When Rajaram, younger son of Shivaji, died spitting blood in 1700, the news was received at the Mughal court with considerable delight. The emperor, we learn, “ordered the drums of rejoicing to be beaten" while “the soldiers congratulated each other" that yet another of their antagonists had met his maker. Aurangzeb had already executed Rajaram’s brother Sambhaji in 1689 and held the latter’s widow and son captive for years. All that remained on the Maratha side were Rajaram’s wives and their children. How difficult could it be to overpower and demolish, at last, the Maratha swaraj?
As it turned out, very difficult. The Mughals, a chronicler noted, “thought their enemy weak, contemptible and helpless". But what they did not factor in was that both of Rajaram’s widows were formidable women. Unlike a third co-wife, these two had not committed sati. And now Tarabai, whose ancestors once served the Deccan’s vanquished sultans, seized control of the Maratha state. Restraining the person and ambitions of her rival, Rajasbai, and despite the claim of Sambhaji’s son living in Mughal captivity, she crowned her own boy king of the Marathas. And promptly, in his name, the 25-year-old began to exercise authority.
Power consumed much of Tarabai’s energy, and for years she remained a player in the Marathas’ game of thrones, now prominent, later in the shadows. Born in 1675, she had wed Rajaram at 8. When her brother-in-law was killed by the Mughals, she fled to Panhala fort with her husband. The air was thick with threats, and, as Mughal onslaughts continued, Rajaram fled south. For years, Tarabai was separated from him before she too embarked on this dangerous journey. And it was in Gingee, deep in Tamil country, that the Maratha queen gave Rajaram his son and heir.
From 1700-07, Tarabai remained firmly at the helm. She made overtures to the Mughals, only to attack them with pointed resolve. In her own enemies’ words, she “showed great powers of command and government, and from day to day the war spread and the power of the Mahrattas increased".
But she could also be audacious. Her husband had first sent out troops beyond the Deccan, right into imperial territory—now Tarabai too despatched men to attack provinces in the north. They “penetrated into the old territories", “plundering and destroying wherever they went… Their daring," we are told, surpassing “all bounds".
But Tarabai was not destined to enjoy unrestrained power. When Aurangzeb took Sambhaji’s wife and son, he kept them alive in his camp. They were treated well, the boy enjoying titles and an income. Indeed, in the emperor’s court, he learnt Persian and the nuances of imperial court culture, Aurangzeb even choosing his brides. In 1703, the emperor briefly considered releasing Shahu back on to the Maratha chessboard, only to change his mind. But when the old badshah died four years later, his son went ahead and gave Shahu his freedom, transforming him at once into Tarabai’s rival.
The arrival of her nephew damaged the queen’s designs. She declared him a pretender, but others at court vouched for his identity—one of them even ate off the same plate as Shahu to confirm his status. Then Tarabai argued that after 18 years with the Mughals, the man could hardly be trusted: He held honours from the hated Aurangzeb and might return the Marathas to vassalage under Hindustan’s emperors. The charges were not incorrect, for Mughal life had left a stamp on Shahu’s style and deportment. Indeed, he acknowledged openly the supremacy of his one-time captors. But he had his reasons, for though he himself had been released, the enemy still held his mother.
Inevitably, there was war between Tarabai and Shahu. The latter prevailed and the former fled. Two states emerged—in Kolhapur under Tarabai and in Satara under Shahu—each claiming the loyalties of the Marathas. But then there was, yet again, a twist: The co-wife whom Tarabai had locked away orchestrated a revolt. In 1714, Rajasbai enthroned her own son in Kolhapur and it was Tarabai who was confined. For more than a decade and a half, the queen disappeared, watching her son die while under arrest. She reappeared briefly in 1731: Shahu had triumphed over Rajasbai’s son, and, afterwards took Tarabai with him to Satara.
But Tarabai had another 18-year wait before resurrection, languishing till then in the background. Only when Shahu was nearing death and lamenting the lack of an heir did she see opportunity again. Before her son died, she now declared, he had left his wife pregnant. And the baby that was born had been hidden away by her adherents. The boy was “found" and brought to court. When Shahu’s wife scoffed at the affair, Tarabai, it is said, had her neutralized: After the king died in 1749, his widow was allegedly coerced to burn herself on his pyre. All that was left now was for Tarabai and her nominee.
But the world of the Marathas had changed, and the 74-year-old queen found that power had shifted from the ruler to the hands of the Peshwa, his minister. Tarabai met her match in this Brahmin, while even her “grandson" now assumed grandiose airs. She promptly disowned him: The claim that he was her blood, she announced, was a lie. He was merely a gondhali, a bard, who belonged on the streets. But the Peshwa didn’t mind an heir of dubious legitimacy—it suited his own accumulation of power and contained the influence of Tarabai.
Battles were fought, and a compromise arrived at between the Peshwa and the queen—he kept power in Pune, while she was left to her devices in Satara. And so it was that Tarabai assumed a strange, subdued importance again in the Marathas’ tale. When, in 1761, the year of her death, the Peshwa lost the all-important Third Battle of Panipat, it is said she expressed regret. But as Richard Eaton writes, public regret may have concealed immense internal glee. She was, after all, Tarabai. And where this commanding woman was concerned, nothing was what it seemed.
Medium Rare is a column on society, politics and history. Manu S. Pillai is the author of The Ivory Throne (2015)and Rebel Sultans (2018).
He tweets at @UnamPillai