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The Maharashtrians of TN


THERE ARE a little over 70,000 of them in Tamil Nadu, I discovered recently when one of them, N. Vittal, better known as a crusading Vigilance Commissioner and for his initiative in liberalising Government attitudes in Electronics and Telecommunications, opened a small window on the Maharashtrian presence in Tamizhagam from the 17th Century. Speaking at the TAG Centre in the South India Heritage Lecture series, Vittal revealed a scholarly Tamil fluency - and told me it's not an uncommon characteristic of Tamil Nadu Maharashtrians, though all of them also speak a scholarly Marathi that might sound strange in Mumbai and Pune.

Tamil Nadu's Maharashtrians, about 30 per cent of them in Madras and 15 per cent in each of the Thanjavur, North Arcot and Dharmapuri Districts, go back to the period commencing in 1676 when Venkoji (Ekoji), Shivaji's half-brother, established the Maratha Tanjore kingdom in a South India fragmented after the fall of the Vijayanagar empire. The Maratha Dynasty was to rule until 1855, but survives with the Princes of the Royal House recognised by the Government as a consequence of ancient treaties.

Patrons of dance and music - including of The Trinity - and contributors to Tamizhagam of Kaalakshepam, Poikkal Kuthirai Aattam, Tanjore paintings and Tanjore plates, the Marathas blended into Tamil Nadu "like sugar in milk". Even their cuisine has left its mark in Tamil Nadu with poli and sambhar, according to Vittal. More significant has been the mark left by Serfoji II (1798-1832).

His upbringing looked after by Friedrich Schwartz, a German missionary belonging to the Tranquebar Lutheran Mission, Serfoji studied at the St. George's Orphan Asylum in Madras and was also well tutored in Tamil and Marathi. Under the Tranquebar influence, he started in Tanjore in 1805 one of the first printing presses in South India and perhaps the first to use Devanagari type. He also started what is today Rajah's College in Thiruvaiyyaru and several schools, including one for girls. The Saraswati Bhandar started by Raghunath Nayak, was transformed by Serforji into the Saraswati Mahal Library, one of the foremost storehouses of palm-leaf manuscripts in the country. He established the Dhanavanthri Mahal for Ayurvedic research and publication; he himself was interested in medicine, particularly in ophthalmology and is said to have treated patients and performed cataract operations. At Manora, on the coast, he founded a shipbuilding industry and raised the Manora memorial tower, a landmark in the area. And all his life, he was a patron of temple restoration and of music and dance, both Carnatic and folk, as well as Classical Western. What he left in Thanjavur - together with its other treasures - cry for maintenance and development of the town as a nodal centre for tourism.

S. MUTHIAH

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