Medieval India

History of the Maratha Empire

The Marathas

During the second half of the 17th century the Marathas had become powerful. Shivaji contributed towards the rise and growth of Maratha power in India. The history of the Marathas can be divided into two well marked phases – early phase from the latter half of the 17th century till the death of Aurangzeb the period of Shivaji,Sambhaji,Rajaram and Tarabai and the latter Mughal phase when the Peshwas became the rulers and the Maratha empire turned into a loose confederacy of the Maratha chiefs under the leadership of Peshwas.

Chatrapati Shivaji and Maratha Polity

Shivaji was born in February 1630. He was the second son of Shahji Bhonsle and Jijabai. He was born in the hill fort of Shivneri in the northern part of the Pune district. Shivaji’s early childhood years were ones of constant warfare and famine in Maharashtra, particularly the Pune region. Shahji, his father, was a rebel from brief Mughal service, and a Mughal army pursued him through the Ghats and down to the Konkan. Shahji’s forces, reinforced by Bijapur, were generally unsuccessful against the Mughals and Shivaji and his mother moved from fort to fort. It was not until 1636, when Shahji was forced to go into service with Bijapur, that Shivaji and his mother were able to settle in Pune. Shahji was succeeded in getting a grant in the Pune region confirmed by the Bijapur government, the administration of which was bestowed on Dadaji Kondev. The core of the rights was the hereditary patil rights (village headman) to three villages, and the deshmukh rights of Indapur, some seventy miles southeast of Pune. Beyond these hereditary rights, Shivaji’s father also held the mokasa of the Pune region. This mokasa grant was a triangle bordered by the Nira River on the south, the Bhima River on the northeast, and a portion of the Ghats on the west. It ran almost a hundred miles north to south and the same east to west. Very little is confirmable about Shivaji’s early years.

The Pune region was largely devastated by two decades of warfare and the famine of 1630. Dadaji Kondev set about repopulating and developing the jagir. There is every indication that this was not a peaceful process. In 1644, Shivaji was involved in a factional dispute that resulted in his arrest and the sequestering of his estates. The Bijapur government instructed two nearby chiefs, the Khopde and Jedhe deshmukhs to seize the estates, but apparently the order was withdrawn before being implemented. During this time, Shivaji explored the hills surrounding his jagir and took the hill fort of Sinhagad. In 1647, Dadaji Kondev, the steward of Shivaji’s jagir, died, and Shivaji took over the administration. One of his first acts directly challenged the Bijapuri government. Shivaji, through stratagem took the fort of Torna, and seized the large treasure he found there. In the next two years, Shivaji took another important fort near Pune, Chakan, which guarded the northern road into the city. Meanwhile, he used the money found at Torna to build a new fort five miles east of Torna, on the crest of a hill. He named it Raigad, and it served as his capital for over a decade. All challenges were possible because the Bijapuri government was in crisis due to the illness of the reigning king. Shivaji in these same early years also struck against rival Maratha families in his area. Shivaji continued his consolidation of his father’s jagir. He won over the fort commanders of Baramati and Indapur, and more importantly, took the fort of Purandar.

Between 1650 and 1655, Shivaji recruited deshmukhs and soldiers and successfully crushed opposition to his control of the Pune region.

He build another fort, which he named Pratapgad, near Raigad by defeating More family. He controlled eight important passes that traversed the Ghats from the Desh to the Konkan coast.

From 1657 to 1660 Shivaji repeatedly attacked and plundered the Adilshahi territories. A huge army was collected in Bijapur and Afzal Khan was to bring back the rebel dead or alive. When Afzal Khan reached the field of operations he found that fighting in the mountainous territory was extremely difficult. He proposed an interview with Shivaji ,promising him pardon and grant of territory. Shivaji and Afzal Khan met at the appointed place when Afzal Khan attached him with a dagger the latter promptly killed him with the tiger claws. After this Afzal Khan’s troops were massacred. Another army was sent by Bijapur but also met with the same fate. Ultimately Bijapur entered into negotiations with Shivaji and was recognized as the ruler of the territories in his possession.

From the More lands that were on the top of the Ghats, he raided down into the northern Konkan and captured the towns of Kalyan and Bhiwandi and the large fort of Mahuli. The raids on the coastal plain were highly successful and first brought Shivaji to the attention of the maritime powers on the west coast of India. By the end of 1659, Shivaji was, therefore, in control of the Pune area, the northern Satara district and about half of the Kolaba and Thana districts. He controlled forty forts, large and small, led a cavalry of 7,000 regular horse, and infantry of approximately 10,000, and 3,000 independent troopers.

