BAJIRAO PESHWA - THE EMPIRE BUILDER

  • By Uday S. Kulkarni
  • April 27, 2018
  • @MulaMutha
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  • The eighteenth century is the period when the Maratha Empire spread to the four corners of India. It was the twenty-year stewardship of the Empire under Baji rao Peshwa that ensured that a kingdom of a few districts spread to a nationwide Empire. More than anybody else, it was Baji rao who shaped the 18th century as a century of the Marathas.

It was 28 April 1740, the sun had set on the Narmada when the Peshwa breathed his last. A day earlier the camp had reverberated with the chant of the Maha Mrutyunjay japa, an invocation to the gods to save the Pandit Pradhan of the Maratha Empire. It was this day, two hundred and seventy eight years ago when a short febrile illness claimed the life of the most vigorous warrior General of the times.

However, the Empire did not exist when short of twenty years of age, on the fifteenth day of his father’s demise, against the advice of his senior ministers, Chhatrapati Shahu – who reigned for forty one years – deemed it appropriate to award the highest ministerial position of Prime Minister to the young Baji rao. Baji rao’s father Balaji Vishwanath had from the day Shahu began his journey back from Mughal captivity, not just remained unshaken and loyal to his sovereign but consolidated his position little by little until by 1715, Shahu became secure in his position of king. Shahu could overcome the endless opposition from his aunt Tara bai and the many opportunist chiefs who left his side to join the Mughal Viceroy in the Deccan due to his Peshwa Balaji. It was small wonder then that he chose Baji rao over all others to be his next Prime Minister.

Baji rao had campaigned on the field and worked with his father in diplomacy since the age of eleven. Children were groomed early those days and Baji rao had mastered the scriptures, the skills of a warrior and the nuances of administration fairly early. His first few years saw him participate in battles on scattered battlefields from the province of Malwa to the southern city of Srirangapatnam. His loyalty to his king drove him on and in the first four years he stood as the chief obstacle for the wily Nizam-ul-mulk to take over the Maratha kingdoms of Satara (where Shahu ruled) and Kolhapur (where his cousin Sambhaji ruled).

In 1726, the Nizam brought Sambhaji to his camp and promised him the Maratha throne after deposing Shahu. As the massive army converged on Pune and Satara, Shahu summoned Baji rao. Baji rao did not possess an artillery – or even the infantry - to face the Mughal army in an open battle. Leaving Shahu with his brother Chimaji Appa on the strong fort of Purandar and taking along his trusted aides Malharji Holkar, Ranoji Sindia, Pilaji Jadhav and Davalji Somvanshi he embarked on a whirlwind campaign into the heart of the Nizam’s kingdom. Ravaging territories around Aurangabad and Jalna right up to Vidarbha, he turned towards Burhanpur, the prestigious Mughal city. This brought out Nizam from Pune. From here Baji rao headed to Gujarat. When the Nizam tried to follow him, he used the Gujarat Mughal subedar to counter the Nizam by telling him he was to be attacked by him! The Nizam turned back to Pune. In a few weeks, Baji rao was on the move, seemingly heading for the city of Aurangabad. The Nizam dropped everything to march out to save his capital. 

Predicting the Nizam’s response, Baji rao appointed his chiefs to chase off the banjarrahs – merchants who supplied armies on the move – and get in position to trap the Nizam. As the Nizam crossed the Godavari first with his artillery to follow, he was surrounded by the Maratha cavalry. No food or water could reach his large camp. It was impossible to break out of this rigid siege and without shedding a drop of blood, the Mughal Viceroy had to surrender at the village of Palkhed. He abandoned Sambhaji and accepted the Maratha right to collect taxes in the Deccan. The news of this victory over the foremost Mughal commander of the day reverberated through India.

It was impossible to break out of this rigid siege and without shedding a drop of blood, the Mughal Viceroy had to surrender at the village of Palkhed. He abandoned Sambhaji and accepted the Maratha right to collect taxes in the Deccan. The news of this victory over the foremost Mughal commander of the day reverberated through India.

The next year Chimaji led a campaign to Malwa – a bridge between the north and the south – and in a six hour frontal battle at Amjhera, killed the Mughal subedar Giridhar Bahadur and his brother Daya Bahadur. Baji rao had kept himself informed of his brother’s first campaign. Then after his victory was assured, he entered the arid forested track of Garha Mandala west of Jabalpur heading for Bundelkhand. Chhatrasal, the old king of Bundelkhand was besieged by Muhammad Khan Bangash and sought the Peshwa’s help. Marching through an unfrequented path, he appeared in Bundelkhand suddenly, surprising Bangash and chasing him into the fort of Jaitpur. Here after a three month long siege, Bangash surrendered and promised never to trouble Bundelkhand again. Baji rao won rich rewards with a third of Chhatrasal’s kingdom with a share in the diamond mines of Panna. Chhatrasal also gifted him Mastani, his daughter from a Muslim courtesan.

The Peshwa had now taken his kingdom from the few districts around Satara to the bank of the Yamuna and the Chambal. The following year he was forced into an internal power struggle with the Maratha senapati Trimbak rao Dabhade. At a seminal battle at Dabhoi in Gujarat, the senapati was defeated and tragically killed by a rogue gunman. The Peshwa felt remorse and went to his king. However, in the aftermath of Dabhoi, half of Gujarat was awarded to the Peshwa to govern.

