Thursday, July 30, 2015

A dawn to remember…

(Disclaimer: This story is based on the opening prompt provided under Write India initiative. The story is set in 17th century Paithan or modern Maharashtra. The heroine of the story is Ilaa, who remembered the Vedic days, when women were respected and demanded equal rights as any man.
It is purely a work of fiction. It bears no claims to the accuracy of historical events and any mention of a person or place is purely co-incidental).

Close to the city of Paithan, in a small village called Sauviragram, which lay along the banks of the great river Godavari, lived a woman named Ilaa. Being cotton farmers, her family was well to do, but not among the richest in their area. It was the harvest season, and cotton had to be picked from the plants. The wholesalers and traders from Paithan would be arriving in just a few weeks, carrying gold and goods for barter. They would exchange what they carried for the cotton that the farmers grew. The bales of cotton had to be ready in time! Work was at its peak!

But Ilaa was not to be found in the fields. She wasn't working. Instead, she was sitting by the banks of the great river Godavari.

'I am sick of this!' she grunted loudly.

Aacharya Aariv was completing his morning sandhya, and enchanted, ‘Om Shaantih! Shaantih!! Shaantih!!!’

But how could Illa’s mind be at peace! To suppress the Maratha revolt under Shivaji; Adilshahi sultanate of Bijapur in the south, invited the powerful Mughal forces of Aurangzeb to attack from the north. They seized the Fort of Chakan, near Pune, a hundred miles from Paithan. Fort of Panhala, near Kohlapur, where Shivaji was encamped, was bombarded with grenades purchased from the British factory. Shivaji withdrew by the cover of night. Amidst constant warfare and bloodshed, trade routes were blocked or looted to meet the expenses!

Illa folded her hands, ‘O wise man, our people are leading a miserable life. Kindly guide us to the path of prosperity!’

Aacharya responded, ‘Ultimate knowledge. It is the only path leading to everlasting peace and

Illa asked inquisitively, ‘Can the poor, the meek, the non-Brahmins, and the women, gain knowledge?’

The aacharya chuckled, ‘Two kinds of people lack knowledge. First, who aren’t oriented at all; who are foolish, evil or idle. Second, who are bound by limitations. When their mind breaks these shackles, it achieves the boundless ability to achieve the unfathomable.’

Illa touched his feet, ‘O learned man, this intellectual journey involves two. A shishya with the desire to learn, and a guru with the experience. Will you accept me as your student?’ She reflected such aura, fully conscious, truly natural and spontaneous.

‘Who are you, young woman?’


‘Beautiful name! Rightfully, the Goddess of speech and knowledge resides in you. Come to the ashram, for Mounji-Bandhana, initiation ceremony for your studies’.

When Illa mentioned this to her family, they got outraged. Women’s education was considered a taboo. To divert her, she was sent along with her kaka, Mahin, to Dasera fair at Tulja Bhavani ShaktiPeeth, near Dharashiv, over hundred miles afar. The temple was frequented by Bhonsle clan, who were influenced by contemporary saint Samarth Ramdas’ mission of Dharmasansthapana, and were travelling to nearby Domgaon math to attend the kirtan-sabha of one of his disciples. Mahin decided to join the procession. The speech emphasized on Advaita Vedanta, Shakti the feminine energy, and Vidya the knowledge. Illa returned home more determined than ever, and with kaka’s support, started studying.

Ajoba and Aji, her grandparents, were worried, ‘She’s acting against our kul. We have to search for a
groom in a distant village. We need a good price for the crop, to pay for the dowry!’

‘I won’t marry until I complete my studies, and I’ll carry vidyadhan as the biggest stridhan. Maybe, you can conduct a swayamvara, inviting wise men to choose from’, Illa giggled.

Weeks passed, and traders started flocking, accompanied by families and soldiers. Bajara, the
marketplace, was buzzing with activity. Three young men from Paithan were talking about recent

Idhant, a Maratha landlord’s son, said, ‘Finally, our men exacted the revenge and imprisoned
Englishmen for their betrayal.’

‘Your men are killing and plundering too. Revenge begets revenge’, said the dissuaded Onkar, the
priest’s son.

Rushit, son of the richest trader, was indifferent, ‘You heard, King Charles of Britain will marry Princess Catherine of Portugal, and will receive Bombay, on the western Deccan coast as dowry. We’ll supply Paithani silk to the finest connoisseurs for fabulous prices!’

Great bargains followed, leaving both Illa’s and Rushit’s families gratified. Fahyim, a Himro textile producer from Aurangabad, thirty miles away, couldn’t procure the finest cotton. Very cleverly he
exchanged the bales with an inferior variety. Rushit noticed the fraud while loading the bullock-carts,
and went with Idhant to punish Prithvi, Illa’s father. Prithvi pleaded innocence, and was given a day to replace original bales. Everyone was clueless, but Illa resolved to find the offender. She examined the bales, identified the producers who grew such variety, questioned them about sales, and narrowed down a suspicious trader.

