The Return of Queen Yesubai

  • By Uday S. Kulkarni
  • June 28 2019
  • @MulaMutha
Mural depicting the return of Yesubai, being received by her son Shahu.
  • The fourth of July this year marks the three hundredth anniversary of the return of queen Yesubai to the Maratha capital Satara after nearly thirty years in Mughal captivity.

In Maratha history, scarcely has a personality that so respected at the time, been so ignored later. The story of Yesubai, queen to Chhatrapati Sambhaji, is of a person who lived through the turbulent times of Maratha history from the time of her marriage in 1669, until her death around 1730. In effect, she was witness to the coronation of Shivaji raja at Raigad in 1674, the momentous war against the Mughals from 1681 until 1707, the march of Maratha armies to Delhi in 1719, and the firmly established rule of her son Shahu, with Balaji Vishwanath and Bajirao as his Peshwas.

The story of the Maratha Empire begins with the founding of the kingdom by Chhatrapati Shivaji, who in the last four years of his life created an Empire extending to the lowermost reaches of the Deccan. In the years after his death, his son Chhatrapati Sambhaji strenuously fought enemies on many fronts; the Siddi, the Portuguese, the Bijapur kingdom and finally, the Mughals under Aurangzeb.

In 1689, Aurangzeb’s General Mukarrab Khan made a dash into the deep recesses of the Konkan coastal strip and captured the Maratha king, who was put to a cruel death a few weeks later at Vadhu near Koregaon Bhima.

In the next few months, the Maratha capital Raigad was surrounded and Yesubai with her son Shahu fell into Mughal hands under an army led by Itiqad Khan, later titled Zulfiquar Khan. Rajaram, the younger son of Shivaji raja escaped to the deep South and led a resistance for eight long years.

Yesubai was then lodged in the ‘gulal bar’, a crimson tented section of the Mughal camp with her eight-year-old son Shahu. Aurangzeb treated Shahu as a pawn in his fight with the Marathas, even sending him outside his camp to try and bring the Maratha Generals into the Mughal fold, pretending that he would hand over the Deccan to Shahu as his representative, and then return to Delhi. The ploy did not work.

Later, he attempted to convert Shahu to Islam, a move Yesubai deflected with the help of Aurangzeb’s daughter Zinat un nissa. She also arranged her son’s marriage to a noble family, and when the Emperor desired that the bride be brought before him, Yesubai used a ploy of sending a servant girl named Virubai instead. Virubai of course was later more than even a wedded wife to Shahu for the next four decades and supervised his household. The nearly eighteen year long stay in Aurangzeb’s camp was fraught with danger and it was Yesubai who deftly avoided all the dangers that might befall her son and the future successor to the Maratha throne.

In 1707, the old Emperor died near Ahmednagar, unleashing yet another war of succession among his three surviving sons Muazzam (or Bahadur Shah), Azam Shah and Kam Buksh. Azam Shah began for the north with Yesubai and Shahu.

However, near Bhopal, Yesubai, concerned her son would languish in Delhi for years, used her diplomatic skill to prevail upon Azam Shah to release Shahu. Shahu was released and began his march to Maharashtra where he was joined by innumerable followers, including the Maratha General Dhanaji Jadhav, Balaji Vishwanath Bhat, Khando Ballal Chitnis and so on.

Yesubai, with her entourage consisting of a wife of Chhatrapati Shivaji and two half-brothers of Shahu were taken with the Mughal army to Delhi. In the war of succession, Azam Shah was defeated and custody of the prisoners went to Bahadur Shah. And here they remained, either forgotten or left to be used as pawns in a future Maratha war.

In Maharashtra, the Maratha power was divided into the two factions led by Shahu and Tarabai, which eventually became the royal houses of Satara and Kolhapur. Tarabai, the redoubtable dowager queen of Chhatrapati Rajaram, had from the year 1700 led the Maratha war effort. Ramachandra pant amatya, Senapati Dhanaji, Shankaraji Narayan Sachiv and Parshuram pant Pratinidhi were her aids in this great fight back.

Yet, on Shahu’s arrival, Dhanaji went over the Shahu assuring him victory at the battle of Khed in 1708 against Tarabai’s army. Dhanaji died the following year and Shahu, ever mindful of looking after families and believing in dynastic succession, made his son Chandrasen the new Senapati.

Another statesman who rose to help Shahu at this time was Balaji Vishwanath. Balaji Vishwanath had been active in the Deccan at least from the last years of Chhatrapati Shivaji. A letter found in the Mackenzie archives gives the translation of a Marathi letter, now extant, showing Balaji’s involvement as early as 1689 as a ‘mutsaddi’ of Dhanaji Jadhav. The letter talks of the crisis after the capture of Chhatrapati Sambhaji and shows that an army was sent out to try and rescue the king from the Mughal camp. It is written by Ramachandra Amatya who says of Sambhaji raja’s capture and of Balaji having been sent out in pursuit of the Mughals,

‘….The News-writer wrote me that when the Maharajah Sumbajee bawahb and Shawhoo went to hunt…, that Kabjee Boubah treacherously inviting the Moguls carried them both prisoners to Hasteenapoor; on hearing of which I sent Ballagee Veeswanada the head muttasedda of Jaudawa Raw (Dhanaji Jadhav) in pursuit….’

