Purdah among Indian women during delhi sultanate, Mughals & Vedic india
After the recent bombings in Sri Lanka, the govt. there banned Burqah and even their Muslim leaders welcomed this step. The political discourse changed which united the opposition and govt., all religious voices spoke in same language to weaken the forces responsible for such a dastardly attacks. In india too it created a stir and looked like the sane voices on both sides of political spectrum are finally speaking in same voice.
Everything changed when the responsible voices demanded similar steps from Indian govt. and asked for complete ban on Burqah, suddenly all moderate Muslims changed their tune and objected to such demands, one of their excuse was that Hindus too follow similar customs, why can’t it be banned too? The issue which was terrorism till then changed its course. Disappointing was the reaction from other side, there was a clear division among themselves, one side calling it a Hindu custom and other claiming it was forced upon us after advent of Muslim rule. Truth lies somewhere in between. We have to see the costumes of women during Islamic rule and period before that to understand the changes in their dresses and what led to such changes.
During Mughal period
Hindu women ordinarily wore a sari and a small jacket or brassiere without a skirt round the chest popularly known as “angiya”.
(भई जु छबि तन बसन मिलि, बरनि सकैं सु न बैन। आँग-ओप आँगी दुरी, आँगी आंग दुरै म ।। (बिहारी रत्नाकर, दोहा 189, page 81).
In the lines above a friend of the heroine asks the hero to come see and view her breasts in her small “angiya” which can barely cover them.
“Angiya” was used by rich and poor alike, and the short one of brassiere type was used by blooming maidens or married ladies. Stavorinus describes it thus “They support their breasts and press them upwards by a piece of linen which passes under the arms and made fast on the back.”
Sari in general was normally made of fine stuffs decorated with numerous attractive prints. The ladies of higher class mostly wore sari of superfine muslin or thin cotton such a way that their skin was visible(1). The women generally put one half of their saris on shoulder or over head when speaking to a person of position(2). Thevenot refers to Hindu women thus, “From the waist downwards they wrap themselves up in a piece of cloth or stuff that covers them to the feet like a petticoat; and that cloth is cut in such a manner, that they make one end of it reach out to their head behind their back”(3).
Sari was hugely popular (still is) across length and breadth of india but nowhere in recorded travelogues or historical records there are mention of any other piece of cloth to cover their faces, yet there are mentions of women using the other side of sari to their heads as a sign of respect to elders.
The poor women particularly in Bengal had no other costume except a coarse loin-cloth (short sari) (4) and sometimes that too was not available to many (eg in Orissa many women covered their lower parts with leaves of trees) (5).
Dr. john fryer observes “The women both white & black are kept recluse, they use veil while going out; within house, they are hung with jewels. Some of the ladies especially of the higher classes, put on thin and fine cotton or silken corsets through which their skin was quite visible.”(6) Another popular dress consisted of “Lahanga” or “Ghanghara” (long and a very loose skirt), a Choli or Angiya and “Orhani” (Dupatta) or a long scarf which was thrown over to cover the head and upper parts of the body. The Ghanghara was popular specially among Muslim women. Abul Fazl also refers use of “Pyjamas” among high class ladies(7).
Muhammaden ladies were very strict in observance of Purdah and they put on “Burqas” whenever they moved out of their houses; but the Hindu women generally went out unveiled and, in some cases, of course, they observed Ghoonghat (or a kind of partial veil). (8)
“A change in the status of women came as a sequel to the advent of the Moslems in India. The social laws and customs which came to be evolved in the changed set-up of things, stamped the women with the stigma of mental deficiency and created in them a profound sense of inferiority complex. Gradually, they came to be almost wholly confined to home and to domestic activities. Though women were still treated with respect, yet, the birth of a female child was looked upon as an, unfortunate event in a family.” (9) Not only dresses of Hindu women changed with the advent of Islam in India, girl child too was seen as a curse on family. The status of women deteriorated in Mughal period though the seed was laid much earlier during the Delhi sultanate period.
Purdah in Mughal period
Purdah was maintained by the all Muslim women and well-to-do classes of Hindu women. Poor women, and peasant women did not wear any shroud or veil as they did not confine themselves to their houses. The Moslem women observed Purdah with greater rigidity than the Hindu ones.
