Written on a Kettaki leaf, scratched by Kasturi and wrapped by a silken thread
Having a symbol of her breasts smeared with sandal paste
With her name inscribed on upper portion’
‘Forgetful of worldly attachments
Lost in his thoughts
Suffering from fever caused by his memory
She heaves deep sighs, neglects her food, walks or rest
Without bothering to listen to her friends’
‘High palaces and blossoming lotuses
Do not give the pleasure any more
She throws the ornaments being placed on her body by her friends
Nor is she delighted by acts of entertainment
Having achieved an objective she is restless
Is desirous of engaging in such pursuits
Which she could not in the presence of her lover’
The 18th-century Chitrasala of Bundi palace in Southeastern Rajasthan is a chock-a-block of romantic depictions of Shringar Rasa in the form of large murals. Most of Chitrasala murals are inspired by Rasikapriya, a love poem written by Keshavdash of the 16th century.
Bundi takes its name from a narrow valley Bandu – Ka – Nal (Bandu was a chieftain of the Meena Tribe and Nal means the narrow ways). Rao Deva conquered this terrain in 1342 CE and renamed as Hadoti. The Aravali Mountains surrounding Bundi present the most picturesque view with its flowing rivers and lush green forest, in the whole of Rajasthan.
Rasikapriya is portrayed as the vehicle of emotion. The description of the countryside, cities, forests, hermitages, rivers, gardens, tanks, sunrise, moonrise and the seasons are beautifully illustrated by the artists of Chitrasala. There are seven colours, namely, white, black, yellow, red, grey, blue and mixed tones that have been primarily used in Chitrasala murals.
Keshavadeva defines a nayaka or hero as a man who is young, expert in the art of love, emotional, proud, selfless, generous, handsome, rich and reframed in taste and culture. A nayika is a heroine whose very sight fills a male’s heart with shringar rasa. There are four categories of naikyas according to Rasikapriya.
Padmini – Padmini is a beautiful nayika, soft as lotus, intelligent, cheerful, clean and soft-skinned, free from anger and has a golden complexion. She loves clean and beautiful cloths.
Bundi is located in southeastern Rajasthan at a distance of 50 km from Kota, the largest city of the region. Bundi can be reached from Kota by regular bus services and shared vehicles. While at Bundi one can also explore the surrounding hill terrains rich in prehistoric rock art. There are many stay options in Bundi ranging from budget homestays to high end. Keep three days for your Bundi trip if you love a more relaxed slow trip.
Chitrani – Chitrani is adorned with diverse beauties. She is fond of dancing and singing. She is fond of perfumes and her lover’s portraits.
Sankini – Sankini means short-tempered and clever. She is a luxuriant growth of hair, likes red garments and pinches hard when excited. She is shameless and unhesitant.
Hastini – She has a thick figure, a fat face and large feet. Her lower lip and eyebrows are thick and her voice is rough.
Another draw of Chitrasala is the Ragini murals. Ragas are primary sources of all musical renderings in India. Each Raga or Ragini has an emotional situation based on different facets of love, either in union or separation. Ragas are ascribed to Shiva and his consort Parvati and Raginis are ascribed to Brahma and his consort Saraswati.
The important features of Ragini murals at Chitrasala are strong eyes, pointed chin, projected nose, round face, Jahangir style turban, narrow patka with geometrical designs, transparent chakadar jama, attractive black pompoms and shading under the armpits. Ragini Todi, Ragini Megha Mallar, and Ragini Asvari are important examples of this sect.
The depiction of zenana or women’s harem is yet the attraction of Chitrasala murals. Zenanas are large palaces built for women. These palaces are divided into different apartments allotted to the royal women or queens, less important ladies who hold various managerial positions and attendants. In these wings, only the kings and princes are allowed. Some common zenana scenes that appear in Chitarasala are princes playing chaupar, palace gardens, palace ponds, palace terraces, the celebration of Teez festival and women listening to music, feeding the fish and enjoying wine and smoking huqqua.
The love murals of Chitrasala are a treat to eyes. They follow shringar at all its spell and intensity – when the passion strikes a woman after seeing her lover she sweats and is thrilled with romance and such is the intensity of her involvement she does not see even her friend standing nearby. They integrate with the landscape of Bundi and the cycle of seasons. There are joy and delight everywhere.
