I wonder whether some readers would like to know something about the Mahars and the Mahar Regiment. However it is to be borne in mind that the given account is extremely brief leaving many links not referred to.
Mahar has been dominant community, considered as an untouchable one in Maharashtra. There are number of scholars and historians like Shridhar V. Ketkar, Vithal Ramji Shinde, Irawati Karve, Alexander Robertson, Dr. B. R. Ambedkar and many others who are of the opinion that the Mahars are the original inhabitants of Maharashtra besides another ancient community known as “Ratt” and it is because of the combined name of the two communities namely “Mahar-Ratt” that the name of Maharashtra (territory name) has been derived. Some even – like Vithal Ramji Shinde – firmly says that once upon a time Mahars were rulers of Maharashtra and Mahars were a formidable force.
The meaning of the word 'Mahar' has been explained by the historians and scholars differently. People always tend to derogate some words which they do not like and would want to use it sarcastically. Even today high castes, if they want to insult somebody they call him saying, "Do not do Mahargiri" or "Maharki." In fact gramatical division of the word 'Mahari' is- 'Maha' means 'Great' and '-ari' means 'Enemy.' Therefore it is evident that the hatred for the Mahar community has been with the high caste Hindus for thousands of years till date which shows that they considered Mahars their 'Great Enemies' (Maha - Ari). But with the long passage of time in cultural, physical and communal conflict, Mahars were defeated and the victor communities out of extreme hatred and jealousy of Mahar community, Mahars were reduced to non-entity and made the object to serve the victors (as generally happened in ancient and modern times of history).
Mahars were forced to do manual and dirty work, carry the dead animals, to eat the flesh of dead animals, sweep the streets and do all sorts of dirty work in the area of so called high castes of the village. They were denied to education, forced to live in thatched huts. They must wear filthy clothes, should not put on footwear and not only this, they were prohibited to give good names to their children. Interaction was totally banned. Various sever punishments were provided for the untouchables who were found breaking these rules. For example if the untouchables read Vedas or any book his tongue was cut. If he heard reading of any book hot lead was poured in his ears.
Young Chang the Chinese traveller who toured Maharashtra in 649 AD. has written in his travelogue that there was a community living on the outskirt of the village whose people carried a broom or thorny branch around their waist to wipe-out their footmarks on the streets as other people considered them causing ‘pollution’ to their persons and atmosphere.
There were foreign and Indian historians who described Mahars as honest, trustworthy, hardworking and brave.
Physically Mahars both – men and women – were rated tough, good looking, ranging dark to whitish complexion; so described by Dr. L. B. Bhopatkar, a very prominent person and social Brahmin of Pune. But their social status was deplorable and strangely it was being rationalized by high castes as being “God made” and as such immutable. The Peshwa rulers made their condition in all respect worst than animals.
It was Mahatma (literally means ”Great Soul”) Jyotiba Phule (1827-1890), as I stated earlier the first social reformer who took up their cause to then British Government through a written petition attracting Government’s attention to the man-made inhuman discrimination and their pitiable conditions and urged the Government to redress them. Again it was Jyotiba Phule who started a school in his house at Pune exclusively for the girls belonging to untouchable castes, like Mahar, Mang and Chambhar and as no caste teacher was willing to take up teaching to untouchables. So Mahatma Phule first taught reading and writing to his own wife Savitri and assigned the teaching job to her. He boldly opened his own well in his house allowing the untouchables to fetch the drinking water – an incredible and unprecedented reforms introduced by him in the city of orthodox Brahmins and Peshwa’s erstwhile capital!
Some bold and totally untenable and unacceptable reforms otherwise to the high castes, were introduced by Shahu Maharaj, descendant of Shivaji the Great and King of Kolhapur State for the upliftment of so called untouchable castes.And ultimately a giant intellectual, scholar of rarest height, a towering political leader and an emancipator and Messiah in every true sense for the entire untouchable communities of India appeared on the horizon of Indian life. It was Dr. Bhimrao Ramji Ambedkar, a Mahar himself. His unparallel intelligence, untiring and restless efforts and fight against the caste system, untouchability, its man-made categorization, its utterly selfish creation of “ascending respect” and “descending disrespect”, social class division and also fighting his political opponents and religious fundamentalists, coupled with his continuous convincing argument through his news papers, research books, agitations and hundreds public meetings and direct talks with British Government in India and England created tremendous awakening among Indian untouchables and compelled Government and so called high caste Hindus and their leadership to soften their inhuman attitude towards untouchables.
