Maratha History
History of India Historical Atlas
Maratha Polity

Maratha Empire / Federation

In the early 17th century (1595-1638) the Mughal Empire conquered the Sultanate of Ahmednagar, located in modern Maharashtra, in the northwestern Deccan. The states of the period were based on the feudal system; the Sultan of Ahmednagar, as well as the Mughal Emperors, depended on the military services of their vassalls and rewarded the latter by confirming the fiefs of their vassalls or allocating them new ones.
During the Mughal conquest of Ahmednagar, many of these vassalls acted in their own interest, a good number transfering their loyalty to the Mughals, others continuing to resist, even after capital and dynasty of Ahmednagar had fallen. The Mughal Empire claimed to rule the territory of the former Sultanate of Ahmednagar from 1638 to 1707, but at no time was in full control of it.
Among the feudatory chiefs were Muslims, often descendants of immigrants, and Maratha speaking indigenous Hindus. One of the latter, Shivaji, in a series of successful campaigns, established an independent polity on India's western coast and had himself crowned ruler (title Chhatrapati) of the Maratha Empire in 1674; he died in 1680 and was succeeded by his son Sambhaji.

Sambhaji soon faced an invading Mughal force; he was taken prisoner in 1688 and died the following year. The young Maratha state was formally annexed into the Mughal Empire. Sambhaji died in 1689, most likely from wounds afflicted to him during imprisonment. His son Shuva (or Shuvaji) remained in Mughal imprisonment until released on Aurangzeb's death in 1707. In the meantime, Tarabai ruled the Maratha polity.
Immediately after his release, Shuva challenged Tarabai's position, and a good number of Maratha chieftains deserted Tarabai, joined Shuva's camp. The internecine war lasted until 1714; then Shuva emerged as unchallenged leader. In the following decades, under Shuva, the Maratha Empire expanded, conquering Malwa, Gujarat and parts of Rajasthan. Shuva died in 1749.

Shuva's son and successor Ramaraja was less a dominant figure. Under him, the Peshwa (a position interpreted as that of a prime minister) and major vassalls (Sindhia, Holkar, Bhonsle of Nagpur, Gaikwar) rose to prominence. The term "Maratha Empire" is replaced by that of the "Maratha Federation".
The Mughal Empire, meanwhile, had undergone a drastic decline and in 1752 became a protectorate of the Maratha Federation. The Marathas in turn suffered a major military defeat at the hands of the Afghans in the Third Battle of Panipat in 1761.
In the course of the 18th century, European military technology and diplomacy became of increasing influence in the region. The Marathas had been able to defeat a Franco-Hyderabad invasion in 1751 and, in the Anglo-French diplomatic struggle over influence in India, became a British (E.I.C.) ally. This alliance was not stable; in a first Anglo-Maratha War (1775-1782) the latter suffered defeat. Over the following decades, the Maratha Federation suffered internal discord; internal wars caused the Peshwa to flee into E.I.C. territory (1802), an event which triggered the Second Anglo-Maratha War (1803-1804). With yet another defeat in the Third Anglo-Maratha War (1817-1818), the federation ceased to exist. The Maratha states of Baroda, Gwalior, Indore, Nagpur and Kolhapur continued to exist as Princely States (Indirect Rule).

The defining feature of the Maratha Empire is the instable nature of the ruler-vassall relationship, the independence of vassalls, and the military nature of Indian feudalism. The Maratha Empire / Federation was almost continuously engaged in warfare; the military leaders interested in extending their landholdings, raising tribute or plunder.
The Maratha Empire / Federation had a Hindu ruling class, which distinguished it from the predominantly Muslim Mughal Empire and states such as Hyderabad and Mysore. Aurangzeb's policy of abolishing the policy of religious toleration has contributed to the formation of the Maratha polity in the 1670es. Interestingly, the Mughal Empire and the Maratha Empire have a number of characteristics in common - the very same feudal structure, the fact that, once the chain of strong leaders had ended, they disintegrated as strongmen in effect partitioned the respective Empire. The climax of both Empires coincided with the end of expansion.

The policies of the Maratha Federation were dominated by the interests of the leading families/rulers. The institution of Peshwa ("prime minister") was regarded as a fief belonging to a family; other institutions (fortresses) were regarded the property of the holding family, not of the federation. The coins minted by Maratha rulers have Persian language inscriptions, and often were minted in the name of the (nominal) Mughal Emperor of the time.
Maratha rule has benefitted the population of regions under a stable administration, while it resulted in damage for areas affected by warfare, both with foreign enemies (f.ex. the Franco-Hyderabad invasion of 1751) as well as by internal struggles; parts of Berar suffered because the Peshwa and the Bhonsle of Nagpur contested these areas.

Articles Peshwa, Scindia, Maratha Empire, Shivaji, Sambhaji, Rajaram, Shahuji, Ramaraja, Holkar, Bhonsle, Nagpur, Kolhapur, Berar, from Wikipedia
History of Maharashtra, from Mumbai Net
DOCUMENTS Coins of Marathas, from Nupam's Webpage for theIndian Coins
REFERENCE Stewart Gordon, The Marathas 1600-1818. The New Cambridge History of India, Cambridge : UP, 1998 [G]

This page is part of World History at KMLA
First posted on December 3rd 2005

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