What is common to the Patolas, the coveted sarees from Patan, Gujarat, and the Pochampallys that come from the eponymous village of what is Telangana today. Obviously it is the tie-and-dye technique one would say but it is also a story of migrations. If the Salvis from South India moved to Patan to make fresh silk Patolas for the king, two brothers Malliah and Venkiah from the traditional weaving community of Padmasalis moved from Chirala to Pochampally. Patolas, then as well as now is a matter of all silk, “pattu” as the name itself is supposed to indicate. Pochampallys were woven only in coarse cotton to begin with, as silk was added much later.
Above left: Girl standing in a veranda wearing a Pochampally Ikat weave sari, by Hermann Linde (1863-1923). Pictures courtesy: Wikimedia Commons
The story of migrations of weavers as perhaps art guilds across the country in ancient and medieval times is fascinating. While Patan has records of its Patola heritage from 11th – 12th centuries CE, Andhra Pradesh doesn’t seem to have that. One of the earliest evidences of migration is from the 5th century Mandasor pillar inscription that records silk weavers guild from Lata, Gujarat who migrated to Mandasor and built a temple dedicated to Sun. Movement of weavers within and outside the country established Ikat as a well-known and widely practiced craft from the eastern coast of Odisha to Andhra Pradesh, and on the west in Gujarat.
“Some of the weavers claim to have originally migrated from Saurashtra, and settled in Chirala, which formerly produced the finest weft Ikat in the form of rumals used by rich Muslims,” wrote Mrinalini Sarabhai in “Patolas and Resist-dyed Fabrics of India’.
Writing for the ‘The Journal of Indian Textile Industry’, in 1955 the veritable Pupul Jayakar says it was forty year ago that the brothers migrated from Chirala, already famous for the variety of fabrics called Telia Rumal. Telia Rumals, literally indicating the process the yarn goes through soaked in oil and the square cloth or the handkerchief. Telia Rumals with chowkas, diamond within a square patterns woven in cotton, was a famous export from the eastern coast to Arabia and beyond. They were made typically in three colours, white, black and red with geometric patterns and a single colour wide borders.
Though Pochampally is a name that is generally used for all the Ikat that comes from Telangana today, it came to Pochampally, a small village in Nalgonda district only by the turn of 20th century. It soon spread across several mandals, covering many places like Puttapakka that makes intricate designs in double Ikat and Koyyalagudem that specializes in upholstery and bed spreads.
Chirala’s Telia Rumals served the nobility as well as the fishermen. The cotton square cloths served as basic clothing and the royalty used the embroidered and Ikat woven with gold as dupattas. How then did they transform to full six-yard sarees is an interesting story.
It is believed that All India Handicrafts Board helped the weavers of Pochampally revitalize their craft of weaving Ikat sarees. But, writer Renuka Narayanan gives a dramatic account in Hindustan Times – “Nobody knew of Pochampally until Kamaladevi (Chattopadhyay), a wet towel tied over head in a trick learnt from Bapu, drove through scorched Andhra countryside to track down weavers. The first three saris together cost Rs. 120”. So, the doyen of crafts, textiles and heritage had a hand in bringing us the Pochampallys. During Jayakar’s time itself she records around 150 weavers practicing Ikat weaving at Pochampally village. Today it has grown exponentially and all of Nalgonda district is humming with the sound of looms.
As per the geographical indication (GI) tag application, Pochampally comes from at least 40 villages within a 70 km radius of Hyderabad, capital of Telangana, in the adjoining districts of Nalgonda, and parts of Warangal, including Pochampally, Koyalagudam, Puttapakka, Elanki and Chautupal where Ikat textiles are woven. “In these villages, Ikat weaving is a way of life, with every member of a family from child to grandparent, being involved at one stage or another,” says the GI application of Pochampally Weavers Associations.
Pochampally Ikat or resist dyeing, involves the sequence of tying (or wrapping) and dyeing sections of bundled yarn to a predetermined colour scheme prior to weaving. Thus the dye penetrates into the exposed section, while the tied section remain un-dyed. The patterns formed by this process on the yarn are then woven into the fabric.
