NANASAHEB PESHWA - THE ARCHITECT OF AN EMPIRE AND A CITY

  • By Uday S. Kulkarni
  • June 23 2018
  • @MulaMutha
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Nanasaheb Peshwa

  • Balaji Baji rao, better known as Nanasaheb Peshwa, was a man of refined taste and polished manners, who – unlike his father Baji rao was more of a strategist than a soldier. In the twenty-one years that his reign lasted – first as a Peshwa to Chhatrapati Shahu and after his death as the virtual monarch of the Maratha Empire – the Marathas reached all corners of India from Peshawar in the north west to Murshidabad in the east, from the hills of Kumaon in the north to Tiruchirapalli in the south. His death anniversary falls on 23 June. Dr Uday S Kulkarni’s next book is on 18th century India in the times of Nanasaheb Peshwa.

Nanasaheb was born on 12 December 1721, and was the eldest son of Baji rao Peshwa. Born just over a year after the death of his grandfather Peshwa Balaji Vishwanath or Balaji pant Nana, he was named after him - as was customary at the time. From a pretty early age, the young boy was taught the nuances of administration, the scriptures, letter writing and so on besides dealing with wars and campaigns and diplomacy. With Baji rao away, his mother Kashi bai, grandmother Radha bai and his uncle Chimaji Appa were his mentors. In 1730, he was married to Gopika bai, the daughter of the money lender family - again a frequent occurence - of Raste from the town of Wai on 11 January, just a day after the bhoomi pujan of the Shaniwar palace in Pune. By then Nanasaheb was actively involved in the correspondence and diplomatic wrangles of the kingdom.

Nanasaheb was the eldest of four sons of Baji rao from his wife Kashi bai. His younger brothers Ramachandra and Janardan passed away quite early and Raghunath, who survived to adulthood was nearly fifteen years younger. His step brother was Shamsher Bahadur, the son of Baji rao and Mastani – who also had the Hindu name of Krishna rao – and both Raghunath and Shamsher were involved in the expansion of the Marathas over a two-decade period. However, it was Sadashiv rao Bhau, the son of Chimaji Appa who proved his biggest support on the battlefield and in his administration.

By the time Nanasaheb was in his teens he was staying at Satara as the representative of the Peshwa, a necessary task in view of the pressures and influence brought to bear on Chhatrapati Shahu by the many ministers and chiefs in the Maratha fold, sometimes against the Peshwa. It was therefore Nanasaheb’s duty to satisfy the king and clear the many doubts that were planted in his mind about the motives of Baji rao when he was away on campaigns. Naturally, it was a grooming for a diplomat than a soldier and Nanasaheb in his life has written the most letters among all the rulers of the Maratha Empire. His penmanship was indeed embellished by many a turn of phrase and his reprimands to his subordinates were sharp and cleverly worded. His praise too was unstinted and many fine examples of his letters are available to us today.

Baji rao’s sudden death in April 1740 in Malwa led to a crisis of leadership in the Maratha state. Nanasaheb himself was away in Colaba with his uncle at the time, protecting Manaji Angre from the aggression of his brother Sambhaji. Here, he came across the English agent Inchbird, who he kept at arm’s length when the suggestion to destroy Sambhaji’s navy was put up to him. English envoys who visited Satara and met Shahu after the capture of Vasai in 1739 were similarly met with a cold reception and the question of ‘why have you come?’ implying there was no need to come to Satara  after they had spoken to the Peshwa. His perception of English efforts to drive a wedge between the king and the Peshwa finds mention in the notes of the English envoys of the time.

Soon after Baji rao’s death, Raghuji Bhonsle, the raja of Nagpur tried to block Nanasaheb’s succession as Peshwa. However, Shahu was extremely fond of Nanasaheb and gave him the robes of office on 25 June 1740. The rivalry between Nanasaheb and Raghuji persisted for the next few years. After a successful campaign in the Thanjavur region, Raghuji headed for Bengal and began plundering the region causing the Nawab to plead with Emperor Muhammad Shah for help. Nanasaheb was in Bundelkhand and had been given the Mughal province of Malwa with a promise he would help the Emperor in his need. Muhammad Shah therefore asked the Peshwa’s help in Bengal. The rivalry between Nanasaheb and Raghuji therefore spilled on the battlefield and the Peshwa marched across Bihar and obtained an indemnity of twenty-two lakhs from the Nawab before he chased Raghuji out of Bengal. The dispute was followed by a meeting with Shahu, who distributed ‘zones of influence’ to them, so that Bengal and Odisha were placed in Raghuji’s sphere of influence and the Peshwa had nothing to do with Bengal after 1743.

