Panipat is a very ancient fortified town. It still looks ancient as it once was. Walking through its narrow, crowded, filthy lanes, hemmed in by a rabbit warren of shops and antique houses, one gets a strong feeling of stepping on the cobble stones of history. Legend has it that Arjuna of ‘Mahabharta’ fame founded it.
Looking at this scruffy little town surrounded by fields (not very far from where stands IndianOil’s 7th Refinery) one can hardly believe it was here that the fate of India was decided as many as three times in fiercely contested battles. Crowns rolled in the bloodsoaked dust here, while empires were made and unmade amidst the clamour of hoof beats, boom of cannon and the ominous clash of steel.
Lying 80 KMs north of Delhi on the Grand Trunk Road build by Sher Shah (d.1545); Panipat in the State of Haryana, otherwise famous for cotton milling, wool, glass and manufacture of electrical appliances, can today boast of IndianOil’s Panipat Refinery. Located 20 KMs from the town of Panipat amidst lush emerald fields, India’s most modern refinery was built at a cost of Rs. 3868.00 Crore and has an installed capacity of six million metric tonnes per annum.
Panipat Refinery receives crude oil through the Viramgam Chaksu- Panipat section of the Salaya – Mathura pipeline. Having gone on stream recently, our refinery will produce petrol, diesel, kerosene, jet fuel, naphtha, bitumen, sulphur and two lakh tonnes of cooking gas. The refinery fulfills the long felt need to meet the petroleum demands of not only Haryana, but also the entire north-west of India, including the Punjab and the States of Jammu and Kashmir,
Himachal, Chandigarh, Delhi and western Uttar Pradesh.
Having gone so far to see our refinery, we also decided to pay our homage at the dargah (tomb) of the famous, Sufi Saint, Abu Ali Qalandar (1209-1324), as also visit the site of the famous battles about which we had read so much in our history books in school.
To reach the dargah of the saint, one had to perforce make it on foot as the lanes and alleys of old Panipat are so narrow that they were probably meant for people on horseback. Passing through an arched gateway, the dargah stands in a square courtyard bordered by living quarters, offices and rooms for pilgrims.
Khwaja Abu Ali Qalandar was born in 1209 during the reign of Delhi’s first Muslim ruler. Qutbuddin Aibak. For 40 long years the saint lived in Panipat. Those days, it is said, the river Yamuna flowed close by the town. Story has it that Abu Ali directed the river to move back seven paces, but in her hurry to obey the saint, she moved back 7 miles (11 kms).
Abu Ali also lived in Delhi for a while in a hut near the Qutub Minar. Among his devotees were not only the common folk, but also the powerful sultans of Delhi like Ghiyasuddin Balban (d.1287), Jalaluddin Khilji (d.1296) and the famous Sultan Allauddin Khilji (d.1316).
Abu Ali Qalandar belonged to the Qalandariyya sect of Sufis. He is said to have been the disciple of Khwaja Qutbuddin Bakhtiyar Kaki who had settled in Delhi around 1221. Kaki’s ardent devotee was Aibak in whose honour he named the Qutub Minar. Abu Ali died in 1324 at the age of 115 near Karnal. His mortal remains were brought to Panipat and buried here. During Abu Ali’s long life, Delhi had seen through the reign of 17 sultans. When he died, Ghiasuddin Tughlak’s rule was four years old.
Coming out of the town, we drove towards the outskirts and stopped in a narrow lane. Close by stood a bricked terrace with steps leading to the top. The structure looked more like a water tank than a monument. While children scampered around the open ground, small groups of adults were busy playing cards.
We ascended the steps and there in the middle of the open terrace stood a tomb – the simple grave of Sultan Ibrahim Lodi killed in the first battle of Panipat against Babar on April 20, 1526. An engraved marble plaque in Persian said whose mousoleum it was. Sadly not even a flower adorned the tomb of this once powerful Sultan. The scant respect shown to the dead was further heightened when we saw a little boy playfully jump on the tomb and merrily perch himself on the grave stone!
On that fateful day in April 1526, Ibrahim Lodi had marched from Delhi to Panipat with a massive army of 1,00,000 men and 1,000 war elephants against Babar who had come to conquer India. The latter had an army of only 24,000. The first battle of Panipat lasted only half a day. In Babar’s own words; “At noon the enemy was overcome and vanquished …. Five or six thousand people were killed in one place near Ibrahim (Lodi) … Khalifas’ borther-in-law discovered Sultan Ibrahim’s body amidst many corpses and brought in his head.”
