Extent of the Maratha Confederacy ca. 1760
(shown here in yellow)
The Maratha Empire, (also spelled Mahratta), also called the Maratha Confederacy, was a state in central India. It was founded in 1674 by Shivaji and existed until 1818.
The Hindu Marathas had long lived in the Desh region around Satara in the western portion of the Deccan plateau, where it meets the eastern slopes of the Western Ghats, and had resisted incursions into the region by the Muslim Mughal rulers of northern India. Under their leader Shivaji, the Maratha freed themselves from the Muslim sultans of Bijapur to the southeast, and became much more aggressive and began to frequently raid Mughal territory, sacking the Mughal port of Surat in 1664. Shivaji was proclaimed king in 1674. The Maratha spread and conquered much of central India by Shivaji's death in 1680, and raided north into the Mughal territory. After 1681, the Mughal emperor Aurangzeb turned his attention to on the south, leading an army deep into the Deccan in 1686-7, which conquered the sultanates of Bijapur and Golconda. While the Maratha army was defeated, they turned to guerilla warfare from the forests of the Ghats, and succeeded in resisting the Mughals. The long running war in the south began to severely drain Mughal finances. The battle with the Maratha also began to fray the religious tolerance that had characterized Mughal rule. This conflict eventually lead to the collapse of Mughal power in India.
Aurangzeb died in 1707, after spending the years since 1681 in the Deccan, trying to consolidate Mughal control. After a peace of several years concluded by Aurangzeb's successor, Bahadur Shah, The Maratha resumed their attacks on the Mughal empire. In the 1720's, they succeeded in separating the former southern Mughal province of Hyderabad from the rest of the Mughal empire. Malwa was ceded to the Marathas by the Mughals in 1738, and shortly thereafter conquered Orissa in eastern India and attacked Bengal. It was during the period of great expansion that the decentralized structure of the confederacy developed. Shivaji's descendants, the Maharajas of Satara, were the nominal rulers of the Maratha state, but Brahmin officials called Peshwas became the de facto leaders of the confederacy from their seat at Pune. Provincial Maratha leaders established considerable autonomy from the center, although acknowledging the nominal authority of the Maharaja and the Peshwa. After 1750, Maratha power was distributed among five centers: the Peshwa in Pune, the Gaekwar in Baroda, who controlled much of Gujarat; the Bhonsle in Nagpur, who controlled much of central India; and the Holkar and Sindhia families in Indore (Malwa) and Gwalior, Zambre in Aurangabad, respectively. Maharajas of Shivaji's Bhonsle clan also ruled in Kolhapur in southern Maharashtra and Thanjavur (Tanjore) in Tamil Nadu.
Mughal power was collapsing in the 1750's, and in 1756-1757 Ahmad Shah Abdali of Afghanistan sacked the Mughal capital, Delhi. The Peshwa sent an army to challenge the Afghans, and the Maratha army was decisively defeated on January 13, 1761 at the Third Battle of Panipat. The battle checked Maratha expansion, prevented the capture of Delhi, and encouraged the fragmentation of the empire. Even today the phrase 'meet your Panipat' in Marathi, has a similar meaning as the phrase, 'meet your Waterloo', in English.
After 1761, the confederacy dissolved into five autonomous Maratha states. In 1775 the British East India Company, from its base in Bombay, intervened in a succession struggle in Pune, which became the First Anglo-Maratha War, which ended in 1782 with a restoration of the pre-war status quo. In 1802, the British intervened in Baroda to support the heir to the throne against rival claimants, and signed a treaty with the new Maharaja recognizing his independence from the Maratha empire in return for his acknowledgement of British sovereignty. In the Second Anglo-Maratha War (1803-1805), the Maratha retained their independence, but lost Orissa and most of Gujarat to Britain. The Third Anglo-Maratha War (1817-1818) resulted in the loss of Maratha independence, and left Britain in control of most of India. The Maratha heartland of Desh, including Pune, came under direct British rule, with the exception of the states of Kolhapur and Satara, which retained local Maratha rulers. The Maratha-ruled states of Gwalior, Indore, and Nagpur lost territory, and were integrated into the British Raj as princely states that retained local autonomy under British sovereignty.
The name of the empire is today preserved in the Indian state of Maharashtra, which was created in 1960 as a Marathi-speaking state.
See also: History of India