Thursday, July 20, 2006

The Battle of Khardla: The Begum & her Tantrum.

I asked a friend, who is a history buff, whether he could give me some reasons due to which rulers lost battles in medieval India. He was immediately up and running with his reasons.

Bad Planning
Incompetent generals
Ill-equipped and ill-disciplined troops
Inferior equipment

That was when I bowled my googly. I asked, “How about a tantrum throwing wife?”
This reason threw him completely out of kilter.

“Eh! What’s that again?”

He absolutely refused to believe that a tantrum throwing Begum could be a possible reason for losing a significant battle.

However this was precisely what happened to the Nizam of Hyderabad. He lost the Battle of Khardla to the Marathas because his Begum threw a tantrum and demanded that……… but hey, I am getting ahead of the story.

Before I plunge in and “reveal” all about the Begum’s tantrum let me give you a, not so brief, historical background to the battle.

The Marathas, under Peshwa Baji Rao I, routed the forces of the Nizam of Hyderabad in the Palkhed campaign of 1728. Following this victory the Peshwa levied Chauth (1/4th of the land revenue collected) and Sardeshmukhi for the very first time on Hyderabad.

The amount to be paid was hotly contested and continued to be so even up to the 1790s. By this time Nizam Ali Khan was on the throne of Hyderabad and the Maratha Machiavelli, Nana Phadnavis, the real power in Poona.

Nizam Ali Khan tried, unsuccessfully, to sneak out of the commitment entered into by his father Nizam ul Mulk. Of course, the amount that needed to be paid could have been negotiated but there existed such bitter personal animosity between Azim ul Umra, the Nizam’s minister and Nana Phadnavis that such an option was just not on.

Azim ul Umra tried getting the British to help him in battle, but the British Resident under strict instructions from Sir John Shore, the Governor General, declined to do so. Shore wanted to preserve the fledgling British Empire and not antagonize the Marathas who were a more powerful force than the Nizam was.

The Nizam, in spite of this setback went ahead with his decision to go to war.

Preparations for the War:
The lead up to the war was obviously characterized by intense military preparations. As any good military strategist will tell you chief among military preparations is always the attempt to bribe members of the opposing court. The Nizam was rumoured to have spent a colossal amount of Rs. One Crore (Maybe about Rs. 4000 crore in today’s currency) in the hope of getting the Scindia to desert the Marathas. Nana Phadnavis in turn spent a more modest Rs. 7 Lakh bribing members of the Nizam’s court.

Once these preliminary preparations were completed the two sides hit the road.

On the Road:In early 1794, after additional preparations that involved nautch girls who sang about the Nizam’s victory and Azim ul Ummra thundering that he would send Nana to Benaras in a loin cloth, the Nizam with his darbar moved to Bidar (Bidar was the Hyderabadi fortress closest to the Maratha frontier) and began to put together a large army.

Finally in December 1794, the Nizam’s army set off from Bidar. It lumbered along the Manjira River towards Poona with the Nizam insisting, all the while, that he was not planning to attack the Marathas but was merely out on a holiday with family and friends.

Given the composition of the touring party it almost seemed true. For apart from the army there was also a huge caravan of covered elephants that had the Nizam’s harem. I am sure they were meant to bolster the morale, among other things, of the Nizam and his men. The harem also had a dedicated regiment of female infantry brought along to protect it from harm.

The Battle:
After meandering along the road for three months the Nizam’s forces reached a ridge called Moori Ghat on the 14th of March. On the morning of 15 March, 1795 the Nizam gave orders for attack. And the army swooped down from Moori Ghat on the Marathas who were assembled at the bottom of the hill.

The Nizam’s French trained artillery and even his Zuffur Plutun (Woman Battalion) succeeded in reaching their planned spot about 6 kilometers from the slopes of the Ghat. Once they reached the position they dug in for the night and prepared for the battle on the morrow. Smug in the belief that victory would be theirs.

The Begum & her threat:
However the silly stiffs did not reckon with the boss’ wife.

Occasional cannonade by the Marathas during the night scared the wits out of the Nizam’s begums. Especially Bakshi Begum who was the Nizam’s senior wife. Obviously the good Begum was not expecting all this noise and confusion during what she felt was just another Nawabi outing. Bakshi Begum then ran around in circles beating her breasts wondering what to do. It was then that inspiration struck.

