The Maratha is a politically dominant caste in the
present day state of Maharashtra (a portion of the Deccan plateau).
But when we speak of 'Marathas' in historical terms we include not
only the primary Marathas (by caste) ie. the aristocratic (nobles),
the Marathas (the warrior caste, later to be known as the 96 kuli
marathas), but also other communities (castes) in Maharashtra,
such as the Brahmins (the priestly caste), the Kunbi Marathas (the peasant
caste), (the Maval region-specific community the 'Mavales'), the Kayasthas,
ie. CKPs, SKPs (who traditionally worked as accountants
for the kings), the Dhangars (the shepherd caste), etc, and all those
communities prevalent in Maharashtra who joined their illustrious
leader, Chatrapati Shivaji Maharaj, in carving out a Hindu kingdom in
the predominantly Mohammedan Deccan.
The Marathas later galloped
right up to the gates of Delhi and became a force to reckon with in
the Indian politics of the time. The Marathas may have been the last
stumbling block for the British before they secured their supremacy
over all of India.
The Marathas were essentially sturdy by build,
and a wheatish duskiness in complexion (except for the Konkan-based
Chitpavan Brahmins, many of whom were unusually fair complexioned
and with distinct features like grey eyes, brown hair, etc, alluding
to a foreign gene), and hard-working. They were
mainly peasants who toiled hard on their otherwise hilly and not so
fertile land (barring the tract of southern Maharashtra). There was
no aristocracy amongst them. Even the village headmen toiled
in their fields, besides collecting revenue for the king. The
language spoken was mainly 'Marathi' and its dialects (Malvani,
Konkani), especially around the coastal region. They were simple
folk, and very God-fearing and religious minded. This probably led
to the early saint movements in Maharashtra, also called the Warkari
movements which were mainly aimed at social reform. The
land of Maharashtra gave birth to several saints, poets,
philosophers and teachers, such as Sant Dnyaneshwar, Sant Tukaram, Sant
Namdeo, Sant Sakhubai, Sant Eknath, Ramdas swami, etc, all devoted to
their central deities, Vithoba (a form of Lord Vishnu), and Rakhumai
(a form of the Goddess Lakshmi). Also revered were other Gods, such
as Lord Shiva as Mahadev, Goddess Parvati as Bhavani, and their son, Lord
Ganesh as Ganapati, besides the earthly incarnations of Vishnu like
Lord Rama and Lord Krishna. Maharashtra always had many temples in
their honour. These saints ensured that spirituality and devotion to
God spread to every corner of society.
The village headmen were called 'Patils' or 'Khots' (in the Konkan
region). They usually came under the district heads, landowners and
revenue collectors called the 'Deshmukhs', the 'Desais' and the 'Deshpandes'.
Their accountants were called the 'Kulkarnis'.
The knights and the nobles usually resided in 'wadas'
(multi-storeyed houses), gigantic black stoned
forts (Kila, Qila, or castle), which, though they cannot be called
aesthetic, were certainly most practical. The head of the fort was
called the 'Kiledar'. The ambitious and strong amongst the peasants
were usually recruited in the army and those who rose in ranks were
often allotted estates or 'jagirs'.
Maharashtra was called Ashmaka (the
modern Marathwada region) in ancient times and was one of the
sixteen great Janapadas. The lands of the Marathas were ruled in turn by various dynasties,
from the Satvahanas (230 BC-AD 220), the Vakatakas
(AD 250-525) of Vidharba, the Kalachuris (in the sixth
century), the Chalukyas (the Chalukyas from
AD 543, and the Western Chalukyas 973-1189), the Rashtrakutas
(753-982) [the Kadambas of Goa and the Shilaharas of South and North
Konkan and Kolhapur served as vassals of the Chalukyas and
Rashtrakutas, and they were finally overthrown by the Yadavas], and
the Yadavas of Devagiri themselves (850-1334) until Devagiri was invaded by
Allauddin Khilji, the sultan of Delhi. The Khilji dynasty
(1290-1320) ruled the Deccan from their capital at Delhi.
 In present day India, the
Deccan areas are distributed amongst the present day states of
Maharashtra, Karnataka and Andhra Pradesh.
