Tuesday, 15 September 2015



Close to the city of Paithan, in a small village call Sauviragram, which lay along the banks of the great river Godavari, lived a woman named Ilaa. Being cotton farmers, her family was well to do, but not among the richest in their area. It was the harvest season, and cotton had to be picked from Close to the city of Paithan, in a small village called Sauviragram, which lay along the banks of the great river Godavari, lived a woman named Ilaa. Being cotton farmers, her family was well to do, but not among the richest in their area. It was the harvest season, and cotton had to be picked from the plants. The wholesalers and traders from Paithan would be arriving in just a few weeks, carrying gold and goods for barter. They would exchange what they carried for the cotton that the farmers grew. The bales of cotton had to be ready in time! Work was at its peak!

But Ilaa was not to be found in the fields. She wasn't working. Instead, she was sitting by the banks of the great river Godavari.
the plants. The wholesalers and traders from Paithan would be arriving in just a few weeks, carrying gold and goods for barter. They would exchange what they carried for the cotton that the farmers grew. The bales of cotton had to be ready in time! Work was at its peak!

But Ilaa was not to be found in the fields. She wasn’t working. Instead, she was sitting by the banks of the great river Godavari.

‘I am sick of this!’ she grunted loudly. She had just blurted out her frustration of continuously working in the cotton fields, day in & day out, with breaks only for lunch & a half an hour siesta. All of 19 years, she was married as per the prevailing practice of that time, when marriages of girls were done as soon as they reached puberty. Shripati Gaikwad, her husband, was a strapping young man from the same village and was a soldier in Chatrapati Shivaji Maharaj’s army. Currently he was on an expedition in the south of India and hence she was staying with her father. Her husband had lost his father & mother a few years back.

Ila was a very headstrong woman now with a mind of her own and who did not flinch from stating the truth.  After all, she was brought up on stories of her immediate family, the Gosavis . Her great-grandfather, Kusha Bhau Gosavi was a warrior in the Yadava army stationed at Paithan, and was killed, fighting bravely with the foreign army. His wife, Kaveribai, had moved from the main city of Paithan to Sauviragram, in the 16th century, alongwith her 2 sons, Haribhau & Sopanbhau. The 5 acre land in Sauviragram was given as a gift to Kusha Bhau’s father, Mahipatrao, in appreciation of his military service  to the Yadava rulers. Sauviragram, being on the banks of the Godavari river, was a rich land for farming due to the centuries of silt deposited by the Godavari. Since cotton was the staple crop of the area, Haribhau, the elder son, decided that he would cultivate cotton too. In this he met with success from the beginning, and with time, he became one of the respected personalities of the region.

Ilaa was the daughter of Shankarrao, the elder son of Haribhau. She had an elder brother, Ganeshrao. In a time when most of the families had 4 or more children, Shankarrao & his wife, Iravati had only two. And both Illa & Ganeshrao were equally loved by their parents. But going by the society norms, while Ganeshrao received the best of the education, right from memorising the vedas and learning the 2 great epics, Ramayana and Mahabharata, to the basic sciences like Mathematics and Bhugol, Illa, on the other hand did not go to the gurukul. But she had a wise mother in Iravati, who had given her daughter good tutelage, especially in the ancient vedic way of life, where women had an equal say. Ilaa was especially struck by the strong character of three women from the ancient past. One was Draupadi, who did not take her humiliation lying down, and had her revenge on the perpetrators of the great crime, by subtle and sometimes, not so subtle persuasion of her husbands. The others were Maitreyi & Gargi, who were glorified as women of great knowledge. Ilaa imbibed the fighting spirit of Draupadi, as well as the hunger to learn and the composure, of Maitreyi & Gargi. In addition to this, she was also captivated by martial stories of her great- grand father & his father. In fact, she had implored her husband to give her training in sword fighting in the 5 years they were married and whenever he was in the village.

