The Marathas Part 3 – The Rise of the Bhonsle Clan

Canberra, 30 May 2021

Even after the break-up of the Bahmani Sultanate, the general circumstances of the Marathas remained unaltered. A majority of the hill forts were garrisoned by Maratha chiefs—some in the service of one or the other Shahi kingdom and a lesser number by semi-independent Deshmukhs. By this time Muslim ranks—mansabs, depending on the number of cavalry under an individual’s command—had been regularly bestowed on the Maratha chiefs and commanders, and were expected and accepted as their right. However, the titles given to the Marathas by the Deccan sultans were old Hindu appellations such as Raja, Naik, Rao and so on.

Bergee or Burgay

The chronicles of the Adil Shahi dynasty, who ruled Bijapur, generally refer to the Marathas as Bergee. This term is not used in any other references and the Europeans also do not use this term to denote the Maratha warriors.

The term, spelt Bergee or Burgay, was normally used by the Deccan Muslims to denote the Maratha soldiers who were disbanded from the Bijapur sultan’s army to make way for the Deccan Muslims. This disbanded cavalry resorted to highway robbery, plunder of the countryside and the harassment of marching columns of the army. The term therefore has obvious derogatory connotations.  

The Maratha warriors were mostly concentrated in the armies of Bijapur and Ahmednagar Shahi sultanates since these two kingdoms encompassed the entirety of the Maratha country. A notable factor in the service being provided by the Marathas to the two sultanates is that neither national sentiments, nor the commonality of language and religion prevented the Marathas from fighting each other, with even some from the same family arrayed against each other in battle. The situation was exacerbated by the Shahi sultans who leveraged off hereditary feuds among the Maratha clans to keep alive their sense of rivalry so that these doughty warriors were always pitted against each other. A united Maratha front was already a source of concern for the Deccan sultanates.

Senior Maratha Chiefs – 16th Century

There were prominent Maratha chiefs and heads of clans who served both the Adil Shahis of Bijapur and the Nizam Shahis of Ahmednagar with distinction—they were all given mansabs and other land rights as Deshmukhs, with appropriate titles. Some of the important chiefs with the Adil Shah are enumerated below. Chander Rao Moray was given command of 12,000 Hindu troops by Yusuf Adil Shah (r. 1490–1510). Chander Moray was instrumental in reducing a rebellious tract of land between the Rivers Neera and Warna. His son Yeshwant Rao defeated the forces of Burhan Nizam Shah I at Parinda. He was confirmed as the successor to Chander Moray and bestowed the title Raja of Jowlee (Jawali, a village in the Mahadeva Mountain ranges of Phaltan Tehsil in Satara district). The Morays ruled the region for seven generations, all the heads of the family assuming the name Chander Rao.

Another principal chief in Adil Shahi service was Rao Naik Nimbalkar, the naik of Phultun (modern Phaltan, about 110 kilometres from Pune, situated north-east of Satara township). The family was originally called Powar but assumed the name of their ancestral village, Nimbalik, in medieval times. This family is considered one of the oldest in Maharashtra. The Ghatgay family held territory on the other side of the Mahadev ranges from the Nimbalkar holdings. They were the Deshmukhs of Maun and had held a mansab from the Bahmani times during the time of their great ancestor, Kam Raje Ghatgay. (Maun, or Maan is not the name of a town but of a Tehsil called Dahiwadi, named Maan since it is situated on the banks of the River Maan, in Satara district) Ibrahim Adil Shah II (r. 1580–1627) conferred the titles of Sardeshmukh and Joojhar Rao on Nagojee Ghatgay in 1626. It is reported that the Ghatgays were famous for their family feuds. There were many other prominent Maratha families and Deshmukhs, who were conferred mansabs by the Adil Shahi sultans, such as the Ghorpades, Daflays and Sawants.

The senior-most Maratha chief to serve the Nizam Shahis of Ahmednagar was the head of the Jadhav clan, the Deshmukhs of Sindkhet near Daulatabad. The Jadhavs were the descendants of the last Yadava king of Devagiri, although this claim cannot be unambiguously validated. However, the claim could be accepted as correct. They were the most powerful Maratha family in the region. By the end of the 16th century, Lakhoji Jadhav Rao, the head of the family, held a mansab of 10,000 horse from the Nizam Shahi sultan ruling Ahmednagar. Around the same time, a ‘respectable’ Maratha family with the surname Bhonsle, whose principal residence was in the village of Verol near Daulatabad, came to the notice of the Ahmednagar sultan.

Early History of the Bhonsles

The Bhonsles of Verol claimed descent from the Sisodias of Udaipur. Their family name of ‘Bhonsle’ is derived from their ancestral fief of Bhosavat in Udaipur. A number of Rajput families had migrated southwards from Rajputana as they dispersed to all parts of the sub-continent under the concerted attack by invading Muslim armies. The southern emigrees settled in Maharashtra, becoming domiciled as the local Kshatriyas.

