One Tough Lady

One Tough Lady

Had Tarabai not taken charge, it is quite likely that Aurangzeb would have snuffed out Maratha rule, and the history of India would have been very different.

[The Mughals felt] that it would not be difficult to overcome two young children and a helpless woman. They thought their enemy weak, contemptible and helpless; but Tara Bai, as the wife of Rajaram was called, showed great powers of command and government, and from day to day, the war spread and the power of the Mahrattas increased.
– Khafi Khan (d. c. 1731)

People say that I am a quarrelsome woman.
– Tarabai (1748)

Tarabai, the Maratha Queen (1675-1761), can be considered perhaps one of the most important contributors to the breakup of the Mughal Empire. She prevented the Maratha Confederacy from disintegrating when it was at its lowest ebb, with almost all its forts in Mughal hands and emperor Aurangzeb personally directing operations against it. But Aurangzeb’s dream of a pan-India Empire was destroyed in the hills and forts of the Western Deccan.


Not only did she survive the huge Mughal onslaught, but with unusual aggression for a woman, carried the battle over into Mughal territory, raiding and then creating permanent outposts. Had she buckled under, there may have been no Maratha hegemony in the 18th century, which finally reduced the Mughal sultanate to control over the tiny area—as popularly said—from Delhi to Palam.

Born in 1675, she saw the rise and fall of the Marathas: from the foundation of an independent kingdom by Chhatrapati Shivaji in 1674, to their near destruction by Aurangzeb in 1700, their rise to national power where they de facto controlled almost all of India by 1760—and their decimation by Ahmed Shah Abdali in the third battle of Panipat in 1761.

She was the daughter of Hambir Rao Mohite, Shivaji’s commander-in-chief, and she was married to Shivaji’s younger son Rajaram at the age of eight. Shivaji died in 1680, soon after being crowned the ruler of the independent Maratha kingdom established by him. His arch enemy Aurangzeb hated him, deriding him as the “pahadi chuha (mountain rat)”.

Aurangzeb could not forgive Shivaji for his escape from Agra in a fruit basket. This lapse bothered him so much that he wrote in his last words of wisdom to his son (and clearly also for posterity) that

“negligence for a single moment becomes the cause of disgrace for long years. The escape of the wretch Shiva took place through my carelessness, and I have to labour hard against the Marathas to the end of my life, as the result of it.”

Aurangzeb was overjoyed with the death of Shivaji—the Maratha menace was finally quelled—or was it?

However, Shivaji’s son Sambhaji had now become king and continued his depredations on the territories of Bijapur and the Mughals. In 1682, Aurangzeb arrived in the Deccan to fulfill the century-old Mughal dream of conquering the region. Little did he know that he would never go back to the north: for the next 25 years, the Deccan ulcer would bleed him and the Mughal Empire to death.

Things began well:  effectively cordoning off the Marathas from giving aid, and with his classic combination of large armies and bribery and corruption, the long-desired rich kingdoms of Bijapur and Golconda fell to Aurangzeb in 1686 and 1687 respectively. He had achieved what his great ancestor Akbar had but dreamt of!

A vengeful Aurangzeb could now turn all his energies towards the Marathas, who perched in forts built on the steep Western Ghats.

As the Mughal juggernaut rolled into western Maharashtra, and the forts started falling like ninepins before Mughal might and wealth, the Marathas took to hiding in their high forts and the impenetrable forests. Sambhaji was captured from his forest hideout in Sangameshwar in 1689, and Aurangzeb vented his full fury on him. Aurangzeb asked him to convert to Islam, and Sambhaji flippantly replied that he would if Aurangzeb married his daughter to him. His tongue was cut out, and eyes gouged out. He was tortured and finally executed.

Aurangzeb now started capturing forts. Sambhaji’s infant son Shivaji, who was now officially the Maratha king, was captured when the capital Raigadh fell.  Aurangzeb decided to bring him up in the royal harem and handed him over to his daughter Zinatunnissa. Aurangzeb did, however, change his name to Shahu—he probably could not tolerate his earlier one. He thought Shahu would be a useful hostage in his wars against the Marathas. Aurangzeb was overjoyed—the Maratha menace was finally quelled—or was it?

Sambhaji’s brother Rajaram now became the regent and leader of the Marathas. He realized that he had to escape the region. In a ruse borrowed from his father, Rajaram and a few companions disguised themselves as Lingayat pilgrims and made their way to the deep south, to the most invincible fort they knew, the fortress of Jinjee. And in a miracle of delegation and long distance management, Rajaram started directing guerilla operations in Maharashtra under his general Ramchandra Nilkanth, attacking the giant Mughal army, which stampeded around like a buffalo maddened by a swarm of gadflies. The Deccan campaign cost the Mughals an estimated hundred thousand lives a year and an enormous amount of money.

