoid of ornaments, indicating she was still in mourning. But her voice was firm and commanding, letting the men know she was in charge.

Chief amongst those who stood before her, were the Vizier, Khan Muhammad, Afzal Khan and Rustum-e-Zaman, the three men she knew she could rely on in these trying times. Absolute power gave you everything, but it was also difficult to control. If you dropped your guard, even once, there were the ever-present wolves to double-cross you and wrest power from your hands. Badi Begum needed the support of her trusted men to keep the detractors at bay. And there was the ever-present danger of the Mughal.

“His Highness has left for his heavenly abode,” Badi Begum began. “It is a sad time for all of us, but administration must go on. The throne is vacant; we must place a worthy person on it.”

Looking at each other, the Bijapuri nobles nodded assent.

“I have decided to place Ali on the throne. Ali will be our new Shah!” Badi Begum said, referring to her son, a lad of eighteen.

The assembled nobles shifted uneasily. Ali was not a popular choice as Sultan. For one, he was inexperienced and immature. Besides, there were widespread rumours regarding his legitimacy. There was more than an audible murmur in political circles that Ali was, in fact, the ex-monarch’s illegitimate child from a concubine, and Badi Begum had merely adopted him. Ali inheriting the Sultan’s mantle would not go down well with many of the noblility, and more importantly, with the Mughal.

Lost in these thoughts, Khan Muhammad heard Badi Begum’s ask, “What does our Vizier have to say?”

“Highness, it is a wise suggestion. Prince Ali is no doubt young, but Her Highness is there to guide him till he can take control himself. Besides, we will always stand behind the Prince once he becomes Sultan.”

“I am glad to hear that, Khan Muhammad. I hope each one of you in this room will stand behind the new Adilshah. If we are not united, the Mughal will seize the opportunity to attack.”

“Excellency, my loyalty is to the Bijapur throne,” Afzal Khan said, raising his right fist to his heart.

“As is mine, Highness!” Rustum echoed.

One by one, each noble took the vow of loyalty.

“Allah be praised! Ameen!” Badi Begum was relieved at this show of unity.

The stage was set for the crowning of Ali as the next Adilshah.

Aurangabad, Mughal Headquarters in the Deccan, mid-November, 1656

Prince Aurangzeb, the Mughal Subadar of the Deccan, sat on a comfortable baithak in his chamber. In his right hand he held a string of beads, in his left a scroll which had just arrived from his Ambassador at the Bijapur court. Two attendants stood behind, silently waving fans. Bijapur’s Sultan Muhammad Adilshah is dead and the Sultana has placed her young son Ali, on the throne, he read. Ali’s legitimacy is challenged by many in Bijapur. It is said he is the son of one of the late Sultan’s concubines.

Deep in thought, Aurangzeb ran his prayer beads between two fingers. For years now, he had wanted to open a campaign in the Deccan and attach the Adilshahi and Qutubshahi territories. But the treaty between his father and Muhammad Adilshah had prevented him from doing so. He needed a unimpeachable reason to break the treaty. Perhaps this was it.

The Mughal was overlord of Bijapur and theoretically, Bijapur was required to obtain the Emperor’s consent before placing anyone on the throne. If the heir apparent had been a legitimate son, the Mughal could have no objection. But now, Muhammad’s wife had placed an illegitimate child on the throne, and that too, without their consent. This was reason enough for a military campaign.

Aurangzeb made up his mind and summoned his scribe. He dictated an elaborate letter to his father, Emperor Shah Jahan, in which he quoted the information received from their Ambassador in Bijapur. He urged his father to give him permission to attack Bijapur and to send the requisite troops and finances. The letter was despatched the same day by express riders to Delhi.

Mughal headquarters, Aurangabad, 18th January 1657

 

Mir Jumla, Qutubshah’s ex-Prime Minister, who had defected to the Mughal several months earlier, entered Aurangzeb’s chamber and bowed before him.

“Welcome back, Muazzam Khan!” the Prince said.

On his defection, Aurangzeb had ordered Mir Jumla to proceed to Delhi to meet the Emperor. Shah Jahan had in turn awarded him the title Muazzam Khan, and given him a suitable rank in the Mughal army.

