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The Maratha Empire

Summary and Keywords

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.

Keywords: forgotten empire, gender and kinship, Indian economy in 18th century, legal diversity, light cavalry, Maratha empire, peasant soldiers, powerful queens, religious pluralism

A Strangely Forgotten Empire

The term “Maratha” will here refer to a linguistically defined people, speakers of the Indo-Aryan language “Marathi,” who have inhabited Western peninsular India since at least the 8th century ce.1 Most of this area is now included in the Indian state of Maharashtra with its capital at Mumbai (formerly Bombay). The region was unified under the rule of the Yadava dynasty between 1150 and 1300 ce. The sultanate of Delhi was established across northern India after 1200 ce, and its army made a surprise attack on the Maratha kingdom in 1296. It forced its king, Ramadeva, to pay a large tribute and accept the suzerainty of the Khalji sultans of Delhi. In 1318, Ramadeva’s successor rebelled; but he was defeated and then replaced by a governor appointed from Delhi. Military commanders sent here by the Delhi kingdom then staged a successful rebellion two decades later and established the Bahmani kingdom in southern India. This dynasty and its successor sultanates ruled over most of the Maratha country for the next three hundred years, until the Chatrapati (Paramount monarch) Shivaji established a kingdom in 1674. After the 1689, much of the region was occupied by the Mughal emperor Aurangzeb (r.1658–1707 ce) but never wholly subdued. The second Maratha Empire emerged out of regional resistance to the late Mughal occupation.

The empire’s predominance in 18th-century India is little known to the educated public outside Maharashtra. Those aware of the Maratha power associate it solely with the Chatrapati Shivaji (b. 1630–d. 1680, r. 1674–1680). Yet when the British–Indian Army under the command of the future Duke of Wellington took the field across India in 1802, it faced the only great power in the subcontinent that had the capacity to destroy the emerging British Empire. That power was the Maratha Empire. Its rulers maintained a protectorate over the shadow empire of the Mughals that had, in its palmy days, allowed the English East India Company to establish its bases nearly two centuries earlier. Yet the Maratha Empire has received only a fraction of the historiographic attention lavished upon the Mughals by both their contemporaries and later Europeans.

This was, in part, because the Mughal Empire was expanding vigorously in the two centuries when European merchants and rulers became aware of the wealth obtainable by trade with Asia. Subsequently, the English East Company petitioned for and obtained official orders from the imperial court to exempt their trade from various tolls. They cited these documents for centuries. Then, in 1764 the joint army of the Mughal governors of Bengal and Awadh led by the otherwise powerless heir to the Mughal throne came united to oust the British from Bengal. The allies were soundly defeated. The English East India Company (EIC) still thought it prudent to legitimize its occupation by obtaining the administrative charge of the enlarged province of Bengal by a grant from the emperor in 1765. They agreed to pay him a fixed annual tribute. Coins were still struck in his name, and British envoys still stood as humble supplicants before him and presented gifts as tokens of submission. The EIC, however, gradually expanded its control and while legally merely holder of a government administrative service contract, nevertheless became a great Asian power. They kept an anxious eye on the Maratha powers and saw them as the greatest indigenous power in South Asia. In 1785 a memorandum by the highly experienced Warren Hastings surveyed affairs in India. He unhesitatingly named the Marathas as the greatest power in India, divided though they were between the Pune government of the Peshwas, Mahadaji Shinde in north and central India, and the Bhosle kingdom across central and eastern India. Below them, he ranked the kingdom of Mysore governed by Tipu Sultan; in third place was the Nizam of Hyderabad, a ruler lacking substantial territory and having scanty revenue, whose military strength was “most contemptible.”2 Even after the death of Mahadaji Shinde, overlord of Delhi and Agra in 1794, the British emissary at the Peshwa’s court noted anxiously how the “Poona Government makes subservient to its views all the great members of the Maratha Empire.”3 In 1794 the important British diplomat C. W. Malet reproved the Resident at Hyderabad for endangering the British through contemptuous descriptions of the Marathas that might provoke them to hostility. The next year, 1795, Maratha armies easily crushed the Nizam’s forces at Kharda and forced many concessions from him.

The British knew the danger of provoking the Marathas. In 1774 the government of Bombay had sought to enlarge its territory by supporting one claimant in a succession dispute for the post of Peshwa. That war had resulted in a major defeat for one British army and the conclusion of a humiliating treaty. Warren Hastings borrowed huge sums in Bengal and managed to muster force and diplomacy enough to split the Marathas from their allies and negotiate a peace through a mutual restitution of conquests. His lengthy self-exculpatory memorandum on his conduct of Indian affairs dwelt extensively on how he had thus averted the complete destruction of a nascent British Empire in India. After that war, the now completely powerless Mughal Emperor Shah Alam encountered the great Maratha chief Mahadaji Shinde. Grateful for the protection extended to him, Shah Alam then conferred the title of “wakil e mutlaq” (or “plenipotentiary deputy”) on the Maratha commander; however, the commander accepted it on behalf of his master, the Peshwa in Pune. Thus, the real lord of the imperial cities of Agra and Delhi accepted this title only as a deputy for the Peshwa.4 British authorities do not dwell on these transactions because they conferred de jure supervisory powers over the East India Company in Bengal upon the Court of Pune. Governor-General Richard Wellesley’s careful planning for a breach with the Marathas, the subversion of their officer corps, and Arthur Wellesley’s successful execution of a campaign against them delivered the emperor into British hands in 1803. But the notional sovereignty of the emperor was acknowledged for another fifty years. Only in 1858 were the Indian territories formally taken over by the British Crown and the Mughal emperor deposed.

Thus, British historiography worked hard to build a narrative that they had succeeded an already defunct Mughal Empire. It sought to represent the Maratha power as merely an element of the disorder that followed the decline of the Mughal Empire. This was a misrepresentation.

