Davesh Soneji — Concubines, Copper Plates and Colonial Authority: Temple Inscriptions by Women in Nineteenth and Early Twentieth-Century Tanjore

Conférence de Davesh Soneji, Associate Professor of South Asian Religions at McGill University, Montreal, Canada & directeur d’études invité de l’EHESS.

Le Mardi 2 juin 2015, de 15h à 17h, Salle 662 (6e étage, côté CEIAS), au « France ».

190 Avenue de France, 75013 Paris.

Résumé / Abstract

Between c. 1824 and 1845, Serfojī II (r. 1798-1832) and his son Śivājī II (r. 1832-1855), the last Marāṭhā rulers of Tanjore, built large seraglios called Kalyāṇa Mahal and Maṅgala Vilās that housed dozens of concubines who bore the titles akkā (“elder sister”), bāī or ammāḷ (“respected lady”). The concubines, whose relationships with the kings were solemnized through a “sword marriage” (katti kalyāṇam), came from a range of caste and regional backgrounds, and included Tamil Christian women, Tamil Brahmin Ayyaṅkār women, and various groups of Maharashtrian women. From roughly 1860 to 1895, after Tanjore had been completely annexed to the British, the concubines of Śivājī’s Maṅgala Vilās contributed small and large-scale donations to temples in and around Tanjore, many of which had been built or re-consecrated under the patronage of Serfojī. Their donations are recorded in the form of stone and copper-plate inscriptions that in many ways emulate the style of medieval Tamil inscriptions. Written in Tamil, Marathi, and occasionally English, these distinctly “modern” inscriptions furnish the names, dates and other details about the women that can be corroborated with similar data found in the Marathi palace records in Moḍi script. In this paper I argue that the eleemosynary activities of Śivājī’s concubines must be understood in light of another struggle for power over the redistribution of resources that was played out by the Tanjore Mahārāṇīs. In 1857, Kamakshi Bai Saheba, the senior rāṇī and widow of Śivājī, sued the British Government for declaring the title of “Raja of Tanjore” extinct, and for usurping ownership of the private estates and temples that were traditionally under the legal and economic purview of the royal family. In 1863, the temples and their endowments were restored to Kamakshi Bai and her successors until 1912.

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