Common section

From Taj to Raj


EXCEPT FOR one ominous development, the Deccan to which Aurangzeb returned in 1682 differed little from the Deccan which he had left in 1658. In the north the Mughal province of that name still stretched across the upper peninsula like a waistband. Comprising the erstwhile Ahmadnagar sultanate along with the eastward territories of Kandesh and Berar, it was administered from Burhanpur in Kandesh. In the west of the province the city of Aurangabad – near the Seunas’ fang-like fortress of Devagiri (Daulatabad) and the Rashtrakutas’ cave city of Ellora – was also an important centre of Mughal power and would soon supersede Burhanpur; it had been the capital of the Ahmadnagar sultanate under ‘black-faced’ Ambar Malik but had been renamed Aurangabad during Aurangzeb’s earlier governorship.

On the coast, the Europeans came and went. From their port of Bassein the Portuguese had acquired an adjacent trickle of islands which afforded good shelter for their shipping. Amongst the coconut groves on one of the islands they had built a small fort. They called it Bon Bahia, or Bombay. In the 1660s, following an Anglo–Portuguese alliance against their Dutch rivals, the place was transferred to Charles II as part of his Portuguese wife’s dowry. Although Bombay itself was as yet of no commercial value, the English thus acquired a territorial toehold adjacent to the busy shipping lanes of the west coast.

To the south, Goa remained in Portuguese hands while Cochin, an important entrepôt for the spice trade, had been wrested from them by the Dutch, also in the 1660s. North of Bombay the Mughal port of Surat, superseding the now mud-silted Cambay as the main maritime outlet of northern India, hosted much the busiest Dutch and English trading establishments. From Surat European purchasing agents fanned out into the cities and weaving centres of Gujarat and beyond to place their orders and oversee despatch. And down to Surat from Ahmadabad, Burhanpur, Broach and Baroda came the bundled cottons and silks and the barrelled indigo (in great demand for dyeing uniforms) which constituted the main items of export.


On the other side of the peninsula, all three European powers, plus the newly arrived French, retained similar toeholds on the Coromandel and Andhra coasts. Textiles were again the main item of trade, but there was a tendency here for the weavers to gravitate towards the European settlements which thus became zones of export-dependent prosperity. None of these settlements was yet of much political importance but the security offered by their heavy guns and well-built forts was proving an attraction. Additionally their stocks of powder, guns and gunners were eagerly sought by the contending powers in the hinterland.

The one obvious change which had overcome the Deccan during Aurangzeb’s twenty-four-year absence was, however, momentous: whereas in the first half of the seventeenth century there had been two major powers in the peninsula, the Golconda sultanate and the Bijapur sultanate, there were now three. The Marathas had come of age. Having established their military credentials in the service of others and then, under Shivaji’s inspirational leadership, having created an independent homeland in the Western Ghats, they had since elevated the homeland into a state and Shivaji into its king.

This revival of Hindu kingship at a time of awesome and markedly orthodox Muslim supremacy had been both unexpected and highly dramatic. As well as causing a sensation at the time, Shivaji’s extraordinary exploits would transcend their immediate context to dazzle his successors, console Hindu pride during the looming years of British supremacy, and provide Indian nationalists with an inspiring example of indigenous revolt against alien rule. Latterly they have also served to encourage Hindu extremists in the belief that martial prowess is as much part of their tradition as non-violence.

Of Shivaji’s exploits the most celebrated had occurred in 1659. In the words of Khafi Khan, an unofficial chronicler of Aurangzeb’s reign, while in the north the emperor was ‘beating off the crocodiles of the ocean of self-respect’ (his brothers, in other words), Shivaji had ‘become a master of dignity and resources’. In the previous years he had captured some forty forts in the Western Ghats and along the adjacent Konkan coast. But having ‘openly and fearlessly raised the standard of revolt’, when challenged, he revealed his true colours; ‘he resorted to fraud and fox-play’. Afzal Khan, Bijapur’s best general who had been sent to flush out ‘the designing rascal’, had run him to ground at the hill fort of Pratabgarh (near Mahabaleshwar). The Bijapuri army lacked the means to take such a strong position, while the Marathas stood no chance of driving them off. In time-honoured fashion the stalemate had therefore to be resolved by negotiation. Shivaji would have to make a token recognition of Bijapur’s suzerainty; Afzal Khan would have to leave Shivaji in undisturbed possession of his forts. This much having been agreed, it remained only for Shivaji to make his personal submission.

In a clearing at the foot of the Pratabgarh hill the two men met. Each had supposedly dispensed with attendants and weapons. Nevertheless, ‘both men came to the meeting armed’.1 Amongst Shivaji’s hidden arsenal was a small iron finger-grip with four curving talons, each as long and as sharp as a cut-throat razor.

As soon as that experienced and perfect traitor [i.e. Shivaji] neared Afzal Khan, he threw himself at his feet weeping. When he [Afzal Khan] wanted to raise his [Shivaji’s] head and put the hand of kindness on his back to embrace him, Shivaji with perfect dexterity thrust that hidden weapon into his abdomen in such a way that he [Afzal Khan] had not even time to sigh, and thus killed him.2

Shivaji then gave a signal to his men who were hidden in the surrounding scrub. Taking the Bijapuris by surprise, they ‘destroyed the camp of the ill-fated Afzal Khan’, captured his stores, treasure, horses and elephants, and enrolled many of his men. ‘Thus Shivaji acquired dignity and force much larger than before.’

Since some of the Bijapuri troops were actually Marathas and some of Shivaji’s were Muslims, it is clear that what Khafi Khan’s translator renders as ‘dignity’ – or perhaps ‘prestige’ – mattered more than creed. The same translator, a Muslim, calls the affair ‘one of the most notorious murders in the history of the subcontinent’; yet it seems that to contemporaries, as to most Hindu historians, it was testimony to Shivaji’s resourceful genius as much as his ‘designing turpitude’. Whilst the loyalties of kinsmen and co-religionists were vital, so were those of the assorted dissidents and adventurers who now recognised in him a leader of indomitable courage and assured fortune. Shivaji, says Khafi Khan, ‘made it a rule … not to desecrate mosques or the Book of Allah, nor to seize the women’.3 Muslims as well as Hindus could comfortably serve under his standard.

Shivaji celebrated his success over Afzal Khan by grabbing more of the Konkan coast between Bombay and Goa. There he assembled a small navy and began the fortification of the coves and estuaries from which it would operate. He also seized the pine-scented heights of Panhala, more a walled massif than a hill fort, just to the north of Kolhapur. A new Bijapuri army caught up with him there but, in another celebrated exploit, he gave the enemy the slip by escaping under cover of darkness with a few trusted followers.

By 1660 Aurangzeb had dealt with the ‘crocodiles’ and had sent to the Deccan a large army under Shaista Khan, the brother of Shah Jahan’s beloved Mumtaz Mahal. Shaista Khan was to secure the territories ceded to the empire by Bijapur in 1657, which included the Maratha homeland in the Ghats. Shivaji thus faced a new and much more formidable foe whom he had even less chance of defeating. The Mughal army was relentlessly harried and every fort took a heavy toll of Mughal blood; yet Pune, Shivaji’s capital, fell; then one by one the Maratha strongholds succumbed. By 1663 Shivaji was facing defeat. Another exploit was called for.

Shaista Khan had taken up residence in a house in the now Mughal city of Pune. No Marathas were allowed within the city walls and the house was heavily guarded. But special permission was obtained for a wedding party to enter the city and on the same day a more disconsolate group of Marathas were brought in as prisoners. Late that night the bridegroom, the wedding party, the prisoners and their guards met up as arranged. Discarding disguise, they produced their weapons, crawled into the compound of Shaista Khan’s house through a kitchen window, and then smashed through a wall to reach the sleeping apartments. There ‘they made everyone who was awake to sleep in death and everyone who was asleep they killed in bed.’ Shaista Khan himself was lucky. He lost a thumb and seems to have fainted, whereupon ‘his maid servants carried him from hand to hand and then took him to a safe place.’ According to Khafi Khan, whose father was serving in Pune at the time, the Marathas then mistook their man and killed someone else thinking it was the Mughal commander. Also killed was Shaista Khan’s son and one of his wives. No plunder was taken; the raiders withdrew as suddenly as they had emerged; and although Shivaji himself was not among them, it seems that he had organised the raid and had probably secured the collusion of one of the Mughal generals.

