The Marathas Part 21 The Creation, Evolution and Decline of the Maratha Army Section II; Feudalism to Final Decline

Canberra, 20 September 2022

In the annals of the history of the sub-continent, the Marathas came into prominence suddenly and swiftly and dissipated and collapsed as a ruling entity equally rapidly. While the rationale for their rise have been adequately chronicled, the causes for their downfall and the speed at which the collapse took place have been debated by historians ever after. No single factor stands out and it is seen in an analysis that many individual factors combined in different ways in terms of weightage, applicability, and duration to pave the way for the decline and final eclipse of the Maratha Empire.

At its infancy, the Maratha Kingdom created by Shivaji was ruled by an enlightened autocracy, which was acknowledged as a national monarchy. The kingdom found expression through its army that was a national institution with strictly enforced discipline—a homogenous body commanded by a dedicated cadre of officers. The Maratha Empire that evolved from this small territorial and intellectual core was essentially a military organisation, with civil institutions controlled and directly associated with the military system. The military force that evolved with the Maratha kingdom, struck out on a path of its own, created a fighting ethos that was different from the prevailing ones and adhered to a different, and higher, level of moral and ethical standards. Unfortunately, the senior Maratha commanders did not leave behind any detailed written material that could give the modern historian a clearer understanding of their perceptions regarding the art and science of war. The analyst is left to his/her own devises to fathom the reasons behind decisions, great and small, that were made throughout the history of this great Empire.

With the replacement of the monarchy with a feudal despotism, the national army lost its sheen, and it became redundant and unviable, giving way to feudal forces that held their own ideals and objectives dearer than the concepts that held up the Empire. These feudal forces were not strictly disciplined and nor were they inspired by common national ideals and objectives.  The Maratha army as a single entity, commanded by one a single military commander—king or the appointed Senapati—ceased to exist with the death of Sambhaji at the hands of the Mughals. It became a conglomeration of independent armies, owing allegiance and loyalty to different feudal chiefs, both small and powerful, who were almost never inspired by common national ideals or interests.

Revival and Entrenchment of Maratha Feudalism

Shivaji created a national army that was subordinate to the civil government of the kingdom, which he ruled as the monarch. He enforced rigid discipline on the army and its becoming a national institution was greatly facilitated by Shivaji himself being the supreme commander—the classic model in which the monarch was both the warlord and civil administrator. However, the civil control of the army was not a common aspect of governance at the time that Shivaji instituted it. It was a revolutionary concept and carried forward without much opposition because of the implicit trust and loyalty that the people reposed in Shivaji as their monarch.

Shivaji’s successor, his son Sambhaji, was a good soldier and an average general. However, he did not possess Shivaji’s charisma and was devoid of his father’s vision and idealism, functioning at a lower level of enlightenment. Sambhaji faced acute financial difficulties and found it difficult to meet his payment obligations to the military forces. His father had strictly enforced the rule that all spoils of war were to be considered State property. Sambhaji found this order difficult to impose and left the spoils of war as the due of the army. Even though he faced financial difficulties almost through his entire reign, Sambhaji never considered introducing the Mughal concept of fiefdoms to overcome the financial woes of the kingdom. Neither did he encourage hereditary appointments as a possible solution to the troubles of the kingdom. Sambhaji is to be considered ‘strong’ for not having succumbed to both these easy solutions to his troubles.

Sambhaji’s death and the period immediately following it was a critical time in Maratha history, although it was not catastrophic for the kingdom. Sambhaji’s martyrdom and Aurangzeb’s ill-conceived and religiously bigoted policies kindled the nationalistic feelings in the Maratha people and unified them against the Mughals. Rajaram who succeeded Sambhaji was not a charismatic or decisive leader. In medieval times a king had to be a successful commander of military forces and a supreme warlord to be effective. Unfortunately, Rajaram was neither. He delegated authority to two Brahmin lieutenants of his, which immediately lowered the prestige and stature of the king. Rajaram tasked these two Brahmins with repelling the Mughal attacks on the kingdom. However, the treasury was empty and they were forced to look at alternative solutions to the emerging and escalating problem.

From an analysis of subsequent events, it is obvious that the Maratha people supported the two Brahmin ‘commanders’ to a certain extent, but they could never hope to generate or receive the same level of loyalty and adulation that the people reserved for the royal family, the successors of Shivaji, their worshipped Chhatrapati. If Rajaram had inherited the stellar qualities of his father, even in half-measure, he would have been a more effective king and the people would have flocked to his banner. In this instance, the two lieutenants were obliged to purchase the loyalty of supporters by giving out concessions that would be appealing to the more powerful military commanders. They started to create hereditary fiefs that were granted to successful warriors, who were then rewarded with fresh jagirs for further services rendered. Theoretically, this process could be perpetuated in an endless cycle.

