Women in the Charyapada

by Abdul Bashir

Historically, Bengali women have lived a life without autonomy. This essay—based on this premise—intends to illustrate the deprivation of womens;s autonomy and voice from the earliest known Bengali oral tradition: The Charyapada. The text, as we will see, documents the heterogeneous ways in which women were removed to the margin. This includes the subalternity of working women, the sighs of those whose love remained unrequited, the melancholy of courtesans—dombis, chandalis, shabari yoginis; the everyday hardships of shudinis (wine-makers)—the killings and sexual violence committed upon these women (namely by landlords, in-laws, husbands,)—the lists go on. Hence, the text—though largely a metaphoric anthology of hymns sung by Buddhist sages (known as the Siddhacharyas)—contains panoramic pictures of those times that insinuate some historical truths. The very first thing we come to notice in theCharyapada is the condition of working women’s lives:
ek seyshunDinee dui gharey sandhya/
cheeawNbaakaloabaruNibandhya// [Footnote 1]
(Charya 3)
Modern English Translation : There is one female wine-seller. She enters
into two houses. She ferments wine with fine barks.

a) ganga jaoonamajheyNreybahoinai/
tahiNchuRileematangi-poi-aa leeley par karey-i//
b) wahtu Dom-bee lo-ey Dom-bee baTawtey vail uchhara/ [Footnote 2]

(Charya 14)

Modern English translation: a) Oh! The boat ferries between the Ganges and the Jamuna. Ascending on its board the chandal woman [spelling mine] takes the drowned easily to the opposite shore. b) O dom woman, steer thou. O dom woman, steer thou. It became afternoon on the way. Of the two excerpts, the first recounts the wearisome job of women in the process of wine-making, while the latter shows how boat(wo)men of the time tediously rowed their vehicles for a living. [Footnote 3] Normally our social norms lead us to perceive women as inherently and femininely passive. They are usually seen as shyly distant and home-oriented, but this is also true that such feminine passiveness has a long history of its own—a history of sheer subjugation and gender violence. The reason for this subjugation was further cursed by their economic poverty. And because their life is primarily what was so threateningly at stake, what seemed most convenient for them on the question of survival is finding themselves in perpetual everyday labor. Be it at home, or in the outside world.

Women of the time could not have lived off their husbands; their financial situations did not allow them such privilege; thereby making it inevitable for them to go beyond their household and work in coercive places where their feminine traits would soon fall off. Interestingly, Brahmins were intolerant of such women: ‘In a society where Brahmin ideas, rituals and disciplines were dominant epistemai—where yajnas were important, it was normal to have a sense of apathy and disdain for lower class working people.’
[Footnote 4] This is why a large segment of women became more and more undignified in that era. Poverty makes people go out of their comfort zone and earn a living in the bleakest of environments—we can locate this archetype in medieval Bengali literature, especially in the story of Ishwari Patni. This is true in relatively modern cases, as well. Even today, those living in slums, working in fields and factories cannot afford to stay in parda (inside) and be comfortable with a homely ambience. Historically, Charyapada’s women are early legatees of this scenario. They took up the roles of weavers, produced changaris (round-shaped containers made of bamboo) and sold them in the bazaars. In Srikrishnakritana we find imageries of Radha selling curds, and Phullara selling meat in KalketurUpakkhyan.

The Charyapada exemplifies the history of asymmetrical power relations in which economically bankrupt women were abused. Never finding a place of honor in and access to the Bhadra (refined) spheres, they were made into untouchables, helpless, and therefore outcasts, finding themselves exiled and making habitats in the high hills. But yet, they were victims of the elite people’s perversion. Researchers have supported this proposition: ‘[…] Rather, elites often took advantage of their poverty and crowded their homes with enormous fixations. Therefore, the irreverence that these texts show us is a fitting image of the time…’ [Footnote 5] This may well be displayed from The Charyapada:
chhoichhoi jai so bamhonaRi-aa// [Footnote 6]
(Charya 10)
Modern English Translation: O dom woman, thy hut is outside the town:
thou goest repeatedly touching the Brahmin and the Buddhist ascetic. (or
the Brahmin lad.)

