Regional States, c. 17001850
The states that arose in India during the phase of Mughal decline and the following century (roughly 1700 to 1850) varied greatly in terms of resources, longevity, and essential character. Some of themsuch as Avadh (Ayodhya) in the north or Hyderabad in the southwere located in areas that had harboured regional states in the immediate pre-Mughal period and thus could hark back to an older local or regional tradition of state formation. Others were states that had a more original character and derived from very specific processes that had taken place in the course of the late 16th and 17th centuries. In particular, many of the post-Mughal states were based on ethnic or sectarian groupingsthe Marathas, the Jats, and the Sikhs, for instancewhich had no real precedent in medieval Indian history.
The Maratha kingdom at the death of Sivaji (1680).
There is no doubt that the single most important power that emerged in the long twilight of the Mughal dynasty was the Marathas. Initially deriving from the western Deccan, the Marathas were a peasant warrior group that rose to prominence during the rule in that region of the sultans of Bijapur and Ahmadnagar. The most important Maratha warrior clan, the Bhonsles, had held extensive jagirs (land-tax entitlements) under the 'Adil Shahi rulers, and these were consolidated in the course of the 1630s and '40s, as Bijapur expanded to the south and southwest. Sahji Bhonsle, the first prominent member of the clan, drew substantial revenues from the Karnataka region, in territories that had once been controlled by the rulers of Mysore and other chiefs who derived from the collapsing Vijayanagar kingdom. One of his children, Sivaji Bhonsle, emerged as the most powerful figure in the clan to the west, while Sivaji's half-brother Vyamkoji was able to gain control over the Kaveri delta and the kingdom of Thanjavur in the 1670s.
Sivaji's early successes were built on a complex relationship of mixed negotiation and conflict with the 'Adil Shahis on the one hand and the Mughals on the other. His raids brought him considerable returns and were directed not merely at agrarian resources but also at trade. In 1664, he mounted a celebrated raid on the Gujarat port city of Surat, at that time the most important of the ports under Mughal control. The next year, he signed a treaty with the Mughals, but this soon broke down after a disastrous visit by the Maratha leader to Aurangzeb's court in Agra. Between 1670 and the end of his life (1680), Sivaji devoted his time to a wide-ranging set of expeditions, extending from Thanjavur in the southeast to Khandesh and Berar in the northwest. This was a portent of things to come, for the mobility of the Marathas was to become legendary in the 18th century.
Rise of the peshwas
The good fortune of Sivaji did not fall to his son and successor, Sambhaji, who was captured and executed by the Mughals in the late 1680s. His younger brother, Rajaram, who succeeded him, faced with a Mughal army that was now on the ascendant, moved his base into the Tamil country, where Sivaji, too, had earlier kept an interest. He remained in the great fortress of Señji (earlier the seat of a Nayaka dynasty subordinate to Vijayanagar) for eight years in the 1690s, under siege by a Mughal force, and for a time it may have appeared that Maratha power was on the decline. But a recovery was effected in the early 18th century, in somewhat changed circumstances. A particularly important phase in this respect is the reign of Sahu, who succeeded Rajaram in 1708 with some acrimony from his widow, Tara Bai. Lasting some four decades, to 1749, Sahu's reign was marked by the ascendancy of a lineage of Citpavan Brahman ministers, who virtually came to control central authority in the Maratha state, with the Bhonsles reduced to figureheads. Holding the title of peshwa (chief minister), the first truly prominent figure of this line is Balaji Visvanath, who had aided Sahu in his rise to power. Visvanath and his successor, Baji Rao I (peshwa between 1720 and 1740), managed to bureaucratize the Maratha state to a far greater extent than had been the case under the early Bhonsles. On the one hand, they systematized the practice of tribute gathering from Mughal territories, under the heads of sardesmukhi and cauth (the two terms corresponding to the proportion of revenue collected). But, equally, they seem to have consolidated methods of assessment and collection of land revenue and other taxes, which were derived from the Mughals. Much of the revenue terminology used in the documents of the peshwa and his subordinates derives from Persian, which suggests a far greater continuity between Mughal and Maratha revenue practice than might have been imagined.
By the close of Sahu's reign, a complex role had been established for the Marathas. On the one hand, in the territories that they controlled closely, particularly in the Deccan, these years saw the development of sophisticated networks of trade, banking, and finance; the rise of substantial banking houses based at Pune, with branches extending into Gujarat, the Ganges Valley, and the south; and an expansion of the agricultural frontier. At the same time, maritime affairs were not totally neglected either, and Balaji Visvanath took some care to cultivate the Angria clan, which controlled a fleet of vessels based in Kolaba and other centres of the west coast. These ships posed a threat not only to the new English settlement of Bombay, but to the Portuguese at Goa, Bassein, and Daman. On the other hand, there also emerged a far larger domain of activity away from the original heartland of the Marathas, which was either subjected to raiding or given over to subordinate chiefs. Of these chiefs, the most important were the Gaikwads (Gaekwars), the Sindhias, and the Holkars. Also, there were branches of the Bhonsle family itself that relocated to Kolhapur and Nagpur, while the main line remained in the Deccan heartland, at Satara. The Kolhapur line derived from Rajaram and his wife, Tara Bai, who had refused in 1708 to accept Sahu's rule and who negotiated with some Mughal court factions in a bid to undermine Sahu. The Kolhapur Bhonsles remained in control of a limited territory into the early 19th century, when the raja allied himself with the British against the peshwas in the Anglo-Maratha wars.
