Over two and a half centuries ago—in the year 1646 to be precise—a travel-stained band of men entered the courtyard of the royal palace of Bíjapur, a city with which the fates have dealt hardly, and which to-day is little more than a ruin. But at the time of which we are writing Bíjapur was the capital of a large and important kingdom in the southern portion of the peninsula, and was inhabited by a brave and warlike people.
The men dismounted from their shaggy mountain ponies and looked about them curiously. It was evident that they had come from afar, for their hair was long and matted, and their speech rough and uncouth; and the splendidly dressed officer of the guard, who had been eyeing them with suspicion, mentally decided that they were Maráthás, or tribesmen who lived in the wild hilly country in the far west.
"Behold, we bear important tidings!" hey cried. "We must see His Majesty Muhammad Adil Shah."
When they were at length admitted, the monarch, in the presence of a brilliant court, asked them their business.
"We have come to tell Your Majesty that Sivaji, son of Shahji, has taken the fort of Torna."
A murmur of surprise and incredulity went the round of the assembled courtiers, but the king, raising his hand to command silence, bade the messengers continue their narrative.
"May it please Your Majesty," they resumed, "our lord Sivaji has been troubled in his mind since many days. Long has he considered with sorrow that the fort was not maintained in a manner befitting the safety of the country. But now, zealous of Your Majesty's glory, he has deposed the governor and vested himself with the authority of this miserable one."
"How say you?" interrupted the king. "This is Shahji's son?"
"Even so, Your Majesty. We humbly pray you to look with favour upon our master Sivaji, that by your royal approval of a patriotic deed you may strike terror into the hearts of those base ones who seek to stir up the kingdom into sedition and revolt."
The king plucked uneasily at his beard. "Shahji," he muttered to himself—"Shahji, the powerful noble and general in command of the Bíjapur army! How came his son thus to take the law into his own hands?"
"Tell me," he commanded sternly, "how old is this capturer of forts?"
"Your Majesty, he is but nineteen years."
The king's brow cleared, and a broad smile passed round the Court. What manner of youth was this who seemed so anxious for his country's welfare? Certainly it was not a matter to be taken seriously. So the messengers were dismissed with the promise that their petition should receive attention at a later date, while the courtiers smiled to themselves over what they considered a very excellent joke.
This is the first glimpse we have of the renowned Sivaji. A Hindú boy, of martial spirit and keen imagination, fed from his earliest years on the wonderful exploits achieved by the legendary heroes of India, burning to follow in their steps and to do noble deeds for his country and his religion, we see him in company with a few boyish friends and a ragged band of low-caste natives capture an important fort. The tried men of war surrender in astonishment to these inexperienced youths, while the aged Governor delivers up his sword in mute dismay. Sivaji has placed his foot on the first rung of the ladder of fame.
The youthful hero lived with his guardian at Poona. The old man was very much shocked by his ward's daring actions, but his lectures and entreaties made no impression; the spirit of adventure was in Sivaji and he would not be restrained. The aged tutor took to his bed in despair, and shortly afterwards died. On his deathbed his dying eyes seemed to see something of the future in store for the boy, for he called him, and bade him go on as he had begun.
"My son," he murmured with faltering accents, "I pray that you will continue your campaign for independence. Protect Brahmins, kine and cultivators; preserve the temples of the Hindús from violation; and follow the fortune which lies before you." And so saying, the old man expired.
Thus was Sivaji left his own master. His father was far away fighting in the wars. Poona, as the map will show, is some distance from Bíjapur. It is situated in the Maráthá country, a wild and mountainous region, very difficult of access. Sivaji crouched in his native hills like one of the cunning mountain tigers, and made himself stronger and stronger. By bribes and other means he got possession of several forts. Men occupying posts of honour and distinction were glad to enter his service. Little by little his power and possessions increased. Now here, now there, as the opportunity presented itself, forts were taken, districts seized, until at length Sivaji found himself ruler over a large province.
News travelled slowly in those days, and the Bíjapur Court were little aware of what was really going on. They had other and more important affairs to attend to than the suppression of a mere mountain robber, and it was not until they received a taste of Sivaji's power that they condescended to notice his existence. A large treasure was being forwarded to court by the Governor of Kalian. A powerful escort was sent with it to ensure its safety, for the country abounded in thieves, and caravan robberies had become very numerous. The camels, bearing the precious burden, picked their way gingerly along the rocky pathways. Before and behind rode mounted men, fingering naked swords and keeping an anxious lookout for danger. Suddenly there was a thunder of horses' feet, and Sivaji at the head of three hundred men swept like a whirlwind upon them. The escort fled in every direction, and the booty was borne with all speed to the young bandit's mountain fastness.
