ALTERNATE NAMES: Mahrattas; Mahrattis
LOCATION: India (Maharashtra state)
POPULATION: c. 70 million (estimate) (50% are of the population of Maharashtra belong to the Marātha and Kunbi castes)
RELATED ARTICLES: Vol. 3: People of India
The Marāthas (also Mahrattas, or Mahrattis) are a people of partly non-Aryan stock inhabiting the Deccan Plateau of western India. Outside the area, the term Marātha loosely identifies the entire regional population who speak the Marāthi language. Within the region, however, it specifically refers to the dominant landowning and cultivating castes, the Marāthas and the Kunbis. The precise distinction between these two groups is unclear, though some believe they are descended from the same stock. All Kunbis are Marāthas, but not all Marāthas are Kunbis. Marāthas typically have ksatriya status, that is, they trace their origins to the chieftains and warriors of ancient India and see themselves as superior to the Kunbis. The Kunbis are mainly cultivators and predominantly sūdras (the lowest of the four major caste groups) by caste, though some also claim ksatriya descent. There is some hypergamy (i.e. intermarriage between the two groups), but this tends to be one-way. Thus a Kunbi female, provided her dowry were large enough, might be married into an impoverished, aristocratic Marātha family, but Marāthas would never give a daughter in marriage to a family of the Kunbi castes.
The Marāthas first rose to prominence in the 17th century. One writer characterizes them as a hardy, capable, and rough-hewn people who lived in a poor country and had achieved little of note prior to that time. This was all changed by the meteoric rise of Shivaji (1627-80), who united the Marātha chieftains against the Muslim rulers of India. By the time of his death, Shivaji had carved out a Marātha kingdom in the Konkan (the coastal and western areas of Maharashtra State) and laid the grounds for further Marātha expansion. During the 18th century a powerful Marātha Confederacy arose. Led by the Peshwas and including the houses of Bonsla, Sindhia, Holkar, and Gaekwar, the Marāthas extended their territories as far as the Punjab in the north and Orissa in the east. Marātha power was greatly weakened by the shattering defeat inflicted on them by the Afghans at the Third Battle of Panipat in 1761. Nonetheless, marauding bands of Marātha horsemen, feared by Muslim and Hindu alike, continued to raid as far afield as the Punjab, Bengal, and southern areas of the Indian peninsula. A series of defeats by the British in the early years of the 19th century led to the final collapse of the Marātha Empire.
The sense of Marātha identity generated during the 17th and 18th centuries survives in modern times. After India's independence, Marāthas were active in promoting the formation of states based on language. Popular sentiment led to the creation of Maharashtra State in 1960 to include the bulk of the Marāthi-speaking peoples within its borders. A major plat form of the Shiv Sena, a modern regional political party, is the ouster of non-Marāthas from the state.
LOCATION AND HOMELAND
The population of Maharashtra in 2001 was 96.9 million people, making it the second-largest state in the Indian Union in terms of population (it is third largest in area). Of this total population, perhaps 50% belong to the Marātha and Kunbi castes. Only 11 countries in the world (including India) have populations greater than Maharashtra's.
The Marātha homeland, i.e., Maharashtra, falls into three broad geographic divisions. The Konkan is the coastal lowland running from just north of Bombay (Mumbai) to Goa. Inland from this are the Western Ghāts, the line of hills that parallels the entire west coast of India. Generally between 760 m and 915 m (2,500-3,000 ft) in elevation in Maharashtra, they reach a height of 1,646 m (5,400 ft) inland from Bombay. These hills are actually a steep escarpment facing west, making access to the interior difficult. Many isolated peaks in the Ghāts are crowned by hill-forts that were strongholds of the Marāthas in their struggle with the Muslims. To the east of the Ghāts lie the plateaus and uplands of the Deccan lava region, at elevations varying between 300 m and 550 m (1,800-1,000 ft). This region is drained by the eastward-flowing Godaveri River and tributaries of the Krishna. In the extreme north is the Tapti River, which flows west to the Arabian Sea.
Average monthly temperatures at Bombay range from 24°c to 30°c (75°f - 86°f), with annual precipitation totaling 207.8 cm (82 in). The west-facing Ghāts receive the full force of the summer monsoon, and some hill areas receive as much as 660 cm (260 in) of rainfall. East of the Ghāts, however, there is a rain-shadow effect, and rainfall over much of the plateau region is in the range of 50-100 cm (20-40 in).
Marāthi, the language spoken by Marāthas, is a member of the Indo-Aryan branch of the Indo-European language family. It is derived from Maharashtri, a form of Prakit (or language spoken by the common people, as opposed to the classical Sanskrit). According to the 2001 Census of India, 62,481,681 people in Mahasrashhtra spoke Marāthi and its dialects, which include Konkani, Varadhi, and Nagpuri. The standard form of Marāthi is spoken in the Pune area. Marāthi is written in the Devanagari script or a cursive form of Devanagari called Modi.
The greatest folk hero of the Marāthas is Shivaji, who is seen as the champion of the Hindu peoples against the oppression of the Muslims. Developing guerrilla warfare to a fine art, Shivaji challenged the might of the Mughal Empire and founded the last of the great Hindu empires in India. Many incidents in his life have entered local lore. A Muslim general, feigning friendship, arranged a meeting with Shivaji in order to kill him. In an incident still remembered by both Hindus and Muslims, Shivaji embraced the general and killed him with steel claws attached to his hands before the Muslim could stab him with a concealed dagger. On another occasion, a prisoner of the Mughal emperor Aurangzeb, Shivaji, escaped by being concealed in a fruit basket. Shivaji's men are reputed to have captured the hill-fort of Singadh (southwest of Pune) from the Muslims by sending trained lizards up its perpendicular walls, carrying ropes for the attackers to climb.
