Review of ‘The Extraordinary Epoch of Nanasaheb Peshwa’ by Uday S. Kulkarni

On 28th April 1740, Peshwa Bajirao I breathed his last on the riverbank at Raverkhedi April 1740. In his twenty years career, the illustrious Peshwa had turned the geopolitics of India inside out, firmly establishing Marathas as the paramount military power in India.

Two months after his death, his eldest son Nanasaheb was given the robes and insignia of the office of Peshwa by Chhatrapati Shahu at Satara. Almost twenty years ago Shahu had appointed a 19-year-old Bajirao to the seat of Peshwa under similar circumstances. Nanasaheb, who turned twenty a few days after becoming Peshwa, was now at the center stage of Maratha affairs.

The young Peshwa was embarking on a very intensive career juggling enormous strings of power and diplomacy across India. In a career spanning over two decades, he would steer the Maratha empire to unprecedented successes during an incredibly eventful period in Indian history and bear the grief of the world’s bloodiest battle in the 18th century.

Dr. Uday Kulkarni’s new book, The Extraordinary Epoch of Nanasaheb Peshwa, tells the story of this period encompassing Nanaseheb’s career from 1740 to 1761. The book, published by Mula Mutha Publishers, is the fifth book written by Dr. Kulkarni after Solstice at Panipat, The Bakhar of Panipat, The Era of Baji Rao, and James Wales: Artist & Antiquarian in the time of Peshwa Sawai Madhavrao. The Extraordinary Epoch of Nanasaheb Peshwa is a sequel to The Era of Baji Rao.

This book is not intended to be a biography of Nanasaheb, but it is rather a story of that period in India. It captures an important turning point in Indian history when many momentous events took place in a relatively short amount of time. If the history of India was played on a time-lapse video, this period would look like a fast-paced montage.

The dissolution of Mughal power was absolute by this time. The eruption of power centers and conflicts everywhere created the momentum for Maratha cavalries to spread across India. The British and the French East India Companies recognized the utility of their military capabilities, and confidently put their stakes in the game.

The Portuguese power, deeply eroded by the battle of Vasai, melted away from most of the West Coast. Robert Clive, who started his career as a ‘factor’ in the East India Company, led the company army to a decisive battle at Plassey. And at Panipat, Marathas and Afghans fought one of the fiercest and bloodiest battles ever recorded in Indian history.

It is a very complex story with a large cast and many interspersed tales. It is a story of Nanasaheb, Shahu, Tara Bai, Sadashiv Rao Bhau, Tulaji Angre, Dupleix, Bussy, Chanda Sahib, Nizams, Clive, Alivardi Khan, Bhaskar Ram, and Rahuji Bhosle. It is a narrative of what happened in the battlefields of Trichinapolly, Arcot, Vijaydurg, Udgir, Plassey, and Panipat. Collectively, all these tales have been woven into a fabulous book by the author.

After the death of Chhatrapati Shivaji in 1680, Marathas had fought a 27-year war against Aurangzeb in Deccan. Chhatrapati Sambhaji, Shivaji’s son, was brutally tortured and killed by Aurangzeb in 1689. Sambhaji’s son, Shahu, was taken to Mughal captivity, while Rajaram, Shivaji’s younger son, was taken to Gingee by his loyal Maratha officers.

After Rajaram’s death in 1700, his wife Tarabai assumed the leadership of the Maratha state. Shahu was released from captivity after Aurangzeb’s death in 1707. A succession dispute between Shahu and Tarabai fractions led to the establishment of separate seats of Chhatrapati in Satara and Kolhapur.

The house of Satara grew rapidly in stature and influence during the tenures of Peshwa Balaji Vishwanath and Peshwa Bajirao. Nanasaheb inherited the charge of a Maratha Empire which had emerged as a seat of immense power in Indian politics with a battle-hardened army led by experienced sardars. He also inherited an arena filled with multiple conflicts of interest within and beyond Maratha establishment and a debt crisis which had remained a nagging issue throughout his father’s career.

