by Abhijit Rajadhyaksha, 4 April 2010. Updated 28
There has been no other character in
Maratha history who has been so enigmatic and controversial
as Sambhaji Raje Bhosale.
Sambhaji, or Shambhu Raje as he was fondly
called, was the eldest son of the legendary Shivaji Maharaj.
He was born on 14 May 1647 at Fort Purander.
Curiously Sambhajiraje has as many loyalists
as he has his share of critics. Some dismiss him as hedonistic,
reckless, and cruel, whereas some revere him as the bravest
Maratha king that ever lived. Perhaps the truth lies somewhere
in between. Sambhaji's reign was a short and very tumultuous one
to say the least. His life was abrupt and his death so very tragic.
But with his death Sambhaji achieved much more than he did during
his lifetime. He is still deified as a true Hindu martyr, one who
preferred death to an ignoble life of subservience.
Sambhaji's mother was Saibai, from the family of
the Nimbalkars of Phaltan. She died early (on 5 September 1659,
at Fort Rajgad) after a brief illness, leaving young Sambhaji in
the care of his grandmother, Jijabai. Shivaji was away on various
expeditions, so the young Sambhaji was reared by his grandmother
and his stepmothers.
Young Sambhaji was married to a minor, Jivubai,
who was renamed Yesubai. She was the daughter of Pilajirao Shirke.
It was a straightforward matrimonial alliance. Pilajirao was a
powerful Deshmukh (in the Konkan area) in the court of Bijapur.
After the marriage he provided Shivaji with access to the Konkan
belt. (Incidentally, Shivaji's second wife, Soyrabai (mother of
Rajaram), was also from the house of the Shirkes.)
Sambhaji had to face the cruelties of politics
at a very young age. When Mirza Raje Jaisingh cornered Shivaji,
forcing on him a humiliating treaty, a part of the agreement was
that young Sambhaji was to be kept as collateral against Shivaji's
satisfactory adherence to the agreement. Sambhaji was also to
serve as a courtier at the Mughal base of Aurangabad.
Sambhaji had been a part of Shivaji's entourage
to Agra and his subsequent confinement there. When Shivaji
escaped from Agra, Sambhaji was left behind in the care of some
friendly Brahmins at Agra and was only sent back to Maharashtra
much later, once the danger to his life had faded.
Sambhaji: the poet
Sambhaji was also known for being a patron of
the arts. He employed a learned man called Keshav Pandit Adhyaksh
to read with him Valmiki's celebrated epic, the Ramayan.
As a reward, in 1684 he gave Keshav sixteen hundred small silver
coins known as ladis. Moreover, the king was no mean versifier.
He is known to have written two books of Hindi poetry. The first
was called Nakhshikh, in which he described the pleasures
of love. The second was named Nayakabhad. In it he sang
of the varying charms of the beauties who beguiled his leisure
moments (as referenced by Kincaid).
Chatrapati Sambhaji Maharaj, nephew of another Sambhaji who died at a young age
It is alleged that Sambhaji always had a
troubled relationship with his stepmother, Soyrabai. She
harboured ambitions for her son, Rajaram. She wanted Rajaram
to succeed Shivaji as the next Maratha king. She allegedly
began to poison Shivaji's mind to that effect. 
According to historians such as KhafiKhan,
Mannucci, Duff, Kincaid and Sarkar (most of whom have based
their versions on the Chitnis Bakhar), Sambhaji didn't
help his cause either. As alleged by the Chitnis Bakhar,
 rumours of Sambhaji's youthful indulgences were reaching
Shivaji's ears. There were even reports of Sambhaji's misdemeanour
towards the daughter of a minister (Annaji Datto Surnis, as
mentioned by historian Setu Madhavrao Pagdi. Annaji Datto's
daughter apparently committed suicide). Shivaji had always
maintained high standards regarding the behaviour of his men
towards women. Obviously he didn't take kindly to this news
about the crown prince. To make matters worse, Sambhaji didn't
get along with many of Shivaji's ministers. There were reports
of Sambhaji interfering in the tax collection efforts of these
ministers. Apparently Sambhaji sided with the ryot and often
publicly ridiculed the ministers whom he accused of being high
handed and corrupt.
But many historians (Bendre and Shevde, the
novelists Shivaji Sawant and Vishwas Patil who have researched
Sambhaji extensively) have refuted allegations that cast aspersions
on Sambhaji's character. They have laid the blame for Sambhaji's
actions squarely on a clique of ministers who resented Sambhaji
and wanted Rajaram to replace him as the crown prince. According
to these historians, it was calumny spread specifically to malign
Sambhaji. Shivaji did detain the crown prince in Fort Parnala at
Parli. But what transpired afterwards has definitely left doubts
about Sambhaji's judgement.
