The Tribune - Spectrum

Sunday, October 21, 2001

The rise and stagnation of Marathas
Review by Harbans Singh

Baji Rao: The Warrior Peshwa
by E. Jaiwant Paul. Roli Books, New Delhi. Pages 184. Rs 275.

JAIWANT PAUL's "Baji Rao: The Warrior Peshwa" is not just an account of the life of a general of the Marathas; it goes much beyond the biographical loyalty of an author for, it vividly recreates an era which saw the juxtaposition of the decadent forces of the Mughals and the daring and innovative ways of the Marathas. It deals with an age when competent and willing warriors were scarce in the Mughal army, while they were abundant among the Marathas.

"It is a book about Hindustan whose emperor cannot think beyond the skirts of his concubines and (whose) blood is sluggish with opium," and a people whose leaders dared to dream of planting the Maratha flag on the banks of the Indus. It is amazing to note that the ambition and the struggle launched by Shivaji had such an irresistible force that the adversities that befell the Marathas could not stop three generations from spreading the power of the descendants of Shivaji and also the Maratha people.

The book ostensibly is the story of Baji Rao, the Peshwa of Shahuji, but in truth it is a chronicle of the times when in a burst of creative energy the Marathas established their authority over what was Mughal India. Credit must be given not only to the Maratha king who had the wisdom to choose the right persons but also to Baji Rao who in a short span of life created outstanding generals out of ordinary men and soldiers. It speaks volumes of the leadership qualities he must have possessed, since it is no mean task in a caste-ridden society to recognise and encourage the talent of a cowherd Holkar and Ranoji Scindia who took care of the slippers of the Peshwa. And, in between he had time enough to weave a near tragic romance with Mastani as well!


The rise of the Marathas is as much due to individual leaders as the collective will of the people, and this is evident from the fact that there are the most unlikely heroes at different times. If Ranoji Angre was emerging as the menace to be contended with at seas, then Balaji, a Chitpavan Brahmin, was successfully implementing a system which was aimed at strengthening the Maratha power. At no point of time did Angre dream of establishing an independent kingdom. His loyalty was firmly first for Sambhaji, the younger branch of Shivaji, and then inalienably for Shahuji, Balaji Rao had correctly assessed that Shahuji did not have the vigour of his grandfather to run an autocracy, and therefore it would be different for him to run an army whose officers were salaried. He introduced the system of offering land to the officers instead of a salary. Thus sowing the seeds of the Maratha confederacy at an early stage of their history.

Balaji and then his illustrious son Baji Rao had also accurately analysed that the traditional armies of the Mughals and those who were associated with the Mughal court, could be easily outwitted and defeated if confronted with fast moving soldiers and unorthodox tactics. Steeped in convention and devoid of imagination, the Mughals were easily baffled and beaten by the fast moving and ingenuous Marathas. Baji Rao also ensured that there was no complacency in the discipline of his soldiers, and two incidents mentioned in the book speak volumes of their fighting qualities. When asked to draw a picture of Baji Rao by the Mughal emperor, the painter drew a soldier on a horseback in the dress of a trooper with reins loose on the horse's neck and the lance resting on his shoulder. But as he rode he rubbed both hands on the ear of the corn which he ate after removing the husk. Aghast at the sight, Emperor Mohammad Shah exclaimed in great alarm, "The man must be the very devil himself!"

On another occasion, outwitting and outmarching Sadat Khan and Khan Dauran, Baji Rao reached Delhi to the utter disbelief of the Mughal emperor who sent a spy disguised as a beggar to confirm the entry. When the spy returned and appeared before the emperor, he produced the alms he had received, some grain, dry gram, pieces of baked bread and pods of red pepper, which confirmed the presence of the Maratha forces. It is instructive to compare these forces of Baji Rao with the Mughal paraphernalia some two decades after this incident at the battle of Panipat!

Though the author has not gone into detail, two aspects of the Maratha rise are also mentioned by him, one fascinating in its scope and the other a matter of regret. Throughout history, the Marathas had waged a ceaseless war against the Mughals, treating them as aliens in this land. And yet, they had a strange sense of loyalty which forbade them from annihilating the Mughals or even allowing others to do the same. Twice during his lifetime. Baji Rao had the opportunity of destroying the most potent symbol of the Mughals, the Nizam, first at Palkhed and then at Bhopal. The presence of the Nizam in close proximity to the Marathas could only bode ill, and yet on both occasions he was spared. It is said that this was done because the Maratha king Shahuji, who was brought up in Mughal captivity, had a soft corner for them to deliver the coup de grace.

Similarly, Baji Rao had Delhi at his mercy. In fact he had gone there with the explicit intention of destroying it, and yet he spared it.

On another occasion, when he was in a position to clear the western coast of the Portugese presence, he gave up the task when the news broke of a grave threat to Hindustan from the northern frontiers in the form of Nadir Shah. He lost no time in getting in touch with other princes to meet the challenge, and in fact according to the author, he even forged a new alliance wherein the Maharana of Mewar was to be crowned the Emperor of Hindustan.

While his obsession and fascination with Delhi can perhaps be attributed to many factors, the inability of the Marathas to assess the long-term threat that the British colonialists posed is regrettable indeed. The native wisdom that no stranger should be allowed to settle down in your courtyard was inexplicably forgotten when they failed to clear the vicinity of the obsequious traders. In their obsession with Delhi, the Marathas failed to see the progress the British were making in the east of the country. The truth is that when the Marathas were making inroads into Malwa and Agra, the British were tightening their stranglehold on the Bengal suba of the Mughals, and yet they were not perceived as a threat. This oversight would remain not only a regret but also a blot on an otherwise brilliant and systematic rise of the Marathas in general and Baji Rao in particular.

The reader will also notice that the interlude of the Mastani episode is based on folklore and hearsay than on documentay evidence. This is strange since the events belong to an era when much of it is documented. In fact the historians are not even sure if Masatni was the daughter of the redoubtable Chhatrasal or the wily Nizam! Fortunately everyone agrees that she was a Muslim, but again one cannot be certain if she died on the funeral pyre away from Pune or committed suicide in Pune on hearing the news of Baji Rao's death and where her tomb is said to be. What, however, is acknowledged is that her and Baji Rao's son had to be brought up as a Muslim because the Brahmins exerted pressure on Baji Rao and his family.

It is a refreshing book, coming as it does from a person whose perspective and style is not bound by the formal approach of an academician. Easy to read, it is a fast paced story of an astonishing era of Indian history. The canvas is wide, yet the author has skillfully kept the focus on the life and works of his subject.