advertisement

Follow Mint Lounge

Latest Issue

Home > News> Big Story > For India's medieval women saints, walking was a form of dissent

For India's medieval women saints, walking was a form of dissent

The journeys of saints like Meera, Lal Ded, and Akka Mahadevi were a statement against the boundaries of home

The medieval women saints of India are the earliest examples of female resistance to social norms.
The medieval women saints of India are the earliest examples of female resistance to social norms. (Getty Images)

In the marvelous ethnomusicological study, Song Walking (University of Chicago Press, 2018), I came across a discussion about the walking songs, amaculo manihamba, of the African borderlands of Maputaland and Swaziland. The author Angela Impey writes that the songs were accompanied by a mouth harp, isitweletwele, later adopted by young women “to accompany long-distance walking”. The idea of songs composed and sung specifically for the act of walking by local women took me back to reading about saints in medieval India, such as Akka Mahadevi, Lal Ded and Meera, who chose to walk away from the lives they were familiar with and become wandering ascetics.

All three were credited with composing exquisite verses between the 9th and 17th centuries. The Bhakti tradition has often been perceived as a radical push back against the casteist, Brahmanical system in sway in large swathes of the country. While Akka Mahadevi and Meera have been placed squarely at the centre of the Bhakti “movement”, Lal Ded is seen by many as a mystic outlier. However, it is undeniable that their lives and music represent “counter-traditions” that have been held fast by generations of women.

Also read: The first feminist radicals of South Asia 

In the 12th century, in what is Bidar district in Karnataka today, Akka Mahadevi left her husband, enraged by his obsessive behaviour, and shed all her clothes to walk buck-naked to the anubhava mantapa (hall of spiritual experience) established by the Lingayat social reformer and philosopher Basava. She walked from the village of Udatadi, where she was born and lived till 25 years of age, to Kalyana, a distance of about 500km. If you check Google Maps, it shows that the journey can take 111 hours on foot along the SH6, or about 11 hours on the NH52 in a car. I think of Mahadevi walking in a medieval landscape of woods and villages, the details of which are impossible to imagine, covered only by her long hair. Kalyana became her home for a while, and she gained a reputation as a Shaivite renunciant and composed the luminous vachanas or verses brimming with longing for her chennamallikarjuna (beautiful lord, beautiful as jasmine), Shiva. Her vachanas are replete with love for her chosen deity as well as all of nature, and display an acute understanding of her location in the natural world.

Chirping parrots, have you seen, have you seen?

Koels singing in high notes, have you seen, have you seen?

Sporting and playing bees, have you seen, have you seen?

Swans playing next to the pond, have you seen, have you seen?

Peacocks playing on hills and in caves, have you seen, have you seen?

Tell me, if you have seen or not,

Where Chennamallikarjuna is.

It is as if her inner universe radiates into the natural world around her through these verses. What is this deep resonant relationship that women renunciants had with the natural world, which begins with the act of stepping over the domestic threshold and making oneself one with what we now refer to as public space? It is perhaps not imprudent to say that the women saints of medieval India, who renounced ties with home, family and children and became ascetic-wanderers, are the earliest examples of female resistance to social norms. In this, they are one with their foremothers, the Buddhist nuns or theris who lived in communes, most likely in the 300 years between the 6th century BC and 3rd century BC and composed verses, which were brought together in Pali in the Therīgāthā. Like the ancient Buddhist nuns, the resistance of the medieval Bhakti saints too began with the act of walking, and continued in their wanderings, travelling on foot through inhospitable landscapes and along villages and city roads, living on alms, residing in communes, and giving upadesh along the way.

Indeed, once the renunciant/spiritual woman stepped over the threshold of her home, there was no possibility of return. As historian Vijaya Ramaswamy writes in Walking Naked: “Female asceticism, unlike its male counterpart, was without exception, the path of no return.” And yet, despite being aware of this fact, throughout history, there are accounts of women renouncing the life they knew to live in the great wide open as renunciants.

SHORN OF TRAPPINGS

Despite being separated by two centuries and thousands of kilometres, Akka Mahadevi and the 14th century Kashmiri mystic Lal Ded seemed to arrive at similar choices, both spiritual and creative. Lal Ded’s vakhs, or utterings, are redolent with the freedom one feels when shorn of domestic trappings.

I hacked my way through the forests

until the moon woke up inside me.

The sky’s breath sang through me,

dried up by body’s substance.

