The Marathas Part 2: Framing the Maratha Identity

Canberra, 21 May 2021

By late 13th century, the Hindu revolt in Peninsular India against the invading Muslim forces was bitter and widespread. Even the learned heads of various Hindu ‘Maths’, monasteries, were involved in attempting to repel the Muslim invaders. Shankaracharya Madhav Vidyaranya, the head of the famous and powerful Sringeri Math, was one such saint. He devised the concept of combining politics and religion to pursue a course meant to safeguard the Hindu cause. He was instrumental in creating the embryo of the kingdom, which subsequently grew into the famed Hindu Empire of Vijayanagara that held back the Islamic onslaught into the Deep South for more than three centuries. (The details of the founding of the Vijayanagara Empire and its history can be read in From Indus to Independence: A Trek through Indian History Volume VII: Named for Victory: The Vijayanagara Empire)

Convulsions in the Deccan

In the 13th and 14th centuries, Hindu rebellions against the Islamic invasion and Muslim aggression in the socio-political and religious spheres were widespread across the entire sub-continent. Equally widespread was the Muslim rulers’ efforts at subduing these revolts, even in far-flung parts of their territories. The revolts and Muslim reaction to them took a peculiar turn in the Maratha country. Husain Zafar Khan, the general sent by the Delhi Sultan to put down the rebellion in the area of Peninsular India that had been brought under the Sultanate control, joined hands with the rebels and carved out a kingdom for himself, centred on Gulbarga.

In 1347, Zafar Khan assumed the regnal title Ala ud-Din Bahman Shah and founded the kingdom that came to be known as the Bahmani Sultanate. Bahman Shah was a shrewd ruler and having seen the vehemence of the anti-Islamic revolt, he decided that it would be counter-productive to exacerbate an already volatile situation by meddling in the religious affairs of the Hindus, who were the majority population. He enacted a policy based on a tolerant religious view and let the Hindus carryon their worship and other religious rituals without hinderance. The Hindus in turn responded by gradually toning down, and subsequently halting, their rebellion. In acts of reconciliation, successive Bahamani sultans bestowed hereditary land holdings on the Hindu headmen, confirming them as Deshmukhs or Deshpandes of territories of different sizes and containing varying numbers of villages.

Simultaneous to the establishment of the Bahmani Sultanate, further to the south, the Hindu Vijayanagara Empire was also taking shape. For nearly two centuries, the Muslim Bahmani and the Hindu Vijayanagara kingdoms flourished side-by-side—although there was an inherent spirit of rivalry and mutual aggression between them, which at times spilt over into overt conflict. Towards the end of the 15th century, the Bahmani Sultanate splintered into five separate and independent holdings, ruled by kings who came to be generically called the Shahi sultans. Subsequently, the smaller two of the five new kingdoms were subsumed by the big three—Ahmednagar, Bijapur and Golconda, ruled respectively by the Nizam Shahi, Adil Shahi and Qutb Shahi dynasties, each named after their founders. (A detailed history of the Bahmani Sultanate and its successor Shahi kingdoms is available in a volume of this series—From Indus to Independence: A Trek through Indian History Volume VI: Medieval Deccan Kingdoms) In this narrative, only the impact and influence of these kingdoms on the rise of Maratha power is being recounted and analysed.

Maratha Reactions

The core of the Maratha country is situated around the Western Ghats, which connects mainly to the Ahmednagar and Bijapur kingdoms. Although the three main Shahi dynasties combined in a rare show of unity to defeat the Vijayanagara Empire in the decisive Battle of Rakshasa-Tangadi fought in 1565, which led to the decline and downfall of that magnificent medieval empire, they failed to subjugate Hindu power in the Deep South of the Peninsula. The Delhi sultans, particularly the Khiljis and the Tughluqs, were antagonistic to Hindus in their policies and when they tried to enforce the same policies in the conquered territories of the Deccan Plateau, they found the Hindu resistance to be unbreakable. As mentioned earlier, the Bahmanis stepped gingerly through the politico-religious nightmare of dealing with the subject but rebellious Hindu population.

