A woman of unflagging courage and spirit, Rani Tarabai Bhonsle of the Marathas left an indelible mark on Indian history. Yet few know her incredible story.
At Kolhapur’s central square stands the beautiful statue of warrior queen astride a horse. One of the grittiest characters in Indian history, this woman was also called the ‘rainha dos Marathas’ or the ‘Queen of the Marathas’ by the Portuguese. She is Rani Tarabai Bhonsle, the brave daughter-in-law of Chhatrapati Shivaji and one of India’s greatest medieval monarchs.
Among the few women in history to save a kingdom by sheer force and willpower, Rani Tarabai’s unflagging courage and indomitable spirit are at par with the legendary Rani Laxmi Bai of Jhansi, Rani Rudramma Devi of Warangal and Rani Abbakka Chowta of Ullal. Yet, little is written about this warrior queen or her incredible story.
Here’s the untold tale of how Rani Tarabai etched her mark in the annals of history.
Born in 1675, Tarabai was the daughter of Hambir Rao Mohite, the famed Sar Senapati (commander-in-chief) of Shivaji’s Maratha army. Fiercely independent as a young girl, she was well-trained in sword fighting, archery, cavalry, military strategy, diplomacy and all other subjects of statecraft.
A woman who witnessed the rise and fall of the Marathas, Tarabai was just eight-years-old when she was married to Shivaji’s younger son Rajaram. This was an era when the Mughals and the Marathas were constantly at war for control over the Deccan.
In 1674, Shivaji had been crowned the ruler of the independent Maratha kingdom established by him. Under his able leadership, the empire quickly became a key political force in India at the height of Mughal power.
However, the legendary leader passed away in 1680, with the years after his death seeing the Marathas pass through their toughest time.
The year 1689 saw the eldest son of Shivaji and his first wife Saibai, Sambhaji (who had led the Marathas for nearly a decade) being captured and put to death after Raigad fort fell to a Mughal army of over fifteen thousand. His wife, Yesubai and son, Shahu, were captured and taken to the Mughal court as hostages.
During the same battle, the new Maratha king — Rajaram (Shivaji’s second son and Tarabai’s husband — managed to escape from Raigad using a disguise. He eventually made his way to the Gingee fort (in present-day Tamil Nadu), before setting up court at Satara. However, in yet another blow to the Marathas, he passed away due to lung disease in 1700 after an extremely short reign.
A month after his sudden death, Tarabai took over the reins of the Maratha kingdom as regent (for her 4-year-old son, Shivaji II). Realizing the urgent need for strategic and stable leadership if the Marathas were to stop the Mughal onslaught (led by Aurangzeb himself), the 25-year-old widow also took command of the Maratha army.
When the Mughal army heard this news, they were delighted by the prospect of an easy end to the Maratha menace, assuming that a woman and an infant would not provide much resistance. They would soon learn otherwise.
Though grief-stricken by the loss of her husband, Tarabai did not waste time on tears. Instead, she threw herself into organizing a well-planned and vigorous opposition to Aurangzeb. In fact, in his book, A Social History of the Deccan, historian Richard Eaton quotes the following lines by Khafi Khan (court chronicler of the Mughals and the author of Muntkhab al-Lubab):
[The Mughals felt] that it would not be difficult to overcome two young children and a helpless woman. They thought their enemy weak, contemptible and helpless; but Tara Bai, as the wife of Ram Raja [i.e. Rajaram] was called, showed great powers of command and government, and from day to day the war spread and the power of the Mahrattas increased.
An intelligent woman, Tarabai had earned a reputation during her husband’s lifetime for her knowledge of civil, diplomatic and military matters. She used this knowledge to lead from the front —travelling between forts, forging crucial partnerships, mobilizing resources and men.
A skilled cavalry warrior, she also motivated her commanders and soldiers by personally leading aggressive attacks on the enemy.
In his memoirs, Bhimsen (an officer in the Mughal army) mentions that Tarabai “was a stronger ruler than her husband” and that Tarabai “became all in all and regulated things so well that not a single Maratha leader acted without her order”.
