MALHAR RAO HOLKAR, The Subedar of Malwa

  • By Uday S. Kulkarni
  • November 21, 2021
  • @MulaMutha
  • Know about the life and achievements of one of the most respected Maratha Subedars, Malhar Rao Holkar of Malwa.

In the annals of Maratha history, there were many who managed subas, but just two men who were identified as ‘subedar’. The first was Pilaji Jadhav Rao, who served the Maratha state from 1712 to his death around 1753, and the second was the redoubtable Malharji Holkar.

Malharji, born in the village of Hol near Pune in 1693 CE, belonged to a family that tended to sheep for their livelihood (Dhangar community). While still in his teens, he gathered a group of men and set out to make his fortune, joining the army of the Kadambandes of Khandesh. After getting his first experience in war, the self-respecting young man, had disagreements with the chief, was recommended by one Bapuji Prabhu to gain employment with Mohan Singh, the Rana of Badwani.

Bapuji meanwhile, recommended his name to Bajirao Peshwa, then just twenty-one years of age and fighting his own battles with the entrenched elders in Chhatrapati Shahu’s durbar, who challenged his appointment and played down his ability. Malharji then wrote to Bajirao and asked him for employment. However, even this ‘application’ was worded with character:

“I was with Bande for long. However, I have had differences with him. I was trying to gain employment through Bapuji Prabhu with Rana Mohan Singh. However, he recommended to ….. Saheb (Note – a gap was traditionally left before the name of an important addressee. Here, it implied the Peshwa) and sent forward my paper. I have sincerely committed myself to the enterprise (of service). If you two (Bajirao and Ambaji Pant Purandare, to who the letter is jointly addressed) feel I am not suitable, please send me a reply. After Rajashri sends a reply, I will join his service and serve loyally and with fidelity. Wherever the master keeps me I will stay without protest. (But) the master who employs the servant must treat him with respect.”

It was not as though Bajirao did not know Malharji. In his father Balaji Vishwanath Peshwa’s campaign to Delhi in 1718-1719, Malharji was present along with the army. Malharji was always head-strong and an example of the time is given in a bakhar (Bakhar is an account or a kind of news) of those days.

During the journey to Delhi, it was ordered that farms in a village will not be touched. However, Malharji’s men entered the field, cut the corn and gave it to their horses. The matter reached the Peshwa. Baji Rao was sent to attend to the matter and he beat one of the culprits with a stick. Malhar was sitting outside his tent twining a rope. From there, he abused Baji Rao and threw a lump of wet mud on him. ‘Are you giving us pay, that you are beating us with a stick?’ he demanded of Baji Rao. The next day hearing that the Peshwa had plans to castigate him, he left all his horses in the camp, burnt his tents, applied ash on the body and with his men went and sat atop a hill. Balaji Vishwanath then collected the horses, called Holkar’s men back and gave them clothes.

“On the way back from Delhi, Baji Rao was sitting by a stream. Having bathed, he was sitting in the shade having his food. Malharji appeared with five hundred troopers from the forest. Sitting on his horse, he placed his lance on Baji Rao’s chest. ‘The other day I threw a lump of mud at you. Now should I pass this lance through your body? Is there anybody here who can save you?’ Baji Rao rose, brought Holkar down from his horse and praised his swordsmanship. ‘In each battle, said Baji Rao, I saw your flashing sword – come join me for lunch’. Holkar replied, ‘your mind is not clear about me. How can I sit for a meal with you?’ Then Baji Rao said, ‘I will take an oath on this food’, and touched the food, ‘the next time we campaign, you will have a command of five thousand horse"(Extract from book ‘The Era of Baji Rao’)

From that day, Malharji Holkar became an important chief in Baji Rao’s army. He contributed to most of Baji Rao’s campaigns, and gradually came to be respected as one of the foremost exponents of guerilla warfare against the slow-moving Mughal armies with their heavy guns.

Baji Rao was accompanied by Holkar in his famous battle at Palkhed where the undefeated Nizam-ul-mulk had to surrender to Baji Rao’s dictates and give up his campaign against Chhatrapati Shahu. Baji Rao’s campaign to Bundelkhand had the triumvirate of Pilaji Jadhav Rao, Malharji Holkar and Ranoji Scindia that resulted in the complete defeat of Muhammad Khan Bangash. In the difficult tracts of the Konkan in 1733, Baji Rao with Holkar and Sekhoji Angre brought the Siddi of Janjira to his knees. The Siddi was left with just the island of Janjira thanks to timely help from the English.

