Ghoonghat: The Veil of Shame by Tanvangi
Ghoonghat, ghunghta, ghumta, orhni all essentially mean the same. A piece of cloth, (it could be a dupatta or the loose end of a saree,) used to cover a woman’s head and especially her face. This practice is mostly followed in parts of Rajasthan, Bihar, Uttar Pradesh with some families in Madhya Pradesh also following this practice. While this practice is optional and purely by choice in theory, in practice, it is very strictly enforced in certain households. Some even go as far as to link this practice with family pride and honour with women who refuse to follow it being labelled as loose in character.
The notion that a woman belonging to a decent family will not leave the house with her face uncovered looks age-old at the first glance. This practice has been followed for many centuries in these parts of India and has now become a part of its collective culture. Let us take a look at just how old this practice is.
The word ghoonghat is derived from the Sanskrit word अवगुण्ठन which essentially means to conceal or cover. Most prominent Sanskrit dictionaries agree upon this part.
Despite this practice being around for centuries, there is no mention of a practice where women have to compulsorily cover their faces in any of our scriptures.
Manusmriti, which talks about all aspects of human life has nowhere said that a woman, when she steps out, should be veiled. Even the Dharmasastras are silent on this point.
Even in Vedic times, there was no system of purdah or a compulsory face cover. There is a Vedic marriage hymn that requires the bride to be shown to the assembled guests at the end of the ritual. It was further hoped that the woman would be able to speak in public assemblies right up to her old age. The presence of ladies in public gatherings was not only a common feature but was also a welcome phenomenon.
These three verses make it quite clear that there was no compulsory seclusion for women in Vedic times.
Kamasutra of Vatsyayan has described various instances of love unions where the to-be lovers met quite accidentally at parties or in a garden or at a show. An excellent example of an accidental meeting blossoming into a beautiful love story is that of Dushyanta and Shakuntala.
Maharshi Ved Vyas has described their first meeting beautifully in Mahabharata. Shakuntalaa’s beauty has been described in great detail. Plus, when Dushyanta approached her, he asked her, ‘Who are you? Whose daughter are you? Why are you here in this forest? How did you come to possess such astounding character and beauty?’ He further adds, ‘… A mere glance at you has enamored me…’
He is clearly enamored by her character and beauty. It would have been impossible for him to see her beauty had she been wearing a veil.
Even in Kalidasa’s Sakuntala, neither her friends nor Shakuntalaa herself, no one covers their faces while conversing with Dushyanta, a complete stranger. It is only in a later Urdu translation that Shakuntala is shown with her face veiled. But neither the original epic Mahabharat nor Kalidasa’s Shakuntala has any traces of compulsory veil.
Mahabharat doesn’t mention a compulsory face cover or a veil for its ladies anywhere in the entire epic. Draupadi appears in the gambling hall without any veil. Even if someone was to argue that she was not there voluntarily and was dragged against her wishes, it still doesn’t prove the presence of compulsory seclusion for women. Neither Kunti, a royal widow nor Gandhari the reigning queen observes any kind of veil while moving about.
Altekar in his book Position of Women in Hindu Civilization describes an incident from Mahabharata where, in the story of King Poshya, the student Uttanka proceeds to the Queen’s quarters to beg for her earrings to present to his teacher’s wife without any hassle. This would not have been possible had there been a purdah system in place.
Numerous instances in Ramayana also indicate freedom of movement for women without any need to cover their faces. When Sri Ram started for vanvas, there is a description of him being able to see his parents following him with a dejected expression on their faces. There is no mention of a veil on Mata Kausalya.
When Maharaj Dasharath invited Rishyashringa and his wife to perform Yajña, the description of Shanta nowhere mentions that she was veiled. In fact, she has been described as wide-eyed. The description of her eyes indicates the fact that her face was clearly visible for the royal ladies to see.
Altekar has again mentioned a couple of instances where the royal ladies themselves were moving freely in public. One is when Kausalya, Kaikeyi, and Sumitra went to Chitrakuta to induce Shri Rama to return to Ayodhya, they were moving without any veil.
