Chitrapur Saraswat Brahmin

Chitrapur Saraswats are a Hindu, Brahmin community in India. The Chitrapur Math, Shirali with its line of Gurus (called Guru Parampara), is a vital link that holds together the widely scattered units of the community. It is the oldest religious institution of the community. Lord Shiva in the form of Bhavanishankar is the patron deity of the Math. The present pontiff of the Math is Sadyojat Shankarashram.


The meaning of the word 'Saraswat' has more than one origin. One refers to 'offspring or Saraswati', the Goddess of learning applied usually to learned and scholarly people. It may also denote the residents of Saraswati river basin. About five thousand years ago, the river Saraswati, was a mighty river originating in Himalayas and flowing through the north western part of the sub-continent. Satellite imagery has given clues to the presence of a water system draining into the current Sindhu (Indus) river. The region was known as Saraswati Mandala. The brahmins of this region who are referred to as 'Saraswats' in Mahabharat and puranas were learned in vedic lore. They concentrated on studying various subjects like astronomy, metaphysics, medicine and allied subjects and disseminating knowledge.

Due to geo-morphosis taking place in Himalayas, river Saraswati began to dry up and the Saraswats were forced to migrate to greener pastures. Some went to Kashmir in the north, others went eastwards. Few made their way to the konkan and Goa. These came to be recognized as Goud Saraswats or Dakshinatya Saraswats, to distinguish them from other Saraswat groups of North.

The new immigrants were called 'Goud' because they were followers of monism or advaita as preached by the great guru Goudapadacharya, who was guru of Govinda Bhagavatpada whose direct disciple was the great Shankaracharya, who is famous for resurrection of Hinduism or Vedic religion in India. The first math of Saraswats dedicated to the memory of Goudapadacharya was established in Kaivalyapura or Kavale in Goa in the 8th century A.D. To this day, the swamis of Kavale math are known as Goudapadacharyas. Thus Kavale Math is Goud Saraswat Community's Adimath (first math) and three main sub-sects of Dakshinatya Saraswats, viz., Sashtikar (Dorke including Bardeshkars), Shenvis (Karbharis), and Chitrapur Saraswats (Bhanaps) were all known as Goud Saraswats or Konkani Brahmins till three-hundred years ago.Other Saraswat subsects include Kudladeskars, Pednekars, Rajapur Saraswat Brahmins and Balavalikars.

In the 13th century, Dwaita (Vaishnava) philosophy advocated by Madhvacharya became popular and many Saraswats adopted vaishnavism. They however continued to worship the deities they brought with them from North. These were 'Mahan Girish' or Mangueshi, Shakti or Shanta durga, Vishnu, Ganesh and Surya. They form 'Panchayatan' or five deities, sacred to all Saraswats.

Goud Saraswats were spread in all the big and small kingdoms of western coast under different dynasties right from 6th century A.D. Kadamba, Rashtrakuta, Hoysala, Chalukya Shilahara and Vijayanagara kings had given very important posts to Saraswats. There were admirals, treasurers, ambassadors, army chiefs and foreign language-interpreters among them. They were famous traders as well, who conducted maritime trade with Eastern and Western countries of the contemporary world. Spoken language of Saraswats is Konkani.

Then came the Portuguese for trade followed by Christian missionaries. Forcible conversions began to take place under the patronage of Portuguese government in 1560 A.D. Most of the Saraswat families left Goa with their family deities, risking life and limb. They settled down in the adjoining Hindu principalities. New temples came up in the coastal districts of Karnataka for Saraswat deities. When conditions slightly improved in Goa and forcible conversions stopped, the idols were taken back to newly constructed temples in Goa. But they are not in the original ancient spots, where churches were built, destroying earlier temples. Many people migrated to Kerala and built temples mainly dedicated to Lord Vishnu and his different avatars. Kashi Math at Kochi came up in 1560 A.D. and at Bhatkal in 1540 A.D. This was shifted to Gokarn hence known as Gokarn Jeevottama Partakali Math to include the name of famous Saint-Pontiff by the name Jeevottam of the Math stationed at Partakal or Partakali, Goa. Finally, this Math has its establishment at Kankon in Goa. All the Vaishnav Saraswats are Kulavis (followers) of either Kashi Math or Gokarn Math. 'Smarth' Saraswats owe allegiance to either Kavale Math or Chitrapur Math.

Saraswats continued to hold important posts under Keladi or Nagar rulers. Many families who emigrated from Goa settled down in smaller towns and villages in Shimoga, South and North Kanara Districts. Most of them became village accountants, some Accounts Officers or Divisions (Nada Karanik = Nadkarni) or group of villages (Kula + karanik = Kulkarni). Saraswats were the first beneficiaries of English education introduced in 1840 A.D. Very soon they began to show their grit skill and efficiency in all the fields. That is how we find bankers, industrialists, doctors, surgeons, educationists, administrators, freedom fighters and social reformers. They excel in the field of arts and sports as well.

Among a billion Indians, the Saraswats form a minuscule minority. Their total number does not exceed two and a half lakh (250,000). However they are a big force.

