The word Bargi, meaning plunderer came to be synonymized with the Marathas in Bengal. The word originated from the Marathi Bargir meaning horseman and from Bargir-dari – guerrilla warfare which Marathas are famous for and which was introduced by Malik Ambar. The Maratha depredations were that that severe that people migrated away from the frontlines making Bangladesh area Bengali, mainly Muslim for the first time. The areas were pillaged, people were tortured and it was a traumatic period in the Bengali history as what it is said. The below lines from Maharashtra Purana written in the court of Nadia, tell how disastrous their attacks were.

Chhele ghumalo, paada judaalo bargi elo deshe 
Bulbulite dhaan kheyechhe, khaajnaa debo kishe?
Dhaan phurolo, paan phurolo, khaajnaar opay ki?

When the children fall asleep, silence sets in, the Bargis come to our country
Birds have eaten the grain, how shall I pay the tax?
All our food and drink is over, how shall I pay the tax?

Marathas are famous for avoiding pitched battles and forcing the opponent armies after they get exhausted chasing the Marathas in a destroyed landscape. What is written everywhere is, a Maratha field commander Bhaskar Pandit started raiding Bengal in 1741 and his raids continued for a decade before the Marathas were bought off. There were very few pitched battles where the Bengal army won some considerable battles but as a general rule, it were the Marathas who ruled the day. They were even successful enough to plunder the house of Jagath Seth, a Marwari banker operating out of Murshidabad, the capital of Bengal, that too during the first raid itself. The main reason why Marathas got that image of plunder and pillage was because they never touched Calcutta because they were bought off.

But, is the story that black and white? Is it only rape and pillage or is it something more than that?

Under Shuja-ud-din Muhammad Khan the Governor of Bengal, Bihar and Orissa, Marathas were granted Chauth in Orissa. He was succeeded by Sarfaraz Khan in 1739. In 1740, Alivardi Khan, in the connivance of Jagat Seth, under the pretence of paying homage to Sarfaraz Khan who was on the head of his army, attacked him on 10 April 1740 at Garia and killed him. This made him the master of Bihar and Bengal. Orissa, under the control of Rustum Jung fell after the Battle of Phulwarion on 3 March 1741. Mir Habib, the deputy of Rustum Jung solicited the help of Raghuji Bhonsle and the first raid came in the same year.

Bhaskar Pandit’s first raid was the most momentous one in the fact that Murshidabad itself was burnt. His army was caught celebrating Durga Puja and was chased all the way till Chilika Lake. In the meanwhile, Safdar Jung, the Nawab of Awadh invaded the territory attempting to annex it. Ironically, Peshwa Balaji Baji Rao, the superior of Raghuji Bhonsle had to come to save the day for Alivardi Khan. That turned out as a war between the Peshwa and Bhonsle with Bhaskar Pandit defeated by the Peshwa in 1743. Chatrapati Shahu had to intervene and split the territories of the Bhonsle and the Peshwa after which Maratha raids started again. Bhaskar Pandit was assassinated on the orders of Alivardi Khan and Raghuji himself came in person to avenge. It is interesting to note that Mir Jafar, the governor of Orissa retreated to fortified cities allowing the Marathas a free rein till they were checked. An angry Alivardi Khan sacked him and he returned the favour by siding with the British at Plassey.

A timeline.

1731 – Kanhoji Bhosle gets Sanad to subjugate Bengal

10 April 1740 – Alivardi Khan kills Sarfaraz Khan, the Nawab of Bengal at the Battle of Garia

3 April 1741 – Battle of Phulwarion, Orissa taken by Alivardi Khan from Rustum Jang, the son-in-law of Alivardi Khan

1741 – Mir Habib, the deputy of Rustum Jang comes to Nagpur and urges Raghuji Bhonsle to invade Bengal. Raghuji Bhosle is on Karnataka expedition and hence the invasion is postponed.

