Maratha Army

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Maratha Army
Mahratta Light Horseman.jpg
A painting depicting a Mahratta Light Horseman
Activecirca 1650-1818
AllegianceMaratha Empire
SizePeak Size - Around 200,000 men (consisting of Infantry, Cavalry, Artillery, Musketeers, and Pindari (irregular horsemen))
SenapatiCommander in chief

Maratha (or Mahratta) Army refers to the land-based armed forces of the Maratha Kingdom of India, which existed from the late 17th to the early 19th centuries in India. The formation, rise, and decline of the armies of the Maratha Kingdom can be broadly divided into two eras

17th century[edit]

Chhatrapati Shivaji, the founder of Maratha polity, raised a small yet effective land army. For better administration, Shivaji abolished the land-grants or jagirs for military officers and made a cash payment. During the 17th century the Maratha Army was small in terms of numbers when compared to the Mughals, numbering some 100,000. Shivaji gave more emphasis to infantry as against cavalry, considering the rugged mountainous terrain he operated in. Further, Shivaji did not have access to the North Indian horse trading market, dominated by the Mughals. During this era, the armies of the Marathas were known for their agility due to the light equipment of both infantry and cavalry. Probably due to the rugged terrain, artillery was not given much emphasis. Artillery was mostly confined to the Maratha fortresses, which were located on hilltops, since it gave a strategic advantage and further these fortresses had abilities to withstand sieges (such as being equipped with sufficient water supply). The Marathas used weapons like muskets, matchlocks, firangi swords, clubs, bows, spears, daggers, etc.[1]

A Maratha Helmet and Armor from Hermitage Museum, St Petersburg, Russia

The Maratha Army, during Shivaji's era was systematic and disciplined. It probably possessed infantry and artillery capability equivalent to the European standards. A case in point here is that the Marathas achieved success in systematic elimination of all forts which came their way during the Battle of Surat circa 1664. Regards the artillery, Shivaji hired foreign (mainly Portuguese) mercenaries for assistance to manufacture weapons. The hiring of foreign mercenaries was not new to the Maratha military culture. Shivaji hired seasoned cannon-casting Portuguese technicians from Goa. The Marathas attached importance to hiring of experts, which can be corroborated by the fact that important posts in the army were offered to the officers in charge of the manufacture of guns.[2]

The Army deployed musketeers as well - both regular and mercenaries. During the late 17th century, there is a mention of the Marathas using well-armed musketeers during their attack on Goa (during the reign of Sambhaji). Further, during the same period there is also a mention of Marathas using Karnataki musketeers renowned for marksmanship[3][4]

Jadunath Sarkar the noted historian writes in his famous book namely military history of India about Santaji Ghorpade, a brilliant strategist who defeated Mughals in the 27 year war:

"He was a perfect master of this art, which can be more correctly described as Parthian warfare than as guerrilla tactics, because he could not only make night marches and surprises, but also cover long distances quickly and combine the movements of large bodied over wide areas with an accuracy and punctuality which were incredible in any Asiatic army other than those of Chengiz Khan and Tamurlane".

18th century[edit]

During the 18th century the Maratha army continued its emphasis on its light cavalry, which proved better against the heavy cavalry of the Mughals. Post 1720, the armies of the Maratha Kingdom started making their presence felt in Northern India (the bastion of the Mughals) and scored numerous military victories, primarily due to the skills of Peshwa Bajirao I as a great cavalry leader and military strategist.[5] Bajirao Peshwa made excellent use of small and heavy ammunition (using it in excellent coordination) and used smothering tactics. The Marathas under Bajirao I would use their artillery to create a blanket of projectiles to smother the enemy.[6]

A Maratha cannon (Artillery battery), as seen at Raigad Hillfort

From the 17th century till the mid-18th century the artillery of the Marathas was more dependent on foreign gunners rather than their own.

In June 1756 Luís Mascarenhas, Count of Alva(Conde de Alva), the Portuguese Viceroy was killed in action by Maratha Army in Goa.

