Monday, November 29th, 2021 20:17:21

India’s 18th century and the Marathas

By Dr Uddipan Mukherjee
Updated: November 24, 2021 10:02 am

For long, the 18th century in India was regarded as a period of decline and chaos.India’s historiography generally agrees to the notion that 18thcentury was a period of Asian decline in maritime trade and the rise of European commercial, mercantile and imperial interests. This however is a Eurocentric analysis, opines historian Ishita Banerjee-Dube. This thesis of Dube was also supported by Dutch historian and administrator J. C. van Leur. He wrote about the strong continuity in Asian history even in the 18th c.However, Cambridge historian Christopher Alan Bayly raises a pertinent question that why in spite of the transformation of world economy and the transplanting of the European state in Asia, many features of the earlier order persisted in Asian countries.

Indian historian Sanjay Subrahmanyamfurther asks that did the European presence from the 16th and 17th centuries affect the nature of politics in the sub-continent. AsSekharBandopadhyay comments, the major characteristic of 18th century India was the weakening of the centralized Mughal empire and a disposal of political power across the regions.He says that there was a transformation of polity, rather than complete collapse.

On the economic side, 18th century was not a period of total stagnation. Expert in medieval Indian history Satish Chandra mentions that the economy in general, and external-internal trade in specific, continued without disruption and even prospered. As Bandopadhyay further mentions that ‘there was an expanding commercial economy and indigenous bankers handled considerable amounts of cash and operated extensive financial networks across the country to transfer credit through hundis’.And, Leonard puts it that the bankers ‘were now supposedly favoring the regional elite, rather than the Mughals’.

  1. A. Bayly has argued that there ‘was a new wealthy and social power in the provinces’ which resulted in the decline of the central Mughal authority. Interestingly, Bandopadhyay has opined that there were regions with considerable amounts of resources which attracted the English and other European traders and set off a competition among themselves.


Specter of a fragmented polity?

To reiterate, there was a transformation of polity in the 18th century Indian sub-continent. In sum, the basic reasons for an apparently ‘fragmented polity’ were an ineffectual Mughal emperor, aggravated by court intrigues and Mughal factional politics. As a corollary, rise of regional power centres, viz. Marathas, Bengal, Awadh, Hyderabad, Mysore, and Carnatic, further created a fragmented polity. Foreign invasion and consequent depredations of the Persian Nadir Shah in 1739 when he ransacked Delhi, followed by his protégé Ahmad Shah Durrani (Abdali) in a way broke the back of the Mughal empire and created a political vacuum. Penetration of Europeans and their involvement in internal affairs of Indian princes and regional states was the final nail in the political coffin of India’s 18th century.

In fact, the post 1707 Mughal polity trifurcated into three types of regional powers, writes SekharBandopadhyay.The first category of polities wasset up by rebels against the Mughal state, especially the Marathas, Jats, and Sikhs.Polities asserting themselves, as they were previously functioning as autonomous, but dependent on the Mughals, were the Rajputs, Mysore and Travancore. And finally of course were founded by Mughal provincial governors, viz. Bengal, Awadh and Hyderabad. Lakshmi Subramaniam rightly says that the emergence of regional states marked a major turning point in the political landscape of 18th century. She writes that the emerging states were diverse in terms of their orientation as well as their power base. According to her, these regional states were of different categories and derived from different conditions of political and economic processes but all of them embodied significant elements of dynamism and social transformation.

The natural question that pops up is why did the post-Mughal regional polities fail to check the territorial advance of the Europeans in general and the English in particular. The fundamental reason for the failure of the Indian states to counter the Europeans wasthat the latter were much advanced as far as equipment of warfare was concerned. Especially in artillery, the Europeans were notches higher than their Indian counterparts. Furthermore, they had advanced in naval warfare, which was always a neglected component in the sub-continent.



A dominant peasant class in western India, the Marathas rose to prominence as soldiers in the armies of Sultans of Bijapur and Ahmednagar in the 16th century. They excelled in light cavalry. Flourishing trade thrived between the Deccan plateau and the coast. Products like fish, salt, timber, fruits were abundant. Port of Surat was a focal point of trade.Politics of the region was controlled by the Deshmukhs(rural chiefs) – holding between 20 to 100 villages. Each village had its headman – the Patil, who generally hailed from the peasantry. He in turn was assisted by a ‘Kulkarni’ or record-keeper, generally a Brahmin. Head of the Deshmukh was called the Sardeshmukh.

Ishita Banerjee-Dube writes that the Maratha state that emerged under Shivaji in the mid-17th century was based on ‘co-sharing’ of power between the Maratha king and later the Peshwa (Prime Minister). The concept of Maratha Swarajya (self rule) were claims to revenue that overlapped with Mughal para-rajya (rule by others), comments Dube. Marathas also imposed Chauth or a tax / tribute at 25% on revenue or produce. Sardeshmukhi was an additional 10% levy on the Chauth.

The Mughal decline post 1707 encouraged the Maratha leaders to carve out zones of influence far removed from their original nucleus in western India. The powerful Brahmin family of BalajiVishwanath assembled around Shahu – great grandson of Shivaji and became his Peshwa in 1713.Subsequent Maratha expansion has two components: one, the growing influence of the Peshwasbased in Poona and two, the countervailing influence of an expanding confederacy of Maratha leaders or sardars outside Poona .


