The mountains rose out of the surrounding plains, strong, tall massifs. The table-top land bore a straw coloured look, save for the green shrubbery at the base of the hills. The merciless summers had taken their toll, rendering the landscape nearly barren and bare. Grass which had grown plentiful on the steep slopes in the monsoons and winters, now succumbed to the harsh sun. The sturdy grass rose up the slopes of the hills, ending in vertical walls of stone, too steep for even the grass and soil to conquer. Here, the black basalt heart of the mountains stood out, almost like a natural, impregnable wall. The sun beat down on the hills, a bright yellow ball of light in a cloudless and endless blue sky. An eagle screeched overhead, far above, no doubt looking for its nest in one of the hills.
Chhatrapati Shahu rested his hand against one of the many crenellations of the fort wall. The fort of Satara was Shahu’s home and capital of the Hindavi Swarajya. Shahu thoughtfully peered long and hard into the distance. He could see the hill of Yeoteshwar. The swallow tailed saffron standard fluttered proudly over it, as it did on many others, throughout the land.
The Chhatrapati though, was in a pensive mood, with worry written all over his dark, suntanned face. The death of his Peshwa, Bajirao, had come as a great shock to him. He who had not lost a single battle had succumbed to the vagaries of nature. The middle aged Shahu let out a deep breath, reminiscing of past events.Who could replace his Peshwa, Bajirao? he wondered. Was that even possible? He looked heavenward as as if seeking an answer. But even he knew the answers would have to be found by him and his ministers alone. He had called the various Maratha chieftains to his court, to hammer out a solution. He had in fact, a young boy in mind for the coveted job, but still believed it necessary to seek the opinion of the other Maratha chieftains. Shahu could ill afford falling out with someone like Raghuji Bhosale or Malharrao Holkar; protégés of Bajirao. They had started trooping in, one by one, or had at least sent representatives from the far flung places the Marathas had managed to conquer over the course of twenty years. From the corner of his eye, Shahu suddenly sensed some movement.Turning to look, he could see that a horseman clad in pure white had almost reached the fort.Shahu smiled, for the newcomer was none other than Chimaji Appa, the brother of the deceased Bajirao, and an important Maratha courtier. Shahu watched him make his way slowly up the broad staircase which wound its way to the top of the hill, ending in a massive and imposing darwaja made of the black and sturdy stones of the Sahyadris . His spotless white clothing gleamed in the bright sunlight. A red pagdi, typical of Brahmin courtiers, with a large plume of velvet adorned his head. A necklace of large pearls around his neck, symbolic of his royalty. On the upper part of his right ear, was a small ring of gold, with a couple of small pearls strung through it. The bhikbali, for that is what the unique earring was called, was synonymous with his high standing at the court.Shahu hurried away from the fort wall, and towards the darwaja, to receive him.
“Welcome Chimaji” said Shahu with a broad smile on his face, even as he personally stepped out of the tall, grand gate of the fort at Satara to receive him. Chimaji got off his horse, happy to see Shahu . An attendant quickly rushed forward and took the horse away to the stables , even as Shahu approached Chimaji with a smile on his face. He spread his arms wide and warmly hugged Chimaji Appa, “Wish we could all meet under happier circumstances. Raghuji Bhosale, Holkar, Scindia, yourself, it is sad we have to meet on such an occasion,” said Shahu as they began walking towards the palace.
“It has been HIS will. We must accept it,” said Chimaji with a slight smile on his face, not betraying the slightest note of sadness, although Shahu knew, he must have been shattered by the news.The two of them walked in silence towards the durbar set in the grand building that was the seat of Maratha power . Chimaji was ushered into the court where the splendor of the rising Maratha empire was more than evident. The large hall had tall arches of teakwood, exquisitely carved pillars and beautifully done, large windows, of the Deccani style. Expensive carpets with minute details covered the floor and huge , rich tapestries hung from the walls. At the corners of the hall, the walls had been cut into an octagonal shape, keeping in step with traditional Marathi architecture. The courtiers had already assembled, and bowed in respect as Chimaji made his way to his place at the durbar, closer to the Chhatrapati.