Women In The “Land Of Kings.”

Rajasthan! The name conjures up pictures of sunlight bouncing off golden sands, in a spectrum of light that reveals a colourful people – Of billowing skirts and diaphanous chunnaris , of tall moustached men with enormous turbans and white frock coats, of camel safaris and painted havelis , of wandering balladeers and tantalizing dancers, against a backdrop of fortresses and palaces, and the extinct tribe of Maharajas!

Yet this State, once the abode of Princes, which is half desert and half hilly terrain, is poor, and was once called “Marusthala,” the land of death. Illiteracy and superstition are widespread. The climate and the arid land, together with a large tribal population, contribute to the backwardness of the State. Maharajas of the erstwhile Princely States, hard put to maintain their palaces, have turned into thriving businessmen, and converted their homes into museums and five-star hotels. The Kshatriya status of yesteryears has been exchanged for Bania shrewdness. Many of the people don’t even know the name of the present royal scion of the region.

But the ordinary people seek solace in their legends of heroism and romance, of chivalry and bravery of Rajput warriors, and their noble womenfolk who preferred death rather than capture, by invading armies. It is this heroism that echoes through their evocative music and dance, and makes them forget for a while, the economic hardship of their lives. It also brings in tourists from all over the world. However, after September 11 th , there have been few tourists from USA or UK .

No visit to Udaipur is complete without a trip to Chittaurgarh 70 miles away, and perched on a 500 ft. high hill. From the banks of the Gambheri river, the road winds uphill all the way, through seven impressive gates. It was the Capital of Mewar, from the 12 th to the middle of the 16 th Century. The guide gets carried away by his glorious Rajput heritage, and his paean of praise for the brave Queen Padmini, the eternal inspiration of Rajasthani womanhood, flows like a melody from the graceful strings of the sarangi .

Padmini was the beautiful wife of Rawal Rathan Singh. Her zenana the Jal Mahal, was a fairy-tale palace on the placid waters of the lake adjoining the main Fort palace, which was used as a garrison, by the Rawal and his army. Those were troubled times for the Kingdom, with the Emperor Allaudin Khilji, waiting to storm the Fort. How long could they keep him at bay? The year was 1302, and Khilji was determined to conquer Chittaurgarh by means fair or foul, and capture the Queen for his harem. He hit upon a plan. If only he could have a glimpse of her beauty, he would retreat to Delhi , a happy man. Otherwise, it would end in a full-scale war.

Cool heads conferred. It was possible to let him have a glimpse of the Queen, without losing honour. For Padmini, it was shameful and disgusting. Khilji was escorted through the Fort, and then through a garden of roses, to a small room. High on the wall hung a mirror. He could only glimpse the Queen through her reflection in that mirror, as she descended the steps of her palace, to a wide platform. He was then taken back out of the Fort, by the Rawal and his men. But the mean Emperor turned on his host, and took him captive. It had to be Padmini in exchange for the Rawal’s life.

Rathan Singh was confident that his Queen would devise some ingenious plan to rescue him, and would never surrender to the Emperor. She made a show of coming to Khilji, accompanied by her entourage of 700 maidens riding in palanquins, with the Queen leading. All she asked for was a final meeting with her husband. And while the royal couple met and escaped, 700 soldiers hiding in the palanquins overcame the Mughals, and chased them away.

But Khilji was back the next year in full fury, and all was lost for Mewar. Padmini was the originator of the bizarre practice of Jauhar. After spiritual purification at her temple, she organized a mass suicide. Some 12000 women marched along with her, into the flames, all to preserve the honour of one woman. What Khilji found when he arrived, was a smouldering heap of ashes. Was it necessary for so many hapless women to die? Were they willing participants in such a gruesome practice? It does not take a lot of imagination to picture that blood curdling sight of screaming, writhing bodies as they fell into the flames. Having made sure that none remained, Padmini was the last to enter. The venue of this jauhar was in one of the underground cellars of the Khumbha Rana palace.

Nowhere is there a picture of this beautiful queen. In the Fort complex, is a small ugly room called Padmini’s temple, with a profile of the queen etched into the black stone wall. A woman sits at the door, with puja paraphernalia, for those who would pay obeisance to her bravery.

