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Thursday, November 10, 2016

Status of Women in Magadhan Mauryan Society | With Sculptures & Jewels

I was reading about the Mauryan Empire & came across few snippets which made me make a post on the position of women in that period. Overall, i got an impression that they held high status in the society and their condition had not deteriorated as it happened in the later ancient period and medieval ages. This post may not be the last word on this topic. It is a collection of the interesting points which i collected during my reading. Sculptures and jewels from various museum collections have been included.

Mostly Greek, and some Indian accounts of this period are quoted in this post. The topics discussed are :
- Marriage System & Dowry
- Conditions when a wife could divorce a husband

- Education of Women
- Women Warriors in Military
- Practice of Widow Burning

- Courtesans
- Prostitutes

Marriage & Dowry :

Megasthenese who came to India and stayed in court of Chandragupta Maurya mentions that Indians' marriage is marked by a gift of "a yoke of oxen" . It is amazing to see that this kind of marriage is one of the forms of marriages which is mentioned in the Dharma-sastras and repeated by Manu. It is called "Arsha" form of marriage in which the bridegroom gives a cow and bull or both to the father of daughter and after that, the father gets his daughter married to the man. Its the reverse of the present day dowry system.

According to another Greek writer, Nearchus, who wrote about India and Persian Gulf and was a naval commander of Alexander,  - "Indians marry without giving or taking dowries. As soon as daughters attain marriageable age, they are exposed to public ; and married to the victor in a boxing or wrestling or running or someone who excels in manly exercise." The closest resemblance to this is ceremony of Swayamvara, where the most suitable man is chosen to be married to a woman, by arranging a sort of competition.

Red Sand Stone Female Medallion from Bharhut Stupa Railing. It seems the lady is getting ready and is holding a mirror in her hand.
Now, at the Indian Museum, Kolkata. 2nd Century BCE

The bracelet with double 'S' repeat design is cut from thick sheet gold with a beaded border on either side. The square hinged clasp with a circular hollow in the middle that must have held a gem, now missing and surrounded with leaf.
Found in Taxila. 1st century BCE.  Size : 5 X 4.2 cms.
Now in National Museum, Delhi

Grounds to leave a husband : 

It was a time when the child marriage custom was not known, the system of marrying women only after attaining the age of maturity was prevalent. Manu says : "A maiden, though married / of marriageable age, should stop in her father's house and should NEVER give herself to a man devoid of good qualities. "

Though, remaining unmarried was considered a not so good step. But here also a sort of independence was given to the women. Almost all the Smriti Sastras of the period are unanimous in concluding that : "A girl of marriageable age should not remain unmarried and it was a sin for her father if that happened ; he should try to search a good groom for her ; but if that does not happens within a period of 3 months to 3 years ; after that the girl is free to choose her husband as she wants."

In his Arthashastra, Chanakya permits re-marriage of women, if - "her husband is dead, or he becomes an ascetic, or he has gone abroad, or the woman keeps waiting for her husband for a considerable period of time" . Chanakya further adds : " If the husband is of bad character, or has become a traitor to the king, or he is likely to endanger the life of his wife, or has lost virility, his wife is free to abondon him." Divorce on the ground of ill-feeling was also was possible by mutual consent but not at the will of one party alone. In such matters, Chanakya places women and men on almost equal footing. 

The pieces are part of a waist girdle comprising three horizontal rows of four fishes made of thin sheet gold stamped with a design of fish scales. Holes are pierced in their mouth and tails for the cords to pass through.
From Taxila, 1st century BCE. Length 13.7 cms. Height 3 cms
Now at the National Museum, Delhi

Women Education : 

There were highly educated women who held positions of great honor and standing in the society and household. We know of 2 classes of women scholars :
a. Brahamavadini - lifelong students of sacred texts
b. Sadyovaha - who continued studies till their marriage

The scholar Panini mentions women students of Vedic Shakhas. Katyayana refers to women teachers called Upadhayayis. Patanjali tells us about the women scholars who made a detailed study of the Mimansa philosophy. Buddhist and Jain texts are not far behind. They tell us about the women scholars of the of Brahmavadini class who remained unmarried lifelong and pursued studies. 

