Maratha Empire – The Panipat Fixation.

The mention of the word Panipat immediately conjures up three distinct images – after the three major battles at this place in Haryana. First of course is Babur and Lodi, the second of Akbar and Hemchandra and third of the Marathas and Abdali . This is common and correct knowledge. Of the three, the first two are then extolled as the starter and preserver of the Mughal dynasty. There is actually very little thought given to ‘what if’ scenarios viz Hemchandra or Hemu.
Anyways, I want to speak here about the third battle of Panipat and the disproportionate importance it has in our knowledge and understanding of India’s history. There are more pages written about 14th January 1761 than there are on the eighty years preceding it or the forty years following it. Eighty years is the time between Chhatrapati Shivaji’s death (about him, thankfully, cupious amount has been written) and forty years is the time span to 1802. That was the year when the Marathas lost the Second Anglo Maratha War and with it their all India influence. They did not lose it in 1761, which is one of the points of this blog.

I, apart from writing, also do public talks on Maratha and Assamese history. I have on several occasions given talks on the Maratha conquest of Punjab or Bundelkhand and traced the politics and military manoeuvres which enabled the Maratha victories. In the talk on Punjab I have not mentioned Panipat and in the talks on Bundelkhand I have taken the entire sweep of time from Shivaji to Rani Laxmibai. After this, the presentation has always been thrown open for questions. Now, it has been my observation that a majority of the questions revolved around Panipat ! I find it perplexing that nobody asks questions pertaining to specifics about either campaign. Talk , post presentation, invariably veers around to discussion about the great defeat at the hallowed battlefield.

Which, basically means that “general knowledge” is by and large limited to 1761. For you can initiate discussions about only those topics which you know about. It was a debilitating defeat, no doubt agreed. But it’s internalisation by us has perhaps caused bigger damage. It has essentially meant that entire generations are totally oblivious of the contributions of Madhavrao Peshwa , Nana Phadnis , Mahadji Scindia and Ahilyabai Holkar – all of whom had an entirely post Panipat career , and who would, if they had not been preceded by the likes of Bajirao and Shivaji, been raised to the highest pedestal. It is only when we agree that Panipat was a large bump in the road, and not a fatal crash that discussion can automatically lead to the four mentioned above. As of today, the totality of Panipat is a given, and hence most articles on the topic quickly jump to a description of the British conquest of India !
Oft seen line — > The disaster at Panipat entirely destroyed the Maratha empire and they no longer exerted the influence they had in earlier years. The British then came to dominate the country and eventually replaced the Mughal empire !
Of the four names mentioned above, missing out on Ahilyabai Holkar because of this “ Panipat = Judgement Day” mentality is a criminal lapse. For it is this queen of central India who gave the much needed cultural and civilizational veneer to the political conquests of a hundred years. In the next few paragraphs, we will take a quick tour of post Panipat Maratha politics and their influence on the Indian subcontinent and finally I will conclude with the real reasons for the Maratha collapse.

After the debacle at Panipat, the Peshwa Nanasaheb breathed his last near the temple built by him on Parvati hill in Pune. Nervous breakdown because of the events of 14th Jan 1761 was most probable cause. He was succeeded by his second son – Madhavrao, the eldest having died at Panipat. So Madhavrao Peshwa began his career as a sixteen year old in 1762 and over a course of ten years, racked up an impressive record on the battle field , which included –
1.Humbling Hyder Ali , the ruler of Mysore at Srirangapatnam and various other places. 2.Giving the Nizam of Hyderabad a sound thrashing at Rakshasbhuvan, where all Maratha soldiers united under the Peshwa
3.Managed to get the better of Maratha chieftains like Raghunathrao and Janoji Bhosale who were causing impediments to him.

In the word’s of Grant Duff, “The fields of Panipat were not more fatal to the Marathas than the early demise of this excellent prince.”

Madhavrao Peshwa died at the age of 27 in 1772 , but not before he had re stamped Maratha authority to the north and the south and proven that even after Panipat the descendants of Shivaji called the shots in Indian politics. Madhavrao died in 1772 and our memory of him died soon after. There is a statue of him at Peshwe Park in Pune, photos of which have been liberally circulated on social media as “Bajirao’s statue” – just goes to show the rot. Liberally shared by well meaning Maharashtrians, rest of the country has not even heard the name !

