Looking Back

Five extraordinary Indian queens who have been reduced to mere footnotes in history

Writings on early Indian history ignore that women too were prominent rulers and builders.

There is a distinct gender bias in the writing of early Indian history, a consistent attempt to “invisibilise” women so that their role and presence is met by a vast silence or, alternatively, trivialised. They are usually treated as an undifferentiated group on the periphery, irrelevant to the main historical narrative. When one looks at the sources, however, an entirely different picture emerges, where women are rulers, court participants, donors, builders and occupy a range of other prominent roles.

The five queens discussed below are stellar examples of extraordinary women who have been ignored or relegated to mere footnotes in writings on early history.

Nayanika/Nagarnika, wife of Satakarni I (c.180-170 BCE) of the Satavahana dynasty of the Deccan

This powerful queen was a princess of the Maharathi family whose father controlled the western coast. Satakarni apparently owed his sudden rise to imperial status to his matrimonial alliance with Nayanika. Nayanika, to underscore her pivotal position in the political sphere, performed Vedic sacrifices and directed state affairs after her husband’s death as regent for their son Vedashri. She also featured prominently in the Satavahana coinage. An excellent example of this is a silver coin with the impressions of Nayanika and Satakarni I bearing the words rano satakarni in the centre and naganikaya inscribed in a rectangle. This numismatic evidence serves to complement her Naneghat inscription in Pune district that records her prowess and her husband’s victories.

It is pertinent to note here that the associations of women with coins in early Indian history are usually ignored or only fleetingly mentioned in most works that purport to examine numismatic evidence related to specific dynasties or in general historical analyses. Ironically, though, such evidence could be used very effectively as an entry point to examine the role and presence of women in early history.

Sugandha (CE 904-906) of early medieval Kashmir

Sugandha’s marriage to Shankaravarman (CE 883-902) of the Utpala dynasty catapulted him to an exalted political status since she belonged to a powerful family. Kalhana’s Rajatarangini, a chronicle of Kashmir’s history from the earliest times to Kalhana’s own time or CE 1148/49, is an important source for Sugandha’s history. It documents her as having accompanied her husband on military expeditions and being a force to reckon with.

On Shankaravarman’s untimely death, she displayed admirable sagacity by concealing the fact of his death till she was ready to take on the guardianship of their young son, Gopalavarman, and rule the kingdom as a regent. She subsequently began to wield formal power as a ruler at the behest of her subjects – a testimony to her popularity. Maintaining herself on the throne by cleverly conciliating varied political groups in court, Sugandha extended her forays into power politics, which resulted in her dethronement. She did, however, make an abortive bid to regain power in 914. Sugandha’s coinage is an important corroborative evidence of her power and refers to her by the masculine epithet sri sugandha deva.

Didda (CE 980/1-1003)

She represents female power at its vibrant peak in early medieval Kashmir. Hailing from the politically prominent ruling family of Lohara and being the granddaughter of the powerful Bhima Shahi, Didda commenced her pursuit of power in Kashmir as a regent. Her rule of nearly 50 years spanned her husband, Kshemagupta’s (Yasaskara dynasty, CE 950-958) lifetime, the period of her regency and her reign as a formal sovereign. That Didda exerted considerable influence on the ineffectual Kshemagupta is attested to by his coins where the di prefixed to his name (di-kshemaguptadeva) is intended as an abbreviation of hers. On Kshemagupta’s death, Didda assumed guardianship of their son, Abhimanyu.

The Rajatarangini indicates Didda’s growth to power and political maturity by tracing the establishment of her undisputed rule in the land, particularly after Abhimanyu’s death. The shrewdness of her schemes for safeguarding her power – as in her alternate bribe-and-placation policy and her disposal of her grandsons who stood between her and the throne – resulted in her becoming the formal ruler of Kashmir. Didda’s rule was one of peace and prosperity, marked by a strong and effective administration. The coins that she issued as Kashmir’s sovereign refer to her by the masculine epithet sri didda deva, whereas the inscriptions of her reign refer to her by both male and female epithets.

Vilasadevi, wife of Vijayasena (c.1095-1158) of the Sena dynasty of early medieval Bengal and Bihar

She had a palpable presence in the contemporary political and economic sphere. Although Vijayasena is regarded as the real founder of the Sena fortunes in Bengal, it was his marriage with Vilasadevi, a princess of the Shura family of Apara-Mandara which seems to have catapulted him into political greatness. Vijayasena was, therefore, able to conquer nearly all of Bengal on the strength of his newfound power.

Vilasadevi was not a passive partner in this alliance, though. She is mentioned in the Sena inscriptions as a land grant executor and she clearly possessed significant financial resources of her own with the will to disburse them as she pleased. There is epigraphic evidence of her extensive donations of land to priests and other donees, as well as a record of the grand religious ceremonies she organised. Significant among these was her performance of the tulapurusha mahadana, which was usually performed by founders of new dynasties of tribal origins seeking to augment their newly-won political power – and, thus, a male prerogative. Her inclusion in this list clearly transgressed a gender dictate.

Prabhavatigupta

She was another prominent queen of early Indian history who is virtually forgotten in the main historical narrative or appears as a grudging footnote in it. Daughter of Chandragupta II of the Gupta dynasty (c. CE 375-413/15), she was married off to Rudrasena II of the Vakataka dynasty of western India (CE 380-385). Rudrasena died shortly thereafter, leaving Prabhavati with two infant sons, Divakarasena and Damodarasena. Swiftly assuming the role of regent, she took over the reins of the Vakataka state and ruled for around 20 years in an extremely competent manner, closely allying herself with the Gupta political interests and quelling the misgivings of naysayers around her at court.

While Chandragupta II appears to have advised her in the running of the Vakataka kingdom, Prabhavati is also supposed to have extended her support to her father’s campaign against the Shakas, which resulted in further territorial acquisitions for the Guptas. Details of the Gupta dynasty along with those of the Vakatakas are routinely mentioned in the copperplate inscriptions that Prabhavati issued. These, along with her coins, form important sources for her reign.

Invisible women – all of them – but clearly visible.

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