Rise and fall of the Maratha Empire

Maratha Empire
Maratha Empire

Origins of Maratha Empire

Maratha Empire
The Maratha Empire

Formally the Maratha empire began with the coronation of Shivaji from Bhonsle dynasty in 1674 and ended with the defeat of Peshwa Baji Rao II by the British in the 3rd Anglo Maratha war in 1818. But its origins can be traced to the small battles that Shivaji fought against the Adil Shahi dynasty of Bijapur and later with the Mughals.The Maratha empire expanded at the cost of the decaying Mughal empire in the 18th century. It was only the Marathas who possessed the strength and resources to fill the political vacuum created by the disintegration of the Mughal empire. But unfortunately the Maratha sardars lacked unity, outlook and program necessary for founding an all-India empire even though they produced a number of brilliant commanders and statesmen needed for the task.

  Shivaji died in 1680 after which his son Sambhaji continued the rivalry with the Mughals under Aurangazeb. Sambhaji was captured and executed by the Mughals. Then his son Shahu continued the rivalry with the Mughals who captured him too along with his family. Aurangazeb had adopted the policy of suppressing the Marathas which cost him a lot of resources and men. The long rivalry continued for 27 years. But soon after his death, his son and successor Bahadur Shah reversed many of his policies. Shahu was released from captivity, though his mother was still kept under arrest as a collateral.  

Maratha Family Tree

Background of the Maratha Empire expansion.

Shivaji ( 1674 – 1680 )


 Born on 19th February 1630, Shivaji carved out a niche for himself in Indian history for his heroic deeds from a very early age. His father Shahji Bhonsle was a noble in the Bijapur kingdom under the Adil Shahi rulers. In the 1630s the Bijapur kingdom had become a tributary state of the Mughals and helped Mughal expansion in the south.The valiant and charismatic character of Shivaji manifested at the age of 16 years when he captured the Torna fort  controlled by the Bijapur Sultanate. 

 His relations with the Mughals were of alliances and conflicts with the proportions of conflict being more. The unwillingness of Aurangazeb to grant Chauth and Sardeshmukhi rights to the Marathas, aggravated the tensions between the two. Aurangazeb had plans to send Shivaji to Kandahar to manage the North West Frontier area. On an invitation to the royal darbar of Aurangazeb, Shivaji was made to stand with some low ranking nobles many of whom were defeated by him. This infuriated Shivaji and he staged a walkout in protest which led to his house arrest first and later imprisonment along with his 9 years old son Sambhaji.Shivaji successfully planned and executed his escape from the clutches of the Mughals and resumed his quest for expansion of his territories. Later Shivaji also had some encounters with the British at Surat. 


 By late 1660’s Shivaji had amassed significant wealth and acquired extensive tracts of land. But the only problem was, he lacked a formal title. There was no legal basis to his rule even though he was ruling a significant area. Technically he was still a Mughal vassal or a son of Bijapur jagirdar. The only solution to this problem was a formal coronation which would not only grant a legal sanctity to his rule but also elevate his prestige in the eyes of his countrymen. This measure would also gyrate the Hindus of Deccan towards the idea of Hindu swaraj in an area otherwise under the dominance of Muslims.

 But for Shivaji the coronation affair posed another challenge as the Brahmins refused to perform the coronation rituals. According to the Brahmins, Shivaji was not entitled to a formal coronation as he did not belong to the Kshatriya varna and was a Shudra. With total rejection from the Brahmins of Deccan, Shivaji appointed a pandit from Benaras by the name Gaga Bhatt. Gaga Bhatt traced Shivaji’s genealogy to the Sisodiya Rajput clan and went ahead with the coronation. Thus, finally in 1674, Shivaji was crowned as ‘Chhatrapati’ meaning sovereign or head of the umbrella that comprised all the lands he ruled. In this he was also entitled Shakakarta i.e. founder of an era. Shivaji died in 1680 A.D.

