POSITION OF WOMEN IN ANCIENT KASHMIR
- EXCERPTS FROM NILAMATA PURANA
Dr. Ved Kumari
The most relieving feature of the family-life of Kasmira as seen in the Nilmata, is the position of women. Nowhere is she considered 'the living torch illuminating the way to hell' or 'the devourer of the intellect of men'. There is no reference to any veil worn by her and she moves quite freely in the society, emulating as it were the free-going sparkling waters of the springs of her country. The Nilmata allows her to participate in almost all the festivals and religious ceremonies. In the moonlit night of Kaumudi Mahotsava, we find her sitting beside the sacred fire in the company of her husband, children, servants and husband's friends. It is not clear, however, as whether she is merely a silent spectator or takes active part in the musical and dramatic performances performed during this night. She is present in the common feast which takes place on the next day.
Not only on the festivals celebrated at home but also in the outdoor festivals, she is seen freely enjoying herself. Thus, on the ceremonial day for ploughing the fields and sowing the seed, characterized by music, dancing and feasting, the peasant's wife is not behind the walls of her home. She is lucky enough to participate in the joyous festival celebrated in the refreshing open fields of Nature.
On the day of Iramanjari-pujana - a festival of flowers - the ladies are honoured with presents of flowers and garlands. In another verse we find reference to the women going to fruit-gardens to worship the fruit-giving trees.
In the happy valley of lakes, rivers and fountains, water-sports could bring the highest pleasures to the society and the Nilamata does not deny this means of merriment to the ladies of Kasmira. "The young maidens" it says, "should specially play in the waters" during the celebrations of Sravani festival.
Playing with men is allowed to women. We find the joyful ladies dressed in their best attire, perfumed with scents and decorated with ornaments, sporting in the company of men on the last day of Mahimana celebrations.
The ladies of the house are honoured on various occasions. The householder is enjoined upon to honorer them on the New Snow-fall day. The sisters etc. and the ladies whose husbands are alive are honoured on the 4th of the bright half of Magha. Similar honour is given to them on the 4th days of Asvayuj and Jyestha. On the full moon day of Margasirsa, the gift of a pair of red clothes is prescribed for a Brahmana lady whose husband and son are living. Sister, paternal aunt and friend's wife are also invited and given clothes. The mention of the presentation of gifts to friend's wife is quite significant as it could have been possible only in a free atmosphere where women were allowed to move freely with no restrictions on their receipt of gifts from their husband's friends.
On Madana Trayodasi - a festival in honour of the god of love - the wife receives bath with the sacred water from the hands of her husband as an indication of his love for her.
Wife is the charm of the decorated bedroom in the night of Dipamala (Sukha-suptika) festival.
Charming beauty and the life-long happiness of married life are the things highly prized by the ladies of Kasmira. They are often asked to be well-dressed and decorated, the special term for such act being 'pratikarma'. As regards their place in the religious life, they are not only allowed to accompany their husbands in the performance of various rites and ceremonies but are also enjoined upon to perform singly some rites specially prescribed for them. Thus, the god Chandah is to be worshipped and rajasvala Kasmira is to be bathed by the women only. The triad of the 4th days (Caturthi-tritaya) is to be observed specially by ladies.
Another factor which points to the high position of women is the prominence of the goddesses in the religion depicted in the Nilamata. The gods are mentioned often with their consorts. Shakra plays with Shaci; Visnu's feet rest in the lap of Laksmi; Parvati accompanies Shiva; Sita is worshipped during the celebrations of Rama's birth-day and Krsna's wife receives worship on the birth-day of her lord. The mothers of the gods are also referred to. Besides these we come across various other female deities. The goddesses Asokika, Syama, Durga, Sri, Karisini, Bhadrakali, I3heda, Kapinjali, Suresvari, Bhadresvari, Gautamesi, Kalasila, Udyogasri, Gavaksi, Candika, Gauri, Suvijaya,
Sakuni, Brahmacarini, Chakresvari and Grhadevi form the shining galaxy of female deities worshipped by the people of Kasmira. The rivers of Kasmira are also personified as goddesses. Urna transforms herself into the Vitasta, Aditi becomes the Trikoti, Shaci assumes the form of the Harspatha, Diti becomes the Candravati and Laksmi turns into the river Visoka. The very land of Kasmira is the mother goddess Kasmira - a form of Uma.
On the whole the Nilamata offers a pleasant picture of the woman of Kasmira. As a daughter she was trained in fine arts etc. and was allowed to move freely in the society. By giving her in marriage, the father obtained religious merit. As a wife she was loved and honoured by her husband and as a mother she shone with her sons who prized her highly. A would-be mother could even be installed on the throne on the demise of her sonless husband-king.
This account of the women of Kasmira - respected in the home and esteemed highly outside - is quite different from the account available in other Puranas and so gives distinctive character to the Nilmata. The other Puranas generally despise and deprecate the ladies as seducers of men. To quote R.C. Hazra "As a matter of fact, in the Puranas, women have not been allowed full freedom in the social and religious life under any circumstances and conjugal fidelity and devoted service to their husbands have been stressed as the highest duties for them. The statement, evidently, does not apply to the Nilamata which gives a somewhat different and unconventional picture of the female-life. The genuineness of the account given by the Nilmata is
proved by the corroboration it receives from the works of many Kasmiri writers. Bilhana gives a testimony to the literary efficiency of the women of Kasmira who could fluently speak Sanskrta and Prakrta. Damodara Gupta in his Kuttanimata gives a list of the subjects which they learnt and Kalhana's Rajatarangini is full of instances showing the high status of women in the fields of religion and politics.
WOMEN OUTSIDE MARRIAGE
A few words may be now added about prostitutes and dancing girls attached to temples. The numerous references to courtesans in connection with the description of festivals indicated that prostitution was freely allowed in the society of the days of the Nilamata. The Nilmata does not decry the courtesans. The prominent ones of them, on the other hand, are enjoined upon to visit the king on his coronation day and take due part in the ceremonies - a fact proving evidently their high political status.
The use of a simile comparing Kasmira with a temple due to the presence of tender ladies, indicates the popularity of the institution of 'devadasis' or temple dancers, as then alone the hearers or readers of the Nilamata could have recognized the idea underlying the simile.
A significant and rather unusual point is that the Nilmata attaches importance to the singing and dancing of courtesans and not to the sexual intercourse with them, indicating thus less moral laxity among the people than what is shown in the works of Kalhana, Ksemendra and Somadava.