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.
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.
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