ETHNONYMS: Kanbi, Kunbi, Mahratta
Identification. Marathas are a Marathi-speaking people found on the Deccan Plateau throughout the present state of Maharashtra and nearby areas. The word "Kunbi" derives from the Sanskrit "Kutumbin" or "householder" (i.e., a settled person with home and land). Marathas/Kunbis are the dominant caste in Maharashtra State. They are landowners and cultivators, and they make up about 50 percent of the population. The distinction between Marathas and Kunbis is confused, and the former consider themselves superior to the latter. The Marathas were traditionally chieftains and Warriors who claimed Kshatriya descent. The Kunbis are primarily cultivators. The distinction between them seems mostly one of wealth, and we may assume a common origin for both.
Location. Maratha territory comprises roughly one-tenth the area of modern India and is of interest as the southernmost area where an Indo-Aryan language is spoken in India. It is bounded on the west by the Arabian Sea, on the north by the states of Gujarat and Madhya Pradesh, on the east by Tribal pats of Madhya Pradesh, and on the south by Andhra Pradesh and Karnataka states, as well as Goa. Maharashtra therefore is a culture contact region between the Indo-Aryan north and the Dravidian south, and so it reveals a mixture of culture traits characteristic of any region that is a buffer Between two great traditions. Besides occupying the heartland of Maharashtra, Marathas have also penetrated southward through Goa into Karnataka. The area is watered by many rivers, including the Tapti, the Godavari, the Bhima, the Krishna, and their tributaries, which divide the land into subregions that have been important historically and culturally. There is also the fertile coastal plain of Konkan and thickly forested regions on the north and east.
Demography. According to the 1981 census, the population of Maharashtra was 62,784,171.
Linguistic Affiliation. All Marathas speak Marathi or a dialect of it. Historically Maharashtri, a form of Prakrit, became the language of the ruling house in the Godavari Valley; and from it modern Marathi is derived. People in the various subregions speak the following dialects: Khandesh has Ahirani, Konkan has Konkani, the Nagpur Plateau has Varhadi, the southern Krishna Valley has Kolhapuri, and an unnamed dialect that is found along the banks of the Godavari became the court language and rose to be the literary form of Marathi.
History and Cultural Relations
The early history of the Marathas is a tale of the rise and fall in the importance of the dynasties ruling the various regions. Over time the center of political influence shifted south from the Godavari Basin to the Krishna Valley. From the 1300s on, the Maratha rajas held territories under Muslim kings and paid tribute to them. Feuds among the local Muslim Kingdoms and later their confrontation with the Mogul dynasty, which was eager to extend its power to the Deccan, allowed Maratha chieftains to become independent. One such successful revolt was that of Shivaji, a Maratha prince who fought against his Muslim Bijapur overlords in the name of establishing a Hindu kingdom. The local Muslim rulers, weakened by their fights with the Moguls, succumbed to the guerrilla attacks of Shivaji's light infantry and cavalry. Shivaji's military success also depended to a great extent on the chain of fortifications he built to guard every mountain pass in his territory and the system he devised for garrisoning and provisioning them. With the death of Shivaji (1680) the Maratha ranks were split between the claimants to his throne; his son Shahu set up his capital at Satara and appointed a chief minister with the title "Peshwa." The title and office became hereditary, and within a short time the Peshwas became the leading Maratha dynasty themselves. In the 1700s the Peshwas rose to be a powerful military force supported by the Maratha Confederacy, a group of loyal chieftains including the houses of Bhonsla, Sindhia, Holkar, and Gaekwar. With their support the Peshwas extended their territories all the way north to the Punjab. Their power came to an end with their defeat at the battle of Panipat in 1761. Infighting among the confederacy members at the death of the Peshwa led to the entry of the East India Company into the succession disputes among the Marathas. The British fought the three Maratha wars, supporting one faction against the other, and in each case the British gained territory and power over individual chiefs. At the end of the Third Maratha War in 1818 the British routed the Peshwas so completely that they abolished their position and directly incorporated vast areas of Maratha territory into the British Empire as a part of Bombay Presidency. In 1960 by an act of Parliament the modern state of Bombay was divided into the linguistic states of Maharashtra, with Bombay as its capital, and Gujarat. The legacy of the Maratha State lingers on in the memory of the people, who revere Shivaji as a modern hero. A more negative aspect of Maratha consciousness has led to intolerance of other communities who have settled in Bombay, the premier commercial, industrial, and cultural center of India. Political parties like the Shiv Sena, a labor union-based organization, have sought to politicize Maratha consciousness by demanding the ouster of "foreigners" like Tamils and Malayalis from Bombay.
