Women’s History Roundtable: Feb 11, 2012, Dr. Chithra Madhavan

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Prajnya Women’s History Roundtable Series

Women in Ancient and Medieval South India

Dr Chitra Madhavan
11th February, 2012

Rapporteur: Archana Venkatesh

The Roundtable by Dr Madhavan on the status of women in Ancient and Medieval South India was based on archeological and literary sources, mainly inscriptions. She began with the Sangam Age (3rd Century BC- 3rd century AD), pointing out that almost all the sources of information about this era were literary. Sangam literature dealt with a variety of subjects; including war, love, governance and trade. Amongst the plethora of Sangam literature, there are a number of references to women, from which one can infer their status in Sangam society. Dr Madhavan provided us with a couple of examples: Tiruvalluvar is quoted as having said that it is natural and proper when a man guides a woman, and “shameful” when a woman guides a man. Another (unnamed) source notes that “the wisdom of women is nothing but folly”. On the other hand, there are sources in which mothers express pride in having raised a brave son on the eve of sending him off to war. Thus, the evidence is mixed. However, even sources which speak of strong women (such as the mother referred to above) do not seem to move behind the woman’s role as a wife and mother.

A distinctive feature of the Sangam age was Sati. Sati stones, erected in honour of those women committed sati, can be found in large numbers all over the countryside. Unlike the “hero stone” (in commemoration of those who die in battle), which has the full figure of a man on it; only the arm of a woman is engraved on a sati stone.

A serendipitous discovery made post-tsunami was the remains of a Sangam age temple near Mahabalipuram. Dated circa the 2nd century A.D., a significant find at this site was a stone tablet which featured five dancers performing “Kuruvaikoothu”. With their arms around each other, and their mouths open to symbolize singing, the panel sheds light on how this dance was performed, the kind of clothes and ornaments the dancers wore, and the foot movements involved in the dance. This is the only archeological find that depicts Kuruvaikoothu; our only other source of information about this dance form comes from the literature.

While many queens are mentioned in the literature of the Sangam age, all indications lead us to conclude that the queens had very little actual power.

Dr Madhavan moved on to discuss the Pallavas. The Pallavas had many eminent queens, but very few sources tell us what they looked like. A little known temple in Mahabalipuram – the Adi Varaha Cave temple – contains a very rare sculpture; a portrait of King Mahendravarman Pallava and his two wives. A similar portrait sculpture of his father and his two wives can be found on another wall. This is probably the only place in which such a portrait exists. While the Kings’ names are inscribed on the temple wall, the queens remain unnamed.

A major archeological source about Ancient and Medieval south India is the abundance of inscriptions found in temples. This is especially relevant while discussing the status of women during this era, since many such inscriptions credit queens with having been instrumental in the construction of the temples.
An early example of this is the Kancheepuram Kailasa temple. It was built by Pallava King Rajasimhan in the 8th century A.D. Inscriptions in the temple prove that Queen Rangapataka (so named because of her extraordinary flair for dancing) was active in ordering the construction of the temple and it’s architecture. The Kailasanath temple was a Royal temple.

A similar inscription is found in the Muktiswara temple. It is said to have been build by Queen Dharmamadevi, wife of Pallava King Nandiwarman II. The temple was originally called Dharmamahadevi Isvaram temple, after the Queen who sponsored it. This temple contains an inscription (the first of its kind in South India), detailing the names of fourteen ladies dedicated to the temple as dancers. These Devadasis dedicated themselves to the service of God, including singing and dancing during the temple festivals.

Dr Madhavan then moved on to the Chalukyas, who ruled from Badami from the middle of the 6th century. In the Pallava-Chalukya war (during the 670s A.D.), Chalukya King Vikramaditya occupied Kanchipuram for a brief period. On seeing the Kaliasanatha temple, he was awed by its splendor. At the insistence of his queens, Lokadevi and Trilokadevi (inscriptions make it clear that he brought them along on the expedition), he left the temple undisturbed but took the architect back to Badami. His queens then commissioned the architect to build two temples, which were similar to the Kanchi Kailasa temple.

Vikramaditya VI, who belonged to a later branch of Chalukyas, came to power in the 11th century A.D. A 11th century inscription reveals that his queens issued royal records and were involved in administration of the kingdom.

The longest-ruling dynasty in South India was the Chola dynasty. At its peak, the Chola empire comprised almost the whole of South India and the Cholas had conquered parts of Sri Lanka, Malaysia and Indonesia.

