What If…? PART-2: The Maratha Empire

Hello and a warm welcome to PART-2 of the history series, “What If…” in which I will be writing about whether we could change the course of history in some of the most important moments of a particular empire. Previously I had written on the Mughals, if you have not seen it, please check it out. This part will be on the Maratha Empire.

  1. What if Chhatrapati Shivaji and his son Sambhaji couldn’t escape from Agra?
    Shivaji Bhonsle was the son of a Maratha general who served for the sultans of the Deccan, Shahaji. He smartly and tactfully formed a confederacy by capturing various small towns and forts. However, a heavy defeat at the battle of Purandar meant that Shivaji had to surrender 23 of his 36 forts and also served the Mughals indirectly by sending his son, Sambhaji and 5000 men as a mansabdari unit, i.e., a military unit serving the Mughal Empire. In 1666, Shivaji and his son were called to Agra by Emperor Aurangzeb but Shivaji was not received well because he was made to stand beside low-ranked nobles who he had already won on the battlefield. Due to this, he sprung out in anger and he and his son were arrested. But he somehow smartly escaped from the jaws of Aurangzeb with his son and left Agra. There are many sources on how he escaped, the most reliable being he had put himself in a large basket and his son in another and managed to escape Agra. If Shivaji masterfully couldn’t escape from arrest, then the struggle of the Marathas would be short-lived as both Shivaji and his eldest son would be in prison and Rajaram, his second son wasn’t even born by then (he was born in 1670). Also, the motivation and spirit of all Maratha generals was to fight for Shivaji, who wanted to get Swaraj from the Mughals and create an independent empire. They were so loyal to Shivaji that they were ready to give their lives to him. Shivaji’s loss would have been a body blow for the Marathas, which would mean that the Marathas would easily collapse within a few years.
  2. What If Shivaji never created a navy?
    After the Cholas, the next major navy was the Maratha ships. The Marathas, mainly under Shivaji and Sambhaji fought many naval battles against the Mughal navy and the ships of the European colonial forces, especially the Portuguese. Shivaji created sea bases/forts in Sindhudarg and Vijaydurg to strengthen his territory along the coast of Maharashtra from the Mughals and Portuguese. The navy mainly helped the Marathas fend off attacks, when the Mughals, unsuccessful in capturing Maratha forts through the sea, requested the Portuguese for help through the sea. Still, the combined navy couldn’t defy the Marathas because of brave commanders like Maynak Bhandari and Kanhoji Angre. If Shivaji never created a navy, the Marathas would have been vulnerable to Mughal attacks through the Arabian Sea. But because of Shivaji’s excellence in military tactics, many old sea forts were restructured and this even helped the Marathas during Sambhaji’s reign to fend off the Mughals under Aurangzeb.
  3. What If various Maratha Generals and Subedars weren’t motivated by Shivaji?
    This sub-topic is not about an event or a story of the Maratha Empire. It is about how Maratha armies, just about 8000 men in total could defeat the Mughals, Adil Shahis, European colonial powers etc. This is because of the mental strength of the Maratha Empire, which Shivaji Raje created. All the various Maratha chieftains were not happy to be under the Adil Shahis and wanted to obtain swaraj from them and the Mughals. Shivaji was the one who gave them this ray of hope. So as I said in the first sub-topic, they were extremely loyal to Shivaji. “They hadn’t surrendered their lives to the Adil Shahis or the Mughals, but they had surrendered their lives to Shivaji Raje”. This spirit of motivation was one of the key reasons why the Maratha army was able to fend off the mighty Muslim armies. Many generals like Tanhaji Malusare (martyred at Kondana fort) and Baji Prabhu Deshpande (martyred at the battle of Pavan Khind) were examples of two generals who did fight and die for Shivaji, to carry on his ideology of swaraj for the Marathas. If Shivaji didn’t motivate small Maratha chieftains, then they would would remain Subedars for the Deccan Sultanates and sooner or later, Aurangzeb would invade them and would gain total control of the Deccan, without any resistance. After Shivaji’s death, the morale of the Maratha generals didn’t go down because Sambhaji, the second Chhatrapati was able to carry on his father’s legacy without any faltering and continuously his small armies harassed and troubled the Mughal armies, which made Aurangzeb himself come to the Deccan and made Aurangabad his headquarters. The second reason was Shivaji Raje established an Empire, with a systemized army and administration and fulfilled all the duties he could before he died, due to which the Maratha generals without losing morale, continued serving Sambhaji and then Rajaram.
