Historically Women in our culture were not identified with home and hearth, but we see them excelling in various fields, be it warfare or spiritual journey. Instead of looking for westernised parameters of feminism, we need to recontextualise these iconic figures as per national conditions
Gloria Steinem, world-renowned feminist, journalist and activist once explained “The story of women’s struggle for equality belongs to no single feminist nor to any organisation but to the collective efforts of all who care about human rights.” Even though this characterisation seems to invite diversity of experiences and voices, it actually tends to homogenise the discourse in the way it was shaped in the West.
United Nations asserts that ‘International Women’s Day is a time to reflect on progress made, to call for change and to celebrate acts of courage and determination by ordinary women who have played an extraordinary role in the history of their countries and communities.’ But simultaneously, the organisation also suggests that, ‘It is also an opportunity to consider how to accelerate the 2030 Agenda, building momentum for the effective implementation of the Sustainable Development Goals, especially goal number 5: Achieve gender equality and empower all women and girls; and number 4: Ensure inclusive and quality education for all and promote lifelong learning.’
This discourse, as it works out globally without taking into the consideration the local variance and uniqueness of local history, tends to homogenise the goals and events for everyone. We are confronting this ‘one size fits all’ phenomena after the advent of globalisation. We need to nationalise the discourse of Women Question by considering the range and diversity of voices we had in the past. The following profile of certain women highlights diversity of socio-cultural experience and makes a case that local experiences must not be evaded for a homogenising consolidation on the top.
We revisit two female saint-poets from South India to highlight the fact that free-will has been a subtle feature of our socio-cultural space across the time periods. Example of female saint-poets like Mira Bai and their association with Krishna is well-known. And thus, we put up two such names from South India, where beloved was considered to be Shiva. This also highlights the process in which one can really witness the cultural unity of Bharat before politics of division started lambasting it.
Karaikkal Ammaiyar is one of the three women saints among the sixty three Nayanmars, and is considered one of the greatest figures of Tamil literature. She was born in Karaikkal, which was, during the Chola period, a maritime centre. Ammaiyar was a great devotee of Lord Shiva, and she is believed to have lived during the sixth century.
Followers of Shaivism pay homage to a group of sixty-three great devotees “slaves of the lord” referred to as “Nayanmars”. These saints who lived from the sixth through the tenth century, were part of the Bhakti movement, characterised by intense devotion to a single God, over and above the performance of rituals. Karaikkal Ammaiyar, born as, Punithavathi, produced two works-Arputha Tiruvanadi and Tiru Erattai Mani Malai.
The Woman Who Loved Sword
Puthooram Veettil Unniyarcha
In Women’s Lives, Women’s Ritual in the Hindu Tradition, edited by Tracy Pintchman (OUP, 2007) we are told that, ‘through her poetry, Karaikkal Ammaiyar delineates the only realm of action that has ultimate meaning: sublimating herself as one of Shiva’s adoring devotees. Her poetry expresses in literary Tamil a life of perpetual, spontaneous worship of Shiva in which all thought and action fuse in a ritual offering of pure awareness of God. Unlike female devotional poets who relate to God as their beloved, such as Andal relates to Krishna, Karaikkal Ammaiyar does not violate rules regarding chastity. In one sense, her life has moved along a continuum of devotion to others, with the the others simply changing in importance.’ (p. 139)
Her poetry conveys to her audience a conception of Shiva drawn from the Sanskritik culture that began to permeate South India in the early centuries of the Common Era. She refers to several of Shiva’s most famous deeds and manifestations: his heroic destruction of the Three Cities of the Demons; his burning of Kama; his crushing Ravana with his big toe when Ravana tries to lift Mt Kailash; his swallowing the poison during the churning of the ocean makes his throat blue; his rescuing of Markandeya from death, etc.
We are told that Karaikkal Ammaiyar pursued her own path of salvation, but at the same time she worked to create a community of devotees who should also understand that Shiva is the ultimate Truth. In addition to sharing a Vedic, mythic understanding of Shiva, the Tamil Shaiva community was forged arty by the harsh rhetoric of the Tamil Shaiva saints against the Buddhists and Jains in particular. Ammaiyar does not refer to any group by name, lumping together as “others” the people against whom she has defined her spiritual path. But it is clear that she is referring to non-Vedic groups.
