Title: The Chitpavan Brahmins -- A Social and Ethnic Study

Author Irawati Kant

Pages: 147

Degree: MA

Year of Submission: 1928

Guide: G.S. Ghurye

Methodology Historical/Empirical

As late as 1200 A.D. the Chitpavan Brahmins were poor farmers leading a life of seclusion and poverty. Soon they gained somewhat in social recognition and began to acquire new posts of honour. To surnames such as Joshi and Vartak were added those of petty officials such as Kulkarni, Deshmukh and so on. After efforts to raise and educate it, this illiterate and backward community came to occupy a front place and gave the country many eminent statesmen, brave soldiers and learned pundits The Chitpavans today are an influential and respected community.

But the Chitpavans and Deshasthas do not encourage inter-communal marriages, the former regarding the latter as slow and dull, and the latter considering the former as outsiders. The cause of this separateness is the temperament of the two people, the Chitpavans being a very pushing people. There are also some physical differences between the two. The Chitpavans arepopularly supposed to have a fair skin and light eyes. The bluish eye with a yellow centre is regarded as proof of their crafty nature.

The first plausible hypothesis of the ethnic origin of the Chitpavans was put forth by V.N. Mandlik. There are various studies in existence today, and the present study is an attempt at tackling the same problem.

In the history of the people there are no indications of their racial affinities. Very probably they were in the Konkan as farmers but little known to the other Brahmin communities in the Deccan.

The author begins the study by offering a brief history of the land. The western coast was well known for its trading and commercial relations and was dominated by Hindu dynasties, by Mohammedan, Portuguese, Maratha and finally by British rule.

The Parashurama myth is widely accepted in Maharashtra as explaining the origin of the Chitpavans. In this chapter the author, therefore, traces the myth through its different stages of development. The popular version of the myth recognizes the fact that the Konkan is a gift of the sea, a fact verified by geologists. In it Parashurama is everywhere the hero, and the father of the people. The next point in the myth is the story of a shipwreck and the creation of fourteen Brahmins from the corpses of the dead resulting from the shipwreck. Accordingly, interpreters point to Persia, Africa and other distant areas as the place of origin of the Chitpavans. But the most that can be inferred from the myth is that the Chitpavans were immigrants. Another significant element in the myth is the curse which is placed on these people for their faithlessness. The land thus becomes barren and the people poor and quarrelsome. In other parts of the country, away from their native land, the Chitpavans are a progressive and ambitious people; but in the Konkan, their homeland, there is very little scope for their ability; they, therefore, become bitterly jealous and suspicious of their neighbours. Costly and lengthy civil suits over small pieces of land are common. The myth also states that the Konkan was once a fertile tract. As this could not possibly have applied to this area, perhaps the fertility of the soil at one time is an indication of the former homeland of the Chitpavans. But this is not a decisive due, and so other evidence must be sought to answer this question of their origin. The people believe in the myth, although it is supposed that it originated in the Deccan among spiteful Deshastha Brahmins.

The Puranic version of the myth states that Parashurama, after settling in the new land, invited Brahmins from other parts of the country to assist him in his sacrifices. They refused; therefore, Parashurama resolved to create new Brahmins, and, decrying some people crossing the beach, he found that they were fisherman with sixty families in their caste. He made them all into Brahmins, and as the initiation took place in the cremation ground they were called Chitpavans. The Puranic version regards the Chitpavans as aborigines converted to a new faith and gives them accordingly a higher social status. There is no suggestion of an immigration.

Thereafter the author gathers together whatever general impressions are available about the Bhrgus in the Vedic sources and then goes on to give an account of the various sages in the order of the genealogy given in the Puranas. These are Bhrgu, the founder of the line, Sukra or Ushanaskavya and Chyavans, Aurus and Jamadagni. The brief notices about the Bhargavas of Bhrgus say nothing about the hero of the Parashurama legend. His father, Jamadagni, is mentioned, but Parashurama himself is not. This does not necessarily mean that he was an invention of the later Puranic age. In Vedic times the Bhrgus acquired the reputation of being champions of the priests and were, therefore, frequently mentioned in the Vedic and Brahminic texts. They appear everywhere as great fire-worshippers.

The author turns next to some synchronisms which make the legendary account clearer.

From the literature concerned one learns of Parashurama's spectacular revolt, but not where he had gone after he disappeared; nor that the Jamadigniyas were gods.

To complete the account of the references to Parashurama and his ancestors, the author then turns to some of the more southern versions of the myth as found in the Puranas and in popular belief.

