“And the plains of Panipat were not more fatal to the Maratha Empire than the early end of this excellent Prince…”
So was written about one of the most towering figures of Indian history- someone whose career both as a diplomat and general has only been rarely equalled by anyone across the World, someone who fought constantly the plots of his venomous foes, the treachery of his own family, and even the pains of his own illnesses in order to establish his dream of a Hindu Pad Padshahi.
Today is the death anniversary of one of the most towering- albeit least celebrated- heroes of Bharatavarsha- Madhavrao, third Peshwa of the Maratha Empire, someone to whom Bharatas owe debts we can never repay.
Even in the annals of the history of the Maratha Empire- architect of the Hindu restoration- let alone the glorious history of the Arya nations of Bharatavarsha studded with the lives of uncountable heroes, the life of Madhavrao Peshwa shines resplendent. As a general, he had few equals across Indian history save the likes of Emperor Samudradeva Gupta and his own illustrious kin Bajirao I Ballal. As an administrator, he was the finest of his time. As a diplomat and Statesman, he was unequalled- restoring an Empire that, to all eyes, had all but collapsed. He was young when he came to power and he was young still when he met his untimely end- but what he did accomplished would’ve graced the entire lifetimes of many celebrated ‘heroes’ Indians often ‘celebrate’.
Madhavrao was an unlikely candidate to be Peshwa. The Empire was strong under the Peshwaship of Nanasaheb. The succession was well-established under Vishwasrao- himself a capable diplomat noted for his charm- and the Empire was supported by able generals such as Sadashivrao Bhau, Gopalrao Patwardhan, Nana Fadnavis, and others. There were plans to rebuild the destroyed temples at Ajodhya, Kashi, and Prayaga, to take the Bhagwadwaja to lands it hadn’t been seen in since the collapse of the Shahi dynasty almost 600 years earlier, to make common cause with the Dharmic states that held out in furtherance of the cause of Hindu Pad Padshahi. The Maratha Empire was the mightiest power in possibly all of Asia- extending over more than 2/3rds of Bharatavarsha.
In contemporary letters, Maratha generals discussed the possibility of marching up to the gates of Constantinople, restoring the borders of Emperor Bharata- “From the Vakshu to Irravati, and between the Himavat to the Dakshin Mahasagar”.
The Third Battle of Panipat brought that all crashing down. The Marathas lost not only the heir to the Peshwaship, some of their best generals, and nearly hundred fifty thousand fighting men- the finest army east of the Urals, they also lost any alliances and support they had north of the Vindhyas. The treachery of the Nawab of Awadh- a supposed ally- ensured that the entire eastern reach would’ve seen the same atrocities against Hindus as once seen under Aurangzeb. Apart from the dominions of Suraj Mal Jat, raiders and plunderers ran amok across North India. Peshwa Nanasaheb- an Arya by any account- fell into depression and died shortly after, leaving the State open to the machinations of his treacherous brother, Raghunathrao. To the north and the west, countless Ulemas called for jihad and began to invite Afghans, Turks, Persians and the hordes of Central Asia to invade again. To the south and east, the English and the Nizam amassed their forces. To the west were the Turks and Portuguese. And like a cancer, the unjust realm of Mysore- which Haider Ali had usurped from his employers, the Wodeyars- grew.
While Sadashivrao Bhau had succeeded in his original objective- weakening the Afghan forces enough to drive them out of India, the cost had been incredible. The Maratha Empire tottered on the verge of collapse.
This was the World in which Madhavrao came to power at the age of 16.
Dangers surrounded him. His villainous uncle- Raghunathrao- had allied with the Nizam and was marching onto Pune. He even succeeded in defeating Madhavrao and placing him under house arrest but the intervention of Malhar Rao Holkar prevented the usurper from murdering the young Peshwa. Within one year, the latter rallied and decisively defeated his uncle. Even though he remained reluctant to execute Raghunathrao, the latter’s continued treachery- such as demanding a split of the Empire in 1765 and unilaterally allying with the Nizam in 1764- would result in an order of house arrest.
At Rakshabhuvan, a force of a mere 12000 Marathas met an entrenched Nizami army, equipped with the latest European artillery and training, almost three times larger than them. Like Bajirao I at Bhopal, Madhavrao not only annihilated this force but also signed treaties ensuring the Maratha frontiers with Hyderabad were well-fortified. He had to, surrounded by enemies as the Marathas were, they neither had the manpower or the finances for further southern conquests.
But Madhavrao wasn’t done yet. In his letters to his generals, he declared his intentions to restore every inch of Bharatavarsha. “… What have you gained? Have you freed the holy places of Kashi and Prayaga from Muslim control?” he demanded of his generals.
Instead Maratha forces marched north. Bhundelkhand, Rohillakhand, and even most of east Punjab fell. The Rajputs and Jats were vassalized and nominally brought into the Hindu Pad Padshahi. The English were warned off and denied lands to trade in. North, East, South- the borders of the Maratha Empire sped farther every day on the hoof trails of Maratha lancers and horse artillery. Simultaneously, the Marathas under General Trimbak Rao met the armies of Haider Ali, who was not only inflicting great atrocities on the local Hindus but also aiming at spreading his tyranny. At the battle of Moti Talav- an ancient tank built by the Hoysala dynasty long ago, the outnumbered Maratha forces crushed their foes so decisively that it would take almost a decade for Haider Ali to recover.
