"Gaudasaraswatha" brahmins speaking Konkani

Frank Conlon conlon at U.WASHINGTON.EDU
Wed Nov 24 17:46:16 UTC 2004

With reference to Christophe Vielle's  query-- the Gauda Saraswata
Brahmanas are a cluster of related jatis spread up and down the west
coast of the Indian peninsula centering on Goa.

Among Saraswats, there are varying traditions regarding their origin
either as migrants from the far north (banks of the Saraswati) or from the
north via the northeast (Gauda).  I am not in a position to comment on
this issue authoritatively--there is a text, the Konkanakhana of the
Sahyadrikhanda of the Skanda Purana which asserts claims, but as if, I
think, widely acknowledged, the various recensions of the Skanda Purana,
like Skanda himself, I suppose, provide quite different aspects of

Regardless of that, there were by medieval times, centering on the
territory that is modern Goa, brahmans who followed both Vaishnava and
Smartha religious practices (that is either one or the other).  The were
of the Konkan region, but must not be confused with the "Konkanastha" or
Chitpavan Brahmans who also hailed from places on the coast north of Goa.
(I am leaving out many details here.)  Saraswats were categorized in
tradition as Gauda Brahmans not Dravida Brahmans and were characterized by
the southern (Maharashtra Deshasthas, Karnataka, Tamil etc.) brahmans as
'tri-karmi' rather than 'sat-karmi.'  Although Chitpavans were regarded by
Deshashtas in Maharashtra as lower in status, they were accepted as part
of the Dravida division, whereas the Saraswats were not.

The status distinctions, some say, originated in the fact that as coastal
people, many of these brahamans were known to include fish in their diet.
And indeed in Konkani there was a usage of jalashakha (sea vegatable) that
may have reflected a jocular recognition of this matter.  On the other
hand, I know of many GSBs who are pure veg in habits, so this was only one
of the building blocks of distinction.

Within Goa, the ancestors of today's GSBs were prominent in all positions
of dominance, religious, land control, government service AND commerce.
Although records are limited, it is clear that the Portuguese conquest of
the old territories of Goa in 1510, found Brahmans in positions of
considerable power.  On the one hand, the 'Christianizing' motivation led
to pressure on these elites to convert; while the practical concerns of
the Estado da India accepted many of these brahmans as intermediaries and
functionaries in both administration and trade.  With time, pressure for
Christian conversion led many families to take a practical decision --
dividing, with one branch turning Christian and remaining in the
Portuguese territories--in modern times, among Goan Cathoic elites, one
finds families known as 'bammans'--while others moved, with their family
deities (notably Mangesh and Shantadurga, but there were several others)
across the creeks into Indian-ruled territory.  (I should note that in the
18th century these territories were annexed to Goa, but by that time, the
Portuguese were no longer in the 'Christianizing' enterprise.)

Even before these pressures, the landed, administrative and commercial
families were pursuing opportunities outside of Goa.  Some went north, and
within Maratha history one finds that Shivaji employed "Shenvis" in his
military and civil administrations.  Others moved to the south, including
some who served in revenue/administrative roles in territories of various
coastal sub-states and the intermediary rule of the Nayaks of Ikkeri/Bednur
(a successsor of the Vijayanagar domination.)  There was also an important
coastal trade in rice and spices and Konkani speaking GSBs spread along
the coast right down to Kanya Kumari.

The Portuguese Inquisition--which was directed less agains Hindus per se
and more against ex-Hindus who had 'converted' but were viewed as not
fully enthused in the converstion--prompted the movement of some Catholic
Brahmans southward toward other posts and trading centers such as
Mangalore.  In modern times there are 'Mangalore Christians' whose
hyphenated surnames retain both an Indian and Portuguese element--one that
comes to mind just now is Lobo-Prabhu, but there were others with such
elements as Kamath and Pai.  These folk remained Catholic, but unlike many
Goan Christians, they retained Indian dress and cuisine.

Also there were others of the commercial branch of the GSB lineages who
moved south and became traders and money-lenders and later prominent
commercial actors along the coasts of modernday Karnataka and Kerala.
They spoke Konkani at home, and as an internal trade language while
mastering the dominant languages of the region, Kannada, Tulu and
Malayalam.  Over the years they became an enclaved community in many of
the towns along or near the coast.  In Cochin there is a bazaar area where
virtually every shop was owned (at least in the 1960s) by Konkanis -- as
they were known.

The Konkani language has been written in devanagari, roman, Kannada and
Malayalam scripts, and there are dialects that are quite distinguished.

If your interest lies toward language issues, there is a long-standing
dispute regarding the status of Konkani.  Some linguists, historians and
publicists insist that Konkani is a dialect of Marathi; others hold the
view that Konkani is a distinct Indo-Aryan language.  This heated up quite
a bit in the 1960s when the former Portuguese territories of Goa were
proposed to be merged into the Indian state of Maharashtra.  For a number
of reasons this was narrowly defeated in a referendum and Goa is now a
state of the Indian union.