A Maratha village in the coastal lowlands is not a well-defined unit. A village (kalati ) consists of a long street running north-south with houses on either side, each with its own yard. This street is also the main artery joining a village to the neighboring ones north and south. Hence the perimeter of the village is not well defined. Each house stands in its own walled or fenced enclosure; but the rice fields that stretch all around are bounded by narrow earth bunds zigzagging in all directions, which make communication between houses in the growing season difficult. In contrast, villages in the Plateau ranges are tightly clustered, and the village boundaries are sharply defined. An outstanding structure in such a Village might be a temple or the big house (wada ) of a rich landlord. The typical house is a rectangular block of four walls, with the bigger houses being made up of more than one such rectangle. Frequently an open square in the center of the house serves as a sun court. Some of the rooms leading off this courtyard have no inner walls, so that there may be one or two rooms which can be closed and private and the rest of the house is a space with or without divisions for different purposes, like a kitchen, an eating area, etc. The houses had very small and very high windows and faced inwards onto the court. A village of such wadas is surrounded by fields with temporary shelters in them called vadi. Individual fields are large, and worked with draft animals. The use of the land has been dramatically affected in recent times by the building of dams for hydroelectric and irrigation purposes. Much of the previously arid inland areas can now grow sugarcane. Since Maharashtra is one of the most urbanized areas of India (35 percent urban in 1981), the Marathas have gravitated to the urban centers for jobs as well as farm-related services.
In general, the majority of Marathas are cultivators. They are mainly grant holders, landowners, soldiers, and cultivators. A few are ruling chiefs. For the most part the patils (village headmen) in the central Deccan belong to this caste. Some are traders, and many are in the army or other branches of government service. In the plateau region the fields are plowed with the help of bullocks. Almost every farmer except the poorest has cattle and takes great pride in them. The greatest agricultural festival is Bendur or Pola, when the cattle are decorated and taken in procession. The cattle are kept on the farm in a shed (gotha ), and it is not unusual for them to share the house space with people, so that a corner of the sun court may be given over to them. This is to avoid both theft and predation by wild animals, which once were Common on the plateau. Staple foods are wheat cakes, rice, lentils, clarified butter, vegetables, and condiments. Less affluent people usually eat jowar (sorghum), bhajari (spiked millet), and lentils, while the poorest will subsist on millets seasoned with spices. All Marathas eat flesh and fish, though not beef or pork. Marathas seldom drink liquor, though no caste rule forbids liquor or narcotics. Beedi smoking is Common among the men.
Kinship, Marriage, and Family
Marathas practice kul or devak exogamy. Devaks are totemic groups that worship a common devak symbol. Kul is literally defined as a "family," and it is actually a lineage made up of extended families. Devak is an alternative name for this. Although they claim to have gotras, gotra exogamy is not essential. These are clan categories adopted from north India; but most of the Marathas do not know to which gotra they belong. Similarly, north Indian village exogamy is not practiced by Marathas. Cross-cousin marriage is allowed; so is marriage with a deceased wife's sister. Two brothers may marry two sisters. Polygyny is allowed and practiced, but polyandry is unknown. Boys are generally married between the ages of 12 and 25, and girls traditionally before they attain puberty. As in much of southern India, bride-wealth is paid to the bride's family, and gift exchange after the marriage between the two families is more reciprocal than in the north. Gifts are also required to fetch a wife back after visiting her natal home. The third, fifth, and seventh months of pregnancy are celebrated. A girl goes for her first confinement to her parents' home. Widow remarriage and divorce are strictly prohibited.
The laws of inheritance that prevailed in Maharashtra were governed by Mitakshara, a medieval commentary on Yajnyavalkya Smriti. The property was held and transmitted by males to males. When no male heir existed, adoption of one was the usual rule: a daughter's son could be adopted. Property was owned jointly by all male family members in Certain proportions. Widows and unmarried daughters had rights of maintenance.
