Chitpavan Brahman

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Chitpavan Brahman

ETHNONYM: Konkanastha


Identification. "Chitpavan," sometimes spelled "Chittapavan," may mean either "pure from the pyre" or "pure in heart." Another name for this Brahman caste of the Marathi-speaking area of western India is "Konkanastha," which means "being of the Konkan," the coastal strip between the Arabian Sea and the Western Ghats (mountains) south of the city of Bombay. The "pure from the pyre" meaning of Chitpavan is a reference to an origin myth claiming that the caste was created by the god Parashuram from bodies of shipwrecked sailors, purified on the pyre, restored to life, and taught Brahman rites. This myth is found in the "Sahyadri Khanda" of the Skanda Purana, a chapter probably compiled by a Deshastha Brahman, one of the "original" Brahmans of the Marathi-speaking area, and hence not always flattering to Chitpavans. Members of the caste are generally very fair, often have aquiline noses, and frequently possess gray, blue, or green eyes. At various times it has been speculated that they were originally Turks, Iranians, Egyptians, Greeks, Jews, Berbers, or people from farther south or north in India.

Location. The original home of the Chitpavans was around the city of Chiplun in Ratnagiri District, the northern part of the Konkan, and some derive the name "Chitpavan" from "Chiplun." In the eighteenth century members of the caste moved throughout the Desh area (the Marathi-speaking heartland, inland from the coastal mountains) and in British times to all the cities of the Marathi-speaking area, especially Pune, Sangli, and Wai, and beyond. Since Indian independence in 1947, many have migrated abroad.

Demography. No census records on castes other than Untouchables have been kept since 1931. Maureen Patterson estimates that there are now around 250,000 Chitpavans, roughly 13 percent of the Brahmans of the state of Maharashtra, less than 1 percent of that area's population.

Linguistic Affiliation. Marathi is spoken by all people Native to Maharashtra; it is an Indo-European language containing elements from the Dravidian Language Family. Until recently, there was a "Chitpavani bhasa," a distinctive nasality in many Chitpavans' speech. The last traces may be seen in the popular didactic book of short sketches by Sane Guruji (1899-1950), Shyamchi Ai (Shyam's Mother), published in 1933 and still read for enjoyment, moral tales, and its cultural importance.

History and Cultural Relations

From the beginning of the eighteenth century to the Contemporary period, Chitpavans have played a part in the history of India far beyond their numbers. Unheard of before the late seventeenth century, the Chitpavans began their rise to fame with the appointment of Balaji Vishwanath Bhat as peshwa (prime minister) to Shahu, the grandson of the founder of the Maratha Kingdom, Shivaji. Balaji raised the office of the peshwa to de facto rule of the Maratha Empire, and from 1713 until their defeat by the British in 1818, the peshwas ruled one of the last large independent kingdoms in India. During this period, Chitpavans from the Konkan joined the military and administrative ranks of the Maratha Empire in large numbers. Chitpavans served not only in the cities of the Marathi-speaking area but also in the other kingdoms of the Maratha expansion: Gwalior, Baroda, Indore. Even after the British victory over the peshwa, one of the important Chitpavan administrative families, that of the Patwardhans, was left to rule seven small princely states in southern Maratha territory. The peshwa himself was exiled to the north lest he form a nucleus of rebellion, and the British ruled what then became part of Bombay Presidency. Nana Saheb, the heir of the peshwa, became from his exile near Kanpur (Cawnpore) one of the important figures in the 1857 rebellion against the British.

Under British rule, the Chitpavans quickly took to English education, and most of the famous names of Maratha history from the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries are from this caste: the early reformer and essayist Hari Gopal Deshmukh (Lokahitawadi) (1823-1892); reformers and nationalists on an all-India scale Mahadeo Govind Ranade (1842-1901) and Gopal Krishna Gokhale (1866-1915), whom Gandhi called one of his gurus; the most famous Maharashtrian woman of the nineteenth century, educator and Christian convert Pandita Ramabai (1858-1922); the radical patriot Bal Gangadhar (Lokamanya) Tilak (1856-1920); the Hindu revivalist Vinayak Damodar Savarkar (1893-1966); orientalists Pandurang Vaman Kane (1880-1972) and Ramchandra Narayan Dandekar (b. 1909); economist D. R. Gadgil (1901-1971); Mahatma Gandhi's "spiritual successor," Vinoba Bhave (1895-1982); anthropologist Iravati Karve (1905-1970); cricketer D. B. Deodhar (b. 1891); and many others. Even Maharashtra's "terrorists" were Chitpavan, from the nineteenth-century rebel Wasudeo Balwant Phadke, through the Chapekar brothers in the 1890s, to Nathuram Vinayak Godse, Gandhi's assassin in 1948. The nationalist activities of the Chitpavans, both radical and moderate, caused considerable hatred and fear on the part of some Britons, and there are many references to the arrogant and "untrustworthy" Chitpavans in the Raj literature. Maharashtrians today are justifiably proud of the many contributions to Indian nationalism made by Chitpavans.

