Baji Rao I, also called Baji Rao Ballal Balaji Bhat, peshwa, or chief minister, of the Maratha confederacy from 1720 to 1740 during the reign of Shahu (1708–49). Baji Rao’s conquests were one of several contributors to the decay of the Mughal Empire, especially under Emperor Muḥammad Shah (1719–48). Baji Rao succeeded his father, Balaji Vishvanath Bhat, as peshwa in 1720, establishing hereditary succession for the post. His tenure oversaw the expansion in power and influence of the peshwa as well as of the dominion of the Marathas, especially into Malwa (now in Madhya Pradesh) and Gujarat. Upon Shahu’s death in 1749, Baji Rao’s son and successor, Balaji Baji Rao, became the virtual ruler of the Maratha confederacy.
Baji Rao’s success was achieved through military conquest and effective diplomacy, including the formation of alliances with Rajput princes, the ability to defeat and extract compromises from the Nizam al-Mulk of Hyderabad, and the implementation of a tax regime over a vast area of former Mughal territory. At the same time, the large territorial holdings under the Marathas allowed rival chiefs to assert a certain amount of independence, setting up the peshwas for setbacks later. The most notable instance was Baji Rao’s appointment of Malhar Rao Holkar as his chief general in Malwa in 1724. Holkar was able to set up a dynasty, which challenged Baji Rao II in 1801 and forced him to flee to the city of Bassein, where he sought protection from the British (see Treaty of Bassein). After a feud between Baji Rao II and the British in 1817–18, the peshwa ceased to exist.
Appointment as Peshwa
Baji Rao was appointed Peshwa, succeeding his father, by Shahu on 17 April 1720. By the time of his appointment, the Mughal emperor Muhammad Shah had upheld Maratha claims to the territories held by Shivaji at his death. A treaty gave the Marathas the right to collect taxes (chauth) in the Deccan’s six provinces. Baji Rao convinced Shahu that the Maratha Empire had to go on the offensive against its enemies to defend itself. He believed that the Mughal Empire was in decline, and wanted to take advantage of the situation with aggressive expansion into North India. Baji Rao compared the Mughals’ declining fortune to a tree which, if attacked at its roots, would collapse.
As a new Peshwa, however, he faced several challenges. His appointment at a young age had evoked jealousy from senior officials such as Naro Ram Mantri, Anant Ram Sumant, Shripatrao Pant Pratinidhi, Khanderao Dabhade and Kanhoji Bhosle. Baji Rao promoted young men like himself, such as Malhar Rao Holkar, Ranoji Shinde, the Pawar brothers, Pilaji Jadhav and Fateh Singh Bhosle, as commanders; these men did not belong to families who were hereditary Deshmukhs in the Deccan sultanates.
On 4 January 1721, Baji Rao met Nizam-ul-Mulk Asaf Jah I at Chikhalthana to resolve their disputes. However, the Nizam refused to recognize the Maratha right to collect taxes from the Deccan provinces. He was made vizier of the Mughal Empire in 1721 but emperor Muhammad Shah. alarmed at his increasing power, transferred him from the Deccan to Awadh in 1723. The Nizam rebelled against the order, resigned as vizier and marched towards the Deccan. The emperor sent an army against him, which the Nizam defeated at the Battle of Sakhar-kheda; this forced the emperor to recognise him as viceroy of the Deccan. The Marathas, led by Baji Rao, helped the Nizam win this battle. For his valor, Baji Rao was honored with a robe, a 7,000-man mansabdari, an elephant, and a jewel. After the battle, the Nizam tried to appease the Maratha Chhatrapati Shahu and the Mughal emperor; in reality, however, he wanted to carve out a sovereign kingdom and considered the Marathas his rivals in the Deccan.
In 1725, the Nizam sent an army to clear Maratha revenue collectors from the Carnatic region. The Marathas dispatched a force under Fateh Singh Bhosle to counter him; Baji Rao accompanied Bhosle, but did not command the army. The Marathas were forced to retreat; they launched a second campaign after the monsoon season, but again were unable to prevent the Nizam from ousting the Maratha collectors.
