The Marathas Part 12 The Rise of the Peshwas: Balaji Viswanath Bhat

Canberra, 12 November 2021

Bringing Kanhoji Angre into Shahu’s fold without bloodshed was a great triumph of Balaji’s diplomacy. The most powerful chieftain from the rival camp was now a supporter of Shahu, which further strengthened the foundations of the Maratha kingdom that was being built. The new policy, enunciated by the Peshwa and fully endorsed by the king, of recognising the position and status of the nobles and granting them ‘jagirs’, assured the nobles who were still undecided regarding their support, of their future prospects. They now flocked to Shahu’s banner.

Mughal Viceroys in the Deccan

After Aurangzeb’s death, within a little over a decade, several coups and revolutions took place in the Mughal court in Delhi, with some ‘emperors’ ruling for less than four months. The Mughal empire was teetering on the brink of chaos and instability as a prelude to total eclipse. Further, most of the Mughal nobles who had supported Shahu had either been removed from power or were dead, like the powerful and Maratha-friendly Zulfiqar Khan. In June 1713, a new Viceroy reached the Deccan—Nizam-ul-Mulk. He had different views on how to deal with the Marathas and pursued a completely different policy to what had been followed for the past decade.

The Nizam-ul-Mulk had spent his early career in campaigns in the Deccan and therefore had intimate knowledge of the people, the region and possible challenges to Mughal domination. There were two reasons for the Nizam-ul-Mulk’s decision to change the policy. The first was that he realised the declining power of the Mughals in the region and that for him to be effective, imperial power needed to be reinstated. The second was a more compelling reason for the ambitious Nizam. The Deccan being so far away from the seat of Mughal power, which in itself was rapidly decaying, he could explore the possibilities of creating a kingdom for himself and declaring independence. The only impediment to this course of action was the opposition to established Mughal authority from the growing might of the Marathas. Therefore, containing and then diminishing Maratha power became the cornerstone of Nizam-ul-Mulk’s Deccan policy.

When Nizam-ul-Mulk arrived in the Deccan, the geo-political situation in the region was inexplicable and bizarre. In 1709, the new Mughal emperor Bahadur Shah had refused permission to the Marathas to collect Chauth in the Mughal Deccan. However, this instruction could not be enforced, and the local Mughal representative had, under duress, permitted the Marathas to collect revenues. The Marathas had gone on to establish a parallel government, collecting dues directly and imposing toll on all movement of merchandise. Mughal control over the region had become nominal, at best. Further, Nemaji Scindia was in Mughal service and in-charge of the Aurangabad province. From there he extended his influence on Malwa and Central India. The overall situation was that the Mughal authority in the Deccan was simply non-existent.

Nizam-ul-Mulk took stock of the situation and immediately repudiated all agreements that had been made with the Marathas. He then started a two-pronged offensive to gain administrative control—he started to expel Maratha officials and supporting military contingents from Mughal territories; and simultaneously involved himself in Maratha politics in an attempt to create further divisions. He took advantage of the dissention in the Maratha nobility and opened negotiations with Chandrasen Yadav who was now aligned completely with the Kolhapur faction supporting Rajasbai and Sambhaji. Clashes were bound to take place and the main ones started in the Bhima–Godavari River basin.

On the Mughal viceroy expelling Maratha officials, Balaji immediately took to the field with an army. Several indecisive engagements between the two sides followed with both sides suffering defeats at random. Balaji also instigated uprisings in Mughal territories to increase Nizam-ul-Mulk’s discomfiture. The Nizam had not been a very popular noble in Delhi and his detractors now appointed a ‘Diwan’, who was against him, within his Deccan headquarters. This individual acted independent of the Nizam-ul-Mulk. Unable to cope with these internal dissentions and the constant stream of Maratha uprisings across the entire region, the Nizam negotiated an understanding with the Peshwa and withdrew from the Pune region. In May 1715, Nizam-ul-Mulk was recalled from the Deccan and replaced by Sayyid Husain Ali.

