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Introduction Part I of IV
Introduction Part I of IV - By Dilip Chitre
Tukaram was born in 1608 and vanished without a trace in 1650.What little we know of his life is a reconstruction from his own autobiographical poems, the contemporary poetess Bahinabai's memoirs in verse, and the latest biographer of Marathi poet-saints, Mahipati's account. The rest is all folklore , though it cannot be dismissed on those grounds alone. Modern scholars such as the late V.S.Bendre have made arduous efforts to collate evidence from disparate contemporary sources to establish a well-researched biography of Tukaram. But even this is largely conjectural.
There is a similar mystery about Tukaram's manuscripts. The Vithoba temple in Tukaram's native village, Dehu, has a manuscript on display that is claimed to be in Tukaram's own handwriting. What is more important is the claim that this manuscript is part of the collection Tukaram was forced to sink in the local river Indrayani and which was miraculously restored after he undertook a fast-unto-death. The present manuscript is in a somewhat precarious condition and contains only about 250 poems. At the beginning of this century the same manuscript was recorded as having about 700 poems and a copy of it is still found in Pandharpur. Obviously, the present manuscript has been vandalized in recent times, presumably by scholars who borrowed it from unsuspecting trustees of the temple. It is important to stress that the claim that this manuscript is in Tukaram's own handwriting is not seriously disputed. It is an heirloom handed down to Tukaram's present descendants by their forefathers.

Tukaram had many contemporary followers. According to the Warkari pilgrims' tradition , fourteen accompanists supported Tukaram whenever he sang in public. Manuscripts attributed to some of these are among the chief sources from which the present editions of Tukaram's collected poetry derive. some scholars believe Tukaram's available work to be in the region of about 8000 poems. This is a subject still open to research. The standard edition of the collected poetry of Tukaram is still the one "printed and published under the patronage of the Bombay Government by the proprietors of the Indu-Prakash Press" in 1873. This was reprinted with a new critical introduction in 1950 on the occasion of the tri-centennial of Tukaram's departure and has been reprinted at regular intervals ever since by the Government of Maharashtra. This collection contains 4607 poems in a certain numbered sequence.


In sum the situation is :

i. We do not have a single complete manuscript of the collected poems of Tukaram in the poet's own handwriting.

ii . We have some contemporary versions but they do not tally.

iii. We have many other versions on the oldest texts and occasionally, poems that are not found elsewhere.


The various versions of Tukaram's collected poems are transcriptions made from the oral tradition of the Varkaris and/or copies of the original collection or contemporary "editions " thereof.


This is a tangled issue best left to the experts. The point to be noted is that every existing edition of Tukaram's collected works is by and large a massive jumbled collection of randomly scattered poems of which only a few are in clearly linked sequences and thematic units. There is no chronological sequence among them. Nor, for that matter, is there an attempt to seek thematic coherence beyond the obvious and broad traditional divisions made by each anonymous "editor" of the traditional texts.


One of the obvious reasons why Tukaram's life is shrouded in mystery and why his work has not been preserved in its original form is because he was born a Shudra, at the bottom of the caste hierarchy. In Tukaram's time in Maharashtra, orthodox Brahmins held that members all varnas other than themselves were Shudras. Shivaji established a Maratha kingdom for the first time only after Tukaram's disappearance. It was only after Shivaji's rise that the two-tier caste structure in Maharashtra was modified to accommodate the new class of kings and warrior chieftains as well as the clans from which they came as proper Kshatriyas.


For a Shudra like Tukaram to write poetry on religious themes in colloquial Marathi was a double encroachment on Brahmin monopoly. Brahmins alone were allowed to learn Sanskrit, the language of the gods" and to read religious scriptures and discourses. Although since the thirteenth century poet-saint Jnandev, there had been a dissident Varkari tradition of using their native Marathi language for religious self-expression, this had always been in the teeth of orthodox opposition. Tukaram's first offence was to write in Marathi. His second, and infinitely worse offence, was that he was born in a caste that had no right to high, Brahminical religion, or for that matter to any opinion on that religion. Tukaram's writing of poetry on religious themes was seen by the Brahmins as an act of heresy and of the defiance of the caste system itself.


In his own lifetime Tukaram had to brave the wrath of orthodox Brahmins. He was eventually forced to throw all his manuscripts into the local Indrayani river at Dehu, his native village, and was presumably told by his mocking detractors that if indeed he were a true devotee of God, then God would restore his sunken notebooks. Tukaram then undertook a fast-unto-death praying to God for the restoration of his work of a lifetime. After thirteen days of fasting,. Tukaram's sunken reappeared from the river. They were undamaged.


This ordeal-by-water and the miraculous restoration of his manuscripts is the pivotal point in Tukaram's career as a poet and a saint. It seems that after this episode his detractors were silenced , at least for some time.


But Tukaram and his miraculously restored manuscript collection both disappeared after this. Some modern writers speculate on the possibility that Tukaram could have been murdered and his work sought to be destroyed. However, Tukaram was phenomenally popular during his lifetime and was hailed as "Lord Pandurang incarnate" by contemporary devotees like the poetess Bahinabai. Any attack on his person, let alone a successful attempt on his life, would not have escaped the keen and constant attention of his numerous followers. Therefore, such speculations seem wild and sensational.


Shivaji was born nineteen years before the disappearance of Tukaram. The Maratha kingdom was yet to be founded when Tukaram departed from this world. At this juncture, the whole Deccan region was in the throes of a political upheaval. Trampled by rival armies and ravaged by internecine warfare, small farmers in the village of Maharashtra faced harrowing times.


Around 1629, there was a terrible famine followed by waves of epidemic diseases. Tukaram's first wife, Rakhma, was an asthmatic, and probably also a consumptive woman. Though he had been married to his second wife Jija while Rakhma was still alive, Tukaram loved Rakhma very dearly. Rakhma starved to death during the famine while Tukaram watched in helpless horror.


Shivaji was born within a year of the terrible famine that ruined Tukaram's family as it did thousands of others. Even after Shivaji's rise a few years later, things could not have been better for the average farmer in the villages of Maharashtra. Though Shivaji's brief reign was popular by all accounts, he was battling the might of the Mughal military machine, waging a constant guerilla war.


Relative peace and stability returned to Maharashtra only about a century after Tukaram. While it had tenaciously survived the political turmoil surrounding it, the Varkari religious movement witnessed a revival only after the situation became more settled. Tukram's great grandson, Gopalbuwa, played an important role in this revival. Otherwise, for four generations the history of Tukaram tradition remained obscure even though increasing numbers of people claimed to have become Tukaram's followers.