Afghan-Maratha War (1758–1761)


PRINCIPAL COMBATANTS: Afghani invaders of the Punjab vs. the Marathas of west-central India


MAJOR ISSUES AND OBJECTIVES: The Marathas waged war to eject the Afghans from the Punjab.

OUTCOME: After initial Maratha victories, Ahmad Shah Duranni, the Afghani leader, decisively defeated the Marathas at the Battle of Panipat. Nevertheless, an insurrection of Sikhs prompted Ahmad to withdraw to Kabul.

APPROXIMATE MAXIMUM NUMBER OF MEN UNDER ARMS: The largest Maratha force numbered 300,000 men; the Afghani force was much smaller.

CASUALTIES: Total casualties are not known. However, the Marathas are reported to have suffered 75,000 killed and 30,000 captured at the culminating battle of Panipat.

With the death of Nadir Shah in 1747, the Persian Empire broke apart, and Afghanistan became an independent state under Ahmad Shah Duranni (c. 1722-73). Ahmad immediately sought control of the Punjab and upper Ganges region (collectively, western Hindustan). On March 11, 1748, he invaded the Punjab, but was repelled at the Battle of Manupar. He invaded again in 1751, and this time annexed the region. During 1756-57 Ahmad invaded and sacked Delhi but could not overthrow the Mogul emperor, Alamgir II (r. 1754-59), because he had to return to Kabul to put down a growing insurrection there.

With Ahmad absent from the region, the vizier at Delhi ordered Balaji Rao (also called Sedushao Rao Bhau, or, simply, Sadashiv) (r. 1740-61) to lead his people, the Marathas, proud warriors of the Deccan, in a war against the Afghani occupiers of the Punjab. Balaji Rao eagerly embraced his mission, rapidly defeated the Afghans, and took Lahore. In 1759, however, Ahmad Shah Durrani returned to India, recaptured Lahore, and once again occupied Delhi. Alamgir II was assassinated, presumably to prevent his supporting Ahmad, but Ahmad refused the Mogul throne, choosing instead to install Shah Alam II (1728-1806) as the new Mogul emperor.

During December 1760 Ahmad’s large army faced off against some 300,000 Marathas, with both armies hunkered down in fortified positions. Skirmishes occurred-at least one that amounted to an atrocity, as some 5,000 Afghans slaughtered 20,000 unarmed Maratha camp followers as they foraged for food.

At last, on January 14, 1761, the armies fought the culminating Battle of Panipat. Rao Bhau was killed-beheaded-and as many as 75,000 Marathas were slain (some sources report 20,000). Large numbers, perhaps as many as 30,000, were captured and subsequently ransomed.

Maratha expansion into northern India was halted; however, Ahmad did not remain in occupation of the Punjab. An insurrection among the Sikhs forced his withdrawal to Kabul, creating a power vacuum that threw the entire subcontinent into chaos and paved the way for British colonial expansion in India.

Further reading: Sir Jaunath Sarkar, House of Hivaji: Studies and Documents on Maratha History (Calcutta: Longman, 1978).




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