Indian History The Marathas Part 1 Origins – The Fundamentals

Canberra, 16 May 2021

The Southern Peninsula of the Indian sub-continent, lying to the south of the Rivers Narmada and Mahanadi can be divided into five principal parts—Dravid, Carnatic, Telangana, Gondwana and Maharashtra. The territorial extent of each of these parts is normally defined based on the spread of the language that is spoken in each of them. The Dravid country where Tamil is spoken extends from Kanyakumari to the north of Chennai. Carnatic, where the language is Kannada, is the table land between Malabar and the Coromandal Coast, lying between the Western and Eastern Ghats, extending at an angle between Telangana and Maharashtra all the way north to the River Manjeera. Telangana, with Telugu as the language extends from south of Pulicat to the northern extremity of Dravid, extending all the way north-east to Sicacole in Orissa. Gondwana, the home of Oriya and few tribal languages, encompasses the territory between Telangana and River Mahanadi. Maharashtra, where Marathi is the spoken language, forms the western boundary of Gondwana, is bounded on the north by the Satpura ranges and extends from Nandod in the west along the ranges to the east of Nagpur, all the way to the River Penganga; further the boundary goes along this river’s east bank towards Manikdurg, then west to Mahoor and thereafter a line that joins to Goa, while on the west the entire region is bounded by the Arabian Sea.           

Few Basic Observations

The core of Maratha country stretches north to south with the Western Ghats as the spine, spreading eastwards from the Arabian seacoast into the flowing tentacles of the Satmala and Ajanta hills. In the north, the Maratha homeland is protected by the Vindhya and the Satpura ranges, which remained impregnable to the hordes from the north, for centuries. With the Arabian Sea in the west, the Maratha territory opens into the Deccan Plateau in the east and into the Carnatic region in the south. The mountainous terrain creates innumerable rivulets and is also home to the headwaters of the Rivers Penganga, Godavari and Bhima. Maharashtra in plain translation means a great ‘Rashtra’ or nation. The nation that is referred to was formed in ancient times by a race of men, called Ratthas who styled themselves as the great Ratthas, or Maharatthas. The land they occupied came to be called Maharashtra. 

Although predominantly rugged hill country, the terrain of Maharashtra also varies—starting from the alluvial coastal strip in the west, followed towards the east by the rain-drenched, verdant tropical forests of the Ghats and then the scraggly highlands further east. The monsoon in this region is relentless and full of fury, turning the rocky highlands into impassable and forbidding structures. Further east lies the core of the Maratha country, in the rain shadow region of the Western Ghats, which is mainly dry. No rice or wheat grow here, the staple crops are hardy millets—jawar, ragi, bajra and maize. In medieval times there were no roads in Maratha country, only footpaths. Some of the mountain paths were so steep that even horses had to be led down, and that too with great difficulty. From a purely military point of view, there was no better country to defend.

This rugged land produced a particular breed of people, the Marathas—wiry with great endurance, and like several other mountain people, restless and turbulent; and more importantly, fiercely independent. The Marathas were sons of the soil, their character indelibly moulded over centuries by their mountainous and rugged homeland. Racially and ethnically, they were mixed, having accepted nomadic tribes into their fold in antiquity whenever these tribes moved into the region, creating a continuously changing racial and ethnic mix. Even as the ethnic mix evolved, their character remained the same, moulded by the land, the climate, and the overarching need to survive in a hostile geographic environment.

Early History as a People

The early history of the Marathas is obscure. What is certain is that they were predominantly farmers and peasants, who after gaining some amount of political and military power, claimed to be Kshatriyas, the warrior-class in India. Some clans even claimed descent from the Rajputs of Mewar and other princely states in Rajputana. In reality, the Marathas were not even a distinct caste. The term ‘Maratha’ in early years encompassed all people who spoke the Marathi language. It was only around the 13th-14th century that the term started to have a specialised meaning and gradually began to refer particularly to the warrior chiefs and their followers who were in the military service of the Bahmani Sultanate and subsequently the successor Shahi kingdoms. 

