Founder: Shivaji Bhonsle
Period of Rule: 1674 – 1818
Capitals: Raigad Fort, Gingee, Satara, Pune
Government: Absolute monarchy
Languages: Marathi and Sanskrit
Preceded by: Adil Shahi dynasty
Succeeded by: British East India Company
The Maratha Empire, also known as the Maratha Confederacy, dominated a large portion of India during the 17th and 18th century. The Maratha Empire formally began with the rise of Chhatrapati Shivaji in 1674. The Maratha Empire brought an end to the chaos that prevailed in the Deccan Plateau, as a result of the expansion and advent of the Mughal Empire into south India. Hence, Maratha Empire is largely credited with ending the Mughal rule in India and is often seen as a true Indian power, as it dominated the Indian subcontinent during 17th and 18th centuries. At its peak, the Maratha Empire extended from Peshawar in the north to Thanjavur in the south. The Marathas, who started as a warrior group emerging from the Deccan Plateau, went on to control most parts of the Indian subcontinent before their decadence in the early 19th century.
For many years, the western Deccan Plateau served as the home for a group of Marathi warriors, which flourished under a prominent warrior named Shivaji Bhonsle. The Marathas, as they called themselves, were led by Shivaji in a protest against the rule of the Sultanate of Bijapur in 1645. Subsequently, Shivaji coined the term ‘Hindavi Swarajya,’ which called for self-rule among the Hindus. The Marathas were also determined to drive the Mughal rulers out of India as they wanted their country to be ruled by the Hindus. Also, Shivaji’s conflicts with the Mughals, which started from the year 1657, served as one of the primary reasons for the hatred towards the Mughals. Meanwhile, Shivaji had accumulated large areas of land through his campaigns. He had also gathered an armed force to tackle issues with various other rulers, including the Mughals. However, he lacked an official title to rule over the new land of the Marathas. Hence, with an aim of establishing and expanding a Hindu state in the subcontinent, Shivaji was declared the ruler of the Maratha kingdom on June 6, 1674.
The coronation of Shivaji took place in such a manner that it sent out a message to all the non-Hindu rulers. The message was loud and clear – it is time for the Hindus to take control over their motherland. By hosting a grand coronation, which included the act of feeding over 50,000 guests, Shivaji announced himself on the big stage, which sent a direct warning signal to the Mughals. Also, the title ‘Chhatrapati’ was bestowed upon Shivaji, which proclaimed him to be the king of the new Maratha kingdom. At the time of his coronation, Shivaji had 4.1 percent of the subcontinent to rule and hence focused on expanding his territory right from the outset. Making Raigad as the capital, Shivaji acted almost immediately after his coronation by raiding Khandesh on October 1674. He then went on a spree by capturing the nearby territories like Ponda, Karwar, Kolhapur, and Athani within a span of two years. In 1677, Shivaji entered into a treaty with the ruler of the Golkonda sultanate, who agreed to Shivaji’s terms to oppose the Mughals unitedly. In the same year, Shivaji invaded Karnataka and marched further southwards to seize the forts of Gingee and Vellore.
After Shivaji’s demise, the Maratha Empire continued to flourish under his son Sambhaji. Despite constant threat from the Mughal Emperor Aurangzeb, the Sambhaji-led Maratha forces never lost a battle to the forces led by Aurangzeb for eight consecutive years. However, in 1689 Sambhaji was captured and executed by the Mughals on various charges, including rape and murder. The Maratha Empire was then ruled by various rulers like Sambhaji’s half-brother Rajaram, Rajaram’s widow Tarabai, and then by Sambhaji’s son Shahu. Under Shahu’s rule, Balaji Vishwanath was appointed as the Prime Minister (Peshwa) of the Maratha Empire in 1713. This would later go down in history as one of the prominent events as the empire would later be ruled by the Peshwa clan. Shahu’s rule also saw the expansion of the empire in the east, thanks to his skilled and brave general, Raghoji Bhosale. As days passed by, Shahu became more of a puppet at the hands of his Prime Minister Peshwa Balaji Vishwanath, who took major decisions for the betterment of the empire.
