Struggle for survival

WHEN the Mahrattas ruled Tamil Nadu from Thanjavur (their dynasty was founded by Chatrapati Shivaji's half-brother Venkoji) for nearly two centuries from 1675, they encouraged a large number of settlers from the Deccan and Karnataka to consolidate their power in the South. Many Brahmins and Kshatriyas, known as Deshasthas, found their homes in the fertile Cauvery delta, Thanjavur and its neighbourhood.

Thanjavur became the southern home of the Mahrattas till it was annexed by the British under the Doctrine of Lapse in the mid- 1880s. The Marathi-speaking population rose to about 2,50,000 in the South by the turn of the 20th Century. In almost every district of then Madras Presidency, Marathi-speaking people were to be found, though the largest concentration was found in Thanjavur.

The Mahratta rulers were great patrons of learning and scholarship, fine arts and culture. Under their benevolent rule, Thanjavur attained a pre-eminent position in different fields, including commerce. Many Maharashtrian families distinguished themselves. Men like T. Ananda Rao, T. Madhava Rao, V. P. Madhava Rao, Raghunatha Rao and T. Rama Rao and Venkat Rao were dewans of princely States like Mysore, Travancore, Indore and Baroda. Others like Palladam Sanjiva Rao and B.A. Gopal Rao made significant contributions in their respective fields.

The Saraswati Mahal Library, a unique treasure house, has now been recognised by the Centre as an institution of national importance. It was set up during the reign of Nayaks in the 16th Century, but it was the scholar-king Serfoji Maharaja who developed it as a matchless repository of culture and knowledge. Today it contains some very rare manuscripts in Marathi, Sanskrit, Tamil, Telugu and other languages.

The South Indian Maharashtrians or Thanjavur rayars, known for their scholarship and integrity, with a distinct identity of their own, have become a near-extinct or endangered species with a bleak future. The fast-changing economic and political environment, a lack of leadership and enterprise account for the decline and fall of Smartha Deshashtas and Madhwas in the South. In the first half of the 20th Century, several Maharashtrians achieved eminence in the civil services, administration, academics and other fields. Today the community and the rayar pariwar are in a shambles.

At the turn of this century, several hundred Maharashtrian families, owning properties lived in Thanjavur and neighbouring districts. They lived off the income from the land in comfort and style. They did not have to work unless, of course, it was a government job. Marriages were common within the small community in narrow geographical confines, often risking inbreeding. They rarely ventured out in search of new pastures - all characteristic of feudal societies. But their intellect and high spirit gave them a unique place in the community.

In its heyday, the royal family in Thanjavur kept many engaged in various fields. According to a historian, because of their isolation from their homeland, many settlers accepted Thanjavur as their home and their assimilation of local cultures made them different from their counterparts in the west. Thanjavur Marathi is better understood by a Tamilian than a Maharashtrian in Pune.

Slowly, the process of dispersal began as the young, educated Maharashtrians started looking for career opportunities elsewhere. Several families migrated to Chennai and other regions. The shift in properties marked the beginning of the decline of the South Indian Maharashtrians. Popular landmarks like the Mangala Vilas in the South Main Street in Thanjavur, a well-known heritage building built by the Mahratta rulers over a century ago, has given way to shopping complexes.

The descendants of Vittal Mandir in the West Main Street continue to live in this regal building where the towering personality of Viswanatha Rao dominated the local scene. A television programme was shot by a team at the premises only a few weeks ago. But many other buildings which loudly proclaimed the Maharashtrian identity of the town have now disappeared.

Former Deputy Comptroller and Auditor General, (he also had a stint as the Accountant General of West Bengal), T. B. Nagaraja Rao, who heads the Joliram Goswami Math in Thanjavur, feels that the outlook is very bleak. He says brilliant minds like Thandalam Gopal Rao or Ramachandra Rao are not seen anymore among the Deshashtas. The performance of the younger generation is disappointing, he says.

The Joliram Math is a repository of old paintings, some of them over 400 years old. It is one of the seven Samartha Ramadas maths set up in Thanjavur when the Maharattas were in power. Sant Ramadas was the guru of Chatrapathi Shivaji. The Maharatta rulers found the Maths convenient to propagate the concepts of Hindu dharma and secular ideals. They also became the focal points of contact with the people. The Bhimaraja Goswami Math in the East Main Street was known as the "big" math and took care of the needs of the royal family. Barring a few, most Maths are in poor shape due to dwindling resources and weak leadership.

K. Rangesh Rao, now over 90-years-old has seen the decline of the Deshashtas in Thanjavur over four decades. According to him, over 500 Marathi families lived in the West Main Street alone 50 years ago but today barely 50 have survived. Most of them have migrated to greener pastures.

The community lacks cohesion and unity to protect and preserve its interests, he says. The younger generation is not aware of its glorious past nor conscious of its responsibility. The Maharashtra Samaj has become popular, thanks to the late Venkoba Naig and his friends. He was a great singer of Marathi abhangs and taught them to many youngsters. This tradition has survived to this day, due to his pioneering efforts.

The Samaj teaches Marathi to youngsters, but few come these days to learn their mother tongue at the Samaj. The generous donation of Rs. 5 lakhs given by Sharad Pawar during his visit to Thanjavur helped the Samaj renovate and upgrade its premises. Yet a lot more needs to be done to foster the community spirit among the Marathi-speaking people in the South, says Rao.

Nagarajan admits that the dispersal of Marathi-speaking population began decades ago as people looked for career opportunities elsewhere. Those who could not manage their properties for economic reasons sold them and migrated.

The Thanjavur Palace kept many engaged by assigning work in various areas. For the Deshashtas, it was a matter of prestige to be associated with the royal family and the palace. In the early 1890s, English education was not popular yet, but in the 1920s, the old order began to disappear. Also support from the Palace began to decline hastening the plight of the Deshashtas.

According to T. Shivaji Raja Bhosale, son of the seniormost Prince, Tulajendra Raja Bhosale (who passed away recently), members of the royal family are active in public life but keep out of politics. They are involved in the cultural and social life in Thanjavur. The royal family continues to observe old Mahratta customs and traditions. The entire family lives in the palace which is owned by the Government. The relations of the prince are all engaged in business and none get political pension like Tulajendra Bhosale.

The family has nurtured the secular traditions of the Maratha dynasty and continues to support the fine arts, music and other cultural activities. "The contribution of my ancestors in this field is unique and won them the respect and loyalty of the people," says Shivaji Raja Bhosale.

Today only a small number of Deshashtas and Madhwas are seen in Thanjavur and its suburbs. New job opportunities are scarce for the Mahrattas. It is estimated that hardly 200 Deshashta families live in Thanjavur now. Together with the Mahrattas, their population may not exceed 500. Poor public participation in their cultural activities like Ram Navami, Shivaji Jayanti, Gudi Padava, Samaratha Navami reflect the dwindling population of the community .

The Mahrattah dynasty in Thanjavur has earned a place in the history for its benevolent rule. The Mahrattas did not impose or try to impose their language and culture on the local people. Under the regime, a fine blend of the Marathi and Tamil and local cultures was encouraged.

Today, Thanjavur bears the imprint of this tradition. For the surviving members of the royal family and the Marathi-speaking population in Thanjavur, however, life has become a hard struggle for survival.


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