The Indian Rebel who played Hardball with the Victor of Waterloo
Fighter par excellence, quintessential rebel, daredevil soldier and freebooter who owed his loyalty to nothing and no one except his own self, Dhondia Wagh, was all these and more rolled into one. He lived in 18th Century and died at the dawn of the 19th in his 60th year on this earth, doing what he loved and did the best till the last; fighting. And with his last fight, he carved a niche for himself in India’s colonial history, by giving the British a run for their money.
Born a commoner in a Maratha family of Channagiri in the erstwhile Kingdom of Mysore (present-day State of Karnataka), young Dhondia, enlisted as a trooper in the army of Hyder Ali, the de facto ruler of Mysore, whose ding-dong battles with the English East India Company (EIC) kept Southern India on the boil during the latter half of 18th Century. A soldier by instinct, he soon rose to become a Shiledar, cavalry commander.
During the Third Mysore War, which broke out in 1790 after Hyder Ali’s death during the previous decade, Dhondia deserted the army, now under Tipu Sultan, the son and successor of Hyder. He took several soldiers and a sizeable loot with him, and found a safe haven with the Maratha revenue collector of Lakshmeshwara. Once the war ended in 1792, he proclaimed himself the ruler of the areas on the Maratha-Mysore border. With the soldiery he had at his disposal he went on to levy taxes in areas around Dharwad and plunder villages. Establishing his authority over Savanur early the following year, he began raiding territories ceded to the Marathas by Mysore as per the treaty that ended the war.
Irked by Dhondia’s recalcitrance, the Marathas leadership dispatched an army under Dhondopant Gokhale to deal with him. Outnumbered and overpowered, Dhondia fled and sought asylum with Tipu Sultan in 1794. Recognizing his worth as a soldier, Tipu consented to pardon his past offense of desertion, provided he converted to Islam. Dhondia agreed and took the given name ‘Shaikh Ahmad’, although he chose to style himself as ‘Malik Jahan Khan’. He was given command of a military outfit in due course. Before long however, he fell out with Tipu due to personal differences and the latter had him imprisoned.
Dhondia was awaiting his execution in a dungeon of Seringapattam, when the Fourth Mysore War broke out. Following the storming of Tipu’s capital by the army of the EIC and slaying of Tipu in battle, there was utter chaos within the fort. A great number of prisoners grabbed the opportunity to make good their escape, of course, Dhondia Wagh among them. Once out of prison, Dhondia wasted no time in raising an army from former soldiers of Tipu, basing himself at Shikarpur. Declaring himself Ubhaya Lokadheeshwara, the King of Two Worlds, he began collecting tax from farmers and traders in and around Shimoga. Most of the Polygars, the local chieftains, in the neighbouring areas soon recognized his authority. At the peak of his power, he commanded a force of 90,000 horsemen and 80,000-strong infantry. By July 1799, within three months after his escape from Seringapattom, Dhondia had turned so belligerent that the British had to recognize him as an enemy to contend with and send a force to subdue him; only to end up red-faced as it was soundly beaten back. To add insult to injury, he demanded the British to release Tipu’s sons and threatened to lay waste their territories, if they did not comply.
Meanwhile, he went on to raid territories on the Mysore-Maratha border. Entering Dharwad with 300 men, he sought an alliance with Dhontopant Gokhale, his former enemy. Not only that Gokhale turned down the proposal, but launching a surprise attack, he sacked Dhondia’s camp; which made the latter vow that he would “dye his moustache with the blood of Gokhale’s heart”. Dhondia had to beat a retreat back to Shimoga, after his subsequent attempts to win over the chieftains of Kohlapur also failed. He returned to Dharwad early the following year with a larger force. Occupying Savanur with ease, he went on to take Dambal by May. By then he controlled all the forts in Haveri and his ranks were swelling with more and more soldiers from disbanded outfits at Aurangabad, Hyderabad and Kadappa joining him.
Startled by the meteoric rise of Dhondia’s power, the EIC launched a campaign in June 1800 to subdue him, with a large military force under Major General Arthur Wellesley, who had earlier been appointed the Military Governor of Mysore after the fall of Seringapattom during the previous year. Wellesley managed to forge an alliance with the head of the Maratha Confederacy, the Peshwa, who not only granted him permission to pursue Dhondia in Maratha Territory, but also dispatched a force of his own, under Chintamanrao Patwardhan, to assist in the task. With the arrival of Wellesley’s overwhelmingly superior force at Harihar in mid-June, Dhondia withdrew to Hubli. His various forts in the area soon fell one after the other to the combined Anglo-Maratha force of Wellesley and Patwardhan.
With Dhondia still elusive, Dhontopant Gokhale, along with two of his nephews joined forces with Patwardhan. The Maratha force tried to corner Dhondia near Kittur, but he outsmarted them, catching Gokhale and a few of his men in an ambush and killing Gokhale and one of his nephews; literally fulfilling his vow to colour his moustache with Gokhale’s blood. Patwardhan, who staged a retaliatory attack on Dhondia’s force was severely wounded in battle and the remnants of the Maratha contingent had to seek refuge in a fort under British control. With the weather impeding his campaign, Wellesley was still engaged in zig-zag skirmishes with Dhondia by mid-July. Although he succeeded in capturing almost all the forts of Dhondia by the month end, the skirmishes continued into August, with the latter at large with a sizeable force. Dhondia having moved on to the territory of the Nizam of Hyderabad, a contingent of the Nizam too joined Wellesley in the hunt for the intrepid rebel who refused to be cornered.
Dhondia was working on a strategy to cross the river, Malaprabha, to shake off the pursuit. A three-pronged attack by the combined forces of Wellesley, the Marathas and the Nizam thwarted his first attempt at the river-crossing at the end of July. Nevertheless, he made a second attempt on 9 September, when he succeeded in his mission by outwitting his foes. However, his luck ran out when he was intercepted on the far bank by a column led by Colonel Stevenson, the Second-in-Command of Wellesley; who apparently had preempted his move by crossing over earlier.
Dhondia Wagh fought his last battle on the morning of the next day, 10 September 1800. The locale of the battle was a place called Conaghalli in the present-day Raichur District of Karnataka. It was as ferocious an encounter as any as battles go. Wellesley, having at long last found the prospect of nabbing an adversary who had made him look silly, threw caution to wind, and charged at the head of his 19th Light Dragoons in line abreast. Not to be outdone, Dhondia, the master cavalryman he was, rode out with his troopers to meet the charge head on in a deadly clash, wherein no quarters were asked or given. He fell fighting and the Dragoons carried the day.
The blood-stained moustache of Dhondia Wagh is believed to have been carried away by Wellesley back home to England as a trophy. He seemed to have respected Dhondia for the diehard fighter he was, because in a gesture of chivalry, he offered protection to his four-year old son and paid for his maintenance before he left India. The boy, Salabat Khan, would eventually join the service of the King of Mysore and die of cholera in 1822.
Arthur Wellesley would go on to fight many more battles in India – Ahmednagar, Assaye, Arghum and Gwalighur among others – earning his formidable reputation as a field commander and later, as the Duke of Wellington, find his coveted place in history as the famous victor of Waterloo against Napolean Bonaparte, the greatest general world had ever known. The duke, till his last days, always maintained that everything he learned about warfare he did in the battlefields of India. The Battle of Conaghalli, wherein he came face to face with a fierce fighter like Dhondia Wagh was his first major field encounter, though it remains a footnote in the Indian and British chronicles of the times.