In order to understand the mutiny of the Gwalior Contingent, it would be remiss of this author if readers were not provided with at least a short history of the Gwalior State. This will serve to make certain aspects of this unique mutiny clear.
Until Indian Independence, Gwalior was one of the princely states of British India, ruled by the Scindia dynasty. It passed out of existence in 1947 when Maharaja Jivajirao Scindia acceded to the Government of India and then, together with other princely states, Gwalior became a part of Madhya Bharat, which, in 1956, was in turn, merged into Madhya Pradesh. In 1971, the 26th Amendment to the Constitution of India abolished all privileges and allowances for members of royal families including the privy purse and the last Maharaja of Gwalior Madhavrao Jivajirao Scindia, like many others, was forced to relinquish his title. Although the Gwalior State is gone, the city remains an important hub in northern Madhya Pradesh.
Current history aside, we will now go back in time.
The Mahabaratha refers to a place called Gopalkaksh which has been described as the victory place of Bhima. Some historians have identified Gopalkaksh as Gopadiri or Gopagiri – the old names for Gwalior. The fort itself came into being in the 8th century AD when a ruler named Suraj Sen, a Kachhwaha Rajpur prince was seated on the throne. Legend has it, when struck down by a deadly disease, Suraj Sen turned to the healing powers of a hermit saint named Gwalipa. Gwalipa was able to cure the ailing ruler, who, in his gratefulness, named the city after him, thus giving rise, over the centuries to the name Gwalior.
Gwalior has borne witness to many different phases of Indian history. From the rule of Tomaras in the 8th Century to the Mughals, then the Marathas under the Scindias (1754). The fort itself, towering over the plains was something of a magnate for invaders, each coveting this exceptional prize for its admirable strategic location and practically impregnable defences.
Around the 10th century, various Muslim rulers tried their best to capture Gwalior Fort, starting with Mahmud of Ghazni who besieged it in 1022 CE but he was bought off with a present of 35 elephants causing him thus to end the siege. Qutb-al-Din, the first sultan of the Delhi Sultanate, captured it in 1196 but he lost it but a few years later. The third of the Sultanate’s rulers, Iltumish, recaptured it in 1232 CE. It was then captured by the Tomars in 1398 who would spend the next 200 years fighting battles against the Delhi Sultanate to keep it. They would succeed, in 1516, when Ibrahim Lodi would wrest it away from the Tomars. However, shortly after Babur, the founder of the Mughal dynasty came along and made short work of the Lodis and Gwalior Fort became a possession under the new Mughal Empire.
Not that this lasted very long. The Sur ruler, Sher Shah Suri took it from the Mughals in 1542 but in 1558, Emperor Akbar once again reclaimed it for the Mughals and turned it into a prison where he added to its already bloody history by using it as a place to execute his rivals.
As the Mughal Empire weakened after Aurangzeb, Gwalior Fort was once again a seat of contention. This time, the Rana chieftains of Gohad were the lucky ones only the find themselves facing off against Mahadaji Singh of the Scindia Dynasty. He managed to take it from Gohad Rana Chhatar Singh only to lose it – this time however, to the British.
They in turn, returned it to the Ranas.
Not that that lasted very long.
The Marathas wasted no time in battering the Ranas and regaining the fort but a series of events led them to fight the British in a series of wars, known as the Anglo-Maratha Wars. During the 2nd war, the Marathas once again lost Gwalior Fort.
The Anglo-Maratha Wars
We will not spend much time discussing these 3 wars but brief history is needed.
Spanning a time frame from 1775 to 1818, these three wars were fought between the British at the Maratha Confederacy. The Confederacy was an alliance formed in the 18th century after pressure from the Mughals forced the collapse of Shivaji’s kingdom of Maharashtra in western India. Following the death of the Aurangzeb in 1707, the Marathas saw a resurgence of their power under Shivaji’s grandson, Shahu.
He confided much of the power the Brahman Bhat family who in time became hereditary chief ministers or peshwas until after his death in 1749, they became the effective rulers of Maharashtra. The leading Maratha families of Sindhia, Holkar, Bhonsle and Gaekwar extended their conquests in northern and central India in an expansion that had started under Shahu when he pushed his armies, under the peshwas, into northern India
The Battle of Panipat in 1761 brought an effectual end to the control wielded by the peshwas. Thereafter the Maratha state consisted of a confederacy of 5 chiefs under nominal leadership of the peshwa of Pune.
