1911 Encyclopædia Britannica/Mahrattas

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MAHRATTAS, a people of India, inhabiting the district known by the ancient name of Maharashtra (Sans. “great kingdom or region”). This large tract, extending from the Arabian Sea on the west to the Sātpura mountains in the north, comprises a good part of western and central India, including the modern provinces of the Konkan, Khandesh, Berar, the British Deccan, part of Nagpur, and about half the nizam’s Deccan.

The etymology of the word Mahratta (Marāthā) is uncertain. The name does not indicate a social caste, or a religious sect; it is not even tribal. Strictly, it is confined to the upper class from whom Sivaji’s generals were mostly drawn, and who sometimes claim a Rajput origin. In a wider sense it may be extended to include all who inhabit Maharashtra and speak Mahratti as their mother-tongue. In 1901 the total number of speakers of Mahratti in all India exceeded 18 millions.

The Mahrattas have always been a separate nation or people, and still regard themselves as such, though nowadays they are almost all under British or Mahommedan jurisdiction; that is, they belong either to British India or to the nizam’s dominions. There are indeed still three large native states nominally Mahratta: that of Sindhia near the borders of Hindustan in the north, that of Holkar in Malwa in the heart of the Indian continent, and that of the gaekwar in Gujarat on the western coast. But in these states the prince, his relatives and some of his ministers or officials only are Mahrattas; the mass of the people belong to other sections of the Hindu race. These states then are not to be included in the Mahratta nation, though they have a share in Mahratta history.

In general terms the Mahrattas, in the wider sense, may be described under two main heads: first the Brahmans, and secondly the low-caste men. The Mahratta Brahmans possess, in an intense degree, the qualities of that famous caste, physical, intellectual and moral. They have generally the lofty brow, the regular features, the spare upright figure, and the calm aspect which might be expected in a race maintained in great purity yet upon a broad basis. In modern times they have proved themselves the most able and ambitious of all the Brahmans in the Indian Empire. They are notably divided into two sections: the Konkanast, coming from the Konkan or littoral tract on the west coast below the Western Ghāt mountains; and the Deshast, coming from the uplands or Deccan, on the east of the mountains. Though there have been many distinguished Deshasts, yet the most remarkable of all have been Konkanasts. For instance, the pēshwas, or heads of the Mahratta confederation which at one time dominated nearly all India, were Konkanast Brahmans. The birthplaces of these persons are still known, and to this day there are sequestered villages, nestling near the western base of the Ghāts, which are pointed to as being the ancestral homes of men who two centuries ago had political control over half India.

Apart from the Brahmans, the Mahrattas may be generally designated as Sūdras, the humblest of the four great castes into which the Hindu race is theoretically divided. But the upper classes claim to be Kshattriyas or Rajputs. They probably are aborigines fundamentally, with a mixture of what are now called the Scythian tribes, which at a very early time overran India. The ordinary Mahrattas, who form the backbone of the nation, have plain features, an uncouth manner, short stature, a small but wiry frame. Though not powerful physically as compared with the northern races of the Punjab and Oudh, they have much activity and an unsurpassed endurance. Born and bred in or near the Western Ghāt mountains and the numerous tributary ranges, they have all the qualities of mountaineers. In recent times they enter military service less and less, betaking themselves mainly to cultivation and to the carrying business connected with agriculture. As husbandmen they are not remarkable; but as graziers, as cartmen, as labourers, they are excellent. As artisans they have seldom signalized themselves, save as armourers and clothweavers.

In the Konkan there are some superior proprietors termed Khots. With this and perhaps some other exceptions, there are not in the Mahratta country many large landlords, nor many of the superior tenure-holders whose position relatively to that of the peasantry has caused much discussion in other parts of India. There are indeed many Mahratta chiefs still resident in the country, members of the aristocracy which formerly enjoyed much wealth and power. They are sometimes in the position of landlords, but often they are the assignees of the land revenue, which they are entitled under special grants to collect for themselves instead of for government, paying merely a small sum to Government by way of quit-rent. Under them the cultivators are by British arrangements placed in the position of peasant proprietors. The village community has always existed as the social unit in the Mahratta territories, though with less cohesion among its members than in the village communities of Hindustan and the Punjab. The ancient offices pertaining to the village, as those of the headmen (patel), the village accountant, &c., are in working order throughout the Mahratta country.

