Baji Rao I was one of the greatest Hindu warriors ever, the man who expanded the Maratha Empire all the way to Delhi and beyond. He was rated as one of the finest generals in history, and established the Hindu Pad Padshahi.
One can go on about Baji Rao’s battles, his conquests and victories. But if his legacy has to be summarized then just these two maps below would explain it all. This is how the Maratha empire grew in the 20 years since he took over as Peshwa.
Technically speaking, Peshwa was equivalent to the Prime Minister in the Maratha Empire, starting out as subordinates to the Chhattrapati (emperor). In later years, they became the actual ruling power, starting with Balaji Vishwanath, Baji Rao’s father.
Moropant Pingle, Shivaji’s revenue minister, was the first ever Peshwa, though Shivaji referred to him as Pant Pradhan. The rise of the Peshwa was more an effect of the internal conflict between Tarabai and Shahu, with Bajali Vishwanath playing a key role here. Shahu’s victory over Tarabai saw the rise of Balaji Vishwanath and the Bhat family, who since then maintained a hold over the position of Peshwa. It also marked the ascendancy of the Chitpavan Brahmins in the Maratha power structure, not just the Peshwa, but even the likes of Nana Fadnavis.
Balaji Vishwanath not just played a key role in Shahu’s victory over Tarabai, but also ensured that Aurangzeb suffered heavy losses in the Deccan, leading to his rather bitter ending. He also, later on, supported the Sayyid brothers in their revolt against the Mughal Emperor.
Baji Rao was born into the Bhat family on August 18, 1700. His younger brother, Chimaji Appa, would prove to be an equally renowned warrior. He grew up in Saswad, now a suburb of Pune and their family’s personal fiefdom too. Accompanying his father on various military campaigns made Baji Rao a battle hardened warrior in his teens itself. When his father passed away in 1720, Shahu appointed Baji Rao I as the Peshwa.
The fact is that Baji Rao was already battle hardened when he became the Peshwa at just 20. He had exposure to the battle field from his father’s campaigns and was equally well acquainted with the internal power struggles of the Marathas.
Becoming a Peshwa was no bed of roses for Baji Rao. Senior officials at court, like Anant Ram Sumant, Shripatrao Pratinidhi, and others did not take too kindly to his appointment. They were jealous of him, and the fact that they were overruled by him only added to the resentment.
Baji Rao hit back by appointing younger people, like Malhar Rao Holkar, Ranoji Shinde, the Pawar Brothers, most of them barely out of their teens. More importantly, they were not from the powerful Deshmukh clans that traditionally dominated the Maratha court.
One aspect of Baji Rao that is not much discussed is how he dismantled the traditional Maratha power structure. He bought in people like Holkar, who was a Dhangar (shepherd), Ranoji Shinde – a village Patil, the Pawar brothers who were primarily peasants. In a way, Baji Rao turned the traditional Maratha power structure upside down, broke the stranglehold of the influential clans and Sardars. He brought in the outsiders like Holkar, Scindia who were not related to the clans. This is an equally significant achievement.
When Baji Rao ascended to the post of Peshwa in 1720 CE, the Maratha empire was a tiny sliver in the Deccan (see the map above), the Siddis had taken over the Konkan, former Mughal governor Asaf Jah I had founded the Hyderabad State and the Nizam dynasty. Even though the Marathas had conquered Malwa and Gujarat, the nobles there were a law unto themselves.
At the same time, a deadly power struggle had broken out between Shahu and Sambhaji II of Kolhapur, each claiming to be the real Chattrapati.
It was not an enviable situation for Baji Rao. On the one hand, external rivals like the Nizam, Mughals, the Siddis, and on the other hand, his own jealous rivals inside seeking to pull him down, and the internal feud between Satara (Shahu) and Kolhapur (Sambhaji II).
“Let us transcend the barren Deccan and conquer central Bharat. The Mughals have become weak, insolent, womanizers and opium-addicts. It is time to drive from the holy land of Bharatvarsha, the outcastes and the barbarians.” – Baji Rao I
“Let us throw them back over the Himalayas. Strike, strike at the trunk and the branches will fall off themselves. Listen and I shall plant the saffron flag on the walls of Attock.- Baji Rao I”
And he almost did it, though it was his son Balaji Baji Rao who achieved it.
Again, though most of the Maratha Sardars were opposed to Baji Rao’s idea of expansion beyond Deccan, Shahu gave him the go ahead. And then began a 20 year campaign towards the North, where Baji Rao I struck terror into the hearts of his enemies.
Baji Rao initially met the Nizam at Chikalthana, on January 4, 1721 to settle their disputes peacefully. He, in fact, initially supported the Nizam in his revolt against the Mughal emperor and in carving out his own kingdom in the Deccan. However, the Nizam responded by clearing out all the Maratha revenue collectors and he also took good advantage of the internal rivalry among the Marathas between Shahu and Sambhaji II, by refusing to pay chauth or sardeshmukh.
In the meantime, the likes of Parashuram Pratinidhi and Chandrasen Jadhav who had no love lost for the Bhat family, began to support the Nizam and Sambhaji II against Shahu. The Nizam in the meantime invaded Pune and installed Sambhaji II as the Chattrapati.