Bíjapur, lacking its treasure, sat up in indignation and alarm. "Treachery!" muttered the king. "Shahji must be concerned in this. He is using his son to plot against me!" And so the doughty general, who was fighting his country's battles far away, was treacherously seized and conveyed to the capital. With tears in his eyes he protested his innocence; but the king's heart was black with suspicion. The veteran soldier was thrown into a dungeon, and the door built up save for a tiny opening. "If your son does not submit within a certain period," he was told, "the aperture shall be for ever closed." The unhappy parent, face to face with death, sent an urgent appeal to his too-enterprising offspring, and the growling of the mountain tiger ceased for a time to trouble the ears of Bíjapur.
A few lines are here necessary to explain the general position of India at this period. In 1526 Babar the Lion, a fierce and warlike prince, swept down from Afghanistan to establish a throne in India. This, known to history as the Great Moghul Empire, flourished exceedingly, and was now at the zenith of its power. Seated on his world-famed "peacock" throne at Delhi, Sháh Jehan, fifth and most splendid of his line, held supreme sway over the northern part of the peninsula. Never before, never since, was an Indian court so magnificent. The splendours of Delhi were the wonder and amazement of the few European travellers who found their way thither. The peacock throne alone, a mass of living light, with its tail blazing in the shifting colours of rubies, sapphires and emeralds, was a thing which, once seen, was stamped for ever on the memory. The French jeweller Tavernier turned faint and giddy when he beheld it, but his business instincts revived sufficiently to enable him to make a valuation. He estimated its worth at the enormous sum of six and a half millions sterling. The buildings of the city were lordly and magnificent. Every one has heard of the Taj Mahal, one of the glories of the world. Built by Sháh Jehan to shelter the remains of his favourite wife, and later used as his own tomb, this still remains, a marvel of architecture, to bear witness to the sumptuous splendour of those times.
In the Deccan two kingdoms still held themselves free from the Moghul yoke. The word "Deccan" means "South," and this territory comprised all that huge district south of the Narbada River. These two kingdoms were Bíjapur and Golconda (otherwise called Hyderabad). The inhabitants of India consisted of a large number of martial races, differing from each other in language, in custom and in creed, and were perpetually engaged in warfare. The two southern kingdoms were wont to fly at each other's throats, or at other times to unite against their more powerful neighbour. For it was the dream of Sháh Jehan to conquer the south, and so to establish the Moghul Empire from the Himálayas to Cape Comorin. But the time was not yet ripe for action. The crafty emperor was waiting for the day when, worn out by internal quarrels, and split up into various parties, they should both fall an easy prey to the northern invaders. When the exploits of Sivaji began to be noised abroad as far as Delhi, Sháh Jehan chuckled. He foresaw that the young Maráthá would prove very troublesome to Bíjapur. And was this not a very excellent thing? Sháh Jehan was right. Sivaji proved very troublesome indeed; so much so that Bíjapur assembled an army to destroy him.
But what had become of Shahji? That unfortunate soldier, after languishing in gaol two years for his son's misdoings, was suddenly released. Bíjapur had not so many good generals that she could afford to keep them in prison, and Shahji was sent rejoicing to the south to take up his neglected command. Meanwhile the expedition for Sivaji's suppression made ready to start, under the command of Afzool Khán, an officer of high rank, but a vain man, who declared that this little excursion was mere child's play. The insignificant rebel should be brought back captive and humiliated, and cast in chains under the footstool of the throne.
It was September of the year 1659 before the expedition set out. It made quite an imposing sight, and the people cheered encouragingly as the procession wound slowly out of the huge city gate. There were swarthy cavalrymen to the number of five thousand, who jingled along merrily on their wiry horses, and cracked jokes together on the subject of their quest. Were they sent out to capture a boy bandit?" they would ask jestingly, and their bearded throats shook with merriment at the very idea. In their train marched seven thousand infantry, the choicest procurable. These, too, had their own ideas on the subject of the expedition, and would pass their hours in merry badinage at their youthful foe's expense. It tickled the fancy of the Bíjapur soldiery to think of him as a boy. Long strings of camels laden with stores, rockets, ammunition and swivels, paced majestically beside the marching troops, while a considerable train of artillery—or at least what was considered artillery in those days—rumbled and clattered in the rear.
Sivaji, nestling among his native hills, heard of the coming of the expedition, and laughed. Here was an adventure after his own heart. And was it not eminently flattering that Bíjapur should think him worthy of so mighty an army and so splendid a leader as Afzool Khán? Nevertheless he must walk warily; it would not do to let the enemy catch him tripping. So the tiger began to play a cunning game. Afzool Khán learned, rather to his relief, that Sivaji had no intention of resisting his august self. The "insignificant rebel" seemed to be quite overcome by the magnitude of his own sins. He "longed only to kiss the feet of the advancing warrior, and to make his peace with Bíjapur. Would the mighty Khán use his great influence to intercede on his behalf?"
