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46 Samanta-panchaka

Recently, I was studying about the Third War of Panipat (1761) for some reason, in which the Maratha forces led by Sadashiv Bhau - Balaji Bajirao 'Nanasahab' Peshwa's cousin brother - and the Rohilla Afghan forces of Ahmed Shah Abdali fought a decisive battle to the worse of Marathas. This battle is considered to be one of the largest fought in the 18th century, and also perhaps had the largest number of casualties in a single (half) day of the battle - leading to a loss of almost 100,000 human lives.

Personally, the battle has a lot of historical interest to me, as the course of Maratha history as well as the history of my country took a different turn on that fateful day. Among various reasons that historians attribute to the loss of Maratha side in this war - a much smaller force compared to the enemy and yet not following the Guerrilla tactics but meeting the enemy head-on, slow-moving camps carrying not only soldiers but also civilians, lack of a proper strategy throughout the campaign, also lack of good allies (Rajputs, Jats or Sikhs), internal politics and bickering, and Sadashivbhau's lack of prior experience of the North - the most interesting that struck me was that the Marathas at that time took the threat of Rohillas lightly, and it was almost as if the power and the wealth that the Maratha flaunted at that time was not deserved. It is almost as if they needed to be stripped of this wealth at that time.

The outcome was a complete and utter ruin of Maratha forces, with tens of thousands of soldiers and civilians massacred, all known sardars and key people killed, and the wealth of Maratha empire utterly spent - the Maraths could only regain claim on Delhi after ten long years of battle after that under Madhavrao Peshwa (in 1771). The effects of the war were so devastating that overall Maratha empire, which was at its zenith just years before this event, never recovered fully and slowly crumpled to give way to foreigners ruling the country (which continues to happen even today, albeit in a clandestine manner :)).

It is rather surprising that the battle between Marathas and Rohillas took place in exactly the same place that is known for decimating two more earlier empires, and almost exactly at the same phase of these empires - as they were at their zenith of power. The first is the utter and complete destruction of Haihaya Kshatriyas by Parashuram, and the second is the Great Mahabharata War, which led to a total destruction of Kuru clan along with most of the noble princes and warriors at that time. Most accounts suggest that the people who got decimated - Haihayas and Kauravas also did not deserve their wealth and power at that time.

The place of war is near Kurukshetra - literally 'the place of Kuru'. This is because according to the Vamana Purana, King Kuru offered his body parts to Vishnu as seeds in order to cultivate the land and make it fertile. In Rigveda, this place is called 'Saryanvat'. It is also called the Northern Vedi of Brahma ('Uttaravedi' - the holiest part of the yadnavedi or altar), and considered holy ('Dharmakshetre Kurukshetre') since the beginning of time, even before the events of the Mahabharata War.

Today, the region lies mostly in the state of Harayana in modern India, and is still considered a holy ground, with the Brahma tank (lake) and a Shiva temple, and almost two dozen places of worship, and what is presumed to be Abhimanyu's fort near the modern twin-town of Kurukshetra and Thanesar.

It is interesting that there are so many similarities in the three wars:

1. All the three wars seem to have happened in the vicinity of the same 'sinister', 'war-mongering' place called Samant Panchak, or Kurukshetra *.  Panipat is about 100km from Delhi, and Kurukshetra is another 70km. The actual battleground of Panipat is 8km further, near a place called Kaala Aam (lit 'Black Mango Tree'), where on 14th January 1761 the fateful battle was raged between Marathas and Rohillas. Kurukshetra is very close to this place. And Samanta-Panchaka is located at what is now called Brahma Sarovar (lake) at Thanesar, about 7km from Kurukshetra. It is all a matter of 80-90km that this region is located in North India.

Lord Parashurama, after having exhausted all Kshatriya clans twenty one times and seeing all the massacre and the blood, finally dug up five tanks in the ground with his axe to fill the blood of all his enemies. This is why the place is called a 'Panchaka'.

2. All wars have a long background and reasons to finally come to the actual battle, but I guess that is true for all battles. In case of Parashurama's revenge on Kshatriyas, there was a history of genocide and torture of the Brahmins (esp those in the Bhrigu clan to which Rama belonged) before the actual events of Kratavirya Arjuna stealing Jamadagni's cow.

For Mahabharata, there was a chain of events starting from the Lakshagriha Dahan (burning of the Lac House) - where Duryodhana and Shakuni tried to burn the Pandava brothers and Kunti alive while they were sleeping.