Sambhaji and his wife Yesubai (this is disputed, as
Durgabai, another of Sambhaji's wives, was said to have accompanied
him) apparently took off in the night and joined
the Mughal forces of Diler Khan (again historians differ over this,
and maintain that it was a part of Sambhaji's tactics to mislead the
Mughal commander Diler Khan and blunt his attack on the Maratha
kingdom in Shivaji's absence, while the latter was away on his
Karnataka expedition). This took place sometime in 1678. But within
a year's time, the crown prince realised the folly of his actions
when he witnessed the atrocities of the Mughals on the ryot and
escaped back to the Maratha camp at fort Panhala (in 1680). Sambhaji
was apparently reconciled with his father, but was still kept under
surveillance at the fort (according to Jedhe Shakavali).
 Interestingly in a few
letters (e.g to one Kudalkar Shastri) in uncovered Sambhaji has
mentioned his stepmother Soyrabai as kind and loving.
 The famed Chitnis Bakhar
was a treatise on Maratha history. Written 120 years after the
death of Sambhaji by the descendent of a man (Balaji Avji
Chitnis) who was executed by Sambhaji, its neutrality is
sometimes questioned. One has to be very circumspect before
giving complete credence to this bakhar. Even the Sabhadsad
bakhar was written by Krishnaji Anant Sabhasad - a
contemporary of Shivaji's - in his later years, when he was
an employee of Rajaram (around four or five years after
Sambhaji's death). So it is not surprising that he has
many a kind word for Rajaram, and presents Sambhaji in a
negative light. Similarly, the Sivadigvijaya Bakhar,
though attributed to Khando Ballal Chitnis, the son of Balaji
Avji, in fact appears to have been written by someone else
(probably by one of the Chitnis descendents).
Rajaram was to be married in the same year. But
because of Sambhaji's disharmony with Soyrabai, Sambhaji was not
invited to his own half-brother's wedding.
Then Shivaji's untimely death (on 3 April 1680)
took place in Fort Raigad. This was followed by a great deal of
palace intriguing. Many of Shivaji's ministers, such as Pralhad
Niraji, Annaji Datto, Moropant Pingale, Balaji Avaji Chitnis,
Hiroji Farzand, etc, colluded with Soyrabai and installed the ten
year-old Rajaram as the next king. Balaji Avaji even dispatched
a letter addressed to the killedar (the fort commander) of Panhala
to imprison Sambhaji with immediate effect.
Janardhan Pant Hanumante was asked to take Sambhaji
into custody. But the message was discovered by some of Sambhaji's
well-wishers, who promptly informed the prince of the conspiracy
being hatched against his person. Sambhaji and his men immediately
took charge of the fort. The killedar was executed. Two hundred of
the conspirators were arrested and put to death. Notable amongst
the conspirators were Khandoji Naik the messenger, Bahirji Ingle,
Somaji Banki, Suryaji Kank and Hiroji Farzand (Hiroji had managed
to give them the slip, but was re-arrested at Chiplun). Janardhan
Hanumante was seized in Kolhapur. Sambhaji then secured the support
of some leading Maratha nobles such as Hambirao Mohite (the
sarnobat/commander-in-chief of the Maratha army, who was incidentally
Soyrabai's brother and also the father-in-law of Rajaram - Rajaram's
wife, Tarabai, was his daughter. Nevertheless, he sided with Sambhaji,
whom he considered the rightful heir to the throne).
Sambhaji marched along with twenty thousand troops
to Fort Raigad. Yesaji Kank, an old Shivaji loyalist, opened the
fort gates for the prince. Raigad fell without much resistance to
Sambhaji. Even the killedar, Kanhoji Bhadwalkar, switched sides to
Sambhaji's mausoleum is at Vadu, although his remains, following
torture, execution, and dismemberment, were not recovered by his
One of Sambhaji's wives was Yesubai Sambhaji
Soyra bai was imprisoned by Sambhaji on charges of plotting against
him and also poisoning the late king. Both she and her son Rajaram
were imprisoned. Soyrabai died within a week, put to death on
Sambhaji's orders, as alleged by a section of historians. 
