The Marathas Part 20 The Prominent Feudatories of the Empire Section IV: The Holkars of Indore

Canberra, 06 September 2022

Originally the Holkars were a sturdy pastoral tribe, used to living outdoors and constantly moving residence; said to have been Dhangars, they easily adapted to the life of Maratha warriors. The main Holkar family initially lived in Wafgaon in the Khed district near Pune, then moved to Hol Marum near Jejuri on the River Nena, about 40 miles south-east of Pune. The family name is derived from Hol, where Khanduji Holkar was a respected landowner. He had a son born on 16th March 1693, named Malhari. Unfortunately, Khanduji died when Malhari was three years old and his wife left the village to stay with her brother, Bhojraj Bargal, in Talode in Khandesh district.

Khandesh at that time was a contested district between the Mughals and the Marathas. Bhojraj had raised a body of ‘pathak’ or horsemen, with whom he served under Kanthaji Kadam Bande, at that time a freelance Maratha Sardar. Malhari was inducted into this body or irregular cavalry as soon as he could ride and wield a lance.

A Story of Divine Intervention

The ‘Holkar Kafiyat’ mentions a story of Malhari’s childhood. It seems that young Malhari, while tending sheep in the open, fell asleep. The villagers who went looking for him later found him protected by a cobra from the sun’s rays. This apocryphal story is repeated in Sir John Malcolm’s biography, A Memoir of Central India. Obviously, the story is a myth that has grown around Malhar Rao Holkar and cultivated by his supporters.   

Peshwa Baji Rao noticed Malhar Rao Holkar’s conduct in the battlefield during the campaign against the Nizam in 1720.

Malhar Rao Holkar

In 1721, Malhar Rao had some disagreement with Bande and joined the Peshwa’s service. Baji Rao appreciated Malhar’s extensive knowledge of the terrain and topography of the Khandesh region, and the young soldier was promoted rapidly. In 1725, Malhar Rao was made commander of 500-horse and was active on the northern borders of Khandesh. On 29 November 1728, the Maratha army inflicted a heavy defeat on the Mughal subahdar of Malwa, Girdhar Bahadur, and destroyed his army. Malhar Holkar, Ranoji Scindia and Udaji Pawar played leading parts in this unambiguous Maratha victory.

Malhar Rao now became the Peshwa’s right-hand man in Malwa as well as for other northern enterprises being undertaken by Maratha forces. In 1730, he was appointed in-charge of Malwa and along with Scindia made responsible for the collection of Chauth in the province. For nearly six years after this, the Peshwa was engaged elsewhere, leaving Holkar and Scindia to hold down territories and show the flag in the region. Holkar was audacious and in June 1731, attacked the Mughal Governor Muhammad Khan Bangesh at Sarangpur and the next year marched to Sironj. Bangesh, realising that his forces would not be able to withstand the Maratha cavalry attack, permitted Malhar Rao to collect Chauth from the entire Malwa province. In October 1731, the Peshwa formalised this arrangement and made Holkar, Scindia and Pawar collectively responsible for Malwa and the realisation of Chauth and sardeshmukhi from the province.

In 1733, a Maratha contingent jointly led by Holkar and Scindia surrounded the new Mughal subahdar, Sawai Jay Singh, near Mandosar and levied tribute from the ‘parganas’, districts, under him. In 1734, the duo intervened in a succession struggle—they marched into heartland Malwa, up to Bundi, and placed the lawful heir Budh Singh on the throne. In February 1735, Holkar led a force against the Mir Bakshi, Khan Dauran, crossed the Mukandra Pass, and cut off his lines of communications thus isolating him. Although the Rajput rajas were the Khan’s allies, they did not assist him for fear of their own kingdoms being attacked by the Marathas. Khan Dauran was forced to agree to pay 22 lakh rupees as the Chauth for Malwa and hurriedly returned to Delhi.

Northern Expedition

In 1736, the Peshwa led an expedition to North India and Holkar was one of his secondary commanders. Abhay Singh of Marwar sided with the Mughal forces and started to block the Maratha advance. Holkar marched into Marwar with a large army and captured Merta, Nagore and Ajmer. Abhay Singh backed off from confronting the Marathas. The Peshwa’s negotiations with Sawai Jay Singh were inconclusive and he marched to Delhi the next year. Malhar Rao Holkar played a prominent role in the fighting outside the walls of the Delhi fort against Sadat Khan, who was leading the Mughal forces. In the next year he took part in the Battle of Bhopal. The Peshwa then send Holkar and Scindia against Kota, after the Nizam had been defeated. In 1741, when the Mughal emperor formally appointed the Peshwa as the Governor of Malwa, Malhar Rao Holkar and Ranoji Scindia appear in the deed as sureties for the Peshwa.

