Saturday, May 23, 2009

#19.The History of a Linguistic Minority

Our Origins

We are a small group of Maharashtrian Brahman community (Deshastha_ land-based, as opposed to Konkanastha_coastal) settled in places like Chunar, Varanasi, Ghazipur, Biharsharif etc. Often I have wondered about the history of our migration from Maharashtra, and how some in the community about 2-3 generations back became disgustingly rich, so much so that for the son’s thread ceremony one of them built a dance hall at the cost of sixty thousand rupees in 1911, with nautch girls in attendance. Another person wasted his entire wealth in nath-utarai ( removing the nose ring of the maiden girls of the ladies engaged in the second oldest profession ). Needless to add that the ceremony of nath-utarai was much more elaborate than the words signify. One also hears of the same person that after every rainy season his gold coins were sunned, and he was not satisfied until some part was stolen away to reduce the total weight. It was a daily routine to weigh the asharfis after sunset, and what was stolen was known as ‘sukhvani’. Some people even say that such affluence was possible only as they were associated with the Pindaris, the unpaid horsemen of the Maratha army who were given the right of plunder by the Marathas, and who were ultimately broken up by Lord Hastings by a three pronged military action. This could be out of jealousy, and I have found no corroborative evidence to back up the assertion. The other explanation could be that they stopped giving to the Marathas the tax collected on their behalf, after the latter became weak.

2. Two names I came across during my childhood days when I tried to find out about our origins: Khandesh and Jalgaon. I was told that my ancestors came from Jalgaon, and the village we belonged to was Waglan, our original surname being Waglankar. First I thought that it is akin to Wagle and I won’t have any difficulty in making further inquiries and discover facts. Then I found that Wagles are Saraswat Brahmans from Konkan area, and had to give up that line of inquiry. Baglan is a taluqa in Nashik and as it is next to Khandesh maybe that is where we hailed from. To complicate the matters some of us especially those from Chunar spoke a language that wasn’t exactly Marathi. It was a strange mixture of Marathi and Gujarati, with ‘Se’ for Gujarati ‘Chhe’, the ubiquitous verb. During my schooldays one of my friend’s father insisted that what we spoke was Gujarati and not Marathi. I couldn’t give any cogent reply though I knew that he was not correct. At that time such questions did not bother me with that intensity. Also some kinds of puja and religious rites observed at my home and especially at one of my father’s sisters were more akin to Gujarati customs than Marathi. Ganesh Puja was introduced by Tilak in the beginning of the twentieth century, and there was no question of it being prevalent with us. But most of the ladies who came in marriage to our house spoke Marathi. Khandeshi (or Ahirani?) we spoke as my grandmother who hailed from Chunar brought it to our family. Sadly it has slowly died out in our family as almost everybody switched to Marathi. It was also considered infra-dig to speak Se-Pe (the language we spoke), just as it is between Hindi and Bhojpuri, or Hindi and Haryanvi. Today if I hear that language, I can understand it allright, as it is so easy and has lots of Hindi words, but it may not be possible to speak it with that confidence. At one time I was fluent in Marathi, but not anymore, the main reason being that both my mother and wife belong to north India. At one time after staying for about a decade in Ghazipur, I had become fluent in Bhojpuri and I found it easier to communicate with my school and mohalla friends.

3. When faced with such doubts, one generally turns to his elders. Unfortunately when I became interested in this question and started looking into it, I was already old enough to be a ‘budha puraniya’ myself. In my immediate family there is only one surviving member who is elder to me and if you count all the first cousins, then the figure goes up to four, one of them gone totally senile. Anyway, after talking to a few people a rough idea began to take shape which may or may not be totally correct.