Origins of the Maratha Imperial Project

If we surveyed South Asia around 1556, when the thirteen-year-old Akbar came to the Mughal throne, there was nothing exceptional about the small and shaky north Indian kingdom that Akbar inherited from his father Humayun. It had long-established rivals on all sides. But Akbar and his advisors successfully constructed a mighty north Indian empire during his long reign (r. 1556–1605). After 1594, he began to expand southward, annexing Gujarat and northern Maharashtra. This was when the emperor Akbar launched the enterprise of conquering south India in 1595. The Nizamshahi capital of Ahmednagar itself fell to his armies. But then both Akbar and his successor Jahangir (r. 1605–1627) were baffled by an unlikely coalition of surviving nobles who refused to succumb. These warlords gathered under the Ethiopian regent Malik Ambar and included the Bhonsle commander Shahaji. The decades-long resistance was founded on a little-noticed innovation in military strategy: this was the Maratha way of war. Its foundation was the deployment of light cavalry composed of peasant soldiers on local horses. These armies showed how logistically vulnerable the expensive armies of the empire were. Maratha chiefs and rulers then became prominent in peninsular India by 1600. One of these was Shahaji Bhonsle. He belonged to a prestigious gentry family that served the Nizamshahi sultans of Ahmednagar during the rise of Mughal power in south India.

The Nizamshahi regent Malik Ambar (d.1626) drew his armies from the peasant communities and local gentry of Maharashtra. The inexpensive light cavalry they recruited long baffled the large and well-provided Mughal armies. The residual Nizamshahi kingdom in north Maharashtra only fell in the 1630s after nearly forty years of warfare. After Malik Ambar’s death in 1626, Shahaji Bhosle set up an infant heir to the throne and maintained the kingdom’s resistance to the expansion of Mughal power. This effort sufficiently alarmed the other southern sultanate, Bijapur, to produce a brief alliance with northern Mughal empire. Shahaji was forced to give up his project and accept the position of a semi-independent warlord in the northern Karnataka region.

Shahaji’s older son Shivaji, who remained in his father’s home territory in the mountain fortresses west of Pune city soon launched his own political project, directed in the first instance against the sultans of Bijapur. But the southward expansion of the Mughal Empire soon brought him into conflict with it as well. After several vicissitudes, he established a new kingdom along the mountain edge of west peninsular India. The launch of the Maratha imperial project was clearly marked by his decision to crown himself with the new title of chatrapati (meaning “sovereign” or “emperor”) in 1674. He marked the event by launching a new era, starting from the year of his coronation. Two decades later, the first Marathi history remembered this as an epoch-making event: “In this epoch all the great kings have been barbarian (mleccha); now a Marāṣṭ [Maratha] pādśāh became chatrapati. This was no ordinary event.”

The new imperial regime also aspired to reduce the power of local gentry and establish a more centralized administration. As a former minister retrospectively described it, village gentry had formerly collected far more from the villages than they paid to the central treasury. They used the surplus to recruit soldiers and fortify their mansions.

So when the Raja (Shivaji) took the country, he demolished the towers, mansions and forts. Garrisons were lodged in specific forts, and they were not in the hands of the mirāsdārs. The tax-free lands and dues that they had appropriated were taken over by the state and allowances in cash and grain given instead. After an inspection of the villages, the dues of the [hereditary official and chiefs] were fixed. These gentry were not allowed to build forts and palaces and made to live in ordinary houses.5

The newly founded British colony of Bombay and its superiors at the post city of Surat had long been worried by Shivaji’s military strength on land. In the last decade of his life, Shivaji also laid the foundation of a naval force capable of contending with Western ships in coastal waters. They sent an ambassador with gifts to attend on his coronation as chatrapati at Raigarh. During the last six years of his life (1674 to 1680), he maintained his position and expanded his territories northward and southward, anchoring them in great fortresses, both old and newly built. This strategic dispersal proved valuable to his successor, Chatrapati Sambhaji (r. 1680–1689) who had to face a full-scale Mughal offensive under the leadership of the emperor Aurangzeb himself. Sambhaji was finally captured and executed in 1689. With his death, we can say that the first phase of the Maratha imperial project came to an end. The capital, Raigad, was taken, and most northern fortresses had been lost by 1690. Sambhaji’s young son was kept prisoner in the Mughal camp and renamed “Shahu,” a name he retained for the rest of his life.

But Sambhaji’s successors, led by his brother the Chatrapati Rajaram (r. 1689–1700), and then the latter’s widow Tarabai (r. 1700–1713), moved to the southern fortress of Jinji; while still besieged there, encouraged regional Maratha gentry to resist the Mughals. Maratha commanders rallied, raised troops, and harried the Mughal camps and garrisons. Forts were taken and re-taken. Autonomous Maratha armies ranged across different parts of peninsular India and finally wore down the imperial effort at conquest. As the preface to an important Marathi text on statecraft declared in 1717:

[This is] the kingdom against which an enemy like Aurangzeb advanced with all his forces and resources but yet was beaten back against which he expended every effort before disheartened, mortified, he went to the realm of death. And Aurangzeb was lord of fifty-four kingdoms, whose treasures and armies were beyond comparison on earth . . .6

The foundation of the second Maratha Empire was being laid. Rajaram consciously abandoned the effort at centralization begun in the 1670s. He sent out letters restoring earlier arrangements and encouraged successful chiefs to defend and enlarge their patrimonies. He had neither lands nor money with which to reward them: So he recognized them as co-sharers in the kingdom. After his death, his queen, Tarabai, ruled as regent and maintained his policies. More and more Maratha leaders rallied to the anti-Mughal side.

