The Mystic Circle: Sufis, Sants & Songs of the Deccan

by Gautam Pemmaraju

Legend has it that Ibrahim Adil Shah II, the medieval Bahmani sultan of Bijapur, styled as jagadguru badshah (master of the world) and author of the famed treatise on classical music in Dakhani, kitab-i-nauras, advised Hindu litigants to go to Paithan in the Marathwada area of upper Maharashtra to have their disputes settled. The ancient imperial capital of the Satavahana kings, also known as Pratishtana in antiquity, was a seat of Sanskritic learning and justice was dispensed there through eminent courts or nyayalayas. The mid-May heat is scorching as we enter the historic inland town on the banks of the river Godavari, which featured prominently as an important town on the trade routes of the past. Ashoka is said to have sent emissaries (or missionaries?) to Petenikas and epigraphic material from the Pitalkhora caves also refer to the town, said to be one of the oldest urban centres in the Deccan. Aside from mentions in Jaina, Buddhist and Brahminical accounts, there are several references to it in outside sources. In Periplus Maris Erytharaei it is known as Paethana and described as a twenty day march from Barygaza (Baruch). Ptolemy also refers to Paithan as the capital of the Andhra king Pulumayi II (138 – 170 CE) and apart from Tagara (Ter), the ancient city was the other important inland market in Dakkhinapatha, or the Deccan. It was known for its textiles and even to this day, Paithani saris are highly regarded.


The curvy narrow streets that wind up through the town bear no indication of its ancient glory. Our destination is the temple of the medieval Maratha bhakti saint Eknath (d 1599). This is Sant Eknath's devghar, his home temple where he worshipped, says Pushkar Gosavi, a builder by profession who lives across the street. Gosavi is also the saint's fourteenth generation descendant—he conducts the affairs of the samasthan, the temple trust, looks after the devghar, and performs several of the religious functions. “It's been 415 years since Nath Maharaj has left” Gosavi tells us, “and we are merely following the ‘route' that he has laid out.” The greatest work of his hallowed ancestor, Gosavi informs us, was to bring together all kinds of folk. Hundreds of people used to gather here for a meal everyday, “typical Marathi style jevan (food), with puranpoli” Gosavi says, distracting me momentarily as my mind wanders off with inwards prayers of an opportune and delicious lunch ahead—such stray thoughts assume great meaning while travelling. He spoke to all people, Gosavi continues, reminding them in more ways than one, through various tales, songs and discourses, abhangs and bharuds (devotional songs), that there was just the one God, and all quarrels on that front are in vain.

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