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Modern India

The Peshwas: Glory of the Peshwas

by Abhijit Rajadhyaksha, 4 April 2010

As already established, the progenitor of the Bhat dynasty was Balaji Vishwanath Bhat. He was the peshwa for Chatrapati Shahu Maharaj, the Maratha king. The descendents of Balaji Vishwanath Bhat were to remain in the post of peshwa to the very end of the Maratha empire in Maharashtra.

Peshwa Bajirao I (born 18 August 1699 - died 28 April 1740), also known as Thorale Bajirao (Bajirao the eldest), Bajirao Ballal, or Visaji, is considered to be the most valiant and famous of the peshwas. His swift cavalry movements and brilliant military strategies make him second only to the great Shivaji.

Bajirao was the son and successor of Peshwa Balaji Vishwanath Bhat. As a young man he was appointed peshwa by Chatrapati Shahu immediately after the death of Balaji Vishwanath (17 April 1720, at Masur Camp near Satara). His younger brother, Chimaji Appa (also known as Antaji), was given Supa as his jagir and he remained faithful to his brother's interests all his life. Both brothers were trained in the art of warfare, horsemanship and administration from their early teens, and were destined to play a major role in Maratha history. Bajirao was also a part of Balaji Vishwanath's entourage to Delhi (in 1718-1719) and had gained first hand experience in Mughal politics.

Bajirao was a very ambitious person and dreamt of expanding the borders of the Maratha kingdom towards the north. He was witnessing a gradual deterioration in Mughal power and wanted to take full advantage of this situation. He propounded a 'forward policy' for Maratha expansion. He is said to have thundered in Shahu's court, 'Strike, strike at the trunk and the branches will fall off themselves. Listen but to my counsel, and I shall plant the Maratha banner on the walls of Attock'. Shahu was deeply impressed and exclaimed, 'By heaven, you shall plant it on the Himalayas'.

Predictably there was resentment from several of his senior colleagues regarding this young man's sudden ascendancy to the post of peshwa, disregarding their seniority (on one occasion Shahu, after being misled about Bajirao, removed the young man from his post, but realising his mistake, promptly reinstated him).

Bajirao's plans of expansion also met early opposition in the form of Pant Pratinidhi, who would rather have had the Marathas consolidating their empire in Maharashtra. But it was Bajirao's will which eventually prevailed. [1]

Hussain and the confinement of Sayyad Ali by the Mughal emperor Muhammed Shah 'Rangila'. Nizam Ul Mulk was made the new wazir and also given command of the Deccan.

Clash with Nizam ul Mulk

Bajirao met many stumbling blocks in his quest for creating Maratha hegemony.

There were the Siddis at Janjira and the Portuguese challenging Maratha dominance on the western coast. But the foremost amongst Bajirao's foes was Nizam ul Mulk, the Mughal viceroy of the Deccan (based at Hyderabad). He also sensed the weak control of the Mughal emperors, and wanted to establish his own independent kingdom in the Deccan. Nizam ul Mulk disregarded the Mughal-Maratha treaty and the right of the Marathas to collect chauth in the Deccan. Initial efforts towards a peaceful settlement of the matter (the Chikalthan parley of 1721) also failed in spite of the reaffirmation of the Mughal-Maratha treaty by the Delhi court. The weak Delhi court was also playing an ambiguous policy. On one hand it recognised the Maratha chauth collection rights in the Deccan, but on the other hand, it also strengthened Nizam ul Mulk's position in the Deccan, by not only extending his viceroyalty in the Deccan but also in Gujrat.

[1] The influence of the Sayyad brothers at Delhi had now been eclipsed, following the murder of Sayyad.

But in 1722, Nizam ul Mulk's territorial ambitions lay exposed before the Mughal emperor, Muhammad Shah 'Rangila', and he began to be sidelined. Nizam ul Mulk now rebelled openly against the Mughal emperor and declared his regions to be an independent kingdom with Hyderabad its capital. When the imperial army led by Mubariz Khan marched towards the Deccan to seize the Nizam, the latter sought help from his old enemies, the Marathas.

