Book Review: The Era of Bajirao

Jadunath Sarkar, the preeminent historian of Maratha history states

The place of Bajirao I in India’s history comes home to us with unmistakable force and vividness when we compare the political situation of this country in the 1740 to that in 1720.

In 1720, Marathas were a small state spread over a few districts in western Maharashtra rife with internal divisions, while by the end of 1740 Marathas were the largest power in the country which covered lands from the Tungabhadra to the Yamuna. This was largely due to the unbeaten generalship of Peshwa Bajirao I. Uday Kulkarni, a Doctor by training, has taken to history writing these last few years and his writing has been a refreshing counter to the narrative-focused history popular in recent times. Dr. Kulkarni goes through the original sources as methodically and systemically as a surgeon would and the result is a crisp, tight book grounded in documents and not a narrative/hagiography held together by the whims of the author.

The tale starts with the Maratha-Mughal war of the late 17th century and ends with the death of Bajirao. The river Narmada or Rewa is the voice of the book as Rewa Uwaach, as Bajirao’s life was witnessed by the river Narmada, from his earliest campaigns to his untimely death. A few relationships and characters from this time period stand out in the book, and I got to know some interesting facets of all these characters and their actions in the book.

The Aurangzeb – Shahu relationship, its genesis, and its implications have been well represented in the book. Whether it was due to remorse, realpolitik, or human nature but Aurangzeb had treated Shahu well in captivity and Shahu’s unwillingness to directly attack the legacy of Emperor Aurangzeb is one of the most under-explored parts of Maratha history. This facet of Shahu can be seen as a constraint on the ambitions of the dynamic Peshwa.

Kulkarni presents the Era of Bajirao as a rivalry between two generals, Nizam-Ul-Mulk – one of the last generals from the time of Aurangzeb &Bajirao. Bajirao’s victories over the Nizam, both military and diplomatic are covered very well in the book.

The author also sheds light on a not very known fact about the life of Bajirao – his troubles with debt. The letters exchanged between Bajirao, Chimaji Appa, Brahmendra Swami, and Shahu Maharaj all point to the constant financial pressure under which the Peshwa operated. The strain between the Emperor and his prime minister over various issues, from financial matters to Bajirao’s conquering zeal are all brought forth.

The Konkan campaigns of the Peshwa, against the Siddis and the Portuguese, take up a considerable amount of the book. Chimaji Appa, the hero of the wars with the Portuguese who has often been ignored by popular imagination gets his due. The episode of Mastani is dealt with without unwarranted speculations or folk gossip. The fascinating character of Brahmendra Swami is always present in the background as Bajirao and co’s spiritual mentor.

Kulkarni also differentiates the ethics & morality of the Marathas – especially under Bajirao and Chimaji from their enemies with examples like Bajirao’s decision of not mauling Delhi and Chimaji’s respectful treatment of the Portuguese (especially women).

Bajirao’s singular quality in Kulkarni’s view is

Flight in the face of a strong enemy was not considered an act of cowardice, it was never the intention of the Maratha troops to give battle in an unfavorable situation. Bajirao’s success lay in his ability to choose when to fight, where to fight (and more importantly) when not to.

The only issue a reader might have with the book is arguably also the book’s strongest quality – the author’s unwillingness to speculate beyond a reasonable point. As a reader, at many places, I felt that I wouldn’t mind going a bit deeper into the motivations and implications of the actions of the book. But all these issues are compensated easily by the treasure trove of letters, accurate maps (with military movements), and illustrations offered in the book. On the whole, I would rate the Era of Bajirao 5/5 and would highly recommend it to anyone interested in Indian history. It is especially a must-read of every Marathi Manoos – given the profound implications, the life of Bajirao had on Maharashtra. It is quite feasible, that without Bajirao’s and Chimaji’s rescue of North Konkan from the Portuguese, we might have even had a Portuguese governed Konkan (like Goa).

Dr. Kulkarni has also written some more books – including the Solstice of Panipat & and a book on James Wales – the Artist & Antiquarian in the time of Peshwa Sawai Madhavrao. His upcoming book – the Incredible Epoch of Nanasaheb Peshwa starts where he left off in the Era of Bajirao. Sadly none of these books are available in digital format and might be difficult to obtain abroad. For those who can’t get their hands on the book, you might be interested in the following for time being.