In the years from 1707 to 1713, Shahu went through a torrid time facing the challenge of Tarabai and defections of Maratha nobles who switched sides and rebelled against his authority. Bahadur Shah exploited these divisions and asked the Marathas to resolve matters before he declares one of them the ‘true king’ of the Marathas.

The biggest challenge to Shahu arose in 1713, when Tarabai’s partisan Kanhoji Angre marched up the ghats and imprisoned Bahiro pant Pingle, Shahu’s Peshwa. The occasion demanded a man for the moment and Balaji Vishwanath was appointed as the new Peshwa in November 1713. Balaji marched out with an army, and essentially not a military man, made bold to face a strong adversary.

Eventually, matters were worked out by negotiations and Angre agreed to accept Shahu as his sovereign. Tarabai herself was deposed soon after with her son and power went to Rajasbai, the second queen of Rajaram, and her son Sambhaji II.

Balaji Vishwanath in his tenure of just seven years as a Peshwa faced many more challenges, as during the rebellion of Damaji Thorat. During a meeting to resolve matters, Balaji was suddenly imprisoned with his family. Shahu had to send out an army and Balaji had to pay a ransom for his release. In the meanwhile, the rebel had holed out in a strong ‘gadhi’ or fort. The Marathas had no artillery and secured the help of Sayyid Husain Ali, the Viceroy of the Deccan, who lent a few guns to attack and destroy the rebel stronghold.

This paved the way for a strange alliance between Shahu and Husain Ali. Husain Ali himself was planning an overthrow of Emperor Farrukh Siyar at Delhi and felt he needed a Maratha army to support him, and for this help he agreed to pay them a daily allowance.

Within twelve years of the death of Aurangzeb therefore, a Maratha army of thirty thousand men led by Balaji Vishwanath Peshwa, Senapati Khanderao Dabhade and many others including the young Bajirao, Balaji Mahadeo Phadnis, Santaji Bhosale and others, began their march to Delhi with Husain Ali.

Wending their way north, and telling the Emperor that the Marathas were accompanying the Mughal Viceroy to personally hand over a mythical grandson of Aurangzeb to him in exchange for Yesubai and the remaining Maratha prisoners. Farrukh Siyar, eager to get his hands on this Mughal ‘prince’ consented, and the two armies reached Delhi. Here the grand capital Shahjehanabad and its mansions were seen by the Maratha army for the first time. This was the Delhi before Nadir Shah’s invasion, a proud and rich city where no foreign king had ever entered since it was taken over by Akbar in 1555.

The days in Delhi in the first half of 1719 saw a massive revolution unlike any the capital had seen. Farrukh Siyar refused to accede to many of the demands made by Husain Ali and his brother Abdullah Khan. He was eventually dragged out of the harem to his court, blinded and sent to prison. There, he was found confabulating with Ajit Singh of Jodhpur, whose daughter he had married. An executioner was then sent to his cell where he was strangled to death.

A new shahzada was pulled out of the palace and anointed as the Emperor. In the narrow lanes of the city, Turani nobles led by Amin Khan attacked the Maratha army. About 1500 of the Maratha army lost their lives, prominent among the dead being Santaji Bhosale and Balaji Mahadeo Phadnis – the grandfather of Nana Phadnis.

Once Husain Ali and Abdullah Khan took power in their hands, they fulfilled the promise made to the Peshwa. The new Emperor Rafi-ud-daulah handed over the Maratha royal family to Balaji Vishwanath. He also recognised Shahu as the true Maratha king and gave him the royal decrees of Swarajya, Sardeshmukhi and the right to collect the chauth in the six subahs of the Deccan. These were demands made by the Marathas for long and in exchange for these, they promised they would maintain a small army to help the Mughals in distress. A week is a long time in politics, but here one virtually saw erstwhile sworn enemies agreeing to a treaty of friendship. The long term Maratha aim was to rid their province of the Mughals and be a self-governing power, and these decrees achieved these aims.

The entire Maratha army then returned to the Deccan. The army finally reached Pune and then Satara where Shahu eagerly awaited the return of his mother. They entered the city on 4th July 1719. This was a day when Shahu himself came forward to receive his mother and his Peshwa with the entire entourage. Yesubai met her son after nearly a dozen years and there were celebrations that went on for many days. The successors of those killed were honoured. The Bhosales and the Phadnis families were given titles and landed estates. The Peshwa was given five districts as his inam. Yesubai remained in Satara with her son for nearly a decade more and few of her letters are available to us. A condolence letter from Raja Sambhaji of Kolhapur dated sometime in 1731 to Shahu gives a clue to Yesubai’s probable date of death.

On 4th July 2019, the tri-centenary of the return of a queen is being observed at Pune and Satara. In her times, Yesubai had the respect of the people and despite being in Mughal custody for long, left an imprint on the events that marked the rise of the Maratha power. She protected her son and heir to the Maratha throne, ensured his release and the perpetuation of the Maratha rule after Aurangzeb’s death. Her own release after enduring three decades of custody, brought her freedom in the final decade of her life. During her days in Mughal custody, her sagacity and diplomacy alone helped her survive. Her son Shahu supervised the ‘Maharashtra mandal’ of chiefs who helped take the Maratha power to every province in India.

At the three-hundred-year mark, it is time we remember the contribution of this noble Maratha queen, the daughter in law of Chhatrapati Shivaji, the wife of Chhatrapati Sambhaji and the mother of Chhatrapati Shahu.

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