While the states of Gwalior, Indore, and Baroda are the residue of the great Maratha military expansion of the eighteenth century, Kolhapur is the last trace of the founding father of Maratha power, the seventeenth- century warrior, Shivaji. He died in 1680 A. D. after pushing the Moghuls out of western India and beginning the process of Moghul decline. But when he died, the Moghuls were still strong enough to take their revenge on his successors.
The Moghul armies hemmed the Maratha forces into the mountainous fringe of the western Deccan and stood by while Shivaji’s powerful state was riven by internal disputes. Shivaji had left no clear successor and for thirty years after his death two separate lines of descent, goaded by ambitious queens of and courtiers, fought for precedence. Eventually, in 1710, the two parties managed to establish a shaky territorial boundary between their possessions. The line descending from Shivaji’s elder son settled its capital at Satara, took the northern Maratha country, and acquired the right to expand to the north. Yet in Satara the princely family was soon forced into the backseat: the hereditary minister, the Peshwa, took over the reins of power, and his generals forged out to the north and formed the princedoms.
Meanwhile, the line descending from Shivaji’s younger son took the southern territories and the right to expand to the south. They settled in Panhala, amid the craggy peaks and deep valleys of the Western Ghats, and later transferred their capital to the ancient city and trading capital of Kolhapur. The southern frontier turned out to be less profitable than the northern one. While Satara armies, which started raiding north from the Maratha country in the early eighteenth century, found that the remnants of Moghul grandees and Rajput princes were easy pickings, the Kolhapur armies faced other powerful emergent princes in the south – the Nizam of Hyderabad, the Mysore armies of Hyder Ali and Tipu Sultan, and the Moghul warmonger, Zulfikar Khan.
The Kolhapur forces more or less confined to their mountain retreat, occasionally harassed by Moghul armies, and reduced to snapping at the heels of their more expensive cousins from Satara. Against this rather unhappy background the princely line of Kolhapur turned into a dynastic disaster. Time and time again the Kolhapur prince failed to produce an heir, or died when the heir was only a few years old. Sometimes it was the toll of war, which brought about this unfortunate state of affairs, but sometimes it was a streak of insanity, which dogged the family; and sometimes just an inability to survive to any great age in the dark fortresses amid the sticky sub-tropical forests of Western Ghats. Each time the failure to provide a clean succession created an opportunity for rivalries, ambitions and debilitating succession disputes.
In the early nineteenth century, Kolhapur was just as uneasy under British control as were the other Maratha states of Gwalior and Indore. At first the British tried to settle the state by force. Company troops invaded in the 1820s, again in the 1840s when the outlying areas of the state rose in revolt; and in 1857 the Kolhapur troops mutinied. After the Mutiny, however, the British guardians changed their tactics and decided to use the books rather than the gun to bring Kolhapur to heel. This strategy had its own difficulties because of the mortality rate of the Kolhapur heirs.
The British invested great care and attention in the education of two Kolhapur heirs, who, before they could ascend the throne and emerge from their British-made chrysalis as `model rulers’ were gathered to their forefathers. It was not until Shahu Chhatrapati ascended the throne in 1894 that the policy finally paid off. Under Shahu and later under his son Rajaram, Kolhapur acquired the social reforms and public buildings, which the British so liked to see in the ‘Native’ states. Moreover, Kolhapur became renowned as a center of outdoor sports, notably the exotic business of pig-sticking; and an extraordinary form of hunting deer: