The most important challenge to the decaying Mughal power came from the Maratha Kingdom which was the most powerful of the succession states. In fact, it alone possessed the strength to fill the political vacuum created by the disintegration of the Mughal Empire.
Moreover, it produced a number of brilliant commanders and statesmen needed for the task. But the Maratha sardars lacked unity, and they lacked the outlook and programme which were necessary for founding an all-India empire. And so they failed to replace the Mughals. They did, however, succeed in waging continuous war against the Mughal empire, till they destroyed it.
Shahu, the grandson of Shivaji, had been a prisoner in the hands of Aurangzeb since 1689. Aurangzeb had treated him and his mother with great dignity, honour, and consideration, paying full attention to their religious, caste, and other needs, hoping perhaps to arrive at a political agreement with Shahu.
Shahu was released in 1707 after Aurangzeb’s death. Very soon a civil war broke out between Shahu at Satara and his aunt Tara Bai at Kolhapur who had carried out an anti-Mughal struggle since 1700 in the name of her son Shivaji II after the death of her husband Raja Ram. Maratha sardars, each one of whom had a large following of soldiers loyal to himself alone, began to side with one or the other contender for power.
They used this opportunity to increase their power and influence by bargaining with the two contenders for power. Several of them even intrigued with the Mughal viceroys of the Deccan.
Arising from the conflict between Shahu and his rival at Kolhapur, a new system of Maratha government was evolved under the leadership of Balaji Vishwanath, the Peshwa of King Shahu. With this change began the second period—the period of Peshwa domination—in Maratha history in which the Maratha state was transformed into an empire.
Balaji Vishwanath, a Brahmin, started life as a petty revenue official and then rose step by step. He rendered Shahu loyal and useful service in supposing his enemies. He excelled in diplomacy and won over many of the big Maratha sardars to Shahu’s cause. In 1713, Shahu made him his Peshwa or the mukh pradhan (chief minister).
Balaji Vishwanath gradually consolidated Shahu’s hold and his own over Maratha sardars and over most of Maharashtra except for the region south of Kolhapur where Raja Ram’s descendants ruled. The Peshwa concentrated power in his office and eclipsed the other ministers and sardars. In fact he and his son Baji Rao I made the Peshwa the functional head of the Maratha empire.
Balaji Vishwanath took full advantage of the internal conflicts of the Mughal officials to increase Maratha power. He had induced Zulfiqar Khan to grant the chauth and sardeshmukhi of the Deccan. In the end, he signed a pact with the Saiyid brothers.
All the territories that had earlier formed Shivaji’s kingdom were restored to Shahu who was also assigned the chauth and sardeshmukhi of the six provinces of the Deccan.
In return Shahu, who had already recognised, though nominally, Mughal suzerainty, agreed to place a body of 15,000 cavalry at the emperor’s service, to prevent rebellion and plundering in the Deccan, and to pay an annual tribute of 10 lakhs of rupees.
He also walked barefoot and paid obeisance at the tomb of Aurangzeb at Khuldabad in 1714. In 1719, Balaji Vishwanath, at the head of a Maratha force, accompanied Saiyid Hussain Ali Khan to Delhi and helped the Saiyid brothers in overthrowing Farrukh Siyar. At Delhi he and the other Maratha sardars witnessed at first hand the weakness of the empire and were filled with the ambition of expansion in the north.
For the efficient collection of the chauth and sardeshmukhi of the Deccan, Balaji Vishwanath assigned separate areas to Maratha sardars who kept the greater part of the collection for their expenses.
This system of assignment of the chauth and sardeshmukhi also enabled the Peshwa to increase his personal power through patronage. An increasing number of ambitious sardars began to flock round him. In the long run this was to be a major source of weakness to the Maratha Empire.
Already the system of watans and saranjams (jagirs) had made the Maratha sardars strong, autonomous, and jealous of central power. They now began to establish their control in the distant lands of the Mughal empire where they gradually settled down as more or less autonomous chiefs.
Thus the conquests of the Marathas outside their original kingdom were not made by a central army directly controlled by the Maratha king or the Peshwa but by sardars with their own private armies.
During the process of conquest these sardars often clashed with one another. If the central authority tried to control them too strictly, they did not hesitate to join hands with enemies, be they the Nizam, the Mughals, or the English.
Balaji Vishwanath died in 1720. He was succeeded as Peshwa by his 20-year-old son Baji Rao I. In spite of his youth, Baji Rao was a bold and brilliant commander and an ambitious and clever statesman. He has been described as “the greatest exponent of guerrilla tactics after Shivaji”.