The Mahratta peasantry possess manly fortitude under suffering and misfortune. Though patient and good-tempered in the main, they have a latent warmth of temper, and if oppressed beyond a certain limit they would fiercely turn upon their tormentors. As a rule they are orderly and law-abiding, but traditions of plunder have been handed down to them from early times, and many of them retain the predatory instincts of their forefathers. The neighbourhood of dense forests, steep hill-sides, and fastnesses hard of access offers extraordinary facilities to plunderers for screening themselves and their booty. Thus gang robbery is apt to break out, gains head with rapidity, and is suppressed with difficulty. In times of peace it is kept under, but during war, or whenever the bands of civil order are loosened, it becomes a cause of anxiety and a source of danger. The women have frankness and strength of character; they work hard in the fields, and as a rule evince domestic virtue.

The peasantry preserve a grave and quiet demeanour, but they have their humble ideas of gaiety, and hold their gatherings on occasions of births or marriages. They frequently beguile their toil with carols. They like the gossiping and bartering at the rural markets and in the larger fairs, which are sometimes held in strikingly picturesque localities. They are superstitious, and worship with hearty veneration any being or thing whose destructive agency they fear. They even speak of the tiger with honorific titles. They are Hindus, but their Hinduism is held to be of a non-Aryan type. They are sincerely devout in religion, and feel an awe regarding “the holy Brahmans,” holding the life and the person of a Brahman sacred, even though he be a criminal of the deepest dye. They of course regard the cow as equally sacred. There are two principal sects among modern Hindus—those who follow Vishnu, and those who follow Siva. The Mahrattas generally follow Siva and his wife, a dread goddess known under many names. The Mahratta war-cry, “Har, Har, Mahadeo,” referred to Siva. All classes high and low are fond of the religious festivals, the principal of which, the Dasahra, occurs in October, when the first harvest of the year has been secured and the second crops sown. This has always been held with the utmost pomp and magnificence at every centre of Mahratta wealth and power. The people frequently assemble in bowers and arbours constructed of leafy boughs to hear kathas recited. These recitations are partly religious, partly also romantic and quasi-historical. After them national resolves of just resistance or of aggressive ambition have often been formed.

Apart from the Mahratta Brahmans, as already mentioned, the Mahratta nobles and princes are not generally fine-looking men. There is general truth in what was once said by a high authority to the effect that, while there will be something dignified in the humblest Rājpūt, there will be something mean in the highest Mahratta. Bluff good-nature, a certain jocoseness, a humour pungent and ready, though somewhat coarse, a hot or even violent disposition, are characteristics of Mahratta chieftains. They usually show little aptitude for business or for sedentary pursuits; but, on the other hand, they are born equestrians and sportsmen. Mahratta ladies and princesses have often taken a prominent part, for good or evil, in public affairs and dynastic intrigues.

Though they have produced some poetry, the Mahrattas have never done much for literature. Nor have they been distinguished in industrial art. Their architecture in wood, however, was excellent; and the teak forests of their country afforded the finest timber for building and for carving. They had also much skill in the construction of works for the supply of drinking water on a large scale and for irrigation.

The range of the Western Ghāts enabled the Mahrattas to rise against their Mahommedan conquerors, to reassert their Hindu nationality against the whole power of the Mogul Empire, and to establish in its place an empire of their own. It is often stated that in India British conquest or annexation succeeded Mahommedan rule; and to a considerable extent this was the case. But, on the other hand, the principal power, the widest sovereignty, which the British overthrew in India was that of the Mahrattas.

