The Marathas Part 15 Peshwa Madhav Rao Section I: Accession, Rebellions and Consolidation

Canberra, 22nd May 2022

In 1761, the Maratha polity was reeling from the defeat in a battle that need not have been fought. The disaster was the culmination of extended ambition, unwanted hubris, inexperience in diplomacy, strategy, operational art and tactics and flawed command and control arrangements. The defeat of the magnificent Maratha army continues to baffle the analyst till date—how was the army permitted to arrive at a situation that could not be salvaged? No completely satisfactory answer is available to this vexed question, even today. Already in ill-health and heartbroken by the unfortunate turn of events, Balaji Rao died on 23 June, bringing the curtain down on the glorious, combined reign of his father and his own.

Madhav Rao, the eldest surviving son of Balaji, who was 17-years old, was placed on the Peshwa’s throne. In many narratives of the time, he is referred to as Madhav Rao Ballal. Ramraja, the descendant of great kings and the nominal king of the Marathas, who had been in virtual imprisonment and had not taken part in state governance for more than a decade was asked for permission for the investiture because of the high prestige that continued to be attached to his position. Madhav Rao was a high-spirited youth and although young, endowed with sound judgement and talents that suited both a soldier and statesman. The eldest surviving member of the Peshwa family, Raghunath Rao the leader of the great northern expedition of 1758, took the lead at this unprecedented time of crisis in the Maratha empire and declared himself Regent, the de facto ruler. This regency was self-formed by Raghunath Rao and self-serving. Madhav Rao, although aware of the great power that his throne held, did not oppose the arrangement. Raghunath appointed his trusted adviser, Sakharam Bapu, as the Diwan.

The political situation within the Maratha state was chaotic and inevitably led to a series of plots, rebellions and revolts, for many valid and imaginary reasons. The first was fomented by Tuloji Angre, who was already in prison. He contrived to enlist the nephew of Ibrahim Khan Gardi to plot an uprising with 8000 infantry soldiers in Pune on the day of the death of the Peshwa. Raghunath Rao came to know of the plot and effectively diffused it before any damage could be done. Tuloji was placed under even stricter prison conditions.

At this juncture the affairs of the Maratha state were in complete disarray. True, there was no danger emanating from the north—Abdali had been able to gather only military booty such as guns and horses but nothing by way of treasure. His soldiers revolted for arrears of pay when he wanted to march on Delhi and he was forced to retire to Afghanistan on 22 March 1761, placing a puppet on Delhi’s throne. The gravest danger to the Maratha entity came from the east.

The Threat

In Hyderabad, Nizam Ali had usurped all administrative powers from his brother Salabat Jang, the actual Nizam. The entire Mughal Deccan was now controlled by him, and he prepared to take advantage of the confusion in Maratha ranks and politics. Nizam Ali was also anxious to reverse the terms imposed on him after his defeat by Sadashiv Rao Bhau at Udgir. The political chaos was further muddied by the division within the Brahmin ruling elite in the Maratha state—the northern Brahmins having nurtured deep-seated antipathy for the Konkan Brahmins who formed the clan of the Peshwas. In keeping with their normal habits, the Maratha nobles were also divided into factions supporting and opposing the Peshwa.

Nizam Ali hurriedly gathered his army and marched towards Pune, destroying and defiling Hindu temples that he came across on the way. This anti-Hindu sentiment and actions made one of the senior commanders of the Nizam, Ramchandra Jadhav, defect to the Marathas. Undeterred, Nizam Ali continued forward, reaching Urali, a few miles from Pune. Several Maratha chiefs urged the Regent Raghunath Rao to crush the incipient uprising, erasing the Nizam’s power forever. However, the crafty Regent demurred and instead made conciliatory approach to the Nizam, arriving at an agreement that was favourable to the Nizam. It is obvious that Raghunath Rao was already anticipating a power struggle with his nephew the young Peshwa to ensue. He was in the process of creating allies for the future, wanting to have the good will of the Nizam on his side. Minor skirmishes lasted from November 1761 to January 1762, the Nizam having returned to his own dominions by then.

Encounter with the English

During Balaji Rao’s tenure, Maratha relations with the English, now in possession of the island of Mumbai, were not cordial. By the early 1760s, the English had achieved resounding military victories in the Carnatic and more importantly in Bengal, greatly strengthening their overall position in the sub-continent. They had also become more aggressive in their efforts to exploit the differences between local rulers to their own benefit. The English leadership in Mumbai viewed the political confusion in the Maratha kingdom as a great opportunity to improve their position in the west coast. They watched the internal discords and the uneasy division of power between the young Peshwa and his uncle and astutely anticipated the power struggle that was inevitably to follow.

