Chhatrapati Shahu Maharaj (I)





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Chhatrapati Shahu Maharaj (I)

He was the fifth Maratha emperor, ruling from 1708 to 1749. He helped revive the empire and also oversaw a complete devolution of executive powers from the Chhatrapati to the Peshwa. He remained a figurehead, while Peshwas Balaji Vishwanath, Baji Rao and Nana Saheb lifted the Marathas to supremacy.

Chhatrapati Shahu I

Date of death 1749
Death place Satara
Mother Yesubai
Father Sambhaji Maharaj
Date of birth 1682

Chhatrapati Shahu Maharaj was the fifth king in the line of Maratha emperors, and succeeded Shivaji II to the coveted position. His story is vital to be relived as he reigned through a period of considerable political turmoil, and contributed in many ways to the revival of the Maratha empire. The four decades of his rule transformed the politics of the Deccan region, as the Marathas gradually displaced the Mughals to become omnipotent across large parts of the subcontinent.

Early 18th Century Context

Chhatrapati Shivaji’s death in 1680 was followed by his elder son Sambhaji’s succession as emperor. However, his career was fraught with challenges from the very outset, as a belligerent Mughal empire under Aurangzeb imperiously damaged the core of the Maratha empire. Chhatrapati Sambhaji fought valiantly in innumerable battles, but in 1689 was captured and infamously incarcerated by the Mughals. In the process, his wife Yesubai and seven-year old son Shahu were also captured and imprisoned in Delhi.

The next couple of decades elapsed in protracted warfare between the Mughals and the Marathas under Rajaram- the younger son of Shivaji. Rajaram had taken refuge in the fort of Gingee (with the assistance of Ramchandra Pant Amatya), and through his able commanders constantly kept the expanding Mughal forces at bay. Rajaram died in 1703, and his son Shivaji II became the emperor. However, it was the dowager Tarabai who made her presence felt. Tales aplenty inform us about her valour on the battlefield, and prudence outside it. Her astuteness kept the Marathas afloat in a period of constant warfare. 

Shahu’s Release and Conflict with Tarabai

In 1707, Shahu was released from prison, ostensibly to stoke divides within the Maratha ranks. As the son of Chhatrapati Sambhaji Maharaj, Shahu was a legitimate claimant of the Maratha throne, and so the question arose: Who was the true successor of Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj? While Tarabai had taken over as the de facto ruler of the Maratha Samrajya, there was a sizable coterie of citizens and soldiers who felt that this was a travesty to Shivaji’s heritage. Thus a civil war brewed for over two years.

Largely due to popular and military support, Shahu emerged victorious in this internecine war, with victory in the Battle of Khed (1708) giving him an opening into Pune and Satara. Once he occupied Satara, he was crowned as the fifth Chhatrapati. Tarabai’s son Shivaji II occupied Kolhapur, but Shahu was a clear winner. Yet, his reign got off to a rocky start. Many of his officials like the Senapati, Pratinidhi and the Peshwa wavered in loyalty. Moreover, Tarabai’s loyalists kept searching for opportunities to threaten Shahu’s position. These also included dissidents like Chandra Sen Jadhav, Sareje Rao Ghatge, Rambhaji Nimbalkar and Sambhaji II.[ref]

Kanhoji Angre’s Threat

The most significant challenge he faced was from Konkan, the coastal region being under the sway of a powerful naval commander named Kanhoji Angre. Angre drove out Shahu’s garrisons and occupied the forts of the Rajmachi and Tung. He had also allied with the Kolhapur faction, that had recently passed on to Sambhaji II, son of Rajaram’s second wife Rajasabai. Angre’s growing power was bound to threaten Shahu’s ambitions, and he had to adroitly stand up to such challenges.

The Emergence of Balaji Vishwanath

Amidst such turmoil, in 1713, Chhatrapati Shahu Maharaj appointed Balaji Vishwanath as his Peshwa (prime minister). This proved to be a historic decision, and defined the fortunes of the Maratha empire for almost a century. Balaji Vishwanath was a warrior, diplomat and advisor all rolled in one, and he proved to be a great asset for Shahu Maharaj. He first conciliated Kanhoji Angre and brought all conquered forts back into the fold of the empire. Angre in return was confirmed commander of the Maratha fleet and a large chunk of territory in the Konkan. This was a decisive settlement, as it ensured that the powerful Angre didn’t encroach upon Shahu Maharaj's domain.

