Peshwai and Pentarchy

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PESHWAI AND PENTARCHY The power and polity that Shivaji established flourished far beyond the limits of his swarajya into North India under the brilliant peshwas, whose office was invested with tremendous authority and made hereditary by Shivaji's grandson, Shahu. The period of the expansion of Maratha power under successive peshwas, with Pune as the seat of their power for nearly a century (1713–1818), is often called the Peshwai. There were two important political "arrangements" that helped the extension of Maratha polity, which exercised tremendous authority over the ruins of the fast declining Mughal empire.

During that period, the peshwas encouraged and supported some of their sirdars, notably the Shindes centered in Gwalior, Holkars in Indore, Gaikwads in Baroda, and Bhosles in Nagpur, to establish and maintain their own extensive semiautonomous fiefdoms, constituting, together with the peshwa, a pentarchy under the overall control of the peshwas. The second "arrangement" was between the peshwas and the chhatrapatis, or kings, of Shivajis's line in Satara: Shahu and his successors. It resembled the position of the hereditary shogun vis-à-vis the Japanese emperor, with separate capitals for the Maratha king and the peshwa, with the latter receiving the robes of investiture from the king. Although the peshwas lived virtually like kings in Pune with most of the royal accoutrements, they displayed the respect owed to their royal masters when visiting Satara. There, before entering the capital, the peshwa stopped the marching strains of his troops, dismounted from his elephant, and walked to the chhatrapati's palace, sitting on an ordinary low baithak (seat) in his presence. All grants of titles, honors, and lands to the sirdars were made on the recommendation of the peshwa but with the knowledge and seal of the chhatrapati. All treaties and important documents were explained, in most cases, personally by the peshwa to the chhatrapati before the latter's seal was affixed to make them final and legal documents.

The founder of the line of the peshwas was Balaji Vishvanath (r. 1713–1720), a Chitpavan Brahman who came from the Bhat family of Shrivardhan in Konkan. The crucial help he gave Shahu in rallying important sirdars and administrators from Tarabai's camp dramatically strengthened Shahu's position, and Shahu showed his appreciation by appointing Balaji his peshwa (prime minister). Balaji expanded his power far beyond the territorial limits of Shivaji's kingdom or that of his successors, far beyond Maharashtra, the home of the Marathas, to the capital of the Mughal empire in Delhi, where instability and weakness among Aurangzeb's successors afforded opportunities for someone with ambition and ability. In 1719 Peshwa Balaji Vishvanath marched on Delhi and secured not only Shahu's family from Mughal captivity but, importantly for the future of the Maratha polity, the Mughal court's recognition of the Maratha swarajya and additional sanads (deeds)—chauthai and sardeshmukh (the rights, respectively, to collect and keep 25 percent and 10 percent of the revenues)—over six subhas (provinces) of the Deccan.

The origin of the peshwa's authority lay in two yadya (plural for yadi), or lists drawn up in a handwritten document by Shahu himself in 1714, stipulating the duties and obligations of the peshwa and making that office hereditary in the family of Balaji Vishvanath. After the childless Shahu's death in 1749, Ramaraja, then twenty-five years old, from the Kolhapur branch of the Bhosle family, was adopted and crowned as chhatrapati in the following year. Not trained to be a king and having little or no administrative abilities, he readily signed a second yadi, most likely drawn up by Peshwa Balaji Baji Rao, giving the peshwas additional authority to act on behalf of the chhatrapati in all matters. The new yadi also validated the total authority of the peshwa over all Maratha domains.

Baji Rao I (r. 1720–1740)

Balaji Vishvanath's elder son, Baji Rao I, broke the traditional limits of the Bhosle kingdom as he adopted a forward policy that would extend the Maratha dominion into the north. In 1734 he captured the Malwa territory, and in 1739 his brother Chimnaji drove out the Portuguese from almost all their possessions in the northern Konkan, notably Salsette and Bassein. Baji Rao himself attacked the nizam of Hyderabad four times because he would not let the peshwas collect the chauthai-sardeshmukhi, which were the peshwa's due under the terms of the sanads (deeds) from the Mughal emperor. At the time of Baji Rao's early death on 27 April 1740, the peshwa's writ ran over all of Maharashtra and over large chunks of territory in central and northern India, through his new, loyal Maratha sirdars. Later, they would develop into a pentarchy: Gujarat under the Gaikwads of Baroda; Shindes (Scindia) in Gwalior; Holkars in Indore; and Bhosles in Nagpur—all under the overall authority of the peshwa or his council in Pune.

