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Early Kashmiri Society-Status of Women

By Dr. S.S. Toshkhani

One of the most significant, and surprising, features of the early Kashmiri society was the freedom that women enjoyed. The picture one gets of their life from various literary sources is not that of servitude or deprivation but of happy participation in different spheres of human activity. There was no attempt to marginalise them or deculturise their personality, as was being done in other contemporary societies elsewhere in the world. Though under the protective umbrella of the family, they occupied a pivotal place in social life and moved about with unfettered freedom. Undoubtedly, the society was patriarchal, but there was no restriction on the movement of women, nor were any irrational curbs imposed on their activity. In the age of Nilamata and the centuries that followed, female seclusion was something unknown in Kashmir till Islam made its advent. Participating joyfully in the numerous festivals prescribed in the Nilamata, they would go to the gardens in the company of their menfolk without any inhibition or fear of approbation. For instance, during the Iramanjariutsava, they would freely sport with men under the flower-laden boughs of the Iramanjari shrubs, exchanging garlands of flowers with men in a spirit of gay abandon Or go to the fruit gardens on the Ashokikashtami day to worship fruit-bearing trees”’. Such was the spirit of the times that during the Shravani Utsava. young maidens were enjoined to go and enjoy water sports. Yet another seasonal-festival was Krishyarambha when peasant women would accompany their menfolk to the “open fields of nature for ceremonial ploughing of the soil and sowing of seeds”. It was a month long festival celebrated amidst much singing and dancing While these outdoor festivals showed that women in these times were in no way confined to the four walls of their homes, there were numerous indoor festivals too. For instance, during the Kaumudi Mahotsava or the festival of the Full Moon, women would sit beside the sacred fire with their husbands and children, watching the beauty of the moonlit night.  Even servants were allowed to participate in such festivals.

There was Madana Trayodashai, festival dedicated to the god of love. On this occasion a husband would demonstrate his love for his wife by personally giving her a bath with sacred water scented by herbs. Similarly, at the end of the three-day Mahimana celebrations, well-adorned ladies would freely and joyfully play with men. On Sukha Suptika or Deepawali night, the well-adorned wife, could display her charms to her husband in the exciting privacy of the specially decorated bedroom and savour his compliments.

That is not all. There were special occasions when men were to make ladies of the house happy by giving them new clothes as presents. One such occasion was on the Navahimapata-utsava or the New Snowfall Day— a festival that was celebrated by the Kashmiri Pandits till they were exiled from their native land. On the full moon day of Margashirsha (January-February), the householder is enjoined by the Nilamata to invite his sister, paternal aunt and friend’s wife, besides a Brahmana lady, and honour them with gifts of new clothes. Presentation of gifts to a friend’s wife! That could happen only in a free society.

An enlivening feature of these beautiful festivals was, music, dance and dramatic shows. These were an essential part of the festivals that the early Hindus of Kashmir celebrated, and the ladies watched these shows with great joy. Not only watched them but must have participated in them. And the ladies were attractively attired, well decorated and well perfumed during these festivities. Surely, this must have added great charm and beauty to their life. Another thing even more important to be noted is that these ancient social festivals have a religious setting.

Coming to religious life, the presence of women in the performance of various rites. rituals and ceremonies was regarded as essential. And that is how things should have been in a society where people regarded Kashmir, their native land an embodiment of goddess Uma. This is very significant, for it shows that the Mother Goddess cult has occupied a central place in the religious beliefs of Kashmiri Hindus from the earliest times, a cult that explains respect for women as an aspect of reverence for the divine feminine. A host of goddesses began to be worshipped in Kashmir from Uma and Durga, Lakshmi, Saraswati and Mahakali to the very popular and very local deities like Sharika, Ragya, Tripura and Jwala. Shaiva and Shakta Tantricism, which became very popular in Kashmir from the 7th century, identifies Shakti with Supreme Reality, which, it says is “female in essence”. That makes us understand why an aspirant taking to the Kulachara mode of worship is asked to look upon women with extreme reverence.

One of the most noteworthy features of early Kashmir society was that women had access to good and liberal education. They were taught among other things, literature and fine arts and given practical training in music, dance and drama, which were considered as accomplishments fit for them. There is ample evidence for this in Kaihana’s Rajatarangini, Somadeva’s Katha-sarit-sagara, Damodargupta’s KuttanimataKavya, Bilhana’s Vikramankadeva Charit and several other works. The great Sanskrit grammarian Pamni gives the formation  Kathi, for a female student to Kathaka school of Black Yajurveda to which the Kashmiri Pandits belong. An idea of the curriculum can be had from the Kuttanimata Kavya. A girl was taught variety of subjects, we learn, including literature, Bharata’s Natyashastra. paintings, aboriculture, cookery, cut—work in leaves (patra-chcheda), vocal and instrumental music etc. In a nostalgic mood Bilhana remembers towards the end of Vikramakadeva Charit the accomplished women of Kashmir who not only spoke Sanskrit and Prakrit as fluently as their mother tongue, but, also composed poetry in it. In theatrical performance and dancing they excelled the celestial maidens.

