A many-splendoured legacy
Even though the legend of Shivaji---and the fervour of the Ganpati revelry override most things, the spirit of Maharashtra is cosmopolitan, forward-thinking, tolerant and vibrant. While 80 per cent of Maharashtrians follow Hinduism, the state has a treasure trove of heritage sites that bespeak its multi-hued heritage---including those from its Jain, Buddhist, Muslim and Christian cultures. So be it the Ashtavinayak yatra in the Konkan belt—dedicated to eight beautiful facets of Lord Ganesha----or the Ajanta and Ellora caves near Auranagabad from the pre-Christian Buddhist Era, the Mother Mary Church at Mahim, or the Haji Ali mosque of Mumbai---there’s enough to keep connoisseurs of temples, forts, old monuments and art---gainfully preoccupied. Forts have played a vital role in the history of the state, given the rocky terrain of the Sahyadris and the need for strongholds against invading armies. Self-contained units with an economy and socio-political fabric all their own, the forts of Maharashtra built mainly around the time of Chhatrapati Shivaji. Each fort marks a military triumph, and each tells a story of strategy, warfare, intrigue and planning—something of interest to all students of political science, defence strategies and management. All of them reconstruct the tale of an enterprising leader in the Deccan arena, who with fortitude, popular support and vision went onto become one of the tallest kings of Indian history. Interwoven in folklore, along with the valour of Shivaji---the forts are a subject in their own self.
Etched in stone
Over 70 per cent of India’s rock-cave art to be found in the state. Of all these, Ajanta and Ellora, in the vicinity of Aurangabad, are world famous heritage sites and illustrate the degree of skill that Indian craftsmen had achieved several hundred years ago. Ajanta dates between 2nd to 1st century BCE, while Ellora was excavated aound 600 years later. All these have been carved out of solid rock with little more than a hammer and chisel and are an important repistory of the essence of Buddhism. Meanwhile, The Elephanta Caves (of undated origin) are a network of sculpted caves located on Elephanta Island, or Gharapuri in Mumbai Harbour, 10 kilometres to the east of Mumbai, and a tribute to the legend of Lord Shiva.
The true spirit of God
The Bhakti movement—a medieval movement spread all over the country between the 13th and 17th centuries---that emphasized the true nature of God---as a democratic and loving entity who valued simplicity and heart-felt devotion over ritual and superstition, found resonance in the soil of Maharashtra as well. The roll-call of honour includes saint poets like Dnyaneshwar, Namdev, Tukaram and Chokhamela, apart from several saints from the so-called lower stratas of society who have contributed richly to music, art and literature. The Warkari movement that every year in the month of June-July sees a plethora of farmers and myriad believers in Vitthoba (an avatar of Lord Vishnu) converge to Pandharpur in an annual pilgrimage, which begins with accompanying the palkhis of the late saints from their place of Samadhi/enlightenment. The Warkaris reach Pandharpur on the auspicious day of Ashadhi Ekadashi, chanting the name of God—and the saints. Propogating the values of non-violence, charity, austerity and vegetarianism, the Warkaris are an enduring symbol of tolerance in a chaotic world—even today. Several tourists from the world over participate in the pilgrimage, and come away, moved beyond words with the sheer force of conviction that unites men across all barriers.
A celebration of life, in all its festive hues
As per the government census of 2011, Hindus constitute over 80 per cent of the populations, Muslims 13.4 per cent, Christians 2.3, Sikhs 1.9, Buddhists 0.8 and Jains 0.8 in the state. The major celebrations include Diwali, the festival of lights, apart from Gokul Ashtami or Lord Krishna’s birthday, and the ten-day Ganeshotsav in August that marks the birthday of Lord Ganesha. The Ganesh festival is noteworthy for the fact that freedom fighters like Lokmanya Bal Gangadhar Tilak used it as a symbol of cultural pride in the resistance against the British Raj. The Ganesh Mandals that observe the festival in public places undertake several activities of socio-political relevance even today, and are an inalienable part of the local ethos. Christmas, Holi, and EId-i-Milad are also celebrated with traditional fervour. Come April, and apart from Good Friday and Easter Sunday, Maharashtra also celebrates the birthday of the late Bhimrao Ambedkar, one of the founding fathers of the Indian Constitution and leader of the socially downtrodden. Bhimrao converted to Buddhism—in protest against the prevalent evils of Hinduism—and to this day continues to be a leading symbol of equality between all men. Lord Shiva also enjoys a major following, as evinced by the enthusiastic celebration of Maha Shivratri in February.
Carnival of colours
The women of Maharashtra patronize the nine-yard saree as opposed to the six-yard version prevalent in the rest of the country. Musical forms like Powada, a song praising the valour of a great ruler, and graceful dance forms like Lavani are something to be experienced in the various theatre and cultural festivals of the state. The fisherman aka Koli dance form are a nod to the contribution of the fisher-folk of the state.
Home of the intelligentsia and free speech
Amongst several other things, Maharashtra is also the pioneer of women’s rights and the Indian feminist movement. From the early 19th century onwards, the state saw a host of thinkers and reformers who campaigned against child marriage and Sati, whilst simultaneously upholding women’s education and widow remarriage. Prominent names include the late Justice MG Ranade, his wife Ramabai Ranade, Savitribai Phule and Pandita Ramabai As early as the 1930s cities like Pune (also known as a prominent educational hub and Oxford of the East) saw women cycling to school and college, apart from running errands. Cities like Pune and Mumbai are home to several active women’s rights groups across party lines, advocating equal opportunity and fair treatment. Little wonder that India’s first woman doctor aka the Late Anandi bai Joshi comes from the state. Warrior queens like Ahilyabai Holkar and Rani Lakshmibai are a reminder of how much Maharashtra has done for the upliftment of women. The year 1885 saw the establishment of the Indian National Congress in Bombay under the general secretary ship of AO Hume, with delegates from across the country in attendance. It also saw the establishment of the first Indian newspaper Darpan. The values of free and fair journalism, apart from the tradition of value-based Diwali anks (publications that come out in the festival of Diwali) that take up several socially relevant topics, tell of the educated, thinking and well-read middle class. Bombay or Mumbai—the capital of Maharashtra is not only seen as the financial capital of India, but is literally the Gateway of India secular, progressive yet rooted. It is also home to the largest film industry in the world, an industry whose turnover is more than that of the GDP of several small nations. An industry that sees thousands thronging to the city every year, hoping to make it big.
If you are in Maharashtra, you can’t leave without partaking of the local delights: from the street food like the lip-smacking vada pav and missal sold by vendors in every nook and corner, to say nothing of tangy chaat at Mumbai’s Juhu Beach. Other distinct delights include: Kolhapuri mutton (in tambda rassa aka brown curry and pandhra rassa aka mutton in a base of white), shrikhand and puran poli. Mango preparations including burfis, pulps and fruit concentrates derive their unique flavour from King Alphonso or “Hapus”---without a doubt the Lord of all mangoes. Do make a trip to the mango groves dotting Ratnagiri---or take home a crate.