Shivaji Bhonsle and Heirs

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SHIVAJI BHONSLE AND HEIRS Shivaji (1630–1680), the father of Maharashtra and the originator of the Maratha polity, which lasted over 150 years from the middle of the seventeenth century until 1818, is more than a historical figure. His legend continued to inspire the Marathas long after his death, into the eighteenth century when Pune's Peshwas established Maratha supremacy over most of the subcontinent. In the late nineteenth century, Shivaji's spirit of independence was recalled in the Shivaji festivals organized by a major early leader of the Indian nationalist movement, Bal Gangadhar Tilak, and by the Bengalis resisting the first partition of their province from 1906 to 1910.

Since its birth as a state of the Indian Union in 1960, Maharashtra has given Shivaji the pride of place by putting his picture in every government office. At least one political party, Shiv Sena, is named for Shivaji, and its Mumbai headquarters are architecturally a replica of one of his fortresses. Shivaji is thus a living legend, who continues to be the subject of biographies, plays, and movies, and whose name is held by millions of Maharashtrians, regardless of their station in life, in a reverence normally reserved for divinities. For them, Shivaji was not just a brave warrior or a great king, but a person of unsullied character and, like Rāma or Krishna, a divine incarnation whose timely appearance on earth not only protected hapless "women, Brahmans, and cows," but protected Hinduism itself from being completely overwhelmed by the advancing tide of Islam.

Shivaji is one of the very few Indian historical figures who are respected outside the region of their activities. Thus, there is much adulatory writing about him in most Indian languages. India's Nobel laureate in literature, Rabindranath Tagore, wrote and set to music two poems in praise of Shivaji's character, military exploits, and administration. In the second quarter of the twentieth century, the celebrated poet of Gujarat, Javerchand Meghani, composed a melodic and inspiring lullaby about Jijabai and the infant Shivaji, which is still sung by thousands of Gujarati mothers while rocking their children's cradles. Akbar and Shivaji were foremost in pre-British Indian history, providing ideal precedents for independent India's polity.

Childhood and Early Years

Born at the Shivneri fort, 40 miles (64 km) north of Pune, on 19 February 1630, Shivaji was the second son of Shahaji Bhonsle. At the time of Shivaji's birth, Shahaji served the nizam of Ahmednagar, holding a prosperous jagir (fief) covering Pune and Chakan, which he had inherited from his father, Maloji, who was given the title of raja by Ahmednagar's ruler in 1595. In 1636 Bijapur took advantage of the defeat of Ahmednagar by the Mughals to annex portions of the fallen kingdom. After a brief period of service under the Mughals, Shahaji joined the Bijapur ruler, who rewarded him with an extensive jagir in Bangalore.

Always on the march and concerned for the safety of his family, Shahaji kept his wife, Jijabai, and Shivaji on his Pune estate under the protection of his trusted lieutenant, Dadoji Konddev, a Brahman. Apart from administrative duties, Dadoji was responsible for educating his young ward in martial arts. Jijabai nourished Shivaji spiritually and instilled in him heroism and ambition by recounting stories from the epics, the Rāmāyaṇa and Mahābhārata. At sixteen, Shivaji was placed in full charge of the jagir. By that time, he had rallied the youth of the neighboring Maval region, a 20-mile (32-km) wide mountainous region east of the Sahyadri range, inspiring them with the ideal of an independent kingdom, free of Muslim control.

Many historic accounts—Mughal, Maratha, Portuguese, English, French, Dutch, and Jesuit—establish Shivaji's astuteness, personal valor, military prowess, and tolerance toward people of all religions. Shivaji began his military exploits on a small scale in the neighboring areas, which were formerly under Ahmednagar but had recently been annexed by Bijapur, his father's current employer. His pretext for taking over those territories was to consolidate them on Bijapur's behalf. Beginning in 1657, however, he attacked and conquered several Bijapur forts. Disturbed by the new threat, the Bijapur court sent a powerful general, Afzal Khan, to destroy Shivaji. On his way, the khan detoured to Tuljapur to desecrate the temple of Bhavani, to whom Shivaji was deeply devoted. Afzal Khan audaciously slaughtered a sacred cow in the temple compound and challenged the goddess to save Shivaji. Afzal Khan also detoured to Pandharpur, where he damaged the temple of Vithoba, the focal point for centuries of an annual pilgrimage by hundreds of thousands of Maharashtrians.

