Rise of the Peshwas

The Peshwa used to be Prime minister of Chatrapati but under the Bhat family, Peshwa became established as De-facto leaders of Maratha. The good fortune of Shivaji did not fall to his son and successor, Sambhaji, who was captured and executed by the Mughals in the late 1680s. His younger brother, Rajaram, who succeeded him, faced with a Mughal army that was now on the ascendant, moved his base into the Tamil country, where Shivaji too had earlier kept an interest.

He remained in the great fortress of Jinji (earlier the seat of a Nayaka dynasty subordinate to Vijayanagar) for eight years in the 1690s, under siege by a Mughal force, and for a time it may have appeared that Maratha power was on the decline. But recovery was affected in the early 18th century, in somewhat changed circumstances. A particularly important phase in this respect is the reign of Shahu, who succeeded Rajaram in 1708 with some acrimony from his widow, Tara Bai.

Balaji Vishvanath: The First Peshwa

Lasting some four decades, to 1749, Shahu’s reign was marked by the ascendancy of a lineage of Citpavan Brahman ministers, who virtually came to control central authority in the Maratha state, with the Bhonsle’s reduced to figureheads. Holding the title of Peshwa (chief minister), the first truly prominent figure of this line is Balaji Vishvanath, who had aided Shahu in his rise to power. On the one hand, they systematized the practice of tribute gathering from Mughal territories, under the heads of sardeshmukhi and caught (the two terms corresponding to the proportion of revenue collected).

Statue of Peshwa balaji Vishwanath
Statue of Peshwa Balaji Vishwanath

But, equally, they seem to have consolidated methods of assessment and collection of land revenue and other taxes, which were derived from the Mughals. Much of the revenue terminology used in the documents of the Peshwa and his subordinates derives from Persian (the language of Mughal administration), which suggests a far greater continuity between Mughal and Maratha revenue practice than might have been imagined.

By the close of Shahu’s reign, a complex role had been established for the Marathas. On the one hand, in the territories that they controlled closely, particularly in the Deccan, these years saw the development of sophisticated networks of trade, banking, and finance; the rise of substantial banking houses based at Pune, with branches extending into Gujarat, the Ganges River valley, and the south; and an expansion of the agricultural frontier.

At the same time, maritime affairs were not totally neglected either, and Balaji Vishvanth took some care to cultivate the Angria clan, which controlled a fleet of vessels based in Kolaba and other centers of the west coast. These ships posed a threat not only to the new English settlement of Bombay (Mumbai) but to the Portuguese at Goa, Bassein, and Daman.

On the other hand, there also emerged a far larger domain of activity away from the original heartland of the Marathas, which was either subjected to raiding or given over to subordinate chiefs. Of these chiefs, the most important were the Gaekwads (Gaikwars), the Sindhias, and the Holkars. Also, there were branches of the Bhonsle family itself that relocated to Kolhapur and Nagpur, while the mainline remained in the Deccan heartland, at Satara.

The Kolhapur line derived from Rajaram and his wife, Tara Bai, who had refused in 1708 to accept Shahu’s rule and who negotiated with some Mughal court factions in a bid to undermine Shahu. The Kolhapur Bhonsles remained in control of a limited territory into the early 19th century, when the raja allied himself with the British against the Peshwa in the Maratha Wars.

Unlike the Kolhapur Bhonsle’s and the descendants of Vyamkoji at Thanjavur, both of whom claimed a status equal to that of the Satara raja, the line at Nagpur was clearly subordinate to the Satara rulers. A crucial figure from this line is Raghuji Bhonsle (ruled 1727–55), who was responsible for the Maratha incursions on Bengal and Bihar in the 1740s and early ’50s. The relations of his successors, Janoji, Sabaji, and Mudoji, with the Peshwa and the Satara line, were variable, and it is in this sense that these domains can be regarded as only loosely confederated, rather than tightly bound together.

