Thursday, September 18, 2008

Breaking "news".

Your correspondent has been boring you to distraction for quite a while with the Chronicles of The Mankars at 233 Khetwadi Main Road Now he has some "news" for you to get all breathless in Bombay (now Mumbai) about. It concerns the conquest of the Fort of Ba├žaim (later Bassein, now Vasai) by Chimaji Appa, a Maratha (Peshwa) General in February 1739. In the success of this expedition, Khanduji Mankar, a Pathare (Pratihar) Prabhu, and Antaji Kawale, a Yajurvedi Brahmin, were believed to have played a pivotal though unspecified role. The latter was even promised the jagir of Malad but, after Bajirao I's and Chimaji's death, the new Peshwa reneged on the promise and made life miserable for the Yajurvedi Brahmins and their associates, the Pathare Prabhus. The latter community migrated to Bombay and joined the service of the Company.

In Chapter 6 of Madame Helena Patrovna Blavatsky's From the Caves and Jungles of Hindostan (1879-80), she wrote about visiting a Patara Prabhu household in the Bombay Presidency for an evening meal on a Monday (probably a shrawan Monday). A vegetarian menu, including panchamrit, a favourite of Ashu's usually included in a Pathare Prabhu marriage feast, was mentioned. According to her host, Sham Rao Bhaunathji, the Pathare Prabhus were Kshatriyas (warriors) and direct dscendents of Ashvapati (700 BC), a lineal descendent of Rama. Ashvapati was cursed, because of an unintended lapse, by Sage Bhrigu that all his progeny would perish. He, however, managed to get a part reprieve from the Sage and the Pataras became the Patans (the fallen ones) but did not entirely disappear from the face of the earth. She writes about how their current generation was living "by their pens" which is to say "occupying all the small Government posts in the Bombay Presidency, and so being dangerous rivals of the Bengali Babus since the time of British rule. In Bombay the Patan clerks reach the considerable figure of five thousand. Their complexion is darker than the complexion of Konkan Brahmans, but they are handsomer and brighter."

Blavatsky did not mention, indeed did not seems to be aware of, an alternative interpretation of the prefix Patan. It has been postulated that the prefix probably sprang from their hailing from Patan, Gujarat, and arriving in Bombay in the 13th Century during Raja Bhimdev's (or Bimb's) reign. Another theory by the art historian W E Gladstone Soloman is that, in Marathi, Pathar means "table land" or flat land and these people occupying the plains of Rajasthan came to be known as Pathare Prabhus. Raja Bhimdev created twelve Kshatriya Lords (Prabhus) of the Solar Race with surnames like Ajinkya (= the invincible), Dhaiyarwan (= the courageous), Dharadhar (= the supporter of the earth), Dhurandhar (= the foremost), Gorakshakar (= the protector of cows), Jayakar (= the victorious), Kirtikar (= the illustrious), Kothare (= the administrator or manager of the store house/granery), Mankar (= the noble one), Nayak (= the leader), Rane (= the kingly lord) and Rao (= the noble lord). These surnames persisted even after they lost their warrior status and became minor officials under the Marathas and civilian officials under the East India Company. "If the sword had brought them glory, the pen now gave them wealth, and it is said that in the Eighteenth Century they were among the richest folk in Bombay." Around this time, the easy going and luxury loving Pathare Prabhus must have been nicknamed sokajis. (The closest English equivalent for this tag is a bon vivant as well as a fop or a dandy.) Later in the British Raj, they held important offices in the Bombay Presidency as judges, educationist, lawyers, doctors, merchants, architects, artists and engineers. This account tallies with Blavatsky's.

In the 19th and early 20th centuries, the Pathare Prabhus were reputedly the owners of prime properties in Mumbai: in Fort, on Palav (now Girgaum Road or Jagannath Shankarseth Marg), in Navi Wadi, in Laini (now Princess Street), on Girgaum Back Road (now Vithalbhai Patel Road), in Malad, Goregaon, Bhayendar, Kashi-Mira, Uttan, Uran, Kelve Mahim (now Mahim), Chene and a large part of Khar (West). They were also supposed to have built prominent Mumbai landmarks such as the Mahalaxmi Temple, Bhau-cha-dhakka (Ferry Wharf), Gora Ram Temple, Kala Ram Temple (both in Thakurdwar close to where I stay), Prabhadevi Temple (Mahim), Shri Ram Temple (Kalbadevi) and Kirtikar Market (Dadar). The Maheshwari Temple in Navi Wadi (enshrining the Mankars' family deity) is believed to have a swayambhu (spontaneously created) idol. The one trait of the Pathare Prabhus mentioned by W E Gladstone Soloman (p.49 ), the composing and singing of epithalamiums during the marriage ceremony, is something I can personally vouch for. Written in flowery and hagiographic Marathi, I have heard them at several weddings sung to the tune of the mangalashtakas (mantras solemnising the nuptials).

Finally, Dr Babsaheb Ambedkar wrote in Annihilation of Caste with a Reply to Mahatma Gandhi about the Pathare Prabhu's abandoning their custom of widows remarrying as follows:"At one time the Pathare Prabhus had widow-remarriage as a custom of their caste. This custom of widow-remarriage was later on looked upon as a mark of social inferiority by some members of the caste especially because it was contrary to the custom prevalent among the Brahmins. With the object of raising status of their community some Pathare Prabhus sought to stop this practice of widow-remarriage that was prevalent in their caste. The community was divided into two camps, one for and the other against the innovation. The Peshwas took the side of those in favour of widow-remarriage and thus virtually prohibited the Pathare Prabhus from following the ways of the Brahmins."

Time out for a personal memory before closing: At one point in her narrative, Blavatsky wrote: "At the foot of a broad, carved staircase we came across a couch or a cradle, hung from the ceiling by iron chains." This sentence reminded me of the wooden swing we used to have in the central north-south passage way in our terrace flat at 233 Khetwadi Main Road. It was rectangular with horizontal slats, made of teakwood most likely. It hung from a special beam halfway from the ceiling - I have no clue if it had been there before we moved to the flat or not, though considering that the building was originally built and owned by an Arab diamond merchant, it's more than probable that it predated us there. The swing had four brass chains. One more thing I remember about it is that it had an almost identical twin in my uncle's ground floor flat facing the Roxy Cinema where I was born. Our swing used to be my make-believe Deccan Queen. I used to play a game of Bombay to Poona on it all by myself, varying the speed and the sweep of the swing depending on whether the Queen was running on level ground or doing the ghat gradients.