In February 1681, Sambhaji declared himself the
new chatrapati (king) of the Maratha throne. The king wanted Ramdas
Swami, the aged spiritual guide of Shivaji, to be present at the
coronation ceremony. But the old man politely declined citing health
reasons, and sent his emissaries instead. As some historians allege,
Ramdas was very much perturbed by the bloodshed that took place prior
to the coronation, and it was for this reason that he declined to be
personally present. But the teacher did give Sambhaji a personal
letter along with his blessings. In the letter Ramdas Swami advised
the young king to follow in the footsteps of his great father, be
more tolerant towards his people, avoid making decisions in anger
and haste, and he advised Sambhaji to be more discreet and prudent
in the future.
Heeding the saint's advice, Sambhaji decided to
let bygones be bygones. He released several of the conspirators.
He even reappointed Moropant Pingale as his Peshwa (the loyal
Hambirao Mohite was already commander-in-chief of the armed
Then it so happened that Prince Akbar (the son
of Aurangzeb), who had rebelled against his father, sought refuge
with Sambhaji, something which was granted (Netaji Palkar the
veteran ex-senapati who had experience of the north, was sent
to receive the prince).
The discredited ministers once again decided
to take their chances by enlisting the help of the Mughal
prince in overthrowing Sambhaji. They tried to seduce Akbar
over to their side, and even plotted to poison Sambhaji.
 This is only mentioned in the
text, Sivadigvijaya, and some English records. This
alleged incident is not repeated by other bakhars/historians.
But Prince Akbar, grateful for the protection he
had received, informed Sambhaji about the attempt to be made on
his life. On hearing the news, Sambhaji's fury was released once
again. He arrested the conspirators (Annaji Datto, Hiroji Farzand,
Balaji Avji, etc), and had them trampled under the feet of an
elephant. Many of Soyrabai's kinsmen were also slaughtered in what
was famously called the 'Shirkan' (the genocide of the Shirkes).
Note: The name of Khando Ballal, son of Balaji Avji,
figures in the material written about Sambhaji, which probably
indicates that Khando Ballal was pardoned on advice from Sambhaji's
wife, Yesubai, and he once again resumed his position in Sambhaji's
service. Khando Ballal was even said to have saved Sambhaji's life
in an expedition to Goa. Khando Ballal also accompanied Rajaram
during his hazardous journey to Gingee, and remained his close aide
in those years. Khando Ballal also served Tarabai and later Shahu
and was responsible for saving Pant Pratinidhi from Shahu's wrath
when Pant Pratinidhi, acting in favour of Tarabai, went against
the interests of Shahu. Khando Ballal's son, Govind Chitnis, served
Ramraja's cause and helped Balaji Bajirao in installing Ramraja on
the Maratha throne. Govind's grandson, Malhar Chitnis, wrote the
famed Chitnis Bakhar. His son, Balwantrao, served Chatrapati
Pratapsinh at Satara.
But this incident sowed the seeds of permanent
distrust in Sambhaji's mind towards many of his men. This also
led to the prominence of a Brahmin from Kannauj by the name
of Kavi Kalash (Kalash the poet). Kalash soon became Sambhaji's
closest confidante and adviser.
According to some historians, Kalash took advantage
of Sambhaji's distrust towards his other ministers and widened
the rift between them. Kavi Kalash is still a much hated figure
amongst a section of Marathas and is often called 'Kalusha Kabji'
(the evil instigator). Alternatively, many historians swear by
Kavi Kalash's devotion towards Sambhaji, making him as much an
mysterious personality as his master.
Sambhaji's first campaign was in May 1680. He
openly challenged the Mughal viceroy, Khan Jehan, alias Bahadur
Khan Koka. The Maratha forces split into three, one attacking the
Mughal territory of Surat, the second raiding Khandesh, while
the third took on the imperial forces at Aurangabad. The attacks
proved a success for the Marathas and they came back with a rich
array of booty. Sambhaji and Habirrao Mohite even looted the Mughal
camp at Burhanpur, divesting it of twenty million rupees.
Sambhaji's second campaign was a daring attempt
to capture the sea fort of Janjira, which unfortunately proved
a failure. He even lost a brave officer by the name of Kondaji
Farzand. Kondaji had managed to befriend the guarding Siddis
(Abyssinians) of Janjira. He had gained their trust by citing
his differences with Sambhaji. He therefore managed to enter
the fort and was about to capture it from within. But, unluckily,
Kondaji's plan was exposed at the last minute and he was arrested
and beheaded by the Siddis.