This affair, a great blow to Mughal pride, was followed by another of greater consequence for the Mughal purse. Breaking out of the hills in 1664, Shivaji personally led his forces north into Gujarat and headed for the great port of Surat. For forty days the Marathas then ransacked the place. Only the well-defended English ‘factory’ (a fortified warehouse-cum-counting-house-cum-hostel) was spared. Most embarrassingly Shivaji’s ‘dignity’ was now eclipsing that of the empire.

Another Mughal army, fifteen thousand strong, headed for the Deccan under the great Jai Singh, the vanquisher of Prince Shuja. Once again the Maratha lands were ravaged as Jai Singh secured fort after fort and signed up their despairing defenders. By 1665 Shivaji himself was cornered near Purandhar and again sued for terms. The negotiations were protracted and complex. In the end, ‘with the ring of submission in his ears and the mantle of devotion on his body’, Shivaji agreed to the surrender of twenty forts, the payment of a substantial indemnity, the liability of his lands to assessment for Mughal military service, and the admission of his son as a Mughal mansabdar. He then made his personal submission to Jai Singh amidst security precautions which, understandably, were elaborate.

But the treaty of Purandhar had not been a surrender.4 Shivaji retained twelve forts and he remained at the head of his depleted army which, consisting mostly of Maratha horse, could travel light and live off the countryside, and was thus infinitely more elusive and wide-ranging than its heavy Mughal counterpart. Indeed the treaty was as much about securing Maratha collaboration with the Mughal forces in an offensive against Bijapur as about neutralising Shivaji. A year later, in 1666, Mughal fears of Maratha defections in the course of this Bijapur offensive prompted a Mughal demand that Shivaji travel north to Agra to attend the emperor in person. This was not a success. At Aurangzeb’s expense Shivaji assembled an impressive cavalcade of elephants, silver palanquins and gorgeously attired retainers only, on arrival, to be barely acknowledged by the imperial presence. He was then detained, amidst rumours of death or exile, in a situation that was little better than house arrest. True to form, the mortified Maratha escaped, although probably by bribery rather than buried in a basket of confectionery as per popular myth. Through the byways and backwoods he made his way undetected back to Maharashtra. ‘It was the most thrilling exploit of all his most wonderful deeds,’ opines a not impartial historian, ‘which has for ever added a supernatural glow to his unique personality.’

It immediately resounded throughout the country, making Shivaji an all-India figure, divinely ordained with extraordinary powers. The incident simultaneously exposed the emperor’s craft, still further adding to his evil repute for cunning and cruelty. Shivaji’s reputation, on the other hand, reached its zenith for having outwitted the cleverest and mightiest of the emperors.5

There followed a three-year lull before a Mughal demand seeking reimbursement for Shivaji’s expenses in Agra provoked the Maratha leader into a new offensive. Several vital forts were recaptured, in 1670 the port of Surat was a second time pillaged, and Maratha units struck deep into the Kandesh and Berar districts of the Mughal Deccan. Pune was liberated and Panhala reclaimed along with much of the Konkan coast. Then in 1674, as it were to crown it all, Shivaji had himself elevated to kingship.

The assumption of kingship was less for Mughal edification than for domestic reasons. With an eye to the future, Shivaji sought to legitimise assumed rights to precedence, revenue and service from his Maratha peers which had hitherto depended largely on force of arms and his personal ascendancy. A basic machinery of government was also established and the kingdom’s finances reorganised. The ‘coronation’ itself (no crown was actually used) presented the sort of problems which dynastic aspirants of old may have had to face. Marathas not being accounted as of ksatriya status, a bogus genealogy had to be fabricated which linked Shivaji’s Bhonsle predecessors with the illustrious Sesodia rajputs of Mewar. This required a brahman of acknowledged repute who would sanction the arrangement, preside over Shivaji’s penance for having hitherto lived as other than a ksatriya, and conduct the actual rituals of consecration. Such a man was found in Varanasi and triumphantly brought to Maharashtra; but the ritual, so long in abeyance, had to be laboriously deduced from ancient texts and adapted for current circumstances. It included much anointing with various liquids and, of course, lavish donations to brahmans. Additionally a new era was proclaimed and a new calendar drawn up. There was no horse-sacrifice but, to complete the traditional ceremony, Shivaji set off on a token digvijaya which included a raid on a Mughal encampment and more forays in Kandesh and Berar.

Now an independent sovereign and temporarily under no great threat from the Mughal forces, Shivaji turned south and, in alliance with the Golconda sultanate, made a joint attack on the distant Bijapur possessions in the south of Tamil Nadu. The campaign, his last, was conducted almost entirely by Maratha forces and resulted in the formation of a new Maratha military nucleus based on the captured forts of Vellore and Jinji (south-west of Madras). When in 1680 Shivaji died, dysentery having subverted ‘dignity’, he thus left a Maratha kingdom of great but ill-defined extent. Its territories were not contiguous and its subjects were still unaccustomed to other than personal allegiance to their remarkable leader.

Divisions amongst the Maratha leaders were further exacerbated by a disputed succession. But in 1681 Shambhaji, one of Shivaji’s two competing sons, gained the upper hand, had himself crowned, and resumed his father’s expansionist policies. It was to Shambhaji’s court that Prince Akbar, Aurangzeb’s rebellious son, had made his way after the failure of his rajput intrigues. And it was to nullify any possible rajput–Maratha alliance around the person of the prince, as well as to resume his long affair with the Deccan sultanates, that in 1682 the emperor himself headed south with the entire imperial court, the imperial administration, and something like 180,000 troops.


The conjunction of Maratha and rajput resistance which Prince Akbar had hoped to engineer against his father never materialised. Shambhaji, with Mughal armies already swarming through the northern Maratha lands, preferred to ignore the prince’s pleas for an all-India offensive and concentrated instead on his coastal neighbours, including a fierce little war with the Portuguese in Goa. In despair Prince Akbar took ship for Persia in 1687; like Humayun, he hoped to interest the shah in his ambitions but was disappointed.

Meanwhile Aurangzeb’s armies were enjoying uninterrupted success although no decisive victories. ‘The Mughal strategy toward Maharashtra was not subtle, just thorough.’6 Maratha lands were ravaged and Maratha deshmukhs overawed and then enlisted in the imperial service as mansabdars. But the forts were rarely worth the immense effort of capturing them and the main enemy detachments proved too wily to be induced into battle. Already it was becoming clear that outright conquest of the Maratha kingdom would demand a greater commitment of imperial resources than Aurangzeb had realised.7

Badly in need of more tangible success, the emperor turned on Bijapur. In 1684 an army of eighty thousand invaded the sultanate. Not so much defeated as overwhelmed, both the city and its sultan surrendered after a desperate siege lasting over a year. The kingdom became a Mughal province, its chief nobles were co-opted into the Mughal hierarchy, and its sultan became a state prisoner in the imperial encampment. There he was soon joined by his opposite number of Golconda. First invaded and occupied in 1685, the Golconda sultanate finally fell, along with the great stronghold of that name, in 1687. It too was then incorporated into the empire.

Aurangzeb argued that both sultanates deserved their fate for having on occasion abetted the infidel Marathas. In Hyderabad especially, the revenge of the righteous was sweet; vast wealth was appropriated, temples were desecrated, brahmans killed and Hindus of all castes penalised by the jizya. But there also arose considerable disquiet, even amongst the ulema, over the emperor’s cavalier treatment of such long-established Islamic states. Their non-Muslim subjects, especially those warrior aristocracies under their ex-Vijayanagar nayaks, would never become resigned to Mughal rule. And the ‘Deccani’ nobles, who though often of Persian origin and Shi’ite persuasion were now enrolled as ranking Mughal amirs, would retain a strong sense of regional and cultural identity. Within the Mughal military hierarchy they would constitute an influential clique on whom the ‘Hindustani’amirs of the north looked with suspicion.

Aurangzeb’s mission in the south seemingly soared to its glorious climax when in 1688 Shivaji’s successor Shambhaji, together with his brahman chief minister, was captured in an ambush. Brought to the imperial encampment, Shambhaji managed to heap insult on both the emperor and the Prophet. He was duly tortured and then painfully dismembered, joint by joint, limb by limb. No doubt the procedure symbolised that by which Aurangzeb imagined himself dealing with the Maratha kingdom.

