On 12 May 1666, the Maratha hero Shivaji came face to face with his nemesis, Aurangzeb. Mughal armies had for generations been embroiled in the Deccan, and what Akbar launched, his great-grandson was determined to bring to a conclusion. But such turmoil also opened avenues for new political ideas—something Shivaji, for instance, described as his swarajya. Battles were fought between the Mughals and the Marathas, each party celebrating victories and suffering defeat, though compromise and diplomacy remained in play. Where the Marathas embarrassed the emperor by attacking his uncle in his own camp in 1663, for instance, by 1665 the tables had turned—the Mughals cornered Shivaji, forcing him to the negotiating table.
So it was that Shivaji arrived in Agra the next summer to pay homage to the emperor. While the Marathas would become Aurangzeb’s most formidable challenge, the two sides did not at this time meet as equals. For the Mughals, Shivaji was one of numerous political representatives present—indeed, as Audrey Truschke suggests, in a long-established and ceremonious court where well-ensconced Rajputs painted Marathas as upstarts, it is hardly surprising that Shivaji was not treated with exceptional regard. As the Deccan’s foremost power, however, he took umbrage at this, added to which may have been awkwardness in an unfamiliar environment. Some say he stormed out, while others claim his protests provoked the emperor to expel him. Either way, Mughal efforts to co-opt the Marathas came to naught, and Shivaji was imprisoned.
In hindsight, and in the romance that often weaves its way through history’s tales, it is tempting to view the conflict between Aurangzeb and Shivaji as merely a clash of titans. But each side estimated the other differently, deploying contempt as well as grudging awe, depending on the context. For Aurangzeb, the Maratha warrior was a “mountain rat"—a parvenu creating chaos and lacking legitimacy.
Indeed, in 1666, after the events at the durbar, several were the voices that advised a swift, murderous solution to the Maratha headache. The emperor, however, prevaricated, and Shivaji escaped. The war resumed and cost life and money both, but it would be decades before the Marathas were acknowledged by the Mughals as worthy of serious respect.
For Shivaji, however, with absorption into the Mughal system having failed, there was no way ahead but to dig in his heels. By the 1670s, as he retrieved territories seized by the emperor’s men, the Maratha champion also grew keen on legitimacy. This was intended to address Mughal contempt as well as local disdain.
After all, among Marathas too, many denied Shivaji’s claims of primacy and his project to found a new state and identity. Early on, as scholar Prachi Deshpande shows, the Mores of Jawali questioned his ambition and highlighted their superiority, invoking a deity as well as service under a local sultanate. The Ghorpades of Mudhol too cast Shivaji in their chronicles as an adventurer upsetting all that was established. At best, the young Maratha was an equal—why should they rally behind his cause and declare him their leader?
Shivaji’s response to this crisis of legitimacy was twofold. To triumph over local discord and cement his position, he summoned the power of Sanskrit texts and ideals of Kshatriya dharma. Against ritual odds and objections, he had himself crowned with grand old ceremonies in 1674, acquiring a superior caste as well as a sacred thread. Then he commissioned an elaborate Sanskrit epic, eulogizing his deeds but also articulating his vision—the Sivabharata elevates the new king beyond provincial feuds, transforming him into dharma’s sword against adharma. He is Vishnu reborn to rid the world of mleccha i.e. Islamic rule, justifying his efforts to claim leadership of the Marathas. “Even a single ant," it is declared, “can kill an elephant, by crawling into its trunk."
If anyone thought Shivaji insignificant, it was at their own peril.
As it happened, after his death the state descended into chaos, Shivaji’s heirs struggling with internecine rivalries and trying to hold on to tenuous loyalties. Here again, though, texts were deployed alongside efforts on the ground. In the 1690s, when his son Rajaram was exiled in the south and hounded by the Mughals, the SabhasadBakhar (a chronicle by Sabhasad) was composed, lending moral force to the Maratha struggle. Shivaji’s deeds were recalled, and his valour celebrated.
Indeed, at a time when imperial attacks were at their worst and the state confronted an existential crisis, history was married to song to shore up urgently needed confidence and sustain hard-won validity for this troubled enterprise. As the imperial court shrewdly flirted with assorted Maratha warlords, an emotional reminder of a once-shining goal could help prevent utter disintegration.
So while, in reality, Aurangzeb viewed the Marathas with disdain, in the Bakhar, words of awe are ascribed to him. After hearing, for instance, of the Marathas’ attack on his uncle, we have the emperor express uncharacteristic horror. Even when Shivaji is about to attend the Mughal durbar, the emperor cries: “He isn’t an ordinary man." After all, he vanquished great generals, and if “just like that he flies on to my throne and betrays me, what will I do then?" In the Bakhar, the Mughals remain redoubtable foes and the emperor very powerful, but there is respect for Shivaji.
In fact, in the end Aurangzeb declares: “I sent lakhs and lakhs of horsemen; all returned subdued and harassed...I might just gird up my loins and go myself, but….While Shivaji is alive, (it is) better not to leave Delhi."
These words were composed when the Maratha effort was desperate to stay afloat and the imperial army was at its most aggressive. But recalling Shivaji—and borrowing from his own techniques of wedding textual projection to lived action—the idea behind swarajya retained a vitality. The result was that, in the end, the Maratha kingdom survived, even as Aurangzeb went to the grave with regrets. “The greatest pillar of a government," he ruminated, “is the keeping of information about everything…while even a minute’s negligence results in shame for long years. See how the flight of that wretch Shiva, which was due to carelessness, has involved me in all these distracting campaigns to the end of my days."
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).