Pochampally Ikats can be single Ikat or double Ikat – single Ikat involves tying and dyeing either the warp or weft before weaving, double ikat means tying and dyeing both the warp and weft according to predetermined patterns and colours and then painstakingly matching them on the loom manually, a complex and time consuming process. There is also a combined Ikat where there are portions of warp Ikat, and weft Ikat and at places where the warp Ikat and weft Ikat overlap.
With the popular demand for Pochampally increasing, weavers started getting silk from Bangalore and zari from Surat to produce silk Ikats. They added to their repertoire of designs, traditional motifs like parrot, elephant, and flowers. Pochampally weavers also experimented with jacquards and dobby techniques that is reflecting in the hybrid Pochampally with Kanchipuram border sarees in the market.
“Today Patolas of Patan are imitated fairly successfully … The basic difference between the double Ikat weaves of Andhra Pradesh, Odisha and the Patola of Gujarat is that the Patola uses eight-ply silk while the imitations do not,” wrote Mrinalini Sarabhai. Though the copying of Patola designs continue at Pochampally, the weavers and their craft go much beyond the mere imitations.
Copies they do, but the issue is also how some traders are taking copies of Patola made in Pochampally for comparatively lower price of Rs. 30-35,000 and selling it up to even a lakh. If this copy of Patola at Pochampally for a lower price is bad, worse is the fakes that are passing of as Ikats in many cities, as gullible buyers won’t be able to differentiate the Ikat prints passed off as Ikat weave. This is killing the Ikat weave and its trade – a connoisseur had recently mentioned how a printed copy of fake Ikat look alike on a shiny material sells for as low as Rs. 900/- in the markets of faraway Kolkata. A word of caution, always look out for the handloom mark and silk board mark on the fabric you buy as it is a stamp of authenticity and ensures you a verified product.
Today, at Pochampally an invention that has brought a lot of pride and if followed to convenience to weavers is the ‘AsuLaxmi Machine’. Born in the family of traditional Pochampally weavers, Chinthakindi Mallesham won the 2015 Kamala Award for Contribution to Crafts in 2015 and Padma Shri in 2017. One of the processes involved in making of Pochampally sarees is the process of yarn winding called as “Asu” that involved 9000 arm movements consuming 5 hours for a single saree. Mallesham who used to watched his mother go through the painstaking Asu process created the AsuLaxmi Machine which in a day can prepare yarn for six sarees with little labour involved.
The AsuLaxmi Machine. Refer the following website for more details
While the industry is picking up, the issues that the Pochampally weavers face are grave especially that of low wages. Younger generation has moved on to other jobs. Second, an inability to price the products for if they stick to the old practice of using locally treated yarn rather than all falling for the mercerised yarn the price is going to be steeper. For instance the Telia Rumal is made from a distinct quality of yarn that comes from the treatment of it in oil. Today, this practice is unviable and just one master craftsman accepts it on order and the price naturally hits the roof. Telia Rumal is still available on order, but the ones that are made of mercerised cotton.
Whether it is the advent of swift powerlooms or the profuse availability of mercerized cotton, until we do not value a handmade product and the skill and artistry involved, we will loose an invaluable piece of our rich cultural heritage.
Picture courtesy: Shilpa Shankarnarayan Iyer
Pochampally is not only a name famous for textiles but has an important place in the post independence history of the country. Bhoodan Pochampally, as the place is referred to comes from the Bhoodan Movement. It was at Pochampally in 1951, Vedire Ramachandra Reddy voluntarily donated 100 acres of land to Vinoba Bhave and began a movement that would leave a permanent mark on the social consciousness of the country. Thus was created Bhoodan Pochampally.
Bhopal, the burgeoning cosmopolitan capital city of Madhya Pradesh is also referred to as the City of Nawabs. Among her erstwhile rulers was Shahjehan Begum, a prolific builder who is credited with the construction of the imposing Taj – Ul – Masjid, the largest mosque in India.
She named her capital, Shahjehanabad which was counted one amongst the most beautiful and well planned cities of the 19th century. Some of the other structures built by her are Ali Manzil, Benazir Palace and the Taj Mahal Palace.
Her daughter Sultanjehan Begum writes: ‘Her Highness’s love for erecting large buildings and palaces was in no way less than that her great namesake, the Emperor Shahjehan of Delhi. She had three palaces constructed in the Mughal style for her personal use’.
