Tarabai: Saving the Maratha Empire



There are few characters in history who have saved and revived an empire by sheer force, grit and will. Rarely remembered, and often eclipsed by the other Maratha greats, Queen Tarabai, Chhatrapati Shivaji’s younger daughter-in-law, deserves more than just a mention. Tarabai was instrumental in saving the Maratha empire from collapse. And she continued to fight, till the end, ensuring that the Maratha flag flew proud in Gingee, the last bastion of the Marathas in the south.


Tarabai was instrumental in saving the Maratha empire from collapse

Tarabai was born in 1675 CE to Hambirrao Mohite, the famous commander-in-chief of the Maratha army. At an early age of 8, she was married off to Shivaji’s younger son Rajaram. Life was tough with the Mughals waging war. Tarabai’s brother-in-law and Shivaji’s heir, Chhatrapati Sambhaji was captured and killed by Aurangzeb in 1689 CE, following which her husband Rajaram become the King or Chhatrapati.

However soon after, the Mughal army laid siege to the Maratha capital of Raigad and Rajaram and Tarabai were forced to flee from Raigad near Pune, all the way to the fort of Gingee in Tamil Nadu, 160 kms from Chennai!

Gingee Fort in present day
Gingee Fort in present day|Wikimedia Commons

Gingee, was the southernmost post of the Maratha empire that Shivaji had carved out and given that it was so far to the south, it was perhaps the safest choice for Tarabai and her husband. But their troubles continued. Mughal general Zulfiquar Ali Khan hot on their pursuit, followed them all the way to Gingee laying siege to the Gingee fort. The siege went on for eight years between September 1690 and January 1698. This was by far the longest siege by a Mughal army of any fort in recorded history.


The siege at Gingee was by far the longest by a Mughal army at any fort in recorded history

It is a testimony to Tarabai’s grit and will that the Maratha’s held off the Mughal seige for years. In fact, given that Rajaram Tarabai’s husband was of frail health, it was the queen who was in command through these difficult days. Not only did she hold fort, quite literally, she also directed the fight against the Mughals in far off Maharashtra. In this, she was aided by her very able Generals, Santaji Ghorpade and Dhanaji Jadhav who have been immortalised in Marathi folklore for their guerrilla exploits.

The Kalyana Mahal Gingee fort in 1890
The Kalyana Mahal Gingee fort in 1890|Wikimedia Commons

Tarabai and her husband who had held off the Mughal siege for 8 years , managed to quietly slip out of the fort and returned to Maharashtra in 1698 CE.

Sadly, Tarabai was widowed within two years in 1700 CE. She was just 25 at that time and she had already seen so much!


Tarabai and her husband managed to hold off the Mughal siege till the death of Aurangzeb

But becoming Queen Regent, for her minor son was the beginning of the next phase of Tarabai’s life. As noted historian, Sir Jadunath Sarkar says, ‘During this period, the supreme guiding force in Maharashtra was not any minister but the Dowager Queen Tara Bai Mohite. Her administrative genius and strength of character saved the nation in that awful crisis.’

Shrewd guerrilla tactics used by Tarabai , helped the Maratha state push back the Mughals and help get back on it's feet. Later, Tarabai had to face a war of succession from her nephew Shahu (son of her late brother in law Chhatrapati Sambhaji) forcing her to retreat to Panhala and create the kingdom of Kolhapur.

Map of Kolhapur in 1896
Map of Kolhapur in 1896|Wikimedia Commons

Tarabai died at a ripe old age of 86, in 1761 CE. In a single lifetime she had seen the rise, fall and revival of the Maratha empire, and its final blow - the Maratha rout at the 3rd battle of Panipat.
Who knows how that would have gone, had she still been in her prime!

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