  4. What If Peshwa Baji Rao I lived for a longer time?
    The Peshwas, or the prime ministers of the Maratha Empire became more and more powerful, especially during the rule of Chhatrapati Shahu. The main person who made the power of Peshwas more powerful in the Maratha Empire was Baji Rao I. He was the son of Peshwa Balaji Vishwanath. Baji Rao I is known for his excellent military tactics and for expanding the Maratha Empire, which after his death included a large part of Maharashtra and Central India. In his reign, for the first time, the Marathas reached and raided Delhi in 1737. He has also not lost a single battle during his reign. But his body was exhausted due to the excessive wars he fought in his 20-year reign and died at the young age of 40 years. If he lived longer, say 5-10 years more, then easily the Maratha army could capture Delhi and consolidate into Afghan territory as well comfortably.
  5. What If the Marathas won the Third Battle of Panipat?
    After the death of Baji Rao I, his son Balaji Baji Rao succeeded him and during his reign, the Maratha Empire reached its zenith, till Attock (in Afghanistan) in the north and till the fertile northern plains. Also due to its size, the Maratha Empire became a Confederacy, where 5 factions, were Gaikwads, Holkars, Scindias and the Bhonsles, and the Peshwa, who had nominal leadership of the entire confederacy. In 1757, they had also captured the Mughal capital of Delhi and it looked like no one could challenge. But then came the Afghans under Ahmad Shah Durrani (or Ahmad Shah Abdali), who were called by the Rohillas. The Maratha army, under Sadashiv Rao Bhau and the Afghan army, met at the field of Panipat, which would decide the fate of Delhi. However due to superior Afghan troops and the experience of Abdali won the day and most of the prominent Maratha generals, including Sadashiv and the Peshwa’s son, Vishwanath Rao were killed in action. This proved to be a body blow for the Marathas and they also lost Delhi. If Sadashiv and his forces somehow won the battle, then the Marathas would easily conquer some Afghan territory and would be the supreme power in the subcontinent. They were so near, but still so far. After listening to the loss of the battle and the loss of his son, Balaji Baji Rao’s health deteriorated and died soon after.
  6. What If Madhav Rao I didn’t efficiently restore the Maratha order?
    After most of the Maratha generals were killed in action at the famous battle of Panipat and the death of Peshwa Balaji Baji Rao meant that the Maratha state was in turmoil and needed a strong and efficient ruler who could restore the Maratha order. So came Madhav Rao I, the son of Balaji and two generals, Mahadji Shinde and Nana Phadnavis, who both fought and were among the few generals who were alive after the dreaded battle at Panipat. Madhav Rao began the Resurrection of the Maratha Empire and efficiently, tactfully and strategically, by 11 years reconquered all the territories which were lost after the battle of Panipat and the capture of Delhi in 1771 was the icing on the cake. If Madhav Rao didn’t have prior experience or training in administration and was a weakling, then the nobles could keep even the Peshwa as a puppet and rule on his behalf, which would severely weaken the empire and a potential succession crisis could ensue. However at the young age of 27, due to tuberculosis, he passed away, leaving the powerful Maratha State that he created again into a state of turmoil. Some historians say that more than the loss at Panipat, Madhav Rao’s death was more painful for the Marathas.
