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chapter 3 The Marathas at Panipat Aftera series of increasingly ineffective campaigns to suppress the Marathas, Aurungzeb died in February 1707 in Ahmednagar while the very Maratha armies he had tried to eliminate besieged the city. His son,who replaced him, was followed quickly by a succession of extremely incompetent rulers, while intense feuding occurred within the imperial court.With its center paralyzed and unable to command the loyalties of its mansabdars, the Mughal Empire began to break up. Aurungzeb might have taken comfort in the fact that his rivals in the south, the Marathas, fared little better after Shivaji’s death. The latter’s son, Shambaji, had taken over the crown after a brief power struggle following his father’s death, but Aurungzeb captured him and put him to death in 1689. In 1707, when his son Shahu, a captive of the Mughals, was released to create dissension among the Marathas, the stratagem worked. Shivaji’s younger son, Rajaram, ruled the Marathas until his death in 1700, after which his wife, Tarabai, took control. Although she opposed Shahu’s succession, he was crowned king in 1708 after a brief civil war during which he succeeded in drivingTarabai and her supporters south of the river Krishna, leaving Shahu in control of the northern territories.1 During Shahu’s struggles, Balaji Vishwanath, a Chitpavan Brahmin from the Konkan, greatly assisted and advised him. A grateful Shahu appointed Balaji as his peshwa, or chief minister, in 1713. Balaji thus became the first of many Chitpavan Brahmins who as peshwas became indispensable to Shahu in running the Maratha Empire. With the passage of time, the Chitpavan elite, which monopolized the hereditary office of the peshwa, became the true architects of a mighty Maratha Empire that dominated much of northern India. The Maratha kings became titular figureheads with no real power. Yet even as Balaji aided Shahu to the throne, he ultimately laid the groundwork for the increased independence of a new generation of Maratha military leaders, or sirdars. Shivaji had paid his officers in cash and abolished the system of land grants, or jagirs. However, Rajaram had reversed this policy, and his wife, Tarabai, utilized the jagir system to garner support for her cause. When Shahu took over Balaji advised him to expand the jagir sys51 The Marathas at Panipat tem. Under Balaji’s direction the jagirs were even made hereditary. The system ’s main beneficiaries were the new sirdars, who derived their power not from the traditional title of deshmuk, or district representative, but from the number and quality of troops they maintained under their personal banners. As the Maratha territories expanded under the peshwa’s direction, so too did these military leaders’ power and prestige. Although the peshwa maintained a strong army, he could not control the independent aspirations and activities of the sirdars as they gradually gained control over tax collection.2 After Shahu’s death in 1749 these chieftains became virtually independent rulers. The leading sirdars established their own subinfeudatory domains, thus making the Maratha Empire a loose confederacy of fiefdoms under the nominal direction of a central power now completely in the hands of the peshwa. The post-Aurungzeb Mughal Empire’s self-destructive tendencies greatly facilitated the rise of Maratha hegemony in northern India. Because Peshwa Balaji Vishwanath was certain of the imminent collapse of the Mughal Empire he tried to consolidate Maratha power in the wake of its demise. In the absence of a strong and capable successor to Emperor Aurungzeb the imperial court in Delhi dissolved into self-serving cliques dependent on the support and recognition of the regional viceroys, who by now had the Mughal Empire’s only viable military forces. Not surprisingly, one by one these viceroys began to assert their independence from Delhi.3 The Marathas, of course, were deeply embroiled in the breakup of the empire .4 Peshwa Balaji Vishwanath died on 2 April 1720, and Shahu appointed Balaji’s young son, Bajirao, as his successor.5 Under his guidance the Marathas launched a series of military campaigns to secure more territory and taxes. During these campaigns Bajirao subdued the nizam of Hyderabad (formerly a Mughal viceroy) and forced upon him a favorable treaty for the Marathas in 1719.6 In 1735 the Marathas surrounded Emperor Muhammad Shah’s Mughal army and forced him to pay chauth, or tax, for the Malwa region. Additional campaigns to collect chauth from the Mughal emperor continued until 1737, with Delhi...


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