Raghunath Rao had so far been considered a pillar of Maratha nobility, an able general and steady administrator, always keeping the interest of the Maratha kingdom uppermost in his mind. Even his assumption of the regency was considered a self-less act to save the empire from dire straits. However, personal ambition had made deep dents in his altruistic attitude and from the assumption of the current regency, he believed that he was the best suited to be the Peshwa and to lead the Maratha nation. Power had corrupted him, and he wanted nothing more than to usurp the legality of power from his nephew. This trait, which he had managed to keep hidden, came to the open in his dealings with the Nizam when he let Nizam Ali off the proverbial hook with an eye on getting his support when the power struggle broke. In dealing with the English in Mumbai, he confirmed his disloyalty to the Maratha entity in his quest for personal power.

After forcing his regency on the young Peshwa and the Maratha people, Raghunath Rao concluded an agreement with the English on 14th September 1761, when it seemed certain that Nizam Ali’s invasion was imminent. In this agreement, he made substantial concessions to the English, while not gaining anything in return, although it was more an assurance of civility and friendship than a definitive treaty. Raghunath Rao was hoping to gain some military assistance from the English in the impending power struggle, which could lead to civil war. The English in return wanted control of Salsette and Bassein, which would effectively secure Mumbai harbour from seaborne attacks. However, to his credit, Raghunath Rao was reluctant to hand over these strategic forts and the agreement did not proceed any further. It was also at this stage in the negotiations that the struggle between the Peshwa and the Regent came out in the open.

A Peshwa Comes of Age

By early 1762, Madhav Rao was determined to assert his rights and independence as the Peshwa. Almost as a prelude to this action, he had led a Martha force into the Carnatic, as far south as Sira to collect tribute. He was accompanied by his trusted advisor, Trimbakrao Viswanath Pethe, Sadashiv Rao’s maternal uncle. However, some prominent nobles in his entourage advised him to be wary of Raghunath Rao and his machinations. Madhav Rao demanded a greater share of administrative duties and governance actions. Initially Raghunath Rao mocked the demand as being made by a ‘child’, but later when the seriousness of the demand sunk in, started to resent it. In a fit of pique, Raghunath Rao resigned from the position of Regent and Sakharam as Diwan—confident that the young and inexperienced Peshwa would not be able to rule such a vast and complex kingdom without their assistance. Raghunath Rao retired to Nasik and sulked there for some time, biding his time—a rebellion was in the making.    

They did not cater for the sagacity of Madhav Rao and underestimated the capability and spirit of the young Peshwa, and his supporting nobles. Madhav Rao assumed full control of the government; appointed Trimbak Rao as Diwan; and made two close associates—Hari Ballal Phadke and Balaji Janardhan Bhanu—personal assistants and secretaries. Bhanu came to be better known in history as Nana Phadnavis.   

Nana Phadnavis

According to the Peshwa’s Chronicles (Bakhar), Nana Phadnavis’s grandfather, Balaji, and great uncle who lived in Velas in the Konkan had provided shelter to Balaji Viswanath when he was fleeing from the Sidis. Thereafter, both the brothers accompanied Balaji Viswanath to Shahu’s court. The next three generations of the family continued in the service of the Peshwa and the Maratha state, holding high offices in court. Nana was brought up in the companionship of the Peshwa’s sons, Viswas Rao and Madhav Rao. By the time of the appointment of Madhav Rao as the Peshwa, Phadnavis was only 19 years old. However, he had already seen considerable military service in the Carnatic as well as in Hindustan in the north.

Phadnavis had taken his mother on a pilgrimage to Mathura during Sadashiv Rao’s ill-fated northern expedition and being physically in the area, had been involved in the military action, although he did not play any consequential role in the battle. He lost his mother to a fall from a horse while she was fleeing the aftermath of the defeat at Panipat. He had managed to escape from the region with great difficulty. 

Raghunath Rao – The Rebel

Yielding to anger brought on by thwarted ambition and accepting wrong counsel from his proud wife and other self-serving courtiers, Raghunath Rao took matters into his hands. He sought the help of Nizam Ali, who had in the meantime disposed of his brother Salabat Jang and had become the Nizam, against his nephew the Peshwa. Raghunath Rao moved to Aurangabad, then governed by Murad Khan, who gave him a large contingent of Muslim troops. In return, Murad Khan reduced by fifty per cent the tribute he was to pay the Marathas as per the Treaty of Udgir and made Raghunath Rao cede control of Daulatabad, Shivner, Asirgarh and Ahmednagar. The rebel Regent signed the Treaty of Pedgaon with the Nizam. Raghunath Rao was now fully aligned with the Muslim forces against his own country.