Malhar Rao and the Change in Maratha Foreign Policy

Peshwa Baji Rao died in 1740 and was succeeded by his son Balaji Rao, who lacked the vision, statesmanship and military leadership that had exemplified his father’s rule. Balaji seems to have been unclear about the basic Maratha foreign policy ideals, long established and cherished from the time of Chhatrapati Shivaji. Over the years the Maratha rulers had assiduously cultivated friendly relations with Rajput kings and chiefs, pursuing an overall strategy that would eventually establish a Hindu confederacy of Maratha and Rajput chiefs, which would in turn displace the defunct and nominal Mughal rule in Delhi.

With Balaji assuming the position of the Peshwa this carefully crafted policy was discarded. Malhar Rao Holkar advised the impressionable Peshwa to start levying tribute from the Rajput princes as payment for his arbitration in their incessant succession struggles. To gain this short-term financial gain, Malhar Rao’s advice to the Peshwa went directly against the diligently crafted and well-established cordial relations with the Rajput princes, who were notorious for being quick to anger and perceive hurt to their honour. The levying of tribute was a move that should have never been initiated. An inexperienced Peshwa, ill-advised by Malhar Rao Holkar who was equally inexperienced in matters of state, undid a policy that had been cultivated for years by more astute Maratha leadership to the detriment of the greater Maratha polity.

Gradually, one-by-one, Jaipur, Jodhpur, Udaipur, Bundi, Kota and other Rajput principalities, major and minor, became alienated by the enforcement of this policy concocted by Malhar Rao Holkar and accepted by the Peshwa Balaji Rao. No doubt, the Peshwa gathered some treasure for the Rajputs under duress, but in the long-term the Marathas came to be looked upon as ‘enemies’ rather than possible allies in a greater enterprise. The possibility of creating a great Hindu confederacy to rule the sub-continent receded into the background and then vanished altogether is short order.

The Marathas allied with Ghazi-ud-Din, the unscrupulous Vazir of Delhi—disliked universally and particularly by the Rajputs—which added to the animosity against the Marathas and further alienated the Hindu chiefs of Central and North India. Martha support for this unsavoury character sullied their reputation, even with the Mughal nobility. By mid-18th century, the Marathas were well and truly isolated. The real repercussions of this short-sighted policy were felt by the Marathas two decades later. When the Afghan chief Ahmad Shah Abdali invaded the sub-continent, and in conjunction with the Rohillas, surrounded the great Maratha army on the plains of Panipat, not one Hindu or Indian Muslim power came to their aid. The Maratha army was decimated on 14th January 1761—the final result of thoughtless changes brought about in foreign policy by Malhar Rao Holkar and Balaji Rao.

Malhar Rao – Last Years

Holkar managed to escape the carnage at Panipat and returned with vigour to the Peshwa’s service. In the Battle of Mangrol on 30th November 1761, he defeated a Rajput uprising against Maratha control and then returned to the Deccan. He was at the Peshwa’s side at the great victory over the Nizam at Rakshasbhuvan on 10th August 1763. Although substantial changes in equipment and tactics were sweeping local Indian forces, Holkar was slow to adopt these changes and in upgrading his army. The Holkar forces continued to be primarily armed with swords and lances and relied heavily on traditional guerrilla tactics in the battlefield.

In October 1764, the Bengal chief Shuja-ud-Daula had been defeated by the English in the Battle of Buxar. He asked for Holkar’s assistance to remedy the situation, who readily obliged. His excellent cavalry was outmoded and ill-equipped to face a modernised English army fighting in disciplined formations with long-range canons and guns. Moreover, the famed guerrilla warfare of the Marathas, reliant on the tactics of hit-and-run, had become redundant and was doomed as a battle-winning modus operandi. The famed Holkar cavalry, facing the native forces of the English East India Company, was decimated at Kora on 3rd May 1765.

Malhar Rao Holkar died the next year at Alampur, 40 miles from Gwalior, on 20th May 1766. He had already lost his only son, Khande Rao, to a stray bullet during the siege of Kumbher, which was also the basic reason for the hereditary feud with the house of Scindia, as described in the previous chapter. An infant grandson, Male Rao sank into insanity and died a year later. During Malhar Rao’s last years, Khande Rao’s widow, the pious Ahalya Bai Holkar, had been practically administering the Holkar domains. She now became the head of the house of Holkar.