Within ten years of the disaster at Panipat, the foes of Hindu Dharma were fleeing India in their thousands, the betrayers of Sadashivarao- from the Nawab of Awadh to the lords of Lahore- were quaking in their boots, and the armies of the Maratha were pouring into Delhi.
For the first time since the defeat of Prithviraj Chauhan in 1192, the Bhagwadwaja fluttered proudly atop the walls of Delhi- something the Secular state of India refuses to do even now.
But as he poured his life into the restoration of the Maratha Empire, Madhavrao’s own life force bled out.
By the time he was twenty five, he was dying of tuberculosis- incurable at the time. An assassination attempt on his life, probably orchestrated by Raghunathrao, weakened him further. He began to retire from public life, to the Ganesh Chintamani Temple at Theur. On the 18th November of 1772, he breathed his last.
By the time of his death at the extremely young age of 27, Madhavrao had accomplished all Bharatavarsha and Dharma could’ve asked of him.
He had restored the Hindu Pad Padshahi to the heights of its old glory. He had defeated the Nizam and humiliated Haider. He had restored the Hindu Pad Padshahi, making Shah Alam the puppet Mughal Emperor a vassal of the Marathas. He had destroyed the roving bands of Afghan and Persian raiders who had plagued India since the death of Bajirao I, and financed the development of ports and cities. Like the Emperor Skandadeva more than a millennia earlier, he spent his short life in nothing but service to Bharatavarsha.
Madhavrao was far-sighted and wise beyond measure even with foreign policy; even before the battle of Plassey, he was known to caution his generals about the rising menace of European invaders. In a memorable letter, he warned Mahadji Shinde- “… you must never allow the English to make a lodgement at Delhi. If they once obtain a footing, they can never be dislodged… They have seized strategic points and have formed a ring around the Indian continent from Calcutta to Surat.”
If the likes of Jawaharlal Nehru and Rajiv Gandhi had showed even a hundredth part of Madhavrao’s political acumen, would the Chinese String of Pearls been such a menace today?
Madhavrao had new infrastructure built all over India; even now the Holkar bridge near Pune- named after the Holkars who repaired it in the nineteenth century- stands testament to his administration’s success. New ponds were excavated, new temples were raised, trade and security was re-established across Maratha domains. He lowered taxes and funded new businesses. He banned the forced leveeing of peasants as porters into armies, making a new more professional Maratha force. From Attock to Cuttack to Tanjore, he established rule of law and security of roads- a feat even the Mughal Emperors- well loved by India’s educated classes- had been incapable of in the works of their own contemporaries.
If Peshwa Madhavrao Ballal hadn’t been a Hindu, possibly India’s eminent historians would’ve penned odes to his love for the poor- but since he wasn’t some Turkish barbarian plying jiziya and breaking temples, no great intellectual and scholar from India’s big colleges will spare two minutes for him.
Instead they would whine that Madhavrao extracted Chauth & Sardeshmukhi as taxes- even though their beloved Mughals had higher taxes AND jiziya AND oversaw the mindless system called Jagirdari that caused as much harm to Indian peasantry as any murderous British tax collector.
They will rail about Shivaji sacking Surat or Madhavrao denying them trade- even though their beloved Mughals and Afghans and British did way worse to Hindu and Jain merchants than any Peshwa.
They will celebrate Tipu Jayanti and cry about some renegade mercenaries in <Madhavrao’s forces sacking a Math- as if they themselves are such defenders of Ram Rajya!
As a Maratha statesman once quipped: If they do a small thing, they won’t stop crowing about it for years but “even the greatest deeds accomplished by Hindus are dismissed by us as trifles.”
Perhaps it is for the best.
After all, it would hardly befit the dignity and grandeur of this unvanquished young Peshwa to be paraded around like some two-bit dancing monkey in some mob-funded Bollywood joke. For his lady wife Ramabai who chose to sacrifice her life with his body as a Sati, to be mocked by India’s feminists. For his lady mother Gopikabai to dance like some common Circassian courtesan for these ‘artistic’ types. For the heroes who restored the Hindu Pad Padshahi after the disaster of Panipat to be insulted like their grandfathers & great-grandfathers were in the ridiculous insult recently made against the memory of the first Peshwa. Of course- one wonders where today’s Maratha Pride heroes were there then. Did the fact that Bajirao I was a Brahmin have to do something with their silence?
Let it be.
Let Madhavrao remain unknown and unsung- save in the hearts of all Aryas who still dream of Ram Rajya. Let the sky be a dark blue with swift rains, let the winds be favourable to him, let Varuna be gracious to him, may Agni be generous to him, may Vayu sped his glittering chariots as he and his kin ascend to the Golden Halls of Indra- as befits all valiant and just Aryas.
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