Another instance is when Mata Sita is in the forest with Sri Rama, she is moving around without a veil in a forest infested with demons and enemies. In fact, she never changed her clothes. She put on the bark garments over her silk clothes. Again no mention of her removing or putting on a veil.
Ramayana tells us that when the country has a stable king ladies go out in the parks to play and for recreation. Again no mention of a veil being necessary for going out. Or indeed no mention of any seclusion for these ladies who were free to go out in the parks for recreation.
We also see Kaikeyi accompanying King Dasharath on war and saving his life during the same. This proves that she was not only properly trained in fighting techniques and wielding weapons but also that there was no compulsion for her to remain in seclusion.
Another instance from the Ramayana itself indicates that there was no compulsory seclusion even for the royal women. Just before Shri Rama set out for vanvas, Rishi Vashishtha, after condemning Kaikeyi, declares that Mata Sita will not accompany Shri Ram to the forest. Instead, she will sit on the throne prepared for him and will rule in his stead.
He further justifies his stance by declaring that the wife is the soul of every householder. Since Mata Sita is Shri Rama’s soul, she can rule this earth. If Rishi Vashishtha expected Mata Sita to rule in place of Shri Rama, then it’s quite clear that she was not only well trained in these matters but also that there was no necessity for her to remain in seclusion.
Now comes a controversial reference that is often cited to establish a need for seclusion for the ladies in Ramayana and Mahabharata. When Mata Sita and Shri Rama set out for vanvas, regret is expressed that the lady who had so far not been seen even by the spirits of the sky, should now become the object of the public gaze.
A similar observation is made even in Mahabharata when Dhritarashtra departed to the forest.
Does this mean that the rest of the time the women were forced into seclusion? No. We have already seen numerous instances where the women were moving around quite freely. Altekar calls this a later addition, a possible interpolation when the system of keeping women secluded was in vogue. But he also provides an alternate explanation to these verses.
Can this not be a poetic exaggeration, he asks. A Princess, the wife of the crown Prince, the to-be Queen of the land, is forced to leave the comforts of the palace and live a life of acute hardships. This regret that the lady who had so far not been seen even by the spirits of the sky could easily be a poetic exaggeration to heighten the pathos of Mata Sita having to leave the comforts of the palace. The same can be the case in Mahabharata as well.
These verses are talking about royal ladies. It is quite obvious that the royal ladies led a far more luxurious and sheltered life than the common ladies of the kingdom. In such a situation, when they had to leave behind a definite shelter, the comforts and luxuries of the palace life and life of a common lady is indeed tragic. So, these verses can easily be a poetic exaggeration to emphasize the tragicness of the situation.
There is a mention of a veil when Mandodari, Ravana’s widow, laments that her face is now uncovered and she is walking out of the city on foot. In the very next verse, she says that all of your ladies have come out in the open without a ghoonghat. Why does this not anger you?
This probably indicates that the Ravana’s family did have a compulsory veil for its women and hence Mandodari is distressed that she is out in the open without a veil.
But despite the fact that Mata Sita was given a new set of clothes and ornaments to wear by Vibhishan, she does not ask for a veil nor is it mentioned anywhere that she wears one.
The next controversial verse is the one where Shri Rama himself lists out situations where women could appear in public. Many use this to imply that in other situations women were forbidden to be seen in public.
It doesn’t make sense as we have already seen. Let us look at the context of this verse.
Vibhishan tells Mata Sita to take a bath and get ready in new clothes and ornaments as Shri Rama wished to meet his wife. When she is brought to where Shri Rama is, she is being protected by Nishachars and is sitting in a covered palanquin. The Rakshasas started moving the Vanaras who were obstructing the path at Vibhishan’s order. That’s when Shri Rama says the following. Neither the house nor the clothes protect a woman. Moving people away (so that they don’t observe her) is also not the way to protect a woman. The respect that she receives from her husband and her own character alone protects her. He then goes out to list the situations where women can appear in public (given the context of the previous verse, it is implied that women can appear in public in close quarters with other men. Otherwise, it was always prescribed that women should maintain a certain reserve while dealing with strangers. But then the same is said to men as well).
