The 3rd Battle of Panipat, had dealt one of the worst blows ever to the Maratha empire, Balaji Baji Rao, the Peshwa, could not recover from the debacle and died broken hearted in the very city of Pune, that he so lovingly built. The Marathas lost the entire Northern territories of India from Delhi onwards, and the empire ran up into huge debts. It was at such a critical juncture that Madhavrao I, became the Peshwa on June 23, 1761, at a very young age of 16. Due to his rather young age, his uncle Raghunathrao was appointed as his regent to assist him in the administrative affairs.
Madhavrao I managed to bring the administration back into track, and also secured the treasury that was being looted. He had the unenviable task of rebuilding the Maratha Empire that had suffered a body blow, after Panipat and setting right the rot in the administration. Madhavrao I’s reign however would be remembered for the creation of the semi autonomous Maratha states in the Deccan and the North, it was a tactical decision to keep the Maratha empire intact.While the Peshwas ruled over Pune, in the Western part of India, Pilaji Rao Gaekwad captured Baroda from the Mughals in 1721, leading to the establishment of the Gaekwad dynasty there. The Peshwa authority by now had considerably eroded post Panipat, and the semi autonomous dynasties like the Gaekwads began to assert themselves even more. In Maharasthra itself, the Bhonsle’s established semi autonomous fiefs at Nagpur, Satara and Kolhapur, while smaller semi autonomous provinces like Dhar, Sangli, Aundh etc sprang up. In Indore, Malhar Rao Holkar founded the Holkar dynasty, that would be a powerful kingdom on it’s own.
And in Ujjain, one of the holy cities of Hinduism, one of the 12 Jyotirlinga Kshetras, a village patil from Kannerkheda in Satara dist, would found one of the more powerful kingdoms in 1731. Ranoji Scindia, one of the 3 senior most commanders under Baji Rao, during the invasion of Malwa in 1723. The Scindias, or Shindes were Kunbis, one of the lower peasant communities, who made up the bulk of the Mavalas in Shivaji Maharaj’s army. Matter of fact even the Gaekwads of Baroda, were Kunbis too, and they are mostly concentrated in Vidarbha. They served as shilledars or cavalry men in the Bahmani sultanate, and later under the Peshwa, which accounts for their surname too.
The greatest of the Scindia rulers, would however Ranoji’s illegitimate son, his youngest one, Mahadji Scindia. None of Ranoji’s immediate successors, had a distinguished reign, Jayappaaji Rao was killed in a clash with the Maharaja of Jodhpur, after he got involved in their internal affairs. While Jankoji Scindia, took part in the disastrous battle at Panipat, and was killed by Bakhurdhar Khan, after being taken prisoner by him. And for 2 years, they had no leader either, till Kadarji Rao Scindia, was appointed.
It was not an easy ascent to power for Mahadji Scindia, Jayappa’s widow Sakhubhai, Raghunath Rao were both against him. Raghunath Rao even tried making Mahadji’s nephew Kedarji as the ruler, however the latter refused to conspire against his uncle whom he greatly respected. It was the siege of the Jat fortress of Gohad, that tilted the balance in favor of Mahadji. Gwalior was under the Jat ruler of Gohad, and the Marathas had planned a long siege in 1767. Mahadji intervened and managed to bring about a settlement between the Marathas and Jats, which impressed the young Peshwa Madhavrao. After due consultation with Nana Fadnavis, Malhar Rao Holkar and Haripant Phadke, he declared Mahadji to be the true ruler of the Scindias in 1768.
Mahadji had earlier given indications of his prowess, capturing Mathura from the Jats in 1755, when he was just 25. A devotee of Shri Krishna, he rebuilt many temples in Mathura and also established a Sanskrit school there. He was fluent in both Sanskrit and Persian, not to mention the fact that he was a great warrior. He was one of the few who escaped the carnage at Panipat, thanks to a water carrier named Rane Khan, who pulled him to safety and later became his close aide.
Ascending the throne, he made Shah Alam, the Mughal emperor in 1772, who out of gratitude appointed him as his vakil ul mulatuk or honorary regent. In the meanwhile Madhav Rao Peshwa passed away, and the ambitious Raghunath Rao, egged on by his scheming wife Anandi Bai, murdered the young succesor Narayan Rao, his own nephew. However Nana Fadnavis formed the Barabhai council of which Mahadji was a part, taking matters into his own hands, and Raghunath Rao was deposed, making Sawai Madhav Rao, the next Peshwa.
Raghunath Rao, meanwhile sought the help of the British, to become Peshwa again, and the first Anglo Maratha War began . Leading the Maratha forces, Mahadji encircled the British army at Wadgaon and routed them in a bloody battle in 1779. He forced the British to sue for peace, where they would not support Raghoba, and have several regions adjacent to Bombay. However the then Governor General, Warren Hastings, refused to honor the treaty, and series of conflicts broke out. Capt Goddard in west, Capt Poham in North attacked many of the Maratha provinces, making Mahadji counterattack. With neither side gaining much, the conflict was becoming a stalemate.
This led to the Treaty of Salbai in 1782, by which British ceased all support to Raghunath Rao and pension him off. Sawai Madhav Rao would be the legitimate Peshwa, while Mahadji would no longer be a vassal of the Peshwa, but an independent ruler in his own right. While Mahadji would be the legitimate ruler of the Northern areas, the Peshwa would still rule over the Deccan. This move though however sparked off a long rivalry between Mahadji Scindia and Nana Fadnavis, it also did not help that both had no love lost for each other. Fadnavis was wary of Mahadji’s growing influence in the North, and felt he would be more powerful than the Peshwa soon.
Mahadji also had to face opposition from the Holkars, a rivarly that went back to the days of the Maratha campaigns in Rajputana, where they often supported rival factions. Fadnavis sent Tukoji Holkar and Ali Bahadur, Baji Rao’s grandson from Mastani, to undermine Scindia in the North. Mahadji however managed to rout Holkar at Lakheri in 1793, while Ali Bahadur would later form the princely state of Banda in Bundelkhand.
Mahadji by now had become a powerful force in the North, wresting Gwalior in 1783 from the Jat ruler Chattar Singh and securing it as the Scindia capital. He also built a professional army on European lines with the help of Benoit de Boigne, a former French commander. He had some real trusted people around him, like Ambuji Ingle, Rana Khan, Rayali Patil, Jivbadada Baksh and Ladoj Deshmukh. When the Mughal Emperor, Shah Alam II, was blinded and deposed by the Rohillas under Ghulam Qadir in 1788, he rushed to his aid. The Rohillas were routed at Delhi and Shah Alam II was placed on the throne. Mahadji struck terror among the Rohillas with a series of raids, and their capital at Najibabad was sacked too.
Mahadji also defeated a combined army of Jaipur and Jodhpur at the Battle of Patan in 1790 and later at the Battle of Merta, forcing the Rathores to cede Ajmer to him. He also defeated the Nizam, restricting them to the Deccan, while Tipu Sultan had to sue for peace in 1792. Also inspite of his rivalry with Nana Fadnavis, he remained loyal to the Peshwa all his life. While the Peshwa through Mahadji’s friend Haripant Phadke, managed to bring about a truce between Scindia and Fadnavis.
Mahadji Scindia passed away at Wanwadi near Pune on February 12, 1794, where there is a magnificient chattri built in his honor. A 3 storied building in typical Rajput style with a Shiva temple and memorial, worth a visit.