• By Uday S. Kulkarni
  • November 21, 2017
  • @MulaMutha
Picture courtesy Uday Kulkarni

The date was 14 January 1761. The boy was one month away from his sixteenth birthday. The second son of the Maratha Peshwa Nanasaheb, he had silently watched the events leading up to a cataclysmic battle over a thousand miles to the north, where a hundred thousand Marathas were pitted against an alliance comprising the Afghan Rohillas, the Nawab of Awadh Shujauddaulah, Najib Khan and the invading Afghan king Ahmed Shah Abdali. His father Nanasaheb had been afflicted with a consumptive illness recently, his uncle Sadashiv rao Bhau had thus gone to the north at the head of the army. On 14 January 1761, the much anticipated clash finally broke out and at the end of the day, the Marathas who appeared to be on the verge of breaking through the Afghan Centre, had lost. In addition to those who were killed in battle, an equal number of non-combatantsand dependants were massacred. It truly marked an apocalypse of sorts for the Marathas, two members of the Peshwa family including his elder brother Vishwas rao and Sadashiv rao Bhau were dead and twenty seven other chiefs of note had perished.

Nanasaheb himself had moved north with another army, and on crossing the Narmada, heard the cryptic news of the defeat from a short banker’s note; ‘Two pearls dissolved, twenty-seven mohars melted and of the rupees there is no count’. The ailing Peshwa camped near Jhansi and after Abdali moved away from Delhi towards his homeland, began a journey back, clinging to hope and disbelieving news of Sadashiv rao and his son’s death. However, it was true. The flower of the Maratha army gave their lives in the battle; the sole survivors were the elderly Malharji Holkar, a lame Mahadji Scindia and the astute Nana Phadnis. These were the hope of the future for the dying Peshwa.

The Peshwa’s second son Madhav rao, born in 1745, was now thrust in the role of heir apparent, however his lack of experience in administration and in battle stood starkly in contrast to the abilities of his father and uncles. In June 1761, Nanasaheb died in Pune and a month later Madhav rao was appointed the Peshwa. Even as he returned to Pune, storm clouds were gathering over the Maratha Empire. The Nizam, smarting under the defeat in 1760 at Udgir was keen to win back the huge territory he had ceded to the Peshwa, Hyder Ali who had taken the reins of Mysore in his hands, had been placed under tribute the previous year, was keen to take Maratha territory north of the Tungabhadra, the Rajputs led by Madho Sinh of Jaipur began attacks on Maratha posts in Malwa…

In the capital, Madhav rao was given the robes of the Peshwa however, his uncle Raghunath rao acted as Regent. The reputation of indecisive conduct that Raghunath rao had earned made this arrangement repugnant to the young Peshwa and his mother Gopika bai. The power centre was divided and with it were divided the different chiefs in the Maratha fold. The tragedy at Panipat forgotten, a civil war began in the highest echelons of the Maratha power.

Their adversaries were not slow to take advantage. The Nizam soon began his march towards Pune, destroying the temples at the pilgrimage centre of Toka. In retaliation, Raghunath rao attacked Hyderabad and burnt its suburbs. Pune was threatened forcing the people to depart for hill forts in the vicinity with their wealth. The city of Pune was attacked and denuded of its wealth by the Nizam, the temple idols of Parvati were broken and this act caused Raghunath rao to swear revenge.

However, the army was still weak. Yet, barely fifty miles from Pune, the Nizam’s juggernaut was halted and he was trapped. Madhav rao had lost his initial struggle with his uncle and was a virtual prisoner in his camp. Raghunath rao gave the Nizam liberal terms, hoping for a favourable alliance in future to grab power for himself. This led to disquiet in Maratha ranks. 

Soon, the Nizam had also wooed the Bhonsle of Nagpur and the disgruntled chiefs from  the Maratha camp and once again marched to regain territory. Vitthal Sundar, the Nizam’s Wazir led the campaign. In August 1763, on the south bank of the Godavari, the Nizam was attacked by the Marathas at a place called Rakshasbhuvan. The Nizam quickly crossed the flooded river, but had to watch as his army was exposed to Maratha attack. 