Balaji Baji Rao (r. 1740–1761)

Known as Nanasaheb Peshwa, Balaji Baji Rao succeeded Baji Rao I. He had two brothers, Raghunath Rao, who later betrayed the Marathas and joined hands with the British, and Janardan, who died in his early youth. Nanasaheb was talented in the arts of war, diplomacy, and administration. Soon after assuming the position of peshwa, he spent a year improving the civil administration of Pune. The period from 1741 to 1745 was of comparative calm in the Deccan, which enabled Nanasaheb to reorganize agriculture and introduce effective measures for protecting the villagers and their produce. There was a general improvement in Maharashtra in terms of revenue collection, services, and law and order. A major flaw in Nanasaheb's policies was the destruction in 1756 of the Maratha navy, so farsightedly built by Shivaji under the Angres. Because Tulaji Angre would not toe his line, Nanasaheb accepted the help of the British East India Company in Bombay to attack the Angre navy and destroy it, thus leaving the field open for the English to establish their maritime supremacy on the west coast.

In 1761 the Marathas were dismally defeated at the third battle of Panipat against Shah Abdali, an invader from Afghanistan. He raided the Mughal capital, Delhi, several times in the 1750s. To save his capital, the effete Mughal emperor asked his vizier, Safdarjung, to sign an agreement (called the Ahmednama) with the Marathas, whereby the peshwa agreed to defend the Mughal emperor against his domestic and foreign foes. The nizam of Hyderabad, not too happy with the Ahmednama and the prominence it gave the Marathas, attacked them. The peshwa defeated the nizam's forces at Sindkhed in 1757 and Udgir in 1760. The Marathas also successfully drove out Abdali's forces from the Punjab, raising their own flag at Attock in 1756. When Abdali heard the news, he led a major force, which would end in challenging the very large force sent by Peshwa Nanasaheb under his own brother Sadashiv Rao and son Vishwas Rao.

On 14 January 1761 the third Battle of Panipat took place, which dealt a major setback to the Marathas in the north. They lost more than 100,000 men and dozens of important sirdars in the battle, in addition to elephants and countless horses, heavy equipment, and treasure. Both Sadashiv Rao and Vishwas Rao died in the battle. The news shattered Nanasaheb, who died shortly afterward on 23 June 1761. Panipat drew a dividing line in the fortunes of the Marathas; Nanasaheb's reign marked the highest and the lowest points of Maratha power.

Madhav Rao I (r. 1761–1772)

The second son of Nanasaheb and his wife Gopikabai, Madhav Rao became the peshwa because his elder brother, Vishwas Rao, lost his life at Panipat. This fourth peshwa was only sixteen years old and held office for only eleven years, but he was notable for reestablishing Maratha authority on almost all the lands that had been theirs before 1761.

Historians give much credit for the childhood education of Madhav Rao to his mother Gopikabai, who continued to guide him, particularly in handling his uncle Ragunath Rao. When Madhav Rao assumed the reins of power, he was besieged by many enemies, who wanted to take advantage of the post-Panipat weakness of the Marathas, whose power in the north had been devastated by loss of so many important members of prestigious sirdar families. Nearer home, the nizam took advantage of the dissensions within the peshwa household, as the peshwa's warrior-uncle Raghunath Rao, in the early years of Madhav Rao's rule, did not hesitate to use the nizam's assistance to buttress his own ambitions. Very soon, Madhav Rao divided the work of dealing with the regime's external enemies: he took on the nizam and Hyder Ali himself, sending his recalcitrant uncle, Raghunath Rao, to the distant north to deal with the Bundelas, Jats, and Rohillas, who had challenged Maratha positions there. When the nizam, with the help of some Maratha dissenters, attacked Pune in 1763, young Madhav Rao led his regular as well as guerrilla forces against Hyderabad, looted the treasury there, and faced the divided forces of the nizam at Rakshasbhuvan on the banks of the Godavari, inflicting a defeat of such magnitude on 10 August 1763 that the nizam did not seriously attack the Marathas for the next twenty-two years. Madhav Rao maintained the new initiative by marching south in the following year against Hyder Ali, defeating his forces at three different locations in Karnataka and compelling him to return all Maratha territories north of the Tungabhadra in addition to a large tribute of 3.2 million rupees.

