Peshwa Bajirao is considered to be the most important figure after Shivaji in making the Maratha Empire a dominant force in 18th century India. Here’s his story.
Not often does one man stamp his presence in an entire sub-continent and establish an empire that spreads across the huge Indian land mass. His movements, from Delhi to Srirangapatnam and Gujarat to Berar over a twenty year period in the 18th century, were unequalled in speed and distance.
His innate ability to gauge the opponent’s strengths and weaknesses and spring the trap when his enemy is lulled into what appeared a position of strength was his forte. A victory in every battle is a dream for any military leader. Bajirao achieved it because he had the head to plan and the hand to execute.
Around 1720, the Mughal throne had seen four occupants over two years, the Marathas were a rising power and Bajirao’s father Balaji Vishwanath had shored up Chhatrapati Shahu’s fortunes by not just obtaining a ‘legal sanction’ from the imploding Mughal, but also found a way to expand Maratha influence and power by carving separate fields of operation for the restless Maratha chiefs. A lot was left undone when Balaji Vishwanath died in 1720.
A grateful Shahu looked no further than Bajirao to be his next Prime Minister at just twenty years of age over the heads of other claimants. The old order refused to co-operate, and Bajirao in choosing beyond the traditional Maratha aristocracy; appointed Malhar Rao Holkar, Ranoji Scindia and Udaji Pawar as his primary helpers. From here began the move towards an empire.
In the first few years, Bajirao helped the Nizam ul mulk to establish his rule at Aurangabad and was honoured by the Nizam for his role at the battle of Sakharkhedla in 1724. He then went on two campaigns to the south; to Chitradurg in 1725 and Srirangapatnam in 1726. An urgent summons from his king to ward off the threat posed by the Nizam brought him back to Satara. The Nizam, taking Sambhaji of Kolhapur along had threatened Shahu’s very existence.
In a running battle marked by rapid moves, Bajirao surrounded the Nizam without his artillery at Palkhed and forced him into submission; the first time that wily Subahdar faced this ignominy in his long career. Not only did the Nizam accept all conditions but was forced to give up his support to Sambhaji of Kolhapur. Bajirao’s battle plan at Palkhed has been described as a ‘masterpiece of strategic mobility’ by Montgomery of Alamein.
The very next year, Bajirao’s brother Chimaji, who loyally supported and sometimes excelled him in battle, defeated and killed the Mughal subahdar at Amjhera and stamped Maratha authority in Malwa. This province was the link between Hindustan and the Deccan and therefore of pivotal importance. Around the same time, Muhammad Bangash attacked Bundelkhand and threatened its aged ruler Chhatrasal. Folklore has it that Chhatrasal sent a wandering bard to Pune with a message for Bajirao. The story goes that the Peshwa heard the bard singing outside his palace-
जो गत गाह गजेन्द्रकी, सो गत भई है आय I
बाजी जात बुन्देलन की, राखो बाजी राय II
Translated it said,
‘Know you Baji rao; I am in that same sad plight in which a famous elephant was when caught by a crocodile. My valiant race is on the point of extinction. Come and rescue my honour’.
Bajirao moved quickly through an unfrequented path to surprise Bangash and rescue Chhatrasal. After a siege at Jaitpur, Bangash sought terms. Chhatrasal, ever grateful, gave Bajirao a third of his kingdom. He also gave him Mastani – a love affair that occupied the remaining ten years of Bajirao’s short life. In the years to come, Bajirao was not only accorded a warm welcome by friendly rulers at Jaipur and Udaipur but also respected by adversaries like Bangash, who even escorted the Peshwa’s mother Radhabai on a pilgrimage to Kashi.
The Peshwa, however, had to face resentment from other chiefs in the Maratha fold and when Senapati Dabhade, once again with the Nizam’s support, came out against Bajirao, the clash at Dabhoi proved fatal for Dabhade. Bajirao followed up with a campaign against the Abyssinian chiefs of Janjira in 1733, where Bajirao’s land attack combined with the naval prowess of Sekhoji Angre brought all the Siddi’s territory in his hands save Janjira itself. When it seemed in grasp, Sekhoji died and his brothers were caught up in a civil war. While Bajirao moved on to other pursuits, his brother Chimaji appa stepped in the Konkan and killed Siddi Sat, who had unleashed an oppressive reign in the Konkan.
As Bajirao’s fame spread, emissaries came to meet the Peshwa. The Rajput agent Deep sinh visited Pune, and later met the Nizam, who asked him about Maratha affairs-
‘Who is the most eminent strategist at the Satara maharaj’s court’?
Deep sinh replied, ‘the Maharaja of Jaipur himself sent me to find who is the most respected, strong and astute in the Maratha court.’
Once again the Nizam asked, ‘then who did you find endowed with these qualities; far-sighted, eminent and a favourite of the king?’
Deep sinh replied, ‘Other than Bajirao, there is none who is honest or loyal or eminent or capable of raising large armies in a short time’.