Shahu instructed Bajirao to send a contingent to assist the Nizam. Their collective armies subdued the imperial forces at Shaker Khera in 1724. But, true to his nature, after seeing the danger had passed by, Nizam ul Mulk again challenged the Marathas by refusing to honour the Mughal-Maratha treaty of 1718. To rub salt into the wounds, Nizam ul mulk propped up a coalition consisting of Sambhaji II of Kolhapur, Chandrasen Jadhav, Udaji Chavan and Rao Rambha Nimbalkar against Shahu. When the peshwa and his troops went to collect chauth in 1727, the Nizam's forces challenged them. The Marathas managed to subdue the Nizam's army, and in retaliation also plundered Jalna, Burhanpur and Khandesh.

Then the Nizam led a surprise attack on Puna, where he proclaimed Sambhaji II to be the new chatrapati. But Bajirao's troops proceeded towards Puna and the Nizam had to beat a hasty retreat.

Battle of Palkhed

On 6 March 1728, Bajirao inflicted a crushing defeat on the Nizam at the Battle of Palkhed, forcing him to sign the Treaty of Mungi Shevgaon, whereby the Nizam agreed to accept Shahu as the sole Maratha chatrapati and give up the cause of Sambhaji II forever. Also, Maratha rights for chauth were recognised.

Malwa campaign

In October 1728, Bajirao and his troops then launched an attack on Malwa. His contingent consisted of his brother, Chimaji Appa, along with Tanoji Shinde, Malharrao Holkar and Udaji Pawar, all of whom were destined to reach great heights in the future.

The Marathas subdued the Mughal forces and captured Malwa. The Mughals later tried to dislodge the Marathas after deputing first Sawai Jaisingh of Amber and then Muhammed Khan Bangash. But their attempts to dislodge the Marathas from Malwa proved unsuccessful.


Gujrat contained a large number of freebooters, Maratha sardars who often acted independently within the state of Gujrat. Prominent amongst these were Pilaji Gaekwad and Kanthaji Kadam Bande.

The Maratha senapati, Khanderao Dabadhe, was officially given charge of Gujrat by Shahu himself after he subdued the Mughal officers in that state. After the death of Khanderao in 1723 his son, Trimbakrao Dabhade, was made senapati.

In Gujrat there was another player in the form of Hamid Khan who was a protégé of Nizam ul Mulk.

When in July 1724 the Mughal emperor despatched Sarbulund Khan to gain control of Gujrat, which was then engulfed in rivalry between the Mughal nobility, Hamid Khan entered into a understanding with the states of Gaekwad and Bande in order to attempt to prevent the Mughal incursion. He gave them rights to collect chauth (Bande to the north of the River Mahi and Gaekwad to the south) which they did with great abandon by extracting ransom (called khandani) from the rich zamindars of that area. Bajirao then asked (through his representative, Udaji Pawar) Sarbulund Khan to grant him the chauth rights of Gujrat, but in this he was refused. Bajirao subsequently despatched his brother, Chimaji Appa, to Gujrat where the towns of Petlad and Dholka were looted by his forces. Kanthaji Bande also acted in coordination with Chimaji Appa.

Sarbulund Khan was forced to sign an agreement with the peshwa in 1730 whereby the Maratha state was given chauth and sardeshmukhi rights for the Gujrat region (the seaport of Surat was excluded from this agreement). But this didn't go down very well with the Mughal court and it replaced Sarbulund Khan with Abhay Singh, son of Ajit Singh of Jodhpur. But Abhay Singh also reconciled himself with the idea that the peshwa was the only person who could control the freebooters and collect chauth more effectively. Therefore he too reached a compromise with the peshwa.