The ‘Marathas’, therefore, was essentially a status group, consisting of a mix of different Maharashtrian castes, who set themselves apart from the rest of the broader community after they were bestowed relatively greater military and political power by the ruling dynasty. In the case of the Marathas, the rulers invariably belonged to Muslim dynasties. Essentially, they stood apart by emphasising their martial traditions. They also started to adopt distinctive dresses and created pedigrees appropriate to their new and important roles and higher status, which also entailed increasingly greater political involvement in the kingdom. These warriors evolved into an elite group, mainly through the increase in income brought about by the rights to land revenues granted to them by the sultans in return for their military service. Often, they were appointed chiefs of between 20 and 100 villages, with additional responsibility to provide a set number of troops when called for by the sultan. These chiefs were designated ‘Deshmukhs’. Even though historically their origins were obscure and they were racially and ethnically definitely mixed, the military chiefs started to adopt distinguishing social conventions, gradually setting themselves apart as a separate social stratum within the Marathas.

The Maratha Soldier

There is evidence that the Marathas were valued as soldiers from early medieval times. There is evidence that they formed part of the army of Pulakesin II that stopped the invasion of Harsha Vardhana of Kanauj in the 7th century. The Maratha Deshmukh and the common people shared a close relationship. For the Deccan sultans, the central control of the Maratha core territory depended completely on their ability to control the Deshmukhs. In the early days, the Maratha troops were parttime fighters drawn from the peasantry after the end of the monsoon period, after they had discharged their agricultural responsibilities. The soldiers were equipped by the chief, the Deshmukh, either as infantry or light cavalry. The cavalry rode small local horses and were lightly armoured, carrying lances and some also being armed with the straight sword. This composition is in sharp contrast to the Rajputs, and later the Mughals, who were habitually heavy cavalry, well armoured horsemen riding larger imported horses.

The Maratha fighting tactics were influenced by the terrain of their homeland and they rapidly became specialist in guerrilla warfare. They rapidly became celebrated experts in the art of employing hit and run tactics, carrying out raids, mounting night attacks, and in laying ambushes. The differences in equipment and the preferred tactics, emphasised the sociological gap between the Maratha warrior groups and the Muslim forces that they were fighting alongside and against. The Maratha fighting forces were fully derived from the rural population and reflected this in their approach to life and warfare. Their strong peasant ties were always visible. The Muslim forces on the other hand was officered by men who were an entrenched part of a long-established elite culture, oriented towards, and centred on the urban royal court of the sultan. Even when the Marathas subsequently became a formal part of the sultan’s administrative mechanism and were forced to attend the court, the Muslim officers looked on them with disdain as unrefined upstarts from the country. Similarly, the Maratha chiefs never became fully assimilated into the court culture of the Bahmani and later the Shahi sultanates; they always remained ‘outsiders’.

Over the years, the Marathas acquired a reputation for being cunning, calculating and efficient warriors. In the recorded opinion of neutral observers of the time, the Rajput warrior—considered the epitome of chivalrous bravery—was only focused on ensuring that his conduct on the battlefield did not bring dishonour to himself or disgrace to his clan; he did not care about the outcome of the battle or the war that he was fighting. The Maratha warrior, son of the soil, cared very little for the method he used to fight, he was fully focused on achieving his objective, irrespective of whether the conflict was a minor engagement or a major campaign. The Maratha always fought to win, whereas for the Rajput, the war was an end in itself, victory or defeat was only a secondary consideration. Completely contrasting mindsets.

Around the 13th century, coinciding with the Islamic invasion of the Deccan, the Marathas became mercenary soldiers, fighting for money and for the opportunity to plunder. Within a century, sometime in early- to mid-14th century, the Maratha warrior chiefs had moved up in the social and military hierarchy and had started to play a more forceful political role in the Deccan. They were no more auxiliary mercenary soldiers for hire. They had aligned themselves largely with the newly established Bahmani kingdom and started to be part of the local administrative mechanism and machinery.

‘As mercenaries they [the Marathas] served whoever employed them, fought against whoever they were required to fight, in professional disregard of race, religion, caste, clan and family.’

—Abraham Early,

Emperors of the Peacock Throne, p. 435.

A Synopsis of the Early Rulers of the Maratha country

During the early centuries of the Christian era, the Maratha country was ruled by the Satavahanas (78 B.C.–218 A.D.), for nearly 300 years from their capital at Paithan, situated on the River Godavari. The rule and the exploits of the Satavahanas are celebrated in the Puranas and the current Shaka era is named after them. Under the Satavahanas, some major tribes like the Rashtrakutas and the Banas were permitted to exercise limited power and autonomy. During the 4th and 5th centuries, the Guptas, the predominant dynasty in North India, influenced some of the smaller rulers in the Deccan, namely Vakatakas, Kalachuris and the Kadambas. However, there is no evidence to indicate that the Guptas directly ruled any part of the Deccan and the Peninsula.

