Visual Art During the Maratha Period

One of the primary sources of gleaning the life, styles, and lifestyles of historical figures is through art. Art achieved great heights during the Mughal patronage and continued to flourish under Jaipur and Deccan patronage. After the decline of the Mughal empire, artists sought patronage in Rajasthan and in the Deccan. It is generally assumed Aurangzeb is responsible for the decline of the arts in the Mughal dominions. Yet, there is evidence that it was not always so, and he moved away from arts at a later stage in his life.


Aurangzeb holds court, as painted by (perhaps) Bichitr; Shaistah Khan stands behind Prince Muhammad Azam By Cordanrad [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

The migration of artists was not just a result of their quest for favourable patronage, it was also political. An artist was a part of the loot of the war and ended up moving to serve a new master, in a new region, in a new culture. This led the blending of various styles, a coming together of schools, so-to-speak.

The decline of the Mughal Empire led to the migration of artists to the Deccan, where they would receive patronage to continue their work. However, we see little development of visual art (specifically, painting), during this period, in Maharashtra and specifically in Western Maharashtra, the seat of the Peshwas. The rule and reign of the Peshwa era, from the mid-1700s, was growing around the same time that the Mughal empire was in decline, so it would seem that the artists would make a beeline to this power centre too. Yet, it seems, that this did not happen. There are paintings of Maratha chieftains and others that were created during this period, but these were primarily created by artists from other dominions and schools of art. It is not until the later decades of the 1700s that we see some development in the painting discipline, by the Marathas. And this development had much to do with the contact of the Marathas with Rajasthan and European influences, than the natural transmigration of artists from the north or from the Deccan. If any significant advances were made (in the art of painting) in this region in the late-17th or the early-18th century, there is a serious lack of evidence, documentation, and research.

Little is known of Maratha painting. A few superb miniatures have come to light, but it is still impossible to reconstruct the extent or the chronology of any school. Probably each centre of Maratha power had its own regional style of portraiture; outside the Deccan the maharajas of Gwalior and Baroda must have also patronised miniature painting which had some links with Deccani styles because of the ruling families’ dynastic ties to Maharashtra. (Architecture and Art of the Deccan Sultanates. New York: Cambridge UP, 1999)


Inscribed above: Maharaja Sambhajiraje.  Maratha, late 17th century.  Opaque pigments and gold on paper, 146 by 220mm (including border). - See more at:

Inscribed above: Maharaja Sambhajiraje. Maratha, late 17th century. Opaque pigments and gold on paper, 146 by 220mm (including border). – See more at: An Album of Maratha and Deccani Paintings

Also, in this post, I refer specifically to Western Maharashtra, because a well-known school of painting was established by the Tanjore branch of the Marathas (1674 – 1855) to promote visual art.

This is not to say that there was no development or evolution of art during the reign of the Marathas. Significant advances were made in performance art and “craft-related art” during this period, which perhaps, will be the subject of another post.

Chh. Shivaji’s preoccupation was primarily with building an empire and his priorities therefore did not include patronage of art. During the establishment of the Maratha supremacy, in the early years, available resources were strategically invested in military affairs and the resurrection and establishment of a people-friendly and functional administrative system. It is no surprise then, that of the available contemporary portraits of Shivaji, not a single one has been painted by a Maratha artist. There is however, another argument that merits discussion. One of the purposes of the paintings in the Mughal Empire was documentation. We see glimpses of the lives, events, and the environment of the Mughal ethos in these paintings. And if documentation be the purpose, the Marathas were definitely not lacking. Visual documentation is cumbersome and time-consuming. The Marathas chose prose over painting, in the form of Bakhars.

The term Bakhar is a metathetical form of the Arabic word Khabar, which means news or report. […] The writers of Bakhars wrote imitating the Tawarikhs of the muslim potentates. […] Rajwade estimates the total number of bakhars at more than two-hundred. Actually only half of them are extant and of these about seventy have so far been published. (The History and Culture of the Indian People: The Maratha Supremacy. Ed. R. C. Majumdar and V. G. Dighe. 3rd ed. Vol. VIII. Bombay: Bharatīya Vidya Bhavan)

From the mid-1700s we see increased interaction of the Marathas with powers, north of the Narmada, when campaigns were led into Malwa, Gujarat, Bundelkhand, and other parts of Madhya Pradesh. Baji Rao I was welcomed in the courts of Rajasthan as the leader of the Marathas. Almost instantly we see the inclusion of a certain Bhojraj, a well-known artist from Jaipur, who was brought to Pune for the paintings at Shaniwar Wada. Also,

Some great paintings were produced, especially at provincial Deccan centres where artists often worked with greater originality than those at Hyderabad, and at the courts of Maratha rulers, who, after decades of guerilla warfare against the Mughals, were now settling down in the cities of the western Deccan. (Architecture and Art of the Deccan Sultanates. New York: Cambridge UP, 1999)

The intrigues of the court were not merely political in nature, they were cultural too. Manuscripts in Maharashtra which were devoid of any illustration were now being worked on by artists from Rajasthan. Miniatures in the Rajput and Pahari style were being created with religious motifs and symbolism.