Ahalya Bai Holkar – The Great

Immediately on Malhar Rao’s death, the perennial trouble-maker and the internal nemesis of the Maratha polity, Raghunath Rao, colluded with the Holkar Diwan, Gangadhar Yashwant, to seize the private treasury of the Holkars and place a minor on the throne. With great sagacity, Ahalya Bai defeated this vile combination and held the house of Holkar together. Ahalya Bai judiciously combined talent, virtue, energy and benevolence in all her undertakings. The house of Holkar was blessed to have her lead them with wisdom, understanding and discernment at this critical time in its history and guide its destiny to greater glory.

Ahalya Bai appointed Tukoji Holkar—a trusted senior military officer in Malhar Rao’s army, not any relative—as the commander of the Holkar army. She divided the authority and responsibility of ruling the kingdom with Tukoji Holkar, very clearly and unambiguously, in an arrangement that lasted 30 years without it ever being affected by any petty jealousies or misplaced personal ambitions. This speaks volumes about the maturity of both the persons involved in making the arrangement work seamlessly for the betterment of the Holkar kingdom. Tukoji Holkar owed his elevation to the exalted position to Ahalya Bai alone and remained loyal to her till his last breath; a character trait that had become increasingly rare in the Maratha social and political arena, where alliances were fickle and loyalty a seldom used word and concept.

The Administration of Ahalya Bai

The Queen—for that is what Ahalya Bai Holkar was—managed all matters of state other than the military, which she willingly handed over to Tukoji, whose advice she took on all matters of State security. From the very start of her rule, Ahalya Bai scrupulously demarcated her personal wealth and the income of the State, administering them separately at all times. The family wealth of about 20 lakh rupees per annum and her own personal income from her estates, around four lakh rupees, she expended at her discretion, mainly on her favourite charities. The government revenue, brought into the general account was spent on State requirements to meet both civil and military expenses. State revenue was meticulously accounted for and the Queen was careful to financially support her expeditionary military forces employed abroad so that they could cater for any unforeseen exigencies that cropped up.

‘The character of her administration was for more than 30 years the basis of the prosperity which attended the Holkar dynasty; it continued to sustain its rank during her life as one of the principal branches of the Maratha empire. The management of all the provinces in Malwa and Nemaur was her peculiar department and her great object was, by just and moderate government, to improve the condition of the country, while she promoted the happiness of her subjects.’

—V. G. Dighe, ‘Maratha Provincial Dynasties – II, V. The Holkars of Indore’, in R. C. Majumdar (ed) The Maratha Supremacy, p. 270.

Ahalya Bai was directly involved in the day-to-day management of the affairs of state and sat in the open Darbar, transacting business for long hours. The Queen was an astute judge of character and she had mastered the art of delegation to picked and chosen ministers as a management tool. The administration was based on the principle of respect for the duties, responsibilities and more importantly the rights of the administrative officers—starting from the lowest village level. In reciprocation, she demanded honest, quick and equitable delivery of justice to all her subjects. The Queen personally referred cases to the Panchayat for arbitration and trusted her ministers to deliver justice that could not be questioned. However, when appeals were made to her, she personally heard the cases and handed down just decisions.

Ahalya Bai ruled according to the Maharashtra Dharma, as the concept has come to be known, interpreting it at its widest perspective. In a time of extreme internal dissentions and instability in the Maratha Empire, Ahalya Bai’s administration stood out as a beacon of stability and enlightenment—a remarkable achievement in any assessment.

Maharashtra Dharma

‘Maharashtra Dharma’ is the spiritual foundation of Dharmic resistance to Muslim/Islamic tyranny that became common in the Deccan in early- to mid-17th century, championed by Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj.

Samartha Ramdas Swamy was an ascetic saint who along with spiritual awakening combined the valour of a warrior and the practical knowledge of a statesman. He placed all spiritual and worldly matters in perspective, fundamentally advising initiation of action to achieve one’s objectives. Ramdas Swamy provided the first definition of the concept of Maharashtra Dharma, using the term for the first time in a letter to Maharaj Shivaji. However, the concept existed before Ramdas Swamy coined the term that came to be embodied by Chhatrapati Shivaji.