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15 thoughts on “Book Review: The Era of Bajirao”

  1. Bajirao was probably the greatest Maratha General after the venerated Chattrapati Shivaji Maharaj. But he was not from what is referred to a “Maratha Caste”! There was a Twitter feud where a Congress troll named Saket Gokhale commented that Fadanvis is a Brahmin hence can not be called Maratha…
    Another interesting tidbit .. Bajirao’s grandfather was a humble priest (Bhat) in Konkan. Peshwas were singularly responsible to make many of those Brahmins, especially (but not exclusively) Chitpavans, to take up Kshtriya duties. There is no record of notable Generals from Brahmin community doing any fighting before that.
    This tradition continued on all the way to the Raani of Jhansi, Tatya Tope and then onto the first revolutionary Vasudeo Balwant Phadke.
    Among many Maharashtrian Brahmins it also created a cleavage of sorts, these Sardar/Jahagirdar Brahmins would look down upon the Bhat Brahmins and would refrain from doing ‘Beti’ with them. (though ‘Roti’ was fine). But that division seems to have largely melted away.

    1. Small correction to my last post. I think that Gokhale chap objected to Savarkar being termed as a Maratha (Not Phadanvis) because Savarkar was not of ‘Maratha’ caste.
      I also wonder, what is the earliest reference to ‘Maratha’ as caste? I recall in our grandparent’s vocabulary, Maratha were rarely mentioned. It was Kunbi. Maratha was a pan Maharashtra thing, not caste-indicating.
      If I am not wrong, most people with last name ‘Marathe’ are Brahmins 🙂

  2. Yeah the singular reason y Bajirao is not seen in the league of Pratap, Shivaji or even Chauhan even though arguably being more accomplished is him being a Brahmin. A bit like how RajaRaja Chola South Eastern conquests is mostly a Tam Bram thing.

    To me what’s more remarkable is someone from deccan being known as the best cavalry general for his time, being the master of the ultimate weapon of your enemy. Its like beating the British in colonization.

    1. The praise the battle of Palkhed’s received is not an overstatment – the sheer efficiency of his tactics stand out
      “Yeah the singular reason y Bajirao is not seen in the league of Pratap, Shivaji or even Chauhan even though arguably being more accomplished is him being a Brahmin. ”
      I would keep him in the league of ChandraGupta M, Samudragupta, Alaundin and Akbar – in league of the greatest generals/conquerors of India.
      I guess the reason the Guptas get a raw deal in popular history is also similar – Coz they were Vaishavites (Brahmanical ?)

      1. Yeah, same. Guptas get a raw deal i feel because they were (at least popularly accepted) not even Brahmins. So no constituency at all. They are understood to be Vaishyas and in India to be seen as great king, u first need a “great” caste 🙂

        1. I don’t think they get any ‘deal’. For that matter. So little is written about Chalukya and Rashtrakutas. Outside of Islamic rulers, only people who get some play are Chandragupta, Ashoka and to some extent Vijaynagara. (Pratap’s Haldighat gets a lot of play, but more as a tale of valor)
          Rest are relageted to the footnotes of history or remain icons only in their regions. ( Shivaji in Maharashtra)
          My American born kids were astonished to see Kailas (Ellora) and even the temple in Khidrapur.

          (The older one commented as to how poorly this is marketed and there should be hundreds of people lining up to see the intricate motifs).
          I was embarrassed to know so little about the history of those kingdoms and the booklets we bought there were poorly produced.

          1. If u ask me frankly I get why southern and even eastern kingdoms got a short end of the stick. I don’t condone it but still

            Apart from the usual North Indian bias. Roughly all these kingdoms more or less replaced equally larger kingdoms. And there were far too many of them. There is no competitive comparison on which one should be highlighted. A bit like how post guptas North Indian Kingdoms are not covered as such, since all of them were same-ish. Only guptas, Maurya , Mughals and Marathas had this pan Indian presence for considerable period.

            Apart from them u have region specific memories and history writings in the vernacular language.