In the Deccan, Sambhaji II of Kolhapur State had become a rival claimant to the title of Maratha Chhatrapati. The Nizam took advantage of the internal dispute, refusing to pay the chauth because it was unclear who was the real Chhatrapati (Shahu or Sambhaji II) and offering to arbitrate. Shripatrao Pant Pratinidhi advised Shahu to begin negotiations and agree to arbitration. Sambhaji II was supported by Chandrasen Jadhav, who had fought Baji Rao’s father a decade earlier. Baji Rao convinced Shahu to refuse the Nizam’s offer and launch an assault.
The Nizam invaded Pune, where he installed Sambhaji II as Chhatrapati. He then marched out of the city, leaving behind a contingent headed by Fazal Beg. The Nizam plundered Loni, Pargaon, Patas, Supa and Baramati, using his artillery. On 27 August 1727, Baji Rao began a retaliatory guerilla attack on the Nizam with his trusted lieutenants Malhar Rao Holkar, Ranoji Shinde and the Pawar brothers. He began to destroy the towns held by the Nizam; leaving Pune, he crossed the Godavari River near Puntamba and plundered Jalna and Sindkhed. Baji Rao destroyed Berar, Mahur, Mangrulpir and Washim before turning north-west to Khandesh. He crossed the Tapi River at Kokarmunda and entered eastern Gujarat, reaching Chota Udaipur in January 1728. After hearing that the Nizam had returned to Pune, Baji Rao feinted toward Burhanpur; he thought that after hearing about the threat to the strategically-important Burhanpur, the Nizam would try to save it. Baji Rao did not enter Burhanpur, however, arriving at Betawad in Khandesh on 14 February 1728. When the Nizam heard that his northern territories had been devastated by Baji Rao, he left Pune and marched towards the Godavari to meet Baji Rao on an open plain where his artillery would be effective. The Nizam went on ahead of his artillery; on 25 February 1728, the armies of Baji Rao and the Nizam faced each other at Palkhed, a town about 30 miles (48 km) west of Aurangabad. The Nizam was quickly surrounded by Maratha forces and trapped, his lines of supply and communication were cut. He was forced to make peace; he signed the Treaty of Mungi Shevgaon on 6 March, recognising Shahu as Chhatrapati and the Maratha right to collect taxes in the Deccan. In his Military History of India, Jadunath Sarkar wrote: “This campaign gives a classic example of what the predatory horse, when led by a genius, could achieve in the age of light artillery.”
In 1723, Baji Rao organised an expedition to southern Malwa. Maratha chiefs, including Ranoji Shinde, Malhar Rao Holkar, Udaji Rao Pawar, Tukoji Rao Pawar and Jivaji Rao Pawar, had collected chauth from several parts of the province. (Later, these chiefs carved out their own kingdoms: Gwalior, Indore, Dhar and Dewas State – Junior and Senior, respectively). To counter Maratha influence, the Mughal emperor had appointed Girdhar Bahadur governor of Malwa.
After defeating the Nizam, Baji Rao again turned his attention to Malwa. He consigned a large army in October 1728 to his younger brother, Chimaji Appa, and aided by his trusted generals Udaji Pawar and Malhar Rao Holkar. The Maratha force reached the southern bank of the Narmada River on 24 November 1728. The following day, they crossed the river and encamped near Dharampuri. Marching rapidly northwards, they crossed the ghat near Mandu and halted at Nalchha on 27 November. The Mughal forces, led by Girdhar Bahadur and his cousin Daya Bahadur, hastily prepared to oppose them on hearing that the Maratha army had begun to climb the ghats. Girdhar Bahadur believed that the Marathas, thinking that the pass near the Mandu fort was well guarded, would climb the ghat near Amjhera; he and his army marched to Amjhera and took up a strong position there. Since the Marathas did not appear there, he suspected that they climbed near the Mandu fort and set out for Dhar on 29 November 1728. Girdhar Bahadur found Maratha horsemen coming towards him. In the 29 November Battle of Amjhera, Chimaji’s army defeated the Mughals; Girdhar Bahadur and Daya Bahadur were killed. The Mughal forces fled, and their camp was plundered; eighteen elephants, horses, drums and other loot were taken by the Marathas. News of the victory reached the ears of Peshwa, who was visiting Chhatrasal. Chimaji marched towards Ujjain, but had to retreat due to lack of supplies. By February 1729, Maratha forces had reached present-day Rajasthan.
