The seat of the Maratha empire from 1730 to 1818, the Shaniwar Wada is a very important place in Indian history. Built by the Peshwas (Prime Ministers) of the Maratha King (Chhatrapati), this palace fort has nearly been destroyed completely by a combination of military attacks and fires through the centuries.
Under the Peshwai (leadership) of Bajirao I, the capital of the Maratha Empire shifted from Satara to Pune. Bajirao chose Pune for his seat because he found the climate and geography of Pune most suitable for the Peshwai. As both ceremonies – laying the foundation stone and a house warming – took place on Saturdays and the Wada was built in Shaniwar Peth, it was named Shaniwar Wada.
The main entrance of the Shaniwar Wada is called the Delhi Darwaza, so called because it faces the north and due to Bajirao’s ambitions of conquering Delhi. The building of Shaniwar Wada is thus a pivotal moment in the history of Pune, which has been the cultural capital of Maharashtra ever since.
After Bajirao I
Nanasaheb or Balali Bajirao, the son of Bajirao-I, was the longest ruling Peshwa at 21 years and saw the glory of Shaniwar Wada multiplied during his tenure. However, by the end of his rule, the Marathas had lost the third War of Panipat which resulted in the glory of the Shaniwar Wada being somewhat diminished.
Madhavrao I – Nanasaheb’s second son, his eldest son having been killed in Panipat – who became Peshwa after Nanasaheb, spent considerable time and resources fighting many enemies of the Peshwai, including his uncle Raghobadada), and was thus unable to undertake further constructions in the Wada.
The primary issue that I’m alluding to is that a nation-state does not come out of thin air. They come out of history, historical memory, and organic cohesive identity. Victor Lieberman’s Strange Parallels argues that the mainland Southeast Asian nations developed nation-states rather easily (e.g., Vietnam, Thailand, etc.) because of a particular geopolitical background that they share with Western Europe. The contrast here might be with recently independent African nations, which often were literally constructed out of colonial-era compromises between European nation-states. Not so with Vietnam or Thailand, which had 1,000-year evolutions as political entities.
This moves me to the idea of India as a nation-state. It is clear that the Indian subcontinent has a broad civilizational affinity and unity. This was recognized by ancient Indians themselves, and it was recognized by outsiders. But civilization does not mean a nation-state. Western Europe is “the West,” the set of societies united by the Western Christian Church (later to become Protestants and Catholics). Aside from very short periods (e.g., the Napoleonic Empire) Western Europe, like mainland Southeast Asia, has been divided between different sub-civilizational units which developed a cultural and national coherency.
China is an exception to this. It has been a civilizational empire for 2,000 years, and today is the archetypical civilizational nation-state. It is, in some ways, what the Republic of India should aspire to become. The Chinese government has been pushing for Standard Mandarin to be known by the whole population within a few decades, without much controversy. The Han Chinese have long had a unitary political identity, no matter their internal linguistic diversity (which is dampened by the common written language).
Going back to India, it is clear that the construction of a nation-state and national institutions is a process. It is work. It does not naturally emerge out of thin air through fiat. In the previous post, I contrasted the Gangetic plain, in particular Uttar Pradesh and Bihar, with Maharashtra. What was I pointing to there?
The Gangetic plain has a strong civilizational identity. In this way, it is similar to many Arab Muslims, who have a strong identity as Arab Muslims. Arab Muslims also have weak national identities and strong local identities. This is a problem for nation-states because they need intermediate identities into which the local identities can flow. It’s a matter of organization that leads to structural cohesion.
The peoples of the Gangetic plain have strong communal identities, but weak regional identities. The communal identities were so robust that the vast majority did not convert to Islam. But with the weakening of the exogenous pressure, they need intermediate identities around which they can coalesce around to scale-out the social structure.
But how? One way you can do this is to focus on a national origin myth. But this presents a problem. The dominant indigenous polities of the Gangetic plain since 1200 A.D. have been Islamic and usually Turkic. Many Hindus on the Gangetic plain would argue that these were not even indigenous polities. Setting that aside, it does seem that the Mughals are ill-suited to being the binding historical precedent due to popular alienation (Ranjit Singh is too sectarian). There were obviously non-Muslim polities in the Gangetic plain before 1200 A.D., but myth-building at such a distance is not optimal. The Shah of Iran in the 20th-century attempted to reconfigure Iranian identity around that of the ancient Persians, but this was too tenuous a connection for most of the populace, which was more rooted in the Shia identity that came down from the Safavids.
In South India, even the Vijayanagara Empire may not be recent enough to serve as a concrete basis for myth-making.