The Marāthas and Kunbis are Hindu. Although most worship one or more gods as a "family deity," Shiva is of particular importance among the group. In villages, Shiva is worshiped in specific incarnations, e.g., as Khandoba, the guardian of the Deccan, or as Bhairav, the protector of the village. Khandoba has an important temple at Jejuri, not far from Pune. Shiva's consort Parvati is also revered by the Marāthas. She is worshiped in the form of Bhavani, Janni Devi, or one of the other local mother-goddesses found throughout the region. It is common for a goat or a cock to be sacrificed as an offering to these deities. Maruti is the monkey god, and no village in the Deccan is without a shrine to this kindly deity who provides protection from evil spirits. The Marāthas believe in witchcraft, the evil eye, and in ghosts and evil spirits, who can harm the living. Mashoba is the most widely feared of the evil spirits and when wronged can bring sickness and ill-fortune to the village. Some Marāthas worship Vishnu as well as Shiva. The temple of Vithoba at Pandharpur, for example, is an important Vishnu shrine and a major pilgrimage center. Though Brah-mans officiate at most temples, some deities are served by non-Brahman priests. A Khandoba temple generally has a Marātha or Dhangar priest, while Lingayat or Gurav priests serve at shrines dedicated to Shankar (a form of Shiva).
Although Marāthas observe all the major Hindu festivals, they also have their own regional celebrations. At Divali, for example, they sing hymns in praise of the Asura king Bali and worship cow-dung images of this demon-god. The birthday of Ganesha, the elephant-headed god of the Hindus, is a major event in Bombay. Specially made images of the god are worshiped for the three days of the festival (Ganesha Chaturthi) then carried to the seashore to be immersed in the ocean. Nag Panchami, when snakes are worshiped, is celebrated widely in Maharashtra. Bendur or Pola, a festival at which bulls are decorated, worshiped, and taken in procession through the villages, is popular in the interior of the state. The Marātha hero Shivaji's birthday (Shivaji Jayanti) has been declared a public holiday by the government of Maharashtra.
RITES OF PASSAGE
Among the rituals of the Marāthas is the birth ceremony (jātakarma), held a few days after a child is born. Marāthas believe the fifth and sixth days after birth are particularly dangerous for the newborn child, who may be attacked by evil spirits during this time. Thus, "Mother's Fifth" and "Sixth" are extremely important and are accompanied by rituals to protect the infant. The period of ritual pollution after birth lasts for 10 days, after which a purification ceremony is performed. The first anniversary of the child's birth is celebrated by a feast, at which the hair-cutting ceremony (chaula karma) is often held. Marāthas who claim ksatriya (warrior) status will perform the sacred-thread ceremony for their sons between the ages of 10 and 12.
The death rites of the Marāthas closely follow those of the Brahmans. The corpse is bathed, wrapped in a white shroud, and placed on a bier. The funeral procession, sometimes led by musicians of the Mahar caste, makes its way to the burning ghāt (cremation ground), which is usually on the banks of a river or stream. In the days following the cremation, the ashes are gathered and taken to some holy place or river where they are thrown in the water. A purification ceremony is undergone by the relatives of the deceased on the eleventh day, and the funeral feast (srāddha) is held on the thirteenth day following the death.
Marāthas use the "Namaste" greeting common among Hindus in India. This is accompanied by the gesture of joining of hands, palms together, in front of the body.
There are regional variations in settlement patterns and house types between the coastal areas of Maharashtra and the upland plateaus. Plateau villages are tight clusters of houses, with no gardens or compounds. Smaller houses are simply a rectangular block of four walls forming a single room. Larger houses are made of several such blocks arranged so they make a hollow square, with a sun-court (chowk) in the middle. Rooms include living quarters, a kitchen, storerooms, and the devgarh, a room where images of the family gods are kept. Such village houses are in sharp contrast to the expensive luxury tower apartments that line the oceanfront along Bombay's Marine Drive.
FA M I LY LI FE
Although Marāthas claim to have gotras (clans), they are of little importance and appear to have been adopted from north India. The basic kin unit for Marāthas is the kul, literally "family," which is a lineage made up of extended families. Members of the kul worship a common totemic symbol called devak, a term that is also used as an alternative for kul. The devak symbol is a material object such as a bird, a tree, or an artifact. Examples of devak include the cobra, the elephant, and the blade of a sword. One cannot marry someone who worships the same devak. Other than kul exogamy, Marāthas have few of the marriage restrictions common among Hindus in northern India. They can marry within the village, cross-cousin marriage is allowed, and a man may have more than one wife. Marriages are arranged, and a bride-price is paid to the girl's family. The actual marriage is elaborate, involving 24 separate ceremonies. The most important of these is the installation of the devak.
Traditional clothing for Marātha men is the turban, a coat, a shoulder cloth, and a dhotī (Indian loincloth) or short trousers known as cholnās. The coat is distinctive, fitting tightly around the arms and chest. The sleeves are longer than the arms and form numerous small folds between the elbow and wrist. The coat is fastened by tying it in front, below the right shoulder. From the chest, the coat falls in loose folds to the knee. Formerly, a sword was a regular part of the Marātha dress. Women wear the bodice (cholī) and sārī. Peasant women, especially when working in the fields, often draw one end of the sārī through their legs and tuck it in at the back of the waist. Marātha women share the characteristic fondness of South Asian women for jewelry and ornaments.
The standard diet of the Marāthas consists of flat, unleavened bread (rotī), with pulses and vegetables. Among the poor, a typical meal consists of millet bread eaten with chopped chilies and lentils (dāl). Among the more-affluent, bread is made from wheat flour, while rice and a greater variety of vegetables are served at meals, along with condiments and ghī (clarified butter). Marāthas are nonvegetarian, eating fish, mutton, and chicken, although only the better-off eat meat on a regular basis. For the poor, meat is a festival food, to be eaten only on special occasions and religious holidays. There are no specific caste rules prohibiting the use of alcohol or narcotics.
