The Maratha Empire of Early Modern India
Curated/Reviewed by Matthew A. McIntosh
The Maratha Empire (also transliterated, Mahratta), or the Maratha Confederacy, was a Hindu state located in present-day India. It existed from 1674 to 1818. At its peak, the empire’s territories covered 250 million acres (1 million km²) or one-third of South Asia. The state was ruled by a series of Prime Ministers who were advised by a Council of eight. As the British expanded their presence in India, the Marathas represented a major threat to their territorial ambitions.
After fighting a series of wars with the British, the Marathas were defeated in 1818. Under British paramountcy, various princely states emerged from its ruins. However, the spirit of the Maratha Empire lives on in the Indian state of Maharashtra, “Great Nation,” which was created in 1960 as a Marathi-speaking state. Traditions, such as social mobility regardless of caste and religious pluralism, continue to characterize life in this part of India. Although the empire had been pitted for many years against the Muslim Moghul Empire, it was marked by a policy of Religious tolerance, which had been one of the fundamental beliefs of Shivaji, the empire’s founder. In a world that too often seems divided by religion and class, the story of a polity where anyone of talent could succeed, where people had liberty to practice their faiths without persecution or discrimination, needs to be heard. Only by placing such accounts alongside those of intolerant societies and of the religious conflict can a more balanced history of how people of different religions interact be constructed.
After a lifetime of exploits and guerrilla warfare with Adilshah of Bijapur and Moghul emperor Aurangzeb, the local lord Shivaji founded an independent Maratha nation in 1674, with Raigad as its capital. Shivaji died in 1680, leaving a large, but vulnerably located kingdom. The Mughals invaded, fighting an unsuccessful 25 year long war from 1682 to 1707. Shahu, a grandson of Shivaji, ruled as emperor until 1749. During his reign, Shahu appointed a Peshwa (prime minister) as head of government under certain conditions. After the death of Shahu, the Peshwas became the de facto leaders of the Empire from 1749 to 1761, while Shivaji’s successors continued as nominal rulers from their base in Satara. Covering a large part of the subcontinent, the Maratha Empire kept the British forces at bay during the eighteenth century, until dissension between the Peshwas and their sardars, or army commanders, tore at their cohesion.
The Maratha Empire was at its height in the eighteenth century, under Shahu and the Peshwa Baji Rao I. Losses at the Third Battle of Panipat, in 1761, suspended further expansion of the empire and reduced the power of the Peshwas. In 1761, after severe losses in the Panipat war, the Peshwas lost control of the Kingdom. Many sardars like Shinde, Holkar, Gayakwad, PantPratinidhi, Bhosale of Nagpur, Pandit of Bhor, Patwardhan, and Newalkar became kings in their respective regions. The empire gave way to a loose Confederacy, with political power resting in a “pentarchy” of five mostly Maratha dynasties: The Peshwas of Pune; the Sindhias (originally “Shindes”) of Malwa and Gwalior; the Holkars of Indore; the Bhonsles of Nagpur; and the Gaekwads of Baroda. A rivalry between the Sindhia and Holkar dominated the confederation’s affairs into the early nineteenth century, as did the clashes with the British and the British East India Company in the three Anglo-Maratha Wars. In the Third Anglo-Maratha War, the last Peshwa, Baji Rao II, was defeated by the British in 1818. Most of the former Maratha Empire was absorbed by British India, although some of the Maratha states persisted as quasi-independent princely states until India became independent in 1947.
Chatrapati Shri Shivaji Maharaj (c. 1627-1680)
The Hindu Marathas—settled in the Desh region around Satara, in the western portion of the Deccan plateau, where the plateau meets the eastern slopes of the Western Ghats mountains—had successfully resisted incursions into the region by the Muslim Mughal rulers of northern India. Under their leader, Shivaji Maharaj, the Marathas freed themselves from the Muslim sultans of Bijapur to the southeast, and became much more aggressive and began to frequently raid Mughal territory, ransacking the Mughal port of Surat in 1664. Shivaji Maharaj proclaimed himself emperor taking the title (Chhatrapati) in 1674. The Marathas had spread and conquered some of central India by Shivaji Maharaja’s death in 1680, but later lost it to the Mughals and the British. According to Indian historian Tryambak Shankar Shejwalkar, Shivaji Maharaj was inspired by the great Vijayanagara Empire, a bulwark against Muslim invasion of South India. The victories of the then king of Mysore, Kanthirava Narasaraja Wodeyar against the Sultan of Bijapur also inspired Shivaji Maharaj. Shivaji Maharaj’s vision encompassed the dev (God), desh (country), and dharma (religion) as a unity.