Sambhaji ( 1680 – 1689 )

Maratha Empire

 Among all the descendants of Shivaji, Sambhaji had the most checkered history. At an early age of 9 years he was kept as a political hostage  with Raja Jai Singh I of Amber to ensure compliance to the ‘Treaty of Purander’ which Shivaji had signed with the Mughals. Later along with his father, Sambhaji was imprisoned by Aurangazeb from where the duo escaped. Over the years he grew with all the relevant training and pampering. But he also became irresponsible and habituated to sensual pleasures to the extent that Shivaji himself had to put him under house arrest at Panhala fort in 1678. Sambhaji escaped from the fort and defected to the Mughals for a brief period. After returning home he was still unrepentant and as a result was sent back to the Panhala fort

 After Shivaji’s death in 1680, his other wife and Sambhaji’s stepmother Soyrabai, installed her 10 year old son Rajaram as the king on 16th April 1680 with the support of some influential courtiers and her own kinsmen. Upon hearing this Sambhaji plotted an escape and seized the Panhala fort and also captured the Raigarh Fort. Rajaram, his wife Jankibai and mother Saryubai were imprisoned. Sambhaji crowned himself as Chhatrapati on 20thJuly 1680. Later there was another attempt on his life by the Mughal Prince Akbar in collusion with Saryubai and the Shirke family. The conspiracy failed and all the Maratha traitors including Saryubai were executed.

 Sambhaji’s exploits

 Sambhaji had to fight battles on many fronts – Siddis of Janjira, Mysore, Portuguese in Goa and of course the Mughals. Sambhaji never lost any battle. In order to prevent any alliances between the Marathas and the Rajputs, Aurangzeb himself marched to Deccan with a troop strength of 400000 soldiers in 1682. With this started a prolonged and bitter rivalry between the Mughals and the Marathas that ended only after the death of Aurangzeb in 1707. Sambhaji also gave asylum to the defector son of Aurangzeb in the hope that with his help he would dethrone Aurangzeb. But this did not bear any fruits and eventually Sambhaji helped Akbar escape to Persia for his father was hunting for his blood.

Capture and Execution of Sambhaji

 After the battle of Wai in 1687, the Maratha forces had weakened considerably. Their dynamic commander Hambirao Mohite was killed in the battle. Soon the Maratha soldiers started deserting the army. In 1689, Sambhaji along with 25 close associates were captured after a skirmish at Sangameshwar on the information provided by the Shirke family who had defected to the Mughals. Sambhaji was tortured and executed. There are many accounts for his torture and death some of which are contradictory.

Rajaram and Tarabai ( 1689 – 1707 ) 

Maratha Empire
Tara Bai

  Soon after the death of Sambhaji, Rajaram, half brother of Sambhaji became the king. He shifted his capital to Satara. In 1700 Satara came under siege and Rajaram also passed away in the same year. 9 years earlier he had taken refuge at Jinji. His wife Tarabai took over the reigns of the kingdom and proclaimed her son Shivaji I as the king. 

 She offered truce to the Mughals which was of course rejected. She then heroically led the Marathas against the Mughals and crossed Narmadain 1705. Due this campaign the Malwa area went out of Mughal control once and for all. This is a significant event in India’s history as the Marathas could pursue their northward expansion.

Shahu ( 1707 – 1749 )

 Shahu the grandson of Shivaji and son of Sambhaji was under Mughal captivity since 1689. Soon after the death of Aurangzeb, his successor Bahadur Shah released Shahu. But his mother was still kept captive in order to ensure compliance. Though Sambhaji was tortured to death, Aurangzeb treated his family with great dignity, honour and consideration. Full attention was paid to their religious, caste and other needs. Soon after his release, Shahu went on to claim his due right. This created a civil war between Tarabai and Shahu.

The Maratha sardars also tried to extract the best out of it. They constantly switched loyalties and on occasions even colluded with the Mughals. The conflict between Shahu of Satara and Tarabai of Kolhapur paved the way for a new system of government under the able leadership of Balaji Vishwanath, the Peshwa of king Shahu. With this began a new era of Peshwas who were instrumental in the expansion of maratha empire in the length and breadth of the country.