The Second Battle of Panipat was fought on November 5, 1556 between Hemu and Akbar. Hemchandra or Hemu, a Dhusar Bhargava from Rewari who began life as a salt-merchant in his town rose to become the Prime Minister under the Afghan Sultan Ibrahim Shah. During the anarchy that prevailed during the latter part of the Afghan rule, Hemu assumed imperial powers, crowned himself emperor and assumed the title of Vikramaditya.
His glory, however, was short lived in fact less than two months. The Mughal advance towards Delhi brought Hemu to Panipat with an Army of 30,000 Rajput and crack Afghan cavalry backed by 500 war elephants. In the fiercely contested engagements, Hemu, a veteran of 24 battles gave a tough fight to the Mughals and was almost on the point of Victory, when a stray arrow pierced his eye and he fell unconsciousness. Seeing their leader slumped in his howdah and fearing the worst, Hemu’s army fled in panic. Hemu was captured alive, brought before Akbar (who was then only 14 years old) and was beheaded by Bairam Khan. The second battle of Panipat heralded the golden age of Mughal Rule under Emperor Akbar.
The site of the third Battle of Panipat where the Marathas fought Ahmad Shah Abdali is located a little to the south of Panipat town. Coming onto the highway, we veered to the left. After passing through rows of shops and houses, the road now cut through open green fields and small farm houses. Soon we entered the gates of a well developed garden with shady trees, flowers and a pond with ducks. In one corner of this garden, the government of Haryana has erected a war memorial, marking the site of the most disastrous battle bought at Panipat where Maratha power was extinguished. The memorial marks the spot from where the Maratha general Sadashiv Bhau watched the battle.
It was the dawn of January 14, 1761. In the wintry chill the plain of Panipat lay veiled in a curtain of mist. A long line of fluttering banners marking the cavalry divisions formed the Maratha vanguard. Sadashiv Bhau had 55,000 horsemen, 15,000 foot soldiers and 200 cannon. The Maratha artillery was under the command of the brilliant Ibrahim Khan Gardi, trained by the Fresh General, M de Bussy.
Facing the Marathas were the Afghan hordes of Ahamd Shah Abdali mounded on sturdy horses from Khorasan and transOxiana, 42,000 of them in all. His 38,000 foot soldiers were clad in padded leather and quilted jackets to protect themselves from sword and spear thrusts. Above all, Abdali had a formidable artillery of 2,000 camels mounded with swivel guns.
The battle began at ten O’clock. The air thudded and shook as the Maratha guns under Ibrahim Khan Gardi spat tongues of orange flame and belched wreaths of black smoke. Under artillery cover, the Maratha infantry advanced and crashed into the Afghan ranks. The engagement was fierce and bloody. A large number of Marathas fell dead or wounded.
When he saw his infantry retreat, Sadashiv Bhau ordered his cavalary to charge. With yellow ochre banners streaming in the wind, the massive wave of Maratha cavalry thundered across the field in a storm of dust.
The cavalry smashed into the Afghan lines and raked through a body of 10,000 horses. The Maratha onslaught was savage and desperate. Soon there was panic among the Afghans and the line began to break up. Some even began to take to their heels, “Where are you running to, “exhorted the Afghan Chief. “Our homeland is far away and you may never reach it.”
Just when defeat seemed to stare into Ahmad Shah’s face, a stray shot hit Vishwas Rao, the son of Peshwa Baji Rao, and he fell dead from his horse. When a disheartening cry arose that the Peshwa’s son had been killed, Maratha spirit sank.
When the 17 years old Vishwas Rao’s body was brought to Sadashiv Bhau on the back of an elephant, his rage knew no bounds. Mounting his horse, Sadashiv Bhau rushed into the thick of battle, only to be mercilessly cut down by Afghan horsemen. The Bhau’s death was enough to make the marathas lose heart. Soon they were completely routed.
Little knowing the fate of his magnificent army, the Peshwa Balaji Rao was crossing the Narmada with reinforcements when a tired ‘‘harkara’ arrived with a cryptic message “Two pearls have been dissolved, 27 gold coins have been lost and of the silver and copper the total cannot be cast up”.
The Peshwa never recovered from the shock of the total debacle at Panipat. He returned to Pune and died a broken man in a temple on Paravati Hill. As for the Marathas they never recovered from the loss at Panipat. The battle changed the course of India’s history. In fact the British could never have had a strong foothold in India as long as the Marathas were powerful.
In the gathering dusk, even as the sun was setting over the swaying fields of wheat at Panipat, we could well imagine what the battlefield must have looked like on the evening of January 14, 1761. A bitter wind would have swept the expanse moaning lamentably like a dirge to the fallen dead. The plain of Panipat will always remain like a page of history stained with blood and haunt the memory for centuries on end.
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