In case of Maratha-Rohilla war, the war preceded Abdali's earlier campaigns in Northern India, the decline of Mughal Empire and the 'Ahmadiya Pact' of 1737 by which Marathas were sworn to protect the Mughal empire in Delhi, as well as Raghunath Rao Raghoba's successful campaign in 1758 to Peshwar, which brought Marathas in direct conflict with the Afghans.

3. All wars had their main driver force as greed, there was no higher purpose to start with at least for most of the people (except maybe the main players like Sadashivbhau in the third case, Parashurama in the first case and Krishna & Pandavas in the second case).  Although, I know that this point is debatable and I am open to responses on this. Most Maratha sardars joined the battle in the hope that once they win, their wealth will increase manyfold. Most princes who joined the epic war - including Shalya (who was the brother of Madri and thus maternal uncle of Nakula and Sahadeva) - joined the war in the hope to get a fee paid to them. The Haihayas battled against Parashurama as they wanted to get more wealthy - by taking the Kamdhenu away.

3. All wars led to tremendous massacre - sometimes even considered disproportionate,which makes the decision of whose side was 'right'or 'just' quite difficult to answer. Parashuram's actions to avenge his father Jamadagni's death were understandable if they had only been against the guilty Haihaya Kshatriya clan. But he traveled the world, killing everyone belonging to the Kshatriya clan - whether guilty or innocent.

It was almost as if he took his father's death as an excuse to kill these people. Also, if you see rationally, he killed the King Kratavirya Arjuna first, in order to retrieve his father's cow, which seems like a disproportionate action to begin with. Arjuna's sons, on the other had, murdered Rama's father, just as he had murdered their father. Of course, you can argue that Kratavirya Arjuna was a weapon wielding Kshatriya and Jamadagni was a brahmin. But keep in mind during vedic days, Brahmins were as powerful and dangerous as Kshatriyas, and Jamadagni was known for his temper. All in all, the killing seems very too much for the cause anyway.

In Mahabharata, millions of people died on both sides (see the discussion about Akshauhinis here), most of these people had nothing to do with the tussle to power between Kauravas and Pandavas. No one thought of a duel between Duryodhana and Bhima until the end, when anyway everyone was dead. Not even Krishna, who went to Hastinapura for a possible dialogue and a truce, proposed that then. It was always war and massacre on everyone's mind.

In the Maratha-Rohilla war, people from many princely states like Awadh (Oudh or Ayodhya) participated whether they were directly involved in the principle reason of the battle, and were killed. For Marathas, all their sardars went to Sahashivbhau and added to his force, and then got massacred.

4. Related to the above, it is almost like the events and the place of war drew these men to their deaths. In Mahabharata, it seems that the Earth goes to Vishnu and says that she cannot take the weight of all these mighty kings. And so Vishnu takes the form of Krishna and brought about the massacre. Although this claim seems too far-fetched, the way these battles got fought, it seems that there is some semblance to it.

In Parashurama's case, Kratavirya went on his own to Jamadagni's hermitage and stole the cow. In the epic, all princes and warriors chose their sides on their own and traveled great distances (like in case of Shalya) to actually come to the battleground. In case of Marathas, the Maratha warriors all ganged up together, and rode to their death in Panipat, rather than using Guerrilla warfare in which they were experts. All Shindes, Holkars, Panses, Vinchurkars - all of them rode together, with no plan or purpose of flanking the enemy in different places. All of them headed to Panipat and to their eventual doom.

Apart from this supposed 'intervention' - if that it was at all - the wars were fought among men as men, and won and lost as most other wars - no godly interventions, but mainly by might and strategy. We will keep Krishna's miracles out of this debate, and celebrate his brilliance in the warfare.

5. All three had almost inconclusive decisions, in that even the winners felt like losers. After Parashuram rid the earth of Kshatriyas 21 times, he was finally made to stop by his grandfather seer Richeeka. When Parashuram finally saw the destructive effect his wars had on the earth, he was so overwhelmed that he performed a sacrificial rite (Ashwamedha Yagna) and gave away all his possessions to the priest Kashyapa.

In the epic war, the devastation of the kuru clan and the people who participated was so complete that Duryodhana famously said that Yudhishthira will rule the widows and children. Yudhishithira himself is known to have said that 'this victory feels like defeat to me'. In the war between Abdali and Marathas, although Abdali won, his forces were decimated, and he hurried back to Afghanistan without enjoying any spoils of the war. He tried to put some order to the states in North India, but the moment he went away, they started to fight among each other, which eventually led Marathas to regain control on Delhi after some years.

