1902 Encyclopedia > Mahrattas

Mahrattas




MAHRATTAS. The Mahrattas inhabit that portion of India which is known by the ancient name of Maharashtra (Sanskrit for the great kingdom or region). This large tract, extending from the Arabian Sea on the west to the Satpura mountains in the north, comprises a good part of western and central India, including the modern provinces of the Concan, Khandesh, Berar, the British Deccan, part of Nagpur, and about half the Nizam's Deccan. Its area amounts to about 120,000 square miles, and its population to about 12 millions of souls, or 100 to the square mile. The population has increased greatly in the 19th century under British rule; but there had been much decrease during the 17th and 18th centuries owing to war and devastation. Frightful depopulation occurred from the famine which was at its height in 1400 A.D., and was called the Durga Devi or the goddess of destruction. Much mortality was also caused by famine between 1801 and 1803. There was probably a period of high prosperity during the first centuries of the Christian era, under a number of petty indigenous sovereigns, among whom these wide territories had become parcelled out before the first invasion of the Deccan by the Moslems about 1100.

The etymology of the word Mahratta (or Marhatta, as it is written in the vernacular) is uncertain. The name does not indicate a social caste, or a religious sect; it is not even tribal. It embraces the people of all races who dwell iu the region of Maharashtra, both high-casto and low-caste Hindus; it is applied, of course, to Hindus only. Thus there are Mahratta Brahmans, next Mahratta Kumbis or cultivators, and Mahratta Rajputs or warriors, though the latter have but a small infusion of real Rajput blood. The Mahrattas, then, are essentially Hindus in religion and in caste ordinances, not differing in these respects from the Hindus in other parts of India. They have a language of their own, called the Mahratti, a dialect of the Sanskrit, —a copious, flexible, and sonorous tongue.

But the Mahrattas have always been a separate nation or people, and still regard themselves as such, though now-adays they are almost all under British or Mohammedan jurisdiction; that is, they belong either to British India or to the Nizam's Dominions. A few states or principalities purely Mahratta,—such as Kolhapur and some lesser states clustering round it in the southern Deccan,—still survive, but they are under close supervision on the part of the British Government. There are indeed still three large native states nominally Mahratta, namely, 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 Gujerat on the western coast. But in these states the prince, his relatives, and some of his ministers or employes only are Mahrattas; the nobility and the mass of the people are not Mahrattas at all, but 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 the Mahratta history, and are con-cerned in the extraneous achievements of that people.

In general terms the Mahrattas, as above defined, may be described under two main heads, first the Brahmans, and secondly the humble or 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, the calm aspect, the commanding gait, 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 Concanast, coming from the Concan or littoral tract on the west coast below the Western Ghat mountains, and the Deshast, coming from the uplands or Deccan, on the east of the mountains. Though there have been many distinguished Dfeshasts, yet the most remarkable of all have been Concanasts. For instance, the peshwas, or heads of the Mahratta confedera-tion which at one time dominated nearly all India, were Concanast Brahmans. The birthplaces of these persons are still known, and to this day there are sequestered villages, nestling near the western base of the Ghats, which are pointed to as being the ancestral homes of men who two centuries ago had political control over the Indian empire.

Apart from the Brahmans, the Mahrattas may be generally designated as Sudras, or men of the humblest of the four great castes into which the Hindu race is divided. But, as indicated above, the upper classes among the Mahrattas claim to be Kshattriyas or Rajputs. They prob-ably are aborigines fundamentally, with a mixture of what are now called the Scythian tribes, which at a very early time overran India. They have but a slight admixture of the Aryans, who victoriously immigrated from Central Asia and established the Hindu system.
These ordinary Mahrattas, who form the backbone of the nation, have plain features, an uncouth manner, a clownish aspect, short stature, a small but wiry frame. Their eyes, however, are bright and piercing, and under excite-ment will gleam with passion. Though not powerful physically as compared with the northern races of the Punjab and Oudh, they have much activity and an unsur-passed endurance. Born and bred in or near the Western Ghat mountains and the numerous tributary ranges, they have all the qualities of mountaineers. Among their native hills they have at all times evinced desperate courage. Away from the hills they do not display remarkable valour, except under the discipline which may be supplied by other races. For such organization they have never, of them-selves, shown any aptitude. Under civilized authority, however, they are to be reckoned among the good soldiers of the empire. 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.