Post Madhavrao there was tumult at Pune . Raghunathrao had his nephew , and only other contender – Narayanrao killed. But Nana Phadnis ensured that Raghunathrao did not get power and instead ruled as a regent to the infant Sawai Madhavrao (Narayanrao’s son) . In the north , two more Maratha personalities were making a mark – Ahilyabai Holkar and Mahadji Scindia. Check my essay on Ahilyabai Holkar under “Hindavi Swarajya” category on this site for a small intro. Mahadji Shinde ruled Gwalior between 1768 and 1794, the year of his death. He fully resurrected Maratha power in north India. The Jats , Rajputs and Rohillas were roundly defeated in battles by Mahadji Shinde.
Few people know, that Mahadji Shinde brought the Mughal emperor Shah Alam II from Allahabad and re installed him at Delhi. The Mughal continued to rule as a complete puppet of the Marathas. Again, let us bear in mind that this was in 1772, a full eleven years after disappearing at Panipat. While Mahadji Shinde was scoring victories in north India, Nana Phadnis was handling affairs to the south.
The following statement , from a letter sent by Mahadji Shinde to Nana Phadnis perfectly sums up the all – India influence which the two exerted. Bear in mind again, that this letter is dated 1789.
(I have referenced from Marathyancha Itihas – Vol 2 by Khare & Kulkarni )
गेलेली मसलत श्रीमंतांच्या प्रतापी सुधारली आहे . सातार्या प्रमाणे दिल्ली चे हि संस्थान झले आहे .बंदोबस्ताची पैरवी करणे आपल्या कडे आहे . “( महादजी शिंदेंनी नाना फडणवीस लिहिलेले पत्र – ६/१/१७८९ )
Translation : “ Lost influence and power has been recovered to a great extent thanks to Shrimant. Just like Satara, Delhi is also now a sansthan (of Marathas) . To put all this in order is upto us.” [ Letter by Mahadji Shinde to Nana Phadnis] – 6 Jan 1789
Perhaps the crowning glory of the two was the First Anglo Maratha War and the famous battle of Wadgaon. The two post Panipat Maratha stalwarts showed amazing strategic skill and unity to score an unlikely victory. Read about the Wadgaon battle here

The activities of Ahilyabai Holkar ran parallel to the military activities of Mahadji Shinde and Nana Phadnis. She built a great many ghats and temples until the year 1795, the year of her death. The last battle in which all the Maratha soldiers combined was not Panipat in 1761 but Kharda in 1795. Thirty four years after Panipat, that is a generation later, Shindes , Holkars , Gaikwads, Bhosales, the Peshwa and a host of others joined together and attacked the Nizam at Kharda.

You can read about the Battle of Kharda  here.

The battle makes for fascinating reading ! The two battles – Wadgaon in 1779 when the Marathas worsted the British and Kharda and Rakshasbhuvan in 1795 and 1763 when the Marathas got the better of the Nizam should be more widely known, but they aren’t because of the Panipat fixation. Because we take it as a given that Maratha history ends in 1761, there is little attempt to look beyond. Perhaps the recovery wasn’t complete, but certainly it is worth mentioning.

Moreover, the career of Ram Shastri, who provided alongwith Nana Phadnavis a judicial system devolved from the executive is entirely a post Panipat phenomenon. Like the salaried armies of Chhatrapati Shivaji , Ram Shastri was also centuries ahead of his time. This again is missing from most history books.
Actual causes for the fall of the Marathas
Thus we have seen, that Panipat was a bump in the road. And ignorance of post Panipat events is perhaps a bigger defeat than the battle itself. It fits the “secular” narrative that the Hindu empire at the zenith of its power collapsed entirely when faced with a strong adversary. But there is a marked difference between the previous two and this battle. Lodi and Hemchandra simply disappear from history after Panipat I & II . The Marathas do not. They were still the major power to reckon with in India for at least another generation. Which is why, it is correctly said that India passed from hands of Marathas to the British and not from the Mughals to the British.
So what caused the eventual demise ?  1795 marked the high water mark of Maratha politics. But by 1802 the Treaty of Bassein had been signed. Ergo , the years between 1795 and 1802 and the events within them were what brought them down.

So the reasons for the final demise were : 

1.Death of all prominent players. A haranguing coincidence, but Mahadji Shinde (1794) , Ahilyabai Holkar (1795) , Sawai Madhavrao (1795) and Nana Phadnis (1800) all died within few years of each other.
2.A devastating drought .
3.Absence of a strong leader in any of the Maratha provinces, and especially at Pune.
4.Inability to go back to the ideals of Shivaji which had enabled the Marathas to fight 27 years against the Mughal empire.
The result of the above four was that in the Second Anglo Maratha War, the British scored an easy victory. And, from 1802 onwards, the power centre shifted from Pune to Calcutta.

© Aneesh Gokhale