Unlike the Kolhapur Bhonsles and the descendants of Vyamkoji at Thanjavur, both of whom claimed a status equal to that of the Satara raja, the line at Nagpur was clearly subordinate to the Satara rulers. A crucial figure from this line is Raghuji Bhonsle (ruled 172755), who was responsible for the Maratha incursions on Bengal and Bihar in the 1740s and early 1750s. The relations of his successors, Janoji, Sabaii, and Mudhoji, with the peshwas and the Satara line were variable, and it is in this sense that these domains can be regarded as only loosely confederated, rather than tightly bound together.
Subordinate Maratha rulers
Other subordinate rulers who emerged under the overarching umbrella provided by the Satara ruler and his peshwa were equally somewhat opportunistic in their use of politics. The Gaikwads, who came to prominence in the 1720s, with the incursions of Damaji and Pilaji Gaikwad into Gujarat, were initially subordinate not only to the Bhonsles but also to the powerful Dabhade family. Their role in this period was largely confined to the collection of the cauth levy, and they consolidated their position by taking advantage of differences between the peshwa and the Dabhades. The fact that various interests at the Mughal court were at loggerheads with each other also worked to the Gaikwads' advantage. However, it was only after the death of Sahu, when the power of the peshwas was further enhanced, that the position of the Gaikwads truly improved. By the early 1750s, the rights of the family to an extensive portion of the revenues of Gujarat were recognized by the peshwa, and an amicable division was arranged. The expulsion of the Mughal governor of the Gujarat subah (province) from his capital of Ahmadabad in 1752 set the seal on the process. The Gaikwads preferred, however, to establish their capital in Baroda, causing a realignment in the network of trade and consumption in the area.
The rule at Baroda of Damaji (d. 1768) was followed by a period of some turmoil. The Gaikwads still remained partly dependent on Pune and the peshwa, especially to intervene in moments of succession crisis. The eventual successor of Damaji, Fateh Singh (ruled 177189), did not remain allied to the peshwa for long, though. Rather, in the late 1770s and early 1780s, he chose to negotiate a settlement with the English East India Company, which eventually led to increased British interference in his affairs. By 1800, the British rather than the peshwa were the final arbiters in determining succession among the Gaikwads, who became subordinate rulers under them in the 19th century.
In the mid-18th century, a great part of the holdings of the Gaikwads was described in the peshwa's correspondence and papers as saranjam, and the ruler himself was termed saranjaihar, or at times jagirdar. The same was broadly true of the Holkars and Sindhias, and also of another relatively minor dynasty of chiefs, the Pawars of Dhar. In the case of the Holkars the rise in status and wealth was particularly rapid and marked. From petty local power brokers, they emerged by the 1730s into a position in which Malhar Rao Holkar could be granted a large share of the cauth collection in Malwa, eastern Gujarat, and Khandesh. Within a few years, Malhar Rao consolidated his own principality at Indore, from which his successors controlled important trade routes as well as the crucial trading centre of Burhanpur. After him, control of the dynastic fortunes fell largely to his son's widow, Ahalya Bai, who ruled from 1765 to 1794 and brought Holkar power to its apogee. Nevertheless, their success could not equal that of the last great chieftain family, the Sindhias, who carved a prominent place for themselves in North Indian politics in the decades following the third battle of Panipat (1761). Again, like the Holkars, the Sindhias were based largely in central India, first at Ujjain, and later (from the last quarter of the 18th century) in Gwalior. It was during the long reign of Mahadaji Sindhia, which began after Panipat and continued to 1794, that the family's fortunes were truly consolidated.
Mahadaji, employing in the 1780s a large number of European mercenaries in his forces, proved an effective and innovative military commander who went beyond the usual Maratha dependence on light cavalry. His power, however, had already grown in the 1770s, when he managed to make substantial inroads into a North India that had been weakened by Afghan attacks. He intervened with some effect in the Mughal court during the reign of Shah 'Alam II, who made him the deputy regent of his affairs in the mid-1780s. His shadow fell not only across the provinces of Delhi and Agra but also on Rajasthan and Gujarat, making him the most formidable Maratha leader of the era. He caused trepidation among the personnel of the East India Company and also at Pune, where his relations with the acting peshwa, Nana Fadnavis, were fraught with tension. Eventually, the momentum generated by Mahadaji could not be maintained by his successor Daulat Rao Sindhia (ruled 17941827), who was defeated by the British and forced by treaty in 1803 to surrender his territories both to the north and to the west.