Rebirth and Expansion of the Maratha Empire

In 1707 the emperor Aurangzeb died, and the retreating Mughal army released Chatrapati Sambhaji’s son, who now declared himself the Chatrapati Shahu. He was to rule for forty-two years (r.1707–1749) but initially had to mobilize support from the various and often-feuding Maratha gentry. This was something he only fully achieved by 1713, which was the same year Balaji Vishwanath became his chief minister, or Peshwa. Shahu was more active in political affairs in the early decades of his rule. He had been raised as a hostage in the Mughal imperial household and was open to accepting a notional subjection to the waning Mughal Empire in return for real power over peninsular and then central India. Four generations of Balaji’s family would hold the office of Peshwa. By 1750 the Peshwas had relegated the Chatrapatis to a ceremonial seclusion—almost imprisonment—in the town of Satara. In 1719 the Peshwa negotiated an agreement that accepted a notional Mughal suzerainty in return for control of six provinces of south India. In return, the Mughal effectively conceded them extensive taxing powers in the peninsula. Effectively, they were allowed to establish a system of dual governance with their officials, soldiers, and tax collectors operating alongside remaining Mughal appointees. In return for accepting Mughal suzerainty, the Marathas were granted 35 percent of the gross revenues of the Mughal provinces. This was then an opening for them to establish their dominance over newer areas. Raids on Bengal in the 1740s, for example, were justified by the demand for a 25 percent share (chauth). The Mughal governor there ultimately ceded the coastal province of Odisha (Orissa) to them in lieu of that claim.7

By 1719, when this arrangement was made, Maratha armies were already raiding in northern India and advanced boldly up to the outskirts of the imperial capital, Delhi. They adroitly sided with one faction at the Imperial court and compelled the emperor in Delhi to seek their alliance. The growth of Maratha power was accompanied by the reconstruction of temples, but extant Islamic shrines were not molested. Their land grants were confirmed, and many received additional patronage from Maratha rulers. Indo-Islamic insignia and styles of dress were also widely adopted. Persianate cultural styles continued in the 18th century as the Marathas sought to establish a protectorate over the enfeebled Mughal emperors.

After the long reign of Shahu (r. 1708–1749), power effectively slipped from the line of the Chatrapatis, who were relegated to honorable seclusion in the palace at Satara. Chatrapati Shahu was served by three successive Peshwas (or prime ministers) whose combined political, military, and diplomatic talents enabled them to manage the numerous chieftains fighting under the Maratha flag. As a result, the Peshwas became de facto sovereigns and Pune the center of a great court. While Aurangzeb retreated ignominiously from south India, he nonetheless left governors in several provinces. These were quickly extinguished by either the Marathas or the emerging power of Mysore under Hyder Ali and Tipu Sultan. The governor in Arcot (in Tamil Nadu) became a dependent of the British in Madras.

The Portuguese colonial empire on the west coast had already been defeated by the Chatrapati Sambhaji in 1683–1684 and only escaped a more serious setback because a Mughal main-force army advanced against the Marathas at the same time. Additional frictions in the 1730s led to a fresh outbreak of hostilities, and in 1738–1739 Maratha armies seized most of their richest territory and besieged and captured the great fortress at Bassein (Vasai) near modern Mumbai. Meanwhile, the seafaring tradition founded by the Chatrapati Shivaji grew stronger. The Angres established themselves in key fortresses on the Arabian sea coast and exacted protection from or seized shipping, whether indigenous or European along that coast. They inflicted several ignominious defeats upon the English fleet from Mumbai. Even while warring with the Portuguese and overawing the English, the Marathas were able to also deploy an army that forced the powerful imperial commander, the Nizam Asaf Jah, into an ignominious armistice at Bhopal in the same period (1738). They also overcame the emergent Rohilla principalities that had threatened to displace the semi-independent Mughal governors in Awadh. Almost in passing, the Maratha Army had advanced into the region in order to rescue the Bundela ruler Chatrasal from the Bangash Afghans who briefly dominated the central Gangetic plain or Avadh. Chatrasal ceded the fort of Jhansi, and that led to the emergence of a loose Maratha suzerainty south of the Yamuna River, with dependent rulers installed in Jhansi and Banda.

Of the vestigial Mughal states within the Maratha sphere of influence only one lineage, that of Asaf Jah, that managed to survive into colonial times. This became the dynasty of Mughal governors in modern Telangana and Andhra region titled “Nizams.” They tried several times to check the rise of the Marathas. Their efforts—in the 1720s, 1730s, 1750s—all failed (though you would not know this from the histories sponsored by the Nizams). Even when they raised a French-trained infantry army and secured a French alliance they were still decisively beaten at the battle of Udgir in 1760. The Nizam’s government was gradually reduced to governing securely only in the east-central Telangana area and depended on alliances with the emerging European powers and divisions among their enemies for their survival.

In 1760–1761, the Peshwa’s brother Sadashivrao followed up on earlier raids into north India that had seen a Maratha army advance across Panjab as far as Attock on the Indus River. He quickly occupied Delhi and Agra, but his force suffered a decisive check at the battle of Panipat against the Afghan king Ahmed Shah, who had also been raiding north India. Sadashivrao’s large army was almost completely destroyed. Meanwhile, a succession dispute within the Peshwa family further weakened the empire. This situation resulted in renewed attacks from the Nizam’s state, which now allied itself with the Bhosle (Maratha) rulers of Nagpur in east-central India and actually sacked the Peshwa’s capital of Pune. The Nizam was, however, defeated shortly thereafter and forced to sign a humiliating peace treaty. A more consequential result of the crisis of 1761–1764 was that it allowed Hyder Ali, initially an officer in the Mysore Army, to seize and consolidate power in that kingdom. He was unable to resist Maratha armies, but their subcontinental preoccupations prevented them from launching a concerted effort against him. Overall, however, Maratha recovery from the disaster at Panipat was swift. The refractory state of Nagpur was soon brought to heel, and Hyder Ali of Mysore was chastised. And expansion in northern India resumed, reaching a new level when Mahadaji Shinde secured the position of imperial deputy for the Peshwa. In 1795 the Nizam of Hyderabad again challenged the Peshwas and was once more defeated. But soon after, following a titanic struggle, the rising economic and military power of the British was finally able to break up the empire, annex its central territories, and reduce other states to vassalage—a process that lasted until 1818.8

Loosely United: The Political Life of the Mature Empire

In Hastings’s time, several different Maratha chiefs had established regional kingdoms across the subcontinent, while still avowing the suzerainty of the Chatrapati in Satara through his ministers, the Peshwas in Pune. They sometimes warred with each other. But Hastings observed that

the Mahrattas possess alone, of all the peoples of Indostan and Decan, a principle of national attachment which is strongly impressed on the minds of all individuals of the nation, and would probably unite their chiefs as in one common cause, if any great danger were to threaten the general state.9