Rajaram, Shambhaji’s brother and earlier rival, now assumed the mantle of Shivaji, but was himself besieged in the fort of Raigarh. He escaped and headed south to the Maratha possessions in Tamil Nadu. There, installed on the heights of Jinji, he was soon under siege from another Mughal army. The siege of Jinji lasted an amazing eight years (1689–97) and accounted for most of Rajaram’s reign. At times Maratha units from elsewhere pressed the Mughals so hard, and cut off their supplies so successfully, that the besiegers became the besieged. At others the stalemate stemmed from collusion; when the fort finally fell Rajaram and most of his men were allowed to make their escape.

Aurangzeb himself never visited Jinji. Nor was Rajaram’s protracted defence responsible for the emperor’s remaining in the Deccan. The real difficulty lay in the intransigence of the Maratha bands in the Western Ghats. Here, well into his eighties, the emperor would continue to lead his weary armies on an expensive and increasingly futile round of fort-bagging. He saw the campaign as a jihad and, along with such pious works as transcribing the Quran and stitching skull-caps for the faithful, he regarded a visit to another doomed stronghold of idolatry as an appropriate way in which to end his days.

But such obsessive concentration on the minutiae of Maharashtrian resistance was not good for the empire as a whole, and it was hopelessly counter-productive in respect of the Marathas. The terrain was partly responsible. Anywhere less suited to the Mughal military machine than the mountain rockery of the Ghats would be hard to imagine. North-to-south perpendicular escarpments shield a chaotic land of wooded ravines and barren downs in which every hill is a natural fortress and every valley a potential death-trap. Between the Konkan coastline of baked rock and the Deccan hinterland of parched tundra, this same choppy configuration continues for hundreds of miles. Here the Mughals’ superior artillery and heavily armoured cavalry were more a handicap than an asset.

When forts were taken it was rarely by storm. Their garrisons preferred to accept the best terms on offer, wait till the Mughal circus moved on, and then, renouncing their pledges, resume their lands and reoccupy the forts. Aurangzeb, in fact, was confronted with a new kind of insurgency which was partly of his own making. With Shambhaji dead and Rajaram cornered, each Maratha chief was now operating independently. The state was no longer susceptible to the systematic dismemberment meted out to Shambhaji. Aurangzeb’s army was simply betraying its own impotence and, by devastating Maratha lands, positively obliging those whose livelihood derived from them to take up arms and redouble their raiding.

In 1700 Satara, to which place Shivaji had earlier moved the Maratha capital, came under siege and was eventually surrendered to the Mughals. At about the same time Rajaram died. His senior widow, Tarabai, assumed control in the name of her son, Shambhaji II, and offered terms to Aurangzeb which should have ended the war. Yet despite the fact that Satara had cost thousands of lives – two thousand Mughal troops died in a single misdirected mining attempt – the emperor rejected this overture. That same year Maratha raiders for the first time crossed the Narmada river. This was the traditional Rubicon between the Deccan and the north; Malwa was now in the Maratha sights. Two years later they turned east to launch an expedition fifty thousand strong against Hyderabad. The great city, still one of the richest in the peninsula, was ransacked. In 1704 it was ransacked again and the same fate befell even Machchlipatnam (Masulipatnam), its port on the Bay of Bengal. Maratha activities now extended to virtually the entire peninsula.

Meanwhile Tarabai as regent was insinuating into the Mughal province of the Deccan what amounted to a parallel administration. This was a new tactic based on a Maratha claim to a 25 percent share (chauth) of all revenues collected in the Deccan and a further 10 per cent for the hereditary Maratha sardeshmukh, or sovereign. Payment supposedly guaranteed protection, especially from Mughal revenue collectors; it also justified a shadow hierarchy of Maratha governors and deputies operating from their own fortified bases within Mughal territory and levying additional tolls on the vital trade routes of the region. Non-payment, of course, whether by traders or zamindars, meant forcible expropriation or further raids. In practice it was little better than a protection racket. But it was not necessarily resisted. The emperor’s extreme old age, the succession crisis which would inevitably follow his death, the resentment stirred up by his religious policies, the strain imposed on his military and financial resources by the incessant Maratha campaign, and the growing discontent amongst Mughal mansabdars whose Deccan jagirs either failed to materialise or failed to yield their expected revenue, were all taking their toll of Mughal authority.


In 1705 Aurangzeb fell seriously ill. A frail and shrouded spectre dressed ‘all over white’, as a visitor put it, with turban and beard of the same ghostly pallor, he was installed in a palanquin and carefully carried back to Ahmadnagar. Even then he was a long time dying. Embittered and isolated, he prayed hard, bemoaned the state of affairs, and found fault with his officials; he had already despaired of most of his progeny. As for himself, ‘I am,’ he wrote, ‘forlorn and destitute, and misery is my ultimate lot.’8 The misery ended in 1707, his ninetieth year. His funeral expenses were supposedly met from the sale of the Qurans he had copied and the caps he had stitched. True to his wishes, he was buried not beneath a stylish mountain of marble and sandstone at the heart of the empire but in a simple grave beside a village shrine dear to the Muslims of the Deccan. At Khuldabad, not far from Aurangabad, a neat little mosque now flanks the small courtyard in which stands the least pretentious of all the Mughal tombs. There is barely room for a vanload of pilgrims. And instead of a great white dome, a dainty but determined tree provides the only canopy.


Considering that, by one calculation, Aurangzeb was survived by seventeen sons, grandsons and great-grandsons, all of an age in 1707 to lay claim to the throne, the war of succession passed off comparatively smoothly. Not, though, cheaply. Treasure was disbursed by the bucketload,jagirs doled out, armies mobilised, and about ten thousand soldiers butchered in the process.

The two main contenders clashed near Agra on nearly the same battle site as had Aurangzeb and his brother Dara Shikoh. Prince Muazzam (also known as Shah Alam), previously governor in Kabul, defeated and killed Prince Azam Shah, from the Deccan, and then assumed the title of Bahadur Shah (or Shah Alam I). Another brother of doubtful sanity entered the fray a year later and was routed and killed in 1709. The new emperor promised well, despite his years. But whereas Aurangzeb’s reign had lasted far too long for the good of his empire, Bahadur Shah’s proved far too short. He died after five years. One succession war was barely over before the next began. And in between, major crises in Rajasthan and the Panjab, plus rural unrest just about everywhere, had fatally exposed the fragility of Mughal power.

The Rajasthan problem began with the eviction of Mughal troops from Marwar (Jodhpur) by Ajit Singh, the infant who had been sneaked out of Delhi in 1678. Now nearly thirty, Ajit was taking the long-awaited opportunity of Aurangzeb’s death to avenge the earlier desecration of Marwar. Support came from other rajputs including the Kacchwahas of Amber (Jaipur) and the Sesodias of Mewar (Udaipur). But Bahadur Shah proved equal to the challenge. Overawing the Kacchwahas and ignoring the Sesodias, he re-invaded Marwar and reached a compromise settlement with Ajit Singh. A year later Ajit Singh and Jai Singh Kacchwaha again rose in revolt and attacked the provincial capital of Ajmer. Such repeated defiance would once have invited the direst of reprisals but now elicited only further clemency. As Bahadur Shah hastened away to the Panjab to deal with the Sikhs, it began to look as if imperial indulgence of the rajputs, once founded on strength and dictated by policy, was now beset by doubt and dictated by circumstance. Ten years later, after further rajput defiance and more abject Mughal concessions, the Jaipur and Udaipur rajas were said to hold ‘all the country from 30 kos [about a hundred kilometres] of Delhi, where the native land of Jai Singh begins, to the shores of the sea at Surat’.9

The more pressing Sikh problem arose from the assassination in 1708 of Gobind Singh, the last of the Sikh Gurus. At the time the Guru had been attending the emperor in the hopes of winning back a Sikh base recently established at Anandpur Sahib (near Bilaspur in Himachal Pradesh) and of obtaining redress against the local Mughal commander who had been hounding the Sikhs. This same man, who had also murdered the Guru’s two sons, was now widely regarded as having instigated the death of the Guru himself.