4. Many of my relatives still swear by the Battle of Panipat where the Marathas were routed by Ahmed Shah Abdali of Afghanistan. Balaji Bajirao was the Peshwa at that time, but the battle was conducted by Sadashiv Rao Bhau. It is an interesting story of how the battle was lost, but another place and another time for that. The Marathas moved to long expeditions with their wives and even pandits. The story I was told was that after the rout, the Brahmans dispersed in North India and a large group settled down in Varanasi, from where they spread to places like Chunar, Ghazipur, Biharsharif etc. But the story was not convincing as it did not answer all the questions. There is another group of Maharashtrian Brahmans in Varanasi with whom we hardly had any relations, and there was no marriage between the two groups. The other thing which struck me was that none in my family was a Sanskrit scholar. In the group one could name only one family- that of Jageshwar Pathak- who had exposure to the scriptures, and they were responsible for the various religious rites in the group. A few marriages between the groups have happened only now. The result of this isolation was endogamous marriages and degeneration of the genes because of in-breeding. In the older generation, one could find relationship with his or her spouse 3-4-5 links away. Cousins married, even first cousins which is not legal according to Hindu Marriage Act. Who are these other group of Marathis in Varanasi?

5. A more convincing story came from Vishnu Joshi of Chunar whose sister was married to one of my uncles. They had a daughter. All are dead now. Incidentally Kaki died of small pox, and my elderly cousin Bachcha related to me how she refused to take vaccination when the vaccinator had come to our house and the entire family was immunized (like Geetabali the famous actor of yesteryears who also died this way).

6. The gist of what Joshiji told my cousin Dr. Ashok was that at the time of Maratha dominance in the 18th century, our ancestors were sent to Chunar (near Varanasi on the bank of Ganga) for realizing Chauth (fourth part of the cultivation). This was land revenue and these persons could be called either tax collectors or in a sense zamindars or intermediaries. Later more people from Maharashtra were sent to Biharsharif and Ghazipur for similar job. It may be seen that the places where these Maharashtrians were sent were soft spots, in the sense that there was no strong presence of any other administration there. Not many have heard of places like Chunar, Ghazipur and Biharsharif. As for Ghazipur, another version is that they came there to seek employment in the Govt. Opium Factory which was established by the British East India Company in 1820.

7. Chunar has a fort right on top of river Ganga. I lived there as a small child, when my father was the Deputy Commandant of a Refugee Camp of Kashmiris. I have a hazy recollection of the time when Sheikh Abdullah had visited the camp. He had given a speech ( I don’t remember a word now) and at the end of it he showed a bag full of coins which he said was meant for them, and gave it the local District Magistrate (of Mirzapur). Suddenly the crowd’s emotions erupted. There were quite a few ladies in the meeting, and the crowd demanded that the money be given directly to them, instead of to the DM. The noise level rose, and there were a few slogan shouting of ‘Sheikh Abdullah Murdabad’. Ultimately Sheikh Saheb left the podium and the meeting ground in hurry in a jeep. My father had told me to get under the table on the dias so that I don’t come to any harm. I don’t remember but there could have been some brickbats- I don’t know.

8. I don’t know how to relate this fort to the story that Vishnu Uncle told. I spent quite sometime in the library that is internet. Chunar Fort was built by Vikramaditya of Ujjain to commemorate the stay of his brother Bhartrihari who took live Samadhi at Chunar. In 1029 King Sahdev made this fort his capital. His daughter was married to the famous King Alha of Mahoba.

9. Then came the Moghuls. Babur visited this fort in 1525. Later this came under the possession of Shershah Suri when he married the wife (!) of Taj Khan Sarang Khani, the Governor of Ibrahim Lodhi in 1531. Humayun tried to capture it unsuccessfully and ultimately it was won back by Akbar in 1574 and remained with the Moghuls till 1772 when it was taken over by the East India Company and turned into an Ammunition Depot. Chet Singh occupied it for a short while, and during the Chet Singh upheaval Warren Hastings retired here for safety till Major Phophen expelled Chet Singh from his stronghold.

10. Now let us tally the dates. Shivaji was born on 19 Feb 1627, coronated on 6 June 1674 and died on 4 March 1680. Akbar captured Chunar Fort in 1574 and it remaind with them till 1772. So when our ancestors came to Chunar, the Moghuls were having their sunset days.

