Maratha Kingdom Founder: Shivaji Bhosale

Shivaji Bhosale was the founder of the Maratha Kingdom in the 17th century (Vartak 1126). He began as a local chieftain in western India and eventually engaged in hostile relations and battles with the reigning Muslim rulers of India at that time; eventually he established an independent Hindu kingdom in the Deccan (Satar 167). Shivaji was born in April of 1627; his father was named Shahaji and was of the jagidar caste, a middle level gentry (Jasper 2). His mother, Jijabai, was abandoned by her husband during her pregnancy with Shivaji. Shivaji’s family has claims to royal lineages. One of these, King Porus, has been contested as there is a lack of evidence to confirm it (Kincaid 25). The descent through the Ranas of Udaipur, however, is much sounder. The name of Bhosale was said to have been connected to a fief of Bhosavat in Udaipur (Kincaid 25). Once out of this territory, the Bhosales came to the Maharashtra region, where they hired out as mercenaries to Mussulman princes (Kincaid 26). At the time of his birth, all of India was under Muslim rule and to gain support from the local population personal favors and mercenary gains were offered (Ahluwalia 141). Hindus were persecuted for their religion and many temples and sacred sites were destroyed or badly vandalized; the building of temples was completely forbidden (Ahluwalia 141). Throughout Shivaji’s childhood, he developed a close relationship with his mother. She was a motivating factor for him in his fight against the Muslims (Rai 59).

Debate arises regarding Shivaji’s education, with some claiming he was illiterate and others that he was quite educated and had knowledge of Persian, Urdu and Sanskrit languages (Rai 62). However, Shivaji’s earliest experiences of education and learning came from his mother, Jijabai. She was said to be a woman of great courage and earnestness and these qualities were passed onto Shivaji (Takakhav 70). Shivaji, historical records indicate, possessed both charisma and immense courage (Satar 167). In 1637 Dadaji Kondadev came to be in charge of Shivaji’s official education: an education that centered on military training, intellectual discipline, and even finance (Takakhav 76). It was said that Dadaji had such a strict sense of self that he nearly had his own arm cut off when he realized that he had unconsciously taken a mango belonging to his master (Rai 65). It is believed that the great Hindu epics, the Ramayana and the Mahabharata, had a profound effect upon Shivaji’s mind and motivations (Rai 64). A document dating to 1645 was found bearing the seal of Shivaji, and within in it was the clear desire for founding an independent Hindu state (Kulkarni 20). This is what scholars attribute to evidence that Shivaji was attempting to develop swaraj, meaning self-government (Kulkarni 24). All the actions carried out by him were to further this goal.

Depiction of Shivaji Bhonsle in Brhadesvara Temple in Thanjavur
Depiction of Shivaji Bhonsle in Brhadesvara Temple in Thanjavur

When Shivaji finally embarked upon his journey to overthrow the Muslim rulers they were at the height of their power and the country was in an ideal state for the introduction of a new era (Rai 72). The political career of Shivaji began with the acquirement of Poona Jagir from his father (Kulkarni 20). Shivaji began preparations for the realization of his goal by inspecting his new holdings of Jagir and creating a group of loyal supporters and friends (Takakhav 91). The recipients of Shivaji’s initial aggression would be the Adilshahi Sultanate of the Bijapur government. The fort of Torna was taken by Shivaji in 1646 after he convinced the governor to allow him through the gates (Rai 75). This victory was enhanced by the treasure that was found hidden in the fort. With this treasure he persuaded the ministers of Bijapur to join his cause and he also acquired a great deal of weapons (Rai 76). The fort of Purandar was also taken and would prove to be essential in the establishment of Shivaji’s empire (Rai 78). Through the acquisition of these strategically important forts, Shivaji brought under his rule the entire territory of Chakan to the Nira (Takakhav 105). At this point in time Shivaji was also the ruler of the southern Konkan. A woman was sent to Shivaji by one of his followers and she was the daughter of Mulana Ahmed, ruler of the northern Konkan. Rather than keep her, Shivaji reportedly cited the story of Ravana from the Ramayana and the perils of being brought low through other people’s women and she was sent back to her family (Rai 80).

Eventually, Shivaji became too much of a threat and the Empire decided to put a stop to his rebellious actions. The queen mother, Bari Sahiba, gave the order to have Shivaji destroyed by force (Rai 96). There were none within her court that were willing to offer their service to this task, as Shivaji’s exploits up until this time led the men to hesitate engaging in an encounter with him (Takakhav 151). However there was one among them who volunteered for the chance to be a hero. The man to take up this task was named Afzal Khan. Khan worked in the royal kitchen and was said to have had been of great stature and power (Rai 96). The plan was to befriend Shivaji by giving him false hope for the possibility of a Sultan’s pardon (Takakhav 152). However, Shivaji had scouts in the area who alerted him to the true intentions of Afzal Khan and that he had an entire army with him (Takakhav 153). The actual encounter between the two men has been variously described. Some have said that they traded insults regarding one another’s ancestry, others that there were no such words but that each man was prepared for deceit by the other (Rai 101). The end result being that Afzal was killed and had his head removed. Shivaji then retaliated with a quick assault on the fort of Pratapgad and thousands of Bijapuri soldiers were killed (Rai 102). When this news reached the Sultan and queen mother, they were shocked and mourned the loss of Afzal Khan and the many troops; after which the capital city was on alert for any possibility that Shivaji may try to enter the city (Takakhav 177).

