The Rise Of The Mahratta Power

A.D. 1707 TO A.D. 1738

The story of Siva-ji has already been told. His early decease, while

it did not materially check the rising flood of Mahratta power,

certainly left the invading West a freer hand along the shores of

India from Bombay to Calicut.

For Siva-ji seems to have had a genius for sea, as well as for land

warfare. It was his unerring eye which, seizing on an island
along the

coast overlooked hitherto by both Portuguese and English, had it

fortified for use as a point d'appui, whence he could control the

shipping north and south. Indeed, having in view the fact that he was

the only person who managed in any way to harass English fleets, it

seems not unlikely that, had he lived longer, British commerce would

have been longer, also, in finding firm foothold in India.

But he died, and his son Samba-ji died also, meanly, miserably. That,

however, only delayed the inevitable for a short time. The Mahratta

star was in the ascendant, that of the Moghuls was sinking fast, and

the death of Aurungzebe accelerated both ascent and descent.

To begin with, it ended what may be called the Rajput acquiescence in

empire; that is to say, their acceptance of "Akbar's Dream" as an

ideal, which by good fortune might become real. It was an ideal

absolutely foreign to the whole Rajput spirit, the whole Rajput theory

of life. In their State-Politic, one chieftain had as independent a

position as any other chieftain, and even amongst the followers of

those chieftains none was really before or after the other. Every

Rajput owed equal fealty to his race, was equally free to defend his

own rights as he chose. Yet side by side with this curious individual

independence ran what, for want of a better word, we may call a feudal

bond betwixt follower and chieftain, between chieftain and suzerain.

Akbar's Dream of Empire had been antagonistic to this, yet they had

accepted that Dream at his hands, and at his death the mere fact of

his heir Jahangir being half a Rajput by birth, had helped them to

forget what they had given up to the dead man's genius. Shahjahan was

still more Rajput. In his veins there flowed but one-fourth of the

hated Mahomedan blood, so they bore with him. But with Aurungzebe it

was different. Born of a Mahomedan mother, the old race intolerance

showed in him early, and from the moment he set his foot on the

throne, alienation of loyalty began actively, passively, so that by

the time the bigot's reign of fifty years was over, every Rajput in

India was ripe for revolt; a fact which naturally was in favour of the

Mahrattas, since it weakened the power of the Moghuls. It was still

more favourable to the advancement of the West, since with India

engaged in internecine strife, attention was withdrawn from many a

seemingly slight advance which yet was the first step to final

conquest. Naturally, after Aurungzebe's anxious efforts to settle the

succession by means of a last will and testament, his sons immediately

came to blows over the business; in which quarrel the best claimant

appears to have gone to the wall, for Azim, the second son, was

defeated and killed near Agra by his elder brother, Shah-Alam, and

Kambaksh, the youngest, shortly afterwards drew death down on himself

by a desperate defiance near Hyderabad. Thus Shah-Alam was left to

face the situation for five years under the title of Bahadur-Shah. It

is worthy of note that he, the first puppet-emperor of Delhi, had thus

the same name as the last, the old man Bahadur-Shah, who, after

dallying with disgrace and deceit in 1857 went to end his miserable

life in the Andaman Islands.

Bahadur-Shah the First found his hands full. Having pursued Kambaksh

to the very confines of the Dekkan, it was necessary ere returning

northward to settle the Rajput rebellion (which was becoming daily

less restrained), and to temporise in some way with the Mahrattas. And

here a piece of diplomacy on the part of the dead brother, Azim,

served Bahadur's turn well. The former, when advancing to dispute the

crown, had sought to strengthen his position and protect his rear by

giving back to the Mahrattas the rightful heir to Siva-ji's throne in

the person of his grandson Saho, who had been kept in captivity by the

Moghuls ever since his father Samba-ji had paid the penalty for

blasphemy amongst the Mahomedans, and so been made a martyr by the

Mahrattas. It was a wily move, for during the young claimant's long

incarceration, another pretender to Siva-ji's crown had arisen.

