As a woman about to head to India, I heard a lot of warnings and horror stories meant to prepare me for what I was going to face.

I was told I’d be stared at (true), ignored (true), and that I’d ultimately be okay since I was traveling with two men (I was okay) – but that a woman traveling solo would have more serious things to worry about.

Since I was only in India for two weeks, I can’t really comment much on these warnings given to traveling females. My experience was too brief to allow me to claim any expertise about what is typical and not typical in such a huge, complex culture.

But I did think a lot about gender roles, womanhood, and femininity when I was there.

Alongside the day-to-day modern gender customs that I encountered, I was also exploring forts, palaces, and temples that seemed to add their own stories and views about how women can fit into Indian history, religion, and communities.

As always, a sucker legend and culture, I was fascinated and instantly knew I wanted to write about it all – especially coming from the western world where our religions and stories seem to always be centered on the masculine.

These are only a few of the observations I had during my time there:

Women as Symmetry – Balance seemed to be an important part of many Indian beliefs, and one way to achieve balance is the equal presence of male and female energy. This was sometimes illustrated by joining Shiva (god of creation and destruction) and his consort Parvati (goddess of fertility) into one being – half male and half female.

They are often separate deities, but when conjoined they are called Ardhanarishvara. It is intended to show that masculine and feminine energies are equal and inseparable from each other.

Some legends teach that Ardhanarishvara existed before the beginning of time, and the split into a separate god and goddess occurred for the sake of creation. Another legend says Parvati asked Shiva to become one with her because she was being harassed by a demon and needed protection. Finally, there are myths that claim Shiva is always Ardhanarishvara, just as Parvati is always Ardhanarishvara. When needed, the illusion of one gender is dropped and the masculine and feminine energies work together to grant requests and offer guidance.

Women as Warriors – One characteristic you won’t find in the women of Indian lore is weakness. Femininity is shown as a double-edged sword, but both sides are very strong – one is protective (like a mother bear) and one is unpredictable and full of rage (like an angry lover). It is not uncommon for the hero of a legendary battle to be a woman – such as Mahishasura Mardini, “slayer of the buffalo demon.” She has eight arms, and they are usually shown holding her many weapons, along with the bodies of those she has defeated.

And the warrior queen isn’t limited to mythology in India – one of their bravest historical figures is Rani of Jhansi, a queen in the North who helped lead the Rebellion of 1857 against the British Raj.

Women as Lovers – When a woman is loved in an Indian legend, the man is often willing to go to uncomfortable extremes to get her. This includes creating dangerous political enemies (Prithviraj Chauhan and Samyukta), jumping into a blazing fire (Mumal and Mahendra), and even murdering a rival for her affection (Nurjahan and Jahangir).

I think the Taj Mahal might represent one of the greatest love stories in India. Even in a region where showy mausoleums were discouraged by religious leaders, one emperor loved his wife so much he spent over two decades and millions of dollars creating one of the most beautiful buildings in the world for her.

Women as Beauty – When visiting temples, you will see many statues of beautiful women. These are called Surasandaris, and they are meant to be attendants to the gods. Surasandaris are kept in holy places to keep the balance of masculine and feminine energy during worship, and they will be found doing many “tasks,” from swatting away to flies, to drumming, to tending to a pet parrot.

While the women in ancient Indian artwork were always beautiful, they can also be quite shy. Rather than purposely flaunting their beauty, you might find a mischievous monkey slipping a sleeve off the shoulder of a woman or pulling down her dress.

Some of these depictions of women were not surprising to my western perspective. I am very used to seeing women as wives, mothers, or lovers. But it was refreshing to also see such a strong feminine presence in their divinity and their revolutions. Do you have a favorite woman in Indian myth or history?

 

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  • Zainab Mohiuddin

    Thanks for writing this! It’s something I often think about. I do think that the role of Bollywood has had a negative impact on the way women are treated though. When I visited family in India as a young teenager, I often felt uncomfortable at the increased level of general gawping and catcalls. I think Bollywood songs with scantily clad women dancing in front of hordes of men – ‘item songs’ and how popularised they are does have something to do with this.

  • Just returned from 7 weeks travel throughout India. Women vary differently according to their customs in the Country. From very traditional to a very modern western custom. All very interesting ! 🙂