Indian History Part 84 Aurangzeb Section IV: Emergence of the Marathas

Canberra, 6 February 2021

Geography and nature had never intended the Deccan Plateau to be an integral part of the greater Indian sub-continent. The Vindhya and Satpura Mountain Ranges and the River Narmada form a triple barricade that divides the high tableland of Central India from the Gangetic Plains. These formidable geographical barriers should have provided ample warning even to ambitious kings of northern India to keep to their own territory without hazarding an invasion of the Peninsula. However, the Deccan was fertile and more importantly, there were also gold and diamond mines in the region, making all great kings of North India turn covetous eyes on the plateau. However, the fact remained that to invade the Deccan remained a risky proposition. (The history of medieval Deccan and the dynasties that ruled the region has been covered in detail in From Indus to Independence: A Trek through Indian History Volume VI: Medieval Deccan Kingdoms.)

The Deccan Plateau and the Mughals

Akbar was the first Mughal to consider invading the Deccan. However, he was a pragmatic and long-sighted monarch and far too wise to meddle seriously in Deccan politics. An analysis of Akbar’s actions in the Deccan reveal that he was ensuring that a reverse invasion from the south to the north did not take place i.e., the Deccan kingdoms did not nibble at the southern provinces of the Mughal Empire. To avoid any incursions into core Mughal territory, Akbar annexed Khandesh to create a buffer state of relatively low value and importance and setting up a chain of frontier outposts to safeguard his southern borders. Akbar’s forward policy kept the major Shahi kingdoms of Ahmadnagar, Golconda and Bijapur under check. These Shahi kingdoms were to a certain extent overawed by the power and status of the Mughal emperor and they sent embassies to the Mughal court to maintain the peace.

Akbar was sagacious enough to carefully limit the scope of his Deccan adventure and to keep Mughal encroachment to the bare minimum necessary to ensure the sanctity of the southern Mughal border. However, he did not clearly espouse this strategy of limited forward presence. The result was that his successors felt compelled to continue his invasion of the Deccan and the Peninsula. Unknowingly he set in motion an aggressive invasion of the Deccan and the Deep South by his successors, which finally led to disastrous consequences for the dynasty.

The incipient invasion of Akbar was taken up by Jahangir, who instructed the government of the subah, province, of the Deccan to expand its borders south. This would obviously have to be done at the expense of the territorial integrity of the Nizam, Qutb and Adil Shahi kingdoms, who, between them, were then ruling the entire Deccan Plateau and some of the plains of the south and east of the Peninsula. Even though no tangible progress was made nor were any advantages accrued from Jahangir’s instructions, the Mughal efforts at expansion forever disturbed the somewhat tranquil atmosphere that had prevailed in the Deccan after the turmoil of the collapse of the Bahmani kingdom had settled.

Shah Jahan renewed the contest in full—he extinguished the Nizam Shahi kingdom and dynasty and forced both Bijapur and Golconda to pay tribute, albeit irregularly. These victories were achieved by Aurangzeb, acting on behalf of his father as the viceroy of Deccan, in two distinctly separate stints. (These campaigns have been described in detail earlier.) Noticeably, Aurangzeb also brought a religious angle to the Deccan campaigns. Since the Deccan Shahi kings were of the Shia persuasion and acknowledged the Shah of Persia as their overlord, even though nominally, Aurangzeb turned the campaigns against them into veritable jihads, holy wars.

Even after he became the emperor, Aurangzeb never lost sight of his ambition to conquer and ‘convert’ the Deccan to the one true belief that he professed, that of orthodox Sunni Islam. During his second tenure as the viceroy, Aurangzeb had subjugated Golconda and was only thwarted from conquering Bijapur by the recall of imperial forces from the Deccan by the emperor, obviously on Dara’s recommendation. This was the prelude to the war of succession that had devastated the royal family. It took Aurangzeb about a decade to settle the kingdom after he had come to power, and another to contain the Hindu rebellion in North India, which was the backlash to his bigoted religious policies. In these two decades, the Deccan had not been standing still, developments that would have far-reaching consequences to the history of the sub-continent were taking place in the Peninsula. A new power had risen in South India, a power that had exceedingly small and obscure beginnings—but one that would spread in the future to dominate the political scene in the Deccan and later, the entire sub-continent. The Marathas had arrived on the scene.