10A. My friend Prahlad explains the two groups of non-mixing Brahmans by differentiating between Pravasi Grihastha Brahmans and Bhikshuk Brahmans. Whereas in the North, all the Brahmans are clubbed together in one category--those who are doing Paurohitya (Yagya and Karmakand) as prescribed in Yajurved, the Brahmans of Maharashtra who migrated to UP, Bihar etc. belong to two distinct categories of Bikshuk and Grihastha (or Shikshak) as above. Whereas Bhikshuk Brahmans are Karmkandis, who are given daan and dakshina for their livelihood, the other group who have land or business for their livelihood are known as Grihastha Brahmans. They are also called Mahipati. It is said that Brahmans are those who may own things, but they are not engulfed in the Maya they own. Well, this needs further study and verification, but yes, there is some distinction can be made between Karmakandi Brahmans and those who have taken up professions other than karmakand.

11. Now the language. What language was carried from Maharashtra to Chunar, Ghazipur, Bihar etc apart from Marathi? Khandesh was often mentioned by my father and others, so I tried to find out something about that area. Khandesh is the north-western portion of Maharashtra, consisting of Jalgaon and Dhulia (later bifurcated into two districts of Dhule and Nandurbar). During the time of Moghuls it was the terminal territory before the Deccan started. River Tapti passes through Khandesh and unlike othe rivers of the Deccan, it empties into the Arabian Sea. Khandesh is divided into East Khandesh (Jalgaon) and West Khandesh (Dhule and Nandurbar). Some tracts of Jalgaon have rich black cotton soil which is excellent for cotton cultivation. Cotton- seed is a healthy cattlefeed (till the humans found it edible) with the result that the cows gave rich fatty milk full of butter (and ghee). In addition Jalgaon reportedly produces 60% of banana grown in the country. This figure may have become outdated now after Tamilnadu emerged as another major producer of banana, with Maharashtra still the highest banana producing state.

12. Khandeshi is spoken in Jalgaon, and is nearer standard Marathi whereas Ahirani is spoken in Dhulia and Nandurbar. This language is also spoken in Jalgaon and Nashik (Baglan, Malegaon and Kalwan tehsils). Ahirani is a mix of Marathi, Gujarati and Hindi. The language brought to Chunar was probably Ahirani. Incidentally, the name of the tehsil Baglan sets to rest the mystery of the surname Waglankar. It should probably be Baglankar, and this should be the place from where we or our family migrated.

13. Incidentally in our family 2-3 generations away Kuldevi was given a lot of importance. I didn’t know who the Kuldevi of our family was. I asked one of my sagotraj, and he said that it was Varah Ambika. If Ambika is Lakshmi, Varahlakshmi is something which is not easy to swallow. How can Lakshmi, the goddess of wealth and beauty incarnate take that ugly form? My doubts were laid to rest when I went to Kaladi near Cochin to see the birthplace of Adi Shankar on the banks of river Periyar. Incidentally, this is one of the most enchanting places I have seen. Lakshmi is shown there in 12 forms and one of them is Varah Lakshmi. I have yet to find her temple, though I am sure that it should be somewhere in Baglan tehsil of Nashik.

14. My genealogy as told to me is Ramji Bhatt (who were three brother Ram, Lakshman and Hanuman. Lakshman was childless, and Hanuman’s descendants are still there. Krishnakant Bhatt is the elderly person in that line. Then it is Saligram Bhatt -Jivan Ram Bhatt -Shriram Bhatt (he was four brothers and three sisters, all except my youngest uncle are dead) -myself-and now Devashish. Saligram was a renowned vaidya (ayurvedic practitioner). There is a story prevalent in our family. Saligram was not very well-off during his earlier days. One Dhanteras night he had gone out somewhere, maybe on a call, and there were two ladies in the almost dark house: Saligram’s wife and sister. Suddenly they heard the sound of the anklet of some lady who first entered the house, climbed the stairs and went to Saligram’s room on the first floor. After that the sound stopped. My great-grandmother told her sister-in-law: ‘Listen! Our days have changed'. You rightly guessed that after that Saligram rose to affluence. To me this looks apocryphal but then, who knows…..!