Marathas claim to be Kshatriyas descended from the four ancient royal vanshas, or branches. In support, they point out that many of their kula, or family names, are common clan names amongt the Rajputs, who are indubitably Kshatriyas. In the past royal Maratha houses have intermarried with the Rajputs. They also observe certain Kshatriya social practices like wearing the sacred thread and observing purdah. These claims are made only by the Marathas proper (i.e., the chiefs, landowners, and fighting clans). The Maratha cultivators, known as Kunbis, and other service castes, such as Malis (gardeners), Telis (oil pressers), and Sutars (carpenters) do not consider themselves Kshatriyas. Nevertheless, the fact that the Kunbis and Marathas belong to one social group is emphasized by common occurrence of Maratha-Kunbi marriages.
Social Organization. Maratha social organization is based on totemic exogamous groups called kuls, each of which has a devak, an emblem, usually some common tree that is worshiped at the time of marriage. The devak may also be an animal, a bird, or an object such as an ax. The Maratha proper, who claim descent from the original four royal houses, belong to 96 named kulas, although much disagreement exists about which kula belongs to which vansha. Further, quite a few kulas have the same name as the Kunbi kulas with whom the aristocratic Marathas deny all identity. Some of the Marathas also claim to have gotras, which is a north Indian Brahman social category; but strict gotra exogamy does not exist, and this fact might suggest that the gotras, like the vanshas, might have been adopted at some time in the past to bolster Maratha social status.
Political Organization and Social Control. In the cities and small towns some Marathas have risen to very high positions in government service, which has given them political power. Positions of importance in the cooperative sugar mills, in the managing committees of schools, in the municipalities, and in the panchayat samitis are held by Marathas in most cases. As the Marathas are the majority agricultural Community with smallholdings in this region, they still belong to the lower-income groups as a whole; but there has arisen among them a stratus of educated elite who are in higher administrative services and in industry and who hold political power. This power to a great extent has its basis in the votes of the small rural landholder.
Marathas worship the god Shiva and his consort Parvati in her many guises as Devi or the mother goddess. At the same time, unlike other Shiva devotees in India, they may also worship Vishnu as Vitthal, by observing fast days sacred to both. Shiva worship is particularized by the worship of some of his specific incarnations, especially Khandoba, Bhairav, Maruti, etc., as family gods. The Devi or mother goddess is worshiped in many of her varying forms, such as Gawdi, Bhavani, Lakshmi, or Janni Devi. Marathas also worship as personal gods other Brahmanic, local, and boundary deities. They visit places of Hindu pilgrimage, such as Pandharpur. Maharashtra also has a whole line of saints who are worshiped, such as Namdev, Tukaram, and Eknath, who have written magnificent bhakti (devotional) poetry. Marathas also pay Respect to holy men who may have been of humble origin but whose personal spirituality attracts reverence. An outstanding example of such a person was Sai Baba of Shiridi. In addition to the deities just mentioned, the Marathas believe in spirit possession and the existence of ghosts (bhutas ).
Religious Practitioners. The village temple priest may be a Brahman or a man belonging to another caste, depending on the type of temple and the deity. Temples of Vishnu, Rama, Ganapati, and Maruti generally have Deshasth Brahman priests, whereas temples of Shankar (Mahadev) Generally have a Lingayat or Gurav as a priest. Khandoba generally has a Maratha or Dhangar priest. Mari-ai or Lakshmi has a Mahar priest. Devi and Maruti also may sometimes have non-Brahman priests. At the village level, the priest at the main village temple is a recognized hereditary servant of the village. In the more important shrines, like the Vithoba temple at Pandharpur, there are different classes of priests serving a shrine, and these are all hereditary priests. The priesthood and the temple it serves are completely autonomous and not connected to any others.
Ceremonies. The life-cycle ceremonies regularly celebrated by the Marathas are birth, "mother's fifth and sixth" day after delivery, first hair cutting, an elaborate twenty-four-step marriage ceremony, of which the installation of the devak is the most important rite, and death ceremonies that follow the same rites as a Brahman funeral.
See also Kanbi
Carter, Anthony (1974). Elite Politics in Rural India: Political Stratification and Alliances in Western Maharashtra. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Enthoven, Reginald E. (1922). "Marathas." In The Tribes and Castes of Bombay, edited by R. E. Enthoven. Vol. 3, 3-42. Bombay: Government Central Press. Reprint. 1975. Delhi: Cosmo Publications.