Aurangzeb’s encampment, which was like a moving capital—a city of tents 30 miles in circumference, with some 250 bazaars, “half a million camp followers, 50,000 camels and 30,000 elephants, all of whom had to be fed, stripped the Deccan of all of its surplus grain and wealth”. Not only famine but bubonic plague arose. Revenue from the Deccan fell to 10 per cent of its earlier level and dispossessed farmers rushed to join the Maratha guerilla forces.

Meanwhile, Rajaram’s three queens had joined him in Jinjee by taking a ship from the Konkan coast, landing in Pondicherry, and making their way to Jinjee overland. The impregnable fort of Jinjee was besieged by the Mughals under General Zulfikar Khan. But the siege was as porous as a sieve since Rajaram was able to conduct his entire guerilla operations sitting like a modern-day Don running his empire from prison!

The siege went on for eight years, and Aurangzeb finally gave an ultimatum to Zulfikar Khan that he would be in dire trouble if the fort was not captured soon. Khan tightened the siege, and food supplies grew scarce; Rajaram is supposed to have made a secret deal with Zulfikar that the fort would be surrendered if Rajaram was allowed to get away with his family and retainers. That duly happened in 1697; Rajaram made his way back to Maharashtra with his family and established his new capital at Satara.

An enraged and increasingly senile Aurangzeb, at the age of 82, personally led the troops that attacked Satara. He used all the stratagems he could come up with including actually dressing up in finery and personally parading in a procession in front of the fort so that the besieged soldiers would come over to the parapet to see what was up, and he could blow them up with a hidden mine.

In 1700, he got good news; Rajaram had died of a chest disease, coughing up blood. The Marathas now only had the widows and two infant sons as heirs. Aurangzeb was overjoyed—the Maratha menace was finally quelled—or was it?

What he had however never imagined was that one of the zenana-bound widows would suddenly turn into a combination of Machiavelli and Joan of Arc.

One Tough Lady

This article is from the July issue of our magazine. Click here to subscribe – you get 12 print issues, access to Swarajya digital, archives and more.

The 25-year-old Tarabai now came into her own. She declared her four-year-old son the king under the name Shivaji II, throwing aside Shahu’s claim with the argument that a king in hand was worth any number in the bush. She then bribed, cajoled and convinced the Maratha generals to support her and threw her co-wife Queen Rajasbai and her son Sambhaji into prison.

As the Mughal historian Khafi Khan put it: ‘The chiefs then made Tara Bai, the chief wife…regent. She was a clever intelligent woman, and had obtained a reputation during her husband’s lifetime for her knowledge of civil and military matters.”

In the seven-year period 1700—1707, Tarabai singlehandedly directed the Maratha defence against Aurangzeb’s army, who was then the mightiest ruler in the world. She led attacks from the front, travelling between Forts, mobilizing resources and motivating her commanders. She also mastered Aurangzeb’s particular technique of bribing commanders on both sides of the conflict.

Bhimsen, a Mughal officer, stated that Tarabai “was a stronger ruler than her husband”. He also observed that Tarabai “became all in all and regulated things so well that not a single Maratha leader acted without her order”.
Khafi Khan wrote:

“She won the hearts of her officers, and for all the struggles and schemes, the campaigns and sieges of Aurangzeb up to the end of his reign, the power of the Mahrattas increased day by day.”

Tarabai’s greatest strategic innovation was to send large forces beyond the Marathi-speaking Deccan deep into Mughal domains to the north as far as Malwa and Gujarat, even while major forts of her own were falling into Aurangzeb’s hands.These were more than just raids; she was establishing permanent collection centres in the Mughal territories, which had been denuded of troops by Aurangzeb for his Deccan campaign.

Khafi Khan states:

“They penetrated into the old territories of the Imperial throne, plundering and destroying wherever they went. In imitation of the Emperor, who with his army and enterprising amirs (commanders) was staying in those distant mountains, the commanders of Tara Bai cast the anchor of permanence wherever they penetrated and having appointed kamaishdars (revenue collectors), they passed the years and months to their satisfaction, with their wives and children, tents and elephants. Their daring went beyond all bounds. They divided all the districts among themselves and following the practice of the Imperial rule, they appointed their subadars (provincial governors), kamaishdars (revenue collectors), and rahdars (toll collectors].”

So clear was her vision, so unerring her judgment, that she was equally welcome on the battlefield and in the council chamber. A sick and dispirited Aurangzeb finally returned to Aurangabad, where he died in 1707 at the age of 89, a broken man, saying that after him only chaos would prevail, which it did. The Maratha menace was still not quelled.
His sons fought amongst themselves for the kingdom under the well-enshrined Mughal principle for princes—takht ya takhta (the throne or the bier). The victor of this internecine warfare was Bahadur Shah I.