Two letters written by the Swamy to the Chhatrapati, titled Raj Dharma and Kshaatra Dharma, form the core principles in understanding this concept. The two are explained very briefly below.

Raj Dharma explains that it is the duty of the kings to ensure the safety, security and prosperity of his kingdom and provides advice on employing the intellect to its fullest to arrive at the ‘right’ decisions. Kshaatra Dhrama is oriented towards the king having to fight battles and states plainly that even if he loses his life in the struggle, he will obtain sadgati, salvation or liberation, for having done his duty.

There are six characteristics embodied in the concept of Maharashtra Dharma.

 1. Aishwarya Kansha – Aspiration for Prosperity: when people aspire to prosperity and the desire is widespread, it leads to nationalism and in turn to the creation of an independent nation.

2. Prapanch – Desire to Lead a Worldly Life: The Swamy emphasised that renunciation is detrimental to nation-building and that an individual must lead a worldly life before starting out on the spiritual path.

3. Lokjagriti – Enlightenment of the People: The general population must be enlightened through education and organising to ensure unity, which will be a significant contribution to nation-building.

4. Shakti – Physical Strength: Physical prowess is considered a significant contributor to nation-building. Ramdas Swamy stated that it is only through physical strength that kingdoms are won, and the ingenuity of the leader compliments the effort.

5. Yatnadev – Activism: In the concept, activism has been equated to being Godly in nature. Activism is also considered the anti-dote to encroaching poverty in the nation.

6. Swarajya and Swadharma – Self-government and Duties of One’s Station in Life: Self-government is the objective to be achieved through every individual diligently performing his/her duties. It is stated that such observance will take the nation to glory.    

Some analysts have identified the failure of the Marathas to provide strict administration and equitable justice to the conquered lands as the main reason for their inability to establish a permanent kingdom in North India. Ahalya Bai’s stellar example of ruling a kingdom would have helped them rectify this drawback if only the rest of the Maratha feudatory chieftains could have drawn their collective heads out of the cacophony of the blaring noise of bugles and war drums. After the Maratha conquest of North India, Hindustan, if they could have established a just administration and the assured the delivery of swift and equitable justice, the historical narrative of North India would have been very different to what it turned out to be.

Ahalya Bai was shrewd in her dealings with her neighbours and other States and almost always managed to maintain cordial relations with them. The Holkar kingdom was very seldom invaded during her reign. To her subjects she was an indulgent and just Queen, even to wrong-doers. Her ministers were unfailingly loyal to her and honest; she very rarely had occasion to change the ministers or her revenue collectors. The stability of tenure of government officials is in itself a clear sign of a great administration.

Indore. Ahalya Bai was particularly fond of the Holkar capital Indore, which she built up from a large village into a prosperous city and a trading centre for all Malwa products. One of her lasting passions was to promote her city and spread its prosperity far and wide. It is reported that she rejoiced when she saw bankers, merchants and farmers rise to affluence, rightly considering their prosperity as an indicator and proof of the efficiency of her administration.

Ahalya Bai’s Charities

When the family treasure came under her control, Ahalya Bai appropriated it for the purpose of furthering her favourite charities and completing other necessary works in the kingdom. She commissioned many works—building several fords and then a linking road across the Vindhya ranges, a stupendous task in those days. Further, she had many temples constructed within the Holkar kingdom and ensured that all religious edifices were maintained in good condition. More importantly, she had rest houses for travellers built across the entire domain. The buildings at Maheswar stand as testimony to Ahalya Bai’s charitable works.

The Queen’s largess was not restricted to Holkar territories. She built holy edifices and maintained establishments that fed the poor, the mendicants and brahmins in the major Hindu pilgrimage centres of the sub-continent—Jaganath Puri in the east, Dwarka in the west, Kedarnath in the north and Rameswaram in the south. Throughout her rule she regularly sent annual amounts to these centres to continue the charitable works that she had initiated. Besides the fixed annual disbursements made to the Holkar establishments at the prominent Hindu pilgrimage centres, she also sent proportionate sums to the smaller establishments for their upkeep and distribution as charity. Ahalya Bai supplied water from River Ganga, the holiest river in Hindu religion, to temples in South India for them to wash the sacred idols and deities.

It is true that her religious beliefs initiated and expanded her charitable works—however, it is equally true that her inclination towards charity was also a product of her inherent benevolence and wisdom. Ahalya Bai’s compassion towards fellow human beings was legendary and even expanded towards the birds and beasts in the field. There is an often-repeated story of the Queen’s servants providing drinking water for the oxen working in the hot open fields of her kingdom; probably an exaggeration of the truth made to emphasise the spread of her benevolence.