Shivaji and his followers were now determined to avenge the atrocities. Aware that his own small force would be no match for Afzal Khan's well-equipped army of 15,000 in a conventional battle, Shivaji suggested a personal meeting in the thickly wooded region at the foot of Pratapgad fort, where his own knowledge of the terrain and of guerrilla warfare would offer him a distinct advantage. Both leaders came to the meeting armed. In a similar situation a decade earlier, Afzal Khan had used just such a "truce" meeting to imprison a disarmed Hindu general. When the much taller Afzal Khan rushed to embrace the diminutive Maratha leader and smother him, Shivaji used his left hand, armed with wagh-nakhs ("tiger-claws"), to dig out the khan's entrails, while his Bhavani sword, concealed under his right-hand sleeve, deftly decapitated Afzal's head from his torso. Shivaji sent the head to the Bhavani temple. As the khan fell, Shivaji signaled his own forces, hiding in the jungle, to attack Afzal's troops.

Following the news of Shivaji's spectacular success against Bijapur, Emperor Aurangzeb, concerned about the fate of his Deccan possessions, sent his own uncle, Shayista Khan, to deal with the "mountain rat." In a surprise nocturnal raid on Shayista Khan's residence, Shivaji cut off his hand, then proceeded to conquer several Mughal fortresses, raiding and looting the well-guarded Mughal port of Surat in 1664. Enraged, Aurangzeb sent a huge army under his most renowned Rajput general, Jaisingh, against Shivaji. Realizing that he would be forced to fight a losing battle against so powerful a force, Shivaji surrendered several forts to Jaisingh, who offered him peace, provided he appear at the emperor's court, and that either he or his son, Sambhaji, accept a court position of mānsabdār. Shivaji received Jaisingh's personal guarantee that he would be treated like a "king." Shivaji's later loud remonstrations at court against the humiliating treatment he received led to his imprisonment. Undeterred, he planned a ruse to escape, sending daily presents of baskets laden with sweets, carried by his personal guard, to different Mughal dignitaries including those in charge of security. Both Shivaji and his son then escaped, hiding in two of the "sweets" baskets; adopting various guises, they returned to their homeland in a matter of months.

Shivajis's Military Strategy

Shivaji's spectacular military success was primarily attributed to his brilliant guerrilla warfare and his strategy of keeping nearly one hundred forts, to which his forces could easily withdraw for security. Ninety percent of his fortresses were located in the mountain fastnesses of the Sahyadri range; one of them, Raigad, was his capital.

Shivaji's strength lay in the swift movement of his cavalry, in contrast to the unwieldy Mughal armies, whom the Muslim Deccan rulers emulated. Shivaji's intimate knowledge of Maharashtra's mountainous terrain and fast-flowing rivulets, his dependence on the local population for support, and his ability to cut off the enemy's supply lines also contributed to his many victories. His personal leadership of almost all his military campaigns kept him in close touch with his followers, who were willing to sacrifice their lives for the dream of the swarajya (freedom), based on equity and fairness, regardless of religion, caste, or economic status.

Alone among the Indian rulers since the time of Rajendra Chola in the eleventh century, Shivaji realized the importance of maritime defenses—the lack of which, under the land-oriented Delhi sultans, Mughals, and Deccan Muslim rulers, had enabled the minuscule Portuguese navy to control all the coastal commerce from Bassein to Cochin. Shivaji's navy, commanded by the redoubtable Angria family, not only ended the Portuguese control of western India's coastal traffic and commerce, but stopped the early attempts of the English East India Company of Bombay to take over the Portuguese naval role.

Coronation and Administration

In 1674 Shivaji held his own coronation as chhatrapati ("lord of the umbrella"), or king, at Raigad, his capital. Consecrated by pandits led by Varanasi's Gaga Bhatt, Shivaji proclaimed a new era, the Raj Shaka, and issued a new gold coin, the Shivarai hon. Unfortunately for his swarajya, its illustrious founder did not live long; he died in 1680.

Shivaji's coronation was also marked by his proclamation of the Kanujabata, containing basic principles of government, and Rajyavyavaharkosh, detailing instructions for the routine guidance of administrators. The Kanujabata provided for the astapradhana (eight ministers), with titles in Sanskrit: mukhya pradhan (prime minister); amatya (minister in charge of land revenues); sachiv (records); sarnobat (protocol); senapati (defense forces); panditrao (religion); nyayadhishr (judicial); and sumant (foreign relations). All ministers were paid cash salaries.