We can understand the fact that Brahmins were one of the few dominant groups in that society, and they visited these women promiscuously beyond their wedlock. And these women—the dombis, shabari yoginis—were most obviously and helplessly, courtesans. An eminent researcher justifies this interpretation:
Brahmins were something more than powerful governors of society; their own social practices were more lucid than those assigned to other caste groups. Further, the laws were meticulously imposed so that their social hegemony stays largely unquestioned, and this allowed them to point their finger at other castes. For instance, Brahmins could not eat from Shudras; but in special cases, exceptions were made as long as a sense of repentance (for the social mingling) was there. Jeemutbahan states: If a Brahmin (those not married to themselves) impregnates a Shudrani, he cannot be held morally responsible for it; instead, it would signify nothing but a social gaffe. It was only a matter of repentance that could resolve this ‘issue’. However, so far as reality is concerned, the Brahmins and Shudras did not marry one another. Commingling among castes was not the norm. The lack of it gave impetus to licentiousness. Annotator Srikrishna further justified this action. He altered the meaning, saying ‘those not married to another human being’ instead of ‘those not married to themselves [italics mine]’’. Hence, it was less ‘sinful’ to have sexual relations with Shudranis than to marry one. [Footnote 7]

In other words, everything about social and personal life was met with the dominance and hegemony of Brahminism. [Footnote 8] It may then be assumed that the wretched of the earth, the Pukkush, pulinga, kambaj, jaban, shumya, shabar—were infected with hideous poverty, pain, sufferings, emptiness, misery and everything unjustly experienced by (wo)Man. It was part of their living memory. [Footnote 9] Siddhacharyas masterfully depicted these memories in the form of metaphors, in every Charya.

khawnawnawchhaRaw-aw bhusukuawherii//
tin nawchhupawihoriNaapinoinawpaaNee
horiNahoriNirnilaw-aw NawjaaNee//
horiNeebolaw-aw horiNaasuNhori-aa to/
ey bon chhaReehohuvanto//[Footnote 10]

(Charya 6)
Modern English Translation: The deer is the enemy of [her] own flesh. The hunter Bhushuku does not leave [her] for a moment. Here, reflecting on the imagery it is not difficult to read ‘deer’ as a metaphoric substitution for women. Women too—in resonance with the hunter imagery—were ‘hunted down’ by feudal lords. Like deer, women did migrate from one place to another in fear that they may be subject to violence. However, we do not have a well-documented record of this. We do not numerically know how many of them were raped and killed at the hands of the feudal merchants. [Footnote 11] The narrative is quite obviously still relevant today. Raping women was common for bandits; we may find the historicity of it in the given Chariyas:
1. bangeyjayaNilesipareyvageltohorviNaNa//
ad-avu-a bhavmohareydisai para apyaNa/[Footnote 12]

(Charya 39)

Modern English Translation: You have taken a wife in Bengal. Your science has fled to the other shore//Oh! Strange is the infatuation of existence. It shows not the self as the self.

2. a) vaaj Nav paReepNauaakhaleyNbahiu/

adaw-aw bangaleykleshluRiyu//
b) aajibhusukubangaleevailee/
ni-aw ghariNeechanDaleeleylee/[Footnote 13]

