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Early Modern India

Maratha Aristocracy: Holkars of Indore

by Abhijit Rajadhyaksha, 27 November 2010

Indore is a city in the modern day state of Madhya Pradesh, in India. It was built up by a zamindar (an official employed by the Mughals to collect taxes from the peasants), named Rao Nandalal Chaudhary, across the banks of the River Narmada.

It was then known as Indreshwar after the local Indreshwar temple, and it came to be a princely state in the late eighteenth century under the ruling family, the Holkars.

The Holkars came to prominence during the time of Maratha Peshwa Bajirao I (or Baji Rao). His able military commander, Malharrao Holkar, was the patriarch of this Holkar family. A dhangar (shepherd) peasant by caste, Malharba, as he was popularly known, rose through the Maratha ranks by stint of his valour and attained the rank of general in Peshwa Bajirao's army. He helped Bajirao in establishing Maratha supremacy in central and northern India along with the likes of his equally competent contemporaries such as Ranoji Scindia and Udaji Pawar.

Genealogy of the Holkar family prior to Malharrao Holkar

Malharrao, Patil of Holmoran, Gopalji, Bhawanji, Khandoji, Mahadji, Bhikaji, Santoji, Kashiba, Malharji, Bapuji, Tukaji, Banaji, Heluji, Khanduji, Malharrao Holkar.


Malharrao Holkar (born 1693-died 1766) was born in the village of Hol, near Jejuri, Pune, to one Khanduji Holkar of Vir.

Malharrao joined the Maratha cavalry at a young age and this brave youth soon impressed his peers. He was noticed by Peshwa Balaji Vishwanath and was gradually elevated to the rank of a commander.

He assisted the next peshwa, Bajirao I (son of Balaji Vishwanath), in his early years and soon became a part of the team which progressed north to establish Maratha hegemony. Malharrao was instrumental in Bajirao's successes in Malwa and was soon given the task of collecting revenue from that region.

Malharrao participated in several victorious battles such as at Delhi in 1736, Bhopal in 1738, Bassein in 1739, Rajputana in 1743, the Rohilla campaigns of 1748, and 1751-1752, the Jat campaign at Kumher in 1754 (where Malharrao lost his son, Khanderrao, to a stray cannonball), Delhi in 1757, Sarhind and Lahore in 1758, and Mangrol in 1761. For his services to the Maratha kingdom Malharrao Holkar was given the subhedari and the jagirdari of Indore.

Malharrao headquartered himself at Maheshwar, Indore.

However, many historians (such as Rajwade, amongst others) have criticised Malharrao for his lack of timely support in the Third Panipat War (against the Afghans and the Rohillas), and his leniency towards his foes such as Najib ud daulla khan, mainly ascribed to his differences with the Scindias and the members of the peshwa family including Sadashivrao and Raghunathrao. Historians such as Shejwalkar eventually concluded that the Maratha debacle was a collective failure caused by several internal and external factors and was not a result of any dereliction of duty by Malharrao.

After Panipat, Malharrao Holkar tried to rebuild lost Maratha pride in the north. He defeated Maharaja Madhav Singh of Jaipur, who was trying to create a coalition to prevent the Marathas from entering the north. But Madhav Singh was defeated at the Battle of Mangrol in 1761 by Malharrao, although the old war veteran himself was wounded in the battle and retired to Indore to recuperate. He was never quite his old self again.

Rajbada palace, Indore
The Rajbada palace was built by Malharrao Holkar and completed in 1766. It was burnt down during the 1984 riots and rebuild by the current maharana in 2007

Because of the death of his only son and with him being in a precarious condition, Malharrao handed over the reins of his fiefdom's administration to his daughter-in-law, Rajmata Ahilyabai Holkar.

Malharrao Holkar breathed his last at Alampur, Madhya Pradesh, on 2 May 1766, where his cenotaph still rests. He was succeeded by his daughter-in-law.


