Tarabai was born around April of 1675. She was the daughter of Hambirao Mohite, a commander in the army of the new Maratha Empire. This was around the time that the Mughal Empire was still around on the Indian subcontinent, so keep that in mind. The Mughals and Marathas were constantly at each other’s throats, as both wanted control of the Deccan.
Since Tarabai’s father was a military commander, and a very good and famous one, too, Tarabai learned things like sword-fighting, archery, and military strategy from a young age. When she was eight years old, she was married to the second son of Chhatrapati Shivaji, the founder of the Maratha Empire, and became his second wife. Tarabai’s aunt, Soyarabai, was Shivaji’s wife, making Tarabai’s husband, Rajaram, her cousin.
Tarabai had a son, Shivaji, and Rajaram would have another son with his third wife, Rajasbai, named Sambhaji. Following the death of Tarabai’s father-in-law, Shivaji, her brother-in-law, Sambhaji Bhosale, became the second ruler of the Maratha Empire. Sambhaji was killed and his family was taken prisoner when the Mughal Emperor, Aurangzeb, laid siege to the city of Raigad. Sambhaji’s son was Aurangzeb’s prisoner, so the throne went to Tarabai’s husband, Rajaram, who became Rajaram I.
Rajaram had a reign of almost eleven years, and during his reign, Tarabai did many things to help him. They escaped the siege of Raigad and escaped to Gingee Fort, where Tarabai gave birth to her son and only child, Shivaji. She commanded the armies at the fort once Aurangzeb besieged the fort (since her husband was ill). With her help, they managed to hold out for a while.
After his death, Tarabai declared their son Shivaji as the new ruler. Chhatrapati Shivaji II was not yet four years old, so Tarabai became the de facto ruler of the Maratha Empire. Tarabai began using the title of Maharani. The Marathas and Mughals were still fighting each other, so it was now Tarabai’s job to command the Maratha forces. Tarabai was a great military commander and managed to capture many of Aurangzeb’s strongholds. She was also great at boosting the morale of her soldiers.
She observed how the Mughal army fought and used the tactics she thought would work for her less well-equipped army, winning many battles against Aurangzeb. Tarabai was even captured on one occasion but managed to be released. Tarabai was still regent when Aurangzeb died in 1707.
Eventually, the Mughals released Sambhaji’s son, Shahu, who had a better claim to the throne than Tarabai or her son, Shivaji II. Once Shahu began pressing his claim, Tarabai refused to agree and began fighting against him. But some of her soldiers and commanders saw Shahu as the legitimate ruler, so Tarabai could not continue fighting. Her regency ended in 1708.
Tarabai went and set up a rival court in Kolhapur, where she and her son, Shivaji II (now with the title Raja of Kolhapur instead of Chhatrapati, the title that the rulers of the Maratha Empire used), ruled until they were deposed. Tarabai’s husband, Rajaram, had had another wife, Rajasbai, and a son named Sambhaji with her. Rajasbai had Tarabai and Shivaji II deposed, and Rajasbai had her own son, Sambhaji II, declared Raja of Kolhapur. Tarabai and Shivaji II were imprisoned, and Shivaji died in prison in 1726. Tarabai was eventually freed by Shahu and lived without power for the rest of Shahu’s reign.
In the 1740s, Tarabai presented a young man named Rajaram (sometimes also referred to as Ramraja) to Shahu, claiming that he was her grandson. Shahu made Rajaram his heir, and after his death, Rajaram became Chhatrapati Rajaram II. After Tarabai had set up her rival court in Kolhapur, there were two titles that were used for a very long time: Raja of Kolhapur and Chhatrapati of Satara. The Chhatrapati would have a Peshwa (like a Prime Minister) serving under him. Tarabai wanted her supposed grandson to remove the current Peshwa, Balaji Baji Rao, from his post, but he did not, so Tarabai had her grandson imprisoned and disowned him in 1750.
Balaji Baji Rao fought against Tarabai to have Rajaram II released, and eventually, after a rebellion against her in her army, Tarabai agreed to meet with Balaji Baji Rao to make peace, which they did. Even though Tarabai continued saying that Rajaram II was not her grandson, Balaji Baji Rao kept him as Chhatrapati, even though he was just a figurehead since the Peshwas would become the de facto rulers of the Maratha Empire after this. Tarabai died almost a decade after this in 1761 in Satara at the age of around eighty-five.
Rani Tarbai was an exceptional commander who led the Marathas when they needed it most. Perhaps without her, the history of the Maratha Empire may have gone in a significantly different direction. There may never have been any Rajas of Kolhapur, and the Peshwas may not have become the de facto rulers of the Empire. Perhaps there may have never been a long-lasting Maratha Empire without Tarabai.