Karve, Irawati (1968). Maharashtra State Gazetteer, Government of Maharashtra: Maharashtra —Land and Its People. Bombay: Directorate of Government Printing.
Russell, R. V., and Hira Lal (1916). "Maratha." In The Tribes and Castes of the Central Provinces of India, edited by R. V. Russell and Hira Lal. Vol. 4, 198-214. Nagpur: Government Printing Press. Reprint. 1969. Oosterhout: Anthropological Publications.
W. D. MERCHANT
Merchant, W.. "Maratha." Encyclopedia of World Cultures. 1996. Encyclopedia.com. (May 28, 2016). http://www.encyclopedia.com/doc/1G2-3458000526.html
Merchant, W.. "Maratha." Encyclopedia of World Cultures. 1996. Retrieved May 28, 2016 from Encyclopedia.com: http://www.encyclopedia.com/doc/1G2-3458000526.html
ALTERNATE NAMES: Mahrattas; Mahrattis
LOCATION: India (Maharashtra state)
POPULATION: 78.7 million (total population; 50 percent are of the Maratha and Kunbi castes)
1 • INTRODUCTION
Marathas live in the Deccan Plateau area of western India. Outside the area, the term Maratha loosely identifies people who speak Marathi. Within the region, however, it refers to the dominant Maratha and Kunbis castes (social classes). Marathas typically trace their origins to chiefs and warriors. Kunbis are mainly farmers and Sudras (servants and artisans—the lowest of the four major caste groups).
Marathas first rose to prominence in the seventeenth-century. Their hero, Shivaji (1627–80) is known for uniting Marathas against Muslim rulers in India. Shivaji carved out a Maratha kingdom in the Konkan (the coastal and western areas of Maharashtra State). During the eighteenth century, a powerful Maratha Confederacy arose. Several groups extended Maratha territory as far as the Punjab in the north and Orissa in the east. Maratha power was greatly weakened by the Afghans at the Third Battle of Panipat in 1761. Nonetheless, marauding bands of Maratha horsemen continued to raid as far afield as the Punjab, Bengal, and southern areas of the Indian peninsula. A series of defeats by the British in the early years of the nineteenth century led to the final collapse of the Maratha Empire.
After India's independence, Marathas promoted the formation of states based on language. Popular sentiment led to the creation of Maharashtra state in 1960 to include the bulk of the Marathi-speaking peoples within its borders.
2 • LOCATION
With 78.7 million people, Maharashtra is India's third largest state. About 50 percent of the population is either Maratha or Kunbis.
Maharashtra falls into three broad geographic divisions. The Konkan is the coastal lowland running from just north of Bombay (Mumbai) to Goa. Inland from this are the Western Ghats, a line of hills that parallels the west coast of India. They are 2,500 to 3,000 feet (760 to 915 meters) in elevation in Maharashtra and reach a height of 5,400 feet (1,646 meters) inland from Bombay. Many peaks in the Ghats are crowned by hill-forts that were once Maratha warrior strongholds. To the east of the Ghats lie the plateaus and uplands of the Deccan lava region, at elevations from 1,000 to 1,800 feet (300 to 550 meters). This region is drained by the eastward-flowing Godaveri River and tributaries of the Krishna. In the extreme north is Tapti River, which flows west to the Arabian Sea.
Average monthly temperatures in Bombay range from 75°f to 86°f (24°c to 30°c), with annual precipitation totaling 82 inches (208 centimeters). In the Ghats, some areas receive as much as 260 inches (660 centimeters) of rainfall during the monsoon. East of the Ghats, however, rainfall drops to between 20 and 40 inches (50 to 100 centimeters).
3 • LANGUAGE
Marathi is derived from Maharashtri, a form of Prakit (a spoken version of the classical Sanskrit). Dialects of Marathi include Konkani, Varadhi, and Nagpuri. Marathi is written in a type of script known as Devanagari, or a cursive form of Devanagari called Modi.
