In 1739, the Nadir Shah of Persia marched into Delhi, massacred many of its residents and carted away numerous treasures, including the Peacock Throne, and took them back to Tehran. He annexed territories west of the Indus. After his death the kingdom of Afghanistan was founded by Ahmed Shah Durrani and the Indus territories merged into his kingdom. These included Punjab and Kashmir. Afghans controlled this area until the early 19th century

In the 19th century, the martial Sikhs became powerful in the Punjab. By 1830, they pushed the Afghans back across the Indus. Ranjit Singh, their greatest leader, consolidated Sikh power and ruled from Lahore, his capital from 1799 to 1839. Singh was an ugly man, whose face was pockmarked by smallpox. When his beautiful Muslim wife asked him where he was when God gave out good looks, he replied, “While you were occupied with good looks, I was seeking power.

Singh commanded the strongest army in India. He employed 75,000 soldiers, including many battle-hardened Pathans, and hired a couple of out-of-work Italian and French generals, who helped him obtain some European military hardware at cut rate prices after Napoleon’s defeat.

See Sikhs, Minorities


The tale of the Marathas' rise to power and their eventual fall contains all the elements of a thriller: adventure, intrigue, and romanticism. Maratha chieftains were originally in the service of Bijapur sultans in the western Deccan, which was under siege by the Mughals. Shivaji Bhonsle (1627-80), a tenacious and fierce fighter recognized as the "father of the Maratha nation," took advantage of this conflict and carved out his own principality near Pune, which later became the Maratha capital. Adopting guerrilla tactics, he waylaid caravans in order to sustain and expand his army, which soon had money, arms, and horses. Shivaji led a series of successful assaults in the 1660s against Mughal strongholds, including the major port of Surat. In 1674 he assumed the title of "Lord of the Universe" at his elaborate coronation, which signaled his determination to challenge the Mughal forces as well as to reestablish a Hindu kingdom in Maharashtra, the land of his origin. Shivaji's battle cries were swaraj (translated variously as freedom, self-rule, independence), swadharma (religious freedom), and goraksha (cow protection). Aurangzeb relentlessly pursued Shivaji's successors between 1681 and 1705 but eventually retreated to the north as his treasury became depleted and as thousands of lives had been lost either on the battlefield or to natural calamities. [Source: Library of Congress *]

In 1717 a Mughal emissary signed a treaty with the Marathas confirming their claims to rule in the Deccan in return for acknowledging the fictional Mughal suzerainty and remission of annual taxes. Yet the Marathas soon captured Malwa from Mughal control and later moved east into Orrisa and Bengal; southern India also came under their domain. Recognition of their political power finally came when the Mughal emperor invited them to act as auxiliaries in the internal affairs of the empire and still later to help the emperor in driving the Afghans out of Punjab. *

The Marathas, despite their military prowess and leadership, were not equipped to administer the state or to undertake socioeconomic reform. Pursuing a policy characterized by plunder and indiscriminate raids, they antagonized the peasants. They were primarily suited for stirring the Maharashtrian regional pride rather than for attracting loyalty to an all-India confederacy. They were left virtually alone before the invading Afghan forces, headed by Ahmad Shah Abdali (later called Ahmad Shah Durrani), who routed them on the blood-drenched battlefield at Panipat in 1761. The shock of defeat hastened the break-up of their loosely knit confederacy into five independent states and extinguished the hope of Maratha dominance in India. *

Maratha Rulers

The Marathas' rise to power was a dramatic turning point that accelerated the demise of Muslim dominance in India. Maratha chieftains were originally in the service of Bijapur sultans in the western Deccan, which was under siege by the Mughals. Shivaji Bhonsle (1627 - 1680) is recognized as the "father of the Maratha nation." Shivaji Bhosle, founder of the Maratha Empire, was born in 1627, in the fort of Shivneri, 40 miles north of Pune. By 1647, Shivaji had captured two forts and had the complete charge of Pune. He slowly started capturing forts in the region, Purandar, Rajgad, Torna. In 1659 Shivaji succeeded in killing of famous Adilshahi general Afzal Khan and demoralizing his army. He took advantage of this conflict and laid the foundation of Maratha Kingdom near Pune, which later became the Maratha capital. Shivaji used guerilla tactics and brilliant military strategies to lead a series of successful assaults in the 1660s against Mughal strongholds, including the major port of Surat. He lost to Aurangzeb's General Jai Singh and was arrested in 1666. He made a daring escape and regained his lost territory and glory. By 1673, he had control over most of western Maharashtra and had made 'Raigad' capital. In 1674 he assumed the title of "Chhatrapati" at his elaborate coronation. At the time of his death in 1680, nearly whole of the Deccan belonged to his kingdom. He had developed an efficient administration and a powerful army. <>