By the peace-loving disciples of Guru Nanak such provocation might once have been ignored. But under Guru Gobind the Sikh panth (brotherhood) had undergone a radical transformation. Retreating to the Panjab hills after Aurangzeb’s execution of Guru Tegh Bahdur in 1676, Guru Gobind had been obliged to arm his followers so that they might hold their own against the hill rajas. Support arrived from Sikhs scattered throughout north India. The claims of conscience were now to be maintained by force whenever necessary. Even Mughal contingents were successfully repulsed. In keeping with this more assertive stance, Guru Gobind had also introduced a more rigid standard of orthodoxy. True Sikhs must henceforth be inducted through a baptismal ceremony into thekhalsa, ‘the pure’; and they must leave their hair uncut, carry arms and adopt the epithet of ‘Singh’ (‘Lion’). Clearly recognisable, more cohesive, more territorially aware, and much more militant, the panth was readying itself to join the contest for power in the late Mughal period.

Within a year of the Guru’s death a disciple calling himself Banda Bahadur began collecting arms and followers in the eastern Panjab. The Panjab, like other provinces, had prospered during the first half of the seventeenth century, with revenue receipts increasing by two-thirds and Lahore becoming a major commercial centre. This trend had since been reversed, with both agricultural production and revenue falling despite rising prices. Rural distress added to Banda Bahadur’s appeal and turned his protest into ‘a millennial resistance movement’10 with a strong element of lower-caste revolt. Though poorly armed, the Sikh forces began systematically storming the mainly Muslim towns of the region.

Banda himself assumed a royal title, initiated a new calendar and began minting the first Sikh coinage. In thus adding political autonomy to the aspirations of the new brotherhood of the khalsa, he anticipated by nearly a century the Sikh kingdom of Ranjit Singh. Although forced to retreat into the hills by Bahadur Shah’s massive onslaught, Banda and his many sympathisers outlived the emperor and, when finally defeated in 1715, left a legacy of defiant protest and sectarian militancy. ‘Though Banda Bahadur, … and along with him seven hundred other Sikhs, were captured and slain in 1715, Sikh hostility continued to subvert the foundations of Mughal power till the province was in total disarray in the middle of the eighteenth century.’11

Despite such chronic subsidence, the Mughal edifice would stand for another 150 years. During this period its legitimacy and authority were rarely questioned. Well into the nineteenth century even the British acknowledged Mughal supremacy and worked within its institutions. But the erosion of its wealth and power in the early decades of the eighteenth century, and the expropriation of the system through which they operated, was indeed spectacular. Traditionally this is explained in dynastic terms. Disputed successions, imbecilic contenders, and short reigns resulted in a rapid depletion of imperial resources, leading to administrative chaos and regional secession. To these ‘causes’ of the ‘decline’ of the empire, historians with Hindu sympathies add the alienation occasioned by Aurangzeb’s religious policies, while those of Marxist sympathies emphasise rural desperation and peasant unrest as a result of the failure of an agrarian system founded on excessive exploitation and minimal investment. As so often, more historical data only generate less in the way of comforting certainty.

That local disturbances preceded Aurangzeb’s death and then became widespread throughout the empire suggests that the Sikh and rajput troubles were symptomatic of a deeper problem. But whether this resulted directly from the sort of rural oppression so graphically described by Bernier is doubtful. ‘It was not so much impoverished peasants but substantial yeomen and prosperous farmers already drawn into the Mughals’ cash and service nexus, who revolted against Delhi in the late seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries.’12 These yeomen and farmers were otherwise the vaguely defined, immensely various but always locally-based elites known as zamindars, the men at whose expense Todar Mal had set up his revenue system. Thanks to favourable trading conditions and increased yields during the first half of the seventeenth century they had evidently more than recouped their losses. In the sarkars (districts) and parganas (sub-districts) of northern India there was now a general flexing of zamindari muscle as such local caste-and kin-based groupings used new wealth to buy their way back into the revenue system or to acquire the troops and arms with which to defend existing privileges. The imperial edifice was being insidiously undermined from below even as, above ground, it was being converted and partitioned.

This unrest, it is argued, contributed to a jagirs crisis. Throughout the Mughal period mansabs had been subject to a bounteous inflation as more and more rank-holders were given higher and higher rankings. On the other hand, the supply of the jagirs which were supposed to support these rankings failed to keep pace, while their individual yields actually dwindled. A scale of differentials was drawn up to address this problem, but it seems that jagirdars now so dreaded ending up jagir-less that they defied orders to transfer from their jagirs and began to regard them as permanent perquisites which could be leased or farmed out at will and passed on to their heirs.

Office-holders felt the same way about their offices. At the highest level this meant that provincial governorships often came to be held for life and might, in the hands of a powerful and ambitious incumbent, become heritable. By the 1730s this would indeed be the case in respect of the governorships of the Panjab, Bengal, Awadh (Oudh) and the Deccan. The short step to genuine autonomy quickly followed, usually in the form of a refusal either to remit the provincial revenue to the imperial treasury or to attend in person at the imperial court. In Bengal and Awadh two generations served to turn the provincial governor into an autonomous nawab; in the Deccan the incumbent governor’s title of Nizam-ul-Mulk simply became analogous with ‘nawab’.

This was not, however, outright secession – more like devolution or a radical decentralisation. And in many ways the empire as represented by the sum of its parts proved more prestigious and entrenched than when all power rested with the emperor. The nawabs would continue to operate through the officers and institutions inherited from Mughal administration. Prayers continued to be said in the emperor’s name; coins continued to be struck in the emperor’s name. His person and his authority gave to the new order its only legitimacy. In effect the Mughal emperor was conforming to the traditional pre-Islamic model of a maharajadhiraja or shah-in-shah. The latter had actually become a Mughal title; ‘a king of kings’, it also signified ‘a king among kings’. However debilitated, the later Mughals stood unchallenged at the pinnacle of ‘a hierarchy of lesser sovereigns’, presiding over something not unlike that ancient ‘society of kings’.


Proof that the authority of the Mughal empire remained paramount came most obviously from the willingness of even the Marathas to seek its sanction. For the Marathas the most important consequence of Aurangzeb’s death had been the release of Shahuji, son of the dismembered Shambhaji (and so grandson of Shivaji). He had been brought up in the imperial camp but had not been obliged to convert to Islam and, when freed by Bahadur Shah, boldly claimed the Maratha throne. Tarabai, his aunt, contested this in the name of her own son, Shambhaji. The still spluttering Mughal–Maratha war thus became a three-cornered affair, with Shahuji also bidding for the loyalties of the Maratha leaders. Meanwhile governors of the Mughal Deccan came and went, one favouring Shahuji and the next Tarabai. Stalemate brought only chronic anarchy, until in 1713 Shahuji began to listen to the councils of the redoubtable Balaji Vishvanath.

A brahman from the Konkan coast who had once worked as a clerk of salt-pans, Balaji lacked the more obvious credentials of a rough-riding Maratha. ‘He did not particularly excel in the accomplishment of sitting upon a horse and, at this time, required a man on each side to hold him.’13 Nevertheless he enjoyed a great reputation for that other essential Maratha campaigning skill – negotiating. In 1714 he pulled off an unlikely coup by winning for Shahuji the support of Kanhoji Angria, admiral of the Maratha fleet (or ‘the Angrian Pirate’ as the British in Bombay called him), who had been the mainstay of Tarabai’s faction. Balaji was rewarded with the post of Shahuji’s ‘peshwa’ or chief minister; his fellow brahmans assumed responsibility for the Maratha administration and also boosted its credit-worthiness; and Shahuji’s situation immediately began to improve. In due course the office of peshwa would become hereditary in Balaji’s family and the peshwas, rather than their royal patrons, would become the dispensers of Maratha power and patronage for the next sixty years.

Meanwhile in Delhi the succession crisis which followed Bahadur Shah’s death in 1712 was taking its course. Although orchestrated more by senior Mughal officials than by the four contesting sons of Bahadur Shah, it proved no less costly in blood and treasure and it resulted in the accession of a man not unfairly described by Khafi Khan as a frivolous and drunken imbecile. Luckily this Jahandah Shah lasted only eleven months, a short reign if a long debauch. ‘It was a time for minstrels and singers and all the tribes of dancers and actors … Worthy, talented and learned men were driven away, and bold impudent wits and tellers of facetious anecdotes gathered round.’ The anecdotes invariably concerned Lal Kunwar (or Kumari), the emperor’s outrageous mistress, on whose fun-loving relatives were showered jagirs,mansabs, elephants and jewels. So infectious was the mood that ‘it seemed kazis would turn toss-pots and muftis become tipplers.’14

The party ended, and decorum was temporarily restored, when in 1713 Farrukhsiyar, the son of one of Jahandah Shah’s unsuccessful brothers, approached from Bihar with a sizeable army. Jahandah Shah’s forces mostly melted away, and Farrukhsiyar, who had already declared himself emperor, began his six-year reign (1713–19). It was he who was responsible for the bloody repression of Banda Bahadur and his Sikhs, and it was he who would fatefully indulge the ambitions of the English East India Company.

