THE THREE AND A HALF WISE MEN OF THE PESHWA PERIOD

  • By Uday S. Kulkarni
  • May 11, 2018
  • @MulaMutha
  • 2968 views
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Left Sakharam Bapu Right Nana Phadnis

The eighteenth century is a period of change and transition. The Mughal power had ceded space as the paramount power to the Marathas. Yet, in the Deccan, the Nizam of Hyderabad and the Peshwa from Pune had a complex relationship where they went to war frequently but did not venture to exterminate the opponent. The period after 1750 was a fertile ground for adventurers and diplomats who played the game of one-upmanship, war and peace, intrigue and deception, fomenting infighting and strengthening one’s own cause.

It is with an element of sarcasm that the term three and a half ‘wise’ men, who worked the scenes from behind the chief powers and played the political field in the Deccan, is applied. It is intriguing how the figure three and a half wise men was devised for four men who lived in that period. Let us first see who these men were.

The saying is ‘Sakha-Deva-Vitthal-and the half wise man Nana’. In Maharashtra specifically the phrase ‘three and a half’ is well known. We have this number of ‘shakti-peeths’, the same number of auspicious days in a year and the ‘three and a half Raos’. The characteristic of the wise men was that they were all masters of intrigue and diplomacy. Of these some were more equipped for martial activity, some not at all. The periods of these four did not necessarily coincide and they did not all reach the peak of their abilities at the same time. Yet some time in the 1790s, the phrase came into being and has remained in Marathi history and literature ever since.

Sakha’ was Sakharam Bapu Bokil, one of the most astute ministers in the Peshwa’s rule, ‘Deva’ was Devaji pant Chorghade, the advisor to Janoji Bhonsle of Nagpur, ‘Vitthal’ Sundar Parshurami was the advisor and General of Nizam Ali while ‘Nana’ was Balaji Janardan ‘Nana’ Phadnis. They differed in their approach and their politics was also quite different from the others… so let us start with Sakharam Bapu.

‘Sakha’ belonged to an old family, his ancestor being Pantaji Gopinath who negotiated on behalf of Chhatrapati Shivaji with Afzal Khan’s envoys in 1659. The family fell into bad days and Sakharam was employed in his youth as a ‘shagird’ who studied as well as performed other chores in the house of Mahadji Purandare of Saswad, the diwan of Baji rao Peshwa. Here, Baji rao once noticed his wit and employed him in his office. By his perseverance, he rose rapidly and became a trusted interlocutor as well as a military leader in the Maratha armies that went north in 1753 and 1757. Bapu accompanied Raghunath rao to Lahore and developed a fondness for him that lasted through his life.

There are many anecdotes of Sakharam Bapu’s wisdom. In the time of Madhav rao Peshwa it is said the Maratha army in the Savanur region were in arrears of pay and this was conveyed to Hyder Ali. It is said Hyder once disguised himself as a fakir and came to observe the Maratha camp. Sakharam Bapu found something amiss and summoned him to his tent. Here, he confronted Hyder with his real identity and the ‘fakir’ accepted it. Putting him in custody in an adjacent tent, Sakharam Bapu considered his options. Then he summoned Hyder and informed him that he would be taken before the Peshwa. Hyder remarked, ‘if you let me go, I will pay you two lakh rupees. Take these two stones wrapped in this cloth to my camp and the money will be paid to you’. Sakharam Bapu thought about it for a few moments before agreeing to the proposal. He sent men with Hyder Ali’s ‘stones’ and they returned with two lakh rupees.

Two days later, Sakharam Bapu was summoned by Madhav rao. He was accused of not just letting Hyder get away but also taking a bribe of two lakh rupees. Sakharam Bapu pleaded guilty of the first charge. However, he said he had not taken the bribe but remitted the money to the treasury to be able to pay his army the arrears of their pay. The Peshwa accepted the argument, and the army was paid. Shortly thereafter the Peshwa defeated Hyder Ali who had to pay an additional tribute to make peace.

Sakharam Bapu’s later career was marred by his closeness with Raghunath rao or Raghoba dada. In Madhav rao Peshwa’s time, he was for a while eclipsed for his joining Raghoba’s party. However, by the time Madhav rao died, he had entrusted the responsibility of the diwan jointly to Bapu and Nana Phadnis. After this the assassination of Narayan rao Peshwa in August 1773 shocked the Maratha Empire and when Bapu was called by Raghunath rao into the palace to meet him, he was so shaken that he refused to be a part of the administration and stayed home. Later, he joined Nana Phadnis to form the ‘barbhai’ who fought Raghoba dada and his English allies during the first Anglo Maratha war. Towards the end of the war, incriminating documents written by Bapu were found favouring the return of Raghoba to Pune and Mahadji Sindia arrested him. He was dispatched to a hill fort where he died in 1781.

Sakharam Bapu was thus a diplomat and a warrior, but despite being for long a minister with the Peshwas finally had to die a prisoner in the fort of Raigad. 

The second wise man was Devaji pant Chorghade from Nagpur. He began his career in the 1750s with Raghuji Bhonsle. After Raghuji’s death he first showed his spark in helping Janoji obtain the succession. He went to negotiate the terms to Pune and whittled down the amount to be paid from seven to two and a half lakh rupees. However, he was not well disposed to the Peshwa and in the aftermath of Panipat, he led his master to join Nizam Ali against Madhav rao. Eventually Madhav rao managed to wean away Janoji from the Nizam’s side and inflict a crushing defeat on the Mughal Viceroy in 1763. 

