Maratha Supremacy in the 18th century

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We were taught that Muslims ruled our country for nearly a thousand years and the British took over thereafter. Did you know that the Marathas ruled over most of India during the 18th century. This article tells you about the Peshwas, how Marathas won wars in other parts of India (to substantiate the title), Nana Saheb, Scindias, Holkars, and lastly causes of the downfall of the Maratha empire. Short forms used are Maratha is Mts, Mughals is M, Shivaji is S, Aurangzeb is A, P is Peshwa.

This article is based on Volume VIII – The Maratha Supremacy” of the magnum opus – The History and Culture of the Indian People, General Editor R.C. Majumdar, published by Bharatiya Vidya Bhavan, Second Edition, 1991.

This article was first written in March 2008 and edited in March 2017.

1800-1820

Peshwas: The 18th century is rightly looked at, as the age of Maratha supremacy. While people revolted after Aurangzeb’s death, the Marathas, on account of their simple habits, hardihood and, national fervor proved to be the most successful. Shahu’s Raja Peshwa Balaji Vishwanath understood the changed situation and decided to get actively involved in other parts of India. Under his son and grandson, Marathas succeeded in conquering Malwa (area around modern day Indore), Gujarat, and Bundelkhand part (in U.P.) and levied tribute from Bengal to Punjab and from Agra to Arcot (in Tamil Nadu). Unfortunately, they did not develop satisfactory administrative and cultural institutions to win the loyalty of the people.

After the setback of Panipat in 1761, Mahaji Sindia became the kingmaker of Delhi and remained in charge till 1794. Thus, the British had to fight the Marathas and not the Mughals. Between 1800 and 1818, the British smartly divided the Maratha chieftains and defeated them thereafter.

After escaping from the clutches of the Mughals in 1707, Shahu established contact with several Maratha chieftains like Peshwa Bhonsle of Berar. Unwilling to accept Shahu as the king, Tarabai fought and lost a battle with Shahu in 1707. This opened the doors of Swaraj to Shahu i.e., the areas of Satara and Poona.

A mention must be made of Kanhoji Angria, a brave and daring person whose ships scoured the Western coast and made him immensely rich and powerful. His name evoked fear in the minds of the Siddis, British, Dutch, and Portuguese. Balaji Peshwa convinced Angria on the futility of a fight and got him to side with Shahu and not Tarabai.

At end of article read about Kanhoji A - India's first naval commander. Excerpts, "The first important naval figure in modern India, Angre managed to maintain an unquestionable hold over a heavily disputed stretch of coastline throughout the early decades of the 18th century. At its peak in 1729, Angre’s Maratha fleet held a mere 80 ships, many of them little more than overgrown fishing boats engineered by the local kolis (fisher folk) who populated his domain. Yet with the combination of that modest fleet and an unsurpassed strategic mind, Angre established a fearsome authority in the name of the Maratha Emperors over a vast swath of India’s west coast. The competition was fierce and came from some of the greatest powers of the day – the Portuguese, the British, and the Mughals in the form of their coastal vassals, the Siddis."

Eager to curb the growing power of the Marathas, the Mughal king appointed Nizam-ul-Mulk as the governor of Deccan. Advocating a strong policy towards the Marathas in the Deccan, he took them on, winning some and loosing others. Unable to control them, the Nizam came to an understanding with the Peshwa.

A few months later he got transferred and was replaced by Husain Ali. He too, advocated a strong policy against the Marathas initially, but later on came to a formal agreement by which the Marathas could levy chauth on the six provinces of the Deccan (Aurangabad, Berar, Khandesh, Bidar, Golconda, and Bijapur which included the whole of Karnataka), Malwa, and Gujarat, the old conquests of Shivaji to be restored and Shahu’s family to be set free.