New Mughal Initiatives

Husain Ali tried to continue Nizam-ul-Mulk’s strict policies. As a first initiative he decided to clear the road between Surat, Burhanpur and Aurangabad which was being controlled by a Maratha chief, Khanderao Dabhade, who levied a toll on all merchandise that moved on that road. Husain send a 10,000-strong force to bring Dabhade to book, under the command of Zulfiqar Beg, considered a ‘dashing soldier’. Dabhade lured the force into the hills of Khandesh and annihilated it. Enraged at the failure, Husain Ali send a larger force under the command of his Diwan, Muhkam Singh, assisted by Chandrasen Yadav who had now joined the Mughals. Dabhade knew that he would not be able to defeat this force and therefore retreated, while continually fighting rear-guard actions pursuing a tactic of attrition. After a major, but indecisive engagement near Ahmednagar, Dabhade and the Marathas broke out near River Bhima, while Muhkam moved towards Satara.

The Marathas resorted once again to guerrilla warfare. All the garrisons held their ground and the forces dispersed between the forts harried the Mughal forces and dispersed on their concentrating to attack. Immediately on the passing of the Mughal forces, the Marathas would recoup and commence harassment again. By January 1717, the Mughal forces were tired and had not won any significant victory or achieved the fundamental objective of the expedition—toll was still being levied at different points on the Surat Road. Muhkam and Chandrasen decided to return to headquarters with their exhausted forces.

Sayyid Husain and his brother had installed a puppet prince as the emperor in Delhi, who did not like the brothers being the all-powerful, de facto rulers of the regime. There was complete distrust between the Sayyid brothers and the emperor. The emperor wrote to all the distant governors and feudatories to make war on the Sayyid brothers, wherever they may be, in an effort to dilute the power of the brothers. Taking advantage of the dissention in Mughal ranks, the Maratha horsemen overran imperial districts in the Deccan with abandon. Husain Ali, being in the Deccan was unable to deal with the court intrigues and militarily not strong enough to effectively contain the constant Maratha attacks. He initiated peace negotiations with Shahu.

Husain deputed Shankaraji Malhar, who had been a minister in Rajaram’s government and was now in Mughal service, to Shahu’s court to find a basis for a peace agreement. The Mughal position in the Deccan at this stage was untenable and had been so for more than a decade. During his campaign, Aurangzeb could never bring himself to agree on any terms of peace with the ‘infidels’. His successors were all equally indecisive and powerless emperors who balked at arriving at a negotiated settlement in the Deccan and continued to clutch at straws to provide excuses for their failures and the evolving sorry state of affairs. As can be seen, the viceroys, even powerful ones, and the local Mughal representatives were never given clear instructions or a free hand to deal with the Marathas. There was also a less than clear understanding in the Mughal court that during these long years of indecision and dilly-dallying, the Marathas had grown stronger, and were continuing to do so by the day, becoming bolder by the hour.

Under these circumstances, the local middle-level Mughal commanders arrived at personal understandings with their counterpart Maratha commanders to avoid unnecessary bloodshed and being attacked. The situation obviously led to anarchy in the Mughal provinces with no clear governance. From a ‘control’ perspective, the Marathas controlled the entire Deccan and extended their control to Gujarat and Malwa. At the same time, partisans loyal to the Kolhapur faction nominally led by Sambhaji, were overrunning the Karnataka province of the erstwhile Bijapur kingdom.


During the peace negotiations, the Maratha kingdom was represented by Balaji Viswanath as the Peshwa. He put forward the Maratha demands. First, the Chauth and Sardeshmukhi of the six provinces promised to Shahu on his release, although not by the Mughal emperor, was to be reinstated. In this instance, the province of ‘Bijapur’ was understood to include the whole of the Karnataka region and the tributary states of Mysore, Tanjore and Trichinopoly. Second, the Maratha king was to be given sovereignty of all the territories that had been held by Chatrapati Shivaji Maharaj, other than Khandesh. In lieu of Khandesh, Shahu was to be compensated by granting territories around Pandharpur. Third, the Marathas were to be given the rights to collect Chauth in Gujarat and Malwa, even though they were already doing so unofficially at the moment. Fourth, Shivner, the birthplace of Shivaji Maharaj, and Trimbak, a holy place for the Deccan Hindus renowned as the place where the River Godavari rises, were to be given to the Marathas. Fifth, Shahu’s mother Yesubai, his wife and other family members still in Mughal custody were to be returned to Satara immediately.

