Empires of Indian Empires

As the 17th Century turned to the 18th, India’s Mughal Empire stood at the zenith of its power. Emperor Aurangzeb ruled almost all of the Indian subcontinent, from the Afghan highlands and Indus valley to the Assam highlands. Only the Polygar kingdoms at the southern tip of India remained outside Mughal domination. India contributed 22.6 percent of worldwide income in 1700, compared to 23.3 percent for all of Europe combined. Under the Mughals, Indian architecture, art and literature all flourished.

Much of this success came from the longevity of Mughal rulers: the 151 years between 1556 and 1707 saw just four men occupy the Peacock Throne. But even during the reign of 48-year reign of the last of these, Aurangzeb, the empire showed strains. Rebellion festered in multiple parts of the empire, driven by religious, ethnic and linguistic differences. After Aurangzeb’s death, central authority declined as powerful nobles set themselves up as kingmakers. Waves of foreign invasion followed – in 1739, the Mughals even lost the Peacock Throne itself to Persian pillagers.

In the 1760’s two hordes of barbarians struck simultaneously: the fierce Afghans of the Durrani Empire by land and the greed-crazed British and French by sea. New powers arose from the ashes of the old empire, to contest rule of India both with these outside enemies and against one another.

The new powers could not eject the foreigners, who played the Indian kingdoms against one another. India would spend nearly two centuries under alien rule, with her wealth looted by the british to fund their own Industrial Revolution and world-wide Empire; by 1952, India’s share of worldwide income had dropped to 3.8 percent.

Let’s have a look at the three leading Indian kingdoms of the period.

The small kingdom of Mysore arose in 1399, founded by a pair of brothers around what became the city of Mysore. Originally a tributary of the Hindu Vijayanagara Empire, that allegiance switched to the Mughals as power shifted in the sub-continent. But Mysore remained a political backwater; neither empire expended much effort enforcing their authority.

With the collapse of Mughal power, Mysore’s rulers played a careful diplomatic game, aligning themselves with more powerful successor states. That at times included supplying troops, including a contingent led by a cavalryman named Haider Ali, that fought for one of the contenders in a succession struggle in nearby Hyderabad. Through the 1750’s, Haider Ali’s power grew, along with connections to French military commanders who supplied him with instructors and cannon founders, and by 1759 he was commander of King Krishnaraja’s army.

Haider Ali greets his friend and ally, the French Admiral Suffren.

Haider Ali’s influence alarmed the queen mother, Devajammani, whose intrigues led to Haider Ali’s exile. But he gathered a new army and in 1761 overthrew Krishnaraja and declared himself not king, but Sultan, and imprisoned the king (who remained the titular ruler). He then proceeded to build up his army with French help, and to expand the kingdom through conquest and intrigue.

Haider Ali actually lost a fair number of battles, but displayed an astonishing ability to wriggle out of the consequences. He defeated the East India Company in the 1760’s, and went to war with them again in 1779, drawn in through British attacks on his French allies and making Mysore a de facto ally of the American insurgents.

Not content with importing French technology, Haider Ali expanded the use of Chinese rockets; his father had been a Mysorean rocket-man. The Mysoreans improved the weapons with the better-quality iron casings they could produce, and William Congreve would “invent” them after the British captured stocks of Mysorean rockets in 1799.

Haider died in 1782, and his son Tipu continued Mysore’s march. Not content with importing military technology, he looked to China to establish silk and sugar industries and France to improve Mysore’s iron and steel production. Mysore set up trading stations around the Arabian Sea, and exported goods to Bengal and China as well.

The British storm Sri Rangapatna, 4 May 1799.

That success made Mysore a prime target of British greed. The British invaded in 1789, seizing territory and hostages. They attacked again in 1798, and a year later Tipu was killed defending his fortress at Sri Rangapatna. The British carved up the kingdom, with the remainder becoming a British client kingdom.

Maratha Empire
From their start as a gathering of clans opposed to the religious excesses of the Mughal Emperor Aurangzeb, the Marathas grew in power and influence over the decades that followed. They waged a 27-year war against the Mughals, establishing effective independence after the death of Aurangzeb. The great expansion in Maratha power came after 1720, when Baji Rao I became Peshwa, or prime minster, also leading the Maratha armies. Maratha territory expanded under his 20-year rule, and for the following two decades as well. By 1760 the Marathas ruled most of central and northern India; in that year a Maratha army sacked Delhi, the Mughal capital, and burned it to the ground. In the same year, they defeated the Nizam of Hyderabad.

