The Marathas as a distinct caste emerged and grew to prominence between the 8th and 13th century with the rise of the Bhakti movement within Hinduism, which opposed ritualism, orthodoxy and caste oppression. Poets like Gyaneshwara and Eknath carved an identity for the Marathi-speaking people of the Western Ghats. In the 15th and 16th centuries, many from the region who had trained in the arts of war became powerful players in the royal courts of the Deccan and Delhi. Especially as animosity and distrust rose between Dakhanis and Afaqis in the Deccan Sultanates, many Islamic kingdoms sought to employ the Marathas. The most valued of these clans were the Jadhavs and the Bonsales. The latter would eventually rise to power under an enigmatic leader still revered today as Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj. He founded the mighty Maratha empire that ruled much of the Deccan and the Indian subcontinent between the 17th and 19th centuries.
Shivaji was born on 19 February 1630 to Shahaji and Jijabai and grew up to be a military general unlike any other. According to Manu S Pillai, he implemented a new order that departed from the path of his father, once praised by the Nizam Shahi Sultan as ‘the pillar of the state’. The son foresaw the decline of the Sultanates, and his vision went beyond securing alliances and allowances from the ruling Mughals or Sultans. What Shivaji dreamed of was Swaraj, self-rule. Starting from the age of 15, he began expanding his father’s dominion in Shivneri Hills, steadily conquering Torna, Javli, Raigad and other provinces of the Adil Shahis. By 1663, Shivaji had set his sights towards the northern power—the Mughals—and laid siege to Surat, ransacking the city for six days and starting a lifetime rivalry with Aurangzeb. Each would corner the other over the decades, with the Mughal emperor briefly imprisoning Shivaji and occupying his territories.
In the early 1670s, Shivaji started to focus on securing legitimacy for his empire in the eyes of the Mughals, neighbouring dynasties, and even other Maratha warlords. He engaged the priest Gaga Bhat of Rajasthan to draw the family genealogy, claiming ancestry among the Sisodia Rajputs of Mewar. At his coronation in 1674, Shivaji would don the janeu or sacred thread and swear to follow the Kshatriya ideals. In the tradition of the Chalukya and Rashtrakuta kings of the Deccan before him, he claimed a divine right to rule the land as an incarnation of Lord Vishnu. Shivaji’s vision of Swaraj travelled further to inspire the leaders of early modern India, like Jyotibha Phule and Lokmanya Tilak.
In the six years before Shivaji died, he captured the southern forts of Vellore and Gingee and signed a treaty with the Qutub Shahis. Shivaji’s death spurred the Mughals to try and capture lost ground. A few years later, Aurangzeb killed his son Sambhaji, whose wife and child were taken prisoners. In 1700, Shivaji’s younger son Rajaram died due to an illness, but his wife Tarabai proved to be a worthy adversary. She not only resisted Mughal aggression but sent an army to Malwa to plunder their territories. When Sambhaji’s son Shahu was finally released, Tarabai claimed he was a pretender and refused to give up the throne. Local Maratha leaders began to take sides and soon, a war broke out between the two factions. By 1714, Shahu managed to imprison Tarabai and take his position on the throne.
During Shahu’s rule, the Brahmin Peshwa clan rose to power and a dual administration system came into being within the Maratha empire. Shahu focused his expansion in the south and the Peshwas charged north. With the death of Aurangzeb in 1707 and the weakening of the Mughal empire, Peshwa Bajirao I annexed the territory of Malwa, which would become a prolific source of revenue for the Marathas. By 1737, Bajirao’s campaigns had reached the suburbs of Delhi. Around the same time, Maratha general Raghoji Bhonsle’s military triumphs yielded the territories of Karnataka and Bengal. As Maratha supremacy grew so did local strongholds within the dynasty. Among the prominent royal families were the Shindes or Scindias, Holkars, Gaekwads and Bhonsles.
When Shahu died in 1749, Tarabai once again tried to assert power by placing her grandson on the throne. But differences would soon lead her to denounce the grandson as illegitimate. The Peshwas reached a truce with Tarabai, by then in her late-70s, and offered her the rule of Pune. As historian Anirudh Kanisetti observes, powerful empires are closer to their end than tame ones. This was borne out in the history of the Marathas, who subsequently lost their northern glory to Durrani chief Ahmad Shah Abdali in 1761 during the Third Battle of Panipat. The smaller royal families retained power in places like Gwalior, Indore, Baroda, Satara, Kolhapur and Thanjavur till these came under British rule in the 19thcentury.
There is much to say about military legacy of the Marathas, but their artistic heritage is often overlooked. Kamal Chavan, author of Maratha Murals: Late Medieval Painting of the Deccan, 1650-1850 A.D., examined mural paintings at pilgrimage sites and homes dating to Shivaji’s reign. While the murals follow the iconography of Rajput palace murals, Maratha miniatures are an amalgam of Rajput and Deccani styles. Although not prolific, a small collection of miniature paintings are believed to have been created under Maratha patronage.
The Maratha identity, which took shape in the 8th century and continued to wield power even under British rule, is one of the most understudied aspects of Deccan history. While there is considerable interest in Shivaji and his dynasty within Maharashtra, the cultural contributions of the empire extend well beyond the modern state’s boundaries. Even today, Indian food, art, design and politics carry the influence of the Maratha imagination.
To learn more about different aspects of this legacy, tap on the images below.
Textiles of Maheshwar
Marathas in Thanjavur
Influential Maratha princes
- Purandare, Vaibhav. Shivaji: India’s great warrior king. New Delhi: Juggernaut, 2022
- Pillai, Manu S. Shivaji and Aurangzeb, a mighty clash of Titans, 2019
- Pillai, Manu S. A Maratha Game of Thrones, 2019
- Gordon, Stewart N. “The Slow Conquest: Administrative Integration of Malwa into the Maratha Empire, 1720—1760.” Modern Asian Studies 11, no. 1 (1977): 1–40.
- Chavan, Kamal. “MARATHA PAINTING.” Bulletin of the Deccan College Research Institute 58/59 (1998): 181–96.
- Visual Art During the Maratha Period. 2015