The time was ripe to aim northwards. He had kept a channel of communication open with Sawai Jaisingh of Jaipur, who advocated co-opting Baji rao to the Mughal cause by giving him what he wants. There were two parties in Mughal Emperor Muhammad Shah’s court and it was not easy to obtain the imperial sanads to the territories he sought. While these negotiations continued, the Peshwa descended on the Konkan coastal strip and along with Sekhoji Angre, wrested most of the Abyssinian Siddi of Janjira’s territory. It was the monsoons of 1733 and the death of Sekhoji that abruptly ended this fruitful campaign. The Siddi sought English intervention and in December 1733, the Peshwa retired after installing his nominee as the chief of the Siddi clan, leaving them Janjira and a couple of other forts. 

In 1735, while Baji rao was preparing to visit the north and his armies were fighting Mughal grandees on a wide arc from Bundelkhand to Rajasthan, his mother Radha bai embarked on a pilgrimage. The prestige of Baji rao in the midst of the war saw rulers from Udaipur and Jaipur escort her from place to place while Baji rao’s opponents like Bangash took the responsibility of taking the Peshwa’s mother to Kashi and Gaya. It was on Radha bai’s return, that the Peshwa took the field once again and headed for Rajputana. His visits to Udaipur and Jaipur were of a diplomatic nature, however he did not fail to obtain funds as tribute! Here, he began negotiations with the Mughal court in Delhi and obtained a few concessions. Leaving for the Deccan he expected the farman of the grant of Malwa; however, this did not materialise. This led to his famous dash to Delhi in 1737.

Already considered the most powerful power in India, the Marathas now began to dictate terms to all other powers. The Portuguese in the Konkan and Goa, the English at Mumbai and the Nizam were all at the receiving end of Bajirao’s displeasure at various times. The Delhi court remained secure that it is safe due to the distance from the Deccan. This belief was broken by Baji rao. 

End of March 1737, bypassing three large Mughal armies to the south of Delhi, Baji rao was at the gates of the Mughal capital. The shock to the Emperor was complete. In his own words, as he wrote later to his brother, he decided against burning the suburbs of the city as he believed the Emperor and his advisor Khan Dauran were actually in favour of a treaty and violence against the city or its inhabitants would ‘break the cord of diplomacy’. A few thousand raw levies came up to defend the city but were easily defeated. With this Baji rao withdrew to Malwa. 

The attack on Delhi, the first since Akbar took the capital from Hemu, was a shock not just to the Mughals but it reverberated in foreign lands – as far as Persia where Nadir Shah took note of it and sent a letter reprimanding Muhammad Shah for his laxity. The Nizam was recalled from the Deccan and told to oppose Baji rao. The highest titles of the land were bestowed on the wily old chief of the Aurangzeb era. The Nizam began from Delhi with a large army towards the Deccan and Baji rao set out to meet him at Malwa. 

Chimaji Appa performed his role of blocking the Nizam’s son Nasir Jung from going to his father’s aid. The Nizam saw Baji rao’s army approaching him and entered the walled city of Bhopal. Here, once again, the Peshwa starved him out. The Nizam attempted a break out as shortages set in but finally had to sign a humiliating treaty at Doraha. The Nizam returned to Delhi where next year Nadir Shah appeared and stripped the city, its king and nobles of their wealth as well as any pride or honour left in the Mughal nobility. The Mughal Empire was over, its phantom survived, limping along for another century under the protection of the Marathas, the Afghans and finally the British before they were deposed in 1857.

Baji rao then threw his armies into the liberation of Vasai from the Portuguese. Over twelve thousand Marathas laid down their lives in winning this fort along with the island of Sashti (today the northern half of Mumbai city) from the entrenched Portuguese power. The battle for the Konkan was led by his able brother Chimaji Appa who did not abandon the struggle against heavy odds. In May 1739, the fort of Vasai capitulated and the Portuguese left forever.

In his last year of life, Baji rao fought a battle with the Nizam’s son around Aurangabad and was given two districts on the Narmada from the Nizam’s territory. To take possession of Khargone and Handia he left for the north in March 1740. His diplomats were already in touch with the Mughal court for the farman of handing over Malwa to the Marathas…

In the midst of life, in a camp in the open, among his soldiers on a campaign, died this victorious Peshwa a few months before his fortieth birthday. His contribution in establishing an Indian Empire between the Mughal and the British era is vital in the annals of Indian history. This Maratha Empire in the next two decades was to spread from Punjab to Bengal and the Kumaon to the Cauvery. The man who made that possible was Baji rao. Baji rao laid the ground for a ‘Maratha century’ and the first half of the eighteenth century is thus indubitably stamped as the era of Baji rao; for he built an indigenous Empire before once again the nation fell under foreign rule in the nineteenth century.

Baji rao laid the ground for a ‘Maratha century’ and the first half of the eighteenth century is thus indubitably stamped as the era of Baji rao; for he built an indigenous Empire before once again the nation fell under foreign rule in the nineteenth century.

The famous poet Bhushan, perhaps an old man by the time, penned a few lines on Baji rao. The rough translation would be,

‘When the Satara king starts with Baji rao and his army

it appears as if the mountains are collapsing or there is a clap of thunder,

Strong rulers, like Ravana, leave their forts and their charge, and flee,

The Earth itself appears to lose balance, its guardians appear helpless,

The Shesh nag himself is overturned by the exploits of Baji rao,

Alternately bends forward and rises, tosses and turns restlessly….’

References - ‘The Era of Baji rao’ – An Account of the Empire of the Deccan – by Uday S Kulkarni.

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Also read

1. The Battle of Palkhed 

2. Bajirao Peshwa’s dash to Delhi 

3. The extraordinary exploits of Chimmaji Appa

4. Why Bajirao Peshwa is India’s greatest cavalry general