Goddess Bhavani of Tuljapur appeared before a boy and gave him a sword. The boy grew up to become Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj, who challenged the might of the Mughal empire, and established the great Maratha empire that dominated India in the 17th century, between the waning of Mughal rule and the waxing of British rule. Today, the Maratha king is a major Hindutva icon.
But few remember the long history of Hinduism in the western part of India. The story begins before any religion existed, with prehistoric petroglyphs of giant beasts carved in the coastal Ratnagiri region maybe 12,000 years ago. Copper images of carts and pot burials from Daimabad indicate habitations from more than 3,000 years ago.
Maharashtra lies in the intersection between the northern Aryan lands and the southern Dravidian lands, and this is evident in Marathi grammar, where there are two words for ‘we’ (hum, in Hindi): apan (we including you, popularised via Bollywood’s Mumbai lingo) and amhi (we excluding you), found in southern languages. It also has the sharp ‘l’ sound found in southern languages. But it also has the soft ‘j’ (z) sound that comes from Persian.
Today, we see Maharashtra as a land defined by political boundaries. But traditionally it has been the land of the Marathi-speaking people, who speak a set of multiple dialects that emerged from Maharashtri Prakrit and was deeply influenced by Sanskrit (which Brahmins encouraged) and even Persian (which Brahmins hated).
They lived on the western side of the Deccan plateau, south of the Vindhya mountains, so technically outside the traditional Aryavarta. The people’s economic power came from:
- Two mighty rain-fed rivers — the Godavari (the upper river basin was called Asmaka) that flows into Andhra Pradesh, and the Krishna (the upper river basin was called Kuntala) that flows into Karnataka. The rivers enriched the black soil where cotton has been cultivated since ancient times.
- Coastal region (ancient Aparanta), now called Konkan (edge of earth), extending north to Gujarat (ancient Lata) and south to Goa (Gopakapatna), whose ports such as Sopara near Mumbai, in the basin of the west-flowing Vaitarna river, connect India with West Asia.
- A great wall-like mountain range (ghat) called Sahyadri separating the coast from the plateau (desh). Ghat is a Dravidian word for hilly region. Sahyadri perhaps is derived from the phrase companion (saha) traveller (yatri), as traders had to cross this mountain range to reach the western seaports. They took cotton and sugarcane from the plateau and brought back salt, shells and dried fish from local traders and gold from foreign merchants.
Mythologically speaking, the Godavari basin is linked with the story of Rishi Gautama and his wife Ahalya, and the abduction of Sita from the Nashik region.
The Krishna basin is linked to cowherd gods like Krishna who resides in Pandharpur as Vitthala, who loves to wear the rough woollen shawls of shepherds, and has a very peculiar stance, with arms akimbo, waiting patiently for his devotees like Pundalik, to complete household responsibilities like taking care of aged parents, before attending to him. This unique pose of Vitthala in Maharashtra has close parallels to the earliest images of Vishnu carved by the Gupta kings in the Udayagiri cave complex north of the Vindhyas in 500 CE.
Many communities in Maharashtra worship personal (ishta), clan (kula), village (grama), guardian (kshetrapal or yaksha) as well as ancestors (mula) gods on pentagonal metal plates (tak), which suggest migration, marriage and settlement patterns across the land, from the plateaus (Malwa and Vidarbha) across the mountains (Vindhya and Sahyadri) to the coast, and vice versa.
The most popular deity is the horse-riding Khandoba, linked to Shiva, who resides in the mountaintop citadel of Jejuri. He is linked to the sun and so is showered with turmeric powder — a very unique practice of the Deccan region.
Khandoba marries women from local communities. Mhalsa is the wife from a trading community, demure and domestic. Banai is the wife from the shepherd community, wild and free. Other wives belong to the communities of tailors, gardeners and oil pressers.
Men and women are dedicated to Khandoba and they are called Vaghyas (tigers, hounds) and Muralis (dancers, singers). Another local god is Mhasoba, whose saffron-dabbed stones are found in village boundaries.
Horses were not native to India. They were imported from Central Asia and Persia. They reached the Deccan only via Gujarat, Rajasthan and Malwa, or via ships directly from Arabia. The horse-riding warriors from the north along with the Brahmins migrated to this region from north of the Narmada, either via the passes of the Vindhya mountains (following Agastya), or along the coast (with Parashuram).
Parashuram was a priest who became a warrior and was shunned by traditional Brahmins of the plateau (Deshastha Brahmins). So, he created his own disciples by purifying (pavan) them from the funeral pyre (chita). This created the famous Chitpavan Brahmins of the coast, who ruled much of India from the city of Pune in the Peshwa era of the 17th and 18th centuries.
Maharashtra had many local communities, each with its own dominant vocation, such as Kunbi (farmers), Agri (salt makers), Koli (fisherfolk), Maang (cattle castraters, leather curers, drummers, funeral directors) and Mahar (guards, fence builders, boundary dispute settlers, messengers).
Many of these communities worship goddesses such as Gauri (who visits her family each year during the rains) and Renuka, also known as Ekavira, Ellamma and Pochamma, who was beheaded by her son Parashuram when her husband accused her of infidelity. The body of Renuka was resurrected and returned to the Brahmin fold but the head remained in wild spaces and worshipped by non-Brahmin communities. In water bodies are lethal nymphs called Sati-asara, linked to fertility, and worshipped by women who fear miscarriage. In contrast to the yellow turmeric shrines of Khandoba, the goddess shrines are red with vermillion.
