by Dr. (Mrs.) Jyotsna Kamat
Last Updated : May 13, 2013
One would expect that in medieval times women were almost like
domesticated pets caged in the house, considering all the equality and libertarian
movements the mankind has gone though. Lawmaker Manu's oft-quoted statement that women are
not worthy of freedom strengthens this expectation. However, the inscriptions, literary
sources and sculptures of the period give an astonishingly different picture of status of
women in South India in medieval times.
According to B.P.Mazumbar, Northern India did not have any women
administrators of provinces or kingdoms during this period. In contrast, Karnataka had
women who administered villages, towns, divisions and heralded social and religious
institutions. Piriyaketaladevi, a queen of Chalukya Vikramaditya VI ruled three villages.
According to an inscripture of 1148 A.D. Lakkadevi was a village headman. Jakkiabbe ably
administered seventy villages after premature death of her husband. Mailalladevi, a senior
queen of Someshwara-I ruled the important province of Banavasi comprising 12,000 villages.
It is evident from a inscripture of 1187 A.D. that the Jain nuns
enjoyed the same amount of freedom as their male counterparts. There were female trustees,
priestesses, philanthropists, musicians and scholars.
The historical sources of the period are abundantly filled with
stories of accomplished women of the time. Shantaladevi, the Hoysala queen was an expert in
singing, dancing and instrumental music. Fig 242 shows her in a graceful dancing pose. She
also held durbar with her illustrious husband Vishnuvardhana. Fig 244 shows a rare carving
where a woman is shown writing.
COURTESANS, TEMPLE GIRLS AND ACTRESSES
Description of courtesans had become an essential part of classics.
They were recognized, tolerated and at times held respectable place in the society.
Dedicating girls to temples was an ancient practice and by the tenth
century, it had become well established. They were called Devadasis (servant of
served priests, and noble men. Temple grants included expenses for Devadasis. Some of them
were experts of arts including singing, dancing and acting performances. The
institution of Devadasis continued sporadically in India till recent times (see Given
BONDMAIDS AND WORKING WOMEN
All menial tasks like cleaning in temples and private households
were undertaken by bondmaids whose position was not high in the society. The saint-poet
Basaveshwara tried to better their lot and that of their children by declaring that after
initiation into Veerashaivism, the latter were to be considered holy and duly honored.
In addition to their household duties, women gave a helping hand to
their men in their vocations. The occupation of a nurse (dhatri) was quite common. Women
also worked in fields.
Basaveshwara's theory of Kayaka (Kayakave-Kailasa) , led many women
to realize God through their humble occupations.
INSTITUTION OF MARRIAGE
Marriage was compulsory for all the girls except for those opted for
asceticism. Brahman girls were married between ages 8 and 10 from sixth or century onwards
up to the modern times. Polygamy was permitted to all who could afford and it was
especially popular among Kshatriaysa for political reasons. According to
king should marry a Kshatria girl of noble birth for a chief queen though he is permitted
to have Vaisya or Sudra wives for pleasure.
SATI OR SAHAGAMANA
Sati was prevalent among
certain classes of women, who either took the vow or deemed it a great honor to die on the
funeral pyres of their husbands. Ibn Batuta observed that Sati was considered praiseworthy
by the Hindus, without however being obligatory. The Agni Purana declares that the woman
who commits sahagamana goes to heaven and Medhatiti pronounced that Sati was like suicide
and was against the Shastras. In an age of such divergent views, women of the Deccan
followed a middle path. They were not coerced, although several wives committed Sati. The
majority of the widows did not undergo Sati. (see: Love?
Duty? or Sacrifice?)
Mahasati stones were erected in memory of brave women who committed
Sati and are periodically worshipped. The number of such stones are a few, indicating a
small number of such women. There are no instances of remarriage of widows. (see
Alberuni writes that Indian women preferred self immolation by Sati
to the suffering of life of a widow. Ibn Batuta also felt that the plight of widows was
miserable. A widow was considered an inauspicious person and was prohibited from wearing
colorful clothes, ornaments, decorate hair, as is seen from descriptions in literature.
However, there are no concrete pointers to indicate that widows had
to shave their heads, as became the norm in later years (see: Plight of Widows in India)
A few women of the time who despised their husbands, attracted other
men by wanton behaviors. A sculpture in Bhatkal
depicts a case of a woman's infidelity. A
husband catches the paramour of his wife red-handed and is about to punish him. The wife
is shown as pleading for her lover (figure 246).
Pictures 247 and 248 show punishments to women for
There was a class of men who believed in the superiority of women.
Somadeva thought that discrimination between men and women was valid in respect of
physical ability, but the latter were superior in intellectual ability. Achale was a lady
of rare distinction and it is said that Chandramauli, a minister of the Hoysala Kings was
a befitting husband for her. This is an expression used contrary to the normal belief of a
wife being worthy of her husband.
The women of medieval Deccan were complimentary to men and not
competitive in all fields and they together made a complete unit. Women faced hardships
bravely, and excelled in the field of charity, exhibiting their sense of social service.
They were good housewives, pursued fine arts and when given a chance, shone as good
administrators and fought battles. In spiritual field also, they made their contributions.
Excerpted from Author's 1980 Book, Social
Life in Medieval Karnataka, Abhinav, New Delhi.