History Files


Modern India

The Peshwas: Peak & Debacle

by Abhijit Rajadhyaksha, 4 April 2010. Updated 29 April 2011

Part 1: Early Years

Peshwa Balaji Bajirao, also known as Nanaheb (born 12 December 1721 - died 1761) was the son of and successor to Bajirao I

His reign witnessed the zenith of Maratha power and also the commencement of its decline.

Nanasaheb was the eldest son of Bajirao and his wife, Kashibai. After Bajirao's death, Chatrapati Shahu declared his son to be the next peshwa on 25 June 1740.

The crowning of a nineteen year-old in the post of peshwa was met with opposition from the likes of Raghuji Bhosale of Nagpur and Babuji Naik Joshi, an influential Pune banker, who expressed scepticism about the capability of a teenager to lead the nation. But Shahu was keeping in mind the yeoman services of both Bajirao I (and of course the persistence shown by Chimaji Appa, the uncle and guardian of Nanasaheb), and Balaji Vishwanath, to the Maratha kingdom, and he brushed aside all opposition. [2]

Raghuji Bhosale hailed from the family of Mudhoji Patel of Deor, Satara. The family got its Bhosale name from Bhosa (near Mumbai), the village of their forefathers. Mudhoji had three sons; Bapuji, Parsoji and Sabaji. Raghuji was the grandson of Bapuji. All these Bhosales had earlier distinguished themselves in Shivaji's army. For that very reason, Parsoji, the son of Mudhoji, was given the right to collect chauth from Berar, which later passed to Raghuji. Soon, the Gond rajas of Berar fell under the influence of Raghuji and the latter became all powerful in Berar. Raghuji established himself in Nagpur, where he reigned nominally as the representative of the Gond prince from 1743 to 1755.

By 1751 Raghuji had effected the conquest of the Deogarh territories of Chanda and Chhattisgarh. Ratanpur, the capital of the Haihaya kingdom, had fallen to the Bhosales in 1741 on the advance of his general, Bhaskar Pant, and four years later, the last Rajput raja of that dynasty was deposed. The fort of Chanda was delivered to Raghuji by the treachery of its diwan in 1749 and two years later was finally ceded to him. The kingdoms which later came under Raghuji's dominion and paid him an annual tribute extended from Bengal to Orissa. Raghuji died in 1755, and was succeeded by his son, Janoji.

Note: On one occasion, Balaji's rivals had got the better of him and persuaded Shahu to dismiss him from the post of peshwa (in 1746), but Shahu soon realised the innocence of Balaji in all the alleged wrongdoings and reinstated him in a matter of months (in 1747). The reason was that Shahu's wives and relations used to spend excessively. The money lenders began to be worried about the rising levels of debt and complained to the peshwa. The peshwa tried to curtail excessive expenditure as a result, and the affected parties ran to Shahu. In a fit of anger, Shahu dismissed his peshwa, and instead of rebelling the peshwa accepted his chatrapati's action unquestioningly. He returned the official insignia and requested further orders. The chatrapati soon realised that the peshwa wasn't at fault at all (after the bankers vouched for the peshwa's honesty) and was also impressed by his loyalty in spite of the provocation. He therefore reappointed Balaji as his peshwa.

Mhadoba Purandare, a senior bureaucrat, was made mutalik (deputy) to the young peshwa.

In spite of his young age, Balaji Bajirao wasn't exactly a novice to the reigns of power. He had accompanied his father and uncle on many expeditions (not to mention Shahu's own expedition to Karnataka in 1737-1738, and an expedition to northern India with Pilaji Jadhav). He was trained in the art of warfare and administration by the masters themselves.

When Balaji Bajirao became peshwa, he was bereft of advice from his seniors. His uncle, Chimaji Appa, had also died (just a year after the death of his own father) and his cousin Sadashivrao and brother Raghunathrao were quite young. But the young peshwa stood up for himself against pressure from several rivals.

War of succession

Shahu had no legitimate sons to succeed him. His only son from Sagunabai had died in infancy. This started a succession war between his queens, Sakwarbai and Sagunabai (died 1748), both of whom wanted their nominees to succeed Shahu.

Part 1: Early Years
Part 2: Panipat
[1] Chimaji Appa was said to be a fatherlike figure for young Nanasaheb, especially after Bajirao I was accused of neglecting his family for his beloved concubine, Mastani. However, Chimajiappa died within a year of his brother and Nanasaheb had to take over the reins of leading the entire family at a very young age.

