Bajirao was one of the most significant figures of 18th century Indian History. Unfortunately, many who rely on popular history books and school textbooks would not be aware of his two decades reign from 1720-1740, and his amazing achievements. This is true not just of Bajirao, but of the entire 18th century Maratha History. Often history narratives in India transition from 17th Century Mughal Era to 19th Century British Era, largely ignoring the 18th Century Maratha Empire – an empire which at its peak covered a large part of present day India.
A lot of Maratha History has not been widely translated into English and other languages. “The Era of Bajirao” – Dr. Uday Kulkarni’s excellent new book, which chronicles the life of Bajirao, will hopefully fill in some of this knowledge gap about Maratha History. This book was released in Pune today. The chief guests at the publication ceremony were Babasaheb Purandare, Air Marshal (Retd.) Bhushan Gokhale and Prof. Raja Dixit.
‘The Era of Baji rao” is a proper well researched history book, filled with numerous references and quotes from original letters, treaties, ‘Bakhars’ and other reference books. Unlike many ‘popular’ history books, this book has plenty of hard data, and doesn’t draw too many conclusions. The data, facts from original sources are presented to the readers to draw their own inferences. Dr. Kulkarni was researching this book for over two years. His previous book ‘Solstice at Panipat’ (Published in 2011) about the 3rd Battle of Panipat, was very well received and has had multiple editions/reprints.
A practicing surgeon, a retired navy officer, a journalism graduate, a historian – Dr. Kulkarni has a very interesting background. He has his own history library of over four hundred rare reference books. He has also spent countless hours, researching hard to find references in libraries in India and UK. Three years back, he was able to find a rare original document (Panipat Bakhar) in a library in London, which had gone ‘missing’ for over 150 years. I have been fortunate to have known Dr. Kulkarni for over five years, and it is always great to have long discussions with him on Maratha History.
The “Era of Bajirao” starts with a review of volatile history period in the ‘Deccan’, post the death of Shivaji in 1680. Aurangzeb shifted his base southwards in 1681, with a goal of complete conquest of the Deccan. What began was a 27 year war that ended only in 1707 with the death of Aurangzeb. Shahu (Sambhaji’s son), who was in Mughal captivity, was released after Aurangzeb’s death. Shahu set up his base in Satara, and appointed Balaji Vishwanath as his ‘Peshwa’ (Prime Minister) in 1713. Following Balaji Vishwanath’s death, his son Bajirao was appointed to this post. Bajirao was only 20 years old then. This appointment was not a pure hereditary appointment – Shahu had seen Bajirao in action and was impressed with his capabilities.
Bajirao’s reign began in 1720, and in a short span of 20 years, before his untimely death at the age of 40, he had expanded the Maratha power across Central India. He expanded the ‘Swarajya’ established by Shivaji, into a ‘Samrajya’, and was at the ‘Gates of Delhi’ multiple times. The 1720 and 1740 political power maps of India look quite different. Even though Bajirao built the Shaniwarwada and shifted his base to Pune, he didn’t spend a lot of time there. He was constantly on campaigns. The Shaniwarwada and Pune became much more important during the reigns of later Peshwas.
Dr. Kulkarni’s book goes into good detail of Bajirao’s many campaigns. The key ones being his multiple battles with the Nizam, the Malwa expansion, the ‘race’ to Delhi, and the campaign against the Portuguese in Konkan. Bajirao was constantly on the move, and it is interesting to note the numerous tactical and strategic wins he was able to achieve. Having never lost a major battle, his army’s speed & mobility were often his biggest assets.