Among these buildings, Benazir Palace built in 1875 was a pleasure garden and a palace to accommodate state dignitaries. Lord and Lady Minto stayed here in 1909 during their visit to India. The palace was built around three waterbodies and overlooks one, the Motia Talab. The other two water bodies are the Noor Mahal Talab and the Munshi Hussain Talab.
Benazir Palace is built in H shape encloses stepped terraces and water fountains. A series of steps and plinths descend down to Motia Talab. The building is a perfect blend of Mughal, Rajput and European architecture. Steel columns, carved wooden partition, stain glass windows, extensive carvings on walls and in the royal hamam are some of the attractions of this palace.
The grounds attached to the palace were used for ceremonial processions, parades and were also used as congregation grounds by the subjects. Steps on both the sides of the ground create an arena like setting that can be used by people for sitting during sports. Mahatma Gandhi addressed a rally here in 1929.
Today, the Benazir Palace is crumbling and has been encroached upon by locals. The neglected palace stands as a testimony to the dying heritage of the city of Nawabs.
Modernity and urbanization has led to the decline of traditional form of clothing, however the saree continues to remain an eternal favourite. While means of production, style of draping, and designs, may have changed markedly over times, one factor remains unchanged: the love for sarees among Indian women.
From a fragment of cotton found on a metal tool in Mohenjo-daro, and silk found in ornaments excavated from Harappa and Chanhu-daro, to the modern synthetic fabrics, mankind’s journey in the arena of textile has been long and colourful. In ancient India, both stitched and unstitched lengths of fabrics, such as cotton and silk, were draped around the body and formed the main garments. While the men wore a turban on their heads, tied a piece of cloth around their waists (similar to a dhoti), and placed a shawl like cloth around their shoulders, the women too draped a cloth around their waists, and sometimes covered their upper torso with a blouse, a tunic, or an odhni / dupatta like cloth. These garments draped perfectly, were made keeping the climate in mind, and catered to the trends and tastes of the time. One look at a woman’s garments and style, and you could guess her caste, marital status, area of origin , and her social standing.
Ajanta frescoes showing women in drapes covering the upper torso and the lower antariya. Picture source – Wikipedia.
A donor couple – The man is wearing a turban and the antiriya. The woman is wearing a garment that drapes around the waist and below, leaving her upper torso uncovered. Shunga period, 2nd c. BCE, Haryana. National Museum, New Delhi
Left – A saree like garment with perfect drapes framing a woman, Mathura, 2nd c. CE (Picture source Wikipedia). Right – Devi Yamuna ( Gupta period, 5th c. CE, UP) in a saree like garment that drapes from waist down below, and covers her upper torso, and the aanchal is wound around her arm, National Museum, New Delhi. Notice how both the women are seen wearing a waist band.
A Matrika figure from Gupta period, 6th c. CE, seen wearing a blouse, while a pleat on her waist shows a garment that would drape below. National Museum, New Delhi.
The word sari/saree is a derivative of the Prakrit word śāḍī, with the original term being the Sanskrit word śāṭī meaning “a piece of cloth”. It is likely that the petticoat and blouse, two necessary accompaniments of a saree in modern India, were later additions during the colonial era.
Draping a saree – Bengali Style
Draping a saree to accentuate one’s figure is an art by itself. There are innumerable references to it in ancient Indian literature like satavallika or pleats with many fine folds, or hastisaundaka or pleats that resemble an elephant, abound in Buddhist literature. It is evident that in the ancient times it was customary to tie a piece of cloth around the waist, and sometimes a cloth would also be draped over the head and upper torso. The uttariya that was used like a shawl over the shoulders can be drawn parallel with the modern odhni, while the stanapatta or kanchuli likely formed the choli or blouse. It is conjectured that the lower garment, which was known as antariya, and the upper uttariya fused sometime between 2nd c. BCE and 1st c. CE to form a long strip of cloth or śāḍī. The long aanchal or pallu of the saree, which hangs free after draping over the shoulder, was used for covering the head.
The intermediary form of draping a saree, which was shorter in length and worn without a blouse or a petticoat, was prevalent in Bengal until some years ago. It was known as the aatpoure form of draping, and many of us have seen our grandmothers wear saree that way. While aatpoure still remains in fashion during festivities and is a favourite of Bollywood movies when portraying a Bengali woman, it is now worn with a blouse and petticoat.