The vanity of Afzool Khán was gratified by these offers of submission. He despised his adversary as only a rich Muhammadan noble can despise any one, but at the same time he knew that his task was not without difficulty. To penetrate the wild and hilly country where Sivaji lay hid was like putting one's hand in a hole to draw out a badger; there was a distinct probability of being bitten in the attempt. So he posed as the representative of an outraged but still generous ruler, and decided to hear what Sivaji had to say for himself. To this end a Brahmin, high in his master's confidence, was sent to see the rebel. With him went suitable attendants, and together they arrived at Sivaji's place of residence, where a cordial welcome awaited them.
While others slept that night, a strange interview took place. The great Sivaji knelt at the Brahmin's feet and wept bitterly. India is divided into two great schools of religious thought—Hinduism and Muhammadanism. The latter was the religion of the governing classes. Sivaji was a zealous Hindú, and it was his ambition to restore his faith to its former proud position. These aims he now confided to his guest. The Brahmin was touched, for to be a Brahmin is to be a member of the Hint priesthood, and of high caste in consequence. It did not become a Brahmin, said Sivaji, to fight against the true religion. If he would assist him to destroy the Bíjapur army he should receive a position of power and affluence—he should be loaded with treasure and jewels. The Brahmin was still more touched. He gave Sivaji his blessing, and swore to serve him.
By the Brahmin's aid a conference was brought about between Sivaji and the haughty Khán. Sivaji professed to be in great terror of the power and grandeur of the Bíjapur general, and it was agreed that they should meet, each accompanied by only one attendant. The trysting-place was in the middle of a dense jungle. Through a narrow pathway, cut for the occasion, Afzool Khán was borne in his palanquin. Several hundred yards in the rear was stationed his bodyguard of fifteen hundred men; they did not advance farther for fear of alarming Sivaji. Some distance back the army lay encamped. Afzool Khán got out of his palanquin and stared impatiently about him. "Where was this Sivaji, and why was he so long in coming?" he muttered querulously. To encourage the Maráthá he had laid aside all his warlike garb, and, clad in thin muslin, was armed only with his sword. Presently two figures were seen advancing in the distance. The foremost, Sivaji, was dressed like the Khán in simple white muslin, but underneath he wore a coat of chain armour, while a crooked dagger lay hidden in his sleeve. On the fingers of his left hand was fixed the treacherous and deadly "wagnuck," a sharp instrument shaped like a tiger's claw, and capable of easy concealment in a half-closed hand. In his attendant's sash were stuck two swords—an ominous sign—but entirely unnoticed by the unsuspicious Khán.
By slow degrees Sivaji approached the waiting general. Every now and again he would stop, and with signs of alarm make as if to turn back. Afzool Khán watched him, impatiently contemptuous. Then, to dispel the chieftain's fears, he motioned his attendant from him and stood alone with folded arms. At length the two stood face to face. Sivaji fell on his knees and kissed the general's feet, and the Khán, pleased by his act of submission, raised him up and tenderly embraced him. A moment later, he started back with a cry of alarm, his crimson-stained robe bearing ghastly evidence of the wound inflicted by the deadly "wagnuck." "Treachery!' he gasped, and, drawing his sword, slashed fiercely at his white-robed assailant. The blow glanced harmlessly off the concealed armour. Sivaji drew his dagger with deliberation, it glittered for a moment in the air, and then, with a groan, the haughty general tottered and fell at the Maráthá's feet. His attendant rushed hastily to the rescue. "Surrender, and your life shall be spared," cried Sivaji, but the man refused to accept mercy upon such terms, and, after a few minutes' unequal struggle, he too fell dead across his master's body.
Then the blast of a horn rang out on the air. All at once the surrounding thickets became alive with Maráthá troops, who, uttering their war-cry, rushed headlong upon Afzool Khán's patiently waiting army. Leaderless and taken by surprise, the Bíjapur soldiery turned tail and fled in disorder. Many surrendered and were taken into Sivaji's service; others, who attempted to escape, wandered about miserably for days in wilds from which they found it impossible to extricate themselves. Those who did not die of hunger and exhaustion fell by degrees into the hands of Sivaji's men, and were taken prisoners. The bandit himself surveyed the wreck of the once mighty army with great gladness, and offered up many prayers and thanksgivings for the horses, elephants and treasure that had fallen into his hands. Shortly after this the countrymen of Bíjapur had reason to wring their hands and groan in bitterness of spirit, while the nobles uttered many strange and curious oaths. A grim warrior mounted on a shaggy pony led an army of long-haired, fierce-faced men right up to the gates of Bíjapur city, leaving behind him a long trail of plundered towns and villages, of fields blackened by fire, and homesteads left empty and desolate by the sword. For thus did Sivaji return thanks for the complimentary attention of His Majesty Muhammad Adil Sháh.