Following the death of Afzal Khan, Shivaji took action against a number of forts under control by the Bijapur government; this would lead to a final confrontation between the two. The Sultan led his own army out on a campaign to wrest control back from Shivaji as well as to destroy him (Takakhav197). Shivaji knew that he could not face the Sultan with the full force of the latter’s army so he intended to let the Sultan wear his army down through the recapturing of smaller forts. When the royal army was lesser in strength, then Shivaji intended to push them back once and for all (Takakhav 194). Eventually the chief vizier of the Bijapur court entered into negotiations with Shivaji, the result of this being a treaty that allowed him to keep all of the conquests he had previously made under his control (Takakhav 202). The exhaustion of the Sultan’s military left him no choice but to accept these conditions as well as recognizing an independent Maratha state, paying tribute to Shivaji, and entering into a defensive alliance with him (Takakhav 202).

The Mughal Empire had been pushed into the Deccan territory after the collapse of the Nizam Shahi dynasty and as a result, they had hostile encounters with Shivaji as well (Laine 25). A Mughal nobleman by the name of Shaista Khan was sent by the Mughal ruler, Aurangzib, to put a stop to Shivaji, just like Afzal Khan four years prior. Shaista Khan, however, did not lose his life. He was instead sent away in disgrace to Bengal after Shivaji found him cowering amongst the women of his harem (Laine 25). After this encounter, in 1664, Shivaji led an attack on the port city of Surat. Based on the value of goods that were traveling in and out of Surat, the city was of considerable economic importance to the Mughal Empire (Pearson 227). Surat also had significant religious importance for Muslims, as it was the port by which ships left for the Red Sea, carrying pilgrims to Mecca to perform the hajj (Pearson 228). The city was sacked and neither the Viceroy nor the officials did anything to prevent its occurrence, despite the fact that they outnumbered Shivaji’s troops 2 to 1 (Pearson 228). It was estimated that ten million rupees were plundered by Shivaji and his men. The significance of this attack laid in the fact that Shivaji was not immediately punished for his actions by the empire; he was the first rebel in Mughal controlled India to accomplish this (Pearson 228). This, combined with the ineffectiveness of the city’s officials at defending the city, had a negative impact upon Mughal prestige (Pearson 228). Aurangzib was forced to respond to these threats and General Jai Singh was sent to curb Shivaji in 1665. The result was a partial defeat of Shivaji and the creation of the treaty of Purandar, in which a significant amount of Shivaji’s forts and revenue were ceded to the Mughals (Pearson 229). Due to political restraints, Aurangzib was unable to offer a solution that would allow Shivaji to maintain freedom of action in the Deccan (Pearson 229). On May 12 1966 Shivaji was arrested by the Mughal government while in Agra at the request of Aurangzib; apparently, he had been offended when placed behind mansabdars at the court (Pearson 230). His escape a few months later in July was seen as nullifying the empire’s partial victory over Shivaji after the Surat attack and once again accelerated the decline of the Mughal Empire (Pearson 230). By the year 1667, Shivaji had developed a good diplomatic relationship with the Viceroy of the Deccan and a peace existed between the two until 1670 when hostilities once again began. The battle at the fort of Kondana is one of the most well-known. The fort was not taken personally by Shivaji, but by an old comrade of his: Tanaji. Twelve thousand men accompanied Tanaji to the fort, but only fifty were able to enter after the ropes used for climbing the walls broke. Tanaji was killed inside by Ude Bhan. Nevertheless, this small group of men was able to overpower the fort and let the remaining twelve thousand men inside the gates. Shivaji’s banner was hung and canons fired to make him aware of their victory (Rai 158). It was the battle of Salheri in 1672 that was the most decisive and indicative of victory over the Mughals that the Marathas had had (Takakhav 329). Many of the Muslim prisoners taken during this battle even decided to stay with Shivaji once they were healed, swearing allegiance to him (Takakhav 330).

