The 18th century marked an important turning point in the history of India. This was a time when Maratha power was at its zenith, stretching from Thanjavur in the South to Attock in the North. While Chhatrapati Shivaji, the founder of the empire, was without question its greatest ruler, it was under the Peshwas (the Maratha Prime Ministers who later became independent rulers) that the empire really gained prominence and power. But how much of this Maratha glory remains in public memory? How much do we remember of Maratha history?
Sadly, many monuments of this era and memorials to these great empire builders lie in neglect, victims of ignorance and apathy. For instance, Peshwa Baji Rao’s tomb in a village in Madhya Pradesh was left to crumble and fall. It was only in the mid-2000s that a group of history enthusiasts got together to preserve it.
While the Marathas built an expansive empire, they started as a regional power. Why do we know so little about our regional histories?
In the second episode of our weekly series, Heritage Matters: Maratha Legacy – Lost in Translation, we tried to answer some of these questions and discussed how important it is to access local historical documents and sources to get a better insight into our past. Our panel included Dr Uday Kulkarni, a Pune-based historian and author of books on Maratha history; Vikram Kirloskar, industrialist and Vice-Chairman of Toyota Kirloskar Motor, who has a keen interest in history and heritage, especially of the Marathas; and Dr Ganesh Natarajan, Chairman 5F World and Pune City Connect, who is closely involved with the Pune City Development Project and has been an advocate for citizen activism and conservation.
We were also joined by a special guest, someone who defines on-ground heritage preservation and campaigning, Gourav Mandloi Mogava. For around eight years, Mogava has been working to save Peshwa Baji Rao’s Samadhi in Raverkhedi, Madhya Pradesh.
Is Maratha history lost in translation?
Often, local history remains inaccessible to a larger audience due to linguistic barriers. Old documents and sources are often compiled in local languages which can be made available widely only once translated. In such cases, translation becomes very important for the dissemination of authentic information.
A significant part of Dr Uday Kulkarni’s work and research in authoring books on Maratha history is sourcing old documents and translating them. His research has led him to find as many as 200 documents in the Royal Asiatic Library in London. These documents were taken there by British officers around 200 years ago.
Dr Kulkarni has translated many such documents, from the Modi script in Marathi to the Devnagari script. He said, “A lot of Maratha history, but for a few exceptions, is written in the Marathi language. And a lot of people outside Maharashtra are not even aware of what the Marathas had actually done.” This motivated Dr Kulkarni to author books in Maratha history in English, to make it accessible to generations to come. His bibliography includes titles such as Solstice at Panipat (2012), The Era of Baji Rao (2016) and The Extraordinary Epoch of Nanasaheb Peshwa (2020), which highlight many fascinating and unknown aspects of the Marathas. Dr Kulkarni has also translated a Marathi prose narrative titled Bakhar of Panipat into Hindi and then English and it was later published as a book with the same title.
“The Marathas are an example of a truly diverse and totally integrated community,” said Dr Natarajan, who pointed to the Marathas’ great cultural contributions to the city of Thanjavur, in present-day Tamil Nadu. Thanjavur (formerly Tanjore) was ruled by the Marathas from 1675 to 1855 CE, one of the most famous Rajas of Tanjore being Maharaja Serfoji, a great patron of learning and the arts.
Dr Natarajan mentioned a unique Telugu play called Pallaki Seva Prabandham composed by Shahaji Maharaj of Tanjore (1684-1710 CE). It is based on a ritual offering in the temple of Tiruvarur in Tamil Nadu. “It embodies the best of cultures of Tamil Nadu, various parts of Maharashtra and South India. It is based on art forms performed over two centuries. This is something we want to bring to Pune also to tell people that even at that time you could integrate through culture. Even today, the Pallaki is performed in its full form as a dance drama once every year at the temple of Tiruvarur,” said Dr Natarajan.
Insights into saving the Maratha legacy
Peshwa Baji Rao I is credited with Maratha domination across the subcontinent. Although he died young, at the age of 40, in 1740 CE, it is said that he never lost a war. When the Peshwa died on the banks of the Narmada River during one of his campaigns, his General Mahadji Scindia established a samadhi there to honour the great ruler.
Since the 1930s, the samadhi, at Raverkhedi in Madhya Pradesh, has been a listed monument under the Archaeological Survey of India. Yet, all these years, it has languished in obscurity. It was only when the Bollywood film Bajirao Mastani released in 2015 that the samadhi drew some attention. For around eight years, heritage activists like Gourav Mandloi Mogava have been waging a battle to save the monument.
Mogava discovered the monument while he was still in his teens. He was so moved by the samadhi, the man whose life it honoured and its condition that he pursued a heritage management course to understand and preserve heritage. Mogava has been leading an on-ground campaign in partnership with local organisations, the local administration and the community to develop and preserve the site. In recent times, they have been able to get a road and a bridge built here and have also installed signboards for the samadhi. Social media awareness has also been a key part of their campaign. “हमारे क्षेत्र में इतने बड़े योद्धा की समाधी होना हमारे लिए गर्व की बात है। पर समाधी अनदेखी का शिकार थी। लेकिन हमने सोचा की कैसे लोहों के साथ रोज़ की एक्टिविटीज करके इसे एक महत्वपूर्ण स्मारक बना सकते हैं।” (It is a matter of pride for us to have the tomb of such a great warrior in our region. But the tomb was a victim of neglect. But we thought about how we can make it an important memorial by doing daily activities with people), said Mogava. Although there is still a lot to be done, the local community has a least begun to recognise the importance of the samadhi.
In Mogava’s opinion, it is not only the duty of government bodies to take care of heritage, but it is private-public partnerships that can help in the promotion of heritage and historical structures and sites. Enter the role of Corporate-Social Responsibility (CSR) campaigns and investment opportunities by corporate organisations.
When it comes to the importance of education and awareness in understanding our history and heritage, Vikram Kirloskar believes the inclusion of humanities in academic curricula is vital. “As society progresses, I think it’s important to understand what happened in the past. It has always fascinated me as to how these rulers ran the country. They had skills… India was a manufacturing country. There are huge numbers mentioned in history, such as the amounts paid for something like ransoms. Where did this amount come from? There had to be some kind of manufacturing (to generate that kind of revenue). Somewhere along the way, I feel we have lost our way in manufacturing and this is because we haven’t given enough respect to the arts. Like if you want to know how a machine works, you need to know how your hand works first… Somewhere, we have missed out on this,” he said.
With awareness being the key, Dr Natarajan said that new advancements in technology such as augmented reality and virtual reality can be put to great use to make people aware of their history and heritage. Dr Kulkani added, “There should be awareness and interest that should be generated in our monuments. This can only happen when the stories behind those monuments become more popular. So the stories have to reach the people and the people then become interested in the monuments. Many monuments aren’t’ glamorous and attractive, but they have great stories behind them. Also monuments need to be self-sustaining. And this has to be a combined effort.”
Through our weekly online talk show, Heritage Matters, we offer a platform to anyone who wants to highlight issues surrounding our heritage as well as showcases work that addresses the many problems faced on the ground, across the length and breadth of India. If you have a story to share, an issue to highlight, or work to showcase, please write to us at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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