Traditionally, the festival of Diwali (the festival of lights), is said to spiritually signify the victory of light over darkness, knowledge over ignorance, good over evil, and hope over despair. However, during the 1802 festival, a fierce battle, known as the Battle of Poona, erupted near Pune, India, between the rival factions of the Maratha Confederacy, an Indian kingdom that existed from 1674 to 1818 and, at its peak, covered a territory of over 2.8 million kilometres. This article will examine the causes and impact of this battle and the resulting Second Anglo-Maratha War, as well as the consequences of the battle breaking out during the celebration of Diwali.
Disputes arose when forces of the Scindia, a Maratha clan deriving from Maharashtra, as well as the Peshwa, Baji Rao II (a titular equivalent of a modern Prime Minister) were attacked by the Holkar, a rival house in the Maratha Confederacy. Such an attack was inflicted by the Holkar over disagreements of their leader, Maharaja Yashwantrao, and the Peshwa. These issues included the restoration of Holkar possessions held by Scindia, the sharing of territories in North India between the Holkar and Scindia as settled in the time of Malharrao Holkar, over half a century previous, and the releasing of the son of Malharrao II held captive by Scindia.
In an attempt to put a violent end towards these disputes and assert his power, and while continuing negotiations with the Peshwa, Yashwantrao marched towards Pune, conquering cities from Sendhwa to Jejuri, and ultimately arriving at Hadapsar, near Pune, on 25th October, to face the armies of the Scindia and the Peshwa.
The battle took place across the neighbouring cities of Hadapsar, Banwadi and Ghorpadi, and under strict instructions from Yashwantrao, the Holkar army were to halt an assault on the armies of the Scindia and the Peshwa until twenty five cannonballs were fired at them from the other sides. As soon as they had received the significant assault on them, the Holkar army retaliated, inflicting heavy damage on their opponents and finally achieving victory by the end of the day.
The effect of the battle taking place on Diwali was seen throughout the battle, more so with regards to the actions of Yashwantrao and his Holkar army. This was seen through the way in which he ordered his army not to harm the civilians of Pune, and how he didn’t arrest the Peshwa when the Holkar had caught up with his after he fled from Pune to Singhagad, but send him food so that he didn’t suffer.
Two days later, on 27th October 1802, Baji Rao II and a number of the solders of Scindia, travelled to Raigad and spent one month in Virwadi, before ultimately arriving in Bassein via a ship named Harkuyan. It was in Hurkuyan that the British offered him a subsidiary treaty which would later become known as ‘The Treaty of Bassein’, which placed Baji Rao II on the throne at Poona through the surrendering of his residual sovereignty, and was signed on 31 December.
As the British had promised within the treaty to place a force of around 6,000 troops to be permanently stationed with the Peshwa in return for territorial districts that would yield the revenue of 26 Lakh rupees, as well as the agreement that Baji Rao II was not to enter into any other treaty without consulting the British; the result was further instability within the Maratha Confederacy centred around a hostility throughout it towards the British, as now Baji Rao II was the protégé of the British, and the Holkar resided within Pune with Yashwantrao as Peshwa.
The Confederacy saw this conceding to the British by Baji Rao II as a surrender to National Honour, and in turn the Second Anglo Maratha War was sparked when the British entered Pune with Baji Rao II to reclaim the lands from the Holkar in May 1803.
This article has shown how the Battle of Poona was central in highlighting the hostile and complex relations between the factions of the Maratha Confederacy and the British in India, and how the actions of the battle resulted in the sparking of the Second Anglo Maratha War. However, it is possible that the festival of Diwali was also of significance in the events leading to the war, as without Yashwantrao’s mercy to Baji Rao II during the battle, he may not have lived to escape and team up with the British.