Courtesan to Saint

The literature of bhakti saints “teaches us to transcend the agony into joy. It teaches us how to transform ourselves from our materialist affiliations and think of the truth about life in its totality, which, in Derridian sense does not lie at its (the totality) centre but elsewhere”. (Dr. M. L. Jadhav in Voices of Marginality: The Poetry of Saint Kanhopatra and Janabai).

So here’s the story of one more indomitable female bhakti saint of Maharashtra, who transcended a demeaning life to sainthood.

Little is known about her. As such, fact and fiction intermingle through stories that have come down to us over centuries. Her exact date of birth cannot be ascertained but it is placed in the 15th century, as is her death. Her mother was not sure who her child’s father was. Nevertheless this marginalised saint-poet Kanhopatra, by the grace of Vithoba, blossomed in devotion and thereby in stature. She is venerated by the Varkari sect, her abhangs are sung not only in temples but maintain their allure till this day through concert recitals and films*.

She was born to Shama, a wealthy prostitute and courtesan, in Mangalvedhe, near Pandharpur, the seat of the famous Vithoba temple and the pilgrimage destination of the absolutely astounding Dindi Yatra held annually. Shama suspected that the town’s headman, Sadashiv Malagujar was Kanhopatra’s father.

She spent her childhood in her mother’s impressive house, with maids at her beck and call; was trained to dance and sing so she could follow in Shyama’s footsteps. She is believed to have been very talented and a beauty comparable to the legendary apsara Menaka. She was greatly pursued by men but she would have none of them. She wanted to marry a man unparalleled in beauty. Though according to Tara Bhavalkar, Kanhopatra's marriage was forbidden, as it was not socially acceptable for a daughter of a courtesan to marry**. Her mother’s profession made Kanhopatra’s social status mortifyingly abysmal.

Shama wanted her daughter to beguile and entertain the Badshah of Bidar (who was her benefactor) and be showered with wealth and precious jewels. Kanhopatra it seems flatly dismissed the suggestion. According to most accounts, she was forced into the courtesan’s life but there are some who say that she sturdily declined to be one, as she despised it. The story goes that she was set off on her path of dedication to the Lord by her assumed father’s harassment. When Kanhopatra didn’t give in to his demand that the renowned beauty should dance for him, he made their lives miserable until Shyama gave in promising Kanhopatra would do his bidding. But then the Lord Vitthala himself had different plans for his future devotee! Kanhopatra it is said fled to Pandharpur to save herself from her father’s demonic desires. She was not willing to be a commodity, to continue to live the marginalised life of a courtesan who belonged to everyone and yet to no one.

Here again we encounter different versions. Some credit her aged maid Hausa, with whose aid she ran away, for guiding her towards a devotional life. Others claim that some Varkari pilgrims who passed Kanhopatra's house on their way to the temple of Vithoba in Pandharpur were responsible. Upon questioning, she was assured by a Varkari that she would be accepted by Lord Vithoba as he accepts anyone who surrenders to him in love. He also praised Vithoba as generous, wise, perfect, beyond description in all his attributes. At her first darshan of Vithoba’s image, she sang ecstatically that she was spiritually fulfilled and blessed. In him she found the groom she longed for and established him as her husband in her heart.

She began to live an ascetic’s life, singing and dancing for her Lord and cleaned his temple twice a day. Her single-minded devoutness, her life of penance and abstinence endeared her to the Varkaris and won their admiration and respect. But not a guru, as she did not belong to a respectful caste. She struggled through her spiritual journey all by herself pouring out her heart in abhangs, to her beloved Vitthal.

Only thirty of the many abhangs she composed are extant today, of which twenty three have found place of honour with other noted Varkari saints in the anthology Sakal Sant Gatha. These are written in the ovi meter, which is used in narrative poetry in Marathi.

O Narayana, you call yourself
Saviour of the fallen
My caste is impure
I lack loving faith
My nature and actions are vile
Fallen Kanhopatra
Offers herself to your feet
A challenge
To your claims of Mercy. (Sellergren: 1996: 227)

This poem is a kind of protest in which she bemoans the life she was thrust into, a defiance seeking the Lord’s mercy for her fallen self. She does not want his protection; she wants Him; she is looking for the promised acceptance of herself as she is and so to be delivered from her inner hell. It is a lament against the social mores that thought her fit only as a concubine, as a mere tool of gratification for the lusty and lecherous. She yearns for escape from her life of exclusion, misery and rejection from society at large; to be set free by Divine grace.

If you call yourself the Lord of the fallen
Why do O Lord not lift me up
When I say I am yours alone?
Who is to blame but yourself
If I am taken by another man?
When a jackal takes the share of the Lion,
It is the great, who is put to shame.
I offer my body says Kanhopatra at your feet,
Protect it at least for your title. (Ibid: 228)

This is another one rebuking the Lord, only in the way a true lover can rebuke. It is the painful, but expectant bleat of an anguished lamb, exerting its right and ownership over the shepherd. She tells him how helpless she is against the world but challenges his seeming disregard of her situation. Will he not be humiliated and stand accused if he abandons her now to the human wolves? It is the moment of his trial. Will he allow himself to be held guilty of betrayal? Only from the deepest, most intense love, the unbearable love of the seeker can such words gush out. Can God remain unmoved by such outpouring of the innermost self?

According to R. D. Ranade she wrote this abhang when she was being traumatised by the advances of the Badshah who was instigated by an enraged Sadashiva. When she defied his orders to go to his palace as a concubine, he sent his men to besiege the temple where she had taken refuge. They threatened to destroy the temple if she didn’t give herself up. Requesting a last meeting with her Vithoba, she died at his feet.

Even in this there is no mutual agreement. Popular tradition suggests that she merged into the idol. Others suggest that she killed herself or was killed by the soldiers. Some records suggest that the temple and the soldiers were submerged by the flooded Bhima river and her body was afterwards found near a rock. There are other narratives built around her death. But most seem to concur that her physical remains were laid at the feet of the image of her adored Lord and later buried near the southern part of the temple as was her wish. A tarati tree, it is said, arose on the spot of burial. Her worshippers like to believe that she turned into the tree, just as Kabir’s body is said to have turned into flowers. It is continued to be worshipped in her memory by pilgrims. Hers is the only Samadhi in the precincts of the Vithoba temple. Thus came the end to her agony of separation and she finally went to rest in her treasured One’s bosom.

  • *Film Kanhopatra 1937 Marathi, written and directed by Bhalji Pendharkar.
  • Sant Kanhopatra, 1931 Marathi drama in which Bal Gandharva played the lead. Kanhopatra's abhangas Aga
  • Vaikunthichya Raya and Patita tu pavanahe are used in that drama.
  • Sadhi Manase,1963 Marathi film has used Nako Devaraya Anta Aata
  • A 2014 short film Katha Sant Kanhopatra by Sumeet video featured Pallavi Subhash as Kanhopatra.
  • **Tara Bhavalkar, quoted in Rosen, Steven. (1996), Vaisnavi: Women and the Worship of Krishna. Motilal Banarashidas Publishers. P. 165.

Compiled from sources on the internet. The author is not responsible for any discrepancies in the facts; but if the readers find any, please bring them to notice so they may be corrected. Thank you.

Unfortunately my search did not yield more translated abhangs of the saint.


More by :  Shernaz Wadia

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