Regional texts from Western India

Sahyadri Khanda is important for the sociological study of Western India, and a few other notable literary pieces join the rung of being important literary sources. The category of “Sthala Mahatmya” occupies a place of importance in this context. Sthala Mahatmya texts speak of a particular site (sthala) and delve into the importance (mahatmya). The texts outline social, political and religious importance, and sometimes weave in the economic importance. The highlight of this textual tradition is that the literature qualifies the site (village/town) as the most favourable town for human settlement, growth and prosperity.

The traditions of many great temples recorded in later times still refer to such an immediate local origin of the gods worshipped in them. Legends of this kind are called sthala mahatmya and are supposed to emphasise the sanctity and greatness (mahatmya) of the designated temple. The statues (arca) worshipped by the Bhaktas are considered to be incarnations (avatara) of gods who had appeared before the people in tangible form. The Bhakta sees and worships his god in this archa-avatara.

“A History of India” by Kulke and Rothermund, 2004

As I started exploring the historical sources of study for Coastal area of Western India, the wealth of regional religious literature seemed impressive. Most texts while in Sanskrit, are available as translations in Marathi, the regional language of Maharashtra. The translations pose a different set of problems based when the work was translated and whether the translation is word to word or as a summarization. Let us set that aside for a while. Let us assume that all Sthala Mahatmya texts that we have at hand are true to their translation, and we can access all the content. With this, the Sthala Mahatmya texts lay out intriguing aspects of the social history of coastal villages of Konkan. I will resort to the use of label “Konkan” to denote the coastal area of the state of Maharashtra.

Three texts that fall under the broad category of Sthala Mahatmya, further the story of the creation of Konkan from Sahyadri Khanda. Or do these texts describe it first, to be collated in Sahyadri Khanda later? Maybe we should let the textual scholars respond to this “which came first” question. The three texts:

Harihareshwar Mahatmya, Vyadeshwar Mahatmya and Sangameshwar Mahatmya, extol the attributes of the towns of Harihareshwar, Guhagar and Kasba- Sangameshwar, respectively. Except Harihareshwar, the two towns lie in the modern-day Ratnagiri district. Harihareshwar, a part of Raigad district, is known for the grand Shiva temple. But I have not yet procured a copy of Harihareshwar Mahatmya myself, to find more about the Shiva temple.

Vyadeshwar and Sangameshwar Mahatmya, if you notice in the name, speak of a temple or a deity and a village, respectively. The names indicate the topic or intent of glorifying places through the agency of these texts. Vyadeshwar temple in the town of Guhagar, derives its name from sage Vyada who penanced and settled in Guhagar. The story of Sangameshwara is slightly different, and the name of the town is derived from its location at the confluence of three streams. The main Shiva temple at this confluence is that of Karneshwar, but the text takes the name of the place.

The sage Parashurama reappears in the in all these texts, and the description of the landscape follows a sacrosanct narration. Some common themes of these texts include the description of the local land and flora, fantastical narrative on various deities appearing and later residing at the foothills of Sahyadri mountain range. The texts also declare the site(s) as the abode of various gods and furnish scant descriptions of communities in diaspora.

Vyadeshwar Mahatmya

The text of Vyadeshwar Mahatmya opens with the story of creation of Konkan. The land between the sea and the hills, Guhagar, emerges as the ideal place for mendicants and householders, alike. The text presents an interesting peek into the Hindu societal hierarchy. The traditional Hindu society was divided in four main groups of Brahmins (Scholars, priests and the intelligentsia), Kshatriya (rulers, kings and warriors), Vaishya (tradespeople, merchants, office bearers, etc), Shudra (attendants and menial labourers). The ramifications of this obsolete system are still felt, and are tangible in the area of Konkan. The text of Vyadeshwar Mahatmya builds its narratives with this societal structure in mind. The movement of deities, annual festivities and special days get a place in the text.

Vyadeshwar Mahatmya takes the reader through the town of Chiplun (old name: Chitpolon) and Mahendra hill where Parshurama performed his penance. The hill and Chiplun connect with Guhagar or Vyadeshwar temple through a series of narratives. This connection between the places sketches a close-knit network of religious spaces and a phenomenology of landscape.

The author, text and characters

The trend of anonymity for authors of the Purana literature is considerably changed in case of Vyadeshwar Mahatmya. We know the author Vishwanath, and the scribe Rama from the text of Vyadeshwar Mahatmya. The text is dated to between 1637-1653CE. The time period of this text coincides with the early years of king Shivaji, popular in Western India. Shivaji rose to power around 1673 CE and a major portion of Konkan coast was under his dominance. Although a political side-note, the political shifts reflect in the literary activity – may it be secular or religious. Pre-Shivaji Konkan was under the rule of the Adilshahi and Ahmedshahi kingdoms. Although the rulers followed Islam, this Hindu text and a few others continued to flourish with their associated textual tradition. The textual tradition refers to public narration and performance of the text.

Vyadeshwar Mahatmya is anchored around the temple of Vyadeshwar, with Shiva as the principal deity. Unfortunately, I am not aware of any sources of study on the performative tradition of this text. But one can postulate that this was a popular text in the medieval period and continued to be held in safe custody for centuries after that. The temple of Vyadeshwar is mentioned in the clan histories of families that have ling relocated to Pune, Satara, Sangli, Kolhapur, Paithan, etc. These migrations occurred around 1730’s, when the town of Pune was reconstituted by the Peshwa kings, and families from Konkan was offered office positions at the court in Pune. I will write about it later someday. The text of Vyadeshwar Mahatmya puts Guhagar or Chiplunas the original home of many Koknastha Brahmins (Brahmins from Konkan). Shiva thus, is styled as the clan deity for the families. The text offers a sacrosanct sanction as it were, for the peopling of the coast and styles Shiva Vyadeshwara as the guardian.

When my travels took me to Guhagar and interviewed people for the narratives on sacred landscape, a recurring narrative was thrust on me. “Cows know where to find Shiva”, exclaimed an old aunt one day, sensing my bewilderment. Many towns in Konkan reiterate the tale of a cow letting milk from her udders at specific spots. The surprised cowherders, then would discover a buried Shiva-lingam at the spot. The story of Vyadeshwar Shiva follows this routine narrative. The text of Vyadeshwar Mahatmya also talks about this tale and adds the element of local narratives into the text. This insertion of oral narratives into a textual piece, often entrenches the narrative in the literary tradition, making it the “ur” narrative.

The text breaks away from the usual dialogical format between demigods, sages, and other characters from the Hindu multiverse. A major potion of the text flows as a report, with some characters with dialogical interlude. The conversation of Parshurama and the sea, sage Vyad and Parshurama, for instance, are in the form of dialogues. The characters from Sahyadri Khanda reappear in some sections of this text with 694 odd verses.

Why am I reading Vyadeshwar Mahatmya?

My reading of the text is helping me look for the religious sites along Konkan in the medieval period. The casual mention of “Patan” or a place of trading has helped me look for the evidences of old ports and storage houses. The text, intending to only glorify the temple and associated traditions, is mute about other religious groups such as Muslims and Buddhists. A study of political and economic records of the time will help fill the gaps in our understanding. Let us see what more I can learn from a close reading of this text and other associated material!


2 of 30 in the series “Konkan: May-illuminate”

Published by Kalemighty

Penned thoughts from South Asian culture. Follow for thoughts on Archaeology, Anthropology, and Pedagogy

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