The Peshwa’s court received a letter in the spring of 1721 from a young foot soldier assigned to a local regiment stationed in Khandesh’s Sultanpur. About twenty-one-year-old Bajirao sat on the prestigious cushion, which was overshadowed by a large Ganpati fresco at the rear. Bajirao had enormous shoes to fill because his late father was the Prime Minister or the Peshwa of the Maratha Empire, and he had a lot of responsibility. In 1713, following a thirty-year Maratha-Mughal War, Chhatrapati Shivaji’s ideal of “Swarajya” was restored, with Shivaji’s grandson Shahu now serving as the Chhatrapati of Satara. “Strike off the roots of the Mughal Empire in Delhi, so all of its branches will fall accidentally in our hands,” young Peshwa Bajirao had stated as his goal. When Bajirao received the letter, it brought to mind a specific commander who was in charge of a group of young men with whom he had come face to face during his exploits in Khandesh. He was aware that the young “Malhari” who had crossed his path that day would go on to be his enduring source of strength. Malhar Rao Holkar’s request for a position in Bajirao’s unit in a letter to the latter will ultimately alter the course of history.
The Malwa plateau, which stretches from the Vindhyas to Chittorgarh in the north and from Bhopal to Gujarat in the west, lies between the Deccan and the Marathas’ glittering ambitions of Delhi. This area had a very different character from the Maratha warzone, which had been constrained by its geography, the magic of its woods, and the overflowing rivers of Reva, Narmada, and Chambal. With the assistance of his generals, who included Ranoji Shinde, Udaji Pawar, and Malhar Rao Holkar, Peshwa Bajirao I’s Maratha army had already established a strong foundation in Malwa.
By the monsoons of 1729, the Yamuna was within the Maratha empire thanks to repeated raids by generals like Holkar. Malhar Rao was given the western portion of Malwa to rule over with an army of several thousand cavalrymen in order to establish a strong government in the recently acquired province. Gautamabai, who was to play an equally important part in the widening administrative rift in Malhar Rao’s government, had already wed Malhar Rao at this point. He established himself in a hamlet of Indore, which subsequently developed into the center of the Holkar rule. Under this noble practice, The Peshwa gifted Gautambai Holkar the regions of Maheshwar, Saver, and Depalpur in Malwa and the villages of Chandwad, Ambad, and Koregoan in Maharashtra which collectively accounted for the revenue of Rs. Three lakh. The Holkar womenfolk could be seen using this money to build temple infrastructure and ghats from Varanasi to Somnath to Rameshwaram.
In accordance with this honorable custom, The Peshwa gave Gautambai Holkar the Malwa territories of Maheshwar, Saver, and Depalpur, as well as the Maharashtrian villages of Chandwad, Ambad, and Koregoan, which together brought in a total of Rs. 3 lakh. From Varanasi to Rameshwaram, the Holkar womenfolk were observed constructing ghats and temple facilities with this money. Malhar Rao was skilled at treating his women right. He married Harku Bai, a girl from a Rajput lineage in Malwa, as his fourth wife, going above caste boundaries and treating her equally in all laws and rituals of the time.
In 1733, Ahilyabai, who is remembered in history as the devout queen who encouraged the repair of temples throughout the holy terrain of India, married Khanderao, the son of Malharrao and Gautambai. According to oral history, Malhar Rao felt eight-year-old Ahilya would make the ideal wife for his son, Khander Rao after he spotted her lighting a lamp at a Shiva shrine while traveling to Pune. Malhar Rao instructed Ahilyabai to oversee some of the administrative work being done at the royal house since she was overwhelmed by the hustle and bustle of things there as a newcomer. Soon, Ahilya began keeping track of each letter that was sent and received. Within a year, she accompanied Khander Rao on his adventures and carefully observed what was happening in the combat zone. She received the same assistance from Gautambai as Malhar Rao received in learning about the current political climate. While Ahilya was growing under the patriarch of the house in the daylight, time had other plans in store for her.
When the Maratha army attacked Surajmal Jat’s fort at Kumbheri in May of 1754, Khander Rao was struck by a cannon and died there. Malhar Rao gave Ahilya a gentle push on the back and asked her to avoid going into the pyre with Khander Rao. Malhar Rao saw his optimism for the future in Ahilyabai’s staring eyes as she saw her co-wives Parvatibai and Suratabai, together with two dancers and seven concubines of Khander Rao, go Sati with his pyre in the dusk of the evening. At the age of 29, Ahilyabai was unflappable since she had the kingdom’s citizens to care for and her in-laws by her side. It was now appropriate for her to enter the foray. Ahilyabai oversaw the tasks in the capital while Malhar Rao went on his tax-collection travels and met local leaders in the countryside. She received instruction from her father-in-law on how to maintain the accounts, monitor and react to emails, address the concerns of the subjects, and ensure their welfare.
Malhar Rao considered Ahilya as his own daughter, a mentor, and the one who would carry on his legacy, according to the letters he wrote to her. She constructed a Chhattri for him in Alampur in honor of him after his passing in 1766. Ahilyabai was aware that Malhar Rao was named after the Shiva manifestation known as the Malhari Martanda or Khandoba of Jejuri, the family god. She erected several Shiva temples bearing his name, such as the “Malhareshwar” and “Martandeshwar” temples, in consideration of this. Ahilyabai was thereafter able to pay for the reconstruction of temples, pilgrimage sites, wells, ghats, and rest homes on her own dime thanks to Malhar Rao’s sustained policy of Khajgi assets for women.
Malhar Rao, who was in his 60s when Bajirao passed away in 1740, had earned respect as a seasoned commander not just in Maratha politics but across all of Hindustan. He was frequently invited to Jaipur to settle conflicts between the scions Madho Singh and Ishwari Singh because of his substantial influence in the Rajputana provinces. He followed Raghunath Rao on his expedition to take Sarhind in 1758, using Delhi as his base of operations. His involvement in forging alliances with leaders in central India during the third battle of Panipat is remembered for his outstanding diplomatic efforts. Peshwa Nanasaheb learned in a letter dated June 18, 1751, that Malhar Rao intended to destroy the Gyanvyapi Mosque in Varanasi and erect the old Vishwanath Mandir there instead. “Malhar Rao has set up camp in the Doab for the monsoon season. He has good intentions, as evidenced by his plans to demolish the massive Aurangzeb-built mosque in Benares and rebuild Kashi Vishveshwar’s original temple. Peshwa Nanasaheb ordered a restraint since the Marathas had no direct authority over the area and felt that destroying the Masjid would mean endangering the Hindu inhabitants at the hands of the Awadh Nawabs. Only Ahilyabai constructed a new Kashi Vishwanath Temple next to the mosque in 1780 and reinstituted Shiva worship.
Malhar Rao distinguished himself as the chief architect of the Central Indian empire due to his protracted rule. He was largely responsible for Peshwa Bajirao’s plan to turn Chhatrapati Shivaji’s Swarajya into a Samrajya. Beyond the dichotomous classification of Malhar Rao’s treatment of his women as patriarchal or feminist, he has always been a symbol of guiding female emancipation. While he continued to serve the Peshwas till his death, he left behind a strong line of leaders who gained considerable power throughout the Maratha Confederacy. Malhar Rao Holkar portrays an amazing supporting role in the legends of Bajirao and Ahilyabai in popular culture, but on the anniversary of his birth, we come to the realization that he is a hero in his own right.