A woman wearing the ghunghat
Snapshot
  • The codes for ghunghat within Rajasthan’s Hindu communities were not formed or enforced through religious or scriptural prescription. Its comparison with other manifestations of mandated female apparel is problematic.

There is a verse in the Prithiviraj Raso, where Prithiviraj Chauhan, the king of Delhi, in disguise as a servant in attendance to his bard and friend, Chand Bardai (the composer of the famous poem) at Kannauj, is almost caught out. How? One of the female servants at the palace in Kannauj used to work at Prithiviraj’s palace and, recognising the king, veils herself. This adjustment of her clothing in front of a man of a similar status — a servant — is supposedly such a telling gesture, that it almost leads to Prithiviraj’s discovery. Fortunately, they escape and the dramatic plot of this episode in the Raso proceeds to its familiar conclusion.

The historicity of the Raso is a subject of much dispute, particularly in the historiography of Rajasthan. Shyamaldas, the court historian of Mewar in the late nineteenth century, who was one of the first to construct a history of the region in the ‘Western’ style, argued that the Raso had little historicity and was not composed in the eleventh century, but much later. Thus, in this view, not only are the historical events described in the poem suspect, but the social mores in which the tale takes place mix together ideas about Prithviraj’s India with the social stylings of a later age.

So, in the Raso, Sanyogita’s maids come to admire Prithviraj on the banks of the Ganga, while in another episode, the women of Kamadhwaj watch from the jharokha, as a victorious Prithviraj enters the town triumphantly to wed Sashivrata. That is, while in some episodes in the poem, the interaction between men and women is open and adventurous, often laced with elements of the erotic, in others it follows a social decorum of immiscibility that is at odds with the ease of romantic contact in other parts of the text. However, by and large, women are not veiled in this world, and the big dramatic villain which foils the union of the lovers is political circumstance rather than social rigidity.

For Gaurishankar Ojha, who inherited the peculiar tradition of modern court history form Shyamaldas, Jayanak’s Pritvirajvijaymahakavyam, was a much more reliable historical text than the Raso — because to him, this was a contemporary production of Prithviraj’s time. In this text, the interaction between males and females is codified by class and jati — but is also remarkably open and adventurous, even by contemporary standards. For example, the reactions of the various princesses to the beauty and valour of Prithviraj in this text is not unlike the graphic fangirling of young people on an Instagram post of a member of BTS. Of course, the mahakavyam is intended as a panegyric to the young prince, and his beauty, virility and attractiveness to women is seen as an integral part of his princely virtues.

This aspect is not intended to be factual — as in, it is unlikely that Jayanak interviewed every lovelorn princess in India before constructing his verses — rather, the reference to the thoughts and actions of the princesses pining in his love is meant to be complimentary, not scandalous. This implies that such references, and the implied corollary about the access of women to both romantic and sexual love, as well as their participation in the public gaze — whether engaged towards or from them, was not a denigrating idea in that social context.

A vernacular account of Jaichand’s reign, the Muraridan ri Khyat, which describes events from the lives of Rathore ancestors including Jaichand, has a far more prosaic description of the battle between the kings of Delhi and Kannauj. This khyat is most likely to have been last copied, added to and edited in the eighteenth century, although it is fairly certain that the authors had access to earlier texts, which, unfortunately, no longer survive. The text has some correspondence with Bardai’s Raso, at least in the names of Prithviraj’s samants — which is a great preoccupation of khyat literature — and also has a rough similarity to the poetic description of the meeting between Sanyogita and Prithviraj.

Yet, what also survives in this khyat is the social etiquette that governed the interaction between sexes from this period. This change in social etiquette modifies the interaction between Sanyogita, Prithviraj and Jaichand — so that while the romantic protagonists are still in love, and Prithviraj has still offended Jaichand’s prestige by taking his daughter without his permission, here Prithviraj refuses to marry Sanyogita, stating that as so many of his samants had been killed, the price to wed her was too high, and he would now leave her to her father.

Jaichand therefore proposes that the samants killed from Prithviraj’s side should be considered as a dugani, while those that have been killed from his side should be considered as dayja. In addition, says the khyat, the ruler of Kannauj gave much treasure to Prithviraj in hathleva. These wedding traditions and their peculiar nomenclature — dugani, dayja, hathleva — are to be found in the contemporary descriptions of royal and aristocratic weddings in Rajasthan and refer to practices from the sixteenth century onwards.