According to the 2001 Census of India, literacy in the state of Maharashtra is 77.27%. As is to be expected in South Asia, significant differences in literacy rates exist between males and females (86.27% and 67.51% respectively) and between urban and rural populations. In Bombay, for example, literacy is over 86%, but only around 60% of women in rural areas are literate, although among some rural, female Kunbis, this figure drops below 40%. Bombay, with the University of Bombay, the Indian Institute of Technology (IIT), and the Tata Institute of Social Science, is one the country's major educational centers. Maharashtra State provides free, compulsory education for children between 6 and 14 years, with attendance at the primary level being above 90%. Maharashtra State has numerous universities and institutions of higher learning, though actual participation in this system is largely a matter of economics and the choice of the population.
Marāthi regional literature dates from around ad 1000. The devotional poetry and songs of Maharashtrian saints such as Namdev (1270-1350) and Ramdas (1608-81) are among its greatest achievements. The 18th century saw the rise of two other literary forms: the love lyric and the heroic ballad (powada), based on the exploits of Shivaji and other Marātha heroes. The 19th-century paintings of the Peshwa period were derived largely from the Rajasthani tradition. It should be remembered that these form part of a regional cultural tradition that the Marāthas did not develop themselves, but adopted from the traditions of others. The poet-saint Ramdev, for example, was of the Brahman caste. Marātha history in western India abounds with the military exploits of the great Marātha dynasties. But the overall Marātha record is more one of destruction than of construction.
In the past, the chieftains, nobles, and landowners of Maharashtra were drawn from the ranks of the Marāthas. Some were soldiers, and the Marātha cavalry was renowned throughout the subcontinent during the 17th and 18th centuries. Many Marāthas continue this tradition of military service in the armed forces of modern India. The bulk of the Marāthas and Kunbis were cultivators and continue to be so today. Many of the village headmen (patels) in the central Deccan are of the Marātha caste. Maharashtra is one of the most heavily urbanized Indian states. Its cities include Bombay, one of the world's major urban centers (with a population of over 18 million people), Pune, and Nagpur in the eastern part of the state. This fact is reflected in the numbers of Marāthas who now live in cities and towns and follow urban occupations, e.g., commerce and government service, and professions such as teaching, medicine, and law.
Marātha children play games that are common in Maharashtra and the rest of India. Young children enjoy role-playing, boys pretending to be horse-drivers, engine-drivers, etc., while girls play with dolls or at housekeeping. Organized games include various versions of tag, blind man's bluff, and hide-and-seek. Traditional Indian games such as Gullī dandā (Indian cricket) and Kabaddī (team wrestling) are popular. Cricket is perhaps the most important spectator sport, with other modern games such as field hockey, soccer, tennis, and badminton played in cities and towns. Popular indoor games include chess, cards, and carrom (a board game in which counters are used to knock one's opponent's counters into pockets).
ENTERTAINMENT AND RECREATION
Many Marāthas depend on local festivals, fairs, and traditional folk entertainment for their recreation. The Nandivala, for example, is a traveling performer who entertains village audiences with sound effects, tricks, soothsaying, and trained-animal shows. The Bahrupi, literally "one with many disguises," is a professional entertainer known for humorous impersonations. Modern forms of entertainment such as radio, television, and movies are readily available to those who can afford access to them. Bombay, India's equivalent of Hollywood, is one of the world's largest centers of movie-making and produces films in both Hindi and Marāthi. Bombay is also one of India's major intellectual and cultural centers, with museums, performances of modern and classical music, theater, and other cultural activities.
FOLK ART, CRAFTS, AND HOBBIES
As landowners and cultivators, the Marātha and Kunbi castes are not themselves involved in arts and crafts. Within Maharashtra State, however, traditional crafts include weaving and metalwork, as well as local specialties such as Kolhapuri leather sandals, and the Muslim himsa (weaving) and bidri (metal inlaid with silver) work of Aurangabad.
The dominant landowning and cultivating caste in their region, the Marāthas and Kunbis are unified by a shared history and a common culture rooted in the Marāthi language. This sense of identity resulted in agitation for a linguistic state that led to the creation of Maharashtra as a Marāthi-speaking state. Though Marāthas essentially make up the bulk of the rural peasantry in the state, a Marātha elite has risen to positions of political power in Maharashtra. Marātha nationalism has led to anti-foreigner sentiments, with calls for non-Marāthas such as Gujaratis and Tamils to be expelled from the state. The recent renaming of Bombay as Mumbai, the Marāthi name for the city, is another expression of this sense of Marātha consciousness.
When Maharashtra State was created as what was primarily a linguistic state, there was an upwelling of pro-Maharashtrian, anti-foreigner sentiment fuelled largely by the Shiv Sena, a conservative, Hindu, regional political party with strong Marātha support, which was founded in 1966 by Bal Thackeray (a relative of the English writer William Makepeace Thackeray). Feeling against Gujaratis, of whom there were many in Bombay, and the Gujarati language were strong, and between 1956 and 1960, protests, sometimes accompanied by fatalities, occurred in favor or a Marāthi-speaking state. The Samyukta Maharashtra Samiti demanded unification of all Marāthi speaking regions in one state, and on 1 May 1960 the current Maharashtra state was formed from Marāthi-speaking areas of Bombay State, the Deccan states (the Deccan State Agency, an association of princely states, was an administrative unit of British India, which was incorporated into Bombay State at Independence in 1947) and Vidarbha (which was then part of Madhya Pradesh). There are various interpretations as to what the term "Maharashta" means. Some say it translates as Great (mahā) Country (rashtray), others that it probably derived from rathi meaning "a chariot driver," referring to drivers and builders of chariots who were called "Maharathis" or "fighting force," while still others say it means "Country of the Mahars," an untouchable caste found in the area.
