Until the early 17th century the Marathas were known for being hardy peasants, rather than warriors. It was Malik Ambar the Ethiopian born prime minister of the dying Nizam Shahi Sultanate of Ahmadnagar who recognized their military potential. Desperately trying to stop the Mughal Empire’s relentless march into the Deccan his Maratha guerrilla army stopped the Mughals in their tracks. The Mughals would not be able to conquer Ahmadnagar until Malik Ambar’s death. One of his Maratha generals Shahaji Bhonsle after vainly trying to revive the Ahmadnagar Kingdom took refuge in the neighboring Adil Shahi Sultanate of Bijapur. His son Shivaji was born in 1627.
Shahaji spent the rest of his career in the service of Bijapur mopping up the remnants of the dying Hindu Vijaynagar Empire in Karnataka. But his two older sons – Shivaji and Sambhaji raised the flag of revolt against Bijapur. Sambhaji died young – likely murdered by a Bijapur agent – but Shivaji flourished. In desperation the Adil Shah arrested Shahaji to bring the young rebel to heel. Shivaji backed down until his father’s release but with the death of Shahaji in 1665 ended the last restraint the decaying Bijapur Sultanate had on Shivaji. By then Shivaji had moved to bigger things and had taken on the might of the Mughal Empire.
There are two giant what-ifs in Shivaji’s relationship with the Mughals. The first came in the 1650s when Aurangzeb son of the Emperor Shah Jahan as viceroy of the Deccan tried to eliminate the Deccan Sultanates of Bijapur and Golconda – an effort blocked by his jealous older brother Dara Shikoh. It was still early in Shivaji’s career and dealing with the mighty Mughal Empire rather than the decaying Sultanates could have quashed his ambitions. As it was the Marathas first clashed with the Mughals in this period. But a clash was postponed when Shah Jahan fell ill precipitating a bloody war of succession that left two sons dead, one in exile (where he would be killed), Aurangzeb on the throne and Shah Jahan a prisoner the rest of his life.
By the time Aurangzeb resumed attention to Shivaji in the 1660s he was far more established – inflicting a humiliating defeat on Aurangzeb’s uncle Shaista Khan. But the Mughals were too strong and in 1665 Shivaji was forced to submit at the Treaty of Purandar in 1665 – surrendering a number of forts and accepting Mughal over-lordship. Shivaji and his older son Sambhaji set off to the Mughal court in Agra to formalize the relationship.
This brings up the second what-if. Shivaji’s death at this time would have likely ended the Maratha state. But Aurangzeb did not want to antagonize his ablest general Raja Jai Singh I of Amber who had guaranteed Shivaji’s safety. A statesman would have used the opportunity to flatter Shivaji and win him over to the Mughal cause. But Aurangzeb was not Akbar. He (knowingly or unknowingly) insulted Shivaji by placing him at court with officers of inferior rank. When Shivaji dared to publicly take offense he placed him under house arrest. Fearing execution or assignment to the Afghan frontier where the tribes were in revolt, Shivaji feigned illness and started sending sweets to the local temples for his recovery. One day Shivaji and Sambhaji hid themselves in one of the sweet boxes and escaped.
War did not break out until 1670 when Shivaji recovered all his lost territories. By 1674 Shivaji chose to formally advertise his independent status by having a formal coronation. This was a propaganda exercise that distinguished him from other Maratha chiefs and proclaimed to the world his status as an independent Hindu sovereign.
The coronation on June 6, 1674 was a lavish affair full of religious symbolism- only marred by the death of his mother a fortnight later. Shivaji assumed the title Chhatrapati – “lord of the umbrella” i.e. paramount sovereign. While Shivaji raided Mughal territories he never engaged in all out war with the Mughals for the rest of his life. This may have been because Aurangzeb’s ham-handed meddling in the succession to the Rajput Kingdom of Marwar in 1678 had resulted in all out war in Rajasthan against the kingdoms of Mewar and Marwar. Shivaji conducted one major campaign in South India in 1676 before his death in 1680.
Shivaji’s last years were troubled. His son Sambhaji showed all the failings of a son who did not measure up to a great father and even briefly defected to the Mughals. His other son Rajaram was only 10 years old when he died – which smoothed the accession of Sambhaji. Shivaji has gone down in Indian history as one of its greatest Kings. He successfully defied the Mughal Empire and in a life full of war was an able administrator. He created the state structure that would soon face and survive its greatest test. Even though he was proudly a Hindu monarch he appears to have been a tolerant ruler for his Muslim subjects – something that appears to have been the norm for most Maratha rulers.
In 1681 Aurangzeb’s favorite son Akbar revolted at the height of the Rajput revolt. The young prince’s indecisiveness prevented him from toppling his father and changing the course of Indian history. Akbar fled to Sambhaji’s court and Aurangzeb decided to move south to take personal command setting off a 27 year war. Akbar eventually fled to Persia but Aurangzeb spent the rest of his life in the Deccan vainly trying to lance his Maratha ulcer.
The Bijapur and Golconda Sultanates were annexed. Sambhaji was captured and executed in 1689 and his only son Shahu was captured soon after. But Rajaram was proclaimed Chhatrapati as the state created by Shivaji did not crumble. The Marathas resorted to all out guerilla warfare which the lumbering Mughals could not combat. Even Rajaram’s death in 1700 did not end the conflict as his widow proclaimed his young son as Chhatrapati and battled on. Under Rajaram the Marathas came up with the brilliant idea of allowing their commanders to freelance and claim any Mughal territory they conquered. The Mughals had no answer to a total war of a type they had never encountered. In 1704 Aurangzeb tried to personally command sieges but was faced with a situation where a conquest in one place was accompanied by a loss somewhere else. By 1706 the Marathas were raiding deep into Central India. Finally in 1707 at the age of 88 he gave up and decided to withdraw. He died depressed on March 3, 1707. In the finest Timurid tradition his sons emulated their father and waged a brutal war of succession for the imperial crown. Two more wars of succession would follow in 1712 and 1713.
In 1719 – barely 30 years after the brutal execution of Sambhaji – a Maratha army appeared at the gates of Delhi to assist the deposition of a Mughal Emperor. In coming years the Mughal Emperor would be a Maratha pensioner as the Marathas rampaged over North India collecting taxes in his name – none of which made it back to Delhi. The Marathas would be the pre-eminent power in India for the next 100 years. It was their defeat by the British in 1818 that guaranteed British supremacy over India.
And it all started with the career of the younger son of a Maratha chieftain whose genius birthed an empire.