In the interim, after Aurangzeb’s death. Shahu was released by the Mughals mainly to counter Tarabai, and to divide the Marathas. Divide et Impera. Hearing of this, Tarabai immediately declared him an imposter. Since that was clearly not true, she then said that he had become totally Mughal and was not at all suitable to be a Maratha king. Shahu gave some credence to her claims when he made a pilgrimage to Aurangzeb’s tomb by foot to pay his respects.
However, given his greater claim to the throne, chieftain after chieftain sent to fight with Shahu started defecting to him. He won a battle against Tarabai’s troops at Khed, and he finally triumphantly entered Satara and was crowned in 1708. He had the Mughal emperor’s support.

Tarabai retreated to Panhala, and for the next few years, two Maratha kingdoms prevailed which were at war with each other. Over the next seven years, both these kingdoms tried to extract the maximum from the Mughal Empire, both claiming the chauth and sardeshmukhi from the Deccan, and both extracting it forcibly from the Mughal territories.

In 1713, Shahu made a clever Konkani Brahmin, Balaji Vishwanath, his Peshwa (Chief Minister) who managed to win over Tarabai’s most powerful supporter, the sea wolf, Kanhoji Angre, and helped engineer a palace coup in 1714, whereby Rajaram’s other wife Rajasbai,  and son Sambhaji II, assumed power in the southern kingdom now based out of Kolhapur. Tarabai and her son Shivaji were thrown into Panhala’s prison, where she spent 16 years, and her son eventually died.

Tarabai mouldered in prison till 1730, until Shahu, who had entered into hostilities with Sambhaji, finally freed her, and overcome with family feeling, generously invited her to stay in Satara, albeit under house arrest. Sambhaji II continued to rule from Kolhapur, restricted by treaty to a small area. The Kolhapur dynasty actually continued till Independence, with a descendent Chhatrapati Shahuji Maharaj now a Dalit icon, because he greatly funded Dalit education including Babasaheb Ambedkar’s and undertook many pioneering reforms.

Shahu’s rule was a period of the great spread of the Maratha empire. The Peshwahood became hereditary, and under Balaji Vishwanth (1713-1720) and his great warrior son Bajirao I (1720-1740), the Marathas expanded north, becoming the undisputed rulers of India.

Tarabai meanwhile continued living in Satara, probably the terror of the women’s quarters. In 1748, Shahu fell ill, clearly on his deathbed, with no blood descendants of Shivaji available as heir. She now pulled a rabbit out of a hat. She was 73, but age had not withered her lust for power.  She said that she had a grandson Ramraja, who had been born after her son’s death. Scared of her rival queen Rajasbai, she had given him to a Brahmin couple in a village to rear, and he was now 22 years old—the hidden prince waiting for his destiny.

She managed to convince everybody, and on Shahu’s death, a delegation went and found Ramraja, and crowned him king in 1750, with Peshwa Nana Saheb and Tarabai as his guiding forces. The real power though had passed into the hands of the Peshwa. The Peshwa moved his court away from her to Pune, and Tarabai comfortably settled down in Satara, mercilessly bullying the young Ramraja.

When he had the temerity to show some independence of thought, she threw him in the dungeon, and fed him on coarse millet, announcing to a stunned court that he was actually not her grandson but a lowly peasant, and she had set this up to grab power. “There he would remain for the rest of his life.

At the same time, she openly opposed Nana Saheb, exhorting the Peshwa’s enemies, including even the Nizam of Hyderabad, to take up arms and remove him from power. She also played the caste card, with herself as the champion of Marathas against the dominance of Brahmins like the Peshwa.

Nothing worked, and they finally came to a compromise, swearing an accord in the temple of Jejuri, by which the Peshwa would show his loyalty to her, and Tarabai would acknowledge his right to govern the country. By now, none of the Maratha chieftains was willing to tangle with her—they cared little about control over Satara, and still less about the peasantish titular king. The true court was in Pune, and the true ruler was the Peshwa.

Besides it was said that she had supernatural powers, and nobody was prepared to put it to the test. For the rest of her days, she ruled as a quasi-sovereign dowager, maintaining a regular court, issuing farmans, building temples and so on.


She was alive when the Marathas suffered the debacle in 1761 in Panipat. With nearly 200,000 Marathas dead, it is considered the single bloodiest day of war in history. She finally died in 1761 at the age of 86, no doubt causing a very large collective sigh of relief. Had she not been there in 1701, it is quite likely that Aurangzeb would have snuffed out Maratha rule, and the history of India would have been very different.

This article is from the July issue of our magazine. Click here to subscribe – you get 12 print issues, access to Swarajya digital, archives and more.

The writer is the President of the FICCI Ladies Organisation. One of India's leading quizzers, she was declared Champion of Champions by BBC Mastermind in 2001. Archana owns and runs a successful gems and jewellery business, Touchstone, which is a pioneer in Indian costume jewellery that caters to the middle class.

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