In return for all this, the Marathas would maintain 15,000 troops to aid the emperor and pay an agreed annual fee. Realizing that this meant virtually abdicating his control over the Deccan, the emperor refused to ratify the treaty and prepared for war, and called to his aid S Khan from Patna, Nizam-ul-Mulk from Moradabad and Ajit Singh from Gujarat.

However, Husain Ali and the Marathas entered Delhi in February 1919, forced the Mughal ruler to sign the treaty. Balaji Vishwanath who had accompanied Husain Ali to Delhi returned to the Deccan in May 1919, with the deeds and Raja Shahu's family. The treaty marked a triumph of Raja Shahu. His recognition by the Mughal authority gave him an advantage over Shambhuji and made other Maratha chieftains look up to him as a man of authority. Mughal rulers recognized the supremacy of the Marathas in the south by granting them the right to collect revenue from six provinces in Deccan.

Subsequently, jagirs were doled out to various Maratha chiefs like the Bhonsles, Angria etc. The chiefs could do what they wanted in their areas by adhering to central directives mainly in the area of defence. As a consequence, this concentrated too much power in the hands of these chiefs without providing adequate checks. Balaji attempted to create a federal structure unlike Shivaji, who favored a central monarchy. Creation of these jagirs expanded the Maratha Empire but was responsible for its downfall too.

Historians point out that this “granting of authority over territory instead of salaries” to the officers by Balaji Vishwanath was a departure from the wise rule of Shivaji but throw the blame on the master and not on the minister.

Balaji passed away in 1720, leaving his son Bajirao Peshwa to succeed him. Hereafter, the house of Shivaji faded away gradually, with the Peshwas ruling the roost. Balaji Vishwanath Bhat has been truly called 'the second founder of the Maratha state'.

Baji Rao Peshwa

He became Peshwa at the age of 20. There was criticism against appointing a person so young but Raja Shahu was committed to the appointment. By the circumstances of his upbringing and inclination, Raja Shahu lacked the will to assert himself and be bothered about the details of administration. It resulted in a gradual transfer of powers to the Peshwa hand from those of the Chhatrapati.

Bajirao Peshwa, courtesy Rediff.com

The Turani party which subsequently came to power in Delhi, refused to follow the treaty signed by the emperor in March 1719. The Deccan was seized by the Nizam who in collusion with Raja Shahu's rival, Shambhuji of Kolhapur threatened to destroy the Maratha State.

The Nizam, Mir Qamar-ud-din, used the Marathas to overcome his Mughal rivals but refused to cooperate with the Marathas in recovering chauth from Karnatak. The Nizam wanted to break away from the Maratha’s shackles so he shifted capital from Aurangabad to Hyderabad.

Eventually the Nizam was overcome in 1728 in the Battle of Palkhed. Peshwa marched towards Aurangabad but avoided taking the enemy headon. Instead he moved towards Gujarat with Nizam’s army in hot pursuit. The pursuit was abandoned in the hilly tract and Nizam occupied Pune instead. Peshwa now attacked Nizam’s capital Aurangabad, and was challenged for action in a waterless tract near Palkhed. Starved of food and water, Nizam sent a word to Peshwa, asking for peace. Field Marshal Montgomery, who held a leading part in the defeat of Hitler, has in his book, A History of Warfare, listed some of the all time important battles, and selected the Battle of Palkhed as one that was brilliant in strategy and fought in the style of Mughals.

At end of article read The Maratha Military Genius: The Battle of Palkhed. Excerpts "Baji Rao resisted “urgent calls” to rush back to defend Poona. Instead, the Nizam, while at Baramati, learned to his horror, that the “Peshwa had burst eastward through the Kasarbari Pass and was marching towards Aurangabad, the heart of the [Nizam’s] kingdom.”

The Nizam started in pursuit, but found his army cut off from all supplies to water near Palkhed on 25 February 1728. “Starved of food and water”, the Nizam’s army would not fight, though his heavy artillery was able to keep the Peshwa’s army at arm’s length.