A picture postcard of a Kalighat painting from the 1900s depicting a woman with her saree draped in the aatpoure way, without a blouse or a petticoat. The saree goes anticlockwise first around the waist, followed by a second drape in the clockwise direction. The loosely hanging pallu is then placed over the shoulder, and can be easily draped over the head when in front of strangers or when required as per customs. At the end of the pallu, tied in a knot, from one corner of it would hang the various keys of the household. During those times when women remained within the four walls of the andarmahal, the keys hanging from the aanchal (pallu) were the symbols of power, denoting supreme control of the woman over her house and household matters as the Grihini. The keys of the larder (bha(n)rar gharer chabi) and almirah keys were deemed the most powerful ones.
During the mid 19th c. CE when women empowerment slowly started taking shape,
Jnanadanandini devi, sister in law of Rabindranath Tagore, was the first among Bengali women to move out of her in-laws’ home, defy the purdah system, and travel to Bombay to live with her husband who was posted there as the first Indian member of the Civil Services. It was she who first developed the new style of combining the saree with a blouse and petticoat, to enable women move out of their seclusion in the andarmahal and take part in outdoor activities. She achieved this by fusing the Parsi and Bengali style. While adopting the Parsi jacket and petticoat, she kept the Bengali style of wearing the pallu on her left shoulder. This style, which lacked the pleats from the waist downward, became popular among the Brahmo Ladies. Jnanadanandini devi, a social reformer and an advocate of woman empowerment, gave classes to women willing to learn the new way of draping the saree.
Three generation of women from the same family in their distinct style of sarees. Top left – Maharani Suniti Devi of Coochbehar. She was the daughter of Keshab Chandra Sen, one of the founding members of Brahmo Samaj in Bengal. The Brahmo Samaj ushered in a new era in women’s freedom and allowed them to appear in public. Suniti devi, here, is seen wearing the attire often chosen by Brahmo women when they appeared in public, with the pallu in front, a full sleeved jacket worn as blouse, and a laced cloth to cover the head. On her right is her daughter-in-law Maharani Indira Devi. Indira devi was widowed at a young age, and she followed the Bengali custom of wearing only white sarees after the husband’s death. However, she moved away from the tradition of wearing only white “thaan” sarees (cotton or mulmul), to wearing customised chiffon sarees in white with zari/silk borders. This soon caught the fancy of the entire nation, and chiffon sarees became the order of the day, both among royalty and commoners. Bottom – Suniti Devi’s grand daughter Maharani Gayatri devi, is wearing the saree in the modern form with pleats from waist below, and without the customary head cover, unlike her grandmother and mother.
The modern style of wearing a saree was derived from mixing the style pioneered by Jnandanandini devi with the Nivi style of Andhra Pradesh. In this style, the saree is draped by first tucking one end into the waistband of the petticoat and then wrapping the cloth around the lower part of the body once, followed by hand-made even pleats that are tucked into the waistband, around the navel. After one more turn the loose end is then draped over the left shoulder. Seen on right is Maharani Ourmilla Devi of Jubbal wearing saree in the modern style.
Jamdani: The word Jamdani is a Persian derivative and denotes the floral designs that adorn these sarees. There are four types of jamdaani: Dhakai, Tangail, Shantipuri, and Dhaniakhali. Jaamdani was woven on fine muslin, a material also known as abrawn (running water) because when it was placed under running water, the fine muslin would turn almost invisible. Alternatively it was also known as shabnam (evening dew) and bafta bana (like a cloud). Muslin finds mention in various travel accounts of the Chinese, Arabic, and Italian traders, along with Arthashastra, as a fine cloth from Pundra and Bangla.
Making a Jamdani saree is extremely time consuming, and requires intense concentration and hard-work. It is hand woven on a loom by weavers that “place the patterns, drawn upon paper, below the warp, and range along the track of the woof a number of cut threads equal to the design intended to be made; and then, with two small fine-pointed bamboo sticks, try to draw each of these threads between as many threads of the warp as many may be formed. the shuttle is then passed through the shed” (Taylor James, Descriptive and Historical account of the Cotton Manufacturers in Dacca, 1851. cited in Geroge Watt, p. 281).