The Nizam and the Peshwa were both unhappy at Janoji’s double dealing and combined to attack and reduce his territories thereafter. Devaji pant’s role in fomenting differences between the Bhonsles of Nagpur and the Peshwa in Pune were exposed. Soon, the Peshwa called him for inspecting accounts and imprisoned him at Pune. Janoji pleaded that he may be let off and he would independently punish him. Accordingly, Devaji pant was punished by the Nagpur raja too. In the 1770s, Devaji pant once again tried to intrigue against the Peshwa but did not succeed. He died in 1781, an intelligent man who used his wisdom in a mischievous manner to increase his own importance and power. His machinations were brought down by Madhav rao and his trusted aide Nana Phadnis.

Vitthal Sundar, was like the two preceding wise men also a ‘deshastha’ Brahmin. He began his career under Nanasaheb Peshwa but seeing him relaxing one afternoon in office, the Peshwa made an adverse comment on his intelligence. This led him to leave his job and obtain employment in the Nizam’s court. Here, he worked with the pleasure loving Nizam Ali. Salabat Jung was the Nizam all through the 1750s and was well supported by Ibrahim Khan Gardi and the French General M. Bussy. The Nizam’s diwan was Ramdas pant, a Brahmin from Srikakulam and he took Vitthal Sundar under his wing. The death of Ramdas pant at the hands of the Nizam’s soldiers due to arrears of pay in 1752, brought Vitthal Sundar to the forefront.

He is said to have advised Nizam Ali in one of his happy moments to grab the throne of Hyderabad. This fired Nizam Ali’s ambition and soon he had imprisoned and later put to death Salabat Jung. After the debacle at Panipat and the death of Nanasaheb Peshwa, the Nizam rushed to recover the losses he had sustained in the battle of Udgir the previous year. All of Deccan was afire in the years 1761 up to 1763 and even the capital cities of Pune and Bhaganagar were not spared by the rival armies. Raghunath rao had taken the reins of Government from Madhav rao and many Maratha chiefs had joined the Nizam.

In 1763, Madhav rao began to send feelers to the defectors who gradually began to see the folly of joining the Nizam and began to switch loyalties back to the Maratha power. In a battle fought at Rakshas bhuvan east of Paithan on the bank of the flooded Godavari river, Raghunath rao was trapped. Seeing his uncle’s predicament, Madhav rao rushed to his aid and in the melee Vitthal Sundar was killed. His samadhi lies there to this day.

In this manner, an accomplished diplomat and soldier, the third wise man, went on a path that eventually led to his own destruction. The death of Vitthal Sundar led to a complete rapprochement between the Peshwa and the Nizam. The treaty of 1763 stood the test of time and there were no wars between the two powers for the next three decades. In fact, the Nizam became an ally in the Marathas’ fight against the British as well as Tipu Sultan.

That brings us to the last and the so called ‘half’ wise man, Nana Phadnis.

Balaji Janardan ‘Nana’ Phadnis’ belonged to a family that had served the Peshwas as ‘Phadnis’ in charge of the administrative and financial matters for three generations. His close association with Madhav rao Peshwa and his rising to be one of the chief aides in his administration gave him the necessary experience to fight the difficult times after the assassination of Narayan rao Peshwa in 1773. A man of strong moral beliefs as well as a diplomat of a high order, Nana Phadnis is said to have ‘preserved the Maratha rule against heavy odds for a twenty-five-year period. His strong conviction that Raghunath rao, being complicit in his nephew’s murder, was unfit to be the Peshwa led him to form the barbhai group of ministers that opposed Raghunath rao. In the process he had to fight the English.

The alliance with Nizam Ali and Hyder Ali ensured a victory for the Marathas in most of the battles against the British power. Mahadji Sindia in the north, Hyder Ali and the Marathas to the south and the west lead to repeated British reverses of which their defeat near Pune in 1779 leading to the Convention of Wadgaon was the most disastrous for the colonial power.

By 1782, they had somehow returned to a state of parity and applied to Sindia for a treaty which he accepted. Nana Phadnis however refused to ratify the treaty without Hyder Ali’s concurrence. The treaty was finally signed in Pune only after Hyder Ali’s death. Nana’s deficiency being his inability to lead armies into battle, he had to depend on Holkar, Sindia and the Patwardhans to fulfil his military objectives. His espionage network kept him well informed of the machinations of his enemies. In this, his intercepting the intrigue that Sakharam Bapu and his own cousin Moroba were indulging in with the British power, brought on their ruin and imprisonment.

It is often said that the first three ‘wise’ men of the Maratha period were all extremely intelligent but strayed from their loyalty to the central Maratha power of the Peshwa. While Sakharam Bapu was with the Peshwa all through, his support to Raghoba dada led to ending his life in prison. Devaji pant was with another Maratha chief but plotted against the Peshwa and brought on ruin on himself. Vitthal Sundar joined an enemy and was killed in battle. On the contrary, Nana despite not being a warrior, remained loyal and ensured the survival of the Peshwa and the destruction of the first three ‘wise’ men.

There are many imputations in the saying besides the above. It is said even a half ‘wise’ man like Nana was enough to tackle the three ‘full’ wise men who stood against the Peshwa. Again, the divide between the Deshastha and the Chitpavan Brahmins after the battle of Panipat was seen in the rival groups in the court. Nana belonged to the Chitpavan community and his victory was a source of pride to his kinsmen!

The inescapable conclusion on going through the history of the three and a half ‘wise’ men of the Peshwa period is that perhaps they were too wise by half, and their wisdom was not at all a good thing for the Maratha Empire. Only Nana Phadnis appears to emerge unscathed among these four by virtue of his loyalty and attachment to the Maratha cause.

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