The Marathas Part 19 The Saranjamdari System

Canberra, 8 August 2022

The great king Shivaji established a well-knit monarchy, within which the king doubled as the supreme military commander and the head of the civil administration. The Maratha military forces, amounting to a standing army of 200,000, were always led into battle by the king, minor skirmishes and battles being delegated to loyal officers to command. Shivaji was personally involved planning campaigns and when he was physically elsewhere, he supervised the planning and regularly updated the campaign plans while monitoring the progress of battles that he was not present to supervise personally. All military officers were paid directly from the State treasury and were responsible for the accounting of any levy that had been made in enemy territory during the progress of a campaign.

The Chhatrapati also established similar guidelines and procedures for the civil departments dealing with revenue and State income—the departments of revenue, excise, customs and justice. All officers—both civil and military—were paid employees of the State, with the senior ones were directly responsible to the king and accountable for all financial dealings under them. Shivaji thus established an exemplary example of a unitary system of governance, wherein corruption was almost non-existent.

Only at the village level, the lowest administrative unit, were families permitted to hold on to small pieces of land for services rendered. The village head collected land revenue and passed it on to a district officer, who was on the payroll of the State and appointed by the king. The village officials were normally hereditary and did not participate in shaping State policies or in national politics. This had been the practice before Shivaji established his kingdom and he permitted the old practice to continue within the village without any modification. He understood that the local hereditary office bearers knew the village and its people most intimately. There were no intermediaries between the king and his subjects—his writ ran across the kingdom evenly and fairly.

Even as he was creating a cohesive kingdom, the great Shivaji had a clear conception of the needs of an efficient administration. He was never supportive of the feudal ‘jagir’ system and never countenanced it, insisting that even the highest officials in his administration and military be paid directly from the government treasury, never being assigned revenue of any kind in lieu of service. He was acutely aware that allocating fiefdoms to senior officials only created petty chieftains, more often than not entrenching the inherent evils of military tyranny and feudal anarchy within their individual spheres of influence. Shivaji knew that the feudal system permitted corruption and nepotism to enter the administration in such a way that it would become impossible to wrench out. Throughout his illustrious rule, he ran a monarchy which could not be faulted with even a single flaw that existed in unitary systems—a unique achievement in the long history of the sub-continent.

Chhatrapati Shivaji died in 1680. By then the Mughal emperor Aurangzeb had already started his Deccan campaign aimed at crushing the nascent Maratha kingdom. Shivaji’s successor, Shambhuji, was unequal to the arduous task of countering the mighty Mughal army while continuing to administer his kingdom effectively. His army was defeated, he himself taken prisoner, blinded and then beheaded by the Mughals. If Aurangzeb had believed that the murder of their king would cow down the Marathas, he was mistaken. The misfortune that had befallen their king invigorated the Maratha people, prompting them to strengthen their resistance to foreign invasion and concentrate on their struggle for independence. The Marathas fought the Mughals for 25 years and finally emerged triumphant, emphatically signalling the end of Mughal supremacy in the sub-continent. The downside of this well-deserved victory was that during this intense war for independence, the well-knit administrative machinery and state organisation that Shivaji had carefully crafted disintegrated and disappeared.

Indirect Rule – The Saranjamdari System

Muslim dynasties had long practised the system of maintaining a feudal aristocracy through the assignment of lands, called jagirs, for the upkeep of a stipulated number of troops to be produced on demand by the king/ruler. The grant was essentially in return for military service to be rendered to the crown. With the Islamic invasion and the establishment of Muslim kingdoms in the sub-continent, the system percolated into the ‘Hindu’ administrative system. After the victory over the Mughals, the Maratha king Rajaram was not strong enough and did not have the charisma necessary to reinstitute the unitary system of governance that had fallen to disuse. The war of independence had also thrown up a number of strong military commanders used to having their own way and who did not welcome handing over their power back to the king. They did not want to become paid employees of the king and State. For exigencies that were beyond his control Rajaram had to accept the adoption of the ‘jagirdari’ system into his administration.