The Maratha imperial state after 1690 was never a tightly knit hierarchy: much of its dynamism came from the independent enterprise of chiefs whose authority was loosely bound to that of the Chatrapati in Satara and the ministerial establishment based largely in the city of Pune. The historian Andre Wink described it as spreading across the subcontinent as a loose association or confederacy of military rulers. This was also how an Irish officer in the Maratha service saw it in 1796. It was not, William H. Tone declared, a monarchy, nor did it have a hereditary nobility so that it might be termed an aristocracy. Overall, therefore, he thought it might best be termed a “military republic, composed of chiefs who are independent of each other; acknowledging as their supreme head the Paishwa, who is himself the supposed minister of the Sattara Rajah. Their submission is however, in many particulars, merely nominal.”10

Tone, an Irish soldier who left the East India Company service and became an infantry officer in the Maratha service, also remarked on “the great simplicity of manners” that distinguished the Maratha people and extended to shape the style of Maratha courts and rulers.

I have seen one of the most powerful chiefs of the empire, after a day of action, assist in kindling a fire to keep himself warm during the night, and sitting on the ground on a spread saddle-cloth, dictating to his secretaries and otherwise discharging the duties of his station.11

That was characteristic of this relatively open empire. Energetic and capable men of humble rural origins could rise to high rank. The agricultural regime in arid western India had never been able to support the growth of a complex rentier hierarchy. Villages were predominantly inhabited by peasant proprietors, collectively responsible for taxes and governed by their headmen. Villages were clustered in parganas of fifty to two hundred villages with strong hereditary chiefs assisted by hereditary accountants. The right to serve as headman (pāṭil) of an ancestral village was eagerly sought by great potentates. Indeed Mahadaji Shinde (Scindia), ruler of Delhi and Agra, so prided himself on the family post that it was said of him that he had made himself overlord of Hindustan while calling himself pāṭīl (headman).

Pluralism in the Judicial and Religious Life of the Marathas

Royal claims to tribute and taxes were assigned to holders of military prebends and usually managed through hereditary officers. Over time, however, the sultans and then Mughal emperors also installed prayer leaders and qāḍis (judges) in some villages and most towns. These posts quickly became hereditary properties as many offices already were. The local qadi always formed part of the tribunals of arbiters that gathered to settle important local disputes. Before the 17th century, the qadi was usually listed among the central (or royal) officials, but the rise of an autonomous Maratha kingdom led them to affiliate with other local watandārs (property owners).12 Wael Hallaq has argued that the qāḍis, like other officials, always had to consider the effects of their decisions on their own social, economic and moral networks.13 This flexibility is probably what preserved them into the 19th century. It could also be turned to their advantage by introducing practices not permissible in classical Islamic law but current among the majority Hindu community. This was even done by the widow of a Muslim judge, who successfully petitioned to adopt an heir who would succeed her late husband in his hereditary post. Elsewhere, many custodians of the local mosque or shrine came to depend on fees for slaughtering animals for the Maratha residents, with religious roles as a secondary occupations.14

Kinship and Gender Relations

The empire was marked by a social continuity between peasants, soldiers, chiefs, and rulers. This meant that Maratha kinship and gender relations, even within ruling houses, retained the character that they had among the population as a whole.15 Tone even wrote that he had seen the daughter of a prince who commanded immense armies, nonetheless making bread with her own hands.16 A more important effect was the extent to which marriage relations remained bilateral and isogamous. As a result, even when the Maratha chiefs and rulers reached high positions, they still sought to marry into families of rank in Maratha society. This led to newly risen princes marrying into distinguished but not always prosperous families that had been prominent in the days of the sultanates. Iravati Karve was the first anthropologist to study this in depth. She pointed out that Maharashtra is a transition zone between the Dravidian-speaking culture zone and the Indo-Aryan one. The area has therefore integrated the culture of marriage as an alliance of equal lineages that continue to intermarry through time with the patriarchal structure of northern India.17 This meant that incoming queens were persons of status who often brought some of their relatives with them into the new household they joined. Ruling houses maintained these customary practices along with the partition of property among sons, sometimes even extending to the partition of kingdoms. Finally, the executive power of royal women was a continuous theme throughout Maratha history. The widowed queen Tarabai directed the successful struggle against Mughal occupation after her husband’s death in 1700. Many such royal figures are found in Maratha history, including the famous queen Lakshmibai of Jhansi who died in battle against the British in 1858.

Marathi Language and Maratha Power

The Marathi language became predominant in the life of the Maratha Empire. This article seeks to delineate a history of language awareness and language use in the Marathi-speaking world. Persian-inflected Middle Marathi was the standard language of scribes across the empire. Its origins lie during the Bahmani sultanate (c. 1350–1500). Regional scribes benefited from linguistic segregation that rendered their records and accounts impenetrable to central authority. This then forced imperious court officials to accommodate them in the political system.18

