Book House

This historical fiction explores the life of Sambhaji, the second Chhatrapati of the Maratha Empire

A statue of Sambhaji Maharaj (Wikimedia Commons)
  • The book “Life and Death of Sambhaji” by Medha Deshmukh Bhaskaran is an examination of the life of Sambhaji, who inspired a generation of Maratha warriors, who eventually ensured the end of Aurangzeb’s jihad.

  • Under the shadow of an illustrious father, Sambhaji finds himself thrust into the Maratha-Mughal conflict from a tender age. When he becomes the chhatrapati, he faces a constant battle – internally, as palace intrigues simmer to kill him, and externally, as Aurangzeb descends on the Deccan with full military force. Even Chhatrapati Shivaji had never faced a full-blown Mughal aggression.

  • Will he be able to protect the Maratha nation and Swaraj that was his father’s dream? Will he prove to be a worthy son to his father – in life as well as in death?

  • Read an excerpt from the book below.

Sambhaji pulls himself out of the water on the other side. It has been an exhausting swim, with his sword, dagger and shield all strapped to his person. He staggers on to the bank and then starts walking in the northern direction. The twilight is fading fast. He looks back at the confluence of the rivers to see if anyone is following him, but there is no one. His eyes travel to the other side of the river, and he can see the tiny figures of his guards scurrying to their horses. Some of them are already riding away, probably in the direction of Sajjangad or Shringarpur. Sambhaji does not care any more. He looks around to see if anyone is waiting for him, as the man with the pockmarked face had said. It is almost dark now and the canopies of trees make it darker. He walks on, trying to see in the dark, when his eyes catch a flicker of light some distance away. As he walks closer, he sees it is a torch. Then he sees the silhouettes of two horses—and a man. The shadows are still, as if waiting for someone. Sambhaji feels no fear, even after knowing the Mughals and their unpredictable ways. He has taken the plunge and feels like a man in free fall from a cliff, waiting for the water below to hit. The decision has been taken—now whatever lies ahead he will face.

Sambhaji can see the man now. His face is brightened by the flame of the torch. The man with the pockmarked face.

‘Who are you?’ Sambhaji again asks him incredulously. Now he is only a few guz from him.

‘That is not important,’ comes the same reply. Then, ‘Get on the horse. We must move fast.’

Sambhaji jumps up on the horse. Now there are no regrets. The Kathiyawadi horse, with its curved ears overlapping at the tips, is one of the best mounts he has had. Sambhaji loves the breed. These horses are intelligent, spirited and friendly. Diler Khan has taken care of his preferences. They ride on in the dark. The man seems to know the forest well, avoiding dense woods and rough earth. After an hour and a half, Sambhaji notices twinkling lights.

The Mughal camp.

This is not the first time Sambhaji is entering a camp of the imperials. He was sent to one at the age of seven, as surety to Mirza’s camp. He has also been to their military encampment near Aurangabad as a Mughal mansabdar. Aba Sahib need not be upset— it was he who had made his son a Mughal mansabdar in the first place. If that was not treason, this is not either. If that was a political decision, so is this. During the Purandar Peace Treaty, Aba Sahib avoided being a Mughal mansabdar by suggesting Sambhaji’s name. If that was acceptable, this, too, must be. If Aba Sahib could leave him alone in Mughal territory when he was just nine years old, if that was the only option, then Sambhaji is now left with no option either. After the treaty, even Aba Sahib helped the Mughal imperialists attack Bijapur. Sambhaji concludes that he had been used as a pawn in Mughal–Maratha politics.

He tries to look for justifications even as he rides into the camp. From where they enter, he can see horse and elephant stables, and smell the stench of their urine and droppings. The caregivers are busy tending to the animals, some of which are trumpeting and neighing for the evening feed. They enter deep into the camp, filled with the distinct aroma of meat cooking on massive chulhas. Typical of the Mughal camps, furnaces of weaponsmiths are scattered around, now extinguished. The tall, hefty troopers dressed in long sherwani tunics and tight trousers move around giving orders to their chelas; the slave mercenaries in short cotton tunics and knee-length tights follow their masters like lambs. The troopers seem to have come from different parts of the world—from Samarkand, Kabul, Peshawar, Rajasthan and even Maratha lands. Several women are seen going about their business; in some tents, songs are being sung by artistes. At one place, a few women dance in the light of hundreds of torches as the intoxicated crowd around them cheers them on with clinks of their wine glasses. Then they cross the lavish green and saffron tents of the Mughal and Rajput mansabdars. Sambhaji has seen this before, but even then it shocks him. He misses the simplicity of the Maratha military camps—no tents, no women, no families.

Sambhaji is first taken to a lavish tent that has an office room, a bedroom and a private open-air bath. A slave comes forward with a set of fresh clothes. There is a large brass pot full of hot water, along with ceramic dispensers of fragrant oil and a towel made of rough cotton. Sambhaji is tired, mentally and physically, and a hot bath is all he wants. When he pours water on his head, a thought flashes through his mind like lightning. What is in store for him? What did Diler Khan have to offer? It could be anything—even death.

Somewhere in the nearby mosque, muezzins start their call for the last prayer of the day.

Sambhaji is ready to meet subedar Diler Khan. He steps out of the tent, thinking about what Yesu would be doing at that very moment. He shudders as a scantily clad slave leads him down a path. This area is away from the hustle and bustle of the camp. The path is paved with pebbles and fenced with flowering shrubs.

They reach a palatial tent with green panels studded with pearls. A tall man with a henna-coloured beard, wearing a kimoush headgear sparkling with emeralds, rushes out of the tent, followed by a few men who look like slave mercenaries. He spreads his hands wide and says, ‘Salaam, sher ke bacche. I welcome you with all my heart. May Allah bless us all.’

Sambhaji smiles. He likes being called a ‘tiger cub’. Diler Khan has not forgotten, after all.

‘Khan Sahib!’ Sambhaji embraces Diler Khan.

They step into the latter’s tent, covered with expensive carpets. Diler leads Sambhaji to one of the two gilded divans. Sambhaji sees that Diler has aged—his face now has wrinkles and it is narrower, giving him a foxy look.

‘Mashallah!’ Diler exclaims as he looks at Sambhaji properly for the first time. ‘How handsome you have become.’

Sambhaji is used to the compliment.

‘You are now our mansabdar of seven-thousand-horse and seven thousand dhats,’ Diler announces in chaste Hindustani, even before he settles down on the other divan. A slave brings in glasses of sherbet and a thirsty Sambhaji drains two within minutes. The dhat figure determines the salary and the sawar figure, the funds to be paid for maintenance of the cavalry. Seven thousand dhats will bring him a huge amount of money. He is now a very high-ranking Mughal mansabdar—like an amir!

‘Tonight we will celebrate by feasting. Tonight we want to give you your first present, a full-grown war elephant with a silver howdah,’ Diler announces loudly.

Sambhaji smiles but feels drained.

Diler Khan smiles—the Maratha prince is his biggest trophy so far.

Excerpted with permission from Life and Death of Sambhaji, Medha Deshmukh Bhaskaran, Penguin India. Read more about the book here and buy it here.


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