The history of Maratha Empire traces the origin of this dynasty that flourished in West India. The rise of the Marathas was made possible by the leadership of the great Maratha ruler Shivaji Bhonsle (1627-80 A.D). In fact he is recognised as the "father of the Maratha nation". The Maratha Empire consisted of several clans. According to history they are the descendents of Rashtrakutas, Mauryas, Pariharas or Parmar (Pawar), Pratiharas, Shilahars, Kadambas, Yadavas, Chalukyas and many other royal clans of India.
As per the past record, the Marathas came into existence during the time of the Muslim invasions of Maharashtra, in about 1300 A.D. Ala-ud-Din Khilji brought the initial raid into the Deccan. The early looting expeditions covered much of Maharashtra and Karnataka and these were followed by conquest, annexation and the extinction of the Yadava dynasty. Thus, the period from 1300 to 1320 AD was the phase of intense conflict in Maharashtra. Due to these invasions, many dominant lineages were killed and some of them migrated to South to escape the Muslim conquest. Gradually, the Marathas developed a good relationship with the Rajput group.
A major part of the Maratha people was from the peasantry class. With the passage of time, the division between the Kshatriya classes and the peasantry classes has become thin and even the Maratha army also employed people from different castes. The Marathas are the Marathi-speaking social sects who have descended from 96 different Maratha clans or "Kulis". They evolved from the Indo-Aryan genealogical tree. Their original habitat, has given shape to the present-day state of Maharashtra. The social custom of this era vetoed Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj due to the fact that according to the declaration of the Brahmins, only Kshatriyas were allowed to be crowned as the Kings and they considered Marathas as `Shudras`. Being a `Shudra`, Chhatrapati Shivaji was not entitled to be crowned. Gagabhat of Varanasi was brought by Chhatrapati Shivaji to establish his lineage with the Sisodias (Rajputs) of Rajasthan and confirm his being Kshatriya.
The power of the Maratha Empire was taken to a high esteem in the reigning period of Chhatrapati Shri Shivaji Maharaj. He was born in 1627 A.D. in Pune. Despite the frantic efforts of Aurangazeb, during his lifetime, the power of Shivaji could not be subjugated. During his reigning period, in the year 1674, Shivaji affirmed himself as the independent ruler of the Maratha kingdom. By 1647, Shivaji had conquered two forts and taken charge of the whole of Pune region. He slowly captured forts in the region, namely Purandar, Rajgad, and Torna. In 1659 Shivaji killed the renowned Adilshahi general Afzal Khan and demoralised his army. Thus, he secured the foundation of Maratha Kingdom near Pune, which later became the Maratha capital. Shivaji had rightly utilized guerilla tactics and brilliant military strategies. Thus, he was successful in leading numerous attacks against Mughal strongholds, including the major port of Surat in the 1660 and afterwards. However, after his arrest on the 1666 as a prompted consequence of his defeat to General Jai Singh, a general of Aurangzeb, he prepared for a courageous escape and recovered his lost kingdom and dignity. By the year 1673, he had in his control several states of western Maharashtra and had also declared `Raigad` as the capital of Maratha kingdom. In 1674 he assumed the title of "Chhatrapati" at his elaborate coronation. At the time of his death in 1680, nearly whole of the Deccan belonged to his kingdom. In fact, Shivaji had left his mark in the whole of Maratha history not only as a conqueror and a military statesman; rather he was acclaimed as good ruler and diligent administrator. He established a solid foundation of the Maratha state.
Sambhaji ascended the throne after Shivaji and a new phase in Maratha history was started. He was taken prisoner and executed by Aurangzeb, in 1689. Rajaram, Shivaji`s second son then rose to the power. In the year 1700 after the demise of Rajaram, Tarabai, the widow of Rajaram, placed her ten-year-old young son Shivaji II on the throne, and sustained the fight with Aurangzeb. Shahu, the grandson of Chhatrapati Shivaji, was released from the Mughal captivity in 1707. He recaptured the Maratha throne from Tarabai in 1708 AD and successfully carried on his fight against the Mughals and captured Raigad, the former Maratha`s capital. The fight against the Mughals ended with the death of Aurangzeb in 1707. In the conquest for supremacy Shahu was ultimately successful as he got the services of the ablest Maratha chief named Balaji Biswanath. Out of this conflict evolved the new system of Maratha government called Peshwaship or the Peshwa domination in Maratha history.