Those Mahrattas who dwell in the extreme west of Maharashtra, within the main range of the Western Ghats, and in the extreme north of Maharashtra near the Satpura mountains, are blessed with unfailing rainfall and regular seasons. But those who dwell at a distance from these main ranges, or among the lower or subsidiary ranges, are troubled with variable moisture and uncertain seasons, frequently, too, with alternations of drought and of flood. Periodically they are afflicted by scarcity, and sometimes by severe famine. They have within the last half century largely extended their area of cultivation. Their industry, which is chiefly agricultural, has grown apace. Their tendency is undoubtedly to increase in numbers; and, despite occasional depopulation from disasters of season, they have increased considerably on the whole. But in some districts, owing to the famine of 1877, and the sick-ness which ensued when excessive rainfall followed the drought, the population has been stationary, while in others it has actually retrograded because epidemics and plagues of vermin were added to the misfortunes of season.

Among all the Mahrattas the land is usually held on the tenure technically known as " ryotwari." This tenure is now established under the British Government by surveying and assessing operations comprehended under the official term " settlement." It practically means peasant pro-prietorship. The proprietor, or ryot, is a cultivator also. His holding may be on the average 20 or 30 acres, divided into small fields. Of these fields he cultivates some, himself working at the plough, and his family weed-ing and cleaning the soil. He will also hire labour, and thus the farm-labourers become a considerable class. He pays to the Government direct the land tax, which is assessed on his holding for tbe long term of thirty years, so that he may have the benefit of his improvements. His property in the land is absolute; it descends according to the Hindu law of inheritance; it can be sold or otherwise transferred by private arrangement; it is pledged or mortgaged for debt, and money is largely borrowed on its security. It is liable to sale for default in regard to land revenue; and Government as a creditor has the first claim. Thus, as a peasant proprietary, the Mahrattas are in the best possible position, and have been so for many years since the completion of the British settlement. Their only fault is a disposition to live beyond their humble means. They have thus been of late years led into debt, which has produced disputes between them and the money-lenders, ending sometimes in agrarian disturbance.

In the Concan there are some superior proprietors termed Khotes. With this and perhaps some other exceptions, notably that of Nagpur, 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 resi-dent in the country, members of the aristocracy which formerly enjoyed much more wealth and power than at present. 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 tbe position of peasant proprietors. The village community Jias 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 headman (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 endurable limit they would fiercely turn and rend their tormentors. Cruelty also is an element in their character. 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 time 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. Conjugal infidelity, however, is not unknown among them, and here, as elsewhere in India, leads to bloodshed.

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 fre-quently 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 pictur-esque localities. They are utterly superstitious, and will worship with hearty veneration any being or thing whose destructive agency they fear. They will, 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 the 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, " Hur Hur Mahadeo," which used to be heard above the din of battle urging the soldiers to onset with victorious elan, referred to Siva. All classes high and low are fond of the religious festivals, the principal of which, " the Dasserah," 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 con-structed 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. Their appearance, notwithstanding jewel-lery and rich apparel, is still that of peasants. There cer-tainly are some exceptions, but 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 llajput, 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. As a rule they are not moderate in living, and are not unfrequently addicted to intemperance. Instances of licentiousness and debauchery have always been found among them. They have generally sprung from a lowly origin, and they have been proud of this fact even after attaining greatness. For instance, three Mahratta chiefs, each of whom established a large kingdom—Sindhia, Holkar, and the gaekwar— declared the lowliness of their birth. Holkar was the descendant of a shepherd; Sindhia boasted of having begun life by keeping his master's slippers; and by his very title the gaekwar perpetuates the memory of his pro-genitor having tended the cow (gae). Mahratta ladies and princesses have often taken a prominent part in public affairs and in dynastic intrigues; in some instances their conduct has been of the highest type, in others their in-fluence has been exerted for evil.

Though they have produced some poetry, the Mahrattas have never done much for Oriental literature. Nor have they been distinguished in industrial art. Their archi-tecture in wood, however, was excellent; and the teak forests of their country afforded the finest timber for build-ing 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.

On the whole the Mahrattas will hardly he regarded by Europeans as being among the most interesting of the Indian races. The admirable History of the Mahrattas, by Captain Grant Duff (1826), may possibly awaken enthusiasm, as written under personal ad-vantages and with a living knowledge which will never again be possessed by a historian of the later Mahratta times. At all events, a strange interest gathers itself around the Mahratta history.

