MAHADJI SCINDIA - His Life and his Death

  • By Uday S. Kulkarni
  • February 25 2020
  • @MulaMutha
Mahadji Scindia. Credits below.
  • On 12 February 1794, Mahadji Scindia died in Pune. With him ended an epoch, and a great shield against any attacks on the Maratha Empire. The stature and prestige associated with a person in those times deterred any adventurism by the enemy and it was no surprise that within a decade of his death, the fissures in the Maratha Empire widened to the extent that the East India Company could make inroads into India’s heartland.

The latter part of the eighteenth century was a period of rapidly changing alliances in north India and the entire region around Delhi was quicksand for any heavy footed potentate. The first Anglo Maratha war saw the East India Company tire of war, the alliance of the Marathas led by Mahadji Scindia in the north and a host of chiefs commanded by Nana Phadnis in the south, Hyder Ali against Madras and the passive support of Nizam Ali, led to the British Governor General instructing his Residents to sue for peace.

James Anderson in Scindia’s court was handed this responsibility. The Company had also propped up the Rana of Gohad against Mahadji at this time and the result was the fort of Gwalior slipping out of Scindia’s hands in 1780, when Colonel Popham captured the fort for the Rana. The nearly eight-year long war was finally closed by the treaty of Salbye, and Mahadji became the guarantor of the peace.

The way was then open for Scindia to realise his ambition of becoming the supreme military leader in the north. He rapidly took the forts of Gwalior and Gohad before moving towards Delhi where he established control. The entry of Ghulam Qadir, the grandson of Najib ud daulah, into Delhi was a direct challenge for Mahadji. Qadir unleashed a few months of terror in the Red Fort, blinding the Emperor and looting what was left of the treasures of the Mughals. Princesses were taken away and princes made to dance in the royal courts.

Mahadji finally reached Delhi and restored order, only to find Qadir had slipped away. Ali Bahadur, the grandson of the great Baji rao, went forth chasing the fugitive, arrested him and brought him to Mahadji’s camp at Mathura. Here, Qadir was punished for his treatment of Shah Alam, meeting a gruesome death. Shah Alam, burning with revenge, demanded that Qadir’s eyes be sent to him and they were.

A Mughal-Rajput alliance stalled him for a while. However, he raised new brigades under the French General du Boigne and at Patan in 1790, he finally defeated the raja of Jaipur with his Mughal allies. Mathura was thereafter Mahadji’s chosen base and he sent chiefs to Delhi to assure Shah Alam II- dependant on whoever would succour him - that he would be protected.

After over a decade and a half spent in establishing Maratha influence in the north, Mahadji Scindia arrived in Pune in June 1792 and camped at Wanawadi to the south-east of Pune. A large sprawling camp came up, from where he directed his operations in the north. Aiming to tutor and train the young Sawai Madhavrao Peshwa for handling matters of state, he spent long hours with him. From here on, Mahadji spent the last 20 months of his life in Pune, directing his own affairs as well as participating in the business of state with Nana Phadnis and important chiefs of the Empire.

In 1794, the extent of Scindia’s possessions and power can be gauged from the wide disposition of his armies. 

While an army of 8,000 remained in Pune, his chiefs were dispersed all over the north. Jivba Bakshi was in Marwar and Ambaji Ingle was settling affairs in Udaipur where Mahadji was designated as the ‘Diwan’. Another army under Gopal Bhau was in Bundelkhand while Balo Pant Tatya was in the region of Panipat. Bapu Malhar was with an army in Seheranpur and Appa Khanderao was in Haryana. Besides these, the elite force of de Boigne was in the doab of the Ganga and Yamuna. 

A string of forts from Aligarh to Asirgarh were under his command and his entire army was the strongest force ever assembled in India. It is said that Mahadji wished to move against Bengal and was secretly making preparations for a grand showdown with the British power.

Mahadji had been in Pune from June 1792 when he conducted the famous darbar of farmanbadi where he bestowed upon the young Peshwa all the insignia of the office of Vakil i mutalik. As his Naib, he continued to exercise power over Delhi and its decrepit royalty. His alliance with Nana Phadnis, although strong in facing external threats, was one of competition to wield the levers of power. One of Mahadji’s chief aims was to have the young Peshwa grow strong and independent to take charge as the leader of the Maratha Empire. In his stay at Pune, he spent considerable time with Sawai Madhavrao. However, before he could achieve his aim, fate intervened.