Sambhaji (c. 1681-1689)
Shivaji had two sons: Sambhaji and Rajaram. Sambhaji, the elder son, was very popular among the courtiers. As well as being a competent politician and a great warrior, he was also a poet. In 1681, Sambhaji had himself crowned and resumed his father’s expansionist policies. Sambhaji had earlier defeated the Portuguese and Chikka Deva Raya of Mysore. To nullify any Rajput-Maratha alliance, as well as all Deccan Sultanates, the Mughal emperor Aurangzeb himself headed south in 1682. With his entire imperial court, administration, and an army of about 400,000 troops he proceeded to conquer the sultanates of Bijapur and Golconda. During the eight years that followed, Sambhaji led the Marathas, never losing a battle or a fort to Aurangzeb. Aurangzeb had almost lost the war. However, in 1689, Sambhaji was killed by Aurangzeb with the help of Sambhaji’s own relatives, who betrayed him. Aurangzeb had succeeded winning them over to his side.
Rajaram and Tarabai (c. 1689-1707)
Rajaram, Sambhaji’s brother, now assumed the throne. Satara, which Rajaram had made his capital, came under siege in 1700 and was eventually surrendered to the Mughals. Rajaram, who had taken refuge in Jinji nine years earlier, died at about the same time. His widow, Tarabai, assumed control in the name of her son Shivaji. Although she offered a truce, this was rejected by the emperor. Tarabai then heroically led the Marathas against the Mughals; by 1705, they had crossed the Narmada River and entered Malwa, then in Mughal possession.
Malwa was a decisive battle for the Maratha empire. After this, the Mughals lost their leading position on the Indian subcontinent forever; subsequent Mughal Emperors were only titular kings. The Marathas emerged as victorious after a long drawn-out and fiercely-fought battle. It was the soldiers and commanders who participated in this war who achieved the real expansion of the Maratha empire. The victory also set the foundations for later imperial conquests.
Shahu (c. 1707-1749)
After Emperor Aurangzeb’s death in 1707, Shahuji, son of Sambhaji (and grandson of Shivaji), was released by Bahadur Shah, the next Mughal emperor. He immediately claimed the Maratha throne and challenged his aunt Tarabai and her son. This promptly turned the Mughal-Maratha war into a three-cornered affair. The states of Satara and Kolhapur came into being in 1707, because of the succession dispute over the Maratha kingship. By 1710, two separate principalities had become an established fact, eventually confirmed by the Treaty of Warna in 1731.
In 1713 Farrukhsiyar had declared himself Mughal emperor. His bid for power had depended heavily on two brothers, known as the Saiyids, one of whom had been the governor of Allahabad and the other the governor of Patna. However, the brothers had fallen out with the emperor. Negotiations between the Saiyids and Peshwa Balaji Vishwanath, a civilian representative of Shahu, drew the Marathas into the vendetta against the emperor.
An army of Marathas commanded by Parsoji Bhosale, and of Mughals, marched up to Delhi unopposed and managed to depose the emperor. In return for this help, Balaji Vishwanath managed to negotiate a substantial treaty. Shahuji would have to accept Mughal rule in the Deccan, furnish forces for the imperial army, and pay an annual tribute. In return he received a firman (decree), or imperial directive, guaranteeing him Swaraj, or independence, in the Maratha homeland, plus rights to chauth and sardeshmukh (amounting to 35 percent of the total revenue) throughout Gujarat, Malwa, and the now six provinces of the Mughal Deccan. This treaty also released Yesubai, Shahuji’s mother, from Mughal prison.
Amatya Ramchandra Pant Bawdekar (1650-1716)
Ramchandra Pant Amatya Bawdekar was a court administrator who rose up through the ranks from local record-keeper (Kulkarni) to become one of the eight members of the Ashtapradhan (advisory council) under the guidance and support of Shivaji Maharaj. He was one of the prominent Peshwas from the time of Shivaji, prior to the rise of the later Peshwas who controlled the empire after Shahuji.
