M.M.Godbole’s The Walking Brahmin – A First Person Account of the First War of Independence

Vishnubhat Godse was a poor Brahmin who resided in Varsai village in Maharashtra. Together with his uncle Rambhat, he embarked upon a yatra in 1857, crisscrossed the country on foot, conducted yajnas and anushthans at many places, earned a bit but lost it all, survived the mayhem of the first war of independence and returned home safely after many close shaves after nearly three years of travel. Twenty-three years after his return, he penned down his adventures for the benefit of the posterity. One of his students got hold of his manuscript, and got it published in Marathi in 1907. It is possibly the only document that talks about 1857 from the Indian perspective. Maneesh Madhukar Godbole’s lose retelling of Godse’s story in simplest of English is a delight to savour.

Eager to improve the financial condition of his family, Vishnubhat, then a young man of 29, heard about a Grand Yajna being planned by Baijabai Shinde, the then Queen of Gwalior. Renowned religious scholars were invited, and as per the custom, the attendees were to be honoured with appropriate Dakshina. Vishnubhat was not a famous scholar, but was well versed in performing yajna. He convinced his father to let him travel to Gwalior along with his uncle, and bring back some money to pay off the debts.

The duo began from Versai, and through Khopoli, Pune, and Malegaon, reached Mahu. It was near Mahu, that the nephew and his uncle learnt about the upcoming storm, that is the impending soldiers’ mutiny on the very next day. They were advised to turn back, but they carried on nevertheless.  Mutiny broke out by the time they reached Mahu, and thereafter, they could travel only under the protection of sepoys. Vishnubhat found the joys of travel, adventure and even simple existence, sucked out under the pale of violence and strict discipline. Life seemed to be under permanent seize. The Chacha-Bhatija duo took their leave, and left for Ujjain-via-Indore, where they visited the Mahakaleshwar Temple and Bharthari Caves. From there, they travelled to Dhar when they heard about the demise of the Pawar king, and expected to take part in hom-havan, and earn some daan-dakshina.

They returned to Ujjain, and proceeded to Gwalior-via-Sarangpur, but considering the circumstances, the scheduled Yajna was now as good as cancelled. Yet provisions for comfortable stay of the visiting Brahmins had been made. Vishnubhat explored the town during the monsoon pravas, and later mentioned the Jal-madir, various parks, temples, roads and even fauna and flora of the place. While departing, the scholars were given proper dakshina as befitting their station. The Bhats received 150 rupees each, enough to take care of their troubles back home.

The War had still not reached Gwalior. Different people reacted differently to the arriving trouble. Some feasted, others fretted, many busied themselves in hiding or burying their valuables. A few kept watch over who was burying what and where. Many drew plans to travel towards South to avoid war. Dinkarrao Rajwade, the regent of Gwalior, was openly pro-British, but the Scindhias kept their cards close. Tatya Tope arrived and camped at Morar, and sought assistance. Jayajirao acceded to his demands. Tope left with provisions, and those Morar platoons who had joined him.

The narrative gives a detailed account of the struggle waged by Nana Saheb, Tope and Lakshmi Bai in Kanpur, Jhansi, Kalpi and Gwalior. The British unleashed veritable hell in the places they reconquered. There were mass executions, not just of the active personnel or suspects, but of many commoners as well for the sake of setting example. Many were tied to cannons and blown to smithereens. There were countless hangings. Thousands were shot dead, just because they were ‘spotted’.  After the dance of death, began looting and pillaging. This was systematic plunder designed to cripple the population. Numerous temples were burnt and demolished. These were ghost towns by the time the British were done with them. Lucknow, Bithoor, Chitrakoot and many other places met the same fate. Discipline and ruthlessness saved the day for the British.

From Gwalior, the Bhats proceeded to Jhansi. Moropant Tambe, the Queen’s father, had trained under Rambhat, the uncle, long time ago. Vishnubhat later wrote that Jhansi was the most well-kept and prosperous of all the places he had visited during his journeys. Rambhat and Vishnubhat were able to meet the Queen and were offered employment with the royal household.  Later, it was during the loot of Jhansi that they lost all their savings. There was general massacre, followed by loot of not just gold and silver, but all kinds of metals, cloth, grains and anything else found valuable. The first three days were reserved for the English troops, after that the native soldiers were allowed to pillage for four days. Only the white soldiers were permitted to kill, and not the natives. Vishnubhat made a curious observation in his notes that the British took the exact same measures as described in Shukraniti about bringing the enemy to their knees.

After Jhansi, they decided to go to Kashi and earn some punya. They passed through Kalpi where they sought audience with Lakshmi Bai, observed her battle against the British and saw how the new Indian recruits misbehaved with residents, including merchants and women. Barbarism was redefined by these looters. The duo was stripped bare of their meagre earnings once again at Kalpi. From Kalpi, they headed to Chitrakoot, via Bhramavart. They witnessed destruction and plunder of both Chitrakoot and Banda. They were taken captives by British soldiers at Jalalpur, who accused them of being native soldiers in disguise.  

The book makes mention of two historical nuggets- One, Gangadhar Rao Newalkar, Rani Lakshmi Bai’s husband was impotent and a cross-dresser, and Two, Scindia troops refused to fight Tatya Tope’s army at Gwalior, arguing that they could not fight the representative of the Peshwas. Enraged, Jayajirao Scindhia and Dinkarrao Rajwade got down from their horses and ignited the cannons. But the troops had filled them up with bajra instead of gunpowder. Jayajirao and Dinkarrao raced towards the British in Agra to seek help.

Twice were the Bhats saved from being shot, and once from the hangman’s noose. They had earned a lot during the journey, but lost it all. They took this as a divine message that hankering after wealth was meaningless, and perhaps won’t bear fruit. From Brahmavart, they travelled to Lucknow via Kanpur, and then to  Ayodhya after halting at Misrikh. Vishnubhat’s account of Ayodhya mentions holy dips in Sarayu, darshana at Hanumangarhi, Ram Janmbhumi and Nageshwar Temple. Then they left for Kashi, and from there to Prayag.

Although Vishnubhat had reconciled with the fact that he was not destined to earn enough to pay off the family debts, he could not accept returning empty-handed. To make the duo’s efforts count for something, he carried back a Ganga Kavad.  The carrier has to walk barefoot and with uncovered head. Their return journey shaped up as follows : Prayag-Gwalior-Jhansi-Sagar-Hoshangabad-Indore-Dhule-Malegaon-Nashik-Pune-Khalapur- Varsai.  The uncle and the nephew ended up spending three years on road.

Twenty three years after his return, every single day of which he had to recount some or the other part of his travels for the audience, he finally penned it down. As an expose of the British fair play, the wanton loot, slaughter, inhuman tactics and treachery practiced by them, this account carries historical value. Vishnubhat overcame obstacles of distance and unfamiliarity to achieve success, but lost it all in the end. Yet he did not lose heart, nor did his faith in God waver. That is the ultimate learning that deserved a telling.

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