“Greetings, Highness!” Muazzam Khan bowed slightly, acknowledging the Prince. “His Majesty the Emperor ordered me to depart from Delhi at the head of twenty thousand heavy cavalry as soon as he received your letter. He has given permission to launch a campaign against Bijapur.”

“And we shall!” Aurangzeb declared. “Here is an opportunity to prove your mettle Muazzam Khan!”

“Certainly, Highness. My sword has been resting in its scabbard for too long.” Muazzam Khan said grimly. “When do we leave, Highness?”

“Why delay such an important mission?” Aurangzeb asked, rising. “Let us leave today!”

Shah Jahan’s letter giving Aurangzeb permission to open hostilities had arrived long before Muazzam Khan and his troops. That had given the Prince time to ready his men.

“And what will be our first target, Highness?”

“Bidar,”Aurangzeb replied definitely. Bidar fort lay due north-east of Bijapur. It was a strong and powerful armed base for the Adilshah. By attacking it, Aurangzeb had decided to land a telling blow on the Bijapur Sultanate.

“A wise plan, Highness!” Muazzam Khan asserted.

Aurangzeb gave the marching orders and by mid-day the massive Mughal army began trudging its way south-east from Aurangabad toward Bidar.

Rajgad, a few days later

 

Shivaji sat in his audience chamber, discussing future action with his core group of Ministers and Advisors. The news of Muhammad Adilshah’s death had reached Rajgad. It was just the break Shivaji had been waiting for. He began planning the expansion of his now stable kingdom. The Konkan was a priority in order to gain access to the sea.

His personal attendant entered to announce, “Highness, Bahirji Naik has arrived.”

“Send him in at once.”

Bahirji entered and bowed. “Highness, I have brought important news from the Adilshahi,” he said immediately.

“Go on, Bahirji! We need all that you can tell us,” Shivaji said to his secret eye.

“Highness, Badi Begum has placed young Prince Ali on the throne. There is widespread discord in Bijapur regarding the new Sultan’s legitimacy. The Bijapur court is divided into factions and there is much in-fighting!”

“But do they not always quarrel amongst themselves?” Shivaji asked.

“Yes, but this time the situation in Bijapur is critical. Badi Begum is barely managing to hold onto power. Her main supporters are the Vizier, Khan Muhammad, and of course, Afzal Khan.”

Shivaji’s eyes narrowed at the mention of Afzal Khan.

“Highness, that is not all,” Bahirji went on. “Prince Aurangzeb has marched on Bijapur with a massive army. His pretext is the illegitimacy of the new Sultan. His first target is Bidar fort. We judge that he will arrive there in about two weeks.”

Shivaji considered this new information and then said, “Bijapur is at its weakest right now. With the Mughal at their door they will have no time to pay attention to us.”

Shivaji rose from his seat. His men were on their feet in an instant. “Comrades, it is time to act. The Goddess has granted us this opportunity and we must make the most of it. We will annex as much Bijapuri territory as possible before the Mughal-Adilshahi war is concluded.”

There was general agreement among the men. But Shivaji had a word of caution. “Before we do so, we must secure ourselves with the Mughal. It will be prudent to obtain Aurangzeb’s formal approval on the territories we are in possession of at the moment.”

“A wise thought, Raje. Maintaining peace with the Mughal would be to our advantage,” Sono punt said.

“Sono Punt, I would like you to undertake a trip.”

“A trip, Highness?”

“Yes…to Bidar! Meet with the Mughal Prince and convince him of our friendly disposition. Obtain his nominal approval on all the territories we hold today and also on those we plan to annex. If the Mughal defeats Bijapur in this war, we may need the Emperor’s approval to maintain our position,” Shivaji said to him. “Bahirji,” he continued, turning to his chief spy, “I want your best sleuths to accompany Sono Punt to Bidar and back. His safety is your responsibility.”

“Certainly, Highness!” Bahirji immediately left to set things in motion.