Azim-Shah, therefore, had deliberately started a successional dispute

in the hopes of being thereby freed for a time of troublesome


The ruse succeeded, and Bahadur-Shah, by ratifying his brother's

promise of favourable peace should the young pretender succeed in

establishing his claim, managed to keep the Mahrattas quiet for some


He was less fortunate with the Rajput confederacy, though he was

prepared to give up all things but the mere name of Empire. In the

case of Oudipur (Chitore) he went so far as to restore all

annexations, to release it from the obligation of furnishing a

contingent, to abolish the infidel capitation tax, or jizyia, and to

re-establish religious toleration as it had existed in the time of

Akbar. He could not well have done more; but for once--almost for the

only time in Indian history--a faint political feeling is here to be

traced. For even the removal of the hated jizyia was not enough for

the Rajput; he wanted, and he meant to have, independence. This is--or

seems to be--the only occasion in all the long centuries of Indian

history which gives us a hint of any recognition on the part of the

people of political rights, and as such it is peculiarly interesting.

Unfortunately, it is so mixed up with the religious motive that it is

impossible to say if it really gives ground for supposing that we have

here a faint realisation of the rights of the individual.

While Bahadur-Shah was engaged in pacifying the Rajputs by the

relinquishment of everything, he was suddenly called to the Punjab by

an insurrection amongst the Sikhs.

Nanuk, their original founder, had lived in Akbar's time; a time

peculiarly productive of religious enthusiasms all over the world. And

Nanuk was a religious enthusiast pure and simple. Of the soldier

caste, the son of a grain merchant, he was devote from childhood.

Much travel and mature manhood turned him into an almost inspired

preacher of the Theistic doctrines of Kabir, who in his turn was a

disciple of the great Ramanuja. Concerning this same Kabir there is a

curious legend, the recital of which may serve to impress the memory

with the most salient feature of his teaching--his tolerance.

The tale runs that at his death the Mahomedans claimed the right to

bury the saint, the Hindus to burn him; in consequence of which there

was a free fight over the corpse, in the midst of which the still,

white-shrouded form lay, mutely appealing for peace. And lo! when

blood had been uselessly spilt, and a compromise effected, it was

found that beneath the white sheet was no dead man, only where his

holy head had lain grew a sweet basil plant, sacred to the God Vishnu,

only where his holy feet had touched, a perfumed rehan bush, green

as the green of the Prophet's turban!

Nanuk, then, was a preacher, a quietest, and being possessed of this

spirit of universal charity, was allowed, naturally, to live in peace

during the reign of that past--master in tolerance, Akbar. At his

death, however, the rapid increase of the sect attracted the

unfavourable notice of Jahangir, and Nanuk was cruelly put to death.

The usual result followed. Armed with a sainted martyr, religion

became fanaticism. Har-Govind, the murdered man's son, brought revenge

and hatred to his holding of the supreme pontiff-ship, and from this

time the Sikhs, expelled forcibly from their lands, presented from the

mountains north of Lahore an unbroken front of rebellion to the


It was not, however, till 1675 that, under Govind, the tenth Guru (or

spiritual head of the sect) from Nanuk its founder, the Sikhs formed

themselves into an aggressive military commonwealth.

Guru Govind was a wise man. Numbers were his first need, so he set to

work to establish a creed wide enough to contain all converts,

attractive enough to compel them to come in.

Caste was abolished; Mahomedan or Hindu, Brahman or Pariah, were alike

when once the oath of fealty was taken, when once the new-made Sikh

had vowed to be a religious soldier, to carry cold steel about with

him from birth to death, to wear blue clothes always, and never to

clip a hair which God had sent to grow upon him. In order still

further to emphasise the separation of the Sikh from his fellows, new

methods of salutation, new ceremonials for all the principal events of

life, were instituted.

Nothing more interesting in the annals of heredity exists than the

startling rapidity of the change thus brought about in the Sikhs. They

are now--that is, after two hundred years--(as they were, indeed,

after a scant one hundred) as distinct a race as any in India, with as

well marked a national character as any of the original peoples of


So far, therefore, Guru Govind was successful; but his personal

mission proved disastrous. Despite his diplomacy, he failed in

numbers; his foes were too strong for him, and in the end the pontiff

saw all his fortresses taken, his mother and his children murdered,

his followers tortured, dispersed, or killed.