Dawn of the Peshwa
In 1714, Balaji Vishwanath came up with a brilliant strategy of entering into a treaty (Treaty of Lonavala) with Kanhoji Angre, which gave the Marathas access to navy. The army of the Marathas kept growing, which gave them the confidence to march towards Delhi in 1719, where they managed to defeat the Mughal governor Sayyid Hussain Ali, before deposing the then Mughal emperor. From this moment onwards, the already weakened Mughal Empire started fearing the Marathas. In 1720, Baji Rao I was appointed as the new Peshwa of the empire, after his father Balaji Vishwanath’s demise in April. Baji Rao went on to become a prominent Peshwa of the Maratha Empire as he was responsible for the empire’s great expansion from 1720 to 1740. Baji Rao I is said to have led the Maratha forces in more than 40 battles, winning most of them, including the ‘Battle of Palkhed’ (1728), ‘Battle of Delhi’ (1737), and ‘Battle of Bhopal’ (1737).
After Baji Rao’s demise in April 1740, Shahu appointed Baji Rao’s 19 year old son Balaji Baji Rao as the new Peshwa. During Balaji Baji Rao’s reign, the Maratha Empire extended further, before reaching its peak. Another important reason for the empire’s impressive expansion is Raghoji I Bhonsale, a Maratha general who controlled the Nagpur Kingdom of the empire. Raghoji then initiated a series of six expeditions into Bengal, during which he was able to annex Odisha into the Maratha Empire. In 1751, the then Nawab of Bengal, Alivardi Khan agreed to cough up 1.2 million rupees as an annual tax, which increased the already flourishing wealth of the Maratha Empire. Marathas’ North Indian conquest looked impressive than ever after their decisive victory over the Afghan troops. After capturing Peshawar on May 8, 1758, the Marathas were now prominent figures in the north as well. By 1760, the Maratha Empire had reached its peak with a territory of more than 2.5 million square km acres.
Third Battle of Panipat
The expansion of Maratha power in the northern territory of the Indian subcontinent caused a great concern in the court of Ahmad Shah Durrani. In an attempt to drive the Marathas out of North India, Durrani joined forces with Nawab of Oudh and the Rohillas, before challenging the Marathas for a battle. The ensuing battle that took place on January 14, 1761 would later be called as the ‘Third Battle of Panipat.’ Before the battle, the Marathas had sought the help of the Rajputs and Jats in order to combat the joint forces of Durrani, Rohillas, and the Nawab of Oudh. However, the Marathas were deserted by Rajputs and the Jats just before the battle, which ensured Marathas’ defeat at the battle. The Marathas were later criticized for failing to treat their fellow Hindus equally when they were in power. While explaining their motive behind turning their back on the Marathas, Rajputs and the Jats cited Marathas’ arrogance and haughtiness as reasons for abandoning them at the cusp of an important battle.
Resurrection of the Maratha Power
After the battle of Panipat, Madhav Rao I, the fourth Peshwa of the empire, began to resurrect the Maratha Empire. In order to manage the empire more effectively, he gave semi-autonomy to selected knights, who took charge of various semi-autonomous Maratha states. Hence, leaders of various groups like the Peshwas, Holkars, Gaekwads, Scindias, Bhonsales, and Puars started ruling different Maratha states. After the battle of Panipat, the Rajputs were defeated by the forces led by Malhar Rao Holkar, which restored Maratha rule in Rajasthan. Another prominent leader who was largely responsible in restoring the Maratha power was Mahadji Shinde. After defeating the Rohillas and the Jats, Shinde’s forces recaptured Delhi and Haryana, which brought the Marathas back into the picture in the north. Meanwhile, Tukojirao Holkar defeated a prominent South Indian ruler known as Tipu Sultan in the ‘Battle of Gajendragad,’ which extended the territory of the Marathas till Tungabhadra River in the south.