The Shahi sultans also by and large followed this subdued religious policy, having learned a salutary lesson from the disastrous efforts of the Delhi sultans to impose religious strictures on the Hindus. They also realised that their own continued independent existence was directly dependent on the support of their Hindu subjects. The Muslim character of the rulers remained an intensely personal religious faith and did not affect the majority Hindu subjects. The Deccan sultans studiously avoided hurting Hindu sentiments. Further, the hilly regions of the Ghats, the core Maratha country and stronghold, remained unconquered—they were only nominally under the two Shahi sultans within whose territory they fell.

‘These nominal Muhammadan rulers were virtually controlled both in the civil and military departments by Maratha statesmen and Maratha warriors. The hill-forts near the Ghats and the country thereabout, were in the hands of the Maratha captains, who were nominally dependent upon these Muhammadan sovereigns.’

—Mahadeva Govind Ranade

Rise of Maratha Power, as quoted in

G. S. Sardesai, New History of the Marathas, Volume I, p. 31.  

Religion in Political Power Play

The policy of religious tolerance and non-interference with Hindu religious practice was reversed by Muhammad Adil Shah of Bijapur when he came to power in 1627. He ruled for 29 years till his death in 1656 by which time the persecution of Hindus had reached extremely high levels. Some historians are of the opinion that had Muhammad Adil Shah not reversed the religious policy pursued by his predecessors, Shivaji may not have had the impetus to undertake the creation of an independent Hindu kingdom. It is argued that Shivaji may not have found sufficient support at the grass-root level for his military enterprises. While this argument cannot be considered a decisive factor in a debate of ‘what if’, there is some merit to it as a contributory factor to the strength of the Hindu-Maratha rebellion.

There is a slightly different argument regarding the Hindu approach to life. There is a prevalent opinion based on the assertion that traditionally the Hindus have cared more for their religion than for political power, concluding that as long as they were left unhindered to practice their religion, they would not interfere in any kind of political power struggle. However, this argument would also have to be considered only a contributory factor. In a holistic analysis, it would be seen that the Maratha ascendancy was based on an intrinsic understanding that religion and politics could be combined to gather and sustain power. This was also one of the reasons for rebellions being unleashed when the ruling entity became religiously intolerant.

While it is true that the Marathas were experimenting with combining religion and political power, it has to be accepted that rebellions and revolts to protect the religion has been a sentiment and constant refrain that runs through Indian history from ancient times. Therefore, it is not surprising that Marathi literature for three or four centuries after the fall of the Yadavas of Devagiri continuously refer to the need to protect the Hindu religion as a basic theme. The saints of the time: Jnaneswar and Namdev (13th and 14th Centuries), Eknath and Tukaram (15th and 16th centuries) and Ramdas (17th century) and a contemporary of Shivaji, delivered orations and held prayer meetings called Harikirtans, to provide the spiritual background to sustain the religious sentiments and political aims of the people.

Importance of Marathi Literature

In medieval times, the Marathi writers were mainly learned saints of the time who delivered two fundamental services to the society that was only emerging from the relative convulsions that resulted from the shock of the Islamic invasion. First, they rendered the traditional and precious knowledge and philosophy contained in the ancient Sanskrit texts, which was unintelligible to the masses, into various attractive forms of Marathi verses, some of them set to music. Second, they made ardent appeals to their favourite deity, and onward to God Almighty, to deliver the religiously oppressed Hindus from Muslim persecution. Such appeals from acknowledged saints provided spiritual salvation for the common people. The saints also managed to reconcile, to some limited extent, the warring Hindu sects of Shaivites and Vaishnavites to enable them to present a combined front to the sustained oppression.

The evolution of the Marathi language during this important period in the history of the Peninsula clearly indicates the political dominance achieved by the ruling Muslim elite. The earlier works of the saint-poets and writers such as Jnaneswar do not contain a single Arabic or Persian word. Slightly more than a century later, Eknath’s writings contain more than a smattering of foreign words and phrases. One of Shivaji’s initiatives on coming to power was to expunge foreign words from the Marathi language and reimpose a Sanskrit code of official terms for the conduct of the official business of the court, fully replacing the Persian language and procedures adopted from the Muslim courts.

