Female writers, poets, dramatist and intellectuals from pre Islamic India

Nov 2012
3,852
#1
Were there many great female writers, poets, dramatist and intellectuals from pre Islamic India? Were there women who wrote on Sanskrit or in regional dialects? What kind of issues did they cover and did they write about the feminine psyche and through a female gaze. Was it common (please dont cite exceptions) for women to be educated during this time especially from communities where the men were likely to be well educated?
 

Jinit

Ad Honorem
Jun 2012
5,274
India
#3
If we talk about ancient India then there were female sages and philosophers like Gargi, Maitreyi, Lopamudra, Visvavara, Sikata Nivavari, Apala and Ghosha who composed many hymns of Vedas and/or took part in philosophical debates. If I am not mistake Sangam literature also contains various poems written by women. Then there is Therigatha - a collection of short poems composed by elder nuns of Bhikkhuni Sangha dating back to 4th/5th century BCE (It is just surprising how Bhikkhuni Sangha completely vanished from canvas of Indian history much before disappearance of Buddhism in India!!!).


If we talk about early medieval India (more precisely early medieval north India), then we don't have much direct evidence but there are reasons to believe that women of elite communities and courtesans were well educated. Vatsyayana in his Kamasutra recommends learning of 64 fine arts (kala as he called it) for both elite men and women which ranges in diverstiy from knowledge of gems, precious metals and plants, to swordsmanship, physical exercise and carpentry; from skill in dancing, singing and musical instrument to virtuosity in speech, including knowledge of other languages, riddles, word games, dictionaries, rhetoric and prosody; from games of every conceivable sort to preparing drinks and soups and teaching parrots and mynahs to speak!!! Ofcourse it would have been impossible to master all these arts but it atleast shows the range of option that were available for both elite men and women. Some of sculptures of Bhuvaneshvara and Khajuraho depict women as writing letters. Pavanduta written by Bengal poet Dhoyin also gives indication of letter writing by women to their lovers. Lekhapaddhati - 13th century manuscript from Gujarat which contains pro forma for various kind of documents and letters in Sanskrit, contains pro forma for the letter written by wife to her husband (interestingly it contains separate formats for the letters written by angry wife and happy wife!!!) and by woman to her secret lover. Similarly it has examples of letters written by men and addressed to wife, mother, mother in law and lover. So there are certainly indications that elite women were educated.

Apart from that there are many highly accomplished female characters that appear in Sanskrit dramas. One can however dismiss such examples as fictional characters, fantasy of the author's mind but there are some real life characters which are mentioned by various authors. As far as I know most informative among them is Kavyamimamsa - a treatise on poetry written by Rajashekhara. I forgot the exact line but he has written that poetry is connected to soul and not to gender or something like this. He claims to have heard of and met many princesses, daughters of mahamatras (ministers), courtesans etc who had been proficient in poetics and were good poets. (IIRC he also mentions about high education given to elite women). Some of the poetesses that appeared in his work are Silabhattarika, Vikata Nitamba, Vijayanka, Prabhudevi, Mamata, Morika and Subhadra. Silabhattarika was famous for her easy and graceful style suited for harmonious synthesis of sense and sound. Vijayanka was next to Kalidasa in fame according to Rajashekhara. Vijayanka had bluish black complexion and Rajashekhara declares that even masters of Sanskrit verses were clearly wrong when they declared that Saraswati was fair in complexion. (comparing Vijayanka with Saraswati). If his description is correct, then she must be a celebrated poetess of her time. Rajashekhara's wife Avantisundari - a Chahamana (Chuhana) princess herself was a highly intellectual lady. Rajashekhara has appreciatively quoted her opinions in Kavyamimamsa. He also wrote his celebrated play Karpuramajari to please her.

Kalavati another Chahamana princess and queen of Pratihara ruler of Kannauj is also described as proficient in all 64 kalas. Similarly Rudrani - queen of Chandana of Shakambhari was proficient in Yoga. Bana in Harshacharita has also praised Rajyasri - sister of Harsha as highly educated lady. She wasn't only well versed in various liberal arts like poetry and dance but according to Bana she was distinguished for the knowledge of Sammatiya school of Buddhists and she attended general Buddhist council called by Harsha to debate various questions related to Buddhist philosophy.