By the 6th century, a new dynasty—the Chalukyas—had appeared on the scene. The Chalukyas produced a number of wise and strong rulers in the over 150 years of their dynastic rule. Their capital was Badami, now a town in the district of Bijapur. Satyashraya Pulakesin, normally referred in history as Pulakesin II (ruled 608–642) successfully repelled an attack by Harsha Vardhana, the emperor then ruling North India from Kanauj. As mentioned earlier, Pulakesin’s victorious army included Maratha contingents, perhaps the earliest mention of the Marathas as valued soldiers of calibre. The Chinese traveller Huan Tsang visited the Chalukya court of Pulakesin II and has left behind an illuminating account of the king and the Maratha people of the time.

The Chalukyas were replaced by the Rashtrakutas, another powerful dynasty that ruled the Maratha country for about 225 years, from about 750–975. This was the longest term for a southern Hindu dynasty to hold sway over a definitively defined kingdom. The Rashtrakuta dynasty produced a long line of efficient kings, of the 14 kings that ruled, only three were found to be wanting in their ability to reign properly. This period was also an important epoch since Karnataka and Maharashtra were combined into one political entity by the Rashtrakutas. Krishna I of the Rashtrakutas is credited with causing the excavation of the famed Kailas temple at Ellora, which remains an unparalleled, magnificent and perennial specimen of Hindu art. The name of the Rashtrakutas, who ruled from Manyakhet, modern Malkhed, was changed in local parlance to ‘Rathod’, a clan name later adopted by the Rajput rulers of Jodhpur. (In modern usage it is also variously spelt as Rathore, Rathor etc.,)

The long-standing Rashtrakuta power was routed by the Later Chalukyas, who reclaimed the throne and ruled for another two centuries, from 975–1189, initially from Manyakhet and then from Kalyani. The Later Chalukyas also produced some great rulers. The existing Hindu Law was expounded further during the illustrious rule of Tribhuvanmalla Vikramaditya. (Details of the Chalukya, Rashtrakuta and the Later Chalukya rule can be gathered from the third volume in this series of books – From Indus to Independence: A Trek through Indian History Volume III: The Disintegration of Empire)  

Towards the end of the 12th century, the Yadavas, a clan from North India who had been striving to gain power and status in different regions for some generations, replaced the Later Chalukyas. They ruled the core of the Maratha country for over a century, from 1187–1294, from their famous capital Devagiri, which was later renamed Daulatabad by Muslim conquerors. Although ruled by many dynasties, Maharashtra preserved its political independence for nearly two centuries more than its counterpart Hindu kingdoms in North India. Islamic invasions into North India had started around 1000, and by the 12th century, Delhi had passed into the hands of Muslim rulers. The northern part of the sub-continent was witnessing the unfolding of a new politico-religious experience, which came as a shock to the somewhat sanguine system that had been in existence till then. A century later, this shockwave reached the Deccan and the Maratha country. During the last quarter of the 13th century, around 1290–95, the Yadava kingdom, then ruled by king Ramachandra, collapsed rapidly and without providing any warning. Recent research indicates that the collapse was partly the result of an internal religious rift that led to conflict, which provoked by the rise of the Manabhava sect.

The Manabhava Sect

The name ‘Manabhava’ is a colloquial corruption of the word ‘Mahanubhava’, meaning great respectability. The Manabhavas were an important body of free thinkers who advocated a departure from the traditional Vedanta system of Hinduism as advocated by Shri Shankaracharya. From around the 11th century, there was a perceptible and peculiar upheaval in the Hindu religion and society at large, as a reaction to the blunt force of the invading Islamic religion. The radical and reformative movements gave rise to the creation of several new sects, such as the Lingayats and the Nath-Panthis. (For an in-depth analysis of the Hindu religious upheaval in medieval times, and the connection to the Islamic invasion of the sub-continent, read the Section titled ‘Dance of the Religions’ in From Indus to Independence: A Trek through Indian History Volume V: The Delhi Sultanate, pp. 441-490.)

In the mid-13th century, a learned Brahmin named Haripal Dev, inspired by the saint Govind Prabhu, started to preach a doctrine that contrasted with the existing state of orthodoxy in Hinduism. Haripal preached in Marathi, the local language and explained the Upanishads in simple terms thereby gathering a large following. He exposed the hypocritical practices of the day that troubled Hinduism while extolling the ideal and real teachings of the holy scriptures. Gradually, his followers coalesced into a sect. The preacher-reformer upheld the equality of all human beings and permitted his followers to lead normal lives. He basic teachings expanded on four basic points: he did not accept the Vedas as the ultimate authority within Hinduism; he denounced the artificial divisions of caste that went against his belief that all humans being were equal; he believed in one omnipotent and omnipresent God and did not contribute to the worship of many gods and incarnations; and he completely rejected the concept of pollution through touching another human being.