Through the intercession of Iwaz Khan, the “Nizam sent the Peshwa a word of his miserable plight and his willingness to come to terms.” The Nizam’s army was only then allowed to move near the river. A treaty – generous to the Marathas – was entered into between the Peshwa and the Nizam at Mungi-Paithan on 6 March 1728. The Nizam agreed to every single term set by the Marathas, save one – the handover of Sambhaji (of Kolhapur).

A famous battle was thus concluded where there was no mass slaughter of soldiers on either side – that would take place 34 years later on the plains of Panipat, where arguably the largest number of deaths in a single day on a battlefield in history would be recorded.

This battle is remembered for it being a “masterpiece of strategic mobility”. It is useful to read what Field Marshall Montgomery had to write about this battle in his book:

Baji Rao’s army was a purely mounted force, armed only with sabre, lance and a bow in some units, and a round shield. There was a spare horse for every two men. The Marathas moved unencumbered by artillery, baggage, or even handguns and defensive armour. The lightly equipped Marathas moved with great rapidity, avoiding the main towns and fortresses, living off the country, burning and plundering. … The Nizam for a time pursued them but was bewildered by the swift and unpredictable movements of the enemy, and his men became exhausted."

The growing ambition of Bajirao, coupled with the independent streak of various chieftains, was bound to result in conflict, the area being Gujarat. Elated by his victories, Peshwa was in no mood to give up the claims on Northern Gujarat; others like Gaikwars, Bhonsle, and Pawars were opposed to the Peshwa’s designs. At this stage, young Dabhade (chieftain) made a tactical blunder of holding secret negotiations with Nizam to seek his help. Getting a whiff of this, Peshwa invaded Gujarat and defeated the combined forces of the Senapati - Nizam. This victory was a landmark in the history of Peshwas as it left them without a rival at home.

Bajirao also undertook a campaign against the Sidis of Janjira in 1733. Under pressure, the Sidi chief sought and obtained support from the English. According to the terms of settlement the Peshwa agreed not to claim beyond what territory was then in actual possession of the invading force. The Sidi was driven back to the sea, his territory dwindled. The Marathas became masters of much of his land possession. But Sidi Saat was overcome in 1736 when his small force was defeated by Peshwa's brother Chimnaji Appa near Rewa in 1736. The Sidi's power declined and the Sidi became in all but name, a tributary of the Marathas.

Realizing the weakness of the Mughal Empire, Peshwa pursued his northward expansion drive with zeal. He brought Malwa, Gujarat and, Bundelkhand (parts of Western, central U.P.) under Maratha control, thereby, for the first time in the history of Bharat making Deccan as the point of controlling Hindustan. (means Urdu speaking areas of the Indian sub-continent).

A mention must be made (subject of movie Bajirao Mastani) of Baji Rao's war in Bundelkhand, at behest of Raja Chhatrasal, when he was hard pressed by Muhammad Khan Bangash, governnor of Allahabad. Baji Rao defeated Khan. In lieu the Marathas were paid a grant of Rs 5 Lakhs. Marathas got another foothold from which to mount their offensive against the Mughal Empire.

In October 1730, Malhar Rao Holkar and Ranoji Sindia were granted the jagir of Malwa with them making Indore and Ujjain their headquarters. Peshwa’s march to Delhi started with his arrival in northern Bundelkhand just about 70 kms of Agra. Malhar Rao Holkar lost to the Governor of Avadh, S. Khan forcing Peshwa to make a tactical retreat.

While the Mughals were celebrating their victory, (It is rightly said, “Never celebrate till your enemy is vanquished, even if you do, keep your forces on alert.), Peshwa took a detour through modern day Haryana and descended to Delhi. On reaching Delhi, he changed his mind and decided not to attack. Because of some misunderstanding, Mughals attacked Peshwa’s forces only to be routed. The successful march had led to a surge in the Peshwa’s reputation and generated awe in the enemy’s camps.