Fall of Maratha Empire
After defeating the Nawab of Bengal, the British East India Company had assumed power in the east and was now eyeing the northern territory of India, which was being largely controlled by the Marathas. At the ‘Battle of Delhi’ in 1803, the Marathas were defeated by the English forces, which were led by General Lake. During the ‘Second Anglo-Maratha War,’ which took place from 1803 to 1805, the British forces led by Arthur Wellesley defeated the Marathas, which gave rise to a number of treaties in favor of the British. Finally, during the ‘Third Anglo-Maratha War,’ Peshwa Baji Rao II was defeated by the British, which marked the end of the Maratha rule.
An administrative system known as ‘Ashtapradhan’ was formed by Shivaji during his reign. This administrative system, which consisted of a council of eight ministers, formed the base of the Maratha administration. The eight ministers were ‘Peshwa’ (Prime Minister), ‘Amatya’ (Finance Minister), ‘Sachiv’ (Secretary), ‘Mantri’ (Interior Minister), ‘Senapati’ (Commander-in-Chief), ‘Sumant’ (Foreign Minister), ‘Nyayadhyaksh’ (Chief Justice), and ‘Panditrao’ (High Priest). Shivaji had maintained a secular administration, which allowed the practice of any religion, as per the choice of an individual. To improve the revenue of the empire, Shivaji abolished the ‘Jagirdari System’ and introduced the ‘Ryotwari System.’ He also imposed heavy tax on non-Maratha territories and threatened non-Maratha rulers with dire consequences, should they fail to cough up the taxes imposed on them by the Marathas.
As far as the military administration was concerned, Shivaji paid special interest in building a strong navy as he had realized its importance as early as 1654. When it came to the land-based armed forces of the Marathas, the standards of the infantry and artillery were comparable to that of the standards of the European forces. The Marathas used weapons like cannons, muskets, matchlocks, daggers, and spears among other weapons. They were also intelligent in the way they used their weapons. Keeping in mind the hilly nature of their territory, the Marathas chose light cavalry over heavy cavalry, which proved advantageous during their battles against the Mughals.
Notable Rulers & Generals
Shivaji – Apart from founding the empire, Shivaji was also responsible in turning the Maratha power into a prominent force. The great warrior king is revered even today by a huge sect of people in India.
Sambhaji – After the demise of Shivaji, his eldest son Sambhaji ascended the throne and continued the expansion of his territory. However, Sambhaji came across as a cruel ruler as compared to his father.
Shahu – Under Shahu’s reign, the Maratha Empire saw a great expansion. He was also responsible for introducing the rule of the Peshwas within the Maratha Empire.
Tarabai Bhosale – Tarabai served as the regent of the empire from 1700 to 1708. She is largely credited for keeping the Mughals at bay after the demise of her husband, Chhatrapati Rajaram Bhosale.
Peshwa Balaji Vishwanath – Balaji Vishwanath was the sixth Prime Minister, who gained control of the empire during 18th century. During his reign as the Prime Minister, the Maratha Empire was expanded northwards.
Baji Rao – Baji Rao continued to expand the Maratha Empire. He was one of the reasons why Maratha Empire reached its pinnacle during his son’s reign. In his illustrious military career, which spanned across a couple of decades, Baji Rao remained undefeated in the battles.
Balaji Baji Rao – Also called as Nana Saheb, Balaji Baji Rao was one of the most important Prime Ministers of the empire as the actual king was nothing more than a mere figurehead during his tenure.
Madhav Rao I – Madhav Rao I was the fourth Peshwa of the empire. He became a Maratha Peshwa at a critical time, when the Marathas had lost the ‘Third Battle of Panipat.’ Hence, Madhav Rao I was largely responsible for rebuilding the empire, before it was finally annihilated by the British.