Bajirao desired a sanad for the provinces of Malwa and Bundelkhand, which would take Marathas right up to the bank of the Yamuna. With the advocacy of Sawai Jaisingh, he sought Mughal orders transferring these provinces to his charge. The ministers at Delhi advised Emperor Muhammad Shah Rangeela not to entertain Bajirao. A minor skirmish saw Malhar Rao Holkar pushed back across the Yamuna. Sadat Khan, the Nawab of Oudh, boasted to the Emperor that he had defeated Bajirao and was laden with titles and gifts. In 1737, this brought about Bajirao’s famous attack on Delhi itself. Bajirao wrote to his brother Chimaji,
‘You know the Mughals. They do little but boast a lot. However, the Emperor believes it to be the truth. He must be disabused of this notion and shown that it is false. There are two ways to do this; either defeat Sadat Khan or go to Delhi and burn the city. Then the Emperor will realise the truth. Seeing Sadat Khan ensconced at Agra, I decided to go to Delhi. I planned to burn the suburbs and show the Emperor that the Marathas were in Delhi. I made rapid and long marches by lesser known paths…. Keeping Barapula and Kalika temple to my right, I camped at Kushbandi.
Then I reconsidered my plan to burn the suburbs – Delhi is a great city and there is no advantage in ruining the Emperor. An insult of this kind will break the cord of diplomacy and politics. So I sent letters, looted some elephants, horses and camels and created a commotion there. The Emperor asked me to send my vakeel Dhondo pant. So I came closer to the city. This caused a panic (amongst the people). So I retired to the lake (jheel).’
The Emperor woke up to the reality of Maratha power. That Bajirao had contemplated sterner measures against the Mughals is seen in another letter to Chimaji appa. He wrote,
‘The area around Delhi is ravaged. The Mughal wants to come to terms. If he does not, the territory of Panipat- Sonepat will also be similarly ravaged and the Mughal will be cut off and starve without food…..on your side in the south, stop the Nizam if he tries to come here…’
Bajirao’s dash to Delhi resulted in Malwa being ceded to the Marathas. The formal ratification happened in Nanasaheb Peshwa’s reign.
The Mughal court now titled the Nizam as ‘Asaf Jah’ and sent him out against Bajirao. He set out with a large army from Delhi. By a series of manoeuvres, the battle devolved around Bhopal. Here with a lake behind, fortified on three sides, the Nizam took shelter. Once again Bajirao outwitted him and forced him to submit. Bajirao wrote to his brother,
‘The Nizam, who refused to utter the words chauth and sardeshmukhi, wrote ‘all of Malwa’ with his hand and uttered the words while writing them. What was not achieved so far was obtained this time. The Nawab saw the end of Time, but what could he do? With such a calamity upon him, he had to submit and give…’
At Palkhed or Bhopal, Bajirao used tactical movements using a purely cavalry borne army and brought an enemy to submission. The Nizam escaped on each occasion due to Shahu’s injunction to let him survive.
The attack on Delhi exposed Mughal weakness and awakened the ambition of the Persian King Nadir Shah. In 1739, Nadir Shah sacked Delhi, and sitting in the Sunehri masjid with an unsheathed sword, massacred many thousands until pleas for mercy stopped the slaughter. Mughal stalwarts like Nizam ul mulk were reduced to being mere supplicants while Sadat Khan was forced to commit suicide. The empty shell of the Mughals was exposed to the world. The Maratha army under Chimaji Appa was then liberating the north Konkan coast from the proselytising frenzy of the Portuguese. The fort of Vasai was captured at a heavy cost when Nadir Shah was still in Delhi. To ward off Nadir Shah, Bajirao mustered whatever troops he could and reached Burhanpur to stop his advance to the south. The Shah, however, returned with the massive loot to his own country, on the way even losing some of it when he was crossing the Indus.
The Marathas under Bajirao and Chimaji became an empire. The English at Mumbai, worried at the fall of the neighbouring Portuguese power, sent emissaries to Shahu and Chimaji appa; but realised that it was Bajirao who was all powerful. The English feared that the two brothers were raising a large navy that would make the Angre sea power appear puny in comparison.
When it all seemed in grasp, a final battle took him away from Pune. He was disturbed, separated from his beloved Mastani, to whom his habit of drink and meat were attributed, while Mastani herself was kept confined in the palace at Pune. The final battle against Nasir Jung yielded an estate in Khargon, and Bajirao was there with his wife Kashi bai and son Janardan in April 1740 when he fell ill. A short fever ended his life at Raverkhedi where a samadhi stands on the river Narmada. Mastani, on her way to Bajirao, died of unknown causes at Pabal where her grave is located. Her son Shamsher Bahadur served the Maratha state and died of injuries sustained at Panipat in 1761.
A translation of a 19th century Marathi poem describing Bajirao encapsulates this daredevil Peshwa, who in two decades firmly established the Maratha power that was to spread soon from Peshawar to Orissa and from the hills of Kumaon to the Cauvery-
‘Atop a horse, with one foot in the stirrup,
and the second straddled across,
the horse trots along…
The reins thrown over the neck,
a spear on his shoulder,
a smile beatifies a face of indescribable lustre;
A zari turban on his head,a befitting robe on the body,
 the garment around the waist tied in Brahminical style,
He rubs the ear of corn with his own hands,
and throws the grain in his mouth,
And the red chillies he carries, he chews – now and then’.

References –

1. Selections from Peshwa daftar.
2. ‘Solstice at Panipat – 14 January 1761’,
3. Concise History of Warfare – Montgomery.
4. Sahyadri – Bajirao commemoration volume.