The Marathas Part 11 Beginning of the Maratha Confederacy

Canberra, 30 October 2021

Aurangzeb’s death initiated the inevitable succession struggle. Shah Alam, the eldest surviving son based in Peshawar, reached Delhi first and claimed the throne after taking over the treasury. Azam Shah from Ahmednagar opposed him and started the march north, without concluding any formal agreement with the marauding Marathas. On the advice of Zulfiqar Khan, he released Shahu from captivity to reclaim his patrimony of the throne of the Marathas to ensure the safety of the Mughal dominions in the Peninsula and to have a friendly prince as a neighbour. In case Shahu failed to win the Maratha throne, there would be a civil war of succession that in turn would keep the troublesome Marathas out of the Mughal struggle.

The Mughal succession struggle gave Tarabai a respite and a chance to increase the Maratha territorial holdings through more conquests. Dhanaji Yadav attacked and captured Pune and Chakan. Shahu’s release however interrupted any further military activities. Azam Shah had laid down certain preconditions for Shahu’s release, the main one being that he would rule as a feudatory of Azam Shah after the latter had come to the Mughal throne. Shahu also had to leave behind his mother, wife, concubine and a half-brother as hostages in Mughal custody. In return, Shahu was granted the Sardeshmukhi and permission to collect Chauth over six Deccan subhas or provinces—Khandesh, Berar, Aurangabad, Bidar, Hyderabad (Golconda), and Bijapur. He was also appointed the governor of Gondwana, Gujarat and Tanjore. However, by the time Shahu was ready to claim his grants and entitlements, Azam Shah had been killed in battle and Shah Alam was the Mughal emperor. The Mughal court was divided about who was to be recognised as the Maratha king, Shahu or Tarabai’s son Shivaji. Zulfiqar Khan who had joined Shah Alam on Azam Shah being defeated supported Shahu, which won the approval of the emperor.

Shahu in the Deccan

Shahu had been a long time in captivity and was therefore a bit out of touch with his countrymen. Although Rajaram had always declared that he was ruling on behalf of Shahu, the common Maratha people had looked up to him as their king and therefore, Shivaji his elder son was automatically considered the natural claimant of the throne at his death. However, two factors were impediments to Shivaji having a normal succession. First was that Shivaji, although only a boy, was a simpleton, bordering on being an idiot; and second, Rajasbai, Rajaram’s junior wife was pushing the claim of her son Sambhaji to be declared king. Under these circumstances, several Maratha nobles tended to support Shahu, basically to avoid a civil war of succession.

As soon as Shahu reached the Deccan, Tarabai countered Shahu’s claim to the throne by proclaiming him an imposter, created by Aurangzeb. The Mughal had used a similar ploy earlier with the Rajput king Raja Jaswant Singh’s offspring. Tarabai’s ruse split the Maratha nobility, most taking the stance that they would swear allegiance to Tarabai and Shivaji only if Shahu was proven to be an imposter without doubt. However, the accusation of Shahu being an imposter did not gain much traction and was short-lived, especially since many nobles and chiefs had known Shahu personally. Tarabai then argued that Shahu’s father Sambhaji had been instrumental in losing the Maratha kingdom, while her husband Rajaram had built it back from its ashes. However, this argument was specious since Rajaram himself had till the end maintained that he was ruling on behalf of Shahu, his nephew who was the legitimate king. The Marathas generally were zealous of the right of the elder or senior branch of a family to come to power and therefore the common people and the soldiers were supportive of Shahu.

Shahu moved towards Burhanpur and received support from a senior and acknowledge zamindar, Sajjan Singh. This acclamation cascaded into support from a number of senior nobles, prominent among them being Parsoji Bhonsle of Berar, Nemaji Scindia, Chimnaji Moghe and Haibat Rao Nimbalkar. This support bolstered Shahu’s morale and he felt sufficiently strong to write to Tarabai demanding that the throne be handed over to him. Shahu and his growing entourage moved to Ahmednagar and then towards Parad. The local chief of Parad opposed him and in a small-scale battle Shahu defeated and killed the chief.