A second attempt by another officer, Dadaji
Raghunath, was also foiled, this time by the cruel sea, when a
fierce sea wrecked his attacking boats. A third attempt was made
when Siddi Misri, who was once a part of the Siddi contingent of
Janjira, switched sides to join the Marathas. Sambhaji made him
the commander of his naval fleet. Siddi Misri led the Maratha
navy against his fellow Siddis of Janjira. But Siddi Misri lost
the naval battle and was himself fatally wounded.
Meanwhile, the Portuguese had aligned themselves
with the Mughals. The Portuguese viceroy, Alvor, had allowed the
Mughals to set up their naval base in Portuguese territory. To
punish the viceroy, Sambhaji attacked Portuguese territory (1683-84),
and at one point surrounded Alvor himself. But as fate would have
it, Aurangzeb sent a large army to take on the Marathas, forcing
Sambhaji to retreat.
Sambhaji then sent a contingent to ravage the
Mughal territory of Khandesh, and a second contingent to attack
the Mughul prince, Shah Alam, in the south (in the Karnataka
region). The Maratha forces met with success and Shah Alam's
forces had to retreat on several fronts.
Then there was also a campaign against
Chikkadevraja, the king of Mysore. Chikkadevraja had challenged
the Marathas by intruding onto their territory. Sambhaji
dispatched an army against him, forcing Chikkadevraja to sue for
peace. It is said that to counter the barrage of arrows launched
by a huge array of archers from Mysore, Sambhaji made a battlefield
preparation of oil-laden rubber armour for his soldiers which
blunted their attack. At the same time he used oil-fired arrows to
subdue the enemy.
In the period between 1684-1686, Aurangzeb
concentrated on his southern campaign. Both Bijapur and Golkunda
fell in quick succession, but Sambhaji may have made a tactical
error by not aligning himself with the combined armies of Bijapur
and Golkunda to face the Mughal onslaught (although a group of
historians maintain that Sambhaji cannot be blamed for the
inactivity of the Golkunda and Bijapur monarchs. They lay the
blame squarely on the monarchs of Golkunda and Bijapur for the
loss of their kingdoms. They accuse the Golkunda king of being
hedonistic and careless and the Bijapur king of being too young
and inexperienced). By 1687, the Bijapur troops who were not being
utilised (mainly the Hindus amongst them, who felt ignored by the
bigoted Muslim emperor) joined the Maratha ranks and captured
almost one hundred and twenty towns which were once a part of
the Bijapur provinces.
By now Aurangzeb's rebel son, Prince Akbar
(who had sought refuge with the Marathas) was feeling the heat
of his father's troops. He therefore took leave of Sambhaji
and fled to Persia. But the emperor Aurangzeb was in no mood
to forgive and forget.
With the Bijapur and Golkunda kingdoms annexed
to the Mughal empire, Aurangzeb decided to concentrate on Sambhaji.
He wanted to punish Sambhaji for harbouring his rebel son (and
other rebels such as the Rajput Durgadas).
In 1688, Aurangzeb sent Sarja Khan, an ex-Bijapuri
officer, to recover the lost Bijapur territory from the Marathas.
Sarja Khan was led into the jungles of Wai by
Sambhaji's erstwhile commander-in-chief, Hambirao Mohite. Though
Sarja Khan and his forces were routed by the Marathas, Hambirao
Mohite became a casualty of that battle. The death of his most
trusted noble was a great blow for Sambhaji.
To date, Sambhaji has continued to evoke mixed
reactions. Some hail him as the bravest Maratha warrior that ever
lived, whereas some criticise him for his indolence and a weakness
for the good life. But even his critics concede the man's genius.
They report him spending months in pleasure-seeking, only to emerge
out of hibernation one fine day, and put up a string of military
successes, wiping out all the blots of procrastination of which
he may be accused.
Many attribute his split personality to the early
plots of his step-mother and the ministers against him. This,
according to these historians, made him wary about the people
around him. He wasn't able to trust easily. As a result he
gathered some less salubrious people around him, who deliberately
led him astray to suit their purposes. He probably spent months
under their baleful influence, only to be shaken back into reality
and good sense by some of Shivaji's old loyal aides such as Hambirrao
Mohite. But one has to understand that all the historians who have
written adversely about Sambhaji either belonged to enemy camps
(Mughal, British, or Portuguese) or have based their reasons on
the material of the Chitnis Bakhar. After all, Sambhaji
was raised by the same woman (Jijau, Shivaji's mother and Sambhaji's
grandmother), who raised the great Shivaji and would have passed
on the same values to Sambhaji as were passed on to his father.