Subordinate Maratha Rulers

Other subordinate rulers who emerged under the overarching umbrella provided by the Satara ruler and his Peshwa were equally somewhat opportunistic in their use of politics. The Gaekwads, who came to prominence in the 1720s with the incursions of Damaji and Pilaji Gaekwad into Gujarat, were initially subordinate not only to the Bhonsle’s but also to the powerful Dabhade family.

Their role in this period was largely confined to the collection of the chauth levy, and they consolidated their position by taking advantage of differences between the Peshwa and the Dabhades. The fact that various interests at the Mughal court were at loggerheads with each other also worked to the Gaekwads’ advantage. However, it was only after the death of Shahu, when the power of the Peshwa was further enhanced, that the position of the Gaekwads truly improved. By the early 1750s, the rights of the family to an extensive portion of the revenues of Gujarat were recognized by the Peshwa, and an amicable division was arranged.

The expulsion of the Mughal governor of the Gujarat subah (province) from his capital of Ahmedabad in 1752 set the seal on the process. The Gaekwads preferred, however, to establish their capital in Baroda, causing realignment in the network of trade and consumption in the area.

The rule of Damaji (died 1768) at Baroda was followed by a period of some turmoil. The Gaekwads remained partly dependent on Pune and the Peshwa, especially to intervene in moments of a succession crisis. The eventual successor of Damaji, Fateh Singh (ruled 1771–89), did not remain allied to the Peshwa for long, though. Rather, in the late 1770s and early ’80s, he chose to negotiate a settlement with the English East India Company, which eventually led to increased British interference in his affairs. By 1800 the British rather than the Peshwa were the final arbiters in determining succession among the Gaekwad, who became subordinate rulers under them in the 19th century.

Malhar Rao Holkar
Malhar Rao Holkar

In the mid-18th century, a great part of the holdings of the Gaekwads was described in the Peshwa’s correspondence and papers as saranjam (nonhereditary grants to maintain troops), and the ruler himself was termed saranjamdar, or at times jagirdar. The same was broadly true of the Holkars and Sindhias and also of another relatively minor dynasty of chiefs, the Pawars of Dhar.

In the case of the Holkars, the rise in status and wealth was particularly rapid and marked. From petty local power brokers, they emerged by the 1730s into a position in which Malhar Rao Holkar could be granted a large share of the chauth collection in Malwa, eastern Gujarat, and Khandesh. Within a few years, Malhar Rao consolidated his own principality at Indore, from which his successors controlled important trade routes as well as the crucial trading center of Burhanpur.

After him, control of the dynastic fortunes fell largely to his son’s widow, Ahalya Bai, who ruled from 1765 to 1794 and brought Holkar power to its apogee. Nevertheless, their success could not equal that of the last great chieftain family, the Sindhias, who carved a prominent place for themselves in north Indian politics in the decades following the third battle of Panipat (1761). Again, like the Holkars, the Sindhias were based largely in central India, first at Ujjain, and later (from the last quarter of the 18th century) in Gwalior. It was during the long reign of Mahadaji Sindhia, which began after Panipat and continued to 1794, that the family’s fortunes were truly consolidated.

Mahadaji, employing in the 1780s a large number of European mercenaries in his forces, proved an effective and innovative military commander who went beyond the usual Maratha dependence on light cavalry. His power, however, had already grown in the 1770s, when he managed to make substantial inroads into a north India that had been weakened by Afghan attacks. He intervened with some effect in the Mughal court during the reign of Shah ʿAlam II, who made him the “deputy regent” of his affairs in the mid-1780s.

His shadow fell not only across the provinces of Delhi and Agra but also on Rajasthan and Gujarat, making him the most formidable Maratha leader of the era. He caused trepidation among the personnel of the East India Company and also at Pune, where his relations with the acting Peshwa, Nana Fadnavis, were fraught with tension. Eventually, the momentum generated by Mahadaji could not be maintained by his successor, Daulat Rao Sindhia (ruled 1794–1827), who was defeated by the British and forced under the Treaty of Surji-Arjungaon (1803) to surrender his territories both to the north and to the west.