Dussehra, 1741 – Bhaskar Ram Pandit is sent by Raghuji to invade Bengal

15 th April 1742 – Bhaskar Pandit defeats forces of Alivardi Khan. Khan escapes and Pandit demands 10 lakh rupees as tribute.

May 1742 – Pandit returns to Nagpur, Mir Habib with the Maratha light cavalry under his command captures Murshidabad.

Monsoon 1742 – Marathas and Mir Habib establish their sway as far as Calcutta. British dig a ditch around their factory known as Maratha Ditch

18th sept 1742 – Alivardi Khan attacks Maratha camp who are celebrating Durga Puja, and defeats them. Bhaskar Pandit asks for reinforcements from Nagpur. But they do not arrive in time and he is chased till Chilika Lake.

1742 – Safdar Jung invades Bengal and Alivardi returns to Murshidabad. He solicits the help of the Peshwa who comes to his aid and saves the day

17th March 1743 – Peshwa – Alivardi meet takes near Plassey. Alivardi accepts the supremacy of Marathas and agrees to pay annual Chauth to Peshwa along with 22 lakh rupees as expedition expenses.

April 1743 – Peshwa army defeats Bhaskar Pandit’s army.

31st August 1743 – Peace pact signed between Raghuji Bhosle and Peshwa by the mediation of Chhatrapati Shahu. By this, all the territory from Berar to the east reaching Katak, Bengal and Lucknow was assigned to Raghuji, and that to the west of this line including Ajmer, Agra, Prayag and Malva to the Peshwa with no interference in each other’s areas.

1744 – Bhaskar Pandit invades Bengal to reinforce the Chauth

31 March 1744 – Bhaskar Ram Pandit killed during a parley.

Late 1744 – Raghuji Himselves invades bengal to avenge Bhaskar Pandit’s assassination. Conquers region upto Hugli in 1745.

21 November 1746 – Alivardi defeated in a battle which resulted in stalemate.

1747 – Battle of Burdwan, Marathas under Janoji Bhonsle face a severe defeat at Burdwan

1747-1748 – Alivardi recaptures territory till Balasore

1749 – Marathas under Janaoji Bhosle and Mir Habib reappear and recapture the territory till Midnapur.

1750 – Alivardi routed time and again. From October 1749 to March 1751, the Marathas did not allow Alivardi to rest. They harassed him by avoiding an open war when he came out with a large army to Midnapore. All lands till Murshidabad were plundered in 1750

1751 – Treaty signed in which Alivardi again accepted the Maratha supremacy and agree to pay Chauth to Marathas.

  1. Mir Habib was to be confirmed in the Government of Orissa as the deputy Subhedar of Murshidabad.
  2. The Nawab of Bengal was to pay annually Rs. 12 lacs to the Bhonsles in lieu of the Chauth of Bengal and Bihar.
  3. So long as this amount was regularly paid, the Bhonsles were not to harass the provinces of Bengal and Bihar.
  4. The district of Katak i.e., the territory up to the river Suvarnarekha was to be considered as the possession of the Bhonsles.

A by-product of this attack was that both Sambalpur Garjat and Surguja Garjat and possibly, Bastar, Kanker and Jeypore came under Maratha suzerainty for good.

Now, the question is this. The same Raghuji Bhonsle left Ram Singh, the ruler of Chanda to rule at his will and didn’t touch his kingdom till he died. There are no references anywhere of Marathas pillaging with rapine from any of the areas they raided, from Thanjavur to Punjab. What we are seeing here, the ones giving them the notoriety are the court chronicles of Alivardi Khan and his subordinates. They treated the area as a war zone and plundered the wealth. What will people do, if they are in a warzone, a warzone as extensive as the land from Chilika lake to Murshidabad? Besides, the question is, were they asked to do it or did they do it for fun? And how much of this is because those wronged solicited the help of Marathas? And was harassing common people to the level of rapine a reality? How different is this from Jahangir’s false painting of shooting Malik Ambar’s head?