Typical Maratha helmet with curved back.
Maratha Armour from Hermitage Museum, St Petersburg, Russia.
The term "Maratha" originally referred to the speakers of the Marathi language. In the 17th century, it emerged as a designation for soldiers serving in the armies of Deccan sultanates (and later Shivaji). A number of Maratha warriors, including Shivaji's father, Shahaji, originally served in those Muslim armies. By the mid-1660s, Shivaji had established an independent Maratha kingdom. After Shivaji's death, Marathas fought under his sons and defeated Aurangzeb in the war of 27 years. It was further expanded into a vast empire by the Maratha Confederacy including Peshwas, stretching from central India in the south, to Peshawar (in modern-day Pakistan) on the Afghanistan border in the north, and with expeditions to Bengal in the east.
By the 19th century, the empire had become a confederacy of individual states controlled by Maratha chiefs such as Gaekwads of Baroda, the Holkars of Indore, the Scindias of Gwalior, the Puars of Dhar and Dewas, and Bhonsles of Nagpur. The Confederacy remained the pre-eminent power in India until their defeat by the British East India Company in the Third Anglo-Maratha War (1817–1818).
By 19th century, the term Maratha had several interpretations in the British administrative records. In the Thane District Gazetteer of 1882, the term was used to denote elite layers within various castes: for example, "Maratha-Agri" within Agri caste, "Maratha-Koli" within Koli caste and so on. In the Pune District, the words Kunbi and Maratha had become synonymous, giving rise to the Maratha-Kunbi caste complex. The Pune District Gazetteer of 1882 divided the Kunbis into two classes: Marathas and other Kunbis. The 1901 census listed three groups within the Maratha-Kunbi caste complex: "Marathas proper", "Maratha Kunbis" and Konkan Maratha.
According to Steele, in the early 19th century, Kunbis, who were agriculturists and the Marathas who claimed Rajput descent and Kshatriya status - were distinguished by their customs related to widow remarriage. The Kunbis allowed it and the higher status Marathas prohibited it. However, there is no statistical evidence for this.
The Maratha population was more than 31% in Western Maharashtra and the Kunbi was 7%, whereas the upper castes - Brahmins, Saraswats, Prabhus(CKPs, Pathare Prabhus) were only about 4% of the population. The Other Backward Class population (other than the Kunbi) was 27% while the population of the Mahars was 8%.
Gradually, the term Maratha came to denote an endogamous caste. From 1900 onwards, the Satyashodhak Samaj movement defined the Marathas as a broader social category of non-Brahmin groups. These non-Brahmins gained prominence in Indian National Congress during the Indian independence movement. In independent India, these Marathas became the dominant political force in the newly-formed state of Maharashtra.
The caste hierarchy in Maharashtra is led by the Brahmins - Deshasthas, Chitpawans, Karhades, Saraswats and the CKPs. The Maratha are ranked lower than the Pathare Prabhus, CKPs, Brahmins etc. in the caste hierarchy but are considered higher than the Kunbi , backward castes and castes that were considered ritually impure.