Thus Ammaiyar not only embodies the movement of Shaivism in South India, her realisation of Shiva as the ultimate Truth forged the cultural integrity of Hindu Dharma in the whole sub-continental expanse. Women saints like her, challenge today the imposed political divisions between the North and the South and remind us that one spirit of Dharma manifests through out Bharat.
Akka Mahadevi (c.1130-1160) was one of the early poetesses of the Kannada language and a significant personality in the Veerashaiva Bhakti movement of the 12th century. Her 430 extant Vachana poems and two short writings called Mantrogopya and the Yogangatrividhi are considered as her most well-known contributions to Kannada literature.
At 16, Mahadevi was the epitome of beauty. While other girls of her age dreamt of prospective bridegrooms, she decided to wed Shiva, more precisely, Chenna Mallikaruna (the beautiful Lord).
The daughter of devoted parents, she was initiated into Bhakti at the age of seven; by sixteen she was almost a saint. But, when King Koushika’s eyes fell on her, she was forced to marry him. Koushika challenged Mahadevi’s stand that she only belonged to Shiva. When he pointed out that everything she had belonged to him, she discarded everything, including her clothes, and left the palace. It is claimed that the very next minute, long tresses covered her nakedness.
She went to Kalyab, a haven for devotees of Shiva, and joined a group called ‘Veera Saiva’. There, in the ‘Anubhava Mandapa’, a platform for open debate on various issues including philosophy and social reform, Mahadevi spoke without any fear. Her conviction earned her the honorific title, ‘Akka’, meaning ‘elder sister’. In the company of Basavanna, Chenna Basavanna, Madiavlayya and Prabhudeva, her devotion attained maturity.
Such a tradition of debate and free-will seems integral to the Bhartiya tradition, right from the North to the South. We are well-versed in the rebel of Mira Bai who chose to carry on with her devotion of Sri Krishna. But she was not an exception. Women like Mira Bai and Akka Mahadevi are all over the history of Bharat.
Akka Mahadevi wrote hundreds of beautiful poems about Shiva and her devotion. Jaggi Vausdev has outlined that her devotion was such that every day she begged the lord, “Shiva let no food come my way. Let my body also express the longing and anguish that I am going through to become part of you. If I donot eat, my body will be satisfied. My body will not know what I am feeling. So let no food come towards me. If food does come into my hands, let it fall down in the mud before I put it into my mouth. If it falls in the mud, the fool that I am, before I pick it up, let a dog come and take it away.” This was her daily prayer.
Such devotion also required grandeur of free-will and support of the societal structure. The stories of such female saints and poetesses remind us that Bharat as a socio-cultural space always allowed those to sustain and move on with their belief as they considered right.
We must remind ourselves of a maxim which is quintessential for Kautilyan statecraft: The ruler cannot govern alone. The monarch depends on the advisers and political-administrative officials- and he must heed to their advice. Kautilya writes in the Arthshastra,
“Rulership can be successfully carried out only with the help of associates. One wheel alone does not turn. Therefore, he should appoint ministers and listen to their opinion.” (KA, I, 7, 9)
Therefore, a historically established fact remains that a ruler cannot rule without the aid of his advisors and ministers. But, usually rulers have been men, and so have been their advisors. What happened when women ruled? British Queen Elizabeth once remarked that, “To be a King and wear a crown, is a thing more glorious to them that see it, than it is pleasant to them that bear it.” It has been a challenge for the “other sex” to take up the complexities of the state craft especially when advisors have looked down upon them for their gender.
However, in Bharat, two prominent examples have ruled the state and taken charge of the affairs despite all the opposed circumstances. Ahilyabai Holkar (1725-1795) and Laksmibai, the Rani of Jhansi (1828-1857) were both widowed, but they were crowned and their advisors and aides stood behind these ladies with firm support. This side of the story challenges the designs of the rule and statecraft. We revisit such examples here.
Rani Rudramma (1259-1289)
Rani Rudrama Devi belonged to the Kakatiya dynasty on the Deccan Plateau. She was the daughter of King Ganapathideva who formally designated her as a Son through the ancient Putrika ceremony and named her Rudradeva. She succeeded her father when she was only fourteen years old. She was married to Virabhadra, Eastern Chalukya prince of Nidadavolu. This was almost certainly a political marriage designed by her father to forge alliances. Virabhadra is virtually undocumented and played no part in her administration.