The Shiv Sena gained in strength in Maharashtra in the last decades of the 20th century, and, although the state has traditionally been a stronghold of the Indian National Congress, even formed the State government from 1995-1999. With Bal Thackeray as one of its leaders, it continues to promote its policy of "Maharashtra for Maharashtrians." However, Maharashtra's government remains in the hands of the Indian National Congress. Vilasrao Deshmukh serves as chief minister, even though the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), the Hindu nationalist party committed to Hindutva ("Hinduness"), won 54 out of 288 seats in the Maharashtra Vidhan Sabha (lower house) in the 2004 elections.
The Shiv Sena appears to be in a state of decline, even though it once proudly claimed to be the only genuine Hindutva party in India, and Bal Thackeray even asserted publicly that his boys struck first blow at Babri Masjid. The Shiv Sena came to power by trashing minorities and was responsible for the Bombay riots of 1992-93 that, like the Gujarat riots of 2002 in which numerous Muslims were killed, shook the conscience of the whole nation in the concept of India as a secular state. Bal Thackeray's hold on the Marāthi people, however, has been seriously weakened and his followers, in whom he took great pride, are deserting him. The Shiv Sena vote base is fast being eroded, and it may soon find itself on the margins of Maharashtra politics.
Despite their position as the dominant cultivator caste in Maharashtra, Kunbis are classified as Other Backward Castes (OBCs), whereas other groups such as the Marāthi Brahmins are not. Kunbis reap the benefits of this status and, being upwardly mobile, tend to dominate the other groups, like the Malis and Ahirs, which are accorded the same OBC status. In addition, Kunbis and Marāthas dominate politics in Maharashtra. As recently as June 2008 the Sambhaji Brigade, a militant pro-Marātha organization whose membership consists primarily of Marātha youth from the interior of the state and which is named after a son of the warrior Shivaji, has demanded Other Backward Classes status for Marāthas in Maharashtra. Taking a cue from the Gujjars in Rajasthan, the brigade has warned of a violent agitation if Marāthas are not granted OBC status soon.
The status of women in Maharashtra from the rise of the great Marātha hero Shivaji to the present was basically not different from that of women in other parts of India. Here, too, women were dependent on men and had to play a secondary and subordinate role. Yet, in certain respects, the situation in Maharashtra was different from that in other parts of India. Women belonging to aristocratic and ruling families were taught the art of horse-riding. They not merely used swords effectively on the battlefield but also led armies. Englishmen such as Captain Thomas Broughton admired the Marātha women for their bravery and courage. Broughton-in 1809-wrote "At no time is the difference in the treatment of women between the Marāthas and other natives of India more strikingly displayed. Such as can afford it here ride on horse without taking any pain to conceal their faces; they gallop about and make their way through the throng with as much boldness and perseverance as the men. The Marātha women have a bold look that is to be observed in no other women of Hindustan." Though women belonging to the aristocratic families had to observe purdah in the presence of strangers, the practice was relatively less rigorous in Maharashtra. The Rani of Jhansi, who, with her armies, opposed the British during the 1857 sepoy uprising, was a Marātha.
Being Hindus, Marātha and Kunbi women, especially in rural contexts, experience the social restraints typical of Hindu society. Thus, arranged marriages are common, child marriage (once the norm and now illegal) still occurs, and a dowry is often demanded by the groom's family among Marāthas who claim an upper caste status. However, among some low caste groups a dej (bride-price) is paid to the girl's father. Except for the Deshmukh families of the Sirole sub-caste, Kunbis allow the remarriage of widows. However, Marāthas do not allow widow remarriage or divorce.
The President of India in 2008, Pratibha Devisingh Patil, is a Maharashtrian. She is the first female President of the country.
Dhekane, K. D. Agrarian System under Marathas. Bombay: Himalaya Pub. House, 1996.
Doshi, Saryu, ed. Maharashtra. Bombay: Marg Publications,
Enthoven, R. E. "Marāthas." In vol. 3 of The Tribes and Castes of Bombay, edited by R. E. Enthoven. Bombay: Government Central Press, 1922.
Karve, Irawati. Maharashtra-Land and Its People. Maharashtra State Gazetteer. General Series. Bombay: Directorate of Government Printing, Stationery and Publications, Maharashtra State, 1968.
Kulakarni, A. Ra. Maharashtra: Society and Culture. New Delhi: Books & Books, 2000.
———. Marathas and the Marathas' Country. New Delhi: Books & Books, 1996.
Prakash, Om, ed. Marathas and their Administration. New Delhi: Anmol Publications, 2004.
Walker, Benjamin. "Marātha." In Hindu World: An Encyclopedic Survey of Hinduism. Vol. 2. London: George Allen and Unwin, 1968.
—by D. O. Lodrick
ETHNONYMS: Kanbi, Kunbi, Mahratta
Identification. Marathas are a Marathi-speaking people found on the Deccan Plateau throughout the present state of Maharashtra and nearby areas. The word "Kunbi" derives from the Sanskrit "Kutumbin" or "householder" (i.e., a settled person with home and land). Marathas/Kunbis are the dominant caste in Maharashtra State. They are landowners and cultivators, and they make up about 50 percent of the population. The distinction between Marathas and Kunbis is confused, and the former consider themselves superior to the latter. The Marathas were traditionally chieftains and Warriors who claimed Kshatriya descent. The Kunbis are primarily cultivators. The distinction between them seems mostly one of wealth, and we may assume a common origin for both.