Balapandit and Merutunga mentions a poetess named Sita in the court of king Bhoja. In addition to Kalidasa and Vatsyayana she had also studied Arthashastra of Chanakya and Vedas. If we talk about Gujarat then a poetess named Devi is mentioned as well known personality "who continued to enchant her readers even when she had herself gone to heaven". Kuvalayamala mentions a lady named Madanamanjari who was a teacher of fine arts. Anupamadevi wife of Tejpala of famed Vastupal Tejpal brothers is also portrayed as highly accomplished lady in Jaina sources. She was greatly interested in literature and philosophy and composed a work called kankanakavya which has now been lost and personally supervised construction of Delwara temples of Abu. The eulogy written in her praise and that of her paternal lineage at Neminatha temple of Abu proves that she was indeed a real life personality with considerable influence in her family.

Apart from this, there is an 9th century Arabic translation of an Indian medical treatise mainly dealing with gynecological problems which claims that it was originally written by a lady named Rusa.

So there were certainly many mentions of highly accomplished women and probably there must be many more Afterall there are many instances of women actively involved in administration and politics throughout India who must be educated (Ofcourse almost all these examples are exclusively from north India more precisely from Rajput polities of north. And there must be many others in South such as Akka Mahadevi regarding which I don't have much information). It is testimony of time that none of the works composed by these women have come down to us, probably because women even though educated were never part of public life. But atleast their mentions suggest that there wasn't any direct contradiction to female education.

Sources:

Women in Early Medieval North India by Raj Pal
Courtly Culture and Political Life in Early Medieval India by Daud Ali
Lekhapaddhati by Pushpa Prasad
 
Last edited:
Nov 2012
3,852
#4
If we talk about ancient India then there were female sages and philosophers like Gargi, Maitreyi, Lopamudra, Visvavara, Sikata Nivavari, Apala and Ghosha who composed many hymns of Vedas and/or took part in philosophical debates. If I am not mistake Sangam literature also contains various poems written by women. Then there is Therigatha - a collection of short poems composed by elder nuns of Bhikkhuni Sangha dating back to 4th/5th century BCE (It is just surprising how Bhikkhuni Sangha completely vanished from canvas of Indian history much before disappearance of Buddhism in India!!!).


If we talk about early medieval India (more precisely early medieval north India), then we don't have much direct evidence but there are reasons to believe that women of elite communities and courtesans were well educated. Vatsyayana in his Kamasutra recommends learning of 64 fine arts (kala as he called it) for both elite men and women which ranges in diverstiy from knowledge of gems, precious metals and plants, to swordsmanship, physical exercise and carpentry; from skill in dancing, singing and musical instrument to virtuosity in speech, including knowledge of other languages, riddles, word games, dictionaries, rhetoric and prosody; from games of every conceivable sort to preparing drinks and soups and teaching parrots and mynahs to speak!!! Ofcourse it would have been impossible to master all these arts but it atleast shows the range of option that were available for both elite men and women. Some of sculptures of Bhuvaneshvara and Khajuraho depict women as writing letters. Pavanduta written by Bengal poet Dhoyin also gives indication of letter writing by women to their lovers. Lekhapaddhati - 13th century manuscript from Gujarat which contains pro forma for various kind of documents and letters in Sanskrit, contains pro forma for the letter written by wife to her husband (interestingly it contains separate formats for the letters written by angry wife and happy wife!!!) and by woman to her secret lover. Similarly it has examples of letters written by men and addressed to wife, mother, mother in law and lover. So there are certainly indications that elite women were educated.