This was in Aurungzebe's time, that most bigoted and bloodthirsty of

pious kings. The closing years of his reign, however, found him with

all his energies centred on the Dekkan, and almost immediately after

his death, the Sikhs recovered from their stupor, and having found a

new, and this time an unscrupulously cruel leader, broke out into

almost incredible excesses of revenge. They ravaged Sirhind, they

brutally butchered whole towns, and after penetrating southward as far

as Saharunpur, retreated to the Cis and Trans-Sutlej states, which are

to this day the stronghold of the Sikh faith.

It was against these stalwart rebels--for one of the quickly acquired

national characteristics of the Sikhs is unusual physical height and

breadth--that Bahadur-Shah had to march in person. He managed with

infinite trouble to besiege the chief offenders in a hill-fort,

whence, after enduring the utmost extremities of famine, they made a

wild sally, headed, apparently, by their leader Banda, who, after

making himself conspicuous by desperate resistance, was captured and

brought to the Mahomedan camp in triumph. Once there, however, the

prisoner threw aside his borrowed role, openly declared himself

nothing but a poor Hindu convert who had dared all to save his Guru,

and taunted his captors with having fallen into the trap and allowed

the real Banda to escape them!

It is pleasantly noteworthy to find that Bahadur-Shah, struck by the

man's self-devotion, spared his life.

Before, however, the further endeavours to secure the real leader and

crush the Sikhs were successful, the emperor himself fell sick and

died, and the usual turmoil of murder and intrigue followed, which

ended in the temporary enthronement, at the instigation of Zulfikar

Khan (who had been chief instrument in the late king's succession), of

the eldest son, Jahandar-Shah. An inveterate intriguer was this same

Zulfikar. He it was who had suggested hampering the hands of the

Mahrattas by presenting them with a new claimant for their crown; and

now he chose his nominee--despatching the remainder of the royal

family instanter--because Jahandar, weak, vicious, enslaved by a

public dancer, offered himself an easy prey to Zulfikar's desire to be

the real ruler.

But Farokhshir, son of one of the murdered princes, who had escaped

massacre by being in Bengal, had just sufficient spunk in him to

oppose the maker of puppet-kings. Fortune favoured him miraculously,

quite irrationally, and--surely to his own surprise--he found himself

marching on Delhi, victorious, triumphant. But the whole affair had

degenerated--as purely Indian history after the death of Aurungzebe so

often does degenerate--into transpontine melodrama and comic opera,

and he was met at the gates by an obsequious Zulfikar and his still

more obsequious papa, both ready, willing, and eager to deliver up

their prisoner, the late Emperor Jahandar, and take the oath of

allegiance to the new one, Farokhshir.

But this passed. It was, to use a vulgarism, "too thick" even for a

debased Moghul. So the double-dyed traitor was calmly strangled in the

imperial tent, Jahandar was quietly put out of the way, and Farokhshir

reigned in his stead.

One is irresistibly reminded, as one reads the records of the few

following reigns, of the terrible annals of the Slave and Khilji

Kings. There is only this to choose between them, that the latter

concerned themselves with kings who, however degenerate, were at least

real, whereas these occupants of Akbar's throne, Farokhshir, the two

infant princes who were in turn raised to power by political factions,

and Mahomed-Shah, were all purely puppets.

The first-named, who owed his kingdom entirely to the ability for

intrigue of two Syyeds of Ba'rr'ha, spent his time largely in trying

to emancipate himself from their claims on his gratitude. His was a

feeble, futile nature, a feeble, futile reign. During it the

Mahrattas, becoming tired of their civil war of succession, began to

renew their depredations along the Moghul frontiers. But in all ways

Farokhshir was a timid creature; so nothing, great was done to hold

the marauders in check. He, however, through the aid of a general with

an unpronounceable name, was equal to a final tussle and final

crushing of the Sikh zealots, seven hundred and forty-nine of whom,

defeated and taken prisoners to Delhi, were duly paraded through the

streets, exposed to various indignities, and finally beheaded in

batches of one hundred and eleven on seven successive days of the


Their leader, Banda, was, however, reserved for more refined

barbarity. Nothing in the whole annals of history can exceed in

devilish malignant cruelty the revolting details of the treatment

meted out to this man, who had himself, it is true, led the way in

lack of humanity! They are sickening to read, and shall not be

repeated here.

