The Marathas

The power that came closest to imperial pretensions was that of the Marathas. Starting from scratch, the non-Brahmin castes in the Maharashtra region had been organised into a fighting force by their legendary leader, Shivaji. Dimunitive in height, clever beyond his enemy's imagination, Shivaji led everyday of his life like a drama in which he was always a step ahead of his adversaries. The Marathas moved like lightning and appeared in areas where least expected, at times hundreds of miles away from their home. They always went back with their hands full of plunder.

Gradually, states began to pay them vast amounts in "protection money," insurance aginst their plundering raids. By the third quarter of the 18th century, the Marathas had under their direct administration or indirect subjection enough Indian territory to justify use of the term "the Maratha Empire", though it never came near the dimensions of the Mughal empire. The Marathas also never sought to formally substitute themselves for the Mughals; they often kept the emperor under their thumb but paid him formal obeisance.

When Nadir Shah of Persia attacked Delhi in 1739, the declining Mughals were even further weakened, but the expansion of the Maratha power came to an abrupt halt in 1761 at Panipat. There the Marathas were defeated by Ahmad Shah Durrani from Afganisthan. Their expansion to the west halted, they nevertheless consolidated their control over central India and their region known as Malwa. Soon, however, they were to fall to India's final imperial power, the British.