Ahilyabai Holkar (born 31 May 1725 - died 13 August 1795, reigned 1767-1795) was the daughter-in-law and successor of Malharrao Holkar. She was also known as Punyashlok (as noted in the shlokas, or sacred chants) and as the 'Philosopher Queen'.

Ahilyabai was born in the village of Chaundi to one Mankoji Shinde, the patil (village chief). Unlike women of her times, Ahilyabai was accorded an education by her father. Malharrao Holkar chanced upon this bright girl and married her off to his son, Khanderao Holkar. She was then just eight years old.

After Khanderao's death in 1754, Malharrao introduced Ahilya to the administration of his estates. Twelve years later Malharrao also died and Ahilyabai was declared queen of Indore. It is said that she faced resistance in the form of Raghunathrao, the uncle and regent of Peshwa Madhavrao, but thanks to popular support and determination on her part, she continued to rule as queen.

Her son Malerao died prematurely, in 1766.

Ahilyabai proved her administrative skills and improved the life of her subjects, due to which she gained immense popularity. She built several charitable homes, roads, schools, ghats, wells, and temples, not just in her state but all around the country. She patronised the arts, architecture, literature and poetry in her kingdom, ensured effective policing in her state and even promoted agriculture and industry. She also made several judicial and social reforms, improved the lives of widows in her kingdom to a great extent, sponsored orphans, improved the lives of the tribal peoples and protected their customs. Ahilyabai Holkar therefore proved to be a person of extraordinary abilities and has etched her name amongst the few glorious queens of India eulogised right up to the present day.

After her death, her commander-in-chief - and also Malharrao's adopted son - Tukojirao Holkar (a distant relative), succeeded to the Indore throne.


Tukojirao Holkar (1795-1797) was the adopted son of Malharrao Holkar and the commander-in-chief of his forces.

He was a veteran of many campaigns fought alongside Malharrao, and he helped to consolidate Maratha rule in Rajputana and Malwa. His most famous battle was against Tipu Sultan whom he defeated decisively. There was also a sense of rivalry and one-upmanship with the Scindia family (Mahadji Scindia) of Gwalior during his tenure (which started during the reign of Ahilyabai Holkar).

The Holkars often found themselves in the opposing camp during their quest in Rajputana and the Jat lands. Tukojirao served as king of Indore for a very short period. He died in Khadki, Pune in 1797. His cenotaph still exists.


Kashirao Holkar (1797-1798) had assisted his father in many of his campaigns in northern India. After the death of Tukoji, there was a successional war between his sons, Kashirao and Malharrao II. The Scindias, who were fishing in troubled waters, had supported the cause of Kashirao and had him made the next ruler of Indore.


Malharrao II Holkar (1797-1798), ruled independently of Kashirao. He was killed by Scindia's forces.

This was greatly resented by Yeshwantrao (Jaswantrao) Holkar, the illegitimate son of Tukojirao Holkar, who was supporting Malharrao II along with Vithoji Holkar, as Yeshwantrao considered Malharrao II to be more competent to succeed Tukoji, especially after the latter showed his valour in the battles of Panchilas and Lakhiri.

Soon Yeshwantrao rebelled against Kashirao and subsequently deposed him and made himself the next king. Kashirao sought Scindia help but was captured at Asirgarh by Yeshwantrao's forces and imprisoned in Sendhwa. Kashirao later died in a scuffle (it was reported that he had been murdered) at Sendhwa fort in 1808.

It must be noted that while Kashirao was declared ruler of Indore by the Scindias, Yeshwantrao declared someone else as his king at Maheshwar.


Khanderao Holkar II (1799-1806), the son of Malharrao II, was proclaimed king by Yeshwantrao and the latter stood in as regent until Khanderao's death by cholera in 1806 (although British historians have claimed that he was poisoned by Yeshwantrao).


Yeshwantrao Holkar I (1806-1811) was the illegitimate son of Tukojirao Holkar. He deposed his brother, Kashirao, and became the next ruler of Indore.

