Maratha ‘Bargi’ raids were etched into the psyche of Bengal for their ruinous impact and they were recalled with horror. In fact, one of the most famous books which presented the horrors of the raids was Maharashtra Purana written by a certain Gangaram Choudhary of unknown provenance. This book is considered as the gold standard for demonising the Bargis. But then, is the truth that simple?

Marathas didn’t enter Bengal as plunderers or invaders but as owners who were granted the right to collect taxes by the Mughals. Not just that, Maratha Army had in their train, Mirza Baqer, the son-in-law of Zafar Khan, the Subahdar of Orissa who refused to accept the treachery of Allahvardi Khan, the Subahdar of Azimabad who killed Sarfaraz Khan, the ruler of Bengal and seized the throne. Zafar Khan, a brother-in-law of Sarfaraz Khan contested the rebellion but was defeated. His son-in-law Mirza Baqer who led the army was severely injured and he fled South through Khurda along with Zafar Khan first to Machilipatnam from where they reached Nagpur. There, they petitioned the Marathas and in time, Raghuji Bhonsle sent an army under Bhaskar Ram Pandit to realize the arrears and depose Allahvardi Khan. Chouth may still be acceptable to the usurper but not dethroning and he resisted. This led to complete destruction of Burdwan area where Allahvardi took a stand and desperate because of the frequent plunder of his lands, Allahvardi assassinated Bhaskar Pandit through treachery. This infuriated the Marathas even more and Raghuji Bhonsle, himself a commander of great esteem descended in person pillaging Bengal repeatedly. By then, Marathas have already conquered Orissa from Allahvardi and there are reasons to believe that the whole Orissa polity stood with the Marathas in their fight against the usurper, Allahvardi Khan. After ten years of complete destruction, Allahvardi Khan had to sue for peace – he was to pay a war indemnity and an annual chauth(the same terms which he was offered in the start) and along with that, cessation of Orissa to the Marathas.

A contemporary British account notes of the murder and the subsequent pillage. They were clearly shocked at the dastardly act of Allahvardi Khan.

The two companies met, and entered the tent with much ceremony. What followed is variously told; the prevailing report was, that the conference lasted an hour, which seems impossible; for on a signal, 50 armed men rushed from behind the sides of the tent, which had been pitched with a double lining in order to conceal them ; and, joining the officers who accompanied Allaverdy, began the work of assassination. Baschir Pondit with all his attendants, and three or four of Allaverdy’s, were killed ; but Allaverdy himself did not unsheath his sword. The annals of Indostan scarcely afford an example of such treacherous atrocity, and none in which persons of such distinction were the actors. As soon as the massacre was finished, a signal was thrown our, on which the army of Bengal advanced against the Morattoe camp, and were joined in the way by Allaverdy, and his officers from the tent, who led them to the attack. The Morattoes fled on every side in confusion ; but reassembled again to the westward, and renewed the war with redoubled devastations and barbarities…The whole Morattoe nation in its two divisions of Poni and Berar, determined to avenge the death of Baschir Pondit, and the remains of his army were scarcely retreated before two others were in march to invade Bengal : each consisted of 60,000 men; but acted independently.

Now, let’s go back to Maharashtra Purana. The book is a poem of 716 lines and the author at the end of the poem calls out as the end of Canto One raising the possibility of lost subsequent cantos. And the irony is that, the book which is the champion of demonization of Marathas is actually not an anti-Maratha or an anti-Bargi poem!! The poem actually curses the godlessness and openly calls out the treachery of Allahvardi in his dealings with the Marathas – indirectly blaming Allahvardi Khan for the disaster which befell Bengal. What is shown as Bargi atrocities is not actually atrocities according to the book but the chaos of war seen from the angle of a common man. A brief synopsis of the book goes thus.

There was complete sin on the land – rather than contemplation of Radha and Krishna, people indulged in prostitution and debauchery and Mother Earth, unable to bear the burden, went to Lord Brahma who in turn took her to Lord Siva and asked him to destroy the sinners and lighten the burden on earth. Lord Siva asked Nandi to go to Southern town ruled by Raja Sahu and enter his body. 