Shivaji's swarajya consisted of three large divisions, or provinces, each under a sarsubhedar, subdivided into subhas (each under a subhedar called deshpande or deshmukh), and further subdivided into parganas, mahals, and tarfas. At each level, there were central government nominees, such as muzumdar (accountant), chitnis (writer), and daftardar (recorder). Each village had a self-governing gota, or council, with representatives of the community and of twelve kinds of balutedars, or craftsmen, who were entitled, by tradition, to a portion of the village's agricultural produce in return for their services to the community. With primary jurisdiction in settling land disputes, the gotas were respected by Shivaji's central administration and by his successors in the Bhosle line, as well as by Pune's Peshwas.

Shivajis's policy toward Muslims

Shivaji's religious policy reflected respect for all religions, including Islam. None of his wars were religious conflicts. Paralleling the best practices under the Mughals and Deccan's Bahamanis, he employed Muslims in high positions and made grants to mosques and Muslim spiritual leaders. As Khafi Khan, a contemporary chronicler, generally a hostile critic of Shivaji, conceded: "Wherever Shivaji and his army went, they caused no harm to the mosques, the Book of God or the women of anyone." His model was the Mughal emperor Akbar, who had accorded respect to Hindu beliefs and places. The distortion of Shivaji's image as a "founder of a strictly Hindu polity" was, according to Shivaji's latest (2003) biographer, James Laine, the outcome of biographies and ballads during the rule of Pune's Peshwas, who needed such an underpinning for their political agenda in the eighteenth century.


Sambhaji (1657–1689)

Shivaji's elder son, Sambhaji, succeeded his father and was crowned chhatrapati at Raigad in 1680. The following year, Aurangzeb came to the Deccan at the head of a huge force, determined to liquidate the Maratha kingdom, which he expected to be in chaos in the wake of Shivaji's death. Instead, he found Sambhaji a valiant defender of his father's swarajya, able not only to deal with the Mughals but also with the Siddis of Janjira and the Portuguese in Goa. However, thanks to treachery, Aurangzeb's forces captured Sambhaji in 1689. Brought to the emperor's presence, he was asked to convert to Islam. When he refused, Aurangzeb ordered him blinded, tortured, and killed. Aurangzeb sent Sambhaji's widow, Yesubai, and his son, Shahu, to the imperial harem, where Shahu would be brought up until after Aurangzeb's death in 1707. His successor would then release him, provoking a civil war of succession in Maharashtra.

Rajaram (1670–1700)

Before the Maratha capital fell, however, Sambhaji's younger stepbrother, Rajaram, was quickly crowned the chhatrapati and was whisked away to the safety of far-off Jinji. The Mughal forces followed him there, besieging the Jinji fort for seven years, as it was ably defended by its loyal Maratha generals. Once again, Rajaram eluded the Mughals, and hurried back to Maharashtra. The ordeal exhausted Rajaram, who died on 2 March 1700 at his Sinhagad ("fortress of the lion") fort.


The leadership of the Maratha "war of independence" was now assumed by Rajaram's widow, the intrepid Tarabai, who crowned her infant son, also named Shivaji, as chhatrapati at Panhala, near Kolhapur. The aged and tired Aurangzeb, by then fighting in the Deccan for twenty years, was harassed by her guerrilla forces until his death in 1707. It was at this point that Aurangzeb's successor, Azam Shah, released Shahu, on condition that he would help the Mughal cause.

Shahu (1707–1749)

Whether Shahu ever intended to assist the Mughals or not, the Maratha generals and civilian advisers who defected from Tarabai's side to join him did not appear to have any such plans. They helped Shahu to reach Satara, where on 2 January 1708 he crowned himself chhatrapati. The two rival claimants to Shivaji's throne at Satara and Kolhapur began an internecine war, which lasted a quarter century and ended with the Treaty of Warna on 13 April 1731, whereby Shahu and his able peshwa recognized the "minor" branch of the Bhonsle family as Karweer chhatrapatis of Kolhapur. It remained, after the final defeat of the Marathas in 1818, as a princely state under British protection until 1948, when it was integrated into the Indian Union.

Meanwhile, Shahu's state of Satara "lapsed" to the East India Company in 1848 for lack of a biological heir, as Governor-General Dalhousie refused to recognize Shahu's adopted son as heir to the throne.

D. R. SarDesai

See alsoAkbar ; Aurangzeb ; British East India Company Raj ; Maharashtra ; Peshwai and Pentarchy


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