Madhu Rao Narayan the Maratha Peshwa with Nana Fadnavis and attendants Poona 1792 by James Wales

Madhu Rao Narayan the Maratha Peshwa with Nana Fadnavis and attendants Poona 1792 By James Wales, 1792 ([1]) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

As we approach the late-1700s we see the European influence. Sir Charles Warre Malet was the first British Resident at the Peshwa’s court. he was instrumental in getting James Wales, the Scottish artist to Pune. Wales came to Pune in 1790 and created some of the iconic paintings of Sawai Madhavrao Peshwa, Nana Phadnavis, and MadhavRao Scindhia. It was during this time that Sir Malet suggested the establishment of a school of art, which Wales supervised. This is perhaps for the first time, we hear of any formal discipline for painting, in the history of the Marathas. We are aware of one graduate of this school, Gangaram Chintaman Tambat, whose works are still available to us. Undoubtedly, the work of this “Maratha School” has visible European influence.

Parasnis, D. B. "Shanwar Wada." Poona in the Bygone Days

Parasnis, D. B. “Shanwar Wada.” Poona in the Bygone Days

This perhaps marks the reappearance of painting in Maharashtra after a very long time. We see emergence of wall art in places like Wai, Menavali, Motibag, and Satara. We further see the record of names of Maratha artists like Ragho, Tanhaji, Anuprao, and Mankoji.

Vishnu, Menavali. Apte, B. K.; Maratha Wall Paintings: Wai, Menavali, Satara, Pune

Vishnu, Menavali. Apte, B. K.; Maratha Wall Paintings: Wai, Menavali, Satara, Pune

In the early 1800s, it seems that a “Maratha School” was well-established, however, it never reached the popular heights awarded to the Mughal, Deccan, Rajput, or Pahari schools.

Maratha darbar

Durbar hall, unidentified, Maratha school, c.1820. By Maratha school [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

While painting as a pursuit and patronage did not find a significant expression in the Maratha context for a long time, it did come to the fore after the late-1700s. Perhaps it was too little, too late. Much later, however, some great artists have emerged from this region to make a significant mark in this space.


  1. Pritchett, F. (n.d.). Aurangzeb holds court, as painted by (perhaps) Bichitr; Shaistah Khan stands behind Prince Muhammad Azam. Retrieved April 2, 2015.
  2. Chowdry, A. (2008). The studio practices of painters of the Mughal ateliers. In Contributions to the symposium on the care and conservation of Middle Eastern manuscripts: The University of Melbourne, Australia, 26-28 November 2007 (p. 37). Melbourne, Vic.: Centre for Cultural Materials Conservation.
  3. “Tanjore Paintings: Marathas.” Wikipedia. Wikimedia Foundation. Web. 2 Apr. 2015.
  4. Kulkarni, AR. Maharashtra in the Age of Shivaji: A Study in Economic History. 2nd ed. Pune: Diamond Publications, 2008. 18. Print.
  5. Apte, B. K. “Introduction.” Maratha Wall Paintings: Wai, Menavali, Satara, Pune. Bombay: Maharashtra State Board for Literature & Culture, 1988. Ix. Print.
  6. Parasnis, D. B. “Shanwar Wada.” Poona in the Bygone Days. Bombay: Times, 1921. 8. Print.
  7. Chavan, Kamal. Maratha Murals: Late Medieval Painting of the Deccan, 1650-1850 A.D. Delhi: B.R. Pub. ;, 1983. 16. Print.
  8. Michell, George, and Mark Zebrowski. Architecture and Art of the Deccan Sultanates. New York: Cambridge UP, 1999. 248. Print.
  9. “Language and Literature in the Eighteenth Century.” The History and Culture of the Indian People: The Maratha Supremacy. Ed. R. C. Majumdar and V. G. Dighe. 3rd ed. Vol. VIII. Bombay: Bharatīya Vidya Bhavan, 1977. 666. Print.