Malik Ambar died in 1626, and Shahaji Bhosle began his bid to control the sultanate. By that time the political significance of Maratha gentry and soldiers was manifested in the increasing volume of bilingual Persian–Marathi edicts, orders, and other official documents issuing from the both the Nizamshahi and Adilshahi courts. It is also perhaps significant that documents issued by the great Maratha families (Bhosle, Nimbalkar, Ghorpade, Kharate, Ghatge) were exclusively in (heavily Persianized) Marathi. An early survey by the leading scholar G. H. Khare found no examples of Persian or bilingual documents sent out by them.19 Under Rajaram and Tarabai there is also a return to a stronger emphasis on the ethnic Maratha character of the kingdom. In a letter—likely one of many sent in the desperate year 1690—Rajaram wrote to Baji Sarjerao Jedhe: “He Marāṣṭa rājya āhe” (this is a Maratha kingdom).20 As we have seen, the experienced minister Krishnaji Ananta Sabhasad nostalgically read ethnic (Marāṣt) assertion into Shivaji’s coronation as Chatrapati in 1674. The Marathi language expanded to serve the expanding empire. It is interesting that the Peshwas, who took effective control of the Maratha state in the early 18th century, while lavishly patronizing the traditions of Sanskrit learning, did not promote it seriously in the sphere of government and diplomacy. Some Sanskrit correspondence continued, as for example in a letter sent with two emissaries to Jodhpur in 1736. But the text is a word-for-word translation of a Marathi official text with all the conventions of that genre. It also bears a great formal resemblance to Rajasthani letters in the same collection. I surmise that scribes in all three languages were modeling themselves on well-established Persian epistolary conventions. The letter ends with the conventional Marathi protocol “Why should I write much?” but in Sanskrit.21 Meanwhile, back in Maharashtra, the language of the administrative documents of the era reflects, if anything, the strong legacy of sultanate/Mughal statecraft and 18th-century Hindustani usage. Memory of the empire served, however, to energize the Marathi language, and the adoption of printing helped create the largest body of popular historical writing in South Asia.22

Economic Life Under the Empire

British historians—even the few who had otherwise favorable views of the Maratha government, almost unanimously condemned its economic policies. They viewed these policies as disorganized, unstable, and predatory: And they saw their own government as vastly superior in terms of security of life and property. That was, in fact, their major argument in legitimating British conquests and annexations.

Eighteenth-century India certainly saw several major calamities leading to mass starvation. One of these struck western and central India during the period of civil war and foreign intervention in 1803–1804. But the greatest famine of the period was the Bengal famine of 1769–1770. It occurred in eastern India in peacetime and under the supposedly beneficent rule of the English East India Company. A series of other great peacetime famines punctuated the history of the British Empire in India up to 1900 (and the last great famine came in Bengal during World War II).23 Seen in this comparative light, the Maratha record does not seem inferior to the British one. In fact, the coming of British rule was often accompanied by a depression in trade and commerce, despite the security of life property it supposedly conferred. Thus, Thomas Marshall, reporting from North Karnataka in 1820–1821, wrote that trade had been brisk under Maratha rule despite all the exactions by tax officers. He visited a recently built market at Bagalkota where the roomy streets and large shops indicated great commercial activity in the recent past. But it was “still and spiritless.” The boards “which separate the body of the shop from the covered seat in front [were] now seldom opened, even in a Market Day.”24

Eighty years earlier, when the Marathas subverted Mughal power in the peninsula, they imposed a pattern of dual power upon the countryside. According to the contemporary historian Khafi Khan, they had divided all the districts among themselves and “following the practice of imperial rule” appointed governors, tax collectors, and highway toll collectors of their own. They collected exorbitant amounts they shared with corrupt Mughal appointees who did not interfere with them. Matters, he wrote, did not improve with the treaty of 1719 by which the Emperor officially conceded large shares of the gross revenue of the six provinces of south India to the Marathas. They now demanded and got access to records of all exactions, not just the official revenue but also the unofficial surcharges made by police chiefs and other officers. Each tax roll had to be reviewed and endorsed by the representative of the Maratha sardeśmukh and only then could other payments be made. Extortionate tolls on the highways continued to be collected even after the peace with the Mughals. But economic life nonetheless continued, and the tax base was sufficiently stable for a complex empire to be erected upon it.25 The relative tranquillity resulting from Mughal rule had meant that goods could move safely across India, although at a cost. The Marathas (in Khafi Khan’s view) did not disrupt the system: They collected heavy tolls, just as tyrannical Mughal commandants of police (faujdārs) did.26

We therefore need to view the Maratha system in a more dispassionate light. First of all, Maratha political thought prized bankers and merchants. The early (c. 1717) work titled Ājnapatra makes no overt reference to the old Sanskrit scholastic tradition: it is very much lodged in the real world of the time. For example, chapter 5 breaks untraditional ground and opens with the following words: “Businessmen are the ornaments of the kingdom. It becomes populous and prosperous by their presence.” However, the presence of a completely different class of businessmen is also noted:

Businessmen include Phirangi, [here meaning the Portuguese] Ingrez [English], Valandez [Dutch], Dingmar [Danes] etc., hat-wearing peoples who also trade. But they are not like other merchants. Each of them has a king for a master. It is at his command and on his account that they come to these lands. Has anyone ever seen a king who was not hungry for land?27

This critical attitude to Western trading companies was then reciprocated by the Westerners, whose writings have dominated the historiography of the Marathas.

Taxes of all kinds were often “farmed” out to contractors, usually great bankers, who advanced the expected amount and reimbursed themselves from future collections. As the tax farmer could not afford to ruin his district, which he often held for many years, he needed to negotiate with taxpayers. The British thought this oppressive—yet the system had long operated under the Mughals and under the name of hawala lasted for half a century under the British themselves.28 One experienced Englishman took a more a balanced view of the system. John Malcolm wrote that the tax farmers were either “bankers, or men supported by that class, they have acquired, and maintain an influence, both in the councils of the State, and the local administration of the provinces, that gives them great power, which they solely direct to the object of accumulation.” On the other hand, he added that while the payment of taxes and interest might keep the cultivators poor, it gave the bankers an incentive in supporting the latter through crises so as to avert the loss of all the loans already advanced.29

In 1985, Andre Wink provided a careful description of how long-lived, if not permanent, village valuations formed the basis of the tax system down to the first decades of British rule. He also reached the important conclusion that the actual “surplus” collected by the sovereign or his nominees

varied greatly according to political and economic circumstances and it could never be equated with the complement of the rayat’s [farmer’s] subsistence or prajbhāg. The king . . . was a co-sharer in the revenue among the other hereditary holders of concurrent vested rights.30

My own research has re-confirmed this judgment. The system lacked the bureaucratic precision valued by the British, but it worked at least as well as their system at the time.

