The looming verdict in the Ram Janmabhoomi Case will potentially conclude a centuries-year old aspiration of Hindus to reclaim the land of Ayodhya. Over the centuries, numerous efforts have been made to take back the sacred site for Hindus which was under the rule of the Jihadist barbarians.
However, due to unavoidable circumstances, often a consequence of fate or misfortune, reclamation of Ram Janmabhoomi proved to be evasive. But throughout the many wars that Hindu empires have waged, the holy land of Ayodhya and the sacred sites of Mathura and Kashi always featured prominently in the plans of those who aspired for Hindavi Swarajya. In this article, we shall show that the three sites always remained in the plans of the Maratha Empire.
Maratha Plans to Take Control of Ayodhya, Prayag and Banaras
During Safdar Jung’s second war against the Pathans in 1751-52, the Marathas had cooperated with him after they were invited and after his victory at Fatehgarh, Holkar had requested that the three holy sites be handed over to the Peshwa. But at the time, the request could not be granted in its entirety. Therefore, the Empire had to satisfy itself with other riches, which they were given in plenty. Moreover, the Marathas were playing a ‘double game’ of their own. They frustrated Safdar Jung even though they were aiding him and prevented the Pathans from inevitable ruin. The objective was to ensure that only the Marathas emerged as the sole winners in this whole fight.
Historian A.L. Srivastava in his book The First Two Nawabs of Awadh describes the situation thus: In addition to acquiring karores worth booty and half the Bangash territory and their daily expenses from Safdar Jung, they exacted fifty lakhs of rupees from Ahmad Khan Bangash and Sadulla Khan Ruhella, not as war indemnity as the historian Sardesai suggests, but as price for having secured for them such favourable terms, while the Nawab Wazir “had no more than the empty gratification of having humbled the enemy.”
Malhar Rao Holkar, one of the generals under the Peshwa, reached Kashi with a significant army during this time. Once there, he wanted to demolish the Gyanvapi Mosque built by Aurangzeb and reconstruct the ancient Temple at the site. However, he was dissuaded from doing so by the people of Kashi who argued that the Islamic barbarians were too strong in the region and once the Marathas left, they would be massacred.
Why the Gyanvapi Mosque Survived
GS Sardesai in his book New History of the Marathas notes, “The object of the Marathas in all these undertakings was both religious and political. They particularly intended to get the holy places of Prayag and Kashi back into Hindu possession.” In the same book, he notes a letter written by a Maratha agent on the 18th of June, 1751 as saying, “Malharrao has pitched his monsoon camp in the Doab. He intended to pull down the grand Masjid built by Aurangzeb at Benares and restore the original temple of Kashi Vishveshwar. The Brahmans of Kashi feel extremely terrified at such a move for they realise the Muslim strength in these places. What the holy Ganges and protector Vishveshwar can ordain will come true. The Brahmans are going to send a strong appeal to the Peshwa against any such attempt by his Sardars.”
Benaras, Allahabad, Ayodhya: The Peshwa’s Letters
The three places again find mention in a letter to Dattaji Shinde by Peshwa Balaji Rao in 1759. The message was conveyed through Ramaji Anant, the ‘manager’ of the Scindias. He says in the letter, “There are two or three undertakings to be achieved in connection with Shuja-ud-Daulah. Take Benaras, Ayodhya and Allahabad bad from him. He had promised to Dada (in 1757) to cede Benaras and Ayodhya but the case of Allahabad is still under discussion. If a settlement on the last question can be easily reached, make it.”
Another letter a few months later between the same set of correspondents mentions the Holy sites with the exception of Ayodhya. It says, “Camp at Delhi for this monsoon and proceed eastwards later. While in Delhi, arrest that corrupt Antaji Mankeshwar and send him to Pune at once. While proceeding eastwards, make sure that Meerut province is enlisted under the domain of the government (emperor of Satara OR the Pune executive). If Antaji cooperates and turns himself in, make his son a hazaari sardar (chief of 1000 horses). Remember that Najib is a traitor and half Abdali. Do not waste time negotiating with him. If possible unite Shuja and Surajmal against Najib and acquire at least 30 lakhs from the spoils for us. But ensure that Jat and Shuja do not become too friendly with each other. Hence keep the Mughal Vazir as friend.”
The Peshwa then adds, “Finally, I repeat, keep the Mughal vazir as your friend as far as possible, above all others. Only if he starts reneging the contract, then replace him with Shuja in exchange of good profit. But take charge of Kashi, Mathura and Prayag in our hands at all costs.”
Thus, we see that the Peshwa was very concerned with the reclamation of the Hindu Holy Sites.
Why couldn’t the Marathas complete the Reclamation Project?
Thus, we see that between 1751 to 1759, reclamation of the sacred sites was indeed a priority for the Marathas. And there’s sufficient indication that Sadashiv Bhau who led the Maratha forces in the third battle of Panipat received instructions regarding the same as well. However, the defeat that the Marathas suffered at the war in 1761 thwarted their plans and although they sprung back from the defeat within the next ten years, the balance of power had altered significantly with the rise of the British.
It is important to understand here that the Marathas projected their power from the Deccan. Therefore, at that point of time, they did not exert control over the Gangetic Plain. @ArmchairPseph, a Twitter handle with significant knowledge on these matters, argues that control over this region was essential towards the reclamation project. He says, “In the North, the Nawabs of Awadh and Bengal still held out versus the Marathas. Thus, given the Maratha armies were based further South, while they could project power into the Gangetic plain, reclaiming the sacred sites on a secure basis was not yet possible. They did not control the state structure, and thus would be unable to protect the reconstructed temples as well as Hindus in the sacred cities once their armies withdrew back to their bases. Thus, securing the Gangetic plain was necessary before the sacred sites could be reclaimed.”
And as the incident in Kashi demonstrated, Malhar Rao Holkar had to restrain himself from levelling the Gyanvapi as the Marathas did not exert enough influence in the region. If they pursued any such actions, Hindus in the region would have suffered. Even if the three sacred sites had been transferred to the Peshwa, until Maratha power in the region had been consolidated, they wouldn’t have been free to pursue their preferred policies. Thus, although reclamation of the sites was certainly in their minds, circumstances weren’t favourable for it.
That religion figured prominently in the political outlook of the Marathas is most evident, perhaps, from the glorious reign of Ahilyabai Holkar, the daughter-in-law of Malhar Rao Holkar, who became a ruler by her own right in Malwa 1767 as the power of the Peshwas declined significantly post the third battle of Panipat. It was she who built the Kashi Vishwanath Temple, as it stands today, in 1780.
The Ramachandra temple in Puri, Hanuman temple in Rameshwaram, Shri Vaidyanath temple in Parli Vaijnath and the Sarayu Ghat in Ayodhya, Kedarnath, Ujjain and numerous other sites have the unalterable mark of Ahilyabai Holkar. The Somnath Temple, which has suffered numerous blows over the years, was restored by all the Maratha Confederates in 1783 with significant contribution from her.
The Marathas never reached a point where they could reclaim the sites without adverse consequences for Hindus as well as their own political power and the tides of time have flown by since then. For them, Ram Janmabhoomi remained a dream unfulfilled. And thus, after all these years, we stand at the precipice of history with the potential of realizing an elusive goal that has evaded our ancestors for centuries.