It so happened that very often the jagirs that were granted were still in the possession of the Mughals and the Maratha chiefs had to fight and defeat the Muslim adversary to take possession of the allocated jagir. This was a ruse earlier used by Babur, the Mughal, after his victory at the Battle of Panipat, as a method to extend his territorial hold. While the concept of jagirs, fiefdoms, did have few advantages, the challenges that it posed to the functioning of the monarchy were immense and large in number. At the outset, the firm discipline under which the Maratha army functioned vanished rapidly. Just two decades after Shivaji’s death, no remnants of the military reforms that Shivaji had so carefully instituted were visible within the Maratha military forces. The decline in the status, influence and power of the monarchy continued after the death of Rajaram. This downward trend was accelerated by the arrival of Shahu, released from Mughal captivity, and the civil war that followed for the Maratha’s throne. The civil war benefitted the Mughals and the feudal chiefs, while being extremely detrimental to the broader Maratha polity. Shahu managed to emerge victorious in the civil war but was unable to restore royal power and prestige. The feudal system had become entrenched by this time.

The Power of the Feudatories

Balaji Viswanath, the architect of Shahu’s victory in the civil war, could not control the major feudatories. For example, Kanhoji Angria, the powerful maritime captain, offered allegiance to Raja Shahu, but retained his fief and naval command. Balaji conceived another method to conciliate the military chiefs and bring them on-side. By this time Raja Shahu had started to receive ‘imperial’ farmans, an edict or grant, for the collection of Chauth and sardeshmukhi in stipulated districts. Balaji offered a modified option to the military chiefs for their collection, in return for their acknowledgement of Raja Shahu’s authority and for providing service to him as required. The sardeshmukhi was the king’s prerogative and therefore, sacrosanct. However, according to the new scheme, Balaji claimed only one-fourth of the Chauth on behalf of the king, called Rajbabti, and permitted the collecting military chief to keep the rest for himself. In return, the military chiefs agreed to maintain a stipulated number of troops and undertook to perform military duties for the State when required or demanded by the king.

Balaji ensured that the interests of the different chiefs did not overlap by defining the ‘spheres of activity’ for each military leader, thus avoiding any internal tensions or dissent. He permitted the chiefs to extend their activities in their immediate neighbourhood at their discretion. The advantage of the system was that it ensured relative peace at home and set in motion an expansionist foreign policy for the Empire. However, the long-term disadvantages of the scheme far outweighed the immediate gains. First, by voluntarily forfeiting three quarters of the Chauth collected, Balaji created the circumstances for the lowering of the prestige of the king—it may have been a better decision to collect the entire Chauth for the king and then re-distribute an amount to the collecting agency. Second, the king was now sidelined from mainstream activities and not involved in the financing of military expeditions, payment to the army, or the conduct of foreign policy for the Empire. He luxuriated in a state of semi-retired life, with no immediate affairs of state to be dealt with by him. The sardeshmukhi and Rajbabti were considered sufficient to meet his personal financial needs. This was the first step towards the Maratha king becoming completely irrelevant to the politico-economic and military activities of the State. Third, with the move to make the king purely a ceremonial entity gaining ground, these military chiefs gradually became independent princes for all practical purposes declaring only nominal and superficial allegiance to the king and adherence to his writ. With the implementation of this new scheme, the feudalisation of the Maratha army and the State was complete.

Along with diminishing the king’s power and prestige and relegating him into irrelevance, the new system of revenue collection had three other major drawbacks, which repeatedly affected the Maratha Empire. One, it made unity of command of the military force an impossibility. The Maratha army was no more a national army but an opportunistic combine of divided, sub-national, feudal armies with varying levels of loyalty to the Empire, pursuing differing ambitions, and exhibiting no common fighting ethos. Two, the system created hereditary commands wherein there was no assurance of the military competence of the successors to the founder of the fiefdom. This situation led to a lowering of military expertise at the senior levels of command and the accompanying loss of fighting efficiency of the army as a whole. Three, the civil administration of the fiefs was now transferred to purely military commanders, who may or may not have had the capability and acumen for efficient administrative work. In a case of the system becoming a vicious cycle, the administrative efficiency suffered and adversely affected the military capability.

The Peshwa–Senapati Tussle

Although the national army was non-existent by the time Balaji Viswanath took charge of the State, theoretically, the Senapati continued to be the commander-in-chief of the non-existent ‘Maratha army’. By this time supreme power had become resident in the Peshwa and the Senapati was bereft of any actual power. In Shivaji’s time, the Peshwa was expected to lead military expeditions, much like the Dalwai of the great Vijayanagara Empire. [A Side Note: the terms Dalwai and Peshwa are synonymous, and both carried out the same functions. Some texts on Maratha history erroneously identify the position of the Peshwa with that of the Vizier or Wazir of the Mughal kingdom. This is a wrong assumption since the duties of the Vizier were not the same as that of the Peshwa.]