And when India became an independent nation, Dr. Ambedkar, an untouchable was assigned drafting of free India’s constitution. Dr. Ambedkar abolished practice of untouchability, offenders made liable for punishment, granted civil rights, provided voting rights to all citizens irrespective of one’s caste, creed, religion, sex or social status of establishing society based on justice, fraternity, liberty and equality. He granted all these rights constitutionally. This, at one stroke – unheard of in the history of mankind brought all untouchables – needless to say Mahar too – lawfully on par with other so called Hindus’ high castes who hitherto were deadly against such reforms.
Further as a law minister of Union Government he repealed several laws, which were discriminatory for these unfortunates and made laws like “Protection of Civil Rights Act” which granted various rights to untouchables and tribal. Dr. Ambedkar substituted much hated word untouchables or depressed castes by the word “Scheduled Caste”!
Although practice of untouchability and rigid caste system has been abolished lawfully, and particularly observance of untouchability has been made punishable, it does exist in various camouflages even after decades of independence. The reason being caste system and untouchability is considered by common Hindu as “Godmade”. Such Hindu castes who believe in Hindu religion and hold these customs to heart more important and binding than laws of the land. Untouchability is not practiced openly though occasionally but the steel-frame of caste
system is intact.
Today Mahars of Maharashtra are highly educated. There are number of Mahar professionals, writers, poets, bureaucrats, MPs, MLAs. Now they are politically, socially, educationally much more progressive than many more so called high caste Hindus and are in a position to swing the political power balance in favour or against any other party. Besides their age-old caste name Mahar has been constitutionally substituted by new denomination as “Scheduled Caste” like all other untouchable castes of India, which is serving though pseudo psychological satisfaction. Thanks to that great man named Dr. Bhimrao Ramji Ambedkar whom his followers respectfully and fondly called “Babasaheb” (i.e. revered father). As Dr. Ambedkar embraced Buddhism in 1956, all Mahars of Maharashtra got converted to Buddhism and they ceased to be followers of Hinduism, (Incidentally for information hundred thousands untouchables i.e. scheduled castes are converting to Buddhism in many parts of India).
As stated earlier the Mahars are known for their honesty .morality and rustworthiness. Hundreds of Mahars served in the forces of the Muslim rulers like the Sultans of Bijapur, Beedar, Golkonda and Ahmednagar during 15th to 17th century.
Although scattered stories of bravery of Mahars are recorded by several historians no physical monument was founded till the Britishers recognised Mahars martial status at koregaon battle. Then British government decided to erect a Victory Pillar at the place where the Mahars crushed Peshwa’s vast army. The small contingent of Mahar soldiers was led in that battle by three Mahar commanders named Ratnak, Jatnak and Bikhnak.
After annihilation of Peshwa rule in 1818 – ironically demolished by the Mahars whom the Peshwas were treating worse than animals. The construction of 65 feet high pillar was undertaken in 1821 (26 March 1821) and it was completed in 1822. Originally this pillar was known as “Mahar Pillar”
All the British Generals recorded their praise for this small Mahar contingent which not only humbled the Peshwa army but totally destroyed the Peshwa rule from Maharashtra. The Gen. Markis Hastings, Gen. Smith, Capt. Stantam all hailed unanimously the Mahars. It is a proud privilege for any Mahar to see a sword used by Capt. Stantam who fought in the same battle, preserved in officers'
Mess at Mahar regimental centre, Saugar even today.(And how fortunate I was to see it and to touch it ,while on duty in the OfficerS' Mess when I was a soldier in the MRC Saugar.)
It is surprising to observe that although the Mahar community was treated with the disgust and disrespect during the Peshwa rules but as a whole the Peshwas also used the Mahars' valour at number of their battles.
When the British attacked fort Raigad, Shivaji’s capital Rainak Mahar repealed their attacks and saved Raigad. But unfortunately Rainak was killed in the battle. Afterwards Madhavrao Peshwa constructed a grave manument in the fort in the name of Rainak Mahar. The Peshwa rulers had a cavalry contingent consisted of only Mahar horse riders. The names like huleswar, ghodeswar are still prevalent in the Mahar community in Maharashtra. (these names refer to horse)
In 1739 Chimajiappa – the Peshwa defeated the Portuguese and took over the fort Bassen (Vasai near Bombay). But for his victory Mahar Tukanak was responsible Chimaji Appa with a great heart and gratitude awarded a gift to Mahar Tuknak in Peshwa’s palace at Pune (known as Marathi "Udate Rumal' i.e. Flying Handkerchief.)