  7. What If the Maratha Empire didn’t turn into a Confederacy?
    The Maratha Empire became a Confederacy, where five factions, were Gaikwads, Holkars, Scindias and the Bhonsles, and the Peshwa, who had nominal leadership of the entire confederacy, largely during the rule of Balaji Baji Rao. The Confederacy helped the Marathas expand to north and northeast India as each faction was able to send off large armies for the state. As long as they were united, the Maratha Empire was really strong. But as time passed, they often quarrelled against each other and each wanted to expand their territories. Seeing this weakness of the Marathas, the British smartly made alliances with a faction to defeat the other and by 1818, the British annexed the Maratha Empire. If the Maratha Empire hadn’t turned into a Confederacy, then their expansion of territory would have been less, but all the Maratha chieftains would have been united and with efficient administration, the Empire could be rock-solid and could fend off any forms of attacks from their rival kingdoms.
  8. What If the Marathas decisively won the First Anglo-Maratha War?
    The East India Company, due to smart alliances, tactics and strategies, annexed Bengal in 1757 and they also beat the French armies in Madras. The Mughals were also severely weakened so the major power that the British had to subdue to become the masters of India was the Maratha Empire. During the 1770s, Raghunath Rao, the brother of Balaji Baji Rao wanted to be the Peshwa after Madhav Rao I but Madhav Rao’s I son, Madhav Rao II became the Peshwa from the time he was born. Due to this, he allied with the British, a perfect opportunity for them to take a major threat from the subcontinent. So began the First Anglo-Maratha War, which was an intense conflict that in the end, was considered a stalemate, or a minor Maratha victory because they were able to defy the British. If Raghunath Rao and his forces were there with the Marathas and decisively beat the British, then they could even capture Bengal drive the British out of India and keep the Nawab of Bengal a puppet ruler under their power. However due to massive losses for both sides, the two sides signed a peace treaty and there was peace between the Marathas and the British for about 20 years and also formed an alliance, which the British used to capture the kingdom of Mysore.
  9. What If the Marathas somehow won the Third Anglo-Maratha War?
    After the death of Madhav Rao II, Baji Rao II became Peshwa but was a puppet ruler. So to fend off the nobles, he allied with the British but the other Maratha factions were against him. So started the Second Anglo-Maratha War which the British won and installed Baji Rao II as the Peshwa, as they did with the Nawabs of Bengal in 1805. 12 years later, he had convinced other Maratha factions to unite together and give a last stand against the British, who slowly and slowly started ceasing Maratha territories. But the British by this time were very strong and prepared for any attacks and they had had enough of the Marathas so their entire territory was ceded into British territory. If the Marathas managed to win the War, then still the British were stronger but strengthening policies and the army, and most importantly all the factions remained united, could again bring back the ruined Empire to its glorious past, but not to be…
  10. What If Nana Saheb re-established the Maratha Empire?
    After the Maratha Empire was annexed, the British kept the Peshwa, Baji Rao II in exile, where he enjoyed a normal life with an annual pension of about ₹80000. He had adopted a son, named Nana Saheb II, born in 1824. During the revolt of 1857, he joined the rebels and successfully captured Kanpur, in Uttar Pradesh and proclaimed that he was the new Peshwa of the re-established Maratha Empire and other freedom fighters like Tantya Tope and Rani Lakshmi Bai accepted this. But this was just a title given to him because the British, within a year re-captured Kanpur by the reinforced British army and the dream of re-establishing the Maratha Empire, was forever destroyed. If the rebels defied the British and say they conquered the subcontinent entirely, then Bahadur Shah Zafar, the last ruler of the Mughals would have almost whole control of the subcontinent and Nana Saheb would become the Peshwa of the newly re-established Maratha Empire/Confederacy. But the EIC got reinforcement from Britain and after the rebellion was defied, due to the reason of careless administration of India, the EIC were removed and formally India was ceded into the British Empire and began the period of British Raj in India.

    So here we come to the end of this blog. Hope you guys enjoyed this long journey of the Maratha Empire. So the next blog will be a continuation of this series on another major empire. Thank You and see you soon!