 Maratha Empire expansion under the Peshwas

 The real impetus to the growth of the Maratha empire came under the leadership of the Peshwas.So what does Peshwa mean? Peshwa means prime minister or chief minister. It all began with Balaji Vishwanath from Bhat family who was a brahmin. In later years the office of Peshwa was made hereditary. Let us now discuss the line of Peshwas. 

Balaji Vishwanath

Maratha Empire
Balaji Vishvanath

 Peshwa Balaji Vishwanath, a Brahmin, started his career with the Marathas as a petty revenue official. By virtue of his political, military and diplomatic capabilities he rose to the office of Peshwa. He served Shahu loyally and helped him win over many of his enemies. He successfully managed to win over many Maratha sardars to Shahu’s side. Except Kolhapur where Rajaram’s descendants ruled, Balaji Vishwanath managed to consolidate Shahu’s hold over most of Maharashtra. At the same time he also consolidated his own hold over the budding empire eclipsing all other ministers. He along with his son Baji Rao I, made the Peshwa a functional head of the Maratha empire.

  Being well aware of the internal wranglings of the Mughal empire, he took full advantage of the situation and forced Zulfiqar Khan ( the noble who controlled Mughal emperor Jahander Shah ) to grant the Chauth and Sardeshmukhi of Deccan to the Marathas. Later, a pact was signed with the Sayyed brothers in which all the erstwhile territories under Shivaji’s control were restored to Shahu. In return Shahu recognized the Mughal suzerainty, placed 15000 cavalry to the emperor and agreed to pay Rs 10 Lakh tribute. This was mainly done to prevent plundering and rebellion in Deccan.

 As head of the Maratha force he colluded with the Sayyed brothers and helped them to overthrow Farooq Siyar from the throne. It was on this occasion that he and other Maratha Sardars got a first hand glimpse of the weakness of the Maratha empire. This gave a further impetus to the ambition of further expansion of the Maratha empire.

Why everyone liked him

 Peshwa Balaji Vishwanath also started a practice of assigning Chauth to the Maratha sardars in which they would keep a major share for their own expenses. This system was a hit among the Sardars and more and more of them flocked towards Balaji Vishwanath further consolidating his hold over the empire. But this system was to prove counter productive in the long run as it created regional Satraps in the Maratha empire. The sardars of the outlying areas often ruled as independent chiefs. What is more important is the fact that the Maratha expansion in all directions was done by these sardars and not by the command of any central authority. In this process they often fought with each other and if the central authority intervened, they had no hesitation in joining hands with the enemies be it Nizams, Mughals or even British. Balaji Vishwanath died in 1720.

Peshwa Baji Rao I

Maratha Empire
Baji Rao and Mastani

 After the death of Balaji Vishwanath Baji Rao I was appointed as the Peshwa by Chhatrapati Shahu Maharaj in 1720 at a young age of 20 years. Baji Rao I was a clever, brilliant and ambitious commander and statesman.Despite being a brahmin, he possessed all the qualities of a warrior. After Shivaji, he was a major exponent of guerilla warfare. During his 20 years rule till 1740, he made significant gains for the Maratha empire.

  • He won control over Malwa, Gujarat and parts of Bundelkhand,
  • Contained Nizam-ul-Mulk in the Deccan, 
  • Defeated Siddis of Janjira and 
  • Snatched Salsette and Bassein from the Portuguese

Though the Nizam often colluded with the Raja of Kolhapur to defeat the Peshwa, it was of no wain. 

 Baji Rao also known for his affair with Mastani a Muslim princess, died in 1740. But in a short span of 20 years, he changed the character of the Maratha state as a kingdom transformed into an empire expanding into the north. All said and done, he failed to create an empire. Though new territories were gained, little attention was given to their administration. The Maratha sardars were more interested in revenue collection rather than administration.

