For English historians, Shivaji was just a minor chieftain of a small band of raiders in the Sahyadri mountains. But historians like Jadunath Sarkar and R.C. Majumdar have established beyond doubt that Shivaji was a leader of men, who was far ahead of his times. It is true that he ruled over a relatively small territory, but the values he espoused, the vision he nurtured, the human concern he brought into his administration and the courage and resilience with which he fought for causes dear to him make Shivaji an inspirational icon far beyond his time.
Shivaji grew up in Pune jagir, a region susceptible to drought, wild animals, bandits and, of course, the zamindars (landlords). Under the patronage and guidance of his wise and foresightful mother, Jijabai, Shivaji conceived the dream of ridding his people of their subservience to the faraway power of the Delhi Mughals. As part of a long-term strategy, the young prince called back the tillers who had abandoned their land because of poverty and gave them financial aid and seeds. He also distributed royal land to them.
Shivaji implemented many of his grand schemes by taking advantage of his kingdom’s landscape and topography. The jagged valleys, passes, river fords and the thick vegetation of the Sahyadris gave him and his people security and sustenance. It became the heartland of his guerilla tactics. Shivaji had a knack of choosing brave and trustworthy companions and he found a large number of them among the poor.
For the protection of his small kingdom, Shivaji created defences with 350 small and big forts. He repaired their crumbling walls, erected new watchtowers and raised a well-trained army. He was the first king south of the Vindhyas to build a navy of nearly 350 small and big ships on modern lines. He employed 340 Portuguese artisans and shipbuilders and got them to impart training on the new techniques to his people.
Shivaji developed a strategy to conserve drinking water atop rock forts by carving out massive bowls in rocky streams to make big reservoirs. Their stony remains show how scientifically aligned these artificial water-bodies were with the movement of the sun, so as to minimise evaporation.
Shivaji’s reign spread over just a few districts, while the mighty Mughal empire under Aurangzeb spread from Afghanistan to Assam. However, Shivaji proved to be a thorn in the flesh of the Mughals. After Shivaji’s death, Aurangzeb came to the Deccan with his army of five lakh soldiers to crush the Maratha kingdom. But Shivaji’s son Sambhaji, and after his death his two daughters-in-law, tied Aurangzeb down to the Deccan for 27 years—nearly half the time of his reign. Aurangazeb’s tomb near Aurangabad is a silent testimony to the valiant resistance of the Marathas.
Shivaji is often projected as a Hindu king. But that is only half the truth. Among his judges was a Muslim qazi, who passed judgments on Hindus, too. Khafi Khan, a historian of Aurangzeb’s court, acknowledges Shivaji as a just and unbiased ruler.
Out of concern for the common man, Shivaji had declared that the well-being of farmers and artisans was the responsibility of the administration, and negligence in this area was severely punished. He also cared for the rights of women of all castes and creed. He was among the earliest kings to show regard for the environment, evident from his letters which talk with great concern about the protection of trees.
Shivaji had a keen sense of economy and offered protection to native producers from foreign competition. When the Portuguese began selling salt at throwaway prices, the salt farmers of Konkan faced ruin. Shivaji levied a huge tax on Portuguese salt, thus defeating the Portuguese plot of destroying the Konkan salt trade. He encouraged the export of cashew, coconut and rice, which were shipped to Dubai, Muscat and Lisbon. He punished sharp practices in trade, but recognised the worth of merchants and moneylenders, and gave them due respect and protection.
Shivaji’s judicial and economic measures, his pragmatic approach towards religion and his innate nobleness and humanity have ensured his recognition as a figure of supreme national importance. He remains an inspiration for commoners, thinkers and even social reformers.
Vishwas Patil, an IAS officer, is a writer.