A series of minor and indecisive encounters took place between the two factions between 7–12 November 1672 on the banks of the River Godavari. The Peshwa’s forces were unable to make any headway and were defeated in two separate battles. The far-thinking Madhav Rao realised that continued civil war would only escalate and be detrimental to the well-being of the overall Maratha state, profiting only the enemies of the kingdom. He, therefore, asked for reconciliation with his uncle. Intuitively realising that he himself would not be acceptable to the Maratha people as the Peshwa, Raghunath Rao did not depose Madhav Rao. Instead, he re-established himself as the Regent and took back control of the entire government machinery, nominally ruling in the Peshwa’s name. Sakharam Bapu was reinstated as Diwan and the administrative machinery rearranged to accommodate his own followers, replacing Madhav Rao loyalists. Raghunath Rao also confiscated the estates of some of the nobles. Further, he adhered to the conditions of his treaty with the Nizam and surrendered several districts to Hyderabad.

These activities were definitely anti-Maratha both in the short- and long-term impacts and Raghunath Rao was uncaring about the damage that he was inflicting on the Maratha polity. The nobles in the Peshwa’s faction rightly felt disenfranchised. At this juncture, the Nizam’s canny Diwan—Vithal Sundar Raje Pratapwant—lured many of these nobles to the Nizam’s fold. It is notable that other than for the young Peshwa and his immediate entourage no noble gave even a cursory thought to the well-being of their country—loyalty to nation, king and religion seemed to have become an outdated concept. Only personal ambition and upliftment kept these nobles functioning. They joined the side they felt would benefit them the most, personally. Only Nana Phadnavis and Hari Phadke remained loyal to Madhav Rao.

The Nizam’s Rampage

With a large number of defections to his side from the Madhav Rao faction, the Nizam came to believe that he could overthrow the Maratha state and establish a Muslim rule across the entire Deccan. In accordance with this belief, he denounced all previous treaties, including the ones that were favourable to him and declared that he would remove the Chitpavan Brahmins from holding power in Pune. The Nizam promised Janoji Bhonsle that he would be made the Regent—an attempt to gain support from the faction that still looked to revert the Maratha kingdom to the rule of the Bhonsles. However, duplicitous as ever, while his Diwan was negotiating this deal with Bhonsle, the Nizam had also approached the Raja of Kolhapur with an offer to make him the Regent after the Peshwa was overthrown.

The Nizam’s move to install a non-Brahmin Regent was a strategic mistake. Madhav Rao realised the threat to his entire clan and once again made peace with Raghunath Rao. Jointly they reverted to the old Maratha tactics of guerrilla warfare and besieged Aurangabad. From there they went into Berar, and systematically plundered the Bhonsle territories, since he was aligned with the Nizam. During these raids they also managed to win back some of the nobles who had defected to the Nizam. Initially the Nizam chased the Maratha forces to different places and realising the futility of doing so, decided to take the fight to the enemy. He marched on Pune—he was unopposed and managed to plunder the town easily. From there he marched further east and plundered the region between Purandar and River Bhima. Although the Marathas under Raghunath Rao had reached the outskirts of Hyderabad they were unable to make any significant inroads into the defences and no damage was done.

Meanwhile Sakharam Bapu had made contact with Janoji Bhonsle and revealed the Nizam’s double-dealing to him. He also plied Bhonsle with heavy bribes and convinced him that it was better to be high noble within the Maratha fold, rather than wait for the ephemeral position of the Regent that may or may not eventuate from his alliance with the Nizam. Janoji was convinced by Bapu to influence and alter the opinions of other Maratha nobles with the Nizam and they, en masse, agreed to defect to the Maratha side at an opportune moment.

With the approaching monsoon rains, the Nizam retired to Aurangabad, proposing to recuperate there. At a place called Rakshasabhavan (literally meaning the house of the demons), the Nizam crossed the River Godavari, now in spate, with half his army leaving the Diwan on the other side with half the army. At this juncture, Bhonsle and his co-conspirators withdrew support to the Nizam and returned to their fiefs, pleading monsoon rains as the excuse. Raghunath Rao now attacked a much-depleted Nizam’s army under the Diwan. Although numerically superior, inept leadership found the Marathas repulsed and surrounded by the Nizam’s army after a battle on 10th August 1673.

