India has largely been an agrarian civilization, naturally endowed, to be so. The holding of land for agricultural purposes and farming on it, has been the main vocation. The key resources and wealth in an agrarian society are
- Good Seeds
- Cattle for farming
Women played vital role in aspects which were the mainstay of an agrarian society.
Women and Water
For agriculture to succeed, copious water is required.
India has bountiful rainfall every year during the monsoons. This water needs to be harnessed for use through the rest of the year. All across India, much of South East Asia and other parts of the world, through the ages, it is the women, who have stood in the forefront of efforts that ensure the proper harnessing and use of water,
- in their own houses
- in their farmlands
- in the society.
They have been part of and instrumental in the construction and maintenance of the over 10 lakh community based, water harnessing systems, spread out across the face of this land. These were repaired and maintained every year as a process, for sustaining the fertility of the land through the ages.
This process of giving sustained fertility to the land, through water harnessing is called Pushkaram, which is why the water tanks in every village, near temples, is called Pushkarni, meaning that which gives fertility.
How did women help in bringing this fertility to the land?
Women, by nature, like to adorn themselves with jewellery and hold it as their family heirloom. Women, generally, do not part with their jewellery or gold.
But, we find that, all the way from ancient to medieval India, women have happily parted with their jewellery and donated them voluntarily as a monetary contribution for the construction of water harnessing projects and also to maintain them through the centuries and millennia.
This voluntary contribution of their Stree Dhana, demonstrates that women were not only physically involved by offering their labour or Shram Dhaan but were also emotionally involved in ensuring the fertility of their land.
The women understood the role of water as the root cause of prosperity and being the people who handled it maximum, they assumed the responsibility to ensure its availability for their families and their land.
India had honoured this connect between women and water by naming all its rivers with feminine names, with the exception of a few.
Women and Water Connect
Women and Seeds
It has been a common tradition amongst Indian farmers, through the ages until even today, to have the seeds to be sown, handed out by the woman of the house, at the time of sowing.
While today it may have got reduced to a mere ritual, the practice has been a natural role of the women. Post the harvest, it was for the women to identify and isolate the best grains from the harvest and preserve them for sowing during the next season.
Women handpicking the best seeds for the next crop
She took on and played with an inborn flair, the role of storing the grains, for consumption of the family as well as seeds for sowing.
The seeds, Bheeja were stored and safeguarded from rodents, in a separate silo within the house itself. These were called Orai in Tamil, Kanaja in Kannada, Gummi or Gulivi in Telugu and Kushool in Hindi. The women were well versed with native techniques of not only identifying the best of grains for sowing, but also of preserving these seeds from rodents, germs and decay.
To this day, the seed banks in the villages of India are literally manned.
Women in charge of seed banks in Indian villages
This was and continues to be her share of responsibility in ensuring the quality of the next crop.
Women and Cattle
Cattle, which has been another key input to farming was revered, not just for its physical role in ploughing. The ancient knowledge base of India was very evolved scientifically and had scientifically found the dairy and waste output from the cattle to be of immense value in farming, medicine and dietary practices.
Hence cattle has held a special place in the eyes of the Indians, as one of the forms of wealth of the land, for a long time.
Cattle were symbols of prosperity and fertility. While cattle were referred to as Gomatha – i.e as a Matha or Mother, in the form of a Cow, the task of looking after this mother, was also an inborn natural activity for the women.
It was the woman of the house, who looked after the family cattle.
Her close bonding and involvement with the cattle, as also the respect she accorded to the cattle, is evident in the innate Indian practice from age old times, of women dressing up the cattle with flowers and other special anointments and praying to them for prosperity before embarking on important activities.
Even to this day, this practice continues in some of the traditional homes in India.
That, the cattle and other animals of a household were associated with the lady of the house, is evident from various mantra in the Rig Veda uttered during the time of a marriage.
As the bride and the groom go around the sacred fire, walking 7 steps and exchanging vows to solemnize their marriage, in the 5th step walked together, the husband promises to make her cows and animals grow in strength and numbers.
It is important to note that he promises to make “her” cows grow in numbers, implying that she had cows belonging to her alone.
So, the cows she comes with and acquires from her husband later on, also belonged to the woman of the house and were her Stree Dhana.
The Fertility Chain linked by the women
Thus we see that women have held, looked after and nurtured the assets of the family and land, especially those, that were associated with fertility, which led to prosperity.
The fertility Chain
Indians refer to the earth as ‘Bhooma Devi’ . In Indian systems of knowledge, Earth or Bhooma Devi alone, is referred to in a feminine gender form, as she is the only planet in the solar system on which life has sprouted. Earth is fertile. All other planets in the solar system are referred to in Masculine forms indicative of the fact that they do not bear life or fertility.
This fertile Bhooma Devi was under the care of women as land was also held by women as we have seen in the concept of Stree Dhana.
Majority of the rivers of the land, the cause for fertility of the land, also have feminine names and we see that the harnessing of the waters for agriculture and sustenance, was defrayed by women voluntarily from their own Stree Dhana.
The seeds were under the care of women.
The cattle were under their tender and loving care too.
Thus, besides giving life to her own children, women have cared for and nurtured all that go towards maintaining the fertility of the land in an Agrarian society.
The women were thus, a key and integral part of this fertility chain.
More in our book, Breaking The Myths – About Society.