The demise of Chhatrapati Rajaram Maharaj and the ascendance of Maharani Tarabai changed the state of affairs in the Deccan. Aurangzeb had been successful in setting up a well-oiled administration to look after the matters of the Marathas.
The prominent families of the territory between Satara and Aurangabad had accepted the sovereignty of Aurangzeb and were employed in various branches of his extensive administration. But unknown to Aurangzeb, the late Chhatrapati Rajaram Maharaj had also claimed their service and allegiance. This dual power sharing continued for several years with the Mughals ruling by right of conquest while the Marathas ruled by right of possession.
Friction and rivalry among the various families seriously divided the community and threatened their loyalties during the time of war and after the death of Aurangzeb. This dual government gave young Shahu who was in captivity a rare opportunity to make contact with some of the local families and their relatives to relieve his financial distress. Those who helped him were given gifts of land and money as a symbol of gratitude for coming to his rescue during his seventeen years of captivity.
An entirely unknown figure whom Shahu Raje appointed as Peshwa when he was crowned king was Balaji Vishwanath Bhat. Young Shahu though lacking formal education was extremely astute and quick to assess one’s character. He interacted with Balaji Vishwanath and found him to be extremely tactful and competent to help him change the Maratha government.
When Shahu Raje wished to appoint him as Peshwa, a number of questions were raised by other hopefuls which have till date remained unanswered. No one knows why Shahu Raje chose Balaji Vishwanath who was already a hereditary Deshmukh of Shriwardhan on the west coast that was under the control of the Siddis of Janjira. However, he had moved to Poona during the last days of the late Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj.
Old records mention that Balaji’s grandfather Parshuram and father Vishwanath met Shivaji Raje in Kolhapur. Shivaji Raje instinctively felt that this family would play a vital role in shaping the Marathas in the years to come and employed them in his service.
Balaji Vishwanath was the Sar Subahdar of Poona from 1696 and of Daulatabad from 1704 onwards. He was constantly sought for his advice, to execute matters of great importance and commanded to act quickly when the situation demanded.
In 1702, when Aurangzeb had besieged Sinhagad, Balaji Vishwanath wrote on behalf of Senapati Dhanaji Jadhav to Ambaji Trimbak Purandare asking for a supply of gunpowder which was urgently required for the defence of the fort against Tarbiat Khan, the artillery officer of Aurangzeb.
In November 1703, two suitable brides of important families were selected for Shahu Raje, most likely engineered by Balaji Vishwanath. Balaji Vishwanath worked quietly to ensure that there was steady supply of ammunition and provisions for their skirmishes against the Mughals.
He carried out his duties assiduously in Poona and formed strong alliances with several local families and persons of influence and affluence. His diplomatic skill and virtuous conduct proved to be advantageous to guard the interests of the Marathas in the midst of war while forming friendships with several Mughal officers of high rank.
This was much-needed to maintain the delicate balance of the dual government. His efforts did not go unnoticed by either the Mughals or the Marathas. Shahu Raje always appreciated his dedication and tact. There is historical evidence to state that Balaji Vishwanath even risked his life to guard the interests of Shahu Raje who was then still in captivity.
It is this selfless service to the king and the nation that earned him the trust of Chhatrapati and the coveted title of Peshwa.
Written by Lakshmi Subramanian
* Information about Chhatrapati Shahu Maharaj is taken from archives