In Jamdani, the cotton fabric is woven with cotton or zari threads and the sarees have two to four large motifs (mango motifs, known as kolkaa) at the junction of pallu and the border. The body of the saree has butis or small flowers. Often a butidar saree with close set butis would be known has Hazarbuti (thousands of butis), or in case of floral motifs which are connected together as in a jewel like setting it would be known as Pannahazar (thousand emeralds). Floral motifs arranged in straight lines are known as Fulwar, but when arranged in a diagonal line it becomes Tersa. Sarees that were dyed a deep indigo with designs in a lighter shade are termed as Neelambari (blue sky).
Hazarbuti and Pannahazar Dhakai Jamdaani sarees. These sarees are woven on an unbleached cotton base while the design is woven with bleached cotton threads, so that there is a light-and-shade effect.
Dhakai Jamdani sarees in modern designs for the highly competitive market of today (Picture courtesy: Gency Chaudhury)
Murshidabad in Bengal is well-known for its fine silk, which is light and easy to drape. Silk weaving in this region started during the early 18th c. CE and flourished under the British patronage. During the Mughal period, Nawab Murshid Quli Khan moved his capital from Dhaka to a place known as Baluchar, on the eastern bank of the Ganga river. Along with the Nawab came many weavers, and the famous Baluchari weave was born when silk was used instead of the gold and silver threads for weaving patterns. Baluchari sarees came with a long pallu that had distinct kolkaas (mango motifs) surrounded by themes that varied from showcasing the lives of nawabs, to railway carriages, Europeans and Indians sitting and smoking hookahs or reading books, amorous couples, dancers, animals, and also scenes from the Ramayana and Mahabharata. Baluchari sarees focused on reflecting the sociopolitical images of the time, and we see them in the earlier colonial motifs, and later in the nationalist ones where Vande Mataram is woven repeatedly all around in pallus and borders. The basic colour of the sarees were either maroon or purple and the saree bodies had butis all over. In 19th c. CE, flooding of the region by the river Ganga resulted in Baluchari weavers shifting and setting up shop in Bishnupur (Bankura district of Bengal).
Baluchari sarees on Murshidabad silk with their butis and human motifs (here there are two dancing figures)
Baluchari on Murshidabad silk showing an amorous couple and a traditional motif
Baluchari on Mushidabad silk – the weave depicts episodes from Ramayana (Picture courtesy – Gency Chaudhury)
A typical Baluchari pallu with silk weaves showing the kolkaa (mango) motifs
Left: woven theme of a Baluchari saree showing an European riding his horse and his dog going with him. Right: Baluchari saree from the nationalism era, where the word Vande Mataram has been woven on the saree border
Kanthas started as small pieces, usually in square or rectangles, that were made from old torn pieces of clothes, such as dhotis or sarees. The salvaged parts were quilted together and threads dyed in indigo and madder were used for sewing fine embroidery, known as Kantha. Every piece of a Kantha cloth, used either for domestic needs or given as a gift especially for a newborn baby to lie on, would show thousands of running, darning, herringbone and chain-stitch patterns. The patterns on kantha vary from human and animal figures to floral motifs, cars and trains, to fine ornamental patterns. Kantha work in Bengal has always been women oriented work, and it would involve women of the household sitting with their needles, in their long free afternoons, and weaving patterns that often told tales of their yearnings, dreams, aspirations, love, sadness, and heartbreaks. Once the weave of the women from poor households, the same kantha stitch is now patterned on silk sarees and is held dear by those that wear them.
Traditional Kantha patterns woven on silk
Modern patterns of Kantha work on silk (Picture courtesy: Gency Choudhary)
Besides these famous weaves, Bengal specialises in both silk and cotton sarees with prints and simple weaves. These are light and comfortable sarees for those sultry summers of Bengal.
Colourful prints on the light Murshidabad silk
Butidaar taant sarees (cotton weave and base with golden zari on the grey one) Pictures courtesy: Gency Chaudhury
Traditional motifs on plain taant cotton sarees. Lightweight and easy to drape these sarees are a comfort wear during the humid summer months.
