The Marathas Part 21 The Creation, Evolution and Decline of the Maratha Army Section I: Shivaji Creates the Core

Canberra, 20 September 2022

Shivaji started his career with a small jagir that had been bestowed on his father and expanded it to a kingdom covering more than half of the modern-day State of Maharashtra. In keeping with this rapid expansion of territorial holdings through conquest, the military system that Shivaji instituted also changed and evolved over time. The Maratha military forces from the beginning have been influenced by the time and place of its employment and its fighting ethos has been driven by, more than anything else, the personalities of its commanders. When viewed holistically from the very beginning of its creation, the Maratha military force evidences the passage of history of the Maratha nation and its people as they made their indelible mark on the large canvas of the history of the Indian sub-continent.

From mid-17th century, the Maratha army under Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj composed of nearly 50,000 cavalry and an equal number of infantry. In the initial decade and more of its creation, the army consisted more of infantry than cavalry and it was only later that the emphasise gradually shifted to the cavalry. The Maratha army travelled light—without any beasts of burden accompanying them, the soldiers carried no tents, and their families never accompanied them. The cavalry rostered three horses for every two troopers, thus increasing the mobility of the army, which routinely covered 50 miles every day. This was a great achievement, especially when compared to the lumbering Mughal army, their main adversary in the initial few decades.

Officers constitute the directing core of any fighting force. While this was not a new concept and is time honoured as a truism, Shivaji was acutely aware of the need to have an officer corps directly responsible to him who would be extremely loyal and was organised to be seamlessly effective. Again, this was not a new innovation, but the formalisation of an age-old tradition. However, Shivaji emphasised the role of the officer in battle by giving each one of them special status and consideration in the decision-making process at the operational and tactical levels. By personally mentoring and cultivating them, he managed to weld his officers together into a corps that developed its own identity and fighting ethos.

The Maratha Infantry

The basic foundation of the military force that Shivaji built was not his famed light cavalry, but his infantry, which were more numerous than the cavalry. In his early days, Shivaji had travelled extensively across his territories and seen that his country was studded with forts, both large and small, which either commanded fords or minor mountain passes. He astutely realised their worth as safe havens from which his army could sally forth to attack the Mughal army detachments. Since they fell within his territories, he was able to occupy these forts and use them to good effect. Shivaji did not need cavalry in his early days while operating in the hills of the inaccessible Sahyadri ranges, which was his stronghold. What the forts required were brave foot soldiers to defend them. Therefore, in the first 15 years or so of his career, he only raised, equipped and trained infantry divisions.

In his early travels he had also noticed the rugged and hilly ‘maval’ country—the western belt of Pune district, about 100 miles in length. The locals of the region, Mawlas (Mavalis?), were simple and hardy people and Shivaji made friends with them, a friendship that would last his entire life. Shivaji enrolled them in his fledgling infantry, of which they went on to form the core. They would attack the enemy from their remote forts and then retire to their haunts, inaccessible to cavalry and even pursuing infantry. These hit-and-run raids became the trademark and subsequently formed the basic tactics of Maratha operations.

Shivaji organised his infantry, starting at the base level with a unit of 10 men led by a Naik and every five such units (50 soldiers) by a Havaldar. An officer commanding over 100 troops was called a Jamaldar and was the equivalent of a modern-day Company Commander. The commander of 1000 men was a Hazari, who came under a Sarnobat commanding seven Hazaris—a Division Commander with 7000 men under his command. All soldiers and commanders received salaries from the government. Shivaji’s leadership was flawless and his organisational capacity was enormous—the main reasons for his being ‘worshipped’ by the simple and sturdy Mawlas.

The Origins of the Famed Maratha Cavalry

After defeating Afzal Khan and capturing enormous wealth from his camp, Shivaji devoted himself to the raising of a cavalry arm for his military force. He had always appreciated the fact that a strong cavalry force was a fundamental requirement for the success of long-range operations—attacks and raids into enemy territory. His victories over the Bijapur forces further facilitated the building up of his cavalry division.

Shivaji organised his cavalry in a similar pattern to the infantry. The base unit was 25 troopers, called either bargirs or siladars. Bargirs were mounted and equipped by the government whereas the siladars brought their own mounts and weapons at their expense. About 75 percent of the cavalry were bargirs. A batch of 25 troopers was commanded by a Havaldar, five Havaldars came under one Jamaldar, and 10 Jamaldars under one Hazari. Higher commanders were called Panch Hazari, commanding five Hazaris and the Sarnobat, the supreme commander of the entire cavalry element. The siladars, who provided their own horses and equipment were organised in separate units with a slightly different organisational structure, although they operated under the Sarnobat. In the cavalry, a Hazari was assisted by a Majumdar and a Karbari—a steward and a revenue-writer. The accounts of the division, of military income and disbursement, were to be signed by all three of these officials. Further, every Havaldar was assisted by a farrier to look after the 25 troopers and their horses.