With the rise of Gandhi after 1920, the Maharashtra area ceased to be a main center of Indian political life, and such Chitpavan political figures as Tilak's successor, N. C. Kelkar, had little power on the national scene. The non-Brahman political movement brought the large caste of the Marathas to the fore, and it is claimed that Chitpavan N. R. Gadgil brought the non-Brahman leadership into the Indian National Congress to strengthen that chief nationalist group. The non-Brahmans then dominated by sheer numbers and a newfound sense of their importance in the previously Brahman-dominated political arena. By the time of Indian independence, no Brahman was important in the Congress party. Later Chitpavan political skill was exerted on the Left and on the Right, not in the moderate Indian National Congress. Important Socialists are S. M. Joshi (b. 1904), N. G. Goray (b. 1907), and currently Madhu Limaye (b. 1922), although these have not been as well known on the national stage as were Tilak, Gokhale, or Ranade.

Chitpavans dominated the Marathi-speaking area administratively, culturally, economically, and educationallyin fact, in every field except ritual religionsince their first appearance in western India in the late seventeenth Century until the decades just before Indian independence. This dominance eventually resulted in a strong anti-Brahman feeling that surfaced violently after the death of Gandhi in 1948 at the hands of a Chitpavan Brahman. Rioting and destruction in Bombay, Nagpur, and a belt from Pune to Kolhapur drove Chitpavans (and often other Brahmans) to large cities, out of government service, and into still more new pursuits. Most Chitpavan families now have at least one member working in professional life in Europe or the United States.


The occupation of the Chitpavans in their original territory of the Konkan was farming, with some income from performing ritual among their own caste. However, they often were the khots of a Konkani village, a position combining the headmanship and the financial work of the village. In other areas of Maharashtra, Brahmans were the village accountants, but the head of the village was of a Maratha caste. The combination of the two responsibilities put power into the hands of a single head, and there were many efforts to reform the khoti system in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Chitpavans rarely took up agricultural work after their migration, nor did they become ritual priests except within their own caste. Many, however, became teachers and recognized Sanskrit scholars. Some of the best known Brahman scholars in the sacred city of Varanasi were Chitpavan migrants. From the nineteenth century on they have entered the professions in large numbers. The early entrance of the Chitpavans into new occupations and pursuits caused the Ratnagiri District Gazetteer of the late nineteenth century to describe them as "a very frugal, pushing, active, intelligent, well-taught, astute, self-confident and overbearing class [following] almost all callings and generally with success." A 1920 census list of their occupations reads: government service, lawyers, engineers, doctors, bankers, priests, writers, landowners, and "husbandmen" (farmers). One of the first Maharashtrian industrialists was Vishnu Ramchandra Velankar (b. 1890), founder of Gajanan Weaving Mills. Recently Chitpavans have entered high-tech industry and business.

Kinship, Marriage and Family

The Chitpavan caste contains fourteen gotras (kin groups based on a mythical ancestor), which play a role chiefly in determining marriage patterns. One may not marry within one's gotra or with someone from an "unfriendly" gotra. Outside marriage, the most important unit is the household family, and in addition to that the kula, an exogamous clan usually based on a family name, is important. A most unusual feature of the caste are family histories, called kula-vrittantas in Marathi, each based on a clan name such as Limaye, Karandikar, Bapat, etc. Originally 60 (according to the Sahyadri Khanda see above), there are now about 400 last names. Since 1914, fifty-five books covering the histories of forty-seven kulas (and involving in total 80 surnames) have been published, offering an unusual opportunity to study changes in occupation and location, the nature of household gods, the marriage patterns, etc. of these Chitpavan families. It is perhaps significant that no genealogy in the kula-vrittantas traces ancestors to a time before the Chitpavans appeared in the historical records around 1700.

In contrast to most Maharashtrian and south Indian castes, a Chitpavan may not marry his maternal uncle's daughter, and cross-cousin marriages are not usually allowed. Chitpavans have been freer than other Brahman castes to marry outside their caste, and many have married into other high-caste groups; occasionally Chitpavan men have married Western women.