Jauhar happened again in 1535, when Bahadur Shah of Gujarat , laid claim to Chittaurgarh, and another brave queen Karmavathi, leapt into the flames with 13,000 maids. There is a large platform strewn with black stones, between the Vijaya Stambh and Samideshwar temple, which marks the site of this Maha Sathi. Excavations revealed layers of ash, confirming this historic suicide. Then again in 1567, when Akhbar stormed his way into the Fort, all that he found was a mass grave of women and children. This was the year that Chittaurgarh was abandoned, and the Capital shifted to Udaipur .

And back in Udaipur one hears of the despicable Bhim Singh, who got into serious trouble by entertaining three suitors for his 16-year old daughter’s hand. They were Raja Maun Singh of Marwar, Jagat Singh of Amber and Scindia of the Mahrattas. To save his own skin and his kingdom, he killed his only daughter Krishna Bai – the Virgin Princess, by giving her poisoned milk. He succeeded at the fourth attempt, because the princess bravely averred, “ Am I not a Rajput and a Mewari at that? What of the thousands who marched to Jauhar when they knew that all was lost?”

Sati is just another extension of Jauhar. Almost every palace in Rajasthan has a Sati Gate, and the outer wall is covered by palm prints smeared with tamarind paste, made there as they exited towards the pyre, with a Bhagwad Gita in their hand. One wonders how many of those women did it willingly.

A woman of singular stature was Meera Bai, who not only warded off two attempts on her life, but escaped her husband’s pyre by fleeing to Dwarka. Her religious fervour was her shield. On the premises of Khumb Shyam Temple, is a small temple dedicated to Meera Bai. She belonged to Merta in Gujarat, and though married to Rana Gopal Singhji, considered Krishna whose idol she carried, her real husband.

Jaipur too has a long list of Satis. In 1614, at Raja Maun Singh’s death, four of his 31 Maharanis ascended his pyre. And as late as 1819, Sawi Jagat Singh’s 22 Maharanis perished in the flames. Ajit Singh of Jodhpur even took his 58 concubines, along with his six wives into the pyre.

With the Maharanis having lent legitimacy to such a cruel practice, is it any wonder that Sati still happens in the remote villages of Rajasthan, especially in the Shekawat region? Yet historians believe that the practice might have originated outside India, and was introduced by the Aryans. Different forms of Sati were practised in Russia and Malaya too.

In India, it was limited to Hindu Royal families, particularly the Rajput princely houses.

Voluntary immolation brings glory. The woman is supposed to acquire the status of a goddess. A temple is built to commemorate her act of love and fidelity to her husband. It brings prestige to her family, and she is beatified as a “Sati Mataji.” Often it is not voluntary at all. She is forced to ascend the pyre, by her relatives. Some see it as a means of depriving a widow of her property, or preventing re-marriage. Ignorant and uneducated women in the family may force the widow into the flames against her will. Many times she is sedated with a decoction of saffron, which makes her disorientated, and dulls her senses to the enormity and pain of the step she is contemplating. Or perhaps, knowing that a widow’s life is one prolonged hell on earth, she willingly embraces the flames.

The pathetic tale of 18-year old Roop Kanwar who committed Sati in September 1986, is still fresh in our minds. She was incited to do it by her in-laws, her father-in-law insisting that she had become possessed by the spirit of Sathi Mata. Her brother-in-law chanting “Sati Matha ki Jai,” mercilessly torched the pyre on which she sat in all her bridal finery, cradling the head of her dead husband. Of the 4000 villagers who witnessed it, not one had the gumption to protest. Not a single policeman appeared in the vicinity, and though there is a law to prosecute family members who abet such a suicide, the Jaipur District Judge acquitted them all.

Ministers, Judges, Police, Politicians – an entire network of obscurantist forces, connived to project this barbaric practice as a “Glorification of Womanhood.” What does one say, when the Late Rajmata Vijayraje Scindia herself considered it a “precious ritual” of Hindu tradition.

Because of this divinity conferred on Sati, perhaps there is a fear of divine retribution in opposing the practice. In one instance where a woman called Jaswant Kanwar was pulled off the fire, her curse on the DSP ostensibly cost him the life of his son.

Rajasthan is also notorious for its “womb marriages.” Alliances are sometimes clinched even before the birth of a child. There is a high prevalence of child marriages in the Chittorgaurh region. Toddlers are shackled in matrimony to little boys barely out of their diapers. Said the great Manu, “ A girl is a kanya only till eight years old. By her 11 th birthday, she is a woman. And a woman develops distinct likes and dislikes, and becomes a problem to her parents.”

