Third battle of Panipat [1761] | First lost battle of Marathas in history

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 Brief Introduction

In this reasoning article, we will discuss the causes of the third battle of Panipat in great details. The third battle of Panipat was fought between the Marathas and the Afghani King Ahmad Shah Abdali (Durrani ) on 14th Jan 1761 AD in Kala Amb .

The loss of the third battle of Panipat for the Marathas was a massive setback for them . Marathas had never faced such a big loss in their entire ruling. Here, a big question arises  ” What were the causes of third battle of Panipat and why did the Marathas lose such a huge battle against Afghani King Ahmad Shah Abdali ? “

It’s  disheartening to note that the Marathas had fought the battle without co-operation of any Hindu political kings of that period while the Afghani King Ahmad Shah Durrani got the share hands of Mughal, Rohillas and many other Islamic leaders.

These foreign invading leaders used to recruit thousands and thousands of Central Asian people in their army and in their civil services rather including the Indian Hindus and Muslims. 

The third battle of Panipat was led by Sadashiva Rao from Maratha side and Ahmad Shah Durrani from Afghani side

Causes of third battle of Panipat

  • Invitation from Indian Muslim leaders to invade India: Shahnawaz Khan – leader of Punjab government, Najib-ud-daulah ( Major role ) , Mughlani begam ( the widow of Punjab Governor Muin-ul-mulk , Alamgiri II were some major Muslim leaders who invited and instigated Ahmad Shah to attack India . They wanted Marathas to get eradicated as Marathas had become a superpower till that period.
  • Religious battle – The several letters of Najib-Ud-Daulah had confirmed that he had invited Ahmad Shah Abdali for a religious battle. His outcry was based on Islamic faith and didn’t want Marathas as Hindu ruler ruled the country. During his diplomacy approach, he tried to convince the Islamic leaders to shake their hands for their religious battle against Marathas. He successfully conveyed the message of ” Islam in danger ” to his companions and brought them in the third battle of Panipat . While Marathas approached didn’t base on Hindu faith . They failed miserably to mobilise the Hindu kings and Sikhs to fight for the shake of patriotism against Islamic invaders.
  • Terriotorial expansion of Marathas
  • Victory of Raghunath Rao in Punjab in 1758
  • Internal convulsion among Indian kings

The relationship of Marathas with other Indian kings like Rajput, Sikh, ahir , etc wasn’t good . After the fall down of great Rajput kings, it became difficult to sustain the legacy as they often fought for the throne rather making India great and successful. Marathas were often called for intervention to sustain the peace.

For this intervention, they used to demand high values which had become eyesore for Rajput. While the diplomatic approach of Marathas wasn’t satisfactory which was again the major key point behind the loss of Marathas against Ahmad Shah Abdali. These uncertainties gave enough opportunity to Ahmad Shah to wage a war aginst Marathas.

Ahmad Shah Abdali

Crucial role of Najib-ud-daulah in third battle of Panipat

He was one of the prime causes of third battle of Panipat. Najib ud daulah was the most inexorable foe of the Marathas and was the person who restricted the dream of the Hindu Padshahi. 

He was born in 1708 AD . His father Asalat khan was a Zusafzai Afghan of the Umar khail clan. He was from Qandhar in Afghanistan. He joined Ali Mohammed Rohilla at Aonla in 1743 . He married the daughter of a chief of Ali Mohammed.

He then became owner of 14 paraganahs including Bijnor, Chandpur ,Nagina, sherkot and all situated East of the Ganga. He also possessed all valuable track of the country which were stretching westward from the Ganges to the district of Saharanpur along with the foot of the hills and South ward to the gates of the Delhi. 

During the war between Emperor Ahmed Shah and his Wazir Safdar Jang in 1753 AD , Najib Ud daulah Joined hands with Emperor Ahmed Shah and won the battle. 

Najib had multiple times invited Ahmed shah durraani to invade India. He wrote 

” I am also an Afghan and you ought to preserve the honour of the Afghan. I have a body of 20,000 afghans with me while another body of 40,000 afghans is ready on the other side of the Ganges to serve you. You may come here without any hesitation “.

Najib Ud daulah was considered to be the left hand of  Ahmed Shah Abdali. He had helped Durrani in war against Surajmal too . 

