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The Homecoming

By Jaishankar Bondal

The Story of a how a Photo Engraving of H.H. Pandurangashram Swamiji (1847-1915) made it back to the Shri Chitrapur Math, Shirali.


Saints and spiritual leaders have their own way of communicating and facilitating events. I saw this from personal experience in the recent past, when a series of interconnecting events led me to what the title of this story says.

A series of fortuitous events led to a vintage formal portrait of HH Pandurangashram Swamiji coming to my attention from a distant land, doubtless by His Grace! Let me explain.

I have, for quite some time now, been in touch with an academic focusing on South Asian History and Civilizations at a European University (Lausanne, Switzerland), Dr.Philippe Bornet, (courtesy Dr. Frank Conlon`s good offices). Dr Bornet was working on the Malabar area, and we had, as students of history, exchanged notes on maritime trade, inland economic and social developments in peninsular India 18th /19th century, and allied subjects. All these discussions were online, naturally, as this was a time of global lockdowns. With prolonged contact, we became good friends. Somewhere along the line, I recall him asking me if I was a Tamil (maybe from the name now made famous in quite another context). In response, I had explained to him my Chitrapur Saraswat origins, mentioning that the successive line of our spiritual leaders was centred at Shirali in North Karnataka. I had also described him the history of community migrations/movements from North India to the coastal South West.

In the course of his researches, Dr Bornet had come across a German missionary tract that detailed out religious practices and had accompanying photo-engravings covering different religious practices/religious leaders across the world. This tract, circa 1883, was titled “Bilden Tafeln zur Landen-und Volken-Kunde” (lit) “Image Panels on Geography and Ethnology” with a number of photo engravings of religious figures and practices, with brief commentaries on each. (I will allude to the commentary later in the article). The Church perhaps created this book for their own knowledge and internal education. In this tract, Dr. Bornet had come across a portrait of a religious leader captioned “Der Swami von Schirale (Kanara)”.He asked me if “Schirale” was the same as our Shirali. One look at the portrait, and I knew, to my delight, that it was our Pandurangashram Swamiji!! When I confirmed it was, he spontaneously asked me if I wanted a print of the picture. He said he could get any size printed as they had the equipment. I chose paper of A2 size as appropriate for Swamiji`s portrait, and in due course this photo, beautifully printed and packed, winged its way to Delhi from Lausanne.

HH Pandurangashram Swamiji Portrait at  Sangrahalaya, Shirali (2).jpg

I had this portrait framed professionally by a photo framer who works for art exhibitions, and was wondering how to send it across to HH Sadyojat Shankarashram Swamiji and the Sangrahalaya at Shirali, when behold! HH Swamiji`s visit to Delhi enroute Haridwar was announced, and it all seamlessly fell into place. The portrait was handed over personally by me to HH Sadyojat Shankarashram Swamiji, on June 1 (which as it happened, was the the day of HH Pandurangashram Swamiji's Samaradhana at Shirali), and the former was very pleased to receive it. The portrait left with Him and the entourage when they proceeded to Mumbai enroute Shirali on 9th June 2022. This portrait has since been installed in gallery D at the Srimat Parijnanashram Swamiji Vastu Sangrahalaya. A true Homecoming!!

On all counts, Pandurangashram Swamiji was a remarkable figure - the first of our Swamijis who had his picture taken so His message and mission could be seen and felt even by those who had never met Him. In an age of difficult communications,(remember it was the 19th century) particularly in the tough Ghat area of North Karnataka, He undertook a long and arduous journey all the way to Prayag, Kashi and Gaya (the Tristhali) taking advantage of newly built rail links (B.B. and C.I.) from South West coast to the Ganga valley areas. He laid the foundations of a modern settlement at Shirali, expanding the Math, giving it a firm foundation, literally and figuratively. After extensive repairs to the main Math structure, it is surmised that a stone slab bearing the inscription “Sri Krishnashram Prasada” was placed over the portico. This has been there for long; perhaps HH Pandurangashram Swamiji may have named the structure after His Guru. Inside the Math too, Samadhis of His predecessor Gurus, as existent, were repaired, as were many subsidiary shrines around, giving Chitrapur the status of a “Kshetra”. The Shivganga Sarovar and Panchavati constructions also came up in this era. Besides, He arranged for a post office, a school and a marketplace (weekly haat) to be set up at Shirali for convenience of residents and visitors. He frequently travelled the Kanaras, and once even to Calicut (Kozhikode), to maintain close contact with the Math constituents. Presiding over, and taking interest in frequent Mahasabhas, He was able to put the Math finances on a sound footing, and (very early, 1862) persuaded His Guru, HH Krishnashram Swamiji, to inaugurate the Rathotsava for the first time in Math history, which over the years, became a major socio religious event in the Community calendar, adding to the popularity of the Math. Revived again by HH Parijnanashram Swamiji III in the last century, Rathotsava continues to be a major draw for not only our community (both local and abroad) but many non Amchis in the surrounding areas. (vintage KSA journals mention that photographs of Pandurangashram Swamiji (at a nominal price) were freely available at the venue of Rathyatras even in the 19th century, thus increasing His personal accessibility.)

In popular thought, the Swamiji has also been widely revered as an incarnation of Lord Dattatreya.

As the biographer of Pandurangashram Swamiji, (late) Dr. Gopal S.Hattiangdi, notes in his work Pandurang, Pandurang (1965) - “with all these qualities, He (Pandurangashram Swamiji) can be thought of as a master mind, a born genius and a great reformer” the qualities we also see mirrored eminently in His successor (twice removed), HH Sadyojat Shankarashram Swamiji.

To revisit the brief commentary that accompanies the vintage portrait of HH Pandurangashram Swamiji, the missionary tract says “the person depicted here is the Guru of the famous and rich Chitrapur Saraswat Brahmin Math, Swami Pandurangashram”. It goes on to state that “the Guru was well known for having turned this location (Shirali) into a “modern” and widely successful pilgrimage site”.

I recall, with reverence, that the very first book Shantish Nayel and I collaborated to digitise for this website in 2014, bringing a different and refreshing experience to us both, was ‘Pandurang, Pandurang’. The website is still a work in progress, by the abiding Grace of the Guruparampara.

Whenever you visit the Vastu Sangrahalaya at Shirali, do view this vintage portrait and its accompanying description. is grateful to His Holiness Shrimat Sadyojat Shankarashram Swamiji for consent to place this article on this website.

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