The Marathas

 An Introductory Brief

The Marathas were Hindu people inhabiting the country between the Indian Ocean and the River Warda, the northern boundary of their region being the Satpura Mountain Ranges and expanding south as far as Goa. The Western Ghats and the Konkan coast—the narrow strip of land between the Arabian Sea and the Western Ghats to the south of the Peninsula—were safe retreats for the Marathas. They made their strongholds in the inaccessible terrain of the Western Ghats, which climb precipitously to the Deccan Plateau that in turn stretch across the Peninsula to the Bay of Bengal.

The ‘Maratha land’ varies in topography and climate, which obviously affect its fertility. The land starts with the verdant and fertile coastal strip to the west, to the rain-drenched tropical forests of the Ghats and to rocky highlands eastwards from the Ghats. The major crops in the Maratha country were hardy millets such as maize, jawar, bajra and ragi. There were no main roads in this region, only stony footpaths, some of them so steep that horse could not be ridden up the trail but had to be carefully led up the path. The terrain was the greatest ally of the Marathas. In consonance with the terrain, the people were equally rugged, wiry, tough and with great endurance.

‘Eraly writes, “The inhabitants are proud, spirited and warlike, grateful favours and revengeful of wrongs, self-sacrificing towards suppliants in distress and sanguinary to death to any who treated them insultingly”—so wrote the seventh-century Chines traveller Hsuan Tsang about the people of the Maratha country.’

—Abraham Early,

Emperors of the Peacock Throne, p. 435.

The ‘Marathas’ are famed in Indian history as yeomen warriors and staunch champions of Hinduism. Conventionally the term ‘Maratha’ is used to denote three, often overlapping, groups of people: within the Marathi-speaking region, it refers to the single dominant group consisting of Marathas and Kunbis, the descendants of settlers who migrated from the north into the region around 1st century A.D.; outside the region of Maharashtra, the term is used to loosely denote the entire Marathi-speaking population (today numbering around 80 million); and historically it denotes the people who, led by their first king Shivaji, founded the Maratha kingdom in the 17th century, a kingdom later territorially expanded by Shivaji’s successors. The Marathas are largely rural peasant cultivators, landowners and soldiers. Some Maratha and Kunbi clans have claimed to be Kshatriyas, the warrior and ruling class in traditional India, supporting their claims through reference to clan names and genealogies that link them to Rajput clans to the north. The Marathas are divided into three sub-regional groupings of the coast, western hills and the Deccan plains. Each subregion is further classed in social circles of decreasing status. A maximum of 96 circles is said to include all ‘true’ Marathas, although the names of these 96 circles are almost always varied and disputed.     

The Marathas never made any significant impact on the politico-military environment or the socio-economic scene in the Peninsula before the reign of Aurangzeb. They were predominantly peasants and their early history is obscure. The Marathas were the epitome of the ‘sons of the soil’, their character and history moulded over centuries by the ruggedness of their homeland. Although of peasant stock, when they achieved some amount of political importance in the Deccan in the early 17th century, the Marathas gradually claimed warrior status—perhaps a true enough claim since by then they had proven themselves, as a people, to be brave and resourceful warriors. During this re-establishment of their identity, the Bhonsles (Shivaji’s clan) claimed descent for the Sisodia’s of Mewar.

The fact remains that the ‘Maratha’ was not even a distinct and acknowledged caste within the prevalent hierarchy of the time. They were only a status group comprising of individual families, and belonging to different Maharashtrian castes, who set themselves apart from the community because of the military-political role that they had assumed. However, the people of the region had a military tradition, which can be traced back to early medieval times. The people of the region that is modern Maharashtra were part of the army of Pulakesin II that fought against Harsha Vardhana in the 7th century. Their participation in subsequent wars and battles have been recorded over a period of time, although the references are obscure and of limited significance. It is obvious that a sufficiently significant part of the population continued to be soldiers at the lower end of imperial military forces.