[2] Raghuji Bhosale from the clan of the Nagpur Bhosales wasn't a blood relation of Shahu's, but he was a kinsman as both had taken sisters from the Mohite family as their respective wives. Shahu's wife, Sagunabai, was the youngest of his queens. Thanks to this connection, Raghuji wielded considerable influence in the Maratha court. To pacify Raghuji, on 31 August 1743 Shahu demarcated the scope of authority of both Raghuji Bhosale and the peshwa. The peshwas were not to interfere in the region of influence of Raghuji Bhosale, in Nagpur, Berar and the eastern parts of India (Bengal and Orissa - and also Lucknow in the north), whereas Ajmer, Agra, Prayag and Malwa were to remain within the peshwa's jurisdiction.

Sagunabai wanted Mudhoji Bhosale, son of Raghoji Bhosale, to succeed Shahu. But Sakwarbai thwarted her efforts. There was also a proposal made to install Sambhaji II of Kolhapur or his half-brother, Venkoji, as the successor. But eventually it was Shahu's old foe, Tarabai (wife of Shahu's uncle, Rajaram) who beat all other rivals.

She managed to convince Shahu to adopt her grandson, Ramraja, and declare him his successor. [3]

[3] Sakwarbai had to attain Sati after Shahu's death, along with Shahu's concubines.

Tarabai tried to control Ramraja and even disallowed access for the chatrapati to his peshwa. But soon Ramraja protested against his grandmother's overbearing nature. As a result Tarabai declared Ramraja to be an impostor (contradicting her earlier stand that he was in fact her grandson).

Thereafter Ramraja worked in close unison with the peshwa. In 1750, Ramraja signed the famous Sangola agreement, whereby he invested the peshwa with more authority and reduced himself to a titular king. This was in return for the continuation of his rights as a chatrapati and protection from Tarabai and her henchmen.

But Tarabai, the wily old lady, instigated a coup d'etat at Satara and confined Ramraja to prison. She then tried to upstage the peshwa himself. But this time around, her efforts came to naught (the king's confinement had also caused a lot of anger towards Tarabai and she lost the support of the Marathas). Tarabai was eventually was forced to declare Peshwa Balaji Bajirao the supreme authority in the Maratha kingdom, in writing in September 1751.

Balaji's other foes, such as Yashwantrao Dabhade, were also subdued and their properties confiscated. In Gujarat, Damaji Gaekwad who (like Dabhade) had taken up his cudgels on behalf of Tarabai was also forced to submit and he transferred his allegiance to the peshwa. Gaekwad later helped bring all of Gujrat except Surat under Maratha rule. [4]

Maratha Confederacy

Balaji Bajirao continued his father's expansionist policy. He patronised many Maratha commanders who ensured the steady expansion of the Maratha dominions. These Maratha commanders were later to carve out their own spheres of influence, which gained semi-independent status with allegiance to the chatrapati and his peshwa. These commanders had the right to collect chauth and sardeshmukhi from various vassal kingdoms in India, who paid up in order to prevent attacks from the Marathas in their respective territories. This led to a formation of a loose Maratha confederacy throughout India.

Campaigns under Balaji Bajirao

Earlier in 1741, the young peshwa had come to an understanding with Raja Sawai Jai Singh of Amber, whereby the latter secured the continuation of the chauth and sardeshmukhi rights for Malwa (after the death of Bajirao I) from the Mughal court.

In 1742-1743, the peshwa led an expedition to Bengal. This was done at the behest of the Mughal court in exchange for the chauth rights of Malwa. Raghuji Bhosale was acting independently of the peshwa's control, and the Mughal emperor was perturbed by his repeated raids on Bengal, so much so that he asked the peshwa to check Raghuji's growing influence in the east. In return for his services, the grateful nawab of Bengal, Alivardi Khan, paid the peshwa 2,200,000 rupees. [5]

[4] Ramraja remained Tarabai's prisoner until her death in 1761 (Balaji Bajirao had also died by then). The new peshwa, Madhavrao, then reinstated Ramraja as chatrapati at Satara.

Other personal expeditions which were undertaken by Balaji Bajirao were to Bhilsa (1744-1745) and Newai (1747-1748).

Maratha imperialism

From then onwards, Balaji Bajirao confined himself to the administration of his kingdom from Pune and all of the later Maratha expeditions were carried forward by his commanders (Sadashivrao Bhau, Ranoji Scindia, Malharrao Holkar, Pilaji Jadhav, and Yashwantrao Pawar).

In December 1746, the peshwa sent a force under his cousin, Sadashivrao Bhau (son of Chimajiappa), to chastise the nawab of Savnur in Karnataka. Chauth was levied in the regions between the Krishna and Tungabhadra rivers. The Nizan ul Mulk's army under his son Nasir Jung was also defeated in May 1747.