Flat gold disc pendant of crescent shape pierced on the upper two ends, the surface along the outline with two rows of gold dots worked in repouss.
From Mauryan Era, Found at Taxila, 300 BCE . Diameter 3.7 cms
Now at the National Museum, New Delhi

Reverse of the flat gold disc pendant of crescent shape pierced on the upper two ends, the surface along the outline with two rows of gold dots worked in repouss.
From Mauryan Era, Found at Taxila, 300 BCE . Diamter 3.7 cms
Now at the National Museum, New Delhi

Women in Military : 

In addition to dance, music, painting, women received training in military warfare  too. Patanjali mentions about the female spear-bearers. A more clear evidence is given by the Greek ambassador Megasthenese, who tells us about - "the women soldiers who rode horses, commanded elephants, ran the chariots, and were always armed as if ready to go into the war-field."  

Arthashastra of Chanakya says that - "after getting up from bed, the king shall be received by the troop of women armed with bow-arrow, etc." The Bharhut stupa shows a woman riding a horse and carrying the royal standard, as shown below.

Women rulers in ancient India are not unknown. According to Megasthenese, the country of Pandyan rulers was governed by women. This is not wrong, because South India was matriarchal, to an extent.

A female horse rider holds the sacred standard in a procession. She is sitting on a fully caparisoned horse. She has covered her head and nose, perhaps, wearing a special armor.
Sculpture from the Bharhut Stupa, 2nd century BCE.
Now at The Indian Museum, Kolkata.
Picture Courtesy: John Irvin (1974). “Asokan Pillars: A Reassessment of the Evidence-II: Structure”. The Burlington Magazine Publications, Ltd.. Dec 1974

Complete picture of the above sculpture. Scanned from the "Stupa of Bharhut : A Buddhist Monument in the 3rd century BCE" . By Alexander Cunnigham, Director General of Archealogical Survey of India, 1879

Practice of Widow Burning : 

In view of the testimony of Greek writers regarding the prevalence of this practice in Punjab, the possibility has to be conceded that the practice of Sati was in vogue during this period. It is possible that the practice, was confined to the warrior class, as Onesicritus says, and the other Indo-Germanic parallels suggests. It is held by some that the practice was encouraged by the examples of the Scythians who ruled in India during this period and among whom the custom of burning the wife of a chief along with the remains of her husband was quite common.

In spite of the barbarous nature of the custom, it is interesting to note that sometimes it was not only an absolutely voluntary choice, but one that was made by the wife with eager delight. The testimony of the Greek writers leaves no doubt on the point. When the leader of an Indian contingent died in battle in Iran, in 316 BCE, both his wives were eager to immolate themselves on his funeral pyre. The Macedonian and Greek generals prevented the elder wife, who was with child, and gave permission to the younger. What followed may be described in the words of the Greek writer, Diodorus, as follows :

"The elder wife went away lamenting, with the band about her head rent, and tearing her hair, as if tidings of some great disaster had been brought her; and the other departed, exultant at her victory, to the pyre, crowned with fillets by the women who belonged to her, and decked out splendidly as for a wedding. She was escorted by her kinsfolk who chanted a song in praise of her virtue. When she came near to the pyre, she took off her adornments and distributed them to her familiars and friends, leaving a memorial of herself, as it were, to those who had loved her. Her adornments consisted of a multitude of rings on her hands, set with precious gems of diverse colours, about her head golden stars not a few, variegated with different sorts of stones, and about her neck a multitude of necklaces, each a little larger than the one above it. In conclusion, she said farewell to her familiars and was helped by her brother onto the pyre, and there, to the admiration of the crowd which had gathered together for the spectacle, she ended her life in heroic fashion. Before the pyre was kindled, the whole army in battle array marched round it thrice. She meanwhile lay down beside her husband, and as the fire seized her no sound of weakness escaped her lips. The spectators were moved, some to pity and some to exuberant praise. But some of the Greeks present found fault with such customs as savage and inhumane." 

This vivid account recalls the description of similar scenes by eye-witnesses in modern age. It is, however, permissible to assume that, as in later days, every case of Sati was not voluntary. Aristobulus learnt on inquiry that the widow sometimes became a Sati of her own desire, and that those who refused to do so lived under general contempt. This undoubtedly implies that the public encouragement to the practice accelerated its growth. At the same time we must remember that the practice is not sanctioned either by the Dharma-sutras or by the Smritis of this period.

