Decoding the Maratha Identity


Tensing Rodrigues

We had said earlier that while the Deccan ksatriya and kunbi identities among the Christians in Goa were neatly quarantined, the former under the label of caddi, in the Marathi domain they were subsumed under the label of maratha; in the rest of Brhatkomkan the label might have been different, but the essential logic of categorization seems to have been the same as in the Marathi territory. As we shall see below, there seems to be a good reason for this.

The maratha label, however, seems to be quite ambiguous. According to Deshpande ‘… the term recalls a pre-colonial warrior heritage, embodied most strikingly in the figure of Shivaji.  … in modem Maharashtra it has been a marker of a politically dominant, upper caste group.’. [Deshpande, 2003 : Caste as Maratha : Social Categories, Colonial Policy and Identity in Early Twentieth-Century Maharashtra, in Indian Economic and Social History Review, 3] That sums up the predominant characteristics of the term: as a cover for more than one ‘castes’ that rallied together in the pre-colonial period to counter the rising tide of Muslim rule, in the colonial period to seek social mobility through civil and military employment under the British and in the post-colonial period to get an upper hand in the electoral battle. No wonder, there was a clamour to own that label – Goan Hindus adopted it in preference for the term caddi and those beyond the Marathi domain followed it as a model to create a superior non-bramhan identity.

Many of the Marathi martial elites claimed Rajput ancestry and a descent from a set of elite ninety-six ‘ksatriya’ families; but the vast numbers of kunbi cultivators of Western India who served in the Maratha armies also claimed to belong to the maratha clan. Constable calls it the ‘kshatrya-isation’. [Constable, 2001 : The Marginalization Of A Dalit Martial Race In The Late Nineteenth And Early Twentieth Century Western India, in The Journal Of Asian Studies, Vol. 60, No. 2, 442] The maratha ‘caste’, therefore, came to necessarily include both the Deccan ksatriya and the kunbi. But the definition of the term seems to have changed from time to time, swaying to the political tides. On one side were the bramhan trying to appropriate the maratha appellation, on the other side was the attempt of the anti-bramhan camp to seek a rallying point for itself. Therefore, in the social, political and cultural arena, the maratha category remained fluid as ever. 

Interestingly the ethnologists seem to have discovered both the native Indian and the Near-Eastern ancestries of the maratha quite early. Risley, for instance, writes: “The Scytho-Dravidian type of Western India, comprising the Maratha Brahmans, the Kunbis, and the Coorgs; probably formed by a mixture of Scythian and Dravidian elements, the former predominating in the higher groups, the latter in the lower. The head is broad; complexion fair; hair on the face rather scanty; stature medium; nose moderately fine and not conspicuously long.” [Risley, 1915 : The People of India, 33]  Risley’s view was framed by geography; he was writing about the inhabitants of the western Deccan, who happened to speak Marathi. But ‘Maratha Brahmans’ is a rather confusing category.  Also his use of the term ‘Scythian’ is a little inaccurate. We know that there were basically two ethnicities that entered India between 8,000 BCE and 2,000 BCE; the earlier of the two was from the Near East – from around the Zagros mountains in Iran; the latter was from the Central Asian steppes. The first we have called ksatriya, the other bramhan. [The Bramhan Migrations, 11 Mar 18] Like the terms ‘Aryan’ and ‘Indo-European’, the term Scythian too seems not to distinguish between the ksatriya and the bramhan. The maratha (Deccan ksatriya) and the kunbi, as we have seen earlier, both carry the Near Eastern (Iranian) ancestry, besides the native Indian gene. [The Formation of Kumlbi and Deccan Ksatriya, 05 Apr 20] Risley has got it right when he writes : ‘Scythian predominating in the higher groups (read Deccan ksatriya), the Dravidian in the lower(read kunbi).’

But what is interesting is the fact that while the term caddi refers exclusively to the Deccan ksatriya, the term maratha most of the time includes both the Deccan ksatriya and the kunbi. It is important to note that the term caddi was prevalent even among the Hindus in Goa as recently as the 17th century. It was only after the ascension of Shivaji and the maratha appellation gaining respect, that the term maratha was adopted by the Goan Hindus. [Pissurlenkar, 1936 : O Elemento Hindu da Casta Chardo, in O Oriente Português, Vo. XXX, 204] How’s that the term caddi for Deccan ksatriya was preserved only in the Portuguese ruled Goa? The reason seems to be just that : the Portuguese rule. Both the Marathas and the British raised large armies from among the local populace; the recruitment was based on the criterion of what were called the ‘martial races’. The ksatriya (going by the varn system) obviously qualified as a martial race; the Rajput-ksatriya connection only served to reinforce the belief. And the kunbi whom the local ksatriya chieftains recruited in their own armies, naturally became part of the Maratha and the British military – what came to be called the naukari.

However no such thing happened in the Portuguese domain. Unlike in the trans-Sahyadri Komkan, the local chieftains in Goa did not rise too high; they did not recruit large armies. Nor did they function as ‘entrepreneurs in local military labour markets’. So the opportunities for the kunbi to be integrated into the ksatriya designs, and thereby into the ksatriya ‘caste’, were largely inexistent. No such opportunities seem to have arisen under the Portuguese as well. The concept of a martial race too seems to have been absent in the Portuguese colonial mindset. The Portuguese army in Goa consisted largely of battalions brought from Portugal. The Indian Army, constituted around 1670, consisted largely of recruits of Portuguese descent. “In the early days of the conquest, India had no regular and permanent army; the military needs of expansion and defence, were met by troops coming from the kingdom every monsoon, to which were added a few local Portuguese recruits.”[Rodrigues, 2018 : Souls, Spices and Sex – The Struggle For European Ascendancy In Portuguese India] The caddi or ksatriya almost never sought Portuguese military service; nor was their ‘martial’ quality ever evoked by the Portuguese.