Mughal mystique in the 18th century
The careers of some of these potentates, especially Mahadaji Sindhia, illustrate the potency of Mughal symbols even in the phase of Mughal decline. For instance, after recapturing Gwalior from the British, Mahadaji took care to have his control of the town sanctioned by the Mughal emperor. Equally, he zealously guarded the privileges and titles granted to him by Shah 'Alam, such as amir al-umara (head of the amirs) and na'ib wakii-i mutlaq (deputy regent). In this he was not alone. Instances in the 18th century of states that wholly threw off all pretense of allegiance to the Mughals are rare. Rather, the Mughal system of honours and titles, as well as Mughal-derived administrative terminology and fiscal practices, spread apace despite the deterioration of imperial power.
The case of Mysore
Theoretically, in the 1720s, the Mughals claimed rights over a far larger area than had ever been the case under Akbar, Jahangir, or Shah Jahan. This area included large parts of southern India, over which central rule was never actually consolidated. Taking advantage of their somewhat ambiguous relations with the Mughals, and claiming to be the agents of Delhi, the Marathas often made partial claims on the revenues of these areas, as cauth and sardesmukhi. This was the case, for example, in Mysore in the 1720s and '30s. Mysore had come under the sovereign umbrella of the Mughals in the late 1690s, as the result of an embassy sent to Aurangzeb by Cikka Deva Raja Vadiyar, the ruler of Mysore at the time. In effect, this meant that Mysore was to pay a periodic tribute (peshkash) to Mughal representatives in the south, but there was a problem in doing so. As Mughal authority in the Deccan and the south was itself fragmented, several possible channels of tribute existed. Mysore thus sought to make use of this ambiguity, playing off Chin Qilich Khan (known by the title Nizam-ul-Mulk), a powerful Mughal noble who in these years founded a dynasty at Hyderabad, against the Mughal representative at Arcot, thereby putting off the tribute payment. A further variable in the fiscal politics of Mysore was the presence of the Marathas; and some clans, such as the Ghorpades, made it a regular practice to raid the Mysore capital of Seringapatam (Shrirangapattana). In this way, overlapping and at times conflicting claims were justified with reference to a Mughal centre that was distant and for the most part lacked interest in these affairs.
As such, then, few if any of the states discussed above made a direct attack on Mughal legitimacy or sought to challenge Mughal claims head-on. To the extent that such a frontal challenge (as distinct from a rebellion conducted within a shared understanding of the framework of authority) can be located in the period, it comes from the far northwest of the Mughal domain. Eventually, however, this challenge was to have repercussions that were felt by the Marathas and other groups.
Challenge from the northwest
The northwest frontier between the Mughals and Safavids had always harboured elements that possessed the potential to destabilize the balance between these states. The area, which falls largely in present-day Afghanistan, also had a tradition of religiopolitical movements, often intended to provide a direct challenge to the Mughals or Safavids. An important instance is the Roshani movement of Bayazid Ansari and his successors, which was crushed by the Mughals in the late 16th and early 17th centuries. Again, in the reign of Aurangzeb, a frontal attack on the legitimacy of his rule was made by the Pashtun leader, Khushal Khan Khatak, though in this case from the standpoint of orthodox Islam. Significantly, in Khushal Khan's poetic and other literary works, there was also an explicit and nostalgic yearning for the time of Sher Shah Sur, the Afghan who had expelled the Mughal ruler Humayun from Hindustan. The spirit of these writings was translated into action in the early 18th century, when Mir Vays Khan Hotak, a leader of the Hotaki clan of Ghilzais, succeeded in carving out a Pashtun state based at Qandahar, under the nose of the Safavid governor of the area. Between 1709 and 1715, Mir Vays ruled Qandahar unofficially, but his successors were not so modest. His son, Mir Mahmud, first attacked Kerman in Iran, and thenin 1722took Esfahan itself and proclaimed himself its ruler. However, the success of the Ghilzais was not to last long, as they were challenged both by their fellow Pashtunsthe Abdalisand by the plans of Nadir Quli Afshar, a Safavid subordinate who harboured substantial ambitions of his own.
Between Mir Mahmud's death (1725) and 1731, Nadir Afshar (later Nadir Shah) rapidly consolidated his hold over eastern Iran and placed a severe check on the rise of Pashtun power. Subsequently, he marched into Afghanistan and later the Mughal territories, sacking Delhi in 1739. Nadir Shah's success in welding together a disparate set of territories, while operating outside the system of Mughal sovereignty, provided a model for the Pashtuns after his assassination in 1747. Many from the Abdalis and Ghilzais had been employed by him, and they had had an opportunity to learn at close quarters. Among those who had been subordinate in this way to Nadir Shah was Ahmad Khan, a member of the relatively small Sadozai lineage of Abdalis. In the wake of the Afshar conqueror's death, a congregation of Pashtun khans at a shrine near Qandahar elected Ahmad Khan to be their leader. His trajectory took him into conflict with the Mughals, then the Marathas, and finally he acted as a crucial catalyst in the formation of the Sikh state in North India.
