The Maratha are an Indian warrior caste found predominantly in the state of Maharashtra. The term Marāthā has two related usages: within the Marathi-speaking region it describes the dominant Maratha caste; historically, the term describes the kingdom founded by Shivaji in the seventeenth century and continued by his successors.
The Marathas primarily reside in the Indian states of Maharashtra, Madhya Pradesh, Gujarat, Karnataka and Goa. Those in Goa and neighbouring Karwar are known specifically as Konkan Marathas as an affiliation to their regional and linguistic alignment.
The modern Marathi language developed from the Prakrit known as Maharashtri. The words Maratha and Marathi may be a derivative of the Prakrit Marhatta found in Jain Maharashtri literature.
The generally accepted theory among the scholars is that the words Maratha and Maharashtra ultimately derive from a compound of Maha (Sanskrit for “great”) and rashtrika. The word rashtrika is a Sanskritized form of Ratta, the name of a tribe or a dynasty of petty chiefs ruling in the Deccan region. Another theory is that the term is derived from Maha (“great”) and rathi or ratha (charioteer).
An alternative theory states that the term derives from the words Maha (“Great”) and Rashtra (“nation/dominion”).
The varna of the Maratha is a contested issue, with arguments for their being of the Kshatriya (warrior) varna, and others for their being of peasant origins. This issue was the subject of antagonism between the Brahmins and Marathas, dating back to the time of Shivaji, but by the late 19th century moderate Brahmins were keen to ally with the influential Marathas of Bombay in the interests of Indian independence from Britain. These Brahmins supported the Maratha claim to Kshatriya status, and the legend of Shivaji, but their success in this political alliance was sporadic, and fell apart entirely following independence in 1947.
Various Maratha families lay claim to the Kshatriya varna, and the various clans make dis-similar claims. Bhonsles claim their origin from Suryavanshi Sisodias, Jadhavs from Yaduvanshi Yadavas, Bhoites from Chandravanshi Bhatis, Chavans from Agnivanshi Chauhans, Salunkhes from Agnivansha Solankis etc.
Robert Vane Russell, an untrained ethnologist of the British Raj period, basing his research largely on Vedic literature, wrote that the Marathas belong to one of the 96 different clans, known as the 96 Kuli Marathas or Chhānnava Kule.
The organisation of this clan system is disputed in the popular culture and by historians. An authoritative listing was attempted in 1889, but the general body of lists are often at great variance with each other.
A number of Maratha warriors, including Shivaji’s father Shahaji served the various Deccan sultanates.
In 1674, Shivaji Bhosle carved out an independent Maratha kingdom from within the Bijapur Sultanate with Raigad as its capital, and successfully defended his territory from the Mughals. Confronted by the far greater forces of the Mughal Empire, Shivaji employed guerrilla tactics, which leveraged strategic factors such as demographics, speed, and focused surprise attacks (typically at night, and in rocky terrain) to defeat more numerous forces. In his “History of Warfare” (1983), Field-Marshal Viscount Montgomery summarized these tactics, describing Shivaji as a military genius. After the death of Shivaji, the Marathas waged war with the Mughals from 1681 to 1707. The Marathas eventually emerged victorious.
Shivaji’s grandson Shahu became ruler of the Marathas in 1707; during his rule he appointed Peshwas as the prime ministers of the Maratha Empire. After the death of Mughal emperor Aurangzeb, the Maratha Empire expanded greatly under the rule of the Peshwas, at its peak stretching from Tamil Nadu in the south, to Peshawar(modern-day Pakistan) on the Afghanistan border in the north, and with expeditions to Bengal in the east. The Afghan king Ahmad Shah Abdali, amongst others, was unwilling to allow the Maratha’s gains to go unchecked. In 1761, the Maratha army lost the Third Battle of Panipat to Abdali’s forces, which halted their imperial expansion.
Ten years after the battle of Panipat, Madhavrao Peshwa reinstated Maratha authority over North India. In a bid to effectively manage the large empire, semi-autonomy was given to strongest of the knights, creating a confederacy of Maratha states. They became known as Gaekwads of Baroda, the Holkars of Indore and Malwa, the Scindias of Gwalior and Ujjain, and Bhonsales of Nagpur. In 1775, the British East India Company intervened in a succession struggle in Pune, which became known as the First Anglo-Maratha War.
The Marathas remained the preeminent power in India until their defeat by the British colonists in the Third Anglo-Maratha War (1817–1818). Through the British East Indian Company, Britain then controlled most of India.
The history of the states and dynasties comprising the Maratha Empire constitutes a major portion of the history of late medieval India. Among its effects, the Maratha empire:
· were the primary force responsible for weakening and eventually ending the Mughal domination of India.
· were among those who participated in the revival of the power of Hindus in north India after many centuries of Muslim rule. At this time they were seen as major supporters of the Hindu cause.
· led to the dilution of the caste system as a large number of lower castes, Brahmins and other castes fought along with them.
· encouraged the use of Sanskrit and development of the Marathi language, and was seminal to the consolidation of a distinct Maharashtrian identity.
Maratha dynasties and states
The empire also resulted in the voluntary relocation of substantial numbers of Maratha and other Marathi-speaking people outside Maharashtra, and across a big part of India. Today several small but significant communities descended from these emigrants live in the north, south and west of India. These descendant communities tend often to speak the local languages, although many also speak Marathi in addition. Notable Maratha families outside Maharashtra include Scindia of Gwalior, Gaekwad of Baroda, Holkar of Indore, Puar of Dewas & Dhar, Ghorpade of Mudhol, and Bhonsle of Thanjavur.
Marathas have dominated the state politics of Maharashtra since its inception in 1960. Since then, Maharashtra has witnessed heavy presence of Maratha ministers or officials (which comprises 25% of the state) in the Maharashtra state government, local municipal commissions, and panchayats. 10 out of 16 chief ministers of Maharashtra hailed from the Maratha community as of year 2012.
Beginning early in the 20th century, the British recognised Maratha as a martial race of India. Earlier listings of martial races had often excluded them, with Lord Roberts, commander-in-chief of the Indian Army 1885-1893, stating the need to substitute “more warlike and hardy races for the Hindusthani sepoys of Bengal, the Tamils and Telugus of Madras and the so-called Marathas of Bombay.” Historian Sikata Banerjee notes a dissonance in British military opinions of the Maratha, wherein the British portrayed them as both “formidable opponents” and yet not “properly qualified” for fighting, criticising the Maratha guerrilla tactics as an improper way of war. Banerjee cites an 1859 statement as emblematic of this disparity: “[T]here is something noble in the carriage of an ordinary Rajput, and something vulgar in that of the most distinguished Mahratta. The Rajput is the most worthy antagonist, the Mahratta the most formidable enemy.”
The Maratha Light Infantry regiment of the Indian Army is one of the “oldest and most renowned” regiments of the Indian Army. Its First Battalion, also known as the Jangi Paltan (“Warrior Platoon”), traces its origins to 1768 as part of the Bombay Sepoys. The battle cry of Maratha Light Infantry is Bol Shri Chattrapati Shivaji Maharaj ki Jai! (“Cry Victory to Emperor Shivaji!”) in tribute to the Maratha sovereign.