In writing this biography of Shivaji, I had to sift through a vast collection of papers, documents and books in the Marathi language. The majority of the Marathas’ own records were burnt during enemy assaults or destroyed by the Marathas themselves after Shivaji’s death, as their conflict with the Mughals intensified and as the Mughals under Aurangzeb took Raigad and other important forts, where the top official documents were stored.

Whatever family papers still survived in the homes of a few Marathas were hidden by them after the end of the Peshwa era in 1818 for fear of the new British rulers cracking down on them on suspicion of an anti-British conspiracy by those still owing their allegiance to the Maratha rulers. The British brazenly confiscated the records they found, not allowing the public any access to them.

But slowly, as national consciousness grew in the late nineteenth century, an archival movement of sorts developed in western India, with its proponents urging families to hand over documents to historians who could preserve and examine them, and simultaneously appealing to the British Raj to open up the archives they had concealed. The efforts bore fruit.

Pioneering historian

The pioneering Maratha historian who led the archival movement was VK Rajwade. He painstakingly collected, at the turn of the century, twenty-one volumes of documents, chiefly private papers of Maratha families and official state correspondence in the nature of orders or revenue arrangements.

These are indeed priceless for any historian, and so they proved for me in the research, as did the materials put together by generations of scholars of the Bharat Itihas Sanshodhak Mandal of Pune like BG Paranjpe, DB Parasnis, KN Sane, KV Purandare, DV Apte, DV Kale and G.S. Sardesai. Sardesai’s eight volumes of Marathi Riyasat provide an encyclopaedic view of Maratha history and of the long Maratha-Mughal conflict.

During his time – broadly the first half of the twentieth century – not only scholars writing in Marathi, such as TS Shejwalkar, KV Keluskar, and VS Bendrey, but also those writing in English, besides Sardesai himself – such as Jadunath Sarkar, MG Ranade, KT Telang, Bal Krishna, Surendra Nath Sen, CV Vaidya and HG Rawlinson – contributed handsomely to exploring Shivaji’s life and times. Five modern-day historians stand out as their heirs – GH Khare, Setumadhavrao Pagadi, Narhar Kurundkar, AN Kulkarni and GB Mehendale (who wrote in both English and Marathi) – for their work looked at new discoveries and findings and interpreted them for the present generation. Yet most of their writings remain accessible largely to scholars of history. It is with a deep dept of gratitude that I have referred to their work extensively in this book, so that they can reach the twenty-first century reader curious to know and learn about Shivaji.

Earlier errors and omissions

The English works on Shivaji in particular, most of them published in the first half of the twentieth century, suffer from a surfeit of outdated material. Jadunath Sarkar’s book Shivaji and His Times is a case in point. For decades it was regarded as the standard English work on Shivaji. Sarkar, unfortunately, got several things wrong, most of which Marathi historians subsequently either pointed out or corrected with corroborative evidence.

To give an example, Sarkar wrote that Shivaji had renamed the Kondhana fort as Sinhagad after one of his closest lieutenants, Tanaji Malusare, was slain there during a spectacular assault on the Mughal garrison in 1670 and said, ‘Gad aala, pan Sinha gela’ (The fort’s won, but the lion’s dead). The legend made its way into textbooks and in the popular imagination in Maharashtra, and has been repeated endlessly, in ballads, cinema and the theatre.

The truth, though, is that Kondhana was always called by its other name of Sinhagad, and there are letters extant from before Tanaji’s death that mention the name. It was precisely because it was called Sinhagad that Shivaji used the lion metaphor – and not the other way round.

Sarkar and most other English biographers of Shivaji, including the British official Dennis Kincaid, also almost totally neglected two crucial contemporary works on Shivaji’s life. These works are by Shivaji’s officials and chroniclers Parmanand, who wrote Shivabharat, and Sabhasad, who wrote Sabhasad Bakhar. Their writings throw considerable light on Shivaji’s life.

The exact words that a recent biographer of Thomas Cromwell used about his close contemporaries writing about him can be applied to Parmanand and Sabhasad: ‘We need to remember that...they were there,’ and ‘we need to respect their observations and comprehend their limitations and concerns.’ The overlooking of their texts has seriously hindered writings on Shivaji’s life in English.

Translated knowledge

Translations of Persian works and official documents and records of the Mughals, of the Nizam Shahi of Ahmadnagar, of Bijapur and of Golconda by Sarkar, GH Khare, Pagadi and many others helped me to record the point of view of Shivaji’s adversaries and to understand how they perceived him and changed their perceptions of him and responses to him over time. Sarkar’s translation of documents in the Rajasthan archives helped to illumine elements of Shivaji’s visit to Agra, his imprisonment and his escape.

The officials of the British East India Company wrote copiously about their activities all across peninsular India in the seventeenth century, and they recorded considerable details about Shivaji and his actions, including his two raids on Surat. I have critically examined their records for those details and for their sometimes adversarial and sometimes transactional perspective.

Similarly, records of the Portuguese rulers of Goa and their officials, translated from the original by the scholar PS Pissurlencar, and the diaries of the French official of Pondicherry Francois Martin at the time of Shivaji’s southern campaign of the late 1670s provided rare and rarely quoted accounts of Shivaji.

Interestingly, the first foreign biographer of Shivaji was a Portuguese man based in Marmugao in Goa during his lifetime, Cosme da Guarda. Though his biography was published in 1695, that is, fifteen years after Shivaji’s death, da Guarda had spoken to many people in the Deccan before writing it, and it provides interesting insights into how Shivaji was seen by the people of the region during that time and of contemporary discussions around his personality, politics and his momentous clash with Aurangzeb.

The Italian traveller Niccolao Manucci was part of the Mughal army and had the opportunity to meet Shivaji and have conversations with him. He recorded much material in his diaries which I have consulted and, where relevant, quoted. Other European travellers and officials such as Francois Bernier, Jean de Thevenot and Jean-Baptiste Tavernier also left accounts, in the classic European style of documenting most of what they were observing around them. Their observations came in handy at times where the account was plausible and the evidence supportive; their flights of fancy, as indeed those of all the others, Sabhasad and Parmanand included, I have roundly rejected.