The Indomitable Marathas

Malik Ambar was a slave who had risen in the ranks under the Sultans of Ahmadnagar (modern day Aurangabad). He was responsible for first assembling the Marathas and training them in the guerilla warfare. A well trained group of excellent riders, inflicting swift, surprise attacks on the enemy helped Malik Ambar gain a reputation as one who had never lost a battle. Shahji Bhonsle who was in the servitude in the court of the Sultan assisted him greatly in assembling and training the mobile units of Marathas. Malik Ambar assisted Shah Jahan wrestle power in Delhi from his stepmother, Nur Jahan, who had ambitions of seating her son-in-law on the throne. Maratha fighters were also used for this purpose. Malik Ambar and Shahji had also restored some credibility to the Sultans of Ahmadnagar, who had been subdued by the earlier Mughals (Akbar had annexed Ahmadnagar).

After Ambar’s death in 1625, Shahji Bhonsle tried to save the state but Shah Jahan formally incorporated Ahmadnagar into Mughal Empire in the mid 1630’s. Shahji went south to Bijapur sultanates and remained loyal to the sultan there for the rest of his life. He also obtained a large fief in the south but his loyalty remained with the Sultan of Bijapur. 

Chatrapathi Shivaji

Shahji Bhonsle had a son, Shivaji by name, who rebelled against the Bijapur’s authority. A mere seventeen-year-old Shivaji carved himself some land around Pune by using trickery and ingenuity in 1647. This land had belonged to the Bijapur Sultans and was adjacent to the Deccan border of the Mughal Empire. In 1652 Aurangzeb, the third son of Emperor Shah Jahan had been appointed as governor of Deccan. In 1657, when Shah Jahan fell ill, the contenders for the throne, four brothers stirred with impatience and Aurangzeb became the eventual winner. Having disposed of his brothers, he proclaimed himself the emperor in 1658.

Meanwhile Shivaji became an inspirational leader to his people and took the reigns as the leader of Marathas. One hundred years after the demise of the great Hindu kingdom of Vijayanagara, when the Muslims  ruled supreme in all of India, the rebellious Shivaji provided an impetus to the Hindus with martial tactics, which the Marathas effectively used against the Mughals as well as the sultans of the peninsula. Shivaji and his fast forces made it a habit of attacking and occupying various forts in the Western Ghats and the Konkan coast. The Bijapur sultans were unable to handle the crafty Maratha king and sued for peace, when an agreement was reached between Afzal Khan, a general of the sultans of Bijapur and Shivaji.

Afzal Khan and Shivaji met as previously arranged in an open area sans any weapons or attendants. However, both men had secretly armed themselves, as there was no trust amongst these enemies. Afzal Khan pretending to be remorseful bent his head and knelt as if asking for forgiveness, with a trick up his sleeve to stab Shivaji with his knife that had been hidden on his body. Shivaji deftly produced his famous finger grip weapon of four curving hooks and with dexterity used it on the general, who fell to his death immediately. Upon Shivaji’s signal, his fighters appeared from the hills to empty the general’s camp of supplies and recruited many of his soldiers to Shivaji’s forces.

Shivaji made it a policy never to desecrate a mosque, the Koran or seize women. This made it possible for Muslim men to serve in his army. With the help of this larger force Shivaji conquered more land along the coast, between Mumbai and Goa. Whenever the enemy forces were close on his heels and it appeared as though he would surely be captured, crafty Shivaji would miraculously escape. This added to his stories of bravery and legendary status as a king, who could not be defeated.

By now Aurangzeb was the emperor in Delhi. He was watching Shivaji’s adventures and successes with consternation. He sent his trusted uncle, Shaista Khan (Mumtaz Mahal’s brother), with a large army to handle Shivaji in Deccan. Within three years in 1663, Shivaji had lost most of his conquests to a relentless attack by a well-trained Mughal army. 

After driving Shivaji from Pune, Shaista Khan had taken residence in a house there, which was well guarded. No Maratha was allowed in the city of Pune. One day a wedding party had obtained special permission and it was the same day a group of Maratha prisoners were being brought to Pune. In the cover of the night, the bridegroom’s party and the prisoners met at a prearranged site and quietly entered the general’s house. After disposing of the guards they broke into the house by breaking a wall and killed all the residents. Shaista Khan lost only his thumb and consciousness but was taken to a safe place by the servant maids. The attackers mistook another man as the general and killed him. There was no looting and they left as quietly as they had come in.

This incident infuriated the emperor and he sent a full force of Mughal army to subdue Shivaji, after Shivaji crafted an attack on the fort at Surat. The famed Jai Singh was sent with an army of fifteen thousand to Deccan to confront Shivaji. Shivaji’s forces were outnumbered and he was forced to surrender twenty forts and a considerable indemnity as well as a personal submission to Jai Singh under strict security precautions. The Mughals had learnt well from their past experiences with the wily Shivaji.

Shivaji had still maintained a small force and several forts. During Aurangzeb’s attack on the Bijapur sultanate in 1666, Maratha defections prompted in Aurangzeb demanding that Shivaji should visit Delhi. Shivaji agreed and went with much pomp and a large entourage of elephants and silver palanquins, at Aurangzeb’s expense, of course. He was not well received by the emperor and was retained in Delhi under house arrest. This called for another miraculous escape on the part of Shivaji. He hid in a basket of confectionaries and was carried outside the city gates, from where he made his way to Maharashtra, undetected. Following this the reputation of Shivaji soared and that of Aurangzeb soured. 

In 1674, Shivaji elevated himself to kingship and in an elaborate ceremony in Hindu tradition proclaimed himself as a true Kshatriya. Chatrapathi Shivaji Maharaj, as he was called, he conducted a digvijaya by attacking Mughal encampments in Berar and Kandesh. As an independent sovereignty, he set his sights south. With his Maratha forces he defeated and captured the forts at Vellore and Jinji in Madras. Shivaji died in 1680, at the age of fifty from a bout of dysentery. He left behind an ill-defined, non-contiguous region as his kingdom. 

After his death, two of his sons competed for the kingdom and Shambhaji was the victor. He continued to antagonize Aurangzeb and remained a thorn on his side. Prince Akbar, who was rebelling against his father, was sheltered by Shambahaji. As fate would have it Aurangzeb was drawn back to Deccan to give chase to his errant son. The emperor and his entourage moved to Deccan in the 1682 never to return to Delhi until his death twenty-five years later.

After Shivaji’s death, the Marathas never had as a charismatic and legendary leader. However, what Shivaji had sown did not die with him. Marathas did remain as a force to reckon with well into the following centuries. Their presence was seen everywhere, especially in the south. They also acted as mercenaries, often siding with the highest bidders. They were a nation-state without clear borders.

Shivaji’s Successors

Shivaji’s son Shamhaji had succeeded after defeating his brother, Rajaram. Aurangzeb had made it his mission to destroy the Marathas after the death of his archenemy Shivaji. In 1688 he captured Shambhaji and his Brahmin minister and advisor. Shambhaji was tortured and executed by dismembering his body in captivity. Now Rajaram took the helm of Maratha reigns and was soon persecuted by the Mughal army. Rajaram fled to the fort at Jinji and was involved in a protracted and frustrating battle with the Mugahls. The Maratha reinforcement from the Western Ghats periodically inflicted considerable damage to the Mughal army. Finally, when the fort at Jinji fell, Rajaram escaped unharmed.

Well into his eighties, Aurangzeb was obsessed with controlling the Marathas and by now his religion. Wearing only white he kept himself busy transcribing the Koran and stitching skullcaps to be distributed to the believers. Marathas were never completely subdued during his lifetime to his satisfaction.

Rajaram died in 1700 and his wife Tarabai assumed control in the name of her son Shambhaji II. A truce was sought which was promptly rejected by the emperor. A new assault by the Marathas in Malwa and the ransacking of Hyderabad further frustrated the octogenarian emperor. Tarabai and the Marathas always aggaravated Aurangzeb, which eventually drained all his strength and resolve. He had spent more than two decades pursuing an evasive and crafty enemy and his extreme old age left him frail and weak.

Marathas remained an anathema to him till he died well into his nineties. He fell ill in 1705 and lingered for another two years before dying a lonely, destitute like figure, with a life unfulfilled.

After the emperor’s death, Shahuji (called Shahuji Shivaji II - son of Shambhaji I) was released by Bahadur Shah, the next Mughal emperor. He immediately claimed the Maratha throne and challenged his aunt Tarabai and her son Shambhaji II. A power struggle ensued and finally with the help of a skillful Brahmin, Balaji Vishwanath, Shahuji Shivaji II was able to consolidate his power as the legitimate leader of the Marathas. Balaji would serve as his chief minister and negotiator and his position as ‘peshwa’ would eventually become hereditary to his family, amongst the Marathas. Under his son Peshwa Balji Rao I, the Marathas gained considerable reputation and raided far north into Delhi, Rajasthan, Orissa and Bengal. Shahuji Shivaji II died in 1749 but Balaji Rao remained the most charismatic Maratha character since Chatrapathi Shivaji’s famed rule. His revenue distribution scheme among the various Maratha factions and leaders helped in a loose coalition of Maratha forces, which were also formidable. Eventually the central control of Shivaji’s successors faded and the regional loyalists created their own powerhouses.

Maratha states

The Maratha controlled regions were divided amongst the Gaikwads of Baroda, Holkars of Malwa, and Scindias of Gwalior (and Ujjain) and these became strongholds of Maratha power. Tarabai was awarded revenue rights in Berar and later made Nagpur her capital. When the British annexed Nagpur after the Sepoy Mutiny of 1857, Tarabai Bhonsle’s protégés were given Kolhapur, where they remained well into the 20th century. Indira Gandhi finally disestablished them in the 1970’s, when all the princely states were denied their privy purses.

Peshwa Balaji Rao remained in Pune with Shivaji’s descendents. Rama Raja had been adopted to the family of Shahuji Shivaji II and eventually came to be the ruler of Satara. From here he was able to successfully defend the Maratha kingdom. When Nizam-ul-Mulk, one of the senior Mughal amirs tried to carve himself a territory in Deccan, Balaji Rao gave him such a fight that the Nizam set his sight on Hyderabad instead. Here he carved himself a strong empire that withstood the test of time until India’s independence.

Another minor Maratha state that gained gallant reputation during the sepoy mutiny was that of Jhansi. A young widow of the raja there put up a brave fight both against the neighboring states as well as the British. Her name was Lakshmi Bai of Jhansi. When her fort was under siege by the British, the rani escaped from the besieged fort in disguise, reminiscent of Shivaji’s escape from Aurangzeb’s imprisonment. With the help of Nana Saheb and especially one Tatya Topi, Lakshmi Bai successfully entered Gwalior and occupied the fort there. However, intrigue and betrayal led her to lose to the superior British forces. She died a hero’s death while riding round the ramparts, struck by a stray bullet in the heat of the battle. She remains one of the heroes in the folklore, unmatched by any other woman in combat. 

Marathas never faded in the history of India. They remained a thorn for the British, when the East India Company was busy acquiring land and then later a British monarchy controlled all of India. Fiercely independent minded Marathas made their truce with the British and the great Maratha houses continued to rule their regions.


More by :  Dr. Neria H. Hebbar

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