The Balance of power in early 18th century India
The present article follows the previous one which covered the emergence of the Maratha empire and their military engagements up to 1721, including naval confrontations with the British and Portuguese. Due to the vast preview of the research, it is now expanded to include another article which will cover the balance of power in early 18th century India. This part of the article focuses on the actions of the Marathas led by Peshwa Bajirao and his rival Deccan power led by Nizam of Hyderabad and their efforts to govern their respective territories between 1721-1732 and the impacts of their military campaign on the Mughal emperor in Delhi.
During the early 18th century, the Marathas began to exert their influence well beyond the borders of their original kingdom of Swarajya. This expansionist approach led to the horizontal enlargement of the Maratha empire, stretching from the Konkan to the Utkal coast, and the vertical expansion from the Sutlej to Pune by 1760.
Bajirao’s ascent to power occurred at the same time as the Nizam’s ascent in Hyderabad, where he established his own kingdom due to the weakening of Mughal influence. However, the Nizam was not strong enough, in the initial years of 1720s, to openly declare independence from Delhi, so he secretly sought the Marathas’ assistance in creating an autonomous kingdom. Yet, he did not wish to appear weak, as this might encourage the Marathas to attack him. Therefore, in 1721, the Nizam engaged in cordial discussions with the Marathas at Chikhalthan but did not commit to paying Chauth and Sardeshmukhi rights to Marathas and only exchanged pleasantries. This was a strategic move on the part of the Nizam but this meeting didn’t result in any major breakthrough. Shortly thereafter, the Mughal Emperor summoned the Nizam to Delhi as Mughal Vagir, or Prime Minister, had died in February 1721. It is noteworthy that Anandrao Sumant, the Maratha’s foreign minister, accompanied the Nizam to Delhi and was present in court when the Nizam was appointed Vagir in February 1722. Nonetheless, Nizam’s intention was not to remain in Delhi for long.
In fact, in October 1722, the Nizam left Delhi and declared himself as the Subedar of Malwa and Gujarat, as well as the entire Deccan region. With this bold move, he not only shattered the Mughal Empire’s monopoly on power but also challenged the Marathas in their own territory. This was a clear act of secession, but Mohammad Shah ‘Rangilla’, who was a weak ruler with no ability to resist, meekly surrendered to the Nizam’s demands. As part of the agreement with Nizam, the Mughal Emperor also consented to appoint Nizam’s men in Gujarat and Malwa instead of Mughal officials – Subedars.
The events unfolding in Deccan were rapidly changing, with former allies turning into foes and enemies forming new alliances. In 1723, the Peshwa and Nizam met at Bolasha, and Emperor ‘Rangila’ was aware of their meeting. As a result, he summoned the Nizam to Delhi and appointed him as the Subedar of Ayodhya. However, once again, the Nizam defied Delhi and headed south to Deccan. This time, Mohammad Shah was prepared to engage in battle if necessary. Delhi sought the assistance of the Marathas to defeat the Nizam, while the Nizam sought the Marathas’ aid against Delhi. Such a situation would have been inconceivable under Aurangzeb’s rule, but with the tenure of Balaji as the Peshwa, Marathas were holding the central power in Deccan thus making Nizam reproachment a reality. Meanwhile, the Mughal Subedar of Hyderabad, Mubarij Khan, as expected had received the backing from Delhi and was preparing for a battle against the Nizam, who was also preparing for an inevitable battle. In May 1724, the Nizam and Peshwa met at Nalcha, but there is no known record of what occurred during their meeting. Nevertheless, the outcome was clear, as the Marathas joined forces with the Nizam in the ‘Battle of Sakharkherda’ and were led by Peshwa himself against Mubarij Khan. This battle marked the beginning of the Asaf Jahi Dynasty, which lasted until 1949 and required ‘police action’ to be merged into the Union of India.