Modern English Translation: a) Launching the boat of the thunderbolt. It was steered in the canal of the Padma. The Bengal country of non-duality was looted. b) O Bhusuku, to-day the Bengali woman is born. Your own house-wife taken [sic] by a Chandal. [italics and spelling mine] Here we again realize the bandits’ infliction of sexual violence upon women, while the second charya discloses the raping of women by several Chandals. The imagery of Bengali women being raped is historically undeniable. Once upon a time, pirates—who were into many forms of illegal business—found themselves non-consensually indulging in women's company and trafficking them in other regions of the world. Women from other townships were sold here, too. Consequently, especially in the Eastern and Southern (coastal) areas – Khulna, Barisal, Comilla, Noakhali, and Chittagong – a lot of business centers emerged. [Footnote 14] The 16th and 17th centuries saw an assemblage of Portuguese and Magh pirates, paving their way to the seaside towns, who—both from the Arakan and Bengal region—bought and sold women abductees. One can easily decipher the fetishization of women in these historical epochs, that is, how they were reduced to mere objects of desire. Is it any different today? We think not. The social landscape finds its lineage from the Ancient to (even) modern periods of Bengali literature. A retrospective study of Bangladeshi people under the poverty line shows the social place of married women. For instance, Charyapada highlights superstitious in-laws amidst the coldest of household scenarios: susuranidgelobohuReejaagaw/ kaneTchoreynilokagayiimaagaw//
raatibhoileykamarujaayaw/[Footnote 15]

(Charya 2)

Modern English translation: The father-in-law fell asleep. The daughter-in- law is awake. The rag was taken away by the thief, where shall she go to beg? At day-time the daughter-in-law feels afraid of the crow. When it is night, she goes to Kamarupa. Here it seems the daughter-in-law is heavily guarded and is made sure she does not go out to spend time with other men. Maybe a sense of tremendous paranoia was at play that enabled their confinement within four walls. Also, other reasons include that it is likely to have stemmed from the dominant discourses of feudal social relations; perhaps the free roaming of the bandits; maybe that it was nothing more than an imposed quarantine from those in power; or that it was the obsolete paradigms of their in-laws (father/mother)—their superstitions and insularities which prevented them from acting freely. We may contemplate the sexual promiscuity of these women to be coming from a long natural history which barely complies with ‘civic’ law and order. But whatever the case, attempts were made by feudal lords and Shastrakars to put an end to this. And no matter how repressively laws were imposed, the common man’s beliefs and inherent ethical understanding of the world functioned beyond these hegemonic domains. [Footnote 16] Now, let us take a look at how conjugal violence was also part of the time:

maeymariaakahnvaiawkabalee//[Footnote 17]

(Charya 11)
Modern English translation: Killing the mother-in-law the husband’s sister and the wife’s sister in the house, lilling the mother, Kanha became Kapali.
1) hNauniraseekhamaNvataarey/
mohorbigoyakahaNonaw jai//
2) feTaliu go ma-eyantuRi chahi/
ja ethuchaham so ethunahi//

3) pahilbiaaN mor basana-pooR/
naRibi-aaranteysevvayuRa//[Footnote 18]

(Charya 20)
Modern English translation: 1) I am without sensual desire. I have a monk (or void mind) as (my) husband. My sexual pleasure cannot be expressed. 2) O mother, I was delivered as I saw the lying-in-room. What I see here is not here. 3) My first delivery is the son, Desire. He too became miserable at the time of ascertaining the umbilical cord. Here the patriarch has violently killed his in-laws. The second couplet…The heart-rending wail of a wife abandoned by an indifferent husband is worth noting here. There are no medical facilities arranged to relieve the helpless pain of a mother giving birth in the separated home delivery room. Her life is a constant state of privation and all her hopes are destined to be exhausted. Even in the crucible hours of delivery the boundless joy of a couple seeing the face of the newborn for the first time is not shared by a Bengali woman. She is even deprived of desiring for a son. Needless to mention the husband who after injecting the baby in her womb has run away to avoid responsibility in the face of poverty. In his novel “PatherPanchali”, Bibhuitibhushan almost identically delineates this picture. In a similar fashion, prostitution taken up by Bengali women due to poverty is also observed. She disgraces herself and ends up being a money grubber by employing her deceptive wantonness to prey on people of all classes. Charya-18 bear witness to this scenario:
Modern Bangla version (transliteration):

OgoDombee, kirokomtomarchoturali,
Tomarontekulinjon, majhkhanekapalik.
OgoDombee, tomardarashobkicchubicholitoholo.
Kaajnei, karonnei, (tobu) chondroketoliyedile!
Kaeukaeutomakebirupba mondo bole,
Kanhopaadgailen (tumi) chondalikaamchotura,
Dombeercheyebeshicchinali (ccholonamoyi) nei.
O you Dombi, how deceptive is your wantonness,
You make do with the nobles, never dispensing with the Kapalikas.
(You don’t discriminate between the noble and the kapalika)
O Dombi, everything is perturbed because of you.
No work done, No vindication, yet you did waver the moon!
Some people reproach you,
Still the wisemen never just let you be.
Kanhopaad sings you low-caste coquette,
Who is craftier than Dombi.