In the first war of independence many Indian Princes, Nobles, Nabab’s and people did not take any part against the Britishers. It is also a fact that the British army was mainly consisted of natives who fought for Britishers against Indian people and princes who were fighting for independence. Mahar soldiers fought for Britishers. Their bravery was so outstanding and spectacular that the Britishers inscribed the names of those Mahar soldiers on the walls which are even today available on Kashmiri gate at Delhi with Col. Nicholson’s name. (From “Cultural history of Mahars-Marathi by R. T. Ingale)
It is said that Mahar soldiers saved Sultan of Bijapur’s Begam (Queen) in a battle. (1463-1482) The sultan was so glad that he issued a Ferman granting several rights to Mahars. Similar Ferman was also issued by the Nizam of Hyderabad in 1615 which granted various rights to Mahars.
Historians say these rights known as 52 rights – of Mahars were ancient merely renewed by respective Muslim sultans (these rights were abolished after independence by Dr. B. R. Ambedkar who considered these rights as signs of slavery of Mahars). When Shivaji completed his capital fort “Raigad”, he announced a reward to anyone who would climb up and down from any vulnerable point of the fort. He considered the fort was impregnable to the enemy. But none except Rainak Mahar from Village Pachad achieved this feat and showed the weak part of the fort to King Shivaji. King Shivaji appreciated Rainak for his courage and gave him 500 hons (gold coins) in his fort palace.
Mahar soldiers fought and won fort Chiplun for King Shahu who awarded the Mahars the prestigious gift known as the Flying Handkerchief.
In 1787 a British battleship named Viper was attacked by enemies in the gulf of Kuch in which Mahar mariners were posted to protect it. These brave Mahars defeated the enemies. Although 32 Mahars out of 65 on the deck lost their lives. Mahar commanders Subhnak, Vaghnak, Modnak and Yesnak were duely awarded by the British commander in chief and their bravery was recorded by the Britishers in their army journals.
Emperor Aurangzeb kept his daughter at fort Panhala – about 20 miles from city Kolhapur under the protection of Mahar guards when he was in Deccan. This amply exhibits the integrity, character, honesty and bravery of the Mahars when Emperor even like Aurangzeb also trusted the Mahars.
Because of their animal like status in the Hindu Society, untouchables embraced Islam and joined the forces of Muslim invaders. Many rose and attained higher ranks in the Muslim armies. One adopting the name of Nassiruddin Khushro Shah ascended the throne of Delhi Sultanate and ruled over Delhi for some months. There were many more but their identity has been lost owing to the adoption of Arabic and Turkish names. But it was King Shivaji the Great who recognized Mahar’s worth and appointed them as guardians at several forts or garrisons; besides recruiting them in his army.
Mahars after Shivaji’s death served in naval forces of Kanoji Angre, the great Admiral! But Mahars continued to serve in marine battalions of Britishers and Mahar mariners. Mednak, Yesnak, Subannak and Bahnak were awarded medals for their bravery (1797).
In fact, historically, though very informal and officially unrecorded, the first battalion exclusively of Mahars was raised by “Sidnak Mahar“. After killing Sambhaji – Shivaji’s son. Aurangzeb had already made captive Shahu Maharaj & his family. He always carried them with him in his army and never released but when he died in 1707A.D his son Azzam set free Shahu(Sambhaj's son) from his invading army expecting that his release would result in royal conflict in Maharashtra to claim the throne. As Azzam visualised the family war really started between Shahu & Queen Tarabai- widow of Rajaram – shivaji’s elder son. . Shahu being legitimate heir to the throne, Sidnak Mahar – a commander of his independent Mahar battalion advised Santaji Ghorpade and Dhanaji Jadhav, the two dreaded and powerful Maratha commanders to fight for Shahu. Though Sidnak himself fought, but very unwillingly, against Tarabai, as she too was a royal queen of Shivaji’s family. She was defeated and Shahu ascended the throne of Kolhapur – their capital, while Tarabai occupied territory of Satara.
Shahu the King was so glad to see the bravery and timely help of “Sidnak Mahar “, Shahu felicitated Sidnak at his Kolhapur royal palace in the presence of his ministers and nobles with pomp and show. Not only this but Shahu Maharaj gifted to Sidnak the village “Kalambi” – in Tasgaon Tehsil of district Satara hereditarily. This was the rare recognition of Mahar commanders’ valour and sagacity. Hereditarily gift meant the village Kalambi would remain under the control of Sidnak’s family permanently in future generations and they would be known as “Inamdar” or nobles of the village! Something incredible!