Despite the Maratha-Nizam, if it may be referred to as, victory at the Battle of Sakharkherda, the Nizam once again proved himself to be a skilled strategist. After defeating the Emperor’s men at Fattekhelda (as he renamed the town of Sakharkherda), he wrote to Delhi and ‘requested’ to be appointed as the Subedar of Deccan. Delhi had no choice but to concede to the Nizam’s request. Following the battle, the Nizam quickly relocated his capital from Khadki or Aurangabad to Hyderabad, as Aurangabad – although was garrisonned but was too close to the Maratha-dominated region. Marathas once again aligned with Nizam in the Gujarat campaign of 1724-25 gaining Chauth and Sardeshmukhi in the whole of Gujarat along with land rights. The alignment was purely based on mutual benefits.
The Strategic Outcome
Nizam, much like his Mughal counterparts, had a deep aversion to the Marathas, but he was unable to remove them from their dominant position in the Deccan region. In fact, Nizam’s own survival (not in absolute sense but atleast in strategic sense) in his initial years was contingent upon the Marathas’ assistance. This precarious balance of power was present in the Deccan region by the mid-1720s, and with the Nizam-Maratha victory at Sakharkherda, it became the norm throughout India. No single power was strong enough to overthrow the others, thus they were all forced to remain aligned with their respective interests and were willing to cooperate even with their arch enemies to maintain their existence. This situation bears some similarity to several incidents from European history including the strategy employed by Cardinal Richelieu, the skilled foreign minister of France during the 30 years war1. Richelieu ensured that France remained only aligned with its national interests of weakening Habsburg, rather than with its dominant religious belief – Catholicism. The balance of power in India during this period also resembles the alignment of France-Britain against Russia in the Crimea war of 1853-562.
The basic reason behind the Marathas-Nizam alignment was the declining prowess of the Mughals. The Marathas would have planned to use that opportunity to expand their influence into Central and Northern India, which they successfully did in following decades, while maintaining a power in Deccan which is not on good terms with Delhi. Such a power, it might have been the reasoning in Satara, won’t pose much of a threat to the marathas in comparison with Mughals. Also, with division of power, which induces chaos, new possibilities would arise to gain, economically and politically. The marathas’ thinking was driven by this strategic thought which ultimately led to the rise of a power which would dwarf others in the Indian Subcontinent.
The Stratagem at Palkhed
As previously mentioned in the last part of the article, the Marathas were divided into two factions following the Battle of Khed of 1707. The Mughals had been eager to exploit this division, as evidenced by their release of Shahu in 1707 from captivity. After the formation of the Asaf Jahi dynasty, Nizam employed a similar tactic by pitting Shambhaji of Kolhapur against Shahu’s Satara. He even encouraged local Sirdars to receive vatans from Sambhaji instead of Shahu. Nizam’s aim was to ensure his own survival, as he viewed the Marathas as the biggest threat to his kingdom in all of India, even bigger than the Mughals. This view was reinforced by the fact that Peshwa Bajirao, who was not only a prime minister but also a military general like his father Balaji Vishwanath Bhat and Shivaji’s first Peshwa Moropant Trimbak Pingle, who had led from the front in all major military campaigns and had an intimate knowledge of the Deccan’s geography and topography. Bajirao’s campaign in Karnataka – Chitradurga (1725-26) and Srirangapatna (1726-27) further ossified this view in Nizam.
In 1727 the Maratha-Nizam skrimmes began at the Sinnar region, close to Nasik region, later expanded to a full fledged battle. This battle was mired with the ingenuity and strategy of Bajirao who kept his enemy guessing over his next move throughout the battle. The battle preparation lasted for several months, during which the Nizam gained an advantage over the Marathas due to his large infantry and artillery. Initially, in the battle preparations the Nizam joined by Sambhaji advanced towards Satara, but Bajirao, instead of defending the city, moved towards Aurangabad – the garrisoned town – surprising the Nizam and forcing him to redirect towards Pune. However, Bajirao continued to move into Nizam’s territory and looted several towns in the Nizam’s territory and then moved towards Burhanpur, prompting the Nizam to want to pursue him. Bajirao, however, deliberately led the Nizam into unfavourable terrain and knew that the Subedar of Gujarat, Sarbuland Khan, was a Maratha supporter, was hated by the Nizam. Thus, if Nizam chased Bajirao, the Marathas would have a greater chance of victory. Despite this, the Nizam was a skilled strategist, as mentioned earlier, and instead moved towards Pune, but Bajirao was familiar with the land and returned to the vicinity of the Nizam’s territory by the time the Nizam reached Khandesh – located in valley of the Tapi river located between Ajantha and Satpura ranges. This was some exceptional level of battlefield mobility recorded in any part of the world.