Circa 1750s, the Marathas endeavored to hire the services of the French General Marquis de Bussy-Castelnau (who served in the Nizam’s Army) for training purposes, but when they failed in their efforts, they managed to hire Ibrahim Khan Gardi. Ibrahim Khan was an artillery expert trained under the leadership of Bussy. He played a major role in re-configuring the Maratha artillery. He served the Marathas in the infamous Third Battle of Panipat. In a bid to Westernize the artillery, circa 1777, there is a mention of a Portuguese officer named Naronha heading the Peshwa’s artillery and further he had a number of European artillery men working under him.[7] During the notable Third Battle of Panipat in 1761, out of the total 70,000 Maratha Army men, some 8000 or 9000 were artillery (Gardi Infantry). They possessed 200 cannons (consisting of heavy field-pieces as well as light camel or elephant-mounted zambaruks (a swivel gun equivalent)[8]

During this era, sources state that the Marathas made use of both flintlocks and matchlocks and that their matchlocks had a technological advantage having superior range and velocity.[9] However at Third Battle of Panipat, they possessed mainly just swords and spears whilst Abdali possessed a larger force with flintlock muskets.[10]

Post 1761 Mahadaji Shinde, a distinguished Maratha Maharaja, focused his attention on European artillery and secured the services of the noted Frenchman Benoît de Boigne. Benoît de Boigne had received training from the best of the European military schools. Mahadji's army chiefs were all Shenvi Brahmins.Following suit, the other Maratha chiefs (including their First Minister the Peshwa) such as the Holkars, the Bhosales, also raised French-trained artillery battalions. Further circa 1784, Mahadaji Shinde established a military-industrial complex for the armies of the Maratha near Agra. The ordnance factories of the Marathas made use of sophisticated indigenous technologies with more of adaptation as against innovation. Mahadaji Shinde created one of finest armies in India, with the help of the French and Portuguese and it also included a brigade known as Deccan Invincibles, which numbered some 27,000.[11]

The arms of the Marathas

In the late 18th century and early 19th century, with French-trained artillery and infantry, the Marathas managed to regain their lost ground in North India, however they could not match the superior artillery of the British East India Company, which in due course of time, among other reasons, led to the defeat of the Marathas at the Third Anglo-Maratha War and decline of their Empire itself.[12]

Employment of the Pindaris[edit]

A distinguishing feature of Maratha Army was the employment of Pindaris, who were irregular horsemen and their primary role was to plunder in return of pay. Pindaris composed of both Muslims and Marathas. They had implicit support from Maratha chiefs (Maharajas) such as Scindias of Gwalior, Holkars of Indore, and Bhosales of Nagpur. This band of freebooters accompanied Maratha forces during their campaigns and helped win wars in return for plunder and pay. They were a part of the Maratha Army during the Third Battle of Panipat and almost all Anglo-Maratha Wars.[13]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Barua, Pradeep. The State at War in South Asia. University of Nebraska Press. p. 44. ISBN 0-8032-1344-1.
  2. ^ Cooper, Randolf. The Anglo-Maratha campaigns and the contest for India: the struggle for control of the south asian military economy. Cambridge University Press. p. 31. ISBN 0-521-82444-3.
  3. ^ Alden, Dauril. The Making of an Enterprise: The Society of Jesus in Portugal, Its Empire, and Beyond 1540-1750. Stanford University Press. p. 201. ISBN 0-804-72271-4.
  4. ^ Richards, John. The Mughal Empire. Cambridge University Press. p. 232. ISBN 0-521-25119- 2.
  5. ^ Roy, Tirthankar. An Economic History of early modern India. Routledge. p. 24. ISBN 978-0-415-69063-8.
  6. ^ Cooper, Randolf. The Anglo-Maratha campaigns and the contest for India: the struggle for control of the south asian military economy. Cambridge University Press. p. 31. ISBN 0-521-82444-3.
  7. ^ Butalia, Romesh. The evolution of artillery in India: from the battle of Plassey to the revolt of 1857. Allied publishers limited. p. 70. ISBN 81-7023-872-2.
  8. ^ Barua, Pradeep. The State at War in South Asia. University of Nebraska Press. p. 61. ISBN 0-8032-1344-1.
  9. ^ Mount, Ferdinand. The Tears of the Rajas: Mutiny, Money and Marriage in India 1805-1905. Simon & Schuster UK Ltd. p. 179. ISBN 978-1-4711-2947-6.
  10. ^ Roy, Kaushik. War, Culture and Society in Early Modern South Asia, 1740-1849. Routledge. p. 104. ISBN 978-0-415-58767-9.
  11. ^ Till, Geoffrey. Globalization and Defence in the Asia-Pacific: Arms Across Asia. Routledge. p. 64. ISBN 0-203-89053-1.
  12. ^ Butalia, Romesh. The evolution of artillery in India: from the battle of Plassey to the revolt of 1857. Allied publishers limited. p. 70. ISBN 81-7023-872-2.
  13. ^