The aging Nizam ul mulk had in the meanwhile removed Raghuji’s officers from the Carnatic and taken Tiruchirapalli under his charge. Later, the Nizam’s death in 1748 and the Anglo French rivalry thereafter led to the rise of European powers in south India. Nanasaheb went north four times in the first decade of his reign. His first campaign was to Dholpur where he met Sawai Jaisingh and from who he took an indemnity of fifteen lakh rupees and reins of Malwa. The next expedition north was to Bundelkhand and Bengal in 1742 and 1743. He followed this up with two more expeditions of which his diplomatic initiative in 1748 took him to Newai when he tried to resolve the succession dispute between Sawai Jaisingh’s sons. 

From 1747 onwards Chhatrapati Shahu’s health was failing and since he had no heir, there were many who desired to influence the choice of a successor. Eventually, it was the aged Tara bai – dowager queen of Chhatrapati Rajaram and living in Satara in notional house arrest, who disclosed the whereabouts of an unknown grandson brought up secretly in a village. This boy was Ramraja, who was brought to Satara after Shahu’s death in December 1749 and placed on the throne. The Peshwa, staying in Satara for a full four months, tutored him on the duties of kingship and tried to settle him on the throne. However, Tara bai was keen to retain the reins of power in her hands and this was resisted by the new king. 

For two years, the administration remained in limbo. In 1750 and 1751, Sadashiv rao Bhau along with the king and an able diplomat named Ramachandra baba finally took charge of affairs and moved the administration to Pune. Tara bai was displeased and imprisoned Ramraja when he visited her on the fort in Satara and from this point on the Peshwa was the chief mover of affairs in the Maratha Empire. Resistance from disaffected Chiefs such as Damaji Gaekwad was squashed and the rebellious Tulaji Angre was eventually captured in 1756 with the help of the English. The affair has many sidelights that are beyond the purview of an article; suffice to say however, that the Peshwa allied with the English against the powerful French General de Bussy who had taken complete charge of the Nizam ul mulk’s kingdom. The year 1756 was otherwise a bad year for the English as they were evicted from Calcutta that year by Siraj ud daulah, and it was the following year that Clive won his fake victory at Plassey.

The Nizam was soundly beaten in 1752 at Bhalki by the Peshwa, but matters deteriorated once again and there was a second war in 1757, and again in 1759 when at Udgir Nizam Ali was vanquished and had to give up vast regions of his kingdom including the fort of Daulatabad. The capture of the island of Underi near Bombay, from their old enemy the Siddi, posed a threat to the English there. In the north too, Maratha arms were rewarded with success. In 1752, Holkar attacked Jaipur and established Madho Sinh on the throne there in exchange for the promise of tribute. Madho Sinh however, immediately turned against the Marathas and remained an enemy from then on. Just then they were called in by the Wazir Safdar Jung, so that Sindia and Holkar crossed into the Ganga Yamuna doab and defeated the Rohilla pathans, a win that met with generous praise from Nanasaheb. The same year the responsibility of protecting the Mughal ruler of Delhi from ‘all internal and external enemies’ in exchange for the right to collect tribute several Mughal subahs was taken over by the Marathas. 

From the late 1740s, Ahmed Shah Durrani had been invading the Mughal Empire. Nanasaheb was first called to help Muhammad Shah in 1748 but the battle was over before he reached. This however, was to prove just the first of nine invasions over a twenty-year period and it drew the Marathas into the conflict when they agreed to defend the Mughals from external aggression in exchange for the chauth from a host of subahs from Ajmer, Agra and Allahabad with the promise of Punjab.

With Nanasaheb and Sadashiv rao Bhau focussed on facing the Nizam and his French battalions in the south, affairs in the north were left to Raghunath rao along with Sindia and Holkar. In 1752, Abdali took the tribute from Punjab and returned. The next year a Maratha expedition went north under Raghunath rao and first attacked Suraj Mal Jat at Kumher fort to levy tribute on him. The siege dragged on and finally a small tribute was paid. Here, the Emperor Ahmed Shah came out to support Suraj Mal. Holkar turned to his army and thoroughly looted the imperial camp. Ahmed Shah fled to Delhi at night abandoning his camp. The Marathas followed and took charge of Delhi. Imad ul mulk – a grandson of the Nizam was an ally and was appointed Wazir while the Emperor was deposed and later killed. Jayappa Sindia led an expedition against Bijay Sinh of Jodhpur and in the process of negotiating with his envoys was assassinated at Nagaur. 

The events of these years strained relations with the Jats and the Rajputs. In the north, the Rohillas had been smarting under their defeat at the hands of the Marathas. It now emerged that no power in India had the strength to oppose them and the Rohilla chief Najib Khan invited Ahmed Shah Abdali to come to Delhi and wage a holy war against the Marathas. In October 1756, Abdali started from Afghanistan and after taking Lahore, reached Delhi. Defeating a small Maratha army of five thousand men and beating down some resistance from the Jats, Abdali thoroughly looted Delhi. The nobles of the court who had hoarded wealth in their families for generations were subjected to many ignominies.

