In the spring of 1721, the Peshwa’s court received a letter written by a young footsoldier from a local battalion stationed at Khandesh’s Sultanpur. On the illustrious cushion which was overlooked by a sized Ganpati fresco at the back, sat some twenty-one-year-old Bajirao, who had big shoes to fill, of his late father, the Prime Minister or the Peshwa of the Maratha Empire. ‘Swarajya’ as envisioned by Chhatrapati Shivaji was reinstated again after a thirty-year long Maratha-Mughal War with Shivaji’s grandson Shahu now sitting as the Chhatrapati of Satara in 1713.
Young Peshwa Bajirao had made his objectives clear, “Strike off the roots of the Mughal Empire in Delhi, that all of its branches will fall inadvertently in our hands.” When the letter reached Bajirao it reminded him of a certain commander leading a band of young bucks who he had confronted him during his exploits in Khandesh. He knew that young ‘Malhari’ who had crossed his paths that day, was to become his strength for a lifetime. Malhar Rao Holkar’s letter to Bajirao asking him for an appointment in his battalion was to change his destiny forever.
Between the Deccan and the Marathas’ sparkling Delhi dreams lay the Malwa plateau stretching from the Vindhyas to Chittorgarh in the North and from Bhopal to Gujarat in the west. The character of this region underlined by its terrain, the alchemy of its forests and the overflowing rivers of Reva, Narmada and Chambal was distinctly different to what the Maratha warzone had been restricted to. With his aides which included generals like Ranoji Shinde, Udaji Pawar and Malhar Rao Holkar the Maratha army under Peshwa Bajirao – I, had already secured a strong base in Malwa.
With successive Maratha incursions by generals like Holkar, the realm of the Marathas had reached the Yamuna by the monsoons of 1729. To set a strong administration in the newly captured province, Malhar Rao was given the western part of Malwa to govern with a several thousand cavalry force. By this time, Malhar Rao had married Gautamabai, who was to play an equally pivotal role in the growing administrative aisle in Malhar Rao’s regime. He made his base in a small townlet of Indore which later became the stronghold of the Holkar domination.
It is to be noted that this new administrator of Malwa was a young lad from a shepherd family of ‘Dhangars’ who had showcased exceptional skills while rising as a warrior. In the cattle-rendering caste of Dhangars, the tradition to reserve a quarter of the family’s wealth as private assets for the women was old. With increasing riches as a Subhedar of the Maratha Empire, Malhar Rao did everything to keep the practice alive as a respect for his wives – Gautambai, Dwakabai and Banabai. In the January of 1734, he decided to break the wealth (Saranjam) he received from the Peshwas into two – the Daulat (earning) and the Khajgi (private assets for women).
Under this noble practice, The Peshwa gifted Gautambai Holkar the regions of Maheshwar, Saver and Depalpur in Malwa and the villages of Chandwad, Ambad and Koregoan in Maharshtra which collectively accounted for the revenue of Rs. Three lakh. The Holkar womenfolk could be seen using this money to build temple infrastructure and ghats from Varanasi to Somanth to Rameshwaram. Malhar Rao knew how to give his women their due. Going beyond the restrictions of caste, he married Harku Bai as his fourth wife, a girl from a Rajput lineage in Malwa and treated her equally in all legalities and protocols of the day.
A guiding light to Ahilyabai
Ahilyabai, whom history knows as the pious queen who patronised restoration of temples across the sacred geography of India, entered the house of Holkars as a wife of Khanderao – the son of Malharrao and Gautambai in 1733. Oral history has it – that Malhar Rao when on his ride to Pune, saw eight-year-old Ahilya lighting a lamp at a Shiva temple, thought of her as a perfect bride for his son, Khander Rao. Overwhelmed by the hustle-bustle of happenings at the Indore Rajwada as a new entrant, Ahilyabai was directed by Malhar Rao to look after some threads of the administrative work happening at the royal residence.