Over time, Shahu Maharaj devolved power to his trusted lieutenant Vishwanath and this transition allows us to capture a crucial transition in the Maratha empire. While under Shivaji Maharaj, the Chhatrapati was the most significant person in the empire, from Shahu’s reign, power began to be transferred to the Peshwa. While the Chhatrapati remained at the apex of the administrative set-up, his role was titulary, i.e, a mere figurehead. The Peshwa was at the centre of all political and military decisions, and to an extent also controlled the economic fortunes of the empire. Nonetheless, Shahu’s role in stimulating this success is also noteworthy.

Treaty of Delhi - 1718-19

In this context, the Treaty of Delhi signed between the Mughals and Marathas in 1718 is significant. For this, the state of the Mughals in the eighteenth century must be noted.

Aurangzeb had seen his empire disintegrating courtesy his own ineptitude and after his demise in 1707, the empire further lost its provenance, as its authority over the countryside waned. Jahandar Shah was murdered by Farrukh Siyyar, who was able to do so only owing to the assistance of the Sayyid brothers. The Sayyid brothers- Hussain Ali and Abdullah Ali- were the de facto Mughal rulers for almost a decade. This situation provided the perfect grounding for the Marathas to challenge the Mughal empire. They dethroned the reigning emperor Farrukh Siyar, after a liaison with Husain Ali. In return, Husain Ali recognized the supremacy of Marathas in the Deccan by granting them the right to collect Chauth and sardeshmukhi from the 6 Deccan provinces. These were Gujarat, Berar, Gondwana, Satara, Mawali, Khandesh and Konkan. Though Shahu had received the farman in this connection way back in 1707, he had never been able to realise it largely due to the machinations of Nizam ul-Mulk, who proved to be a thorn by his side even later in his career. Shahu and Balaji decided to decentralize the system, and the emergent ‘jagir’ system witnessed different officials being given the duties of collecting taxes. RC Majumdar cryptically calls this the ‘feudalisation of the Maratha state’.[ref]

Along with that, the treaty ensured that Chhatrapati Shahu’s mother was released from prison after almost four decades of confinement. All of this was once again possible due to the diplomatic abilities of Peshwa Balaji Vishwanath. Shahu Maharaj merely ratified the calls made by his versatile commander.

Interestingly, the Marathas didn't dethrone the Mughals, and this may have been part of their policy of raiding territory and garnering allegiance and economic benefits. However, by the 1720s, it was very clear that the Mughal empire was a 'toothless tiger' and Delhi was very much within the grasp of the Marathas. [ref]

Peshwa Baji Rao

In 1720, Balaji Vishwanath died and Shahu Maharaj was faced with a curious conundrum. Realising that Balaji had departed with a lot of unfinished business, he chose to keep his lineage alive. Baji Rao, Balaji’s twenty year old son, was appointed Peshwa, amidst a din of criticism. This was a bold move, but it paid off rich dividends, as Bajirao’s valour became the keynote of Indian history for almost two decades.

In 1724, the Nizam ul-mulk Asaf Jah of Hyderabad declared himself independent of the Mughal Empire, and this opened up a new sphere of conflict as well as negotiation. The Nizam along with the Kolhapur faction of the Marathas posed the greatest threat to the Maratha empire in this period, and once again the Peshwa stood up to the task. In 1728, the Maratha forces triumphed over the Nizam’s forces, and in 1731, a dissension led by Trimbakrao Dabade was also quelled. This was a period of hectic political activity with Peshwa Baji Rao at the forefront for the Marathas.

From Chhatrapati to Peshwa - The Transfer of Executive Power

After Bajirao’s demise in 1740, his son Balaji Baji Rao (or Nana Saheb) was nominated as Peshwa. Chhatrapati Shahu Maharaj died in 1749, and with him, the apex position of Chhatrapati was also dissolved. The Peshwa officially took charge of the empire.

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