In the midst of the battle, Raghunath rao’s elephant was surrounded by the Nizam’s forces. Madhavrao saw this and directed the army to rescue his uncle and attack VitthalSundar. The well-directed moves of the eighteen year old Peshwa not only succeeded in the rescue of Raghunath rao but the defeat of the Nizam. Vitthal Sundar was killed. Madhav rao had emerged as the master and Raghunath rao had to concede space to him, acknowledging his prowess in war.

The battle of 1763 made the Nizam a vassal of the Marathas and Madhav rao went the extra mile to conciliate him, ensuring a thirty year peace between the two. He then took the Bhonsle to task and cut him down to size with the help of his one time ally, the Nizam! Having tackled the Nizam and Bhonsle, Madhav rao now not only wooed back the Maratha adherents who had gone over to the Nizam but stopped any interference by his uncle in the administration. His next objective was the growing power of Hyder Ali.

Between 1763 and 1768, Madhav rao led three expeditions to the Carnatic and on each occasion brought Hyder Ali to submission; each time obtaining a tribute of thirty lakh rupees and territory. Yet another expedition in 1769 took the Marathas to the deep south, but Madhav rao had to return to Pune due to poor health handing over the army to his uncle Trimbak rao Pethe. In 1771, Pethe led their forces to the outskirts of Srirangapatnam, and a cannonade on the island hit the temple of Ranganathswamy. Pethe defeated Hyder Ali and his young son Tipu at the battle of Moti talao, and obtained a hefty indemnity from them. The father and son had to escape disguised from the battle field to the fort of Srirangapatnam. The Marathas stopped the invasion only due to the ill-omen of having hit the spire of the Ranganathswamy temple, otherwise the reign of Hyder Ali was near its end.

The loss at Panipat rankled every Maratha and after Malharji Holkar’s death, his adopted son Tukoji and his widowed daughter in law Ahilya bai were appointed at the helm of Holkar affairs. The Scindias had lost many from their family in battle. Mahadji was confirmed as the head of the house of the Scindias in 1766. Raghunath rao’s machinations against his nephew had continued during this entire period. In 1768, finally, Madhav rao led a campaign against him and took the harsh decision of imprisoning him in the Shaniwar palace at Pune. By 1769 therefore, the decks were cleared and all enemies of the Deccan subdued. The administration of the young Peshwa was appreciated and respected by the entire nation. It seemed as if the debacle at Panipat would soon be erased and the Maratha power regain its vigour.

In 1769, a large army led by Ramchandra Ganesh and Visaji Krishna began from the Deccan to capture Delhi. Mahadji Scindia and Tukoji Bhonsle joined them in Malwa. The army meandered to the north collecting tributes from the Rajputs, defeating the Jats and occupying all the territory till the Yamuna. Najib Khan was in 1770 an old man with many ailments and seeing the power of the Marathas once again conciliated them through Tukoji Holkar, his old friend and patron. Simultaneously he secretly began uniting the Afghans at Bareilly, Farrukhabad and Meerut regions. He sent his son Zabita Khan to the Maratha camp and left for his capital of Najibabad. However, he was not destined to reach there and died on the way.

The departure of the shrewd and capable Najib from the scene led to Maratha invasions in the doab where Bangash was first defeated. Zabita Khan was supported once again by Holkar but opposed by Mahadji Scindia who wished to avenge the death of so many of his family at the hands of Najib Khan. Ramchandra Ganesh and Visaji were also not seeing eye to eye. The differences in the Maratha camp led to delays in the campaign. Eventually the Peshwa issued a stern warning to the chiefs and recalled Ramchandra Ganesh to the Deccan.

Madhav rao’s far seeing eye had mastered the situation in the north. He warned his chiefs against allowing the English to enter Delhi. At the same time, he asked them whether they had done anything to obtain the possession of the cities of Kashi and Mathura and Prayag in their charge from the Nawab of Awadh Shujauddaulah – who was now reduced to being protected by the English. The nominal Mughal Emperor Shah Alam II was in Allahabad under the English and sought a return to Delhi. However, the English expressed their inability to escort him there. 

The Marathas now moved to Delhi, capturing the town from the army of Zabita Khan. They then offered to bring Shah Alam II to Delhi and reinstate him on the throne. The capture of Delhi along with the old Maratha posts in the doab meant they had taken back the territories lost in the wake of Panipat in 1761. On 6 January 1772, the Mughal king was brought back to Delhi by Mahadji Scindia and placed on the Mughal throne. At this time, Maratha armies had spread out across the country from Delhi to Srirangapatnam.