The Afghan factor in North India, 174772
Unlike Nadir Shah, Ahmad Shah Abdali (or Ahmad Shah Durrani)as Ahmad Khan came to be known after 1747had little interest in the area west of Afghanistan. Rather, his principal endeavour was to create a state that would lie astride the major overland trade routes that passed from northern India to Central and western Asia. Qandahar naturally had an important place in this scheme, but a great deal of attention also had to be paid to centres in North India, such as Multan and Lahore. It is no coincidence that Ahmad Shah mounted 9 and possibly 10 expeditions to the Punjab, beginning with the first year of his reign, after he had taken Kabul. His campaigns bear an obvious similarity to the seasonal migration of the Powindah (pastoral nomads) from Afghanistan to India, which normally took place in the agricultural off-season. It was always in autumn and winter that the Abdali-led armies set out to the east; when summer's heat approached, they beat a tactical retreat to the hills from where they had come.
The ability of the Pashtuns to form a lasting state in this process was severely curtailed by the opposition that Ahmad Shah faced within his own home territories. In the 1750s, when the first concerted challenge to his authority in the Punjab was posed by an alliance of Mughals, Sikhs, and Marathas, Ahmad Shah was too preoccupied with the rebellion of Nasir Khan Baluch, to the west, to devote attention to the threat in the east. Thus, in 1757, Ahmad Shah's son Timur, appointed governor of the Punjab, was forced to retreat from Lahore to Peshawar under the force of attacks from Sikhs and Marathas. It was only in 1760 that Ahmad Shah returned to fight a campaign in northern India, which culminated in his defeat of the Marathas at Panipat in January 1761. However, even this did not turn the tide in his favour. The large-scale attacks that were unleashed on the villages of Sikh peasantry led only to intensified resistance, and Ahmad Shah found his area of control in the 1760s constantly under threat. His campaigns of 1768 and '69 were accompanied by widespread desertions on the part of his allies and levies, who thought the Punjab project to be an unviable one. His death in 1772 thus left his son and successor, Timur Shah, with many problems to resolve.
The Afghan presence in North India during the period was of course not simply restricted to Ahmad Shah's campaigns. In the course of the middle decades of the 18th century, several Afghan lineages had carved a place for themselves in northern India in the area known as Rohilkhand, to the east and northeast of Delhi and Agra. They diverted trade from these older imperial cities to their own centres and also helped create a new set of routes to Lahore and the northwest, bypassing the Ganges-Yamuna Doab. In so doing, they helped weaken further the economic power of the Mughal centre and accelerated the consolidation of regional states on the Gangetic valley itself. But a vacuum still existed in the Punjab, which neither the Mughals nor the Abdalisas discussed abovewere able to fill. It was in this context that a Sikh kingdom came to be consolidated in the late 18th century.
The Sikhs in the Punjab
Development of the Mughal Empire.
The origins of the Sikhs, a religious group initially formed as a sect within the larger Hindu community, lie in the Punjab in the 15th century. The Sikh founder, Guru Nanak (14691539), was roughly a contemporary of the founder of Mughal fortunes in India, Babur, and belonged to the Khatri community of scribes and traders. From an early career as a scribe for an important noble of the Lodi dynasty, Nanak became a wandering preacher before settling down at Kartarpur in the Punjab at about the time of Babur's invasion. By the time of his death, he had numerous followers, albeit within a limited region, and, like many other religious leaders of the time, founded a fictive lineage (i.e., one not related by blood) of Gurus who succeeded him. His immediate successor was Guru Angad, chosen by Nanak before his death. He, too, was a Khatri, as indeed were all the remaining Gurus, though of various subcastes.
In practice, the essential teachings of Nanak, collected in the Adi Granth (Punjabi: First Book), represented a syncretic melding of elements of Vaisnava devotional Hinduism and Sufic Islam, with a goodly amount of social criticism thrown in. No political program is evident in the work, butas has already been remarked with regard to the Roshanisreligious movements in the period had a tendency to assume political overtones, by virtue of the fact that they created bonds of solidarity among their adherents, who could then challenge the authority of the state in some fashion. The Sikh challenge to the Mughal state could be seen as prefigured in Nanak's own critical remarks directed at Babur, but in reality it took almost three-quarters of a century to come to fruition. It was in the early 17th century, whenunder somewhat obscure circumstancesGuru Arjun (or Arjun Mal) was tortured and killed by Mughal authorities, that the first signs of a major conflict appeared. Guru Arjun was accused of abetting a rebel Mughal prince, Khusraw, andmore significantlyfound mention in Jahangir's memoirs as someone who ran a shop where religious falsehoods were sold (apparently a reference to the Khatri origins of the Guru). His successor, Hargobind (15951644), then began the move toward armed assertion by constructing a fortified centre and holding court from the so-called Akal Takht (Immortal Throne). Briefly imprisoned for these activities by the Mughals, Hargobind was released, but he once more entered into armed conflict with Mughal officials. He was forced to spend the last years of his life in the Rajput principality of Hindur, outside direct Mughal jurisdiction, where he maintained a small military force.