Ahilya soon started observing every letter that passed through the correspondence. Within a year, she went with Khander Rao on the exploits and noticed carefully the nitty-gritty of the happenings at the war zone. Just like, Malhar Rao, she was helped by Gautambai equally to get acquainted with the politics of the day. While Ahilya was blooming in the light of the day under the patriarch of the house, time, by now, had different plans to unfold.
In the May of 1754, when the Maratha army gheraoed Surajmal Jat’s fort at Kumbheri, a canon dashed into Khander Rao and he collapsed on the site. What stopped Ahilya from entering the pyre with Khander Rao was a tap on her back by Malhar Rao asking her to refrain. In the glaring eyes of Ahilyabai, Malhar Rao saw his hope for tomorrow as she witnessed her co-wives Parvatibai and Suratabai alongside two dancers and seven concubines of Khander Rao going Sati with his pyre in the evening twilight.
Ahilyabai was unshattered at twenty-nine; she had the people of the kingdom to look after, with her in-laws by her side. It was time for her to come into the foray. While Malhar Rao went on his excursions for collecting taxes, meeting neighbouring statesmen in the countryside, it was Ahilyabai who managed the chores at the capital. She was trained to keep the accounts, check and respond to the mails, solve issues of the subjects, look after their wellbeing all guided by her father-in-law.
Malhar Rao’s letters to Ahilya are a testimony to how he saw her a his own daughter, a mentee and the one who would carry forward his legacy. After his death in 1766, she built a Chhattri for him at Alampur in his memory. Ahilyabai knew the fact that Malhar Rao was named after their family deity the Malhari Martanda or Khandoba of Jejuri, a manifestation of Shiva. Taking this into account she built many Shiva temples by his names including the ‘Malhareshwar’ and “Martandeshwar” temples at various places. It was due to Malhar Rao’s continued policy of Khajgi asset for women, that Ahilyabai could later patronise the re-construction of temples, pilgripage sites, wells, ghats and rest houses all from her personal expense.
An icon of the Maratha Empire
After the death of Bajirao in 1740, Malhar Rao in his sixties had garnered respect as an experienced general not only in Maratha politics, but in the whole of Hindustan. He had a considerable hold in the Rajputana states and was often called to Jaipur to solve the disputes between the scions Madho Singh and Ishwari Singh. In 1757, He accompanied Raghnath Rao to his campaign of Attock and making Delhi as his base captured Sarhind in 1758. His role in signing alliances with central Indian leaders during the third battle of Panipat, goes down into history as his excellent stints in diplomacy.
On June 18, 1751, Peshwa Nanasaheb received a letter mentioning Malhar Rao’s determination to sack the Gyanvyapi Mosque in Varanasi and rebuild the ancient Vishwanath Mandir at the site. “Malhar Rao has pitched his monsoon camp in the Doab. He is well intended to pull down the grand Masjid built by Aurangzeb at Benares and restore the original temple of Kashi Vishveshwar,” the letter read. With Marathas having no direct control over the region, Peshwa Nanasaheb sensed that sacking the Masjid would mean threatening the Hindu populace under the hands of the Awadh Nawabs and hence ordered a restrain. In 1780, it was only Ahilyabai to build a new Kashi Vishwanath Temple aside the mosque and commenced the worship of Shiva once again.
Malhar Rao’s long reign made him stand out as an architect of the empire in Central India. He played a lion’s share in conspiring Peshwa Bajirao’s dream of transforming Chhatrapati Shivaji’s Swarajya into a Samrajya. Beyond the binary assessment of Malhar Rao’s treatment of his women as Feminist or Patriarchal, he stands as an icon of leading female empowerment all throughout his life. While he continued to serve the house of Peshwas till his last breath, he left a strong legacy of leaders who secured much influence in the times of the Maratha confederacy.
In popular narratives, while Malhar Rao Holkar plays an impressive supporting role in the stories of Bajirao and Ahilyabai, our realisation of finding a hero in himself on his birth anniversary today, will go a long way.