Madhav Rao had been left in the rear, a virtual prisoner in command of 1500 household troops. He was urged by Malhar Rao Holkar to flee to Pune and claim the throne. Madhav Rao, true to form, scorned this advice and also accused Holkar for having given similar advice the Sadashiv Rao, which had led to the defeat at Panipat. With his meagre force, he charged the Nizam’s forces who were in disarray celebrating a victory that they presumed was a foregone conclusion. Madhav Rao cut through the enemy forces to reach and rescue his uncle. In the melee, Diwan Vithal Sundar was killed, and the Afghan forces of the Nizam disintegrated in confusion. Nizam Ali, camped on the other side of the swollen river, could offer no assistance, and withdrew to Aurangabad.

From Aurangabad, he reached out to Raghunath Rao asking for ‘forgiveness’ for his rebellion, which was granted by the veteran Maratha commander against the advice of most senior nobles. The Treaty of Aurangabad was signed on 25th September 1763. It essentially proclaimed the full recovery of Maratha power after the Battle of Panipat.

Madhav Rao’s decisive and brave action that had salvaged the situation from another humiliating defeat could not be ignored and he took over control of the entire government machinery. He immediately acted to right the wrongs that had been perpetuated by Raghunath Rao so that the estranged Maratha nobles would return to the fold. Madhav Rao, more than anyone else, clearly understood that creating rifts and factions among the nobles was detrimental to the cohesiveness and unity of the Maratha state.

A Final Rebellion

At the conclusion of every treaty, there is bound to be at least one powerful noble/general who would be unhappy with the outcome. In this case it was Janoji Bhonsle who had been promised large estates, which was not kept owing to changing circumstances. Unhappy that he did not become the Regent and his treachery to the Nizam had not been rewarded sufficiently, he started to intrigue with Haidar Ali of Mysore to oppose the young Peshwa. Together, they continually instigated Raghunath Rao to recapture power from his nephew.

Raghunath Rao was initially grateful to his nephew for rescuing him in battle, but throughout history it can be observed that gratefulness falls on the wayside when it struggles to keep pace with the thirst for power and wealth in an individual. After a lapse of two years, Raghunath Rao’s gratefulness to his nephew had dissipated completely and he had once again started preparing to usurp power.  

Meanwhile the Peshwa had been taking decisive action to secure the Maratha state and consolidate his hold on the government. He concluded an agreement with the Nizam according to which he confiscated some of Janoji’s estates and restored part of it to the Nizam. Janoji Bhonsle could not oppose the move since he did not have the support of Raghunath Rao to do so and individually, he was not strong enough to withstand the Peshwa’s writ. Around the same time, Raghunath Rao had led an inconclusive expedition to North India and returned in 1767, camping at Anandavalli near Nasik. The purpose of this expedition and what it achieved have never been made clear in any of the contemporary narratives. It could be speculated that perhaps Raghunath Rao wanted to gather tribute to fund his rebellion. From this camp he openly prepared to contest for power with the Peshwa. As early as 1765, when he was returning from the northern expedition Raghunath Rao had demanded partition of the Maratha state between the Peshwa and himself.

Madhav Rao, ever mindful of the need to secure the Maratha state, was more inclined to reconciliation than confrontation and managed to reach a fragile agreement with his uncle in September 1767. The agreement did not last, and Raghunath Rao reneged—openly negotiating with the Nizam, Haidar Ali and Janoji Bhonsle to form a confederacy to oust the Peshwa from power. He also approached the English for assistance in this proposed coup, in return for subsequent Maratha assistance in the Anglo-Mysore war. Raghunath Rao’s fall from grace and complete lack of integrity is starkly visible in this dealing—on the one hand he was negotiating with Haidar Ali to become allies, while at the same time he was promising the English assistance in their war against the Mysore ruler.

Raghunath Rao’s impending rebellion disrupted Madhav Rao’s initiatives and plans for consolidation and expansion. He had to focus all his resources on the civil war and therefore, could not take advantage of the Anglo-Mysore wars to increase Maratha influence in the Carnatic. He also had to reconcile with the Nizam and abandon his attempts to contain the Sidis of Janjira. A decisive battle was fought on 10th June 1678 at Dhodap, a fort in the Chandore ranges in which Raghunath Rao was defeated and captured, being kept a prisoner thereafter in Pune. After this battle, Raghunath Rao became an obscure footnote in the mainstream narrative of Maratha domestic policies.  

Madhav Rao punished the immediate accomplices—particularly Gaikwar and Holkar’s Diwan—and then moved against Janoji Bhonsle. Bhonsle was supported by the Nizam and adopted guerrilla tactics to fight the Peshwa. However, his army was no match for the Maratha army and he was repeatedly defeated and reduced to vassal status. Madhav Rao now had unquestioned control over the Maratha kingdom. (Greater details of this rebellion is given in the next chapter)  


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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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