Today marks the birth anniversary of Shrimant Bajirao Peshwa, a notable Indian warrior and statesman whose military campaigns and able governance changed the face of the Maratha Empire at its heyday in the 18th century. While he was notably revered during the days of Maratha struggles against Mughal domination and its attendant religious persecution, today his deeds and nobility are virtually unknown outside his native Maharashtra and many contemporary citizens of the Republic of India would meet the mention of his name with a blank and confused expression.
Born on the 18th of August 1700, Bajirao was the eldest son of Peshwa Balaji Vishwanath Rao. A peshwa was essentially a Marathi version of a modern prime minister and was a position created by Chhatrapati Shivaji, the revered architect of the Maratha polity and who is still now a great source of pride to Marathis. They were royal chief executives who were invariably drawn from the Brahmin or priestly caste and their main task was to assist the monarch in his royal duties. Bajirao himself belonged to a particular sub-division of this caste, called the Chit Pawan Brahmins who originated from what is now Goa.
Despite his caste background which would have expected Bajirao to be an administrator or a Hindu priest, he was raised by his father to be a military man, as at that time the Mughal empire and its rulers, who were of Central Asian extraction, wanted to push forward their political boundaries and thus expand their rule into the independents kingdoms of central and south India. The Mughals and their allies made frequent attacks on the Marathas who had to quickly develop a militaristic mentality to save themselves from being conquered and occupied. To that end, the senior Peshwa put his son through rigorous training with the cream of the crop in Maratha armed forces expertise.
His education transformed Bajirao into a exceptionable expert swordsman, master strategist and suitable leader, with a skill in horseriding and hand-to-hand combat. At the young age of 20, Bajirao Peshwa succeeded his father, an able figurehead in his own right, and took over the reins of a burgeoning empire of more than 150 million people.
As a youth, Bajirao was extremely close to his father, even taking part in mobile military campaigns with him. Upon being appointed Peshwa, he sought to emulate and exceed his father’s ambitions and to do his best to save the Marathas from the deranged, iconoclastic wrath of the Mogul emperor Aurangzeb, who had a deep hatred of the native Indian cultures and religions.
In addition, there were many naysayers and critics among the Maratha ruling classes who felt that having a leader so young would weaken their nation as Bajirao was so youthful and seemingly inexperienced, but his political sagacity, intuition and moral/physical strength was reassurance enough and his unveiling as the next Peshwa passed without any real opposition from the numerous jealous gentry and ministers who were to serve under him.
His first ambition as Peshwa was to conquer and unite the feuding smaller kingdoms of central India, and drive out the Mughal invaders. He came before the emperor Shahu Maharaj and said ““Let us transcend the barren Deccan and conquer central India. The Mughals have become weak, insolent, womanizers and opium-addicts. The accumulated wealth of centuries in the vaults of the north, can be ours. It is time to drive from the holy land of Bharatvarsha the outcastes and the barbarians. Let us throw them back over the Himalayas, back to where they came from. The saffron flag must fly from the Krishna to the Indus. Hindustan is ours”. Despite the misgivings of the Maharaj’s court, the emperor himself was pleased with his prime minister’s determination and gave Bajirao all of the available troops to aid him to unite that part of India.
For twenty long years, Bajirao’s forces moved through the Hindi-speaking heartlands of the subcontinent and was said to caused a major headache for the Mughal incumbents in their fabulous capital of Delhi. As his soldiers took town after town, village after village, the courtiers and ministers of Emperor Aurangzeb were united somewhat in their fear of the Peshwa to the point where their ambassadors refused any meeting with him. The advancing Marathas closed in on Delhi and safeguarded the Hindu pilgrimage routes to Varanasi and Somnath.
Bajirao’s subsequent achievements include:
- A victory in the Battle of Malwa against the Mughals.
- The conquering of Gujarat and much of the territories of central India.
- Overran many Mughal provinces
- United the armies and nations of the Marathas and Rajputs, another famed group of warriors.
- Launched an attack on the imperial capital of Delhi, therefore bringing the fight right up to the doorstep of Aurangzeb.
As a ruler, Bajirao sought to make good relations with fellow Hindu peoples and even former supporters of the Mughals and negotiated a treaty of friendship with the Rajputs in the common cause of liberating themselves from the Persian-speaking squatters of Delhi and Fatehpur Sikri. He made changes to the day-to-day running of his empire, for example moving their capital to Pune in Maharashtra from its former site in Satara in 1728. Not long after, Bajirao waged war against, and defeated the Mughal dynasty’s most powerful weapon, their general Bungash Khan, who was said to be their most bravest commander. His wars took him further and further from the comfort of home, as he ruined the military fortunes of not only the Mughals, but also the Pathans, and the Portuguese who were beginning to take lands on the western coast around Mumbai and Gujarat. He was liked by his soldiers and fought in the honour of his religion.