4 • FOLKLORE
The greatest Maratha hero is Shivaji (1627–80), who is known as a champion of Hindus. Shivaji challenged the might of the Islamic Mughal Empire and founded the last great Hindu empire in India. Many incidents in his life have entered local lore. Shivaji embraced the Mughal general and killed him with steel claws attached to his hands before the Muslim could stab him with a concealed dagger. On another occasion, Shivaji escaped from the Mughal emperor Aurangzeb by hiding in a fruit basket. Shivaji's men are reputed to have captured the hill-fort of Singadh from the Muslims by sending trained lizards up its walls. The lizards carried ropes for the attackers to climb.
5 • RELIGION
Marathas and Kunbis are Hindu. Although most worship one or more gods as a "family deity," Shiva is of particular importance. In villages, Shiva is worshiped in several forms. Some of these forms include Khandoba, guardian of the Deccan; and Bhairav, protector of the village. Shiva's consort Parvati is worshiped in the forms local mother goddesses such as Bhavani and Janni Devi. Maruti is a kindly monkey god who protects villagers from evil spirits. Marathas believe in witchcraft, the evil eye, and in ghosts and evil spirits who can harm the living. Mashoba is the most widely feared of the evil spirits and when wronged is believed to bring sickness and ill fortune to a village. Some Marathas worship Vishnu as well as Shiva.
6 • MAJOR HOLIDAYS
Although Marathas observe major Hindu festivals, they also have their own regional celebrations. At Divali, for example, they sing hymns in praise of the Asura king Bali and worship cow-dung images of this demon-god. The birthday of elephant-headed Ganesha is a major event in Bombay. Images of Ganesha are worshiped for three days, then carried to the seashore to be immersed in the ocean. Nag Panchami, when snakes are worshiped, is celebrated widely in Maharashtra. Bendur or Pola, a festival at which bulls are decorated, worshiped, and taken in procession through the villages, is popular in the parts of Maharashtra. The folk hero Shivaji's birthday (Shivaji Jayanti) also is a public holiday.
7 • RITES OF PASSAGE
A jatakarma, or birth ceremony, takes place a few days after a child is born. Marathas believe evil spirits may attack a newborn child in the fifth or sixth day after birth, so special rituals are performed. A purification ceremony takes place after ten days. A haircutting ceremony (chaula karma) is done on a child's first birthday.
Maratha death rites follow Hindu customs. They usually bathe a dead person and wrap the body in a white shroud. The body is then cremated, usually near a river or stream. After the body is burned, the ashes are placed in the water.
8 • RELATIONSHIPS
Marathas typically greet each other by saying, Namaste, which means "Greetings to you." It is said while joining one's own hands, palms together and held upright, in front of one's body.
9 • LIVING CONDITIONS
On the Deccan Plateau, villages are tight clusters of houses. Smaller houses are simply a rectangular block of four walls forming a single room. Larger houses are made of several such blocks arranged so they make a square, with a sun-court (chowk) in the middle. Rooms include living quarters, a kitchen, storerooms, and a devgarh, where images of the family gods are kept.
10 • FAMILY LIFE
The basic kin unit for Marathas is the kul, which means "family." This is a lineage made up of extended families. Members of the kul worship a common totemic symbol called devak. The devak usually is a cobra, elephant, or blade of a sword. One cannot marry someone who worships the same devak. Other than that, Marathas have few marriage restrictions. They can marry within the village, cross-cousin marriage is allowed, and a man may have more than one wife. Marriages are arranged, and a bride price is paid to the girl's family. The actual marriage is elaborate, involving twenty-four separate ceremonies. The most important of these is installation of the devak.
11 • CLOTHING
Maratha men wear a dhoti (loincloth made by wrapping a long piece of white cotton around the waist and then drawing the end between the legs and tucking it into the waist) or short trousers, known as cholnas. They also wear a tight-fitting coat. Sometimes they also wear a turban. Women wear the sari (a length of fabric wrapped around the waist, with one end thrown over the right shoulder) and choli (tight-fitting, cropped blouse).
12 • FOOD
The standard diet of the Marathas consists of flat, unleavened bread (roti) with pulses (legumes) and vegetables. Among the poor, a typical meal consists of millet bread eaten with chopped chilies and lentils (dal). Among the more affluent, bread is made from wheat flour, while rice and more vegetables are served at meals. Marathas will eat fish, mutton, and chicken. For the poor, however, meat is a festival food.