The jeweled necklace is made of flat disc-shaped beads. The gold beads are interspersed with cylindrical and round gold beads and small gold spacers and a semi-circular bead at one end as a terminal. The gold beads are interspersed with turquoise beads.
From Mohenjodaro,Indus Valley. C. 3000 BCE
Now at the National Museum, Delhi

The ear-ring combines sheet gold and granulation of crescent form; the piece is hollow, with an inverted bud-shaped pendant suspended from it. This is attached to a moveable ring embossed with gold granules. The clasp in the form of a double- crescent pattern is ornamented with decorative details. The pendent drops are covered with fine granulation with clusters of gold granules at the end. The hollow crescent forms are filled with a solid lac or pitch.
From Taxila. 1st Century BCE. Hand made. 7 X 4.1 cms.
Now at the National Museum

Courtesans :

No discussion of the position of women would be complete without reference to a class of courtesans who enjoyed a social standing not accorded to them anywhere else in the world, except, perhaps in ancient Greece. The great prestige attached to this class of women appears vividly from the story of Amrapali in the Vinaya Texts of the period. She was a daughter of a rich citizen of Amrapali. Many suitors, including princes, having sought her hand, her father brought the matter to the notice of the Licchavvi gana and it was discussed by the Assembly. When the members saw Amrapali, they decided that she was a stri-ratna (jewel of a woman), and so, we are told, according to the convention already laid down, she was not to be married to anybody ; Amrapali agreed to lead the life of a nagarvadhu , but asked for five privileges which were granted.

King Bimbisara, 'engaged in conversation on good topics with his ministers,' asked them what sort of courtesan each of them had seen. Being told that Amrapali was exceedingly charming and accomplished in all the sixty-four arts. Bimbisara decided to visit her at Vaishali, even though the Lichchhavis were hostile . His son by her enjoyed a high position in court. The Pali Vinaya Texts tell us that a merchant, after having described the charms of Amrapali of Vaisali to king Bimbisara, requested him 'to install a courtesan' in Rajagriha, and this was done.

When Gautama Buddha visited a locality in the neighbourhood of Vaishali, Amrapali paid a visit to him with a number of magnificent vehicles. She sat down near him and, having heard his discourse, invited him and his companions to take their meal at her house the next day. The Buddha agreed, and refused the invitation of the Lichchhavis which almost immediately followed. "Amrapali," said the Lichchhavis, "give up this meal to us for a hundred thousand." "My Lords," replied Amrapali, "were you to offer all Vaishali with its subject territory, I would not give up this meal."

After the meal Buddha again gladdened the courtesan Amrapali by his religious discourse, and she presented a park, named after her, to the Buddha.

It would appear from what has been said above that the courtesans as a class were not held in odium, and neither great kings nor renowned religious teachers looked down upon them. Some of them were highly accomplished and, in point of culture and standing, resembled the Hetairai of Athens. 

Amrapali, the famous courtesan, greets Gautam Buddha : Buddha while visiting Vaishali stayed at Amrapalli's mango grove. She invited Buddha for a meal which he accepted. She later donated the mangrove to his order. She accepted the Buddhist way, and remained an active supporter of the Buddhist order.
Courtesy : Wikimedia Commons

A circular (moulded) terracota plaque showing a  man holding the hands of a drunken lady. The lady standing on left side of the man holds the wine jar while the other standing on the right holds one legs of the intoxicated lady. There is a cot in the back ground.
Found at Bareilly, Uttar Pradesh. 2nd century BCE. 11 X 9.5 cms
Now at the Allahabad Museum

Prostitutes :

Arthashastra of Chanakya also says the same - "A prostitute, noted for her beauty, youth, and accomplishments, was to be appointed superintendent of prostitutes on a salary of 1000 panas (per annum ), together with a rival prostitute on hall that salary. Detailed rules are laid down for regulating the profession, and two days' earning every month had to be paid to the State."

The prostitutes had to attend court and were regularly employed in the royal household on a big salary. They held the royal umbrella, golden pitcher and fan, and attended upon the king seated on litter, throne, or chariot. They were also employed in the store-house, kitchen, bathroom, and the ladies quarters of the king.

As to the accomplishments of prostitutes, Chanakya tells us that "those who teach prostitutes, female slaves and actresses, arts such as singing, dancing, acting, writing, painting, playing on the instruments like lyre, pipe and drum, reading the thoughts of others, manufacture of scents and garlands, shampooing, and the art of attracting and captivating the mind of others, shall be endowed with maintenance from the State."

Fragment of a round plaque preserving a seated woman seated inside a circle. Reverse side is also decorated.
Now @ Terracota Gallery, Allahabad Museum
Found at Kaushambi in Uttar Pradesh. From 2nd Century BCE

This is the reverse side of the above plaque which is decorated.
Now @ Terracota Gallery, Allahabad Museum
Found at Kaushambi in Uttar Pradesh. From 2nd Century BCE

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Article Category : Mauryans

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