She was influential in completing the construction of the Warrangal Fort, that was started by her father. The Venetian traveller, Marco Polo visited during her rule and wrote that she was a lover of justice, equity and peace.
The Oxford Encyclopaedia of Women in World History (2008) informs us that ‘Unlike her Kakatiya predecessors, she chose to recruit as warriors many people who were not aristocratic, granting them rights over land tax revenue in return for their support. This was a significant change and one that was followed by her successor and also by the later Vijayanagar Empire.’
Rudrama Devi might have died in 1289 while fighting Ambadeva, although some sources say she did not die until 1295
Rani Durgawati (1524-1564)
Rani Durgawati ruled over Gondwana from 1548 to 1564 on behalf of her son Bir Narayan after the death of Dalpat Shah the ruler of Gondwana. Mughal Emperor Akbar attacked Gondwana in 1564. Rani Durgawati led the battle against the invading army but ultimately when her defeat became imminent, she killed herself prefering death than dishonour.
She was born in the family of famous Gond Tribal Chandel Emperor Keerat Rai at the fort of Kalinjar (Banda, Uttar Pradesh) in Chandel Dynasty which is famous in the history for the defence of King Vidyadhar who repulsed the attacks of Mahmud of Ghazni.
Her husband Dalpat Shah died in 1550 and due to young age of her son, Vir Narayan, Durgavati took the reins of the Gond kingdom. Diwan Beohar Adhar Simha and Minister Man Thakur helped the Rani in looking after the administration successfully and effectively.
Rani’s kingdom was attacked by a Mughal General, Khwaja Abdul Majid Asaf Khan, after taking permission from Mughal Emperor Akbar. This plan of Mughal invasion was the result of expansionism of Akbar.
To fight a defencive battle, she went to Narrai, situated between a hilly range on one side and two rivers Gaur and Narmada on the other side. It was an unequal battle with trained soldiers and modern weapons in multitude on one side and a few untrained soldiers with old weapons on the other side. Rani finally killed herself on June 24, 1564 with her own dagger but didn’t let her
Ahilya Bai Holkar (1725- 1795)
Devi Ahilya Bai Holkar ruled over Ahmednagar from 1766 to 1795. She was the daughter of Manakoji Shinde. In 1733 she was married to Khande Rao, who died in the battle of Kumbher in 1754. Her father-in-law Malhar Rao Holkar guided her in ruling the state till his death in 1766. Rani Ahilyabai was a great pioneer and builder of Hindu temples. She built hundreds of temples and Dharmashalas throughout India.
Jawaharlal Nehru has written about Devi Ahilya Bai in The Discovery of India suggesting that “The reign of Ahilyabai…has become almost legendary as a period during which perfect order and good government prevailed and the people prospered. She was a very able ruler and organiser, highly respected during her lifetime, and considered as a saint by a grateful people after her death…”
Historian John Keay has called Ahilya Bai, a philosopher queen, in his book India: A History, remarking that, “Ahilyabai Holkar, the ‘Philosopher-Queen’ of Malwa, had evidently been an acute observer of the wider political scene. In a letter to the Peshwa in 1772 she had warned against association with the British, and likened their embrace to a bear-hug…”
As an able administrator, even though being a widow, she was looked upon by each and everyone in her kingdom and was revered outside not only by allies but also by the enemies.
Outside Malwa, she built dozens of temples, ghats, wells, tanks and rest-houses across an area stretching from the Himalayas to pilgrimage centres in South India. The Bharatiya Sanskritikosh lists sites she embellished as, Kashi, Gaya, Somnath, Ayodhya, Mathura, Hardwar, Kanchi, Avanti, Dwarka, Badrinarayan, Rameshwar and Jaganathpuri.
Kittur Chennamma (1778-1829)
She was the Queen of Kittu, a princely state in the present day Karnataka. She was one of the Indian female rulers to lead an armed rebellion against the East India Company in 1824 because of the doctrine of lapse. The resistance ended with her arrest. In the state of Karnataka, she is celebrated along with Abbakka Rani and Keladi Chennamma as the foremost women warriors and patriots.