Shahu next moved to Khed on the River Bhima near Pune. Here he faced his first serious obstacle. Opposing him was Tarabai’s army led by the Senapati Dhanaji Yadav, supported by Mansingh More. Shahu did not want to battle the Maratha forces, which would have inevitably led to full-fledged civil war. He resorted to diplomacy and a different tactic. Shahu went forward alone and exhorted Dhanaji and More to join him, appealing to them as the grandson of Shivaji and the son of Sambhaji, their rightful master and king. Knowing that he was not an imposter, both Dhanaji and More decided to join Shahu with their army. In the short-fought Battle of Khed on 12th October 1707, the remnant of Tarabai’s army was defeated and dispersed.

Shahu Takes Charge

Shahu took over Chakan and Pune and went on to lay siege to Satara. Satara was held by Parshuram Trimbak, a loyal commander of Rajaram’s who refused to accept Shahu to be Sambhaji’s son and had transferred his loyalty to Tarabai. Shahu vacillated initially to initiate decisive action against his aunt Tarabai, but finally captured Satara and made it his headquarters. Prior to Satara being captured, Tarabai had moved to Panhala. In January 1708, Shahu held his coronation as the king of the Marathas, ascending the throne with all ceremonies that Shivaji had conducted at his coronation. Even so, a faction of powerful nobles continued to support Tarabai and the boy-king Shivaji.

Around the same time Shahu also managed to gain the acceptance of the powerful group of sage Ramdas’s disciples, who exerted great spiritual influence across the entire Maratha peoples. Shahu took no immediate action against Tarabai in Panhala, opting to wait out the monsoon season and consolidating his position by increasing his strength and support. In October 1708, Shahu captured Vasantgarh and moved towards Panhala. Tarabai fled to Rangna at the approach of Shahu’s forces. Shahu forced the commander of Panhala to come to terms and after he surrendered, reinstated him as commander. He then moved to attack Vishalgarh, which fell in early 1709.

A Civil War Looms

Tarabai and her son moved secretly to Malwan, which had once been Shivaji’s naval base. In the meantime, Shahu besieged Rangna but did not have time to capture the fort before the onset on monsoon rains. He raised the siege and retired to Satara. Tarabai however, did not want to wait out the monsoon rains. She gained the support of Phont Savant of Savantwadi and marched against Panhala. The fort commander who had gone over to Shahu earlier, now surrendered the fort to Tarabai in 1710. Tarabai brought her son Shivaji to Kolhapur and declared the town the capital of the Maratha kingdom. Knowing fully well that her claim on behalf of her son was tenuous, she decided to sow discord within the Maratha nobles and petty chieftains. She sent word to all nobles and chiefs that they should either declare independence of join Mughal service to better their prospects. She exhorted them not to serve under the banner of Shahu. This action alone placed a disgraceful black mark on the integrity of a queen who had personally held the Maratha kingdom together at the death of her valiant husband, Rajaram.

Tarabai’s message suited the Maratha chiefs who were inherently oriented towards individual independence. With the failed Mughal campaign in the Deccan and Aurangzeb’s death subsequently, the Marathas did not consider the Mughals to be an existentail threat to themselves anymore. In fact, by joining Myghal service they had a lot to gain, since the Mughals continued to grant jagirs to their commanders. Shivaji had stopped this practice and the Maratha nobles felt that Shahu would not reinstitute it and grant them land. Accordingly, several chiefs joined Mughal service, notable among them being Nemaji Scindia who was awarded command of 7000 horse. Some others proclaimed independence, prominent being Admiral Kanhoji Angre (Kanhoji Angre’s activities will be described later in this chapter). These nobles and small-time chiefs controlled areas almost to the walls of Satara fort. Further, nobles loyal to Tarabai had managed to hold Pune and control the great forts around it—Sinhgarh, Purandar, Raigarh and Torna.

The control of these forts by rebel nobles, cut off Shahu from his support base in Nasik and Khandesh. By late 1710, Shahu was in dire straits—he controlled only a small stretch of territory immediately around Satara and a few hill forts connected to the main fort. At this low ebb in his bid for the throne of the Marathas, as it often happens in history, a singular piece of good fortune changed Shahu’s circumstances.