It was under the ruling of three Peshwas that the Maratha history reached its zenith. Balaji Vishwanath who took over the throne after the death of Shahu in 1712, reigned from 1712 to 1721. The erroneous belief in the caste system was realized by Rajarshi Shahu and he took initiative to correct it by bringing all the sections of the society on one platform to fight this Brahmin zealotry. Marathas were considered as the saviours of Hinduism who fought the onslaught of uncompromising Mughal Emperor Aurangzeb. The death of Chhatrapati Shivaji in 1680 and his son Sambhaji in 1687 ushered the period of instability of the Maratha Empire up to 1707. Later the Maratha kingdom was extended by the Peshwas among whom Baji Rao Peshwa I (1721-1740) had a great role to play. Gradually the Peshwas became the de facto rulers of Maratha Empire. The Maratha Sardars or chieftains like Gaekwads of Baroda, Shindes of Gwalior, Holkars of Indore expanded the power in North India and became powerful after the Peshwas. They then established their own kingdoms.
With the spread of the Marathas from Attock in Pakhtunistan to Bengal (beyond Cuttack) in East India, a Maratha confederacy was formed. After the decline of the Mughal Empire, in the battle near Delhi, the Marathas conclusively defeated Afgan-Rohila forces led by Shah Abdali and Najib Khan in 1756. Najib Khan surrendered to the Marathas and became their prisoner and after 800 years this battle liberated Punjab from the Muslim dominion. With time the alliance between the different groups with Marathas was hampered due to the handling of Delhi matters. In the battle of 1761, the Marathas decided to break-through the Afghan blockade and re-enter Deccan. A huge population was killed in this war and this war was considered to be one of the worst defeats for Marathas, Hinduism and the Indian Nationalist Forces. The war shattered the project of bringing under one unified Hindu rule. This also brought a big loss to the Afghans and they decided to leave India. After loosing control over the Maratha Empire, the Peshwas and the Maratha Generals like Shindes (Gwalior) and Holkars (Indore) consolidated themselves after this, in the North & Central India. With the Panipat war, the actual ruin of the Maratha Empire was initiated.
In 1717 AD a Mughal emissary signed a treaty with the Marathas confirming their claims to rule in the Deccan. 1718 marked the beginning of the Maratha influence in Delhi. After the death of Balaji Vishwanath in 1721, Bajirao, the elder son became Peshwa. Pune had regained its status as capital of Maratha Kingdom from Raigad. In 1734, Bajirao captured the Malwa territory in the north, and in 1739, he drove out the Portuguese from nearly all their possessions in the Western Ghats. Baji Rao`s son (Nanasaheb), Balaji Bajirao succeeded as the Peshwa after the death of Baji Rao. He defeated Ahmad Shah Abdalli in 1756 near Delhi. But Marathas lost the war in the Third Battle of Panipat (1761), which took place between Marathas and Ahmad Shah Abdalli. This war destroyed both Abdalli and Peshwas. Balaji Baji Rao died soon after the war shattered by the death of his older son and brother.
Madhav Rao I made a fresh attempt to revitalize the legacy of Maratha history. But after his death once again the Marathas fall on to the shambles. Maratha history was glorified by the achievements of its legacy of kings and also assuming a place of importance in the glorious history of India in the medieval period.
The part of Maratha empire was the Gaekwars and Bhonsle Raja who was always `somewhat aloof from the politics of Puna and throughout Clive`s and Hastings` time cultivated with the Company friendly relations, which served the latter well.
In 1772, when Warren Hastings lent the Nawab of Oudh a brigade to subjugate the Rohillas, it was well understood that the real menace, behind the Rohillas, was the Marathas. Two years later, in 1774, the Government of Bombay precipitated an iniquitous war with Sindhia and the Peshwa, and achieved thereby the miracle of bringing Hastings and his Council into temporary accord. The latter informed the Bombay Government that its action was `impolitic, dangerous, unauthorized, and unjust`, adjectives which were explained and elaborated.
The Gaekwar kept outside this war. So did the Bhonsle Raja, who was always `somewhat aloof from the politics of Pune and throughout Clive`s and Hastings` time cultivated with the Company friendly relations, which served the latter well. Holkar, too, can hardly be considered to have taken part in the campaign, which dragged on for several years. In January 1779, the Bombay Government surpassed itself in incompetence, an army surrendering at Wargaon, where its commander signed a convention. The convention was repudiated, and the Marathas lost their advantage. Hastings, in 1780, thrust out across Central India. Two years later (May 1782), the war ended by the Treaty of Salbai.
