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MAHRATTAS


The Mahrattas have always been a separate nation or people, and still regard themselves as such, though nowadays they are almost all under British or Mahommedan jurisdiction; that is, they belong either to British India or to the nizam's dominions. There are indeed still three large native states nominally Mahratta: that of Sindhia near the borders of Hindustan in the north, that of Holkar in Malwa in the heart of the Indian continent, and that of the gaekwar in Gujarat on the western coast. But in these states the prince, his relatives and some of his ministers or officials only are Mahrattas; the mass of the people belong to other sections of the Hindu race. These states then are not to be included in the Mahratta nation, though they have a share in Mahratta history.

In general terms the Mahrattas, in the wider sense, may be described under two main heads: first the Brahmans, and secondly the low-caste men. The Mahratta Brahmans possess, in an intense degree, the qualities of that famous caste, physical, intellectual and moral. They have generally the lofty brow, the regular features, the spare upright figure, and the calm aspect which might be expected in a race maintained in great purity yet upon a broad basis. In modern times they have proved themselves the most able and ambitious of all the Brahmans in the Indian Empire. They are notably divided into two sections: the Konkanast, coming from the Konkan or littoral tract on the west coast below the Western Chat mountains; and the Deshast, coming from the uplands or Deccan, on the east of the mountains. Though there have been many distinguished Deshasts, yet the most remarkable of all have been Konkanasts. For instance, the péshwas, or heads of the Mahratta confederation which at one time dominated nearly all lndia, were Konkanast Brahmans. The birthplaces of these persons are still known, and to this day there are sequestered villages, nestling near the western base of the Ghats, which are pointed to as being the ancestral homes of men who two centuries ago had political control over half India.

Apart from the'Brahmans, the Mahrattas may be generally designated as Siidras, the humblest of the four great castes into which the Hindu race is theoretically divided. But the upper classes claim to be Kshattriyas or Rajputs. They probably are aborigines fundamentally, with a mixture of what are now called the Scythian tribes, which at a very early time overran India. The ordinary Mahrattas, who form the backbone of the nation, have plain features, an uncouth manner, short stature, a small but wiry frame. Though not powerful physically as compared with the northern races of the Punjab and Oudh, they have much activity and an unsurpassed endurance. Born and bred in or near the Western Chat mountains and the numerous tributary ranges, they have all the qualities of mountaineers. In recent times they enter military service less and less, betaking themselves mainly to cultivation and to the carrying business connected with agriculture. As husbandmen they are not remarkable; but as graziers, as cartmen, as labourers, they are excellent. As artisans they have seldom signalized themselves, save as armourers and cloth weavers. In the Konkan there are some superior proprietors termed Khots. With this and perhaps some other exceptions, there are not in the Mahratta country many large landlords, nor many of the superior tenure-holders whose position relatively to that of the peasantry has caused much discussion in other parts of India. There are indeed many Mahratta chiefs still resident in the country, members of the aristocracy which formerly enjoyed much wealth and power. They are sometimes in the position of landlords, but often they are the assignees of the land revenue, which they are entitled under special grants to collect for themselves instead of for government, paying merely a small sum to Government by way of quit-rent. Under them the cultivators are by British arrangements placed in the position of peasant proprietors. The village community has always existed as the social unit in the Mahratta territories, though with less cohesion among its members than in the village communities of Hindustan and the Punjab. Theancient offices pertaining to the village, as those of the headmen (patel), the village accountant, &c., are in working order throughout the Mahratta country. The Mahratta peasantry possess manly fortitude under suffering and misfortune. Though patient and good-tempered in the main, they have a latent warmth of temper, and if oppressed beyond a certain limit they would fiercely turn upon their tormentors. As a rule they are orderly and law-abiding, but traditions of plunder have been handed down to them from early times, and many of them retain the predatory instincts of their forefathers. The neighbourhood of dense forests, steep hill-sides, and fastnesses hard of access offers extraordinary facilities to plunderers for screening themselves and their booty. Thus gang robbery is apt to break out, gains head with rapidity, and is suppressed with difficulty. In times of peace it is kept under, but during war, or whenever the bands of civil order are loosened, it becomes a cause of anxiety and a source of danger. The women have frankness and strength of character; they work hard in the fields, and as a rule evince domestic virtue.

