Bajirao I of the Maratha Empire

Portrait of Peshwa Bajirao I
Portrait of Bajirao. Amit20081980 via Wikimedia

Bajirao Ballal Bhat lived for just forty years, but in that short time he fought dozens of battles and reputedly was never defeated.  He also established the authority of the office of Peshwa or prime minister over the Maratha Empire of India.  Perhaps most significantly, under his leadership the Hindu Marathas posed a significant challenge to the Muslim Mughal Empire that had dominated northern India for the previous century.

Early Life

Bajirao was born on August 18, 1700 to Balaji Vishwanath, the first Peshwa of Maratha, and his wife Radahbai.  His birth name was Visaji.  The family were ethnic Marathi, from the Chitpavan Brahmin caste.  Bajirao's father rose from a lowly position in the government to the highest office through his intelligence and his military skill during the Maratha Civil War.  This war was a result of Mughal intrigues during and after the reign of Emperor Aurangzeb, a zealous Muslim who sought to subdue all of the Hindus of the subcontinent.  

Aurangzeb died in 1707, and the Mughals released the grandson of the Maratha Empire's founder from prison.  This young man, called Shahu, immediately claimed the Maratha throne, setting off a succession struggle and civil war.  Shahu eventually prevailed, and he would appoint Bajirao's father as Peshwa of the kingdom in 1708 or 1709.

On March 11, 1719, Bajirao married Kashibai, from a Brahmin family.

 His father had returned from negotiating a prisoner release with the Mughals in Delhi, and was there to celebrate the wedding.  

However, Balaji's health was deteriorating.  He had laid the administrative foundations of a powerful Maratha Kingdom, and pushed Maratha borders north well into formerly Mughal-controlled lands.

 On April 12, 1720, the 58-year-old Peshwa died.  His title and powers would pass to his eldest son, who would greatly enlarge the Maratha Kingdom.

Bajirao Peshwa

Between 1713 and 1818, the Peshwas of Maratha occupied a very similar position to that of the Tokugawa shoguns vis-a-vis the emperors of Japan.  In each case, the military leader owed political allegience to the formal ruler, but maintained a separate capital of his own, and exercised almost complete political control over the country.  In the Maratha case, Maharashtra was theoretically under the power of the chhatrapatis or kings of Maratha.  The chhatrapati's capital was at Satara, while the Peshwa's was at Pune.

Bajirao was just 20 years old when his father died, and the king named him the next Peshwa.  Older and more experienced generals expected to get the appointment; however, Chhatrapati Shahu recognized Bajirao's great potential, and selected him instead.  This established the precedent for the office of peshwa to become hereditary.

Energetic and strategically-minded, Bajirao is often quoted as saying, "Strike at the trunk of the withering tree (the Mughal Empire) and the branches will fall off by themselves.  Thus should the Maratha flag fly from the Krishna to the Indus."

Military Success

During his 20 year reign, Bajirao fought a reported 41 battles against various foes, and won all of them.  One particular thorn in his side was the Nizam-ul-Mulk Qamar-ud-din Khan, the Mughal viceroy of the Deccan.  The Nizam had set himself up as an independent ruler in the Deccan, and refused to allow the Marathas to collect tribute or taxes there despite a previous agreement between the Marathas and the Mughals on that point.

The Marathas and Mughals combined forces against the Nizam in 1724, but he was unchastened.  He again refused Bajirao's right to collect revenue in 1727, and fought until the spring of 1728, when his army was surrounded and besieged by Bajirao's forces.  The Nizam had to sign a humiliating treaty, giving up his dreams of independence.

Later in 1728, Bajirao seized the Malwa region from the Mughals.

 The following year, he lifted a Mughal siege on King Chatrasal of Bundelkhand in central India.  The grateful king granted Bajirao a third of his kingdom, as well as the hand of his daughter Mastani.

Mastani was a beautiful girl, who loved to ride out to hunt or battle with the men.  Her mother was a Persian concubine of King Chatrasal, so Mastani was raised as a Muslim.  Bajirao's decision to formally marry her as his second wife shocked other Brahmins, and caused a rift with his devoted first wife, Kashibai, and with his mother.  But Bajirao evidently was head-over-heels in love with Mastani, and would brook no opposition to his second marriage.

Between 1729 and 1733, Bajirao had to deal with unrest between Maratha and the Siddis or Afro-Indian kingdoms.  The Marathas sparked the tension by confiscating an elephant that was being sent to Janjira as a gift to the Siddi king.  This so-called Elephant War ended with the Marathas seizing about half of the Siddis' land.

As the Marathas took control of larger and larger swathes of land, the weakened Mughal emperor responded by delaying his formal grants of taxation power to Bajirao.  Frustrated, Bajirao decided in December of 1737 to march on the Mughal capital at Delhi.  He separated his army into two, and sent one detachment straight ahead while he led the second on a more circuitous route.  The first army ran into a huge Mughal force commanded by Sadat Khan, the governor of Agra, and was nearly wiped out.  

Not realizing that the majority of the Maratha army was still unfought, the Mughals prepared a celebration,  letting down their guard.  Bajirao himself and the larger contingent reached the outskirts of Delhi unchallenged and began to loot the Mughal capital.  While the Mughal emperor cowered in the Red Fort, one of his commanders managed to deploy a little force of about 8,000 to meet the Marathas, but they were quickly crushed by the much larger Maratha army.  Bajirao stripped the capital of literally tons of loot, and began to march back to the Deccan.

 Along the way, he left garrisons of soldiers and appointed his own lieutenants to control the land in-between Delhi and Pune.  It was a serious blow to Mughal wealth and prestige.

Such an attack could not go unanswered, and in 1738, the emperor sent Nizam ul Mulk and an army of 70,000 to attack the Marathas.  Bajirao was well-prepared, and used an even bigger force to surround the Mughal troops at Bhopal.  The Nizam had to sign yet another humiliating treaty with Bajirao; in this one, he signed away all of the Malwa region in Rajasthan, and the area between the Chambal River in Madya Pradesh and Narmada River on the coast of Gujarat, plus the Mughals had to pay a war indemnity to the Marathas. This established the Maratha as the most powerful political unit in India.

Another powerful foe of the Marathas was the Portuguese, who had established forts all along the western coast of India from Gujarat down to their headquarters at Goa.  The Portuguese were attempting to convert Hindus to Christianity by force, using Inquisition tactics, and otherwise making a serious nuisance of themselves.  Bajirao sent a force to dislodge the Portuguese, and between March of 1737 and May of 1739, they steadily drove the invaders out of various islands, ports, and fortresses up and down the coast.  On May 16, 1739, the Portuguese were forced to surrender their key fort at Vasai, on the outskirts of Mumbai.  All that remained of their Indian imperial dream was Goa.

Sudden End

Unfortunately, Bajirao I would not have much time to celebrate these latest victories.  On April 28, 1740, he suddenly developed a serious fever and died while out on inspection.  The exact cause of his death is not known; some sources suggest heat stroke, while others say that he was exhausted by family strife and constant battlefield exertions.  In any case, Bajirao was just 39 years old when he passed away.

His eldest son, Balaji Bajirao, succeeded him as Peshwa and continued to expand the Maratha Empire to its largest extent.  Balaji suffered a massive defeat in the Third Battle of Panipat, however, and the empire that his father had built began to come apart at the seams.

Sources

Chaurasia, R. S. History of the Marathas, New Delhi: Atlantic Publishers (2004).

SarDesai, D. R. India: The Definitive History, Boulder, Colorado: Westview Press (2007).

Sen, S. N. History of Modern India, New Delhi: New Age International Publishing (2006).