The rule of Delhi later
passed to the Tughlaq dynasty (1321-1398). Mohammed Tughlaq,
a successor of the Tughlaq dynasty, made Devagiri his capital,
renaming its fort Daulatabad. The province of the Deccan (ie. the region
between the north of the River Godavari and the River Krishna ), became an
independent state during the time of the Bahamani sultanate
(1347-1527). This sultanate later disintegrated and split
into five independent sultanates at Berar, Ahmednagar (both
presently in Maharashtra state), Golconda (presently in Andhra
Pradesh), Bijapur and Bidar (both presently in Karnataka state).
Soon the states of Bidar were swallowed up by Bijapur and Berar was
Ahmednagar, leaving only three important sultanates in the Deccan: the
Nizamshahi of Ahmednagar (1490-1636), Adilshahi of
Bijapur (1490-1686), and Qutubshahi of Golconda (1518-1687).
Shivaji the founder of the Maratha empire
The legendary king, Shivaji Bhosale (b.1630- d.1680), created the
kingdom that is now known as Maharashtra, after prolonged battles
with the Bijapur Sultanate and later with the mighty Mughals (not
to mention his minor skirmishes with the Portuguese, the English and
the Dutch, who came as traders but had nibbled away at territory to
create their own small enclaves along the Deccan coast).
Shivaji's father was Shahaji Raje Bhosale (b.1594-d.1665). Shahaji was
the son of Malojirao Bhosale, head man of Verul, and the first in
the Bhosale family to gain prominence in the Nizamshahi court.
Shahaji himself was
a high ranking Maratha noble at the court of Nizamshah of
Ahmednagar. That was at a time when the Mughals under Shah Jahan were
trying to gain a foothold in the Deccan but the Deccan sultanates
were fiercely resisting them. Under the able guidance
of Malik Amber, the Abyssinian general of Nizam Shahi, Shahaji
Raje's forces fought several successful battles against the Mughals.
There was also
competition between the Nizamshah of Ahmednagar and Adilshah of
Bijapur for the internal territories of the Deccan. Often, Adilshah
and the Mughals made overtures to Shahaji Raje to encourage him to
join their ranks. But barring a occasion or two (especially after the
murder of his father-in-law, Lakhujirao Jadhav and his kin in the
Ahmednagar court), he remained loyal to Nizam Shah of Ahmednagar.
Sindhudurg Fort was one of a pair built by Shivaji to
defend the Arabian Sea coastline, but was incidental to most of the inland
After the death of Malik Amber, there was an internal revolt in the Nizamshahi which led to the murder of its erstwhile ruler and later
led to the succession of Fateh Khan, the son of Malik Amber. But
in attempting to be too cheeky, Fateh Khan fell out with the Bijapuris
and the Mughals. That was when Shahaji Raje installed Murtuza, the
young son of Nizam Shah, on the throne of Ahmednagar and ruled on his
behalf. Sensing an opportunity, the Adilshah of Bijapur and the
Mughals combined forces and mounted an assault on Ahmednagar. It was
a long, drawn-out war which eventually led to the defeat of the Nizamshahi forces. Shahaji
Raje was forced to surrender and as a
part of the treaty, had to serve in the Adilshahi court of Bijapur.
Shahaji settled down in his jagir (estate) of Bangalore along with
his elder son, Shambhuraje. (Sambhaji I, also Shivaji's elder brother,
and his second wife and younger son Ekoji (Vyankoji), who later established the
royal Bhosale dynasty at Thanjavur/Tanjore in the present day state of
Tamil Nadu. Sambhaji I died young. Incidentally Shivaji's elder son
was also named Sambhaji, ie. Sambhaji II after his late uncle.)
Shivaji Raje and his mother Jijabai were left to manage their
estates in Pune and Supa (both in Maharashtra) under the stewardship
of Dadoji Kondeo, who acted as the manager of the estate and also as
Shivaji's early teacher. Since childhood, Shivaji was fiercely
independent and resented the Islamic tyranny over the predominantly
The palace of the Peshwas, Shaniwarwada, photographed in 1860
Chatrapati Sambhaji Maharaj, nephew of another Sambhaji who died at a young age
From his youth onwards, he started nibbling away
at the territories of the Bijapuris and later the Mughals. He created an
army from the local hill men (the Mavales), and successfully captured
several forts. After the death of Adilshah, Shivaji attacked his
kingdom even more vigorously. Shivaji's legend grew when he killed
the gigantic Afzal Khan, the famed general of Bijapur (who even had
the reputation of being able to ward off Aurangzeb's attack), and
wounded the stalwart Mughal general, Shaista Khan, on various
occasions. Shivaji's lore reached a new zenith when he hoodwinked
Aurangzeb and escaped from house arrest in Delhi. He simultaneously
fought the armies of the Bijapuris and the Mughals and managed to
keep other potential enemies like Qutub Shah, the Portuguese, and
the English at bay (by hook or by crook). Shivaji eventually succeeded in carving
out his own independent Hindu Maratha kingdom in the Deccan.
