Theses Doctoral

Scribes and the Vocation of Politics in the Maratha Empire, 1708-1818

Vendell, Dominic

This dissertation investigates the vocation of politics in the Maratha Empire from the release and restoration of Chhatrapati Shahu Bhonsle in 1708 to the British East India Company’s final victory against the Marathas in 1818. Founded in the mid-seventeenth century by the ambitious general and first Chhatrapati Shivaji Bhonsle, the Maratha Empire encompassed a decentralized web of allied governments stretching from the western Deccan into far-flung parts of the Indian subcontinent. While the Company’s pejorative moniker of “confederacy” has cast a long shadow over historical understanding of the politics of the Maratha state, this dissertation argues that the ascendancy of scribal-bureaucratic networks and their practices of communication enabled Maratha governments to foster a modern diplomatic framework of deliberation, adjudication, and collaboration.

The creation of a flexible language and practice of communication transcending linguistic, cultural, religious, and political divisions was the signal achievement of the scribal-bureaucratic networks that increasingly came to dominate politics and government in the eighteenth-century Maratha Empire. Through a case study of individuals and households of the Chandraseniya Kayastha Prabhu sub-caste, this dissertation demonstrates that both non-Brahman and Brahman officials skilled in the arts of verbal and written communication rose from the lower ranks of the Maratha bureaucracy to the highest circles of political decision-making. They not only advanced their socioeconomic claims to wealth, title, and property, but also shaped government agendas, resolved disputes, and forged alliances through the dialogic exchange of oaths, treaties, objects, and sentimental words. Moreover, scribal-bureaucrats drew on this mode of communication to build strategic multilateral coalitions and to pen novel reflections on the meaning and purpose of politics once the dominance of the British East India Company was impossible to ignore.

Communicative politics comes into vivid focus through a critical examination of the records and manuscripts that described, evaluated, and enacted relationships between Maratha governments. While the focus is on the critically important governments of Satara, Nagpur, and Pune, close attention is paid to conduits of power, persuasion, and affiliation between them and their rivals and allies in the eighteenth-century Deccan. Over the course of six chapters, this dissertation traces a chronological arc from the re-constitution to the dissolution of Maratha sovereignty as well as a thematic one from the structures and practices, to the personnel, and finally to the shifting meanings of politics.

Chapters 1 and 2 explore how the delicate frameworks and practices preserving relationships between governments were made and unmade in the context of Maratha expansion in the Deccan. Turning to the personnel of politics, Chapters 3 and 4 follow the careers of Kayastha Prabhu scribal officials who attained influence at the courts of Satara, Kolhapur, Nagpur, and Baroda. Finally, Chapters 5 and 6 highlight the ways in which the meaning of politics shifted in response to the emergence of Company power. The story of Maratha politics is thus the story of a concatenation of deliberative, pragmatic compromises suited to the realities of a dynamic inter-imperial world.

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More About This Work

Academic Units
Thesis Advisors
Dirks, Nicholas B.
Rao, Anupama P.
Ph.D., Columbia University
Published Here
October 9, 2018