Why this lengthy digression upon three versions of the same set of historical events? This is to emphasise the difficulty of accessing soft social norms like parda/ghunghat etc, and the larger gender relations and constructions they represent, from social settings that have not been subjected to the gaze of the outsider and in texts that have not been produced for an audience outside the social milieu they describe.

Local accounts written for locals, whether in a cosmopolitan or vernacular language, whether performed in the court settings or at a local village fair, have different standards of that which is remarkable and story-worthy and that which is so familiar as to be a part of the background texture of social existence. How men and women interact, what they wear are part of this alien phenomenology.

It is the gaze of the foreigner in India — from Xuanzang to Al Beruni to Niccolao Manucci to James Tod which sees these as remarkable and noteworthy, just as to an alien intelligence our constant staring down into our phone screens would seem weirdly ritualistic, even pathological, but to us it is normal, and so only occasionally does this behaviour find reference in the prodigious records of our age.

As such, how does one answer a question about the history of the ghunghat and parda? How and why did these become a custom in India? I will confine my discussion to Rajasthan here, and historians of other places may have different views on the practices in other places in India. Ghunghat is a corruption of the Sanskrit avghuntan — wrapping — and has a primary denotation of constriction, which only later, and then not universally, also developed connotations of both man/adar and to the having of hri and the non-having of vrida. The word ‘parda’ is Persian, and we see its adoption in descriptive usage at the courts in Rajasthan from the sixteenth century onwards in the form ‘pardayat’.

A pardayat was a court padvi given to a woman who has been granted the privilege of parda, which meant that the woman had access to the janana and would be screened from the vulgar world. Parda here referred not to the physical veiling of the subject but her removal from the public gaze by means of a privileged sequestering. This woman and her children would now be provided for by the court, with the daily hardships of living in the world replaced by a court-sanctioned release from labour.

Such sequestering, therefore, became a signifier of class — and sequestered women a status marker, as families marked their wealth by being able to keep women out of public, physical labour. To Tod, the colonial commentator on Rajasthan, whose account continues to misinform our understanding of Rajasthan to this day, higher status women in Rajasthan never appeared in public, while lower status women, even those from higher jatis who had to be out and about in public, covered their faces. In this, they joined women from other classes who also had to take part in the world by working in it.

This was particularly so during periods of political unrest when jati and social codes that maintained order in and amongst communities were often disrupted. Such codes, like that of universal village siblinghood, and of jati endogamy and gotra exogamy were designed to prevent predation on vulnerable women.

The gaze that the Raso describes — that which opens up women of lower classes to the scrutiny and undesired access of upper class men — still governed the use of the ghunghat in the nineteenth century Rajasthan when Tod wrote his annals. Even today, women from communities who traditionally cleaned and served the palace are to be found in such settings with their faces covered — there is no directive to do so, and yet they do so out of social habit. This behaviour has more similarity with a loose dress code than it does to notions of shame or modesty attached to face veiling.

It could be argued that as members of society who are still most vulnerable to persecution, perhaps face veiling continues as a perceived safety measure. On being questioned, however, this is never the cited reason for the veiling by the subjects. Rather, the stated reason is nearly always custom and habit, and the personal comfort afforded by anonymity in public.

Today, higher status women almost never cover their faces, except in the presence of senior members of the family or the wider khamp, kul and jati, and that too on special occasions as part of ritual acts. Here, significantly, the women from the most important families, who may be Prada-wearing fashionistas in their daily lives, are often the most particular and detailed participants in these ritualised customs.

Such socially-constructed modes of public presentation applied equally to men, historically as well as today. Men, too, had to adhere to a strict dress code in specific social environments, which included strict prescriptions for clothes, particular the pag, especially in court settings. For example, the Muraridan ri Khyat describes the travails of the great warrior Rathore Chunda in the fourteenth century, who is born in poverty because his mother had been banished from the palace by his relative Mallinath.

But his royalty is recognised by the Charan Ahla, who decides to take on the cause of the exiled prince. The first thing the bard does is to arrange suitable clothes, and Chunda assumes princely status as he assumes the clothes of an aristocrat, thus allowing him to ask for support from the local Rajput chiefs and resume his place in the palace.

The codes for ghunghat and parda within the Hindu communities in Rajasthan were not formed or enforced through religious or scriptural prescription but continue to be formed, challenged, changed and edited from one generation to the next.

Their reasons and manifestations are multi-causal and complex, and their manifestations in society are neither uniform, unchanging or a homogeneous representation of community values or identity. Any like-for-like comparison with other manifestations of mandated female apparel, is therefore, both simplistic and problematic.

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