On Hargobind's death, a brief period of relative quiet followed. However, under his son Tegh Bahadur, who became Guru in 1664, conflicts with the Mughals once again increased, partly as a result of Tegh Bahadur's success as a preacher and proselytizer and partly because of the rather orthodox line of Sunnite Islam espoused by Aurangzeb. In 1675, Tegh Bahadur was captured and executed upon his refusal to accept Islam, thus laying the path for the increased militancy under the last of the Gurus, Gobind Singh (16751708). It should be stressed that it was the very success of the Sikh Gurus in attracting followers and acquiring temporal power that prompted such a response from the Mughals. However, rather than suppressing Sikhism, the policy of Aurangzeb backfired. Guru Gobind Singh assumed all the trappings of a chieftain, gave battle to Mughal forces on more than one occasion, and founded a new centre at Anandpur in 1689. His letters also suggest the partial assumption of temporal authority, being termed hukmnamas (loosely, royal orders). However, he still chose to negotiate with the Mughals, first with Aurangzeb and then, after the latter's death, with Bahadur Shah.
Ironically, with Gobind Singh's death, the Sikh threat to Mughal dominance increased. In a further twist, this resulted from the assumption of leadership in the Punjab by Banda Singh Bahadur, a Maratha who had come under the Guru's influence during the latter's last days at Nanded in Maharashtra. Between 1709 and late 1710, the Sikhs under Banda enjoyed dramatic successes in the sarkars (districts) of Sirhind, Hisar, and Saharanpur, all of them ominously close to Delhi. Banda set up a capital at Mukhlispur, issued coins in the names of the Gurus (a particularly bold lèse-majesté), and began to use a seal on his orders even as the Mughals did. In late 1710 and 1711, the Mughal forces counterattacked, and Banda and his forces retreated. Expelled from Sirhind, he then moved his operations west into the vicinity of Lahore. Here, too, he was unsuccessful, and eventually he and his forces were forced to retreat to the fort of Gurdas Nangal. There they surrendered to Mughal forces after a prolonged siege, and Banda was executed in Delhi in 1716.
This phase of activity is especially important for two reasons. First, as distinct from the sporadic militancy exhibited under Hargobind and then Gobind Singh, it was in this period that a full-scale Sikh rebellion against Mughal authority broke out for the first time. Second, Banda's role in the matter itself, which was somewhat enigmatic, lends the affair a curious flavour. Some of Banda's letters speak of orthodox Islam as an enemy to be rallied against, thus suggesting that the Sikhs at this time were moving somewhat away from their initial orientation as mediators between popular Hinduism and Islam. Further, this early Maratha-Sikh alliance prefigures later coalitions that were to emerge in the context of the Abdali attacks on Punjab.
From Banda Singh Bahadur to Ranjit Singh
The quelling by Mughal forces of the Sikhs under Banda did not mean an end to Sikh resistance to Mughal claims. In the 1720s and '30s, Amritsar emerged as a centre of Sikh activity, partly because of its preeminence as a pilgrimage centre. Kapur Singh, the most important of the Sikh leaders of the time, operated from its vicinity and gradually set about consolidating a revenue-cum-military system, based in part on compromises with the Mughal governors of the province. Other Sikhs were, however, less willing than Kapur Singh to deal with the Mughal authorities and took the paths of social banditry and raiding. These activities served as a damper on the attempts by the Mughal governors of Lahore subah to set up an independent power base for themselves in the region. First 'Abdus Samad Khan and then his son Zakariya Khan attempted the twin tracks of conciliation and coercion, but all to little avail. After the latter's demise in 1745, the balance shifted still further in favour of the Sikh warrior-leaders, such as Jassa Singh Ahluwalia, later the founder of the kingdom of Kapurthala. The mushrooming of pockets under the authority of Sikh leaders was thus a feature of the two decades preceding Abdali's invasion of the Punjab and took place not merely in the eastern Punjab but in the Bari Doab, not far from Lahore itself. A unique centre was yet to emerge, and the end of the line of Gurus with Gobind Singh ensured that spiritual and temporal authority could not be combined in a single person as before.
Nevertheless, the principal opposition faced by Abdali in his campaigns of the 1750s and '60s in the Punjab came from the Sikhs, even if the Mughal forces and Marathas played a role of significance on occasion. These were sanguinary engagements, which cost the Sikhs many thousands of lives, as the Afghan chroniclers themselves testify. Eventually, by the mid-1760s, Sikh authority over Lahore had been established, and the Afghans had been unable to consolidate their early gains. Under Ahmad Shah's successor, Timur Shah (ruled 177293), some of the territories and towns that had been taken by the Sikhs (such as Multan) were recovered, and the descendants of Ahmad Shah continued to harbour ambitions in this direction until the end of the century. But by the 1770s, they were dealing with a confederation of about 60 Sikh chieftains, some of whom founded what were to remain princely states under the Britishsuch as Nabha and Patiala. However, rather as in the case of the Marathas, the confederate structure did not mean that there were never differences or conflicts between these chiefdoms. Nevertheless, at least in the face of their major adversary, the Abdali clan and its allies, these chiefdoms came together to present a united front.