By early 18th century, direct rule by the king was replaced by indirect rule in the Maratha kingdom. The village continued to function as the basic unit without any change, while the State administration underwent a radical change. The Raja divided the territories of the State between his senior ministers and military commanders. They were expected to raise, train and sustain a stipulated number of troops, both cavalry and infantry as determined by the king, administer their allocated territories and make fresh conquests as opportunities arose. In return for granting them territories, the nobles paid a small percentage of the total revenues collected to the king’s treasury, known as ‘Raj Babti’, almost like a pension. Over time, the system gradually became the norm. Territories that were directly controlled by the king, small in area as they were, continued to be centrally administered.

The allocation of territories to deserving officials and nobles was called Saranjam. The word is of Persian origin, meaning an apparatus or something that is essential for the smooth functioning of any undertaking. In Marathi it gradually assumed the meaning of a kind of land revenue. In the Maratha context, the term generally applied to temporary assignment of revenue from lands for the upkeep of troops and military service, and in a lesser manner also to the grants made by the king for charitable purposes. The districts and provinces thus allocated, according to the norms of Saranjam, was called Saranjamdari. This system was similar, if not the same, as the Muslim Jagirdari System.

Arguments For … and … Against Saranjam

There is a primary reason put forward to support the claim that the adoption of the Saranjamdari System as the basis for the organisation and administration of the kingdom was the correct decision. The argument is that it enabled the king to exercise his power in the outlying provinces by the creation of power centres loyal to him faraway from the centre, especially in times when communications were scanty and difficult at best; a sort of a hub and spoke model. There are two issues that do not seem to have been factored into making this argument. First, the system worked as it was designed to only as long as the commander of the outlying province remained loyal to the king and did not succumb to the strong pull of his own ambition. The fact remained that only strong and ambitious commanders would be allocated these difficult fiefdoms to rule. Diminishing loyalty with the increase in distance from the Central Administration and demands of personal ambition immediately sowed the seeds of sedition, which could lead to balkanisation of the kingdom. Second, if the reason for appointing a chief was the long distance from the capital to the province, then the king should have maintained a Central Administration to rule the core of the kingdom, which should have been the largest part. In the Maratha State, this was not the case—the entire kingdom was divided among the nobles. The reason put forward to support the system itself brings out the inherent flaws in it.

The main drawback of the system, as mentioned above, was that the chief of a province effectively became a law unto himself, often not even adhering to the instructions given by the king. The situation deteriorated further when the king was unable to enforce his writ through the exercise of either moral authority or military power. Under these circumstances, ambitious chiefs were ever ready to break-away from central control and even to try and found independent dynasties. It required a strong monarch to control these ambitious chiefs, holding them under the command of a Central Administration. History demonstrates that monarchies that successfully implemented the Jagirdari System had strong kings who were constantly on the move with a large retinue and a strong army. These kings spent almost their entire reign moving from one province to another, reaching outlying centres of power without much warning to the incumbent chiefs, to ensure that his commands and instructions were being adhered to by the feudatory. Any chief stepping out of line was ruthlessly dealt with and all misdemeanours severely and immediately punished. The king could not stay static in his capital, accept the revenue being ‘donated’ to him, and yet hope to maintain the integrity of the kingdom. The Maratha kingdom fell into this trap and was never able to recover.

The other option was what Maharaja Shivaji adopted—he refused to introduce the concept of Saranjam into his kingdom. Obviously, this decision ensured that during his remarkable reign there was an extremely efficient administration in place and that corruption or miscarriage of justice was minimised or even non-existent, for the punishment for corruption was severe, immediate and non-negotiable. Shivaji stopped the old system of having collectors of revenue and instead deployed officers in the paid service of the Central Administration to do so. The stability of the Maratha kingdom under his rule is testimony to the veracity of the system.

The feudatory system, irrespective of the actual term used to depict it, was always detrimental to the functioning of an effective Central Administration. It required an extremely strong-willed and powerful monarch to make it work. Further, the presence of capable and ambitious chiefs combined with a relatively weak king would almost always provide the impetus for a rapid disintegration of the kingdom. On the other hand, in the case of direct Central Administration, even a mediocre king could tide over his rule if a strong administration had been left in place by his predecessor. If the successor to such a weak king proved to be worthy, then the dynasty on the whole remained safe. It required a succession of weak rulers to breakup the dynasty.  