Legend and History

One narrative states that when Ala ud-Din Khilji captured Chittor in 1303, Devrajji a member of the ruling Rana family headed by Sajjan or Sujan Singh (grandson of Lakshman Singh, the venerated ancestor of the clan), escaped and reached the Maratha region. He died around 1350. His fifth descendant, Ugrasen had two sons—Karn Singh and Shuba Krishna. 

Karn Singh’s son Bhim Singh received the title of ‘Raja Gorpade Bahadur’ from the Bahmani sultan and was granted a jagir of 84 villages at Mudhol where the family still resides. His descendants came to be called ‘Gorpades’ and have now spread across the entire Maharashtra region.

A grandson of Shuba Krishna, Babaji Bhonsle (d.1597) had two sons—Maloji (b.1552) and Vithoji (b.1554). Babaji Bhonsle purchased the chieftainship of Verol, near Daulatabad along with some villages in the region around the Rivers Bhima and Godavari. While cultivating and maintaining their territories, the Bhonsles also provided military service to the Nizam Shahi sultans of Ahmednagar. The Bhonsles were a large, well-knit family, mutually helpful, where the men were enterprising, resourceful and self-reliant, of strong will and proud. In contemporary writing the Bhonsle names were always suffixed with the title ‘Raje’, thus Maloji Raje, although they were not in any way royalty.

Maloji and his brother were well-built men and in 1577 they entered military service of the Maratha baron called Vanangpal Nimbalkar, who was the Deshmukh of Phultan. They rose in the military hierarchy as commanders harassing Bijapur territory. Their battlefield successes brought them to the notice of Lakhoji Jadhav Rao, the chief of Sindkhed and the senior-most Maratha noble in the service of the Nizam Shah, who took them under his wing. As mentioned earlier, Lakhoji was the descendant of the dethroned Yadava dynasty of Devagiri, who had been reduced to being the senior Hindu noble in the Nizam Shahi court. The brothers’ military exploits came to be noticed also by Murtaza Nizam Shah I (r. 1565–1588), then ruling Ahmednagar, who treated them with favour.

Invading the Southern Peninsula – A Laid Down Process

The River Narmada is considered the main boundary between North and South India, reinforced by the Vindhya Mountain Ranges. From a purely military strategic point of view, an army crossing the River Narmada to the south with the intent to conquer territory, would first have to secure Burhanpur, situated on the River Tapti, and its covering fort at Ashirgad. The next step would be to advance to the region of Daulatabad, Ellora, and Aurangabad—about 100 miles to the south of Burhanpur. 75 miles further was Ahmednagar, the key to carrying out any expeditions further south.

The principal axis of an advance into the Deccan Plateau and South India had to be Burhanpur–Aurangabad–Ahmednagar. From the mid-16th century, the regions surrounding this axis was the site of bitter contests between the Mughal advance and the determined Maratha resistance.  

Battle of Roshangaon

Starting from 1608, the Mughal emperor Jahangir organised several expeditions to the Deccan, which were all met by the defences of the Nizam Shahi kingdom ably organised by Malik Amber. Malik Amber’s Nizam Shahi army comprised a large segment of Maratha forces who were commanded by Lakhoji Jadhav Rao with the Bhonsle brothers as secondary commanders. On 4th February 1616, Malik Amber was defeated by the Mughal forces in the Battle of Roshangaon and had to flee to Daulatabad. His newly built capital at Khadki was razed to the ground by the victorious Mughals. When the Mughal forces retired to their camps in the north, Malik Amber recaptured the lost territories. (For an in-depth analysis of the Malik Ambar–Jahangir tussle in the Deccan read, From Indus to Independence: A Trek through Indian History Volume VI: Medieval Deccan Kingdoms pp. 287 – 304)   

Enraged by this repeated affront, Jahangir sent his son Prince Khurram, the future Shah Jahan, to subdue Malik Amber and his army and to bring the Shahi sultans to heel. A great deal of intrigue and double-dealings took place in the following years and Shah Jahan was able to claim an easy victory. (For greater details of the deals and alliances that were made and un-made, read From Indus to Independence: A Trek through Indian History Volume VIII: A Chronicle of the Imperial Mughals) On the outbreak of further rebellion, Shah Jahan returned to the Deccan, arriving at Burhanpur on 4th April 1621. However, his attention was diverted to the political developments in the royal court at Delhi and no effective action was initiated against the rebelling Shah–Maratha combine. In fact, Shah Jahan left the Deccan in less than a year, departing in March 1622. The departure of effective Mughal forces provided a window of more than five years of uneasy peace for the Maratha chieftains to entrench their military and civil governance in their territories and gradually emerge as a regional power.