15. Sadly whatever language was spoken in our family in the name of Khandeshi has slowly died away. I have not spoken Ahirani since the death of my grandmother in 1963 (nor Marathi for that matter).

16. K.S.Singh in one of his monograph has written that Maharashtrian diaspora emerged early in history. A group settled down in the Himalayas. This was when Adi Shankar set up his Ashrams in four corners of the country. For Uttarakhand he selected Maharashtrian pandits. The group must have been self-sustaining with many more families than those of actual ritualistic pandits. The pace of migration went up during the rise of Marathas to dominance and several states like Indore (Holkars) and Gwalior (Sindhias) had Maharashtrian administrators, ministers and priests. They also spread to Bengal, Orissa, Tanjore and Punjab. The coronation of Shivaji was performed by Pandit Gaga Bhatt of Varanasi who was specially brought to Raigad by two Brahman emissaries of Shivaji.

17. It would be interesting to recall the controversy relating to the coronation of Shivaji. The Brahmans of Maharashtra were not keen to anoint him as he was a Maratha and did not even had the thread ceremony performed. Gaga Bhatt resolved the problem. There are two versions. One is that Gagabhatt proved the ancestry of Shivaji to the Rajputs of Rajputana (now Rajasthan). The other is that Sant Gyaneshwar in his treatise ‘Gyaneshwari’ has mentioned the characteristics of a King as self-originating (Swayambhu). They are courage, bravery, brightness, daring, fighter, donor and worshipping qualities. Gaga Bhatt found all these qualities in Shivaji and therefore anointed him according to vedic rites. They say that Gaga Bhatt was given five lakh rupees for his services, and after staying in Raigad for a year he returned to Varanasi. Gaga Bhatt’s father had migrated to Varanasi from Paithan.

18. Now about the other group of Maharashtrians in Varanasi. The story that fits and which was confirmed by Joshiji is that they were the Brahmans who had accompanied Balaji Bajirao and Sadshivrao Bhau to Panipat and dispersed after the Marathas were defeated. Maybe because of Gaga Bhatt’s descendants and associates, Varanasi was a focal point for these Brahmans. It would be interesting to recall some basic facts of the battle. Balaji had the typical formation of artillery followed by infantry, pikemen, musketeers and bowman. He had 30,000 young Maratha soldiers, trained but battle- inexperienced, 30,000 civilians and another 30,000 totally inexperienced soldiers. Whereas Marathas had choked the exit route for the Afghans, the Afghans had blocked the Maratha supply line which was really crippling. Ultimately the impoverished Maratha army was forced to launch a frontal attack on the Afghans. Both sides lost heavily, the Maraths lost 35,000 on the battlefield and 10,000 otherwise. The Afghans also lost about 30,000 soldiers.

19. The Brahmans were among the 30,000 civilians. As they were ritualistic pandits, they looked down upon the group who came as tax collectors. On the other hand, the group who came as Maratha representatives were more prosperous and were reciprocal in their one-upmanship on the other group.

20. One of the cousins of my grandfather had a small zamindari in Ghazipur. Even during my childhood days I remembered that some people came to deposit the revenue voluntarily on Dashera day. The tenants were given sweets and I remember that one of them once complained about the deteriorating quality of sweets as compared to the previous year. This land revenue was collected and receipts issued by one of my uncles, and in the evening money received that day which was not very large was distributed among the children. We felt quite rich when going to mela in the evening. Incidentally this type of zamindari in the towns in UP continued for some years after the zamindari system in the villages was abolished in the villages by Govind Ballabh Pant.