According to the Brahmananda Purana, Parashurama saved the city of Gokarna when it was threatened by a flood and thus freed the land from the sea as far as Cape Comorin. The Brahmins in this region were supposed to have been fishermen who were made Brahmins by Parashurama. Another version, however, says that they came from the north. In any case popular belief holds Parashurama as the father and protector of the Brahmins on the west coast. In the southern versions of the myth it is said that Parashurama left Gokarna because he could not tolerate the scandalous behaviour of his mother. He went to live in an isolated part of the country, created by him, a flat swampy tract of land separated from the ocean through the casting of his scythe into it. the fisherfolk who flocked into this area were made into Brahmins and are the Nambudris of today. In two legends Parashurama kills his mother, but asks his father's permission to revive her. From other happenings related in these legends it can be concluded that in south India Parashurama's mother Renuka and he himself indirectly are connected with the aborigines of India.

Thus in the patriarchal traditions of the Aryans in northern India, the death of Renuka is a minor incident; in the south, however, with its matriarchal character, it becomes an important event. However, even in the south Parashurama's role as a creator of new land and a new class of Brahmins is not forgotten and local tradition has kept the memory of their people's father and creator ever fresh.

Popular belief is that the Chitpavans are characterized physically by a fair complexion and light-brown eyes with a mixture of green or bluish-yellow, the so-called cat's eye. In order to study the popular belief scientifically the author devised a scale of nine shades of eye-colour ranging from the darkest to the lightest. The ninth shade in this scale is the cat's eye, a mixture of yellow and blue. It is the lightest eye in the scale. The scale worked well as it covered all the eye-shades found among the Chitpavans. For the purpose of this investigation 3,097 individuals between 15 and 35 were chosen from the Ratnagiri district which is really the home of the Chitpavans. From the statistics one learns that the majority of the Chitpavans have light-brown or greenish-brown eyes, and not black eyes or cat's eyes. 51.5 per cent are dark and 483 per cent are light. The figures also indicate that the youngest children have the darkest eyes and that they become lighter as they pass from childhood to old age. This holds true for males and females alike. But where adults are concerned the males show a decided leaning towards lighter eyes. The percentage frequency for the cat's eye fluctuates greatly from age-group, but shows a greater frequency in middle and old age. The factor of sex seems to have no influence on the frequency. Comparing result from the Konkan and the Deccan, the author shows that in the Deccan the tendency is towards the darker shades, the females showing a majority of dark eyes in all stages and being more dark-eyed than the females in the Konkan. The cat's eye, however, shows approximately the same frequency as in the Konkan.

If black is considered a distinct shade the community shows a mixture of two kinds of tints. On the one side, there is the black and dark-brown shades, and on the other the light-brown, the green and the cat's eye.

The culture complex of the Chitpavans taken as a whole is like that of the other Brahmin communities of the Deccan. It is a mixture of pure Vedic tradition with other traits showing Dravidian influence, or, in other words, a mixture of the culture of the northern patriarchal Aryans and the culture of the southern mother-right Dravidians.

Most of the Chitpavans worship Mahadeva and Devi and not Parashurama. Another peculiarity of the Chitpavans is a ritual called Bodana. It is generally performed yearly but also at other times. A description of the ritual follows. The worship of a virgin is emphasized in this ritual. Surrounded by the Deshasthas, Karhadas, Saraswats and Prabhus, the Chitpavans stand alone in yet another cultural peculiarity. They are intensely patriarchal in their traditions and customs. For example, cross-cousin marriage does not occur among them, though it occurs among the others. Further, the social life and psychology of the Chitpavans show a perfect indifference to the mother's kin. Thus the maternal uncle has no special importance among them.

There are some exceptions, however, as the evidence indicates. Thus, the maternal uncle has to be present when the child is given rice for the first time. Again during the thread ceremony the boy is promised his maternal uncle's daughter as a bride in order to induce him to stay at home. Finally, when a bride goes to her husband's house for the first time, she is refused admission by his sister, who lets her enter only after she has promised that their children would be allowed to marry each other. The promises given on these occasions, however, are not given effect to among the Chitpavans, although they are considered binding among the Deshasthas, Saraswats and Kunbis.

The first attempt at tracing the origin of the Chitpavans was that of R.S. Mandlik who maintained that the ancestors of the people must have come from the sea in a ship, possibly from eastern sea-board of south Africa and were probably Berbers. They were then assimilated into the Dravida Brahmins. Sir R.G. Bandarkar also thought that the Chitpavans were Nordics confirming Mandlik's view, but asserting that they came from Palestine.