Battle fought on 15th August 1757 between Najib and the Marathas was a crucial battle in which Najib lost . An agreement was signed between Marathas and Najib in which he was told to vacate Delhi, resigned from Mir-Bakshi’s post and pay Marathas 5 lakhs. Najib was left with nothing now .

Najib invited Ahmed Shah Durani to again invade India to crush the Marathas. On this durani replied, 

 ” This year I am occupied with the affairs of this country “

Najib assured Durrani that all the afghans in India would join him when he would come. Najib every month used to send his message to Durrani for invading India. 

Even Raja Madho Singh of Jaipur and Bijay Singh of Jodhpur complaint to Duraani against the Marathas . 

The Army of Afghani  king Ahmed Shah durrani was way advanced than the Maratha Army. 

Major reasons for invading India by Ahmad Shah Durrani

Ahmed Shah Abdali invaded India multiple times. Below are the dates :

 1st invasion 

October 1747 AD

 2nd  invasion 

September 1751 AD

3rd  invasion 

July - Agust 1759  AD

He first left Qandhar in October 1747 and captured Ghazni, kabul. He then captured Peshawar,  Sarhind in 1747 AD.

The troops of Ahmad Shah Abdali was massacring and dragging away people’s wives and daughters so cruelly that large number of them overborne by the delicacy of their feelings preferred to commit suicide. 

Hindus were given the order to paint their forehead as a distinguishing badge of the non- believers. Those who dared to desist  were beaten and scummed the brunt of Afghan and Rohillas persecution. 

He secretly left India after defeating Shahnawaz Khan in April 1748 and conquering other territories with all the treasures, weapons and large number of Indian Prisoners. He also didn’t want to lose his power of assertion in Afghanistan too.

Causes for the loss of third battle of Panipat by Marathas

  • Disparity among Indian Kings
  • Army strength
  • Role of Najib-ud-daulah
  • Modern artillery and guns 
  • Diplomatic approach of Ahmed Shah Durrani
  • Lack of food supply in the Army of the Marathas

Disparity among Indian Kings

One of the major reasons for the defeat of the Marathas was the disparity among Indian Kings. In the political field the relations among Jaat ,Hindus,  Ahir ,Rajput and Sikhs were governed by competition rather than co-operation.

They seldom worked collectively for the sake of the Patriotism. And that was the major reason for the defeat of the Indian leaders against foreign Invaders in terms of diplomacy and in arms. 

While on the other hand Islam fought as a unifying force. ” Religion in danger ” had ever been a powerful cry to rally round even in the most conflicting groups. They either involving economy or politically to share their common problems in the language of religion rather than the language of the country which they had adopted as their home. For them, Islam was first but in the case of Indian leaders , they were engaged in their individual problems rather than saving the countries from  foreign invaders. 

Before jumping into the army strength we should know why Afghani king Ahmed Shah Abdali invaded India? What compelled him to invade India? 

Ahmad Shah Abdali who was also known as Ahmad Shah Durrani , born in 1722 AD, was a great Emperor of Afghanistan of the 18th century after the death of Nadir Shah.  He became King in July 1747 AD. 

Durrani was a designation (Padshah ) given to Ahmad Shah Abdali by the people of Afghans. Hence, he was popularised as Ahmed Shah Durrani. 

He belonged to the Sadozai clan of Abdali tribe of afghans who lived in the province of Herat. Ahmed Shah had claimed on behalf of Nadir Shah who conquered some Indian territories in 1738 -1739 AD during his Indian invasion . The provinces were Qandhar, Kabul, Ghazni, Peshawar , Hazara, kohat, Bannu, Qalat, Derajat and chahar Mahar. Ahmad Shah used to call these provinces as the Durrani Kingdom. 

The Afghani Army were in habits of going through strict enforcement of order in camp and Battlefield. Even the least disobedient army man had to go through a rigid punishment. Each moment of each officer was keenly watched by the supreme chiefs.

The proper gradation of officers forming an unbroken chain between the generalissimo and the common Soldier.

There was regular transmission of Abdali’s order with an efficient and systematic staff organisation. During the war, Ahmed Shah abdali as a consummate master of the Art of War didn’t throw entire manpower at one go and didn’t place himself in the front. He placed himself behind the fighting lines with a sizeable retinue of his choicest troops to supervise , direct and control. 