It was the Moghul territory that next felt the benefit of Sivaji's enterprise—felt it so keenly that the Delhi Court, usually somnolent, was excited to a pitch of fury. A new emperor had come to the throne, Aurangzebe, the greatest of an illustrious line. A grim man this, silent and unemotional, concealing his feelings under the stern mask of religious piety. Yet his religion did not prevent him from deposing his aged father and shutting him up in prison. It did not move him to spare the lives of his three brothers, each of whom had plotted to win the throne. Rather did it act as an incentive to spur him on, for the creed of Aurangzebe was hard and narrow, and the breast of Aurangzebe never harboured a generous emotion. He heard of the doings of Sivaji with an impassive face. He learnt how his land had been desolated and his people plundered, and remained unmoved. "Clearly," he remarked, "this mountain rat must be punished for his insolence."
Shaista Khán, the Emperor's uncle, led a large army southwards. He had orders to carry the war into the Maráthá's country, to reduce their forts, and to exterminate their leader. The campaign opened well. Forts that Sivaji had captured were recovered, and Poona was occupied without resistance. Then the rainy season set in. Military operations being impossible, Shaista Khán resolved to make Poona his headquarters. His army was encamped around the town, while he himself built a pavilion at the foot of the fortress for the accommodation of himself and his numerous wives.
The royal general, who loved the luxury and ease of Delhi, found it rather dull at Poona, so when the anniversary of the Emperor's coronation came round, he determined to give a great feast to celebrate the event. The night arrived, and the Khán's pavilion was given up to mirth and revelry. In the court adjoining the guest-chamber a company of musicians entertained the feasters with more or less sweet strains of melody. Shortly before midnight a strange man approached the bandmaster and saluted, "What would you?" gurgled the musician, who had been tasting somewhat freely of the Khán's wine-skins. "My lord commands that when midnight strikes you shall play louder than you have ever done before, so that more honour be done to the occasion." "My lord's commands shall be obeyed," was the reply. "Of a truth he shall be drowned in music." The messenger again saluted and withdrew as silently as he had come.
Meanwhile the feast went forward merrily. Wine was not spared, and the Khán and his friends were all more or less in a state of convivial intoxication. Suddenly a tremendous uproar filled the air. Trumpets blared as they had never blared before, while kettledrum vied with kettledrum in making night hideous. The bandmaster was performing his task bravely. But above all this din came the sound of piercing shrieks from the seraglio, or women's quarters. Startled and amazed the guests leapt to their feet, and at the same moment a. band of armed men, the redoubtable Sivaji at their head, broke into the room. At their heels came a string of fearful and screaming women. Instantly all was chaos and confusion. Shaista Khán, too muddled with drink to understand what was going on, tottered unsteadily to his feet. His young son, sword in hand, bravely flung himself upon the intruders. But his courage availed him little, for a Maráthá blade hissed and sang in the air, and the boy fell headless at his father's feet.
Shaista Khán was the objective of the attack, and towards him they rushed with whirling blades and fierce cries. The women saw their master's danger and, sweeping the lamps to the floor, plunged the room into total darkness. Can you not imagine the confusion which followed? Friend and foe swayed and fought together in horrible disorder; random blows fell upon the women and attendants. The Moghul general staggered to a window, and tried by this means to escape from the building. For a minute or two he clung to the window-sill, swaying to and fro, and reaching for the ground with his feet—not a very dignified position for the uncle of the mightiest Emperor in the world—and then Sivaji slashed at him with his sword and cut off one of his fingers. The commander of the Imperial forces dropped to the ground with a howl of pain, and fled uphill towards the fort as fast as his legs would carry him. Baffled in this direction, the Maráthás turned their attention to the Moghul encampment. Tents were overturned and plundered, flying soldiery overtaken and cut down. It was a scene of the wildest disorder, and the northern soldiers ran hither and thither like rabbits to escape the long swords of their assailants. When the officers had got their men into something like order, Sivaji and his merry men were gone. All that could be seen of them were the torches tossing derisively in the distance, as the mountain warriors ascended exultantly to their impenetrable fastnesses.
The Emperor Aurangzebe bent his brows in black displeasure when he heard of this escapade. "It seems that this 'rat' has sharp teeth," he remarked drily; "he shall be given something to bite."