His son Sambhaji succeeded Shivaji. He was taken prisoner and executed by Aurangzeb, in 1689. Rajaram, Shivaji's second son then took the throne. After the death of Rajaram in 1700 Tarabai, the widow of Rajaram, put her young son Shahu on the throne, at the tender age of ten, and continued the struggle against Aurangzeb. Shahu continued to fight against the Mughals and captured Rajgad, the former capital of the Maratha's. The fight against the Mughals ended with the death of Aurangzeb in 1707. Balance of power shifted towards Marathas, which was soon to be controlled by Peshwas. <>

In 1712, Shahu died and his minister or Peshwa, Balaji Vishwanath (1712 - 1721) took over the throne. In 1717 a Mughal emissary signed a treaty with the Marathas confirming their claims to rule in the Deccan. 1718 marked the beginning of the Maratha influence in Delhi. Balaji Vishwanath's died in 1721. Bajirao Peshwa I (1721 - 1740), the elder son became Peshwa after the death of Balaji Vishwanath. Pune had regained its status as capital of Maratha Kingdom from Rajgad. In 1734, Bajirao captured the Malwa territory in the north, and in 1739, he drove out the Portuguese from nearly all their possessions in the Western Ghats. Bajirao died in 1740. Baji Rao's son, Balaji Bajirao (Nanasaheb) succeeded as the Peshwa. He defeated Ahmad Shah Abdalli in 1756 near Delhi. But in Third Battle of Panipat (1761), between Marathas and Ahmad Shah Abdalli, Marathas lost the war. This war destroyed both Abdalli and Peshwas. Balaji Bajirao died soon after the war shattered by the death of his older son and brother. <>

His second son Madhav Rao assumed the title of Peshwa in 1761. He achieved many remarkable victories and restored the glory of Maratha kingdom to a large extent. His outstanding achievements included defeat of Nizam of Hyderabad, Hyder Ali of Mysore and Bhosle of Nagpur. In 1769, Marathas lead by Mahadaji Shinde, headed the North India campaign. They defeated the Jats and took hold of Agra and Mathura. Madhav Rao died in 1772 at an early age of 27 years. <>

Narayanrao Peshwa (1772 - 1773) just ruled for one year and was murdered in a palace conspiracy. Raghunathrao was proclaimed the next Peshwa, although he was not heir to the title. He was displaced from power by a clever plot by twelve Maratha chiefs and infant son of Madhav Rao called Sawai Madhavrao was then declared the next Peshwa. The chief administrator was Nana Phadnis. He handled the Peshwai well and with great unity among Maratha chiefs. They defeated the rising British Power in 1784, near Pune and halted their advancements, temporarily until the premature death of Sawai Madhavrao in 1795. In 1796 Baji Rao II, son of Raghunath Rao became the Peshwa. Nana Phadanis looked after the Maratha kingdom well until his death in 1800 A.D. After that Baji Rao II signed a treaty with the British in 1802, which weakened the Peshwa power. His son, Nanasaheb Peshwa opposed the British with whatever support he could muster. By 1818 the Peshwa power came to an end. Nanasaheb Peshwa's fight still continued. But the failure of 1857 war put an end to any lingering hopes.

The Sikhs

The Afghan defeat of the Maratha armies accelerated the breakaway of Punjab from Delhi and helped the founding of Sikh overlordship in the northwest. Rooted in the bhakti movements that developed in the second century B.C. but swept across North India during the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, the Sikh religion appealed to the hard-working peasants. The Sikh khalsa (army of the pure) rose up against the economic and political repressions in Punjab toward the end of Aurangzeb's rule. Guerrilla fighters took advantage of the political instability created by the Persian and Afghan onslaught against Delhi, enriching themselves and expanding territorial control.

By the 1770s, Sikh hegemony extended from the Indus in the west to the Yamuna in the east, from Multan in the south to Jammu in the north. But the Sikhs, like the Marathas, were a loose, disunited, and quarrelsome conglomerate of twelve kin-groups. It took Ranjit Singh (1780-1839), an individual with modernizing vision and leadership, to achieve supremacy over the other kin-groups and establish his kingdom in which Sikhs, Hindus, and Muslims lived together in comparative equality and increasing prosperity. Ranjit Singh employed European officers and introduced strict military discipline into his army before expanding into Afghanistan, Kashmir, and Ladakh.

See Sikhs, Minorities

Image Sources:

Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, Lonely Planet Guides, Library of Congress, Ministry of Tourism, Government of India, Compton’s Encyclopedia, The Guardian, National Geographic, Smithsonian magazine, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, AFP, Wall Street Journal, The Atlantic Monthly, The Economist, Foreign Policy, Wikipedia, BBC, CNN, and various books, websites and other publications.

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© 2008 Jeffrey Hays

Last updated June 2015

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