The Story of River Godavari (Trimbak’s Holy Status)

River Godavari is the holiest of all the rivers in Peninsular India and is also called the Southern Ganga. A legend claims a greater holiness for Godavari than Ganga, if such a situation is at all possible. The legend goes thus:

King Bhagirath, by the prowess of his penances and prayers brought down River Ganga from the heavens to ensure salvation of his ancestors and God Shiva caught her in his hair to ensure that the Earth was not washed away by the torrents. Ganga stayed imprisoned there for over a year. Parvati, Shiva’s wife, grew jealous of the stately lady Ganga, who her husband carried with him wherever he went. She called for help from her son Ganapati, the elephant-headed God. Near Trimbak the great sage Gautama had a hermitage. Close to his dwelling, the sage cultivated a small patch of land to grow corn for his scanty needs. Ganapati turned himself into a cow and started to graze on this corn. Irritated with the cow’s destruction of his crop, Gautama came out and struck it with a staff to move it away. The cow immediately fell dead.

Next year the rains failed in the region and for miles around farmers faced draught, ascribing the bad fortune to the killing of the cow. They petitioned Gautama to procure water for them from another source to save them from certain famine. Gautama, conscious of his guilt in the evolving circumstances, began a series of penances to induce God Shiva to release at least part of Ganga from his hair to water the arid land. Shiva consented at last and let out the fairest part of imprisoned Ganga, which fell on Trimbak and became the River Godavari. The farmers were saved. Ganga, bereft of her fairest part was no longer an object of envy for Parvati.

Trimbak (Triambak, where a Shiva temple Triambakeswar is located, thus is a place of pilgrimage for the Hindus, especially from the Peninsula.)     

In return, the Maratha king would pay a sum of 10 lakhs for the privilege of collecting Chauth in the old territories, the Maratha Swaraj. Ten percent of the annual collection towards the hereditary Sardeshmukhi would be paid to the Mughal treasury and Shahu would be responsible for maintaining law and order across all the territories that he collected revenue. Shahu would also keep a force of 15,000 cavalry at the disposal of the Mughal viceroy. Further, it was accepted that all these grants were based on the presumption that Shahu would remain faithful to the Mughal throne and serve it loyally.

Husain Ali, beset with challenges in the Mughal court and unable to tame the Marathas, was anxious and impatient to obtain peace. He agreed to all the conditions put forward by the Peshwa, except for permission to collect Chauth in Gujarat and Malwa. He delivered a ‘sanad’ containing the articles of peace to Shahu and wrote to the emperor for the issue of the royal ‘farman’. Further, he permitted the introduction of Maratha officials into all areas that were to revert to the Marathas as per the agreement and restored Swaraj territories to Shahu.

The Mughal emperor, although a puppet of the Sayyid brothers who held all the power, realised the importance of this treaty and that it practically abdicated Mughal authority in the Deccan. Even though powerless against Husain Ali and his brother, the emperor attempted to withhold royal endorsement of the treaty and tried to mount an anti-Sayyid campaign. Husain Ali now reached the capital with his Maratha allies, dethroned the emperor in February 1719, and subsequently put him to death. The Sayyid brothers placed another puppet, a great-grandson of Aurangzeb, on the throne. The treaty, including all the clauses, was then ratified by the new emperor and the necessary royal farmans issued.

Balaji Viswanath who had personally accompanied Husain Ali as commander of the Maratha contingent now returned to the Deccan in May 1719, to a tumultuous royal welcome in Satara. He had won Mughal recognition of all the demands that the Marathas had been fighting to achieve for more than three decades. The treaty, hailed as a triumph of Maratha independence further cemented Shahu’s position as the Maratha king. The Mughals accepted the inevitable and recognised Maratha supremacy in Peninsular India.

