Maratha empire

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Extent of the Maratha Confederacy ca. 1760(shown here in yellow)
Extent of the Maratha Confederacy ca. 1760
(shown here in yellow)

The Maratha Empire, (also spelled Mahratta), also called the Maratha Confederacy, of India was founded by Shivaji in 1674 when he carved out an independent Maratha zone around Pune from the Bijapur Sultanate. After a lifetime of exploits and guerilla warfare with the Mughal emperor Aurangzeb, Shivaji died in 1680, leaving a Maratha kingdom of great but ill-defined extent. This was followed by a period of unstability which ended with the death of Aurangzeb. Although the descendants of Shivaji continued to rule, the office of the Peshwa, or the Chief Minister, had become the dispensers of Maratha power and patronage. The Peshwas were the effective rulers of the Maratha state and oversaw the period of greatest Maratha expansion, brought to an end by the Maratha's defeat by an Afghan army at the Third Battle of Panipat in 1761. The last Peshwa, Baji Rao II, was defeated by the British in the Third Anglo-Maratha War.


The Reign of Shivaji

The Hindu Marathas had long lived in the Desh region around Satara in the western portion of the Deccan plateau, where it meets the eastern slopes of the Western Ghats, and had resisted incursions into the region by the Muslim Mughal rulers of northern India. Under their leader Shivaji, the Maratha freed themselves from the Muslim sultans of Bijapur to the southeast, and became much more aggressive and began to frequently raid Mughal territory, sacking the Mughal port of Surat in 1664. Shivaji was proclaimed Emperor in 1674. The Maratha had spread and conquered much of central India by Shivaji's death in 1680.

Shivaji's Successors

In 1681, Sambhaji, one of Shivaji's two competing sons, gained the upper hand, had himself crowned, and resumed his father's expansionist policies. To nullify any rajput-Maratha alliance, as well as to resume his long affair with the Deccan Sultanates, in 1682, the Mughal emperor Aurangzeb himself headed south with the entire imperial court, the imperial administration, and an army of about 180,000 troops, which proceeded to conquer the sultanates of Bijapur and Golconda. In 1688, Sambhaji was caught, duly tortured and then painfully dismembered.

Rajaram, Sambhaji's brother and earlier rival, now assumed the throne. In 1700 Satara, to which place Shivaji had earlier moved the capital, came under siege and was eventually surrendered to the Mughals. At about the same time, Rajaram died. His widow, Tarabai, assumed control in the name of her son, Sambhaji II. A truce was offered which was promptly rejected by the emperor. That same year, Maratha raiders for the first time crossed the Narmada river, the traditional Rubicon between the Deccan and the north. A new assault by the Marathas in Malwa and the ransacking of Hyderabad further frustrated the octogenarian emperor. The now two decade long war in the south was beginning to take a serious toll on the Mughal finances. In 1705, Aurangzeb fell seriously ill and died two years later.

After the emperors death, Shahuji, son of the dismembered Sambhaji (and so grandson of Shivaji)) 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. This promptly turned the now spluttering Mughal-Maratha war into a three-cornered affair. Stalemate only brought chronic anarchy, until in 1715 with the help of a skillful Brahmin, Balaji Vishwanath, Shahuji pulled off an unlikely coup by winning the support of Kanhoji Angria, admiral of the Maratha fleet, who had been the mainstay of the Tarabai faction. Shahuji was able to consolidate his power as the legitimate leader of the Marathas and Balaji would serve as his chief minister and negotiator. His position as Peshwa would eventually become hereditary to his family, amongst the Marathas.

The Dynasty of the Peshwas

The fight against the Mughals ended with the death of Aurangzeb in 1707 which was a turning point in Maratha history. The emperor's extreme old age, the resentment stirred up by his religious policies, the strain imposed on his military and financial resources by the incessant Maratha campaign, and the growing discontent amongst Mughal mansabdars whose Deccan jagirs either failed to materialise or failed to yield their expected revenue, all took their toll on Mughal authority. After Aurangzeb, Mughal power never regained it's status as the main power in India and the balance of power shifted towards the Marathas.