Military Metamorphosis and Defeat

The Marathas rose to power as horsemen, and up until the end of the 18th century cavalry figured largely in their armies. From the 1750s, however, impressed by Western battlefield tactics that were beginning to be deployed in India, they added an increasing complement of infantry and artillery. This was, however, expensive: The light cavalry had to be maintained as well. Overall, the fiscal system of the Maratha states was severely strained by 1800, when it was challenged by a considerable portion of the armed forces of the second British Empire. Some contemporary British officers saw regular infantry and artillery as a source of weakness. They thought it slowed down Maratha armies and made it easier for slow, heavy British Indian armies to force them to battle. On the other hand, the combination proved effective against the Marathas’ Indian enemies. Furthermore, when Arthur Wellesley, the future Duke of Wellington confronted the new Maratha armies in 1803–1806, they proved almost a match for the British Indian forces that he brought to the field. It was their cavalry that failed to fight at the crucial encounter at the battle of Assaye and elsewhere.31 However, Holkar’s attempt to revert to a light cavalry strategy also ultimately failed in this period. This was due to a key change in battlefield artillery: the deployment of horse-drawn or “galloper guns.” This came alongside the raising of elite units of English cavalry that in turn trained Indian horsemen in European tactics. A key success for horse artillery came in the battle of Farrukhabad against Holkar. The combined forces marched sixty miles in twenty-four hours to completely surprise Jaswant Rao Holkar’s cavalry army. During this combat, the British artillery captain James Young noted with amazement that a large mass of cavalry pursuing a handful of British horsemen no sooner saw his horse artillery unlimber than they “turned about & fled with the utmost precipitation.” If they had persisted, he mused, they might have suffered a dozen casualties, but not one of his troop would have escaped.32 The same fate awaited the Peshwa’s government when it challenged the British for the last time in 1817–1818. After a protracted campaign, the Peshwa Bajirao II surrendered, and his territories were annexed to the British Empire and added to its Bombay Presidency.

The End of the Empire

In confronting the British, the Marathas were also dealing with a power that could deploy global resources and draw from a fiscal system far beyond that of any Asian government. Beyond battlefield tactics, it was the deep pockets of the East India Company and its extensive credit in wealthy Britain that enabled its agents in India to support its wars—if at the cost of ruining the company’s trade and increasing its debts in India and Britain.33 Richard Wellesley, the governor-general who had launched this imperial strategy, was recalled in disgrace in 1805, but the collapse of the Maratha Empire was, by this time, irreversible. After 1804, the crucial Maratha outpost in north India, the Gwalior kingdom of the Shindes, essentially withdrew from the Maratha Empire to accept a subordinate place in the new British one. Delhi and Agra, as well as the Mughal emperor himself, passed into British hands; after this, no possibility of Maratha revival remained. History is written by the victors: and as we have seen in the opening section (“A Strangely Forgotten Empire”), British historians were keen on burying dangerous memories of their great challengers.

Discussion of the Literature

A feature of the history of the Marathas that distinguishes it from that of other regions in South Asia is that it began to be written well before Western influence. Most of it, even in the 21st century, is written in Marathi. Prachi Deshpande has published a subtle and careful study of the place of historical memory in Maharashtra, and it is strongly recommended to anyone who wishes to explore the topic further.34

The Marathi word “bakhar” arose before 1600 and is still used to mean “history.”35 As Cyril H. Philips commented in his introduction to a large volume on Indian historical traditions, “Marāthī, alone among the mother tongues has carried over from its seventeenth century bakhar chronicles a fairly strong historical tradition.”36 The first or formative one was probably the longest and lasted late into the 17th century. A new type of narrative came at the end of that century with the rise to subcontinental prominence of a Marathi-speaking elite. Its most famous work was the 1694–1697 bakhar written by Sabhasad. But the earlier humbler local histories continued to be written. The genre changed a third time with the establishment of British colonial rule a century later. Coming to Western languages, short narratives were composed in Portuguese and English. Scott Waring, an early (1810) English historian of the Marathas, wrote the following in the preface to his History of the “Maratta histories”:

Their historians (some will deny them the name) write in a plain, simple and unaffected style, content to relate passing events in opposite terms without turgid imagery or inflated phraseology . . . They do not endeavour to bias or mislead the judgment, but are certainly greatly deficient in chronology and in historical reflections.37

Even before Waring, the Maratha Empire became sufficiently widely known in Europe for a German scholar, the University of Halle’s Mathias Christian Sprengel, to publish their history on the basis of an intensive reading of travelers’ accounts, official dispatches, and British Parliamentary papers in 1785. The first thorough English-language history was written by J. C. Grant Duff and titled A History of the Mahrattas (1826).38 It passed comparatively unnoticed at the time but has remained in print thereafter. It formed the basis of many school textbooks in the colonial education system and thus helped stimulate many responses. One of the earliest scholarly critiques was by M. G. Ranade, who published Rise of the Maratha Power in 1900. This was partly to remedy Duff’s unsympathetic portrayal of the Marathas as well as his neglect of cultural and religious changes that underlay the sense of self that they manifested in the 18th century. Many scholars were also working to collect and publish documents of the period. Historians based in Calcutta (Kolkata) published pioneering studies using the newly available sources. Surendranath Sen’s Administrative System of the Marathas and Military System of the Marathas were major contributions to the history of the empire. The great historian Govind S. Sardesai wrote a careful and well-researched multivolume history titled Marathi Riyasat (1920–1958). He also published a three-volume New History of the Marathas between 1946 and 1948.39 Western historians tended to draw on his English history as well as the old history by Grant Duff, often transmitted via other English historians such as those in Wolseley Haig’s Cambridge History of India (1922–). An important return to primary Marathi sources came in 1985, when Andre Wink published his comprehensive monograph on the Maratha Empire. Wink also introduced a radically new—and immediately controversial—understanding of the sociopolitical system of the Marathas.40 Meanwhile, the need for up-to-date scholarly surveys in Marathi was met by a three-volume collection edited by two leading scholars that comprehensively surveyed the history of Maharashtra after 1600.41 In 1989–1990, Popular Prakashan of Mumbai published a new edition of Sardesai’s Riyasat enlarged with many additional references and annotations by a team of scholars led by S. M. Garge. Several thousand copies of this eight-volume work sold out, and a new edition is being prepared. The 1984–1986 Itihasa and this reprint represent the best secondary literature now available on the Maratha Empire.