“…The difference lay in that he knew when to fight as well as where to fight. More important, he knew when not to fight. Mobility was Bajirao’s forte, like the wind he could not fight without space for movement” – Dr. Uday Kulkarni
The Battle of Palkhed in 1728 is considered to be one of the great cavalry battles of the 18th century, and has been studied extensively by military strategists. The chessboard like fast moves executed by Bajirao against the Nizam culminated in the entrapment and surrender of larger, heavily equipped Nizam army on the banks of Godavari at Palkhed. This battle victory really helped establish the foundation of Bajirao’s legacy. (On a related note – Dr. Kulkarni gave an excellent lecture last year at Vasant Vyakhyanmala in Pune, on this battle).
Bajirao made multiple campaigns in North India, and the 1737 Delhi campaign was an important one. As large Mughal armies were advancing on him, Bajirao made another of his lightning moves, bypassed the adversaries and surprised and shocked everyone by ending at the gates of Delhi. He had no interest in staying there for long, and after the getting the desired terms from the Mughals, headed back as quickly has he had arrived in Delhi. He wanted to make a point regarding his strength. This campaign highlighted the weakness of the Mughal Emperor in Delhi. The Nizam was heading to Delhi to support the emperor, but was defeated by Bajirao at the Battle of Bhopal. This campaign again highlighted Bajirao’s strategy and speed.
Many historians have focused on Bajirao as a great general and military strategist (which he was), but reading the many references (letters, treaties) in Dr. Kulkarni’s book, the reader will realize the strengths of Bajirao as a ‘diplomat’.
“Bajirao had the head to plan and the hand to execute” – Grant Duff (Dr. Kulkarni reference to one of popular quotes by British Historian Duff, who wrote the Maratha History in early 19th century)
Bajirao got great support from Malharji Holkar, Ranoji Scindia, Pilaji Jadhav and others. Chimaji Appa, Bajirao’s younger brother was his key asset throughout his entire reign. They were together on some key campaigns, and Chimaji also led some important campaigns by himself. The top one among these was the Konkan campaign against the Portuguese from 1737-39. The Portuguese were unleashing religious oppression on the local population and there were many calls for help by the locals.
The final battle of this campaign was the attack on the key fort of Vasai. The fort had excellent defenses and was very well guarded by the Portuguese. After a long and hard battle, the fort finally fell in May 1739.
As a result of this battle and the following treaty, the entire island of ‘Sasthi’ (Salcette) (present day North/Central Mumbai), Thane, Northern Konkan area came under the control of the Marathas. The Portuguese territories remained restricted to Goa and Daman.
Only the island of Mumbai remained with the English. Note, the English were largely ‘neutral’ in this battle between the Marathas and the Portuguese.
If not for that this victorious campaign by Chimaji Appa, it is possible that large parts of present day greater Mumbai would have remained with the Portuguese, well into the British Era (just like Goa).
No story of Bajirao can be complete without a discussion about Mastani. The recent popular Bollywood film did generate a lot of good interest about Bajirao. Without getting into the historical accuracies debate, the film did raise some awareness about this era of history. Dr. Kulkarni’s book has a chapter on Mastani and Bajirao’s family issues, especially towards the end of 1730s. Here again, plenty of actual references (not speculations or popular ‘legends’) are provided.
Dr. Kulkarni has made the river Narmada a central ‘character’ in the book and ‘the river’ presents a summary at the beginning of every chapter. The Narmada has been a North-South divide for many centuries of Indian History. For Baji rao, the Narmada was initially a frontier, and later on the starting point of northern expansion. He crossed the river numerous times in his hectic series of campaigns. His untimely death also happened at the banks of the Narmada on April 28, 1740. He was cremated on the banks of the river, and today his Samadhi sits there at Ravarkhedi (in Madhya Pradesh, near Indore).
For anyone interested in serious history, Dr. Uday Kulkarni’s “The Era of Bajirao” provides hundreds of references. There is a good collection of images (paintings from various museums/libraries). There are many geographical and battle plan maps as well – though these maps could have been a bit better. As I mentioned earlier, this is an excellent work of detailed research. I would highly recommend this book to anyone interested in not just Bajirao, Maratha History, but 18th Century Indian History.