The Marathas Part 6 Shivaji Bhonsle Section I: Tumultuous Early Years

Canberra, 21 June 2021

Shivaji was born in April–May 1627, with 6th/10th April being generally accepted as the actual date, at the fort of Shivner near Junnar. Some accounts give the date as Monday, 10 February 1630, which is the one accepted by Sir Jadunath Sarkar, a well-known historian and an acknowledged authority on medieval Indian history. In this narrative no attempt is being made to ascertain the actual date of birth of Shivaji as it has direct bearing on his achievements or his greatness. Shivaji was the second surviving son of Shahji Bhonsle and Jija Bai, the daughter of Lakhoji Jadhav Rao. His elder brother Sambhaji was his father’s favourite and always accompanied him, while Shivaji remained with his mother.

Story of Incarnation

There are many stories of Shivaji being the incarnation of the god Shiva. The one found in Shedgavkar Bakhar is perhaps the most charming and illuminating.

After the birth of his son Sambhaji, Shahji was fully involved in the defence of Ahmednagar led by Malik Amber and was not living with his wife, Jija Bai. One night when he was sleeping, he dreamt that a Hindu saint/mendicant was standing next to him and offered him a mango. The mendicant then said, ‘Share this fruit with your wife and you will become the father of a son who will be the incarnation of Lord Shiva.’ He further exhorted Shahji to never force this son of his to salute a Muslim and to let him be free after his 12th birthday. Shahji woke up, saw the mango in his hand and went and shared it with his wife. The son born subsequently was called Shivaji to honour Lod Shiva, whose incarnation he was supposed to be.

Shivaji’s early childhood was turbulent. The Mughal pursuit of his father and by de fault of his mother was troublesome. However, Jija Bai’s vigilance ensured that Shivaji did not fall into Mughal hands in his childhood. The first years of his childhood was spent accompanying his mother, wandering and hiding in different places, without a permanent home. It is reported that Jija Bai was taken prisoner by the Mughals once, but she had cleverly managed to hide Shivaji who was not captured, although no clear narrative of this episode and its details are available. Jija Bai, it seems, was released from captivity because she belonged to the Jadhava clan who were aligned with the Mughals and because she was estranged from her husband, who was fighting the Mughal forces in Ahmednagar.

The estrangement between the parents meant that Shivaji did not see his father for seven consecutive years, from 1630–36 (inclusive). By March 1636, Jija Bai and Shivaji were residing at Shivner. During these early years of wandering, Shivaji was under the care of two stalwart Marathas—Naro Triman Hanmante and Gomaji Naik Panasambal. The Bhonsles and the Jadhavs, the clans of his father and mother, were in opposing camps in the on-going struggle for dominance of the Deccan between the Mughals and the Shahi kingdoms. In the Battle of Bhatavadi, Shahji won the day and Lakhoji Jadhav, fighting on the Mughal side had to flee for his life. It is obvious that the Bhonsles and the Jadhavs were not on friendly terms and their enduring feud flared up with monotonous regularity. For Shahji, who had already married a second time, having Jija Bai and Shivaji accompany him during his campaigns was a hinderance—in the tactical military sense their presence would be an impediment to rapid movements; and from a strategic perspective a non-starter, since Jija Bai was a Jadhav noble lady whose clan was aligned with the Mughals, which was politically unacceptable to the Shahi hierarchy. In February 1637, Shahji send Jija Bai and Shivaji to reside in Pune, the ancestral jagir of his father Maloji Raje Bhonsle that had been conferred on him.

Brahmans in Maratha Service

As the Maratha chiefs gradually enhanced their status and power, moving to high levels of the Deccan administrations that they served, it became a trend to retain several Brahmans in their service as writers and men of business. These Brahmans, when carrying out normal duties fulfilled the role of clerks and accountants; however, when they were sent out on public duties representing their masters, they were called wakils, or envoys. This role had a diplomatic slant to it.

Over a period of time, all Marathas of any consequence, even ones possessing just three or four houses, employed Brahmans as clerks and accountants to oversee the entire property. Brahman employees became a status symbol in noble Maratha families.    

On settling his wife and son in Pune, Shahji deputed his most trusted officer, Dadaji Kondadev, to look after his family and oversee the jagir at Pune. Dadaji built a palace for the Bhonsle family at Kasba near Pune, called Lal Mahal, loosely translatable as the ‘Red Palace’. He annexed the districts of Indapur and Baramati to the existing jagir and further added several valleys to the territorial holding of the Bhonsles. The western belt of Pune district, running along the Western Ghats for about 90 miles, with a breadth varying between 12 and 24 miles is known as the Mavals or the Sunset Lands. These are an extremely rugged series of tablelands cut on all sides by deep winding valleys. The hillsides have dense growth of trees that are mixed with almost impassable underwood.