Shivaji died prematurely at just fifty. He was succeeded by his son,
Sambhaji (b.1657- d.1689, Sambhaji II). After an initial
power struggle with his stepmother, Soyrabai, Sambhaji succeeded to
the Maratha throne. He was also a brave warrior and kept on
resisting Mughal attacks. The Mughal emperor Aurangzeb had himself
encamped in the Deccan (at Aurangabad, Maharashtra) and was
personally supervising the fight against the Marathas.
Eventually Sambhaji was betrayed to the Mughals by his own
relatives. He was imprisoned by Aurangzeb, who asked him to
accept the Islamic faith or else face death. Sambhaji chose the
latter and after some horrific torture he was put to death.
martyrdom of Sambhaji spurred on the Marathas even more, and under
the leadership of Rajaram (b.1670-d.1700), Shivaji's younger son and
later his queen, Tarabai (b.1675-d.1761) the Marathas continued
their resistance against the Mughals. While Sambhaji's son, Shahu Raje, and wife, Yesubai, remained in Mughal imprisonment in Delhi,
the legendary Maratha warriors, Dhanaji Jadhav and Santaji Ghorpade, continued to create havoc in the enemy
camp under the guidance of Tarabai.
Aurangzeb died in 1707. The Mughals released Shahu from prison as
a part of their strategy to counter Tarabai (the widow of Rajaram).
Shahu challenged the supremacy of Tarabai in Maharashtra and a
war of succession ensued to prove the legitimacy of Shivaji's claim
to the throne. A Chitpavan Brahmin named Balaji Vishwanath Bhat assisted Shahu
in his claim to the throne, and the forces of Shahu eventually won, and
Tarabai was exiled to Kolhapur (along with her son, Shivaji II),
where she spent the remainder of her life (later a separate throne of Kolhapur was established which owed allegiance to Satara).
Shahu (b.1682- d.1749) was declared the Chatrapati (king) and made Satara his capital. He appointed Balaji Vishwanath Bhat
(1680-1719) as his Peshwa (prime minister). Balaji Vishwanath had
initiated a treaty with the Mughal emperor, Farukhsiyar (during the
years of a power vacuum in Delhi), which the latter refused to
honour. Hence the Marathas assisted the Mughal vizier, Hussain Ali
(one of the Sayyid brothers) in dethroning the Mughal emperor, for
which the Marathas extracted the right to collect revenue from the
Deccan provinces. Shahu had by now refrained from active politics
and the Peshwas eventually became the de facto leaders of the
Marathas (especially after the death of the issueless Shahu Raje.
Though there remained titular Maratha kings in their capital, Satara). After the death of Balaji Vishwanath Bhat, Chatrapati
Shahu Raje Bhosale appointed the young son of Balaji Vishwanath,
Bajirao I (b.1699- d.1740), as the new Peshwa.
The decadent Mughals had by now become a lot weaker
and they were challenged on all fronts. Bajirao I took advantage of
this situation and began the expansion of the Maratha empire.
Bajirao I was called the 'cavalry general' for his rapid tactical
movements on horseback. He matched Shivaji in the speed and alacrity
shown in launching swift attacks on his enemies. The Marathas under
Bajirao I marched right up to the gates of Delhi.
Chatrapati Shivaji Maharaj was the founder of the
On the way back, the commanders of Bajirao I's army
were established by him as governors in the various regions of
central and western India, forming a Maratha confederacy. In years
to come, they were to form their own kingdoms with allegiance to the
Satara throne (Maharashtra) and the Peshwas in Pune (Maharashtra).
The Gaekwads would establish themselves in Baroda (Gujrat), the
Holkars at Indore (the present day state of Madhya Pradesh), and the
Shindes (later known as Scindias) at Gwalior (Madhya Pradesh).
Bajirao's reign was also characterised by the famous victory of the
Marathas (led by his younger brother Chimnaji Appa) over the
Portuguese at Vasai (Bassein Creek).