Of Foreigners & their Blades

Throughout history natives have given names to foreign communities. These names are often derogatory, or just corrupt form of the appearance of people or their place of origins. Perhaps, these name offer a stronger sense of identity to the native community.

Over time, in the age of political correctness and civility, many such words have fallen out of favour and have been replaced by technical terms, that nevertheless, often refer to the place of origin.


By Mughal School [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

One such word that has somewhat survived and is still in used, is firangi. A word often used, generally to refer to a foreigner, and specifically used to refer to a person of Caucasian descent. I haven’t heard this pejorative used to refer to a foreigner who is not Caucasian. One of the popular theories of the etymological roots of the firangi is that it is a portmanteau of fika and rang — pale and colour — and therefore applies to Caucasians. Far from the truth.

Firangi derives from the Arabic word al-faranji. This word was used to refer to Franks (Germanic people who conquered Gaul in the 6th century and controlled much of western Europe for several centuries afterward), The Arabics derived the word from the Latin – Franci. The word came into being with the Crusaders, most of whom were Franks.

Around the 16th century, the word had gained a different distinction in India and lent meaning to weapons, rather than to refer to certain people. The Western Euopean sword-blade was finding favour with the Mughals and was called the firangi. However it was made popular by the Marathas, which they bought from the Portuguese. The Portuguese did not manufacture this blade however, they only imported and traded it. Therefore the use of the word firangi was still associated with Western Europe and not with the Portuguese. Interestingly,

The origin of the ethnic name [Frank] is uncertain; it traditionally is said to be from the old Germanic word *frankon “javelin, lance” (compare Old English franca “lance, javelin”), their preferred weapon, but the reverse may be the case. [Link]

Further, during the 16th century:

Syphilis was known in India as the Portuguese disease, or firanga or firangi roga, terms that identified it with the firangis (‘Franks’), or Europeans. According to historians, the disase was first recognised in India in 1498 after the arrival of Vasco-da-Gama, who had left Portugal in 1497.

It is perhaps due to the trade of the Marathas that the word has been strongly associated with the Portuguese, and it seems they referred to the commodity than the people. However, certain documents describe different names for various European traders in India:

Amongst the merchants the Portuguese (Firangi), the English (Ingraz), the Dutch (Valandaze), the French (Francese), the Danes (Dingmar) and hat wearing (Topikar) merchants carry on trade, and commerce.


  1. Dutta, Tarun Kumar, and Subhash Chandra Parija. Emerging and Re-emerging Infectious Diseases. New Delhi: Jaypee Brothers Medical Pub., 2013. 118. Print.
  2. Darpan, Mahesh. “पुर्तगाली-बंगाली एंथनी फिरंगी – Navbharat Times.” Navbharat Times. Navbharat Times, 5 May 2014. Web. 11 Mar. 2015.
  3. “Firangi (sword).” Wikipedia. 27 Nov. 2014. Web. 30 Nov. 2014. .
  4. Kadam, Umesh. “French-Maratha Relations: India in the 17th Century.” ResearchGate, 21 May 2014. Web. 15 Mar. 2015.

Bhawani: The Sword of Shivaji

An article in the Times of India from a few years ago, talks of Chhatrapati Shivaji’s Bhawani Sword  having originated in Toledo, Spain. This claim was supported (as a possibility) by none other than Babasaheb Purandare.

“Yes, it can be true because there has been documentary evidence to show that swords had been imported from Spain because of the quality of steel and the mastery of its workers in designing swords and knives,” confirms historian Babasaheb Purandare. According to Purandare, Shivaji possessed three swords which were named Bhawani, Jagdamba and Tulja. Via Desperately Seeking Shivaji’s Sword

Ninad Bedekar, however, casts doubts due the inscriptions on the sword.

What is the class (type) of the Bhawani sword?

According to S. N. Sen, the Bhawani sword is a Genoese blade and the firangi, a Toledo Blade. There is more information about the Bhawani sword being a Genoa blade.

Screen Shot 2014-11-30 at 16.46.56If you look at some of the old paintings of Shivaji, it seems that the sword on his right arm was a Patta or a Dandpatta, which has an integrated gauntlet. However, if we go by the description of the Bhawani in the text above, by Nick Evangelista, it could not have been a Patta. The existence of a spike, means that there could not have been a gauntlet.