She became queen of her native kingdom and married Raja Mallasarja, of the Desai family at the age of 15, and had one son. After their son”s death in 1824 she adopted Shivalingappa, and made him heir to the throne. This sparked the problem as adopted heirs were not taken as legitimate under the Doctrine of Lapse as introduced by Lord Dalhousie.
The Queen led the war when British forces attacked. In the first round of war, during October 1824, British forces lost heavily and John Thackeray, collector and political agent, was killed in the war. The Queen fought fiercely with the aid of her lieutenant, Sangolli Rayanna, but was ultimately captured and imprisoned at Ballihongal Fort, where she died on February 02, 1829.
We know the legacy of Rani of Jhansi, Laxmibai well. She has captured the popular imagination like none other. Despite being widows, which was synonymous to being helpless, socially excluded and frail due to circumstances, these women not only ruled their states but proved to be the able administrators. They fought to safeguard their land, their people and most importantly their honour.
We are accustomed to think of just a few names! Our political history has been selectively repeating some names, while easily forgetting many others. If we really consider our freedom struggle movement to be a ‘popular’ one, why we cannot think of more than, let’s say ten names, when it comes to women who influenced the popular politics through their participation. They not only actively participated, but changed the course of politics altogether.
For finding such names, which are not as popular as let’s say Pandita Ramabai, Savitribai Phule, Sarojini Naidu, Sarla Devi Chatoppadhyay, Sucheta Kriplani or Aruna Asaf Ali, we need to turn over the pages of political history. This has to capture a diversity of not only the contributors but also their region and working field. We revisit such names here.
Rani Gaidinliu (1915-1993)
Rani Gaidinliu was a Naga spiritual and political leader who led a revolt against the British rule. At the age of 13, she joined the Heraka religious movement of her cousin Haipou Jadonang. The movement later turned into a political movement seeking to drive out the British from Manipur and the surrounding Naga areas.
After 1931, she openly rebelled against the British rule, exhorting the Zeliangrong people not to pay taxes. She received donations from the local Nagas, many of whom also joined her as volunteers. The British authorities launched a manhunt for her. She evaded arrest by the police, moving across villages in what are now known as Assam, Nagaland and Manipur.
In 1932, Gaidinliu, along with her followers, was arrested without any resistance near the Kenoma village. She was punished with life imprisonment and was ultimately released in 1946 after the interim government was formed having spent fourteen years in various prisons.
In the post-independence era, she continued to work amidst the people of North East. Gaidinliu was
opposed to the Naga National Council (NNC) insurgents, who advocated secessionism from India. Instead, she campaigned for a separate Zeliangrong territory within the Union of India.
It has been claimed that because of the Heraka movement’s hostility towards Christianity, Gaidinliu’s heroics were not acknowledged highly among the Nagas, most of whom had converted to Christianity by the 1960s.
The Naga nationalists groups don’t recognise her either, because she was considered close to the Government of India. Despite her heroics, Gaindinliu has a troubled legacy because of a ‘closed-box’ politics in the contemporary
India which chose its heroes very carefully.
Durgabai Deshmukh (1909-1981)
She was an Indian freedom fighter, lawyer, social worker and politician. She was a member of the Constituent Assembly of India and of the Planning Commission of India. As a member of the Constituent Assembly, she was the only woman in the panel of the Chairmen.
Apart from taking active part in the freedom struggle, she worked in her capacity as a politician who worked extensively as a social worker too. Durgabai was the president of the Blind Relief Association. In that capacity, she set up a school-hostel and a light engineering workshop for the blind As a member of the Planning Commission, she helped in the establishment of a Central Social Welfare Board in 1953. As the Board’s first chairperson, she mobilised a large number of voluntary organisations to carry out its programmes, which were aimed at education, training, and rehabilitation of needy women, children, and the handicapped.
She was the first chairperson of the National Council on Women’s Education, established by the Government of India in 1958.
The Oxford Encyclopaedia of Women in World History (2008) informs us that she left school to protest against the imposition of English language education. She started the Balika Hindi Paathshala in Rajamundry to promote Hindi Education for girls. Despite being a Telgu, she was a Hindi enthusiast and worked for the promotion of lingual uniformity.