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
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
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.