Also it must be noted that Sambhaji had to face
a formidable opponent in the form of the Mughal Emperor Aurangzeb
himself, something which even the great Shivaji was spared. Mughal
might was several times greater that Bijapur's, and to Sambhaji's
credit he put up a brave fight against the Mughals. He also added
several territories to Shivaji's existing kingdom including parts
of the Portuguese empire in Konkan and Goa, tracts of the Bijapur
territory in Karnataka, and so on. As the acclaimed historian Narhar
Kurundar says, 'if five to six forts were indeed lost to the
Mughals, four to five were also wrested away from this strong enemy'.
Another charge levelled at Sambhaji is that he
was an alcoholic and hedonistic person, very careless and
irresponsible in terms of the day-to-day administration of his
kingdom. Assuming that he consumed alcohol does not automatically
mean that he was negligent in his affairs. Most kings of his time
and those before and after him have been addicted to alcohol and
opium, including his younger brother Rajaram, and Jehangir and, for
that matter, even Aurangzeb. But that need not translate into
irresponsibility. His brief reign of eight years witnessed several
campaigns which would not have been possible without Sambhaji's
Sambhaji's capture and execution
At Kalash's insistence, Sambhaji decided to spend
the hot summer of 1688 in a palace built by Kavi Kalash at
Sangameshwar, a small but climatically cool township twenty
miles north from Vishalgad, and twenty-two miles north-east
of Ratnagiri (this may have proved a mistake on the part of
Sambhaji, as for once he was away from the safe protection
of the impregnable fort of Raigad).
The news of Sambhaji's whereabouts soon reached
the Mughals. The Mughal commander, Muqarrab Khan, then devised
a daring plan to capture Sambhaji in person. He was helped in
his endeavour by the estranged brother-in-law of Sambhaji,
Ganoji Shirke, who showed the Mughal army the way through
the adjoining dense forests, simultaneously providing the
Mughals with logistics and information about Sambhaji's
The Mughal emperor Aurangzeb
In February 1688, Sambhaji and Kavi Kalash were
surrounded and captured. They were brought before Aurangzeb, who
had himself encamped at Akluj (near Pandharpur).
(Mughal historians mention that Sambhaji was in an
inebriated state at the time of his capture and surrounded by
courtesans. But recent evidence states that he was accompanied not
only by his wife (Yesubai) and ministers (Mhaloji Ghorpade, Dhanaji
Jadhav, and Santaji Ghorpade), but also by Ranganath Swami, the
leading disciple of his spiritual guru, Ramdas Swami. Then the
question arises of whether anyone would indulge in such
indiscretions in the company of such people. Also, as far as
accusations about Sambhaji's careless behaviour goes, there are
letters that record Sambhaji repairing a fallen bastion at Vishalgad
just two days before his capture. If Sambhaji was such an
irresponsible king then would he have looked into such minute
details of his kingdom? So, in fair conclusion, we can only derive
that Sambhaji was betrayed and cleverly captured by the Mughals.)
They were both humiliated in public and paraded
before the crowds in buffoons' attire. Aurangzeb then offered
Sambhaji an insulting proposition. Sambhaji should surrender
all his forts and the amassed Maratha treasure to the Mughals.
Secondly, he should reveal the names of all Mughal officers who
were secretly colluding with the Marathas, and thirdly Sambhaji
should convert himself to Islam and serve the emperor in near
future. In return Aurangzeb would spare Sambhaji's life.
But the fearless Maratha king scornfully
retorted that he would accept the emperors conditions only
if Aurangzeb agreed to marry off his daughter to him. Sambhaji
then exchanged insult for insult. This audacity incensed the
emperor no end, and he ordered Sambhaji's execution. For three
days Sambhaji was tortured at Vadu, on the banks of the River
Bhima, near Pune. Aurangzeb ordered the blasphemous tongue to
be pulled out, his eyes were gouged out, his limbs were
Sambhaji was subjected to a very horrific
ordeal. But he bore it bravely until, on the third day, his
head was taken off his shoulders.
So ended the life of a controversial but brave
king on 11 March 1689. In death he became a martyr, inspiring a
Maratha fight back.
After Sambhaji's death, all Maratha nobles
forgot their differences, united under the banner of Chatrapati
Rajaram (Sambhaji's half-brother) and continued their struggle
against the Mughals.
Sambhaji in chains
Bendre, W S and Patil, Vishwas - Works on
Duff, James Grant - History of the
Mahrattas, Associated Publishing House, New Delhi, 1971
Kincaid G A - A History of the
Maratha People, Oxford University Press, London, 1918