Many Chola inscriptions feature their queens. Queen Vanamahadevi, mother of Rajaraja Chola, is described in one such inscription as having committed Sati.

The Brihadiswara Temple of Thanjavur, one of the “Great Living Chola Temples”, has approximately 60 inscriptions of Rajaraja Chola I engraved on it. Built by Rajaraja Chola, it throws a unique light on his relationship with his sister, Kundavai. Around the main sanctum of the temple, only two names are inscribed- Rajaraja himself, and Kundavai. This seems to indicate that she had a great deal of influence over him.

One of the ways in which women of the royal family used their wealth was to donate it to temples or commission temples to be built. Such donations to the Brihadiswara temple were not limited to gold alone. 420 dancers were “imported” from various temples all over the Kingdom. This is reflected in a unique inscription found on one of the temple walls. It provides, in great detail, the names of all 420 dancers. It includes the terms of their employment, their pay, where they came from, where they lived, and each devadasi’s house numbers – all in a wealth of detail. The inscription further states that in case a Devadasi is unable to perform her duties anymore (in case of death or retirement), her closest relative who could take her place was employed.

Dr Madhavan also provided a fascinating insight on how the Devadasis were named: feminized versions of the ruler’s name; or the queen’s name; or their hometown. Devadasis were a highly respected class of women. They enjoyed the confidence of the King, and were treated with reverence. In fact, Rajendra Chola took an exceptional dancer around the city in his Royal chariot, much like he would parade around his capital with a victorious general.

A significant point that came up was the treatment of women in a conquered kingdom. Sources indicate that when Rajendra Chola defeated the Chalukyas in war, his armies didn’t spare the Chalukya women. They were treated harshly; as Dr Madhavan pointed out, they were “distressed”.

The Hoysala empire was contemporary to the Cholas. The Hoysalas rule from the 10th century to the 14th century. Their capital was Belur (later Halebid). King Vishnuvardhana (12th century) was the first Hoysala emperor who took steps to consolidate the Kingdom. His Queen, Shantala Devi was a noted dancer. Inscriptions indicate that she sponsored the construction of the famous Chennakesava temple at Belur.

An interesting point to note here is that both Vishnuvardhana and Shantala Devi were Jains. When Viashnavite saint Ramanuja was hounded out of Tamil Nadu, he sought refuge in the Hoysala kingdom. It is said that Vishnivarshana’s daughter was possessed by an evil spirit, and Ramanuja was instrumental in exorcising it. Whether this fable is true or not, it is clear that Vishnuvarshana converted to Vaishnavism and built numerous Vishnu temples. However, Shantala Devi remained a Jain, setting a precedent for religious tolerance. Shantala Devi is hailed even today as a noted queen; and Shantala remains a popular name in Karnataka.

No discussion about South Indian history is complete without mentioning the Vijaynagar Empire (established 1336). Dr Madhavan showed us a photo of a fascinating device: copperplate inscriptions, bound together in a loose file. These inscriptions have yielded a wealth of information. It tells us that Gangadevi, queen of Kumara Kampana, accompanied her husband in his campaign against the Muslim ruler in Madurai. She later went on to write an eight chapter poem about his victory; titled “Madhura Vijayam”.

A common feature in the Vijayanagar empire was the donation of money to scholars. Many such lists have been found. In one of these lists, the names of women have been mentioned as recipients of this money. It is unclear whether these women were actually scholars themselves, or receiving money on behalf of their husbands or sons.

A unique document dated 1358 was revealed to be the will of a woman: the only will of a woman found in the archeological data. A noted scholar was gifted a village by the King. When he died, the ownership of the village passed on to his mother. To avoid the infighting among the clan as to who would get the village after she died, the mother wrote a detailed will, leaving the village to the temple at Srirangam. This fascinating document is the only will of a woman in India (in medieval times).

Dr Madhavan’s talk opened our eyes to the wealth of information in temple inscriptions; and how fascinating stories which tell us of exceptional women are interwoven within other inscriptions. One such story was that of a devadasi (Velliamma), who was befriended by a Muslim conqueror of Srirangam temple. Velliama got the tyrant drunk, and pushed him off a roof (of course she jumped off herself as well, in remorse). She was hailed as a deliverer by the people.

While is was clear that by and large, women did not have a very high status in ancient and medieval south India, archeological sources open our eyes to the few exceptional women who were active in administration, construction of temples, or pushing tyrannical rulers off the roof!

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