Author – Monidipa Bose
She can be contacted at email@example.com
There is no such thing as the voiceless. There are only the deliberately silenced, or the preferably unheard
Gargi, the Brahmavadini, as the female seers those who had the Brahmagyaan were called, was not just heard but had an intellectual debate with Sage Yajnavalkya, the outstanding scholar and teacher in expounding the nature of God. Maitreyi, Yajnavalkya’s wife was heard, when she profoundly said ‘What should I do with that by which I do not become immortal’. The echoes of this question still rankles.
Spiritual predicament apart, this small example amply tells us of the exalted position women enjoyed during Rig Vedic Age. They had rights to education, could possess property, perform rituals like last rites in the absence of a brother, and most importantly they had a right to choose the life they wanted. They could speak, and they were heard.
After 2nd century CE Dharmashastras like Manusmriti were written that laid down the principles of a social order which gave primacy to the Brahmins and their orthodox socio-religious norms. From liberal, free entities, women suddenly found themselves being equated with sins and darkness. She was to be guarded by male members and did not have any rights over property. If she did happen to have an earning / property, it was for the one she belonged to.
A fine example of a woman of those ages is the feisty queen, Draupadi. Her dialogue with Yudhisthira, prior to a battle that he is reluctant to engage in, as presented in the 6th century Kiratarjuniya by Bharavi, begins thus –
For a woman to advice men like you is almost an insult.
And yet, my deep troubles compel me to overstep the limits of womanly conduct,
Make me speak up ……
From renowned scholars to reluctant advisers, the deliberate silencing had begun.
Among the silenced, in 1261 CE, rang a booming war cry bearing the name, Rudrama Devi. She is among the few Queens in India who was chosen to rule, and did not serve in the capacity of a regent. Being the only daughter of King Ganapatideva, she underwent the Putrika ceremony, an ancient ritual to anoint her as a son inheriting and having sole rights over her father’s kingdom. She was renamed Rudradeva I, the name that appears on inscriptions confusing many. However, Rudrama’s monumental presence is hard to ignore in Orugallu, now Warangal, erstwhile capital of the Kakatiyas.
Rudrama faced stiff opposition from her cousins, but she quelled the internal dissent with the help of loyal chieftains like the Kayastha chief Jannigedeva and his younger brothers, Recherla Prasaditya, and Reddy chiefs such as Gona Ganna Reddy. She strengthened the Orugallu fort by building more fortifications. She recruited soldiers who were not of royal descent and gave them land tax revenue rights in exchange for their support. This practice was later continued in the dynasty and also adopted by the Vijayanagar Empire that was an offshoot of the Kakatiya dynasty.
Marco Polo, who visited Orugallu, was highly impressed with the riches of Warangal and the administration of Rudrama Devi. She not only ensured health of her subjects by opening medical centres in every village but also introduced new techniques of irrigation by building tanks and earthen dams. Members of Munnuru community were brought in to teach the farmers new methods of agriculture, ushering in prosperity.
Her short rule of 30 years was challenged time and again by powerful dynasties such as the Yadavas and the Eastern Gangas, whom she crushed forcefully enough for them to not come back. However, she could not defeat the friend turned foe, brother of the Kayastha Chief who was one of her supporters. She died fighting Ambadeva, leaving behind an inspiring legacy. The star shaped Thousand Pillared Temple in Hanamkonda, Warangal, stands as a stellar example of the zenith of architectural glory reached by the Kakatiyas under Rani Rudrama Devi.
Rudrama Devi set a precedent that was hard to replicate but was followed nevertheless. Many kingdoms saw fearless warrior queens defending their land and people. Notable among them was Rani Durgavati of Garha Katanga / Gondwana, who defeated Baz Bahadur, King of Malwa. She took on the mighty Mughals with her small battalion taking advantage of the mountainous region. When she could no longer stave off the menacing Mughals, she plunged a dagger into herself and embraced a dignified death. Elsewhere, and in another century, the Mughals were given a tough fight by the regent queen of Bijapur and Ahmednagar, Chand Bibi. Fond of falconry and imprisoned for long years, hers is a story of deceit, courage, bravado, patience, and selfless love.
