When Bakshi Begum, most senior of the Nizam of Hyderabad’s wives, sat on her elephant howdah accompanying the Nizam’s troops on their march to battle the Marathas in Pune, she was confident that victory would be theirs.
For most of his reign, the Nizam had followed the advice of his father and maintained a diplomatic relationship with the Marathas. But now, under the influence of his ministers, the elderly Nizam was convinced that his troops could face the Marathas (who were known for their efficiency, skill, and discipline) and win.
The only voice of doubt came from the British officer that was accompanying the Nizam, named William Kirkpatrick. Earlier, the Nizam had requested military assistance from the British for this upcoming battle; they refused, and instead sent a diplomatic representative to accompany the Nizam. It was thus that William Kirkpatrick found himself in the midst of these pre-victory celebrations, desperately trying in vain to convince the Nizam that facing the Marathas was not a good idea.
The confidence of the Nizam’s troops and ministers was infectious, and soon even the women of his harem were absolutely convinced of their forthcoming success, which is why Bakshi Begum and the rest of the harem chose to accompany the troops and share in the victory that was sure to come (to be clear, the women of the harem had no role to play in the actual battle).
In the early months of 1795, the Nizam’s troops began their slow march towards Pune. Diplomatic exchanges between both sides in an attempt to prevent the battle from taking place were of no use, as the Nizam refused to acknowledge that he was indeed marching towards Pune to do battle with the Marathas, instead claiming to be on an extended hunting trip.
After three months of marching, the Nizam’s troops finally arrived at the top of a ridge called the Moori Ghat to find the Marathas camped a day’s march away. The Hyderabadis were slightly outnumbered (their 90,000 soldiers against the Marathas’ 130,000) but this did not deter them.
At 8am the next day, the Nizam gave the order for the troops to descend down the ridge.
Much to Kirkpatrick’s surprise, the Nizam’s troops descended with ease. The Zuffur plutun, a battalion comprising exclusively of women soldiers, was particularly successful (they were often mocked by the British for their ‘ridiculous’ appearance, but anyone who saw them in action was amazed by their discipline, strength and ferocity).
All seemed to be going well. By nightfall, the Marathas retreated and the Nizam’s army was successfully able to reach their campsite. Bakshi Begum and the rest of the harem women also set up camp, prepared to wait until the victory celebrations began.
Alas, this was not to be – and Bakshi Begum herself would be the first domino to fall in what would become nothing short of an absolute disaster for the Hyderabadis.
At 11pm that night, the harem camp was thrown into utter panic after the Marathas unexpectedly unleashed a short period of gunfire. No one was hurt, but this was enough for the women, who realised that they wanted to put as much distance between themselves and the battle as possible, and expressed their desire to leave immediately.
Naturally, this request was met with reluctance, as an abrupt withdrawal was not a particularly strong strategic move. But when Bakshi Begum threatened to unveil herself in public, the Nizam decided that seeing his wife do this would be a fate worse than death, and he personally escorted all the women to the half-ruined fort of Khardla, about three miles away.
The Nizam’s abrupt exit threw the Hyderabadi camp into even more confusion. A surprise encounter with a small party of Marathas (who were actually just looking for water at the time) was the final nail in the coffin. Following the brief exchange of gunfire between both sides, the Hyderabadi troops threw caution to the winds, abandoned their campsite and, leaving everything behind, fled to the Khardla fort.
The next day, the Marathas were astonished to find what looked like the entire contents of the Hyderabadis’ arms, ammunition, food and supplies strewn about at a completely deserted camp. Not ones to miss an opportune moment, the Marathas happily collected all that the Hyderabadis had left behind and proceeded to surround the Khardla fort.
The battle was over.
The Nizam suffered a humiliating defeat, and was forced to sign a treaty in which he would have to relinquish most of his land to the Marathas in addition to paying them a hefty annual sum. Kirkpatrick’s doubts were realised, and the Hyderabadi troops trudged home, defeated and humiliated, having learned a stinging lesson on the perils of overconfidence.
Dalrymple, William. White Mughals. Gurgaon: Penguin Books. 2002. Print.
Willig, Lauren. “Too Good To Ignore” History Hoydens. January 19th, 2010. Web. <http://historyhoydens.blogspot.com/2010/01/too-good-to-ignore.html> as seen on September 26th, 2020.