Primary Sources

The most important sources, both published and unpublished, are in Marathi. But there are significant collections in English and other European languages. The Marathas themselves sometimes used Persian in diplomatic settings. For scholars based in the West, the easiest entry may be via the British Library in London, which holds immense resources in many languages and has a helpful staff and a good website. Archives in many European countries that traded with Asia contain sources on the Marathas, especially regarding diplomatic, commercial, and military affairs. There are large archival collections in the former Portuguese territory of Goa and also in Lisbon. Multivolume selections have been published by J. F. Biker and P. S. Pissurlencar, among others.

Nikhil Bellarykar, who has recently researched the Dutch archives, has generously provided the following information in a personal communication. Dutch sources on Marathas include the VOC records such as the Dag Registers of the Batavia Castle, the OBP series of VOC intra-Asian correspondence, among others. A small number of Dutch travelogues, historical works, and newspaper records have also been used. Most of these deal with 17th century but hardly any with the 18th century. Despite their obvious value, Dutch records have been rather neglected when it comes to Maratha history,

The biggest collections of primary materials are, however, in India. Scholars here should probably begin in Pune or Mumbai, though smaller cities may have specialized archives for particular topics. The National Archives of India in Delhi contain many Marathi records as well as English and Persian records about the Marathas. The National Archives are, however, outstripped by those in the state of Maharashtra itself. The foremost of these for the Maratha period is the huge collection of millions of documents held in the Pune State Archives, formerly known as the “Peshwa Daftar.” This contains not only the official records of the 18th-century empire but also those of its immediate successor, the office of the Commissioner in the Deccan (1818–1826). Additionally, it contains family and private papers that were brought in by claimants to privileges and exemptions in early British colonial times that were never returned to the original holders. Additional papers have been deposited there in the past two centuries as well. It was only after 1900 that the British government permitted the printing of selections from this rich archive. The first series were compiled by G. C. Vad and published 1902–1911 in eight multipart volumes edited by P. V. Mawjee and D. B. Parasnis under the title of Selections from the Satara Rajas and Peshwa Diaries. Subsequently, a large selection of forty-five volumes of documents plus a Persian supplementary volume were published under the editorship of G. S. Sardesai, 1931–1935. But these and other printed materials that run into thousands of pages barely scratch the surface of the Maratha archives.

After Pune, the next most important government archive is in Mumbai, and there are important collections in regional cities such as Satara, Kolhapur, and Aurangabad as well as in many district towns. Beyond state-managed archives, keen public interest in history has resulted in the collection and preservation of archives by private individuals and the creation of institutions to house them. It is impossible to list all of them, but the Bharat Itihas Samshodhak Mandal is the oldest and probably largest one. It has an immense quantity of rare manuscripts, images, and some sculptures and other materials. It has published many books and sustained a quarterly research journal since 1921. Some its materials have been digitized (see Economic Times). Several other valuable institutional collections may be found in the city of Pune, such as the Bhandarkar Oriental Research Institute, which has many important Sanskrit manuscripts. Deccan College likewise possesses the greater portion of the archive of a great late-18th-century Maratha statesman, popularly known as Nana Phadnis. The city of Dhule has the Rajwade Itihas Samshodhan Mandal. This body was established in 1926 and houses a large archive in several languages. It has published many source collections and has begun digitizing some of its papers, which are available via its website. Outside the state of Maharashtra, important documents bearing on Maratha history are found in the archives of the former Portuguese colony of Goa. Most are in Portuguese, but some are in Marathi/Konkani. The states of Madhya Pradesh and Gujarat also have important archival collections originating in the state records of different Maratha kingdoms, such as the Gaikwads of Baroda (Vadodara) and Shindes and Holkars of Gwalior and Indore respectively. In conclusion, I should acknowledged that apart from personal knowledge, I have drawn on a valuable source Maharashtretila Daptarkhane: Varnan ani Tantra by V. G. Khobrekar. (Second corrected edition, Mumbai: Maharashtra Rajya ani Sanskriti Mandal, 1988).

Further Reading

Apte, B. K. A History of the Maratha Navy and Merchant Ships. Bombay, India: State Board of Literature and Culture, 1973.Find this resource:

    Banerjee, Anil C. Peshwa Madhavrao I. 2nd ed. Calcutta, India: A. Mukherjee, 1968.Find this resource:

      Cooper, Randolf G. S. The Anglo-Maratha Campaigns and the Contest for India. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 2004.Find this resource:

        Deshpande, Prachi. Creative Pasts: Historical Memory and Identity in Western India, 1700–1960. New York, NY: Columbia University Press, 2007.Find this resource:

          Guha, Sumit. Environment and Ethnicity in India, 1200–1991. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 1999.Find this resource:

            Hastings, Warren. Memoirs Relative to the State of India. London, U.K.: John Murray, 1786.Find this resource:

              Kulkarni, Anant R. Marathas and the Maratha Country. New Delhi, India: Books and Books, 1996.Find this resource:

                Pagdi, S. Madhavrao. Lectures on Maratha Mughal Relations, 1680–1707. Nagpur, India: Nagpur Vidyapeeth, 1968.Find this resource:

                  Sardesai, Govind S. Marathi Riyasat. [Marathi] Eight volume edition. Revised and corrected under the supervision of S. M. Garge. Mumbai, India: Popular Prakashan, 1988–1990.Find this resource:

                    Sardesai, Govind S. A New History of the Marathas. 3 vols., 2nd ed. Delhi, India: Munshiram Manoharlal, 1986.Find this resource:

                      Sen, Surendranath. The Administrative System of the Marathas. 3rd ed. Calcutta, India: K. P. Bagchi, 1976.Find this resource:

                        Wink, Andre. Land and Sovereignty in India: Agrarian Society and Politics Under the Eighteenth-Century Maratha Svarāj. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 1985.Find this resource:


                          (1.) The author has translated all the Marathi sources used in this essay.