While the Army of the Marathas under Sadashiv Rao was easily amenable to discipline. No teamwork or any kind of coordination had been seen among the Marathas soldiers. The chief leaders of the Marathas Army had different opinions for the war tactics. 

At one hand, Malhar Rao Holkar was in favour of gorilla Warfare attack while Ibrahim Khan gardi and Sadashiva Rao were of opinions of using well drilled, trained infantry in straight action. The infantry equipped with muskets and matchlocks and backed by heavy artillery, was wedded to the hollow square formation. For its most effective use, it needed the strong backing of a quick moving , light cavalry which occupy the ground cleared by artillery actions.

But this hollow square formation has been disputed and eventually cancelled and left the entire front with no specific plans to attack. 

Army strength

Ahmad Shah Abdali Army 

 Marathas Army

1 .  Ahmed Shah abdali's army was one of the finest in Asia. 

Denationalisation of the Marathas Army had proven to be disastrous. It started to get infected by the feudal organisation. Feudal organisation reduced the power of the Marathas Army to the minimal. 

2 . They marched under the orders of one supreme commander. 

 No control of supreme leader . Warfare differences between Malhar Rao Holkar and Ibrahim Gardi. Sadashiva Rao had more reliance on Ibrahim gardi even after having more brilliant and capable Warriors in the Marathas camp.

3 . Their soldiers were born horsemen and each one of them had gone through hard training and strict discipline.

 No training was given . Ill-disciplined Army under hostile warring chiefs. 

4 . Capital punishment was given to every soldier who broke the rules. For example : Ahmed shah Abdali used to slit their noses, cut their stomach, thrust arrows into their nostrils and in this manner paraded them in disgrace. 

 No capital punishment 

5 . 

1. Ahmad Shah abdali's Army was divided into two parts


२. The Askar-i-Ghair Munazzam

The first was the organised one and the second one was unorganised.

 Maratha cavalry consist of 4th classes

१. Khargi Paga

२. Silhedars

३. Ekas

४. Pendharis  

The most strengthen one was khasgi Paga whose number were 6000 . 

1 .Ekas had to bring their own Horses and accoutrement. 

2 . Pendharis were not fightning Warriors but employed exclusively for plundering purposes

6 . The population of Askar-e-Munazzam was one- third and the Askar-i-Ghair Munazzam population was two- third. 

Non- combatants in the Marathas cavalry were in massive numbers as they cost very little to the state to recruit them. 

7 . Three-fourth were cavalry in Durrani's army. Heavy men, long backed horses, unencumbered with defensive armour. Some carried Flint carbines slung at the back. Long scymitar and the flint pistols. 

The horsemen were lightly equipped and scantly clad.

 8 . Used a gun which fires balls weighing 15 kg and another two guns of larger calibre and length and capable of throwing balls of 17 kg around.

Cavalry armed with muskets and matchlocks, swords and target, Spears and lances, daggers and even bows and arrows. War rockets were used by the Marathas

 9 .  In artillery, two third where heavy guns and remaining one third were of light guns. They too had war rockets. 

There were no standardisation of artillery used by the marathas in the battlefield

10 . Heavy guns like Zamburaks and shabang where used by both of the Armies. They were easily carried from one position to another.

Marathas had used heavy artilleries which took a month to reach the battlefield which was again a setback for the Marathas.

11. Similar to pandhari in Maratha, the Army of Ahmad Shah abdali and also a group of tabinan of Afghans. 

 12 . The army of  Najib-ud-daulah were dressed up in Ungurkha and turban and armed with matchlock and the sword.

 Dressed in ochre colour .

Name of the major chiefs in both of the Army’s

 Ahmad Shah abdaliz Army's chief leaders

 Maratha Army chief leaders


 Sadashiva Rao bhav


Vishwas Rao


Antaji mankeshwar

Hafiz Rehmat Khan

Pilaji Jadhav's son Satvoji

Barkhurdar Khan and Amirbeg

Yashwant Rao Pawar

Shah Pasand Khan

Malhar Rao Holkar

Jahan Khan

Scindhia jaanko ji

Shah Wali Khan and Karimdad Khan

Shamsher Bahadur

According to Kashiraj Pandit ( eye witness) ,Marathas had 55,000 horses, 15,000 foot, 200 cannons, rockets and 15,000 Pendharis . While Ahmad shah abdali had 41,800 horses, 38,000 foot and 70-80 cannons.