“Shamraj Punt,” Shivaji next addressed his Peshwa. “Make preparations for the Konkan campaign. You will lead our charge.” Shivaji had made it a practice to occasionally give field jobs and military campaigns to his Ministers. He felt this would keep them in shape. Hence, his Ministers, who usually managed the administration, were called upon for military tasks as well.

“Highness,” the Peshwa exclaimed, “this is an honour! Rest easy, the Konkan is now my problem.”

Shivaji smiled. They were all eager to set off on the campaign. The decision had been taken and his men were trained and ready for battle.

Aurangzeb’s command tent in the Mughal military camp besieging Bidar fort, early March 1657

 

The Mughal camp around the Adilshahi fort of Bidar, about ninety kos north-east of Bijapur, was abuzz with activity. Platoons of war-ready soldiers moved about, commanded by their Captains, who were busy deploying troops along the battle-front. The trenches dug by the soldiers had moved close to the ditch around the fort, and every attempt was being made to fill it. The incessant pounding of the massive Mughal mortar guns shattered ear drums and instilled fear into the defenders’ hearts besides demolishing the fort towers, walls and parapets.

The Brahman Administrator made his way through the chaos of the camp, guided by the two able young men his master had sent with him. As they approached the centre of the camp, the scarlet command tent of the Mughal Prince Aurangzeb came into view. In a semi-circle stood a rank of elephants, bearing the Mughal standard and banners. A hundred soldiers stood guard around the tent, some with unsheathed swords, others holding gleaming lances. The trio of Marathas were stopped by an officer who asked their names and purpose. He then disappeared into the tent. He presently emerged and gave instructions for the visitors to be stripped of their weapons. He then led them in to meet the Prince.

The tent was richly furnished with hangings, tapestries and articles befitting a Mughal Prince. Aurangzeb sat on a baithak with a string of prayer beads in his right hand and a rose in his left. His keen eyes surveyed Sono Punt as he bowed deferentially. He was curious to know what the diplomat from Seeva Bhosale had to say to him, As far as he was concerned, this Seeva was an upstart, someone who had proven to be a pain for the Adilshah. He could not understand why Bijapur had permitted him to get so strong in the first place. If the upstart had created trouble in Mughal territory, he would have been finished off long ago. But Aurangzeb’s face revealed none of this.

“Tell me Brahman, what does Seeva want from me?” Aurangzeb’s narrow eyes bored into Sono Punt’s, as if attempting to read his mind.

“Shivaji Raje Bhosale sends his greetings, Highness, and his respects.”

Aurangzeb nodded impatiently. “Proceed!”

“Highness, Shivaji Raje will remain loyal to the Mughal empire. It is Bijapur that Raje is fighting against. He requests your Highness to approve the territories he has annexed thus far.”

Aurangzeb gave it brief thought. He realized the Bhosale was safeguarding himself against a certain Mughal victory in this war. He nodded assent, saying, “Approved!” It cost him nothing to say so since Seeva had annexed only Adilshahi territory.

Sono Punt bowed, acknowledging the decree, and then continued, “Shivaji Raje also requests your approval of any territories he may annex in the future.”

Now this was tricky. What were Seeva and his Brahman up to? Aurangzeb considered in silence and then, with great presence of mind, said, “We approve of any Adilshahi territory Seeva annexes in the future.”

“Your Highness is most kind! “We pray our relations remain cordial and friendly,” Sono Punt said, hoping to soften the Prince. But soft words had never been known to work on Aurangzeb; he was too sharp to be fooled by a sweet-talking Administrator.

“They will, as long as Seeva remains faithful to us!” Aurangzeb retorted. “The more territory he wins and brings under imperial rule, the more he will benefit from our kindness.”

“Your Highness, Shivaji Raje is eager to serve the imperial throne.”

Aurangzeb tried to probe some more into the wily Brahman’s mind, trying to understand what his real motive was. But Sono Punt was too old a hand to share his thoughts. Finally, Aurangzed said, “Brahman! If you have nothing more to say, you may leave. I have a war to fight!”

“Your Highness, if we can have a written approval…”

“My nishan will reach Seeva in due course!” Aurangzeb said, waving Sono Punt out of his tent.