Bhasa, a renowned playwright in this play Pratima shows Sita as wearing a veil when Shri Rama and Mata Sita started off for vanvas. There she is asked to remove the veil so that the weeping citizens could have a parting glance of their Princess whom they adored so much. The widows of King Dasharath are also shown to be veiled when they visit the gallery of royal statues. This prevents even Bharata from recognizing them. This can easily be because of the then-current social norms.
Altekar observes that by the beginning of the Christian Era, certain sections of the society had begun to advocate greater seclusion for women, especially royal women. Bhasa is estimated to have lived around 200 CE. Even then this practice was not as wide-spread and was mostly restricted to only a few areas or families.
Kalidasa, who came after Bhasa, doesn’t mention a compulsory veil for his female characters in his plays. The plot of Malati-Madhava would have been impossible had the heroine been wearing a veil. The heroine goes to the temple where the hero sees her and falls madly in love with her beauty.
From Meghaduta we know that women of Ujjayini would often indulge in water sports when visiting the Sipra river for bathing. This would have been impossible had there existed a purdah system.
Even in Kathasaritsagara which was written towards the end of the 11th Century CE, there is hardly any trace of a compulsory veil of seclusion for women. In the story of Arthalobha, a lady is seen participating in the mercantile business. If we are to assume that plays reflect the then-current society, we can safely assume that compulsory face cover was not in vogue in most of society. Only a section of society advocated for it.
We find spirited young ladies like the heroine of the play Ratnaprabha protesting to her husband against his views that even his friends cannot enter her apartments. “I consider,” she says, “that the strict seclusion of women is a folly produced by jealousy. It is of no use whatsoever. Women of good character are guarded only by their virtue and nothing else.
Centuries before the heroine of Ratnaprabha opined this, similar sentiments were echoed by Gopa, the bride-elect of the Buddha. Lalitavistara describes the incident thus.
When advised to wear a veil, the spirited Gopa refused to follow it and observed that the pure in thought require no protection.
In the book India As Known to Panini, the writer observes that there were unmarried female mendicants who roamed freely as homeless wanderers. Again no purdah. However certain royal households kept their women secluded.
The same book lists undesirable students in which one malafide motive mentioned is this. Students joining the school for getting access to its female students. Women not only studied, but there was also co-education in some cases and it can be concluded that they were not veiled.
Some more literary evidence in favour of the absence of a compulsory veil in India until about the 10th century CE.
Yaun Chang was a Chinese Buddhist scholar/monk who travelled extensively in India in the 7th Century CE. He had given a detailed description of the Hindu society in the 7th Century CE but nowhere does he mention a system of the compulsory veil for Hindu women. His descriptions tell us about Rajyasri, the widowed sister of King Harsha who used to come out without a veil in her brother’s court.
The Rajatarangini gives a detailed description of the life in Kashmir court and palace during the period of 700 CE to 1150 CE but it doesn’t mention the purdah system anywhere in it. Abu Zaid an Arabian traveller who travelled in India in the early 10th century CE has noted that in most of the courts in India, queens appeared without any veils. This establishes it quite clear that the compulsory veil even for royal ladies was confined to a very limited number of royal families right until the 10th Century CE.
Although there was nothing akin to the purdah system in Hindu society, women were expected to maintain a certain amount of reserve when interacting with strangers. Although it was okay for them to receive male guests, they were relieved of this duty if the male relatives were present.
The only time women put on a veil was when they found themselves in a helpless situation. They would generally avoid stepping out or interacting with strangers in situations where their male guardians were absent. Like in the case of widows or maidens without proper guardians or women whose husbands had gone out on a journey. If at all they had to step out, such helpless women preferred veil when the guardians were absent and discarded the veils when the guardians returned.
Contemporary art doesn’t depict any kind of veil on women’s faces. Sculptures at Sanchi (2nd century BC) could see the procession from balconies of their houses without covering their faces.