Shahu had been the patriarch and a unifying figure for the Marathas. Nanasaheb’s grandfather and father had served as Peshwas under Shahu. Some of the earlier chapters of this book cover Nanasaheb’s relationship with Shahu and provide a lot of context for incidents of that time. There were times when Shahu’s trust in Nanasaheb eroded to the extent that considered removing Nanasaheb from the post of Peshwa.

Nanasaheb handled the situation with considerable tact and humility and regained Shahu’s trust. Shahu and Nana’s interactions towards the end of Shahu’s life show the weight of unresolved decisions in Shahu’s mind and the faith he had in Nanasaheb. This book brings some interesting details on Nanasaheb’s attempts to unify these two seats after the demise of Chhatrapati Shahu.

The Maratha establishment had many sardars of high stature when Nanasaheb took charge. Seniors like Ranoji Shinde, Malharrao Holkar, and Pilaji Jadhav had fought alongside Bajirao. Others, like Raghuji Bhosle and Tulaji Angre, did not derive their power from the Peshwa or from the Chhatrapati, and they operated with near autonomy in their domains.

Many anecdotes and correspondences provided in the book help form a picture of how a young Nanasaheb worked to establish his authority in a Maratha empire filled with heavyweights.

Accounts of Sadashivrao Bhau’s training through progressive assignments, Kolhapur Chhatrapati’s offer to recruit Bhau as Peshwa, Nanasaheb and Bhau’s efforts to recruit Bussy, Muzaffar Khan Gardi and Ibrahim Khan Gardi, and Nanasaheb’s reprimands to Gopal Rao provide a fascinating insight into the manpower management aspect in the growing empire.

Marathas’ military capabilities, their ambition, and their need for finances inevitably led to their involvement in conflicts across India. During Nanasaheb’s tenure, Maratha armies saw action in Carnatic, Deccan, Konkan, Gujarat, Rajputana, Malwa, Bundelkhand, Bengal, Delhi, Doab, and across Indus.

The Ahadnama of 1752 placed Marathas into the guardianship of Delhi, which eventually led to the events of Panipat. Unresolved Chauth arrangements of the Mughal emperor provided them an opportunity to get involved in Bengal.

Maratha annual raids in Bengal have been a subject of many simplified narratives in the media. The political undertones of these stories can be often distracting for those interested in learning these events from a historian’s perspective.

Dr. Kulkarni has thankfully devoted considerable space to describe this chapter in history, covering Raghuji Bhosle and Nanasaheb’s involvement in Bengal, their interactions with Alivardi Khan, Bhaskar Ram’s campaigns, and his assassination by Alivardi Khan.

This period also saw the emergence of European powers as serious players in Indian conflicts. The Anglo-French conflict in India, their involvement in Carnatic, Bengal, and the West Coast, and the story of its key players – Clive, Dupleix, and Bussy has been covered quite well in the book. The coast of Konkan was dominated by Angre Chiefs.

Angre Chiefs have often been termed pirates in the British literature of that era. Dr. Kulkarni delves into the Angres’ association with the Chhatrapati and the legitimacy of their claim to collect toll from the merchant ships on their coast.

The story of Peshwa’s conflict with Tullji Angre and the battle of Vijaydurg and the involvement of the British navy has been narrated in great detail.

The effectiveness of French artillery during the French attack on Gingee was a revelation for Europeans and Indians alike. Maratha armies had relied on guerrilla warfare in their own domain. During Bajirao’s time, they relied largely on mobile cavalry, sacrificing firepower for mobility. Their efforts to establish a modern artillery unit started after Nanasaheb and Bhau witnessed the power of the French cannonade in 1751.