In later years Sidnak-II – Grandson of Sidnak-I – with his Mahar force helped Madhavrao Peshwa – the virtual rulers of Maratha Kingdom at the battle of “Kharada” (5 to 18 March 1795 AD), a village in Ahmednagar district and inflicted a crushing defeat on Nizam of Hyderabad. For his gallantry help, Madhavrao Peshwa felicitated Sidnak-II with a royal ceremony presenting Sidnak a gold bracelet in the presence of his ministers and commanders, although it was not much liked and relished by Peshwas’ other upper castes commanders and nobles!
After some years Parshuram Patwardhan's descendents, a Brahmin princely family of Sangli honoured Sidnak-II at their Sangli palace to show their gratitude to Sidnak-II who had saved Parshuram’s life from sure killing at the hands of Pathans in the battle of Kharda.
When the subsequent Peshwas – the defacto rulers of Maratha Kingdom – started ignoring Mahars due to their low caste, social status and untouchability, the brave Mahars joined East India Company’s army.
In the battle of Koregaon in 1818, Mahar force fought against Peshwas and destroyed their rule permanently in Maharashtra, which helped Britishers establish firmly their rule.
The “Victory Pillar” and the name of the Koregaon village not only became “Mahar-War-Memorial” but the pillar with name of village Koregaon became a symbol of Mahar Battalions’ cap badge and Koregaon’s Memorial has already became a centre of pilgrimage for the Mahars who are visiting the place in thousands every year today!
The cap badge with “Pillar” and name “Koregaon” introduced in 1946 has been substituted by a new in 1956. “Koregaon” battle being associated with Britishers, the name “Koregaon” has been replaced by the words “Yesh” and “Siddhi” in Devnagri script. The name “Pillar” in the centre is retained but with two crossed machine guns supported by two swords has been introduced.
In spite of Mahar’s recorded martial achievements. Mahar units were disbanded and enlisting of Mahars was discontinued in 1892. Fact was when Mahar units were disbanded there were 4 Subhedar Majors, 72 Subhedars and 34 Jamadars or Junior Commissioned Officers besides hundreds of NCOs and Ors.
It was a great blow on the economic life of hundreds and thousands of Mahars, besides it brought a question mark on Mahar’s martial status, their actual war – achievements, honesty and reliability.
While in the British army Mahars fought for them in several countries, for example they were in the battle of Kathiyawad – 1876, Multan and Gujrath – 1849, China – 1860, first and second Afghan wars, Kandhar – 1880!
Before 1941. out of 28 Bombay Infantry (Native) Group Mahar soldiers served in 26B1Groups; besides “The Bombay Marine Battalion”. Under whose influence and why the British Government totally debarred the Mahars from the Army and the recruitment list was best known to the Mahars, It was the BRAHMINS' social order of untouchability,
It was Shivram Janba Kamble – well versed in English language persistently took up this case with the British Government from 1903-1904 and 1905. A detailed petition dated of November 1910 was sent by Shivram Janba Kamble (and Subhedar Bahadur Gangaram Krishnaji) on behalf of Deccon Mahar Conference to the Parliament of British Government, England and justified the restoration of the Mahars in British Army by citing several documentary proofs of Mahars’ bravery and hereditary martial status. Result and reactions werw sharp,Gopal BAba Walangkar. Subhedar Ramji Sakpal (Dr. B. R. Ambedkar’s father), Shivram Janba Kamble – highly educated and well-known social worker, Subhedar Bahadur Gangaram Krishnaji and several social organizations of Mahars appealed the British Government to reintroduce Mahar Battalions. Resultantly and to meet the greater demand of soldiers for World War –I independent Mahar Unit was raised in 1917, but it was again disbanded in 1922.
During the First World War – Mahar 111 was introduced and on cap badge “Kore” and “Gaon” was written on both the sides of the Koregaon Pillar showing in the centre,And at the bottom of the Pillar “Mahar” was written, while shoulders were shown with figure “111” and at the bottom was written “Mahar”. This was with Mahar unit’s from 1914 to 1918.
The lists containing names of NCOs, who served in British Army prior to 1910 as published by the British Government, are accounted thus –
Jamadars – 33
Subhedars – 39
Subhedar Majors – 22
Interestingly all the names given in the list ended with “Nak”. For example, Ragnak Mahadnak, Dharmnak, Subnak and so on. “Nak” meant leader and also it is said that originally it is derived from “Nag” means snake who were Buddhist in ancient India.