Led by Baji Rao, the Marathas waged numerous campaigns against the Mughal Empire trying to compel the Mughal officials first to give them the right to collect the chauth of vast areas and then to cede these areas to the Maratha kingdom.
By 1740, when Baji Rao died, the Marathas had won control over Malwa, Gujarat, and parts of Bundelkhand. The Maratha families of Gaekwad, Holkar, Sindhia, and Bhonsle came into prominence during this period.
All his life Baji Rao worked to contain Nizam-ul-Mulk’s power in the Deccan. The latter, on his part, constantly intrigued with the Raja of Kolhapur, the Maratha sardars and Mughal officials to weaken the Peshwa’s authority. Twice the two met on the field of battle and both times the Nizam was worsted and was compelled to grant the Marathas the chauth and sardeshmukhi of the Deccan provinces.
In 1733, Baji Rao started a long campaign against the Sidis of Janjira and in the end expelled them from the mainland. Simultaneously, a campaign against the Portuguese was started. In the end Salsette and Bassein were captured. But the Portuguese continued to hold their other possessions on the west coast.
Baji Rao died in April 1740. In the short period of 20 years he had changed the character of the Maratha state. From the kingdom of Maharashtra it had been transformed into an empire expanding in the north.
He, however, failed to lay firm foundations of an empire. New territories were conquered and occupied but little attention was paid to their administration. The chief concern of the successful sardars was with the collection of revenues.
Baji Rao’s 18-year-old son Balaji Baji Rao (known more widely as Nana Saheb) was the Peshwa from 1740 to 1761. He was as able as his father though less energetic. King Shahu died in 1749 and by his will left the management of state affairs in the Peskwa’s hands.
The office of the Peshwa had already become hereditary and the Peshwa was the de facto ruler of the state. Now he became the official head of the administration and, as a symbol of this fact, shifted the government to Poona, his headquarters.
Balaji Baji Rao followed in the footsteps of his father and further extended the empire in different directions taking Maratha power to its height. Maratha armies now overran the whole of India. Maratha control over Malwa, Gujarat and Bundelkhand was consolidated. Bengal was repeatedly invaded and, in 1751, the Bengal Nawab had to cede Orissa.
In the South, the state of Mysore and other minor principalities were forced to pay tribute. In 1760, the Nizam of Hyderabad was defeated at Udgir and compelled to cede vast territories yielding an annual revenue of Rs 62 lakh.
In the north, the Marathas soon became the power behind the Mughal throne. Marching through the Gangetic Doab and Rajputana they reached Delhi where, in 1752, they helped Imad-uI-Mulk to become the wazir.
The new wazir soon became a puppet in their hands. From Delhi they turned to the Punjab and soon brought it under control after expelling the agent of Ahmad Shah Abdali. This brought them into conflict with the doughty warrior-king of Afghanistan, who once again marched into India to settle accounts with the Maratha power.
A major conflict for mastery over north India now began. Ahmad Shah Abdali soon formed an alliance with Najib-ud-Daulah of Rohilkhand and Shuja-ud-Daulah of Awadh, both of whom had suffered at the hands of the Maratha sardars.
Recognising the great importance of the coming struggle, the Peshwa despatched a powerful army to the north under the nominal command of his minor son, the actual command being in the hands of his cousin Sadashiv Rao Bhau.
An important arm of this force was a contingent of European- style infantry and artillery commanded by Ibrahim Khan Gardi. The Marathas now tried to find allies among the northern powers. But their earlier behaviour and political ambitions had antagonized all these powers. They had interfered in the internal affairs of the Rajputana states and levied huge fines and tributes upon them.
They had made large territorial and monetary claims upon Awadh. Their actions in the Punjab had angered the Sikh chiefs. Similarly, the Jat chiefs, on whom they had also imposed heavy fines, did not trust them. They had, therefore, to fight their enemies all alone, except for the weak support of Imad-ul-Mulk. Moreover, the senior Maratha commanders constantly bickered with one another.
The two forces met at Panipat on 14 January 1761. The Maratha army was completely routed. The Peshwa’s son, Vishwas Rao, Sadashiv Rao Bhau and numerous other Maratha commanders perished on the battlefield as did nearly 28,000 soldiers. Those who fled were pursued by the Afghan cavalry and robbed and plundered by the Jats, Ahirs, and Gujars of the Panipat region.