V.K Rajwade bases his interpretation on the Parashurama shaka (era) and maintains that Parashurama means Rema belonging to the country of the Parsus of Parsis. He also connects the name Parashurama with the Bhrgus, and the Bhrgus with the Phrygians or Persians. Rajwade also attempts to explain the name Chitpavan and affirms that the colonisation of the Konkan by Parashurama and his followers took place after the battle of the Mahabharata. Rajwade, furthermore, describes the economic condition of the Chitpavans and traces the growth of population among them. Rajwade then tries to show that many of the surnames of the Chitpavans are in reality the names of ancient Rishis prevalent as gotras before Bauddhayana. He concludes from this that the Chitpavans must have come into the Konkan long before Bauddhayana.

The next interpreter is Sane. He criticises Rajwade in some directions and goes on to state that the Chitpavans came originally from Cutch or Kathiawar as their language show points of similarity with the Cutchi language.

The author devotes chapter to see how far and in what degree the hero Parashurama is connected with the rest of the western coast. Gujarat, the northern part of this coastal strip, is linked with the name of Bhrgu and not with that of Parashurama. In Kerala, to the south, Parashurama occurs in frequent association with persons, populations and occurrences. There is a tradition in these parts of Brahmins being brought from north India. From a survey of this material the author concludes that it is the Chitpavans and not the other Brahmin groups who are most closely connected with the Parashurama myth. The working hypothesis which emerges from the myth is as follows: Parashurama with a few others plotted to kill the Haihaya princes. From their home on the Ganges these heroes travelled all the way to the Narmada where the Haihaya princes were killed; but the party had to flee in haste and went to the lonely western coast either via Nasik or by sea-route via Prabhasa. In the perilous journey, all save a handful were killed. Parashurama brought women from the south and got them married to his followers. It is these political refugees who were the forefathers of the Chitpavans.

The Chitpavans of today thus seem to be a mixture of the northern Indo-Aryans and the southern Dravidians. And Rajwade's interpretation of the name Chitpavan seems most plausible. The Bhrgus were noted as fire-priests and one way of arranging the fire was the construction of chiti, bricks laid out in a certain way to contain the sacred fire. The Brahmins led by Parashurama probably arranged their fire in this way, and therefore, blessed by Chityagni and hence got the name Chityapavan, later corrupted to Chitpavan. As for the ship-wreck and curse in the story, they may signify the infusion of some foreign blood. Concerning Parashurama's divinity, it should be noted that it was only at the beginning of the Christian era that his name was included in the list of octants and the honour of divinity bestowed on him. As for the matricide, it must have actually taken place and hence recorded by all the chroniclers, but the account of the revival must have been added later. The author then attempts to explain a few other aspects of the myth, trying in the process to iron out inconsistencies in it.

Turning to the question of the period when Parashurama lived, the author examines the evidence and concludes that he must have lived somewhere between 2000 and 2500 B.C.

As regards the ethnic origin of the Chitpavans, the surmise that they were connected with the Persians is baseless. Considering the variety of shades in their eye-colour, the conclusion is forced on us that the Chitpavans are a mixed population — the darker shades stemming from the Dravidians through the women they married and the lighter shades being Aryan. The cat's eye suggests that a' third strain is involved in the ethnic make-up of the Chitpavans. Very probably this strain was brought by the Aryans who were not a pure stock but had mixed more or less freely with the Iranians, a conjecture strengthened by the Jewish or Parsee type of nose found among the Chitpavans. Even the Dravidian strain in them is not pure. There seems to be a pre-Dravidian admixture indicated by the flat snub noses and wide nostrils found among some Chitpavans. It would thus seem that the Aryan and Dravidian types have a great share in the formation of the physical type of the Chitpavans of today with Semitic and pre-Dravidian strains as minor elements. Risley's description of the people of the western coast as Scytho-Dravidians is sweeping and unsatisfactory.

The Bodana and Mahalaxmi rituals found among the Chitpavans do not help in settling the problem of ethnic origin. Perhaps a comparative study of such rituals prevalent in India might help in throwing some light. The worship of Anuba Jogai by the Chitpavans must have been adopted after A.D. 1200. The few matriarchal customs and the strength of father-right among them is explained on the basis of the hypothesis of a group of Aryan males marrying Dravidian females. The Parashurama myth also confirms the hypothesis of a physical and cultural inter-mixture of Aryan and Dravidian giving rise to the Chitpavans.

There are two appendices, the first dealing with percentage frequencies of the different eye-shades and the second with the present condition of the Chitpavans.