views updated Jun 11 2018


MAHARASHTRA The name Maharashtra, meaning "the land of the Marathi-speaking people," appears to be derived from Maharashtri, an old form of Prakrit. Some scholars believe that it was the land of the maharatthis (great charioteers) while others consider the term to be a corruption of Maha Kantara (the Great Forest), a synonym for Dandakaranya of the Rāmāyaṇa.

The Land and Its People

The state of Maharashtra is located in the northwest and center of peninsular India, bounded by the Arabian Sea to the west, Gujarat and Madhya Pradesh to the north, Andhra Pradesh to the east, Karnataka and Goa to the south. In area (118,828 sq. mi., or 307,762 sq. km), the state ranks fourth below Uttar Pradesh, Rajasthan, and Madhya Pradesh, while in terms of population (96,752,000; 2001 estimate) it ranks third in the country, below Uttar Pradesh and Bihar. Maharashtra's physical features divide it into three distinct regions: the Konkan coast; the mountainous Sahyadri Range; and the "Desh" Deccan plateau. The Sahyadri Range, the physical backbone of Maharashtra, rises on an average to 3,280 feet (1,000 meters), with steep cliffs dropping westward to the coastal strip of Konkan; the hilltops, locally called the Ghatmatha, drop in steps eastward through a transitional area known as Mawal to the large Deccan plateau. Lying between the Arabian Sea and the Sahyadri Range is the Konkan, a narrow coastal lowland, barely 30 miles (48 km) wide, alternating between narrow, steep-sided valleys and low laterite plateaus. In the north, the Satpuda Range and the eastward extension of the Bhamragad-Chiroli-Gaikhuri ranges provide natural borders for the state, historically serving as a barrier to invasions from the north.

Maharashtra's Traditions

Maharashtra is proud of its three heritages and of its cosmopolitan capital, Mumbai. First, it is the land of the historic Marathas, who produced a great Indian hero, Shivaji, and built a power structure lasting more than 150 years, administering both directly and indirectly three-quarters of the subcontinent at the time of the British takeover. Second, predating Shivaji and continuing to date, is Maharashtra's nine-centuries-old bhakti tradition, a movement unifying masses, urban and rural, rich and poor. Third, it was in its capital, Mumbai (Bombay), that the Indian National Congress was born in 1885, and it was from the same venue that Mahatma Gandhi launched the historic "Quit India" movement in 1942. Mumbai, its capital since the birth of the state on 1 May 1960, is also regarded as the country's industrial and financial capital.

The power center during Shivaji's early days and throughout the period of the Peshwai (1714–1818) was Pune (120 miles [193 km] southeast of Mumbai), the heart of Maharashtra, which also produced the first major nonviolent challenge to British rule through the leadership of Bal Gangadhar Tilak and Gopal Krishna Gokhale, as well as the violent alternative provided by Vinayak Damodar Sawarkar, Chaphekar Brothers, and Vasudeo Balwant Phadke. The city also boasts an array of excellent academic institutions in diverse fields, leading the country in the study of archaeology, linguistics, anthropology, and Sanskrit. Its engineering and medical education facilities stand among the top ten in the country.

The Bhakti Cult

A great social leveler in Maharashtra has been the sustained popularity of the bhakti (devotion to Krishna) cult, with an unbroken tradition, at least for nine centuries, of pilgrimage to the temple of Vithoba at Pandharpur. Every year, several hundred thousand warkari devotees, from all ranks of society, walk scores of miles from different towns and villages all over the state to converge on the temple. Along the way and at the temple, they sing bhajans (devotional songs) composed by poet-saints from the thirteenth to the seventeenth centuries, and eat together, regardless of caste or economic status.

Leading the bhakti tradition in Maharashtra was Jnanadeva or Jnanesvara (1271–1296), who synthesized philosophy, mysticism, and poetry in his Marathi rendering of the Bhagavad Gītā, which is still widely read in Maharashtra. The tradition was continued by many saint-poets, notably Namdev (1270–1350), Chokhamela (c. fourteenth century), Eknatha (1533–1599), and the much-loved Tukaram (1598–1650), whose poetry marked the peak of the bhakti tradition. Ramdas (1608–1684), regarded as Shivaji's political and spiritual guru, also belonged to the same poet-saint tradition. All these saint-poets focused on Vithoba of Pandharpur, which became the devotional capital of Maharashtra.