During the earlier Moslem invasions in 1100 and in subsequent years, the Mahrattas do not seem to have made much resistance. They submitted to several Mahommedan kings under the changing circumstances of those times. It was against the Mahommedan king of Bijapur in the Deccan that Sivaji, the hero of Mahratta history, first rebelled in 1657. Sivaji and his fighting officers were Mahrattas of humble caste, but his ministers were Brahmans. When the Mogul Empire absorbed the Bijapur kingdom he defied the emperor. He imparted a self-reliant enthusiasm to his countrymen, formed them into an army, and organized them as a political community; his mountaineer infantry, though limited in numbers, proved desperately courageous; his cavalry was daring and ubiquitous. The Moslems, having once overcome the Hindus in almost all parts of India, had not for centuries met with any noteworthy uprising. Sivaji, however, planned their expulsion, and before the end of his restless life made much progress in the execution of that design. The new state which he founded was maintained under various vicissitudes after his death. Mahratta resistance, once aroused by him, was never extinguished, and the imperial resources were worn out by ceaseless though vain efforts to quell it. The great Mogul emperor’s impoverished and enfeebled successor was fain to recognize the Mahratta state by a formal instrument. The Mahratta king, a descendant of Sivaji, had become a roi fainéant, and the arrangement was negotiated by his Brahman minister, whose official designation was the pēshwa. The office of pēshwa then became hereditary in the minister’s family, and grew in importance as the Mahratta kingdom rose, while the king sunk into the condition of a puppet. Thus the Mahratta power was consolidated throughout nearly the whole of Maharashtra under the Brahman pēshwa as virtual sovereign, with his capital at Poona, while the titular Mahratta raja or king had his court at the neighbouring city of Satara. Despite his political importance, however, the raja was still venerated as the descendant of Sivaji.

Then several chiefs carved out principalities of their own from among the ruins of the Mogul Empire. Thus Raghoji Bhonsla established himself in the tracts lying underneath the southern base of the Satpura range (namely, Nagpur and Berar), overran Orissa and entered Bengal. Damaji Gaekwar descended from the Western Ghāts upon the alluvial plains of Gujarat around Baroda; Tukoji Holkar subdued the uplands of Malwa beyond the Vindhya range on the north bank of the Nerbudda; and Mahadji Sindhia obtained possession of large tracts immediately south of Agra and Delhi, marched into Hindustan and became virtually the master of the Mogul emperor himself (see Gwalior). Sivaji’s own father had founded a dominion at Tanjore in the extreme south, which, however, never had relations with the central power at Poona. The same may be said of the state of Kolhapur, allotted to a younger branch of Sivaji’s family.

But these principalities, though independent respecting internal administration, and making war or peace with their neighbours according to opportunity, owned allegiance to the pēshwa at Poona as the head of the Mahratta race. On state occasions heads of principalities would visit Poona by way of acknowledging the superior position of the pēshwa. On the other hand, the pēshwa was careful to obtain the sanction of his nominal sovereign at Satara to every important act of state. Thus a confederation was formed of which the Brahman pēshwa or head was at Poona, governing the adjacent territories, while the members, belonging to the lower castes, were scattered throughout the continent of India. Such was the Mahratta Empire which supplanted the Mogul Empire. The Mahratta power grew and prospered till it embraced all western and most of central India. Its culminating point was reached about 1750, or about a century after Sivaji first rebelled against his Mahommedan sovereign.

Its armies drew soldiers from all parts of India. The infantry was not of good quality; but its cavalry was really an enormous force, numbering fully a hundred thousand in all. The horsemen were splendidly audacious in riding for long distances into the heart of a hostile country, without support, striking some terrific blows, and then returning rapidly beyond reach of pursuit. They could truly boast of having watered their horses in every Indian river from the Cauvery to the Indus. If attacked, however, in a competent manner, they would not stand; and afterwards, in conflict with the British, whole masses of them behaved in a dastardly manner. As their ambition grew the chiefs began to organize their troops after the system learnt from the English and French. In this way several Frenchmen—Benoit de Boigne, Perron and others—rose in the Mahratta service to a position dangerous to the British. But the new system was unsuited to the Mahratta genius; it hampered the meteoric movements of the cavalry, which was obliged to manœuvre in combination with the new artillery and the disciplined battalions. Mahratta elders hence uttered predictions of military disaster which were in the end more than fulfilled.

The rapid and amazing success of the Mahratta confederation rendered it the largest Hindu power that ever existed in India. But it lacked the elements of true greatness. It was founded by plundering expeditions, and its subsequent existence was tainted by the baseness of this predatory origin. With the exception of the pēshwas, its chiefs were little more than free-booting warriors, for the most part rude, violent and unlettered. Their custom was to offer their neighbours or victims the alternative of paying chouth, that is, one-fourth of the revenue, or being plundered and ravaged. Thus the Mahratta chouth came to have an ominous significance in Indian history. Desultory efforts were made to establish a civil government, but in the main there was no administration formed on statesmanlike principles. The pēshwas, on the other hand, as Brahmans, were men of the highest education then possible in India. But they were absorbed by the direction of military and political combinations, and by intrigues for the preservation of their own power; and, even allowing for all this, they failed to evince the civil capacity which might have been anticipated. While several displayed commanding abilities, and some possessed many virtues, one alone attempted to conduct an administration in an enlightened manner, and he died prematurely.