The people of the Mavals, the Mavles (also written in some narratives as Mawals or Mavalis), were hardy but poor subsistence farmers, who were almost perennially destitute. The northern valleys were populated by kolis and the southern ones by Marathas. These people were similar to the hillmen of Rajputana, and their circumstances were also the same. The Maval territories were administered in the normal fashion under village headmen, Deshmukhs or Patils. The Mavle landlords habitually maintained an armed force for protection against encroachment and to ward off dacoits. This Mavle force would, in later years, form the backbone of the Maratha army that Shivaji would raise.

A Mother’s Influence. Jija Bai was a true Kshatriya lady of royal lineage who had suffered mental and at times physical deprivations from the time of her marriage. However, throughout her life she remained defiant and displayed dauntless courage, guarding her son Shivaji with all her considerable resources. In medieval times, a noble lady needed the protection of either her husband or her son to ensure a stable life. Since her husband had deserted her, she needed to ensure that her son grew into a great warrior chief. Her indomitable spirit transmitted itself to her son, inculcating in him a spirit that would never accept a compromise of the right principle. Further, even though estranged, she was proud of the fight that her husband Shahji waged for nine long years against the Mughal invasion. She passed on this pride and the need to oppose Muslim invasion of their homeland to her son without it being diluted. Jija Bai was a resourceful lady, trained and educated in the fashion of the day, and well-versed in religion and mythology. She considered Hindu culture to be the epitome of goodness as opposed to the vicious and rapacious cruelty displayed by the Islamic invaders such as Ala ud-Din Khilji and Muhammad bin Tughluq. It is not surprising that she continually taught her son the need to avenge the wrongs done to the Hindus and the need to rejuvenate the moribund Hindu culture.

‘In Shivaji’s helpless situation his mother naturally was his sole guide and mentor. She was a versatile woman, well-trained according to the notions of those days, in traditional religion and mythology. The traditions of Ramdeo Yadav, of Hemadri, of Jnaneshvar possessed for her a peculiar charm on account of the high moral tone and the free atmosphere of independence they breathed; and her capacious mind invested them with a glow of the splendour of the indigenous Aryan culture as contrasted with Muslim vandalism and iconoclastic methods.’

—G. S. Sardesai,

New History of the Marathas, p. 89

Training and Education

Shivaji had suffered several hard knocks in early childhood itself and was therefore naturally drawn to being resourceful and even ingenious when faced with a challenge. Dadaji Kondadev gave the son of his master the best education that he could provide within the constraints of their circumstances. At this time, Maratha chiefs and warriors were disdainful of learning to read and write, some even considering it demeaning. Based on this general information, some European historians have concluded that Shivaji was illiterate and could not even write his own name. This assertion is disputed here. These historians try to prove their poorly contrived assertion with the argument that some of the letters issued by Shivaji have proven to be physically written by Brahman clerks. However, this does not prove Shivaji’s inability to write, since chiefs and nobles of the time never sat down to pen letters personally but left it to the clerks and senior officials to do so, under the supervision of a trusted senior minister. Further, the education regime instituted by Dadaji indicates that he insisted on his ward, Shivaji, learning to read and write. The conclusion is irrefutable, Shivaji was literate and also ‘educated’ to some degree.

Harikeertan, the singing of devotional songs by household preachers, and by celebrated saints like Tukaram, was a common means of educating the lay person about the nuances of the Hindu faith. Shivaji was very fond of these sessions and took full advantage of the benefits of the Harikeertans. He also visited temples regularly and took a keen interest in ensuring that they were well-run and served the people. Many of the early letters that Shivaji wrote pertain to the management and proper upkeep of the temples within his jagir.

Shivaji grew into late boyhood as a good archer and marksman, well versed in spear-throwing, wrestling, swordsmanship, and swimming. He was also an accomplished horseman and is considered to have excelled in riding. The semi-secluded life in Pune gave plenty of opportunities for young Shivaji to indulge in his thirst for adventure. Early in these days Shivaji developed an easy camaraderie with the Mavles and he led a group of similar-age ‘boys’ in wandering the valleys and jungles around Pune. These wanderings, which were initially aimless outings, gradually transformed into calculated expeditions meant to organise defences to protect his jagir from neighbouring chiefs and internal petty thieves.