‘The felon has vacated vishramgrah, the lodge, but with wild animals in the jungles around, he won’t be leaving the village until dawn. He should be celebrating the loot at Madhushala.’ Illa was forbidden from entering the tavern, she requested Idhant to help.

Fahyim wasn’t found. ‘Did he vanish in thin air or you’re crafting stories?’ fumed Idhant.

‘Profanity is the last refuge of the ignorant. We should search vesya’s quarters’. This time, Illa’s guess was right. Fahyim was caught in a prostitute hideout, and handed over to Patil, the village chieftan. Idhant apologized for his misbehavior.

That whole night he was thinking about the calmness, intellect and agility with which she handled the situation. After morning aarti, Idhant expressed his desire to marry Illa to his family, to which they
reacted harshly! Onkar intervened, ‘Sutras permit anuloma, a higher caste male marrying a lower class female’. Finally Patrikas were assessed. GunaMilan suggested a match made in heaven. Baithak
between the elders happened, Idhant supported Illa’s desire to continue studies post-wedding, and a mahurat of early next year deliberated. Elaborate ceremonies followed over two weeks, beginning with SakharPuda, the engagement; Sankalp, the wedding ritual; and ending with Grihapravesh into their ancestral home in Paithan.


Celebrations were barely over, when the news of heavy Mughal troops assembling in Pune arrived. The warriors were put on alert. Mughal army marched in the opposite direction towards Konkan. Shivaji's forces enveloped them in the dense forests of Umberkhind pass, near Pen, forcing them to surrender.

‘We are out of danger.’ Illa was relieved.

Idhant retorted, ‘You’ll remain under constant threat, until you learn self-defense’.

Illa started her military training, much to the annoyance of womenfolk. One peril had passed, and another arrived. The city was swept by epidemic. Bhavyashree, Idhant’s mother, expressed her wish to see a kul-deepak in her final days. A healthy boy was born. Jatakarman ritual was performed, and he was named Navashen, one who brings hope. After Bhavyashree’s antyesti, the last rites, Illa assumed the household responsibilities, but often felt lonely. When Rushit married Dhanushka, daughter of a rich wholesaler at Ravivarpeth in Pune; Illa found her woman confidante.

The famous ten-day fair, Paithan Yatra, was being held in the shrine of Sant Eknath on the banks of river Godavari. His bharoods, the religious compositions, were being recited; when a man from a distinct Mangbhau Brahman caste yelled, ‘We can’t let a Mahar share a place amongst us!’

Illa reprimanded, ‘The very place you are standing, bears testimony to the fight of the great Nath against untouchability. So do the Vedas ask the noble to eat with the commoner from the same vessel!’

Together the two women sat and chatted for hours. They reminisced the prosperous times of their parents, and the plight and the social degradation under the current Mughal rule.

Providence had it! Shivaji infiltrated Pune using a wedding procession as cover, and recovered the lost territory. Within a year, he sacked the wealthy Mughal Port of Surat to replete his depleted treasury.

Rushit wanted to expand to international trade, and saw it as an opportune time. He travelled to Surat, made great deals, and was returning happily, when on the way, he got intercepted by Mughal forces
who wanted to avenge the plunder, and lost his life! Dhanushka was blamed for bringing bad omen into the family and forced into sati, the practice of dying along with husband’s pyre.

It was the moment of truth for Illa. ‘Henceforth, I vow to devote my life for the upliftment of women!’

‘And I’ll dedicate myself to the service of motherland. Someday, our land will have Swaraj, self-governance and RamRajya, righteous rule.’ Idhant joined the Maratha army, and together they shifted from Paithan to Pune.


Turbulent times followed. The enraged Aurangzeb sent a massive army that conquered over the
Maratha territory. Shivaji signed the Treaty of Purandar and accepted Mughal sovereignty to fight
against the kingdom of Bijapur.

Men were killed, women widowed and children orphaned. Illa united the destitute and established
Anantashram where widows were taught a wide range of arts to earn their livelihood. On numerous
accounts she fought for their rights.

The kins of Aparijita, a lonely widow, wanted to kill her new-born girl, whom they considered a liability. Illa stopped them, ‘Every life is an iota of God, and has come into existence for a purpose!’

Another childless widow, Baijanti, was being forced to become a devdasi, a female slave to men. Illa not only protected her, but found a kind man for her, ‘You can live freely. In such circumstances, Vedic tradition permits either re-marriage or Niyoga, to request a man help bear a child!’