Sociopolitical Organization

Chitpavans have had no caste panchayat as many other castes have had, but social control was firm, if informal. The reformer Justice Mahadeo Govind Ranade was made to perform penance after a nineteenth-century tea party in a Christian home, and D. K. Karve (1858-1962), founder of a widows' home and later the first women's university in India, was ostracized for marrying a widow in the late nineteenth century. Chitpavans have been fighters in the front ranks of reform as well as defenders of traditionalism.

Religion and Expressive Culture

Religious Beliefs. Although there is an image of Parashuram in the temple at Chiplun, this does not seem to have become a pilgrimage center for Chitpavans. Most Chitpavans belong to the Smarta sect of Hinduism, and they consider themselves either Rigvedis of the Ashvalayana Shaka or Yajurvedis of the Taittiriya Shaka. Each family has a special god or goddess (or both), called a kuladaivata or kulaswami(ni), which are ritually important at the household level. The majority of these gods are Shaiva, associated with villages in the Konkan, and the goddess or devi is often Jogai or Jogeshvari or a Konkani goddess. The temple of Jogeshvari is one of the main goddess temples in the older part of the city of Pune (Poona), the capital of the peshwas during the Maratha period. The peshwas also had a special relationship with the elephant-headed god Ganesh, "the remover of obstacles," and in the late nineteenth century the nationalist Bal Gangadhar Tilak raised household Ganesh worship to a neighborhood function, complete with "booths" for public worship and patriotic themes. The Ganesh or Ganpati festival still has special importance in Pune and other Maharashtrian cities.

Ceremonies. Although Chitpavans were known as Sanskrit scholars and teachers and strict observers of religious rights, Deshastha Brahmans, the traditional ritual priests of the Marathi-speaking area, considered them ritually inferior. The Chitpavans never adopted the role of ritualist, except within their own caste. However, they were orthodox in many ways. Suttee, or the immolation of the widow on the pyre of her husband, was a valued ceremony among Chitpavans until it was outlawed in 1830, but it was given up totally at that time. Marriage and funeral rites for Chitpavan Brahmans resemble those for other Brahmans, but there is a special Modern Chitpavan twist to the funeral experience. The elements of the funeral include: water from the Ganges being poured as a last oblation on the dying Brahman's head; the carrying of the corpse to the cremation grounds on a bamboo pyre; the bringing of fire to the grounds in a special earthen pot; the lighting of the fire by the oldest son; and the thirteen days of mourning followed by a feast for neighbors and family. All this is the subject of a very popular, darkly comedic play by a Chitpavan, Satish Alekar's Mahanirvana, translated in English as "The Dread Departure." A practice that is especially important to Chitpavan and other Brahman women is the Mahalakshmi puja, which occurs during the festival of Navratri ("nine nights"). It is a special celebration for the first five years of married life. During this festival, women join in a Ritual of blowing into earthen pots, which induces hyperventilation, possession by a goddess, and at times a generally hilarious party atmosphere.

Arts. While Chitpavans have no particular traditional art or craft, they have been enormously important in bringing modernity to Maharashtrian culture. Vishnushastri Chiplunkar (1850-1882) is called the father of modern Marathi prose. Vishnu Narayan Bhatkande (1860-1936) systematized classical music, established schools for the teaching of music, and facilitated the continuance of Hindustani music under modern systems of patronage. Govind Ballal Deval (1855-1916) was a popular early dramatist, creating plays on social reform themes. Hari Narayan Apte (1864-1919) is considered the father of the modern Marathi novel, and many of the most famous writers in Marathi have come from the Chitpavan caste.

See also Maratha


Chitale, Venu (1950). In Transit. Bombay: Hind Kitabs.

Cox, Linda (1970), "The Chitpavans." Illustrated Weekly of India 91:6-15, 36-37.

Karve, Iravati (1958). "What Is Caste?" Economic Weekly 10 (January annual; 22 March; July special): 125-138; 401-407; 881-888.

Patterson, Maureen L. P. (1968). "Chitpavan Brahman Family Histories. Sources for a Study of Social Structure and Social Change in Maharashtra" In Structure and Change in Indian Society, edited by Milton B. Singer and Bernard S. Cohn, 397-411. Chicago: Aldine.

Patterson, Maureen L. P. (1970). "Changing Patterns of Occupation among Chitpavan Brahmans." Indian Economic and Social History Review 7:375-396.

Patterson, Maureen L. P. (1988). "The Shifting Fortunes of Chitpavan Brahmans: Focus on 1948." In City, Countryside, and Society in Maharashtra, edited by D. W. Attwood et al. Toronto: South Asian Studies, University of Toronto.

Tilak, Lakshmibai Gokhale (1950). I Follow After: An Autobiography. Translated by E. Josephine Inkster. Madras: Oxford University Press.