The Chitpavans by Linda Cox

This article by Linda Cox was originally published in the February 22, 1970 issue of the now defunct Illustrated Weekly of India. Original article does not carry any copy right notice. Hence used on the web site. The Author, Linda Cox of Flosmoor, Illinois, U.S.A, was 20 years old then and a third year student of Swathmore College, Pennsylvania, and was studing Marathi at the Deccan College, Poona. The article may be a part of here thesis on the Chitpavans.

Unheard of before 1700, the Chitpavan Brahmins of Maharashtra had come to dominate the fields of social reform, law, scholarship, goverrunent service and the arts by the nineteenth century. Their two names, Konkanasth and Chitpavan, suggest their origins. The first indicates the rocky, unyielding land in the Ratnagiri district of the Konkan, which they have traditionally farmed. All Konkanasths can trace their history as far as the Konkan. The name, Chitpavan, would seem to have come from the Konkan town of Chitpol.

When you spot a Maharashtrian with blue or green eyes, ten to one he is a Chitpavan. And his fair colouring suggests a foreign origin. A history of the Bene Israelis, who settled in the Kolaba district of the Konkan, claims the Chitpavans as fellow Jews who became separated from their shipmates. Other accounts have guessed at a homeland anywhere from Iran to just north of Sholapur.

As long as they remained in the Konkan, the Chitpavans were simply an obscure Brahmin community of farmers and priests. The land that they tilled afforded only a poor living to the Chitpavans. But money has rarely been their primary goal. Even today few are known for their wealth. They were neither the largest nor the purest in the Brahmin hierarchy the Deshasth Brahmins claimed to be that but their hard-headed outlook and intelligence readied them for a climb over the Ghats to power.

The change in fortune came when Balaji Vishwanath Bhat took a job with the Maratha Government in the early 1700s. Balaji Viswanath had a talent for making himself useful - so useful that, within seven years, Shivaji's grandson Shahu had appointed him Peshwa! When Balaji died in 1720, his son Bajirao succeeded him and thus began a century of rule by the Chitpavan Peshwas. Lured by the good fortune of their caste fellows, the Chitpavans migrated in large numbers to the Deccan, especially to Poona, the seat of the Peshwas. There they quickly rose in stature and influence, getting jobs as clerks, military men and diplomats and claiming economic privileges as well.

The end of power and glory seems to have come in 1818, when.the British swallowed up the Maratha kingdom. But the Chitpavans have a remarkable ability to rise to the top in any situation. They were helped by the British decision initially to support traditional Indian society. Thus Brahmin privileges and leadership were left undisturbed for a time. The Chitpavans hastened to fill the same kind of clerical government jobs they had held before, this time for the Bombay Presidency instead of the Maratha Kingdom.

But, if they were willing to serve the British Raj, not all were happy with the state of things. They remained loyal servants of the Crown, until the moment came to strike. Wasudeo Balwant Phadke was one man who dreamed of restoring the Peshwa to his prime. In 1879 he left his job as an insignificant Government clerk to lead a motely group of Ramoshis in the countryside.. He was captured but not before inspiring a few fellow Chitpavans and giving the British a good scare.

Even before Phadke's attempt, the British distrusted the Chitpavans. Montstuart Elphinston, first Governor of the Bombay Presidency after the land of the Marathas was acquired, described them venomously as an "intriguing, lying, corrupt, licentious race of people". Perhaps his bitterness stemmed from learning of a plot reported by a British officer: allegedly some Chitpavans were planning to murder all the Europeans in Poona and Satara.

While the British sputtered over this, the Chitpavans quietly acquired the western education which had become the key to success in changed Maharashtra. Soon they were flocking into the new fields of law, journalism and western scholarship.

The effects varied. Some were dazzled and attracted by the new ideas. Students of Deccan College in Poona chose, in 1892, as a motto for their literary quarterly:

Stepping westward seems to be,
A kind of heavenly destiny.
This was later changed.

Among social reformers was D. K. Karve, who established a home and school for young widows. Encouraging widow marriage, he practised as he preached by marrying a widow himself. Many, like M.G. Ranade, debated and wrote in favour of widow marriage and raising the age of consent.

Whether itwas by devoting their life to service in G. K. Gokhale's Servants of India Society or sacrificing their life by murdering a British officer, the Chitpavans have rarely been slow to act. They have used their pens to stir the fires of social reform and nationalist feeling. Lokamanya Tilak and Shivram Mahadeo Paranjpe both landed in jail for their pains. Vishnushashtri Chiplunkar wrote Our Country's Condition -to attack British rule on the one hand and Mahatma Phule's non-Brahmin movement on the other.

Yet some of the strongest resistance to change has come from the very same community. Jealously guarding their Brahmin stature, the orthodox among the Chitpavans were not eager to see the Shastras challenged, nor the conduct of the Brahmins becoming indistinguishable from that of the Sudras. In any case resistance to change is not surprisng from a group that benefited so much from the status quo. The Chitpavans were on top, so why move?