Apart from that there are many highly accomplished female characters that appear in Sanskrit dramas. One can however dismiss such examples as fictional characters, fantasy of the author's mind but there are some real life characters which are mentioned by various authors. As far as I know most informative among them is Kavyamimamsa - a treatise on poetry written by Rajashekhara. I forgot the exact line but he has written that poetry is connected to soul and not to gender or something like this. He claims to have heard of and met many princesses, daughters of mahamatras (ministers), courtesans etc who had been proficient in poetics and were good poets. (IIRC he also mentions about high education given to elite women). Some of the poetesses that appeared in his work are Silabhattarika, Vikata Nitamba, Vijayanka, Prabhudevi, Mamata, Morika and Subhadra. Silabhattarika was famous for her easy and graceful style suited for harmonious synthesis of sense and sound. Vijayanka was next to Kalidasa in fame according to Rajashekhara. Vijayanka had bluish black complexion and Rajashekhara declares that even masters of Sanskrit verses were clearly wrong when they declared that Saraswati was fair in complexion. (comparing Vijayanka with Saraswati). If his description is correct, then she must be a celebrated poetess of her time. Rajashekhara's wife Avantisundari - a Chahamana (Chuhana) princess herself was a highly intellectual lady. Rajashekhara has appreciatively quoted her opinions in Kavyamimamsa. He also wrote his celebrated play Karpuramajari to please her.

Kalavati another Chahamana princess and queen of Pratihara ruler of Kannauj is also described as proficient in all 64 kalas. Similarly Rudrani - queen of Chandana of Shakambhari was proficient in Yoga. Bana in Harshacharita has also praised Rajyasri - sister of Harsha as highly educated lady. She wasn't only well versed in various liberal arts like poetry and dance but according to Bana she was distinguished for the knowledge of Sammatiya school of Buddhists and she attended general Buddhist council called by Harsha to debate various questions related to Buddhist philosophy.

Balapandit and Merutunga mentions a poetess named Sita in the court of king Bhoja. In addition to Kalidasa and Vatsyayana she had also studied Arthashastra of Chanakya and Vedas. If we talk about Gujarat then a poetess named Devi is mentioned as well known personality "who continued to enchant her readers even when she had herself gone to heaven". Kuvalayamala mentions a lady named Madanamanjari who was a teacher of fine arts. Anupamadevi wife of Tejpala of famed Vastupal Tejpal brothers is also portrayed as highly accomplished lady in Jaina sources. She was greatly interested in literature and philosophy and composed a work called kankanakavya which has now been lost and personally supervised construction of Delwara temples of Abu. The eulogy written in her praise and that of her paternal lineage at Neminatha temple of Abu proves that she was indeed a real life personality with considerable influence in her family.

Apart from this, there is an 9th century Arabic translation of an Indian medical treatise mainly dealing with gynecological problems which claims that it was originally written by a lady named Rusa.

So there were certainly many mentions of highly accomplished women and probably there must be many more Afterall there are many instances of women actively involved in administration and politics throughout India who must be educated (Ofcourse almost all these examples are exclusively from north India more precisely from Rajput polities of north. And there must be many others in South such as Akka Mahadevi regarding which I don't have much information). It is testimony of time that none of the works composed by these women have come down to us, probably because women even though educated were never part of public life. But atleast their mentions suggest that there wasn't any direct contradiction to female education.

Sources:

Women in Early Medieval North India by Raj Pal
Courtly Culture and Political Life in Early Medieval India by Daud Ali
Lekhapaddhati by Pushpa Prasad
wait are most of these works lost. It would have been good to have them since this would have helped reconstructed a feminine gaze narrative in Indian history.
 

Jinit

Ad Honorem
Jun 2012
5,274
India
#5
wait are most of these works lost. It would have been good to have them since this would have helped reconstructed a feminine gaze narrative in Indian history.
Well Most of these ladies were part of high culture of the royal courts. As a result in most cases their works wouldn't have circulated to a large area outside the courts with which they were associated. And considering the fact that Indian courtly culture itself vanished in Islamic onslaught it isn't any surprise that most of such works also vanished along with it except for works like Kaumudi Mahotsava.

It isn't any surprise either that only works that were composed by women and have survived are the devotional poems written by saints like Meera, Akka Mahadevi and Tamil female saints whose work passed from one generation to another in oral tradition. Therigatha which has been a great help when studying the position of women in early Buddhism, also survived probably for the same reason.
 
Last edited:

Jinit

Ad Honorem
Jun 2012
5,274
India
#6
If we talk about ancient India then there were female sages and philosophers like Gargi, Maitreyi, Lopamudra, Visvavara, Sikata Nivavari, Apala and Ghosha who composed many hymns of Vedas and/or took part in philosophical debates. If I am not mistake Sangam literature also contains various poems written by women. Then there is Therigatha - a collection of short poems composed by elder nuns of Bhikkhuni Sangha dating back to 4th/5th century BCE (It is just surprising how Bhikkhuni Sangha completely vanished from canvas of Indian history much before disappearance of Buddhism in India!!!).