Yeshwantrao assisted the rulers of Dhar in countering an invasion by the marauding Pindaris. His rivalry with the Scindias (in the form of Daulatrao Scindia) continued and was exacerbated when Peshwa Bajirao II and Daulatrao Scindia allied themselves to each other. Yeshwantrao even aligned himself with the infamous Pindari leader, Amir Khan, and plundered Scindia, Bhosale and the peshwa territories.

Peshwa Bajirao II had Yeshwantrao's brother, Vithoji, executed in Pune (Vithoji had earlier attacked the peshwa's territories until he was captured by the Scindia forces. Vithoji also supported Amritrao, the adopted son of Raghunathrao, to attain the post of peshwa in place of his elder brother, Bajirao II).

An incensed Yeshwantrao Holkar sacked Pune in 1802, deposed the peshwa and had the peshwa's adopted brother, Amritrao, installed in his place. In retaliation, Bajirao II had to flee Pune and seek British help. The British reinstated him as peshwa while Yeshwantrao, content with the booty collected at Pune, left to return to Indore.

During the Second Anglo-Maratha War between the British and the Scindia-Bhosale combine, Yeshwantrao preferred to remain neutral (thanks to the Scindia-Holkar rivalry). But after Scindia's defeat in 1804, Yeshwantrao feared that he would be the next target of the British and he launched an offensive against them. He sought the help of various princes such as those of Jind (Raja Bhag Singh), Patiala (Raja Fateh Singh), and Lahore (Ranjit Singh), but that help failed to materialise. He was also betrayed by his close aides, especially Amir Khan and Bhawani Shankar Khatri.

Despite a few successes such as those at Kunch, Mukandare, Kota, and Bharatpur - in which he was aided by the Jat king, Ranjit Singh, in an abortive attempt to free Mughal Emperor Shah Alam II from British control - Yeshwantrao was isolated and defeated. So the treaty at Beas was concluded and Yeshwantrao became a British vassal.

To his credit he did try reorganising the Marathas against the British (a factory to manufacture cannon was secretly set up by him at Bhanpura and even the odd 100,000 soldiers were gathered together), but no external help came his way and he died in 1811 after suffering a stroke, probably a disillusioned man. Towards the end of his life Yeshwantrao reportedly became mentally unstable.

Yeshwantrao was termed the 'Napoleon of India' by historian-novelist N S Inamdar.


Malharrao Holkar III (1811-1833) was the son of Yeshwantrao Holkar (from his wife, Maharani Krishnabai). After ascending the throne at the age of four, he ruled under the regency of Maharani Tulsibai Holkar, the widow (concubine) of Yeshwantrao. Tulsibai was also the regent for her husband, Yeshwantrao, after he became mentally ill.

The British made efforts to intervene in the affairs of Indore. They conspired with some of the regent's Pathan and Pindari courtiers and Tulsibai was herself murdered on the banks of the River Sipra in 1817. Then the British defeated the Holkar army (led by the eleven year-old Malharao and his brave cousins, twenty year-old Harirao Holkar, son of Vithoji Holkar, and Bhimabai Holkar, daughter of Yeshwantrao and his first queen Larabai, at Mahidpur in 1817), after the Holkars were betrayed by some of their own key men.

A treaty was signed at Mandsaur in 1817 whereby the Holkars' rights over the lands in Rajputana were relinquished. Bhimabai continued to oppose the British. She died in 1858. Malharrao III transferred his capital to Indore, but he too died, on 27 October 1833.


Martandrao Holkar (1833-1834) was made the next king of Indore. He was the son of Sardar Bapusaheb Holkar and was formally adopted by Maharani Gautamibai, the widow of Malharao III. But he was deposed in favour of Harrirao Holkar, the son of Vithoji Holkar (brother of Yeshwantrao). He was kept in confinement in Poona until his death in 1849.