According to him , Ahmed Shah Abdali’s army camp with his Indian allies had a large number of infantry, cavalry and artillery . Below are the number given :















Ahmed Shah Abdali now advanced for diplomatic approaches to strengthen his power against Marathas . His diplomacy worked brilliantly against Marathas 

  1. Ahmad Khan Bangash who was considered to be a great ally of the Marathas joined Durrani’s army in the name of religion and race. 
  2. Shuja ud-daula was the strongest Muslim ruler in India in those times . He possessed one of the most significant provinces Awadh and Allahabad.  His revenue was great and treasure was full. Furthermore, he had a strong army. 
  3. Both Ahmed Shah Durani and Peshwa Balaji Rao wanted to pursue Suja ud-daula but durani’s diplomacy and negotiation worked greatly and they successfully got the support of Shuja-ud-daulah. Najib-Ud-daula also tried to get him by telling to wage a war  against infidels and Islam’s non- believers. 

Lack of food supply

Lack of food supply was another major reason for the loss of the  Marathas in the third battle of Panipat against Afghani king Ahmad Shah abdali. It was proven by the urging soldiers to the Sadashiva Rao and Maratha officials to give them permission to fight with fully-provision and well-clothed and thoroughly fed Afghani troops to end their agony of starvation.

Due to lack of food supply, the Army of the Marathas were starving . They didn’t want to end their life in Starving so they decided to end their life by fighting with the enemies . They wanted to die with pride. 

Instead of managing their own food supply, Sadashiva Rao had a plan of Starving of Abdali’s Army by cutting off the supplies of food. For this, he employed Govindpant Bundele to ravage Rohilla territory and cut off the supply but due to inadequate force, he was defeated and killed. 

Yes of course we can say that Sadashiva Rao was living in a fantasy world of overconfidence. As he was planning to cut off the supply of food of Abdali, his own army came into the grasp of starvation. 

Pre-battle of Panipat

Prior to the battle of Panipat, the Marathas had gone consecutive defeat at the hands of the Afghans from 1759 onwards. These defeats were enough to cut down the morale of Marathas soldiers.

1. During the siege of Sukkartal on 15th September 1759, the marathas had to face defeat in which 500 soldiers were died while Najib’s had only 50.

2. Another brutal defeat of Marathas were in the battle of Taraori. 400 soldiers were slaughtered by Abdali’s general Said Khan. 

3. The Berari Ghat disaster was a shattering blow to the Marathas Prestige. 

4. Another defeat was on 11th February 1760 AD

In the war field

Though sadashiva Rao had successfully won multiple battles against the armies of Nizam in Deccan he didn’t act like a head during the battle of Panipat but act like a manager which was a major setback for the confidence of Marathas army. 

He wasn’t completely aware of the affairs going on in Northern India nor familiar with the kinds of soldiers in his Army. Not even had the knowledge of the climate near of the area of the battlefield which caused Starving situation in his army camp during the war. 

While on the other hand, Ahmed Shah abdali had reliable generals who had the complete awareness of their soldiers and their skills. His Indian allies had done their job perfectly mind-boggling.

As the battle began, the heavy Maratha’s guns began a round of cannonade which was designed to claim a large number of casualties in the enemy camp and clear a passsage for the advance of Ibrahim gardi’s

Musketeers followed by the Marathas army. 

But unfortunately those heavy guns where proven clumsy. 

It failed to depress the enemy camp. Their firepower went astray. Actually their balls fell about one and half kilometre behind the enemy lines. It was the beginning of the coming disaster.

Vishwas Rao , the youngest commander in chief in the battlefield , of the 17 year old son of Balaji Bajirao was one of the most valour, gallant and great Warrior who was fighting for saving the motherland from the foreign invaders. 

But unfortunately , a zamburak ball fired by Ahmed Sultan struck Vishwasrao and he died. The death of Vishwas Rao blew down the strength of Sadashivarao to the lowest. Even the morale of the meanest trooper of the Maratha army got dampen. 