Many of these goddesses moved away from the coast to avoid the fishy smell and came to the mountains, where they became fierce warrior goddesses like Saptashringi, Chaturshringi and Bhavani, venerated by kings. In Maharashtra, the warrior goddess is often called Mahalakshmi and Amba-bai, indicating a merger of Shaiva and Vaishnava beliefs, as well as links with the guardian yakshis of Jainism who carry images of the Tirthankara on their heads.
A historian noticed that the people of Maharashtra typically remember the past as three eras:
- Shiv-kaal, referring to the great Maratha empire of the 17th century following the rise of the mighty Shivaji.
- Yadav-kaal, referring to the Seuna dynasty that claimed its origins from the survivors of the Yadav clan whose city of Dwarka was destroyed by fire and flood after Krishna’s death. Perhaps that is why many men and women of the region wore the moon mark (chandra-kor) on their foreheads. They ruled from 10th century CE onwards, built the fort of Devagiri in Aurangabad and the unique temples of the Hemadpanthi style. They were overthrown by Muslim warlords in the 14th century. This is the period when Marathi gradually became the court language, replacing Kannada and Sanskrit.
- Pandav-kaal — everything before the Yadav period, especially the Buddhist and Jain caves, are all attributed to the Pandavs. So, not much is known about the cotton trade routes that were controlled by various kings: Mauryans (300 BCE), Satavahanas (300 CE), Chalukyas (500 CE), Rashtrakutas (800 CE) and Yadavas (1000 CE). The coastal ports were controlled by the Kadambas (500 CE) and Shilahara (1000 CE), while the Kalachuris controlled the trade routes across the Vindhyas (800 CE).
In the so-called Pandav period, Maharashtra had a strong Buddhist and Jain tradition, especially along the trade routes patronised by Kadamba and Shilahara kings. Some of the oldest Buddhist rock-cut caves, more than 2,000 years old, can be found around Mumbai (Kanheri, Bhaja) and in Ajanta and Ellora. They are popularly known as caves where Pandava, or Ram and Sita, lived during their exile.
Kolhapur, now known for its Mahalakshmi temple, was once a Jain site, where Padmavati was a guardian goddess. North of the Godavari are the Jain mountain shrines of Mangi-Tungi, connected with Ram and Balaram.
Rise of new sects
These monastic orders were eclipsed after 5th century CE, following the rise of the Pashupata and Bhagavata sects, which were patronised by kings who preferred agricultural tax to toll tax, and donated lands to Brahmins and Kayasthas (scribes) in return for various statecraft services.
Thus we find the great caves on the islands of Elephanta, off Mumbai coast, which have some of the earliest images of Shiva’s lore, dated to the 7th century. An exact replica is found in Ellora’s cave 21, near Aurangabad. Also in Ellora we find the famous rock-cut Kailasanatha temples, sponsored by Rashtrakuta kings, in the 8th century, which have a complete panel depicting the Ramayana and the Mahabharata — the earliest in India, marking the rise of Hinduism. The Krishna basin gets linked to the shrines of Dattatreya, son of Atri and Anausya, who is linked to the Hindu trinity and is the teacher of Nath yogis. In the Yadav period, it is said Shankaracharya identified nearly five Jyotirlingas in the state. The famous Vari processions to Pandharpur came later with the rise of poet-saints.
The Yadav period witnessed numerous Bhakti movements that played a key role in establishing the Marathi identity before the Marathas. This began in the 13th century with the Marathi writings of the Mahanubhav sect, and with the Marathi translation of the Gita by Dyaneshwar, followed by poet-saints such as Tukaram, Eknath, Muktabai, Janabai and Chokhamela.
The Yadav period also witnessed the coming of Islam and numerous Sufi saints, hence the establishment of many mosques and dargahs under the rule of the Bahamani sultans as well as the sultans of Khandesh, Berar, Bidar and Ahmednagar. Shahaji and Sharifji, the father and uncle of Shivaji, were named after the Pir Shaha Sharif of Ahmednagar, indicating that Hindu courtiers also patronised Sufi pir shrines. Local Hindus venerated the pirs, but referred to their tombs as deul (temple) not dargah (mausoleum). Conflict with the Portuguese, who built some of the oldest churches in India, along the coast, meant that we find Portuguese bells in Hindu temples captured by Maratha warlords.
After Muslim rule, the Maratha chiefs made it a point to rebuild Hindu temples such as the Trimbakeshwar temple and the Ram mandirs in and around Nashik to assert Hindu dominance. Tulja Bhavani (linked to tiger-riding local goddesses) and Kolhapur Mahalakshmi (local form of lion-riding Durga, but vegetarian) became the goddesses of the Satara and Kolhapur branches of the Maratha royal families, while the Pune Peshwas patronised the eight guardian Ganeshas (ashta-Vinayak) around their city.
In the late Mughal period, caste inequality seems to have been amplified, as revealed by the legal records of the period. Hinduism was defined by distancing the elites from the ‘untouchables’ and Muslims. This explains why, when British rule started, it was in Maharashtra that the Dalit community first found their voice, thanks to Jyotibha Phule and his push for education. Kolhapur’s Shahu Maharaj was the first to introduce caste-based reservation in 1902. In the 1950s, BR Ambedkar, the champion of Dalits, established Navayana Buddhism as a protest against caste Hinduism.
Ironically, Maharashtra also became home to hardline Hindutva, with VD Savarkar rising up to purge the Marathi language of all things Persian, and defining Hindus as those whose holy places are in India, thereby excluding Christians and Muslims whose holy lands lay outside India in West Asia.