The Life and Times of Peshwa Balaji Vishwanath
24 April 2022
"A calm, comprehensive and commanding intellect along with an imaginative and aspiring disposition, a genius for....."
Peshwa Balaji Vishwanath Bhat was the first Peshwa to hail from the Chitpavan ‘Bhat’ family. The family was originally from Shrivardhan in the Konkan region and its members were the ‘Deshmukh’s under the Siddi of Janjira. Balaji was married to Radhabai Barve of the Barve dynasty, a family of influential money-lenders. They had two sons, Visaji (Bajirao) and Chimaji Appa and two daughters, Bhiubai and Anubai.
Early years :-
New evidence has come to light that Balaji’s elder brother Janoji was in-charge of the Sardeshmukhi while Balaji himself worked many jobs. According to sources, Balaji worked as an administrative clerk in the salt mines of Chiplun early in his career. Later, he also worked as a revenue clerk under Ramchandra Pant Amatya and possibly as a revenue/tax collector under Senapati Dhanaji Jadhav. Under the tutelage of Ramchandrapant Amatya, Balaji was educated about different aspects of politics and administration. However, it is important to note that Balaji was entirely self-taught and hailed from humble beginnings.
Balaji Bhat entered the Marathi administration at a time of a bloody civil war between Rani Tarabai, wife of Chhatrapati Rajaram Maharaj and the regent to their son, Chhatrapati Shivaji II. The second participant of the civil war was Chhatrapati Shahu Maharaj, the son of Chhatrapati Sambhaji Maharaj, who had been recently released from the confines of the Mughals. Balaji helped Chhatrapati Shahu to subdue the rebellious Chandrasen Jadhav, who joined Rani Tarabai in the ensuing Maratha civil war. Balaji rose to the occasion and organised funds and manpower with the help of loyal Maratha sardars and bankers. He formed the Huzurat cavalry or the ‘King’s own troops’ to aid Chhatrapati Shahu put down his enemies. Balaji was thus bestowed upon the title of ‘Senakarte’ or Organiser of Maratha armies.
The next opportunity for Balaji to prove his prowess came when he had to subdue the ‘Angres’. Kanhoji Angre was the admiral of the Maratha navy, who took the opportunity of the ongoing civil war to establish his own independence. The Peshwa at that time was Bahiroji Pingle, who was sent with a large army to subdue Kanhoji. But he was captured by Angre, who was in turn subdued by Balaji Bhat, and agreed to serve as the naval admiral of the Maratha navy. That same year, Balaji was appointed as the ‘Peshwa’ of the Marathas.
Balaji’s Peshwai tenure:-
After the death of Aurangzeb, there existed a civil war in the Mughal sultanate resulting in Farrukhsiyar becoming the new emperor. He sent the powerful lords, the Sayyid brothers to establish their dominion over the Deccan region. However, Balaji Vishwanath was able to negotiate a treaty between them over the Chauth and Sardeshmukhi over the old Deccan provinces of the Mughals while in return, the Marathas would help depose Emperor Farrukhsiyar. In February 1719, Farrukhsiyar was dethroned and substituted by a more pliable puppet by the Sayyid brothers in return for a better treaty, offering the Marathas 10% of their total income in return for protection.
The first military expedition to Delhi was carried out during Balaji’s tenure. The Sayyid brothers asked for a military alliance with Chhatrapati Shahu against the Mughal emperor. The expedition to Delhi was accompanied by several important Maratha sardars like Khanderao Dabhade, Pawar brothers, Ambaji Purandare, Chimnaji Damodar, Mahadev Bhanu etc. The result of the expedition was that the reigning Mughal emperor Farrukhsiyar was deposed and Muhammud Shah was ultimately put on the throne as a Sayyid puppet. However, the Delhi expedition had distinct social and cultural results. The Maratha ambitions gained a fresh vision of Delhi, which had seemed more like a dream than a reality. Another reason for the Delhi campaign was freeing Chhatrapati Shahu’s mother and wife from imperial imprisonment. This was accomplished as soon as the new emperor Muhammud Shah was put on the throne.
According to Maratha chronicles, news of the defection of the Sayyid brothers was brought to Chhatrapati Shahu and Balaji by Shankaraji malhar, a Brahman with the surname Nargundkar who accepted the mission of conveying the news from the Sayyids.
In the words of Sir Richard Temple, “Balaji Vishwanath carried victoriously all his diplomatic points and brought back to Western India a political instrument which is one of the most noteworthy state documents in Indian history and constituted the Magna Carta of the Maratha dominion.”
In October 1719, Peshwa Balaji obtained leave from Chhatrapati Shahu to his village Saswad that had been granted to him. He expired on 12 April 1720 and was succeeded by his son, Peshwa Bajirao Bhat, one of the better known Peshwas.
The character of Balaji can be estimated by a quote from Sir Richard Temple, a British colonial administrator in Bharat. Sir Richard says that Balaji was a more typical Brahman than any of his successors. A calm, comprehensive and commanding intellect along with an imaginative and aspiring disposition, a genius for diplomatic combination and mastery of finances.
Balaji possessed not only astute financial and managerial skills but also a strong military generalship where he served as the head of the 7000 riders briefly. Further, Balaji made it a point to keep himself closely acquainted with the imperial politics of the north and on goings of the Mughal court with the help of an Intelligence and reconnaissance unit. Most importantly, Balaji’s skills as one of the finest statesman and diplomat of the Maratha Empire cannot be over-stated.
The contemporary reference describes Balaji: - “The most ardent desire of Balajipant nana was to secure the weal and prosperity of the common masses and to this aim he studiously devoted all his powers of head and heart. He restored peace and plenty to the Maratha territory which had been utterly ruined by the long devastating war. He put down with a high hand all turbulent elements and re-populated the country by means of special concessions.”
1. ‘A new history of the Marathas, Volume 2’ by G.S Sardesai
2. Purandare Daftar