But his bid for power, as now his rule, depended heavily on two very able brothers known as the Saiyids, one of whom had been governor of Allahabad and the other of Patna. The Saiyids were now rewarded with the highest offices, but soon fell out with an emperor whose ambition was exceeded only by his chronic indecision. Finding the Saiyids at first overbearing, then indispensable, then intolerable, Farrukhsiyar finally ordered the younger, Husain Ali Khan, to the Deccan. As governor of the Deccan he would be out of the way; better still, as per secret instructions given to the governor of Gujarat, he would be opposed and killed en route . In the event it was the Saiyid who disposed of his would-be assassin and who then, not surprisingly, began planning his revenge on the emperor.


Into this vendetta the Marathas were drawn, and it was under cover of it that their forces would finally burst out of the Deccan and Gujarat to begin their long involvement in the affairs of northern India. Whether the initiative came from the Saiyid Husain Ali Khan or from the Peshwa Balaji Vishvanath is not clear; but in 1716 negotiations were opened between these two which ostensibly aimed at ending the Mughals’ thirty-year war with the Marathas. Like Shivaji in 1665, Shahuji would have to accept Mughal rule in the Deccan, furnish forces for the imperial army and pay an annual tribute. But in return he demanded a farman, or imperial directive, guaranteeing him swaraj, or independence, in the Maratha homeland, plus rights to chauth and sardeshmukh (amounting to 35 percent of the total revenue) throughout Gujarat, Malwa, and the now six provinces of the Mughal Deccan (i.e. including the erstwhile territories of Bijapur and Golconda in Tamil Nadu). This was a very substantial demand and, although Husain Ali Khan agreed to the terms, they were flatly rejected by Emperor Farrukhsiyar, who realised that such a farman would effectively end Mughal power in the region.15 Saiyid Husain Ali Khan, however, determined to press the treaty in person. His brother in Delhi was under constant threat from the intrigues of the vacillating emperor, and was urging his presence. Likewise Peshwa Balaji, in return for ratification of the treaty, was eager to support him. Accordingly, at the head of a joint army of Maratha and Mughal troops, the peshwa and the younger Saiyid headed north for Delhi in 1719.

Unopposed, they approached the city and pitched camp beside the Ashoka pillar re-erected by Feroz Shah II. The sound of their drums travelled up the Jamuna – which in those days still slid below the ramparts – and could be heard in the great Red Fort of Shahjahanabad. There Farrukhsiyar was quickly isolated and, with his guard surreptitiously replaced, fell an easy prey to the Saiyids. Blinded, caged, poisoned, garrotted and eventually stabbed, his death partook of the indecision which had characterised his life. He was replaced on the throne by a consumptive youth who lasted only six months, then by the latter’s equally irrelevant brother, who rejoiced in the title of Shah Jahan II but died, says Khafi Khan, ‘of dysentery and mental disorder after a reign of three months and some days’. ‘Matters went on just as before …’, continues the chronicler, ‘he [Shah Jahan II] had no part in the government of the country.’16 Under Saiyid scrutiny the first of these imperial nonentities did, however, sanction the Maratha treaty. Balaji Vishvanath and his men returned to the Deccan well pleased with their work.

Meanwhile Muhammad Shah, the third emperor in a year, was installed by the Saiyids. In an unexpectedly long reign (1719–48), his most notable achievement came early when in 1720 the younger Saiyid was murdered and the older defeated. But having freed himself of his minders, the emperor promptly fell a prey to other warring factions and seemingly despaired of actually ruling. ‘Young, handsome and fond of all kinds of pleasures, he addicted himself to an inactive life.’17 Catastrophic raids on Delhi by the Marathas (1737), by Nadir Shah of Persia (1739) and by the Afghan Ahmad Shah Abdali (1748 onwards) would fail to galvanise him. His reign, though long, would not be glorious.

Meanwhile Peshwa Balaji Vishvanath, the Saiyids’ ally, had also died in 1720. His son, Baji Rao I, ‘after Shivaji the most charismatic and dynamic leader in Maratha history’,18 duly inherited the office of peshwa. He also inherited the dazzling prospect opened by the new treaty plus his father’s understandable contempt for the might, if not the mystique, of the Mughal emperor. Over the next two decades the Marathas would raid north, south, east and west with impunity. They reached Rajasthan in 1735, Delhi in 1737 and Orissa and Bengal by 1740. But the loose structure of Maratha sovereignty remained. Balaji’s distribution of the ceded Deccan revenues amongst various Maratha commanders had produced what James Grant Duff, the first historian of the Marathas, called ‘a communion of interest’.19 Later distributions and partitions aimed at the same kind of harmonised commonwealth. It was susceptible to direction but fell well short of an imperial formation. Individual leaders at the head of their own armies operated independently. Sometimes they clashed and sometimes they collaborated but more typically each operated within a separate sphere which was determined by previous operations and existing outposts or sanctioned by the award of particular revenues. Baji Rao’s exceptional talents ensured a degree of central control. But already the seventeenth-century Maratha ‘state’ had become the eighteenth-century Maratha ‘confederacy’.

As with the devolving provincial governments of the Mughal empire, sovereignty itself could be an elusive concept. Maratha demands continued to focus more on revenue than territory, and to reflect the awesome mobility of the Maratha horse. Thus Maratha rule bubbled up wherever the existing revenue system was vulnerable or wherever trade arteries converged. Sometimes it circumvented existing rulers or even accommodated them. Although incomprehensible to writers schooled on the definable certainties of the nation-state, Maratha dominion often rejoiced in the character of a parallel, or counter, administration.

The great confederate families who emerged during this period would become the princely Marathas of British times. All distinguished themselves militarily in the 1720s, although they were not necessarily deshmukhs with ancestral lands in the Maratha homeland. Damaji Gaikwad for instance, the ancestor of the Gaikwads of Baroda, had served in Gujarat with a Maratha family that strongly opposed the peshwa and indeed fought against him in support of Nizam-ul-Mulk, the Mughal governor in the Deccan. Not till some years after the nizam’s defeat at Palkhed in 1728 did Damaji, by then supreme in Gujarat, declare his loyalty to the peshwa. On the other hand, Malhar Rao Holkar and Ranoji Scindia (Sindia, Shinde) rose entirely in the peshwa’s service, mostly in Malwa. Holkar performed with distinction at Palkhed and was rewarded with a large portion of Malwa including Indore, from where his descendants would rule as Maharajas of Indore. Scindia was awarded the ancient city of Ujjain although Gwalior, taken by his son Mahadji in 1766, would be the seat of future Scindia power and the most formidable Maratha maharaja-ship in northern India.

Likewise the Bhonsle supporters of Shahuji in his tussle with Tarabai were awarded revenue rights in Berar. These rights became the nucleus of Maratha power in eastern India whence raids were conducted deep into Orissa and Bengal. The Bhonsles adopted Nagpur as their capital, and it would be British annexation of this state of Nagpur, amongst others, which would contribute to the discontent which flared into the 1857 Uprising or ‘Indian Mutiny’. As for the sidelined Tarabai and her own Bhonsle protégés, they were eventually bought off with the offer of Kolhapur in southern Maharashtra. As a separate state under its own Maratha maharajas, Kolhapur would outlive both the Mughals and the peshwas and survive even the British, only to surrender its autonomy at Independence. Like all the other princely houses it was finally disestablished by Indira Gandhi in the 1970s.