All in all, historians believe that Bajirao Peshwa fought 41 different battles and he allegedly lost none of them. He has been compared with Napoleon Bonaparte due to the speed and ease of his additions to the Maratha Empire. Even foreign (and Indian) commentators have been impressed with the Peshwa’s career and military prowess.
“Bred a soldier as well as a statesman, Bajirao united the enterprise, vigour and hardihood of a Maratha chief with the polished manners, the sagacity and address which frequently distinguish the Brahmins of the Konkan. Fully acquainted with the financial schemes of his father, he selected that part of the plan calculated to direct the predatory hordes of Maharashtra in a common effort. In this respect, the genius of Bajirao enlarged the schemes which his father devised; and unlike most Brahmins, of him it may be truly said- he had both- the head to plan and the hand to execute.” (J. Grant Duff – ‘History of the Marathas’)
“Bajirao was hardly to be surpassed as a rider and was ever forward in action, eager to expose himself under fire if the affair was arduous. He was accustomed to fatigue and prided himself in enduring the same hardships as his soldiers and sharing their scanty fare…” (R. Temple – ‘Oriental Experiences’)
“Bajirao was a heaven born cavalry leader. In the long and distinguished galaxy of Peshwas, Bajirao Ballal was unequalled for the daring and originality of his genius and the volume and value of his achievements. He was truly a Cavalry Hero as king- or rather as a Man of action.’ If Sir Robert Walpole created the unchallengeable position of the Prime Minister in the unwritten constitution of England, Bajirao created the same institution in the Maratha Raj at exactly the same time.” (Jadunath Sarkar – ‘Peshwa Bajirao I and Maratha Expansion’)
Bajirao Peshwa never met his end in a battle, instead he passed away from an illness in the village of Rawarkhedi in what is now Madhya Pradesh in central India. He had been resting with his troops for their next battle when he was taken sick and died on the banks of the river Narmada. His sons continued the fight, bringing the flag of the Marathas from Afghanistan through Attock fort in Pakistan to the Deccan plateau of south India. The Peshwa and his descendants massively increased the spread of the area of the Maratha empire and turned the tables militarily on the Mughals, but not enough to completely break them.
While the great and lofty empire of the Marathis slowly disintegrated due to infighting and separatism, then finished off by the British who were on the path to constructing an even bigger empire, their legacy lives on in the current state of Maharashtra, one of India’s biggest and richest provinces. Though Bajirao Peshwa is remembered largely by Maharashtrian nationalists and historians, his legacy can, and should be a source of pride to Indians and even to any people who have suffered the demeaning posture of being ruled or occupied by those who ought not to do so.
SOME BATTLE TACTICS USED BY BAJIRAO PESHWA – – –
- Bajirao’s success depended a great deal on his light foray tactics. He mainly used his cavalry.
- Two riders had three horses between them and while one horse was rested the other two in turn were ridden. As a result his army could move forty miles in a day and sustain this rate of advance for many days. This was the highest speed of any army during his time. That’s why he used to attack the enemy before giving any hint about his whereabouts.
- It is said that his army moved two thousand miles in six months from the time he left Pune in Oct 1727 until the end of the Battle of Palkhed in March 1728.
- Only horse mounted fighting troops went into combat. There were no followers or servants hanging around and encumbering the mobility of the fighting forces
- Furthermore, he had no use for an infantry or artillery like the Mughals. His cavalry was lightly armed with a spear and dandapatta, the circular gauntlet sword of the Marathas useful for a close quarter battle or hand to hand combat favoured by them.
- His main focus was always on cutting the enemy supply-lines with the help of rapid troop movement and knowledge of the local terrain. He revolutionised military tactics in his times. Encircling the enemy quickly, appearing from the rear of the enemy, attacking from an unexpected direction, distracting the enemy’s attention, keeping the enemy in surprise and deciding the battle field on his own terms, were his trademark war-winning tactics.
- ‘Night’, said Bajirao ‘is not for sleeping but to engage an enemy superior in numbers’. Bajirao is said to have told his brother Chimaji Appa, “Remember that the night has nothing to do with sleep. It was created by God, to raid the territory held by your enemy. The night is your shield, your screen against the cannons and swords of a vastly superior enemy force.”
- The major reason of Peshwa Bajiro’s success lies also in his strong intelligence department. His intelligence agency was so strong that every moment he used to get all the information of his enemy’s whereabouts.
- Leading by personal example, his banner, a swallow tailed saffron flag signifying sacrifice, held high he always moved into battle with the cry ‘Har har Mahadev,’ inspiring his troops to fight without fear. (C) Hindu Janajagruti Samiti 2012
SOURCES: Hindu Janajagruti Samiti, Wikipedia, Maplandia,