For three years from 1660-1663 Shivaji was hunted from all directions .Shaista Khan the Mughal governor had occupied Poona and made it his headquarters. Shivaji had attacked Shaista Khan ,killing his son and wounding him in 1663. Aurangzeb deputed Raja Jai Singh of Amber to deal with Shivaji after he had looted Surat and Ahmadnagar. Raja Jai Singh made careful diplomatic and military preparations and opened the campaign with the siege of Purandhar. Driven to desperation after months of resistance, Shivaji opened negotiations with Jai Singh and treaty was concluded at Purandar in 1665. By this treaty ,Shivaji was allowed to retain twelve of its forts including Raigarh.He had to surrender 23 forts with surrounding territories which yielded a revenue of four lacs every year to the Mughals.

Shivaji’s Administration and Economic Policies

Initially, Shivaji was not innovating, but only building power much like any other state at the time. First, on the matter of administration, all of Shivaji’s appointed officials such as Peshwa, Muzumdar, and Sarnobat were the same as those found earlier in Ahmadnagar or the Bijapur state. In tax collection there were no innovations. He made stepwise increasing settlements which was already prevalent as measured settlement of the late Ahmadnagar kingdom. There is no concrete evidence that he surrounded himself with Brahmin advisors; to the contrary, recent evidence has shown that he did not meet the main candidate for the role of advisor, Ramdas, until 1672. Finally, there is considerable evidence of the Muslims that Shivaji welcomed into his state from the earliest times. For example, the court proceedings of 1657 list the names of the Muslim qazis (judges) who were on salary to adjudicate cases. At the same time, Shivaji welcomed Muslim recruits into his army. The first unit was a group of 700 Pathans, who had left Bijapur after the treaty with the Mughals. Individual Muslims also rose high in Shivaji’s army, such as Sidi Ibrahim, who was one of ten trusted commanders at the confrontation with Afzal Khan or Nurkhan Beg, who was Shivaji’s sarnobat at this time. It was in the period after the defeat of Afzal Khan that Shivaji put serious effort into consolidating his hold on the Konkan. He realized the importance of naval power and built a fleet of small fast ships. While they could not challenge a large European warship, they could capture merchant shipping. The main purpose of this fleet was, however, like the construction of several sea forts, to challenge and contain the Sidi of Janjira. Though he expanded control in the Konkan, Shivaji – because of ineffective artillery – was unable to defeat the Sidi in this or any later period of his reign.

His was a polity like others at the time, offering mainly social mobility for Maratha soldiers and Brahmin administrators. In revenue administration and social, the structure represented more continuity with these kingdoms than discontinuity. Second, Shivaji did not significantly alter the power of the rural elite families of Maharashtra, especially the deshmukhs. He attacked the largest of these who were rivals, but all the remaining families with “nested” rights were left in peace. It would have been impossible to collect taxes or govern without them. Shivaji’s was not a revolt against deshmukhs, but a polity that attempted to integrate them. He was more successful with some than others; many remained partly or wholly loyal to the Mughals or Bijapur throughout his reign.

Shivaji was not attempting to create a universal Hindu rule. He espoused tolerance and syncretism. He even called on Aurangzeb to act like Akbar in according respect to Hindu beliefs and places. Shivaji had no difficulty in allying with the Muslim states that surrounded him – Bijapur, Golconda, and the Mughals – even against Hindu powers, such as the nayaks of the Carnatic. Further, he did not ally with other Hindu powers, such as the Rajput, rebelling against the Mughals. Shivaji followed his own judgment throughout his remarkable career.

Shivaji’s main accomplishment, was to carve a small kingdom out of a marginal, frontier area of Bijapur and Ahmadnagar, and hold it against the vastly superior forces of Bijapur and the Mughal Empire. Shivaji was a general of extraordinary personal charisma and ability to motivate his progressively larger armies. The strategy he evolved was to use knowledge of the local terrain and the superior mobility of his light cavalry to cut off supplies to the enemy. His cavalry attacked caravans and devastated the countryside around the enemy camp. Shivaji regularly refused a decisive plains battle, which tactics of the day demanded. Instead he left the “battlefield” and struck some portion of the enemy territory, perhaps hundreds of miles away, forcing the enemy to chase him. Further, he understood the importance of forts for the geopolitics of Maharashtra. He captured dozens of them and spent much of what he gained on building dozens more.