Meanwhile the treaty between the Mughals and the peshwa was not welcomed by Maratha Senapati Trimbakrao Dabhade, who considered Gujrat's affairs to be his own hereditary right. He accused Peshwa Bajirao II of dishonesty and a breach of the contract made between the Dabadhe family and Chatrapati Shahu. In the skirmish which followed, Trimbakrao Dabadhe was killed in Dabhol in April 1731.

Treaty of Warna

Bajirao also forced Sambhaji II to sign the Treaty of Warna in 1731 after Sambhaji was defeated at Vishalgad. Sambhaji II had to accept Shahu as his overlord.

Nizam ul Mulk was also made to eat humble pie at Rohe Rameshwar on 27 December 1732 when he sought the peshwa's forgiveness for conspiring against him.

Mastani of Bundelkhand

The Mughals had been laying siege to Bundelkhand since 1727. Considering his friendly relations with the Marathas since the time of Shivaji, its king, Chatrasal, appealed to the Marathas for help, but as the Maratha armies were engaged elsewhere, Shahu wasn't able to send help.

Chatrasal was offering stiff resistance against the Mughals, and again he appealed to Peshwa Bajirao in 1729 to come to his aid. This time, Bajirao came in person with his army to Chatrasal's rescue. Bajirao fell on the Mughals in several swift movements and soon had their armies fleeing. The Mughal commander, Muhammed Bangash, then accepted defeat and requested free passage to Delhi. The grateful Chatrasal declared the peshwa to be his adopted son, and even gave him a personal jagir (governing one third of his kingdom) near Jhansi. Bajirao subsequently entrusted its administration to Govind Pant.

Chatrasal also gave Bajirao his beautiful daughter, Mastani (from his Persian Muslim concubine) in marriage. Mastani later bore him a son named Shamsher Bahadur. But the love story between Bajirao and Mastani is regarded as a tragedy, as this alliance was not accepted by Bajirao's traditionalist family and they never accepted Mastani as their daughter-in-law. Mastani died soon after Bajirao, in 1740.

Even the Brahmins of Puna refused to conduct the thread ceremony for Shamsher Bahadur (Krishnarao), as he had been born of a Muslim woman. What irked the traditionalist Brahmins even more was the fact that in spite of being a Chitpavan Brahmin, Bajirao disregarded the principles of Brahmanism. On his expeditions, he openly consumed meat and alcohol. The fact that Bajirao, a Hindu Brahmin, had married a Muslim woman was sacrilege to them and they decided to get even by refusing to conduct Shamsher's initiation ceremony into the Hindu fold.

Shamsher Bahadur died fighting for the Marathas at the Third battle of Panipat. His son, Ali Bahadur, later gained command of Bajirao's jagir in Bundelkhand. He also formed the state of Banda in present day Uttar Pradesh. [2]

The Elephant War with the Siddis

The trouble between Marathas and the Siddis (who were Abyssinian Muslims) resurfaced when a Siddi faujdar, Siddi Satt, desecrated the Hindu temple at Parshuram in the Konkan and insulted a saint by the name of Bramhendra Swami. This was in 1729, after a elephant given as a gift by the nawab of Savnur to the Siddis of Janjira was allegedly taken away by the disciples of the swami and handed over to the Maratha sarkhel (admiral), Kanhoji Angre, while being transported from Maratha territory after a minor scuffle with the Siddi's men. In retaliation the Siddi's faujdar roughed up the swamis disciples.

This event strained what were already well-established fractious relations between the Marathas and the Siddis. Meanwhile Siddi Rasul Yaqut died in 1733 and a succession war started between his sons. Kanhoji Angre also died on 4 July 1729 and was succeeded by his son, Sekhoji Angre, as the Maratha sarkhel.