Entrenchment of the System

Rajaram, who became king after Shambhuji had been killed by the Mughals, was not a charismatic personality or a forceful and efficient administrator. He opted to delegate authority for the administration of the kingdom to a coterie of Brahmin officials, resulting in two irreversible developments. One, the move lowered the prestige of the king in an age when the king was supposed to be the supreme warlord and chief administrator of the State. Two, with the delegation the king expected his Brahmin officials to be able to repel any invasions, suppress any internal rebellions as well as run the administration—all duties performed personally by a strong monarch. In this case, the timing for enacting such a delegation was not socio-politically correct. The Maratha people were still in awe of the great deeds of Chhatrapati Shivaji and the heroic death of Shambhuji. Therefore, they continued to support the king who was the direct descendant of such great personalities. In turn, the Brahmin official had to ‘purchase’ the loyalty of the people, which they did by reviving and strengthening the Saranjamdari System.

The officials adopted a ruse, used earlier by Babur the Mughal, to increase the territorial holding of the kingdom. On many occasions they alloted districts and provinces that were still held by an adversary to the more adventurous and capable nobles, expecting them to wrest control of these provinces from the enemy and bring them within the Maratha fold while also realising revenue from these lands for themselves. There were unforeseen repercussions to these aspirational grants—only ambitious soldiers of fortune would accept such a gift; and perhaps more importantly, the grantor of such a Saranjam went down in the recipient’s esteem.

The decline in the power and status of the monarchy started with Rajaram and continued through the reigns of his descendants. From the glorious times of Shivaji, in a mere two generations, the Maratha king had become a pensioner, living on ‘charity’ in the form of a small percentage of revenue paid by the nobles ruling their fiefdoms, almost at their whim and fancy.

Hereditary Fiefs

Raja Shahu came to power in 1708 and was able to hold the throne only because of the dextrous diplomacy of his capable Peshwa, Balaji Viswanath. Balaji Viswanath in turn needed the good will and support of the great military commanders of the time—Parsoji Bhonsle, Dhanaji Yadav, Kanhoji Angre, Khandoji Dabhade being the most prominent—to hold on to power and administer the kingdom. The Peshwa had no option but to permit them to hold the territories that had been gifted to them as well as their own conquests as hereditary fiefdoms as long as they fulfilled certain conditions. The three main conditions to be met were, first, that they recognised Shahu as their sovereign without any hesitation or doubt; second, they made the stipulated contribution to the State treasury on time; and third, they served the king with the laid down number of military forces as and when required.

Initially Balaji Viswanath attempted to keep a tight rein on these, increasingly independence-seeking, chiefs by appointing Diwans and senior accountants to the fiefdoms from a central pool that he controlled. These officials regularly checked the size of the army being maintained, audited the accounts and were loyal to the Peshwa, reporting to him regularly and at times clandestinely. The chiefs, Saranjamdars, chaffed at this intrusive oversight instituted by the Peshwa and as far as possible managed to evade the scrutiny and ignore the royal representatives. With their increasing power, the chiefs gradually managed to make these officials irrelevant, and the practice was discontinued. By the time of Shahu’s death in 1749, the hereditary feudalisation of the Maratha kingdom was complete.

Shahu’s Adminstration

More than even Rajaram, Raja Shahu must be held responsible for the entrenchment of the feudal system within the Maratha kingdom. He was released from Mughal custody in 1707 after a lengthy incarceration, on the condition that he would rule his kingdom as a vassal of the Mughal emperor. His imprisonment had impacted his mindset and changed it such that he always considered himself a ‘zamindar’ of the Delhi empire in all his transactions with the Mughals, while also paying tribute regularly. Shahu, therefore believed that he himself was nothing but a jagirdar, forgetting that his kingdom had been fought and won by his ancestors as an independent entity. His throne was never a ‘gift’ from anyone, but a right that had been hard won. However, he endeavoured to perpetuate the hereditary Saranjamdari System within his kingdom, perhaps sub-consciously copying the Mughal system that he had observed while in captivity. The feudal system became entrenched in the Maratha administration through a long process of permeation, abetted and hastened by Raja Shahu.