Rajaram transferred the command of the army to capable generals and the high reputations of these generals made it difficult for the Peshwa to challenge their authority. These generals became the Senapatis and were considered of equal status to the Peshwa. Subsequently, the simmering power struggle between the Peshwa and the Senapati came out in the open as a civil war. The Senapati Trimbak Rao Dabhade was defeated and killed by Peshwa Baji Rao, putting an end to the ambiguous tussle. After this defeat, the position of Senapati became ceremonial and inconsequential in Maratha history. After the defeat, the Dabhade family enjoyed their jagirs for some more time, till that privilege was withdrawn later. The Peshwas continued to create high military positions—Sena Khaskhel, Sarlaskar, Sena Sahib Subah—nominally below the level of the Senapati and bestow them on different individuals as it suited their political purpose contextually. Although this system was created to obviate internal feuds, they went on to create more domestic conflicts.

Further Evolution of the Feudal System

Even though the feudatory scheme had already displayed its drawbacks and was demonstrated as a failure, the Peshwas did not take note of the lessons that had emerged. As the Empire continued to expand, they created more fiefs within the same old system—the fact that the creation of fiefdoms had brought about more friction and dissention than being conciliatory was not considered a serious enough issue to discontinue the practice.

With the passage of time and as the Maratha territorial expansion increased rapidly, the king’s share of the revenue, both sardeshmukhi and Rajbabti, stopped being paid to him. The king had no power to reinstitute them, and the position of the king became purely ceremonial and nominal. The revenue being collected, irrespective of whether it was from Maratha territories or exacted as tribute from neighbouring domains, was divided between the collecting chief and the Peshwa. The concept of saranjam, bestowed by the Peshwa, was introduced and a large number were given out to cater for the Peshwa’s needs and interests. These saranjams were never equal and varied in value and the laid-down ‘give back’ to the Peshwa in terms of services to be rendered.

According to the saranjams, the civil administration and military defence of the major part of the Empire became the responsibility of the chiefs to whom they were given. Ideally, the interests of the chiefs and those of the Empire should coincide and follow the central directives issued by the Peshwa’s office. However, the conditions emerging in practice were very different. The chiefs failed in their duties—either to maintain military forces, of the quality and in the quantity stipulated or align with the central administration’s edicts. Almost all of them failed to identify with the broader interests of the State. As these defaults went unpunished, for the Peshwas did not have the power to enforce their writ, the general quality of the army started to appreciably deteriorate. The most common failure of the chiefs was to leave the army unpaid or underpaid, leading in some cases even to mutiny.

The main reason for the failure of the system can be traced to the dual responsibilities thrust on the saranjam-holder, the chief: he was the military commander as well as the civil administrator. As the latter, he had to finance the former. Financial stringency was therefore at the heart of the challenge. None of the saranjam holders had sufficient money to finance the military to the full extent of its requirements. When the demand to produce the stipulated military contingent was made, the Peshwa himself was in no shape to give financial assistance to the chiefs. The majority of chiefs therefore had to rely on loans to equip the army and pay the requisite advance to the junior commanders to field an army. The chiefs hoped to make sufficient profits in the ensuing campaign to at least break even vis-à-vis the repayment of the loans.

All campaigns were not equally profitable, and some were loss-making. The Peshwa audited the accounts of the chiefs after the campaign and even in cases where genuine losses were accepted, the Peshwa failed to make good the losses incurred, normally only limited relief was on offer. The chiefs had no option but to resort to subterfuge to tide over the financial challenge. They would provide incorrect and inflated accounts and not maintain the stipulated number of troops; and when required, they would provide sub-standard soldiers and equipment, at best creating a mediocre force.

These conditions created a vicious cycle—military needs affected the civil administration through forced increases in taxes and revenue collection from the common people. Further, inefficiencies in the civil government had an immediate and disastrous effect on military efficiency. In the last few decades of the Maratha Empire, all chiefs, including the powerful houses of Scindia and Holkar, were forced to mortgage the future revenues of their provinces to raise sufficient finances to fund their campaigns. Some chiefs even resorted to selling governorships of their provinces to the highest bidder. Inevitably the situation was bound to end in disaster—the chiefs reached a point where they were unable to pay their soldiers or collect sufficient resources to conduct a campaign; and they could not meet the demands for the share of revenue from the Central Government.

On some rare occasions, sufficiently powerful Peshwas confiscated the fief of recalcitrant and errant chiefs. Mostly, the Peshwas themselves lacked the resources to improve the declining state of affairs—they could not abolish the saranjam system since their power and pre-eminent position was derived from the very same feudal system. The Peshwas were fully dependent on their feudatories’ support to retain their position of power. In return for their unquestioned support, the chiefs were rewarded with the grant of rich fiefs. In turn, some of the chiefs went on to create their own powerful families. The challenge for the Peshwa was that the gratitude and loyalty generated by the grant of a saranjam normally did not last beyond the first generation, forcing the Peshwa to increase the number of awards to tempt the next generation and retain their allegiance. It was unavoidable, and even predictable, that sons and grandsons would find the necessity to honour these hereditary loyalties, which to them would seem one-sided in favour of the Peshwa, cumbersome.