The Marathas of the 18th-century are different. They are recent enough that many people have personal family connections to this period and the people of this period. There is a concreteness. Though the Marathas are people of the Deccan, they are not totally alien to the Gangetic plain, sharing a broad civilizational identification. Additionally, despite Maharashtra being a caste-based state like all Hindu-majority states, there is a strong sub-national identity. Despite the prominence of Brahmin Peshwas, the Maratha Empire was driven at all levels by the manpower of the militarized rural peasantry.
The Maratha identity emerged out of decades of conflict and warfare. In classic cultural evolutionary terms, intergroup competition drove within-group cohesion. This is a well-known dynamic. War tends to solidify identity, contingent on the scale of the war. Even if the Marathas originally did not see themselves leading a pan-Indian cultural revolution with arms, that does seem to be what ended up occurring at the height of the Maratha Empire.
Their military aspect is also critical. The Bengal Renaissance led to a strong sub-national identity among Hindu Bengalis in particular, especially the elites. But civilian brilliance does not seem to have the power to ground a myth. That must be done with the sword (or musket).
Ultimately, national identity must be more than a negation. This is most clear in the nature of Pakistan vs. Bangladesh. Pakistan’s identity is much more rooted in its negation of Hindu India (along with its claim to be the heir of the Mughals). The people of the Gangetic plain resisted Islamicization, but much of their broader identity beyond community seem to be fixated on the negation and rejection of the Islamic period.
The Maratha example is one which is not founded on negation, but creation. That creation occurred out of the maelstrom of decades of warfare and conflict. But it did occur. War led to the creation of the skeleton of an Empire based on Indian cultural motifs, without West or Central Asia ties.
The Maratha Empire was ultimately incomplete. The British stopped what was likely an inevitable deposition of the Mughals and a decentering of Islam as the obligate religious-identity at the apex of political power in the subcontinent. But it is a realized enough history that can serve easily as the seed for a future identity.
I am a fan of the original Flashman books by George Macdonald Fraser and just happened to see that a new author is writing a series about Harry Flashman’s uncle Thomas Flashman, so I picked one up to check it out. The conceit is the same in this case: that these are the memoirs of a rogue who happens to have been around in the Napoleonic era. This allows George Brightwell (who is writing this series, the late George Macdonald Fraser having passed away) to write entertaining little books about various campaigns from that era. This particular book starts with Thomas Flashman getting caught in up in a sexual escapade in Napoleonic Paris (complete with a dinner with the first consul himself) that leads him to take up a secret mission to India, where the Wellesley brothers are getting ready for war with the Marathas (the second anglo-Maratha war).
The book is great fun to read and readers will get a flavor of the life and times and a detailed description of 2 major battles (Assaye and Argaon) and one siege (the siege of Gawilgarh). I certainly understand the battles and the siege better than I ever did before, but unfortunately Mr Brightwell is no George Macdonald Fraser, so the book tells us little about the overall war (why it was being fought, what else was going on; for example, Lord Lake was taking Delhi at the same time as these events, but you would not know it from this book). In the case of the Flashman books, you could pretty much get the story of an entire campaign (eg the Indian mutiny is covered really well in “Flashman and the Great Game”), at least from the British point of view. This is not the case with this book. Readers will learn relatively little about the overall picture here (unless they have read other books about the topic). Still, the book taught me more about the battles he does happen to get caught up in than any summary history is likely to teach. I see that there are a couple of “Sharpe’s” books about the same war (Sharpe’s triumph and Sharpe’s fortress) and they likely cover the same battles in even greater detail, but I have not read them yet. If, like me, you have not read about these battles in any detail, then this is a good book to start. The book also introduced me to the begum of Samru, one of those extraordinary characters that inhabit India between the decline of the Mughals and the stabilization of British rule. Other notable characters who make an appearance in the book include James Skinner (the anglo-Indian adventurer who raised “Skinner’s horse”), but unfortunately none of the other Indian characters of the age get much coverage (or sympathy).
The books have the usual imperialist British rogue POV one expects from Flashman books and the author is clearly in awe of Arthur Wellesley (later the Duke of Wellington) and the fighting qualities of the Scottish Highlanders, but in both cases he has good reason to be a fan. The historical details are accurate as far as they go, but unfortunately lack the “big picture” view one gets in George Macdonald Fraser’s books even as he follows Harry Flashman from bedchamber to narrow (and implausible) escapes in various battles. Still, these books are very inexpensive on Kindle and audible.com and this one was certainly a fun read and very informative about the topics he does happen to cover. Worth a quick read.
By the way, the title has almost nothing to do with the book. The cobra shows up once and disappears without much ado.