Balaji Baji Rao

Balaji Baji Rao

Baji Rao I was succeeded by his son Balaji Baji Rao also known as Nana Saheb at a young age of 18 years. Though not as energetic as his father but had all the abilities of a statesman. King Shahu died in 1749 and in his will he left the management of the empire in the hands of the Peshwa thus making him the de facto head of the empire. The office of Peshwa was already made hereditory. Now the Peshwa became the official head of the administration. The capital was now shifted to Poona. 

  Walking on the footsteps of his father, Balaji Baji Rao expanded the empire in all directions taking the Maratha empire to a pinnacle of glory. Some of his laurels can be seen as: 

  • Control over Malwa, Gujarat and Bundelkhand was consolidated.
  • Nawab of Bengal was forced to cede Orissa in 1751 due to repeated raids.
  • State of Mysore and some other minor principalities were forced to pay tribute.
  • In 1760, the Marathas defeated the Nizam of Hyderabad and compelled him to cede vast territories yielding a revenue of Rs 6.2 million. 
  • In north after subjugating the Rajputana and Ganga Yamuna doab, they reached Delhi where they installed a Imad-ul-Mulk as wazir who was to act as a puppet in their hands.
  • In Punjab, the Marathas expelled the agent of Ahmad Shah Abdali who later returned to India to fight a decisive battle with the Marathas at Panipat that changed the course of history in India.

 Due to a variety of reasons, the Marathas lost at the 3rd battle of Panipat on 14th January 1761. In this the commander of the Maratha forces, Sadashiv Rao Bhau and Peshwa’s son Vishwas Rao along with 28000 soldiers perished. The Peshwa who was marching north with reinforcements had reached Narmada when he heard of the tragic news of not only the loss at Panipat but also of his son and cousin. The Peshwa who was already seriously ill could not bear the stunning news and finally died in June 1761.

Madhav Rao

Madhav Rao

 Balaji Baji Rao was succeeded by his 2nd son Madhav Rao at a young age of 17 years in 1761. Just like his forefathers, he too was a talented soldier and a statesman. He restored the lost fortunes of the Maratha empire due to the war with Ahmad Shah Abdali in a short span of 11 years. Some of his laurels were: 

  • He reasserted control over north India by defeating the Rohellas who had helped Abdali.
  • Defeated the Nizam of Hyderabad.
  • Compelled Hyder Ali of Mysore state to pay a tribute.
  • Subjugated the Rajput and Jat Chiefs.
  • Emperor Shah Alam was brought back to Delhi in 1771 and made a pensioner of the Marathas.

 Thus it appeared that the Maratha hegemony was once again reinstated in North India. But as fate would suggest, a big blow fell on the Marathas as Madhav Rao died of consumption in 1772. With this event, the Maratha empire went into a state of confusion and there began a struggle for succession between Raghunath Rao, the younger brother of Balaji Baji Rao and Narayan Rao the younger brother of Madhav Rao.

Narayan Rao and the role of Nana Fadnavis

Nana Fadnavis

Narayan Rao became the Peshwa after the death of Madhav Rao. But he was killed by his palace guards in 1773 by a conspiracy. His widow Gangabai soon after gave birth to his son. Here comes the role of Nana Phadnavis who was the finance minister of the Peshwas.Nana Fadnavis did not possess any military skills but was intelligent, smart, and a visionary. He played a major role in holding the Maratha confederacy together in the midst of internal rivalries and the growing power of the British East India Company.

 He mobilized 12 Maratha chiefs (Barah Bhai) to nominate the infant son of Narayan Rao, named Sawai Madhav Rao as the Peshwa and all the chiefs and Nana himself would act as  regents. The crowning of an infant as Peshwa infuriated Raghunath Rao. He defected to the British camp and tried to capture power with their help failing to understand the repurcussions. This resulted in the 1st Anglo Maratha war in which the Marathas under the able leadership of Nana Fadnavis won. Treaty of Salbai was signed by Warren Hastings and Mahadji Scindhia to settle the outcome of the war.

