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Maratha Supremacy In The 18Th Century
By Sanjeev Nayyar, March 2008 [[email protected]]

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Most of us were taught that the Muslims ruled our country for nearly a thousand years, the British took over thereafter. This is not true since 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 (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, Aurangzib is A, P is Peshwa.


Peshwas (P): The 18th century is rightly looked on as the age of Maratha supremacy. While various people revolted after Aurangzib’s death, the Marathas (Mts) on account of their simple habits, hardihood and national fervor proved the most successful. Shahu’s rajas 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 loyalties 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 Brits 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 Mughal’s in 1707, Shahu established contact with several Maratha chieftains like P 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 ie the areas of Satara and Poona.

Before we go ahead mention must be made of Kanhoji Angria, a brave and daring person whose ships scoured the Western coast and made him very rich/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.

Eager to curb the growing power of the Marathas, the Mughal king appointed Nizam-ul-Mulk as the governor of the 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 However, Husain Ali and the Marathas entered Delhi, forced the Mughal ruler to sign the treaty and brought back members of Raja Shahu’s family.

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. What this did was to concentrate too much power in the hand of these chiefs without providing for adequate checks. Balaji attempted to create some sort of 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.

Take the case of the BJP today. In the late eighties, early nineties it made rapid gains in states like A.P, Orissa and West Bengal. Having made a presence it abdicated control over the states in favor of local satraps like Naidu, Mamta didi. Today their allies, read chiefs have become more powerful than the BJP. It is only a matter of time before these allies strike off on their own. Raja Shahu learnt the futility of having very powerful chiefs nearly 250 yrs ago. The question today is whether the BJP will eat the allies or the other way round (the latter seems to be happening today) Like Rajaram, the BJP is more concerned about extending its sphere of influence even if that means a weak centre. Bharat has prospered when the centre was strong.

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

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