Meanwhile the peshwas remained in Pune. Baji Rao, the second peshwa, had correctly surmised that with the power of the Mughals devolving to the empire’s provinces, the main challenge to Maratha expansion would come from regional regimes like those already emerging in Bengal and Awadh. Nizam-ul-Mulk, one of the most senior and able Mughal amirs, who had repeatedly rescued the imperial fortunes, reluctantly came to much the same conclusion. Instead of buttressing worthless emperors in Delhi, in 1723 he determined to carve out his own kingdom based on the Deccan province of which he was governor. Two formidable opponents, the Marathas, of course, and one Mubariz Khan, another Mughal functionary who had created a near-independent state based on Hyderabad, barred his way. In 1724 he defeated and killed Mubariz Khan but in 1728 and again in 1731 he was himself outmanoeuvred by the Marathas. Not surprisingly he eventually forsook his capital of Aurangabad and took his title, troops and aspirations east to Hyderabad. There he duly founded the strongest of all the newly devolved satellite states of the empire. It would also prove to be one of the most long-lived thanks to an eventual accommodation with the British.



Farrukhsiyar, the protégé, scourge, and finally victim of the Saiyid brothers who in 1719 had rejected the agreement reached with Balaji Vishvanath, had in 1717 received another such request for imperial authorisation. It came from the opposite quarter of his tottering empire, in fact from Calcutta, and after much prevarication he did in this instance give his consent. But the consequences proved no less fateful. On the strength of Farrukhsiyar’s imperial farman, ‘The Honourable Company of Merchants of London trading into the East Indies’ would line up with the Marathas and the nizam for a stake in the devolving might of the Great Mughals.

Ever since the days of Akbar the European trading companies had been petitioning the Mughal emperors for farmans, imperial directives. These would theoretically regularise their status, privileges and trading terms throughout the empire and would, as it were, trump the variety of vexatious exactions and demands imposed by local Mughal officials in the ports and provincial capitals. To an organisation like the English East India Company, whose very existence depended on a national monopoly of Eastern trade as solemnly conferred by charter from the English sovereign, the need for some such reciprocal authorisation guaranteeing favourable access to its most important trading partner was self-evident.

Within a decade of the English Company receiving its first royal charter in 1600, a Captain William Hawkins had journeyed from Surat to Agra to petition Jahangir for just such a farman . Provided with more lavish gifts or more impressive accreditation, a procession of hopefuls followed in his wake, amongst them Sir Thomas Roe, the first official ambassador from the Court of St James and the man who was so impressed by Jahangir’s jewellery. With India as a whole Roe was less impressed, dismissing it in much the same terms as had Babur. Prickly to the point of apoplexy about his diplomatic status, Roe also pontificated to his countrymen in India and thus antagonised the Company’s merchants, or ‘factors’, whose interests he was supposed to be representing. ‘If he [Prince Khurram, the future Shah Jahan] should offer me ten [forts] I would not accept one,’ he told the factors, ‘… for without controversy it is an errour to affect garrisons and land warrs in India … Let this be received as a rule, that if you will profitt, seek it at sea and in quiett trade.’ Although Roe’s idea of ‘quiett trade’ included a gratuitous attack on Mughal shipping once every four years – as he explained, ‘we must chasten these people’ – the directors of the East India Company had agreed with him about avoiding garrisons and wars. As a guarantee of favourable trading conditions an imperial farman looked to provide the perfect, because inexpensive, alternative.

But the farman had not been forthcoming, and garrisons and wars had followed. Madras had been acquired from the local nayak in 1640 and its foreshore immediately graced with the four-square Fort St George. Bombay, as noted, had passed to Charles II in 1661 as part of the dowry of his Portuguese bride, Catherine of Braganza. After a disastrous attempt to install a royal garrison it had been leased to the Company, whose employees came to appreciate its greater security when Shivaji and his successors began their raids on Surat. The actual transfer from Crown to Company was by letters patent of 1668 which, presumably for reasons of bureaucratic convenience, described Bombay as being ‘in the Manor of East Greenwich in the County of Kent’; the rent of £10 was to be paid ‘in gold, on the 30th day of September, yearly, for ever’.

Calcutta had been founded twenty years later during the course of one of Aurangzeb’s lesser-known wars. In 1664 Shaista Khan, fresh from the Deccan and minus the thumb lost during that audacious Maratha raid on his Pune home, had been appointed governor of Bengal in succession to Mir Jumla, the conqueror of Assam. When Aurangzeb himself moved to the Deccan in 1682, Shaista Khan was still in Bengal, and in that year he welcomed to his capital of Dacca one William Hedges, a director of the English East India Company. Hedges sought to persuade Shaista Khan to cancel a new tax on the imported bullion with which the Company paid for its Indian exports and to petition Aurangzeb for the long-sought farman. As the brother of Mumtaz Mahal of the Taj, and so Aurangzeb’s uncle, Shaista Khan was believed to have considerable influence. At one point Hedges thought the farman was as good as signed. But in 1684 his diplomacy was undermined by a combination of the Company’s bitching Bengal factors and Sir Josiah Child, its bellicose governor in London. Shaista Khan drew the obvious conclusion: ‘the English are a company of base quarelling people and foul dealers.’ Negotiations were broken off; and a couple of years later – it taking that long for recriminations to reach London and retribution to reach India – two ships carrying exactly 308 Company soldiers sailed up to Hughli to press the Company’s suit and challenge an empire which had at the time at least 100,000 men in the field.20

The Company’s Mughal War, also sometimes known as ‘Child’s War’, figures no more prominently in histories of British India than it does in Mughal histories. It brought glory to no one. In Bengal, after a fracas in the Mughal port of Hughli, the English withdrew downriver, landed themselves at the spot which they later called Calcutta, then next year evacuated it. This performance was repeated in 1688–9 as the ‘war’ took a more serious turn elsewhere. In support of his Bengal brethren, the Company’s senior official in Surat (who was also called Child) had removed to the comparative safety of Bombay. Thence, in accordance with ambassador Roe’s long-remembered dictum, he began attacking Mughal shipping. Child in London applauded; within a year, he announced, ‘the subjects of the Mogoll [would be] starving and dying by thousands for want of our trade’. Meanwhile the Child in Bombay boasted that if Aurangzeb chose to send the admiral of his fleet against him he ‘would blow him off with the wind of his bum’.21Aurangzeb did so choose, and ‘Child’s War’ – or perhaps ‘the Children’s War’ – thus spread from one extremity of the Mughal empire to the other. In early 1689 Sidi Yakub, the African who commanded a west coast fleet which served as the Mughal marine, took Bombay island completely by surprise. The English were besieged in Bombay Castle for most of the year and eventually capitulated.

The Company’s ‘envoys’, who in 1690 journeyed up to the imperial encampment to plead for pardon, did so with their hands tied in more ways than one. As a further indignity they were made to prostrate themselves before the emperor. But Aurangzeb was not unaware of the value of their trade nor of the danger of their making common cause with the Marathas. For a massive indemnity and promises of better conduct in future, he graciously agreed to the restoration of their trading privileges and the withdrawal of his troops. In the same spirit of forgive and forget, the Company’s Bengal establishment was allowed to return to the Hughli river where in 1690 it made a permanent settlement at Calcutta and began the fortifications of its ‘Fort William’. With the first Anglo–Indian war having been so decisively won by the Mughal empire, there was no mention of the farman.

In the early eighteenth century Surat’s trade revived while Bombay struggled to compete. Peace with Sidi Yakub and the Mughal emperor made the Company’s shipping a natural target for the Mughals’ inveterate enemy, Kanhoji Angria the Maratha admiral. A book entitled A History of the Indian Wars which was published in England in 1737, a decade before the British were generally thought to have become engaged in Indian wars, contains little mention of ‘Child’s War’. Instead it turns out to be a colourful account of the almost incessant attacks launched by Kanhoji Angria against ships flying the Company’s colours and of the attempted British reprisals against Kanhoji’s strongholds on the Konkan coast. These ‘wars’ would drag on until mid-century. Although in the 1720s and ‘30s neither side could be said to be winning, the advantage lay decidedly with Kanhoji. Bombay’s trade suffered accordingly.

Madras and Calcutta, however, prospered. The Company’s Indian ‘investment’, or purchases, of mainly cotton textiles but also silks, molasses and saltpetre from Bengal and of indigo from Gujarat were proving highly profitable. So, from an Indian point of view, was access to the silver of the Americas, with which the Company paid for its purchases. On arrival the silver was usually minted into rupees, thereby further monetising the Mughal economy which, if anything, grew more buoyant even as Mughal power declined. Indian bankers, entrepreneurs and officials benefited greatly from both the stability of the currency and the availability of capital. On the other hand, as the volume of trade increased, so did dependence on this seemingly unlimited source of treasure. In London too, as once in imperial Rome, there were other Jeremiahs who decried the haemorrhaging of their national reserves which resulted from such a one-sided trade. But with taffetas, muslins, chintzes and calicos taking over Europe’s linen cupboards, crowding its wardrobes and smothering its furniture, the Company brushed aside such criticisms, confident in the support of stockholders whose handsome apparel mirrored their handsome dividends.