Loss of Impulse – The Dissipation of a Concept

There is no doubt that the ills of entrenched feudalism played an important part in the dissolution of the Maratha Empire. Less readily noticeable, even to the historical analyst, was another factor that contributed as much as any other towards the decline and final eclipse of the Empire. This factor was the invisible and intangible element of the ‘impulse’, the undefinable thirst of the common people, to follow a concept to its fulfillment at all costs; an impulse that gradually lost its appeal and died in the Maratha people. The concept, the idea, that Shivaji had carefully inculcated, of creating a Hindu Empire, had been the notion that united a divergent race to become a triumphant imperial power and made them aspire to higher glory.

Shivaji’s rallying cry as the champion of Hinduism in turn created a nationalist military force with the internal fervour, the impulse, to create a Hindu nation—in the thick of Islamic persecution at its height, and within the territories ruled by Muslim nawabs and emperors. The potency of the cry and its appeal to the people living within a bleak religious scenario were unquestionable. It permitted Shivaji to rule with the unfailing support of the people, who always stood united behind his banner. Among his successors, it was Peshwa Baji Rao I who understood the power, gusto and dynamism of the Hindu rallying cry and used it to full benefit.

Even though the feudatory system was spreading across Maratha lands, Baji Rao ensured that the Marathas burst out of the confines of the Deccan, crossed to the north of River Narmada, and rapidly spread across Hindustan. It was Baji Rao who formally declared his aim to create a Hindu empire—Hindupad Padshahi, as he called it. The Hindu empire that Shivaji had dreamt about was given form and substance five decades later by an equally capable successor of his. Throughout his illustrious career, Baji Rao used the religious angle to ensure the support of the Hindus, especially of Central and North India who were themselves striving to rebel against Mughal repression and religious bigotry.

When Balaji Rao became Peshwa and decided to embrace the concept of profiting from wars and the employment of Maratha military power, the religious impulse within the common Maratha people, lit by Shivaji and kept burning by Baji Rao was extinguished. Devoid of the fervent religious impulse at its core, based on an ideal that had continuously strengthened the moral and ethical foundation of the kingdom and its people, the Maratha Empire became similar to all other kingdoms that had sprouted in the sub-continent in earlier times. The concept of rallying Hindus against the Muslims and using the inherent religious fervour of the idea to create an invincible and disciplined military force was forever lost. Hindu allies that Balaji Viswanath and Baji Rao had assiduously cultivated in Central and North India were alienated by the policies of Balaji Rao. The Maratha military force became denationalised; they no longer fought to defend and expand a Hindu nation but only to win a battle for the love of lucre, to gather treasure.        

A third factor—once again not fully analysed or studied regarding its impact on the decline in the fighting power of the Maratha army—was the challenge that Maratha commanders faced in maintaining a homogenous army, as the Empire expanded. As the Maratha armies were riding unchallenged across the entire Hindustan, from Attock in the north-west frontier of the sub-continent to Arambagh in Bengal, the Peshwa faced the challenge of maintaining ‘Maratha’ armies in North, Central and East India. With the passage of time and increasing conquests, the simple Maratha soldier had become reluctant to spend years away from his home provinces. As a result, the Maratha commanders were constrained to recruit mercenaries locally, from within the sub-continent and even abroad. The constitution of the army, from being a homogenous Maratha force, changed very quickly to include Sikhs, Rajputs, Kannadigas, Arabs, Afghans, Abyssinians and even Portuguese.

The new Maratha army, especially the ones operating at the extremes of the Maratha conquest, became completely divested of the original nationalistic and Hindu fervour. It became an eclectic mix of religion, race, ethnicity and even character. The mix was so pervasive that at one stage even the Peshwa’s personal guards had more Arabs than Marathas in their body. Faithfulness and loyalty lost its original meaning and became commodities to be bartered to the highest bidder.

Bound together by no common ideals or interests, by nature ruthless in achieving what they perceived as objectives, almost always of a short-term gain, the Maratha army became one in which neither the common soldier nor the commanders in the hierarchy understood the long-term objectives and aims of the campaigns, wars and battles they were fighting. Even the senior leadership had lost sight of the ultimate objectives that the Empire had stood and fought for in antiquity.

The Maratha military force had become a mercenary force with no ideals to follow, was completely demoralised and an easy prey for a more disciplined and focused military power. The English realised this unassailable truth earlier than anyone else.

© [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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