Steering Clear of Controversy

When her husband Khande Rao had been accidentally killed during the siege of Khumber, Malhar Rao Holkar had picked a feud with Scindia since the latter had advised the Maratha commander Raghunath Rao to lift the siege. This feud had continued and become a festering wound in the relationship between the two major houses in Maratha politics. Ahalya Bai left the major and broader political issues of the Maratha State to stalwarts such as Mahadji Scindia, Nana Phadnavis and others, steering clear of challenges that would unnecessarily engulf her kingdom in diplomatic, moral and ethical chaos. She concentrated on the State administration, leaving Tukoji to ensure that Holkar domains remained secure at all times. Within this arrangement, carefully managed by Ahalya Bai with rare visionary foresight, the Holkar kingdom enjoyed rare peace and prosperity, unknown before and unknown in some other parts of the sprawling Maratha Empire.

A true testimony of Ahalya Bai’s greatness, sagacity and vision is provided by the fact that her neighbouring rulers and other Maratha leaders—Tipu Sultan, the Nizam, Peshwa—held her in great esteem and she was looked upon as a paradigm of wisdom, prudence and virtue.

A Debate

Historical analysis of her rule has thrown up a debate regarding veracity of her rule vis-à-vis the Holkar military capability. Some analysts believe that no amount of military build-up could have secured the Holkar domains in the manner that Ahalya Bai managed through her wise administration. Her belief in delivering good administration for her people overshadowed all other predilections and was always her single highest priority. Another, slightly more modern group of analysts, propose that it was her failing not to have built-up the Holkar military into a sufficiently robust force during her three-decade long rule. In the same timeframe, military forces all over the sub-continent had undergone a make over—in equipment, tactics and fighting ethos. They also point out that by ‘neglecting’ her military forces she permitted the house of Scindia to become more powerful in Maratha politics, although both houses had started out as equal partners in receiving the Peshwa’s favour.

Even though her political influence in the Maratha polity may have decreased, no other feudatory could match the prosperity of the Holkar domain, nor could any one of them establish similar stability for an unbroken 30 years in those turbulent times. Further, although not competitively matched with the burgeoning Scindia forces, the Holkar forces were not a ‘peace corps’ by any stretch of imagination. The Holkar military participated in the great northern expedition of 1769–72, fought in the Konkan and Gujarat, and at Talegaon in the First Anglo-Maratha War. The claim that Ahalya Bai turned the Holkar military into an inefficient force is false and without substance. They may not have been absolutely top-of-the-line for their time, but they were by no means an easy pushover.   

Ahalya Bai’s Last Days

In late 1780s, Nana Phadnavis prevailed on the Holkars to align themselves with the Peshwa, for whom he was the Regent, to counter the growing power of the Scindias. Against her better judgement, Ahalya Bai watched the Holkars waste five years, 1788–93, in meaningless and petty rivalry trying to push back Mahadji Scindia from assuming greater power, at the behest of Nana Phadnavis. The Holkar forces were soundly beaten at the Battle of Lakheri on 1st June 1793, ending the bitter and lingering family feud with the house of Scindia. The two main pillars that were holding up the Maratha State were working at cross purposes, effectively weakening the whole structure. The fissures in the edifice were already being observed by the avarice-ridden English East India Company.

Ahalya Bai died in 1795, outliving Mahadji Scindia her lifelong competitor, by one year. Tukoji Holkar, already old, died two years later. He had become too weak to stem the tide of the anti-Holkar initiatives being carried forward in a diplomatically nuanced game being played out by Nana Phadnavis, the wicked Peshwa Baji Rao II and a young and inexperienced Daulat Rao, now head of the house of Scindia. In the on-going power struggle, which could be considered the beginnings of the death throes of the mighty Maratha Empire, Nana Phadnavis was imprisoned and two of Tukoji’s sons—both probable successors to the great man—were killed.

Ahalya Bai Holkar – A Tribute

In the historical narratives of different dynasties, both small and great, of the sub-continent, never before had a lady played such a decisive role for such a long period, as did the noble Queen Ahalya Bai Holkar. From the beginning of her rule till the very end, she remained the beloved Queen of all her subjects.