Therefore, from this Chorja, it becomes apparent that, Some of the Dombi’s had to take up prostitution to earn their livelihood. They had no other means to survive. For this reason wise persons never observe them in an unsympathetic lens. Rather those who don't feel the reason behind their intrinsic misery, call them coquettes or artful etc. This is relevant to this day. The women of low-caste are not only identified as coquettish or guileful sex, rather the domain of identification is widened to acknowledge their role as rich felicitous beloved in the perimeter of their normal lives. Charya itself provides this kind of representation:

In modern Bangla
Dombikebiye kore punorjonmoholo (kinbajonmoshofolholo)
Joutuk kora holoonuttordham.
Dibaratrisurotproshonge jay,
Yoginijale (yoginidershonge) raatpohay.
Dombirshonge je yogi onurokto (hoy)
Khonomatro se shohojunmotto (sei dombike) ccharena.
The sound of victory jetted up in a frenzied drum;
Kanhopaad was going to marry Dombee.
It was but a rebirth, (a life fulfilled)
The unanswering sky was the dowry.
Days and nights were spent in making love,
Entangled with the Yoginis, the night passes
He who is enamored of Dombi,
Cannot endure a moment's distance.
We have seen that in some cases these poor Bengali women could develop
and serve themselves as incomparable lovers, given the natural
environment of life. The sagacious men have also been blessed to accept

their warm hospitality. For this reason, a sage like Kanhopaad has fulfilled his life by getting himself married to Dombi. He is as fascinated by her behavior as he is madly in love with her sexually and does not part himself even for a moment from reveling in her physicality. Whatever may be the nature of Shadhon-methodology spoken of here, it can be said that Kanhopaad’s rebirth is the result of his sexual gratification with her. This is mirrored in Charya-4:

In modern Bangla:
Tin taarer (meghla) cheyepe, Yogini alingon de.
Komol o kulishghentebikalkor.
Yogini toke cchara ek muhurto-o amibachine.
Ami tor mukhechumudiyekomolroshpaankori.
Guguribolcchen, amisurotkorme beer.
Noro-nareermoddheami (bijoy) potaka tule dhorlam.
Upon these three strings, do embrace me Yogini.
Stir up the lotus and the thunder to dull the noon.
Yogini I do not hope to live one moment without you.
He on lotus-dew has fed who kisses you.
Guguri said, I am the champion of consummation.
I hoisted the flag of victory between man and woman.