The first of the three Anglo-Maratha wars (1775–82) began with meddling. The British supported Raghunath Rao’s bid for the office of peshwa (chief minister) of the confederacy but they were defeated at Wadgaon in January 1779. Not willing to leave the field gracefully,they continued to fight the Marathas until the conclusion of the Treaty of Salbai (May 1782); which granted the British the island of Salsette adjacent to Bombay. That happened to be the only thing they gained, and of course, it wasn’t going to be enough.
In the meantime, the chiefs of the confederacy were squabbling amongst each other and this led to the Second Anglo-Maratha War.
The second war (1803–05) was caused by the peshwa Baji Rao II’s defeat by the Holkars. The British, never too far away to be helpful, offered Baji Rao protection which, under the Treaty of Bassein, he accepted in December 1802. The Sindhia and Bhonsle’s however, were having none of it and they took to the field against the British, only to be trounced at Laswari and Delhi by Lord Lake and at Assaye and Argaon by Sir Arthur Wellesley-the Duke of Wellington. The Holkar clan then joined in, and the Marathas were left with a free hand in the regions of central India and Rajasthan.
For the next ten years both Sindhia and Holkar rampantly plunder the chiefs of Rajasthan preparing them, at least mentally for subsequent British rule as the Marathas did little to endear themselves to anyone. Meanwhile, maurading bands of freebooters, called Pindaris were wreaking havoc across Maratha territory. They were composed fo dispossessed villagers and discarded soldiers, quite literally the flotsam and jetsam of a myriad of wars, who with nothing left to turn to, became bandits. The Maratha princes looked at the Pindaris with a tacit countenance, but the villagers who were their principal victims were certainly less inclined to goodwill.
With the end of the Napoleaonic Wars in 1815, India was once again on the agenda.
The British restarted their efforts to gain both commercial and economic supremacy in India, which was made easier by the defeat of the French, who did not have much of an argument left. As a result, Lord Hastings took on the Gurkhas in the Kingdom of Nepal which ended not quite as Hastings expected (he lost in a series of battles) but in the Treaty of Seagauli in 1816, which gave the British the tract of hill country in and around Simla and it settled the relations between the British and the Nepalese for the next 130 years. Nepal remained independent and isolated, but would supply the British with soldiers as need required.
Hastings then turned his attention to the Pindaris who had boldly added along with Bengal, the Madras Presidency to their list of destinations. The problem was getting out of hand but the only way Hastings could stop them was by entering Maratha territory and negotiating with the princes. This started the 3rd and final Anglo-Maratha War (1817-1818).
Sindhia agreed after much agonising but Bhonsle and Holkar had other ideas. Not that it really mattered. Holkar’s state was in disorder and was easily defeated. Both the Raja of Nagpur and the Peshwa Baji Rao II resisted and attacked the British forces stationed under their respective subsidiary treaties. Nagpur collapsed, but the Peshwa would keep it up until June 1818. As for the Pindaris with nowhere left to go either disbanded or surrendered.
Baji Rao II was pensioned off the Bithur (his adopted son was of course the infamous Nana Sahib) and his territories were annexed. The result of this war left the EICo the undisputed Masters of India as far as the Sutlej River in the Punjab. Their conquest was completed by the acceptance of British suzerainty by the Rajput chiefs of Rajasthan, central India and Kathiawar (located in southwestern Gujarat, west-central India). It was the start of the British Empire of India.
The Settlement of 1818
The diplomatic settlement of 1818 with the exception of a few annexations before 1857 remained in force until 1947 and as such, deserves a little of our time.
The EICo, motivated by economy as much as by profit, wished to be saved as much of the expense of administering India as possible, especially in areas where revenue would be low. Having controlled the larger states by its subsidiary forces (for which they paid), it was content with a tribute from the rest placing control posts at strategic points. Kathiawar was controlled from Baroda and Rajasthan from Ajmer but this new empire had no thoughts of integrating territories, unlike the Mughals. The states remained isolated and excluded from any connection with the British. Approximately half of India remained under Indian rulers, They were devoid of any power of aggression and deprived of any opportunity to cooperate amongst each other. These states were, in the south large areas of Mysore, Hyderabad, and Travancore; in the west, the states of Shivaji’s family; across the centre to the east, Nagpur and a number of poor hilltract states; in the west and west-central areas were scattered numerous Rajput and other Hindu chiefs with the surviving Maratha states of Sindhia, Holkar, and the Gaekwar; west of the Yamuna River there remained some Sikh princedoms; and in the Ganges valley, the prosperous but disordered state of Avadh. This made up in all 360 separate units – political fragments, retaining all the complexity of state nations but without any unity.