As an aside, Nizam ul Mulk died in May 1748 and was succeeded by Nasir Jung, who adopted a conciliatory approach towards the Marathas until his assassination in 1750 by his treacherous ally, Muhammad Khan, the nawab of Kadappa. He was succeeded by Muzzafar Jang in 1751 and then soon after that by Salabat Jang, who renewed hostilities against the Marathas at the instigation of the French agent, Bussy. The nizam's forces met reverses at the hands of the Marathas on each occasion. However, Gaziuddin (senior), brother of Salabat Jung, sought the help of the peshwa in toppling his father. In return, Salabat Jang supported the forces of Sambhaji II and Tarabai against their common foe, the peshwa. Meanwhile, Gaziuddin had become a victim of palace intrigues (he was poisoned) and Salabat Jung came to power.

But again the peshwa came out on top, concluding an armistice. He even agreed to honour Gaziuddin's commitment to the him, whereby the latter was to be paid 1,500,000 rupees along with territory west of Berar from the Tapti to Godavari rivers. Meanwhile, Sayyad Lashkar became Salabat Jung's diwan and he weaned the nizam away from the influence of the French. (This proved short-lived however, as the French agent, Bussy, had Sayyad Lashkar removed and once again gained access to the nizam's court). Late in 1763, Salabat Jung was deposed and murdered by his brother, Nizam Ali.

In 1753, the peshwa's forces under Sadashivrao Bhau renewed their southern operations. They attacked Srirangapattan near Mysore. The French and the nizam had already established their influence in the Mysore court. They requested that the peshwa order the Maratha forces spare Mysore from being plundered. The peshwa heeded their request and turned away.

In 1754-1755, the Maratha forces conquered Bagalkot, Harihar, Mundalgi and Bidnur. In 1756, Murrarao Ghorpade of Gooty, who had switched sides with the nizam, entered into an alliance with the nawab of Savnur, Karnool and Kaddappa, and together they decided to resist the Maratha attempts to collect chauth. However, all of them had to submit, one by one, before the sword of the Marathas.

[5] Chatrapati Shahu later brought about a reconciliation of sorts between Raghoji Bhosale and Peshwa Balaji Bajirao by clearly demarcating their spheres of influence.

From 1758-60, the Marathas freely collected chauth from all these regions in Karnataka. In 1756, the Seven Years War between the English and French had started. Much to the chagrin of Salabat Jung, his protector the French agent Bussy was recalled and Salabat was feeling vulnerable enough to switch sides to the English.

However, before the English could consolidate their hold over Hyderabad, the peshwa ordered an attack on its dominions in October 1759. Burhanpur, Asirgad, Daulatabad, Ahmednagar, and Bijapur all fell to the Marathas, and the final submission of the nizam was at Udgir in 1760. Nizam Salabat Jung soon sued for peace.

Meanwhile in 1758, Hyder Ali had deposed the weak raja of Mysore. The Marathas launched an assault on him and after a few skirmishes, subdued him. [6]

Marathas in the north

With the weakening of Mughal power, the Marathas were now looked upon as the most powerful force in India. The services of the Maratha commanders were often sought by one kingdom to subdue another. The trappings of power brought in a certain arrogance to the Maratha attitude and a disregard for the sovereignty of others. The Marathas switched sides from one king to another, depending upon who was the highest bidder. This mercenary attitude by the Marathas strained relations with their northern counterparts. The Maratha chiefs owed their loyalty to the peshwa for the autonomy he accorded to them, but this made it difficult for the peshwa to control some of his commanders, who acted independently at times and often despotically.

The Marathas looked upon the northern regions as their inheritance from the Mughals. They often came into conflict with the Rajput and Jat kingdoms. Anyone refusing to submit to their demands of chauth were dealt with very ruthlessly . This alienated the Rajas from the north, who started viewing the Marathas as just an extension of the Mughals. This was to prove detrimental to the Marathas in the Third war of Panipat.

In 1754, Raghunathrao, brother of the peshwa, and his deputy, Malharrao Holkar, led an army against the Jat king, Raja Badan Singh and his commander Suraj Mal. In the ensuing battle, Malharrao lost his son, Khanderao, to a stray cannonball fired from Kumher fort. A vindictive Malharrao came down heavily on the Jats, who sued for peace, imploring Jayappa Scindia and Raghunathrao to pacify Malharrao's ire. Eventually Raghunathrao prevailed on Malharrao to come to terms with the Jats. The Marathas reached a settlement with them which amounted to 3,000,000 rupees as war indemnity to be paid in three instalments. In return the Jats were allowed to eat into Mughal provinces. The Jats thereafter were forced to maintain friendly relations with the Marathas (until the start of the Third Battle of Panipat).

[6] Peshwa Balaji Bajirao is also criticised by many historians for taking English help to suppress insubordination by the Angres, who were traditionally the admirals of Maratha navy. This weakened the Maratha navy to a great extent and also provided a foothold for the English (who were until then fringe players) in Indian politics.