Shivaji could never be sure of the loyalty of the families who held existing forts, and they, indeed, often supported the opposing side. Only by building and supplying his own forts could Shivaji staff and maintain them with troops of proven loyalty. Shivaji also well understood that forts had important symbolic value. They were the physical manifestation of supra-local power, virtually the only one in Maharashtra. Forts were the manifestation of kingly authority. There were several drawbacks to Shivaji’s emphasis on light, mobile cavalry. The first was a limited ability to take forts. Shivaji captured forts by stratagem, but rarely by assault. He did not have the technical means of sapping or mining or artillery that were available to the large Muslim powers. Late in his reign, he did hire foreigners and develop artillery, but the quality was never high. The other much more serious problem was the way Shivaji’s tactics spread warfare across the countryside. To make an army withdraw from central Maharashtra, he attacked the Ahmadnagar region or sacked Surat. To deny the Bijapuri army grain, he devastated a wide area around their camp. Looting their grain caravans forced longer foraging expeditions. There was an intrinsically destructive downward spiral to this style of warfare. Equally destructive was the ethic of the yearly campaign. It provided them with spoils and glory, but military expeditions were an extraordinarily inefficient and destructive way to extract either revenue or loyalty from a population. Shivaji recognized these problems. He realized that Maharashtra needed time, and peace, to recover from more than thirty years of continuous warfare. Shivaji, from the early years, had a larger vision, one that included welfare and prosperity for his subjects. It is possible that his negotiated treaty with Jai Singh in 1665 was, in part, to allow peace to return to Maharashtra.

In the last decade of his reign, Shivaji was fortunate that both Bijapuri and Mughal energies were focused elsewhere. The Mughals fought Pathans and Rajputs; Bijapur was consumed with factional disputes and a Mughal invasion. In this respite, Shivaji worked to rebuild Maharashtra. He encouraged taqqavi (developmental) loans, low settlements to repopulate devastated areas, and carefully commanded his army when they were in monsoon cantonments not to disturb cultivators. Further, he understood the importance of the administration for tax collection. At the top, was an advisory council; at the bottom, he laid out rules for the measurement of agricultural land. Even with scanty records, it seems that land measurements were carried out in some areas of the Desh, though perhaps not in the Konkan. Shivaji’s most serious problem, after military pressure from the Mughals, was his relations with the other grant-holding, armed families in Maharashtra. Over the course of his life, Shivaji tried a series of strategies to woo and subdue these families. The deshmukhs of Supe, the remnants of the More family, the deshmukhs of Utroli, Phaltan, and Wai all joined Afzal Khan and the Bijapuri army in his campaign against Shivaji in 1659-60. The big families, such as those centered at Bhor or Wai, clearly remained strong powers throughout Shivaji’s reign, and their loyalty was subject to negotiation between the main contenders – Bijapur, the Mughal Empire, and Shivaji. Another strategy adopted by Shivaji, which recognized the power of these families, was to marry into them. Shivaji thus married into the Shirke, the Mohite, and the Nimbalkar families powerful in their areas . Shivaji had an ambitious plan to establish authority over the large deshmukh families. It began with further strengthening his personal army, relative to the strength of deshmukh forces. Though there is no direct, documentary evidence of the size of Shivaji’s army, there is some indirect evidence. From Shivaji’s will, for example, we know that he personally owned 30,000 horses. This suggests that his personal forces were perhaps 15,000-20,000 cavalry. He owned the guns and gunpowder to supply the army. In addition, Shivaji was in possession of the largest and most important forts in Maharashtra.

In 1674 Shivaji crowned himself formally at Raigarh.He became the sovereign ruler of Maharashtra. In 1676 Shivaji planned and began to direct operations in the south. The objective of this campaign was the total subjugation of Adilshahi kingdom. During the course of this campaign Shivaji conquered Jinji,Madurai,Vellore etc. and about 100 forts in Karnataka and Tamil Nadu.

Sambhaji ( 1680-89)

After the death of Shivaji in 1680 ,Sambhaji , his eldest son ascended the throne. In 1680-81 when Aurangzeb was engaged in the Rajput war,Sambhaji renewed war with the Mughals ,raided Burhanpur and even attempted an attack on Ahmadnagar. In 1685- 86,Aurangzeb captured Bijapur and Golconda and he turned his attention on Marathas. Many of their forts were captured and Sambhaji moved to Sangameshwar.In 1689 Muqarrab Khan ,the Mughal general made a surprise attack and captured Sambhaji. He was executed later.

Raja Ram ( 1689-1700)

In 1689 Rajaram stepbrother of Sambhaji was proclaimed king by the Maratha council of ministers and was crowned at Raigarh.Rajaram left Raigarh and reached Jinji and it remained the center of Maratha activity against the Mughals. The Mughals under Zulfikar Khan captured Jinji. All members of Sambhaji’s family were captured and his son Sahu was made a prisoner who remained in Mughal captivity till the death of Aurangzeb in 1707. The Maratha leaders and commanders organized the resistance to the Mughals in the Deccan. Before Jinji’s capture by Mughals, Rajaram escaped to Satara where he organized a new state army and brought all the Marathas generals under his banner. He also levied Chauth and Sardheshmukhi from Kandesh,Berar and Baglana. In 1699 Satara was attacked by Aurangzeb and captured after the death of Rajaram in 1700.