When Chatrapati Rajaram took refuge in Jinji in 1689, he issued a “Hukumat Panha” (King Status) to Pant before leaving. Ramchandra Pant subsequently managed the entire state, dealing with a series of challenges including betrayal from Vatandars (local satraps under the Maratha kingdom, scarcity of food and the influx of refugees from wars outside the empire.
He received military help from the great Maratha warriors—Santaji Ghorpade and Dhanaji Jadhav. On many occasions he himself participated in battles against Mughals, playing the role of shadow king in the absence of Chatrapati Rajaram.
In 1698, he stepped down from the post of “Hukumat Panha” when Rajaram appointed his wife, Tarabai, who rewarded Pant with a senior administrative appointment. He wrote “Adnyapatra” मराठी: आज्ञापञ in which he explained different techniques of war, the maintenance of forts and of the administration etc.
Owing to his loyalty to Tarabai against Shahuji (who was supported by more local satraps), he was sidelined after Shahuji arrival in 1707. The post of the state Peshwa was given to Balaji Vishwanath in 1713. Ramchandra Pant died in 1716, in Panhala fort.
Peshwa Baji Rao I (1720-1740)
After Balaji Vishwanath’s death in April 1719, his son, Baji Rao I was appointed as Peshwa by Chattrapati Shahuji, one of the most lenient emperors. Shahuji possessed a strong capacity for recognizing talent, and actually caused a social revolution by bringing capable people into power irrespective of their social status. This was an indication of a great social mobility within the Maratha empire, enabling its rapid expansion.
Shrimant Baji Rao Vishwanath Bhatt (August 18, 1699-April 25, 1740), also known as Baji Rao I, was a noted general who served as Peshwa (Prime Minister) to the fourth Maratha Chhatrapati (Emperor) Shahu between 1719 and Baji Rao’s death. He is also known as Thorala (Marathi for Elder) Baji Rao. Like his father, despite being a Brahmin, he took up leading his troops. During his lifetime, he never lost a battle. He is credited with expanding the Maratha Empire created by its founder, which reached its zenith during his rule. Baji Rao is thus acknowledged as the most famous of the nine Peshwas.
Peshwa Balaji Baji Rao (1740-1761)
Baji Rao’s son, Balaji Bajirao (Nanasaheb), was appointed as a Peshwa by Shahu. The period between 1741 and 1745 was one of comparative calm in the Deccan. Shahuji died in 1749.
Nanasaheb encouraged agriculture, protected the villagers, and brought about a marked improvement in the state of the territory. Continued expansion saw Raghunath Rao, the brother of Nanasaheb, pushing into Punjab in the wake of the Afghan withdrawal after Ahmad Shah Durrani’s plunder of Delhi in 1756. In Lahore, as in Delhi, the Marathas were now major players. By 1760, with a defeat of the Nizam of Hyderabad in the Deccan, the Maratha empire reached its greatest extent with a territory of over 250 million acres (1 million km²) or one-third of the Indian sub-continent.
The Decline of the Empire
The Peshwa sent an army to challenge the Afghan led alliance of Indian Muslims that included Rohillas, Shujah-ud-dowlah, Nujeeb-ud-dowlah, and the Maratha army was decisively defeated on January 14, 1761, at the Third Battle of Panipat. The Marathas were abandoned by Suraj Mal and Rajputs, who quit the Maratha alliance at a decisive moment, leading to the great battle. Their supply chains cut off, the Marathas attacked the Afghans in an act of desperation as their forces had not had a meal in three days. The defeat at Paniput checked Maratha expansion and fragmented the empire. After the battle, the Maratha confederacy never fought again as one unit. Delhi/Agra was controlled by Mahadji Shinde from Gwalior, Central India was controlled by Holkars from Indore and Western India was controlled by Gaikwad’s from Baroda.
Even today, the phrase in Marathi, “meet your Panipat,” has a similar meaning as the phrase “meet your Waterloo” does in English.
After 1761, young Madhavrao Peshwa tried his best to rebuild the empire in spite of his frail health. In a bid to effectively manage the large empire, semi-autonomy was given to strongest of the knights. Thus, the autonomous Maratha states of the Gaekwads of Baroda, the Holkars of Indore and [Malwa, the Scindias (or Shinde’s) of Gwalior (and Ujjain), Pawars of Udgir and Bhonsales of Nagpur (no blood relation with Shivaji’s or Tarabai’s family) came into being in far flung regions of the empire. Even in the Maharashtra itself many knights were given semi-autonomous charges of small districts which led to princely states like Sangli, Aundh, Miraj, and so on.