De Laet, refers to the system of veil among the Moslem women: “The Mohammedan women do not come out into public unless they are poor or immodest; they veil their heads and draw their hair forward in a knot from the back.”(10) Manucci refers to the fact that Purdah was more strictly observed among the Moslems than among the Hindus [he adds referring to Hindu women of Surat “the latter mostly Hindus do not conceal their faces as in Persia and Turkey, where women go about with their faces hidden”(11)] and he further observes: “Among the Mohamedans it was a great dishonour for a family when a wife is compelled to uncover herself”(12) [badauni while talking about rules of explains “….if a young woman were found running about the lanes and Bazars of the town, and while so doing either did not veil herself, or allowed herself to become unveiled, or if a woman was worthless and deceitful and quarreled with her husband, she was to go to the quarter of the prostitutes, and take up the profession.”(13)] And again “It is true that the Mohamedan women do not allow their faces to be seen’ by anyone, it being contrary to their law to allow themselves to be seen with an uncovered face”(14).
Thevenot referring to purdah among the Moslem women writes “If these Indian women be idolaters they go barefaced and if Mohamedan;, they are veiled.”(15) Careri observes : “The Mohamedan women do not appear in public, except only the vulgar sort and the leud ones. They cover their heads but their Hair hangs down behind in several Tresses.”(16) The higher sections of Hindu women also seem to have observed Purdah strictly. In certain parts of the country, for example in Orissa, the strict observance of Purdah had considerably restricted the free movement of the high-class Hindu woman to such an extent that some of the contemporary literary works even refer to the prevalence of discontent among them. (17)
A milder form of Purdah, commonly known as “Ghoonghat” (the term finds many references in contemporary works for eg. देव-सुधा, कवित्त-रत्नाकर, रसिक-प्रिया, बिहारी-रत्नाकर etc.) was observed by the Hindu woman of the well-to-do classes.
Overall, purdah might have considerably hampered the progress of women, both Hindu and Moslem during the Mughal period. It became one of the potent factors responsible for their subordination to men in the society.
During Delhi sultanate 1000AD – 1526AD
During early times of Islamic invasion Islam was starting to make an impact in Hindu social life, Hindu society was about to go through a transition even in those time the society was a liberal one towards women. In a contemporary Gujarati work, e.g. “Kanhad-dePrabandh”. Sultan Alauddin Khilji’s favourite daughter is seen singing the praises or Hinduism ”Listen. my Father, great is the difference between a Hindu and a Turk. The Hindu is an lndra in his enjoyments. He has 18 types of food and best of ornaments and dress. He knows what words to use. I will never marry a Turk; I would rather remain a virgin forever” (18)
Hindus of the North-West, in the beginning, had a great hatred for the Muslim dress. While describing the exploits of a Hindu king in the west of Indus. Alberuni contrasts the Hindu dress with the Muslim one. The revengeful Hindu king having vanquished his betrayer, forced the Hindu subjects of his foe to wear Muslim dress as a punishment for their treachery. This was considered a sufficiently despicable punishment. (19) Gradually the well-to-do Hindus began to imitate the dress of the Muslim nobility as they came in contact with them.
This doesn’t mean Hindus were unknown to purdah, Dr. A. S. Altekar observes that even in pre-Muslim times there was a section in society from C 100 BC which advocated the use or the veil for royal ladies for the purpose of increasing their prestige. However, the Muslim women, especially those belonging to the royal as well as aristocratic classes adhered to the practice of Purdah with greater rigidity. There are many references to Purdah in contemporary Literature among Muslim women in various foreign traveler’s accounts as well as in different Persian Chronicles. Amir Khusrau frequently refers to this practice in his different works and says “The good woman is one who habitually observes Pardah and wears Burqa (mantle) on her face; A woman who used to wonder about in streets is not a woman, rather she is a bitch. The women should maintain Pardah (privacy) in their house even being as narrow and as constricted as eye of a needle … “(20)
The Sultans of Delhi, however, made attempts to enforce Purdah on the subjects of the kingdom. Firoz Shah Tughluq was the first monarch to stop the visit of Muslim women to mausoleums outside the city of Delhi. As, according to him, Muslim law (Shariat) forbade, such outdoor movement. Sultan Sikandar Lodi also forbade the Muslim women to visit the Mazars (tombs of Sufis).
Period from vedic age to 1100AD
There is no doubt whatsoever that the Purda was quite unknown down to about the beginning of the Christian era. In Indo-Iranian times women could move quite freely in society and manage the family farms if necessary. The same was the case in the Vedic age.
The Vedic marriage hymn requires the bride to be shown to all the assembled ·guests at the end of the marriage ritual
सुमन्गलीरियं वधुरिमा समेत पश्यत। सौभग्यमस्ये दत्वायाथास्तं वि परेतनll (ऋगवेद, दशम मंडल, 85 सूक्तम, 33)
The hope was further expressed that the bride should be able to speak with composure in public assemblies down to her old age.