Under the influence of Nandi, Sahu said, “I haven’t received Chouth from Bengal for a long time; check what happened” and sent a messenger to Delhi. The Emperor expressed his helplessness – his representative in Bengal has grown refractory and didn’t bother to pay the taxes. The Emperor can’t do anything as he didn’t have sufficient army and asked Shahu to go and collect the tax directly. Raghuraja volunteered to go to Bengal and sent for his Diwan Bhaskarpant. Bhaskarpant assembled the army at Bijapur and learning that the Nawab of Bengal was at Raneer-dighir-Par in Burdwan, made his way there.

The Maratha attack was a complete surprise and learning of the attack, the Nawab was surprised and sent a delegation to Bhaskarpant. Bhaskarpant demanded the Chauth and the Bengal envoy said it is against the policy as the tax was remitted to Delhi. On the other hand, he demanded a Sanad against the name of the Nawab in return for Chauth and if Bhaskarpant wouldn’t accept, he was asked to collect the Chauth from Delhi to where the taxes will be sent post which Bhaskarpant said, he came to collect the Chauth on the orders of Delhi and if need be he will fight. Allahvardi’s officers also asked him not to pay the Chauth and use it to pay the Nawab’s army.

Bhaskarpant sent commanders to ravage the country side and after a week of pillage, the garrison was without any food. Notes Gangaram,

The grocers and the banias could not come out of the town for purchasing purposes as the besiegers recklessly looted and killed everybody whom they could lay their hands upon…Even kitchen vegetables became scarce and as a result all the poor people and beggars began to die of starvation.

The Nawab held on for fourteen days post which he was compelled to fight but was severely defeated. The troops fled to Terahaina where a commander Mustafa Khan drove back the Bargis. One of the officers, Mir Habib who was in charge of the rear guard switched sides and this gave an opening for the Bargis to pillage the baggage and the treasury. The Nawab retreated to Katowa where the Nawab received some provisions across the river. The Nawab then retreated across the river. 

This made Bhaskarpant more angry and this led to a wholesale pillage of the surrounding locality and everyone fled with whatever they can carry. A specific line catches one’s eye – The Mahomedan population, such as the Sheiks and Saiyads, all fled in disorder. This disorder is not seen amongst Hindus!! In fact the terror of the Bargis was that severe that no one actually saw them but everyone fled hearing of their approach. Here comes the list of atrocities – and a closer read would tell that this is nothing more than a poetic hyperbole.

The Bargis cut down the hands, noses and ears of their unhappy victims. They also killed many by inflicting deadly blows, They captured fair women, tied their fingers and necks with ropes, and a number of them caught hold of a single youthful woman and inhumanly treated her by brutally dishonouring her. The women groaned under their fell villainy. After giving full vent to their beastly desires in this way, the Bargis left these women to their fate and began to carry on their depredations in the villages. They set fire to the houses without sparing the Chauaris, Bangalas, Vishnu-mandabs and even the small huts of the poor,— all of which were indiscriminately burnt down.

But then, the author gives away what actually transpired. Those who suffered were those who resisted and those who were officers of the government!!

They cried for more money and as their growing demand could not be met, the unfortunate people were belaboured and water was made to pass through their nostrils till suffocation. Some they drowned in water of the tanks. Thus the Bargis killed people without mercy under all kinds of pretexts, for extortion of money.

On the other hand, the author tells, common people started to loot – clearly, no one actually knows who the plunderers were.

As soon as they left the place the Fakirs and the common people who happened to be present there commenced to imitate the example of the Bargis and loot the money left there.

Marathas confiscated wealth and did a scorched earth but did they actually harass common people, especially when their treatment of people in Orissa was diametrically opposite? Or was it someone else who used this chaos to fatten himself?