I roasted my heart in passion’s fire,

and found Shankara.

In all accounts about Lal Ded’s life, historical or contemporary—and it must be kept in mind that we know precious little about her—one story finds repeated mention. As a young woman who was married early, she was charged with carrying out a chore that thousands of women in India continue doing to this day—fetching water for the household. Lal Ded would leave her husband’s house every morning but instead of filling her pots and coming right back home, this free-spirited young woman would cross the river and make her way to the local Natha Keshav Bhairav temple, and sit praying till the evening. She would go home as dusk began to fall, and, as a consequence, earn the ire of her mother-in-law. She did this day after day, and the abuse at home continued. I imagine young Lalla when I read this account, crossing the river at its narrowest and shallowest point, gathering her skirts up around her knees, leaving her pots behind by the riverside. I imagine the crisp air, the sun shining, the birds chirping as she makes her way up to the temple and loses herself in her meditation.

At the age of 25, it is said that Lal Ded left her husband’s home, and took to the streets, wandering naked and singing her vakhs. So powerful were her words that contemporary Sufi poets of Kashmir wrote about her as did authors of texts on Tantrism. She was Lalleshwari to Hindus and Lal-arifa to Muslims. As Ranjit Hoskote writes in I, Lalla, 258 vakhs attributed to Lalla have circulated widely and continuously in Kashmiri popular culture from the 14th century. The male historians of Kashmir between the 15th-17th centuries largely ignored this remarkable woman though her words have lived on in popular culture. 

Also significant is the fact that not one of Lal Ded’s predecessors, male Shaivite saints, were renunciants. They practised their devotion even as they lived the lives of householders. For a woman, it is not possible to renounce the world and remain at home; she cannot exercise that privilege. The choice was clear. And as a result, we have the richness of Lal Ded’s verses, full of love for her lord and her wonder at the natural beauty of her land.

ALONE IN THE STREETS

Nowhere is the conflict between the domestic space and the public domain as stark as in the life of the 16th century Bhakti saint from Rajasthan, Meera. Born in a Rajput house near modern Ajmer, she was married in 1516 to the son and heir-apparent of Rana Sanga, ruler of Mewar. The life of a married woman whose primary function was to reproduce was not for Meera. She “transgressed” repeatedly and declared her love for Giridhar Gopal, or Krishna. She visited the temple and sang and danced without a care for the propriety expected of a married woman in a Rajput household of a certain status. As Shama Futehally writes in In The Dark Of The Heart, perhaps her “worst transgression” was that she mingled with other devotees, many of them men, and some from lower castes. After the death of her husband and her father-in-law, Meera left home, became a mendicant, visited many of the sites associated with the life of Krishna, and composed the bhajans we read, sing and listen to today. Like the songs of Akka and Lalla, Meera’s too are an amalgamation of several dialects, which could be easily understood by unlettered women.

In their insightful essay, Mirabai In Public Spheres (Women’s History Review, 2023), Ritu Varghese and Akshaya K. Rath make the point that Meera “nurtured her bhakti in the public domain” because in the domestic space, she was terrorised. Indeed, there are many accounts of how Meera’s husband’s family tried to end to her life—she was served poison, sent a snake, and provided a bed of nails. It was in the temple and the streets that she was safe.

The anecdotes we have received and continue to repeat about Meera’s life have themselves become live locations of female resistance and dissent. The same can be said for the life accounts and songs of Akka Mahadevi and Lal Ded. Located in the public space—in the woods, on streets, by the riverside—these accounts push back against the heteronormative social and familial expectations of a woman’s life playing out in within her household, and provide alternatives that brim with spiritual and physical adventure. The power behind this alternative imagination is the fact that these three women have been venerated through generations and their words continue to live on in the minds, hearts and lips of women. Imagine the power they have in giving women the belief that to step over the domestic threshold might, in fact, be imperative for a more important journey to begin.

The anecdotes that speak of the moment when each of these women left this world suggest such an imagination of being liberated as well. Lal Ded climbed into an earthen pot, pulled another over herself, and disappeared. Akka Mahadevi vanished in a flash of light from the cave in the forest where she resided at the end of her life. Meera was drawn into an embrace by an idol of Krishna and never seen again. Their earthly journeys at an end, they had stepped over another threshold and walked on.

Arpita Das is founder-publisher of Yoda Press and visiting professor of creative writing, Ashoka University.

Also read: The women who heeded Gandhi's call

Next Story