Although he started with a core of infantry soldiers in the hill country of his patrimony, finally Shivaji’s power resided in his nimble cavalry. During Shivaji’s time the primary adversary was the Mughal army sent to conquer the Deccan. Therefore, the initial tactics of the Maratha forces were developed to counter the Mughal army and their modus operandi. By the mid-1600s, the Mughals had started to employ their tried and tested operational tactics in almost all the battles that they fought. They would open the battle with a heavy cannonade from their massed artillery to soften up the adversary and follow up with a massive heavy cavalry charge. Most adversaries would not be able to withstand the shock of the impact with the cuirassiers—heavily armoured horsemen wielding swords and later even pistols—especially after the artillery bombardment and would break ranks and scatter.

To counter the Mughal tactics based on their strength in massed artillery and heavy cavalry charges, Shivaji refused to fight static battles where the Mughal advantage would easily carry the day. He adopted the higher strategy of avoiding pitched battle with an adversary who was numerically superior, much more heavily armed and schooled in fighting on the battlefield. These considerations were the basis for the development of the famed Maratha guerrilla tactics that proved to be extremely effective in the context of its employment.

For his cavalry, Shivaji used the smaller but sturdy horses of South India as opposed to the bigger Arab stallions favoured by the Mughal cavalry. Further, the Maratha cavalry was not armoured and epitomised the term ‘light cavalry’. In keeping with the higher strategy of avoiding pitched battles at all costs, they favoured lightning raids focused on the enemy’s weak areas, prioritising hit-and-run operations and never staying to fight battles. By ambushing the rear-guard, cutting lines of communications and plundering the slow-moving baggage trains of the enemy, the Maratha cavalry achieved their purpose of gradually wearing down a more ponderous adversary—the Mughal army. The Maratha light cavalry’s activities were akin to a gnat fighting an elephant; biting the elephant at will and escaping while the elephant reoriented itself to the emergence of a new threat, then attacking from a different direction. This cycle could be continued ad nauseum till the elephant tired of it and gave up the fight in some way. This was attrition warfare at its best.

The Marathas fine-tuned the concept of attrition warfare by conducting predatory attacks at the times and places of their choosing, thereby also achieving the element of surprise in most cases. The Maratha forces lived off the land and when in enemy territory ravaged the countryside to create long-term economic disruption. When the adversary army was an expeditionary one, such as the Mughal army in the Deccan, the Maratha army concentrated on cutting the supply lines from their base of support, thus isolating the army. At the lower echelon, they did the same to the advance party and the rear-guard, isolating these elements from the main body and then attacking them.  

Shivaji picked another weakness of the Mughal army—the prevailing norm of the imperial Mughals to avoid fighting night battles, which over a period of time made them unprepared and unfit for nocturnal battles. Accordingly, as far as possible Shivaji resorted to conducting raids into Mughal territory at night.

The Mughals and Night Attacks

By the time that Akbar had stabilised the Mughal kingdom, he disdained from carrying out any night attacks; in 1573, famously saying, ‘I will not steal my victory’, much like what Alexander had said centuries earlier. By this statement Akbar was asserting his belief that a night attack involved deception and fraud, which would make his victory less than legitimate in the eyes of the public.

However, just two generations behind, his grandfather Babur had no such fancy beliefs. Babur was a past master in the art of deception—he diligently practised both misinformation and disinformation tactics to achieve surprise over the enemy.

The later-day Mughal army fighting the Marathas continued to subscribe to Akbar’s grandiose ‘scruples’ without having the depth, strength and leadership that had made Akbar’s armies invincible by day and untouchable by night. Decay had set in and the Mughal military camp at night was like any ordinary township at night, given to merriment, not defended well and not expecting to be attacked. They were unable to counter the opportunistic and manoeuvring attacks of the Maratha light cavalry.  

Merging Tactics to Terrain

The terrain of the Deccan, where the Maratha–Mughal tussle mainly took place, was rugged and conducive to the rapid movement of the Maratha light cavalry, mounted on smaller horses. On the other hand, the heavy cavalry and big guns of the Mughal army could not be manoeuvred quickly enough to bring them to bear on the fast-moving light cavalry elements. The Maratha cavalry therefore could engage and disengage at will, much like the gnat attacking an elephant, they could dodge any pursuing Mughal columns, commence another attack from a different direction and almost always held the initiative.

The broken and semi-hilly terrain of the Deccan Plateau impeded the free and rapid movement of the Mughal Cuirassier regiments, which were the main attacking arm of the Muslim army. Further, the Deccan is an agriculturally deficient region and does not provide adequate forage for an invading army dependent on beasts of burden for their movements and the transportation of their guns, equipment and accompanying baggage. These constraints severely hampered Mughal operations against the Marathas. The Maratha raiding parties normally consisted of about 3,000 light cavalry based in the rugged forts that dotted the hilly countryside. They would emerge from the forts, attack the Mughal columns at a time and place of their choosing and vanish into the hills even before the Mughal army could create its defences. These raids epitomised the gnat and elephant analogy given earlier.