BalajiVishwanath (1713 – 1720) was a shrewd financial administrator. He secured the following:

(1)          Right to levy Chauth and Sardeshmukhi in the 6 subahs (provinces) of Deccan and in Mysore, Trichinopoly and Tanjore.

(2)          Full and undiminished sovereignty in the Swarajya.

Under his successor Baji Rao (1720 – 40), Marathas wielded their military power and expanded territorially. He defeated the Nizam of Hyderabad in the battles of Palkhed and Bhopal.  The Peshwa was assisted by a council of eight ministers (Ashtapradhan) and subsidiary officials. Baji Rao put forward a policy of northward expansion of Hindu Pad pad-shahi or Hindu Empire to replace the Mughal empire. The Marathas conquered Gujarat, Malwa, Bundelkhand. In 1728, the Nizam had to accept the humiliating treaty of Mungi-Siragaon by agreeing to the claims of Chauth and Sardeshmukhi.

Baji Rao’s greatest military success however occurred when he reached Delhi in 1737 and exposed the hollowness of the Mughal military power. The Nizamnonetheless retaliated. But in the battle of Bhopal in December 1737, Nizam was comprehensively defeated and as per the convention of Durae-Sarai in January 1738, Nizam accepted the following terms:

(1) the whole of Malwa was given to Peshwa

(2) full sovereignty of the territory between Narmadaand Chambal rivers granted to Peshwa.

(3) to pay war indemnity of 50 lakhs.


Maratha fiscal and financial system

Dube writes that a sophisticated banking system encouraged trade. Hence, the army was paid in cash. This enhanced the size of the Maratha army. Market emerged for luxury goods in metal, ornamental ivory, wood and silver. Poets and musicians found patronage. Boost was given to local language and literature. There was a growth of ‘regional consciousness’.Wealth of elites was reflected in architecture. Large, multi-storied wooden houses called Wada were built for the rich. Wada had spiked doors, secret passages, gardens, water-ways and festival halls.

Ashir and Talbot (2006) write that hill forts acted as the key to Maratha authority. Square temples inside the forts got enlarged into tall elegant structures, exemplifying the Hindu tradition of the Marathas. However, all said, in 1740 when Balaji Baji Rao ascended the Peshwaship, the treasury had a debt of 1.45 million rupees. He ordered expeditions to Rajasthan and southern India to counter the debt, but ironically, it led to further debt. Land revenue was maximized and the government encouraged cultivation of state lands as well as water-lands by offering favorable terms to peasants.

After the end of Shahu’s long reign in 1749, BalajiBaji Rao took over formal authority and Poona became the capital instead of Satara.Paid, full-time soldiers became part of the Maratha army. Peasant soldiers took to agriculture since the state was offering favorable terms. However, many foreign mercenaries now joinedthe  Maratha army. Incidentally, Peshwa and the Maratha chiefs got involved in Mughal court politics. Finally, in 1752, Marathas were named as protector of the Mughal throne and granted the right to collect Chauth in Punjab.

However since the days of Shahu, the Maratha sardarswere primarily military leaders. Bhonsles of Nagpur, Gaikwads of Baroda, Holkars of Indore or Scindias of Gwalior, were difficult to be controlled by the Peshwas. Moreover, at the local levels, there wereVatan rights (inherited) of Patils, Deshmukhs and Kulkarnis. They exercised political power and resolved disputes at local level – thus opposing in general, a centralizing authority. Also, Maratha Bargis (mercenaries) engaged in depredations after territorial conquests. In fact, in this manner, the Marathas failed to weave out an integrated fiscal system.

The Maratha state perhaps failed to establish a proper and fruitful economic policy. Hence, asper Bandopadhyay and Dube, the following reasons may be summed up for the overall decline of the Maratha power:

(1) Artillery remained weak and unsophisticated. This proved fatal in the 3rd battle of Panipat in 1761. Abdali had light, mobile artillery and overwhelmed Maratha infantry and cavalry.

(2) System of allotting lands in lieu of pay for military service ate away the power of central authority and gave rise to regional sardars.

(3) Internal rivalry of Maratha sardars

(4) It was difficult for them to counter an efficient force of the English East India Company

(5) The battle of Panipat, 1761 took away much prestige of the Marathas as well as inflicted huge military loss of around 50,000 soldiers.

(6) Lack of able Peshwa after Madhav Rao I and after Nana Fadnavis, there was no able diplomat as such to hold the Marathas together.

(7) Historian Sardesai laments that though the Englishmen were inquisitive about themilitary wherewithal of the Marathas, the latter largely had any knowledge about them. This is quite to the contrary what Baji Rao used to do during his heydays when military espionage was accorded supreme importance.

Nonetheless, it is an altogether a different saga of final capitulation of Maratha power in 1818. Interestingly, the story is not so simple as it appears. The Marathas defeated the English in 1779 and with the rise of MahadajiScindia the confrontation between India’s biggest indigenous power and the English company needs to be narrated on a separate canvas.


By Dr Uddipan Mukherjee

(The writer is PhD, and  is in India’s Central Civil Service. Any opinion expressed here is of author’s own.)

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