That would be the high point of Maratha power. The Afghan king Shah Ahmad Durrani called on Muslims to join him in avenging the destruction of Delhi, and he led a massive army into northern India. The Marathas countered by mobilizing their own forces, and the armies clashed at Panipat, north of Delhi. The Afghan alliance had numbers, but the Marathas had their newly-acquired crack Gardi European-model infantry and artillery. Numbers told and the Marathas suffered a crushing defeat: more than two-thirds of the 64,000-men Maratha army became casualties, and the Afghans followed up by slaughtering at least 50,000 camp followers with 22,000 women driven back to Afghanistan as slaves.

The British surrender to the Marathas, 1779. It only made them angry.

The next decade saw the “Maratha Resurrection,” as the new 16-year-old Peshwa Madhavrao I fought off attempts by Hyderabad and Mysore, among others, to take advantage of the Maratha defeat to seize territory. By the time of his death (from tuberculosis) in 1772, Maratha power had been restored across north and central India.

Madhavrao loosened central authority, devolving a great deal of power to clan chiefs, which caused the British to term the Maratha state a “confederacy” rather than an empire. This arrangement helped stave off large-scale revolts by powerful warlords, but also made it nearly impossible to mobilize the full force of the Marathas against the British when the East India Company increased its aggression against them. The British used the disunion to play one clan against another, and when the Marathas did unite for the Third Anglo-Maratha War in 1817, they fought the invaders separately, meeting separate defeat.

By 1818, the Maratha Empire had fallen to the British, giving the East India Company effective suzerainty over most of India. Maratha leaders accepted British pensions – paid from the looting of their people – and retired from public life.

Hyderabad lies in the middle of the southern Deccan, the plateau that dominates the lower half of the Indian subcontinent. The former Mughal governor of the Deccan, Mir Qamar-ud-din Khan, set himself up as an independent ruler in 1724, reigning from the former provincial capital of Aurangabad under the name Asaf Jah. He took the title Nizam ul-Mulk, or “Order of the Realm,” which became the title of his dynasty for the next two centuries. His son Asaf Jah II, the fourth Nizam, moved the capital to Hyderabad in 1763.

From Hyderabad, the Nizams ruled a large and economically prosperous state; their military prowess left something to be desired. Asaf Jah II had some success early in his reign, thanks to the European-trained infantry and artillery led by Ibrahim Gardi Khan, but when the Nizam refused to join the Marathas at Panipat, Ibrahim and his men went anyway, where Ibrahim and most of his men would be killed after inflicting massive casualties on the waves of Afghan attackers.

French General Joseph Dupleix greets the Hyderabadis.

Without Ibrahim and his 10,000 Gardi, Hyderabad became the punching bag of Indian warfare. The Marathas would beat up on the Nizam’s armies through the middle of the 18th Century, and then Haidar Ali of Mysore did so as well. Asaf Jah II reacted by allying with the British and Marathas against Mysore, and then refused to pay tribute to the Marathas. They responded by mobilizing 127,000 troops and invading Hyderabad; the Nizam countered with 100,000 but his putative allies destroyed his army at the loss of just 200 of their own men.

In the aftermath of that crushing defeat, Hyderabad’s power declined quickly. In the wake of his French military advisor and close friend Michel Raymond’s suicide in 1798, Asaf Jah II turned to the British and signed a treaty placing his kingdom under British protection and agreeing to disband his French-trained army, replacing it with troops at the disposal of the East India Company. Hyderabad would be the first such princely state and also the last, succumbing to Indian invasion in 1948’s Hundred-Hour War.

And those are the empires of Soldier Emperor: Indian Empires.

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Mike Bennighof is president of Avalanche Press and holds a doctorate in history from Emory University. A Fulbright Scholar and NASA Journalist in Space finalist, he has published an unknowable number of books, games and articles on historical subjects. He lives in Birmingham, Alabama with his wife, three children and his new puppy. He will never forget his dog, Leopold.

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