The peasantry preserve a grave and quiet demeanour, but they have their humblevideas of gaiety, and hold their gatherings on occasions of births or marriages. They frequently beguile their toil with carols. They like the gossiping and bartering at the rural markets and in the larger fairs, which are sometimes held in strikingly picturesque localities. They are superstitious, and worship with hearty veneration any being or thing whose destructive agency they fear. They even speak of the tiger with honorific titles. They are Hindus, but their Hinduism is held to be of a non-Aryan type. They are sincerely devout in religion, and feel an awe regarding “ the holy Brahmans, " holding the life and the person of a Brahman sacred, even though he be a criminal of the deepest dye. They of course regard the cow as equally sacred. There are two principal sects among modern Hindus—those who follow Vishnu, and those who, follow Siva. The Mahrattas generally follow Siva and his wife, a dread goddess known under many names. The Mahratta war-cry, “ Har, Har, Mahadco, " referred to Siva. All classes high and low are fond of the religious festivals, the principal of which, the Dasahra, occurs in October, when the first harvest of the year has been secured and the second crops sewn. This has always been held with the utmost pomp and magnificence at every centre of Mahratta wealth and power. The people frequently assemble in bowers and arbours constructed of leafy boughs to hear kathas recited. These recitations are partly religious, partly also romantic and quasi-historical. After them national resolves of just resistance or of aggressive ambition have often been formed. Apart from the Mahratta Brahmans, as already mentioned, the Mahratta nobles and princes are not generally fine-looking men. There is general truth in what was once said by a high authority to the effect that, while there will be something dignified in the humblest Rajpflt, there will be something mean in the highest Mahratta. Bluff good-nature, a certain jocoseness, a humour pungent and ready, though somewhat coarse, a hot or even violent disposition, are characteristics of Mahratta chieftains. They usually show little aptitude for business or for sedentary pursuits; but, on the other hand, they are born equestrian sand sportsmen. Mahratta ladies and princesses have often taken a prominent part, for good or evil, in public affairs and dynastic intrigues. Though they have produced some poetry, the Mahrattas have never done much for literature. Nor have they been distinguished in industrial art. Their architecture in wood, however, was excellent; and the teak forests of their country afforded the finest timber for building and for carving. They had also much skill in the construction of works for the supply of drinking water on a large scale and for irrigation.

The range of the Western Ghats enabled the Mahrattas to rise against their Mahommedan conquerors, to reassert their Hindu nationality against the whole power of the Mogul Empire, and to establish in its place an empire of their own. It is often stated that in India British conquest or annexation succeeded Mahommedan rule; and to a considerable extent this was the case. But, on the other hand, the principal power, the widest sovereignty, which the British overthrew in India was that of the Mahrattas.

During the earlier Moslem invasions in I 100 and in subsequent years, the Mahrattas do not seem to have made much resistance. They submitted to several Mahommedan kings under the changing circumstances of those times. It was against the Mahommedan king of Bijapur in the Deccan that Sivaji, the hero of Mahratta history, first rebelled in 1657. Sivaji and his fighting officers were Mahrattas of humble caste, but his ministers were Brahmans. When the Mogul Empire absorbed the Bijapur kingdom he defied the emperor. He imparted a self-reliant enthusiasm to his countrymen, formed them into an army, and organized them as a political community; his mountaineer infantry, though limited in numbers, proved desperately courageous; his cavalry was daring and ubiquitous. The Moslems having once overcome the Hindus in almost all parts of India, had not for centuries met with any noteworthy uprising. Sivaji, however, planned their expulsion, and before the 'end of his restless life made much progress in the execution of that design. The new state which he founded was maintained under various vicissitudes after his death. Mahratta resistance, once aroused by him, was never extinguished, and the imperial resources were worn out by ceaseless though Vain efforts to quell it. The great Mogul emperor'impoverished and enfeebled successor was fain to recognize the Mahratta state by a formal instrument. The Mahratta king, a descendant of Sivaji, had become a roi fainéant, and the arrangement was negotiated by his Brahman minister, whose official designation was the péshwa. The office of péshwa then became 'hereditary in the minister's~ family, I