The Maratha Forts

The fundamental strength upon which Shivaji built his fledgling kingdom was the chain of forts constructed over centuries on the everlasting hills of the Western Ghats in Maharashtra. Many of these forts, many of them disused and unoccupied and some even dilapidated, came into Shivaji’s control as part of the small patrimony that he inherited. He appreciated the advantage and strength of these rugged constructions and where necessary repaired them, embellishing many with parapets, bastions, water tanks and gateways. It will not be wrong to state that Shivaji built his kingdom on the inimitable strength that the string of forts that he had inherited and captured gave him, which enabled him to wage a continuous and efficient struggle against his enemies, the Mughals. Shivaji’s records put the number of these forts at 240.

In his typically efficient fashion, Shivaji organised the forts with a uniform administrative system. A Havaldar was in command of the garrison that was billeted in a fort, and he was assisted by other persons made in-charge of accounts and correspondence. The strength of the garrison depended on the size of the fort, its strategic importance to the kingdom and its positioning vis-à-vis possibilities of enemy attacks. Shivaji laid down that the Havaldar, commander, of all forts would be a Maratha from a ‘good’ family, whereas the book-keepers were normally either Brahmins or Prabhus.

Some of the major forts even had cannons, but overall, the Marathas were slow in absorbing the emerging technique of firearms. This is perhaps the only drawback that can be identified as a flaw in Shivaji’s creation of an army that defeated the mighty army of the imperial Mughals and brought down that dynasty. In concentrating on the development of a viable strategy and supporting tactics to defeat the Mughals and establish a Hindu kingdom, observation and absorption of the scientific progresses being made in the field of arms and ammunitions and the changes they were bringing about in warfighting ethos was permitted to ‘fall through the cracks’. Since the great Chhatrapati did not lay sufficient emphasis on firearms, successive Maratha military leadership tended to ignore the importance that ‘firearms’ deserved in the battlefield, almost always relegating them to be manned by mercenaries and not the ‘Maratha army’. This single drawback would have disastrous consequences for the Maratha army in the battles they fought in the 18th and early 19th centuries. The defeats suffered in these battles affected the entire Maratha Empire and contributed directly to the final decline and fall of the edifice.

General Conduct of Operations

All the Maratha forces, irrespective of their deployment status, returned to the cantonments in their home country immediately before the onset of the monsoon rains. In the cantonments, grain and fodder were stocked for the horses and the troopers’ huts were well-maintained with new thatch and other repairs completed. After celebrating Dussehra, the festival which normally coincided with the withdrawal of the monsoons, the army marched out to the country that the Raja had decided to attack.

At the time of departure, a list was made of all the property that every soldier and officer carried with him. For the next eight months the army would subsist, living off the land as best as they could. The Maratha army, both cavalry and infantry, moved without the encumbrance of tents, long-term provisions, and heavy artillery, ensuring that they could move rapidly. No families or camp followers such as servants and dancing girls were permitted on the campaign trail and the punishment for disobedience of these orders was immediate beheading of the culprit. As a corollary, Shivaji’s army never took women or children captive, prisoners were always only men. On the return of the forces prior to the rains, the entire force was searched, the possessions compared with the list that had been made at departure, and any extra items either confiscated or its equivalent value deducted from the salary.

In comparing the Maratha and Mughal armies, from the perspective of individual soldiers and their skills, Dr Fryer writes,

‘Sevaji’s [sic] men thereby being fitter for any martial exploit having been accustomed to fare hard, journey fast, and take little pleasure. But the other will not miss his dinner, must mount in state and have his arms carried before him, and his women not far behind him with masters of mirth and jollity; will rather expect than pursue a foe; but they stand out better; for Sevaji’s men care not much for a pitched battle, though they are good at surprising and ransacking; yet agree in this, that they are both of stirring spirits.’

—John Fryer, A New Account of East India and Persia: Being Nine Years Travels 1672–1681, Volume I, p. 175.   


The genius of Chhatrapati Shivaji in creating an organised, viable and efficient military force, starting from a small band of irregular militia, cannot be denied. His own leadership skills, personal bravery and courage, loyalty to those who served him, and pride in his roots surpassed that of any contemporary leader in the sub-continent. While his personal qualities were without doubt sterling, he was also an astute observer of human nature, able to identify groups with fighting qualities that could be honed with training, and more importantly, he had the rare ability to pick individuals with leadership skills and unshakeable integrity. These ‘human qualities’ stood him in good stead throughout his illustrious career.

At the time of his early death, the Maratha army consisted of 100,000 infantry, numerically an equal amount of light cavalry, and some cannons—all moulded into the most cohesive military force in the sub-continent at that time. Considering the odds that he faced and the relatively short span of time that he took to achieve such an astounding task, the creation of the Maratha military force and its development into a mean fighting force must be counted as one of the greatest achievements of the great and inimitable Maharaj. It was on the strength of his military force that the Chhatrapati was able to carve out a Hindu kingdom at the height of the Muslim power and sweep across the sub-continent. No mean feat by any calculation.

© [Sanu Kainikara] [2022]
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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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