Part of the International conference on Maharashtra in September 2021 - Chetan Sahasrabuddhe, BN College of Architecture, Pune
The eighteenth century was a period of cultural change for most of the region that we know today as Maharashtra. What people today understand as the culture of Maharashtra was built, rebuilt, written, rewritten, codified, and sometimes even fabricated in the eighteenth century. The proposed paper attempts to examine this period from an architectural perspective.
The newly formed Maratha elite, an outcome of the newly opened opportunities of social mobility that Shahu’s regime provided from 1720’s onwards, were the chief agents of rapid changes in the material culture of that century. The new Maratha elite, aided first by the demise of the Deccan sultanates and the later weakening of Mughal rule, rapidly redrafted the political contours of the subcontinent. However, culturally, it was a different story altogether.
A case in point is provided by Mahadji Shinde’s attempts to rebuild the Kaśiviśvanatha temple in Varanasi in place of the Alamgir mosque built by Aurangazeb. The religious zeal of Mahadji was thwarted by the local Bramhins who did not wish to upset the tenuous balance of power that existed in the city between the Hindus and Muslims. Fortunately, sense prevailed and Mahadji had to abandon the project.
In a strange twist, material culture generally and architecture specifically, in the Maratha heartland of the eighteenth-century was defined more by Mughal court culture than anything else. And as Mahadji’s example illustrates, concerns of political legitimacy meant that there was little choice that the Maratha victors had other than accepting the cultural dominance of the vanquished.
Before we hastily attribute the cultural compliance of the Marathas to just political exegesis, it is worth reading Nanasaheb (Balaji Bajirao) Peshwa's letter written while on a campaign in Hindustan (north India). In this letter, young Balaji sang praises of almost everything in the north comparing it unfavorably with his home country in Dakśina deṣa. The conflict between his habitus and the cultural capital he was aspiring to acquire was never more evident than in this letter and is perhaps symptomatic of what the new Maratha nobility was feeling.
The personal migration of his clan from the Konkan to Desh, a simultaneous in-migration of craftsmen from Gujarat and Rajput territories, exposure to regions of strong cultural identities such as Odisha and Karnataka, and a continuation of existing traditions of sultanate and pre-sultanate architecture…all participated in the circulation of cultural ideas, material forms and architectural elements.
This paper will attempt to map the circulation of forms and ideas in the practice of architecture in eighteenth-century Maharashtra. From the Mughal cypress column and multifoliate arches in residences and temples, Bijapuri guldasta finials in temples, carved wooden brackets of Gujarati tradition at one end of the scale - to the Karnataka-inspired agrahar neighborhoods settled next to the very Arab-derived kasba at the other end; this century presents us with a bewildering range of architectural experimentation. The multifoil arch and the cypress column, so often depicted and seen as the cultural identity of the Mughals are, in the final analysis, just one, albeit important example of cultural appropriation by the Marathas, among other things!