As for the north, Madhavrao reestablished Maratha authority there through the exertions of Raghunath Rao, Tukoji Holkar, and Mahadji Shinde (Scindia), who not only defeated the rebellious Bundelas, Jats, and the Rohillas, but also wrested control over Delhi from Najib Khan's son, Zabit Khan, and brought back Emperor Shah Alam from his refuge with the English in Allahabad, restoring him to the throne on 6 January 1772. They also recovered considerable portions of the loot Abdali's forces had hidden. The Maratha ascendancy in Delhi was continued for the remainder of the century, thanks to the leadership of Mahadji Shinde and Tukoji Holkar.

By 1772 Madhav Rao had largely made up for the defeat and losses suffered at Panipat. Additionally, he had shown impressive gains in administration, in the steady collection of revenues, the introduction of a number of programs for the welfare of the common man, and, above all, in the establishment of respect for the Maratha judicial system. Just when stability had returned to Pune as the center of power and administration, the young peshwa died of tuberculosis on 18 November 1772. His untimely death proved a great destabilizer of Maratha power, causing the noted English administrator-historian Grant Duff to comment: "The plains of Panipat were not more fatal to the Maratha empire than the early end of this excellent prince."

Ineffective Peshwai and the Rise of the Pentarchy (1772–1800)

Dissensions in the peshwa line largely arose from the ambitions of Raghunath Rao and led to the assassination of Narayan Rao Peshwa (r. 1772–1773). Raghunath Rao's usurpation of the position of peshwa was not only opposed by the elite of Pune but was declared illegal by an upright judge, Ramashastri Prabhune, whose name has been ever since synonymous with integrity, courage, and justice in Maharashtra. When Narayan Rao's widow gave birth on 18 April 1774 to a son, Sawai Madhav Rao (1774–1795), he was recognized as the new peshwa by a council of twelve (Barbhai, or twelve brothers), which included Nana Phadnavis, Holkar, Phadke, and Shinde, who declared Sawai Madhav Rao, the posthumous child of the murdered peshwa, as the next peshwa. The arrangement lasted over a quarter century, until Nana's death in 1800. Appealing to the Maratha "destiny" and the importance of unity in the context of the fast disappearing, nominal Mughal "empire" and the rapidly rising empire of the East India Company, the frail but tenacious Nana virtually presided over the Maratha polity by judiciously giving adequate prominence and credit to the Pentarchy's constituents.

Early in this new phase of the Peshwai, Raghunath Rao sought refuge with the East India Company in Bombay, whose forces joined his in a march toward Pune in 1774. The Barbhai defeated them in what is known as the First Anglo-Maratha War. The company's headquarters in Calcutta, allergic to wars at that time, compelled the Bombay Council to sign a treaty with the Marathas in March 1776. The disgruntled Bombay Council took up Raghunath Rao's cause again, and the British forces were defeated again; the Barbhais demanded the British hand over Raghunath Rao. This time, it was Governor-General Warren Hastings's turn to disagree. He asked General Goddard to attack the Maratha positions in Konkan and Gujarat. For the third time in a decade, the Marathas prevailed, so the company was forced to sign the Treaty of Salbai in May 1782, by which they handed over Raghunath Rao to the Barbhais. He was confined thereafter at Kopargaon, where he died on 11 December 1786.

The Maratha triumphs in the north by the pentarchy, and nearer to Pune against the British, were all carried on in the name of Peshwa Sawai Madhav Rao. On 25 October 1795, in a delirious state induced by high fever, he jumped down from his quarters and died two days later. After Nana's death, Raghunath Rao's incompetent but ambitious son, Peshwa Baji Rao II (r. 1795–1818), following his father's example, signed with the British the Treaty of Bassein in 1802. This essentially ended the Peshwai. In 1804 General Wellesley proclaimed the Deccan in a state of chaos, established British military rule, and the peshwas remained rulers only in name. In 1818 Baji Rao II was removed from his position as the peshwa and exiled to far-off Bithur in Uttar Pradesh, where the last of his line, the adopted son Nanasaheb, was not recognized by the British governor-general Dalhousie. Nanasaheb became a crucial leader of the 1857 uprising. He eluded capture and possibly disappeared in the wilds of Nepal.

The Marathas, particularly during the Peshwai, were India's major Hindu power prior to the British conquest of the subcontinent, and came closest to replacing the Mughals; with their indigenous pentarchy, the Marathas ruled from Pune a vast territory, extending at its mightiest peak from Delhi to the outskirts of Madras, from Bombay to the environs of Calcutta.

D. R. SarDesai

See alsoBritish East India Company Raj ; Maharashtra


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