In the first place the Mahratta country is for the most part strategically important as well as highly picturesque. Some parts of the Deccan are indeed almost irretrievably ugly. The stretches of low hill have long been disforested, and even laid bare of lesser vegetation, and the champaign tracts are treeless as far as the eye can reach. Still much of the Mahratta country lies in the bosom or near the sTrirts of mountains. The geological formations may-be popularly described as consisting of trap, basalt, and indurated lava in magnificent layers. The black precipices, scarped for thousands of feet, and striped with marks of the layers, are superb. The summits, though generally fiat with horizontal outlines, are often broken into towers and cones. The vapours from the Arabian Sea are propelled by the south-west monsoon against these moun-tain tops, and produce an excessive rainfall. Hence arise a luxuri-ant vegetation and the surprising spectacle (at certain seasons) of cascades tumbling down the perpendicular flanks of the mountains. The forests have suffered during ages from wasteful cutting; but of late years a system of conservancy has been established, and many great forests remain.

The mountains stand in the midst of a fertile and populous country ; on both sides of them are rich valleys, cultivated plains, numerous villages, and large towns. Thus insurgents or warriors had here a complete military base, with sources whence supplies could be drawn, and strongholds for organizing power or for secur-ing refuge. This hill country has been regarded by strategists as one of the strongest, in a military sense, to be found in India. It extends over nearly 500 miles from north to south, and has at least twenty fortresses which in uncivilized warfare were virtually im-pregnable if resolutely defended, and which, though of course un-able to resist a scientific attack in these times, would yet prove difficult of approach. Several of these are surrounded with historic traditions. In former times there was no road worthy of the name across these mountains. No means of passage existed save steep rugged pathways for footmen and pack animals. Within the last generation the British Government has, in Oriental phrase, lifted up the veil of these mountains, piercing them with well-made roads and with railways. There are now seven of such roads, and two lines of railway open, a third being projected. Guns and troops as well as goods and produce can now be moved up and down these once impassable mountains.

It is the range of the Western Ghats which enabled the Mahrattas to rise against their Mohammedan 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 held that in India British conquest or annexation succeeded Mohammedan 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 Mohammedan kings under the changing circumstances of those times. They were despised by their conquerors, and were called "mountain rats" in derision. It was against the Mohammedan 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 Mahratta Brahmans. When the Mogul empire absorbed that 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. Having once overcome the Hindus in almost all parts of India, often after heroic resistance, the Moslems had not for centuries met with any noteworthy up-rising. Sivaji, however, planned their expulsion, and before the end of his restless life made much progress in the execution of that design. The new Mahratta state which ho founded was maintained under various vicissitudes after his death. Still Mahratta resist-ance, once aroused by him, was never extinguished, and the im-perial resources were worn out by ceaseless though vain efforts to quell it. The great Mogul emperor's impoverished and en-feebled successor was fain to recognize the Mahratta state by a formal instrument. The Mahratta king, a descendant of Sivaji, was a roi faineant, and the arrangement was negotiated by his Brahman minister, whose official designation was the peshwa. The office of peshwa 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 peshwa as virtual sovereign, with his capital at Poona, while the titular Mahratta raja or king had his court at the neighbouring city of Sattara. 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 Eaghoji Bhonsla established himself in the tracts lying underneath the southern base of the Satpura range (namely, Nagpur and Berar), overran Orissa, and entered Bengal. Dammaji Gaekwar descended from the Western Ghats upon the alluvial plains of Gujerat around Baroda ;_ Takaji Holkar subdued the uplands of Malwa beyond the Vindhya range on the north bank of the Nerbudda ; and Madhaji 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. Princes of Sivaji's own family founded a dominion at Tanjore, in the rich delta of the Kaveri south of Madras.