Bajirao sensed an opportune time to lay siege to Janjira by sea. The fort was just about to fall to him, and would have done so but for the untimely death of Sekhoji in 1733. Sekhoji's son Sambhaji refused to take orders from the peshwa amidst a succession dispute and the siege had to be called off. Luckily for the Marathas, the Siddi's son, Abdul Rehman, approached Bajirao for a settlement by which means the Marathas officially declared him to be the rightful Siddi successor, putting aside the claims of the other sons. In return, former Siddi territories such as Raigad, Rewas, Chaul and Thal were recognised as parts of Maratha territory.

After the peshwa's forces left Janjira, the Siddi retracted his agreement and encroached on his lost territories. The peshwa again retaliated and this time Abdul Rehman had to sue for peace by means of a treaty signed in 1736. The Siddi was confined to the territories of Janjira, Anjanvel and Gowalkot . He was also forced to swear on the Koran that he would never again trespass on Maratha territory. This concluded what is now termed the 'elephant war'.

Bajirao thunders at the gates of Delhi

[2] Raja Chatrasal (1649-1731) was the legendary king from Bundelkhand who freed his land from Mughal domination (during the reign of Aurangzeb). He was a son of 'Champatrai', a Mughal vassal. He was greatly inspired by Chatrapati Shivaji Maharaj and had earlier offered to join his army's fight against the Mughals, but Shivaji had asked him first to free his own land from the Mughals and had promised him all the necessary help in this endeavour.

By 1735, Bajirao had virtually gained control over the entirety of Gujrat and Malwa. Some towns and areas under the influence of local Mughal officers and zamindars continued to acknowledge Maratha control. The Mughal emperor, Muhammad Shah, was also dillydallying over the passing of an official order chartering chauth and sardeshmukhi rights to the Marathas. Efforts by Bajirao to seek audience with the emperor were spurned. The Marathas then started plundering the adjoining territories of Rajasthan. The Mughals retaliated by sending in troops under their wazir, Kamruddin Khan, along with a second force under Mir Bakshi Khan i Dauran, but both contingents were routed by Maratha commanders (Pilaji Jadhav defeated the forces of the wazir, while Ranoji Shinde and Malhararao Holkar subdued the forces of the Mir Bakshi). [3]

[3] Ranoji Shinde and Malharrao Holkar were to set up their permanent headquarters at Gwalior and Indore respectively. In years to come both became separate princely states.

The peshwa then decided to teach the Mughal emperor the lesson of his life. Bajirao declared war on the Mughals in December 1736. He personally led a large army which was bound for the gates of Delhi.

He divided the army in two. One contingent was led by Peshwa Bajirao and other by Pilaji Jadhav and Malharrao Holkar. Holkar's contingent was checked by Sadat Khan, the Mughal commander of Agra, and around a thousand Maratha soldiers were taken captive. Thinking that the Maratha threat was over, Sadat Khan sent the good news to Delhi. To gain a share of his perceived success, the other Mughal commanders also joined in the celebrations, leaving Delhi virtually unguarded. Holkar's defeated contingent proved to be no more than a smokescreen.

Bajirrao's contingent surreptitiously edged its way to Delhi, arriving on 28 March 1737. What followed was the total looting of the suburbs of Delhi. The Mughal emperor himself hid in the safe confines of the Red Fort while Bajirao and his men plundered the countryside. An eight thousand-strong Mughal army led by Mir Hassan did try to take on Bajirao, but they were hopelessly outmanoeuvred.

Then Bajirao heard the news of a Portuguese attack on Manaji Angre in Konkan. He decided to offer the Maratha sarkhel there his assistance. On 31 March 1737, the victorious Maratha army left Delhi with their large booty, leaving the great city mauled and humbled.

On the way back to Pune, Bajirao planted his trusted lieutenants in various places in northern and central India. These areas would remain their permanent places of residence and influence and would soon form into princely states of their own.

Treaty of Bhopal

Now the emperor turned back to Nizam ul Mulk who had earlier fallen out with him. Nizam ul mulk was made supreme commander of the imperial forces and sent with a seventy thousand-strong contingent to attack the Maratha dominions. On the way, many Mughal officers and chieftains joined him. This large Mughal contingent reached Bhopal, ready to take revenge on the Marathas.