Location. Maratha territory comprises roughly one-tenth the area of modern India and is of interest as the southernmost area where an Indo-Aryan language is spoken in India. It is bounded on the west by the Arabian Sea, on the north by the states of Gujarat and Madhya Pradesh, on the east by Tribal pats of Madhya Pradesh, and on the south by Andhra Pradesh and Karnataka states, as well as Goa. Maharashtra therefore is a culture contact region between the Indo-Aryan north and the Dravidian south, and so it reveals a mixture of culture traits characteristic of any region that is a buffer Between two great traditions. Besides occupying the heartland of Maharashtra, Marathas have also penetrated southward through Goa into Karnataka. The area is watered by many rivers, including the Tapti, the Godavari, the Bhima, the Krishna, and their tributaries, which divide the land into subregions that have been important historically and culturally. There is also the fertile coastal plain of Konkan and thickly forested regions on the north and east.
Demography. According to the 1981 census, the population of Maharashtra was 62,784,171.
Linguistic Affiliation. All Marathas speak Marathi or a dialect of it. Historically Maharashtri, a form of Prakrit, became the language of the ruling house in the Godavari Valley; and from it modern Marathi is derived. People in the various subregions speak the following dialects: Khandesh has Ahirani, Konkan has Konkani, the Nagpur Plateau has Varhadi, the southern Krishna Valley has Kolhapuri, and an unnamed dialect that is found along the banks of the Godavari became the court language and rose to be the literary form of Marathi.
History and Cultural Relations
The early history of the Marathas is a tale of the rise and fall in the importance of the dynasties ruling the various regions. Over time the center of political influence shifted south from the Godavari Basin to the Krishna Valley. From the 1300s on, the Maratha rajas held territories under Muslim kings and paid tribute to them. Feuds among the local Muslim Kingdoms and later their confrontation with the Mogul dynasty, which was eager to extend its power to the Deccan, allowed Maratha chieftains to become independent. One such successful revolt was that of Shivaji, a Maratha prince who fought against his Muslim Bijapur overlords in the name of establishing a Hindu kingdom. The local Muslim rulers, weakened by their fights with the Moguls, succumbed to the guerrilla attacks of Shivaji's light infantry and cavalry. Shivaji's military success also depended to a great extent on the chain of fortifications he built to guard every mountain pass in his territory and the system he devised for garrisoning and provisioning them. With the death of Shivaji (1680) the Maratha ranks were split between the claimants to his throne; his son Shahu set up his capital at Satara and appointed a chief minister with the title "Peshwa." The title and office became hereditary, and within a short time the Peshwas became the leading Maratha dynasty themselves. In the 1700s the Peshwas rose to be a powerful military force supported by the Maratha Confederacy, a group of loyal chieftains including the houses of Bhonsla, Sindhia, Holkar, and Gaekwar. With their support the Peshwas extended their territories all the way north to the Punjab. Their power came to an end with their defeat at the battle of Panipat in 1761. Infighting among the confederacy members at the death of the Peshwa led to the entry of the East India Company into the succession disputes among the Marathas. The British fought the three Maratha wars, supporting one faction against the other, and in each case the British gained territory and power over individual chiefs. At the end of the Third Maratha War in 1818 the British routed the Peshwas so completely that they abolished their position and directly incorporated vast areas of Maratha territory into the British Empire as a part of Bombay Presidency. In 1960 by an act of Parliament the modern state of Bombay was divided into the linguistic states of Maharashtra, with Bombay as its capital, and Gujarat. The legacy of the Maratha State lingers on in the memory of the people, who revere Shivaji as a modern hero. A more negative aspect of Maratha consciousness has led to intolerance of other communities who have settled in Bombay, the premier commercial, industrial, and cultural center of India. Political parties like the Shiv Sena, a labor union-based organization, have sought to politicize Maratha consciousness by demanding the ouster of "foreigners" like Tamils and Malayalis from Bombay.
A Maratha village in the coastal lowlands is not a well-defined unit. A village (kalati ) consists of a long street running north-south with houses on either side, each with its own yard. This street is also the main artery joining a village to the neighboring ones north and south. Hence the perimeter of the village is not well defined. Each house stands in its own walled or fenced enclosure; but the rice fields that stretch all around are bounded by narrow earth bunds zigzagging in all directions, which make communication between houses in the growing season difficult. In contrast, villages in the Plateau ranges are tightly clustered, and the village boundaries are sharply defined. An outstanding structure in such a Village might be a temple or the big house (wada ) of a rich landlord. The typical house is a rectangular block of four walls, with the bigger houses being made up of more than one such rectangle. Frequently an open square in the center of the house serves as a sun court. Some of the rooms leading off this courtyard have no inner walls, so that there may be one or two rooms which can be closed and private and the rest of the house is a space with or without divisions for different purposes, like a kitchen, an eating area, etc. The houses had very small and very high windows and faced inwards onto the court. A village of such wadas is surrounded by fields with temporary shelters in them called vadi. Individual fields are large, and worked with draft animals. The use of the land has been dramatically affected in recent times by the building of dams for hydroelectric and irrigation purposes. Much of the previously arid inland areas can now grow sugarcane. Since Maharashtra is one of the most urbanized areas of India (35 percent urban in 1981), the Marathas have gravitated to the urban centers for jobs as well as farm-related services.
In general, the majority of Marathas are cultivators. They are mainly grant holders, landowners, soldiers, and cultivators. A few are ruling chiefs. For the most part the patils (village headmen) in the central Deccan belong to this caste. Some are traders, and many are in the army or other branches of government service. In the plateau region the fields are plowed with the help of bullocks. Almost every farmer except the poorest has cattle and takes great pride in them. The greatest agricultural festival is Bendur or Pola, when the cattle are decorated and taken in procession. The cattle are kept on the farm in a shed (gotha ), and it is not unusual for them to share the house space with people, so that a corner of the sun court may be given over to them. This is to avoid both theft and predation by wild animals, which once were Common on the plateau. Staple foods are wheat cakes, rice, lentils, clarified butter, vegetables, and condiments. Less affluent people usually eat jowar (sorghum), bhajari (spiked millet), and lentils, while the poorest will subsist on millets seasoned with spices. All Marathas eat flesh and fish, though not beef or pork. Marathas seldom drink liquor, though no caste rule forbids liquor or narcotics. Beedi smoking is Common among the men.