Unable to accept the growing might of Peshwa, Mughals invited Nizam and other Rajput chiefs to join hands and push the Peshwa to south of the Narmada. Through a series of strategic moves, Peshwa cut off supply lines to various parts of this alliance, defeated them and forced Nizam to beg for signing a treaty in 1738. Called the victory of Bhopal, it marks the zenith of Peshwa’s career. It also implied the arrival of a new power in Hindustan.

Nizam failed to keep his promise of ratifying the terms of the treaty. Serious doubts assailed Peshwa’s mind that allowed Nizam to escape in 1728 (Palkhed) and 1738 (Bhopal). If Peshwa had not done so, may be, Bharat might not have faced the problems with Nizam’s state, Hyderabad, at the time of partition. This has been one of the weaknesses of Indian rulers, a refusal to crush the enemy once and for all. Prithviraj Chauhan made the mistake with Mahmud Ghazni, only to be killed later, Nehru made it in Kashmir in 1948, Indira Gandhi repeated the mistake in 1972.

While Bajirao was overrunning Hindustan, his brother Chimnaji Appa defeated the Portuguese in 1740, ending their rule in North Konkan. The persecution of all those who did not conform to the Christian doctrine forced the Hindu leaders to secretly invite the Peshwas to free them of foreign rule. The conquest of Bassein was long cherished by the Marathas as a matter of national pride and glory.

Summary of Bajirao’s reign

The last few years of the Bajirao’s life were clouded by domestic discord. He was fond of a mistress and drank, ate meat in her company. He passed away in 1740. In the words of Sir Richard Temple, “He died as he lived, in camp under canvas among his men and he is remembered to this day among the Marathas, as the fighting Peshwa and the incarnation of Hindu energy.”

Besides securing the Deccan, he was the first Maratha to go on the offensive streak in Hindustan. Leading his armies beyond the Narmada, he over ran the Mughal provinces of Gujarat, Malwa and Bundelkhand. It was his policy of northward drive that brought the provinces of Punjab to Bengal under Maratha influence by 1760.

If Shivaji created a Maratha state, Bajirao transformed it into an empire. While he extracted revenue ably, he paid no heed to the problems of governance. He was a matchless cavalry leader but not statesmen or a far sighted reformer. The Jagir system vested more money in the hands of satraps like Holkars, causing a debt of INR 14 lacs for Bajirao. A centralized monarchy might have changed history. Overall, he gave the Maratha state stability, secured its freedom and opened prospects for expansion.

Sir Jadunath Sarkar attempts to give an explanation for Bajirao’s failure to restore Hindu sovereignty over parts of India from where they extracted tribute. "The Peshwa's work was that a conqueror not a consolidator. He was a matchless cavalry leader but no statesman, no far-sighted reformer."

At end of article read “Why Bajirao is India's greatest cavalry general?” Excerpts - “In his brief military career spanning 20 years, Bajirao never lost a battle.

A keen and dashing horseman, Bajirao organised the Marathas into an efficient fighting machine based on the concept of fast moving cavalry. His army was composed solely of cavalry with virtually no baggage train to slow it down.

Bajirao lived with his soldiers, shared their hardships and always led from the front.

An appreciative and shrewd commander, he gathered around him competent men like Shinde, Holkar, Gaekwad, Pawar and Jadhav.

In 1739, instigated by some Mughal courtiers, Nadir Shah invaded India. He was helped in the Punjab by the Nizam and other Mughals who wanted the Marathas to be ousted from Delhi at all costs. Nadir Shah obliged them and in the bargain looted wealth worth nearly Rs 100 crore. He also took away with him the famous Peacock Throne as well as the Kohinoor diamond.

One of the big 'ifs' of Indian history is Bajirao's untimely death on the way to Delhi to take on Nadir Shah. Maybe the Kohinoor and Peacock Throne would have still been in India."

While encamped at Raverkhedi 36 miles from Khargon, Baji Rao got fever and died on 28th April 1740.”