So, there she was sitting by the banks of the great river, letting the cool waters caress her feet, while she was lost in her thoughts. She had once overheard her father and brother discussing about the low rates paid by the wholesalers and comparative higher rates charged by them to the Paithan merchants for the same cotton. On top of that there were the regular raids by the foreign Paithan ruler, made on Sauviragram for claiming unjust taxes. But going by her current circumstances, she was bereft of ideas on what action to take.  But she decided on one thing – broach this subject with her father and brother immediately.

At night Ilaa’s mother, Iravati called out to Ilaa for laying the dishes for dinner. Two leaves of Banana were laid out, one for Shankarrao and one for Ganeshrao. Iravati & Ilaa would eat later. As Shankarrao & Ganeshrao started eating, the 2 ladies fanned them with hand held fans. Shankarrao asked, “Ilaa, why were you not in the fields today. You know very well that we are short on hands and we really need to pick the cotton at a faster rate”. Shankarrao spoke in a gentle but firm manner. Ilaa was happy that the subject had been brought up by her father and replied, “Baba, why do we have to keep labouring in the fields every year. Why should we trade with the Paithan merchants through their middlemen? After all, these middlemen sell our cotton at much higher rates in Paithan while paying us a pittance. On top of that, the wretched Paithan ruler raids the village and makes unjust demands.”

“Beta, you know very well that we do get enough to lead a comfortable lifestyle in Sauviragram.” consoled Shankarrao. He was a very simple man who had simple needs.

“Baba, what Ilaa says is correct.” Ganeshrao now joined the conversation. “We should think about this and try to reach the Paithan merchants directly.” Ilaa was happy with this unexpected support from her brother and laid out her plan to them. “Baba, today I was sitting by the bank of the Godavari and many thoughts crossed my mind. Baba, you are a much respected person in Sauviragram. People hear what you say. What we can do is to organise the farmers of this village to unite and stop selling to these middlemen and contact some of the major merchants of Paithan and offer them our produce directly. I am sure the merchants will be ready to do this change.”

Shankarrao was happy to hear this clarity of thought from his daughter. But he was not yet convinced. “But why would the merchants suddenly agree to a new arrangement where they will have to deal with new persons. After-all, they have now got old ties with many of the wholesalers & traders and would not like to suddenly change.”

But Ilaa was not to be supressed. “Baba, we will have to think about the benefits to the merchants. For this, we can offer lower rates to them than that offered by the wholesalers & traders. In this way, we can get better compensation for the cotton and at the same time, the merchants will also get their raw material at a lower rate. It can become a mutually beneficial arrangement for both the parties”.

Shankarrao was certainly influenced by Ilaa’s ideas and next day he wasted no time in calling for a meeting of all the village elders at his house. As he explained his plans, there was a great murmur in the assembly with most of the people in agreement. Suddenly a booming voice rang out, “Friends!! This plan can certainly be implemented.  But a word of caution!” All turned towards the corner of the room from where the voice rang out. It was Ganpatrao Mohite, one of the wealthier denizens of the village.  “All of you are ignoring one issue here, the support the wholesalers and traders enjoy from the Paithan establishment. This support is guaranteed to them because of the regular extortion money that is being paid to the authorities in Paithan. You should note that any change, which will reduce this money inflow to the authorities, will not be tolerated by them and they will nix any such arrangement between the merchants and the villagers of Sauviragram, in the bud.”

Ilaa was hearing all this from behind a curtain in the inside room. Since morning she was feeling excited that her father had honoured her thoughts and acted on them at such a fast pace.

On hearing the cautionary note from Ganpatrao, she could not control herself any further and was convinced that there was only one solution to this. She came into the hall and addressed the gathering, “Oh learned men! Every problem has a solution, if your heart is set on solving it out. Who are the authorities in Paithan? They are foreigners! Who are the merchants? Who are the villagers of Sauviragram? They are the sons of the soil. On the one hand, the wholesalers and traders don’t pay us the market rates for our cotton, whereas on the other hand, the Paithan rulers raid our villages demanding unjust taxes. But now the time has come to uproot these foreigners from our beloved Paithan. By doing this, the merchants, the villagers and most importantly, the city of Paithan are benefitted.”

