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As the title says, the battle we're talking about today was the third, and final (so far, at least), major battle fought near the northern Indian city of Panipat. Usually when a place is the site of three major battles, particularly when those battles take place over the (relatively) compressed period of about 250 years, the reason is, as real estate agents say, location, location, location. Panipat, as you can see on the map below, is located more or less along the most direct route from the Khyber Pass (historically the best/most popular route through the Hindu Kush mountains) through the Punjab and on to Delhi. Which means it's definitely situated in the kind of place where armies might frequently be found on the march.
This Third Battle of Panipat is the only one of the three battles of Panipat not to involve the Mughal Empire. The First Battle of Panipat (1526), in which Babur's forces defeated the army of the Lodi dynasty of Delhi, was a crucial event in the formation of the Mughal Empire. The Second Battle of Panipat (1556) was important in the restoration of the Mughal Empire after it briefly lost control of northern India to the Pashtun Suri dynasty. The Mughals, it should be noted, were still around in 1761, but they very much weren't what they used to be. After decisively losing the Mughal-Maratha Wars in the late 17th century and early 18th century, they'd begun ceding vast swathes of their empire to the Hindu Marathas, who were moving north from the Deccan Plateau. After Nader Shah's Afsharid army sacked Delhi in 1739 and carted off most of the Mughals' moveable wealth, they were out of both money and (increasingly) territory. By the 1760s, the Mughals controlled Delhi and...well, not very much else, and they really only continued to control Delhi because the Marathas allowed it.
Today's Battle of Panipat marks what could be considered a high water mark of the Maratha Confederacy (or the Maratha Empire if you prefer), but it also marks something close to the high water mark of the Durrani Empire of Afghanistan. So we should probably say something about both of them.
The decline of the Mughals and the rise of the Marathas; note Panipat at the end of that bright red arrow
The Maratha Confederation (it was technically an empire, but the emperors were almost an afterthought and real power lay with regional governors and military commanders, so "confederation" is probably the better term) is named for the Marathi people of the western Deccan Plateau. In the mid-17th century, under Shivaji Bhonsle (d. 1680), they won their independence from the Adilshahi dynasty of Bijapur. Shivaji set up a Hindu polity that very quickly came into direct conflict with the Mughals, who were in the process of expanding south into the Deccan under Emperor Aurangzeb. The Mughals nearly wiped out the Marathas in 1689, but against some pretty long odds the Marathas turned things around and had actually begun to rout the Mughals by Aurangzeb's death in 1707. Aurangzeb's obsession with defeating the Marathas meant that, when he died and the Mughals were pretty much in full retreat, there was little defensive depth left within the empire to prevent the Marathas from continuing to expand northward. They then built their confederation out of the husk of the Mughal Empire.
The Durrani Empire at its maximum extent (Wikimedia Commons)
Ahmad Shah Durrani (d. 1772) is considered the father of Afghanistan, because it was during his reign, and under the dynasty he founded, that an Afghan political entity emerged that was independent of either the Iranian Safavids or the Indian Mughals. For most of the joint history of those two dynasties, modern Afghanistan was the somewhat moveable frontier between them. Initially this was a peaceful frontier. The Safavids and Mughals started off on very good terms, and indeed the Safavids had even helped the Mughals win those first two battles at Panipat and establish their empire. But gradually it became more confrontational, as the Safavids, mostly because they'd been such good friends and patrons of the early Mughals, felt entitled to cities like Kandahar and Kabul, a feeling to which the Mughals objected.
By the early 18th century, the Safavids were in a terminal tailspin. A dynasty, the Hotak, emerged from among the Ghilzai Pashtuns, invaded Iran, toppled the Safavids, and briefly ruled Iran from 1722 to 1738 before being overthrown in turn by the aforementioned Nader Shah. The Hotak opened the door to an independent Afghan kingdom, but they overreached by trying to conquer Iran and anyway there wasn't much they or almost anybody else could do when confronted by Nader Shah. But for all his military brilliance, Nader's cruelty created discord within his empire and eventually led to his assassination in 1747. With the door to Afghan independence once again opened, a tribal council (loya jirga) proclaimed one of Nader's generals, Ahmad Shah Durrani, ruler of the Afghans. He quickly amassed an empire that, as you can see above, encompassed all of modern Afghanistan, most of modern Pakistan, and parts of India, Iran, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, and Tajikistan. In 1761 he was still conquering, and so we come to the part where these two expanding empires inevitably met up in northern India.
It's possible that Ahmad Shah believed that he was fighting to restore the Muslim Mughals to their rightful position as rulers of India. You'll sometimes see this battle framed in terms like that. It's more likely that Ahmad Shah had designs on replacing the Mughals and making himself ruler of India. He invaded the regions of Sindh and Punjab several times starting in 1748 and, while he didn't directly challenge the Mughals, the threat he posed to Delhi convinced the Mughals to let him have Sindh and at least part of Punjab. Still, the idea that he was fighting on the Mughals' behalf can't be totally discounted, because Ahmad Shah did have fairly close ties to the Mughal Emperor Alamgir II (d. 1759). In 1755, when Alamgir's governor in Punjab died and the province was threatened by Hindu and Sikh rebellions, Ahmad Shah led an army into the region and stabilized it on Alamgir's behalf. Of course, he then made his own son, Timur Shah Durrani (d. 1793) the new governor of Lahore, but at least outwardly he could claim that he'd done it all for Alamgir. After securing the Punjab, he marched his army toward Delhi, met with Alamgir, and then waged a brief campaign against the Marathas. A short time later, Timur Shah would be betrothed to Alamgir's daughter. The final and strongest argument against the idea that Ahmad Shah was fighting for a Mughal revival is that, after he won at Panipat (er, spoiler alert), he did absolutely nothing to bring such a revival about. That seems pretty definitive to me.
