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The meaning of the word 'Saraswat' has more than one origin. One refers to 'offspring of Saraswati', the Goddess of learning applied usually to learned and scholarly people. It may also denote the residents of Saraswati river basin. The Brahmins of this region who are referred to as 'Saraswats' in Mahabharata and Puranas were learned in Vedic lore.
There origins of the Saraswat Brahmin Community who now hail from the west coast of India, especially from the North and South Kanara Districts of Karnataka are not known. Various conjenctures include a connection with Kashmir and Bengal or Gaudpradesh.
Islamic intolerance and forced religious conversion in Kashmir, started following the devastation wrought by Zulju, a Turkish general from Turkmenistan, in 1320. The Sayyid Dynasty ruled Kashmir from 1339 to 1561 CE for nearly 222 years. During the rule of this dynasty Islam was firmly established in Kashmir. Persecution of Hindus, razing of Hindu Temples, and forced conversion was worst under the rule of Sikandar Butshikan the second Sultan of the Sayyid Dynasty of Kashmir from 1389 to 1413 CE. This caused Saraswats to migrate from Kashmir. The religious freedom, lush vegetation, rich soil, and patronage of the rulers drew Saraswat Brahmins migrants to the west coast of India and especially to Goa. Lord Parshurama with Saraswat Brahmin settlers commanding Lord Varuna to make the seas recede .The Saraswats worshipped the deities they brought with them from the North. These were 'Mahan Girish' or Mangueshi, Shakti or Shanta Durga, Vishnu, Ganesh and Surya. They form the 'Panchayatan' or five deities, sacred to all Saraswats.
Saraswats were in all the kingdoms of the western coast under different dynasties right from 6th century AD. Kadamba, Rashtrakuta, Hoysala, Chalukya Shilahara and Vijayanagara kings had given important posts to Saraswats. There were ministers, administrators, accountants, treasurers, ambassadors, and foreign language-interpreters among them. They adopted the spoken language of Goa - Konkani.
The Portuguese traders who arrived in the early 16th century were followed by Christian missionaries who arrived with the intent of proselytizing at all costs. This soon led to the infamous Goa Inquisition from 1560 to 1812 CE. Religious persecution of Saraswat Brahmins in particular, and their forced conversions to Christianity took place in Goa with the patronage of Portuguese government. A few Saraswats were converted to Christianity by smearing beef on their lips or putting beef into their wells, resulting in their being foolishly ostracized by the rest of the community. Many other Saraswats converted to Christianity to avoid persecution and to prevent their lands being confiscated by the Portuguese State. These are the origins of the "Brahmin Catholics" among the Goan Catholics today.
Saraswat families in large numbers, preferred to leave Goa with their family deities. These Saraswats settled down in the adjoining more tolerant principalities. New temples came up in the coastal districts of Karnataka for Saraswat deities. When conditions improved in Goa and forced religious conversion ceased, the deities were taken back to newly constructed temples in Goa in completely new sites as the original sites were occupied by Portuguese Churches. It must ,however, be mentioned that the migration of Saraswats from Goa to the Kanaras had started much before the Holy Inquisition, some time in the 14th century. Another interesting fact is that those who migrated vowed not to establish temples with the same names of deities , Thus the temples for Lord Shiva established by them in the Kanaras are fro Umamaheshwar, Bhavanishankar etc but not Mangesh.They also took a vow to return to their Kuladevatas in Goa, at least once in their lifetime.
Saraswats held important posts under Keladi or Nagar rulers. Many families who emigrated from Goa settled down in smaller towns and villages in Shimoga, South and North Kanara Districts. Those who settled in North Kanara were known as 'Badagis' and those who settled in South Kanara were known as 'Tenkis'. Both speak the same language Konkani with minor differences in usage of few words, owe allegiance to the same Guru and their culture is the same. Saraswats were the first beneficiaries of English education introduced in 1840 AD.