• By Uday S. Kulkarni
  • June 17 2019
  • @MulaMutha
Sketch of Mahadji Scindia, when in Pune, by artist Robert Mabon. Credit Yale Centre for British Art.
  • A grand darbar was held by Mahadji Scindia in Pune exactly 227 years ago on 22 June 1792. 

The 18th century was a time when the Maratha power stretched through most of India, from Odisha in the east to Gujarat in the west and from Kumaon in the north to the Cauvery in the south. Many personalities contributed to the growth of this Empire and given the extent of the country, regional satraps were given this direction as early as 1719 by Balaji Vishwanath Peshwa - and supported by the sagacious Chhatrapati Shahu – leading to explosive growth in a matter of a decade.

Therefore, Bajirao Peshwa I lead the northward growth, bringing Gujarat, Malwa and Bundelkhand to the Maratha fold, while Raghuji Bhonsle led armies into the far south and the east. Scindia and Holkar and the Pawars were instrumental in the conquest and later administration in Malwa. Govind pant Bundele, Gaikwads in Gujarat, Murar rao Ghorpade and the Patwardhans in the south held fort. Many stellar personalities that remain in the shadows like Trimbak mama Pethe who brought the combined armies of Hyder and Tipu to their knees near Srirangapatnam in 1771 or the Visaji Krishna Biniwale and Ramachandra Kanade and the Rethrekar family were all instrumental in winning many a war. Among the Peshwas, Balaji Bajirao and Madhavrao were Empire builders, and Sadashivrao Bhau was the one who stemmed the invasion from the north-west at the lost battle of Panipat. Of all these, it was Mahadji Scindia who took command of the entire north and his rule over huge stretches of Hindustan went on until 1803.

After the treaty of Salbye in 1782 that signalled the end of the first Anglo Maratha war, Mahadji went to the north to take firm control of Delhi. Facing tremendous odds, Mahadji, an astute statesman, managed to overcome all his enemies and take the Mughal Emperor under his fold. The decrepit Shah Alam II was reinstated in 1771, in the last years of Madhavrao Peshwa by an army led by Scindia and since that date, Delhi was a Scindia protectorate. He also brought the entire Rajputana under his control besides Malwa and Bundelkhand. The Mughal Emperor, a weak man whose only weapon was deception, depended on this protector for his monthly sustenance and heaped a number of illusory titles that made Mahadji the most anointed of all Mughal nobles in the history of their rule.

It was on 14 November 1784 somewhere near Fatehpur Sikri that the Mughal king Shah Alam II appointed Mahadji Scindia as Waqil-i-Mutlaq or Regent Plenipotentiary – and handed over the twin offices of Wazir and Mir Bakshi to him. Modestly, Mahadji asked that these be handed in the name of the Peshwa – as Maharajadhiraj - and he would serve as his deputy in Delhi. The next four years saw a number of battles, during which Delhi was won and lost, until Scindia finally established full control after defeating all his enemies. The villainous Ghulam Qadir was captured by Ali Bahadur, the grandson of Bajirao and Mastani, and brought before Scindia. Scindia punished the rogue severely for his tyranny in Delhi and his blinding of Shah Alam II. At Shah Alam’s request, he blinded the prisoner and dispatched his eyeballs to the blind occupant of the Red fort, who fondled the objects and gratified his sense of revenge. The grateful Shah Alam heaped accolades on Mahadji, who finally decided to come to Pune.

Mahadji took a circuitous route to Pune passing by Beed where he paid respects to his Muslim guru Sheikh Mansur. From here, he came to his fort at Jamgaon and then proceeded to Pune. On 13 June 1792, he entered the Shaniwar wada and paid his respects to the young Peshwa Sawai Madhavrao by placing his head on his feet. The Peshwa in turn placed his own pearl necklace on Mahadji’s neck. Mahadji’s object to return to the Deccan was two-fold. He not only wished to settle his accounts for the expenses he incurred in the north but also wished to influence the young Peshwa

In the days that followed Scindia met Nana Phadnis and expressed a desire to hold a grand darbar called the ‘farman-badi’, whence the insignia of office of Wakil-i-mutlaq and the title of ‘Maharajadhiraj’ would be presented to the Peshwa. Five farmans issued by Shah Alam were to be publicly read before the assembled nobles. Nana Phadnis however demurred saying this title was the Chhatrapati’s privilege. Scindia then obtained the blessings of the Chhatrapati and paid a visit to the Peshwa on 21 June 1792 and took a place below all the Peshwa’s officials. He proceeded to pay his respects by placing a new pair of slippers on the Peshwa’s feet and carrying away the old slippers in the bag under his arm. ‘This’, he murmured, ‘was my father’s occupation and it must also be mine’. Scindia’s modesty was in direct contrast to his power and wealth, which was then at its prime.

