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Rahul Magar writes: Shivaji’s Agra escape and the many narratives

The event has been so deeply etched in popular memory that people still refer to the Great Escape of Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj as an example of astuteness and the invincible spirit of freedom

A painting by M V Dhurandhar shows Shivaji at the court of Aurangzeb. (Image: Wikipedia)

Written by Rahul Magar

On August 23, 1666, the Fauzdar of Narwar in Central India (now, Madhya Pradesh) petitioned the Mughal court and said: “Siva(ji) walked past the post at Narwar along with five riders around the evening prayer time. When asked to identify himself, he said, ‘We are in the employ of Sivaji.’ He also showed the bonafide travel document. When asked, he identified himself as Siva (ji).”

Unaware of the massive manhunt ordered to capture the Great Maratha king, the Fauzdar did not realise the import of this disclosure. He had helped the great Maratha leader escape from the mighty Mughal court.

There are multiple narratives surrounding Shivaji’s Great Escape from Agra, each with varying degrees of truth. The daily proceedings from the Mughal court (Akhbarat), the reports of the Mughal court proceedings communicated home by the Agra correspondent of the Rajput princes (Rajasthan Letters), the Marathi chronicle (Bakhar) by Sabhasad, and the Jedhe Family records contain some of these contemporary narratives.

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The event has been so deeply etched in popular memory that people still refer to the Great Escape of Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj as an example of astuteness and the invincible spirit of freedom.

Maharashtra Tourism Minister Mangal Prabhat Lodha probably thought he was doing just that when, last week, he drew parallels between the Great Escape and CM Eknath Shinde’s defection — and drew flak for his remarks.

The visit of the great Maratha leader to the Mughal court was the culmination of political events in Deccan that started from the decisive victory of the Marathas against Sardar Afzal Khan of the Adilshahi dynasty, followed by the unsuccessful military campaign by the Mughal Mansabdar Shaista Khan and the audacious sacking of Surat, the wealthiest port in the Mughal kingdom, by the Marathas.

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These events prompted Mughal emperor Aurangzeb to send his most trusted Mansabdar, Mirza Raje Jaisingh, to counter the emerging political authority of the Marathas. The large Mughal army invaded and plundered the Maratha countryside, including a number of forts. The contingent led by Jaisingh besieged the mighty Maratha fortress of Purandar for about two months in 1665. The balance of military power was clearly in favour of the Mughals. As a pragmatic solution, both parties signed the Treaty of Purandar. It was customary for any signatory of such a treaty to pay homage to the emperor in a formal Shukrana ritual of thanks.

Hence an invitation was sent to Shivaji to visit the Agra Court, which he accepted only after receiving assurances from Jaisingh. In a Farman sent by Aurangzeb in April 1666, the Emperor assured that Shivaji would be allowed to return home after his visit to Agra. Consequently, Shivaji reached Agra on May 11, 1666.

What followed was perhaps a case of expectation mismatch with the Maratha king considering himself as an independent ruler but being treated like a mere nobleman at the Mughal court.

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Upon his arrival in Agra, Shivaji had expected a welcome protocol fit for an independent ruler. However, a common Munshi welcomed him. In the Mughal Durbar, Shivaji was made to stand behind the nobles he had earlier defeated. Unable to bear these insults, he spoke out aloud. This was not taken lightly in the Mughal court.

Guards were posted around Shivaji’s camp, keeping him under surveillance. A danger to Shivaji’s life meant an existential threat to the newly emerging Maratha state. Three months passed and one day news appeared in the Akhbarat of August 18 that Shivaji had escaped. “Inexplicably, Shivaji has fled. All that we could find in his tent is a headgear, a mirror and a pair of shoes.” The emperor was shocked. A massive manhunt was ordered.

Weeks and months passed with sporadic news and rumours about Shivaji being sighted across central India. On October 18, 1666, the news of Shivaji’s safe return to

Deccan reached Jai Singh’s camp. This was a massive dent on the reputation of the Mughal court. The dramatic event was bound to be retold in many versions.
The story of Shivaji escaping Agra by hiding in a basket, a widespread and popular tale, is first mentioned in a Rajasthani letter written on September 3, 1666. “After some thought, it was concluded that he had escaped by crouching in the pitaras which used to come in and go out,” the letter states.

However, the incident related by the Fauzdar of Narwar seems more plausible.

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Historical empathy demands historical literacy. Historically inappropriate comparisons will keep being repeated unless people are aware of the specific conditions in which historical events took place.

Protection of the Swarajya and welfare of his subjects were the motives that pushed Shivaji to escape from Agra. Comparing his love for his subjects with the political exigencies and manoeuvers of present-day politicians will be an injustice to the astuteness of Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj.

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The writer is Assistant Professor, Department of History, Savitribai Phule Pune University. You can write to the author at rahulmagar512@gmail.com

First published on: 04-12-2022 at 08:00 IST
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