Farokhshir only reigned six years. By that time even his masters, the

Syyeds, had tired of him, and despite his abject submission, he was

finally dragged from the women's apartments, a faint, frightened

shadow of a king, and privately made away with.

But these same Syyeds--king-makers as they justly called

themselves--were unfortunate in their choice of a successor. They set

up one young prince of the blood, who promptly died of consumption in

less than three months. They followed him with another, who as

promptly followed his example in less time.

The question naturally presents itself--was it tuberculosis or some

other toxin? Who can say?

They then, in despair, chose a healthy young man. But the public

confidence in them as king-makers was waning, and almost before the

new emperor--who was enthroned in the title of Mahomed-Shah--was

firmly settled in his seat, Hussan-Ali--the most powerful of the two

Syyeds--was assassinated in his palanquin, and his brother, after

vainly trying to hold his own single-handed, was defeated and made

prisoner near Delhi, his life being spared out of respect for his

sacred lineage--Syyeds being descended directly from the great


And all this time, while emperors intrigued against ministers, and

ministers intrigued against emperors, while here and there some

austere old Mahomedan like Asaf-Jah (whilom Grand Vizier, and

afterwards Governor in the Dekkan), who remembered the bigoted decorum

of Aurungzebe's court, lifted up voice of warning and held up holy

hands of horror--all this time the Western nibblings continued on the

sea-coast, and in the interior the Mahratta power was growing day by


For some time the Moghuls kept themselves fairly secure of it by

pitting Samba, the one claimant to the crown, against Saho, the other

claimant. But Saho found a friend in the person of one Bala-ji, a

Brahmin, who began life as a mere village accountant. Ere long,

however, he was his master's right hand, and it was by his wits that

Saho found himself no longer a mere vassal of the empire, but an

independent ruler, entitled to claim endless minor dues over a large

extent of land. A quick wit was this of Bala-ji's, which recognised

the infinite opportunities for encroachments and interference given by

widespread, ill-defined rights.

In the confusion worse confounded which ensued, the Mahratta scored

invariably against the Moghul, and when Bala-ji died, his son, still

more capable, still more astute, took up the prime minister or

Peishwa-ship, and with it his father's life-work.

Now, there is no doubt that this son, by name Baji-Rao, is, after

Siva-ji, by far the ablest Mahratta of history.

He was a warrior, born and bred in camps, a statesman educated ably by

his father, a man frank and free, hardy beyond most, content to live

on a handful of unhusked grain, vital to the fingertips.

He found himself confronted by a Peace-party, who would fain have

paused to consolidate what had already been won, to suppress civil

discord, and generally to give a firm administrative grip on the south

of India before attempting further conquests on the north.

But Baji-Rao was clear-sighted; he saw the difficulties of this

policy. To attempt the consolidation of what was still absolutely

fluid, to bid the bands of predatory horsemen which constituted the

Mahratta army suddenly lay down their lances or turn them into ox

goads, would be fatal.

The only chance of peace was to form a regular army out of these

robber hordes, give that army work to do, and so establish a stern

military control as the first and most necessary step towards a fixed


The Moghul empire lay ready to hand, rotten at the core, simply

waiting to be overthrown.

He therefore urged his master to "strike the withered trunk, when the

branches will fall of themselves," and roused the lazy, somewhat

luxurious Saho to such enthusiasm that he swore he would plant his

victorious standard on Holy Himalaya itself.

The career of Saho-plus-Baji-Rao was singularly successful. Ere long,

after harassing the Dekkan, he forced his rival, Samba, to yield him

almost the whole Mahratta country except a portion about Kolapur.