Here in an unstrained social relationship, the act of kissing the heroine uninhibitedly and its poignant perception to drinking lotus-dew corresponds as happiness to the hero. By means of this free and uninhibited gratification, the hero truly achieves the absolute success of the representative selves of men and women. That is why impediments created by the mother-in-law are absent and ineffective here. In other words, in the normal environment of life, the life of these Shabar-people is full of happiness and prosperity. Where there is no oppression of the upper class, no caste-based social order or the fear of superstitious in-laws and an opportunity to freely choose a quality spouse on one’s own, there the dignity of women has been preserved and maintained through the successful fruition of love and intercourse, despite the constant presence of vicious poverty among men and women of the Bengali lower castes. This Charya is the realization of that; it is also realized that the Bengali society was once a land of authentic humane liberated love and enhancement of beautiful minds. But unfortunately with the intrusion of Aryan culture, that independent entity of Bengali society was lost and was replaced by days of trials and tribulations. Bengal's own secular practical social insight conceded defeat to the Aryan culture, leaving only its faint signature in the daily etiquettes, rituals and the projection of feelings. Despite extensive efforts at Aryanization, the entire mass of Bengal did not immerse itself in the Brahmanical social structure. Communities such as Kol, Dom, Jola, Hari, Chandaletc remained outside the caste system as untouchables. And by exploiting their poverty, the wealthy and lascivious perpetrated unspeakable oppression on them. It is this image that has spread out from Charyapada and has been expanded on in the middle and modern period of Bengali literature, specially in the Mymensingh-ballads and modern novels. This is why commenting on Bankimchandra's novels and Rabindranath's short stories Nirad C. Chaudhuri said, “In Bengali society or in Hindu society, attraction towards one’s maid was the most abhorrent form of sensual indulgence. No low caste women of respectable moral virtue or impoverished women of noble birth could be safe in the presence of their masters. Rabindranath has written and demonstrated this cruel reality in the story 'Danger of Ulukhar'. And Bankimchandra showed first how male-female can elevate their relationship even at this level” In a nutshell, in order to trace the position of women in Charyapada, we have highlighted the images of deprivation of women’s rights in Charyapada in the context of determining the relationship of Bengali literature with the burgeoning Bengali society and the nation throughout the ages. Once Bengali people inhabited a society which was naturally free, mixed, poor and caste-neutral. Consequently, women's lifestyle and mental processes as a whole were habitually free and independent. But if we look at the process of Aryanization in the projection of time, it can be understood that the ancient kaumas or community lost their independent and distinct kaum status and were continuously cast aside as untouchables within the scope of the Aryan caste system. Therefore, as part of this endangered society, women are seen to be the first to be oppressed, brutalized, victimized and humiliated. Starting from bandits they became victims of equally greedy lascivious rich merchants and feudal lords. In this vicious circle they generally became poor, untouchables, profane, kol, dombi,chandali, shabari, cchinali or ill fated sex workers. From this, their position in the subjugated society can be easily guessed, within the scope of poverty and subjugation, they sometimes became veiled Muslim women, sometimes the exotic adolescent concubines of harem or self-surrendering amorous Devdasi or mother-ma'am-madam etc. Therefore, the position of Bengali women in Charyapada is naturally immersed in the misery of subjugation, possession, oppression, humiliation, rejection and is all around fragmented. And it is against this subjugation, oppression, humiliation and deprivation that Siddhacharya's horse revolution took place. Since they could not break through the strong wall of social oppression through face-to-face protests, they have chosen the indirect path of metaphor. Most of the office holders are Brahmin-caste … That is why we see some of the Siddhacharyas converting from Brahmin to Bengali and getting married to lower class women. This process is also a kind of mental protest or revolution. Poets like Kabir Dadu, Parsi poet Hafiz, Rumi, Omar Khayyam and Sufi-Vaishnab-Baul poets of Bengal were the chief forces behind this kind of disruption. They used Bhaktism, Mayaism, Humanism, Nirbanism etc. as an indirect tool to transcend the regimentation of the society. On the other side of the coin, these Sadhana-bhajan or Sahaj- darshan are perhaps nothing but the lamentations and grievances of the helpless and the weak. Because just like a defeated person who tears his hair out or throws his arms and legs out of desperation and bangs his head against the wall – the Siddhacharyas, unable to bear the grief of defeat, banged their heads against the wall of poetry. Being unable to hurt the unjust society, he hurt himself; Being unable to destroy the strength of the powerful, he wounded his own strength; Being unable to dictate the society, he wanted to dictate his own heart. This decadent society does not value humanity, does not allow the hope of happiness to germinate, does not allow the desire for pleasure to be gratified, the motivation to create life is also thwarted here. This perception of real life was transmitted by the Charya-composers into their mental apprehension. And in this overall atmosphere, helpless Bengali women by taking up antisocial occupation in order to survive, have flung their hatred against the so-called upper class. This upsetting picture is also reflected in the Bengali literature of the Middle Ages and modern era.


