Trap at Umbar Khind

By Madhukar Joshi
  Up to this point, this series has focussed on Shivaji's "human jewels" to illustrate his qualities as an inspirer of human potential in all sections of the society at that time providing equal opportunities to demonstrate valor. However, it is also important to recognize that Shivaji was not just a passive inspirer. Indeed, he was an active leader who planned and participated in military campaigns when necessary. This article illustrates that he chose his battles well, used his very capable "intelligence" machinery wisely, and worked out all the details prior to engaging his enemies. Because of this, his enemies were always surprised. Both his supporters and enemies thought that Shivaji had "magical powers".

To relate to what Shivaji and his budding nation must have been going through, imagine yourself as the leader of an emerging organization (a community group, a small company, a department in a university, etc.) that is surrounded by rivals of immense resources, capital and power who are waiting to "finish" your organization at the next available opportunity.

Shivaji did not need to engage in such an exercise of imagination! Kartalab Khan was the "right hand" of Shahiste Khan, the General who was sent by Emperor Aurangazeb specifically to decimate the budding nation of Shivaji and his followers. Shahiste Khan came fully equipped with over 100,000 soldiers, cavalry, guns and experienced military strategists. We have already met Shahiste Khan in the battle of Chaakan. Kartalab Khan was a skilled army commander with years of battle experience. He did not consider it important that most of his experience was in the relatively flat lands of North Central India against opposing armies who participated in the battles mostly because they were paid to do so. Kartalab's command was reinforced with 20,000 troops, artillery pieces, horses and numerous elephants.

Those of you who have traveled from Pune to Mumbai will have a distinct advantage visualizing this story. To reach Umbar Khind from Pune, Kartalab traveled via Chinchvad, Talegaon, Vadagaon and Malavali (roughly parallel to the present railway line). At that point, he turned left towards Lohagad (a fort on the border of the Deccan plateau and Kokan).  His army began the descent into Kokan area through the narrow pass that separates Lohagad from Visagad. His plan: descend into Tungaranya (a dense forest with hills on both sides), ascend some distance to Umbar Khind (pass) and then descend into Kokan proper. It is worth noting that when the British built the railroad between Mumbai and Pune, they chose go through Khandala Ghat and not via Umbar Khind. Why? Khandala Ghat, also known as BorGhat, is much more open and broad than Umbar Khind. It is much less subject to surprise attacks. Initially, Khan was planning to descend through BorGhat. Had he done so, Shivaji would have a much harder battle on his hands.

So, why did Kartalab chose to pass through Umbar Khind? The simplest answer is that Shivaji forced him to do that by ensuring that Kartalab knew that Shivaji was at the base of this Khind! This was the first important milestone in Shivaji's strategy. Khan was planning a secret campaign but Shivaji's spies were far more skillful. Khan had heard that Shivaji and his army would be at Kurawanda roughly 3 miles from Lonavala. When Khan reached Kurawanda, there was no sign of Shivaji or his army. His spies brought the news (!) that Shivaji was at Pen at the base of the Ghat. Naturally, Khan chose to quickly descend this mountain pass and launch a surprise attack on Shivaji. Khan was traveling in February when most rivers in Konkan area are dry or nearly so. It is difficult to fight a battle unless you import a large supply of drinking water.

Unknown to Kartalab Khan, Shivaji and his army were already in the hills that surrounded the UmbarKhind ready and waiting for Khan and his army to descend to the base of the pass. They were equipped with rocks and boulders in addition to the usual rifles, bow & arrows as well as sabers. How large was this army? About 1,000 strong. This entire pass was covered with dense forest and so, Shivaji's army was not visible to Khan and his army. The trap was now set for Khan. Khan and his army climbed down to the base in about 4 hours and met no resistance whatsoever. As his army moved down, Shivaji and some of his men reached the top of the pass. In short, unknown to him, Khan was now completely trapped. As soon as Khan reached the base of the pass, Shivaji's army began the battle with the help of rolling boulders! Since Shivaji's army was on top of the hills, Khan and his army were in effect fighting an invisible army. Nor could they retreat as a portion of Shivaji's army and Shivaji himself were waiting at the top of the mountain pass. In 2-3 hours at most, the battle was over!

Khan had no choice but to surrender and beg for a safe passage. Shivaji's small army of 1,000 had trapped and defeated a well-equipped army of 20,000! Shivaji agreed to let Khan and his army leave Umbar Khind and return to Khan's home base in Pune provided that:

Shivaji and his assistants inspected each person to ensure that they had followed the terms of the truce. Once Khan's army had left the battle area, Shivaji's army spent the rest of that day collecting, classifying and packing all items. Then they moved back towards RajGad.

Why did Shivaji let go Khan, his lieutenants and his army? Why did not he capture and / or destroy them all? Once again, it shows that Shivaji was more than just a warrior or an accomplished military planner. He was also a diplomat and a strategist with vision. Though Khan and his army were trapped, they were 20,000 versus Shivaji's 1,000. If 'pushed into a corner', it is very likely that they might have engaged in a fierce battle out of sheer desperation. Such a battle could have unforeseen and possibly disastrous outcomes. In this regard, Shivaji acted similarly to President John F. Kennedy after the Cuban Missile Crisis.

Besides, Shivaji was well aware that many of the soldiers fighting on behalf of Khan had been doing it for money and not for their belief in Khan's cause. Given a choice, they would (and did) join Shivaji. Quite a few got 'converted' to his cause. This is also in keeping with the counsel of Arya Chanakya, the well-known advisor of Chandra Gupta Maurya, the founder of the Maurya dynasty and a forefather of Emperor Ashoka. In the words of Chanakya, it is not any more advisable to be forever aggressive than to be a constant forgiver.

Choosing the right battles, having reliable "intelligence",  and detailed planning these qualities are just as relevant today as they were then. The world is full of conflicts between nations, between corporations, and between religions (which were presumably initiated to promote peace!) Even Mahatma Gandhi and Martin Luther King had to use similar skills when they were "waging their battles" against foreign domination and social inequality!

Though elephants possess vast destructive capabilities, history has shown repeatedly that they are worse than useless in the battles where swiftness is paramount to success. Nonetheless, for some strange reason, many warriors throughout the middle ages continued to employ them presumably as status symbols!

To appreciate the difficulty of this route, it will be useful to note that the top of this pass is some 2,200 feet above sea-level, the base of Tungaranya is roughly at 500 feet, the mountain pass of Umbar Khind is some 300 feet up from there and finally, Khan and his army would be descending into Konkan proper! And that base is surrounded on all sides by hills. None of this poses a problem if you were to go hiking, but KartalabKhan and his army were planning to fight a decisive battle with Shivaji an expert at traversing the mountains and passes of Sahyadri!

Some of the President's advisors wanted to 'totally defeat' the Soviet Navy in and around Cuba. Kennedy did not do that.