Besides the First World War, Mahar fought in Second World War with their contingent of 10,000 soldiers in several countries but without their independent identity. Also there were hundred of Mahar soldiers in British Marine Battalion.
As the recruitment of Mahars was stopped and Mahars' separate units were discontinued, after efforts of Ex-Mahar soldiers and Mahar organizations as mentioned above, Dr. B. R. Ambedkar took up the case and saw its successful end.
British Government could not afford to ignore Dr. Ambedkar’s plea and he compelled the Government to agree raise an independent Mahar Battalion.
Resultantly first Mahar battalion was founded on 1st October 1941 followed by second Mahar battalion on 1st August 1942. And the third Mahar battalion was raised on 1st November 1943.
After Belgaum, Ramtek and Arangaon a permanent Mahar Regimental centre was inaugurated on 1st November 1949 at Saguar, Madhya Pradesh, and its campus was named “Koregaon Lines” – obviously after Mahar’s glorious victory at Koregaon battle of 1818.
Mahar Regiment was allotted “Medium Machine gun” in 1946 and as such Mahar battalions came to know as “Mahar Medium Machine Gun Regiment” or in short “Mahar Machine Gun Regiment”. Cap badge with Koregaon in Roman letters and pillars were introduced in 1914, and reshaped in 1946 but was, substituted in 1956 as stated above.
Now it is a full-fledged infantry regiment. Mahar Regiment was added with para military or Border battalions in 1956, which widened its base and increased recruitment diversity. Now it is comprised not only Mahars but all castes and creeds of the country, however retaining its name as “Mahar Regiment”.
Mahar battalions exhibited their war spirit extraordinarily in war with Pakistan in 1947-48, 1965 and 1971, war with China in 1962, in Goa operation of 1961. Besides as peace keeping force for UN in Korea and Kango and assisted the country’s civil administration on various occasions.
There were several Mahar soldiers and sailors awarded with gallantry medals and recognitions during British period and there are several “Mahaveer Chakra” and “Veerchakra”, Special Service Medals etc. Gallantry award winners of wars and battles fought recently after independence.
Col. Ghashiram as Commanding Officer of Mahar Regimental Centre, Saugar, (and who permitted me for my further education), gave a beautifully worded Martial song – composed by himself in Hindi. The entire text of the song expressed Mahar’s ancient glorious heritage, telling their valour, honesty, hard working nature. The song was so inspiring that anyone would like it and love to sing or murmur it. The song – with just one word substituted is still Mahar Regiment’s Martial song.
Thus, chronological documentary record is evident to prove that Mahars have been a Martial race since ancient times and they have maintained their combating characteristics through ages. By nature Mahars are peaceful and peace-loving, human and humanity honouring, non-violent but powerful, kept segregated but by nature gregarious folk. Record shows that Mahar soldiers are praised by all army commanders from British to Indian army officers for their honesty, reliability, morality and integrity. Besides, various awards for their bravery during the period of Sultans,King Shivaji and his descendents, East India Company and British Rule in India, just in 65 years of Mahar Regiment's founding in Independent India, Mahar soldiers have been awarded 4 Maha Veer Chakra, 29 Veer Chakra and several other Special Service Medals.
How fortunate I was to have received military training from Bali Ram Salvi – a Veer Chakra awardee - and who was also the Hawaldar of our platoon NO.1 and to have heard war stories from him of brave Mahar soldiers like Krishna Sonawane – Maha Veer Chakra winner, Rau Kamble whose head was severed from body by the Pakistan enemy but who continued machine gun firing till he collapsed lifeless!
REFERENCES for above history-
* Dr. B. R. Ambedkar – Untouchables
* Dr. Balbhadra Tiwari – (Reader – Saugar University) “Sadaiv Agragami” – Hindi translation of Col. V. Langars’ original English – History of Mahar Regiment titled “Fore Front Forever”.
* Ardythe Basham (Canadian scholar) – “Untouchable Soldiers – The Mahars and the Mazhbis”
* Alexander Robertson – “The Mahar Folk”
* V. T. Jadhav – “Maharashtra’s Mahar” in Marathi (Mahar of Maharashtra)
* Chintaman More – “Ranzunzar Sidnak” – Marathi – (1795 – 1818).
* Mahatma Jyotiba Phule – His entire literature (Marathi) (1827 – 1890)
* Life and Work of Shivram Janba Kamble by G. S. Nalawade.
* Koregaon's "Victory Pillar "-- Sudhakar Khambe (Marathi version).
(I express my apology, if I committed any mistake or mistakes while quoting the great persons in this article.)