In the normally male-centric recounting of history, Ahalya Bai is certainly mentioned. However, reference to this great Queen is almost always dismissive, and if at all any descriptions are given, they concentrate on her pious charitable works and nothing more. A cursory reading of the Holkar history would have one believe that Tukoji Holkar was the actual ruler during the three decades when this great Queen reigned supreme. Ahalya Bai has never been given due credit for her stupendous achievements, that too in an era when women in public life were not even a rarity but just did not exist.

This author very firmly believes that the title ‘The Great’, which seems to be reserved in the annals of historical narratives only for male conquerors, must be applied to this remarkable lady—Ahalya Bai Holkar the Great. Nothing more needs to be said of the deeds and times of such a benevolent Queen.

Yashwant Rao Holkar

Tukoji Holkar left behind two legitimate and two acknowledged illegitimate sons. Of the legitimate offspring, Kashi Rao was a weak-minded cripple who is mentioned in some reports as an imbecile and the second, Malhar Rao, was an innate ruffian. Malhar Rao had insane pride and was so addicted to a predatory lifestyle that he has often been compared to a Pindari. Malhar Rao was killed in a surprise attack of his camp at Bhamburda on 14th September 1797. Tukoji’s illegitimate third son, Yashwant Rao Holkar was born in 1776 and was a resourceful and adventurous person. The fourth son Vithoji was inconsequential in the larger scheme of things but assiduously supported Malhar Rao as long as the latter was alive.

Daulat Rao Scindia and the Peshwa tried to place the weak-minded Kashi Rao as head of the house of Holkar, so that they could control the Holkar domains and usurp their treasure. Anticipating the Scindia-Peshwa move to control Holkar territories, Yashwant Rao Holkar fled from Pune, initially to Nagpur and then to Malwa. The extended Holkar family who supported Yashwant Rao and the loyal subjects of the kingdom flocked to join him in Malwa, where he had started to raise an army. Since he was an illegitimate son, Yashwant Rao made it openly known that he was fighting to preserve Holkar honour and for the rights of the boy Khande Rao, Malhar Rao’s son, who had been captured and was being kept in semi-imprisonment by Daulat Rao Scindia. It was but natural that Yashwant Rao would attempt to thwart Daulat Rao’s attempt to reduce the house of Holkar to vassalage.

To raise a large enough army, Yashwant Rao permitted the recruitment of all classes into the new Holkar army, which now consisted of not only Marathas but also Pindaris, Bhils, Afghans, Rajputs and local Muslims. In very short order, the Holkar army became an eclectic mix of religions, clans, races and even fighting ethos and loyalty.

The Holkar–Scindia power struggle—campaigns, wars, battles and skirmishes and their aftermath have been described in great detail in an earlier chapter and is not being repeated here.

The period from the turn of the century to the twilight of the Maratha Empire, 1800–1818, has been called in local Maratha historical narrative as Gardi ka Waqt, the ‘Period of Turmoil’. These were the two decades that forever eclipsed the glory of the Maratha Empire—turning it, like so many before, into a half-fulfilled dream of visionaries brought to an abrupt halt because the follow-on leadership lacked the capacity to be visionaries themselves or to even understand the vision of their forebearers, combined with their inability of to function in unison.

In the early 1800s, the struggle for supremacy between the houses of Holkar and Scindia devastated Malwa—Yashwant Rao was so successful in despoiling Scindia territory that Daulat Rao offered to release the boy Khande Rao if Holkar would stop the depredation. Holkar refused, demanding that Scindia cede some stated territories, which was not acceptable to Daulat Rao. Yashwant Rao then moved down to the Deccan and asked the Peshwa to order Scindia to cede the demanded territories. The Peshwa, by now with no power or authority to dictate terms to such powerful feudatories, was in no position to do so. The title ‘Peshwa’ had become an empty epithet.

Even though the situation seemed to have reached a stalemate, it could not remain that way without a resolution. The Battle of Hadapsar ensued on 25th October 1802, in which the combined forces of the Peshwa and Scindia were concisely and totally defeated by the Holkar army. The Peshwa fled the field and the capital, and despite Yashwant Rao’s repeated calls for him to return to Pune along with promises of undying loyalty, the Peshwa refused to return. Baji Rao II, true to form, felt safe only with the purchased safety offered by the English. The English were ever glad to bring the Peshwa into their custody as a supplicant subsidiary—they had landed the main blow that would break the power of the Maratha supremacy without having had to take any concerted action by themselves.