                          (3.) Cited in G. S. Sardesai ed., Poona Residency Correspondence, vol. 2 (Bombay, India: Government Central Press, 1936), 26.

                          (5.) Krishnaji Anant, Sabhāsad Bakhar, ed., Bhimrao Kulkarni (Pune, India: Anmol Prakashan, 1987): 75–76, 25–26.

                          (6.) S. N. Banhatti, ed., Ājnāpatra (Nagpur, India: Suvichar Prakashan Mandal, 1986), 58.

                          (7.) A. R. Kulkarni and G. H. Khare, eds., Marathyancya Itihasa, 3 vols. (Pune, India: Maharashtra Universities Book Production Board, 1984–1986), 230–256.

                          (9.) Hastings, Memoirs, 89.

                          (10.) William H. Tone, Letter to An Officer in the Madras Service . . . Institutions of the Maratta People, 2nd ed. (London, U.K.: J. Debrett, 1799), 11.

                          (11.) Tone, Letter to An Officer, 5.

                          (12.) V. T. Gune, Judicial System of the Marathas, c.14001800 (Pune, India: Deccan College, 1953).

                          (13.) W. B. Hallaq, Shari’a: Theory, Practice, Transformations (Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press 2009), 213.

                          (14.) For an extended discussion see Sumit Guha, “The qazi, the dharmadhikari and the Judge: Political Authority and Legal Diversity in Pre-Modern India,” in Law Addressing Diversity: Premodern Europe and India, 13th–18th Centuries, ed. Gijs Kruijtzer and Thomas Ertl (Berlin, Germany: De Gruyter, 2017), 97–115.

                          (15.) Malcom, Memoir of Central India, 530.

                          (16.) Tone Letter to An Officer, 5

                          (17.) Iravati Karve, “Kinship Terminology and Kinship Usages of the Marāthā Country, Part 2,” Bulletin of the D.C.R.I. 1 (1939–1940): 9–33.

                          (18.) Evidence is in Sumit Guha, “Serving the Barbarian to Preserve the Dharma: Scribal Ideology and Training in Peninsular India c.1300–1800,” Indian Economic and Social History Review 47, no. 4 (2010): 497–525.

                          (19.) Ganesh H. Khare, “Śivakālina rājapatrāñci lekhanapaddhati,” Śivaji Nibandhāvalī 2, ed. N. C. Kelkar and D. V. Apte (Pune, India: Srisivacaritrakaryalaya, 1930), 77, 65–96.

                          (20.) S. M. Pagdi, Hindavī Svarāj ani Mogal (Pune, India: Venus Prakashan, 1966), 17.

                          (21.) For a fuller discussion, see Sumit Guha, “Bad Language and Good Language: Lexical Awareness in the Cultural Politics of Peninsular India, c.1500–1800,” in Forms of Knowledge in Early Modern South Asia, ed. Sheldon Pollock (Durham, NC: Duke University Press 2011), 49–68.

                          (23.) For a history of famines with estimates of the resulting mortality, see Sumit Guha, Health and Population in South Asia: From Earliest Times to the Present (Delhi, India: Permanent Black, 2001), chap. 1.

                          (24.) Thomas Marshall, Statistical Reports on the Southern Mahratta Country (Bombay, India: Gazette Press, 1823), 150.

                          (25.) This was analyzed by S. N. Gordon in “The Slow Conquest: Administrative Integration of Malwa into the Maratha Empire, 1720–1760,” Modern Asian Studies 11, no. 1 (1977): 1–40.

                          (26.) This section and citations within it are taken from Sumit Guha, “Rethinking the Economy of Mughal India: Lateral Perspectives,” Journal of the Economic and Social History of the Orient 58 (2015): 559–570.

                          (27.) Banhatti, ed., Ājnāpatra, 90. My translation, emphasis added.

                          (28.) This early British system is discussed in Sumit Guha, “Commodity and Credit in Upland Maharashtra 1800–1950,” Economic and Political Weekly Review of Agriculture, December 26, 1987, A-126 to A-140.

                          (29.) John Malcom, A Memoir of Central India including Malwa, vol. 2 (London, U.K.: Kingsbury, Parbury & Allen, 1824), 38–42.

                          (30.) Wink, Land and Sovereignty: 251–292. Quote from 292.

                          (32.) James Young, The Second Maratha Campaign, 18041805: Diary of James Young, Officer, Bengal Horse Artillery, ed. D. D. Khanna (Delhi, India: Allied, 1990), 60–61.

                          (33.) This point has earlier been made by S. N. Gordon, The Marathas 16001818 (Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 1995), 193–194.

                          (35.) See Sumit Guha, “Speaking Historically: The Changing Voices of Historical Narration in Western India, 1400–1900,” American Historical Review, 109(4) (2004): 1084–1103 for a longer discussion of Marathi historical tradition. Much of the information on other histories of the Marathas in this note is drawn from Maratha Historiography (Delhi, India: Manohar, 2006). This is a valuable survey by A. R. Kulkarni that covers almost every major historian of the Marathas, from 1695 to the 1950s.

                          (36.) Cyril H. Philips, “Introduction,” in Historians of India, Pakistan and Ceylon, ed. C. H. Philips (London, U.K.: Oxford University Press, 1961), 9.

                          (37.) Cited in A. R. Kulkarni, Jems Kaniṁgham Grānṭ Ḍaf (Pune, India: Pune Vidyapith Prakashan, 1972) 127, n.14.

                          (38.) Now in Google Books.

                          (39.) The New History was reprinted by Munshiram Manoharlal (Delhi, India, 1986); Marathi Riyasat was republished with extensive notes by a team of scholars led by S. M. Garge (Popular Prakashan, Mumbai, 1988–1990).

                          (40.) Wink, Land and Sovereignty in India (Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 1985).

                          (41.) A. R. Kulkarni and G. H. Khare, eds., Marathyancya Itihasa, 3 vols. (Pune, India: Maharashtra Universities Book Production Board, 1984–1986).