The elders in the gathering were feeling very uncomfortable. They had not seen any other woman speak so confidently before and were not ready to accept this behaviour from Ilaa either. Finally one Elder spoke, “Ilaa, you are but a girl and you need to go back into the house and look at the arrangements of tea and snacks for us. After we are all feeling hungry” and the gathering started laughing at these remarks.

Her speech had served the purpose and there were people in the gathering who had been impressed with her personality. Though they agreed with her they could not bring it upon themselves to support her wholeheartedly only due to the fact that she was a woman.

That year, Ilaa’s plan could not be implemented by the village and life went on as usual. Being the strong woman that she was, Ilaa decided that she had to act on her own, to get the results she desired. So the following summer, when Shripati came back to the village, she clamoured after him to take her with him to Pune. She decided that she will undergo sword fighting training (a rudimentary level of which she had already undergone), and who better than her husband to impart that training. So, over the period of next 5 years, she underwent extensive and rigorous training under the tutelage of her loving husband, Shripati.

One day she heard that Chatrapati Shivaji Maharaj would be visiting Pune for a short trip before going to Surat. She was not going to miss this opportunity to somehow meet the Chatrapati. She knew that one of the events, which the Chatrapati never misses, is the sword fighting competition which is always held on such occasions. But how can she, being a woman, participate in one?

The event day started early. The participants, 8 of them, were lined out in front of the pandal where the Chatrapati would be seated. They knew that the Chatrapati would be present only for the final fight and all of them wanted to be in that fight. The fights started, one following the other. One by one, the contestants started falling by, and then only 2 were left. One was a bare chested muscular man, whereas the other was slender and dressed in all black outfit. The head was fully covered by black cloth with only the eyes being open.

The tutari and cymbals announced the grand arrival of the Chatrapati. The sound of the tutari filled both the contestants with energy. The fight started with the Senapati firing off the cannon into the distance. The hefty man was showing off his sword wielding skills by twirling the sword like a small blade in his mighty hand. The crowd got excited and gave out a big roar in his support. The slender person stood still with the sword held with both hands, one leg behind the other, with a side on stance. The bare chested man approached the other person with mighty steps all the while twirling his sword. The crowd waited with bated breath anticipating a quick finish of the opponent. Then the big one made his move…he thrust his sword towards the eyes of his opponent who , at the last moment jerked his head back and avoided the stroke, while at the same time, hitting the big one with the handle of his own sword. The strike brought blood from the big one’s nose. Surprised and angry by this move, the big one made a wild swooping action of his sword, to hit his opponent’s legs. But the opponent was alert; he hit the ground with his sword, jumped into the air, swivelled about his sword and kicked at his opponents head breaking his jaw with his outstretched leg. The hefty opponent staggered back, and using this opportunity, the slender person got on his knees and thrust his sword towards the opponent’s chest and drew blood. Those who drew the first blood were declared to be a winner and the slender person had won everyone’s admiration for his fighting skills. The Chatrapati applauded his skills, and suddenly a gasp went through the spectators…the black scarf around the face had come off, and here was Ilaa with perspiration streaming down her face. The people were talking among themselves but the Chatrapati had only admiration written on his face.

That very day, Chatrapati Shivaji Maharaj granted an audience to Ilaa since he wanted to properly honour her fighting spirit. Ilaa lost no time in elaborating on her dream for Paithan. She dwelt on the importance that a town like Paithan can impart to the new Hindavi Swaraj, that the Chatrapati was trying to build. Chatrapati Shivaji Maharaj, being the statesman that he was, quickly recognised this and in the next few weeks, using his quick and surprising manoeuvres, was successful in making Paithan a part of his growing empire, by freeing it from the oppressive rule of the foreigners.

He recognised the potential and contribution of Ilaa in this achievement, and made her a part of his advisory council for Paithan. Thus Ilaa , through her sheer will and ability to overcome hurdles put in her path, became a minister in the Hindavi Swaraj of Chatrapati Shivaji Maharaj and entered the legends of the historic town of Paithan which are still discussed in awe in Paithan today.

Written by,

Yatindra Tawde

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