Shortly after Shah Alam took his seat in Delhi, the Marathas with the Mughal force led an expedition to punish Zabita Khan who refused to part with the arrears due to the king. Defeating him on the Ganga at Shukratal, the Maratha horse entered Rohilkhand and took the fort of Pathargad where Najib Khan had stowed all the riches he had gathered since the battle of Panipat. Many Maratha slaves were also said to be in the fort. The fort was therefore stormed and the entire family of Najib Khan turned out. Immense wealth in gold and silver fell into Maratha hands totalling a sum of a million rupees in value. Parting with a small amount for the Emperor, the Marathas turned towards the doab. The Emperor now turned against his benefactors, and Visaji Krishna with Mahadji once again had to attack Delhi where they defeated the army of Najaf Khan, a chief employed by the king, and Rene Medec, a European adventurer. Having strengthened their hold on Delhi a second time, the last part of their plan was brought into action; the invasion of the territory of Shujauddaulah.

Madhav rao, seriously ill at this stage, realised that most of his objectives had been completed and the Maratha flag had once again begun to flutter over most of the country. The end was not far however…and dictating a nine-point Will to his confidante Nana Phadnis, he passed away in the temple of Chintamani Ganesh at Theur not far from Pune. He was just twenty-eight years old.

In his Will, he extracted a promise from his ministers that they would strive to recover the Hindu holy places of Prayag and Kashi. In the years to come however, this was not to be. Shuja was by then a defeated prince at the mercy of the English forces. The Maratha chiefs in the north too could not agree on a strategy and the campaign to Prayag was abandoned. The death of the Peshwa further dampened their spirits after a continuous three-year campaign in the north. The next Peshwa was Narayan rao, Madhav rao’s younger brother, barely eighteen years of age and yet to gain the maturity of his elder brother. His assassination barely nine months into his reign plunged the Marathas into a civil war between Raghunath rao, who was implicated in his nephew’s murder, and the ministers led by Nana Phadnis who insisted the guilty must be punished. 

The Anglo-Maratha war broke out when Raghunath rao sought English help and continued for the next eight years. The Empire that Madhav rao built in a short space of eight years and the new team of leaders eventually managed to overcome the English and a treaty was signed in 1782.

In the short tenure and the even shorter life of Madhav rao, his administrative and military skills were the reason the Maratha state could rebuild its strength after the debacle of Panipat. Never before had a Peshwa met challenges on a nation-wide scale and overcome the odds in such a short time. Madhav rao’s discipline was legendary and his high expectations kept his chiefs on a leash. It has been rightly remarked that the debacle at Panipat was not as hurtful to Maratha fortunes as the early death of this excellent prince. In the time he wielded power, Madhav rao was the monarch and the Prime Minister, the General on the field and the builder of a just and financially viable system. These long survived him. Justifiably therefore, he has been called the greatest of all the Peshwas.

The four great Peshwas beginning with Balaji Vishwanath and followed by Baji rao, Nanasaheb and Madhav rao took the Maratha power from a few districts in the Deccan to an Empire that lasted until the early part of the nineteenth century. The Mughal Empire had lost its power and become a Maratha protectorate in the first half of the eighteenth century. The phantom Empire survived the Marathas who were finally defeated by the British in 1818 – more due to internal dissensions and lack of leadership than any overwhelming British superiority. 

The British took over from the Marathas, not the Mughals in the nineteenth century. The short tenure of Madhav rao ensured the Maratha Empire would remain a strong and viable force well after his death. Otherwise, the north, west and central part of the country would have succumbed to British encroachment in the mid eighteenth century the same way that Bengal, Awadh and the Carnatic were lost.


About Author: The author is a retired officer from the Armed Forces. He is a practicing surgeon with an abiding interest in 18th century Indian History and has written 'Solstice at Panipat-14 January 1761', 'The Bakhar of Panipat' and 'The Era of Baji rao'. His next book is titled 'Mastery of Hindustan'.

Also read

1. Maratha Supremacy in the 18th century 

2. Bajirao Peshwa's dash to Delhi in 1837 

3. Shivaji and the re-birth of a nation 

4. Shivaji Temple Chennai

5. Maratha Palace Thanjavur

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