AN01043315 001 l

Portrait of Shivaji; painting mounted onto an album folio. Inscribed. Album contains 26 paintings of Indian princes. Ink, opaque watercolour and gold on paper. Album bound in red leather and stamped on both covers with a central medallion, spine decorated with gold leaf. Interior cover marbled. Courtesy British Museum

There are many such images of Shivaji, that often depict a Dandpatta in the right hand and another sword in the left; which looks more like the firangi (which a straight blade).

There seem to be no specific references to a Toledo Sword or a Genoa sword — they always refer to them a the Toledo Blade or the Genoese Blade. Which makes sense because, according to this page in the Higgins Collection:

As European traders came to India in the 1500s and 1600s, they brought swords from the blademaking centers in Spain, Italy, and Germany. The blades of these swords were much admired in India, and some were fitted into Indian-made hilts. English swords were less respected: one Indian admiral of the 1600s remarked that English blades were “only fit to cut butter.”

So, while the blade itself was imported from either Spain or Italy, the class of the sword is an entirely different matter, because the sword was crafted locally. A distinction needs to be made between the blade and the sword, I suppose.

A sabre or Farang; slightly curved seventeenth century European steel blade stamped on each side with an Arabic inscription and chased on the right side with a crescent moon face; Indian iron basket hilt grip covered with purple and silver gilt cloth; flat circular pommel and curved spike. Green velvet covered wooden scabbard with chased gold mount and chape. Courtesy: Royal Collection Trust

A sabre or Farang; slightly curved seventeenth century European steel blade stamped on each side with an Arabic inscription and chased on the right side with a crescent moon face; Indian iron basket hilt grip covered with purple and silver gilt cloth; flat circular pommel and curved spike. Green velvet covered wooden scabbard with chased gold mount and chape. Courtesy: Royal Collection Trust

As regards the Jagdamba sword, it is commonly assumed (and accepted, I guess) that the Jagdamba was gifted to Edward VII, the Prince of Wales, during his visit to India. It’s a badly cropped image, so there is no way to clearly state that this is a straight blade or a curved one. The Trust makes no mention of the name of the sword. Also, on the page, there are images of two swords.

A look across various old illustrations of Shivaji, indicate the possibility of the Bhawani sword being a straight blade, and not a scimitar. Also, because I believe it is a gauntlet sword, there’s a good chance that it was a broadsword (double-edged).

Yet, in contemporary illustrations, it is shown as a talwar or a scimitar (curved blade). Are these representations of the Bhawani sword or the Jagdamba sword?

I’ll keep updating this page as I find new information. If you have anything to contribute, please suggest, using comments below.



  1. TNN. (2002, July 2). Desperately Seeking Shivaji’s Sword – The Times of India. Retrieved November 30, 2014, from
  2. Sen, S. (1920). Siva Chhatrapati being a translation of Sabhasad Bakhar with extracts from Chitnis and Sivadigvijaya, with notes. (Vol. 1, p. 19). Calcutta: Univ. of Calcutta.
  3. Evangelista, N. (1995). The Encyclopedia of the Sword (p. 55). Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press.
  4. Pata (sword). (2014, November 29). Retrieved November 30, 2014, from
  5. British Museum – Portraits of Indian Princes. (n.d.). Retrieved November 30, 2014, from
  6. Firangi (sword). (2014, November 27). Retrieved November 30, 2014, from
  7. Pata (gauntlet sword). (n.d.). Retrieved November 30, 2014, from
  8. Sabre. (n.d.). Retrieved November 30, 2014, from

The Cultural Connotation of History

I’ve been reading a book. It has captured my imagination and helped me understand a context of viewing history. I’ve not finished reading the book; by number of content pages, I am somewhere 17% in the book.

1200: Vishalgad Milestone

Conventional and contemporary formulation of a war plan is based on “game-theory (numerically based, conflict analysis.) The author of the book, that I’m reading, uses the phrase, “Contemporary cultural arrogance of strategic assumption.” Some of us may find the phrase familiar.

Early, in The Anglo-Maratha Campaigns and the Contest for India, by Randolf G. S. Cooper, there is context-setting for the book. Or, at least that is how I look at it.

What role does cultural conditioning and cultural perception play in the formulation of war plans and the prosecution of war?

[ … ]

In other words, linking your military response to assumptions about your enemy’s action’s (i.e. strategy and tactics) is dangerous if you come from a different cultural background than that of your opponent.

[ … ]

If you wage war against an opponent from a different culture, it is never safe to assume that the ‘givens’ that govern your behaviour also govern those of your enemy.

In a cross-cultural conflict, the assumption that the opponent will respond in a way that you would expect (in a similar situation) is dangerous, to say the least. When we adopt the line of this thought, we tend to ignore the cultural upbringing and therefore the compulsions of the opponent. Risk-perception and other similar qualities aren’t predictable, more-so because of disparate cultural, historical, and even geographical considerations.