Kinship, Marriage, and Family
Marathas practice kul or devak exogamy. Devaks are totemic groups that worship a common devak symbol. Kul is literally defined as a "family," and it is actually a lineage made up of extended families. Devak is an alternative name for this. Although they claim to have gotras, gotra exogamy is not essential. These are clan categories adopted from north India; but most of the Marathas do not know to which gotra they belong. Similarly, north Indian village exogamy is not practiced by Marathas. Cross-cousin marriage is allowed; so is marriage with a deceased wife's sister. Two brothers may marry two sisters. Polygyny is allowed and practiced, but polyandry is unknown. Boys are generally married between the ages of 12 and 25, and girls traditionally before they attain puberty. As in much of southern India, bride-wealth is paid to the bride's family, and gift exchange after the marriage between the two families is more reciprocal than in the north. Gifts are also required to fetch a wife back after visiting her natal home. The third, fifth, and seventh months of pregnancy are celebrated. A girl goes for her first confinement to her parents' home. Widow remarriage and divorce are strictly prohibited.
The laws of inheritance that prevailed in Maharashtra were governed by Mitakshara, a medieval commentary on Yajnyavalkya Smriti. The property was held and transmitted by males to males. When no male heir existed, adoption of one was the usual rule: a daughter's son could be adopted. Property was owned jointly by all male family members in Certain proportions. Widows and unmarried daughters had rights of maintenance.
Marathas claim to be Kshatriyas descended from the four ancient royal vanshas, or branches. In support, they point out that many of their kula, or family names, are common clan names amongt the Rajputs, who are indubitably Kshatriyas. In the past royal Maratha houses have intermarried with the Rajputs. They also observe certain Kshatriya social practices like wearing the sacred thread and observing purdah. These claims are made only by the Marathas proper (i.e., the chiefs, landowners, and fighting clans). The Maratha cultivators, known as Kunbis, and other service castes, such as Malis (gardeners), Telis (oil pressers), and Sutars (carpenters) do not consider themselves Kshatriyas. Nevertheless, the fact that the Kunbis and Marathas belong to one social group is emphasized by common occurrence of Maratha-Kunbi marriages.
Social Organization. Maratha social organization is based on totemic exogamous groups called kuls, each of which has a devak, an emblem, usually some common tree that is worshiped at the time of marriage. The devak may also be an animal, a bird, or an object such as an ax. The Maratha proper, who claim descent from the original four royal houses, belong to 96 named kulas, although much disagreement exists about which kula belongs to which vansha. Further, quite a few kulas have the same name as the Kunbi kulas with whom the aristocratic Marathas deny all identity. Some of the Marathas also claim to have gotras, which is a north Indian Brahman social category; but strict gotra exogamy does not exist, and this fact might suggest that the gotras, like the vanshas, might have been adopted at some time in the past to bolster Maratha social status.
Political Organization and Social Control. In the cities and small towns some Marathas have risen to very high positions in government service, which has given them political power. Positions of importance in the cooperative sugar mills, in the managing committees of schools, in the municipalities, and in the panchayat samitis are held by Marathas in most cases. As the Marathas are the majority agricultural Community with smallholdings in this region, they still belong to the lower-income groups as a whole; but there has arisen among them a stratus of educated elite who are in higher administrative services and in industry and who hold political power. This power to a great extent has its basis in the votes of the small rural landholder.
Marathas worship the god Shiva and his consort Parvati in her many guises as Devi or the mother goddess. At the same time, unlike other Shiva devotees in India, they may also worship Vishnu as Vitthal, by observing fast days sacred to both. Shiva worship is particularized by the worship of some of his specific incarnations, especially Khandoba, Bhairav, Maruti, etc., as family gods. The Devi or mother goddess is worshiped in many of her varying forms, such as Gawdi, Bhavani, Lakshmi, or Janni Devi. Marathas also worship as personal gods other Brahmanic, local, and boundary deities. They visit places of Hindu pilgrimage, such as Pandharpur. Maharashtra also has a whole line of saints who are worshiped, such as Namdev, Tukaram, and Eknath, who have written magnificent bhakti (devotional) poetry. Marathas also pay Respect to holy men who may have been of humble origin but whose personal spirituality attracts reverence. An outstanding example of such a person was Sai Baba of Shiridi. In addition to the deities just mentioned, the Marathas believe in spirit possession and the existence of ghosts (bhutas ).
Religious Practitioners. The village temple priest may be a Brahman or a man belonging to another caste, depending on the type of temple and the deity. Temples of Vishnu, Rama, Ganapati, and Maruti generally have Deshasth Brahman priests, whereas temples of Shankar (Mahadev) Generally have a Lingayat or Gurav as a priest. Khandoba generally has a Maratha or Dhangar priest. Mari-ai or Lakshmi has a Mahar priest. Devi and Maruti also may sometimes have non-Brahman priests. At the village level, the priest at the main village temple is a recognized hereditary servant of the village. In the more important shrines, like the Vithoba temple at Pandharpur, there are different classes of priests serving a shrine, and these are all hereditary priests. The priesthood and the temple it serves are completely autonomous and not connected to any others.
Ceremonies. The life-cycle ceremonies regularly celebrated by the Marathas are birth, "mother's fifth and sixth" day after delivery, first hair cutting, an elaborate twenty-four-step marriage ceremony, of which the installation of the devak is the most important rite, and death ceremonies that follow the same rites as a Brahman funeral.