The ring of forts around Pune was commanded on behalf of Tarabai by Shankar Narayan Gandekar, an old a trusted noble loyal to the House of Bhonsle. Control of these forts was the key to controlling the Maratha kingdom. As Shahu prepared to assault these forts, Tarabai knew that Satara could be taken from the rear, since it would be left sparsely defended. However, events did not flow in the way that she had envisaged. Human beliefs and frailties can never be fully predicated and could flow in unexpected directions. Gandekar had implicitly believed Tarabai and her claim that Shahu was an imposter, swearing an oath to defend her son’s throne from the imposter. With Shahu preparing to assault the ring of forts, Shankar Narayan became convinced that Shahu was indeed the son of Sambhaji, the senior scion of the House of Bhonsle. Shankar, if anything, was completely devoted to the House of Shivaji, and was now on the horns of a dilemma. He could not bring himself to fight the grandson of Shivaji, while he could not break his oath to Tarabai.

Shankar Narayan solved the dilemma in the characteristic fashion of Hindu nobles across time—he resigned all worldly powers and retired as a mendicant to Ambavade, a holy place near the River Nira. There he committed ritual suicide by drowning. The ring of forts around Pune fell to Shahu’s control. Shahu took no action against the Gandekar family, instead nominally raised Shankar Narayan’s infant son to his father’s position. Shahu was now in control of the keys to the Maratha kingdom.

The Rise of Balaji Viswanath Bhat

Shahu was now nominally in control of the Maratha kingdom. However, the rebellion of the Maratha nobles continued unabated since they were famous for their independence and for assuming insult at the slightest pretext. In June 1710, Dhanaji Yadav, one of the earliest and strongest of nobles to support Shahu and a great contributor to his success, died of complications from an old battle wound. An immediate subordinate of Dhanaji, Balaji Viswanath Bhat a Chitpavan Brahman, rose to fill the gap.

Chitpavan Brahmans

‘Chitpavan’, also spelt ‘Chittapavan’, means ‘pure from the pyre’ or ‘pure at heart’. Another name used for the clan is ‘Konkanastha’, meaning ‘belonging to the Konkan’—the coastal region between the Arabian Sea and the Western Ghats Mountain ranges, spreading south of Mumbai. The reference to the ‘pyre’ is derived from a legend.

The Legend. The legend is to be found in the ‘Sahyadri Khanda’ of the Skanda Purana. The story goes that Parshuram, the Brahman incarnation of Lord Vishnu, cleared the Earth 21 times of the Kshatriya clans to avenge the murder of his father Sage Jamadagni by king Sahasrarjuna. At the end of this vicious campaign, Parshuram who was reeking of blood could not find any Brahmans to eat with him or share his meal. Peeved at this rejection, Parshuram standing at the summit of Sahyadri saw the corpses of 14 Mlecha, foreign, sailors floating in the ocean. He dragged them ashore and burned them to ashes in a great pyre. From the ashes he created 14 live Brahmans who readily partook meals with him. At the end of a meal, they asked Parshuram for some land to live on. Parshuram shot and arrow into the Arabian Sea and commanded the Sea to withdraw to where the arrow had fallen. The result of the withdrawal of the Arabian Sea was the Konkan Coast, which was bestowed on the 14 Brahmans. These Brahmans called themselves ‘Chitpavan’, ‘purified by funeral pyres’.

[A slightly different version of the reclamation of land from the Arabian Sea, where Parashuram is supposed to have flung his battle axe across the ocean rather than shoot an arrow, is given as the legend for the creation of Kerala, which even today calls itself ‘God’s own country’.]

The Chitpavan Brahmans are generally fair, with aquiline noses and grey, blue or green eyes. There are various theories, hypothesis and speculations of their original connection to Turks, Iranians, Egyptians, Greeks and Berbers, none of them established conclusively.

The original home of the Chitpavan was around the city of Chiplun, originally called Chitpolan meaning the ‘town of the burnt heart’, in Ratnagiri district in the northern part of the Konkan. Around 18th century, members of the clan started to spread throughout the Maratha country, moving inland from the coast. They coalesced around the larger towns and cities, especially Pune, Sangli and Wai. The Chitpavan were unheard of before the late 17th century and their rise to fame can be identified with the appointment of Balaji Viswanath Bhat as Peshwa in 1713.       