Together, these poet-saints established a "spiritual democracy," bringing the philosophy of the Vedanta in simple terms to ordinary people, who were encouraged to disregard caste distinctions in a common devotion to the Divine. The bhakti and warkari traditions are basic to the understanding of Maharashtrian ethos communality, a sentiment that provided a common platform for the Maratha polity founded by Shivaji and that was continued through the eighteenth century by the Peshwas and the Pentarchy, whose members were drawn from different communities.

Brief Historical Account

Major parts of Maharashtra came under different dynasties, such as the Chalukyas of Badami in the sixth century a.d. and the Rashtrakutas in the eighth century. The most notable rulers were the Yadavas of Deogiri (later named Daulatabad) immediately preceding their defeat by the northern sultanate, first by Alaʾ-ud-Din Muhammad Khalji in 1307 and later by Muhammad bin Tughluq in 1327. The latter's peremptory orders for thousands of people to move from Delhi to Daulatabad, his "second" capital, incited rebellions. One such rebel, Hasan Gangu, established in 1347 an independent kingdom over the Deccan and named it Bahamani in honor of a Brahman who had treated him well while in adversity. The Bahamani dynasty lasted nearly two hundred years before it broke into its five components, centered respectively in Ahmednagar, Bijapur, Golkonda, Bidar, and Berar.

Barring a few exceptions, the rulers of the Bahamani dynasty as well as of its five successor states treated its majority Hindu population well, even taking some of them into service as noblemen and generals. Shivaji's grandfather, Maloji Bhosle, served in Ahmednagar; his son Shahaji served both the rulers of Ahmednagar and Bijapur.

Shivaji's urge to establish an independent kingdom owed as much to his personal pride in freedom as his perception of the need to reestablish the tradition of religious tolerance so gravely disturbed by the reigning Adilshah of Bijapur and the Mughal emperor Aurangzeb. The latter's bid after Shivaji's death in 1680 to eliminate Maratha power only helped to reinforce Maratha protonationalism, which found a new manifestation and urge, under the Peshwas in the eighteenth century, to carry the Maratha flag to large swaths of territory in both north and central India.

D. R. SarDesai

See alsoBombay ; Peshwai and Pentarchy


Deleury, G. A. The Cult of Vithoba. Poona: Deccan College, 1960.

Dikshit, K. R. Maharashtra in Maps. Mumbai: Maharashtra State Board for Literature and Culture, 1986.

Feldhaus, Anna. "Maharashtra as Holy Land: A Sectarian Tradition." Bulletin of the School of Oriental and African Studies 49 (1986): 532–548.

Ranade, R. D. Mysticism in India: The Poet-Saints of Maharashtra. Albany: State University of New York Press, 1983.

Wagle, N. K. Countryside and Society in Maharashtra. Toronto: Center for South Asia Studies, 1988.

——. "Hindu-Muslim Interaction in Medieval Maharashtra." In Hinduism Reconsidered, edited by G. D. Sontheimer and H. Kulke. New Delhi: Manohar, 1989.


views updated May 21 2018

Maharashtra State in w India, bordering on the Arabian Sea; the capital is Mumbai. It is India's third-largest state in both area and population. Formed in 1960, Maharashtra consists of five sub-regions: Konkan, Deccan, Khandesh, Marathwada, and Vidarbha. Between the 14th and 17th century, the area was under Muslim rule. In the 17th century, it came under the control of the local Maratha tribe. Britain incorporated Maharashtra into its Indian empire in the early 19th century. Most of the land lies on the dry, w Deccan plateau where farming is poor. Rice grows along the coast. The area has rich mineral deposits, including manganese and coal. Industries, such as textiles and chemicals, concentrate in the major cities, especially Mumbai. Area: 307,762sq km (118,827sq mi). Pop. (2001) 96,752,247.