While Sanjay Leela Bhansali's Bajirao Mastani is a beautifully filmed love story, for those new to Bollywood it also offers a lesson in Indian history.
The film narrates the story of Baji Rao I (Ranveer Singh), the warrior and leader of the Maratha empire, who was happily married to Kashibai (Priyanka Chopra). After Baji Rao assists King Chhatrasal of Bundelkhand to defeat enemy forces, the king's daughter Mastani (Deepika Padukone) becomes Baji Rao's second wife. Because of her Muslim lineage and Baji Rao's unwavering love for her, the marriage causes turmoil in his household and among the Hindu Brahmans of the Maratha empire.
While Bhansali took some artistic license with the story, he stayed true to the character, culture, and circumstances of the times.
So, what do historians have to say about events portrayed in the film?
Rise of the Maratha Empire
Founded by Indian warrior Shivaji Bhonsle, the Maratha Empire existed from 1674 to 1818 and chiefly fought against the Mughal empire which had been established in the Indian subcontinent in the 1500s. All Mughal emperors were Muslim, including Jalaluddin Muhammad Akbar ("The Great") whose reign established religious harmony and economic growth in the region.
In 1668, shortly before the Maratha empire was established and decades before Baji Rao was born, Rajput warrior Chhatrasal Bundela met Shivaji and offered to fight with him against the rule of Mughal Emperor Aurangzeb. Impressed with Chhatrasal's heroic spirit, Shivaji - a shrewd judge of men - gifted Chhatrasal the sword of Bhavani ("Bhavani Talwar") and advised him to instead establish his own kingdom independent of Mughal rule. Shivaji told him, "Illustrious Chief! Conquer and subdue your foes. Recover and rule your native land."
Chhatrasal led a series of victorious battles against the Mughals and the saying arose, "From the Jamuna to the Narmada, the Chambal to the Tons, nobody dares fight Chhattrasal." He soon established himself King of Bundelkhand, an area in the central part of India covering parts of the current states of Madhya Pradesh and Uttar Pradesh.
Meanwhile Shivaji went on to establish the independent Maratha kingdom. At its peak, the empire covered a territory of over 2.8 million square kilometers - an area larger than Texas, Arizona, Colorado, New Mexico, Utah, Nevada, California and Oregon combined.
Shivaji also established the role of Prime Minister or "Peshwa" ("foremost leader"). The Peshwas were great strategists and military leaders who advised the king and helped expand the Maratha Empire. The Marathi people were warriors and champions of Hindu rule, so fought strongly against threats to their culture, beliefs and traditions. Because of their aggressive stance on establishing independent rule, the Marathas are largely credited with ending Mughal rule in India.
Peshwa Baji Rao
Only 20 years old when he became Peshwa, Baji Rao was inexperienced and untried. Yet he quickly proved himself and served the Maratha empire from 1720-1740. The most influential of the Peshwas, he is considered the finest military commander and warrior in Indian history, winning 41 battles and losing none. In The Cambridge History of India, Sir Wolseley Haig describes Baji Rao:
Tall and commanding in appearance, he was, like all his family, famous for his good looks. He was equally great as a soldier and as a statesman. He understood to perfection the peculiar tactics of the Maratha horse, and his campaigns against the Nizam were masterpieces of strategy. He was as chivalrous in the hour of victory as he was brave in the field. As a politician, he had the lofty and far-reaching ambitions of his father, and he lived to see the tiny Maratha race once "a cloud no bigger than a man's hand", spread all over India, from Delhi to Tanjore. He was an eloquent and inspiring orator, and if in private life he had something of the haughty and imperious reserve of the Chitpavan [Brahmans], he was a generous master to those who served him faithfully.
This valiant general expanded the Maratha Kingdom beyond Maharashtra toward the north. His goal was to reach Delhi, the capital of the Mughals who ruled India for many years. Perceiving that the Mughal rule was on the decline, Baji Rao said, "Let us strike at the trunk, of the withering tree, and the branches will fall of themselves." According to Brijen Kishore Gupta:
It was during the peshwaship of Baji Rao that the Maratha confederacy took shape and pursued territorial aggrandizement in northern India as a state policy. In 1728 the Marathas defeated the Nizamul Mulk, perhaps "the foremost soldier of his time." A year later they overran Bundelkhand. In 1737 they firmly established themselves in Malwa, and carried their depredations into the Gangetic valley and Rajputana. They defeated, in the same year, the Mughal forces outside the walls of Delhi and by the Treaty of Durai Sarai (1738) secured from the Mughal emperor all the territory between the Narbada and Chambal rivers.