Having done this, he turned himself to engage the Moghul force of

thirty-five thousand men which had marched on him with the avowed

object of delivering Saho from the terrible tyranny of Baji. This was

defeated, and Saho-cum-Baji proceeded to apportion various parts of

Southern India amongst the great Mahratta families. The Gaekwars of

Baroda date from this time. The Holkar of those days was but a

shepherd-soldier, and the Scindias, though of good birth, a mere

body-servant of the Peishwas.

Malwa was the next emprise, and though its Afghan governor effected

his own personal escape by means of a rescue party from Rohilkand

summoned by his wife, who sent her veil as a challenge to her

brethren's honour, the whole rich province fell into Mahratta hands.

The Rajah of Bundulkhund, alarmed, acceded to Baji-Rao's demands, and

Jai-Singh of Amber, hastily summoned by the Moghuls to defend their

cause, after a futile and half-hearted resistance, also yielded.

He was more of a scientist than a soldier was Jai-Singh, and would

have been remarkable in any age for his astronomical work. His 'List

of the Stars' is still of importance.

Hitherto, all these aggressions had been made by the Mahrattas under

cover of claims; those ill-defined, widespread rights of share and

taxation which Bala-ji had started. Now, seeing his opponent's

weakness, Saho-cum-Baji's demands rose, until even Moghul supineness

could not submit to his terms.

Nothing daunted, the former advanced on Delhi itself, but while his

light cavalry under Holkar were ravaging the country about Agra, they

were attacked and driven back by the Governor of Oudh, a man evidently

of some spirit, for he had actually left his own province to defend

the adjoining one.

The skirmish was magnified into overwhelming victory by the Moghuls,

and this so irritated Baji-cum-Saho, that he conceived and put into

practice what was more an impish piece of mischief than a serious


Leaving the imperial army which had come out solemnly, solidly, to

repel him on the right, he led his swarms of active freebooters by a

detour to its rear, and then contemptuously disdaining an attack on

the pompous martial array, made one almost unbroken march to the very

gates of Delhi.

Here was consternation indeed! The Mahrattas at the very steps of the

throne, while the court army was seeking them in the wilderness!

His object, however, was mere intimidation; as he phrased it himself:

"Just to show the emperor that he could come if he liked."

So, after repelling with heavy loss one sally caused by the Moghul

misapprehension of a retrograde movement he made beyond the suburbs

(which was due to his desire to prevent damage by his freebooting

followers), he retreated as he came, just as the befogged, bewildered

Moghul army, duly bedrummed, beflagged, and bedisciplined, was on the

eve of arriving at Delhi.

A sheer piece of devilry, no doubt. He had meant to have crossed the

Jumna and looted the rich Gangetic plains, but the rainy season was

due, and there was more comfortable work to be done in the Dekkan.

Asaf-Jah, still active though old, followed him so soon as the weather

permitted, and he could manage to scrape together sufficient soldiery;

but so low had the power of the Moghul fallen by this time, that he

had to start with a bare thirty-five thousand men. Then ensued a

campaign of some months on the old well-known lines.

The regulars marching with difficulty, the irregulars harassing the

line of march. The Moghuls entrenching themselves scientifically, the

Mahrattas cutting off supplies, laying waste the country for miles,

looting every baggage-train that tried to get in, and finally cutting

off all communication with the base. There was nothing for it finally

but retreat; a slow retreat of 4 or 5 miles a day, the enemy's light

cavalry hanging on the rear, harassing the disheartened army in every

possible way. There could be but one end to it--almost unconditioned


Baji-cum-Saho demanded the cession of all Malwa, the country between

the rivers Nerbudda and the Chumbal, and an indemnity of fifty lacs of

rupees, or five millions.

Weighted down with these fateful terms, for which he promised to gain

the emperor's sanction, poor Asaf-Jah continued his way Delhi-wards,

Baji-cum-Saho marching a few days behind him to take present

possession of his conquests. Whether Asaf-Jah's efforts would have

resulted in confirmation of these terms or not cannot be said; for

this was in the year of grace 1738, and in the November of that year

Nadir the Persian invaded India.