Hari Rao Holkar (1834-1843) had earlier raised a revolt against the British, in 1819, but was captured and confined in Maheshwar fort. He was released and officially adopted by Gautamabai and made king. He died in 1843.


Khanderao Holkar III (1843-1844) was the eldest son of Sardar Bapusaheb Holkar and the elder brother of the ex-king, Martandrao. He was adopted by Harirao and made king after his death. His adoptive grandmother, Maharani Krishnabai (the second wife of Yeshwantrao), acted as his regent. But he died at Maheshwar fort without having adopted a son.


Sir Tukoji rao Holkar II (1844-1886) was the son of a distant relative by the name of Sardar Santojirao Holkar. He was declared king by the British. His adoptive mother acted as his regent until he came of age. He also held the rank of lieutenant-general in the British army. He was an expert horseman, and a good marksman and swordsman. He promoted agriculture, industry (starting his own newspaper, 'Malwa Akhbar', and the first printing press in his kingdom, a postal service, a mint, etc), and education in a big way. He was succeeded by his third son, Shivajirao Holkar (the first two sons died prematurely) from his fourth wife, Parvatibai Saheb.


Shivajirao Holkar (1886-1903) was the son and successor of Tukoji II. He had a good knowledge of astrology. He founded Holkar College in Indore, constructed several palaces and other buildings and promoted wrestling as a sport in his kingdom. He abdicated the throne in favour of his eldest son, Tukojirao III. He died in 1908.


Sir Tukoji Rao Holkar III (1903-1926) was the son and successor of Shivajirao Holkar. He received a Western education, and was said to be a progressive-minded person. He promoted industrialisation, thermal power stations, agriculture, education, the arts, culture, and so on in his kingdom. He had to abdicate the throne due to the Bawla murder case (in 1925, Abdul Kadar Bawla, the paramour of Mumtaz Begum, a mistress of the maharaja, was murdered and there was an attempt to kidnap Mumtaz Begum into the bargain). Pressure followed from the British resident for him to abdicate.


Yeshwantrao Holkar II (1926-1948) was the son and successor of Tukojirao III. Yeshwantrao II was Oxford educated and an avid cricketer. He was deeply involved in charitable and public utility works. He was the last king of Indore before it was forcibly merged into the Indian Union in 1947. He served as a senior upa rajyapramukh until 1956. He died in Mumbai in 1961 leaving behind a son by the name of Richard (from his third wife, Euphemia Fay Watt), and a daughter, Usha Devi (from his first wife, Rajashri Bai Saheb).

Richard has authored books and is a fine gourmet and is married to filmmaker Pamela Rooks (his second wife), a producer of films which include 'Miss Beatty's Children', 'Train to Pakistan', Dance Like a Man'. Pamela was previously married to Conrad Rooks, another filmmaker. Richard has a son, Yeshwant, by Pamela and a daughter, Sabrina, by his first wife, Sally Sue Budd. Usha Devi was declared Yeshwantrao's successor and not Richard.


Main Sources

Gordon, Stewart - New Cambridge History of India: The Marathas, 1600-1818, Cambridge University Press

Hunter, Sir William Wilson, et al (1908) - Imperial Gazetteer of India, Volume 12, 1908-1931, Clarendon Press, Oxford

Jaswant Lal Mehta - Advanced Study in the History of Modern India 1701-1813, New Dawn Press, New Delhi

Keene, H G - The Fall of the Moghul Empire of Hindustan

Kincaid G A and Rao Bahadur D B Parasnis - A History of the Maratha People, Humphrey Milford Oxford University Press, London, 1918

Kulkarni - Maratha History, Diamond Publications

Markovits, Claude (ed) - A History of Modern India: 1480-1950, Anthem Press, London, 2008

Rathod, N G - The Great Maratha Mahadji Scindia, Sarup & Sons

Online Sources

Buyers, Christopher - The Royal Ark website

Soszynski, Henry - The Indian Princely States Website



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