गृहाँगछ ग्रुहपत्नी यथासो वशिनीं त्वं विद्थमा वदासि ll ( ऋगवेद, दशम मंडल, 85 सूक्तम, 26)
अथ जिव्रिविर्द्थमा वदासि II (अथर्व वेद, 14, 1, 21)
The presence of ladies in social and public gatherings was a normal feature in the Vedic times. It was quite welcome, to society. There is no reference to any Purda arrangement being made for their attendance.
The earliest reference to the Purda system is to be found in the present version of the epics. There we see that some kind of Purda was observed in certain royal families, which felt, probably on account of a notion of prestige, that royal ladies should not come within the gaze of evil eyes, considering our epics are poems the meanings can generally be misconstrued at times, though there is no direct indication of Sita being in purdah but at the time when Sita set out with her husband for the forest through the public thoroughfares of Ayodhya., a regret is expressed in the Ramayana that a lady, who· had so far not been seen even by the spirits of the sky, should now become the object of public gaze.
या न शक्या पुरा द्रष्टुम् भूतैः आकाशगैः अपि| ताम् अद्य सीताम् पश्यन्ति राज मार्ग गता जनाः|| (Ayodhya Kanda,Sarga 33,8)
Dr. altekar observes “…..passages above referred to, are interpolations of a later age, when the Purda system was introduced in a few royal families. For the other data in the epics themselves go against the prevalence of the Purda. Thus when Kausalya, Kaikeyi and Sumitra go out to Chitrakuta to induce Rama to return to Ayodhya., they move in public without any veil. Sita herself feels no embarrassment of a Purda lady, when she is going out through the streets of Ayodhya. In the forests too, which were infested with demons and enemies, she is moving about without any veil. So the poet’s observation that she had not been seen even by the spirits of the sky is simply a poetic exaggeration made to heighten the pathos of her banishment to forest life. Draupadi’s public appearance in the gambling hall presupposes an entire absence of the Purda. Neither Kunti nor Gandhari is seen to be observing it”, he adds “Apart from the verses referred to in the last paragraph, the epics show no acquaintance with the Purda system. They are therefore likely to be later additions.”
It appears that soon after the beginning of the Christian era, a section of society began to advocate some form of seclusion for women. This was more particularly the case· in royal families, where the notion began to prevail that royal ladies should not come within the public gaze. The earliest evidence of this view is to be found in the dramas of Bhasa (c. 200 A. D) [Pratima natakam , svapnavasvadattam etc].
“….by about 300 A. D. some royal families were beginning to think it desirable that their ladies should be seen only by the select few; when moving in public they should put on a veil”(21)
Two citable examples (in Sanskrit dramas) which represent two completely different reactions from women with regard to “veil” are: –
1. In the Mrichchhakatika we find the courtesan Vasantsena. being offered ·a veil, when she was raised to the status of a respectable lady at the end of the drama.
2. From the Lalitavistara we learn that when Gopa., the bride-elect of the Buddha was betrothed to him, she was advised to wear a veil. She refused to follow the course, observing that the pure in thought require no such artificial protection.
This rational opposition, which the Purda system was receiving from spirited ladies, resulted in the system not becoming popular for several centuries.
The same was the case in the Deccan during the 5th and 6th centuries. Ajanta supplies further and more significant evidence to show that the Purda was altogether unknown in the Deccan at this time. The artists of Ajanta effected a compromise between the ancient realism and the new principle of aesthetics. The ajanta paintings are the veritable encyclopedia of costumes of gupta age.
Two peculiar examples, one in yuan-chang’s travel in india and kalhana’s rajtaringini needs a special mention.
1. Yuan Chuang has given an intimate picture of the Hindu society of the 7th century A. D., but he nowhere refers to the Purda system. We learn from him that Rajyasri, the widowed sister of Harshavardhana, used to come out without a veil in her brother’s court and assisted him in court matters. (22)
2. While the Rajatarangini gives a detailed account of the life in Kashmir court and palace during the period 700-1150 AD but in one instance queen Didda throws out her veil after the death of her minister, till that time she was wearing a veil even though she was a widow.
बभूव साथ सुस्पष्टदुष्टचेष्ठाशतोत्कटा । भ्रष्टवक्त्रपटा मत्तदन्तिमूर्तिरिवोत्कटा ।। (6:315)
(उसकी मृत्यु के बाद वह रानी अत्यंत उद्धत हो गई और नि:शंक होकर शतश: कुकर्मों को प्रगट रूप से करने लगी और निरंकुश एवं मदोन्मत हस्तिनी के समान मुख पर से आवरण वस्त्र को हटाकर स्वछंदता का व्यवहार करने लगी।) (translated by G K Dwivedi)
Abu Zaid, an Arabian traveler of the early 10th century, has noted that in most of the courts in India queens appeared in public without any veils (23). It is therefore clear that the Purda was confined to a very small section of the ruling classes down to the 10th century A. D.