Bajirao I was succeeded by his son, Balaji Bajirao,
also known as Nanasaheb (1721-1761). He also proved to be a
competent administrator. He maintained the boundaries of the Maratha
empire (with the able help of his son, Vishwasrao, cousin
Sadashivrao (son of Chimnaji Appa), younger brother Raghunathrao,
and his generals such as Holkar and Shinde. The Maratha kingdom
expanded up to Attock (now in Pakistan) during Balaji Bajirao's
Another of the Maratha sardars, Raghoji Bhosale
of Nagpur also conducted several incursions in eastern India
(Bengal, Chattisgad, Orissa) and brought back large amounts of
But his tenure also saw one of the worst moments in
the Maratha history. Nanasaheb was responsible for bringing the
British to the forefront of Indian politics after seeking their
assistance against the Angres of Kolaba (1754) who had been the
traditional admirals of the Maratha navy. The British were soon to
be the nemesis of the Marathas in the years to come.
In addition, due to certain
miscalculations on the battlefield (the Marathas had tasted power at
the topmost rung for quite some time and it was having a corrupting
effect on them. They were now being viewed as mercenary and despotic
and were losing popular support even amongst the Hindu kings of
northern India), the Marathas faced their first
major defeat at the hands of the marauding Afghan king, Ahmad Shah Abdali, in the
Third Battle of Panipat, 1761. Nanasaheb also
lost his son Vishwasrao and his brother Sadashivrao Bhau in that battle.
Unable to cope with that loss, Nanasaeb died soon after.
He was succeeded by his other son, Madhavrao I,
also known as Thorle
Madhavrao or Madhavrao the elder (1745-1772). He was a well-meaning
ruler, but he had to face dissent from his own uncle, Raghunathrao,
besides the rising debts that accrued from the disastrous battle of
Panipat), thus diverting his attention.
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 the strongest of the
knights. In this way, the autonomous Maratha states of the Gaekwads of
Baroda, the Holkars of Indore & Malwa, the Scindias (or Shindes) of
Gwalior (and Ujjain), the Pawars of Udgir, and the Bhonsales of
Nagpur (who were related to Maratha emperor Sambhaji Maharaj Bhosale) came into being
in far flung regions of the empire. Even in Maharashtra itself
many knights were given semi-autonomous charge of small districts
which led to the creation of princely states such as Sangli, Aundh, Bhor, Bawda, Jath,
Phaltan, Miraj, etc. His justice system (under the chief justice Ram
Shastri) and citizen redress systems were very popular and highly
Madhavrao I competently maintained the Maratha empire
Madhavrao I died prematurely while still young
after suffering from Tuberculosis. But he managed to leave an
indelible impression in his brief span.
He was succeeded by his young brother, Narayanrao
(1759-1773), but he was treacherously murdered at the behest of
their uncle, Raghunathrao and his wife Anandibai, in the precincts
of their palace of Shanivarwada at Pune.
Raghunathrao briefly succeeded as the next Peshwa
(1773-1774), but was soon overthrown by his minister, Nana
Phadanvis (1742-1800). Nana installed the son of Narayanrao,
Madhavrao II, also called Sawai Madhavrao (1774-1795), and managed the
affairs of the Maratha confederacy through a twelve member regency
council also called the Barbhai Council (comprising of Haripant
Phadke, Moroba Phadnis, Sakharambapu Bokil, Trimbakraomama Pethe,
Mahadji Shinde, Tukojirao Holkar, Phaltankar, Bhagwanrao Pratinidhi,
Maloji Ghorpade, Raste, and Babuji Naik). The first Anglo Maratha
confrontation of 1779 took place during his tenure (Raghunathrao
sided with the British during this war in a bid to regain power).
The Maratha forces led by Mahadji Shinde and the British forces met
fluctuating fortunes in this war, leading eventually to the Treaty
of Salbhai in 1782 (initiated by Mahadji Shinde). As per the treaty,
Sawai Madhavrao continued to be accepted as a Peshwa, but Mahadji
Shinde succeeded in becoming his own independent chief and ceased to
be an vassal of the Peshwa. The British agreed to remain neutral in
Mahadji now started increasing his power in the
north. He had subsequent victories against many small rulers in
central India who had earlier refused to pay him tribute. He
formally established his capital at Gwalior in 1783. He even
reinstated Shah Alam II as the emperor of Delhi, after he was
deposed and blinded by the Afghan Rohilla chief, Ghulam Qadir.
