Wednesday, April 11, 2018

Phule's "Tritya Ratna": A Tribute to Missionaries

In 1855, the 28-year-old Jotirao Phule of Poona wrote a Marathi play Tritya Ratna (Third Jewel). It was to be sent to a prize committee managed by the British government of the time. The committee had been set up to reward scholars’ accomplishment, which at that time were mostly Brahmins proficient in Sanskrit. Poona’s enlightened citizens had petitioned the government that it must also encourage original Marathi writing among the literati of the Bombay Presidency. The award was called Dakshina Prize.
The original Dakshina Prize had been instituted by the great Shivaji himself. It used to be given to the learned Brahmins who had mastered the Sanskrit religious texts. Later, Peshwa rulers of Maharashtra used it to strengthen their hold over the state power. Peshwa Baji Rao II (r. 1795–1818) reportedly gave Rs 1,00,000 as dakshina to fellow Chitpawan Brahmins.

The British defeated the Peshwas in 1818. As pragmatic rulers do, they continued most of the cultural and socio-religious practices inherited from the Peshwas. This included awarding of Dakshina. Traditionally that meant the gift to the Brahmin priest. The British knew that to perpetuate their rule in India, they must make concessions to the elite class from among their subjects. The support extended by the East India Company to temples, religious practices, rituals and customs of the Hindus led some historians to remark that the “Indian Empire [of the British] was, fundamentally if not formally, a Hindu Raj” (R. E. Frykenberg).

Lord Mountstuart Elphinstone, the governor of Bombay, continued the practice where only Brahmins were considered for Dakshina. He founded a Sanskrit college in Poona in 1821 and spent forty percent of the Dakshina amount there. However, in due course of time, he brought about two changes in this policy. First, he made it possible for non-Brahmins to apply for the prize. Second, he made works not only in Sanskrit but in Marathi to be considered for state support. At that time Marathi was just developing into a modern and respectable literary language. This happened because of the pioneering work done in the field of Marathi lexicography and grammar by missionaries such as William Carey.  He published the first Marathi grammar in 1805 and then a Marathi dictionary in 1810. Later, American and Scottish missionaries brought out number of school text books that prepared a new generation of Marathi readers and writers.

Elphinstone was not the only one interested in giving prizes to non-Brahmins. Reform-minded Brahmins such as Lokhitwadi Gopalrao Deshmukh also collected signatures to pressurise the government to give some of the Dakshina fund to Marathi works. These reformers, however, were threatened by the traditionalist Brahmins. In this case, Jotirao himself provided security to the petitioners.

Coming back to the play, we know that that play was never performed. Dakshina Prize Committee rejected the play. Why? In his most celebrated work Slavery (1873), Phule recounts: “…I had written a play to the Dakshina Prize Committee, too. This was way back in 1855. But even there, the opinions of the bhat [Brahmin] members held sway and the European officers could do nothing. So my play was straightaway rejected.”

The play tells the story of a rural couple. A farmer and his pregnant wife are exploited by the religious trickery of the local Brahmin priest. The shenanigans of the priest, his wife and extended family are laid bare in a great detail. The Vidushak in the play adds humour but also sheds light on the nature and extent of exploitation with his incisive remarks. Vidushak is the traditional drama narrator, often a mouthpiece of the author—and in this play he is the alter ego of Phule. The play concludes that, for the unlettered, “backward” villagers the way out from exploitation is through education. The farmer and his wife decide, by the end of the play, that they would go and enrol themselves in the night school of the Phules, and will create a new future for their unborn child.  

The curious thing about the play, however, is the presence of a Christian padre. During the latter part of the play, Phule makes this unnamed padre almost the central character. It is he who makes the first move to open the Tritya Ratna (Third Jewel or Eye) for this “low-caste” couple. Third jewel is a metaphor for critical, rational thought unrestrained by fear of the socially dominant classes. The jewel is more than mere literacy, or the mere ability to read and write. It is ability to interpret life and what it dishes out to you for yourself, without coercion or deception. The jewel, the proverbial third eye, is flowering of the intellect enthralled for ages by the mythologies and superstitions. It is the life-line for dignified living as a respectable human being.

Phule could have written his play without the padre. The plot for the play would be simple and effective. Lack of education leaves you prone to exploitation: get educated, escape exploitation. But by making a padre the catalyst for the true awakening within the individual as well as the society, Phule was underlining a historical reality. He was documenting a social truth. It was the Christian missionary who brought enlightenment and the knowledge of true God to the masses of India. Phule himself studied in the Scottish missionary school and it is very likely that he developed his own critical acumen and strengthened the courage to question the degrading caste system of India in the company of highly inspirational and dedicated teachers like Murray Mitchell (see Rosalind O’Hanlon).

Phule saw clearly that British had established their rule in Maharashtra with the help of the shetji-bhatji combine (moneylenders and priestly class). They would not risk their government by offending them. British rulers could not be seen as promoting the interests of the “lower castes”. Phule also saw that the only social force that worked for the genuine uplift of marginalized shudras-atishudras of Maharashtra was the missionaries.

Jotirao Phule is considered the first “Indian” to start a school of untouchable girls in 1848 in Poona. He was inspired by another such school he had seen in Ahmednagar the previous year, which was run by a woman missionary Mrs Farrar. Dhananjay Keer, Phule’s biographer tells us that, Phule and his friend Govande had been “impressed by the foreigners’ perseverance in improving [India] and felt for their [fellow]countrymen’s neglect for it”.

It can be said that Phule’s play was not only a battle cry for the education of Indian masses long neglected and exploited by the country’s elite but also a rich tribute to the pioneering and self-less work by unsung heroes of India’s regeneration—the Christian missionaries.


Frykenberg, Robert E. “Christian Missions and the Raj”. Mission and Empire, edited by Norman Ethrington, Oxford UP, 2008.
Keer, Dhananjay. Mahatma Jotirao Phooley: Father of the Indian Revolution. Popular Prakashan, 2005.
O’Hanlon, Rosalind. Caste, Conflict and Ideology: Mahatma Jotirao Phule and Low Caste Protest in Nineteenth-century Western India. Cambridge UP, 2002.


Vishal Mangalwadi said...

Thank you for expounding this neglected aspect of Indian history.

Martin C said...


AJ said...

Strange that I never heard of the Phules in my history books.
The first time I came across the name was of a hostel in the Punjab University named after Savitribai Phule, who, I later learnt from you, was Jotirao's wife. Of course, before you told me, I did not know who Jotirao was either.
I had a friend who stayed in that hostel and asked her who Savitribai was but she did not know, neither did any of her friends who stayed there. We all left it at that.
I just checked and found that the Wikipedia page of Savitribai Phule was created on 23/02/06, so I could've checked it out for myself then. Her page could still be populated with more information.