Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj Jayanti 2023 : Why the Marathas built so many hill forts
Context- For a long time in history, before air power took centre stage in military tactics and strategy, forts were crucial to the defense of any country. They acted as a force multiplier for the defender and a safe refuge for civilians, often the first casualties of war.
Nowhere is this more apparent than in the Maratha countryside – forts of all sizes and shapes dot the landscape. In their heyday, control of these forts translated into control of the territory. Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj, at the time of his death, is said to have control of over 200 forts across his territories, with some estimates putting the number over 300.
In many ways, the Marathas took fort-building to its zenith, not only building forts capable of surviving long sieges and battles but putting special attention to their placement and locations.
The terrain of the Maratha country
- Unlike the plains of Northern India, suited to conventional battle with large standing armies, the terrain of the Maratha country was different.
- With the Arabian Sea on one side, the Konkan plains in the centre and the Western Ghats overlooking the plains, in the 17th century much of the region was covered in thick jungles.
- Warfare in such terrain is qualitatively different, with large conventional armies prone to getting bogged down. Thus, as Shivaji began to consolidate and expand his influence in the region, his strategies evolved to be significantly different from the common military doctrine of the time. Crucial to his military strategy were hill forts.
A native of hill forts
- Historian Gunakar Muley called Shivaji “a fort-native”.
- The Maratha icon was born and raised in the hill fort of Shivneri (around 100 km from Pune), given to his grandfather by the Sultan of Ahmadnagar in lieu of his services as a military commander. Shivneri is a typical hill fort found in the Western Ghats – a small but strong fortification, atop a hill overlooking the surrounding terrain.
- Thus, growing up in the hills and valleys around Pune, Shivaji understood the salience of hill forts in controlling the land.
Shivaji’s famous guerilla tactics
- Shivaji’s armed forces had some major limitations. First, he did not have the man or horsepower compared to most of his enemies, especially during the early stages of his life.
- Second, he was heavily reliant on obtaining supplies such as muskets and gunpowder from the Europeans, mainly the Portuguese.
- Thus, Shivaji adopted guerilla tactics: his men would travel in small, highly mobile and heavily armed attachments, wreak havoc in the often sluggish Mughal or Adil Shahi armies, loot supplies and treasure, and quickly retreat.
- Crucial to such plans were hill forts. Marathas forces would strike quickly and retreat to the many hill forts of the region. These forts were designed such that the approach to them was tricky, often treacherous, to large groups of men.
- Consequently, these were perfect defensive positions where either the bigger armies would not bother to attack or would have to sacrifice their strength in numbers if they did choose to attack.
- Hill forts also were constructed such that they were perfect vantage points to keep a lookout for any threat. “There should not be a higher point near the fort amongst the surrounding hills,”
Creating an empire with the help of hill forts
- What hill forts effectively allowed Shivaji to do was project his power, beyond what would have been possible through conventional means. The relative safety of his forts allowed him to successfully carry his lightning tactics while fighting formidable enemies.
- As his territories grew, these forts became all the more important, as local strongholds and seats of local administration. From forts nestled atop great heights, he could govern the land around. They also became symbols that projected his power and presence.
- The Maratha Empire emerged from humble beginnings. While a variety of factors, concerning both the Marathas and their rivals, contributed to their rise, the significance of hill forts cannot be overlooked.
Conclusion- Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj was a master strategist and military genius. His legacy will continue to inspire all the generations to come.
Source- Indian Express
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Syllabus- GS-1; Historical Personalities