Baji Rao struck back, and in the Battle of Palkhed, on February 28, 1728, routed the Nizam using a series of lightning fast attacks that left the Nizam totally clueless. The Nizam was forced to sue for peace and recognized Shahu as the true Chattrapati.
It is not possible to go into the details of Baji Rao’s battles as each one would need a separate detailed mention by themselves. But suffice to say, he has been rated as one of the finest generals ever in military history, for his lightning speed attacks and tactics.
Years later, Field Marshal Bernard Montgomery called the Battle of Palkhed “A Masterpiece of strategic mobility” in his book A History of Warfare. He rated Baji Rao on par with the US Civil War general William Sherman in his use of lightning fast tactics.
In a way, Baji Rao and William Sherman adopted the same tactics – make the army travel light, indulge in rapid attacks, giving the enemy no time to recover, don’t carry too many supplies, instead get them from the people around.
Baji Rao also moved to Pune in 1728 and laid the foundations for what was to become a great city. The construction of the iconic Shaniwar Wada began during his time, though completed by his son Balaji Baji Rao, who also developed Pune during his life time.
Malwa was easily overrun by Baji Rao I in 1723 with the help of Malhar Rao Holkar, Shinde and Pawar brothers, who all established their own kingdoms later – Holkar at Indore, Shinde founded the Scindia dynasty, while the Pawar brothers ruled at Dewas and Dhar.
By February 1729, the Marathas had captured the entire Malwa and reached the southern part of Rajasthan. Baji Rao also avoided direct conflicts with the Rajputs, unlike his predecessors, and ensured friendly relations with the most of them, something his successors failed in.
One of Baji Rao’s biggest victories was against the Mughal general Bangash Khan, when Baji came to the aid of Veer Chhatrasal, the Bundelkhand ruler who had carved out his own kingdom. Surrounded by the Mughals and Rohillas, Chhatrasal sent an emotional plea to Baji:
“Jo gati bhayi Gajendra ki, wahi gati hamri aaj, baaji jaat bundel ki baaji raakhiyo laaj”,
A reference to the Gajendra Moksham story, where the elephant pleads with Vishnu to help him, so was Chhatrasal’s plea to Baji Rao.
Trimbak Rao, the senapati of Chattrapati Shahu from the Dabhade clan, had virtual monopoly over Gujarat, and felt threatened by Baji Rao gaining control over his fiefdom. He allied with other Maratha sardars in Gujarat and Bangash Khan, as well as the Nizam and Sambhaji II.
Once again, at the Battle of Dabhol, Baji Rao routed a combined alliance of Trimbak Rao, the Nizam, Sambhaji II, the Mughals and some of the disgruntled Maratha sardars. Trimbak was killed in battle, and once again Bangash Khan was made to eat humble pie.
The long standing dispute with Sambhaji II was resolved by the Treaty of Warna in April 1731, which demarcated Satara and Kolhapur, while the Nizam too promised not to interfere with the Maratha campaigns. In one shot, Baji Rao resolved many long standing issues.
However, when the Siddis began to attack the Maratha territories in Konkan, Baji Rao sent his brother Chimaji Appa, who launched a surprise attack at Rewas and routed the Siddis, forcing them to sue for a peace treaty, and ensuring Raigad was with the Marathas.
Baji Rao’s final push was to the seat of the Mughal power itself, Delhi, when he sent an army under Malhar Rao Holkar and Pilaji Jadhav. They began the March on November 12, 1736. The Marathas under Holkar marched right up to Delhi, capturing the entire Doab region.
On March 28, 1737, the Mughal army was routed at the Battle of Delhi. The Emperor’s pleas to the Nizam and the Nawab of Bhopal were in vain as their combined forces were once again routed in the Battle of Bhopal on December 24, 1737.
Again, much like Shivaji Maharaj, Baji Rao was assisted by some brilliant warriors and generals in his ranks. His own brother Chimaji Appa, who was no less, and then there were Malhar Rao Holkar, Ranaji Shinde, Pilaji Jadhav, the Pawar brothers – one of the most formidable forces ever.
Nizam-Ul-Mulk was forced to cede the entire Malwa to Marathas, and the Mughals had to pay indemnity – a total victory for Baji Rao I. Chimaji Appa also ran a successful campaign against the Portuguese on the West Coast, defeating them in a pitched battle at Vasai.
Finally, on April 28, 1740, Baji Rao I passed away near Khargone. But he had taken the Maratha Empire to its greatest heights till that time. From a tiny sliver in the Deccan, the Maratha empire had spread all over Central Bharat, Gujarat and large parts of the North. That was Baji Rao’s legacy forever. We salute a great son of Bharat.
On a side note, Sanjay Leela Bhansali’s movie on Baji Rao, was an apology of a tribute. He portrayed one of the greatest heroes and military generals in history as a lovelorn person.
This article has been collated from the tweet thread of @GabbarSanghi to commemorate Baji Rao – 1’s birth anniversary which falls on 18 August.
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