In February 1794, Mahadji was reported to be ill. Daulatrao, Mahadji’s adopted successor, was just fifteen, and at the time was visiting the shrine of Tuljapur with Bhagirathi bai, Mahadji’s wife. The British Resident Charles Malet wrote to the Governor General that Scindia had been troubled for some days with a feverish complaint, which recurred frequently within the last six months and it will ‘probably hasten his departure from hence’. It was however, to be more than that. It was to be a departure from life itself.

Chhatri Mahadji Scindia, Pune.  

On 8 February 1794, Mahadji felt a fever with abdominal pain and summoned Hakim Baqa Khan, his personal physician, who prescribed a laxative. The fever persisted and a laxative was administered on 9 February without relief. Mahadji asked for permission to eat Kabuli grapes as nothing else was to his taste. The Hakim said, ‘the grapes have a heating property and you have taken a laxative today’. However, later, the Hakim permitted Mahadji to eat five Kabuli grapes. When there was no relief on the 10th, Sidhoji, a relation advised some Hindu medicines. That evening a barley broth was prepared and Mahadji partook some of it. He then began to drift into unconsciousness and on the morning of 11 February, Mahadji’s robes along with an elephant and horse plus some gold ornaments given to charity. 

Then, with the great chief drifting in an out of consciousness, the team of physicians prepared a new medicine with the permission of his chief officers. Sidhoji with some Hindu physicians prepared and administered a “matra” which consisted of mercury pounded in gold foil, dissolved in ginger juice with garlic and a root named Bahman. The medicine produced extreme weakness and insensibility. All cooking at the Scindia camp was stopped. 

Late in the evening Mahadji enquired, ‘has Daulatrao come?’ Following this, he lost consciousness. The Peshwa, Nana Phadnis and Appa Balwant came to see Mahadji, but by then no conversation was possible. They offered any help that they could. The Peshwa said he would send the ‘sonputali’ for a ‘suvarnatula’. However, by the time they returned from Wanavadi to their palaces, the news that Mahadji had died reached them. He was cremated the same night. 

A letter by Jagannath Vishwanath on 15 February 1794 describes the recurrent bouts of mild fever followed by recovery that Mahadji suffered from for a few months. However, he continued to actively participate in administration and even went out on a hunt at times. On 12 February, also the thirteenth day of the month of Magh, he writes, ‘Shrimant Maharaj’ passed away.

There are many conjectures about Mahadji’s death, with black magic being one. These are in keeping with the times but not true. In 1789 too, it was suspected that he was a victim of black magic practised by a Gosain chief named Himmat Bahadur. In 1794, he had intermittent fever for over six months, however, when he was well, he went hunting and participated in many kinds of entertainment.

Statue Mahadji inside chhatri.

A small cottage was built at the site of his funeral pyre and a picture kept there with a lamp lit all entire day and night. The Peshwa allotted land adjacent to the site for the upkeep of the place. When Daulatrao Scindia took charge, he began the construction of a grand chhatri here. However, war intervened and the chhatri was left incomplete, remaining in this state for over a hundred years.

In early 20th century, Madhavrao Scindia I, the Maharaja of Gwalior, visited the chhatri of his illustrious ancestor and decided to complete the grand chhatri. It was adjacent to the small hut where Mahadji was cremated. It consists of a central conical shikhar surrounded by scores of small chhatris. Within the chhatri, in a small cell, a statue of Mahadji with his Shindeshahi pagdi has been erected.

The death of Mahadji spelt a spurt in the East India Company’s hopes and they felt the Maratha court might be too weak to respond. Soon after Mahadji’s death, Haripant Phadke died in June 1794. However, Nana Phadnis and Parshuram bhau Patwardhan brought together a grand army of over a hundred thousand men to the field of Kharda where the Nizam suffered a decisive defeat. 

The divide among the Marathas with Holkar and Scindia armies openly warring on the battlefield and the succession struggles at Pune weakening the Centre, gradually brought down the Empire built over a century and a half. At the start of the nineteenth century, the Scindia army with its trained infantry and powerful artillery was the strongest in India, and in 1803, they opposed the British advance.

Had it not been for the defection of their French captains to the English side, the result of the Second Anglo Maratha war might have been quite different. Simply, we might never have had the British Raj.

To read all articles by author . Photo Credits - Cover pic is courtesy Yale Centre for British Art. Pictures within article are courtesy author. 

Also read

1. Parshuram Bhau Patwardhan

2. Shivaji and the Rebirth of a Nation

3. Battle of Assaye 1803 fought between Daulatrao Scindia and British

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