Acknowledgement of the Approaching Peril

Yashwant Rao had obviously not catered for the Peshwa’s behaviour. Belatedly, he realised the danger to the empire that was looming large and scrambled to build an alliance with the Nizam, Scindia and Bhonsle to oppose the designs of the Company. However, the internal jealousies were so deep rooted that even in this hour of extreme peril to the entire Maratha State and individually to all of them, these stalwarts of the empire failed to find common ground and put up a unified front against the English. While the Maratha feudatories were wasting precious time on fruitless and inconclusive discussions and finger pointing, the English were busily preparing their military forces to destroy the Maratha power.

By now the English had started to enforce the infamous Treaty of Bassein. Even the vile Baji Rao II, now a virtual prisoner of the English East India Company, was dismayed at some of the clauses in the treaty that he had been forced to accept. He started to send out distress messages to Scindia and Bhonsle to free him. Daulat Rao Scindia came back to the Deccan and put out an appeal to all chieftains to unite against the common enemy—as expected the plea fell on deaf ears. English ‘diplomacy’—that consisted of coercion, bribery, flattery et al—was in full flow. They had already neutralised Gaekwad and the Nizam though a combination of veiled threats and bribes. They lured away Holkar by showing him some incriminating correspondence from Daulat Rao to other chiefs in which he declared his intention to go after Holkar as soon as the English had been dealt with.

Scindia’s Downfall. Scindia was now isolated and stood alone against the might of the English army. His Europeanised battalions, which were the mainstay of his army and whose employment and tactics were not well understood by the Maratha commanders, were made innocuous by the abandonment of his European officers. In a mere five months of campaigning, the once formidable Scindia army was ground to the dust. (See the previous chapter for details of the battles fought in five months) Daulat Rao had discarded Holkar’s advice to adopt traditional Maratha tactics against the English, which contributed greatly to his army’s discomfiture.

Yashwant Rao Strikes Out Alone

Yashwant Rao had stayed aloof from the Anglo-Maratha War, citing Daulat Rao’s duplicity as the reason. He had hoped that the war would be long drawn and exhaust both the parties, towards the end of which he could intervene at leisure to press forward his intentions. The rapidity of the English success took Holkar by surprise and did not give him a window of opportunity to intervene. Yashwant Rao attributed the Scindia defeat to the treachery of the European officers and Daulat Rao’s stubbornness in not accepting his advice to go back to the Maratha roots of fighting ethos—both assessments were correct. However, this was lamentation after the deed was done. The old Maratha tactics had been somewhat refined over the years. The light cavalry would now forage and destroy enemy countryside to deny the adversary resources, while the infantry, guns and cannons were kept protected within forts to be employed in carefully planned and well-calculated manoeuvres.

Holkar now left the Deccan, leaving the Peshwa, Scindia and Bhonsle to be virtually enslaved by the English. Yashwant Rao plundered Ujjain and Mandasar, levied tribute from petty Rajput chiefs and marched to Jaipur. By this time the entire Rajput confederacy had accepted English suzerainty and Holkar’s actions against them was therefore considered a direct challenge to the Company’s authority. In any case, the Governor–General, Wellesley had already made up his mind to ‘punish’ Yashwant Rao, as clearly indicated in his letter to Lord Gerard Lake, 1st Viscount Lake, Commander-in-Chief of the English Army in India.

Wellesley wrote to Lake on 9th January 1804, ‘… the authority exercised by Jeswant [sic] Rao Holkar, in the name of Khande Rao over the possession of Holkar family is manifestly an usurpation of the rights of Cashi Rao Holkar, the legitimate heir and successor of Tukoji Holkar. Consistently therefore with the principles of justice no arrangement can be proposed between the British Government and Jeswant Rao which would exclude Cashi Rao from his hereditary dominions.’

—R. Montgomery Martin, Despatches, Minutes & Correspondence of the Marquess of Wellesley, Volume IV of Five Volumes, quoted in V. G. Dighe, ‘Provincial Maratha Dynasties, Part II’ in R. C. Majumdar (ed) The Maratha Supremacy, pp. 274 – 75.   

Th arrogance that drips from this correspondence is unbelievable, especially considering that Wellesley at that time was heading the Indian operations of an English trading company. Even more than two centuries later, the complete disdain displayed towards the local Indian princes and other rulers by the Englishmen who came to the shores of the sub-continent is difficult to come to terms with and to fathom. It is obvious that the Governor–General believed it was his God-given right and duty to interfere in all affairs of the Indian princes and ‘settle’ their business and disputes to suit the English purpose—to establish English supremacy—by any, and all, means possible.