Balaji and his brother Janoji were hereditary Deshmukhs of Shrivardhan and Harihar, two villages north of the Bankot Creek. There are different stories regarding the rise of Balaji, one of them is incredible and impossible to believe. According to this narrative, Balaji is said to have risen from obscurity to power and influence in the Maratha court within a span of six years, to become the First Minister. Thankfully, more reliable information has come to light recently regarding the background of Balaji Viswanath Bhat.

A recently discovered paper dated 1696 refers to Balaji Viswanath Sabhasad. A Sabhasad is a Privy Councillor, a title conferred on men with some years of distinguished royal service, which would mean that Balaji was in royal service for some years earlier. Subsequently some more papers have come to light, which confirm that Balaji was the Sarsubedar of Pune between 1699–1702 and of Daulatabad from 1704–1707. The position of Sarsubedar could be equated to being the ‘Commissioner’ and is arrived at after many years of meritorious service. It is obvious that Balaji Viswanath must have entered royal service during the reign of Sambhaji.

Balaji was with Shahu during the initial years of his return to the Deccan and the accompanying turmoil. It was Balaji who did the background work and eventually persuaded Dhanaji Yadav to support Shahu at the Battle of Khed, which was the turning point in the evolving civil war. Dhanaji thereafter depended heavily on Balaji Viswanath and his counsel, a fact that irritated his own son Chandrasen Yadav. Unhappy with his father’s preference for Balaji’s counsel, Chandrasen started to make overtures to Tarabai against Shahu.

Shahu wanted to create harmony and on Dhanaji’s death appointed Chandrasen as the Senapati. However, since he was aware of Chandrasen’s intrigue with Tarabai, he appointed Balaji as the controller of the force, primarily to keep Chandrasen under observation and in check. The dislike between the two senior commanders simmered and broke into the open over a minor indiscretion by one of Balaji’s subordinates. Chandrasen attacked Balaji’s contingent, who was forced to flee initially to Purandar and then to Pandavgarh, near Wai. From here Balaji send word to king Shahu regarding his plight and requested help. Shahu send an escort for Balaji and asked Chandrasen to present his case at Satara.

Chandrasen now made a strategic blunder in his appreciation of Shahu’s personal strength and determination. He defied the king and asked that Balaji be surrendered to him as a precondition for his presenting before the king. No king with a modicum of self-respect would countenance such a demand. Shahu ordered Haribat Rao Nimbalkar to reduce Chandrasen to obedience. In April 1711, Chandrasen was defeated in the Battle of Adarki in Phaltan province and fled to Panhala to join Tarabai. Unfortunately for Shahu, Haribat Rao also started to negotiate with Tarabai with the intention of changing sides. This left Balaji Viswanath Bhat as the only senior commander completely loyal to Shahu, the only person the king could trust.

The limited forces under Balaji’s command had become dispersed during his flight from Chandrasen. Undaunted, he set about raising another army, creating one around the nucleus of the small number of his remaining followers. On 20th August 1711, king Shahu conferred the title of Sena Karta, ‘maker of armies’, on Balaji. With a competent army to back him, Balaji turned to intrigue, starting to use Tarabai’s own weapon against her.

Balaji had by now realised that as long as Tarabai remained free with a claim to the throne, however tenuous the claim, Shahu would not have full authority over the kingdom. There would always be disgruntled nobles like Chandrasen who would pursue self-interest and create instability and mischief. Balaji contacted Rajasbai, Rajaram’s junior wife who had continued to claim the throne for her son Sambhaji, although with little success. He offered her Shahu’s support and acceptance if she overthrew Tarabai—Rajasbai accepted the offer. In 1712, with the help of several Maratha nobles, some arranged by Balaji himself, Rajasbai overthrew Tarabai’s government and imprisoned her and her son Shivaji. By this stage, Shivaji had grown up to be an idiot, some even referring to him as an imbecile.