Of course this left the British with a rather difficult problem. Only Bengal could be said to be organised in any way, shape or form but the areas annexed after 1799 in the north and south still were still under some provisional arrangements. Now they had the former Maratha states to contend with.
Over the next decades a variety of systems would come into place in India; (along with more wars, more seccessions and annexations and some disasters) but it was only by 1857 that the British were able to establish complete political control of India either by direct rule or through subordinate princes. They established an authoritarian form of government by building on the remains of the Mughal practices and traditions, supported by their very efficient civil service and their somewhat efficient army. Princely India however, remained for the most part in stagnant traditionalism.
Gwalior as a Princely State
The area in which Gwalior was, in 1857 the domain of the Sindhia family of the Maratha dynasty. The foundations of the Gwalior state were laid by Ranoji Sindhia about 1745 and reached its’ greatest extent under Sindhia Mahadaji between 1761-1794. He ruled a vast territory that included parts of central India and northern India and exacted tributes from the principal Rajput rulers, including those of Jaipur and Jodhpur. Under Daulat Rao, the Gwalior state lost considerable territory to the British in 1803 and 1818 following the Anglo-Maratha Wars. Daulat Rao died without leaving an heir.
His widow Baiza Bai adopted Mukut Rao an eleven-year-old boy who belonged to a distant but legitimate branch of the family. He became known as Jankoji Rao Sindhia.
“The Regency was entrusted to Bazia Bai, the daughter of Sarje Rao…She purposely kept the young chief uneducated and did her utmost to unfit him to hold the reigns of power. Had she added kindness to her treatment of the boy in all probability her plan would have been successful, but she possessed an overbearing and ungovernable temper and soon began to behave badly towards him with insolence and cruelty.
Unable to bear her thraldom the young chief, in October 1832, suddenly fled to the Resident. The Resident then interposed and a truce was patched up. In December 1832 Lord Bentinck visited Gwalior, and both sides urged their claims. The Governor-General however, would not promise more than that Jankojirao would be supported by the British as the future ruler of Gwalior. The policy of non-interference had the usual result, and things went from bad to worse until the young chief again fled for protection to the Resident. The next day the troops broke into open mutiny against the Bai and was obliged to seek refuge in the Residency. She was soon after removed from Gwalior territory and the chief granted administrative powers. The same attitude was assumed by the British Government, which stated that, as long as peace was preserved, it was immaterial who held the reins of power at Gwalior. The Bai was not idle and continued to annoy and obstruct those responsible for the administration in every way. She had a private fortune of 3 crores (1 crore = ten million) which she devoted to formenting intrigues and attempting to overthrow the Maharaja. Finding all her efforts fruitless, however, she finally desisted, applied for leave to return to Gwalior and lived peaceably there until her death in 1862.” (Gwalior State Gazetteer, 1908)
Gwalior under Jankoji Rao
Jankoji Rao was a weak ruler, completely unable to stop the intrigues in his court and control his petulant army. As his adviser, he selected his maternal uncle, known as Mama Sahib a man with no administrative background and utterly incapable of fulfilling the duties of his post. Gwalior slowly sank into a wretched condition, the sufferings of its people met with indifference by their ruler. However, he continued to be a most loyal subject of the British, actively supporting them in suppressing thuggee and banditry in his state and arresting anyone who arrived in Gwalior with “disloyal propositions” promptly handing them over to the British. With the exception of some reorganisation to the Gwalior Contingent in 1833, which had after the 1817 treaty been reduced from 5000 to 2000 horse, he secured from the government a cash contribution for its maintenance. Such was his reign and he died in 1843 without leaving an heir.
This left his 13-year-old widow Tara Bai open to adopt a son. She chose a boy of 8 named Bhagirathrao, the son of Hanwantrao Sindia, who would be formerly known as Jayayajirao. Being too young to rule and his mother equally so, the British chose Mama Sahib as regent.
“The choice was an injudicious one…Tara Bai soon fell into the hands of Dada Khsagiwala, the Comptroller of the Household. He managed to poison the young Maharani’s mind through one of her attendants, while he bribed and cajoled the army and several nobles to support his designs…” This resulted in Mama Sahib fleeing the state for his life but not before his own daughter was marked out to marry the young chief in-waiting merely two days before the Maharani formerly dismissed him. Dada Khasagiwala became Minister while the Maharani appointed herself Regent. The Governor-General refused to support Mama Sahib’s return to Gwalior, forcing him to remain in exile.
This was just the beginning of the chaos in Gwalior.
