World History 2 19 - 2.1.3 The Rise of the Maratha Empire

Aurangzeb I was the last of the exceptional Mughal rulers in India. In 1658, he seized control of the Mughal throne and set about attempting to conquer rulers of states on the Deccan Plateau in southcentral India. He also led an Islamic revival in the Mughal domains. A pious man who frequently stopped in the midst of battle to perform the required daily prayers, Aurangzeb sought to eliminate all non-Islamic practices from his court. He refused to hunt, which had been a traditional pastime of Mughal rulers, and did not listen to music, although members of his court continued to do so. He eliminated the debates of scholars of different religions that his predecessors had sponsored, as well as other practices such as weighing himself against an equivalent amount of gold on the anniversaries of his birth and coronation, because he considered it an inappropriate display of excess. Aurangzeb patronized Muslim scholars and had them compile a collection of Islamic law written in the Persian language.

A skilled commander in battle, Aurangzeb expanded the bounds of the Mughal state. However, he proved unable to easily incorporate non-Muslims into his empire. Although at times he gave money to Hindu temples as previous Mughal emperors had done, at other times he ordered the destruction of the temples of Hindus who resisted his rule. He also imposed a special tax on Hindu pilgrims and, eventually, a tax on all non-Muslims. Hindus who served in his administration did not have to pay this tax; nevertheless, they often received less compensation than did Muslim administrators. Muslim immigrants to India were also favored over Indian-born Hindus for important positions in Aurangzeb’s administration.

In Their Own Words

Wifely Devotion

One Hindu custom Aurangzeb I sought to stamp out was the practice of sati (or suttee), the self-immolation of a Hindu widow following her husband’s death. The practice seems to have arisen sometime after 500 CE and was practiced primarily by members of aristocratic Hindu warrior families, who might choose to burn themselves alive to honor their husbands or might be pressured to do so by the husband’s family. Despite Aurangzeb’s prohibition, sati continued among many pious Hindus. An excerpt from the autobiography of the seventeenth-century Hindu poet Bahina Bai demonstrates the extreme devotion a Hindu woman was to have for her husband.

I want my thought concentrated on my husband. The supreme spiritual riches are to be attained through service to my husband. I shall reach the highest purpose of my life through my husband. If I have any other God but my husband, I shall have committed . . . a sin. . . . My husband is my means of salvation . . .

Without a husband, one does not keep God in mind. Blessed is she who knows herself as a dutiful wife. She carries along at the same time her household duties, and her religious duties. Such an one bears the heavens in her hands. . . .

She who in everything accepts her husband’s wishes in a noble spirit, and though it might mean even death will not violate his command, blessed is she in this present world, blessed is . . . her family. For her comes the summons to heaven. In body, speech and mind she submits herself to her husband. . . . Without enquiring the right or the wrong of it, she is willing to give her very life to fulfill his wish. She serves her husband as prescribed by religious rites, and is ever at his side like a slave.

—Bahina Bai, Bahina Bai: A Translation of Her Autobiography and Verses, translated by Justine E. Abbot

  • According to Bai, why should a woman obey her husband? What benefits does she derive from obedience?
  • Why might a woman have been willing to engage in an act as extreme as sati?

Aurangzeb clashed with Sikhs in northern India. The religion of Sikhism, a monotheistic faith that combines elements of Hinduism and Islam, was established in the Punjab region of northwestern India in the fifteenth century. The Mughals persecuted the Sikhs, and Aurangzeb sought to control the succession of Sikh gurus, the community’s religious and political leaders. His execution of the guru Tegh Bahadur inspired even greater resistance to Mughal authority.

Among the many Hindus who opposed Aurangzeb were the Marathas, a group from the western uplands of the Deccan Plateau. Many Marathas had gained experience as soldiers in the armies of both the Muslim and Hindu rulers. The most powerful of their leaders, Shivaji, had acquired his military experience in this way (Figure 2.9). When he led his own armies into battle against Mughal forces, he proved a formidable opponent, defeating Aurangzeb’s commanders time after time. Shivaji’s success on the field of battle and the rich spoils that fell to his troops attracted many followers. In 1663, he defeated a much larger Mughal army after withstanding a siege for more than two years. Less than a year after this victory, Shivaji’s forces invaded Gujarat and seized control of the port of Surat.

This painting depicts Emperor Shivaji. He wears a richly decorated white tunic and ornate jewelry. He carries a sword in his left hand.
Figure 2.9 This portrait, painted in the 1680s, depicts the Maratha emperor Shivaji dressed for battle. (credit: “Portrait of Shivaji” by The British Museum/Wikimedia Commons, Public Domain)

Aurangzeb attempted to make an ally of Shivaji, summoning him to the Mughal court in 1666 and awarding his son, who was still a child, a royal title. Shivaji was treated with contempt by his Mughal hosts, however, and following Aurangzeb’s attempts to detain him, he escaped and resumed war against the Mughals. Eight years later, Shivaji had himself declared an emperor on par with Aurangzeb, in effect declaring his right to rule his own territory and placing himself in a position of authority above other Maratha leaders.

Shivaji sought to eliminate Mughal influence by making the local language of Marathi the vernacular of his court instead of Persian, the language of the Mughals. He ran his court according to Hindu tradition and replaced Persian political terminology with terms from Sanskrit, the sacred language of Hinduism. All educated Hindus were familiar with Sanskrit, unlike Marathi, which Hindus in other parts of India could not be expected to speak. Sanskrit served a function in Shivaji’s kingdom similar to that served by Latin in medieval Europe or Chinese in East Asia: It was the language of the educated elite. Shivaji led processions to local Hindu holy sites and also patronized Sanskrit scholars. Despite his dedication to Hinduism, however, he gave money to Islamic institutions and did not discriminate against Muslims. When Aurangzeb imposed a tax on non-Muslims in the Mughal Empire, Shivaji wrote to inform him that he could not be a good Muslim if he did not understand that God had created all people, not only Muslims.

Beginning in 1674, Shivaji embarked on a campaign to subdue the southern and central parts of the Indian subcontinent and bring them under the control of the Maratha Empire (Figure 2.10). Although he died in 1680, the war between the Mughals and the Marathas continued. Years of fighting emptied Mughal coffers, and in 1705 Maratha armies gained control of the Gujarat coast. Stretched too thin, the Mughals began their retreat from Maratha territory.

This map shows India. The highlighted region of the Martha Empire covers all central India.
Figure 2.10 This illustration from a 1760 English schoolbook shows, in yellow, the extent of the Maratha Empire after its defeat of the Mughals. (credit: modification of work “The India subcontinent in 1760” by Charles Colbeck/Wikimedia Commons, Public Domain)

As the Mughals grew weaker, the Marathas grew stronger. Over the course of the next twenty years, Maratha armies gained control of roughly one-third of India. The Maratha bid to dominate all of India was brought to a halt, however, when Ahmad Shah Durrani, the king of Afghanistan, marched eastward against both the Mughal and Maratha empires, seeking to expand his domain. As Indians and Afghans made war on one another, European colonizers steadily gained control of India.

The content of this course has been taken from the free World History, Volume 2: from 1400 textbook by Openstax