ALTERNATE NAMES: Mahrattas; Mahrattis
LOCATION: India (Maharashtra state)
POPULATION: 78.7 million (total population; 50 percent are of the Maratha and Kunbi castes)
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.
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).
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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).
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.
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.
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.
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.
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).
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.
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.
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."
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