Of more immediate concern to the directors of the Company were the activities of its employees in a personal capacity. English fortunes were notoriously made in India not by loyal service in the purchase and despatch of the Company’s piece-goods but by private investment in a variety of financial opportunities. Some were concerned with trade. Only over the ‘out and back’ traffic between England and the East was the Company able to enforce its monopoly. Within the East and within India itself, Company men took advantage of the decline in Indian-operated shipping which had begun during Portugal’s sixteenth-century Estado da India to invest heavily in the Indian Ocean trade. They owned or leased ships, freighted cargoes, sold insurance, and above all took advantage of the security and protection of their employer’s flag. Thus from Madras, as employees of the Company, the American-born Yale brothers amassed considerable fortunes in trade with Siam (Thailand) and Canton in China; part of Elihu Yale’s earnings would endow the college, and later university, in Connecticut which bears his name. Some Company men also invested in, and often defected to, shipping interests which did not recognise even the Company’s ‘out and back’ monopoly. These might be other European East India Companies like those of the Dutch or the French. They might be the ‘illegal’ English syndicates usually known as ‘interlopers’. Or they might be a bit of both – English interlopers sailing under a flag of convenience. Up the Hughli river in search of Bengal produce there sailed in the early eighteenth century vessels which, though largely financed by Englishmen, flew the colours of the Ostend Company, the Swedish Company, the Prussian Company, the Royal Polish Company and the Royal Danish Company.

Thomas Pitt, once an interloper, then a Member of Parliament, had already made and spent one Indian fortune when in 1699 he returned to Madras as governor of its Fort St George. He stayed there for twelve years, amassing a second fortune which included the Pitt diamond (bought for £45,000 and sold to the Regent of France for £135,000); it would comfortably sustain the political careers of his prime ministerial grandson (Chatham) and great-grandson (William Pitt the Younger). Governor Pitt also jealously protected the Company’s interests during the uncertain times before and after Aurangzeb’s death. In 1701 another English ambassador, the first since Roe, had toiled up to the emperor’s peripatetic court in the Deccan with a lavish presentation of cannons, horses and cartloads of glassware and crockery. But Aurangzeb would only entertain the idea of a farman if the English would undertake the expensive task of policing the Indian Ocean and suppressing the piratical activities of mainly European interlopers and renegades. No such undertaking was forthcoming, and nor was the farman. The embassy proved to be the expensive disaster which Pitt had predicted.

Aurangzeb’s death in 1707 and the subsequent succession struggle opened new possibilities. On behalf of Prince Muazzam, an imperial intermediary asked for English assistance in cutting off the retreat of one of the prince’s rivals; in return, Pitt was invited to draw up the terms of a farman . Although the prince’s rival never reached Madras, Muazzam duly ascended the throne as Bahadur Shah and the Company began assembling the elephants, horses, clocks and musical boxes deemed suitable to accompany another mission to the imperial court. When Pitt left India in 1709 he was still sanguine of its prospects, and in 1710 overtures from the same intermediary, who had now been posted to Bengal, were renewed. The clocks and elephants were duly shipped to Calcutta and by 1712 the mission to the Mughal was ready to start. Then news came from Delhi that Bahadur Shah had died.

His ‘imbecilic’ successor barely lasted long enough for an exchange of letters, but with the accession of Farrukhsiyar the Company’s hopes soared again. The new emperor had been brought up in Bengal, where his father had been governor after Shaista Khan. He was known to some of the English in Calcutta, and the Company had supplied his nursery with toys. Evidently the toys had been appreciated, for news that some forty tons of more adult exotica now awaited the emperor’s orders brought an interim confirmation of the Company’s existing privileges plus a request that the mission proceed to Delhi forthwith. In 1715, headed by the unexciting John Surman and guarded by some six hundred troops, a caravan consisting of 160 bullock carts, twelve hundred porters, and a choice assortment of carriages, cannons and camels headed west across the Gangetic plain.

‘Considering the great pomp and state of the kings of Hindustan, we was very well received,’ wrote Surman on arrival in Delhi. He relished the impressive ceremonial and was soon dispensing lavish bribes. Meanwhile the mission’s doctor successfully treated some swellings in the imperial groin. He was handsomely rewarded, but as to the farman Farrukhsiyar remained infuriatingly indifferent. Only when threatened with the withdrawal of the Company from Surat and its other establishments in Gujarat did he relent. Losing the Company’s bullion and trade for the price of a piece of paper was unthinkable. On New Year’s Eve 1716, more than a century since Captain William Hawkins had first applied for it, the farman received the imperial signature.

Explicit as to the territorial and commercial rights enjoyed by the Company throughout India, the farman did indeed ‘indicate such favour as has never before been granted to any European nation’. In Calcutta, Madras and Bombay celebrations were held, toasts were drunk, and salutes fired as the document was paraded through the streets and proclaimed at the cities’ gates. ‘Our dear bought farman’ became ‘the Magna Carta of the Company in India’. It provided imperial confirmation of a host of privileges, some of which had hitherto been more assumed than assured. It inducted the Company into the political hierarchy of Mughal India through a direct relationship with the emperor which bore comparison with that enjoyed by imperial office-holders. And in that it legitimised action against anyone supposedly infringing its terms, it offered great scope for future intervention. Thirty years later it would be on the strength of Farrukhsiyar’s farman that Robert Clive would justify his advance to Plassey and the overthrow of Bengal’s nawab.

But if the Company’s direct participation in the emasculation of the empire was still a generation away, not so the participation of its employees in the Mughal economy nor of its troops in what has been called ‘the all-India military bazaar’.22 In a private capacity Company men invested not only in all those different forms of maritime trade but also in the whole range of monopolies, offices, franchises, revenue farms and commercial concessions which were now openly marketed within the empire. Office-holders andjagirdars had long since been in the habit of accepting cash advances against expected revenue receipts. But now, just as imperial authority was being devolved and farmed out, so were the constituent rights and revenues of nearly all subsidiary officials. Within the provinces of the empire, governors or autonomous nawabs increasingly leased their revenue rights to a handful of major zamindars who might, for a further consideration, be elevated to the status of subsidiary nawabs or rajas. Thus in Bengal ‘by 1728 over a quarter of the nominal revenue depended on the zamindars [and later rajas] of Burdwan and Rajshahi alone. By end of the Nawab’s rule 60 per cent of the revenue came from fifteen zamindars.23 But these major zamindars in turn farmed out most of their rights to lesserzamindars, merchants, local warlords and substantial cultivators. Major Indian banking houses and powerful mercantile interests helped to finance this market in taxation rights and were amongst its principal beneficiaries. And, since the realisation of revenues, and their conversion into coin, often depended on a show of force, both local warrior aristocracies and freewheeling English factors joined in.

Typically, every Company man had his local agent, known as a ‘banian’ or ‘dubash’. Surman’s negotiations in Delhi had relied heavily on a mercurial Armenian; Pitt had employed ‘the cursedest villain that ever was in the world’ because he was also ‘the most dextrous indefatigable fellow in business’.24 Appreciating the farman-enhanced status of the Company and the credit-worthiness of its employees, such agents placed a high value on their English clients and readily arranged both their investments and the loans needed to finance them. ‘The British were sucked into the Indian economy by the dynamic of its political economy as much as by their own relentless drive for profit.’25 Recent studies of colonialism emphasise the crucial role played by native elites willing to collaborate with the colonial power. Such were the dubashes and banians and, through them as intermediaries, British residents joined the new entrepreneurial class of later Mughal India.