The Marathas grew stronger, and they were invited to intervene in the succession dispute at Bundi, which was being managed by Sawai Jaisingh of Jaipur. From here, Holkar’s involvement with the politics of Rajasthan began. His subduing many of the princes of the region, caused him to be embroiled in several disputes right to the end of his life. 

With Baji Rao, in 1736-37, Malharji went to the north and crossing the Yamuna, raided several places such as Etawah, Shukohabad and so on. Sadat Khan of Awadh came with a large army and surprised the small mobile force with Holkar, routing them back across the river to Baji Rao’s main camp. Even as Sadat Khan rejoiced that he had ‘defeated and pushed back Baji Rao south of the Chambal’, the Peshwa with Holkar and Scindia marched towards the undefended capital. 

The arrival of the Maratha army in the vicinity of Delhi spread panic in the city. Defeating a small force sent against him, Baji Rao retreated before the hundred thousand strong Mughal army came back to Delhi, his intention of showing the Emperor that the Marathas could reach the capital, fulfilled.

It was the first time since 1556 when Akbar approached Delhi that the city had seen an enemy at his doors.

The Mughal durbar called their grand rebel Nizam-ul-mulk from the Deccan, received him with great pomp and appointed him as the highest lord of the state. In 1738, he was prevailed upon to lead an army south and chastise Baji Rao. With Holkar and Scindia, Baji Rao once again left for the north and the two armies came near each other at Bhopal. The Nizam however, instead of fighting, took shelter in the walled city of Bhopal. A siege was enforced and soon the Nizam had to attempt a breakout with his guns finding a way.

Eventually, the Marathas stopped the Nizam at Doraha, a short distance from Bhopal, forcing him to surrender and sign a treaty promising the suba of Malwa to the Marathas along with a cash indemnity.

The last three years of Baji Rao’s time, saw Holkar involved in the epic battle to liberate Vasai and Sashti (Salsette island i.e. modern day Bandra to Ghodbunder) from Portuguese control. This victory over a European power with their strong cannons cost the Marathas a huge number of men. Even as the battle of Vasai raged, Nadir Shah attacked and sacked Delhi, massacring thousands of the city’s residents. Chhatrapati Shahu ordered Baji Rao to succour the Mughal power saying that it is better to repair a dilapidated edifice meaning the Mughal throne than creating a new one.

Shahu thus indicated his unwillingness to rule at Delhi while expressing his support for Muhammad Shah. However, with Maratha armies tied down in Vasai this was not possible right away. Baji Rao stood on the Tapi at Burhanpur, and the day after the Portuguese capitulated, Nadir Shah too left Delhi after placing Muhammad Shah back on the Mughal throne.

Holkar was, with Ranoji Scindia, one of the powerful chiefs in the Maratha power with a base at Indore in Malwa. In the next decade, he accompanied Nanasaheb Peshwa to the north. The four expeditions to the north during this period were campaigns of consolidation of Maratha power in Malwa and Bundelkhand, Gujarat and parts of Rajasthan. Nanasaheb and Holkar also went all the way to Bengal when on the way, Malharji camped in the doab and planned to demolish the mosque built by Aurangzeb at the site of the Vishwanath temple. A Marathi letter of 27 June 1743 says:

It is Malharji’s wish to demolish the mosque at Jnanvapi and build a temple. However, the panch dravids Brahmins worry about the mosque is well-known. The Patil will make the temple without an order from the Emperor. Once the Emperor comes to evil ways, the Brahmins will die. He will take their lives. In this province, the yavanas are in strength. They will not all accept this. It is better to build it at another place."See Footnote1

Holkar’s Logo at Rajwada Indore. 2019.

Malharji’s career took a new turn after the death of Chhatrapati Shahu. In 1751, he placed Madho Sinh on the throne over Jaipur. Madho Sinh however, immediately threw off the Marathas by not only refusing to pay any tribute but even massacring three thousands of them within the walls of the city. Holkar and Jayappa Scindia however, were called by the Wazir Safdar Jung to help him in his battle with the Rohillas, at whose hands he had suffered a serious defeat. Holkar and Scindia then entered the doab and inflicted a severe defeat on the Rohillas. The Peshwa complimented them and heaped high praise on them saying:

Praised be your courage, bravery and Rustam like valour, and praised be the valour of your men. It is not an ordinary thing that our Deccan forces crossed the Yamuna and the Ganga, fought with the Pathans and Ruhelas and obtained victory over them. You are loyal servants and pillars of the State....News had spread as far as Persia, Turan (Central Asia) that the Wazir had fallen. You have restored him. What else can be greater than this?"