          2. Your argument is sound.
            But Why do you think there is much written about the Bahamani Sultante, Deccan Sultanates and Tipu Sultan? Granted the coverage is not at par with the Mughals and the Delhi Sultante; but much more press compared to Rashtrakutas, Chalukyas, Kakatiyas and the Deogiri Yadavas.

          3. Creative, i see the paucity of writing on chalukyas and rashtrakutas due to the following factors. A) Recency bias. Historiography is sort of an inverted funnel, we are at the wide mouth. Events from even 200 years ago have tangible implications. Hard to draw strong causality to the present of say, chalukyas halting an umayyad expedition in navsarika. B) regarding the bahmanis, tughluqs ect. I do believe they generally left behind a larger corpus of secular literature. Persianate historiography was more developed. A modern scholar with knowledge persian like eaton can read primary sources all around india, but despite doing so much field work in karnataka, he can’t read kannada and has only a bit of marathi. great guy, but the medium is the message and all that. C) Ethnic patronage. The capital of the rashtrakutas was malkhed (manyakheta) in gulbarga dist of karnataka near the bhima river. The capitals of the early and latter chalukyas in badami (bagalkot) and kalyan (bidar dist). All these are fairly backward regions, and not near a presidency city or one of the older universities. Even hampi was largley made prominent by backpackers because of its stunning boulder-scape.
            Maratha archival tradition of keeping bakhars may have drawn on many persianate traditions. There’s a ton to pore through for a scholar. You see more robust record keeping by hindus after the 17th century.

          4. At least when i was studying i hardly remember much abt Bahmanis,but they big perhaps because they were the prime rival of Vijaynagar(?) and ultimately succeeded to undermine them. Same with the Deccan Sultanate as they resisted both Shivaji and Aurangzed during different times. A bit like since you rival is big, u automatically become bigger. Shivaji vs Aurangzeb, Pratap vs Akbar, for examples

            Almost all of 18th century mughals and their muslim ancillaries in India were sideshows of Maratha-Afghan fights.But still yesterday we had a whole discussion on Bangash, Sayed brothers and all. If not for Marathas who would even remember who was the prime minister, shadow prime minister, power brokers etc of powerless empire

    2. Ramchandra Pant Amatya – the third Peshwa of Shivaji’s descendants is one of the unheralded heroes of Maratha history. He provided continuity from Shivaji himself, to the fifth ruler of the Marathas – Shahu Maharaj.

      Ramchandra Pant was the backbone of Maratha power, preserving the vision of Hindavi Swarajya. Without him, the nascent Maratha state may have been snuffed out. One can only imagine the intensity of the onslaught of Aurangzeb and his armies on the Maratha heartland. Through it all, Ramchandra Pant managed to keep key sardars under the Bhosla banner, till the tide was eventually turned

      Most remarkably, and especially unlike the Bhatt family, he does not seem to have sought power and prestige for his own descendants.

      I wish somebody would write a book – “Amatya”.

  3. Excellent posts both of you.

    “A modern scholar with knowledge persian like eaton can read primary sources all around india…”

    What a sad but true statement on the state of affairs. Not one native speaker of the said languages could do high quality scholarship, gain that kind of reputation and become a worldwide authority on our own state of affairs… 75 years on. Sigh!

    1. An interesting thought, although I wonder if the sramanic tradition was much different. To have history as it has come to be understood, do we need reading as a private endeavor? The indic tradition at large seems performative and interactive.

  4. Without much expertise and only a newfound/temporary interest in this subject, I would be hazarding an uneducated guess. That said, the resistance to the ‘written word’ was strictly scriptural, wasn’t it? ( Vedas can not be attested!) It would not apply much to secular or parareligious topics. So, it might have more to do with the Indians’ attitude to the history as a living continuum in general.
    I like both Savrav and Girmit’s conjectures a lot better. Girmit’s assertion on Persianate historiography is well supported by data and Saurav’s point of the ‘boring’ factor is also spot on. Not much violence, not much upheaval, life is not changing for the better or for the worse, sort of vanilla rule.. the king does his thing and leaves the people alone. Not much interesting to write is there? No descriptions get written for the numerous Poli-Bhendichi Bhaji- Sadhe Varan fed to you meals after meals…
    I do not feel recency bias to be a big factor but I can not argue based on ‘feel’. He may be right there as well.

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