By then Chimaji, Bajirao’s brother, had shifted the Maratha treasury along with King Shahu to the fort of Purandar.Nizam was becoming increasingly frustrated with Bajirao’s actions and decided to cut his losses by moving towards Aurangabad and engaging in battle from a far superior position. However, the Peshwa was aware that the chances of Maratha victory were slim in such a scenario, so he devised a multi-pronged counter-plan. The first part of this plan was to dislodge the Nizam from his artillery as he crossed the Godavari river. The second part required the denial of food and water to the invading forces and the final part was to ensure that Nizam forces remain away from the water sources – Godavari and Shiv Nadi.
The implementation of this tactic involved stationing a formidable force on the north bank of the Godavari river and conducting patrols on the sections of the river that were involved in the battle, which spanned several miles. The Nizam exhibited an excessive amount of overconfidence, exactly as the Peshwa had anticipated. On the initial day, Nizam dispatched his vanguard and then, on the second day, he himself crossed the river with his key Sirdars, leaving his valuable artillery for the third day. Meanwhile, the Marathas arrived on the third day and annihilated the Nizam and ensured his guns didn’t cross the Godavari river.Under the leadership of Peshwa, the Marathas encircled Nizam and his troops, forcing him to implore for peace. The peace agreement was finalised at Mungi Shevgaon, a small village in khandesh region, on March 6, 1728. This agreement was arguably the most significant triumph for the Marathas at the time, as it granted them complete control over the administration of Deccan, secured the release of Anandrao Sumant (the foreign minister) and Shambhaji Raje (of Kolhapur), and resulted in the return of several territories such as
Akkalkot, Khed, Talegaon, Baramati, Indapur, Narayangarh, Pune, among others, to the Marathas. Additionally, the agreement mandated the termination of all connections between Nizam and Shambhaji, with no allocation of any territory, and required the payment of Sardeshmukhi for six more Subas of Deccan to the Marathas. These were some of the gains secured by the Marathas3. This was a brutal humiliation to the Nizam who in 1721 refused to give Chauth and Sardeshmukhi rights to Marathas even in Shivaji’s Swarajya.
Field Marshal Bernard Montogomery wrote in “A history of warfare”, that, “They (the Marathas) were at their best in the eighteenth century, and the Palkhed campaign of 1727-28, in which Bajirao outgeneralled Nizam-ul-Mulk, is a masterpiece in strategic mobility.”
Col. RD. Palsokar, writing in “Bajirao 1: an Outstanding Cavalry General”, says. “Bajirao was a high caste Brahmin whose forefathers had studied the scriptures, interpreted them, conducted religious ceremonies, and taught the pupils. His father was an exception, as he had accompanied a military expedition.” Under his command “there were no class or caste distinctions when it came to handing over command of troops and responsibilities”. The place in the Maratha military hierarchy under Bajirao was determined by the number of soldiers one commanded and the battles one had participated in. This policy of using talent and merit above everything, to decide the capabilities of his soldiers and officers proves to be his greatest contribution to the Maratha Empire.