The spread of the Manabhava sect and its increasing influence directly contributed to the sudden demise of the Yadava dynasty. The prime minster of the Yadava king at this time was Hemadri, himself a learned person, an acknowledged author, and an expounder of Hindu philosophy of great repute. He resented the increasing influence of the Manabhava sect and its founder, and opposed the further spread of the sect. The story goes that Hemadri had Haripal Dev murdered and in turn was put to death by the king, Ramachandra. However, this story cannot be confirmed or corroborated with any reliable source. However, it is certain that Haripal Dev met an untimely and foul end. Here a confluence of factors come into play.

Ramachandra, who had come to the throne in 1271, was the nephew of the previous king Mahadev, and had usurped the throne after putting to death the crown prince, his cousin. He was a weak and despotic ruler with a vicious character. During his reign, the religious disputes between the orthodox Hindu section and the more reformist movements led by the Manabhava sect, was coming to a boil. The king was fully preoccupied with this internal religious strife and did not pay any attention to preparing defences against a possible external attack. Recent research, and analysis of new evidence makes it clear that Ala ud-Din Khilji’s precipitous attack on Devagiri, around 1294, was instigated by Manabhava agents who were seeking revenge for the murder of their teacher. They seem to have provided secret information to the Afghan army, which led to an easy victory over the Yadava army. In the ensuing battle, Ramachandra was forced to submit to the Muslim army.

Ala ud-Din’s favourite lieutenant, Malik Kafur, went on to overrun the Kakatiyas of Warrangal in 1309 and the Hoysalas of Dwarasamudra in 1310, taking the first concrete steps towards the founding of Muslim sultanates in the Deccan. (Detailed description and analysis of Malik Kafur’s campaigns can be read in an earlier volume of this series From Indus to Independence: A Trek through Indian History Volume VI: Medieval Deccan Kingdoms) The Hindu kingdoms continued their rebellions and revolts against the invading Muslim armies, but each time they were ruthlessly put down by successive Muslim chiefs and rulers. However, the struggle to push back the Islamic invaders from the Peninsula was continuous and never came to an end.

The Marathi Language

With the arrival of Sanskrit into the sub-continent, the local languages and dialects also started to become more polished, coming to be known under the common term ‘Prakrit’. Prakrit was further divided into five major types according to their regional character and connotations, each with its own grammar and developing their own individual literature bases. The five major Prakrit languages were Pali, Ardha-Magadhi, Sauraseni, Paisachi and Maharashtri. Along with Prakrit, Tamil and few other primary Dravidian languages prevailed in the Deep South of the Peninsula.

As a Prakrit derivative, Maharashtri was highly cultivated and widely used. Its usage spread from the borders of Malwa and Rajputana southwards, all the way to the banks of the Rivers Krishna and Tungabhadra. Because of its exclusivity, by around 500 B.C., Sanskrit had stopped being a spoken language and was being gradually replaced by different Prakrit languages in common parlance. In this evolution, the word Maharashtri was gradually corrupted to Marhati and then colloquialised to Marathi. This was the origin of the language that is spoken in the Maratha country till today.

Broad Chronology of Linguistic Development

The Indian sub-continent has witnessed the gradual evolution of its language from ancient times. Vedic Sanskrit was the primary spoken language of the sub-continent till about 500 B.C., when it was gradually replaced by the major Prakrit languages. Maharashtri and other Prakrit versions were in vogue for about a millennium from around 500 B.C. to 500 A.D., Thereafter, Marathi and other modern Indian languages started to take shape and evolve.     

From around 800 A.D., Marathi was acknowledged as the court language of the kingdoms of the region. The oldest writing in Marathi dates to 983 and comes from the Mysore state. Bhavartha Dipika, a commentary on the Bhagawad Gita by the first great Marathi writer, Jnaneswar, was the earliest celebrated book in Marathi. It was published in 1290, under the rule of Ramachandra Yadav of Devagiri, a mere four years before the Yadava king was defeated and his kingdom destroyed by Ala ud-Din Khilji.  

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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 Political and Defence Analyst specialising in military strategy, national security, and international politics. 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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