History Series Short Stories

The Great Escape

Shivaji Maharaj had never felt so belittled in his entire life. He had just stormed out of Aurangzeb’s presence from the Mughal court in Agra along with his 10-year-old son, Sambhaji. The courtiers and Rajput and Mughal Generals, who jostled with each other to occupy prominent positions in the court, were left aghast and were scandalized by this action of Shivaji Maharaj. A great silence spread in the court but the Emperor did not show any outward emotions. Raja Ram Singh, the son of Raja Jai Singh, was extremely worried by this non-reaction and silence of the Emperor.

It was a combination of the circumstances and political acumen of the Maratha King that had brought him to the Mughal court in Agra.

In 1664, Raja Jai Singh had marched into the Deccan with his huge army. Raja Jai Singh was no novice. After he was identified by Aurangzeb for this critical mission he spent almost a year in planning out his strategy. Once he was convinced about his preparations, he set out on the mission. He correctly identified Shivaji’s strength, the innumerable forts in the Sahyadris.

He was able to gain control on some forts from Shivaji Maharaj. More seriously, his presence in the Deccan was reducing the manoeuvrability of Shivaji’s forces and affecting the economics of the newly established Swaraj.

But all this was also a drain on the Mughals, both in terms of men lost in battle, and resources. Though the sheer size of his huge army allowed him to occupy the land won, his army was more suited to warfare on open wide spaces but not to the confined spaces of the Western Ghats.

Finally, after Raja Jai Singh had won the Purandar fort, both of them were ready for a treaty wherein Shivaji Maharaj had to surrender 23 forts of the Swaraj to the Mughal emperor and accept the Sovereignty of the Emperor in the Deccan. In return, the hostilities were to be stopped and Maharaj was expected to help the Empire against the sultans of Bijapur and Golconda.

The shrewd statesman that he was, Maharaj decided to accept the terms of the treaty. To formalize this, Shivaji Maharaj was expected to pay his respects to the Mughal Emperor in Agra with his son, who had been made a nobleman of the Mughal army.

And so he left for Agra along with his son and a few very dependent men in the month of March 1666.

When he reached Agra, there was no formal welcome for him. There was only Raja Ram Singh to welcome him and he was escorted directly to the Divan-I-Khas.

The Divan-I-Khas was a huge hall with the Emperor sitting on Peacock Throne overlooking the great hall. The Throne was on a pedestal, and from a distance, it appeared to float above the courtiers & nobles. It was here that, Raja Ram Singh escorted Shivaji Maharaj & his son.

Shivaji Maharaj paid respects to the Emperor and submitted gifts, but the Emperor remained silent and did not utter any words of welcome to him nor was there any acknowledgement. It was as if, the Maharaj did not exist. No presents or titles were conferred upon him nor was he made to feel welcome. To make matters worse, Shivaji Maharaj was made to stand behind a row of 5 hazari noblemen.

He saw that even Raja Jaswant Singh was standing in front of him and this was the last straw. He could take it no longer and thundered in the assembly, “This Jaswant Singh has been defeated so many times by my men, and he has shown his back so many times in the battlefield. And I am made to stand behind him!”. So saying, he stormed off along with his son.

The next few days were spent in diplomacy when both, Shivaji Maharaj and the Emperor tried to soothe the frayed nerves but the courtiers of the Emperor tried their best to influence him to either imprison Shivaji or kill him. Finally, Aurangzeb accepted this and Shivaji Maharaj and his son were placed under house arrest.

Shivaji Maharaj could see the writing on the wall. He knew that the Emperor was feeling very uncomfortable with his presence in Agra and was sure that, at the first opportunity he would get rid of him. He had to act fast.

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For the last few days, Shivaji Maharaj had not been feeling well. In fact, his condition seemed quite serious. Or so he made it appear to all. Through Raja Ram Singh, he sent out a message to the Agra authorities that he would like to send out sweets to Brahmins and religious mendicants. The sweets were sent out in huge bamboo baskets which were carried by two men every day and this continued for many days.

The guards placed at the entrance to the royal guesthouse would diligently inspect all the baskets going out but after some days their alertness slackened and this was what Shivaji Maharaj was waiting for.

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It was a fresh August morning. Like all mornings in the last 3 months, the big baskets filled with sweets had arrived inside the house for the Maharaj to bless and then the boxes were to be  sent out to the Brahmins. But today was different. Today, the basket bearers were going to bear a different kind of weight. Today the baskets were different. They were having false bottoms. Enough to carry fully grown humans!

In one basket, Sambhaji entered and in another, the great Maharaj. The basket bearers then placed sweets on the top and were ready to go. As they left the house, the guards stopped them! One of the guards neared them…reached into the basket, as if searching for something, and then blurted out, “Got it! These laddoos taste the best. Here, have some.” So saying, he passed on two laddoos to his colleague and waved the basket bearers ahead.

The basket bearers were sweating profusely, less from exertion, more from tension. But more the distance they covered away from the guesthouse, the more they relaxed. Though the baskets were heavier today, they did not stop to rest. They reached the pre-designated spot outside the city and from the shadows emerged a few of Maharaja’s trusted infantrymen. 2 fast steeds’ were ready for the Maharaj and his son and off they went towards Prayag via Mathura. Before mounting their horses, both had changed into mendicants clothing.

Total chaos erupted in Agra when the escape was discovered. But the discovery had taken a long time. Initially, when the guards had peeped in through the windows, they had seen the 2 beds still occupied. But when no one emerged out of the guesthouse nor was anyone seen in the windows, their suspicions increased and finally, they entered. The 2 beds continued to be occupied. When they pulled at the bed sheet, the ruse was broken! For pretending to sleep there, were the 2 loyal helpers of the Maharaj. They were promptly arrested. For the next few hours, they were tortured mercilessly but to no avail. They proved their unflinching loyalty to the Maharaj.

The Mughals searched everywhere and especially the southern exits from the city since they expected the escapees to head in the general direction of Maharashtra, which was towards the south. But Maharaj was two steps ahead. He had decided to take a circuitous route. He reached Prayag from Mathura. Somewhere along the way, he had shaved off his beard and accepted mendicants clothing.

In Mathura, he placed Sambhaji in the care of very trustworthy priests. Then deliberately he spread the news of Sambhaji’s death so that he was safe. From Prayag, he proceeded to Bundelkhand then onwards to Golkonda. In each location he spent very few days and moved ahead, to keep the searching parties at bay.

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It was October month. The fiery rains had slowly tapered off. In Fort Raigad, Rajmata Jijabai had spent many sleepless nights waiting for her illustrious son to come back. She was heartbroken with the news of Sambhaji’s death and her fears increased. As days went by, her heart sank. She was in the prayer room when a messenger came, “Some pious people have come to meet you outside, Queen Mother”. Jijabai continued with her prayers and told him to give them some alms and send them on their way.

However, the messenger again returned, “Rajmata, they won’t move unless you meet them.” Finally, Jijabai moved towards the gate and reached the spot where the mendicants were waiting. Upon seeing the Rajmata, one of them prostrated himself before her. Rajmata recognised at once, “Shivba! You have returned! Where is the small child, Sambhaji!!”. So saying, the feelings which had been kept bottled up finally burst forth, as she was escorted by the Maharaj, towards the inner rooms of the fort. As both, mother and son comforted each other, Shivaji Maharaj finally divulged the safety of Sambhaji to her great relief and joy.

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