Balaji Viswanath worked through the system, assisting its perpetuation. The Peshwa, by now the most powerful official in court and the king’s chief executive, claimed precedence over other officials and expected them to accept and adhere to his instructions. Characteristically, he played a nuanced double-game of diplomacy. He would seize parts of other nobles’ territories when the opportunity presented itself, while at the same time assigning even his own military conquests to senior military commanders—Scindia, Holkar, Pawar, Patwardhan—in return for financial considerations. Shahu’s fault was that he was so completely dependent on the Peshwa for his own and the kingdom’s well-being, that he was unwilling, and probably unable, to check the rise of the Peshwa’s power. The Maratha armies now owed allegiance to the Peshwa and only nominally to the king, while the Peshwa personally controlled most of the conquered territories. By mid-18th century, the Peshwa was the de facto ruler of the vast, but feudatory, Maratha kingdom.

Rule of the Peshwas

Raja Shahu died in 1750—by then the Peshwa was the supreme authority of the State and the Saranjamdari System was fully established and thriving. The Peshwa archives provide ample evidence of the feudatory relationship between the Peshwa and the Maratha chiefs and confirm the functioning of the Saranjamdari System. Saranjam were granted to military commanders and senior civil administrative officers for services rendered, and to lesser individuals for the maintenance of forts and temples. From the time of Balaji Viswanath, the main beneficiaries of the System were the Scindia, Holkar, Gaekwad and Patwardhan families, all of whom were military commanders of repute and strength. They were permitted to administer their fiefs and collect revenue unsupervised, as long as they deposited the Peshwa’s part of the revenue without fail and rendered military service with the requisite number of troops when demanded.

Award of the Saranjam demanded that the recipient fulfill three primary conditions. It was also customary for the chief to pay a ‘nazar’, a one-time tribute, to the awarding authority on the gift being conferred. The first condition was that the Peshwa grant a document called the Sanad, a memorandum of agreement and understanding conferring the lands to the chief. Second, the recipient had to provide loyal service with the stipulated number of troops to be provided on demand, while he could not undertake any offensive action on his own. By this time the hereditary nature of the Saranjam had already been established and the third condition was a nazar to be proffered on a new succession taking place within the family, nominally to get the Peshwa’s approval and for the succession to be declared legitimate.    

The recipient chiefs were also responsible for both criminal and civil justice enforcement within their jurisdiction. The fundamental flaw, which has been identified earlier, started to impact on the Maratha polity over a few years—the great Maratha chiefs desired to become independent of the Peshwa’s control and gradually they moved out of the ambit of central control, even when such control was purely nominal. With the Peshwa assuming executive powers, the position, power and status of the Raja began to decay and not long after the kings were relegated to the position of being rulers in name only and resident in Satara, while the power centre of the Empire lay at the court of the Peshwa in Pune. They had no say in the matters of State and had no role other than for ceremonial purposes such as sanctifying the new Peshwa and senior military and administrative appointments with robes of investiture and other ceremonial accoutrements. However, before being pushed into obscurity, the Rajas also created chiefs and granted them Saranjam, which were later converted to hereditary fiefdoms.

Some of these chiefs became powerful enough to start considering themselves ‘confederates’ of the Raja and the Maratha kingdom, rather than vassal rulers or feudatories, creating the concept of a confederacy rather than a centrally ruled empire. Two such families were the Rajas of Kolhapur and of Nagpur, both breakaways from the original Bhonsle family. Of the other Saranjamdars, Scindia, Holkar, and Gaekwad were at the vanguard of the Maratha advance into North India—into Malwa, further into the Mughal heartland of Agra and Delhi, and to Gujarat—while the House of Angre took on the European powers at sea and held them at abeyance from Maratha territories. These ‘houses’, more like clans, need special mention in any narrative history of the Marathas, without which any narrative and analysis will remain incomplete.

Accordingly, the next few chapters will trace the origins and growth while also analysing the development of these clans. These chapters will attempt to document their contributions to the establishment and maintenance of the Maratha supremacy and their impact on the broader Maratha history.   


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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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