The same is the case with paintings of Ajanta. Out of the many paintings there, none show a face cover or veil. In fact, the artists have spent a lot of effort in detailing the ornaments and the beauty of the ladies in the paintings.
In one of the paintings, we see Māyādevī seated in the open court without any veil when astrologers are being consulted about the implications of her dream.
The underlined portion is the description of the faces of various women in the painting.
In yet another painting, Vidhura Pandita delivers his sermons to royal ladies and none of the ladies has covered her face in this presence.
Both at Sanchi and Ajanta we see men and women moving together in streets and participating in worship at public places. Again no face cover visible.
Even if we were to assume that the sculptors found it difficult to carve out a veil on the faces of the sculptures and temple carvings and hence avoided it altogether in stone carvings, a painter will not have such restrictions. The artists at Ajanta could have easily painted a veil on the faces of the women in the Ajanta paintings. The fact that there is no veil on any of the women in the Ajanta paintings points towards the rarity or indeed complete absence of the practice in the Deccan area.
In the pre-Islamic Hindu society, there was a near-complete absence of the purdah parctice. It was practised by a very small percentage of people in some pockets of the country. Even in post-Islamic India, the practice is almost completely absent in many of the southern states with only the northern states seeing it as a norm.
In pre-Islamic Hindu society, there was no need for a daughter-in-law to keep her face covered in the presence of the family elders. Ghoongaht or face cover was neither a religious duty nor an ethical one. Face cover was always a choice, mostly for convenience and never an obligation. Although a face cover was not a compulsion, a daughter-in-law was expected to respect the family elders by bowing down at their feet. The purdah became a compulsion only after the advent of Islamic rule in India. It was accepted by the aristocratic families in imitation of the conquerors.
Northern India saw this practice take a firmer root in the local culture than the southern states simply because the influence of Islamic rule was much stronger there. The Hindus of Bengal accepted purdah around the 15th and 16th centuries. It became a common practice in ruling families of Rajputana and was regarded as a sign of prestige and high breeding.
Numerous other factors contributed to this practice taking root in the northern culture.
First and foremost was the constant wars that were happening since the invasions. Hindu life didn’t mean much to the barbarians who invaded. Looting of wealth rape of the local women indiscriminate killings was a norm for them. In a war-torn country, women were naturally forced into seclusion for the fear of their safety. The women who had resisted attempts of jealous spouses and orthodox members of the society who tried to link a woman’s character and modesty to a veil with replies like, pure in thought require no protection, willingly accepted the restrictions because the society around them had changed.
While Gopa’s surroundings afforded her some surety of safety, the women under Islamic rule were prone and vulnerable to attacks and abductions. Society as a whole was no longer safe for them because of the presence of barbaric elements who neither had the chivalry of the Sanatan values nor did they have any regard for human life.
A veil offered them some additional protection against the roving and covetous eyes of the soldiery. Also, literacy rates had dropped drastically among women. Marriage age had also been lowered for them. Constant wars meant unending deaths of the soldiers i.e. the men. With no end in sight, there was a demand for more fighters. This meant that girls needed to be married off at a very early age, especially in the post-invasion years.
Illiterate women were ill-equipped to fight for even basic rights. While the women in Vedic ages and even after that were expected to be able to carry themselves with composure and to be able to speak even in public gatherings, invasions pushed women into the seclusion of their homes. With their lives being limited to the four walls of the home, they no longer needed the education that was once deemed important.
The contemporary situation was such that the overall outlook of the society began to bend in favour of women being under the complete control of the men of the house. These factors contributed to cementing the concept of a woman’s character and dignity being linked to the veil that covers her face.
All in all, compulsory ghoonghat or a face cover is neither a religious practice nor it is advocated anywhere in the scriptures. Pre-invasion Hindu society was never a society where women were forced into seclusion. It was a society that respected women and valued them. Ghoonghat became a necessity and then a compulsion only after the barbarians invaded this land.
About The Author:
A student of finance with a passion for history. An avid but choosy reader, Tanvangi is an ambivert who chooses to be an introvert.