Mahrattas (Maha-rashtra, great people), a people inhabiting the region in central and western India bounded N. by the Satpoora mountains, E. by the Wyne-Ganga and Manjera rivers, S. by the Kistnah and Malpurda, and W. by the Indian ocean. They eventually spread themselves across the whole peninsula, through the dominions of Ilolkar, Sindia (Gwalior), and the guicowar, and the country of Nagpore, where they still form an important element in the population. Some writers, however, regard them as foreigners who emigrated from the W. part of Persia about the 7th century, and Pickering assigns them an Arabian or Egyptian origin. They are of Hindoo race, and are hardy, active, and well proportioned, but very ill-favored; their stature is small, their skin is dark, and their features are irregular. They are much given to athletic exercises, and are excellent horsemen, but turbulent and predatory, and unfit for regular military service. They are cruel and perfidious, and have exercised a disastrous influence upon the countries they have conquered.
They are devout Brahmans. They first become conspicuous in history about the middle of the 17th century, when they possessed a narrow tract of territory bordering on the Arabian sea and extending nearly from Goa to Guzerat. Sevajee (born in 1627, died in 1680), the son of an officer in the service of the last Mohammedan king of Bejapoor, was the founder of the Mahratta empire. Having collected an army among the mountains, he overthrew the kingdom of Bejapoor, and gradually united under his own rule the multitude of petty states among which the Mahrattas were divided. His son Sambajee extended his conquests, but was finally put to death by Aurungzebe in 1689. Under Saho, grandson of Sevajee, the hereditary prime minister or peishwa became the actual ruler of the Mahrattas, and maintained their supremacy against the repeated assaults of Nizam ul-Mulk, the representative of the Mogul emperor in the Deccan. At the culmination of their power, in the middle of the 18th century, the peishwa, with his capital at Poo-nah, was the recognized head of the confederacy of great chiefs who ruled the several Mahratta states.
Guzerat, where subsequently arose the independent power of the guicowar, and a great part of Malwa, were overrun by the Mahrattas, and about 1760 they made themselves masters of Delhi. Defeated however by Ahmed Khan of Afghanistan in the great battle of Paniput (1761), their downfall began; and though they again occupied Delhi (1772), they lost valuable possessions to the armies of Tip-poo Sahib, and were driven from the Mohammedan metropolis by the British in 1803. A few years later two other Mahratta chiefs, Hol-kar and Sindia, who ruled the independent states of Indore and Gwalior, founded some 70 years before, entered into a confederacy with the peishwa and the rajah of Berar against the British. After a protracted war the Mahratta power was finally overthrown (1819), the peishwa became a fugitive, and his authority was abolished. - See Grant Duff's '; History of the Mahrattas" (3 vols. 8vo, London, 1826), and Owen's " India on the Eve of the British Conquest" (London, 1872).