While Wellesley was attempting to justify his actions behind the façade of looking after Kashi Rao’s interests, the real reason was Yashwant Rao’s enterprising spirit, military capabilities and ambition. Yashwant Rao and his sizeable army was a detrimental factor to establishing English supremacy in the Indian sub-continent. Simultaneous to the Governor–General planning to reduce and destroy Holkar power, Arthur Wellesley, the Governor–General’s brother and commander of English forces in the Deccan and Central India, was assuring Holkar that the English would not come in his way so long as he stayed away from confronting Company interests. This was presumably a pre-calculated move to make Yashwant Rao complacent regarding English intentions vis-à-vis the Maratha Empire.

Wellesley now ordered Lord Lake to ask Yashwant Rao to settle his domain boundaries after the differences with Kashi Rao was cleared. Yashwant Rao rejected the demand outright. He now made another attempt to bring in Scindia as an ally while also sending messages to other Hindu kings—Nagpur, Jodhpur, Macheri etc.,—as well as several other chiefs to rise up against the English, who were grasping power and territory wherever possible. Since most of these rulers and chiefs had been at the receiving end of Holkar’s plunder for some years, they disregarded his appeal and some of them even alerted Lord Lake of Yashwant’s intentions. Wisdom had dawned rather late for Yashwant Rao Holkar.

Yashwant Rao Holkar – Last Days

In March 1804, after rejecting the English demands, Yashwant Rao send them his own counter-proposals. He asked that the territories that he had overrun in Central India and Bundelkhand be considered Holkar territories and all erstwhile Holkar holdings in the Doab handed over to him. He also demanded his right to levy Chauth in many districts that had been earlier removed from the Holkar saranjam. As expected, the English rejected these demands. Holkar then wrote a defiant letter to the Governor–General stating that countries would be overrun and burned and that the Holkar attacks would be overwhelming like the waves of the seas. The letter was high in hyperbolic threats but not in substance. The English declared war on Holkar, in both the Deccan and Central India, on 16th April 1804.

The English plan included the armies of Scindia and Gaikwad, now their allies. The Maratha chiefs would prosecute Holkar’s interests in the Deccan and Gujarat while the main English army pursued Holkar in Central India and Hindustan. However, they faced an unconventional adversary.

‘Holkar’s power resided not in the extent of his territory, but in the number of his adherents. His standard was the common rallying point of all the disbanded soldiery of upper India and such other restless spirits. His empire indeed was the empire of the saddle. Holkar was bold, lawless and unscrupulous and he had sixty-thousand horsemen and an imposing park of artillery at his call.’

—John William Kay, Life of Sir John Malcolm, Vol I, p. 305.

Holkar denied the English their superiority in arms and tactics by refusing to engage in pitched battles, reverting to the classic Maratha guerrilla tactics. The war that followed has been described in detail in an earlier chapter. After his final and comprehensive defeat, Holkar was unable to gather further momentum for continued resistance. Yashwant Rao Holkar, the gallant but brash commander, gradually sank into depression, leading to insanity by the time he died on 20th October 1811. He had indeed defeated the English in some battles and therefore, was feted for a brief time as the champion of the Marathas around whose banner the defeated and disgruntled Maratha soldiers flocked.

Yashwant Rao has been idolised by some historians as the epitome of Maratha resistance of the English. While it is true that he fought English domination, he cannot be considered the flag bearer of Maratha resistance. A closer look at Yashwant Rao Holkar through his career and an examination of his character clearly indicate that he was not the man to revive and sustain Maratha glory—he lacked the capability, and more importantly, the virtue and depth of character to have become such a leader.

… and the End

Yashwant Rao left behind a minor son Malhar Rao and the Regency on his behalf was assumed by Tulsi Bai, one of Yashwant’s mistresses. The Holkar State descended into lawlessness and chaos with the remnants of the broken army becoming insubordinate. To achieve some stability Tulsi Bai started to negotiate with the English and was murdered for her efforts. The rebelling army was defeated by the English at Mahidpur. By the Treaty of Mandasor, signed on 6th January 1818, the house of Holkar gave up all claims to territories in Rajputana, Khandesh and Bundelkhand and agreed to keep an English subsidiary force of 3000 sepoys in their State. No more independent by any stretch of imagination, the once great Holkar State became a feudatory of the English East India Company and subsequently of the British Government. 

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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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