In 1713 Farrukhsiyar had declared himself Mughal emperor. His bid for power had depended heavily on two brothers, known as the Saiyids, one of whom had been the governor of Allahabad and the other of Patna. However, the brothers had a falling out with the emperor. Negotiations between the Saiyids and Peshwa Balaji Vishwanath drew the Marathas into the vendatta against the emperor. An army of Marathas and Mughals marched up to Delhi unopposed and managed to depose the emperor. In return for this help, Balaji Vishwanath had managed to negotiate a substantial treaty. Shahuji would have to accept Mughal rule in the Deccan, furnish forces for the imperial army and pay an annual tribute. But in return he received a farman, or imperial directive, guaranteeing him Swaraj, or independance, in the Maratha homeland, plus rights to chauth and sardeshmukh (amounting to 35 percent of the toal revenue) throughout Gujarat, Malwa and the now six provinces of the Mughal Deccan.

In 1712, Shahuji died of smallpox. Shivaji's descendants, the Maharajas of Satara, were the nominal rulers of the Maratha state, but the office of the Peshwas became the de facto leaders of the confederacy from their seat at Pune.

After Balaji Vishwanath's death in 1720, his son, Baji Rao I duly inherited the office of the peshwa. Having inherited the treaty negotiated by his father, as well as the contempt of the might of the Mughal emperor, the Peshwa and his Marathas spent the next two decades raiding north, south, east and west with impunity. They reached Rajasthan in 1735, Delhi in 1737 and Orissa and Bengal by 1740. But the loose structure of Maratha sovereignty remained. Baji Rao's distribution of the ceded Deccan revenues amongst various Maratha commanders had produced 'a communion of interest'. Baji Rao's exceptional talents had also ensured a degree of control. The Maratha 'state' had now become a Maratha 'confederacy'. The Maratha controlled regions were divided amongst the Gaekwads 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 Bhonsles protgs were given Kolhapur, where they remained well into the 20th century.

Baji Rao died in 1740 after a series of conquests that had consolidated the power of the Marathas. If Shivaji created a Maratha state, Baji Rao transformed it into an empire. Baji Rao's son, Balaji Bajirao (Nanasaheb) succeeded as the Peshwa. The period between 1741 and 1745 was of comparative calm in the Deccan. Nanasaheb encouraged agriculture, protected the villagers and brought about a marked improvement in the state of the territory. Continued expansion saw Raghunath Rao, the brother of Nanasaheb, pushing into Punjab in the wake of the Afghan withdrawal after Ahmad Shah Abdali's plunder of Delhi in 1756. In Lahore as in Delhi, the Marathas were now major players. By 1760, with a defeat of the nizam in the Deccan, Maratha power had reached it's zenith.

The Decline of the Empire

Mughal power was collapsing in the 1750's, and in 1756-1757 Ahmad Shah Abdali of Afghanistan sacked the Mughal capital, Delhi. The Peshwa sent an army to challenge the Afghans, and the Maratha army was decisively defeated on January 13, 1761 at the Third Battle of Panipat. The battle checked Maratha expansion, prevented the capture of Delhi, and encouraged the fragmentation of the empire. Even today the phrase 'meet your Panipat' in Marathi, has a similar meaning as the phrase, 'meet your Waterloo', in English.

After 1761, the confederacy dissolved into five autonomous Maratha states. In 1775 the British East India Company, from its base in Bombay, intervened in a succession struggle in Pune, which became the First Anglo-Maratha War, which ended in 1782 with a restoration of the pre-war status quo. In 1802, the British intervened in Baroda to support the heir to the throne against rival claimants, and signed a treaty with the new Maharaja recognizing his independence from the Maratha empire in return for his acknowledgement of British sovereignty. In the Second Anglo-Maratha War (1803-1805), the Maratha retained their independence, but lost Orissa and most of Gujarat to Britain. The Third Anglo-Maratha War (1817-1818) resulted in the loss of Maratha independence, and left Britain in control of most of India. The Maratha heartland of Desh, including Pune, came under direct British rule, with the exception of the states of Kolhapur and Satara, which retained local Maratha rulers. The Maratha-ruled states of Gwalior, Indore, and Nagpur lost territory, and were integrated into the British Raj as princely states that retained local autonomy under British sovereignty.

The name of the empire is today preserved in the Indian state of Maharashtra, which was created in 1960 as a Marathi-speaking state.

Marathas Rulers

The Royal House of Shivaji


See also: History of Indiade:Marathen fr:Empire marathe he:האימפריה המרתית sv:Indiens historia: Marathariket


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