(Last Updated on : 06/04/2009)
Established in 1674, the Maratha Empire extended from the Deccan to the Western Ghats. Their homeland, Maharashtra, lies between 16 degrees and 22 degrees North latitude. The empire stretched from the Satpura Hills to Waingana and Wardha rivers, and further to the borders of Goa. The Maratha Empire came into prominence in the later half of the 17th century with Shivaji`s rise to power. Belonging to the Bhonsle clan of the Marathas, Shivaji is hailed as the founder of the Maratha Empire. With the establishment of this empire, the Marathas became the lone spearhead of Hindu resistance to the Mughal dynasty.
After a lifetime of exploits and guerrilla warfare, Shivaji established an independent Maratha kingdom in 1674 and made Raigad its capital. After the demise of Shivaji, the emperors of Maratha who ruled chronologically are Chatrapati Sambhaji (c 1681-1689), Rajaram and Tarabai (c 1689-1707) and Shahu (c 1707-1749).
During his reigning period, Shahu appointed Peshwas as head government and after Shahu`s death; the Peshwas became the actual leaders of the Empire from 1749 to 1761. The first Peshwa or prime minister to receive the title of a ruler was Ramchandra Pant Amatya Bawdekar (1650-1716). After him able rulers like Peshwa Baji Rao I (1720-1740), Peshwa Balaji Baji Rao (1740-1761) and others consolidated this dyansty. Four of the semi-independent military chieftains were of the first rank of importance: the Gaekwar, Sindhia, Holkar, and Bhonsle. They became associated respectively with Baroda, the Ujjain-Gwalior country, the Vindhya-Narbada country (Indore), and Nagpur-Berar. They were, finally established in the third decade of the eighteenth century, but arose a full generation earlier.
During the 18th Century, the Maratha Empire kept the British forces at bay and continued to rule in Maharashtra. Shivaji`s successors held their court at Satara and were nominal heads of the Maratha Confederacy. But early in the eighteenth century they fell completely out of sight behind the Peshwa, who was originally Second Minister in Shivaji`s Astha Pradhan, or Cabinet of Eight. The 18th century saw the great height of Maratha Empire under the reigning period of Shahu and the Peshwa Baji Rao I. Henceforward the Maratha Government was in fact the Peshwa`s Government, checked and qualified by the influence of the great semi-independent chieftains.
A main source of Maratha strength was that from the first they were catholic in their political and military system and habits. They made use of the fighting qualities of other racial stocks. The English, whose military commanders have been almost usually Scots or Irish and their Prime Ministers and great Cabinet officers often Scots or Jews, were the only enemy whose sinews of war were as elastic as theirs. Shivaji himself had freely employed Muhammadans, as Mahadaji Sindhia did later in the Maratha army.
The Maratha Empire, which was also known to be revolutionary in nature, ushered some changes in social and cultural life as well. These changes were initiated by the great emperor of this dynasty, Shivaji, who made some changes in religion from the inception. As far as Shivaji is concerned, he recognised religious tolerance and religious pluralism as important pillars of the nation-state. According to this custom the Brahmins were the appointed as Prime ministers (Peshwas) of the Kshatriya (Maratha) emperors and Kshatriya Dhangar (Holkars) were the trusted generals of the Brahmin Peshwas. The Marathas militarily controlled huge tracts and their policy of religious tolerance gave equal importance to Hindu interests, thus, acting as a major back-pressure against the expanding Mughal influence. A considerable navy was created by this empire to keep the mighty European powers at bay.
During the latter part of the eighteenth century, it was the British who took over the Indian subcontinent. During this time the Marathas and British continued to have a mutual understanding. The former prowled very far from their homelands and Shivaji`s brother Venkaji established a Maratha dynasty in Tanjore, near Madras. In the casualness of those earliest wars of the Company, a body of Marathas under an adventurer, Morari Rao, fought sometimes against the British and at times (as in Clive`s Arcot campaign) on their side. However, in 1772, when Warren Hastings contributed 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.
It was the Third Battle of Panipat that put a halt on the expansion of the Maratha Empire in 1761. The power of the Peshwas also considerably reduced. Consequently, the Peshwas lost the control of their kingdoms as well. The sardars like Shinde, Holkar, Gaikwad, PantPratinidhi, Bhosale of Nagpur, Pandit of Bhor, Patwardhan, and Newalkar started working hard to become kings in their respective regions. After a decade of Panipat, Maratha authority in North India was restored under Madhavrao Peshwa. The death of Madhabrao, ushered the collapse of empire and thus leading to loose Confederacy, with political power resting in a `pentarchy` of five mostly Maratha dynasties namely the Peshwas of Pune; the Sindhias (originally "Shindes") of Malwa and Gwalior; the Holkars of Indore; the Bhonsles of Nagpur; and the Gaekwads of Baroda. Due to an enmity between the Sindhia and Holkar dominated the affairs of the confederation into the early 19th century. In 1818, the last Peshwa, Baji Rao II was defeated by the British in the Third Anglo-Maratha War. A majority of the Maratha kingdom was annexed to British India. However, certain states existed independently as quasi-independent princely states till India`s independence.
Though the Maratha Empire wilted away with passing time but the impact it exerted on the ruling dynasties was remarkable. Whether it was Shivaji, who was the dreaded foe of Mughal emperor, Aurangzeb or whether it were the Peshwas, who revolted against the British, the rulers of Maratha empire fought to their last to safeguard their lands, traditions and culture. Originally hailing from the agrarian section of the Indian society, the emperors fought with might and were known for their chivalry. On the other hand the wisdom of the Peshwas aided in establishing a proper administrative system.