1. Atindra Majumdar, Charyapada, Publisher, Barindramitra, Naya
Prakash, 206, Vidhan Sarani, Calcutta 6, 5th revised and enlarged
edition 1400, p. 99
2. Ibid. p. 112
3. ArvindPoddar, Manabdharma o banglakabbyemoddhoyug. Publisher,
Anup Kumar Mahindar, PustokBiponi, 27 Beniatola Lane, Calcutta-9,
Fourth Edition; October 1994 p. 7
4. Arvind Poddar, ibid. p. 7
In this context, Syed Ali Ahsan said in his book Charyagitika,
"Chandali would ferry people across by their boats. It is a picture of
the employment of poor people in the society of that time. Chandal
women used to ferry people by their boats and that was their source
of income. (Publisher, Bashir Al Helal, Director, Publication, Sales
Department, Bangla Academy, February 1984, Falgun 1390 Dhaka, p.
5. Edited by Muhammad Abdul Hai and Anwar Pasha, Charagitika,
Publisher, Muhammad Liaqatullah Student Ways, 9, Bangla Bazar,
Dhaka-1, Fourth Edition: Ashwin, 1396 AD, Rabiul Awal 1410 Hijri, p. 50
6. Atindra Majumdar, ibid. p. 107
7. Arvind Poddar, ibid. p. 7
8. Atindra Majumdar, ibid. p.24
9. Atindra Majumdar, ibid. p.26
10. Atindra Majumdar, ibid. p. 102-3
11. In this context, Syed Ali Ahsan said, "In Sanskrit literature, we
have found the image of immense wealth, the miraculous story of
prosperous civil life. In Charyagithika, I first heard the cries of weak
people, abandoned in society, suffering from hunger and thirst.
12. Atindra Majumdar, ibid. p. 142
13. Atindra Majumdar, ibid. p. 153
14. Nihar Ranjan Roy,BangalirItihash (Part One), Publisher,
Sudhanshu Shekhar Dey, Dej Publishing, 13 Bankim Chatterjee
Street, Calcutta 700073, First Dej Edition, Baishakh 1400, Second
Edition, Ashwin 1402, p. 41
15. Atindra Majumdar, ibid. p.98
16. Gopal Halder, Bangla Sahityerruprekha, Publishers, ArunaBagchi,
Aruna Publications, Jugal Kishore Das Lane, Calcutta-6. First edition,
1st Baisakh, 1400, p. 28
17. Edited by Muhammad Abdul Hai and Anwar Pasha, ibid. p. 89-10
18. Edited by Muhammad Abdul Hai and Anwar Pasha, ibid. p. 114-15
19. Atindra Majumdar, ibid. p. 117
20. Atindra Majumdar, ibid. p. 118-19
21. Edited by Muhammad Abdul Hai and Anwar Pasha, ibid. p. 71-72
22. Arvind Poddar, ibid. p. 4-5
23. Mamtazur Rahman Tarafdar, Itihas O Oitihasik, BanglaAcademy,
1995, p. 31
24. D. Atul Shur admits that the society and people of Bengla were
once free and independent. Alexander (325-326 BC) heard of the
kingdom of the Gangaridis. That means Bengal was independent till
the time of Alexander. Soon after this, Bengal lost its independence.
For, from an inscription at MahasthanGarh, we learn that North
Bengal was included in the Maurya kingdom, as the Maurya emperor
Chandragupta held a staff in Pundravardhana Nagar. Aryan culture
seems to have penetrated from this time. Bangla O BangalirBiborton,
Atul Sur 2nd edition, 1994, p. 165
25. Arvind Poddar, ibid. p. 23

Professor Dr. Abdul Bashir, Dean, Faculty of Arts, University of Dhaka, Bangladesh, along with his college professor and poet Shourav Sikder, director at Scandinavian Study Centre, Dhaka University, was on a literary visit to Europe on an invitation from Litteraturcentrum Uppsala. They took part in literary program to mark World Poetry Day and the 100 years of Stig Dagrman’s birth at the Uppsala City Library on the 21 st March 2023. In this event, professor Bashir talked about the first literary rudiment of Bengali language. Professor Sikder took part in a panel discussion on ‘Stig Dagerman International’.

Ett internationellt litterärt magasin från Litteraturcentrum