The Walking Brahmin
In 1857, Vishnubhat Godse and his uncle Rambhat, unwittingly walked smack in the middle of The First War of Indian Independence. Having the misfortune of being at the wrong place at the wrong time, the duo were caught in the crossfire between the loyalist Indian troops and the British. They witnessed the fall of Jhansi first hand, survived the aftermath of British savagery, were robbed of all their belongings multiple times, and even managed to avoid getting hanged. Twice. Being on the road for two years, they finally returned to Varsai village, near Pen, Maharashtra. Back home, Vishnubhat penned down his adventure for his descendants which was eventually published as a Marathi book in 1907.
Maneesh Madhukar Godbole retells this story as The Walking Brahmin. Replete with maps and photographs, this book offers a unique insight on what really happened during the war of 1857.
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1. Preparation and Setting Off
2. From Deccan Plateau to Central India
3. Mission Accomplished?
4. The War Comes Calling
5. Jhansi - The Back Story
6. At the Royal Palace
7. Spark and Ignition
9. Dodging Trouble, Jhansi to Chitrakoot
10. Divine Intervention
11. Beginning of the End
12. Teertha Yatra
13. Home Sweet Home!
PrologueHistory is written by victors. When this happens, future generations get to learn of a one-sided past, which is, many a time, a biased one. Such is the power of the written word.
Sometimes, while sifting through the words, we come across a few delightful gems, which prove that the vanquished too, like the victors, were storytellers.
You know how it is on the internet. You start searching for ‘how many minutes do I need to boil an egg’ and you end up reading something on ‘how to construct a nuclear reactor in your garage’. During one of my forays on the internet, one thing led to another, and I stumbled upon the story of a man who had a story to tell, from more than 150 years ago.
The man was Vishnubhat Balkrishna Godse, a poor Brahmin1 from Varsai village near Pen in Maharashtra, who, along with his uncle, had embarked upon a teertha
yatra in 1857. Not only did he manage to survive the first war of Indian independence, but he also returned home safe and sound after three years. This was rather fortunate, considering the political upheaval going on in the country around that time. Vishnubhat had had quite an adventure, and, later on, he penned it all down, for the sake of his descendants.
This is his-story
His original manuscript, which ran into 297 pages, comprised two notebooks and twenty-two individual pages. It was eventually published as a Marathi book in 19073, a few years after Vishnubhat’s death.
This is probably the only known instance of a document that talks about 1857 from an Indian perspective. Not only does it give us the story from the perspective of the vanquished, but it is also more reliable as it is a first-hand account of experiences and not based merely on hearsay. Thus, the value of this book, in the annals of history, is quite priceless.What follows is a loose retelling of Vishnubhat’s journey in English.
This affected Vishnubhat a lot. Considering his failure to earn sufficient money to repay the loans and the death of his first born, Vishnubhat was convinced that this was God’s way of telling him that he should stay away from the material trappings of life.
Initially, due to circumstances and later by choice, Vishnubhat led a very frugal lifestyle till the very end. He stayed in Varsai till his death and never ever undertook such an arduous journey again.
Eventually, Vishnubhat did become a parent. In all, he fathered ten children. All his children grew up to be scholars. The most illustrious among them was his son Narharshastri Godse. He became a renowned Sanskrit scholar. After mastering the Vedas, Narharshastri started two Geetapathsalas in Mumbai. With his intellect, Narharshastri ensured that the word ‘poverty’ was wiped out of the Godse dictionary. His son’s achievements made Vishnubhat express tremendous filial pride till his last breath.
Ever the dutiful son, Narharshastri asked his father how much money he should send every month for expenses. Demonstrating his frugal attitude, Vishnubhat asked for five rupees.
Vishnubhat has provided a valuable treasure for generations to come by documenting his journey.
In those days, this was simply not done. Since his return, almost till his death, every day, someone or the other would request him for a story. His children and later on their children, friends, family and acquaintances used to listen to Vishnubhat’s narration with rapt attention. Eventually, twenty-three years after his return from his yatra, Vishnubhat finally got down to penning the manuscript.
“I have documented my journey for my descendants,” he proclaimed.
This manuscript was obtained by one of his students and was published for the first time in the book form in 1907, intentionally a few years after Vishnubhat’s death.
As he grew older, Vishnubhat’s detachment to worldly affairs also grew. After his wife passed away, seven years prior to his death, Vishnubhat grew more distant and took sanyas for all practical purposes. A large part of his day was spent in puja and vrat (fasting). He was found
more often in temples than at home. However, this does not mean that he ignored his home and hearth.
His discipline was proverbial, and all his children obeyed him to the letter. One anecdote regarding Narharshastri is known. Once Narharshastri, a successful adult and a father too, got a severe talking to from Vishnubhat, all because he turned up late for lunch! Ever the devoted son, Narharshastri apologized for the mistake and vowed it would not happen again.
Vishnubhat’s strict discipline extended only till his children. He doted upon his grandchildren.
Once, Vishnubhat’s eldest grandson fell severely ill. Medicines were administered. But the child’s health continued to deteriorate. One morning, the child’s mother realized that her son’s condition was turning serious. She panicked. Vishnubhat was, as usual, in the temple. The mother ran to Vishnubhat and informed him about his grandson’s condition. Vishnubhat rushed home with his daughter-in-law. To her surprise, instead of going to the sick child, Vishnubhat went straight to the altar. He sat down and started arguing with the gods.
“How dare you!” he thundered. Hadn’t he done enough for them? Hadn’t he given up all moh maya and continued on the path of God? Over the years, he had religiously followed all vrat. He had never missed a single puja. Then how come the gods stood by and watched this happen to his grandson, who was a mere child? “Don’t you dare take him before me! I have accumulated more than enough punya in my lifetime to let that happen.”
Once he was done, Vishnubhat took some haldi kumkum and entered his grandson’s room. He handed the haldi kumkum to his daughter-in-law and instructed her to apply it on his grandson’s forehead. It was as if he had passed on all his piety to his grandson through the haldi kumkum. As he came out of the room, he felt immensely drained out and lay down on his bed to rest.
From then on, the child started to recover, but Vishnubhat’s condition began to deteriorate. Sensing that his end was near, wishing to spare the child the trauma, Vishnubhat ordered him to be sent to his maternal grandparents.
Vishnubhat was conscious till the last moment. He continuously stared intently at a spot in front of him. With a prayer on his lips as always, one day he passed away.
Vishnubhat is long gone. But his story still survives to this day.