A Brilliant Commander
Several of Baji Rao's battles of the Mughal-Maratha Wars are recorded in the Dictionary of Battles and Sieges by Tony Jacques and show his persistent attempts to expand the Maratha empire independent of the Mughal rule:
- 28 February 1728. As the Marathas expanded their power into northern India, Mulhar Rao Holkar in the service of Baji Rao I trapped the army of Nizam-ul-Mulk of Hyderabad in dry hills at Palkhed, 20 miles west of Aurangabab. With his supplies cut off, the Nizam was was forced to make terms. Holkar quickly rose to senior command in the Peshwar's army.
- 29 November 1728. On campaign in central India against Giridhar Bahadur, the Mughal Subadar of Malwa, the Maratha Peshwa Baji Rao I and his brother Chimnaji Appa invaded Malwa, and Chimnaji met the Mughal army at Amjhera, west of Dhar. Giridhar Bahadur and his cousin Daya Bahadur were defeated and killed, and Chimnaji went on to a failed siege of Ujjain.
- 1 April 1731. When Maratha Senapati Trimbak Rao Dabhade rebelled and threatened to join forces with Nizam-ul-Mulk of Hyderabad, Peshwa Baji Rao I and his brother Chimnaji Appa intercepted the rebels at Dabhoi, southeast of Baroda in Gujarat. A fierce action saw Trimbak Rao defeated and killed and Baji Rao established as undisputed leader of the Marathi State.
- 28 March 1737. Expanding his power in northern India, Maratha Peshwa Baji Rao I attacked Delhi, where he defeated Imperial commander Amir Khan before being forced to withdraw to face the advancing forces of Wazir Qamar-ud-din Khan. While Baji Rao was driven off to the southeast at Badshahpur, Emperor Muhammad Shah eventually made peace an ceded Malwa to the Peshwa.
- 14 December 1737-7 January 1738. Nizam-ul-Mulk of Hyderabad invaded Malwa at the head of a large Imperial army, but allowed himself to be besieged at Bhopal by a massive army of about 80,000 Marathas under Baji Rao I. When a Mughal relief force under Safdar Jang was driven off by Mulhar Rao Holkar, the Nizam sued for peace and granted Baji Rao the whole of Malwa.
The Battle of Bundelkhand
Around 1727, Mughal General Muhammad Shah Bangash was given a part of Bundelkhand by the Mughal Emperor in Delhi. Battle lines were drawn between Bangash and King Chhatrasal. Neither was willing to concede the right to rule Bundelkhand. Bangash essentially imprisoned King Chhatrasal in his fortress at Jaitpur and it appeared that the Mughals would soon win the battle. According to Jaswant Lal Mehta, in 1729 the now 80-year-old Chhatrasal sent a letter to Peshwa Baji Rao asking for help:
"Know you Baji Rao! that I am in that same plight in which the famous elephant was when caught by the crocodile. My valiant race is on the point of extinction. Come and save my honor."
Seeing an opportunity to support this ally, Baji Rao marched his 25,000 troops quickly to Bundelkhand. The Peshwa led his troops in victorious battle which ended Mughal rule in Bundelkhand forever. King Chhatrasal was extremely thankful and sought this opportunity to strengthen his ties with the Maratha empire. The king made Baji Rao his adopted son and gave him jewels and other gifts. Mehta explains:
For this expedition, the Peshwa had neither asked for nor expected Chhatrasal to contribute anything by way of tribute or cession of territories, not to defray the expenses of the Maratha army. Nevertheless, the grateful Bundela chief did whatever he could to make the visit of his Maratha liberators comfortable. Of his own sweet will, the Raja bestowed a large personal jagir near Jhansi to Baji Rao, and offered the hand of an accomplished daughter, Mastani, from his Muslim concubine, in marriage to Baji Rao. The latter accepted it, out of regard for Chhatrasal, with the primary consideration of strengthening the bonds of family relationships with him. The Peshwa left Jaitpur, with his forces and Mastani, for Pune on 23 May 1729.
While he was triumphant on the battlefield, it was his marriage with Mastani that eventually created problems for Baji Rao, his family, and the Maratha empire.
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