The Position of Women in Deccan as gleaned through inscriptions: 200 BCE-1200 AD

 The Position of Women in Deccan as gleaned through inscriptions:  200 BCE-1200 AD

The art of engraving inscriptions was popularized by the Mauryan Emperor Aśoka in India around 3rd century BCE which became extremely proliferate thereafter. A mammoth corpus of inscriptions engraved in different scripts such as Brahmi, Kharoshti, Nagari and languages like Sanskrit, Pali etc. was available on a pan India level covering a span of more than a millennium.

My stint with epigraphy started seventeen years ago when I commenced my Doctoral Research.

  • In search for a space for women in the annals of ancient Indian history:

The inscriptions were always a realm of the epigraphists. They preserved valuable data about women that is well stacked in the milieu of time and space. Mostly votive, administrative and eulogistic in nature they held diverse information not only on the contemporary society, polity but also on the prevalent religious observances and the active involvement of women therein. The votive epigraphs constituted a significantly tangible source for reconstructing the history of women in India.

However the inscriptions were never adequately sifted by the historians in their quest for reconstruction of history of Women in ancient India. The mythological characters restrained by the laws of the dharmashastra were almost stereotyped as “the women of ancient India.” There has been a sustained and fruitful involvement of women in the growth and development of ancient India that was unfortunately never highlighted..

Though the epigraphic data was scientifically analyzed and developed steadily it was not adequately used. Both epigraphy and gender studies followed their independent courses.   

  • Trailing the Inscriptions:

 A fresh outlook was necessary to review the position of women in light of information provided by the epigraphical sources. It is very true that epigraphical sources are available only after 3rd BCE, so literary sources are crucial till then, but thereafter the epigraphical data just cannot be neglected.

  1. As compared to the lengthy descriptions and commentaries, the women depicted in the inscriptions offered smaller content but greater validity. The genuineness of every woman reordered in the inscriptions makes them invaluable as an individual as well as a source to reconstruct the history of Indian women in a fresh perspective.
  2. A vast corpus of inscriptions issued by royalty as well as engraved by laity in Deccan (tentatively comprising of modern Indian states of Maharashtra, Goa, Telangana, Andhra Pradesh and Karnataka) during the period of the present study i.e., 200 BCE-1200 AD is satisfactorily explored to understand the amazing Indian women.
  3. This research work has taken into consideration the contributions of more than ONE THOUSAND FIVE HUNDRED WOMEN referred in the inscriptions but lesser known to the world of scholars and laymen.
  4. They lived under the rule of different dynasties that ruled over Deccan such as Satavahana, Ikshvaku, Vakataka, Rashtrakuta, Chalukya, Kalachuri, Kadamba,Hoyasla and their feudatories like Ganga, Shilahara, Nolamba, Alupa etc.
  5. They belonged to different races, social and political milieu and worshiped different deities in ancient Deccan.
  6. Contrary to the belief that only queens and princesses would appear in the inscriptions, hundreds of laywomen, palace servants, singers, dancers, political and temple administrators, regents, devadāsīs (temple dancers) and even courtesans find mention in the inscriptions. It must be noted very clearly that each woman selected in this work has some distinct contribution, achievement, patronage to her credit and not merely a mention in the inscriptions on account of the familial relations with the male donor.  

The spectrum of their achievements is diverse. However, the outcome of the compilation and evaluation of these inscriptions can be broadly categorized as under.

  • Hinduism and Women:

Religion has always dominated Indian soul. Hinduism has always continued as an unbroken line from time immemorial. It has always acknowledged the role of women in the rituals. Hindu religious scriptures have given immense importance to the concept of ‘dana’ which were made over to earn religious merit and salvation. Almost all religious scriptures allow women to participate in ‘purtasacrifices. From the mass of numerous inscriptions we can infer that a large number of women, especially queens and princesses were involved in such donations. It displays their deep religious attitude. Due to the deep-rooted belief in Hindu religious traditions, such donations were made throughout the centuries in Deccan. These inscriptions not only throw light on the religious attitude of the women but also on the economic rights they enjoyed while making provisions for the donations. The inscriptions also throw light on the various recipients of the donations, various types of donations and whether women themselves received any donations.