Durgawati’s battle with Asaf Khan as depicted in a folio of Akbarnama. Image source – Internet
Chand Bibi indulging in falconry. Image source – Wikimedia commons
The Mughals were here to stay. They bought with them ideas and influences that changed the landscape and mindscape of the country. While the Sharia granted Muslim women property rights and widow remarriage was not frowned upon, its strict adherence to Purdah ensured that the women stayed away from participating in decision making. They were seldom seen and preferably unheard. In this context, Noor Jahan stands out as the lone Mughal Queen who wielded unequivocal power. Alexander Dow, writes, ‘Noor Jahan stood forth in public; she broke through all restraint and custom, and acquired power by her own address, more than by weakness of Jahangir’.
Noor, born Mehrunnisa, was from a scholarly family and adept at languages, philosophy, painting and poetry. She was an excellent strategist, administrator, diplomat and architect. Her influences in cuisine, embroidery and jewellery patterns were revolutionary. Churidar, ancestor of the modern day leggings is the gift of Noor Jahan to the world of fashion and style. She wrote poetry under the name of ‘Makhfi’, ‘The Concealed One’. Despite her talents, she never failed to recognise that she needed the staunch support of a man, which she received in the form of Jahangir. Among the many reforms she bought, one was to ensure that girls received a good amount as their Meher; a safety net that would stand by them in bad times. Noor Jahan minted her own coins and put a halt to the expansionist policies of the kingdom. Her reign was marked by peace and prolific construction. She made the pursuit of finer things in life a royal agenda.
Sources of the time describe her as vivacious, alluring and compelling. One look at all the structures and spaces that she has designed and you will find yourself mouthing the same words. Whether it is the resplendent tombs that she built for Jehangir and her family, or the Charbagh gardens, whether it is the simple but soothing caravan serais with gardens, or the Shahi masjid made of stones in Srinagar. She was the first one to use parchinkari or pietra dura technique extensively on marble. Her contributions, if listed, might take pages and her remarkable story of rise and fall is worth many books. But she remains unheralded and anonymous. Khurram must be happy for after ascending the throne he not only unceremoniously ousted Noor Jahan but also launched a malicious campaign to remover her traces from the annals of Mughal administration and history.
The painted entrance gate of the tomb of Itimad ud Daula in red sandstone
Noor Jahan spent her final 15 years quietly in Lahore close to the tomb of her beloved Jehangir. She built herself a modest tomb in Shahdara Bagh with only a smidgen of the elegant patterns that she so loved, symbolic of her austere life. Her poignant epitaph reads thus
Bar mazaar-i-ma gharibaan
Na-chiragh-e na guley
Na-parrey parwanaan sozad
Na saadey bulbuley
On our lone grave no roses bloom,
No nightingale would sing;
No friendly lamp dispels the gloom,
No moth ever burns it wings
It has been a year since I first laid my eyes on the magnificent Itimad ud Daula’s tomb in Agra. but still remember my wide eyed surprise. There was not an inch that was not painted upon or incised. The pretty mosaic floor, the elegant parchinkari, the wonderfully painted flowers and trees, the riotous muqarnas left me enthralled. The dark interiors did not dampen my spirits and I was staring, hard and long. What broke my reverie was a remark by a fellow tourist, ‘Oh just look at all this beauty. No doubt this must be inspired by the Taj and that is why is called baby Taj’. A local guide intervened ‘This was built much before the Taj by Noor Jahan for her family’. Fret not Noor, for one can only wash away ink on paper, but not your sonnets in stone.
Noor Jahan was a woman of a different mettle. Her tumultuous saga reminds me of this verse
‘the rose has told
In one simplicity
That never life
Relinquishes a bloom
But to bestow
An ancient confidence’
Natalia Crane, Venus Invisible and Other Poems
Achabal Garden in Kashmir built by Noor Jahan. She was a lover of gardens and built many fine Charbagh style gardens in Agra, Lahore and Kashmir. Image source – Internet
Not in imposing monuments, but it is in the sublime and the mundane that we often see the manifestation of the feminine. The mosques where they themselves were not allowed, the temples where they were idolised but still considered impure to chant mantras, the roads and its caravan serais where the vary traveler rested, in the gardens where the spreading canopies of the large trees shaded them from searing heat, fountains that cooled the environs, flowers whose scent turned the air heady. For it is in convenience and pleasure that the subtlety of the feminine is pronounced. Though her presence may seem strident for certain sections of the society, she remains a whisper.
To be continued.
Author – Zehra Chhapiwala
She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
All the pictures used in the post are courtesy Jitu Mishra unless stated otherwise