This book provides detailed accounts of the evolution of Maratha artillery – their interest in recruiting Bussy, their recruitment of Muzaffar Khan Gardi and Ibrahim Khan Gardi, and their deployment of artillery at the battle of Udgir. Ibrahim Khan Gardi went on to command the Maratha artillery at Panipat, before dying of wounds received in the battle.

Panipat was the final chapter of Nanasaheb’s saga. The entire Panipat campaign was covered in Dr. Kulkarni’s first book Solstice at Panipat. The last chapters of this book are devoted to Panipat. The author’s deep familiarity with this subject makes this chapter quite a compelling read.

The magnitude of events leading up to Panipat, their political contect, military manoeuvres and logistics challenges of both armies, the sequence of the battle and the bloodbath, Nanasaheb’s desperation to obtain information, and eventually how a broken Nanasaheb coped with the massive loss – all these episodes have vividly described.

Nanasaheb’s health had been deteriorating for some time prior to Panipat. He died six months after the battle at the age of forty. This young Peshwa had consolidated the Maratha empire and managed to keep it unified in a rapidly unraveling world.

The expansion of the Maratha empire under his watch was nothing short of astounding, and his unfinished plans went far beyond what was accomplished. A fair amount of emphasis is given to that unfinished business – acquiring Surat, capturing Janjira, Nanasaheb’s efforts to unify the seats of Satara and Kolhapur and his ambitions towards Deccan and Bengal.

A more visible legacy of that period can be seen in religious centers across India. Amidst practicalities of diplomacy, war, and political alliances in a multipolar world, a religious undercurrent always existed in Maratha’s aspirations.

Many important Hindu places of worship in North and Central India, which were demolished by Islamic rulers in prior centuries, were rebuilt after Maratha conquests. The Mahakal Temple at Ujjain was rebuilt by Marathas in 1734 after their conquest of Malwa. Kashi held an important place in the Maratha esteem.

Some of the major ghats in Kashi were built by the Marathas during this time. The book covers Nanasaheb’s unsuccessful efforts to rebuild the Kashi Vishwanath temple. Nanasaheb opened the pilgrimage routes in central India and also forced changes in certain discriminatory octroi collection practices from the Mughal era.

The Tryambakeshwar temple was demolished and converted into a mosque by Aurangzeb in the prior century. Nanasaheb’s successful maneuvers to bring Nashik into the Maratha fold and rebuilding of the temple have been described quite well in the book.

Events in Malwa and Bundelkhand have been addressed mostly in transient passages, usually in the context of events elsewhere. The establishment of Maratha bases in these provinces is a significant episode and could have been covered in greater detail in the book. Regardless, The Extraordinary Epoch of Nanasaheb Peshwa is one of the most comprehensive books on the history of this period from Maratha’s perspective.

The 500 pages of this book are packed with a massive amount of details, which makes it an intensive read. The diversity of characters and the pace of events makes this an incredibly complex story. There are many dots to connect and Dr. Kulkarni has attempted to structure the book in such a way that doesn’t disrupt the flow of the narrative.

In style, subject matter, and coverage of primary sources this book is a throwback to the era of Jadunath Sarkar, G.S.Sardesai, R.C.Majumdar, S.N. Sen, and Raghubir Sinh in Indian historiography. Dr. Kulkarni is remarkably restrained in using adjectives and in providing opinions, remaining faithfully confined to the role of the Waqianawis, the title given to the narrator of this book. His narrative rarely ventures far from the facts corroborated by primary sources.

The book is loaded with entries from contemporary accounts and letters from Maratha, Mughal, French, and British sources. Original text from primary sources has been frequently embedded in the main narrative. These frequent snippets can be somewhat distracting for some readers, but they provide a lot of peripheral details and valuable context for events.

The Extraordinary Epoch of Nanasaheb Peshwa is a well-told story of a very important period in Indian history that has not been adequately covered in our historiography so far. The book deserves a respectable spot in the bookcases of history enthusiasts.

The Extraordinary Epoch of Nanasaheb Peshwa is available on Amazon.

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