From these traditions, it was only a small step for these hardy people to become professional soldiers. By the time of the Islamic invasion of the Deccan in the early 13th century, the Marathas were recognised mercenary soldiers, fighting for money and plunder. The Maratha psyche was ideally suited for the mercenary role—they fought for whoever employed them, with professional disregard for considerations of race, religion, caste, clan or family. Influenced by the lands that they occupied, the Marathas became adept at guerrilla warfare, becoming experts at carrying out raids, ambushes and night attacks. They gradually established a reputation for ‘devilish cunning’.

‘Comparing the Marathas with the Rajputs, Elphinstone [Mountstuart Elphinstone (1779–1859), Governor of Bombay in British India and author of History of India] writes , “A Rajput warrior, as long as he does not dishonour his race, seems almost indifferent to the result of any contest he is engaged in. A Maratha thinks of nothing but the result, and cares little for the means, if he can attain his object.” For the Rajput, war was an end in itself, for the Maratha it was only a means. Rajputs played the game, Marathas played to win.’

—Abraham Early,

Emperors of the Peacock Throne, p. 435

By mid-14th century, the Marathas had stared to play a significant role in the mainstream political developments of the Deccan. Their political rise was the result of a combination of some fortuitous circumstances. The Muslims of the Deccan, like their counterparts in North India, were predominantly urban people and averse to serving in the outlying rural areas of the kingdom. The Bahmani sultans therefore found it expeditious to appoint minor Maratha chieftains as commanders of hill forts in remote parts of the kingdom. At the turn of the 14th century, the Bahmani kingdom was affected by a decade-long famine, that depopulated mainly the outlying provinces. The Maratha chiefs seized the opportunity to capture a number of forts and establish semi-autonomous rule in the distant provinces of the Bahmani kingdom. The Bahmani rule was already beset with internal dissentions and challenges and the famine spurred the impending breakup, which finally culminated in the splintering of the kingdom into the successor, Deccan Shahi kingdoms.  

For mercenaries, this was an age of golden opportunities with a large number of conflicts to be engaged in. The Maratha peasantry found soldiering to be more lucrative than farming and very shortly the Marathas were established as a class of trusted soldiers. Two families in particular—the Jadhavas and the Bhonsles, maternal and paternal families of Shivaji—became rich and famous through the spoils of war. The Maratha political ascendancy had started.

The Bhonsle Path to Power

Originally for many generations, the Bhonsles were headmen of few villages near Pune. Around the 16th century, they moved north to Verul (or Elur) near Daulatabad. Maloji Bhonsle, Shivaji’s grandfather, was the first person of note in the clan to be mentioned by name in few contemporary chronicles. Maloji came to possess ‘considerable’ treasure, which he claimed was buried treasure that had been disclosed to him by the family deity, Bhavani. More realistically, the ‘treasure’ would have been obtained through plunder.

Maloji invested the treasure shrewdly: he first equipped a small but potent army of his own; he purchased a title from the Nizam Shahi king of Ahmadnagar, becoming Maloji Raja Bhonsle, and got himself appointed to the high rank of commander of 5000 horse; and he got his son Shahji married to Jija Bai, the daughter of Lukhaji Jadavarao, the most distinguished Maratha of the time.

Maloji Raja Bhonsle earned a reputation as an army commander and diplomat in the Ahmadnagar administration headed by Malik Amber. Maloji died in 1620, by which time the Bhonsles were on their way to power, status and permanent historic relevance.   

Shahji Makes His Move – Political Rise

The volatile political situation of the late-16th and early-17th centuries in the Deccan was conducive to the rise of forceful players in the politico-military field. The Nizam Shahis of Ahmadnagar had already started to crumble under continuous Mughal onslaught. Many Maratha chieftains, including Lukhaji Jadavarao and Shahji Bhonsle, joined hands with Malik Amber to counter the Mughals and hold the kingdom together. Shahji was obviously a minor chieftain at this time, a commander of 2000 horse. He was not very rich and is not mentioned by name in either Mughal or Deccan chronicles, although several other Maratha chiefs have been mentioned many times in both the narratives.