Illa’s devotion and fortitude passed onto her son. Idhant raised him to be a warrior and fired his

‘Baba, are we going to Agra too?’ Navashen asked naively.

‘The road to hell is paved with good intentions!’ said Idhant profoundly.

Actually, Aurangzeb had invited Shivaji to his capital Agra, but instead insulted him. Shivaji stormed out of court, but was placed under house arrest. After several days, he fled to Deccan disguised as a sadhu.

Idhant started training Navashen the instinct of survival at a nascent age. The child began to learn the
hit-and-run tactics, the importance of mobility, and gain the knowledge of the terrain. While his mother instilled spiritualism and compassion into him. He would partake in shramdaan, the community service.


There were winds of change. British East India Company leased Bombay from King Charles. A factory for minting coins and a printing press were established, that stimulated economic and social development.

Illa regularly sent articles for publication, to agitate on the burning issues. Meanwhile, a literary-cum-cultural festival was being held near Pune, at Dehu, the birthplace of Sant Tukaram of Varkari Movement, on his puṇyatithi. The abhangas, devotional poetry, of his disciple Bahinabai were recited, that reflected the regret being born a woman. On the contrary, Illa’s Anantashram band enacted a dance-drama on exalted Vedic philosophers such as Gargi, Maitreyi, Lopamudra. Whatever the form; remorse, reform or rebellion; all aimed at bringing public awareness.

A group of men hooted, ‘These nartakis will teach us how to treat our women!’

Illa was provoked and said with all severity at her command, ‘The entire world has emancipated from
the womb of a woman, and it’s time you learn to respect one!’

During this while, the men of the house, had gone on a hunting expedition. A young calf was tied as a
bait for the lion.

Navashen asked, ‘The calf is lamenting, why don’t we set it free?’

‘Yes, we’ll. It is symbolic of the praja, being swallowed by greedy rulers, and waiting to be liberated!’explained Idhant.

Temples were being razed. Women were being raped. Masses were starving. Discontent was rising. A
million mutinies broke. Pindaris, the irregular plunderers, started supplying commissariat, mainly food and fodder, to the Maratha leaders who carried small armies. They deployed Guerilla tactics to defeat the more powerful forces, but also needed superior ammunition, that the British refused to supply.

‘If women or children enter the factory premise, it won’t raise an eyebrow’, Illa suggested. Together
with her aides Aparijita and Baijanti; and the young Navashen, who by now had mastered the art of
Guerilla warfare; she went inside on the pretext of supplying the finest arts and textiles to the British
Lady. An arrangement had already been made with the help of a couple of dissuaded workers, who had kept the arms ready. The entire plot was executed with such swiftness and fervor, that it left no traces.

This time, Shivaji launched a major offensive. With successive victories, in the Battle of Sinhagad near Pune, and Battle of Vani-Dindori near Nashik, he recovered the major area earlier surrendered to the Mughals.

Several men had sacrificed their lives for the sake of freedom. Illa was lacking resources to
accommodate the ever-growing number of women into Anantashram.

On one occasion, a wicked zamindar had out-thrown Dhara, his brother’s widow, from the haweli. Illa campaigned for her rights to her husband’s property. ‘Recall the wedding vows you took during Saptapadi, ‘I’ll safeguard the food you earn, I’ll join you in managing our income and expenses, I promise to protect our business…!’’

On another occasion, Harni’s husband, a covetous general, joined the enemy camp, performed religious conversion and married his concubine. Though polygamy was often practiced, it was the domestic violence that was dreadful. Divorce was an absolute anathema. Illa refuted, ‘Shastras mention the case of Paunarbhavaputra, a son born out of separation by willingly going to another man. You can leave your cheating man.’


By now, Shivaji retook Panhala. There was calmness for a while, until the Adilshahi general launched an invasion to prevent Shivaji from expanding further south. The Marathas retaliated with a suicide mission at his camp at Nesari near Kohlapur, and eventually defeated him.

Illa recollected, ‘Legend has it, Goddess Mahalakshmi killed demon Kolhasur here. Look how history repeats itself. Fifteen years ago, Shivaji was ousted from this very place, and how he boomeranged!’

Idhant said, ‘Having conquered all the external forces, the Maratha supremacy is established. It is the
hour of the rising sun!’

Finally, the declaration of an independent Maratha kingdom was made, with its capital at Raigad, eighty miles from Pune. Thousands of people gathered to attend the coronation ceremony. Shivaji was entitled Chhatrapati, paramount sovereign; Shakakarta, founder of an era; and Haindava Dharmodhhaarak, savior of Hindu religion.

Illa was witness to the making of history. The celestial moment brought tears to her eyes. She saw reflections of her own life, her struggles, her evolvement, and her hopes for a better tomorrow. It was a new dawn, a dawn to remember!

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