In 1674 at Rajgarh, Shivaji became king after crowning himself (Chandra 325). He effectively became the most powerful of the Maratha chiefs and, to strengthen his place within the social structure, he married into many prominent families (Chandra 124). By some he was still viewed as an upstart and so a special ceremony took place and there a priest officially declared Shivaji to be a high class kshatriya (Chandra 125). Shivaji’s administration showed a high level of organization. The country was effectively divided into different levels of administration with officers in charge of land revenues within his said boundary (Rai 216). This land revenue involved surveying of the territory, maintaining proper land records and assessing the fertility of the soil (Rai 216). Local panchaytas were in charge of administering justice and, for the most part, maintained local autonomy, although anyone dissatisfied with a judgment could make an appeal to the king (Rai 218). The Vedas received a revival under Shivaji and an institution of Hindu learning and patronage was emphasized. There was also attention paid to the needs of other religions: Islam’s holy shrines received subsistence and grants from the Maratha government (Rai 219). Much of his work in the Maratha state continued to be opposed by fellow Maratha nobles (Chittins 79). By the time of Shivaji’s death in 1680 he controlled an area of 50,000 square miles of the Indian subcontinent (Pearson 227). There were complications in regards to Shivaji’s legitimate successor, with his sons and brothers vying for the position, but once they were settled, his principality became the key foundation for a confederacy that eventually came to challenge even the British Empire (Satar 167).

In the years following the death of Shivaji, especially in the 18th century, he came to be regarded as the ideal Hindu leader, perhaps a divine figure influenced by Bhawani, the goddess of good deeds (Burman 1228). Comparisons were even made with Arjuna, the hero of the Mahabharata, whose exploits and encounters were legend (Satar 168). Especially throughout the 19th and 20th centuries, Shivaji became a motivating symbol for the formation of Hindu identities and nationalism (Vartak 1126). He was the mold in which resistance and resurgence could be represented (Vartak 1132). The influence of Shivaji was especially evident in the resistance against Muslim domination and the emancipation of India from the British (Burman 1228). Bal Gangadhar Tilak was the leader of the Extremist party and he is responsible for reviving Shivaji’s memory as an object of inspiration and motivation for all Hindus (Aluwalia 15). This led to the establishment of a Shivaji festival, which was used to promote a sense of nationalism and patriotism against the greatest nation in the world at that time, the British (Aluwalia 15). The legacy left by Shivaji can be felt even today in India, 400 years since he ruled. He is especially relevant in Maharashtra where he is considered the most important of heroes and the founder of an exclusive Marathi identity (Satar 167). His image is used in political realms by the Shiv Sena party, where it has become their cultural territory for representing Maharashtrian propaganda (Vartak 1133). A quote by Jawaharlal Nehru can best sum up Shivaji’s influence and relevance in India, “Shivaji did not belong only to Maharashtra; he belonged to the whole Indian nation….Shri Shivaji is a symbol of many virtues, especially love of country,” (Laine 7).


References and Further Recommended Reading

Ahluwalia, B.K., Ahluwalia, Shashi (1984) Shivaji and Indian Nationalism. New Delhi: Cultural Publishing House.

Burman, Roy J.J (2001) “Shivaji’s Myth and Maharashtra’s Syncretic Traditions.” Economic and Political Weekly, Vol. 36, No. 14/15 (April): 1226-1234.

Chandra, Satish (1999) Medieval Indian: From Sultanate to the Mughals. New Delhi: Har-Anand Publications PVT LTD.

Chitins, K.N. (2003) Medieval Indian History. New Delhi: Atlantic Publishers and Distributors.

Jasper, Daniel (2003) “Commemorating the Golden Age of Shivaji in Maharashtra.” Journal of Political and Military Sociology, Vol. 31, No. 2 (December): 215-230.

Kincaid, David (1986) Shivaji: Founder of the Maratha Empire. New Delhi: Discovery Publishing House.

Kulkarni, A.R. (1969) Maharashtra in the Age of Shivaji. Budhawar Poona: R.J. Deshmukh Deshmukh & Co.

Laine, James (2003) Shivaji: Hindu King in Islamic India. New York: Oxford University Press.

Pearson, M.N (1976) “Shivaji and the Decline of the Mughal Empire.” The Journal of Asian Studies, Vol. 35, No. 2 (February): 221-235.

Rai, Lala Lajpat (1980) Shivaji: The Great Patriot. New Delhi: Metropolitan Book Co. Pvt. Ltd.

Satar, Arshia (2006) Rev. of Shivaji: Hindu King in Islamic India, by James Laine. History of Religions, Vol. 46, No. 2 (November): 167-169.

Takakhav, N.S. (1985) Life of Shivaji. New Delhi: Sunita Publications.

Vartak, Malavika (1999) “Shivaji Maharaj: Growth of a Symbol.” Economic and Political Weekly, Vol. 34, No. 19 (May): 1126-1134.

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Related Topics



Mughal Empire

Indian Nationalism


Jagidar Caste

Marathi Identity




Shiv Sena Political Party

[Article written entirely by: Jessica Nish (April 2013) who is solely responsible for its content.]