By his late teens, Shivaji had grown into a sturdy adult and had traversed the inhospitable valleys that formed part of his patrimony several times, coming to know the geography and terrain intimately. He had studied the passes and the possible strongholds on both sides of the mountain ranges, from Nasik and Kolhapur to the southern border with the Carnatic. His first actions as the leader of a semi-militia type group were designed for personal benefit and advantage. While it cannot be denied that the young Shivaji must have imbibed a certain sense of ‘patriotism’ from his mentor Dadaji Kondadev and from his strong mother, this character trait was yet to emerge to prominence.

17th Century Maharashtrian Society  

It was customary for the village headmen and Deshmukhs to maintain written records of all transactions that they undertook. Therefore, there is a large amount of material in the form of family papers of even minor village chiefs and other noblemen, which provide detailed information of the society into which Shivaji was stepping-in as a leader. At the time that Shivaji and his mother relocated to live in Pune, the town and the surrounding regions were Bhonsle jagirs. However, any semblance of centralised civil administration had dissolved, and the region was under the control of several petty ‘masters’. The result was that the common people had no hope of getting justice from the ruling elite—the law of the jungle prevailed, the strong preyed on, and prevailed over the weak.

Into this rather bleak scene, Dadaji came as a breath of fresh air, being an honest judge and a strong magistrate, albeit in a limited manner. Shivaji followed his mentor in a more expanded role, giving impartial legal decisions while also following the immemorial custom of consultations with the local villagers, especially when the case being judged involved making decisions on disputes of the partition of ancestral landed property. The decisions on ancestral property were of critical importance since the possession of land, followed by hereditary official positions were the most prized status symbols of the time. They were also normally the sole means of livelihood for most higher-class Maratha families. The family estate was the pride of a clan, the main source of social esteem and therefore sacred. It is not surprising that the Maratha was ready to fight and die for his family estate.

After taking over the administration of the jagir, Dadaji Kondadev moved from place to place, taking Shivaji with him as the master, dealing out impartial justice without fear, favour, or prejudice. He was always careful to project young Shivaji as the sole master and ruler of the region, gradually establishing the young noble’s right to rule. These trips, and the detailed work that Dadaji was doing, provided an opportunity for young Shivaji to observe and learn the practical aspects of governance and experience public life. Initially Dadaji, and subsequently Shivaji, not only delivered impartial judgements in land disputes, but also used their will and military strength to enforce it. Thus, Shivaji filled a void that existed in the social system of Maharashtra. His subsequent rise was in no small way facilitated by the moral support of the common people around him, garnered mainly because of the impartiality of his judgements.

Shivaji’s firmness in justice and steadfast support for the weak made him locally famous. His delivery of impartial justice and associated fame spread from village to village with more people clamouring to be under his protection and accepting his rule. Two complimentary factors combined to make the spread of Shivaji’s domains easier than it would otherwise have been. First, the transparent and unwavering honesty of the administration won the hearts and minds of the simple and trusting rural population. Second, the militia that Shivaji was assembling appealed to the ambitions of the individual members, since opportunities were created for advancement from being common soldiers to commanders under Shivaji’s banner. Both these factors combined to unite the people into a ‘Maratha’ nation—a sublime and glorious ideal, almost never fully achieved. The Marathas gloried in the evident fact that they were a nation, rousing itself to confront the Muslim oppression and tyranny.

Early Actions

Shivaji was on his way to becoming the people’s hero, and very soon to be king. However, the idealistic ‘Chhatrapati’ was still in the making. In his younger days ne was not such an idealistic or immaculate character— during his teenage years he harboured ambitions to be a sort of ‘Robin Hood’ type of character. He took some actions towards attaining this fascinating ideal. The restoration of relative peace and the administration of impartial justice that was enforced brought stability and prosperity to the Bhonsle estates, mainly attributable to Dadaji Kondadev. Shivaji raised a small contingent of fiercely loyal Mavles as an auxiliary force that in later years would evolve to form the core of Shivaji’s famed Maratha army. For the time being this native militia ensured the protection of the Bhonsle jagir.