Advantage Maratha after Victory at Palkhed
Following their success in limiting the Nizam in Deccan, the Marathas turned their attention towards achieving their long-held aspiration of capturing the throne of Delhi, a dream dating back to the days of Chatrapati Shivaji. Leveraging the favourable balance of power, the Marathas launched an incursion into the Malwa region, which was under the control of Giridhar Bahadur, Subedar of the Mughals. Chimaji led this expedition, and the Marathas captured a significant portion of Malwa by defeating the Mughal Subedar. However, their efforts to liberate Ujjain from Mughal rule, under the leadership of Chimaji along with Malharrao Holkar and Ranoji Shinde, were unsuccessful. Following advice from Bajirao, all Maratha Sirdars retreated from Ujjain and moved to Kota-Bundi, then Gujarat, before finally returning home to Pune. This expedition once again demonstrated the intimate knowledge of geography and terrain held by the Marathas. Following this campaign, Peshwa granted the first lands to Malharrao Holkar, located to the north of the Narmada river. Over these lands Holkars will form the Holkar dynasty.
While Chimaji was occupied with the Malwa campaign, Peshwa led an expedition into Bundelkhand, which was inhabited by the Chandel Rajputs. The history of the Chandels is fraught with ambiguity as they had allied with Aurangzeb against Shah Jahan under Champatrai’s leadership on one occasion, and on another occasion, they had fought alongside another rajput king, Jai Singh, against Shivaji. However, a young Chattrasal switched sides and joined forces with Shivaji. Chhatrasal again switched sides with the Mughal and their Indian supporters such as Jai Singh in 1715 and fought against Marathas. However, he refused to accept the Mughal domination over his small kingdom and thus the Mughal sent a Pathan, Mohammad Khan Bangash to fight Chhatrasal. Chhatrasal took refuge in a fort at Jaitapur and surrendered to Bangash in December 1728. Peshwa Bajirao came to his rescue and made Bangash leave Bundelkhand. A Hindi couplet aptly summarises the actions of Marathas in Bundelkhand; Jo gati grah gajendra ki so gati bhai hai aaj!
Baji jat Bundel ki Baji rakho laaj!
This can be translated as, The way Gajendra the elephant was trapped in the jaws of the crocodile, my situation is the same, today Bundel is losing, keep our shame! This was the message from the Chattrasaal’s side and it is said that when Bajirao received this message he was eating, and he replied if I don’t help them now then history will say that the Brahmins kept eating while Kshatriyas were killed. The story of Bajirao and Mastani also originates in the aftermath of this battle.
However, it is important to note here that the support of Bajirao to Chandels may be due to the Hindu religion of Chandels, but given the fact that Chandels had also served the muslim mughals like many other rajput kings, thus Chandels should have been enemies. So what possible reason can be deduced for Bajirao’s actions in Bundelkhand? One possible explanation can be that Bajirao’s decision may have been primarily driven by the geographical position of Bundelkhand. As mentioned earlier, Bajirao was intimate with geographical understanding, so he might have known that by having a dominant position in Bundelkhand, the road to both Eastern and Western India turnes much smoother. However, this indeed can’t be verified but it proves to be more reasonable than the religious angle. Another aspect of the Bundelkhand campaign was the impact over the local populace. The locals were glad to be free from tyrannical Mughals. For them it was nothing short of rebirth as now they don’t have to pay religious tax, Jizya and all shackles which turned them second class citizens in their land were now destroyed. This can also be referred to as the beginning of the Maratha portrayal, outside Swarajya as the Hindu saviour, or Hindu Hriday Samrat. Even today, the local politicians of Maharashtra use these sentiments.
The Marathas under Brahmin Peshwas were no longer confined to South of Narmada, within a few years of defeating the Nizam, they had control over Malwa, Gujarat and Bundelkhand. There was no one to stop them from moving in any part of the country. They were moving in Malwa, Rajasthan, parts of modern day central Uttar pradesh. The effective territorial control of Marathas was now, by 1731, larger than the Nizam and Mughals, as they were run by semi-independent Sirdars, which also gave huge monetarial gain to Marathas. This was the most significant change in the Indian power balance since the days of Prithvi Raj Chauhan, the last Hindu ruler of Delhi before losing to Afghans. Now Hindus have gained control over the revenue sources, however outdated their methods were, and the strategic locations in Central India.
