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Early Modern India

The Marathas

by Abhijit Rajadhyaksha, 4 April 2010

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 advanced as far as the gates of Delhi and became a force to be reckoned 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'.

Brief history of the Marathas

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), and 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.

Then came 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.

[1] 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 [1]), 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 taken by 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 which 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 at which 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

Sindhudurg Fort was one of a pair built by Shivaji to defend the Arabian Sea coastline, but was incidental to most of the inland Maratha battles

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 Hindu population.

The Peshwa palace of Shaniwarwada
The palace of the Peshwas, Shaniwarwada, was photographed in 1860 and to a surprisingly high quality given the early date, although not all of the participants could keep still for long enough

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.

This 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.

The Peshwas

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.

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 reign.

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 booty.

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 which 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 appreciated.

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 Maratha politics.

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 II's 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) which 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 pride.

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 British control.

There was a final attempt by the nominal Peshwa, Nanasaheb II (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.


Main Sources

Pagadi, Setu Madhavrao - Chatrapati Shivaji, Continental Prakashan

Prasad, L - Studies in Indian History, Cosmos Bookhive, Gurgaon, 2000

Sarkar, Sir Jadunath - Shivaji and his Times, Orient Longman

Spear, Percival - The History of India, Penguin, 1990



Text copyright © Abhijit Rajadhyaksha. An original feature for the History Files.