The Maratha Empire was founded by the Maratha warrior-hero Chhatrapati Shivaji, in response to the chaos and misrule that prevailed in the Deccans in the late 17th century.
This occurred as the Mughal Empire expanded into southern India. Hindu nationalists revere the Maratha Empire, which originated among a Hindu warrior people of the western Deccan peninsula. Their reverence stems from the fact that it was this state that reversed centuries of steadily increasing Muslim political control over the subcontinent.
By the mid 18th-century, it was the largest state in South Asia and the Mughal emperors in Delhi were its puppets.
Gunpowder was chiefly used for artillery, which was widely used. The Maratha navy was also successful in fending off European navies with cannons for half a century. But, at this point in Indian history, the cavalry clearly had the upper hand, more so than poorly armed and trained infantry and elephant units, which had limited utility in battle despite always being sought out.
The Maratha cavalry contributed to the success of the empire by raiding swiftly and deeply into Mughal territory and leaving with their booty before the Mughal army could catch them. Their dependence on horses and the lack of firearms in the infantry, however, proved to be a difficulty when facing European armies armed with muskets.
Detractors of the Maratha Empire allege that the Marathas only wanted a kingdom for themselves, and thus their kingdom was “never Hindu,” which ignores the fact that the dominant religion of the ruling class of any Indian state at this time was a major part of that state’s character, regardless of how the religion was interpreted or applied in a political sense.
Further criticisms of the Maratha Empire allege that they were the “Mongols” of South Asia, who only campaigned for chauth, a fourth of the revenue of other kingdoms, whether Hindu or Muslim. Maratha raids against Bengal in 1742 and Jaipur in 1750 are especially criticized because these led to the deaths of many Hindus.
But all this misses the point. Of course, like any other kingdom in the 18th century, the Maratha Empire meant to preserve itself, even if it meant fighting Hindus and allying with Muslims. The patchwork of states to emerge from the declining Mughal Empire at the time was so complex that it was inevitable that alliances of convenience between states of different religious denominations were the norm.
There is no doubt that the Marathas, like all Hindu states, were influenced by Islamic practices, art, architecture, and warfare, and that later, Hindu nationalist historians exaggerated their Hindu credentials.Yet there is no doubt that the imposition of the jizya tax on Hindus and the demolition of several important Hindu temples during the reign of the Mughal Emperor Aurangzeb (who reigned from 1659-1707) would not have occurred under Maratha rule, thus incentivizing many Hindus to defect from the Mughal Empire during or after Aurangzeb’s reign.
Unquestionably, the Marathas were consciously Hindu and interested in establishing Hindu political power in the subcontinent. The Maratha commitment to establishing a traditional Hindu state in the subcontinent is evidenced by the enormous effort they took to coronate Shivaji and officially found the Maratha Empire in 1674.
Thus, by intent and symbolism, it is clear that the Marathas were clearly establishing an empire steeped in Hindu culture and symbolism, if not formally so in a political manner.
Maratha confederacy and alliance was formed in the 18th century after Mughal pressure forced the collapse of Shivaji’s kingdom of Maharashtra in western India.
After the Mughal Emperor Aurangzeb’s death (1707), Maratha power revived under Shivaji’s grandson Shahu. He confided power to the Brahman Bhat family, who became hereditary Peshwas (chief ministers). He also decided to expand northward with armies under the peshwas’ control. In Shahu’s later years the power of the Peshwas increased. After his death (1749) they became the effective rulers.
The leading Maratha families—Sindhia, Holkar, Bhonsle, and Gaekwar—extended their conquests in northern and central India and became more independent and difficult to control.
The effective control of the Peshwas ended with the great defeat of Panipat (1761) at the hands of the Afghans and the death of the young Peshwa, Madhav Rao I in 1772. Thereafter the Maratha state was a confederacy of five chiefs under the nominal leadership of the Peshwa at Poona in western India.
Though they united on occasion, as against the British (1775–82), more often they quarreled. After after he was defeated by the Holkar dynasty in 1802, Baji Rao II sought protection from the British, whose intervention destroyed the confederacy by 1818.
The confederacy expressed a general Maratha nationalist sentiment but was divided bitterly by the jealousies of its chiefs.
The Gaikwads of Baroda
The Gaekwad rule of Baroda began when the Maratha general Pilaji Rao Gaekwad conquered the city from the Mughal Empire in 1721. The Gaekwads were granted the city as a fief by the Peshwa, the de facto leader of the Maratha Empire.
In their early years, the Gaekwads served as subordinates of the Dabhade family, who were the Maratha chiefs of Gujarat and holders of the senapati title. When Umabai Dabhade joined Tarabai’s rebellion against Peshwa Balaji Baji Rao, Pilaji’s son Damaji Rao Gaekwad commanded the Dabhade force. He was defeated, and remained under Peshwa’s arrest from May 1751 to March 1752.
In 1752, he was released after agreeing to abandon the Dabhades and accept the Peshwa’s suzerainty. In return, he was made the Maratha chief of Gujarat, and the Peshwa helped him expel the Mughals from Gujarat.