21. Where did this zamindari come from? There could be two explanations. One that the Maratha tax collectors continued with the same job under the Britishers. But probably the second explanation was nearer the truth which said that it was purchased by the cousin of my grandfather.

22. I don’t know whether I have made it an interesting read. Of course it is only an arm-chair analysis, to be confirmed or otherwise by field visit which I intend doing next winter. Till then you are welcome to comment, point out any mistakes, and to let me know of anything you know on this subject, including a different line of thinking.


Friday, May 8, 2009

#18. I Met A Student of Mine

The Most Forgettable Incident of My Life

I started my career as a University Lecturer. It is easier to handle small children. Teenagers are probably the most difficult, but at undergraduate level, people who continue really want to study. It is another matter that in India for a large number of students at that time in the middle sixties of the previous century (was it really, it seems like yesterday!) was to get a degree so that they could get a government job or at least a teaching job. Well, government is no longer the source of large scale recruitment. There were not many avenues open to the young men then. Better of them went to medical or engineering courses where the admission standards were tougher, Some who had more confidence in themselves continued with their studies with the intention of getting into civil services or other decent jobs through competitive exams. In the late fifties and early sixties banks and insurance companies started taking people at junior officers’ level through competitive exams State Bank of India and Life Insurance Corporation of India, the two government companies were the more attractive options among the 'others'. While working as a Lecturer, I was preparing for the Civil Services. It was an ideal arrangement. Teaching job gave a lot of spare time, holidays and vacations. A number of students followed this route to the civil services. On the sideline I had also filled up the form for the State Bank Probationary Officers which required a written test followed by an interview. The test did not require any extra preparation than what I was doing for my scivil services exam, except polishing your school mathematics in which luckily I was not bad.

We had a graduate student, a Bengali who did his masters in Economics during the period I taught. I got through in the Civil Services, and was waiting for the call to proceed to the Academy at Mussoorie. I also got through in the Bank exam after appearing in the viva voce. This was summer, and the results of M.A. were also out. This boy I mentioned got a first. He came to meet me and sought my advice on what to do now, and how to go about it. I told him about the Civil Services and also about the bank exam. I gave him some back papers of bank exam which I had, listed out relevant books and gave him whatever tips I could in an hour or so he was with me.

A couple of years passed. I had completed my training in Audit & Accounts in Shimla and was posted to Bombay. From there I switched jobs to the Indian Administrative Service and was again waiting for a call for training while at Delhi after having been relieved from Bombay. Some movie was running in the Regal cinema hall in Connaught Place. Only those who were young men in the sixties can appreciate the powerful draw and attraction of cinema those days on the mind of the youth when there were not many avenues of entertainment open. TV had not come to India, Video and cable TV which have changed the entire lifestyle and entertainment scenario in the country were quite a few years away. I bought the ticket for the show, there still was about 15 minutes to go before it started. I went to a restaurant to grab a cup of tea. And there somebody suddenly came and accosted me. I took some time to place him. Then I remembered. It was the same Bengali boy whom I had given some tips about various competitive exams while in the University. He was with a group of friends who I learnt later were his colleagues. The boy had put some fat (thin he never was for that matter ). 'Sir, I have got through in the State Bank , and am at present undergoing training.' I silently cursed. All the time the movie was in my mind which was about to begin in a few minutes. 'Sir, it is you who suggested this job to me and I have got through because you told and guided me about it. Do you remember that you gave me back papers for the entrance exam?' and his tone expressed his genuine gratitude. I was fixated on the movie, congratulated him, wished him luck, excused myself, left the conversation and ran for the movie.

The incident still rankles me. I remember the hurt in his eyes. Yes, I could have spent some more time with him even though it would have meant missing my favourite movie for 5-10 minutes and I could feel the disappointment in his voice by my abrupt departure. It is one of those incidents which is etched in my memory cells and I keep on remembering it after almost four decades. No, I have not met the guy again. From all I know, he might have retired now after putting in distinguished service in his bank, and I hope he has forgotten long back the discourtesy shown by me at that time.