Balaji Vishwanath / Founder of the Pwshwas / Balaji Vishwanath bhat

Balaji Vishwanath (1714 – 1720)

Balaji Vishwanath

Balaji Vishwanath is the founder of the House of the Pwshwas, who made the office hereditary in their family, paralyzed the power of their colleagues and ultimately that of the king.

Balaji Vishwanath enjoyed the trust and confidence of his master, Sahu, and no wonder he was appointed to the post of Senakarte or Organizer of forces.  Balaji’s ancestors were Deshmukhs. He himself was employed as a clerk in the salt works at Chiplun. In 1689, he worked as a revenue clerk and later on was appointed as Sar-Subah of Poona and Daulatbad.  He seems to have come into contract with the Mughals and Sahu about 1705. Shau had a very high opinion of the ability, loyalty and character of Balaji. The latter was one of those persons who joined Sahu after his release. He also played a very important part in crushing the opposition to Shau.

Taking full advantage of the dissensions and intrigues at the Mughal court at Delhi, the Marathas gained strength and influence. In 1719, Balaji Viswanath was invited to Delhi to help the Sayyad Brothers. Although Farrukh Sayyar was killed in 1719, Balaji Viswanath got three grants from Mohammad Shah, the new Mughal emperor. The three grants are considered to be the foundation-stone of the great fabric of the Maratha Empire in India. The first grant gave to the Marathas the right of Chauth or one-fourth share of the revenues of the Deccan and southern India including Hyderabad, the Karnataka and Mysore. The second grand gave the  right of Sardeshmukhi or one-tenth share of the produce over and above the Chauth. The third grant recognized the right of Swaraj or the entire sovereignty of the Marathas over their country. Sahu was not to molest Sambhaji of Kolhapur and he was to pay an annual tribute of Rs. 10 lakhs to the Mughal emperor. The emperor was to release and send back from Delhi Sahu’s mother, his wife, his brother and the members of the Maratha royal family detained at Delhi.

According to Dr. Sinha, “This journey of the Marathas to Delhi produced far-reaching consequences in their history. Besides its immediate advantages it deeply coloured the later policy of the Marathas, and came as an eye-opener to them in many respects. For long the Marathas, who had looked upon the imperial power and prestige with awe, witnessed at Delhi what that power actually meant. The halo of glory that surrounded the names of the descendants of Babar & Akbar, whom the president of fort William addressed as the Absolute Monarch and prop of the Universe, vanished into the lurid light of utter contempt when the Marathas found them reduced to mere tools at the hands of the unscrupulous courtiers, and dragged to dishonor and ignominious death. Delhi reeking with blood, courtiers thriving in machination, the emperor an instrument of the ambitious nobles, the central authority leveled to the dust all these revealed the realities about the Mughal empire. Long before, their great king Shivaji had proved to his people that the Mughal army was not invincible and the Mughal territory not inviolable. Further they had been sufficiently disillusioned with regard to the real strength of the Mughals during their War of Independence. Now they realized full well that the Mughal empire was rotten to the core, that it could never sustain its pristine glory and perhaps, who knows, it might fall to the powerful blows of the Marathas. Balaji Vishwnath, a shrewd man of affairs as he was, must have seen with the eyes of a statesman that the splendid structure of the Mughal  empire was tottering to its fall, and was a prize worth attempting and worth fighting for. He and his other Marathah leaders must have conjured up a glorious picture of Hindustan, the homeland of Hinduism and the treasure house of Asia, a land consecrated by a thousand memories of Shri Ram and Shri Krishna so dear to the Hindu heart. This holy land, this rich country, they must have thought, would be theirs, If they could but overthrow the Mughals. And then what a difference it would make to Maharashtra. The gorgeous paraphernalia of the nobles, the polished luxury of the inhabitants, their graceful manners and customs, health and beauty, bearing and speech, all testifying to a cultured society, the verdant plains of the Ganges and the Jumna, the flower and foliage, the delightful sun and shade-all these must have captivated the eyes and imagination of the rough, crude but intelligent Chitpavan Brahmin, Balaji Vishwanath.”

Balaji Vishwanath was able to accomplish a lot for the Marathas. When he came to power, he found his country torn with a civil war, but he left it peaceful and prosperous. He won for his people Shivaji’s Swarajya from the Mughal without a battle and he impressed the Mughal capital with the prestige of the Maratha arms. He strengthened the position of sahu on his throne. At a time when the Maratha chiefs were playing a waiting game and loyalty was a rare commodity, he by his devotion and sincerity, was able to win the confidence of Sahu and the respect of the people.