6. The youngsters and heirs to thrones died in the war - that too mostly in front of the eyes of their earlier generation. Parashuram killed all the hundred sons and heirs of Sahastrarjuna, king of Kshatriyas after they killed his father Jamadagni. In this case, their father Kratavirya Arjuna was already killed by Parashuram, and so avoided the misfortune of seeing his next generation being killed.  In the epic war, however, all sons of Draupadi, Abhimanyu, and Ghatotkatch - the next generation of Pandavas got killed while the elders lived on. Karna too lost all his sons right in front of his eyes. For the Marathas, Vishwasrao Peshwa (20 years at
the time), son of Nanasaheb Peshwa and heir apparent - some say if the war was positive for Marathas he would even have been the Badshah of Delhi - was killed in canon fire right in front of the eyes of his uncle Sadashivrao Bhau. Bajirao's son Samsher Bahadar (only 27 years of age at the time) was killed in the battle. Janakoji Shinde (hardly 17 years at that time), Jayappa's son was executed on the next day of the battle.

Come to think of it, it makes you sad and wonder - do we not learn from history at all? The history seems to repeat itself, and it tends to tell you things if you are ready to hear. It seems every time people do not deserve power and wealth, they are drawn to their own deaths. But who has the time to hear among the din of daily rut and the idiot box and the twittering of silly tweets? There are no good references to the Maratha-Rohilla war, its preceding political climate, the contemporary needs, insights from strategy, tactics, its aftermath, impact on history etc. A few notes and some fictional accounts are there (popular literature includes a fictionalized novel 'Panipat' by Marathi writer Vishwas Patil). You will find that some accounts are written by the British, and some are influenced by them, which is worse as it rots the very soul of the nation.

* Of course, it is notable that although I called the Samanta-panchaka 'sinister', Hindus don't consider it a sinister place at all like I mentioned before, and Kurukshetra is considered to be one of the major teerthas - place of religion. As it is, as coincidence may have it, it is the same place where the Lord showed his Vishwaroopa to Arjuna and to him he also sung his Song - the Bhagvad gita! ... Maybe it is not a coincidence. Only when one is going through the motions of the world, which manifest at their extreme in battles, one gets to see and hear the logic of it all and the 'universalities' become clear!

Whatever it is, the places around Samanta-panchaka are intriguing for their significance and impact on the course of history.

New Delhi
01 October 2013


excellent observations....humans fail to see it as it happens...when is the next mahabharat ?

venkat (
excellent observations,keep it up.

S K Venkataraman
Thank you for your comment ... the next Mahabharat - isn't it unfolding right in front of our eyes each day? :) - Shreekant
scsharma said…
The lesson that men learn from history is that they never learn from history. Nice informative article. The striking resemblence is worthy of notice. Nice.
Thanks @scsharma for your comments. Yes that is indeed true :).
Kevin McShannon said…
Thanks for the article. Enjoyed reading it. Busy reading Mahabharata. Just started Volume 5. Will take many years yet before finishing all 12. Kevin. South Afrca
Thanks @KevinMcShannon for writing in. All the best with your studies :)
Rajeev Prabhu said…
Just begun reading the great epic Mahabharata and came across Samanta-panchaka. Looking up for for more information came to your article. Thoroughly researched and very interesting article.

Before resuming the great epic the next tab opened is An Akshauhini of a Fighting Force.

I like your writings.
It is believed that parasuram brought Samanta panchaka brahmin to Gokarna and towards Kerala in order to rehabilate the Brahmin in the land he created . Later donated kerala to these brahmins.
Thanks @indologicalbooks. You might be interested in one of my earlier posts:
@Rajeev Prabhu. Thank you for your kind words :) These will keep me going for a while. Keep reading, asking, ruminating, seeking answers. This summarizes my take / you can say philosophy on the whole thing:
Anil Verma said…
you have written a very informative blog with in-depth information about the places and events. thanks for sharing such information.keep up the good work...
Thanks Anil! Such words of encouragement are nectar for this blog.
Shanti Juluru said…
Thank you very much for your excellent account of 'wars' and their historical context.

It gave me a new perspective on the history of humanity!
Amit said…
Reached here just after started reading MAHABHARATA and can see many others have also came here for the same reason.
You have written a great article.
Still wondering how come someone (Vyasa) tell hundreds of years ago about all these wars.
Are we going to have a war again with our neighbor in the same area?
Wandering Nomad said…
@Shanti Juluru, thank you for your comment. As they say, rather sadly -
"Those who don't study history are doomed to repeat it. Yet those who do study history are doomed to stand by helplessly while everyone else repeats it”. :)
Wandering Nomad said…
Hi @Amit, glad you liked the post. Not sure how things will pan out. We can only speculate.