Tarabai ( 1700-1707)

After the death of Rajaram, Tarabai ,Rajaram’s widow put Shivaji II her son on the throne and became regent. She took keen interest in the state’s affairs. Mughals annexed the fort of Pali,Pankala,Konndana and Khelna.In 1703 the Marathas attacked Berar and 1706 Gujarat. Sambhaji’s son Sahu was released in 1707 by Aurangzeb’s son Bahadur Shah I. He was recognized as the rightful ruler of Marathas and his right to the Maratha swaraj and to Chauth and Sardeshmukhi of the Deccani states of the Mughals was also recognized. This period saw a struggle between the two groups of the Marathas. Tarabai declared Sahu as an imposter and attacked him. As a result a civil war broke out between the forces of Tarabai and Sahu that lasted up to 1708. Tarabai retired to Kolhapur with her son Shivaji II. When Shivaji II died his step- brother Sambhaji II was put on the throne of Kolhapur. The relations between Sahu and Sambhaji were not cordial. However in 1731 the treaty of Warna was signed between Sahu and Sambhaji that provided that Sambhaji would rule over southern part of the Maratha kingdom with Kolhapur as its capital and northern part with the capital at Satara should be given to Sahu. The treaty of 1731 resolved the differences between Satara and Kolhapur.


During the struggle between Sahu and Sambhaji, loyal, reliable and capable Balaji Vishwanath aided Sahu. After his coronation in 1708, Sahu conferred upon him the title of Sena- Karte and eventually elevated him to the post of Peshwa in 1713.

Balaji Vishwanath (1714-20)

Balaji Vishwanath laid the foundation of the future Maratha Confederacy. He enabled Sahu in consolidating his power. After him the office of Peshwa became hereditary and Balaji and his successors became the rulers of the Maratha kingdom. Balaji has been credited with a mastery of finance .He laid the foundations for a well-organized revenue system in the swaraj territory that was under direct royal administration.

Peshwa Baji Rao I (1720-40)

After the death of Balaji Vishwanath, Sahu appointed his eldest son Baji Rao the Peshwa. Under him the Maratha power reached its zenith. He reorganized the armies of the state and started his campaigns in 1731.In 1732, Baji Rao over ran the province of Malwa and conquered Bundelkhand.He was aware of the disintegration of the Mughal Empire and wanted to take full advantage of the situation. In 1739 the Portuguese were defeated and the island of Bassein was taken from them. Thus Baji Rao was successful in his policies. He made Pune the center of his activities and came to be known as seat of Peshwas. During this period regional dynasties emerged. Ranoji Sindhia founded the Sindhia dynasty of Malwa; Malhar Rao Holkar was given a part of Malwa who later on laid the foundations of Holkar house of Indore. The Gaikwads established themselves in Gujarat with head quarters at Baroda. Instead of checking these feudatories, Baji Rao entrusted large powers on chiefs like Sindhia and Holkar.Baji Rao founded the Maratha Empire through his conquests. .

Balaji Baji Rao (1740-61)

Balaji Baji Rao became the next Peshwa on the death of his father. He was a commander like his father. During his tenure the Third Battle of Panipat was fought between the Marathas and Ahmad Shah Abdali in 1761.The Marathas lost and the huge damages were done.

Peshwa Madhava Rao (1761-1772)

Balaji Baji Rao was succeeded by his son Madhava Rao I. His uncle Raghunatha Rao wanted to assist Madhava Rao in his work. But serious differences broke out between the Peshwa and his uncle leading to a war between the two in 1762 in which the Peshwa’s army was defeated. The differences erupted again in 1765.Raghunath Rao demanded the partition of the Maratha state between himself and the Peshwa. Nizam Ali marched towards Poona but was defeated after a struggle of two years and was forced to surrender. Bhonsle of Nagpur was also subjugated. Rajput were brought under Maratha suzerainty and the Jats were forced to accept Maratha over lordship. Madhav Rao died in 1772.After him the Maratha dominion faced a deep crisis and its fortunes declined under his successors.

Peshwa Baji Rao II (1795-1816)

During his Peshwaship the subsidiary Treaty of Bassein (1802) was signed by the Peshwa with the British. It led to the second Anglo- Maratha War in 1803-05.The Third Anglo- Maratha was brought an end to the Maratha power. The Peshwaship was abolished and he was pensioned off to Bithur near Kanpur

Decline of Maratha Power

Marathas were brave but internal jealousies and treachery marked the course of their empire. The economy of the Maratha state was not on a sound basis. Agriculture was the main source of income but it depended on rainfall. No industry or trade routes were set up. The Marathas tried to preserve religion at the sacrifice of science. They avoided handling modern equipment for fear that they would lose their religion. They failed to develop artillery as the main support of defense. The Marathas recruited foreigners as soldiers to defend their country. They also failed to develop strong navy. In the absence of strong leadership the morale of the army was low and the soldiers often fled from the battlefield.

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