Saturday, March 29, 2014

The Maratha Invasion of Bengal

Road names often have a story to tell. In Calcutta, given its long continuous history, even more so (New Delhi, in contrast, although nominally a part of ‘Delhi’ does not really have a history continuous with the old city).  One of those is the curiously named Marhatta Ditch Lane in Baghbazar in North Calcutta.

The lane refers to an actual ditch built in the 1740s along what was then the northern extremity of Calcutta. Its purpose? To stop the marauding bands of Maratha cavalry who were pillaging Bengal at the time.

In 1741, the cavalry of Raghoji Bhosle, the Maratha ruler of Nagpur, started to pillage western Bengal under the command of Bhaskar Pandit. Bengalis called these Marathas “Bargis” which is a corruption of the Marathi word, "bargir" (etymology: Persian) which means “light cavalry”. Malik Ambar, the celebrated Prime Minister of Ahmadnagar Sultanate, had instituted the Deccan practice of guerrilla warfare, which at that time took the name bargir-giri1. These swift hit-and-run guerrilla tactics became a part of the military heritage of the Deccan, being used to great effect by Shivaji and, eventually, by the Marathas against the hapless residents of Bengal.

In the 1740s, the bargir-giri of Bhosle’s army confounded the forces of Nawab Alivardi Khan, the ruler of Bengal. While the Bengali army tried its best and even defeated the Marathas in the few times they fought head-to-head, most of the time, the Marathas cavalry would simply skirt the Khan’s slow-moving infantry, being interested only in looting.

In the 10 years that they plundered Bengal, their effect was devastating, causing great human hardship as well as economic privation. In the Maharashtra Purana, a poem in Bengali written by Gangaram, the poet describes the destruction caused by the raiders in great detail:

“This time none escaped,
Brahmanas, and Vaisnavas, Sannyasis, and householders,
all had the same fate, and cows were massacred along with men.”

So great was the terror of the Bargi that, in a Gabbar-esque twist, lullabies were composed in which mothers would use the fear of a Maratha raid to get their children to go to sleep. These poems are still popular amongst Bengalis even today. One of them went something like this:

Chhele ghumalo, paada judaalo bargi elo deshe 
Bulbulite dhaan kheyechhe, khaajnaa debo kishe?
Dhaan phurolo, paan phurolo, khaajnaar opay ki?
Aar kotaa din shobur koro, roshoon boonechhi 

(A very inelegent translation:

When the children fall asleep, silence sets in, the Bargis come to our country
Birds have eaten the grains, how shall I pay the rent (to the Bargi)?
All our food and drink is over, how shall I pay the rent?
Wait for a few days, I have sown garlic)

Not only did the Bargis loot the countryside, but in a sign of their effectiveness, managed to raid the capital, Murshidabad and even sack the house of one of the richest Indians at the time, the Marwari banker, Jagat Seth.

In spite of this, the Marathas never did attack Calcutta, in all probability being paid off by the British. The ditch, though, did serve to provide citizens with a nickname: ditchers, i.e everyone who lived south of the ditch, in "proper" Calcutta. Eventually the ditch was filled up and was made into what is now Upper Circular Road. A concrete architectural record of British efforts to guard against Bargi raids, though, remains in the existence of Semaphore towers which dot the countryside of Bengal, Bihar and Jharkhand. A system of communication which predated the telegraph, it consisted of towers which basically sent out smoke signals to the next tower and so on and served to warn off an impending Bargi raid.

After a decade of pillage, the Marathas eventually stopped their raids after the harried Nawab, accepting defeat, handed over Orissa to Raghoji Bhosle.

1 "-giri" is a common suffix in Marathi and Dakhni which converts a concrete noun to an abstract one. Analogous in some ways to "-ism" in English. Given the fact that the Bollywood is located in the Dakhni-speaking city of Bombay, the suffix has been made comprehensible to most standard Hindi-Urdu speakers. Some common examples being "dādāgirī" (gunda-gardi) and, most recently, "Gandhi-giri".


  1. Fascinating. Never knew about this.

  2. The Gujaratis didnt like Maratha rule either, the story goes that they invited the British to invade Gujarat and get rid of the Marathas. But they were probably also swayed by British rule connecting them to a much bigger market. In contrast, the Marathas are remembered quite fondly in MP and many parts of the South. And one of their succesor dynasties, the Gaekwad of Baroda also remained quite popular.

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  4. Vikram,

    Interesting point. But for what it's worth, Bengalis today don't really have a negative "memory" of the Marathas either, no matter what their ancestors might have though. Although that lullaby mentioned in the post is very common, I doubt most mothers who sing it would know exactly what "bargi" refers to other than maybe a generic raider.

    Historical memory, the way it is generally imagined, is a bit of complex thing and might not necessarily correspond to historical fact. Had touched upon it if you'd remember here:

    Thanks for the comment.

  5. Actual sites and the events have been recorded by the descendents of an affected family at