The Mughal–Maratha Treaty of 1719 Analysed

Although hailed as a breakthrough at the time in 1719, the treaty remains an enigma. Later day analysts, especially some modern-day historians, have questioned the ‘correctness’ of the treaty in terms of the broader Maratha ambitions. Irrespective of current opinions, there is no doubt that the treaty was a great diplomatic triumph for the Marathas—it brought to an end three decades of continuous bloodshed, without their having to win a decisive battle and the attendant loss of life and treasure such a battle would have entailed. This outcome was critical to the well-being of the Maratha kingdom since there was an on-going succession struggle that had split the nobility and was debilitating to the unity of the Maratha polity that in turn was draining the overall strength.

There is a school of thought, fostered many years later based on hindsight, that the Maratha leadership had morally degraded themselves by allying with a Mughal viceroy in order to achieve a semi-autonomous stature in the Deccan. Moving to an extreme position in this viewpoint, some analysts have claimed that accepting Mughal suzerainty—however formal it may have been and irrespective of the independence of Shahu—was against the cherished ideals of Shivaji who had fought throughout his life for an independent Maratha kingdom, Swaraj. This is an extreme viewpoint and does not take into account the context or circumstances under which the treaty was concluded. It discounts the realpolitik and misses the other compulsions on the Peshwa at that time and should be considered a purely legalistic analysis that goes by the letter rather than the spirit of the treaty.

As an unbiased historian, this author is prompted to consider the treaty as the first step towards Maratha supremacy, a demonstration of Maratha expertise in diplomacy and a clear indication of the maturing of the Maratha political process and government institutions. That Mughal suzerainty, as claimed in the treaty, was superficial is obvious even from a cursory examination of further developments. Within a short time of the signing of the treaty, the Marathas were collecting Chauth from the entire Deccan, including Mughal administered provinces and not merely the six provinces mentioned in the treaty. This cannot be construed as the behaviour of a vassal state with semi-autonomous stature, but of an independent and confident kingdom. The fact remains that the Marathas were pragmatic by nature—they understood the power they wielded and were not too concerned with the nuances of status and the formalities of power-play. No stretch of imagination could claim that the Maratha kingdom was a tributary state at this time.

The Long-term Impact of the Treaty

The real fall out of the treaty was the changes brought about in the Maratha administration that altered the manner in which the tributes were organised and gathered. Shivaji had instituted a system by which revenue was gathered centrally and administered by the royal treasury. In contrast, Balaji, with the approval of Shahu, changed the system by assigning the collection of revenue in different provinces to various high-ranking officials, mainly the Ashtapradhans, the council of eight ministers.

Allocations to Collect Revenue

Broad division in territories of responsibilities were made to collect Chauth and Sardeshmukhi as given:

The Gujarat region was allocated to the Senapati; Berar and Gondwana to the Bhonsles of Nagpur; the Pratinidhi was given Satara; the Sachiv collected from the Mawals (Pune); the Peshwa himself controlled Khandesh, Baglan and Central India; the Sarlashkar collected the revenue from the Godavari Basin; Fateh Singh Bhonsle was allocated Karnataka; and Kanhoji Angre was given charge of the Konkan. 

The chieftains established their authority over their regions rapidly and soon were considered the direct rulers and law givers of their territory. They exercised complete freedom of administration and collection of revenue, contributing only a small percentage to the central treasury. They also built up their military capabilities.

Balaji Viswanath was a pragmatist and knew that it would not be possible to revive the monarchical model of governance and reinstitute the old centrally controlled system. The entrenchment of the new system was a tacit acknowledgement of this fact. He realised that it would not be possible to bring together the military might of the entire Maratha peoples unless the powerful warlords were permitted to function independently. The need of the hour was to ensure that they accepted their individual allegiances to the king, even if the king was considered only the first among equals. The warlords were allies and confederates of the king, subordinate in stature, independent in administration of their regions and conquests, while willingly unified in pursuing matters of common policy.

There were two major drawbacks to the new system. First was that it entrenched the feudatory jagir system in the Marathas, with its own secondary challenges, and second that there were no checks and balances in the system to ensure that the warlords were accountable for discharging their considerable duties and responsibilities effectively. On the positive side, the freedom of action permitted to the war lords ensure the rapid expansion of Maratha territorial holdings and power. However, the downside came a century later when the same system led to the rapid dissolution of the Maratha kingdom.

