Thanjavur has always been lucky in its rulers, for all of them fostered the fine arts and enriched the cultural life of Thanjavur. Among the Maratha contributions must be mentioned the art of Harikatha. Harikatha has its roots in the kirtan tradition of Maharashtra. Saint Samartha Ramadas, who was born in 1608, gave a theoretical foundation to this art through his work ‘Dasabodha.'
Samartha was the spiritual guru of Chatrapathi Sivaji. In 1676, Sivaji's step-brother Ekoji became the first Maratha ruler of Thanjavur. In 1677, Samartha visited Thanjavur, and left behind his disciples, who went on to establish maths in Thanjavur. The earliest of these is called Peria mutt, and was established by Bhimraj Swami near Samandan Kulam, in the place where Samartha had stayed. Anantha Muni established a math in Mannargudi and Raghava Swami established one at Konur.
On a particular mission
Bhimraj Swami's disciples went on to establish maths too. Each of the disciples had a particular object that had been used by Bhimraj Swami. Thus the Govindabalaswami math in Sakhanaicken Street was established by the disciple who had Bhimraj Swami's Paduka. The Annaji Bhava math in South Street was established by the one who received the kubuddi (stick) and the Joliram mutt was established by the one who received the Joli (biksha bag) of Bhimraj Swami. There is a Bhimaswami math in South Street, the founder of which was in charge of maintaining the samadhi of Bhimraj Swami in Karuntattangudi.
B. Ramachandran, whose family has been in charge of the Bhimaswami mutt, has been involved in research into Samartha's tradition, especially from the Thanjavur angle. Adherents of the mutts follow the traditions in spite of the dwindling number of those attending functions at the maths. “Thirty years ago, at least 10 people per mutt used to go for unchavritti. Now it is hard to find even four,” rues Ramachandran.
During Samartha's wedding, when the priests said, “savadhan,” meaning “Be careful,” Samartha realised that he had to be on guard against the pitfalls of worldly life. Galvanised into action by the word ‘savadhan,' Samartha renounced worldly life at once. Since the word ‘savadhan' triggered Samartha's immediate renunciation, it is repeated during the Harikatha of his life story.
“On Ekadasi, my father would take the aradhana murthis on the streets around the mutt, and then walk to Karuntattangudi. He would come back in the evening and continue with the rest of the rituals. Since it was Ekadasi, he would be fasting. Not even a drop of water would moisten his lips. These days, we just take the murthis three times around our courtyard,” says Ramachandran, who was encouraged in his study of the Samartha tradition by Nagaraja Goswami, of the Joliram Mutt. It was he who asked Ramachandran to go to Dhule where there is a library, called Vaghdevta Mandir, devoted exclusively to works on Samartha.
“About 75 years ago, a gentleman from Maharasthra, called Nanasaheb Deo travelled all over India, visiting maths established in the Samartha tradition, and also collecting manuscripts pertaining to Samartha. Interestingly the largest collection of manuscripts - 300 bundles - was from the Joliram math. These manuscripts are now in Dhule.”
Many of the manuscripts are in Modi, and contain abhangs and other compositions. Ramachandran, who can read Modi, is preparing a descriptive catalogue of the manuscripts. There is also correspondence in Modi, written from Sajjanagad to Thanjavur, from 1860 onwards. The postal covers, with the stamps are intact too. Ramachandran plans to translate the letters into Tamil.
The Joliram math has some very old, beautiful paintings of the lives of the Maratha saints. There used to be a publishing house called Nirnaya Sagar press in Mumbai, which published a book called ‘Santha Vijayam,' by Mahipathi Bhua Tarabadkar. Ramachandran says this book has pictures of paintings, which are exact replicas of the paintings in the Joliram mutt. Ramachandran's guess is that someone from Maharashtra must have visited Joliram math and made copies of the paintings there, and that photographs of these must have been used in the book. But where are the copies now, he wonders.
The math in Mannargudi, and the one in Sakhanaicken Street too continue despite odds. But the Konur mutt vanished long ago. Sajjanagad, a monthly magazine on Samartha, is published in Satara and has 6,500 subscribers. While Samartha gave Thanjavur the art of Harikatha, from which came the art of Harikatha Kalakshepa, Thanjavur showed its gratitude to the saint, in a different way. Samartha is said to have restored the eyesight of a blind Viswakarma of Thanjavur and requested the latter to make bronze idols of Rama, Sita, Lakshmana and Anjaneya. Samartha took the idols with him and worshipped them in Sajjanagad, where he attained Samadhi. A temple was built in Sajjanagad and the idols were installed there, and are still being worshipped, proclaiming Thanjavur's association with the great Maharashtrian saint.