 Nevertheless there was constant bickering at Poona between supporters of Sawai Madhav Rao and those of Raghunath Rao. This weakened the central authority and prestige. Meanwhile the big Maratha sardars had been carving out semi independent states.These states were confederacies. Some of these were: 

  • Sindhias of Gwalior
  • Holkar of Indore
  • Bhonsle of Nagpur
  • Gaekwad of Baroda
  • Newalkar of Jhansi

These houses owed little allegiance to the Peshwa and instead joined hands with the opposing factions at Poona. If this was not enough they even joined hands with the enemies of the Maratha empire. Sawai Madhav Rao died in 1795 at the age of 22 years.

Baji Rao II

Baji Rao II

Sawai Madhav Rao was succeeded by Baji Rao II who was the son of Raghunath Rao. He was the last Peshwa and the most worthless one. Initially he was installed as a puppet by Nana Fadnavis and Daulat Rao Scindhia. But after the death of Nana Fadnavis in 1800, Scindhia got full control of Poona. Meanwhile Holkar of Indore had designs on Poona for which he offered support to Baji Rao II, for which he was suspicious. Instead Baji Rao II asked for support to Sindhia who immediately despatched an army to Poona. The result was the battle of Hadpsar in which Holkar defeated the joint forces of Sindhia and Peshwa. Baji Rao II fled to Vasai and sought British help and in 1802 signed the Treaty of Bassein with the British. 

Second Anglo Maratha War 1803 – 1805

  The terms of the treaty were that 6000 troops under British command would be stationed in Poona at the expense of Peshwa. Also a British Resident officer would be permanently stationed in the Peshwa court. In return the British would reinstate Baji Rao II at Poona. This move of British intrusion in Maratha affairs was resented by Scindhia and Holkar resulting in the 2nd Anglo Maratha War 1803 – 1805. In this war the Marathas lost and were forced to accept British terms.

 Third Anglo Maratha war

 In 1817 Baji Rao II was forced to sign a Treaty of Poona in which he had to forgo huge swaths of land of Gaekwad of Baroda to the British. In fact this treaty finally ended the Maratha confederacy once and for all. Infuriated by this Baji Rao II attacked the British resident in Poona.With this started the 3rd Anglo Maratha war. After this war the once glorious Maratha empire formally ended.

  Due to treachery and other reasons, Baji Rao II lost the war to the British. He ran from one fort to another with the hope that Sindhia, Holkar or Gaekwad would come to his rescue, but that never happened. As a result he surrendered to the British. The British surprisingly agreed to keep Baji Rao a lifelong prince retaining his personal fortune and also also pay him a pension of 100000 pounds annually. In return Baji Rao II will forgo his claim over Poona and live at a place of British choice. He would also be stripped off the title of Peshwa. But the British had no problems for Baji Rao II calling himself Maharaja. 

 The British chose a place called Bithur near Kanpur as it had a heavy British contingent near it. Baji Rao shifted there with around 15000 people along with his family in a 6 square mile area where he lived for the rest of his life. Baji Rao II died in 1851. With his death it was curtains for the Peshwa era.

  Why the Marathas could not establish a pan Indian Empire?

  1. Marathas did not rise to claim the heritage of the great for they were strong enough to destroy the empire but not strong enough to unite it or create anything new in its place.
  2. They could not create a strong social order that would stand against the British.
  3. They represented the same moribund social system and a decadent social order as headed by the Mughals and suffered from the same weaknesses which had destroyed the Mughal empire.
  4. The Maratha sardars were very much similar to the later Mughal nobles busy satisfying their own selfish desires rather than unifying the country.
  5. They grabbed the first opportunity to assert autonomy.
  6. Maratha sardars were less disciplined than the Mughal nobles.
  7. They could not give a sound administration to the newly controlled areas like the Mughals.
  8. Their interest in encouraging science and technology and developing trade and industry was almost negligible.
  9. Like Mughals, Maratha rulers were mainly interested in raising the revenue from the helpless peasantry.
  10. Could not establish a modern state to fight the British.

See Also

Decline of Mughal Empire – Complete Analysis

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