“Unfortunately, the Khasgiwala was not only an unscrupulous scoundrel but a coward as well, and the army to which the party in power owed its superiority, now an overgrown and undisciplined rabble, laughter the civil authority to scorn. The Dada in terror of the military element attempted to curry favour with them by dismissing all who were known to have leanings towards the British and a rule of order. Finally, an attempt was made to attack Sironj, where Mama Sahib was living..”
At this point, the Governor- General Lord Ellenborough had had enough. Considering it ridiculously dangerous to have a mutinous mob in Gwalior very much in his rear when there was a war brewing in the Punjab, he sent Sir Hugh Gough a message to be ready to move against Gwalior at a moment’s notice.
The Resident of Gwalior at this time was one Colonel Sleeman (of thuggee fame) who reported to the government that the main problem in Gwalior was the Dada and he needed to be removed. Mischief continued and finally, Sleeman was withdrawn as a “mark of displeasure” and retired to Dholpur. Sleeman wrote to the Maharani – who had implored him to return – stating he would only come back if the Dada was banished. Unfortunately, she never received the letter as the Dada intercepted it. Lord Ellenborough considered this a base insult and insisted the Dada remove himself without delay. Three chiefs, tired of the constant bickering and what was turning rapidly into a future war, tried to arrest Dada but they were thwarted by the palace court. On this, Hugh Gough was told to start his march to Gwalior. Suddenly the Dada was handed over to Sleeman but the Governor-General now considered that the surrender simply wasn’t enough anymore.
The Maharani was informed that, “the movement of the British armies could not be arrested until the Governor-General had full security for the future maintenance of tranquillity upon their common frontier.” Ellenborough then joined the force himself, and declared he would settle Gwalior at a personal interview with the Maharani.
Of course, this did not turn out as planned.
The meeting or darbar was to take place in Gwalior territory. However, the councillors informed that if the army crossed the frontier before the meeting with the Maharani took place, it would be looked on by the army as a hostile action and it would impossible to restrain them. Sleeman wrote in a similar tone to the Governor-General but he obstinantly refused to change his plans. The meeting was set to take place on the 26th of December in Hingona, but the war party refused to let the Maharani and the young chief to leave Gwalior and after waiting for 2 days, the British forces advanced.
What happened next beggars belief.
“Sindhia’s army took up a strong position at Maharajpur, unknown to the Commander-in-Chief, who had entirely underrated the force he was dealing with. On the morning of the 29th the British force, without taking the most ordinary precautions, accompanied by the Governor-General and the family of the Commander-in-Chief on elephants, advanced leisurely on Maharajpur, where they proposed to breakfast. As they neared the village a masked battery opened fire and in a few moments the engagement became general.”
This underestimation cost the British forces 800 men, killed and wounded (not including twice as many Indian officers and soldiers) and they would be forced to fight a second battle at Panniar on the same day. Hugh Gough would be forced to admit he “had not done justice to the gallantry of his opponents.” The death toll among the Gwalior forces was said to be in the thousands.
The Battle of Maharajpur as Seen by One Who was There
“In the night of the 28th we got orders quietly to turn out at 4 o’clock in the morning, 29th December, to march without baggage or other incumbrance, with one day’s cooked rations. We fell into line exactly to time, when Lord Gough with Lord Ellenborough and staf rode along the front, speaking words of encouragement to each corps.
Sir Joseph Thackwell, who had only one arm, commanded the Light Division, consisting of the 16th Lancers, Body Guards, three troops Horse Artillery, Outram’s Irregulars. The centre division was commanded by Colonel Vallient, comprised the 40th foot, two batteries Foot Artillery, two corps of Native Infantry, one company of Engineers. The Left Division consisting of 39th Foot, five Native Cavalry, two regiments Native Infantry, and one company of Sappers under Sir Harry Smith.
Each division crossed the ravine within one mile of each other. They were in position between three villages — Maharajpoor in the centre, Juna on the right, and Chuna on the left. We marched until seven o’clock, when we halted. The enemy at once opened fire from their half-moon battery. Nothing could be more welcome; we hurrahed several times and shouted lustily, “There goes the Prize-Money,” showing, without doubt, the general feeling of our army, — there was no such thing as failure. The trumpeter now sounded for us ” To Horse, To Horse,” and away we went at a swinging trot to the front, preceded by Quarter-Master General Churchill, as it is that officer’s business to learn the position of an enemy, and the nature of the ground, we advanced in close column of troops.