So what better solution than to pack her off to her husband’s house in childhood, where she joins the labour force under the unrelenting discipline of her mother-in-law!

Most women in Rajasthan still hide their faces under their ghungat. It must be a great strain on the eyes to look out at the world through a muslin screen. In a region where temperatures soar to above 46 degrees C, 50% of ghungat wearers are subject to Trachoma, because of sweat and moisture which forms a good breeding ground for Trachoma virus. So whether it is to ward off the evil eye, or merely as a symbol of modesty, it is high time the veil is lifted.

And yet, these very same women who hide behind the veil, think nothing of sending their tiny daughters out to beg. In many tourist spots around the State, we saw children of four or five, dolled up with painted lips and cheeks, and colourful ghagra-cholis, dancing to the tunes their fathers played on their stringed instruments, while badgering harassed tourists for alms.

Pretty teenage girls bearing photos of Gods and little bowls of vermilion on brass trays, move among the crowds on the streets, in railway stations or bazaars, begging for a rupee or two. Aren’t they at risk from Eve teasers, rapists and paedophiles?

In Gaitore, at the white marble cenotaphs of the Maharajas of Jaipur, when we asked which of the exquisitely carved chattris belonged to the queens, the guide was aghast at our ignorance. “ No queen is buried in this hallowed place. The Royal women have their own resting place 2 kms. away.”

And in all palaces, portraits of Maharajas in all their opulence, adorned the walls, but of the queens, there was no trace. The only place where we could see photographs of the royal ladies, was in a museum attached to the Junagarh Fort in Bikaner.

Even the exquisite trellis work adorning the palaces were merely perforated screens through which the sequestered residents of the zenana could take a peek at the world.

And so, 55 years after Independence, while tourists flock to see the faded glory of the forts, temples and palaces,(now turned into 5-star hotels) and professional performers capture in song and dance, legends of heroism and tales of romance, the identity of a majority of the women of Rajasthan, has shown no improvement socially, culturally or politically. Literacy rate is low. Orthodox and archaic customs still conspire to keep the average woman without self-respect or self-esteem. Can the rural population and the many tribes comprising over 12% (well over the national average), subsist by selling to tourists, the romantic feudal background of their State, or vicariously thrill to the exploits of their brave queens who courted Jauhar and Sati? Economic self-interest will keep the ex-Rajahs in pocket. A cash-strapped government will wring its hands in despair and turn the other way. Vote-catching politicians will lack the courage to question demeaning ceremonies authorized by religion.

So it is left to the women themselves to charter their own course for a better tomorrow. Most people believe that the only need for improving a community, is money. If only it was that simple! To a people locked in a medieval mindset, it is important to break free of values and systems that perpetuate the status quo. This takes courage. But in a community that boasts of women like Padmini, there surely must be women with grit. Like one young woman, her odni flying in the air, her face beaming with confidence, who drove her tractor like a royal coach, on a busy road, saying “phooey” to hecklers who tried to block her path; Or a group of village women in Abu Road, who gheraoed a Dhabawalla, whose sign board read, ”We serve drinks with sex.”

Self help is the only key to success. A will to change, a determination to persevere, a commitment which unifies, and good indigenous leadership which focuses on personal development, must lay the foundation for change. History shows that women are often their own worst enemies. It is important that discriminative parental attitudes to girl children must cease. Education will break the cycle of poverty. Education should also extend to spheres of heath care, hygiene and nutrition. Oppressive structures that create poor healthcare must be challenged. Bonding together in Self help groups, have proved beneficial wherever they have been started. But individual action is where change really begins. It then spreads to men and boys, until a transformation occurs in the psychology of the entire community. This will then bring about voluntary compliance with existing rules of law, vis-à-vis Sati, dowry, child marriage, status of women. It is the grass-root folk who must snap out of their ultra-conservative inhibitions, with perhaps some help from non-exploitative NGOs. Only then can they hope to enjoy self-respect, empowerment and economic progress, even while taking pride in their rich culture. Like Rip Van Winkle, the Land of the Kings cannot afford to fall into a prolonged sleep of lethargy, unless it wants to wake up and find that the 21 st Century and the rest of India, has moved on.

Sunday Herald 10-3-2002


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