Ahmad Shah abdali used this golden opportunity to centre his 6000 Basgulls and 1500 fresh camel swivels. 

Now, every Bullet of Durrani was abind to find its billet in a Maratha breast. The Maratha camp withered away by death. 

It would thus seem that within hour of Vishwas Rao death, the resistance made at the centre by the Marathas completely collapsed and soon Maratha Army vanished like camphor. The camp was left with the heaps of corpses. 

Malhar Rao holkar’s flee from the battleground is a debatable act. Some historians claim that he wasn’t prepared to stake his life in this old age of 80. But this argument don’t seem to hold water. 

According to Grand Duff, the message of sadashiva Rao sent to Holkar told us a very different story. The message was as follows:

                  ” To do as I directed “

Maratha Army had also a contingent of 2000 Afghani soldiers under the cavalry led by Damaji Gaikwad and Vitthal Shivdeo. After the death of Vishwas Rao, they all renegaded and discarded the ochre coloured of the Marathas and started to loot the Marathas camp and killing the Maratha soldiers.

Though his calculation went wrong and his unorganised act cost a lot to the Marathas Army, there was no doubt, he had fought bravely and miraculously during the battlefield of Panipat. 

He was struck by a spear and a musket shot in his thigh which had thrown him down on the ground. As he was lurching on the field, horsemen of Durrani attacked him but the wounded lion (Sadashivrao)made a lightning moment and before getting died, he killed two or three horsemen by his Spears. 

Ibrahim Gardi got arrested and his infantry were butchered . 

According to kashiraj ( eye- witness of Panipat Battle), the zeal of Durrani soldiers of Killing infidels were very high. They had made many Maratha soldiers as their Prisoners and put them to the sword in the out skirt of their camp. they were making loud noise and saying

 ” when I started this journey, my mother, father, sister and wife told me to slay so many kafirs for their shake after gaining the victory in this Holi war so that the religious merit of this act of slaying infidels might accrue to them. ” 

  • The gruesome tragedy happened in the battle of Panipat plunged the Marathas nation into grief and mourning. The Nation was crying out loud for horrific death of Vishwas Rao, Sadashiva Rao, Jaswant Rao Pawar, Tukoji Sindhiya and Ibrahim gardi. 
  • There were no home left in Maharashtra that had lost at least one member of his family at Panipat. The Carnage at Panipat was devastating, the result was certainly ominous and melancholy for the nation. It was giving a sense of losing everything and having no future of standing again to serve the motherland. 
  • The loss of marathas gave enough space to raise the heads of Nizam and Haider in the south.
  • While in North the rulers of small and big areas like Delhi ,Agra, Doab, Bundelkhand Malwa, etc. tried their best to wipe out the presence of marathas.
  • There started an internal war for accessing the throne between Marathas. Ambitious dream of Raghunath Rao of becoming Peshwa worsened the situation of marathas. 

But fortunately, this motherland never failed to produce great warriors again and again to serve the motherland.

Peshwa Madhavrao was the one who took the responsibility on his shoulder and eventually did a phenomenal job securing the motherland from the foreign invaders and restoring the power of the Marathas again from South to North.

Through this intuitive article on ” Causes of third battle of Panipat ” , we get to know why Marathas lost the battle of Panipat against Ahmad Shah Abdali.

Marathas after Peshwa Bajirao I, started to lose the ground due to ignorance and leaving the army on its own term.

The strength of army from Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj till Maharani Tarabai Bhosale and Bajirao was of phenomenal level but after their deaths , it deteriorated drastically due to high ignorance of the army’s structure and practice.

But after the loss of third battle of Panipat, again Maratha stood like a king by the great Peshwa Madhav Rao who is also considered the personification of our Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj. He did an exceptional job in mobilising the army and their strength and meanwhile taking the battle against their opponents.

  1. Marathas and Panipat ( Author – Hari Ram Gupta , 1961 )
  2. A history of the Marathas ( Author – Grant Duff )
  3. The Great Maratha Mahadji Scindia ( Author – N.G. Rathod )

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Top causes for the decline of Marathas empire
Peshwa Bajirao I history | empire builder of Maratha
Maharani Tarabai – A Maratha warrior Queen who protected the Swarajya
Tukoji Rao Holkar – one must know the great warrior of Holkar clan

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