Shivaji (1627-1680), was a Maratha warlord who despite all odds carved out a powerful Hindu kingdom at the expense of the Mughal Empire in what is now the modern Indian state of Maharashtra. Combining religious fervor with a brilliant strategic mind, personal valor, and daring trickery, Shivaji is a transcendent figure in Indian History, maintaining a mythic status from his lifetime down to the present day. As a warrior-king, a champion of the common man, and a messianic figure, Shivaji is the ultimate folk-hero - at once part King Arthur, part Robin Hood, and part Joan of Arc.

Shivaji was born to a family of Hindu nobles in Pune, near the modern-day city of Mumbai in the spring of 1627 (some accounts say 1630). At the time of Shivaji's birth, this region of India was suffering under the yolk of two bordering Muslim dominions - the Mughal Empire to the north and the Muslim Sultanates of Bijapur and Golkonda to the South. At the age of 16, Shivaji had a divine revelation that he would lead free the Hindus from Muslim domination, the cause to which he dedicated the rest of his life.

Gathering a band of followers, Shivaji began harassing the northern outposts of the Bijapur Sultan with guerrilla attacks. When several small expeditions mounted against him failed, the Sultan sent a huge army of about 20,000 men against him in 1659. Showing a penchant for trickery that he would maintain throughout his career, Shivaji feigned a retreat with a smaller force to draw the Sultan's army into treacherous mountain passes and then called upon troops lying in wait to sweep down from the mountains and rout the enemy. The near total victory provided Shivaji with valuable captured munitions, horses, and supplies and swelled the ranks of his forces with enthusiastic followers convinced of his divine mission by his astonishing success. Moreover, he now controlled a sizable portion of land which was the beginning of his new Hindavi Swaraj ("Sovereign Hindu State").

With Bijapur defeated, Shivaji now turned his attention to the Mughals, at whose hands he had suffered a humiliating defeat in a 1657 skirmish. After a few years of minor harassments, Shivaji finally provoked a concerted Mughal response by sacking the important Mughal port town of Surat in 1664. Mughal emperor Aurangzeb was so concerned with Shivaji's growing power and popularity that he dispatched his finest general, Myrza Raja Jai Singh, and a gargantuan army of 100,000 men to finish Shivaji for good. Although Jai Singh was not able to force Shivaji into a decisive battle, Shivaji realized he could not outrun such a massive force forever so he sought to buy time at the bargaining table, agreeing to journey to the Mughal capital at Agra along with his eldest son to be accepted as Mughal vassals. However, Aurangzeb showed a little trickery of his own, placing Shivaji under permanent house arrest at Agra under pain of death.

In one of the most famous episodes of his storied life, Shivaji conceived of a daring escape plan. Feigning serious illness, he ordered baskets of sweets to be distributed to the poor as a form of penance. After doing this for a while until his guards were no longer suspicious, Shivaji had himself and his sons carried out under the guards noses in the baskets. Returning to his homeland, Shivaji was eagerly welcomed back by his followers and soon rebuilt his army. Within two years he recaptured his former domain and even added to its size, forcing several Mughal territories to submit to his control. Meanwhile, Aurangzeb's empire was facing a host of other internal problems and insurgencies, and was never again able to mount any effective resistance to Shivaji's growing authority.

Now the ruler of a truly independent Hindu nation, Shivaji embarked on a program of reform, attempting to reward his citizens based on merit rather than caste, initiating more equitable taxation systems, and promoting religious tolerance of Muslims and Christians. Learning the importance of naval power from the recently arrived Portuguese and Dutch, Shivaji established what was essentially the first Indian navy. Finally, in 1674, Shivaji's power was so complete that he staged an elaborate coronation ceremony for himself at his mountain-fortress/capital of Rajgarh, proclaiming himself King of the Hindus.

Although Shivaji died four years later in 1680 after an illness, his legacy would prove enduring. His kingdom itself would last for another century, serving as a very large thorn in the sides of first the Mughals and then the British Raj. Moreover, his memory would serve as inspiration for generation after generation of revolutionaries, most notably during the Revolt of 1857 and the 20th Century Independence Movement that culminated in the creation of the modern nations of India and Pakistan in 1947. Today, Shivaji remains a powerful symbol of Maharashtrian pride and Hindu Nationalism.

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