The immediate casus belli for the battle was, in fact, Maratha aggression. In 1758, after Ahmad Shah had left India, a high Mughal court official named Ghazi ud-Din Khan Feroze Jung III, but better known as Imad-ul-Mulk, invited the Marathas to seize Delhi. Imad-ul-Mulk had a mutually beneficial relationship with the Marathas, who empowered him to act as the real authority behind the virtually powerless Mughal throne, and Ahmad Shah's invasion had upset that temporarily. But now the Marathas resumed their march north. They took Delhi, leaving Alamgir under their "protection," and then drove Timur Shah out of Lahore. At this point, they were directly threatening the new Durrani Empire, and they'd embarrassed Ahmad Shah's son to boot. So it was on, as they say.
The two armies—Durrani's around 100,000 men, the Marathas', under the general Sadashivrao Bhau, about 70,000—began skirmishing with one another in the summer of 1760, with both sides giving and getting in turn. But Ahmad Shah gradually began to outmaneuver the Maratha army and eventually was able to cut its supply lines and disrupt its payroll. At that point, the Marathas began to bleed troops, particularly mercenaries who weren't interested in starving to death and not getting paid for it. Bhau moved his army toward Panipat but eventually found himself surrounded and unable to supply his army apart from stripping the surrounding area bare, which didn't make him very popular with the locals. By early January 1761 it seems that Maratha soldiers did indeed begin starving to death. They had no choice but to fight, which they did on January 14.
Anonymous drawing of the battle done c. 1770, with Ahmad Shah Durrani clearly marked on his striking brown horse while everything else is harder to distinguish (Wikimedia Commons)
This was unfortunate for the Marathas, not just because they were starving to death, but because their desperation forced them to take the offensive. The Marathas were outnumbered and man for man were probably inferior fighters. Afghan warriors of this period, like Swiss warriors in Europe (there's a reason the Pope kept "Swiss Guards" around for protection), were considered some of the best fighters in the world. However, the Marathas had better firearms and better siege guns. If the Afghans had been forced to attack them, the Marathas could have assumed a fortified defensive position and those elements might have been decisive. But when the Marathas had to attack the Afghans, the latter army's better maneuverability was decisive, and its poorer firearms and field artillery (the Afghans used shaturnals, or zamburaks, small cannon mounted on the backs of camels) proved to be just good enough.
At some point during the battle, the Afghan army killed Vishwasrao, Bahu's nephew, one of the commanders in his army, and the heir to the office of Peshwa (the chief minister to the Maratha emperor who was in reality the actual ruler of the empire). This was the first big blow to the morale of the Maratha army. Bhau decided to take what little reserve force he had and enter the battle himself, which inspired a number of Afghan prisoners of war/slaves in his camp to spread a rumor throughout the army that he'd been killed. That was the second big blow to Maratha morale. Then Bhau actually was killed, and by that point the Maratha army was already beginning to rout. When the fighting was over somewhere between 20,000 and 40,000 Afghans were dead compared to between 30,000 and 40,000 Maratha soldiers and tens of thousands more noncombatants and camp followers (many pilgrims had accompanied the army, hoping to visit traditional Hindu religious sites in Sindh and Punjab).
Ahmad Shah was victorious, and here's the part where he halfheartedly restored Mughal authority. You may have noted that the Afghans suffered pretty heavy casualties in victory, and to make matters worse many of their soldiers began to complain about the Indian climate and lack of pay. Ahmad Shah realized that he was going to be in serious trouble if the Marathas formed another army to send north against him, which they actually did. So he sent a letter to the Maratha Peshwa, Balaji Baji Rao (d. 1761), expressing regret for the deaths of the Peshwa's son and brother but insisting that he had not been the aggressor. That was enough to slow the Maratha advance (they don't really seem to have been interested in a rematch either) and buy Ahmad Shah time to make his arrangements.
Ahmad Shah decreed that Indian nobles should all recognize the Mughal Emperor, who by now was Shah Alam II (d. 1806), as their ruler. He then left his adjutant, Najib ad-Dawlah (d. 1770), as regent. He also, and here we get to what I think was Ahmad Shah's real motivation, secured an annual tribute of four million rupees from Delhi. Then he went home. Ahmad Shah never returned to northern India, not even when the Marathas retook Delhi in 1771. If he'd really been interested in restoring the Mughals, you'd think that Maratha reconquest of Delhi would've gotten his attention, but as far as I know there's no evidence that it did—then again, Ahmad Shah did die less than a year later. In reality, it seems his real interest in India was in defending what he had and carting off some extra wealth rather than conquest. His decision to invade northern India may have been more defensive than offensive, really, motivated by a need to protect his territories from Maratha expansion.
Panipat was the last time before the mid-20th century when two large, indigenous (more or less) South Asian armies waged war against each other—pretty soon, they'd all be waging wars against the British. Although the Marathas did eventually recover much of the territory they lost to the Durranis, they were unable to expand much beyond that before they were taken apart by Britain over the course of the three Anglo-Maratha Wars in the late 18th and early 19th centuries. The Durrani Empire survived Ahmad Shah's death on paper, but the accession of Timur Shah sent the empire into a string of civil wars from which it never really recovered, and it was finally put out of its misery by the Barakzai Pashtun ruler Dost Mohammad Khan (d. 1863) in the 1820s.