• The Marathas: Origins of an Empire



    Single Issue XII


    The Marathas
    Origins of an Empire
    by m_1512


    Setting the stage
    This is an introductory look at the Marathas, perhaps one of the least well known empires in history. I might do some more specific sequels to this article, but this will focus on giving people a rundown of the origin of the Marathas, their story (in brief), their success and decline, and what the media and games get wrong about them. I call them least well known in comparison to other well-known ones such as the Roman and British empires.

    I am not going to copy paste walls of text from some of the various sources that can be found online. But rather, this will be a short story from what you could call oral traditions. This will be an article providing a perspective from one who grew up in the culture and acquired from both academic sources and oral traditions. So this will be nothing like a discourse of an academic historian. But rather an insight into the spirit and legacy of the Marathas, from a source who is both proud of the heritage and cherishes their ideals.

    Let’s start with the origins. The Maratha Empire started out as a rebellion of one young chief against the Bijapur Sultanate. This then progressed to an almighty struggle between the Moghul Empire and Shivaji and his progeny. But I am getting ahead of myself, for the stage will first need to be set in order to understand the entire story. Especially if you are not very familiar with the Marathas and their history.


    Painting of Shivaji mounted on a horse and leading a body of men. (Author unknown, sourced from Google Images.)

    The founder was Chatrapati Shivaji, a son of Shahaji Bhosale - a warlord who at time served as a mercenary captain to the various Sultanates, yet one who maintained a fiefdom and a personal army. Our protagonist here also happened to be born in a prominent family within the Maratha Clan system. The Maratha clans were equivalent to the Kshatriyas (Rajputs/warrior caste) of that region. Not many are aware that there are no Kshatriyas in the Marathi society. There are not many sources as to why, but it could also be attributed to the story of Parashurama, the avatar (reincarnation) of the God, Vishnu, who is said by scriptures to have wiped out an entire race of Kshatriyas as a punishment for their arrogance.

    There is one very interesting fact here that is almost certainly missed by all. Ironically, the story of Shivaji’s rise to power has many similarities to that of the founder of the empire that he would destroy. Here, I just don’t mean the Moghuls, but the Mongols. Yes, the Moghuls were the descendants of the Mongols; the word Moghul is Persian for Mongol. And there are definitely many things in common between the stories of Chatrapati Shivaji and Genghis Khan. For one, both of them were sons of tribal warlords. And this is just the beginning.

    Before you look at the map and its following text, I think this point is important to consider if you’ve never read/heard much about the Marathas: the Deccan here is the name of the region where the story takes place. This is the region in which lies the homeland of the Marathi people, and where the Maratha Empire originated. Okay, let us consider the map.


    Map of the Deccan Sultanates – Bijapur, Golkonda, Ahmadnagar, Bidar, and Berar. The borders shown are approximate as they kept changing constantly. (Map sourced from SifyNews.)

    The Deccan in the 14th and 15th centuries had been ruled by the Bahmani Sultanate, established by a Turkic general. The Sultanate itself had been established via a revolt against a larger Sultanate (Delhi). It reached its peak in the late 15th century, but its fortunes were soon to be reversed. For the later Sultans were gradually turning out to be weak, and they had a potent threat to their south – the Vijayanagara Empire. And for some reason, the Bahmani Sultans had created an annual tradition of raiding and pillaging of Vijayanagar villages and towns. But in 1509, Emperor Krishna Deva Raya (considered the greatest) of the Vijayanagara brought a strong army and destroyed the last remnant of Bahmani power leading to its collapse.

    And with the final vestiges of Bahmani power gone by 1518, the Sultanate broke up into five smaller ones. And so the Deccan then came to be ruled by what has been collectively termed as “the Deccan Sultanates”. The prominent ones here being Ahmadnagar, Bijapur, and Golkonda. But these Sultanates were rivals, who would only unite against the Vijayanagara and start fighting each other once the threat was quelled. And along with their warriors and warlords of Afghan, Mongol, and Turkic origins, their armies consisted of warriors and warlords of the numerous Maratha Clans. But these Maratha warlords would, from time to time, shift loyalties as the borders kept changing between the Sultanates due to their constant waging of minors wars and skirmishes. And one of such warlords was Shahaji Bhosale; the father of our protagonist.

    Now you might think how the above information is even relevant. But it explains key points that I’d like to highlight below.
    -> From the brief glimpse of its history, I am sure you would have seen how the Deccan lacked any long term stability due to the absence of any single formal authority.
    -> Second, the power struggle of the Sultanates transformed the region into a hotbed of conflict that pitted Maratha Clans against each other.
    -> As Shivaji grew up, the power in Deccan was shared between Bijapur, Ahmadnagar, and Golkonda. This would continue until the arrival of the Moghuls to annex the remaining Sultanates. And to sum it all, he happened to be the son of a prominent warlord whose services were much sought after by both the Sultans and later the Moghuls.


    Shahaji Bhosale
    The history of Shahaji Bhosale is as interesting as his son, but not much is known about him. Which is a pity since most of the events that gave rise to an empire can be attributed to him. He himself was the son of a warlord who served one of the Deccan Sultanates – Ahmednagar.


    Portrait of Shahaji Raje Bhosale. (Image sourced from braintordigitallibrary.)