The Internal Fault Lines
The Maratha empire and like other Empires was riddled with internal divisions and the biggest representation of this came in the Battle of Dabhoi, 1731. In this battle former Senapati of marathas, Trimbakrao along with other Sirdars such as Udaji Pawar and Pilaji Gaikwad aligned with Nizam and fought against Peshwa Bajirao led Marathas. Bajirao tried to stop the battle and used all possible means to bring Trimbakrao and other Sirdars back into the Maratha camp but to no avail. In the battle Trimbakrao died, even though Bajirao had issued strong words to his troops to not kill the disgruntled Marathas. This battle once again underlined why Field Marshal Bernard Montogomery equated the generalship of Peshwa Bajirao with the US civil war General William Sherman in his book “A history of warfare”. Bajirao in this battle forced the large troops of Trimbakrao into a semi-circular bend adjacent to the Dhadhar river and soundly defeated them as they had no place to escape. This battle fought in the plains of Malwa and Gujarat shocked Delhi and forced the Emperor to send Bagash Khan into Malwa. But neither he nor his successor Jai singh were able to make any impact against fierce Marathas. The Emperor after this battle accepted virtual control of this region by marathas.
This change in balance of power, with Delhi accepting the rights of Marathas had no parallel with Mughal dealings with any other Hindu Kingdoms of the past. This fact is also underscored by a Pakistani military veteran cum Scholar Major Agha H Amin, “The myth of the invincibility of the Muslims had finished with the success of the brilliant as well as indomitable Sivaji’s and his successors rise inside India.”4
The Marathas did build a large empire but were riddled with problems of granting vatans which culminated in a semi independent kingdom. The biggest problem with vatan was that, after a few years the local Sirdar became too powerful due to stable revenue collection and easy availability of men for military expedition. This made them detached from the central authority of the King based at Satara, in our discussion Chhatrapati Shahu and reinforces the belief that now they, Sirdars, don’t have to work with the same zeal as they did previously since vatan were hereditary. The second major fault line was that several Marathas felt that Bajirao, who was a Brahmin, is de facto king and were jealous of him being popular and also due to Shahu’s deep respect for his decision making ability. However, these critics were majorly those who were enjoying hereditary privileges and weren’t willing to share their collected revenue with the Chattrapati. Even, the genesis of the battle of Dabhoi was linked to this privilege as Trimbakrao was the eldest son of former Maratha Senapati Khandero Dabhade. After his father’s death Trimbakrao became Senapati although his battlefield experience wasn’t exceptional but when Chhatrapati Shahu tried to take some villages, from Gujarat region, out of his hereditary vatan he was livid and joined Nizam-ul Mulk. This takes us to the third major fault line, the lack of institutions. Upon reading the Maratha history one would get an impression that their sources of revenue remained fixed to Chauth and Sardeshmukhi and no other method was ever tried. The Europeans had created a concept of government bonds to finance war in the 16th century, when Spanish revenue sources were squeezed. There exist no parallel of such approach or any other alternative method in Indian war financing. Even the use of revenue wasn’t great in the Maratha empire, as most of it was kept by local Sirdars and even what was left with Chatrapati was hardly used for the capacity building or for educating masses. These fault lines became the biggest reason for the eventual decline and defeat of the Marathas to the British imperialists in 1818. However, it shall be recognized that the heroic attempt of Marathas to raise the fallen people of India didn’t go in vain as Marathas stopped Islamic invasions from the North Western region and shattered the belief of ‘Muslim invincibility’.
World Order, by Henry Kissinger, published by Penguin books, 2014 edition page no. 30-36
The Rise and fall of great powers by Paul Kennedy, published by William Collins, 2017 edition. Page number 218-28
Bajirao 1: An Outstanding Cavalry General, by Col. R. D. Palsokar, M.C., published by United Services Institution of India, Page no. 174, 175, 176
Post 1857 British Policy laid the foundation of Division of India in 1947, excerpts from Sepoy Rebellion of 1857-59 Reinterpreted, 17 August 1998 by Agha H Amin