Though there was no Purdah system, women who felt themselves to be in a rather helpless condition, would often avoid going out in public. Such was the case of widows and maidens without proper guardians, and of married women, whose husbands had gone out on a journey.
It can be said that even in pre-Muslim years there was a section in society from c. 200 A. D., which advocated the use of the veil for royal ladies for the purpose of increasing their prestige. There is, however, no evidence to prove that even minuscule percentage of royal families observed this custom during the Hindu period.
Moreover, there are absolutely no traces of any Purdah observed within the family in the Hindu period. It was the regular duty of a daughter-in-law to pay the respects to elderly relations by bowing at their feet. There is nothing whatsoever in our tradition or literature to suggest that the father-in-law or ·the elder brother-in-law could not see the face of a daughter-in-law or a younger sister-in-law, as is the case now under the Purdah system in northern India. (24)
The Purda system became quite common among rich Hindu families of Bengal and United Provinces in the 15th and the 16th centuries. In Rajputana it was more common in the ruling families. It had become a symbol of respectability. Therefore, down to the present century, high class & royal families were anxious to introduce Purdah in their family in order to command respectability.
The general adoption of the Purda system by the ruling and aristocratic families of Hindu community is subsequent to the advent of the Muslim rule. It was accepted by Hindu society partly in imitation of the manners of the conquerors, and partly as an additional protection for the women folk. The Hindu chiefs and nobles followed the example of their overlords in their own harems. This happened almost universally in northern India, where the Muslim rule and culture were in ascendancy for a long time. In the· Deccan, the Muslim influence was superficial, and so the Purda system got no footing in the Hindu society there.
It was, however, introduced in their families by the Maratha rulers with a desire to render themselves as respectable as the Muslim kings whom they had supplanted. There were some further causes to facilitate the general adoption of the custom at about 1200 AD. As a rule, Hindu women at that time were illiterate and inexperienced, the times were unsettled, there was a general feeling of insecurity and Hindu life and honour did not count for much in the eyes of the conquerors. The Purda afforded some additional protection to beautiful women while out on journey from the coveted eyes of an unscrupulous soldiery. It was therefore welcomed by Hindu women.
There will always be attempts by Iislamists to compare every vile custom (eg. Burqah, child marriage etc) in Islam with Hindu customs in order to justify the injustice they do to their women. Besides with recent bombings in Sri Lanka there is a growing concern among many in civilized world to ban this medieval custom of Burqah, which has become a tool for terrorists and a symbol of oppression for women. Active Hindu voices must not get agitated and fall into their trap of whataboutary. The people who represent a moderate voice among Muslims in India will always use this trap and act as apologists for extremists, its always better to counter them with historical facts than outraging unnecessarily which will help them brush aside issues which in modern times not only affect Islamic society but civilized world as a whole.
To conclude with Dr. Altekar’s words “…..the seclusion of women was quite common in most of the eastern and western civilizations down to quite recent times. Owing to the continuance of the medieval atmosphere and the advent and dominance of the Muslim civilization, India has continued to cling to the custom down to modern times.”
1. Storia do mogor by manucci vol 2 (page 341) while describing harem life he speaks of high class women wearing such fine clothing, they put them once and give them away to their servants.
2. Ibid vol 3(page 40)
3. Indian travel (page 53)
4. Ai-ne-Akbari vol 2 (page 134), thevenot (page 53)
5. Ibid (page 138)
6. Travels in india in 17th century (page 384)
7. Ai-ne-akbari vol 3 (page 342), abul fazl describes it as waist cloth joined at both ends with a band sewn at top through which a cord passes for tightening.
8. Thevenot (page 53), carreri (page 248)
9. Dr. P. N. Ojha, north Indian social life (page 119)
10. De laet (page 81)
11. Storia vol 1 (page 62)
12. Storia vol 2 (page 175)
13. Badauni vol 2 (page 405)
14. Storia vol 1 (page 62)
15. Indian travels (page 53)
16. Indian travels (page 248)
17. Dr. P. N. Ojha, north Indian social life (page 121)
18. Kishori prasad sahu, some aspects of north Indian social life 1000-1526 AD (page 22)
19. Alberuni vol.1 (page 20-21)
20. Kishori prasad sahu, some aspects of north Indian social life 1000-1526 AD (page 187)
21. Dr. Altekar , the position of women in hindu civilisation (page 200)
22. Yuan chuang travels in india (page 345)
23. Elliot and Dowson vol I (page 11)
24. Dr. Altekar, the position of women in hindu civilisation (page 206)