If we talk about early medieval India (more precisely early medieval north India), then we don't have much direct evidence but there are reasons to believe that women of elite communities and courtesans were well educated. Vatsyayana in his Kamasutra recommends learning of 64 fine arts (kala as he called it) for both elite men and women which ranges in diverstiy from knowledge of gems, precious metals and plants, to swordsmanship, physical exercise and carpentry; from skill in dancing, singing and musical instrument to virtuosity in speech, including knowledge of other languages, riddles, word games, dictionaries, rhetoric and prosody; from games of every conceivable sort to preparing drinks and soups and teaching parrots and mynahs to speak!!! Ofcourse it would have been impossible to master all these arts but it atleast shows the range of option that were available for both elite men and women. Some of sculptures of Bhuvaneshvara and Khajuraho depict women as writing letters. Pavanduta written by Bengal poet Dhoyin also gives indication of letter writing by women to their lovers. Lekhapaddhati - 13th century manuscript from Gujarat which contains pro forma for various kind of documents and letters in Sanskrit, contains pro forma for the letter written by wife to her husband (interestingly it contains separate formats for the letters written by angry wife and happy wife!!!) and by woman to her secret lover. Similarly it has examples of letters written by men and addressed to wife, mother, mother in law and lover. So there are certainly indications that elite women were educated.

Apart from that there are many highly accomplished female characters that appear in Sanskrit dramas. One can however dismiss such examples as fictional characters, fantasy of the author's mind but there are some real life characters which are mentioned by various authors. As far as I know most informative among them is Kavyamimamsa - a treatise on poetry written by Rajashekhara. I forgot the exact line but he has written that poetry is connected to soul and not to gender or something like this. He claims to have heard of and met many princesses, daughters of mahamatras (ministers), courtesans etc who had been proficient in poetics and were good poets. (IIRC he also mentions about high education given to elite women). Some of the poetesses that appeared in his work are Silabhattarika, Vikata Nitamba, Vijayanka, Prabhudevi, Mamata, Morika and Subhadra. Silabhattarika was famous for her easy and graceful style suited for harmonious synthesis of sense and sound. Vijayanka was next to Kalidasa in fame according to Rajashekhara. Vijayanka had bluish black complexion and Rajashekhara declares that even masters of Sanskrit verses were clearly wrong when they declared that Saraswati was fair in complexion. (comparing Vijayanka with Saraswati). If his description is correct, then she must be a celebrated poetess of her time. Rajashekhara's wife Avantisundari - a Chahamana (Chuhana) princess herself was a highly intellectual lady. Rajashekhara has appreciatively quoted her opinions in Kavyamimamsa. He also wrote his celebrated play Karpuramajari to please her.

Kalavati another Chahamana princess and queen of Pratihara ruler of Kannauj is also described as proficient in all 64 kalas. Similarly Rudrani - queen of Chandana of Shakambhari was proficient in Yoga. Bana in Harshacharita has also praised Rajyasri - sister of Harsha as highly educated lady. She wasn't only well versed in various liberal arts like poetry and dance but according to Bana she was distinguished for the knowledge of Sammatiya school of Buddhists and she attended general Buddhist council called by Harsha to debate various questions related to Buddhist philosophy.

Balapandit and Merutunga mentions a poetess named Sita in the court of king Bhoja. In addition to Kalidasa and Vatsyayana she had also studied Arthashastra of Chanakya and Vedas. If we talk about Gujarat then a poetess named Devi is mentioned as well known personality "who continued to enchant her readers even when she had herself gone to heaven". Kuvalayamala mentions a lady named Madanamanjari who was a teacher of fine arts. Anupamadevi wife of Tejpala of famed Vastupal Tejpal brothers is also portrayed as highly accomplished lady in Jaina sources. She was greatly interested in literature and philosophy and composed a work called kankanakavya which has now been lost and personally supervised construction of Delwara temples of Abu. The eulogy written in her praise and that of her paternal lineage at Neminatha temple of Abu proves that she was indeed a real life personality with considerable influence in her family.

