The Portuguese residing in Goa in the 16th century called her a ‘rainha dos Marathas’ or the ‘Queen of the Marathas.’
Tarabai’s legacy lives on, captured in her statue in Kolhapur where she is seen riding a horse. The daughter of a Maratha general, Hambirao Mohita, Tarabai was the wife of Rajaram, the second son of Shivaji. She was also the niece of Soyarabai, the second wife of Shivaji.
In the history of the Western Deccan and the Marathas, Tarabai’s role is crucial. According to Richard Eaton, her life spans three distinct eras – the late medieval era of the Bijapur sultans, the early modern era of the Maratha kingdom, and the era of European imperial domination.
Richard Eaton in his book, A Social History of the Deccan, 1300-1761, quotes the Mughal chronicler Khafi Khan (d. circa 1731), author of Muntkhab al-lubab –
[The Mughals felt] that it would not be difficult to overcome two young children and a helpless woman. They thought their enemy weak, contemptible and helpless; but Tara Bai, as the wife of Ram Raja [i.e. Rajaram] was called, showed great powers of command and government, and from day to day the war spread and the power of the Mahrattas increased.
In 1700, Tarabai’s husband Rajaram died. She not only proclaimed her infant son, Shivaji II as her husband’s successor but also declared herself as the regent. She was then 25 years old. Aurangzeb’s army had assumed that women and children would not provide resistance but were to learn otherwise. Tarabai took charge of the army against Aurangzeb’s forces.
Khafi Khan writes—
The chiefs made Tara Bai, the chief wife [and]the mother of one son [of Rajaram] regent. She was a clever intelligent woman, and had obtained a reputation during her husband’s lifetime for her knowledge of civil and military matters.
Tarabai had given tough resistance to the Mughal onslaught. As counter strike, the Mughals unleashed Shahu, Sambhaji’s son and the nephew of Tarabai. (Sambhaji was the son of Shivaji’s other wife). This meant a new claimant to the Maratha throne. Shahu challenged Tarabai and Shivaji II for leadership of the Maratha polity and because of his legal claim to the throne and with the support of the Peshwa Balaji Vishwanath’s diplomacy, he succeeded. Tarabai was sidelined.
Not one to give up easily she established a rival court in Kolhapur in 1709 but was deposed by the second wife of Rajaram, Rajasabai who put her own son, Sambhaji II on the throne in 1714.
For the next 16 years Tarabai remained in prisonand her son died by the 12th year. But in 1730 things changed and Shahu defeated Sambhaji and Tarabai moved to Satara with Shahu. According to Eaton, “for 18 more years she was kept under house arrest in Satara’s palace. Confined first by her co-wife and then by her nephew, this former ‘Queen of Marathas’, once so hyperactive, spent her next 34 years reduced to a political non-entity. Yet her story was not over.”
At the age of 73, she stepped out of the shadows. In 1747 Shahu died without an heir and Tarabai, helped
her grandson Rajaram to the throne of Satara. She had kept the existence of her grandson a secret. Rajaram was not to be a puppet ruler in the hands of Tarabai. When she realized that her wish of wielding power over the Maratha state would not be fulfilled she denounced Rajaram on the grounds that he was not her grandson as he claimed. Her grandson had the support of the Peshwa Nana Sahib.Tarabai and the Peshwa reached a pact that both would acknowledge each others authority in 1752 and from this point onwards says, Eaton—“Tarabai settled into her life’s final role –that of a powerful quasi sovereign dowager. At Satara she maintained a regular court and conducted business of state, issuing orders, conferring grants, and receiving Maratha sardars, while the Peshwa at least publicly acquised to her will or sought her advice.”
At her age she still wielded power and authority, Eaton writes, “….in 1752 she ordered a Maratha chief to supply fodder for the cavalry horses at specified rates. The same year, the superintendent of Pratapgarh fort asked her to have some roofs in a temple compound re-thatched. And the next year, we find her settling a divorce case involving her Muslim maid.”
She died of old age, at the age of 86. “Revealing her characteristic zeal for administration, she bestowed a village on a recipient just a week before the occasion of lunar eclipse.”
Tarabai is proof of how age, poor circumstances and time are not a limitation in the path of success. Tarabai with her administrative and military acumen, her strength of character and grasp of politics changed the history of the western Deccan and that of the kingdom of Satara and Kolhapur.
Richard Eaton, A Social History of the Deccan, 1300-1761, Eight Indian Lives, (Cambridge University Press, New Delhi, 2005)