Ahmad Shah Abdali felt greatly enraged at the ouster of his son Hmur Shah from the Punjab, reconquered the province from the Marathas and proceeded towards Delhi. Sindhia’s forces were routed at the battle of Barai Ghat, ten miles north of Delhi on 9 January, 1760 and the Maratha general was killed.
The remnants of Sindhia’s troops joined the forces of Malhar Rao Holkar and adopted guerilla tactics to wear out Abdali. The Afghan general was, however, too tough and crushed the combined Maratha forces near Sikandarabad on 4 March, 1760.
Peshwa realized the magnitude of the problem and spent about a week in deliberations at Patdur where it was decided that his cousin Sadashiv Rao commonly known as Bhau should lead the Maratha forces against Abdali. The nominal commander of the army was to be Peshwa’s seventeen-year old son Visvas Rao.
As soon as Sadashiv Rao arrived near Delhi, he was joined by Holkar and the Jat leader Suraj Mai. Both of them insisted that the Marathas should fight Ahmad Shah by following the traditional guerilla method of warfare.
Sadashiv Rao did not approve of it. He was determined to fight a pitched battle in the open field with the help of the artillery. In waiting for reinforcements he wasted many weeks and in the meantime supplies became very scarce as Abdali had cut off the sources. So Bhau was driven to give battle, as he mentions in his letter to Kashi Rai, “The cup is now full to the brim and cannot hold another drop.”
Bhau’s plan communications was foiled due to heavy rains. He, therefore, made a direct attack on Delhi on 2 August, 1760. It did unnerve the enemy and there was even a move to come to some settlement. The Peshwa even promised to appoint Shuja, the mediator, as the wizir at Delhi if he was successful in his efforts.
It, however, annoyed Suraj Mai who had earlier been offered the suba of Delhi for his help. His contingent, therefore, left the Marathas. Rajputs had already been alienated. Therefore, Bhau was practically left without a friend in North India.
On the eve of the fateful battle, the Maratha army numbered 45,000 in cavalry and infantry. They included Ibrahim Gardi’s 8,000 foot-musketeers. The Afghan army on the other hand comprised 60,000 men, half of which comprised his own subjects while the other half was mainly the soldiers provided by the Indian allies. The Marathas and the Afghans met at the historical field of Panipat.
Bhau led the Maratha army in the centre, with Ibrahim Gardi on his left and Holkar and Sindhia on his right. Ahmad Shah Abdali along with Shah Waliullah of Delhi faced Bahu in the centre while he had Rohillas on his right and the Nizam and the Nawab of Avadh on his left. Marathas fought with great valour and Ibrahim Gardi’s artillery caused havoc in enemy’s ranks.
Abdali, however, brought in fresh reserves of 10,000 troops and made a desperate attack on the Marathas from all sides. The battle lasted for over an hour when Visvas Rao, Peshwa’s son was wounded and carried to Bhau who placed his nephew on his own elephant and continued to fight for half an hour more when to quote an eye witness Kashi Rai Pandit of “the Third Battle of Panipat”, “all at once, as if by enactment, the whole Maratha army at once turned their backs and fled at full speed, leaving the field of battle covered with heaps of dead”.
The Marathas were hotly pursued by the Afghans. About 75,000 of them were killed. Bhau, Visvas Rao, Santaji Rao Ghorpade and many other Maratha leaders died fighting on the battle field. Ibrahim Gardi who was taken prisoner was tortured and put to death in a cruel manner.
The news of the tragedy was carried to the Peshwa in a significant message: “The pearls have been dissolved, twenty-seven gold mohars have been lost, and of the silver and copper, the total cannot be cast up.” He was stunned at the great calamity and died brokenhearted at Poona soon afterwards.
Thus ended in utter failure the first and perhaps the last attempt made by a southern power for extending their sway over the whole of India. The dream of supremacy and of a Maratha empire in Hindustan vanished. Various causes led to the defeat of the Marathas.
The two armies were well matched although Sir Jadunath Sarkar estimates Abdali’s army to have been larger than that of the Marathas. Secondly, the Afghans had a very rich base for the supply of provisions in the Doab and Delhi regions. The Maratha army, on the other hand, suffered starvation and fought almost on empty stomachs.
Thirdly, Abdali’s forces were well trained and highly disciplined. The Afghan chief rigidly enforced discipline. The Marathas, led by their several chieftains, lacked that sense of unity and the discipline of a united force.
Fourthly, the Afghans possessed superior weapons effective in hand to hand fighting. The Afghan soldiers freely used suivel guns and muskets from camel-backs which were very effective.
Moreover, the Marathas had completely lost the sympathies of the people Hindus as well as Muslims, by their wanton aggressions. The Rajputs did not offer any significant help while the Jats themselves completely out of the fight.
The third battle of Panipat proved disastrous to the Marathas. “Never was a defeat more complete”, writes Elphinstone, “and never was there a calamity that diffused so much consternation. Grief and despondency spread over the whole Maratha people; all felt the destruction of the army as a death-blow to their national greatness”.
Shah Waliullah and Najib-ud-daulah did a great harm to the country by inviting a foreign power to intervene in the internal affairs of the country. Their dream of restoration of the Muslim rule in place of the Marathas proved to be imaginary.
It only helped to weaken the power of the Peshwa which paved the way for the rise of the British power in India.
The historian Sardesai writes: “It is siginificant that while the two combatants, the Marathas and the Musalmans, were locked in a deadly combat on the field of ancient Kurukshetra, Clive, the first founder of the British power in India, was on his way to England to explain the feasibility of his dream of an Indian Empire to the great Commoner, Lord Chatham, then the Prime Minister”.
The Maratha power was crippled and for a time it put a stop to their activities in northern India. The authority of the Peshwa was considerably weakened. The different Maratha chiefs became practically independent.
Abdali, left Delhi on 20 March, 1761 appointing Najib-ud-Daulah as the supreme regent and Imad-ul-Mulk as the wazir. Shah Alam, still in exile, was to be recognized as the Emperor. However, Najib-ul-Daulah soon seized all powers and virtually ruled as a dictator for the next ten years (1761-1770).
He died in 1770 leaving all the power to his younger son, Zabita Khan. With the help of the Maratha forces, Shah Alam was restored to the throne on 10 February, 1771. The real power was, however, exercised by Mirza Najaf Khan, a scion of a noble Persian family.
Najaf Khan’s death in 1782 led to an internecine contest for power and the Emperor sought the help of Mahadaji Sindhia in 1785 and gave him the title of vakil-i-miitlaq (regent of the empire).
But Sindhia’s defeat at Lalsout in Rajasthan (August 1787) and his other discomfitures weakened his hold in north India and before he could recover from these misfortunes, the Rohilla chief, Ghulam Qadir (grandson of Najib-ul-Daulah) seized Delhi (July 1788) and deposed and blinded Shah Alam (August 1788) who had failed to satisfy the Rohilla’s insatiable demands for treasure.
Shah Alam appealed again of Mahadaji Sindhia for help. Sindhia’s army occupied old Delhi (1788) and placed Shah Alam on the throne. Sindha’s flag once again fluttered over Delhi city and it remained there for thirteen long years when “the banner of St. George took its place”, in 1803 after his defeat in the second Maratha war.