Chitpavan Brahman - Orientation

Identification. "Chitpavan," sometimes spelled "Chittapavan," may mean either "pure from the pyre" or "pure in heart." Another name for this Brahman caste of the Marathi-speaking area of western India is "Konkanastha," which means "being of the Konkan," the coastal strip between the Arabian Sea and the Western Ghats (mountains) south of the city of Bombay. The "pure from the pyre" meaning of Chitpavan is a reference to an origin myth claiming that the caste was created by the god Parashuram from bodies of shipwrecked sailors, purified on the pyre, restored to life, and taught Brahman rites. This myth is found in the "Sahyadri Khanda" of the Skanda Purana, a chapter probably compiled by a Deshastha Brahman, one of the "original" Brahmans of the Marathi-speaking area, and hence not always flattering to Chitpavans. Members of the caste are generally very fair, often have aquiline noses, and frequently possess gray, blue, or green eyes. At various times it has been speculated that they were originally Turks, Iranians, Egyptians, Greeks, Jews, Berbers, or people from farther south or north in India.

Location. The original home of the Chitpavans was around the city of Chiplun in Ratnagiri District, the northern part of the Konkan, and some derive the name "Chitpavan" from "Chiplun." In the eighteenth century members of the caste moved throughout the Desh area (the Marathi-speaking heartland, inland from the coastal mountains) and in British times to all the cities of the Marathi-speaking area, especially Pune, Sangli, and Wai, and beyond. Since Indian independence in 1947, many have migrated abroad.

Demography. No census records on castes other than Untouchables have been kept since 1931. Maureen Patterson estimates that there are now around 250,000 Chitpavans, roughly 13 percent of the Brahmans of the state of Maharashtra, less than 1 percent of that area's population.

Linguistic Affiliation. Marathi is spoken by all people Native to Maharashtra; it is an Indo-European language containing elements from the Dravidian Language Family. Until recently, there was a "Chitpavani bhasa ," a distinctive nasality in many Chitpavans' speech. The last traces may be seen in the popular didactic book of short sketches by Sane Guruji (1899-1950), Shyamchi Ai (Shyam's Mother), published in 1933 and still read for enjoyment, moral tales, and its cultural importance.

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