The next day, at noon on 22 June 1792, a darbar was held at Garpir – a fairly large area named after a Muslim pir’s tomb – and the exact spot may have been anywhere from near the present Collector’s office to where the Agricultural college stands today. Sir Charles Malet, the English Resident, was present and described the ceremony in a letter to the Governor General. The Peshwa approached the farman-badi darbar on an elephant with senior officers, Scindia received him ‘at the commencement of the carpets’ and escorted him to a specially created masnad symbolising the Mughal throne. Here, the Peshwa made three low bows and made a present, before taking his place to the left of it. Shah Alam’s farman was then read out which also contained ‘a prohibition to slay bullocks throughout the Timurid Empire’.

Scindia then presented the young Peshwa dresses, jewellery, a sword, a horse, a nalki – a kind of a howdah – a palki and other gifts. The Peshwa then went to an enclosure and wore the royal robes. He then rose and was followed by Scindia and Haripant Phadke with two morchels – or fans - in their hands to the nalki where he seated himself, returning to his palace by late evening.

In the palace, Nana Phadnis – who was not present at the ceremony – welcomed the Peshwa and offered presents as his nazar. Malet mentions that the Maratha officials did not participate in the ceremony. In his palace, the Peshwa gave gifts to Mahadji in return, comprising his own robe, a sword and a kalamdan – or writing instrument – a naubat, a nalki and a pair of morchels, all accompanied by a ceremonial cannonade.

Mahadji won over the Peshwa with this grand ceremony within days of his arrival at Pune and began advising the young man on matters of state. During his stay, Mahadji brought several Hindustani customs to Pune such as playing Holi and sports such as hawking. Scindia’s robust martial deportment was much appreciated in Pune and he made a mark on the city’s cultural milieu.

The respect Mahadji commanded among the British Resident is amply seen by the manner in which Mahadji was treated by him. Not long after the farmanbadi, Mahadji with his adopted son Daulatrao visited the British Residency where the artist James Wales noted that Sir Charles, as a representative of the East India Company, went down “on one knee” to fix a “kind of trufle pin of rose diamonds in Scinda’s turban” and “a chain around the young prince’s neck with a large Topaz to hang down on his breast”.

Mahadji lived in Pune for a total of twenty months. During this his involvement in the politics of the court as well as help in some of the campaigns where military help was needed, underlined his primary role in the Maratha court. He also married more than once at this time, hoping to bear a natural heir to his vast dominions and huge army trained in the European fashion with guns and cannons superior to anything that the East India Company possessed at the time.

At the time, minor ailments easily snowballed into major disease. Fevers of various kinds were prevalent in the population, and from mid-1793, Mahadji Scindia was suffering from febrile illnesses. The letters from Poona Residency mentioned his occasional illness until February 1794, when a cryptic letter announced it was all over and the great warrior statesman was no more. Mahadji’s death in 1794, followed by the Peshwa’s the following year took its toll on the power of the Maratha state.

Pillars of the state such as Tukoji Holkar, Ahilyabai, Parshurambhau Patwardhan and Nana Phadnis all departed by 1800. Their successors did not live up to the high standards of their forebears.

By early 1800s, there was a sea change in the political map of India. The Peshwa had to sign the Subsidiary treaty to fight off rebels against his authority, Daulatrao Scindia’s armies led by various European chiefs faced huge defections just before the battle with the Company began in August 1803. Five stiffly contested battles saw the Company emerge the winner and Daulatrao had to sign a treaty with the East India Company surrendering much of his independence. He remained the strongest feudatory of British India, and they always ensured the Scindias did not rise against them again.

Farman-badi - the grand darbar of Mahadji’s power held in 1792 in Pune, by 1803 had become a distant memory. Times had changed, and a new power had entered the Indian hinterland. It was to change India forever.

For more on the battle of 1803 read

1 Background to the Battle of Assaye

2 Battle of Assaye

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