The Peshwa, who was marching north to help his Cousin, was stunned by the tragic news. Already seriously ill, his end was hastened and he died in June 1761. The Maratha defeat at Panipat was a disaster for them. They lost the cream of their army and their political prestige suffered a big blow. Most of all, their defeat gave an opportunity to the English East India Company to consolidate its power in Bengal and south India.
Nor did the Afghans benefit from their victory. They could not even hold the Punjab. In fact, the Third Battle of Panipat did not decide who was to rule India but rather who was not. The way was, therefore, cleared for the rise of the British power in India.
The 17-year-old Madhav Rao became the Peshwa in 1761. He was a talented soldier and statesman. Within the short period of 11 years, he restored the lost fortunes of the Maratha empire. He defeated the Nizam, compelled Haidar Ali of Mysore to pay tribute, and reasserted control over northern India by defeating the Rohelas and subjugating the Rajput states and Jat chiefs.
In 1771, the Marathas brought back Emperor Shah Alam to Delhi, who now became their pensioner. Thus it appeared as if Maratha ascendancy in the north had been recovered. Once again, however, a blow fell on the Marathas for Madhav Rao died of consumption in 1772. The Maratha empire was now in a state of confusion.
At Poona, there was a struggle for power between Raghunath Rao, the younger brother of Balaji Baji Rao, and Narayan Rao, the younger brother of Madhav Rao. Narayan Rao was killed in 1773. He was succeeded by his posthumous son, Sawai Madhav Rao. Out of frustration, Raghunath Rao went over to the British and tried to capture power with their help. This resulted in the First Anglo- Maratha War.
The Peshwa’s power was now on the wane. At Poona there was constant intrigue between the supporters of Sawai Madhav Rao, headed by Nana Phadnis, and the partisans of Raghunath Rao. In the meantime, the big Maratha sardars had been carving out semi- independent states in the north, which could seldom cooperate.
Gaekwad at Baroda, Bhonsle at Nagpur, Holkar at Indore and Sindhia at Gwalior were the most important. They had established regular administrations on the pattern of Mughal administration and possessed their separate armies. Their allegiance to the Peshwas became more and more nominal. Instead they joined opposing factions at Poona and intrigued with the enemies of the Maratha Empire.
Among the Maratha rulers in the North, Mahadji Sindhia was the most important. He organised a powerful European style army, consisting equally of Hindu and Muslim soldiers, with the help of French and Portuguese officers and gunners. He established his own ordnance factories near Agra. He established control over Emperor Shah Alam in 1784.
From the emperor he secured the appointment of the Peshwa as the Emperor’s Deputy (Naib-i-Munaib) on the condition that Mahadji would act on behalf of the Peshwa. But he spent his energies intriguing against Nana Phadnis. He was also a bitter enemy of Holkar of Indore. He died in 1794.
He and Nana Phadnis, who died in 1800, were the last of the great soldiers and statesmen who had raised the Maratha power to its height in the eighteenth century. Sawai Madhav Rao died in 1795 and was succeeded by the utterly worthless Baji Rao II, son of Raghunath Rao. The British had by now decided to put an end to the Maratha challenge to their supremacy in India.
The British divided the mutually warring Maratha sardars through clever diplomacy and then overpowered them in separate battles during the second Maratha War, 1803-05, and the Third Maratha War, 1816-19. While other Maratha states were permitted to remain as subsidiary states, the house of the Peshwas was extinguished.
Thus, the Maratha dream of controlling the Mughal Empire and establishing their own empire over large parts of the country could not be realised. This was basically because the Maratha Empire represented the same decadent social order as the Mughal empire did and suffered from the same underlying weaknesses.
The Maratha chiefs were very similar to the later Mughal nobles, just as the saranjami system was similar to the Mughal system of jagirs. So long as there existed a strong central authority and the need for mutual cooperation against a common enemy, the Mughals, they remained united in a loose union.
But at the first opportunity they tended to assert their autonomy. If anything, they were even less disciplined than the Mughal nobles. Nor did the Maratha sardars try to develop a new economy.
They failed to encourage science and technology or to take much interest in trade and industry. Their revenue system was similar to that of the Mughals as also was their administration. Like the Mughals, the Maratha rulers were also mainly interested in raising revenue from the helpless peasantry.
For example, they too collected nearly half of the agricultural produce as tax. Unlike the Mughals, they failed even to give sound administration to the people outside Maharashtra. They could not inspire the Indian people with any higher degree of loyalty than the Mughals had succeeded in doing.
Their dominion, too, depended on force and force alone. The only way the Marathas could have stood up to the rising British power was to have transformed their state into a modern state. This they failed to do.