Mahadji then came to be known as Shaha Alam IIís honorary regent. He
even subdued the Nizam of Hyderabad and concluded a peace treaty
with Tipu Sultan of Mysore in 1792.
By 1790, Mahadji Shinde had succeeded in
re-establishing Maratha dominance in northern India. Mahadji died in
1793. He was succeeded by Daulatrao Shinde (grandson of Tukoji, the
brother of Mahadji Shinde). Madhavrao II allegedly jumped to his
death (1795) from the palace walls of Shanivarwada, for reasons
(alleged suicide) that remained shrouded in mystery.
Nana and Daulatrao Shinde then
installed the son of Raghunathrao, Bajirao II (1775-1851), as the
next Peshwa. By now a situation of near civil war was created when two
Peshwa generals, Daulatrao Shinde of Gwalior and
Yeshwantrao Holkar of Indore, started fighting amongst themselves. Bajirao II aligned himself with his mentor, Daulatrao.
However, Holkar ultimately triumphed, reaching the gates of Pune,
and Baji Rao fled to Bombay in September 1802, into the hands of the
British who, buoyed with their successes in other parts of India,
were waiting to take on their final hurdle in the Marathas.
Peshwa Baji Rao II placed himself in the
hands of the British via the Treaty of Bassein in December 1802, in
which the British agreed to reinstate Baji Rao in return for the
Marathas allowing British troops in Maratha territory and paying for
their maintenance, and an acceptance of a British Resident at Pune.
But this move by the Peshwa infuriated the Shindes of Gwalior and
the Bhosales of Nagpur, who considered it an insult to Maratha
Sawai Madhavrao, Madhavrao II, son of Narayanrao
This gave rise to the Second Anglo-Maratha
war, in 1803-05. The Shindes and Bhosales were defeated in their
respective battles. The Holkars of Indore, who had earlier abstained
from the battle because of friction with the Shindes, joined the
fray much later and compelled the British to make peace. But the
Second Anglo-Maratha War managed to generate the first cracks in
the Maratha confederacy.
The Third Anglo-Maratha war (1817-18) was the final nail in the
coffin for the Maratha empire. The British outmanoeuvred the forces
of the Peshwa Yeshwantrao Holkar and Bhosales of Nagpur (this time
around, the Shindes abstained from the battle).
The Battle of Koregaon was fought on 1 January 1818,
and gave the British a decisive
victory. The Peshwa was pensioned off and most of his
territory was annexed to the British Bombay presidency, although the
Maharaja of Satara (Pratap Sinh Raje Bhosale, and later Shahaji Raje
Bhosale), was restored as the ruler of a princely state. Shahaji Raje
died without issue and the state of Satara was annexed to the
Bombay presidency in 1848 (Kolhapur remained a princely state until
India's independence from British rule in 1947). The northern
portion of the Nagpur Bhonsle dominions, together with the Peshwa's
territories in Bundelkhand, were annexed to British India as the
Saugor and Nerbudda Territories. The Maratha kingdoms of Indore,
Gwalior, Nagpur, and Jhansi became princely states, acknowledging
There was a final attempt by the nominal Peshwa,
(b.1824, an adopted son of Bajirao II), along with his minister, Tatya
Tope, to revive Maratha glory. He assisted the mutineers in what
is considered to be India's first war of independence (the Great, or Sepoy Mutiny),
in 1857. Rani Laxmibai of Jhansi (a Maratha vassal queen of Jhansi,
in present day Madhya Pradesh) demonstrated great valour during this
period. However, after the fall of Kanpur, Nanasaheb disappeared
without trace. His minister, Tatya Tope, was executed by the
British in 1859.
No one ever discovered the final fate of the last Peshwa.
The Marathas never submitted completely to the
British. The Ramoshi Rebellion of 1826 under Umaji Naik in Pune, the
Peasant Rebellion of 1875 in Pune, Satara, Ahmednagar, the armed
rebellion under Vasudev Balwant Phadake in 1879, and later active
participation in the Indian freedom movement by leaders like
Lokmanya Bal Gangadhar Tilak (also called the father of Indian
unrest, 1856-1920), Chaphekar Bandhu (who shot dead the tyrannical
collector, Rand, in 1897), Rajguru (who was hanged along with the
revolutionary Bhagat Singh), and later the firebrand, Vinayak
Damodar Savarkar (who became a youth icon for Indian
revolutionaries), bear testimony to this fact.