The Sikh chiefdoms continued many of the administrative practices initiated by the Mughals. The main subordinates of the chiefs were given jagir assignments, and the Persianized culture of the Mughal bureaucracy continued to hold sway. Unlike the Gurus themselves, who, as has been noted, were exclusively drawn from Khatri stock, the bulk of the Sikh chieftains tended to be of Jat origin, a fact that drew disparaging remarks from at least some contemporary writers, who spoke of them as Sudras (the lowest of the four major Indian castes). Thus, besides the states set up in other regions, such as Bharatpur, the Jats can be said to have dominated state building in the Punjab in this period as well.
It was one such chief, Ranjit Singh, grandson of Charhat Singh Sukerchakia, who eventually welded these principalities for a brief time into a larger entity. Ranjit Singh's effective rule lasted four decades, from 1799 to 1839, and was realized in a context already dominated by the growing power of the English East India Company. Within 10 years of his death, the British had annexed Punjab, and so this period can be seen as the last gasp of the old-regime polities in India. His rise to power was based on superior military force, partly serviced by European mercenaries and by the strategic location of the territories that he had inherited from his father.
Ranjit Singh's kingdom combined disparate elements. On the one hand, it represented the culmination of nearly a century of Sikh rebellions against Mughal rule. On the other hand, it was based on the intelligent application of principles of statecraft learned from the Afghans. This emerges from the fact that he used as his capital the great trading city of Lahore, which he captured in 1799, in the aftermath of invasions by Shah Zaman, the successor of Timur Shah. Having gained control of the trade routes, he imposed monopolies on the trade in salt, grain, and textiles from Kashmir to enhance his revenues. Using the cash he was able to collect by these means, he built up an army of 40,000 cavalry and infantry, and by 1809 he was undisputed master of most of Punjab.
Over the remaining three decades of his rule, Ranjit Singh continued to consolidate his territories, largely at the expense of Afghan and Rajput, as well as lesser Sikh, chieftains. In 1818, he took Multan, and the next year made major gains in Kashmir. At the time of his death, the territory that he controlled sat solidly astride the main trade routes extending from North India to Central Asia, Iran, and western Asia. However, in a number of areas, he established tributary relations with chieftains, thus not wholly subverting their authority. Once again, therefore, the model around which the Sikh state was built bears a striking resemblance to that of the Mughals. Jagirs remained a crucial form of remuneration for military service, and, in the directly taxed lands, officials bearing the title of kardar (agent) were appointed at the level of a unit calledas elsewhere in Mughal domainsthe ta'alluqa (district).
However strong the state of Ranjit Singh might have appeared, it was in fact based on a fragile system of alliances, as became apparent soon after his death. At the level of the palace, a dispute broke out in the early 1840s between two factions, one supporting Chand Kaur, daughter-in-law of Ranjit Singh, who wished to be regent, and the other supporting Sher Singh. But such disputes could scarcely have been the real reason for the collapse of Sikh power within a decade. Rather, it would appear that the state created by Ranjit Singh never really made the transition from being a conquering power to a stable system of alliances between conflicting social groups and regional interests. In any event, the process of disintegration was accelerated and given a helping hand by the British between 1845 and 1849.
Rajasthan in the 18th century
Such relatively ephemeral successes at state building as that of Ranjit Singh are rare. However, one can find other instances in the context of the 18th century in which consolidation was rapidly followed by reversals. Such instances can be divided into two categories: those in which the consolidation of a particular state proved a threat to British power and hence was undermined (e.g., the case of Mysore, below) and others in which the logic of consolidation and decline appears not to have concerned the British. In the latter category can be placed the case of Jaipur (earlier Amber) in eastern Rajasthan, a Rajput principality controlled by the Kachwaha clan. From the 16th century, the Kachwahas had been subordinate to the Mughals and had, as a consequence, gradually managed to consolidate their hold over the region around Amber in the course of the 17th century. The crucial role played in high Mughal politics by such members of the clan as Raja Man Singh thus paid dividends, and the chiefs were permitted to maintain a large cavalry and infantry force. In the early 18th century, the ruler Jai Singh Sawai took steps to increase his power manyfold. This was done by arranging to have his jagir assignment in the vicinity of his home territories and by taking on land in revenue-, or tax-, farm (tax rights on a parcel of land that are rented by the state to an individual), which was gradually made permanent. By the time of his death in 1743, Jai Singh (for whom Jaipur came to be named) had emerged as the single most important ruler in the region.
This example was followed some years later in the 1750s by Suraj Mal, the Jat ruler of Bharatpur, wholike Jai Singhadopted a modified form of Mughal revenue administration in his territories. However, by this time, the fortunes of the Jaipur kingdom were seriously in question. Under threat from the Marathas, recourse had to be taken more and more to short-term fiscal exactions, while at the same time a series of crop failures in the 1750s and '60s spread a pall over the region's fragile agriculture. The second half of the 18th century was thus marked by an economic depression, accompanied by a decline in the political power of Jaipur, which became a vulnerable target for the ambitions of the Marathas, and of Mahadaji Sindhia in particular.