In his free time Shivaji roamed his land accompanied by Mavle chieftains of his age and seniority. In these forays, the group sometimes raided villages outside the Bhonsle territories and forced them to ‘contribute’ to them, in money or kind. On occasion, they also ‘held up’ some government revenue officer in transit, relieving him of the collections that he had so far made. There is absolutely no evidence to suggest that the group ever held up innocent travellers. These actions were facilitated by the collapse of the Ahmednagar Nizam Shahi kingdom, which was followed by a period of semi-lawlessness in its erstwhile territories. Many other adventurers were also taking advantage of the troubled situation. It is recorded that Dadaji was moved to grief by these activities of his ward and condemned them, not so much for their illegality but because they were unbecoming of a nobleman’s son.

The ability to roam free with his chosen companions, in what he wholeheartedly believed to be ‘his’ country, combined with the deep Hindu religious and cultural ethos that his mother had passed on to him, made Shivaji yearn for true independence. The flame of freedom had been lit and would never be put out. Shivaji started to loath the luxurious life of a servile lord in the service of some faraway Muslim king. Even so, there is absolutely no proof to suggest that at this stage he had formulated any design to free the Hindus of the Deccan in general from the insults and outrages being heaped on them on a daily basis by the state-sanctioned religious oppression. He was still thinking in a limited manner and coveted an independent sovereignty for himself. He had not yet conceived of himself as the liberator and saviour of the Hindus. 

Shivaji had been an astute observer of political developments from his younger days, partly because of necessity and mainly because of his aptitude. He was therefore, fully aware that the Adil Shahi kingdom of Bijapur was on its last legs and was not keen to support them. Mughal service was not attractive to Shivaji since he realised that if the Mughals took over the Deccan it would only pass from an already religiously bigoted rule to another oppressive Muslim government. Delhi, from where the Mughals ruled, was a faraway city. The Mughals were alien in speech, action and behaviour and would never accept the prevailing Deccani administrative structures and cultural trappings in the royal court. The unique Deccani character would be pummelled into submission and be lost forever. For a young and ambitious scion of a noble house, an independent career, even though a risky proposition had undreamt of advantages and possibilities.

Visit to Shahji

Shahji, ruling part of the Carnatic from Bangalore, was informed by Bijapur of Shivaji’s activities. The Adil Shah felt that Shivaji was developing a far too independent streak and was defiant of traditional authority. Shivaji had repaired and garrisoned some of the forts with his own men, gradually establishing a core in pursuance of his dream of independence. Muhammad Adil Shah cautioned Shahji to control his son. Although Shahji was officially the governor of the Bijapur territories in the Deep South, the Adil Shahi oppression of the Hindus had continued unabated. Both Shivaji and his mother Jija Bai felt this situation was demeaning to the status of the Bhonsles, although they were careful not to make a public statement of this disdain. On the other hand, Shahji was a loyal servant and supported the overtly Muslim Bijapur sultan and did not find anything wrong in this dichotomous situation.

Sometime in 1640, Shahji summoned Shivaji, his mother Jija Bai and Dadaji Kondadev to Bangalore. The ostensible reason given was that Shahji had not yet seen Shivaji’s bride of four years and wanted to welcome her officially to the family. In Bangalore, Shivaji witnessed firsthand the destruction and desecration of the relics of the great Vijayanagara Empire and Shahji’s reluctance and/or inability to initiate any action to protect them from this sacrilege. Both mother and son did not relish this unhindered anti-Hindu trend in Shahji’s rule and his hesitancy to protect Hindus in his zeal to render service to the Adil Shahi crown. The combined dream of Jija Bai and Shivaji had by this time gradually coalesced to one of salvation of the Hindus from Muslim oppression. It is obvious that father and son discussed their differences in Bangalore. Shahji appears to have accepted Shivaji’s point of view to a certain degree. He had started to support and help the Hindu cause in the Carnatic to the extent possible within his constrained circumstances by diluting the Adil Shahi edicts against the Hindus.

Before Jija Bai and her entourage could return to Pune, Shahji was instructed by Bijapur to bring the entire family to the royal court to pay obeisance to the Adil Shah. Accordingly, the entire family travelled to Bijapur in 1642. In the Bijapur court, much to Shahji’s discomfiture, Shivaji only did the standard Maratha salutation to the Adil Shah, which is definitely respectful, but a far cry from the Muslim ‘sajida’, which demands the touching of one’s forehead to the floor in front of the sultan, which was the prevailing custom in the Bijapur court. Shahji explained away the ‘rudeness’ of his son by blaming it on Shivaji’s rustic upbringing and ignorance of court etiquette. Shivaji’s rebellious spirit was in full display.  

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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 6 Shivaji Bhonsle Section I: Tumultuous Early Years”

  1. Thanks Sanu, it was a very interesting episode and throws some light on Shivaji’s early life.


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