Our route lay through a cotton plantation, and on nearing the enemy we were received by a discharge from a six-gun battery. A six-pound shot took my horse in the heart, and we both rolled over. I was extricated by some Grenadiers of a Native regiment just passing, much bruised. I was not long without a horse, as peppering had been going on by the advanced picket, a horse, minus the rider, fully accoutred, which had belonged to the enemy, passed. I seized it, and soon came up with my troop. We formed in ‘line, in front of us being a field of wheat standing in shocks; these we found occupied by the enemy’s sharp-shooters, quite concealed. A shot from one of these picked off General Churchill; as he fell, Colonel Somerset, an aide, dismounted to assist him; he was nearly as unfortunate, as a shot from one of their batteries broke his leg, killing his horse on the spot — poor Churchill died as he was being taken to the rear. The battle now became more fierce. The centre division, led by the 40th, under Colonel Vallient, charged, and at the point of the bayonet took the Village of Maharajpoor. Just then, the enemy’s cavalry were coming down like a dark cloud upon our guns, when the 16th, my regiment, and the Body Guards were ordered to charge; this we were quite prepared to do, as soldiers, at least so far as my experience teaches, do not like to be onviewers, or watchers.
Charge we did, but to our astonishment, as soon as they saw our movement, retreat was their order, and we afterwards heard they never stopped until they reached Gwalior. At noon the battle was over, the enemy fled, leaving all their camp equipage, guns, and about six thousand dead on the field. Their force was estimated 24,000, while ours only numbered 10,000, in having left 4,000 to protect our camp and hospital. Our loss was 2,500 officers, rank and file.
The following day we pushed on, halting some fifteen miles from Gwalior. Here we camped for a time. The Rannie, or Queen, came down with a strong guard, four thousand cavalry, to pay her respects, and make terms of peace with Lord Ellen- borough. He would not hear of any only an un- conditional surrender. The day after the Rannie’s visit we marched on the capital, reaching Gwalior about nine a.m.
Of all the fortified places ever I had seen, this was the most formidable. A large rock in the centre of an extensive plain, the city built in the middle, and so surrounded by the rocky wall, as to leave only one ascent, and that a zigzag one. The walls all round were loop-holed and bris-tied with cannon. Our first thought was — We are done now. But, of course, engineering skill and brave hearts laugh at stone walls. All was got ready to storm, as if taken, it must be taken at a dash, and as is always the case, a flag of truce was despatched to warn of our intention of giving them one hour to choose between unconditional surrender or the consequence of a refusal. In half that time the Ranee and her army marched out, a battalion of our infantry entered, and hoisted the British flag on the walls.
We remained in Gwalior until joined by General Grey on January 3rd. This division had marched from Cawnpore, and consisted of the 9th Lancers, 3rd Buff’s, three regiments Native Infantry, 2 brigades of Artillery, and the 50th Foot, under command of Colonel Anderson. They had been engaged with other portions of the enemy at Punneah on the same day we were fighting at Maharajpoor.”
The British forces however carried the day and Gwalior State now lay at the disposal of the Governor-General. In a rare glimpse of foresight, he neither curtailed the territory of the state nor did he lower its status. A treaty was concluded on the 13th of January which entrusted the running of Gwalior State during the time of the young chief’s minority to an administration that was answerable to the Resident, and the army was limited in the future to 9000 men, of which no more than 3000 were to be infantry, with 32 guns and 200 gunners. The Gwalior Contingent itself was reorganised and fixed at 10000 men of all units and was to be commanded by British officers. The Maharani Tara Bai was sent into early retirement on an allowance granted her by the government.
For the next 12 years, Gwalior remained in a peaceable state. In January 1853 the young chief was granted powers of administration and standing at his side was his minister, one Dinkar Rao, later Raja Sir Dinkar Rao K.C.S.I., who would prove to be one of the ablest statesmen British India has ever had. Under his rule, Gwalior made rapid strides in progress and prosperity – every branch of administration was reformed, lawlessness was stamped out and when the mutiny came, it was Dinkar Rao’s tact and firmness that saw them through.
In the next post we will see what the young Maharaja and Dinkar Rao did to thwart the mighty Gwalior Contingent and how their successes and failures would turn the tide of British fortunes in 1857.
Ten Years in India in the 16th Queen’s Lancers: and Three Years in South Africa in Cape Corps Levies – W.J.D. Gould (1880)
Gwalior State Gazetteer, Vol. 1- Text and Tables – compiled by Captain C.E. Luard M.A. (Oxon) I.A. Superintendent of Gazetteer in Central India, assisted by Rai Sahib Pandit Dwarka Nath Shopuri, State Gazetteer Officer (1908)
The Encyclopedia Britannica for information pertaining to the Maratha Wars