Balaji Vishwanath laid the foundations of the future Maratha Confederacy. He was helped in this task by the circumstances prevailing at That time. As a result of the Deccan wars of Aurangzeb, the Mughal Empire was completely disintegrated and that helped the Marathas to acquire the right of Chauth and Sardeshmukhi over the six Subahs of the Deccan. The Marathas State set up by Shivaji was also completely destroyed and the system of Jagirs came into existence in Maharashtra. Both these factors changed the very nature of the Marathas State and laid the foundations of the Maratha Confederacy.

The grant of the right of collecting Chauth and Sardeshmukhi from the six Subahs of the Deccan to the Marathas by the Mughals in 1719 also favoured the growth of the Maratha confederacy. The Marathas were given the right of collecting the above taxes but they were also required to maintained peace and order in their territories. That seemed to be a very big job for the Marathas. Balaji solved the problem by dividing the different parts of the Deccan excluding the Swarajya to the various jagirdars of feudatories, ministers of state or his favourites. Balaji himself was to collect money from Khandesh and parts of Balaghat. He assigned Balgam and Gujarat to the Senapati. He gave portions of gondwana, the Painghat and Berar to Senasaheb Subah Kanhoji Bhonsla.  He gave Gangathadi and Aurangabad to the Sarlaskar. He gave the karnatic to Fateh Singh Bhonsla. He gave Hyderabad, Bedar and the territories between the Nira and Warna to the Pratinidhi. The above officials were allowed to collect Chauth and Sardeshmukhi from their territories. They were allowed to keep parts of the revenues for the maintenance of their establishments and send the rest to the royal treasury.  They were independent in their territories to all intents and purposes. They were not in any way subordinate to the Peshwa or Sahu. They collected a lot of money from the territories assigned to them and thereby added to their resources. The possession of lot of money and large armies enabled them to think in terms of their independence and to all intents and purposes they were actually independent. It was under these circumstances that the state formed by Balaji Vishwanath was later on called Maratha confederacy.  The nature of the confederacy remained the same. The only change made later on was that with the conquest of the various Parts of India by the Marathas the territories under the Maratha commanders became large and in the same proportion they began to assert their independence more and more.

The financial arrangements made by Balaji Vishwanath also made the Peshwa and Sahu dependent upon the Maratha military leaders. They had to depend upon the money which they were to get from the Maratha chiefs. According to Dr. Sinha, “The king lived as a pensioner of the feudatories, expecting only his 25% besides the Sardeshmukhi income. The military power had passed out of his hands and by this arrangement he was made dependent on the big Sardars for the maintenance of his office. Balaji did not realize the gravity of this mistake and he further weakened the position of the king by making it a rule that the different establishments of the royal households should be maintained by different Sardars. The Sardars and the Astapradhans like the Bhonsla and Angra were called upon to maintain the royal establishments by monthly payments. The Sachiv had to pay for the upkeep of the royal stables; the Prati-nidhi had to pay for that of the royal stores, and the Peshwa, for that of the royal palaces. The officers appointed to see whether every feudatory was sending his contribution every month regularly or not was called the Rajajnya. This arrangement rendered the king only a pensioner of the feudatories in all but name. The discredit of having thus undermined the strength of royal authority goes to Balaji Viswanath.”

According to Sardesai, “the services and achievements of this first Peshwa have not yet received proper recognition in history, since they are matter of only recent research. Shau in one of his letters styles him atula parakrami-sevaka, i.e. a servant of incomparable capacity. Showing thereby that Sahu did not bestow his Peshwaship on a mere clerk in the employ of the Senapati but on a worthy person of proved merit after a full trial of 5 years and a close personal acquaintance going back to a much longer period. In fact, although sufficient details of this first Peshwa’s life and work have not yet been discovered, we have enough ground for asserting that his father and grandfather had been in Shivaji’s service, that he possessed long and varied experience obtained by him during the Mughal-Maratha struggle and consequently a secure grasp of the circumstances and the situation in which Sahu and the shole nation came to be placed upon the death of Aurangzeb. He also evinced rare foresight and statesmanship in utilizing all available resources towards completing the task of constructing a Hindu empire, which had all but crumbled away during the roubles of the two preceding reigns. Balaji had to look to the north as his path to the south was permanently closed by the independent existence of Tarabai’s Kingdom.


Milan Tomic

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