Damaji subsequently fought alongside Sadashiv Rao, Vishwas Rao, Malhar Rao Holkar, Janakoji and Mahadji Shinde in the Third Battle of Panipat (1761). After the Maratha defeat at Panipat, the central rule of the Peshwas was weakened. As a result, the Gaekwads, along with several other powerful Maratha clans, established themselves as virtually independent rulers, while recognizing the nominal authority of the Peshwas and suzerainty of the Bhonsle Maharaja of Satara. The Gaekwads, together with several Maratha chieftains, fought the British in the First Anglo-Maratha War.
Maharaja Sayaji Rao III, who took the throne in 1875, did much to modernize Baroda, establishing compulsory primary education, a library system and the Maharaja Sayajirao University of Baroda. He also encouraged the setting up of textilefactories, which helped create Baroda’s textile industry. He is well known for offering B. R. Ambedkar a scholarship to study at Columbia University.
The Holkars of Indore
The Holkars are perhaps one of the most popular royalties in the history of India, particularly because they contributed greatly and also had a distinctive style of their own.
The Holkar clan of Indore is basically from the Dangar clan that is found in Maharashtra. The origin of the Holkar dynasty was initiated with Malhar Rao who worked under the Peshwas of Maratha in 1721. He later was promoted as a Subedar, however, it was later that Malhar Rao and his descendents, who became Maratha kings, later went on to become the rulers of Indore as an independent kingdom.
However, after 1818, Indore was recognized as a princely state under British rule until it became a part of the state of Madhya Pradesh after Indian independence.
The Holkars were great connoisseurs of art and they were great collectors as well, who were famous for their collections of jewellery and cars.
The Holkars inhabited a region that was the most fertile in arid Central India and made Indore their capital. After a tumultuous period during their war with the British and the Scindias, the Holkars signed the Treaty of Mahidpur in 1818 in which they settled down to rule peacefully. This is the time when the Holkars amassed a huge collection of jewellery which was later lost and vanished without a trace.
The Holkars were strongly influenced by the British way of life- be it their language, culture, clothes and cars. Their lavish lifestyles and their suave modern mannerisms made them incorporate new styles and trends in a rather traditional environment. Furthermore, they forged foreign alliances through marriages and their foreign wives brought about great changes in their traditional perspectives.
The Bhosales of Nagpur
The Maratha emperor, Shahuji, appointed Baji Rao with the duty of expanding and defending the Maratha Empire.
Under his command, the army reached Rajasthan in 1735, Delhi in 1737, and Orissa and Bengal by 1740. On the way back from Delhi, Baji Rao’s generals established their own holdings which later became kingdoms in their own right, still owing loyalty to the Maratha throne in Satara.
The Gaekwads established themselves in Baroda (modern Gujarat), the Holkars at Indore, the Shindes (or Scindias) at Gwalior, and the Bhonsales at Nagpur (which had formerly been part of the Vakataka kingdom in the third to fifth centuries).
Nagpur itself had never before formed a state in its own right. Previously it had formed part of the Gond kingdom of Deogarh. The Bhonsales were directly related to the Maratha emperor, Sambhaji Maharaj Bhosale. Today Berar and Vidharba within former Nagpur are in Maharashtra state.
In 1742-1743, Orissa of the Bhoi dynasty was ceded by Nawab Alîwirdi Khan of Bengal to the Marathas (in the form of Raghuji Bhosale). There was strife between the brothers who ruled the Gond kingdom of Deogarh. Raghuji came to the assistance of one of them and gained effective control of the kingdom, making it the property of Nagpur.
The Maratha losses at the Third Battle of Panipat in 1761 halts the expansion of the empire and reduces the power of Peshwa. The empire became a looser confederacy, with political power resting in a ‘pentarchy’ of five Maratha dynasties: the Peshwas in Pune, the Sindhias of Malwa and Gwalior, the Holkars of Indore, the Bhonsles themselves in Nagpur, and the Gaekwads of Baroda.
The Scindia family was the Maratha ruling family of Gwalior, which for a time in the 18th century dominated the politics of northern India. The dynasty was founded by Ranoji Sindhia, who in 1726 was put in charge of the Malwa region by the Peshwa (chief minister of the Maratha state).
By his death in 1750, Ranoji had established his capital at Ujjain. Only later was the Sindhia capital moved to the rock fortress of Gwalior.
Probably the greatest of Ranoji’s successors was Sindhia Mahadaji (reigned 1761–94), who created a north Indian empire virtually independent of the peshwa.
He emerged from war with the British East India Company (1775–82) as the recognized ruler of northwestern India. With the aid of French officers, he defeated the Rajputs, took the Mughal emperor Shah Alām under his protection, and finally won control of the Peshwa by defeating the Maratha Holkar, the peshwa’s chief general, in 1793.
His grandnephew, Daulat Rao, however, suffered serious reverses. He came into conflict with the British in 1803. After being defeated in four battles by General Gerard Lake, he was obliged to disband his French-trained army and sign a treaty; he gave up control of Delhi but retained Rajputana until 1817.
The Sindhia became clients of the British in 1818 and survived as a princely house until 1947.