They leave their horses in a small town called Mahad and start walking. Henry Oxenden, the English officer with the East India Company, Bombay, looks back to see if his translator is following them. Shenvi is a thin man who always wears a round headgear and keeps a solemn face, like most of the Brahmins.

The funny hat looks like a coxcomb to Henry, who has been invited by Shivaji Raja to witness the coronation ceremony. The other two are escorts, with bows and quivers slung across their backs stuffed with iron-tipped arrows. They show no emotion but throw him looks from time to time, as if he is an animal with fangs and talons.

“Insolent brutes,” Henry thinks to himself, even though he is used to it by now. His green-blue eyes, white skin and his English attire do not belong in this part of the world. He concentrates on his surroundings, as he has been asked to write his diary in great detail. Nevertheless, he is aware that he is entering dangerous territory – of Shivaji, who has dared to raise his sword against the Mughal badshah.

Henry is looking forward to seeing the Maratha king-to-be and his son, who have escaped from the clutches of Aurangzeb. What Henry finds interesting is that the Mughal badshah cannot even dream of touching Shivaji in the labyrinth of the Deccan mountains. He can only try to appear benevolent by offering a political truce.

Henry is not interested in the Mughals or the Marathas – he is merely looking at the interests of the English. Shivaji’s power is growing in the Konkan, with his ship-building centres, port acquisitions and sea forts, both new and restored. The English cannot afford to ignore him – not good for business. The mountain folk in the Deccan worship Shivaji. Henry thinks of Shivaji as someone akin to Robin Hood.

The sight in front of him catches Henry by surprise. The vertical face of the mountain that looms over them looks like nature’s anomaly. He adjusts his hat and squints to see how high the precipice goes, with its curves and ridges, but there’s only so far he can look at the blindingly bright afternoon sky.

The upward trail cuts through dry grass, wild shrubs and trees Henry does not recognise. Beside him, the bounce in the translator’s steps has disappeared. He and Henry both find it difficult to keep pace with the sure-footed escorts, who scale the mountain face with the agility of mountain goats.

Midway through the climb, they come across a small gate with two stone canopies, with steps going up between the two. From then on, Henry’s eyes do not miss anything – the partially hidden caves carved in stones probably used as barracks or storehouses, the cannon mounted on the slopes facing the climbers and even the armed men hiding behind big boulders, as if waiting in ambush.

The climb gradually gets a lot steeper and Henry realises he is parched. He is offered a tender coconut and he drinks thirstily, without bothering about some of the water dribbling down his chin. The climb continues and gradually, the view of the valley below unfolds in a riot of colours – from bright yellow to parrot green – but for some reason, Henry thinks the valley looks inhospitable, the mountains seem forsaken and the sky threatening.

Beyond, one could see hill after hill, showing off their steep naked rock faces between plunging slopes veiled in dark green forest. Henry’s eyes wander further, towards the sky, only to stop at a cliff floating as if in air – as if the ridge of the mountain has suddenly decided to break away, rise mid-air, and then bend and gaze back at the abyss below. “That is Takmaktok cliff, from where traitors are thrown into the valley below,” Shenvi informs him.

Henry has heard stories about Shivaji, who is said to have slashed open the stomach of the Adilshahi’s general Afzal Khan while in a meeting, and hacked the Mughal general Shaista Khan’s fingers off by appearing as if by magic in his bedroom right in the middle of the Mughal military encampment.

And this is what makes it even more exciting – to see Shivaji being crowned in person! A massive and meandering stone wall rising precariously from the cliffs can now be seen. As they near two bastions looking down the steep slopes, Henry grasps the enormity of the structure. Made of solid stone, the bastions must have been at least ten men high; the gate to enter the fort is hidden between them.

The doors, fitted with iron spikes and brass rings, are closed. The canopy of the gate has designs etched in stone that are unfathomable to Henry. The guides bang the brass rings on the massive doors. A small wicket window, fitted to one of the doors, is opened and strange syllables float out to him; but the men seem convinced. Only one man at a time can enter through the wicket window.

Henry groans as he enters; he is at his vulnerable worst – bent, head already inside, stuck at the waist, with his hips and legs dangling outside. He now gets the first glimpse of why Shivaji is so dreaded. Soon Henry is on his way to the hilltop.

He has seen hill forts in his country, but they are all easily accessible and look more like gathering places than defensive structures. He has read that the highest among them is just about five hundred and sixty metres high, with fifteen acres of mountain table, as compared to this mountain, or Rairi – now called Raigad fort – which is more than a thousand metres above sea level. He has heard that the tabletop has more than a thousand acres of land and expects it to be a dangerous and desolate place.

However, as they climb the last stretch and finally come to the top, the Maratha capital bursts into view, as if civilisation has magically appeared on this mountain table.

He is in for a shock. He walks as if in a trance. Everything – from the high stone-crafted minars and rain-harvesting lakes filled with emerald-blue waters to the horse and elephant stables and guesthouses in two rows built on plinths – seems from a different world, from a different time.

The landscape is speckled with tents for guests. The air is filled with light banter. The sky is now violet mixed with orange as the evening sun sets behind the hills rising on the western side. Hundreds of earthen stoves are lit with firewood for dinner to be cooked and the aroma of freshly made bread and other food he cannot identify is carried to him on the wind.

It is time for Henry to go to his quarters. So bushed is he that all he wants to do is eat and get some sleep.

An eighteen-year-old Sambhaji looks up to see the sky above Raigad fort, their new capital in the valley of Jawali, glittering like gold. The pre-monsoon winds are making the saffron banners of the Maratha nation rise proudly above the fort capital and flutter with a fearless fury.

He feels pride welling up in his chest. It has been nine years since he escaped from Mathura. So many things have happened since. Aurangzeb had put the entire blame of Shivaji’s and Sambhaji’s escape on Mirza Raja Jai Singh, the Mughal war general stationed in the Deccan. Mirza was summoned to Agra but died a miserable death near Burhanpur in the Malwa province. Some say he was poisoned by his scribe on Aurangzeb’s orders.

Two or three years later, Badshah Aurangzeb and Aba Sahib had started corresponding with each other as if Aurangzeb had never been angry and Aba Sahib had never escaped. The badshah had also magnanimously given Aba Sahib the title of “raja”, as if Aba Sahib were the servant of the empire. The political show that put the badshah on his self-made pedestal went on for a while.

Sambhaji was still a Mughal mansabdar as per the Purandar Peace Treaty papers, which were signed by Aba Sahib and Mirza Raja Jai Singh. In the treaty, Aba Sahib had to give away twenty-three forts and the surrounding land to the Mughals.

One day, Aba Sahib had summoned Sambhaji to the office. “Shahazada Muazzam, the Mughal subedar of the Deccan, wants you to attend his durbar in Aurangabad – you are still their mansabdar. Sarnobat Prataprao Gujjar will be with you, along with a contingent of five thousand horses,” Aba Sahib had assured him. After Sarnobat Netaji Palkar had defected from the Maratha army to join the Adilshahi and then the Mughal empire, Prataprao was appointed the new sarnobat.

Sambhaji had heard that Palkar had converted to Islam and the badshah had renamed him “Mohammad Quli Khan”. As per the latest news, he was serving at the Mughal empire’s north-western borders. Before Sambhaji left for Aurangabad, his grandmother Jijau had a fierce argument with his father. He could hear it from his chamber, which was adjacent to his grandmother’s.

Life and Death of Sambhaji

Excerpted with permission from Life and Death of Sambhaji, Medha Deshmukh Bhaskaran, Ebury Press.