The south: Travancore and Mysore
The states discussed so far, with the exception of Maratha, were all landlocked. This does not mean that trade was not an important element in their makeup, for the kingdom of Ranjit Singh was crucially linked to trade. However, lack of access to the sea greatly increased the vulnerability of a state, particularly in an era when the major power was the English East India Company, itself initially a maritime enterprise. In the south, unlike the areas discussed so far, several states did make a determined bid in this period to consolidate their power by the use of maritime outlets. Principal among these were Travancore in Kerala under Martanda Varma and Rama Varma, and Mysore under Haidar 'Ali and Tipu Sultan.
These states rose to prominence, however, only in the latter half of the 18th century, or at least after 1740. Before that, the southern Indian scene had been dominated by a group of Muslim notables who had accompanied the Mughal expansion into the region in the 1680s and '90s, or else had come in a second wave that followed immediately after 1700. Among these notables, many of whom set themselves up as tribute-paying chiefs under Mughal authority, can be counted the relatively petty nawabs (deputies) of the Balaghat, or northern Karnataka (such as 'Abdul Rasul Khan of Sira), but there were also far more substantial men such as the Nizam-ul-Mulk himself and Sa'dullah Khan at Arcot. The Nizam-ul-Mulk had consolidated his position in Hyderabad by the 1740s, whereas the Arcot principality had emerged some three decades earlier. Neither of these rulers, while establishing dynastic succession, claimed full sovereignty, and thus they continued to cast themselves as representatives of Mughal authority. Southern Indian politics in the 1720s emerged, therefore, as a game with many petty players and three formidable ones: the Marathas (both at Thanjavur and elsewhere), the Nizam, and the Arcot (or Karnatak) Nawab.
In the second half of the 18th century, the power of all three of these centres declined. The succession struggle at Arcot in the 1740s and early 1750s left its rulers open to financial manipulation by private British merchants, to whom they were increasingly in debt for war expenses. In the 1750s the power of Hyderabad also declined (after the death of its founder, the Nizam-ul-Mulk), and control of the coastal districts was soon lost, leaving the kingdom landlocked and relatively sparsely populated. The reign of Pratapasimha (173963) marks the beginning of Thanjavur's slide into fiscal ruin. Here again, it was the mounting costs of war and the intrusive presence of the Europeans on the coast that triggered the crisis.
In this context, the only route remaining was for states to build an elaborate and well-organized war machine while keeping external supply lines open. The control of trade was also seen as crucial in the statecraft of the period. These principles were put into practice in the southern Kerala state of Venad (Travancore) by Martanda Varma (ruled 172958). He built a substantial standing army of about 50,000, reduced the power of the Nayar aristocracy on which rulers of the area had earlier been dependent militarily, and fortified the northern limits of his kingdom at the so-called Travancore line. It was also the policy of this ruler to extend patronage to the Syrian Christians, a large trading community within his domains, as a means of limiting European involvement in trade. The key commodity was pepper, but other goods also came to be defined as royal monopoly items, requiring a license for trade. These policies were continued in large measure by Martanda's successor, Rama Varma (ruled 175898), who was able, moreover, to defend his kingdom successfully against a dangerous new rival powerMysore.
The rise of Mysore to importance dates to the mid-17th century, when rulers of the Vadiyar dynasty, such as Kanthirava Narasaraja and Cikka Deva Raja, fought campaigns to extend Vadiyar control over parts of interior Tamil Nadu (especially Dharmapuri, Salem, and Coimbatore). Until the second half of the 18th century, however, Mysore was a landlocked kingdom and dependent therefore on trade and military supplies brought through the ports of the Indian east coast. As these ports came increasingly under European control, Mysore's vulnerability increased. From the 1760s, steps were taken to change this situation. A cavalry commander of migrant origin, Haidar 'Ali, assumed effective power in the kingdom in 1761, reducing the Vadiyars to figureheads and displacing the powerful Kalale family of ministers. First Haidar and then, after 1782, his son, Tipu Sultan, made attempts to consolidate Mysore and make it a kingdom with access to not one but both coasts of peninsular India. Against the Kodavas, the inhabitants of the upland kingdom of Kodagu (Coorg), they were relatively successful. Coastal Karnataka and northern Kerala came under their sway, enabling Tipu to open diplomatic and commercial relations on his own account with the Middle East.
Tipu's ambitions apparently greatly exceeded those of his father, and he strove actively to escape the all-pervasive shadow of Mughal suzerainty, as discussed above. However, as in the Sikh kingdom of Ranjit Singh, the problem with the Mysore of Haidar and Tipu was their inability to build an internal consensus. Their dependence on migrants and mercenaries, for both military and fiscal expertise, was considerable, and they were always resisted by local chiefs, the so-called Poligars. More crucial was the fact that by the 1770s Mysore faced a formidable military adversary in the form of the English East India Company, which did not allow it any breathing room. It was the English who denied Mysore access to the relatively rich agricultural lands and ports of the Coromandel coastal plain in eastern India, and, equally as significant, it was at the hands of an English attacking force that Tipu finally was killed in 1799.
