Thursday 24 January 2013

The last Peshwa and the ghost

He never had any formal schooling and he spent a large part of his childhood in jail. He was widely reviled as a son of a murderer and though he became one of the most powerful native rulers of  late 18th century and early years of the nineteenth century, he was never popular, whether with his subjects or his allies.
He had watched the British treacherously kill Tipu Sultan in May 1799 and though Tipu had sought his help, he had declined to join hands with the Tiger of Mysore. He finally succumbed to the guiles of the British and was deposed.
Sent to live in exile in a small village near Meerut, he spent his days trying to chase away a ghost or a spirit that became his constant companion till his death. He spent million of rupees in trying to get rid of the ghost but to no avail.   
The ghost told him that it would not rest till he died, his house burned and his biological line was wiped away. All these prophecies came true and how.
Well, here is the story.
Peshwa Sawai Madhav Rao was the ruler of the powerful Maratha Empire. He was the son of  Narayana Rao Peshwa whom his uncle Raghunath Rao had murdered in 1773.
It was 1796 and Peshwa Sawai Madhav Rao was under tremendous emotional stress. He is believed to have jumped from the ramparts of the Shanivar Wada-the palace of Peshwas in Pune-and committed suicide.
It was then that the young Baji Rao, the second, was placed on the throne of Pune as Peshwa.  He was the son of  Raghunath Rao and Anandibai.
He had come to the throne thanks to the efforts of Nana Phadnavis and Daulat Rao Scindia. However, other noblemen and people despised Baji Rao as he was the son of a murderer. They closely scrutinized all his actions and they were critical of him. However, they held their rivalry with the Peshwa and with each other in check till Nana Phadnavis died in 1800.   
After the death of Phadnavis, Yeshwanth Rao Holkar of Baroda and Daulat Rao Holkar went to war with each other for control of the Maratha Empire. Baji Rao, the second, thought that the best course for him was to seek new allies and he came to Bombay where he signed a treaty with the British.
This is called the Treaty of Bassein whereby the British agreed to reinstate Baji Rao as the Peshwa. In return, he was to accept British troops in his territory, pay for their stay and also allow a British Resident at Pune.   
Though both Holkar and Sindhia resisted, the British were in no mood to give way. They had Baji Rao in their grip and they took to war against the Marathas. This led to the second Anglo-Maratha war which the British won.
Though Baji Rao, regained his Peshwaship, the treaty with the British always told on his mind. In 1817 the third Anglo-British war broke out and the Peshwa was captured after evading the British for five months. 
Baji Rao II surrendered to Sir John Malcolm, the commander-in-chief of the British troops. Though Baji Rao was stripped of his Peshwaship, he was allowed to be called Maharaja.  He was promised a pension of hundred thousand pounds an year apart from being able to retain his personal fortune or wealth.
Baji Rao was told that he would have to leave Pune and live at a place designated by the British. He would also have to promise never to come back to Pune.
Baji Rao then forsook all claims to the Peshwa post and left with a retinue and personal attendants of fifteen thousand people to Bithur near Kanpur.
The British had deliberately selected Bithur as they had a huge military establishment there and they could keep an eye on the Peshwa day and night.
The British were magnanimous in allowing the Peshwa to keep his wealth and also promise a huge pension as they felt that like his ancestors , Baji Rao would not live long.
Thus Baji Rao camped at Bithur along with his wives, relatives and a large retinue. Thus, the man who once ruled over 50 million people could lord over just 15,000 people and that too in a small area of 6 kms.     
Unfortunately, for the British, Baji Rao lived for 33 more years after 1818 and they had to keep on paying him the handsome pension they had promised.
Many close companions and relatives of the Peshwa came and went from Bithur. But one person was the Peshwa’s constant companion. This was the ghost of  Narayana Rao, the Peshwa.
The ghost had become Baji Rao’s companion even in Pune. But the Peshwa had managed to get rid of the ghost by travelling to Pandrapur and exorcising the spirit in the temple of Panduranga Vittala.
When the Peshwa moved out of the Maratha territory and stayed at Bithur, the ghost reappeared and attached itself to Baji Rao.
The ghost began haunting the Peshwa again and all attempts by Baji Rao to drive away the ghost failed.
Since Baji Rao was forbidden to visit his Maratha homeland, he performed religious rites and penances as prescribed by the priests of  Kashi Benares. He also distributed alms and gifts to Brahmins. He built temples, bathing ghats, performed endless poojas and even fasted seeking divine intervention to drive away the ghost.
The ghost, however, was in no mood to oblige. It stayed put in Bithur and was always near the Peshwa. It also warned him that  his line will end with his successor and that his house will burn to ashes.
The ghost also told him that his clan will perish shortly after his death. The Peshwa died in 1855 and  in July 1857 during the war of Indian Independence, the British burnt down Bithur, including the residence of Baji Rao II (wada) where many members of his family except his adopted son, Nana Sahib, resided. The line of Baji Rao also came to an end shortly thereafter.
The ghost, of course, vanished after the death of  Baji Rao. The Peshwa’s other name was Rao Pundit Pundham.

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