Formation of the Chitrapur Saraswat community

The Bhanaps and Chitrapur Math

The group of Smarta Gowda Saraswats (mainly Kushasthalikar and Keloshikar families) who migrated to Karnataka at the time of the Muslim invasion in the 1400’s were mostly the educators and administrators. This migrant group moved a little inland to North and South Kanara. Their intelligence and generations-old experience as administrators, allowed some of them to secure prominent positions as accountants in the courts of the Hindu rulers of the time. One such Hindu king of the Keladi kingdom, was so impressed by the diligence and skills of his Saraswat accountant, that he decreed that each village in his kingdom, be administered by a Saraswat. Eventually these Saraswats took on the name of the village as their last name. Once they had migrated to the Kanara district, the Shenvis were not able to sustain their unity with the Saraswat Brahmins they had left behind in Goa. Even though they continued to believe in Smarta tradition, their connection with the Kavale mutt was cut off since the Kavale mutt at Kushathali was destroyed in 1564 AD and the swamis shifted to Varanasi and were not available locally.

Although the Saraswats were well respected as accountants, they were not readily recognized as true Brahmins by the local Brahmins because of their lack of a spiritual guru. Therefore, the Shenvis felt that it was necessary to seek a spiritual preceptor for their community. They pleaded with a Saraswat Sanyasi, Parijananasharma Swami, visiting from North India, to become their Guru. He consented to guide the community and established a new Mutt for them in Gokarn in 1708 AD. The people of Gokarn sent letters to the members residing in Mangalore and Vithal to notify them about the guru who would be touring around the south to give sermons and grant blessings. Sringeri Shankaracharya mutt in the Kanara district was asked for their consent of the new guru which was granted. This firmly established Parijnanashram Swami as the guru of the community. In 1739 AD, the ruler Basavappa Nayaka II donated land in Gokarn to build a mutt in reverence to their primary deity, Shri Bhavanishankar.

His successor Shankarashram Swami attained Samadhi at Chitrapur, on his way towards Gokarn, in 1757 AD. Another Mutt establishment was built in Chitrapur near Shirali in Uttara Kannada and it became headquarters of the Mutt. This group considered themselves as superior in intellect and cutoff the connection with other groups in Goa claiming that they are the descendants of Kashmiri Brahmins and eventually formed their own sub-sect, called the Chitrapur Saraswat Brahmins (also referred as Bhanaps after one of their popular caste members) and continued their Smarta tradition.

During British rule in Kanara district (from 1799) the people of this Chitrapur community came to be appointed as Shanbhags (temple accountants) in most of the villages in South and North Canara, and thus, the Chitrapur Saraswats have almost as many surnames as the villages in these two districts, and the surnames like Ullal, Udyavar, Beltangady, Honavar, Chandavar, Kokradi, Kodkani, Divgi etc. represent the place where the ancestors of the holders of these surnames had been Shanbhags or village accountants. Due to certain peculiar historical and social reasons, this group of people took to English education earlier than all other communities in Canara and came to dominate in the civil service under the British in these two Canara districts.

When the British ruled India, the Bhanaps took to English education earlier than others. Subsequently, they were able to obtain key jobs at the district offices and the Collector’s offices in Mangalore, Honavar and Karwar. They were also quickly employed as administrators in the cotton and textile export industry in Kumta, Hubli and Dharwad. Many Bhanaps made their way into the cosmopolitan city of Bombay by the late 1800s.

From Mangalore, where many Chitrapur Saraswats were concentrated due to their getting some key jobs at the Collector's and other district offices, they also moved to Honavar where there was Deputy Collector's office in the undivided Canara. They also came to Karwar in 1863 when it was made the new headquarters of the newly created North Canara. As they were the earliest to take to new English educatlon and had influential positions at various government offices, they could get appointments as village accountants for their castemen. They were in a better position to educate their children than others like traders (which most of the other Saraswats had been), craftsmen or agriculturists. By the close of the 19th century the Chitrapur Saraswats were an educationally advanced community having taken to new English learning and the Cotton Boom of the American Civil War days (1863-64) helped them secure positions in cotton business and industry at Kumta, Hubli, Dharwar and later Bangalore. The railway headquarters which was at Dharwar was shifted to Madras and with that many Chitrapur Saraswats reached Madras. New education helped them to reach Bombay and Madras by getting positions in the administrative set up also and in Bombay many private firms also provided them footing before 1900.

Among those settling down in Bombay, Shamrao Vithal Kaikini from Karwar (after whose name Shamrao Vithal Co-op Bank functions) and his sister's son Narayan Chandavarkar from Honavar became very important public men, social reformers and academic personalities. Chandavarkar became the President of Indian National Congress (Lahore, 1900), the Vice-Chancellor of Bombay University and Chief Justice of Bombay High Court. Veteran Freedom fighters Karnad Sadashivrao, Kamaladevi Chattopadhyaya, Krishnabai Panjekar and Umbabai Kundapur belong to this section. Mention must be also made of noted Kannada writer Panje Mangesh Rao among others.

One of the major aspects of this group is that of language. The members of this caste speak Konkani, one of the Indo-Aryan languages which descended from the Middle Indic Prakrits. Some Bhanap scholars noticed that the caste continued to become increasingly confined within their own group as time passed. One of the major contributors to this developing situation may be the fact that the Konkani language binds the members of this small caste in a way that is unique among the Saraswats. In fact, many members of the community fondly refer to their mother-tongue as "amchigele" meaning of our own.

The number of Chitrapur Saraswats stands at 22,498 according to Kanara Saraswat Association's 2001 census, up 7 per cent from 20,932 in 1971, the reality is that the 0-19 age group, its veritable future, has shrunk from 33 per cent to an alarming low of 18 per cent and the 20-44 age group has also gone down from 38 per cent to 34 per cent.

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