See also Kanbi
Carter, Anthony (1974). Elite Politics in Rural India: Political Stratification and Alliances in Western Maharashtra. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Enthoven, Reginald E. (1922). "Marathas." In The Tribes and Castes of Bombay, edited by R. E. Enthoven. Vol. 3, 3-42. Bombay: Government Central Press. Reprint. 1975. Delhi: Cosmo Publications.
Karve, Irawati (1968). Maharashtra State Gazetteer, Government of Maharashtra: Maharashtra —Land and Its People. Bombay: Directorate of Government Printing.
Russell, R. V., and Hira Lal (1916). "Maratha." In The Tribes and Castes of the Central Provinces of India, edited by R. V. Russell and Hira Lal. Vol. 4, 198-214. Nagpur: Government Printing Press. Reprint. 1969. Oosterhout: Anthropological Publications.
W. D. MERCHANT
ALTERNATE NAMES: Mahrattas; Mahrattis
LOCATION: India (Maharashtra state)
POPULATION: 78.7 million (total population; 50 percent are of the Maratha and Kunbi castes)
1 • INTRODUCTION
Marathas live in the Deccan Plateau area of western India. Outside the area, the term Maratha loosely identifies people who speak Marathi. Within the region, however, it refers to the dominant Maratha and Kunbis castes (social classes). Marathas typically trace their origins to chiefs and warriors. Kunbis are mainly farmers and Sudras (servants and artisans—the lowest of the four major caste groups).
Marathas first rose to prominence in the seventeenth-century. Their hero, Shivaji (1627–80) is known for uniting Marathas against Muslim rulers in India. Shivaji carved out a Maratha kingdom in the Konkan (the coastal and western areas of Maharashtra State). During the eighteenth century, a powerful Maratha Confederacy arose. Several groups extended Maratha territory as far as the Punjab in the north and Orissa in the east. Maratha power was greatly weakened by the Afghans at the Third Battle of Panipat in 1761. Nonetheless, marauding bands of Maratha horsemen continued to raid as far afield as the Punjab, Bengal, and southern areas of the Indian peninsula. A series of defeats by the British in the early years of the nineteenth century led to the final collapse of the Maratha Empire.
After India's independence, Marathas promoted the formation of states based on language. Popular sentiment led to the creation of Maharashtra state in 1960 to include the bulk of the Marathi-speaking peoples within its borders.
2 • LOCATION
With 78.7 million people, Maharashtra is India's third largest state. About 50 percent of the population is either Maratha or Kunbis.
Maharashtra falls into three broad geographic divisions. The Konkan is the coastal lowland running from just north of Bombay (Mumbai) to Goa. Inland from this are the Western Ghats, a line of hills that parallels the west coast of India. They are 2,500 to 3,000 feet (760 to 915 meters) in elevation in Maharashtra and reach a height of 5,400 feet (1,646 meters) inland from Bombay. Many peaks in the Ghats are crowned by hill-forts that were once Maratha warrior strongholds. To the east of the Ghats lie the plateaus and uplands of the Deccan lava region, at elevations from 1,000 to 1,800 feet (300 to 550 meters). This region is drained by the eastward-flowing Godaveri River and tributaries of the Krishna. In the extreme north is Tapti River, which flows west to the Arabian Sea.
Average monthly temperatures in Bombay range from 75°f to 86°f (24°c to 30°c), with annual precipitation totaling 82 inches (208 centimeters). In the Ghats, some areas receive as much as 260 inches (660 centimeters) of rainfall during the monsoon. East of the Ghats, however, rainfall drops to between 20 and 40 inches (50 to 100 centimeters).
3 • LANGUAGE
Marathi is derived from Maharashtri, a form of Prakit (a spoken version of the classical Sanskrit). Dialects of Marathi include Konkani, Varadhi, and Nagpuri. Marathi is written in a type of script known as Devanagari, or a cursive form of Devanagari called Modi.
4 • FOLKLORE
The greatest Maratha hero is Shivaji (1627–80), who is known as a champion of Hindus. Shivaji challenged the might of the Islamic Mughal Empire and founded the last great Hindu empire in India. Many incidents in his life have entered local lore. Shivaji embraced the Mughal general and killed him with steel claws attached to his hands before the Muslim could stab him with a concealed dagger. On another occasion, Shivaji escaped from the Mughal emperor Aurangzeb by hiding in a fruit basket. Shivaji's men are reputed to have captured the hill-fort of Singadh from the Muslims by sending trained lizards up its walls. The lizards carried ropes for the attackers to climb.
5 • RELIGION
Marathas and Kunbis are Hindu. Although most worship one or more gods as a "family deity," Shiva is of particular importance. In villages, Shiva is worshiped in several forms. Some of these forms include Khandoba, guardian of the Deccan; and Bhairav, protector of the village. Shiva's consort Parvati is worshiped in the forms local mother goddesses such as Bhavani and Janni Devi. Maruti is a kindly monkey god who protects villagers from evil spirits. Marathas believe in witchcraft, the evil eye, and in ghosts and evil spirits who can harm the living. Mashoba is the most widely feared of the evil spirits and when wronged is believed to bring sickness and ill fortune to a village. Some Marathas worship Vishnu as well as Shiva.
6 • MAJOR HOLIDAYS
Although Marathas observe major Hindu festivals, they also have their own regional celebrations. At Divali, for example, they sing hymns in praise of the Asura king Bali and worship cow-dung images of this demon-god. The birthday of elephant-headed Ganesha is a major event in Bombay. Images of Ganesha are worshiped for three days, then carried to the seashore to be immersed in the ocean. Nag Panchami, when snakes are worshiped, is celebrated widely in Maharashtra. Bendur or Pola, a festival at which bulls are decorated, worshiped, and taken in procession through the villages, is popular in the parts of Maharashtra. The folk hero Shivaji's birthday (Shivaji Jayanti) also is a public holiday.