The Influence of the Land

The Western Ghats around which the Maratha country undulates is fertile and therefore populous. The region is dotted with numerous villages and towns that in turn provide a dedicated support base for the warrior groups involved in rebellions or preparing for offensive actions. The Maratha hill country, strong in military terms, extends nearly 500 miles from north to south and houses many hill fortresses that are impregnable when stoutly defended. It is not surprising that several of these forts are surrounded by historic tradition and myths and tales of stupendous military valour.

The region in medieval times contained almost no road network and wheeled traffic was impossible. The footpaths are fit only for pack animals and foot soldiers. This rugged range of the Western Ghats enabled the Marathas to oppose the Muslim invaders and hold their own; to reassert their nationality and religious identity against the full might of the Mughal Empire at the zenith of its power; and finally establish an empire of their own. The political importance of the Western Ghats in Maratha history cannot be over emphasised. They have contributed in many ways to the unique character of Maratha history. One, the terrain has, over the centuries, nourished a resolute and enduring daring in the inhabitants; two, the hill ranges offer remote strongholds to which these hardy inhabitants can retire when hard-pressed by their adversaries; and three, since the mountain forts lie between fertile regions, it is easy for the warriors to carryout pillaging raids and rapidly vanish into the mountain retreats where they cannot be successfully pursued. Because of these advantages, the mountain retreats were highly prized by Maratha chieftains, often becoming the subject for bitter strife between competing clans.

The region has all the hallmarks of being the cradle of greatness, power and the ability to nurture the building of an empire. For the reasons mentioned above and various other factors, the Maratha country and the people were never fully subjugated by the Muslim invaders. The physical characteristics of the core terrain and the mental cast of the people that the terrain influenced, have remained completely different to other parts of the sub-continent.

An Appreciation of the Maratha People

The most telling feature of the Maratha character is the fact that the very first successful attempt to roll-back the Muslim invasion and conquest originated in Maratha country. It is true that the Maratha people have always formed a separate ‘nation’ and still regard themselves as different to other people of the nation. There are some identifiable characteristics and traits of the Marathas that made their anti-Muslim invasion campaigns in the late-medieval to early-modern period more successful than anywhere else in the sub-continent.

The Marathas are hardy, courageous and make extremely valorous soldiers. They possess manly fortitude under all circumstances, are patient and good-natured, but will turn to fight if oppressed beyond a point. While they are proud, reserved and quick to show gratitude and also to render assistance to people in distress; they are also revengeful if wronged but forgiving if the adversaries surrender. The picture that emerges is that of a classic, untielding soldier.

For almost 15 centuries before the advent of the Islamic invaders, the Maratha country was ruled by many great races and dynasties—from the Mauryas to the Yadavas. Each race and dynasty left their indelible mark on the psyche and DNA of the Maratha people. The previous chapter of this narrative has mentioned only a few prominent ruling dynasties; there are many more of importance such as the Silaharas of Kolhapur, Kakatiyas of Warrangal, Ballals of Sagar, Vakatakas of Berar, who each form part of the composition of the modern-day Maratha. These dynasties, dedicated to conquest and rule, provided the Maratha with a mixture of races, unmatched anywhere else in the sub-continent. The modern Maratha race boasts of at least 96 separate clans, several of whom have been lauded as decidedly having very noble bloodlines—starting with the Mauryas, Sendrakas, Rathores, Silaharas, Yadavas and so on. Maratha origins are full of high traditions and past valour and glory. 

When studying Maratha history a moot, philosophical question arises—whether it is the sudden advent of a spirited, talented and qualified leader that moulds a people to becoming daring warriors, ready to save their country or die trying; or whether the war-like spirits of an inherently soldierly people invariably brings forth a leader of calibre that they need. Perhaps the answer lies somewhere half-way between the two. The rise of the first royal house of the Marathas is a case in point.

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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)

One Response to “The Marathas Part 2: Framing the Maratha Identity”

  1. Very informative ….. unfortunately these details are not included in the regular academic curricula.
    CK Thampy

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