The Wazir prevailed upon Holkar and Scindia to sign the ahadnama, a treaty by which the Marathas undertook to protect the Mughal throne from all internal and external enemies in exchange for a tribute and the subas of Agra and Ajmer, and the right to collect Chauth from the doab, with a promise to grant Punjab and Sind, after they were captured by them! These clauses expanded the Maratha influence north of the Yamuna. They did lead to a conflict of interest with Abdali who had taken Lahore and the Punjab the same year.

The next few years, in the south the Peshwa with his cousin subdued the Nizam and all opposition in the Deccan, while Scindia and Holkar held the reins of Maratha influence in the north with Raghunath Rao, who campaigned from 1753 to 1755, taking Delhi and Scindia going against the ruler of Marwar. The Maratha policy in the north slipped thereafter, with the friendly Rajputs antagonised and the Rohillas as well as the Nawab of Awadh already estranged.

This was a recipe for Abdali to gain friends in India, and led to a north Indian collaboration against them in 1760.

In 1757, Abdali was invited to India to put down the Deccanis, and coming to Delhi, he overpowered a small Maratha force under Antaji Mankeshwar. He then proceeded to strip Delhi to the bone. The imperial household was raided, princesses taken away, the remaining wealth of Delhi thoroughly looted and the Mughals terrorised into submission. This was followed up by a jihad, where the cities of Mathura and Vrindavan were attacked, and the Yamuna waters turned red with the blood of sadhus and pilgrims.

The Marathas under Raghunath Rao with Malharji Holkar as his chief support, took back Delhi from Abdali’s trusted Najib Khan, and advanced into Punjab. Lahore was taken after chasing away Abdali’s son and army and the cities of Multan, Attock and Peshawar brought under Maratha control. Mughal officials were appointed to take care of them. 

It was an open challenge to Abdali, and in 1759, on the invitation of Najib Khan Rohilla he poured through the Khyber Pass with sixty thousand battle hardened men. Eventually, this led to the fierce battle of Panipat on 14 January 1761 where the flower of the Maratha army perished. Dattaji, Tukoji and Jankoji Scindia were killed in this period and Mahadji escaped with an injury. Malharji Holkar, now sixty-eight years old, left the battle. According to his statement it was on the directions of Sadashiv Rao Bhau who was the Maratha commander. He returned to Gwalior and after Panipat his presence alone preserved Maratha influence until the Chambal River.

However, the old warhorse was visibly tiring and gradually guerrilla warfare was losing out to well-trained British infantry and guns. In 1764, the British defeated Shuja-ud-daulah, the Nawab of Awadh at Buxar. Shuja then sought help from Holkar. However, in the ensuing battle on the plains of Kura in 1765, Major Fletcher of the East India Company inflicted a defeat of Holkar, who could not control the situation or his fleeing army. The subedar was angry and hurt by the defeat and vowed to get back at the English. In 1766, Raghunath Rao came north with an army of forty thousand men to regain all Maratha losses in the north. However, before anything could be done, on 20 May 1766, Malharji Holkar passed away at Alampur where a chhatri was raised in his memory.

Holkar’s own son had died in 1753 while fighting against Surajmal Jat at Kumbher and his grandson Malrao died in 1767. His daughter-in-law Ahilya Bai was at the helm of the Holkar family until her death in 1793. The Holkar army was led by Tukoji Holkar, a distant relative of Malharji.

Malharji Holkar’s length of service to the Maratha state extends for an astounding forty five years of active involvement in practically every important campaign led by Baji Rao, Nanasaheb and even Madhav Rao Peshwa. 

An extremely long and active life of seventy-three years saw him take the Maratha power from a small Deccan state to the door of the Khyber Pass and to Bengal. To Malharji will go the credit of being an important pillar of the Maratha state, whose contribution to its growth is unparalleled. Indeed, a detailed biography of the subedar will encompass the most glorious phase of Maratha Empire.

Footnote 1 - A temple was built near the Gyanvapi mosque later, however, this too was demolished in September 1755 by orders of a local Qazi. The attempts for rebuilding the temple eventually succeeded during Ahilya bai Holkar’s time.)

Chhatri Malhar rao Holkar at Bhind, 75 kms from Gwalior. Made by Ahilyabai. 

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About Author Dr Uday Kulkarni. The author is a retired officer from the Armed Forces. He is a practicing surgeon with an abiding interest in 18th century Indian History and has written 'Solstice at Panipat-14 January 1761', 'The Bakhar of Panipat', 'The Era of Baji Rao', ‘The Extraordinary Epoch of Nanasaheb Peshwa’,‘James Wales: Artist and Antiquarian in the time of Peshwa Sawai Madhav Rao' and 'The Maratha Century'.

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