Shahji came into the reckoning when Malik Amber died and the Nizam Shahi kingdom lapsed into veritable turmoil. Shahji, and the Jadava clan defected to the Mughals for a few years, where Shahji was given the high rank of commander of 5000 horse by the Mughal commander. However, he soon left Mughal service and returned to Ahmadnagar where he captured extensive territory around Nasik and Junnar. In 1633, he set up the 10-year-old Murtaza as the Nizam Shahi ruler with himself as the regent, becoming the de facto monarch of Ahmadnagar. Shahji was supported in this endeavour by the Adil Shah of Bijapur, who was keen to have a buffer state between his kingdom and the encroaching Mughals. Shahji ruled for three years with great pomp and ceremony. When Bijapur submitted to Shah Jahan in 1636, Shahji meekly handed over Murtaza to the Mughals and joined Bijapur service, being assigned the region of Karnataka. With Bijapur accepting Mughal suzerainty, the first phase of the Mughal Deccan Campaign could be considered to have ended. 

After the accord of 1636 was signed, Bijapur and Golconda remained at peace with the Mughals for two decades. Bijapur and Golconda used this period to carryout a leisurely conquest and annexation of the remnants of the erstwhile Vijayanagara Empire, which had been defeated and dismembered in the Battle of Talikota in 1565. (For a detailed narrative of this battle, as well as the rise, decline and fall of the great Vijayanagara Empire, see From Indus to Independence: A Trek through Indian History Volume VII: Named for Victory–The Vijayanagara Empire) These ‘Southern Wars’ of the Deccan Shahi kingdoms were fought against a Hindu ruler by two Muslim rulers. However, they were not Hindu-Muslim wars, but wars fought for territory and power; religion was not a deciding factor as a cause or for the conduct of the wars. Many Muslim officers and soldiers fought in the army of Vijayanagara with distinction and many Hindu commanders and soldiers served loyally in the Shahi armies of Bijapur and Golconda.

The most prominent Hindu officer in the Bijapur army was Shahji, who continued in Shahi service till his death in 1664. Shahji was a valued officer, who was personally in close contact with the Adil Shah throughout his service. In 1640, Shahji was made the administrator of Bangalore province. However, for some unclear reason he fell from grace in 1648, was arrested, and confined in Bijapur for ten months. The reason could have been a question of loyalty and a conflict of interest, since his teenage son Shivaji had started his rebellion against Bijapur. Adil Shah laid the conditions for Shahji’s release—Shivaji was to surrender the fort at Sinhgarh to Adil Shah and likewise, Shahji’s other sons would surrender their holdings in the Karnataka region. On the sons fulfilling these conditions, Shahji was released and reinstated to his previous position of power.

Shivaji soon reneged on his promise, started to harass the outlying provinces of Bijapur, and broke away completely from his father. Shahji was worried that his son’s actions would once again jeopardise and compromise his position of royal favour. However, the Adil Shah reassured him through a letter dated 26 May 1658, and Shahji continued to be favourably treated till his death six years later in 1664.

Around 1661, the Adil Shah send Shahji to arrange a settlement with Shivaji, since his plundering raids were becoming unbearably intense. Father and son had not met for over 20 years. However, Shivaji received his father punctiliously, with respect and even a bit emotionally. All bitterness between them was forgotten and before Shahji returned to Bijapur, Shivaji promised his father that he would be loyal to the Adil Shah. Shivaji kept his word and did not initiate any action against Bijapur till his father’s death.

Long before Shahji’s death and even before his reconciliation with his son, the Maratha focus had shifted from the Karnataka to Maharashtra and from Shahji, a commander well past his prime, to Shivaji, the rising power.

© [Sanu Kainikara] [2021]
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About Sanu Kainikara

Sainik School Kazhakuttam (Kerala), National Defence Academy 39/A, 108 Pilot's Course IAF, fighter pilot, QFI, FCL, psc, HACC, Voluntary Retirement as Wing Commander. Canberra-based Defence Analyst specialising in air power and national security. PhD in International Politics from University of Adelaide Executive Masters in Public Adminsitration (ANZSOG) Adjunct Professor, University of New South Wales, Distinguished Fellow Institute For Regional Security (IFRS) Distinguished Fellow Centre for Air Power Studies (CAPS)

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