In Bundelkhand, Chhatrasal rebelled against the Mughal Empire and established an independent kingdom. In December 1728, a Mughal force led by Muhammad Khan Bangash attacked him and besieged his fort and family. Although Chhatrasal repeatedly sought Baji Rao’s assistance, he was busy in Malwa at the time. In March 1729, the Peshwa responded to Chhatrasal’s request and marched towards Bundelkhand with 25,000 horsemen and his lieutenants Pilaji Jadhav, Tukoji Pawar, Naro Shankar, and Davalji Somwanshi. Chhatrasal escaped capture and joined the Maratha force, increasing it to 70,000 men. After marching to Jaitpur, Baji Rao’s forces surrounded Bangash and cut his supply and communication lines. Bangash launched a counterattack against Baji Rao, but could not pierce his defences. Qaim Khan, son of Muhammad Khan Bangash, learned of his father’s predicament and approached with fresh troops. His army was attacked by Baji Rao’s forces, and he was defeated. Bangash was later forced to leave, signing an agreement that “he [would] never attack Bundelkhand again”. Chhatrasal’s position as ruler of Bundelkhand was restored. He granted a large jagir to Baji Rao, and gave him his daughter Mastani. Before Chhatrasal’s death in December 1731, he ceded one-third of his territories to the Marathas.
After consolidating Maratha influence in central India, Baji Rao decided to assert the Maratha right to collect taxes from the wealthy province of Gujarat and sent a Maratha force under Chimaji Appa there in 1730. Sarbuland Khan, the province’s Mughal governor, ceded the right to collect chauth to the Marathas. He was soon replaced by Abhay Singh, who also recognized the Maratha right to collect taxes. This irked Shahu’s senapati (commander-in-chief), Trimbak Rao Dabhade, whose ancestors had raided Gujarat several times and asserted their right to collect taxes from the province. Annoyed at Baji Rao’s control of what he considered his family’s sphere of influence, he rebelled against the Peshwa. Two other Maratha nobles from Gujarat, Damaji Rao Gaekwad and Kadam Bande, also sided with Dabhade.
After Girdhar Bahadur’s defeat in 1728, the Mughal emperor had appointed Jai Singh II to subdue the Marathas. Jai Singh recommended a peaceful agreement; the emperor disagreed, replacing him with Muhammad Khan Bangash. Bangash formed an alliance with the Nizam, Trimbak Rao and Sambhaji II. On 1 April 1731, Baji Rao defeated the allied forces of Dabhade, Gaekwad and Kadam Bande; Trimbak Rao was killed in the Battle of Dabhoi. Baji Rao resolved the dispute with Sambhaji II on 13 April by signing the Treaty of Warna, which demarcated the territories of Shahu and Sambhaji II. The Nizam met Baji Rao at Rohe-Rameshwar on 27 December 1732, and promised not to interfere with Maratha expeditions.
Shahu and Baji Rao avoided a rivalry with the powerful Dabhade clan after subduing Trimbak Rao; Trimbak’s son, Yashwant Rao, was appointed as Shahu’s senapati. The Dabhade clan were allowed to continue collecting chauth from Gujarat if they deposited half the revenue in Shahu’s treasury.
The Siddis of Janjira controlled a small, strategically-important territory on India’s west coast. Although they originally held only the Janjira fort, after Shivaji’s death they expanded their rule to a large part of central and northern Konkan. After the death of Siddi chief Yakut Khan in 1733, a war of succession broke out among his sons; one, Abdul Rehman, asked Baji Rao for help. Baji Rao sent a Maratha force led by Sekhoji Angre, son of Kanhoji Angre. The Marathas regained control of several portions of Konkan, and besieged Janjira. Their strength was diverted after Peshwa’s rival, Pant Pratinidhi, occupied Raigad Fort (near Janjira) in June 1733. Sekhoji Angre died in August (further weakening the Maratha position), and Baji Rao signed a peace treaty with the Siddis. He allowed the Siddis to retain control of Janjira if they accepted Abdul Rehman as the ruler; they were also allowed to retain control of Anjanvel, Gowalkot and Underi. The Marathas retained Raigad, Rewas, Thal and Chaul.
The Siddis launched an offensive to regain their lost territories soon after the Peshwa returned to Satara, and Baji Rao dispatched a force to prevent them from taking over Raigad Fort in June 1734. Chimnaji made a surprise attack on a Siddi camp near Rewas on 19 April 1736, killing about 1,500 (including their leader, Siddi Sat). On 25 September of that year, the Siddis signed a peace treaty which confined them to Janjira, Gowalkot and Anjanvel.