Wonder Women, a millennium ago

In the Chola era, women were known for their valour and occupied strategic administrative positions

August 24, 2017 04:51 pm | Updated 05:25 pm IST



Historical fiction was a genre I stumbled upon writing, not something I had planned. I have always had a love for history, and my reading of Sangam literature led me to essays on the Chola empire, and their naval expeditions. I started making margin notes in these books (my books are dog-eared and filled with notes, despite my mother’s protests), and these notes grew into a novel.

Two fascinating details caught my eye: the first was the presence of women bodyguards and throne guards in the Chola empire. The second was the many people from foreign lands who had settled in the Chola ports, after having arrived for trade — people whom the locals called Yavanas. Reading these led me to my heroine Aremis — a Greek woman who serves as a guard to Rajendra Chola. She came to me almost fully imagined, as if she’d been waiting for me to wake her up.

Multitude of roles

While it is only recently that warships of the Indian Navy have introduced separate living facilities for women officers, the Cholas, a massive naval power, had a warrior culture that included women in a multitude of roles. The Chola king’s retinue included the padimagalir — women bodyguards who protected and attended to the king. They accompanied him while he was camping in wartime, guarding him against potential ambushes. These women were celebrated for their valour, as warriors ready to lay down their lives for the king. They were supported by additional women guards in the palaces and the living quarters. These women were trained for fighting from a young age, and well-armed to protect the royalty.

The warrior Chola culture was one that celebrated bravery in both men and women — women who, after losing their fathers and husbands to war, would send their sons to the same battlefield, ready to sacrifice them as well for the cause of the kingdom. Courage was one of the foremost virtues to possess for the Cholas. A verse describes a king’s skin as covered with “handsome scars” (from battle) “that have grown together as if he were a tree with its bark stripped for use in curing.”

Poems, stories and inscriptions transport us into the lives of the Chola women. We find that they were able to exercise freedom in some areas — they could marry for love, for instance, with poems speaking of women sneaking off to see their lovers when their mother’s attention is elsewhere, and pining for lovers.

Women were represented in a variety of work roles besides serving as bodyguards. There are mentions of women in powerful functions in the kingdom, working as advisors and ambassadors — the poem Perum kathai speaks of ‘clever women’ acting as peacemakers between kingdoms.

One of the biggest symbols of a person’s social status is the wealth they personally own. The ‘daughters of god,’ the Devanar Makkal or temple women, had their names inscribed in temples for donations received in their names, and inscriptions suggest that Chola women had at least some control over the resources of their households. One inscription documents a noble woman’s temple gift of “10 kalanju of gold to Mahadevar… for one twilight lamp and one pot of river water.” Chola temples and ports had ‘twilight lamps’ that were lit throughout the night; the donations kept these lamps burning.

Female donors included the wives of merchants and landowners, as well as women from the royal family. The presence of donors beyond the queens suggest that female power existed throughout Chola society. Women were witnesses and signatories for land grants to temples, as well as land transactions.

Property, when owned by the woman, could not be spent by her husband without her permission – temple inscriptions refer to cases where husbands were fined and asked to repay the wife for having sold her property without her knowledge.

The share of women named in inscriptions peaked in the Rajaraja and Rajendra Chola periods, when the Cholas were at the height of their power. The stable, wealthy period of the Chola empire was when women had the greatest financial independence. When hard times set in, evidence points to these privileges being taken away.

It was not all rosy. This was a patriarchal, feudal society that still saw women in the context of their relationships with men, and widows were marginalised. Low status women were more like property, and could be exchanged by men. These women were often not treated kindly, even while the queens had their likenesses carved in temples in the form of goddesses — slender and elegant, royal and divine.

We imagine that over time, human history arcs towards greater social justice and rights. But history, in truth, is more circular. Rights are gained, and then lost. A thousand years ago, Indian women in some parts of the country had privileges that they lacked even in the 19th and early 20th centuries. They were viewed as portraits in courage, celebrated and visible right next to the king as his fierce protectors. Wonder Woman, it turns out, is not a new kind of superhero. Not in India, at any rate.

Fact meets fiction

Trained to be an engineer, Devi Yesodharan did not plan her rendezvous with history. Author of Empire, her first novel, she says that she stumbled upon it.


“I was not a great fan of the subject in school,” she laughs.

Raised in Dubai, Devi came to India to be completely absorbed by its milieu. She was the speech writer for Infosys Chairman R. Narayana Murthy.

Working on Imagining India , Nandan Nilekani’s book, Devi read Partha Chatterjee, Shashi Joshi, Christophe Jaffrelot and others. She found Indian history amazing and Chola history fascinating. Sangam poetry mesmerised her.

“Raja Raja Chola is hailed as the icon of the Chola dynasty. He was surely a great king but Rajendra Chola was no less,” says Devi, who chose his period as the hub of her creation.

Pride of place

“The Chola era is known as the golden period for art and architecture. But the regime was advanced on other fronts too. Women were respected and given pride of place at home and state administration. So much so that the woman of today could envy her. Trade flourished during that time, bringing in communities from across the seas. This included Greeks. I wanted to capture all of this — through the lens of a migrant,” she explains.

Migrant? “Coming to India, I felt like one, an outsider. The way Aremis, the valorous Greek girl of my novel feels,” says Devi. The story is told by two persons — Anantha, an insider, close to the ruler and Aremis — the outsider. Is it a love story? “Well, the parallel stories intertwine,” says Devi, who took two years to complete the book and this included research.

“This is my debut novel and I’m nervous,” admits Devi. A Juggernaut release, Empire will be available at book stores and on Kindle by August 31.

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