One of Tarabai’s greatest strengths was that she never stopped learning, even if it was from the enemy. She mastered Aurangzeb’s particular technique of bribing commanders on the enemy side. Also, following the same techniques used by the imperial army, Tarabai and her commanders began penetrating the long-held territories of the Mughal empire (as far north as Malwa and Gujarat) and appointing their own revenue collectors (kamaishdars).
Thus, even when her forts of her own fell into Aurangzeb’s hands, Tarabai always had control of resources from her permanent collection centres in Mughal domain!
In her seven-year period as regent, Tarabai single-handedly directed the Maratha resistance against the massive army of Aurangzeb, then the mightiest ruler in the world. As Mughal chronicler Khaﬁ Khan wrote:
“She won the hearts of her ofﬁcers, and for all the struggles and schemes, the campaigns and sieges of Aurangzeb up to the end of his reign, the power of the Mahrattas increased day by day.”
An indomitable warrior queen who was deeply devoted to her kingdom, Tarabai didn’t just prevent the Maratha Confederacy from disintegrating when it was at its lowest ebb, she played a crucial role in it rise to national power (by 1760, the Marathas de facto controlled almost all of India).
Under her rule, the Maratha army established their rule over Southern Karnataka and plundered several rich towns of the country’s western coast (such as Burhanpur, Surat and Broach).
In the midst of repeated failures in quelling the Maratha resistance, an ageing Aurangzeb died on March 2, 1707. Facing a power vacuum at the top, the Mughals craftily released Shahu (Sambhaji’s son and Tarabai’s nephew) to divide the Maratha leadership by sending a new claimant to the throne.
The idea succeeded when Shahu challenged Tarabai and Shivaji II for leadership of the Maratha Confederacy. Tarabai refused, fearing the impact Shahu’s Mughal upbringing may have on his reign. This dispute quickly transformed into a battle.
However, given Shahu’s legal claim to the throne, chieftain sent by Tarabai to fight him started defecting to the other side. And finally in 1708, with the support of Peshwa Balaji Vishwanath’s diplomacy and the new Mughal emperor’s resources, he succeeded.
Shahu I was crowned the Maratha ruler at Satara and Tarabai was sidelined.
Not one to give up easily, Tarabai established a rival court in Kolhapur the next year but was deposed after Shahu and Rajasabai (Rajaram’s second wife) joined forces to put Rajasabai’s son — Sambhaji II — on the Kolhapur throne. Tarabai and her son Shivaji were thrown into prison, where she spent 16 years and her son eventually died.
However, later Sambhaji turned hostile, forcing Shahu to switch sides. Finally freeing her from the prison, Shahu invited Tarabai to stay in the Satara palace, albeit under house arrest. But the former queen’s role in Maratha polity was not over,
At the age of 73, Tarabai stepped out of the shadows after Shahu fell seriously ill, with no direct descendants of Shivaji to appoint as his heir. She revealed that she had concealed her the existence of her grandson Ramraja after her son’s death, fearing his assassination by Rajasabai and Sambhaji II, and that he was now 22 years old—a Maratha prince waiting for his destiny.
So Shahu adopted Ramraja his heir before he died in 1749. With Tarabai’s help, the young prince ascended the Maratha throne. However, later when he became close to the powerful Peshwa, Nana Sahib, and refused to accede to her wishes, Tarabai denounced him as her grandson.
Nonetheless, Tin 1752, Tarabai had to settle for a pact that acknowledged Nana Sahib’s authority in return for the freedom to settle “into her life’s final role – that of a powerful quasi-sovereign dowager”. As mentioned by Eaton in his book,
“At Satara, she maintained a regular court and conducted business of state, issuing orders, conferring grants, and receiving Maratha sardars, while the Peshwa at least publicly acquiesced to her will or sought her advice…
…In 1752 she ordered a Maratha chief to supply fodder for the cavalry horses at specified rates. The same year, the superintendent of Pratapgarh fort asked her to have some roofs in a temple compound re-thatched. And the next year, we find her settling a divorce case involving her Muslim maid.”
Tarabai breathed her last at the age of 86 in 1761, a few months after Ahmad Shah Abdali decimated the Maratha Army at the 3rd battle of Panipat. Had the indomitable queen not taken charge in 1701, it is quite likely that the Marathas would have had to face a similar defeat much earlier and the history of India would have been very different.