Abdali then headed for the pilgrim cities of Mathura and Vrindavan. In Vrindavan, Abdali’s army slaughtered the Hindu pilgrims and only the sadhus resisted his army. The water of the Yamuna ran red with the blood of innocents, and then turned yellow. Cows were butchered and their heads stuck on the decapitated men lying on the streets of the towns. Each head brought in by an Afghan trooper was awarded a prize of five rupees. It was the onset of summer and the spread of Cholera that finally defeated Abdali who hurried back to Delhi and departed for his home.

The Marathas gathered an army and with Raghunath rao and Holkar marched on Delhi – a city left in charge of Najib Khan. The city was taken and the Marathas marched on towards Lahore. Lahore, Multan, Attock and Peshawar were all captured. The victory was widely celebrated and marked the furtherest extent of the Maratha Empire. For over a year, the Marathas – with Mughal officers – ruled from Lahore

Nanasaheb at this time sent Dattaji Sindia to the north to extirpate Najib Khan from the scene. However, Holkar who was partial to Najib advised Dattaji to make ‘use of’’ Najib. This advice eventually cost Dattaji his life when Abdali was invited by Najib to rush to his help. Dattaji fell at Burari ghat and Holkar was separately defeated in March 1760. In the south at this time, Nanasaheb had won his biggest victory over the Nizam at Udgir – where the army was led by Sadashiv rao Bhau.

The necessity of driving Abdali out of India was clear as this was his fifth invasion. A large army led by Bhau therefore went north, searching for allies. The Rajputs exchanged letters with Abdali and refused to help the Marathas. The Jat ruler initially joined them but quit the army when Delhi was not handed over to him by Bhau. The Marathas marched further to Kunjpura and the final showdown with Abdali happened on14 January 1761 at Panipat. The defeat at Panipat was a shock to the Marathas, it not only was a huge loss in men and materials but also saw the death of Sadashiv rao and the Peshwa’s eldest son Vishwas rao. 

Nanasaheb reached near Jhansi a few days after battle looking for news. A cryptic message – ‘two pearls had been dissolved, twenty seven gold mohars lost and of the others there is no account’- gave him the first inkling of a massive defeat. He himself had been in poor health over the last year or so, and the defeat with the death of Bhau and his son afflicted him.

‘Without Bhau, all the riches of the world are worthless’, he wrote in this melancholic state. Abdali however, sent him robes of honour with his envoy asking for a peace treaty. He also confirmed the arrangements Bhau had made, naming the absentee king Shah Alam as the new ruler with Shuja of Awadh as the Wazir. Abdali thereafter never entered the city of Delhi with the Sikhs fiercely opposing his advance through the Punjab.

Nanasaheb is credited with taking the Maratha Empire to its furthest extent. He is also considered the architect of Pune city, building temples, gardens, bridges, water supply systems and peths for traders and new residents. Pune was a bustling capital city in his time where decisions impacting the entire country were taken. His last act was building a bridge across the Mutha river. In June 1761, knowing his death was near, he moved to the temple fort of Parvati that he had built. Here he gave Raghunath rao his dying message, as written down by the author in the ‘bakhar of Panipat’. 

‘For three generations we are serving the Bhonsalas from my father and his father…. Everyone should serve with even greater distinction than us. The Hindu Marathas, Mughal, Pathan, Rajput, Brahmin, Prabhu, Shenvi served the kingdom with their community. Their descendants are being looked after by us. In like manner, they ought to be looked after by you. In this kingdom, the Deshastha Brahmins from Ambaji Purandare and Mahadoba Purandare’s time have served with distinction. Their families and their welfare must be looked after. They should not be considered as different from you. There should be no jealousy against Deshastha, Kokanastha, Prabhu, Shenvi castes. There are many who contribute and own the kingdom. Make sure their hearts and minds are contented. If men are kept happy, nothing wrong can happen to the kingdom is what I learnt from teerthswarup3 Appa and you should also continue to behave in the same manner. Do not be disheartened because I am leaving (this world). Maintain the hereditary offices and various occupations. Other people’s money and wife should be handled with the principles of justice and ethical conduct. Seeing the law and the morals, punishment should be meted out in society. Do not abandon the righteous path or ethical conduct. The cow, the Brahmin and the twice born should be protected in accordance with precepts of justice. Do not indulge in lawlessness or injustice. If Hindu Marathas or Musalmans behave as per the traditions of their caste or community, do not discriminate against them. The kingdom should not discriminate on the basis of each person’s faith or his deity’.

Nanasaheb's advice

Nanasaheb died on 23 June 1761, two days short of completing twenty years as the Peshwa. He was cremated on the bed of the Mutha river where a small ‘vrindavan’ has been erected in recent times. His death led to disruption in the Maratha Empire for a few years before his son Madhav rao brought the affairs into order and once again took the Empire from the plains of Rohilkhand to Srirangapatnam.

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Also read

1 Sacking the Subcontinent Part 4 – Ahmed Shah Abdali

2 Madhav Rao Peshwa - The Great