The dynamic of the Mughal political economy was as much about troops as money. Military leaders financed their activities by engaging in entrepreneurial ventures, and entrepreneurs secured their investments by supporting military ventures. Thus, even before war broke out with the French in the 1740s, the English Company, through its employees, was already indirectly involved in the hire and maintenance of troops by neighbouring zamindars and revenue collectors. Encouraged by the farman’s confirmation of certain local revenue rights, the Company had also significantly increased the number of troops deemed necessary to defend its own establishments. The Madras garrison, for instance, increased from 360 in 1717 to some twelve hundred in 1742. Most were recruited locally, many being from the Indo-Portuguese community. But Indian troops, known as ‘peons’ or ‘sepoys’ (sipahis, soldiers), were also hired, there being a ready pool of professional soldiers – Marathas, Deccanis, Afghans, rajputs, Baksaris (from Awadh) – which Mughal rule had left stranded, and often unpaid, throughout the subcontinent. The existence of this market in troops, like that of the market in offices and revenue farms, positively invited European participation.


But if the farman could be used to provide a legal basis for British interference, and if the lively market in commercial, fiscal and military opportunities encouraged such intervention, it was the Anglo–French wars which precipitated it. They furnished the pretext, demonstrated the method and inspired the confidence for the first British moves towards an Indian dominion.

The French Compagnie des Indes was a latecomer compared to the Dutch and English Companies. Founded by Bernier’s correspondent Jean-Baptiste Colbert in the 1660s, it had expanded rapidly in the early eighteenth century. Pondicherry, the French headquarters, challenged Madras on the Coromandel coast, and Chandernagore aspired to rival Calcutta in Bengal. But the rivalry had remained purely commercial even when England and France were at war in Europe over the Spanish succession. In Bengal both Companies similarly elected to ignore the war over the Austrian succession in the 1740s. Their colleagues in the south might have done likewise but for the operations of British and French fleets in the Indian Ocean. In the event prize-taking by the Royal Navy at sea provoked French reprisals on land and led to the capture of Madras in 1746. Both fleets also offloaded regular, or royal (as opposed to Company), troops and both Companies recruited extra ‘sepoys’; trained, drilled and uniformed, motley garrisons grew swiftly into disciplined armies.

Additionally both Companies looked to their immediate neighbours for support. Nizam-ul-Mulk, nominally Mughal governor of the Deccan but in fact autonomous Nawab of Hyderabad, still firmly ruled most of what is now Andhra Pradesh. But, to the south, the Tamil lands of the erstwhile Golconda sultanate, though part of the nizam’s subah (province), were under a subsidiary nawab known either as the Nawab of Arcot (his capital) or of ‘the Carnatic’. (The word was an Anglicisation of ‘Karnataka’ and had originally been used to designate both the southern half of modern Karnataka state – e.g. the Mysore-Bangalore area – and the adjacent Tamil lands, both having been acquired simultaneously from Vijayanagar’s nayaks by the Bijapur sultanate in the 1630s.)

It was this Nawab of the Carnatic whose territories lapped around Madras and Pondicherry, and it was he who, while coming to the aid of the British after their loss of Madras, unwittingly betrayed the superiority of regular European troops. Twice his army of about ten thousand horse was repulsed by barely five hundred well-trained French infantrymen and gunners. European regulars, armed with muskets and drilled to load and fire with synchronised rapidity, could produce sufficient firepower to halt a conventional Indian cavalry charge. It was a sensational revelation. Cavalry, especially the well-mounted and heavily armoured sowars of the Mughals, epitomised Indian military might. If they were vulnerable to European infantry, then so was the military system which supported them, and so were the regimes which espoused it. To the Companies’ long-acknowledged supremacy at sea was now added a potentially devastating capacity on land.


In 1748 news of peace in Europe brought the restoration of Madras to the British and a temporary lull in direct Anglo–French hostilities. But in the same year Nizam-ul-Mulk died and the Hyderabad succession was immediately disputed. One of the claimants ousted the Arcot nawab, where-upon both claimants for the throne of Hyderabad also fielded their own contenders for the subsidiary nawabship of Arcot. In such a situation it was inevitable that the European Companies would become involved. Their troops had just shown themselves the most effective in the peninsula, but were now without work and proving a heavy charge on their employers. Moreover Muhammad Ali, one of the Arcot contenders, had led the troops which had come to the aid of the British in the recent war; and Chanda Sahib, the other contender, kept his family in Pondicherry, spoke French, and was on close terms with Joseph Dupleix, the ambitious governor of Pondicherry.

Because he now supplied this Chanda Sahib with troops, Dupleix is often credited with introducing into India the use of political surrogates. Henceforth, when not officially at war, British and French could continue their hostilities under the aegis of competing Indian princes. Through these same princes they would extend their authority without seeming to acquire territories. But the idea of surrogate expansion was scarcely novel, least of all in India. ‘The ‘‘subsidiary alliance system’’ was not a brilliant strategy developed by the French or the English, but a common and probably inevitable feature of post-Mughal, eighteenth-century politics.’26 Moreover the British were already undertaking a similar exercise on behalf of the Maratha ruler of Tanjore. Dupleix’s opportunism was not particularly original, just wholehearted.

The ‘Carnatic War’, ostensibly about the successions to the Arcot and Hyderabad nawabships but propelled by Anglo–French rivalry for hegemony in the south, spluttered on from 1749 to 1754. Dupleix’s ambition plus the military genius of Charles de Bussy quickly carried the French beyond the Carnatic. In their wake Robert Clive, a ‘writer’ (junior merchant) and part-time soldier with the English Company, was able to claw back early British reverses and install Muhammad Ali, the British candidate, as Nawab of Arcot. But the greater prize of Hyderabad went to the French when Muzaffar Jang, their candidate, was installed as nizam. Both Companies, as well as enjoying the prospect of exercising further power by proxy, had profited hugely from the hostilities. To pay for their own and the Companies’ troops, Muhammad Ali had ceded territory to Madras while Muzaffar Jang had awarded to the French the Northern Circars, comprising most of Andra Pradesh’s coastline. Additionally the Companies’ employees in a private capacity had invested heavily in their respective protégés. In fact the loans raised by Muhammad Ali made him as much a puppet of his English creditor-syndicate as of the East India Company.


With French troops under de Bussy now assisting the new nizam against other rivals like the Marathas and so penetrating deep into the Deccan, the British too were not averse to opening a new front. Robert Clive, returning from England after a hero’s reception, reached Bombay in 1755 whence he expected to lead an Anglo-Maratha assault on de Bussy in the Deccan. This was called off. Instead, he joined a Royal Navy squadron under Admiral Charles Watson for an epic assault on what the British called the ‘pirate stronghold of Gheriah’. The ‘pirate’ was Kanhoji Angria’s successor as admiral of the Maratha fleet and ‘Gheriah’ was otherwise Vijayadurg, still today a spectacularly fortified promontory near Ratnagiri to the south of Bombay. Taken and pillaged, Vijayadurg’s fall brought to an end both Maratha sea-power and those premature ‘Indian Wars’ which had so embarrassed Bombay. Clive then sailed on to Madras with Watson. Barely four months later, in July 1756, news reached Madras that Siraj-ud-daula, the Nawab of Bengal, had stormed Calcutta and ejected the British. With Watson, his squadron, a regiment of royal troops, and a thousand sepoys Clive sailed for Bengal.

The next seven months, or ‘the Famous Two Hundred Days’, would witness the British conquest of the richest and possibly the largest of the Mughal provinces. Bengal duly became the ‘bridgehead’, ‘springboard’ and ‘foundation’ of British rule in India. It was not the new front against the French which Clive had expected, but the French presence at Chandernagore did provide a handy pretext for continuing his advance after Calcutta had been recaptured and all rights as per the farman restored. Chandernagore itself would be stormed by Watson’s ships in what was much the most ferocious engagement of the campaign. Thereafter it was the nawab’s supposed intrigues with the French which justified a further advance to Plassey. In the battle which followed, the nawab would be toppled by intrigue and, following Arcot practice, the first of several puppet nawabs installed.

Nine years later rule by proxy in Bengal would become rule by diwani. In a decidedly tacky ceremony the Emperor Shah Alam II, Muhammad Shah’s successor, formally inducted the Company, in the person of Clive, into the Mughal hierarchy. As diwan, or chancellor, for Bengal, the Company received a title which was now tantamount to sovereignty over a province that enjoyed virtual autonomy. Although the drama and scandals of ‘the Famous Two Hundred Days’ are often characterised as a ‘revolution’, no one could seriously contend that the Company had not observed the conventions of power-seeking under the later Mughal empire. Nor is it evident that most power-brokers in Bengal opposed their new superior. In fact many argued strongly in favour of British intervention. Foreign rule in India was seldom regarded as objectionable per se.

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