In spite of the friendly feeling for Hastings, Mahadaji Sindhia proceeded to strengthen himself with European soldiers of fortune, especially as officers and artillerymen. Most of these were French, that nation being encouraged because of their secular hostility to the English, and also because the latter had the inconvenient habit of commanding their own people to leave a State whenever the Company found itself at war with that State. Their employers thus lost their services when most needed and when they were invaluable to the enemy as spies and intelligence agents. Following a heavy defeat by Sindhia in 1792, Tukoji Holkar copied his rival in a small way, and began to enlist his own European troops and gunners. The Peshwa was an ally of the Company in Cornwallis` war with Tipu (1790-2), and Maratha contingents rendered good service. But the nation then proceeded to destroy itself, so that Wellesley`s attack in 1803 met a disorganized and weakened opposition. The last decade of the eighteenth century was one of constant clashing of Holkars and Sindhias, of civil dissensions monotonous in repetition and appalling in brutality.
Army was sent by the Peshwa to challenge the Afghan led alliance of Indian Muslims that comprised of Rohillas, Shuja-ud-daula, Najib-ud-daula. In 1761 on 14th January, the Marathas were defeated at the Third Battle of Panipat. Suraj Mal and Rajputs abandoned the Marathas and they departed the Maratha alliance at a decisive moment leading to the great battle. The defeat of Marathas at Panipat curbed Maratha expansion towards Northwest and fragmented the empire. From then onwards, Maratha Confederacy never fought again as one unit after the battle. Mahadji Shinde controlled territories of Delhi and Agra from Gwalior, Holkars controlled Central India from Indore and the Gaikwads` controlled the Western India from Baroda.
After a decade of the battle of Panipat, young Madhav Rao Peshwa took the initiative to reconstruct the empire over North India and semi-autonomy was given to strongest of the knights to manage the territory properly. As a result, the autonomous Maratha states of the Gaekwads of Baroda, the Holkars of Indore and Malwa, the Scindias (or Shinde`s) of Gwalior and Ujjain, Pawars of Udgir and Bhonsales of Nagpur came into existence in far flung regions of the empire. Moreover, semi autonomous charges of small districts in the Maharashtra were given to knights.
The British East India Company intervened in a succession struggle in Pune, on behalf of Raghunathrao in 1775 and this initiated the First Anglo-Maratha War and ended in 1782. The British intervened in Baroda in 1802 to support the heir to the throne against rival applicants. They signed a treaty with the new Maharaja recognizing his independence from the Maratha Empire in return for his acknowledgement of British dominance. In 1803-1805, during the Second Anglo-Maratha War, the Peshwa Baji Rao II signed a similar treaty. In 1817-1818, during the Third Anglo-Maratha War the final effort to regain sovereignty led to the loss of Maratha independence. Except from the states of Kolhapur and Satara, the Maratha heartland of Desh, including Pune, came under direct British rule. The Maratha-ruled states of Gwalior, Indore, and Nagpur came under subordinate alliance with the British Raj as princely states and they maintained internal sovereignty under British `paramountcy`. The British Raj had also retained other small princely states of Maratha knights.
One of the major leaders of the 1857 battles against British rule, the last Peshwa, Nana Sahib, alias Govind Dhondu Pant, encouraged the people and the Indian Princes to fight against the British. Tantya Tope and Rani Lakshmi Bai fought with great bravery with the British and the Indian soldiers also devoted themselves in their battle against British.
The Maratha Confederacy was shaken by incessant quarrels and by civil war made lurid with sadistic executions. Sarji Rao Ghatke invented such deaths as tying to red-hot cannons and festooning with rockets that carried the victim along in a whirl of explosions. As the century ended, Sindhia and Yeswant Rao Holkar, the abler of the two illegitimate Holkar brothers, marched and countermarched, fighting a series of battles, of which some of the fiercest took place when they were nominally at peace. The vast extent of territory which the Marathas occupied was swept with storm-winds, as if it were the playground of demons.
In 1857, the Marathas were at the forefront of the mutiny against the British and they also supported the same. The mutiny failed due to the lack of planning, proper co-ordination within Hindu rulers, lack of diplomatic efforts, firearms and communication facilities. Even the Marathas also supported the Independence movement especially the `Quit India` movement of 1942.
After the formation of a Marathi speaking Maharashtra state in 1960, the Maratha community became dominant in the politics of Maharashtra State.