There were at the same time powers existing in India to keep the Mahrattas in check, and some parts of India were excepted from their depredations. The English power was rising at Calcutta, Madras and Bombay. The nascent Sikh power prevented Mahratta incursions from being permanently successful in the Punjab. As the Mogul Empire broke up, some separate Mahommedan powers rose upon its ruins. The nizam of the Deccan established himself at Hyderabad, comparatively near the headquarters of the pēshwa. Hyder Ali was proclaimed sultan of Mysore in the south. Ahmed Shah Abdali burst upon India from Afghanistan. The Mahrattas bravely encountered him at Panipat near Delhi in 1761, and were decisively defeated. The defeat, however, did not essentially shake the Mahratta confederation. It was collision with the English that broke that wonderful fabric to pieces.

The first collision with the English occurred in 1775, arising from a disputed succession to the pēshwaship. The English government at Bombay supported one of the claimants, and the affair became critical for the English as well as for the Mahrattas. It was at this conjuncture that Warren Hastings displayed his political genius and rendered signal service to his country, by succouring from Bengal the defeated Bombay army and negotiating a peace (in 1782) that restored the status quo.

The next collision happened in 1803. The pēshwa had fallen into grave difficulties with some of the principal members of the Mahratta confederation. He therefore placed himself under British protection, and this led to the great Mahratta War, in which the Marquis Wellesley displayed those talents for military and political combination which rendered him illustrious. It was during the campaigns which ensued that General Arthur Wellesley defeated Sindhia and the Bhonsla raja at Assaye, and General Lake won the victories of Farrukhabad, Dīg and Laswari over Sindhia and Holkar. The three confederates, Sindhia, Holkar and the Bhonsla, concluded peace with the British government, after making large sacrifices of territory in favour of the victor, and submitting to British control politically. It was during these events that the British won the province of Orissa, the old Hindustan afterwards part of the North-Western Provinces, and a part of the western coast in Gujarat.

The third collision came to pass between 1816 and 1818, through the conduct, not only of the confederates, but also of the pēshwa (Baji Bao) himself. During the previous war the pēshwa had been the protégé and ally of the British; and since the war he had fallen more completely than before under British protection—British political officers and British troops being stationed at his capital. He apparently felt encouraged by circumstances to rebel. Holkar and the Bhonsla committed hostile acts. The predatory Pindaris offered a formidable resistance to the British troops. So the pēshwa ventured to take part in the combination against the British power, which even yet the Mahrattas did not despair of overthrowing. After long-protracted menaces, he attacked the British at Kirkee, but failed utterly, and fled a ruined man. Ultimately he surrendered to Sir John Malcolm, and was sent as a state pensioner to Bithūr, near Cawnpore. The British, however, released the raja of Satara from the captivity in which he had been kept during the pēshwa’s time, and reinstated him on the throne, with a limited territory. Owing to these events the British government became possessed of the Konkan and of the greater part of the Deccan.

It remains to mention briefly the fortunes of each remaining member of the once imperial confederation. The principality of Satara was held to have lapsed in 1848 by the death of the raja without lineal heirs, and was annexed by the British government. The Bhonsla raja of Nagpur died without lineal heirs in 1853, and his territory was likewise annexed. The house of Holkar remained faithful to its engagements with the British government, and its position as a feudatory of the empire was maintained. In Sindhia’s territory, by reason of internal feuds, the British had to undertake measures which were successfully terminated after the battles of Maharajpur and Panniar in 1843. But on the whole the house of Sindhia remained faithful. Sindhia himself was actively loyal during the Mutiny. The gaekwar gradually fell under British control towards the close of the 18th century, and his house never engaged in hostilities with the British government. The ex-pēshwa lived to old age at Bithur, and died in 1857. His adopted son grew up to be the Nana Sahib, of infamous memory, who took a leading part in the Mutiny.

See J. Grant Duff, History of the Mahrattas (3 vols., 1826); T. D. Broughton, Letters written in a Mahratta Camp (1813); M. G. Ranade, Rise of the Maratha Power (Bombay, 1900).  (R. T.; J. S. Co.)