But these principalities, though really independent respecting internal administration, and making war or peace with their neigh-bours according to opportunity, yet owned allegiance to the peshwa at Poona as the head of the Mahratta body. On state occasions heads of principalities would visit Poona by way of acknowledging the superior position of the peshwa. On the other hand the peshwa was careful to obtain the sanction of his nominal sovereign at Sattara to every important act of state. Thus a confederation was formed of which the Brahman peshwa or head was at Poona, governing the adjacent territories, while the members, belonging to the lower castes of Mahrattas, were scattered throughout the con-tinent of India. Such was the Mahratta empire which supplanted the Mogul empire. The Mahratta power grew and prospered till it embraced all India with certain exceptions. Its culminating point was reached about 1750, or about a century after Sivaji first rebelled against his Mohammedan 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 Kaveri to the Indus. If attacked, however, in a competent manner they would not stand ; and afterwards, in con-flict 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—De Boigne, Perron, and others— rose in the Mahratta service to a position dangerous to the British. But the hew system was unsuited to the Mahratta genius ; it hampered the meteoric movements of the cavalry, which was obliged to manoeuvre 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.

While the Mahrattas collected vast quantities of treasure and valuables, the ordinary revenue of the confederation hardly exceeded ten millions sterling annually. Large amounts, however, were drawn by feudal tenure-holders, which never appeared in the public accounts. The area and population under the dominion or the control of the confederation could hardly have been less than 700,000 square miles and 90 millions of souls.

The rapid and amazing success of the Mahratta confederation rendered it the largest Hindu sovereignty 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 peshwas, its chiefs were little more than freebooting 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 peshwas, 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 tho 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 only 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 it has just been mentioned that 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 Mohammedan powers rose upon its ruins. The nizam of the Deccan established himself at Hyderabad, comparatively near the headquarters of the peshwa. Hyder Ali was proclaimed sultan of Mysore in tho 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 empire. It was collision with the English that broke that wonderful fabric to pieces.

The first collision with the English occurred in 1780 ; it arose from a disputed succession to the peshwaship. 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.

The next collision happened in 1803. The peshwa had fallen into I grave difficulties with some of the principal members of the Mahratta confederation, namely Sindhia, Holkar, and the Bhonsla raja of Nagpur. 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 combina-tion which have rendered him illustrious. It was during the cam-paigns which ensued that General Arthur Wellesley defeated Holkar and the Bhonsla raja at Assaye, and General Lake won the victories of Farrukhabad, Dig, 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. Thus the Mahratta empire was broken up. It was during these events that the British won the province of Orissa, the old Hindustan now known as the North-Western Provinces, and a part of the western coast comprising Gujerat.

The third collision came to pass between 1816 and 1818, through the conduct, not only of the confederates, but also of the peshwa himself. During the previous war the peshwa had been the protege and ally of the British ; and since the war he had fallen more completely than before under British protection and guidance, British political officers and British troops being stationed at his capital. He apparently felt encouraged by circumstances to rebel. Holkar and the Bhonslas committed hostile acts. The predatory Pindaris offered a formidable resistance to the British troops. So the peshwa 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 Kirki, but failed utterly, and fled a ruined man. Ulti-mately he surrendered to Sir John Malcolm, and was sent as a state pensioner to Bithur, near Cavvnpnr. Thus the last vestige of the Mahratta empire disappeared. The British, however, released the raja of Sattara from the captivity in which ho had been kept during the peshwa's time, and reinstated him on the throne. Owing to these events the British Government became possessed of the Con-can 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 Sattara was held to have lapsed in 1849 by the death of the raja without lineal heirs, and was annexed by the British Government. The Bhonsla raja of Nagpur and Berar was obliged to surrender Berar to the nizam, as the ally of the British, in 1803. Berar then remained under the nizam till 1854, when it came under British administration, though it is still included in the nizam's dominions. The raja of rTagpur died without lineal heirs in 1853, and his territory, being held to have lapsed, was annexed to the British territories. The house of Holkar has, during the last sixty years, remained faithful to its engagements with the British Government, and its position as a feudatory of the empire is well 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 has remained faithful. Sindhia himself was actively loyal during the war of the mutinies. The gaekwar gradually fell under British control toward s the close of last century, and his house has never engaged in hostilities with the British Government. The gaekwar Khande Bao signalized himself by loyalty during the war of the mutinies. His successor, Malhar Bao, has recently been deposed by the British Government on account of gross maladministration. The ex-peshwa lived to old age at Bithur, and died in 1851. His adopted son grew up to be the Nana Sahib, of infamous memory, who took a leading part in the war of the mutinies. (R. T.)



The above article was written by Sir Richard Temple, Bart., D.C.L.



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