But the Marathas were ready for them. Led by Chimaji Appa, the peshwa's brother, they completely surrounded the Mughals in Bhopal, cutting off all their supplies. Finally the Mughals were forced to sign the Treaty of Bhopal on 7 January 1738, at Dora Sarai. As per the treaty, the Mughals conceded all of Malwa, and the region between the Narmada and Chambal rivers, besides five million rupees as a war indemnity. [4]

Bajirao and the Portuguese

Bajirao had already quelled the Portuguese threat to Manaji Angre in the Konkan. In return, Angre promised him an annual tribute of 7,000 rupees plus foreign articles from Europe and China worth 3,000 more.

Bajirao also had a complaint against the Portuguese over the island of Salsette (part of Mumbai (formerly Bombay), which the Portuguese had refused to lease out to the Marathas for the construction of a commercial factory). Following this, Bajirao's brother, Chimaji Appa (died 1741) attacked the Portuguese territories near Mumbai in March 1738. He successfully captured the regions of Thane, Parsik, Belapur, Dharavi, and Arnala and concluded his campaign with the capture of both Versova in February 1739 and Bassein (Vasai) in May 1739. [5] [6]

Panaji in Goa was also laid siege to (during the time of Portuguese viceroy Sandomil), although this siege was called off following the conclusion of a peace treaty agreed by the Portuguese in April 1739. Salsette also eventually fell to the Marathas in May 1739.

Bajirao's last campaign

Bajirao desired a corridor to Delhi through Nizam ul Mulk's provinces. Nasir Jung, the Nizam's son, quite naturally refused, so he was besieged by Bajirao at Aurangabad. He sued for peace on 28 February 1740 and ceded the districts of Handia and Khargon in Nemad, south of the River Narmada, to Bajirao.

Unfortunately this proved to be the last campaign of the great peshwa.

[4] Bajiraos half-done work was completed by Nadir Shah of Persia, when he plundered Delhi between February to March 1739. Nadir Shah took away with him several precious jewels and ornaments, besides the famed bejewelled peacock throne and several slaves. He also annexed Afghanistan, Baluchistan, the North-West Frontier, Sind, and four districts of Punjab to the Persian empire. This event signalled the end of any real Mughal authority in India.

[5] Earlier in 1719, Balaji Vishwanath, father of Bajirao and Chimaji, had forcibly taken Kalyan (near Mumbai) from the Portuguese.

[6] The English had played a rather duplicitous role during the Bassein war by supplying arms and ammunition to both the Marathas (covertly) and the Portuguese (overtly).

Death and epilogue

Bajirao was struck by a virulent fever at Raver (near Indore, south of the Narmada) where he breathed his last on 18 April 1740. He was just forty.

Fate cut short the life of one of the most valorous of the peshwas, a builder of empires and a leader of men.

Bajirao left behind a wife, Kashibai, and three sons, namely Balaji Bajirao, his successor, Raghunathrao (who later became peshwa for a short period following the murder of his nephew, Narayanrao), and Janardhanrao (who died young). Kashibai attained sati after the death of Bajirao. Bajirao's other wife, Mastani also died soon afterwards. She left behind a son, Shamsher Bahadur, who martyred himself in the Third battle of Panipat.

Bajirao had the Omkareshwar and Amruteshwar temples constructed in his lifetime. He also made Puna (Pune) his capital. His aide, Bapuji Shripat, was instrumental in persuading many rich families of the adjoining towns to settle down in Pune. The famous mansion, Shanivarwada, was constructed at Shanivar Peth (previously Murtuzabad) in Pune by the great peshwa, and this was to remain the official residence of his successors.


Main Sources

Duff, James Grant - History of the Mahrathas, Exchange Press, Bombay

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

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

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



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