Several women have played a significant role in shaping the political history of Kashmir. Yashovati became the first queen in Kashmir to be enthroned as a ruler — even though as a regent. Queens like Sugandha and Didda gave very impressive account of their. administrative acumen. Many others, like Khadana. Amritprabha, Chakramardika, Kalyandevi, Ratnadevi and Kamla Devi built shrines and marketplaces and towns. Chandrapida’s queen Kalyanadevi was exalted by the King as “Mahapratiharapala, something like the Chief Chamberlain. Suryamati, the queen of King Ananta helped her husband to overcome his initial difficulties in administering the State. Queen Kalhanika, was sent on a delicate diplomatic mission of bringing about a rappochement between Jayasimha and Bhoja. This presupposes that these queens must have received some training in the art of administration and diplomacy previously.

As for the common woman, we do not know what occupations, if any, were open to her besides that of a housewife. We have a water carrier sculpted on a tile from Harvwan. Perhaps some women worked as flower-sellers too. Most of them, however. took care of their family and children, acting as wife and mother. There is evidence to show that pre-puberty marriages of girls did not take place. In fact, works like Kshemendra’s Deshopadesha indicate that girls were married at a mature age. Though fidelity in marriage was regarded as an ideal, polygamy seems to have been quite prevalent among the rich and the well-to-do men. The kings had “seraglios full of queens and concubines”. Widows; were supposed to live an austere and highly moral life. Prevalence of sati among the rich and aristocratic families points to some of the blemishes which ancient Kashmiri society suffered from.

Though we do not come across any example of polyandry, prostitution seems to have been quite common. “Although prostitution was tolerated as an inescapable evil,’ writes Ajay Mitra Shastri. .‘ the society looked down upon prostitutes and condemned men indulgent to them in unmistakable terms”. Authors like Damodaragupta and Kshemendra were closely acquainted with the trade. Damodargupta’s Kuttanimata gives us an insight into .the prostitutes’ mode of behaviour, their proficiency in literature and fine arts, their greed for money and customs connected with their craft. Kshemendra too in his Narmamala, Samaya Matrika and Deshopadesha draws detailed and graphic pictures of prostitutes’ life and exposes the moral laxity that had crept in his contemporary society. Kalhana and Somadeva also make references to the system of ‘devadasi’ (dedicating girls to a temple for dancing and singing) that seems to have prevailed in Kashmir from quite early times, and could be described as a form of prostitution.

On the whole, however, it is a happy picture of Kashmiri women that emerges from literary sources. Dr. S.C.Ray has drawn our attention to very significant fact in this context. To put it in his own words “Women in Kashmir probably had some property rights and independent legal status. Kalhana in his Rajatarangini and Kshemendra in his Samaya Matrika seem to indicate that a widow inherited her husbands’ immovable property after his death, rather than his sons”. This is something really very significant, and needs further research.

This discussion about social organization in ancient and early Kashmir is by no means complete and conclusive, but we can safely draw certain inferences. The first and the that must be noted is that though there was an awareness of the four traditional castes, Brahmana, Kshatriya, Vaishya and Shudra, the early Kashmiri society was not rigid about the caste system. In fact, it was divided more along occupational lines than caste lines. The Brahmanas were no doubt highly respected, but because they valued learning above everything else and formed the intellectual class. The religious rituals and ceremonies were performed by the priestly class among the Brahmanas, and not all Brahmanas were priests. Second the most important occupational class in the society was that of the agriculturists, followed by the rich and prosperous merchants and traders and the various upward mobile artisan classes. It were the Damaras among the agriculturists who became very powerful and influential as feudal landlords and interfered with the affairs of the State, holding at times the entire administration to ransom. There was also the administrative class. which was comprised of the nobility and the bureaucracy. The latter was referred to by the cover name of Kayastha or the king’s officers engaged in collecting revenue and taxes, but they did not belong to any specific caste. Their oppressive and exploitative methods and their greed and corruption have been severely criticized by writers like Kshemendra and Kalhana. Thirdly, and lastly, women occupied a high position in the society and enjoyed freedom unknown in contemporary societies elsewhere in the world. Tantracism of the Shaiva and Shakta variety which led to the spread of the mother goddess cult in Kashmir regards Supreme Reality to be feminine in essence and calls for revering women as manifestations of the eternal feminine or Shakti.

Source: Kashmir Sentinel

 
 

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