Sambhaji was crowned king. Chandrasen now made overtures to the Nizam-ul-Mulk, the Mughal viceroy of the Deccan and was accepted into Mughal service. Throughout his life thereafter, Chandrasen remained an implacable enemy of the Marathas. It is strange how in the span of just one generation, a family can change from being loyal nobles of the king to becoming his obdurate enemies. Ego, selfishness, and the urge for self-enrichment are great and interesting catalysts that alter human behaviour, dilute their integrity and compromise trustworthiness. Grateful to Balaji, Rajasbai and her son ceased being openly hostile to Shahu. The few years of respite that this gave was all that was required for Balaji Viswanath to restore order in Shahu’s domains.           

Dealing with Damaji Thorat, Parshuram Trimbak and Kanhoji Angre

In late 1711, Shahu ordered Balaji Viswanath and the newly formed army to defeat the robber baron Damaji Thorat who had been defying royal orders for some time. Balaji and his assistant Ambaji Purandare led the army against Thorat. However, their relative inexperience was their undoing. They were outwitted and lured into Thorat’s palace without sufficient escort, captured and thrown into a dungeon. They had to be subsequently ransomed by the king. Damaji would be dealt with at a later date.

Parshuram Trimbak had been in prison since the capture of Satara and Balaji advised the king to release him from captivity and reinstate him. Accordingly, Parshuram was freed and given charge of Vishalgarh and surrounding areas. Parshuram handed over control to his son Krishnaji, who promptly defected to Sambhaji in Kolhapur—Shahu reimprisoned Parshuram. However, his second son, Shripatrao, redeemed the family honour by his valour in the battle against Krishnarao of Khatao, prompting Shahu to reinstate Parshuram as the Pratinidhi in April 1713. Although he was not given an army to command, Parshuram’s advice and wise counsel were often sought by Shahu.

Towards the end of 1713, Shahu decided to act against Kanhoji Angre, the son of Tukoji Angre, who had been operating as an independent naval commander for more than a decade. The real surname of ‘Angre’ was Sangpal, but since they were from the village of Angarwadi, the name Agre was commonly used and had become the known surname. Kanhoji took over the family fleet in 1690 and within about seven years was the sole Maratha naval commander of consequence in the Konkan coast, having defeated the others in several battles. Tarabai appointed Kanhoji ‘Sarkhel’, or Admiral, and he went on to capture Kalyan and the forts at Rajmachi and Lohgarh. Shahu send a force to subdue Kanhoji, which was comprehensively defeated by the admiral and the commander, Peshwa Bahirao Pingle taken prisoner.

It was at this stage that Balaji came up with the concept that over a short period of time evolved into the beginnings of the Great Maratha Confederacy. He realised that the lesser nobility and the larger common mass believed in Shahu’s right to rule, as the senior member of the House of Bhonsle being the lawful and hereditary heir to the throne. They were also impressed by the strength of his character and his loving, God-fearing, almost saintly disposition. It was only necessary for him to recognise the nobility in their newly acquired positions for them to become loyal to him. The challenge was that Shivaji had instituted a system of centrally controlled administration wherein all office-bearers, including the nobles, were paid a salary according to his status and position. The nobles felt that Shahu would reinstitute this tradition and therefore they would lose their newfound wealth and improvements in personal status, achieved during the three decades of turbulence. Balaji recommended that the king do away with this system and to grant lands to nobles, with a charter of duties and responsibilities, making them effective vassal princes. Shahu agreed to the proposal and the seeds of the Maratha Confederacy were sown.     

The first noble to benefit from this altered process in central administration was Kanhoji Angre. Balaji now decided to deal with Kanhoji through diplomatic means. The two met at Lonavala and Balaji appealed to Kanhoji’s inherent patriotism and loyalty to the Bhonsle family to convert him into an ally of king Shahu. The Great Maratha Confederacy was born.

For his steadfast work of holding the Maratha kingdom together, despite many strong and vicious fissiparous trends at play, Shahu appointed Balaji Viswanath Bhat the Peshwa on 16 November 1713. Under Shahu’s instructions, now a much-strengthened confederacy attacked and defeated Damaji Thorat who was imprisoned in the fort of Purandar. The Thorat’s fort was demolished, and the ground on which it had stood ploughed to indicate the end of the family/clan. By 1718, Shahu and Balaji had stabilised the Maratha kingdom and restored order to the region.   


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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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