There are certain moments in our lives that define us. They change us as people. They chisel away the superfluous and bring out in sharp relief the person that we really are. We’ve all had these moments. Moments of trial, of tough decisions, of difficult choices, and as much as we may have hated them then we’ve always come out of them better for having gone through them.
Arthur Wellesley, the Duke of Wellington who later went on to defeat Napoleon, credits a battle he fought in 1803 in India as his finest hour, his defining moment; the moment in which the cautious, unproven in battle, privileged general first came into his own and earned the respect of those under his command. The battle ground for his clash against the combined might of the Marathas was a tiny little farming village called Assaye about a hundred kilometers east of Aurangabad. The village still exists in the same spot that Wellington left it; this is an account of when we went to find it.
My companions in this venture, as in so many others, were Adam and Chris. Chris is an American ornithologist, Adam is a British ecologist, and I’m an Indian molecular biologist; an odd sort of trio to be going on such an expedition. By way of explanation I can only say that it was originally Adam’s idea. He had read a book about the battle and seeing as he was visiting India anyway he got it in his head that we go see the battleground. We couldn’t think of a reason not to.
We arrived in Aurangabad and quickly realized that no one here, and I mean NO ONE, had ever heard of Assaye. One brave driver, Kaleem, said he’d take us there as long as we knew the directions. God bless google maps. We set out bright an early the next day, the three of us and our driver. Kaleem had trouble figuring out what it was we wanted to do in this little village. I tried explaining it to him but his face had an expression that said “I can’t believe people spend time and money on seeing a ground”. He was however, interested in learning about the battle itself, although he wasn’t too happy with the bit about the Marathas losing.
Assaye is dry country, and we happened to visit at the driest time of the year. We got there with relative ease, all things considered. The landscape was bare and arid with only the occasional acacia tree or an egret to break the monotony. The locals were very helpful and fully aware of their unique place in history. Some of the village elders pointed out the battleground which lies just outside the boundaries of the present day village. One of them in particular knew more about the battle than the rest. When he found out that Adam was British his face clouded over a little, he looked at me seriously and asked “Aap inse bahas karenge?” – “Will you argue with him?” His indignation towards the Brit, however misguided, was strangely endearing.
(Image credit: Wikipedia)
The battleground lies between two seasonal rivers –The Juah and the Kaitna. In the V shaped area between these two rivers was stationed the entire Maratha army (about a 40,000 troops) under the command of a Dutch colonel. Wellington, with a highly mobile but small army (of about 6500 troops) had been chasing the Marathas for months trying to engage them in battle. He had just received intelligence that the army was garrisoned in Assaye and if he hurried they would have no choice but to fight. He finally had his chance! He had a tough choice to make, attack now with his small force or wait till the rest of his force got here and risk losing the element of surprise. He chose to attack.
Wellesley’s ford as it is today.
The monsoons had started and the rivers were in flow, which meant that there was only one way Wellington’s army could approach the Marathas – at the ford. And this ford was guarded fiercely. The entire Maratha force was lined up along the banks of the river facing the oncoming British troops with 18 pounder artillery guns trained on them. There rolling landscape obscured the British troops from their view and this afforded Wellington some measure of protection against long range artillery. He knew however that to charge right through that ford was suicide. There wasn’t even the slightest chance that he would be able to cross with enough of his force left to win the battle. So he questioned locals about the existence of some other ford he could use. This way, he thought, he could attack the Marathas from the flank and force them to maneuver a change in formation while under attack, hopefully winning him an advantage. But the locals denied all knowledge of any fords that would be open this late in the season and his own scouts were unable to find one. It was then that he noticed that two villages were situated on opposite sides of the river some distance south of where the Marathas were. He deduced that there was no reason for those two settlements to be at the exact same spot on opposite banks of the river unless there was a way to across from one to the other. With this, and nothing else, he committed his entire fighting force to crossing the river at that point between Peepulgaon and Waroor. He turned out to be right, and although he was within artillery range and although his army was being continuously shelled he made it across with most of his army intact. From there on the superior training and battle experience of the British troops won out over the Marathas’ brave but ill-disciplined and green troops.
We started our trek on the East edge of the ground and marched across to the western riverbed. This being the dry season we were able to walk on the gravelly riverbed, following it from the Maratha ford all the way down to the ford that Wellington used. The place was, to us, brimming with history. We had all read up on the history of the battle and could almost see it take place in front of us.
To this day, farmers in the area can find bullets and shots that were fired in the battle. We bought a few off of them as souvenirs. Adam was very happy with his 4-pounder shot.
We followed the riverbed up to the ford, crossed it, just as Wellington did, and then marched through the battlefield up to Assaye, retracing the steps of British troops and all the while trying to imagine what it must’ve been like to be there that day. Since Adam had wanted to re-enact the battle so much, we pelted him with stones to simulate battle conditions for him. He didn’t think us funny.
The battlefield today.
All in all, it was a great day out and all of us came out of this experience with a much better appreciation of history. I urge you to go read about the battle and, if you have the chance, to visit Assaye. You’d be surprised how much fun a mere field can be. In then end even Kaleem granted that we weren’t as crazy as he originally believed. He wouldn’t give us a clean bill of sanity though.
On the Kaitna riverbed.
Chris and Adam with some of the village kids. One of them is holding up an artillery shot fired in the battle.
Image Credits: All images credited to Aditya Rao unless specified.