Many deaths of Sambhaji

Ambarish Satwik | Updated on January 19, 2018

Upended: It is said that Sambhaji’s downfall was plotted by his Brahmin advisors. One of the theories is that the Gudi figurines we see on Gudi Padwa symbolise his fate   -  Shashi Ashiwal

Ambarish Satwik   -  BUSINESS LINE

When ghettoised, memories produce animus instead of fostering collective pride

“Therefore, after the arrival of the Emperor (Aurangzeb) at Koregaon on Sunday the 3rd March, he was executed along with Kavi Kalas with the sword on Monday, the 11th March 1689.”

This is the description of the death of Sambhaji, son of Shivaji, in Maasir-i-Alamgir. Somewhat feeble and vapid for what is considered a climactic central event of the shared historical and folk memory of the Maratha past.

For Marathas, Kunbis and Dalits (of Maharashtra), if there is a martyrdom that became the most affecting subject of popular commemoration, it is the death and dismembering of Sambhaji.

The historical ballads that are meant to bear witness to the death of the second ruler of the Maratha realm are meant to be profoundly stirring: rendered in a manner that will raise the hair on the backs of the listeners and move them to tears. To hear kirtankar Charudatt Aphale sing those elegiac povadas (ballads) in his kirtan, to listen to the grandeur of the phrasing that supplies image and allegory to that story, is to realise what it feels like to have tides surging in one’s blood and marrow.

The story goes something like this: Sambhaji was betrayed by members of the Shirke clan and came to be surrounded by swarms of Mughal parties led by Muqarrab Khan at Sangameshwar. He was apprehended and taken, like a wild beast, in chains, along with his advisor Kavi Kalash to Bahadurgad to be presented in the court of ‘Alamgir’ Aurangzeb. Four miles outside the encampment they were dressed as buffoons in long fools’ caps with bells on them, mounted on camels and paraded in front of crowds that lined the streets. They were spat and urinated upon and prodded with spears. After the long pageant of shame, they were finally brought to the Emperor. Sambhaji was given the offer of pardon if he would surrender his forts, reveal the location of his hidden treasures and the names of the Mughal officers who were his informers. Oral myths go on about how the only condition for pardon was actually conversion to Islam and complete subordination, but there is no mention of any such demand in contemporary records. Sambhaji refused the offer of life with all the vehemence he could gather, hurled invectives at Aurangzeb and his Prophet, and asked for one of his daughters as his price in the transaction. That night, his eyes were gored with hot iron spikes and his tongue cut off from its root. For a fortnight, Sambhaji and Kavi Kalash were degraded and tortured; swathes of their skin were flayed every day, bones were smashed and, after they’d had their fill, these flayed, limp creatures were taken to Koregaon on Bhima river for the final act. On the new moon night in the month of Falgun — March 11, 1689 — the night before Gudi Padwa, their limbs were hacked off, one by one, and thrown to dogs. Their severed heads, stuffed with straw, were taken around the nearby cities and put on display as specimens of the abject carcass of Hindavi Swarajya. These heads were later found in a patch of vegetation in the village called Vadhu, where they were cremated by a couple of villagers.

Vadhu is sited on the confluence of the rivers Bhama, Bhima and Indrayani. For the villagers, the unbroken living strands of memory have produced at least two postscripts to the narrative on Sambhaji’s death. The Kunbi-Marathas of the village (the extended clan of Shivales and Shivale-Patils) believe that it was their ancestors who gathered the various parts of their Chhatrapati and sewed them together to produce some semblance of a corpse before carrying out the last rites.

The Dalits of Vadhu have a different story about this. It starts with Janabai, a woman from the Parit clan (of dhobis) getting into the Indrayani for her washing and finding chunks of flesh in its flanks. She raises an alarm and gathers a crowd, but she’s hushed by the village Patil. There’s a diktat from Aurangzeb: Sambhaji’s remains are for the scavengers; anybody who touches them will be dealt with similarly. She runs around the village like a madwoman, beseeching every household to give her beloved king what was owed to him in death. That’s when Govinda (Mahar) Gaikwad presents himself. And so, it came to pass that the Dalit women and children of Vadhu brought together scraps of their king from the river and the thickets in whatever piece of cloth they could find and these were then committed to flames by Govinda Mahar, the carcass cleaner of Vadhu.

There is a third supplement to this tale that falls right athwart the fault lines of caste. It questions the accreted cultural inheritance of Gudi Padwa. The Gudi figurine raised outside the home on Gudi Padwa is a stick covered in bright cloth, usually a rich brocade fabric, topped with neem leaves, crowned with an upended copper pot. How did the Gudi acquire the form it did? Why should it be raised on the first day of Chaitra, on the day after Sambhaji’s death? It alleges the secret plotting of Sambhaji’s ruin by his Brahmin advisors. It speaks of how the inner circle of Ramdasi Brahmins was a nest of intrigue and how exactly the final movements of Sambhaji were passed on to the Mughals by Ranganath Swami Rairikar, the chief disciple of Ramdas Swami. The claim is that the punishment handed out to Sambhaji was exactly in compliance with the laws of Manusmriti: for learning the sacred language that only the ‘technicians of the sacred’ had divine right over; for daring to write prose in chaste Sanskrit; for his inquiry into scriptures; for being so proud as to instruct priests about their own duty.

It was in Vadhu on December 28, 2017 that the tinder was lit that led to the rioting in Koregaon Bhima on January 1. It started after a flex board with an “inaccurate version” of history was put up next to the samadhi of Govinda Mahar. The board erected by the Mahar community commemorated him as the man who had defied the orders of Aurangzeb to perform the last rites of Sambhaji. A few metres away is the spot where Sambhaji is said to have been cremated. The official plaque there acknowledges the Shivales for their role in the funeral rites. The flex board was smashed and Govinda Mahar’s samadhi was desecrated in the early hours of December 29. On the same day, a complaint was filed against 49 people (including sarpanch Rekha Shivale) under the SC/ST prevention of Atrocities Act. A counter-complaint was filed by Ramakant Shivale, gram panchayat member, claiming that the Dalits had threatened them with retaliation on January 1, when lakhs of Dalits were expected to show up for the Koregaon Bhima Vijaystambh celebrations. The upshot of these events was that the gram panchayat of Koregaon Bhima declared a bandh in the village.

It’s ironic that these are relics of the real glory of the Swarajya project, meant to offer consolation and solidarity. Consecrated in the social nature of remembrance and collective identities. But, if all historical narratives are approximations and, at least in part, collections of gossip, how can memory then be declared an artificially created past? What if these local histories and memories are so terribly ghettoised that they produce animus instead? What if memory turns riotous in a small village of 3,000 people and then goes on to convulse an entire State? That’s perhaps why the historian Tryambak Shejwalkar had, at some point, resigned himself to believing that history had gripped Maharashtra like the devil.

Published on January 19, 2018

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