7 • RITES OF PASSAGE
A jatakarma, or birth ceremony, takes place a few days after a child is born. Marathas believe evil spirits may attack a newborn child in the fifth or sixth day after birth, so special rituals are performed. A purification ceremony takes place after ten days. A haircutting ceremony (chaula karma) is done on a child's first birthday.
Maratha death rites follow Hindu customs. They usually bathe a dead person and wrap the body in a white shroud. The body is then cremated, usually near a river or stream. After the body is burned, the ashes are placed in the water.
8 • RELATIONSHIPS
Marathas typically greet each other by saying, Namaste, which means "Greetings to you." It is said while joining one's own hands, palms together and held upright, in front of one's body.
9 • LIVING CONDITIONS
On the Deccan Plateau, villages are tight clusters of houses. Smaller houses are simply a rectangular block of four walls forming a single room. Larger houses are made of several such blocks arranged so they make a square, with a sun-court (chowk) in the middle. Rooms include living quarters, a kitchen, storerooms, and a devgarh, where images of the family gods are kept.
10 • FAMILY LIFE
The basic kin unit for Marathas is the kul, which means "family." This is a lineage made up of extended families. Members of the kul worship a common totemic symbol called devak. The devak usually is a cobra, elephant, or blade of a sword. One cannot marry someone who worships the same devak. Other than that, Marathas have few marriage restrictions. They can marry within the village, cross-cousin marriage is allowed, and a man may have more than one wife. Marriages are arranged, and a bride price is paid to the girl's family. The actual marriage is elaborate, involving twenty-four separate ceremonies. The most important of these is installation of the devak.
11 • CLOTHING
Maratha men wear a dhoti (loincloth made by wrapping a long piece of white cotton around the waist and then drawing the end between the legs and tucking it into the waist) or short trousers, known as cholnas. They also wear a tight-fitting coat. Sometimes they also wear a turban. Women wear the sari (a length of fabric wrapped around the waist, with one end thrown over the right shoulder) and choli (tight-fitting, cropped blouse).
12 • FOOD
The standard diet of the Marathas consists of flat, unleavened bread (roti) with pulses (legumes) and vegetables. Among the poor, a typical meal consists of millet bread eaten with chopped chilies and lentils (dal). Among the more affluent, bread is made from wheat flour, while rice and more vegetables are served at meals. Marathas will eat fish, mutton, and chicken. For the poor, however, meat is a festival food.
13 • EDUCATION
The literacy rate (percentage of the population who can read and write) in the state of Maharashtra is about 55 percent. Bombay, with the University of Bombay and the Indian Institute of Technology, is one of India's major educational centers.
14 • CULTURAL HERITAGE
Marathi regional literature dates from around ad 1000. The devotional poetry and songs of Maharashtrian saints such as Namdev (1270–1350) and Ramdas (1608–81) are among its greatest achievements. The eighteenth century saw the rise of love lyrics and heroic ballads (powada). The nineteenth-century paintings of the Peshwa period were influenced by the earlier Rajasthani tradition. Maratha history in western India abounds with the military exploits of the great Maratha dynasties.
15 • EMPLOYMENT
The Maratha cavalry was renowned throughout India in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. Many Marathas continue this tradition of service in the armed forces of modern India. Nevertheless, most Marathas and Kunbis are farmers. Still, Maharashtra is one of the most heavily urbanized Indian states. Its cities include Bombay, one of the world's major urban centers (with about thirteen million people), Pune, and Nagpur. Numerous Marathas now live in cities. They work in commerce and government, and as teachers, doctors and lawyers.
16 • SPORTS
Maratha children enjoy role-playing. Boys pretend to be horse drivers or engine drivers, while girls play with dolls or at housekeeping. Organized games include various versions of tag, blind man's bluff, and hide-and-seek. Traditional Indian games such as Gulli danda (Indian cricket) and Kabaddi (team wrestling) are popular. Cricket is perhaps the most important spectator sport. Field hockey, soccer, tennis, and badminton are played in cities and towns. Popular indoor games include chess, cards, and carrom (a board game in which counters are used to knock one's opponent's counters into pockets).
17 • RECREATION
Many Marathas go to local festivals and fairs, and enjoy traditional folk entertainment. The Nandivala is a traveling performer. He entertains village audiences with sound effects, tricks, soothsaying, and trained-animal shows. The Bahrupi, literally "one with many disguises," is an entertainer known for impersonating people. Bombay, India's equivalent of Hollywood, is the world's largest center of movie making and produces films in both Hindi and Marathi. Bombay is also one of India's major intellectual and cultural centers, with museums, modern and classical music, theater, and other cultural activities.
18 • CRAFTS AND HOBBIES
Traditional crafts in Maharashtra include weaving and metalwork, as well as local specialties such as Kolhapuri leather sandals, and the Muslim himsa (weaving) and bidri (metal inlaid with silver) work of Aurangabad.
19 • SOCIAL PROBLEMS
The dominant landowning and cultivating caste in their region, the Marathas and Kunbis are unified by a shared history and a common culture rooted in the Marathi language. This sense of identity often creates problems for others who live in Maharashtra, many of whom are peasants. Maratha nationalism has led to anti-foreigner sentiments, with calls for non-Marathas to be banished from the state. The recent renaming of Bombay as "Mumbai," the Marathi name for the city, is another expression of this sense of Maratha consciousness. The Shiv Sena, a conservative, Hindu, regional political party with strong Maratha support, has recently gained power in Maharashtra. It will no doubt continue to promote its policy of "Maharashtra for Maharashtrians."
20 • BIBLIOGRAPHY
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