  • Jainism and Women:

Jainism is an ancient faith in India. Though its antiquity can be traced back to twenty-three Tirthankaras, its historicity can be established only from the times of the last i.e., the twenty- fourth Tirthankara, Vardhamana Mahavira. The Jain canonical literature provides information about a large number of women who were actively involved in the propagation of Jainsim, as lay devotees and nuns. With the help of several inscriptions we are able to assess the contributions of women in the propagation of Jainism, their participation in the rituals and their involvement in the Jaina congregation.

  • Buddhism and Women:

Buddhism also received liberal patronage from women in Deccan. Numerous inscriptions engraved at the Buddhhist rock cut caves and other sites in South India bear testimony to the active propagation of Buddhism by women during the early centuries of the Christian era.

  • Social Life and Women:

Inscriptions throw welcome light on various social conditions and customs of ancient Deccan.

  1. Institution of marriage

The religious texts speak of different forms of marriages viz. Anuloma and Pratiloma. The dowry has been an integral part of the marriage in India. The inscriptions help us understand whether these practices were actually current in ancient Deccan. The period under our study involves a great social synthesis between the indigenous populace and different foreign tribes, which invaded and ruled different parts of India. These inscriptions help us understand the occurrence of matrimonial alliance between these tribes and different royal households of ancient Deccan.

  1. Different lawgivers such as Manu have expressed their views about the economic rights inherited by women. The epigraphs are able to illustrate the property rights actually enjoyed by women, which would include the right to inherit, hold, buy and sell property. The epigraphical evidences can be a great tool to understand the social awareness exhibited by women in ancient Deccan such as providing for the food through Annachhatram or Annadana, caring for the nature by way of planting trees, making provision for marriages etc.
  2. Human beings have always preserved the memories of the deceased by way of erecting burial mounds, tombs, raising memorial stones etc. Archaeological evidences have proved the prevalence of such practice in Deccan right from the stone ages. Inscriptions throw more light on the customs of Sati stones, Mastikallus, Virgals, Yashti stones, Chhayaprastara The role of women in the observance and perpetuation of these practices can be better understood in the light of the study of inscriptions.
  • Education and Women:

Education is one of the important barometers to understand the progress made by any society. It was usually believed that women were not allowed to take up education as they were considered to be ‘impure’ to touch the sacred literature. However, inscriptions are able to give a clearer picture about the educational institutions in Deccan as well as the educational opportunities available to women.  The epigraphical evidence also clarifies that along with the traditional education women could learn various performing arts like classical dance and singing.

  • Political role played by Women:

 Politics is considered to be a male dominated area even today. However, inscriptions are able to bring out the role played by the queens and princesses in political affairs of Deccan. The Satavahana queen Naganika and the Vakataka queen Prabhavati Gupta are illustrious examples of queens who ably administered the state affairs as regents, administrators etc. Inscriptions help us identify more such queens who handled the political affairs efficiently. Defense is an integral part of the state administration. The epigraphical records show that the queens led armies in the battlefield in defense of their country in the event of external aggression. As such the existence of their personal seals and paraphernalia including different ministers can also be inferred with the help of inscriptions.

  • Courtesans and Devadasis:
  1. The Devadasi or the ‘Temple Servant’ was a peculiar custom observed and patronized by the temples and royalty. Epigraphs found especially in the temple complexes in India help us review various aspects of the custom of devadasis, their initiation into the custom, the payments made to them in cash or kind as well as the religious donations made by the devadasis.
  2. A large volume of priestly and secular literature speaks about the courtesans who were an integral part of the ancient Indian social life. Inscriptions throw light on their social role and the contributions they made towards the society in ancient India.


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