Distorted notions, or invalid assumptions of cultural comprehension of the opponent comes from dealing with “large blocks of time” that enables easier and, perhaps, faster analysis. These simplified explanations are easily peddled, comfortably absorbed, and lubricated without resistance, down generations. (As is obvious this process runs the further risk of over-simplification over time). Each side does this unfailingly and attempts (with varying degrees of success) to propagate and insert their version within the world view.

Some of the recent and ongoing conflicts in the world today are a case in point. While the physical conflict continues, in such instances, a parallel conflict of continuous cultural conflict and misrepresentation continues to compete.

When one side has complete dominion (e.g. the colonisation of India) over the other, the description and definition of the cultural ethos is owned by the oppressor. The oppressor works on it in two ways: one, to systematically put to death the original cultural ethos; two, by laying a thick shroud of a permanent propaganda of an artificial, oppressor-oriented identity. The oppressed then start believing, over generations, in the oppressor’s version of the cultural ethos of the oppressed.

Generations pass by.

The reclaiming starts. The oppressor is long gone. But it is not always easy to reclaim reality from the rotting corpses of yesterday.

History suffers, and becomes a victim of hollow chest-beating and rhetoric.

A Dip in History | Sambar

IMG 1100  Version 2

So here’s how a simple mistake or a turn of circumstances caused a great dish to become. Of all the happy accidents in history, I think I’ll peg this one as my favourite. As much as Sambar – my favourite dish! Of course, as accidents go, this discovery happened on one of my favourite blogs, Varnam, where he wrote of The Origin of Sambar. I couldn’t find the content the post had linked to, so some fun research led me to this:

“The Marathas were ruling Tanjore. Sambhoji was a great cook (the male clan members to note) and very fond of his amti with a handful of the tart kokum thrown in. In a particular season the kokum that was imported from the Maratha homeland did not reach the bare larder of the king’s kitchen. Sambhoji was cooking and the minions were shivering in their dhothis to tell him that his favourite dish could not be made that day. A smart Vidushak, who had been elected sous chef for the day, decided to solve the problem. He whispered in the king’s ears that the locals used very little tamarind pulp to gain a better sourness to the curry and that Sambhoji should experiment with this variation. Voila, the dish with the tuvar dal, vegetables, spices and the tamarind pulp was cooked and served by the king to his coterie. The court declared the dish an outstanding preparation (they had no choice with the king as Chef) and thus was born Sambhoji’s amti that in time became sambhar.”

(Via The Story of Sambhar by Padmini Natarajan.)


The link above is not working, you can view a cached image of the article here. If for some reason, this link also disappears, here’s the PDF of the Original post: The Story of Sambhar by Padmini Natarajan, from 2002, by Dr. Padmini Natarajan. This article was also mentioned in The Hindu – A Tale of Two Sambhars.

Powada & Lavni

Side by side with Bhakti movement of the traditional narrative poets dedicated to ‘spiritual democracy’, the Shāhīrs or the composers of historical ballads (Powāḍās) and lyrics of love (Lāvņīs) inspired the people with national spirit, as well as romantic love, the natural instinct in human life. […] The Powāḍās or ballads are much older than the Lāvņīs.

“Apart from their (ballads) value as a national poetry,” says H. A. Acworth. “their phraseology is well worthy of study as an example of the flexibility, the force, the richness, and capacity of the vernacular language of the Marāthā ryot.”

If the Powāḍā is masculine in its robust vigour, the Lāvņī is feminine in its tone and tenor. […] Although some of the Lāvņīs are pornographic, a great majority of them are undoubtedly poetic. Honājī’s Ghanashyām Sundarā Shridharā (an invocation to Lord Krishna at dawn) is a case in point.

~ from “Language and Literature in the Eighteenth Century – Marathi”, by R.V. Herwadkar; in “The History and Culture of the Indian People – Volume Eight, The Maratha Supremacy”, Bhartiya Vidya Bhavan, Mumbai.

About The Marathas

The Mahrattas, and probably all natives of India, are in a peculiar manner, roused from indolence and apathy when charged in any degree with responsibility, either in what regards their own conduct, or that of another person.

~ James Grant Duff, Esq. (Captain in the first or Grenadier, Regiment of BombayNative Infantry and Late Political Resident at Satara), A History of the Mahrattas, In Three Volumes, Volume 1, Chapter VII, Page 228