So, Konkanis aka Gauda Saraswatha Brahams are indeed in Kerala, primarily
an urban population, with a heritage of commerce; of course today members
of those families are spread all over the world and make their mark in
wide number of arenas.

I confess that my 'off the top of the head' response has its roots in a
book I wrote some years ago, alas now out of print, on one of the
divisions of the GSB cluster, _A Caste in a Changing World: The Chitrapur
Saraswat Brahmans, 1700-1935_
Berkeley: Univ. of California Press, 1977
ISBN 0520029984.
LCCN 78100339 75007192
OCLC # 3892213

Unaccountably, when I compiled the bibliography for that volume, I
misplaced (and left out) reference to two valuable articles by my friend
Narendra Wagle in the _Journal of Indian History_ 48 (1970) 8-25, 295-333.

Other materials that are, alas, important and difficult to obtain are:

Kudva, Venkataraya Narayan, 1898-1961
_History of the Dakshinatya Saraswats_
Madras, Samyukta Gowda Saraswata Sabha [1972]
LCCN 72905916 /SA
OCLC # 658817

Keni, Chandrakanta, compiler
_Saraswats in Goa and beyond_
Vasco-da-Gama, Goa : Murgaon Mutt Sankul Samiti, 1998
LCCN 99932716
OCLC # 41143421

Gauda Sarasvata Samaja paricaya grantha / Ravindra Patakara;
nirmiti-sankalpana ani mukhya sampadana sahayyaka Pramoda
Tendulakara, Sudhakara Lotalikara
Mumbai : Sarasvata Prakasana, 1994-   in Marathi
LCCN 94905751
OCLC # 32201230

Sharma, Ganesa Ramacandra,
_Sarasvata Bhusana_
Mumbai: Popular Book Depot, 1950.  in Marathi

Chavan, V. P.
_Vaishnavism of the Goud Saraswat Brahmins, etc. and a few Konkani
Folklore Tales_
Bombay: Ramachandra, Govind and Sons, 1928

Colonial ethnographies appear in various volumes of the Gazetteer of the
Bombay Presidency, the South Canara District Manual, L. K. Anantha Krishna
Iyer's _The Cochin Tribes and Castes_ (Cochin: Government of Cochin,
1909-1912); R. E. Enthoven, _Tribes and Castes of the Bombay Presidency_
(Bombay, 1920-22).

Gereon, P. "The Konkani-Brahiminen der Malaburkuste" _Anthropos_
32 (1937) 335-339

Saldanha, Jerome Anthony, _The Indian Caste, Vol. 1: Konkani or Goan
Sirsi, North Kanara dt., author?, 1904.

Konkani's political aspect may be seen in the interest of various places
where it is spoken, in asserting a distinctive character.  In the 1960s,
the Maharashtra State Board for Literature and Culture sponsored a series
of linguistic studies on Konkani dialects; an example is:

Ghatage, Amrit Madhav, _Konkani of South Kanara_
Bombay, State Board for Literature and Culture, 1963
Series Survey of Marathi dialects, 1
LCCN sa 68002999
OCLC # 473843

An down in Cochin, there were a clutch of "Konkani patriots" who
regularly publicized the contributions of Konkanis to Kerala's history and
progress, and promoted study of Konkani:

Rava, Ara. Ke  [Rao, A. K.]
Konkani svayamsikshaa_
Cochin : Konkani Language Institute ; [Ernakulam : sole
distributors, Pai], 1975Series Konkani Language Institute book series ; 1
Series Konkani Language Institute book series ; no. 1
LCCN 79902921 /SA
OCLC # 9081899

Hope this gives you some leads.


Frank Conlon
Co-editor, H-ASIA
Managing Director, Bibliography of Asian Studies Online
Professor Emeritus
University of Washington
Seattle, WA, 98195-3560

On Wed, 24 Nov 2004, Christophe Vielle wrote:

> Dear colleagues,
> In the useful  little book "Malayalam for beginners" by V.R.
> Prabodhachandran Nayar (Trivandrum, 1999, Swantham Books publ.), I come
> across this (Malayalam - a linguistic profile - Bilingualism p. 72):
> "Pockets of Gaudasaraswatha Brahmins and Chettis ((/ce.t.ti/) who speak two
> different varieties of Konkani are mostly in the districts of Ernakulam and
> Alappuzha".
> Who are these "Gaudasaraswatha" brahmins (coming from Konkan where some
> still remain, I suppose)?  Where could I find something about them?
> Thank you for your help
> Dr. Christophe Vielle
> Centre d'Etudes de l'Inde et de l'Asie du Sud
> Institut orientaliste
> Place Blaise Pascal 1
> B - 1348 Louvain-la-Neuve
> Tel. +32-(0)10-47 49 54 (office)/ -(0)2-640 62 66 (home)
> E-mail: vielle at ori.ucl.ac.be

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