The Marathas, now sometimes called “Maharashtrians,” are an Indic people, speakers of the Marathi language. The boundaries of the modern Indian state of Maharashtra were drawn so as to include all majority Marathi-speaking areas. The Marathi language emerged a thousand years ago, but the Maratha Empire took shape only after 1674. Its leaders contended with the Mughal Empire and contributed to its downfall. They created a loosely knit but dynamic political system that grew within the frame of Mughal imperial power while reducing it to a shadow of its former self. Maratha governors ruled the great cities of Agra and Delhi, and it was from them that the British wrested control of north India in 1803–1806. The residual Maratha states still put up a fierce resistance before succumbing to the new British Empire in 1818.
British historians wrote the first draft of Indian history. The English public was uninterested in the Marathas. The Mughal dynasty and the older states of Rajasthan received far more favorable attention. The historical narrative that the British rescued India from chaos also required a depiction of the Marathas as predatory sources of disorder. This representation has resulted in minimizing the commercial dynamism and flexibility of Maratha administration. Maratha taxation was far from destructive. It operated within a dynamic political economy. While periodically affected (as Indian governments had long been) by climatic catastrophe or political breakdown, this economy could recuperate quickly in better times. The Maratha Empire also represented a unique identification between a people and an empire. Ordinary Maharashtrian farmers served in its armies, were proud of its political achievements, and identified with the Maratha patria. The empire was also marked by a continuity with the symmetrical patterns of kinship and marriage customary in Maharashtra. While sons of secondary wives could rise to high positions in the lineage, primary marriages continued to be with women of status. Affinal relatives were recognized and played a large role in governance. Also, unlike the Mughal Empire, the Marathas used their own language wherever they ruled, enriching and elaborating it all the while. This prefigured the rise of linguistic nationalisms more generally in India under British rule.
The origin of British India can be traced to warfare in 18th-century Europe and India, trade-related conflicts and disputes, and the East India Company’s business model. The state that emerged from these roots survived by reforming the institutions of capitalism, military strategy, and political strategy. As the 19th century unfolded and its power became paramount, the Company evolved from a trading firm to a protector of trade. The rapid growth of the three port cities where Indo-European trade and naval power was concentrated exemplifies that commitment. But beyond maintaining an army and protecting trade routes, the state remained limited in its reach.