Some analysts consider the introduction of the jagir system to replace the salaried central administration an unwise departure from Shivaji’s rule. Admittedly, there is indeed a dichotomy here. Balaji Viswanath had managed to control the warlords because of the grassroots support that was overwhelmingly available to the scion of the House of Bhonsle, Shahu. Then why did he surrender control of the administration by conceding such a large share of the power to the senior nobles? His move to introduce the Jagir system has been compared to ‘surrendering the gains of the battle after achieving victory’. This acceptance of power-sharing is a decision the reasons for which remains obscure. It could be speculated that Balaji felt that the power of the Peshwa would be increased, and more importantly perpetuated, by himself becoming the biggest ‘jagirdar’, which would make him an almost independent prime minister. Although there is no historical proof to confirm this theory, considering the shrewd manoeuvrings of Balaji, the hypothesis is not beyond belief and cannot be discarded as mere speculation.

On the other hand, Balaji seems to have adopted the best-suited system to ensure peace to an increasingly unstable kingdom, distracted by war and a simmering succession struggle, and to entrench Shahu as the legitimate king. An astute observer and analyst of events and people, Balaji took advantage of the changes taking place in the politico-strategic circumstances of the region, as well as within the Mughal kingdom, and took actions that would maximise the advantage and profits for his country in a sustained manner. He never wavered from his belief that reconciliation with the great Maratha generals was essential to establishing Maratha political supremacy in the Deccan. He worked tirelessly towards this goal, and the introduction of the Jagir system was just one step that had to be taken.

Balaji Viswanath Bhat died of heart failure at Saswad near Pune less than a year after his triumphant return to Maharashtra, on 2nd May 1720.

Balaji Viswanath – An Appreciation

It is unfortunate that there are no detailed reports regarding the character and personal traits of Balaji Viswanath that are available for analysis. The scanty information available are gleaned from the records of his son, who succeeded him as Peshwa. Many analysts have labelled Balaji as ‘the second founder of the Maratha state’, which is a correct statement. He did indeed manage to navigate and shepherd a very fragile Maratha state through severely troubled times.

Like many cases before and after in history, Balaji Viswanath’s stellar achievements were overshadowed by the brilliance of his son and successor, Baji Rao. However, it must be remembered that the son’s great exploits only began where Balaji’s ended—Baji Rao’s unparalleled success was built on Balaji’s prudent and visionary policies. The treaty with Husain Ali Sayyid was a brilliant diplomatic triumph; it saved the Maratha kingdom for the people who had suffered more than a quarter of a century of instability and strife. In the broader narrative of Maratha history, Balaji’s tenure as the Peshwa could be considered the period of transition from the ‘royal period’ to the ‘age of the Peshwas’, which was a new phase in the narrative. The successor kings of the great Shivaji Maharaj—who single-handedly brought to fruition his ambitious vision of ‘Swaraj’—were feeble and unworthy individuals, who were destined to fade into history as insignificant figureheads.

In a dispassionate analysis it will be seen that Balaji had no option but to grant control of land to the nobles, putting an end to Shivaji’s impressive system of centrally controlled salaried officers administering the land. Balaji appreciated that Shahu, as good a man as he was, did not have the commanding presence, talents or energy required to make centralised control work—he did not have the charisma or the stature necessary to make the Maratha kingdom a functioning autocracy. Therefore, Balaji wisely chose the next best option, substituting the concept of a confederacy to replace autocracy. There is no doubt that the new system had definitive disadvantages and inherent weaknesses, and that Balaji was aware of them. However, the Peshwas made it work, spreading enduring Maratha power across the entire sub-continent for more than a century. Balaji must also be credited with the introduction of the new revenue collection system that assiduously undermined Mughal authority by spreading a well-organised hierarchy of collection agents across the country, which bound the region inextricably to the Maratha kingdom.

Balaji was married to Radhabai a talented and literate lady, she could read and write in an age when many men of high birth could not read or write, who was also broad-minded in social matters. He had two sons and 2 daughters. The elder son, Visaji better known in history as Baji Rao, was born in 1698 and the second son Chimnaji Appa was born in 1708.

The hereditary Peshwas controlled the destiny of the Maratha nation for the next century and more.  

 © [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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