    But Shahaji on the other hand would serve Ahmednagar, the Moghuls, and eventually Bijapur. He was one warlord whose renown left him in much demand by many. He was a supporter of guerrilla warfare and practised it many times in his career. Although he was not the first person in history to have followed such as style of warfare. But he can be said to have set a precedent for the Marathas – that a numerically smaller army can bring a huge one to its knees. Which is all very good, one might say. But it does hold a lot of importance in the grand scheme of things, for the Deccan is a region that can be said to be more suited to this type of warfare.


    A typical scenery of the Deccan Plateau. (Image sourced from deccanplateau.net.)

    As the above image shows, the Deccan was a region that did have flat-lands with its plains and forests. But the main highlight of this region is its hilly regions. Naturally defensible strategic points, the hills became the location of numerous forts of the clans and their overlords. Further, this type of geography made it sensible for an army to fight as guerrillas – attack and then retreat to the forests or hills. Not just that, the terrain even made supplying a large army a complete nightmare.

    Coming back to our hero now, it is important to know his history, even if briefly. Shahaji came into the radar of the Moghuls due to one seminal battle in 1624. It started by him providing asylum to a rebelling Moghul prince. The prince was then known as Khurram, but later would become Shah Jahan. This was the battle where Shahaji with 10,000 men defeated an army numbering almost 200,000 men. All this was achieved with the simple brilliance of breaking the dam and flooding the river where they had been encamped before attacking.

    This earned him much renown and he was invited by the Moghuls once Shah Jahan ascended to the throne. But this would not last long as Shahaji turned on the Moghuls after 1636. And it is not as you might be thinking. You remember the Ahmednagar Sultanate that his family had long served? Well, the Moghuls had attacked them and even went to kill two pregnant women to ensure the extinction of the ruling family’s male line. But a male relative of the Nizam (ruler of Ahmednagar) had survived. Shahaji crowned him immediately to ensure the continuation of rule of a Deccan dynasty. Then Shah Jahan dispatched 48,000 troops to attack the combined forces of Shahaji, Murtuza (infant ruler of Ahmednagar), and their ally Adil Shah (Bijapur ruler). Thus Shahaji was forced to compromise for the safety of the child. It was then that he defected to Adil Shah and Bijapur Sultanate since his old masters were destroyed.

    Shah Jahan instructed Adil Shah to send Shahaji to the south and away from Moghuls. It was there that he won additional renown and numerous fiefs like Bangalore (present day capital of Karnataka state), and a considerable number of regions around Thanjavur (present day Tamil Nadu). So by the end of his time, he was the chief of Bijapur’s generals, with fiefs in Pune, Bangalore, and Thanjavur.

    Hindavi Swarajya
    Hindavi Swarajya is a term that is interpreted by historians as “Indian self-rule” or “Hindu self-rule”. Although this term would be first used by Shivaji in a letter to his mentor, it is interesting to note that Shahaji was the one to dream about it. In a modern sense, it may not seem like a big deal. But to understand better, one needs to look at it from the viewpoint of a person in that era. The people then by that time had been under rule of Arab, Turkic, and even Mongol regimes.

    Although not all of them had been evil, most of them tended to be oppressive, often meeting out barbaric punishments to their enemies. In fact, there had been tales of invaders having their enemies skinned or trampled under the foot of elephants. There was also the frequent practice of forced conversion by giving people an option – either the invader’s faith or the sword.

    But one of the things that must have miffed the most might have been the Jaziya. This was the tax levied on people who did not follow the state religion. Although not all Hindus might have been unable to pay this, I reckon what must have rankled was the humiliation. You have to imagine this as having to pay a tax for following a religion of your choice in your own home. And while Akbar had revoked this to solidify his rule, Aurangzeb would not just revive it, but also double it.

    So now you have the conditions that might have driven Shahaji to dream of a Swarajya. This could also be a major reason for him to support Murtuza against the Moghuls. But it would be his children who would realize this dream of self-rule. Not that he never tried – he led two futile attempts to unify the Maratha clans but to no avail. But by the time he retired, he had three sons placed on three important and wealthy fiefs. His eldest son Sambhaji (from his first wife) placed with him at Bangalore (present day Karnataka), his youngest son Venkoji (from his second wife) placed in Thanjavur (present day Tamil Nadu), and most importantly, his middle son Shivaji (also from his first wife) placed in Pune in the Maratha heartland.

    We will return to the parallel with Genghis Khan’s story before we conclude. Shahaji had a grand vision, just like Genghis’s father had dreamed of uniting the Mongols. But in both cases, it would be their sons who realize it. But in there is one unique factor; Shahaji had placed his sons with much foresight, and had even given them tools to carry on his vision.
    Comments 7 Comments
    1. Gigantus's Avatar
      Gigantus -
      I have always wanted to do a M2TW mod for that period - sadly never got beyond a basic map. Nice narrative.
    1. mad orc's Avatar
      mad orc -
      I liked it very much,After Victorian history,my next favourite is Inidian and Japanese history.

      Gigantus currently or before lives in the same theatre.
    1. sanjayraj85's Avatar
      sanjayraj85 -
      Nice content and informative waiting for the sequel
    1. Dante Von Hespburg's Avatar
      Dante Von Hespburg -
      Absolutely fascinating read, well done!
    1. Johnadiw26's Avatar
      Johnadiw26 -
      well thank you for the article, we learn something new everyday
    1. Greek strategos's Avatar
      Greek strategos -
      Thank you for this article mate.
    1. m_1512's Avatar
      m_1512 -
      Thank you so much for the enthusiastic feedback. Will work on the second issue over the holidays, but want to take it easy to ensure quality.
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