Apart from this, there is an 9th century Arabic translation of an Indian medical treatise mainly dealing with gynecological problems which claims that it was originally written by a lady named Rusa.

So there were certainly many mentions of highly accomplished women and probably there must be many more Afterall there are many instances of women actively involved in administration and politics throughout India who must be educated (Ofcourse almost all these examples are exclusively from north India more precisely from Rajput polities of north. And there must be many others in South such as Akka Mahadevi regarding which I don't have much information). It is testimony of time that none of the works composed by these women have come down to us, probably because women even though educated were never part of public life. But atleast their mentions suggest that there wasn't any direct contradiction to female education.

Sources:

Women in Early Medieval North India by Raj Pal
Courtly Culture and Political Life in Early Medieval India by Daud Ali
Lekhapaddhati by Pushpa Prasad
Also I forgot to mention two another references.

In anthology of Gaha Sattasai written in Maharashtri Prakarit by Hala - Satvahana ruler seven poetesses has been mentioned - Reva, Roha, Madhavi, Anulakshmi, Pahai, Vaddhavahi and Sashiprabha.

Also Mandanmishra's wife presided over the famous debate between Shakaracharya and her husband. So she must be highly intellectual lady well versed in philosophy and theology.
 

Jinit

Ad Honorem
Jun 2012
5,274
India
#7
It would have been good to have them since this would have helped reconstructed a feminine gaze narrative in Indian history.
Well yes it would have been great to have some feminine perspective but considering the fact that we have hard time constructing even elite male perspective it is just wishful thinking. :)

Btw I forget to mention in the sources but if you are interested in reading about the history of women in context of Indian history then go for "The Position of Women in Hindu Civilization From Prehistoric Times to the Present Day" by AS Altekar. A rather outdated work and criticized heavily by feminists but still worth reading if you have some time.
 
Nov 2012
3,852
#8
Well yes it would have been great to have some feminine perspective but considering the fact that we have hard time constructing even elite male perspective it is just wishful thinking. :)

Btw I forget to mention in the sources but if you are interested in reading about the history of women in context of Indian history then go for "The Position of Women in Hindu Civilization From Prehistoric Times to the Present Day" by AS Altekar. A rather outdated work and criticized heavily by feminists but still worth reading if you have some time.
Position of women and female intelligentsia in Hindu India is something I am deeply interested in. You say it is outdated and criticized by feminists. Can you cite why? What is the current trending book on such topic? I am deeply fascinated by the female gaze writing and the rarer it becomes the more important it becomes to read the surviving remanants.
 
Nov 2012
3,852
#9
Jinnit I dont know if you have heard about Radhika Santwanam written by a Devadasi in the Tanjore Court. Its depiction of Radha-Krishna love is deeply interesting where Radha sometimes even gets to dominate. Its deeply erotic as well. Some excerpts to share with you here

From Radhika Santwanam (Appeasing Radhika), an... -
As the title suggests its Krishna appeasing Radha. A case where a man is trying to satisfy a woman's desire.

The prevailing era against Nautch girls and the Victorian ethics subverted this writing. Not just that sexual tone also led to deep censorship and it became hard to find in between.
 

Jinit

Ad Honorem
Jun 2012
5,274
India
#10
Position of women and female intelligentsia in Hindu India is something I am deeply interested in. You say it is outdated and criticized by feminists. Can you cite why? What is the current trending book on such topic? I am deeply fascinated by the female gaze writing and the rarer it becomes the more important it becomes to read the surviving remanants.
Because Altekar belonged to the school of nationalist historiography. And there is indeed some glorification of position of women in society by him but it is still well researched work. (he was afterall an eminent scholar) And feminists always whine about female being not given the same status as male. And almost all their focus is on that simple issue which becomes monotonous and boring after some time. In reality females were always subordinate to male in any pre modern society. The important thing is to find out the relative extant to which they were subordinate to male.

Apart from it I don't know any other modern work dealing with the issue. Check Upinder Singh's book for bibliography on the subject. May be you can find some interesting book in it. Btw She herself has addressed the issue in some detail in every chapter of her book. So you can just simple read relevant section of each chapter of her book. Women in Early Medieval North India by Raj Pal that I have cited earlier is also good work but it draws heavily from Altekar. (although I haven't read either of book completely so I may be wrong here).