13 • EDUCATION
The literacy rate (percentage of the population who can read and write) in the state of Maharashtra is about 55 percent. Bombay, with the University of Bombay and the Indian Institute of Technology, is one of India's major educational centers.
14 • CULTURAL HERITAGE
Marathi regional literature dates from around ad 1000. The devotional poetry and songs of Maharashtrian saints such as Namdev (1270–1350) and Ramdas (1608–81) are among its greatest achievements. The eighteenth century saw the rise of love lyrics and heroic ballads (powada). The nineteenth-century paintings of the Peshwa period were influenced by the earlier Rajasthani tradition. Maratha history in western India abounds with the military exploits of the great Maratha dynasties.
15 • EMPLOYMENT
The Maratha cavalry was renowned throughout India in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. Many Marathas continue this tradition of service in the armed forces of modern India. Nevertheless, most Marathas and Kunbis are farmers. Still, Maharashtra is one of the most heavily urbanized Indian states. Its cities include Bombay, one of the world's major urban centers (with about thirteen million people), Pune, and Nagpur. Numerous Marathas now live in cities. They work in commerce and government, and as teachers, doctors and lawyers.
16 • SPORTS
Maratha children enjoy role-playing. Boys pretend to be horse drivers or engine drivers, while girls play with dolls or at housekeeping. Organized games include various versions of tag, blind man's bluff, and hide-and-seek. Traditional Indian games such as Gulli danda (Indian cricket) and Kabaddi (team wrestling) are popular. Cricket is perhaps the most important spectator sport. Field hockey, soccer, tennis, and badminton are played in cities and towns. Popular indoor games include chess, cards, and carrom (a board game in which counters are used to knock one's opponent's counters into pockets).
17 • RECREATION
Many Marathas go to local festivals and fairs, and enjoy traditional folk entertainment. The Nandivala is a traveling performer. He entertains village audiences with sound effects, tricks, soothsaying, and trained-animal shows. The Bahrupi, literally "one with many disguises," is an entertainer known for impersonating people. Bombay, India's equivalent of Hollywood, is the world's largest center of movie making and produces films in both Hindi and Marathi. Bombay is also one of India's major intellectual and cultural centers, with museums, modern and classical music, theater, and other cultural activities.
18 • CRAFTS AND HOBBIES
Traditional crafts in Maharashtra include weaving and metalwork, as well as local specialties such as Kolhapuri leather sandals, and the Muslim himsa (weaving) and bidri (metal inlaid with silver) work of Aurangabad.
19 • SOCIAL PROBLEMS
The dominant landowning and cultivating caste in their region, the Marathas and Kunbis are unified by a shared history and a common culture rooted in the Marathi language. This sense of identity often creates problems for others who live in Maharashtra, many of whom are peasants. Maratha nationalism has led to anti-foreigner sentiments, with calls for non-Marathas to be banished from the state. The recent renaming of Bombay as "Mumbai," the Marathi name for the city, is another expression of this sense of Maratha consciousness. The Shiv Sena, a conservative, Hindu, regional political party with strong Maratha support, has recently gained power in Maharashtra. It will no doubt continue to promote its policy of "Maharashtra for Maharashtrians."
20 • BIBLIOGRAPHY
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Marathas or Mahrattas (both: mərăt´əz, mərä´təz), Marathi-speaking people of W central India, known for their ability as warriors and their devotion to Hinduism. From their homeland in Maharashtra their chieftains rose to power in the 17th cent. The Marathas helped bring about the fall of the Mughal empire and were the most determined rivals to British supremacy in India. Under the leadership of Śivaji, power was extended throughout the Deccan and much of S India. By the mid-18th cent. the Marathas, with their capital at Pune, were the leading power in India, but their domain soon split into several territories. In the early 18th cent. power passed to a succession of Brahmans who had been serving as peshwas (prime ministers) to the weaker descendants of Śivaji. Great Britain waged several wars with the Marathas, finally subduing them in 1818. The major states of the Maratha confederation included Baroda, Gwalior, and Indore. During the nationalist period, Marathas played a leading part.
See J. G. Duff, History of the Mahrattas (rev. ed. 1921, repr. 1971); Rao Bahadur G. S. Sardesai, New History of the Marathas (3 vol., 1957, repr. 1986); M. G. Ranade, Rise of the Maratha Power (1962); R. Kumar, Western India in the Nineteenth Century (1968).
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