She simply went up to the Nizam and threatened to unveil herself in public if the women of the zenana were not shifted to the “safety” of the Khardla fort which lay at the foot of the Moori Ghat. (Now in the Muslim society of that period this threat was equivalent to a President’s wife threatening to strip on live Television.) Unnerved by this threat and being the good husband that he was, the Nizam agreed to take all of his women to the fort.

Movement of this nature at the time that it took place (11.00 pm) obviously created some amount of confusion. During this confusion a small band of Maratha soldiers, who were out looking for water, bumped into a Hyderabadi picket and a short exchange of fire in pitch dark conditions, was enough to throw the Hyderabadi troops into complete and utter confusion. They rushed as quickly as they could into the fort.

Once inside the fort there was wild cheering and general happiness among the Begums that this complicated military procedure (of retreating to a fort from a position of strength) was accomplished.

Once the celebrations subsided someone noticed a SLIGHT flaw in the maneuver they felt was a super success: the Hyderabadis had left behind their guns, ammunitions, food supplies, pack animals, horses etc. And they were all holed up in a small fort, totally at the mercy of the Marathas.

In the morning the Marathas found that the Hyderabadis had not only left their strategic advantage but also left behind quite a lot of gifts for them. The Marathas obviously took complete advantage of the situation. By 10.00 in the morning they had brought about 400 guns, 2000 camels and 15 heavy canons onto the ridge. By 11.00 am they had completely surrounded the fort and started to blast away. It was all over bar the shouting.

The Nizam was forced to sign a humiliating peace treaty on April 17.
Wonder what the Begum had to say about that.


confused said...


A real gem, I must say.

Balakrishna Parankusam said...

Interesting story. Looking forward to more such humorous, thought provoking historical posts.

Anonymous said...

After reading this post, I have realized how little I know of history of Hyderabad or the Nizams. This is what we should be taught in school history, not some French-Russian revolutions crap.

Anonymous said...

July 25, 2006 10:58 AM


very interesting:)
Note: Comment made on Desicritics where this was cross-posted

Anonymous said...

Deepti lamba
July 25, 2006 12:31 PM

Yeah blame the begum but what about the idiot who decided to put his women in harms way in the first place
Note: Comment made on Desicritics where this was cross-posted

Anonymous said...

July 25, 2006 01:16 PM

Ohh! I loved this article :-) I am always fascinated by this kind of historical anecdotes.

Deepti, I agree. The Nizam, in retrospect, was an idiot. Who, in his right mind, takes his harem near the battlefield?

Maybe some history junkie can enlighten us about role of women in wars and how the kings and armies travelled with their women in the earlier eras.
Note: Comment made on Desicritics where this was cross-posted

Anonymous said...

July 25, 2006 01:58 PM


Well for the first time EVER, history was interesting, fun and more like a story my gran tells than something that is normally dull and boring! very well written!

But I agree with Deepti and Aninda about the stupidity of the Nizam in deciding to bring the gals along for the merry fight.
Note: Comment made on Desicritics where this was cross-posted

Anonymous said...

July 25, 2006 02:22 PM

dee, aninida, DG:

oofho - ok---another historical footnote to understand why he took his 'gals':

chastity belts were not imported into india in the 1790s

simple as that;)
Note: Comment made on Desicritics where this was cross-posted

Anonymous said...

July 25, 2006 06:00 PM


One learns new things every day!!!
Note: Comment made on Desicritics where this was cross-posted

Anonymous said...

Deepti lamba
July 26, 2006 12:20 AM

The Nizam took his harem along with him was to prove that he was going on a holiday and if you ask me it was rather convienent for the history buffs to lay the blame on his womenfolk

He could have sent his babes off with a few soldiers and carried on with the war but no he had to go himself.

Serves him right for losing the war.
Note: Comment made on Desicritics where this was cross-posted

Anonymous said...

July 26, 2006 02:45 PM

I think, something similar happened when Arabs under Khalifa Omar attacked the great Persian Empire. The queen of Persia kept too many soldiers in the capital for herself.
Note: Comment made on Desicritics where this was cross-posted

Anonymous said...

Great Story

We wonder what used to happen to the pretty girls when their army lost.

Anonymous said...

Great Narration. Very Intersting

We wonder what used to happen to the pretty girls when their side lost on the battleground.

Anonymous said...

really interesting piece of historical writing.....thoroughly liked the narration.

But, sir, i've a question. From what sources have you compiled this 'story'? Did this happen for real? Or is it 'apocryphal'?