In 1775, the British East India Company, from its base in Bombay, intervened in a succession struggle in Pune, on behalf of Raghunathrao (also called Raghobadada), which became the First Anglo-Maratha War. That ended in 1782, with a restoration of the pre-war status quo. In 1802, the British intervened in Baroda to support the heir to the throne against rival claimants, and they signed a treaty with the new Maharaja recognizing his independence from the Maratha empire in return for acknowledging British paramountcy. In the Second Anglo-Maratha War (1803-1805), the Peshwa Baji Rao II signed a similar treaty. The Third Anglo-Maratha War (1817-1818), a last-ditch effort to regain sovereignty, resulted in the loss of Maratha independence: it left Britain in control of most of India. The Peshwa was exiled to Bithoor (near Kanpur, U.P.) as a pensioner of the British. The Maratha heartland of Desh, including Pune, came under direct British rule, with the exception of the states of Kolhapur and Satara, which retained local Maratha rulers. The Maratha-ruled states of Gwalior, Indore, and Nagpur all lost territory, and came under subordinate alliance with the British Raj as princely states that retained internal sovereignty under British “paramountcy.” Other small princely states of Maratha knights were retained under the British Raj as well.
The last Peshwa, Nana Sahib, born as Govind Dhondu Pant, was the adopted son of Peshwa Baji Rao II. He was one of the main leaders of the 1857 battles against British rule. He encouraged the people and the Indian Princes to fight against the British. Tatya Tope, his general, led the war and struck terror into the hearts of the British. Rani Lakshmibai was his childhood playmate and he had brotherly relations with her. Both of them fought against the British. He encouraged Indian soldiers to rise against the British. Though he was defeated in this war of independence, he is viewed as a glorious patriot in Indian history.
Today the spirit of the Maratha Empire is preserved in the Indian state of Maharashtra, “Great Nation,” which was created in 1960, as a Marathi-speaking state. The territories of Baroda were combined with Kutch to form the state of Gujarat. Gwalior and Indore were merged with Madhya Pradesh, Jhansi with Uttar Pradesh. Vestiges of Maratha control over Delhi can still be found in Old Delhi in area surrounding the “Nutan Marathi” school and Maharashtra Bhavan.
Legacy of the Empire
Often painted as a kind of loose military organization, the Maratha empire was actually revolutionary in nature. It did bring certain fundamental changes initiated by the genius of its founder, the celebrated Shivaji. They can be summarized as below:
- From its onset, Religious tolerance and religious pluralism were important pillars of the nation-state since they were fundamental beliefs of Shivaji, the founder of the empire.
- The Maratha Empire was unique in that it did not adhere to the caste system. Here, the Brahmins (priestly class) were the prime ministers of the Kshatriya (warrior class) (Maratha) emperors and Kshatriya Dhangar (Holkars) were the trusted generals of the Brahmin Peshwas.
- Since its start, many people of talent were brought into the leadership of the Maratha Empire which made it one of the most socially mobile regimes. Note that the ruler of Indore was a Dhangar, a Shepherd; the rulers of Gwalior and Baroda were from ordinary peasant families; the Peshwas of the Bhatt family were from ordinary backgrounds; and Shivaji’s most trusted secretary Haider Ali Kohari was from an ordinary family. All the groups of the Maharashtrian society such as Vaishyas (merchants), Bhandaris, Brahmins, Kolis, Dhangars, Marathas and Saraswats were well-represented in the Empire.
- The Marathas militarily controlled huge tracts. Their policy of religious tolerance gave equal importance to Hindu interests and acted as an important back-pressure against the expanding Mughal influence. Today’s partitioned India is substantially the area of the Maratha confederacy.
- The empire also created a significant navy. At its height this was led by the legendary Kanhoji Angre.
- Suryanath U. Kamath, A Concise History of Karnataka from Pre-Historic Times to the Present (Bangalore, IN: Jupiter books, 2001), 243.
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Originally published by New World Encyclopedia, 10.07.2008, under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported license.