Learning about a society based on its religious literature was something I had shunned for the greater part of my graduate student life. The religious texts represent the powerful people in the society of the bygone era. And I wasn’t interested in knowing what the priests, kings and moneyed people had to say. I was yearning for a public voice.
Subaltern studies in India took a major leap with Spivak’s work, and I started critically examining each thread of archaeology that I learnt about. Archaeology is making the material culture speak… and I was wondering if I am coaxing it to speak something to suit the narrative that I had in my mind.
However, it dawned upon me, that I cannot afford to shun anything – any little piece that reflects the past – if I were to make earnest attempt at stitching the past together. And since I set out to explore the western Coast of India, I picked up the text of Sahyadri Khanda.
“Sahyadri” comes from the name of the hill range along the west coast of India, and “Khanda” means part, in this context. Khanda is also used to mean continent. The text of Sahyadri Khanda (henceforth SK) self-proclaims to be a part of a larger literary tradition of South Asia. The Puranas, popular as the narrative literature of India, dominate the literary activity of medieval religious writings, to which SK subscribes itself. The main Purana texts, however, do not claim any association with SK! Here, we are met with an interesting conundrum. The regional text, symbolised by its nomenclature from the local geography, attempts to be identified with a pan-Indic tradition of texts. But does this ploy fail? I don’t think so. Although SK is not known widely, the narratives from the text are popular along the western coast of India. Traveling from Gujarat, to Maharashtra, onward to Karnataka and Kerala, the narratives from SK make their appearance in the local memory.
Or could we say that the popular local lore was later appended into the text of SK? You get brownie points if you were thinking on these lines. I would argue that this may have happened. The extant copy of SK is a so-called critical edition by Garson Da Cunha, complied in 1887 CE. This edition mentions several original manuscripts of SK in its introduction, but not all manuscripts have been re-discovered. The manuscripts from various parts of the sub-continent, such as Kashi (Varanasi/Benaras), Tanjavur or Vadodara may have significant variations in terms of the narrative content. But let us look at the widely available Da Cunha’s text.
The text opens up and continues a dialogical form, where mendicants ask demigods of Hinduism to elaborate on the narratives that took place along the western coast of India. These narratives take the reader to various sacred sites, and one can identify some physical places and towns based on the medieval place-names. The description of land, names of rivers and trees and a recurring theme of divine intervention spans across the text. I would be lying if certain sections of the text are not dizzying with the sudden swapping of narrators and discussants in the text.
Why then, would you (or me) read Sahyadri Khanda?
I started reading SK to understand the narratives on the local landscape in the Konkan area. Konkan coast stretches along the coastal rim of the modern state of Maharashtra in Western India. The narratives of SK take the reader along the modern coasts of Maharashtra, Goa and some part of Karnataka through the narratives. The stories further talk about the migrations, communities in diaspora and give a glimpse of the social hierarchy championed through ritual sanction.
SK as a text, performs a delicate dance on the commentaries by then Brahmin intelligentsia while portraying a peaceful snapshot of the society with known turbulent times. If we are to rely on the dating of SK as somewhere around late 17th century – early 18th century CE, the political historical sources and cultural material makes for an intriguing mosaic.
Main theme of SK
In addition to long narratives on the Hindu god Shiva, and the interlude by the divine sage Parshurama, the main body of SK delves in the creation of villages. A tacit understanding of the recurrent theme from classical literature comes to fore. A strip of land is reclaimed from the sea, wild landscape is tamed as if the open hair of a woman oiled and braided. Only the pious people are invited to settle on this new landmass of Konkan, but some unfortunate events lead to the creation of “fallen villages”. The scholar Stephen Levitt directs all his textual expertise in unraveling the nuanced understanding of these metaphors of settling on a landscape.
And then SK fashions itself as a manual for righteous living. In its dictation of righteous practices and piety, the text subscribes to Brahmanical ideals. The diverse melting-pot of cultures in Konkan is conspicuous with the absence of any other groups than Hindus.
Although not directly mentioned, my reading of SK yielded numerous clues that touch upon the aspects of maritime trade, movement of people, place of non-Hindu groups in the Konkani society and the overbearing presence of the landscape that is deemed to be sacred. Two sects under Hinduism viz. Shaivism and Vaishnavism (worshippers of Shiva and Vishnu, respectively), converge in the representation of Parshurama, the divine sage. The text of SK sets out as a religious text, but charts a wide territory of socio-political interactions along the west coast of India.
Das, Veena. Structure and Cognition: Aspects of Hindu Caste and Ritual. New Delhi: Oxford University Press, 2012.
Dejenne, Nicolas.”Parasurama Torchbearer of a Regenerated Bharat in a Contemporary Rewriting of his Narratives.” Proceedings of the 4th Dubrovnik International Conference on the Sanskrit Epics and Puranas (Dubrovnik, September 2005). Zagreb: Croatian Academy of Sciences and Arts (2009): 447-468
Gaitonde, Gajanan Shastri, trans. Śrī Skandapurāṇa, Sahyādrikhaṇḍa, Do. Jarsana da Kunhā sampādita granthācī samśodhita, samvardhita āvṛtti, Marāthī arthāsaha [The text of the Sahyādri-khaṇda as established by J. Gerson da Cunha, with a Marathi translation]. Mumbai: Shri Katyayani Publications, [pref. 1971]
Levitt, Stephan Hillyer. “Reflections on the Sahyādrikhaṇḍa’s Uttarārdha.” Studia Orientalia Electronica 5 (December 30, 2017): 151
1 of 30 in the series “Konkan: May-illuminate”