The vanguard and the old guard clashed many times. Ranade and other reformers were forced to offer penance for breaking purity rules. D. K. Karve was ostracised. Even Tilak made a visit to Varanasi so that he may not be excommunicated.

Diverse as the community was, it shared one thing : the memory of the Peshwas. Ever since Balaji showed up in the Maratha Court , the chitpavan have had a hand in government. This tradition was carried on by men like Justice Ranade and Gopal Krishna Gokhale. Both urged peaceful reforms in British policy. Ranade and another young Chitpavan intellectual, G. V. Joshi formed the Poona Sarvajanik Sabha in 1870 as a representative body to recommend changes to the Government. And moderate like Gokhale and Ranade led the Congress in its early ventures in political reform.

But there was another side to the Chitpavan's political activity: terrorism. The Chapekar Brothers formed the Society for the Removal of Obstacles to the Hindu Religion. One of the obstacles, apparently, was Plague Commissioner Rand, and on a June night in 1897 he was "removed".

Other conspiracies brewed, sometimes among students of Fergusson CoUege, which had been established by such eminent Chitpavans as Tilak, V. S. Apte and Gokhale. Another pair of young brothers Vinayak and Ganesh Savarkar, planned with their friends ways of overthrowing the British. When Ganesh was convicted of writing inflammatory verse, in 1909, the District Magistrate of Nasik was murdered in revenge. Twenty-seven men were convicted as membersof the conspiracy. Most of them were Chitpavans.

If any man reconciled the opposing elements in this diverse community, it was Bal Gangadhar Tilak. A revered public figure, he was at one and the same time orthodox and revolution. Though not against all social change, he opposed British social legislation, insisting that it must come from the people. Tilak was a master in drawing the masses into political movements. He revived the Ganapati celebration and renewed people's interest n Shivaji, making both vehicles of political action.

For two centuries, the Chitpavans stayed a step ahead, always moving fat enough to retain positions of power. But, with Tilka's death in 1920, history passed them by. The Congress Party, which Tilak had so greatly influenced, became the party of Gandhiji.

Discontented Maharashtrian Brahmins now began to leave the Congress and non-Brahmins quietly took their places in the 1930s and 1940s. When Independence came, the Chitpavans found the Congress dominated by non-Brahmins. Though they were among the leaders in other parties, democracy was bound to belittle minorities. The Brahmins -one or two per cent of the population - could not hope to carry much weight politically.

Nathuram Vinayak Godse was probably the last of the Chitpavan terrorist and certainly the most infamous. When the news of his assassination of Gandhiji reached Maharashta violmce was directed against the communalist Hindu Mahasabha and the Rashtriya Swayam Sevak Sangh, but, to many observers, the riots were essentially anti-Brahmin. Once for all, the idea of a unified society content with Brahmin paternalism was exposed as a myth.

When the mobs had gone home, the problem of anti-Brahmin feeling remained. The Chitpavans were forced to seek new life-patterns for a world that was suddenly less friendly. Politically, the trend has been to stay away from the Congress. One scholar notes that Brahmin votes go to both 'Left' and 'Right' candidates but not to the Congress. Indeed, the Chitpavans have continued to supply political leadership on both sides of the fence - to the Communist and Socialist Parties as well as to the Hindu Mahasabha and Jana Sangh. Their national leaders include N. G. Goray of the Praja Socialist Party and S. M. Joshi of the Samyukta Socialist Party. V. D. Savarkar was for years leader of the revivalist Hindu Mahasabha.

How to tell a Chitpavan
A typical Chitpavan is usually fair of complexion, has a sharp nose and steel-grey eyes. He can be called handsome. Nanasaheb Peshwa (18th century), from a portrait that is available may be called best specimen of Chitpavan manhood. Nanasaheb's son Vilasrao, when 18, was killed in the Third Battle of Panipat (1761). Kashiraj has described him as the most handsome among the Marathas; even in death he looked so handsome that Ahmedshah Abdali ordered his dead body to be brought before him - in order to have a look at his handsome person. The Chitpavans cannot be classed among the well-built communities of Maharashtra. Chitpavan girls possess good physical features but tend to took pale. A few historians and anthropologists are of the view that the Chitpavans came to India from Egypt, while others say they came from Greece. The Chitpavans are generally extremists, hence their behaviour is full of contradiction. A Chitpavan may sacrifice his life for his country but he will not easily part with his purse. That is why perhaps the Chitpavan community has produced a number of fiery patriots but not a single saint. Tidy, clean and industrious, the average Chitpavan has a rather inflated opinion of himself. Typical Chitpavan surnames are Ranade, Tilak, Gokhale, Ketkar, Paranjpe, Karve and Chitale.

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