Shahji – Early Years

Maloji married Deepa Bai, the sister of Jugpal Rao Naik Nimbalkar. Although the Bhonsles were inferior in social standing to the Nimbalkars, this marital alliance was facilitated through the influence of Lakhoji Jadhav. The couple remained childless despite all efforts being made to propitiate the family deities, Devi Bhavani and Mahadev. The couple then offered prayers at the tomb of the celebrated Muslim saint Shah Sharif in Ahmednagar. Subsequently a son was born to Maloji Raje on 15 March 1594 and in gratitude to the saint, the boy was named Shahji. A second son born in 1597 was similarly named Sharifji.

When he was still a child, Shahji accompanied his father to Lakhoji Jadhav’s palace for the Holi celebrations. There Lakhoji’s three- or four-year-old daughter, Jija Bai, played with Shahji and Lakhoji said in jest that ‘they make a handsome pair’. Hearing this Maloji said in a loud voice for everyone present to hear that Jadhav Rao had publicly betrothed his daughter to Shahji. Lakhoji strenuously denied any such meaning to his innocent and light-hearted comment, but Maloji insisted on the relationship being sanctified. The two families were obviously not of the same social standing. Lakhoji was the descendant of the Yadava dynasty, a powerful noble holding large tracts of land and high military command. Maloji was relatively poor, possessed only a few villages and tradition informs that he was a much lower-level commander in the Nizam Shahi army, functioning under Lakhoji. A marital alliance between the two families would have been an aberration.

The narrative of the episode continues that Lakhoji’s wife was annoyed with the turn of events and so Maloji was invited to dinner the next day to sort out the misunderstanding. However, Maloji refused the invitation saying that he would only attend if Lakhoji openly acknowledged Shahji as his son-in-law. Since Lakhoji did not agree to the proposal, the matter remained unresolved. Maloji did not want to take this incident in a light-hearted manner, since the alliance would have given a great boost to his social standing. Maloji was crafty and persevering, while also being wilful with a strong streak of independence. He quit Lakhoji’s service and retired to his ancestral village. Once in his ancestral lands, Maloji is reported to have come into a great deal of money and treasure. There is a story that the family deity, goddess Bhavani, appeared to him in a dream and gave him directions to finding a large treasure.

The Story of the Treasure

One day during the harvest time, Vithoji was delayed in the fields and as it was starting to get dark, Maloji went to call him home. On his way a black peacock and a bharadwaja bird (Greater Coucal) crossed his path. Both these occurrences are considered lucky omens. When night actually fell, Maloji saw the divine figure of the goddess Bhavani in front of him and he was about to faint in shock, when the goddess reassured him.

The goddess predicted that in the Bhonsle house an incarnation of Lord Shiva would be born and that he would restore the Hindu faith and drive the Muslims out of the land. He would also establish a kingdom and dynasty, which would last for 27 generations. More important than the predictions of the future, was that the goddess pointed to a nearby anthill and asked him to dig it. Although initially reluctant, fearing some magic, Bhavani reassured Maloji that no harm would come to him from evil spirits. The goddess then instructed Maloji to take the treasure to Sheshaji Naik of Shrigonda, who would advise him on its proper use. The next day the brothers dug up the treasure and gave it to the Naik for safe keeping.       

While the story of the goddess gifting the treasure to Maloji has gained popularity over time, it is believed that the large treasure that came into the possession of the Bhonsle brothers was ill-gotten wealth, either obtained through direct dacoity and robbery or, as the village chiefs, turning a blind eye to such activities and being given a percentage of the loot.

Maloji used the wealth to purchase horses and raise a militia, and for popular works such as digging tanks, building wells and endowing local temples—all actions designed to improve the social standing of the clan. Further, he gifted a large sum to win over the Nizam Shah who was in dire financial straits. He also paid money to the Shahi sultan and obtained a rank equivalent of that of Lakhoji Jadhav, while ensuring that he was bestowed with the title Maloji Raja Bhonsle. Maloji was also given the jagir of Pune and Supa.

Now almost equal in wealth, rank, and status to Lakhoji Jadhav, and with the tacit support of the Nizam Shah, Maloji reopened the issue of his son’s marriage. Lakhoji now did not have any reason to object and the wedding of Shahji and Jija Bai was solemnised in Sindkhed on 5th November 1605. The wedding coincided with the death of Akbar and Jahangir coming to the throne. From this time till his death in 1619–20, Maloji remained a prominent commander in the army of Malik Amber, fighting to ward off the Mughal invasion of Ahmednagar. Lakhoji Jadhav sided with the Mughals during the various invasions during Jahangir’s reign, while Maloji remained loyal to the Nizam Shahis. The power and prestige that Lakhoji commanded can be estimated by the fact that when he defected to the Mughals, he was awarded a mansab of 24,000 and command of 15,000 horse was conferred on him. Similarly, the Bhonsles were feted by Malik Amber and the Nizam Shah.

The Bhonsles had emerged as a Maratha clan of consequence.

© [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 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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