In 1750, the Rohillas and the Bangash pathans of Farukhabad had risen in rebellion against their Mughal masters. As a result the Mughal emperor's wazir (Safdar Jang, nawab of Awadh), sought the help of the Marathas in suppressing these revolts.

The Shinde-Holkars sprang to Safdar Jang's rescue and in the Battle of Farukhabad in 1751, they crushed the Rohilas. However, the fickleness of the Marathas later came to the forefront when, in return for emoluments, the Maratha sardars chose the side of Gaziuddin the younger (grandson of Imad ul Mulk, who established the kingdom of Hyderabad and son of his eldest child, Gaziuddin (the elder). His eldest son, Gaziuddin (the elder) sought the help of the Marathas in the succession battle against his brother, Salabat Jang, but was fatally poisoned by his brothers). Gaziuddin the younger was a new aspirant for the position of wazir of Delhi to their one-time ally, Safdar Jang. Safdar Jang retired to Avadh. [7]

Malharrao Holkar (born 1693 - died 1766) was born in a dhangar (shepherd caste) family at Jejuri (in Pune district) to one Khandoji Holkar from Vir. He rose through the ranks of the Maratha army and served under Balaji Vishwanath, Bajirao I, and Balaji Bajirao. He was one of the commanders responsible for Maratha successes in the north. A brave warrior and an accomplished commander, he was one of the officers in charge of collecting revenue from Malwa.

He established his headquarters at Indore, which was to be the capital of the Holkar dominion in years to come. Malharrao was one of many Maratha successes in Delhi, Malwa, Rajputana and Bassein. Malharrao also took part in the debacle of Panipat, where he is accused by many historians of retreating at a crucial juncture (but some say it was done at the behest of his commander-in-chief, Sadashivrao, after the fall of Vishwasrao in the battle. It is said by some historians that it was Sadashivarao Bhau who ordered Malharrao to prioritise the safety of Parvatibai and the other civilians who were stuck in the thick of the battle). But it was Malharrao who had advised Sadashivarao to use guerrilla tactics instead of fighting a pitched battle against the Afghan Abdali. But his wise counsel wasn't heeded and the Marathas faced a humiliating defeat against the Afghans. Malharrao had earlier lost his son Khanderrao in an campaign against the Jats (although he was reconciled with them in the interests of Maratha unity).

After Malharrao's death at Alampur he was succeeded briefly by his grandson, Malerao, and because of Malerao's premature death within a year, by his legendary daughter-in-law Ahilyabai Holkar, who proved to be a capable and benevolent administrator, and a social reformer, and a builder of many social welfare institutions and temples. Ahilyabai is still deified in those areas which were ruled by the Holkars.

Prelude to the Third Battle of Panipat

[7] Earlier, Gaziuddin had been elevated to the position of mir bakshi by Safdar Jang himself, the wazir at the time.

In 1752, the Afghan king, Ahmed Shah Abdali, invaded Punjab and took possession of it. He then proceeded towards Delhi and demanded 5,000,000 rupees as a tribute from the Mughal emperor. The emperor pleaded to the Marathas for help and a formal treaty, the Ahmadiya Pact, was signed which included the Maratha commanders, Malharrao Holkar and Jayappa Scindia. A total of 5,000,000 rupees was to be paid to the Marathas along with the chauth of Punjab and Sind (an even better price than that being demanded by the Afghans).

Thereafter Safdar Jang hastened to Delhi with a fifty thousand-strong Maratha army. By then Abdali had already retreated to Afghanistan after the panic-stricken Mughal emperor ceded Lahore and Multan to him. This created bad blood between the emperor and his wazir, when the latter accused the emperor of being duplicitous and acting on the advice of his rival at the court, the eunuch Jawed Khan, chief of the royal guard.

On the other hand, the Marathas refused to vacate Delhi unless the emperor and his wazir honoured their agreement and paid them the promised 5,000,000 rupees. When this couldn't be arranged the Marathas freely plundered Delhi.

By then Gaziuddin senior, the brother of Salabat Jang and the new Nizam ul Mulk, had staked a claim to Hyderabad and had sought the help of the peshwas. The Marathas then forced the Mughal emperor to issue a sanad recognising Gaziuddin as the Nizam ul Mulk and Mughal subedar in the Deccan. In return, Gaziuddin promised to pay 3,000,000 rupees to the peshwa on behalf of the emperor as part payment towards the previously agreed treaty. Also, he had been promised the governorship of Ajmer and Agra (these were in fact promised earlier to the Rajputs and the Jats). Furthermore, the promised chauth from Punjab and Sind was also a part of Abdali's possessions. Hence the treaty between Delhi and the Marathas still remained unfulfilled.

Ten thousand Maratha troops were left behind in Delhi under the Maratha commander, Antaji Mankeshwar, while the rest returned to their respective posts. The peshwa also sent Mahadev Pant Hingane to the Delhi court to act as his representative.



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