Politics and the economy
It emerges from the above discussion that the 18th century was a period of considerable political turmoil in India, one in which states were formed and dissolved with some rapidity, and that there was a great deal of fluidity in the system. Did this political turmoil have a clear counterpart in terms of economic dislocation? This does not seem to have been unambiguously the case. It is of course true that raids by military forces would have caused dislocation, and the practice of destroying standing crops was followed by armies throughout most of the century. On the other hand, economic warfare and the attempt to destroy the productive base of a rival state were relatively uncommon in the first half of the 18th century. But, after 1750, such means were exploited to the harshest degree. The destruction of irrigation tanks, the forcible expropriation of cattle wealth, and even the forced march of masses of people were not unknown in the wars of the 1770s and thereafter. All these must have had a deleterious effect on economic stability and curtailed the impulse toward growth.
Such negative effects also can be exaggerated, however. When viewed from Delhi, the 18th century is certainly a gloomy period. The attacks of Nadir Shah, then of Ahmad Shah Abdali, and finally the attempts by the Rohillas (who controlled Delhi in 176171) to hold the Mughals to ransom, left the inhabitants of the city with a sense of being under permanent siege. This perspective can hardly have been shared by the inhabitants of other centres in India, whether Trivandrum, Pune, Patna, or Jaipur. There was a process of economic reorientation that accompanied the political decentralization of the era, and it is on account of this that the experience of Delhi and Agra cannot be generalized. However, even the trajectory of the regions was mixed. In some, the first half of the 18th century witnessed continued expansionBengal, Jaipur, and Hyderabad, for examplewhile others were late bloomers, as in the case of Travancore, Mysore, or the Punjab. No single chronology of economic prosperity and decline is likely therefore to fit all the regions of India in the epoch.
It would also appear for a variety of reasons, some obvious and others less so, that the mid-18th century marks a significant point of inflection in key processes. For example, the engrossing by the English East India Company of the revenues of Bengal subah had the effect of reversing the direction of flow of precious metals into the area; whereas Bengal had earlier absorbed gold and silver in exchange for its imports, this pattern no longer held. Similarly, on the external trade front, the latter half of the 18th century saw the growth, under the company's aegis, of semicoerced forms of crop production, the case of opium being a prominent one. But another reason why the latter half of the 18th century differs from the period before about 1750 is the changing character of war. In the post-1750 period, warfare became more disruptive of civil life and economic production than before, and at the same time the new technologies in use made it a far more expensive proposition. The use of firearms on a large scale, the employment of mercenaries, the maintenance of standing armies, all of these are likely to have had profound ramifications. But it does appear hyperbolic to describe the processes of the post-1750 period as a total inversion of what went before.
Cultural aspects of the late precolonial order
Even as it has sometimes been maintained that the 18th century witnessed a general decline in material life, the cultural life of the period also has often been denigrated. In fact, there appears to be scant justification for such a portrayal of trends. Even Delhi, whose economic condition unequivocally declined, housed a number of major poets, philosophers, and thinkers in this epoch, from Shah Waliullah to Mir Taqi Mir. Further, as regional courts grew in importance, they tended to take on the function of the principal patrons of high culture, whether in music, the visual arts, or literature. It is thus also in relatively dispersed centres, ranging from Avadh to Bikaner and Lahore to Thanjavur, that one finds the courtly traditions of culture persisting. Thanjavur under the Marathas is a particularly fine example of cultural efflorescence, in which literary production of a high quality in Tamil, Telugu, Sanskrit, and Marathi continued, with some of the Maratha rulers themselves playing a significant direct role. Similarly, it is in 18th-century Thanjavur that the main compositions of what is today known as the Karnatak tradition of Indian classical music came to be written, by such men as Tyagaraja, Muttuswami Diksitar, and Syama Sastri. Finally, the period brought the development of a distinct style of painting in Thanjavur, fusing elements imported from the north with older local traditions of textile painting.
This vitality was not restricted purely to elite culture. To begin with, many of the theatre and musical traditions, as well as formal literary genres of the period, picked up and incorporated folk influences. At the same time, the melding of popular Hinduism and Islam gave a particular flavour to cultural productions associated with pilgrimages and festivals. More than in earlier centuries, the tradition of long-distance pilgrimages to major centres from Varanasi to Rameswaram increased and can be seen to fit in with a general trend of increasing mobility. It was common for post-Mughal states to employ mercenary soldiers and imported scribes and clerks. In 18th-century Hyderabad, for example, Kayasthas from the north were employed in large numbers in the bureaucracy, while in Mysore, Maharashtrian Brahmans were given fiscal offices as early as the 1720s. It is apparent that the mobility of musicians, men of letters, and artists was no less than that of these scribal classes. When a major new political centre emerged, it rapidly attracted talent, as evidenced in Ranjit Singh's Lahore. Here, Persian literature of high quality was produced, but not at the cost of literary output in Punjabi. At the same time, new developments were visible in the fields of architecture and painting. Farther to the north, the principality of Kangra fostered an important new school of painting, devoted largely to Vaisnava themes. Indeed, a surprisingly large proportion of what is understood today to be part of India's traditional culture is attributable to this period and also to the preceding century.