Gangaram then, lists out more than 25-30 places burnt and pillaged by the Bargis. Hooghly was one of the rare places which survived their attacks. At Hajiganj, they plundered the treasury of Jagat Seth amounting to two and a half crores. In time, all the Zamindars submitted to Bhaskarpant. Mir Habib, on the other hand, took a strong force across the river and spread panic. Bhaskarpant decided to celebrate Durga Puja at Dainhat and commenced the Puja. Mir Habib’s raid of Futisako finally goaded Allahvardi to action – he marched forth and on the other hand, asked for additional troops from Purnea and Patna. Jayandi(Zainuddin) Ahmad Khan of Patna advised him to attack the Marathas when the Puja is going on. However, when the boat bridge broke when crossing the river, a general alarm was raised and the Bargis left the place in haste. The area of the Puja was thoroughly looted. 

But then, Bhaskar returned back with full vengeance and the Bargis began to plunder all around and to shout for murder. Hundreds of Brahmins, Vaisnavas, and the Sannyasis—even the cows and women not excepted—were foully murdered by them.

Now, this is an allegation devoid of truth as the next lines prove them to be – the author is just trying to close the poem and Bhaskarpant, an agent of Lord Siva can’t be killed if he is righteous. All he had to do was copy what Allahvardi did in Mayurbhanj just a few years ago. In fact, Anandmangal notes that Maratha wrath was unleashed on Bengal because Allahvardi desecrated the temples of Bhubaneshwar. And the hardships of the people of Orissa in the timeframe were all too known.

Thousands were ruthlessly and indiscriminately killed in this manner, and the extreme misery of the people made the goddess Parvati (Durga) very angry. She disapproved of the conduct of the Bargis and requested the God Pasupati (Siva) to kill such a devil of a man (Bhaskar). The miscreant killed the Brahmins and the Vaisnavas without compunction. The goddess could not bear such a sight and therefore her anger was roused. 

A double agent(?) in Bhaskarpant’s camp, Ali Bhai enticed Bhaskarpant to go and speak with the Nawab for a pact. Ali Bhai went to the Nawab and arranged for a meeting. Mir Habib asked Bhaskarpant not to go but Bhaskarpant, believing the words and promises of the envoys sent by Allahvardi proceeded to the Nawab’s camp. Bhaskarpant was received amicably and the Nawab left; when Bhaskarpant was about to leave, he was cut down – the Nawab has already passed instructions to murder Bhaskarpant even before he came!! This was followed by a wholesale slaughter of those who came with him. An elated Allahvardi celebrated the event by music and donating lavishly to commonmen and fakirs. 

Synopsizing Maharashtra Purana, what do we see?

  1. There was lawlessness in Bengal – an indication of the civil war triggered by Allahvardi Khan which led to the capture and execution of the Nawab Sarfaraz Khan
  2. Allahvardi is called out as an usurper who didn’t bother the commands of Delhi
  3. Bhaskarpant went to Bengal to collect Chauth and the Nawab refused to pay
  4. Siege of Burdwan started and Marathas pillaged the lands for fourteen days post which Allahvardi fled with broken troops across Bhagirathi
  5. In anger, Bhaskarpant redoubled the looting both in anger and as a way to collect the arrears – common man was the usual casualty
  6. Others followed the Marathas in pillaging the area and there is no way to tell who did what
  7. Allahvardi struck when Bhaskarpant was in the middle of Durga Puja. The Puja area and the idol were desecrated and looted. The Marathas left the area
  8. The Marathas returned back and started pillaging with double the vigour in anger
  9. Bhaskarpant was enticed into the camp of Allahvardi where he was murdered

One would see there is a hyperbole on the suffering but the narrative is completely against Allahvardi – Bhaskarpant came to collect taxes, Allahvardi refused to pay him what’s legally his and Bhaskarpant waged a brutal war. Treachery was always on Allahvardi’s side and he eventually got Bhaskarpant murdered. Clearly, Allahvardi is the villain here and Bhaskarpant, the agent of the government. One need not go into Burdwan and it’s support to Allahvardi and the Maratha refusal to accept the submission of the Zamindar of Burdwan which may have triggered the writing of this book. Even if the assertion is true, the author did a truly good job focusing both on the treachery of Allahvardi and on the sufferings of the common man which he attributed to the Marathas but hinted, can be done by anyone!!

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