[A picture of a woman from the Gupta Period wearing an Avagunthana]
‘Sanskrit Non-Translatables: The Importance of Sanskritizing English’ by Shri Rajiv Malhotra and Satyanarayana Dasa Babaji has put forward an idea of the non-translatability of Sanskrit terms.
“It has become a device for protecting key ideas from getting distorted, plagiarized, or allowed to become obsolete “.
Through the study of Sanskrit Non-translatables, prominent terms existing within other sections of Dharma appear clearer and are easy to grasp even in their original and true Sanskrit form.
A very well-known practice in Bharat is the so-called veiling or headcovering of married women. In Hindi, it is known as Ghoonghat. The Sanskrit origin of Ghoonghat is Avagunthana (2). There is a wide vocabulary of words for Avagunthana in the earliest forms of Sanskrit.
Avagunthana was a cloak-like covering of the upper part of body, Uttariya was a covering till the shoulders, Adhikantha Pata was a covering till the neck and Sirovastra was a covering simply for the head (3). Adaptation of different terms was possible through Ghoonghat also. Through regional transmission and change of language, words like Ghungta, Ghumta, Orhni, Laaj, Chunri, Jhund and Kundh were accepted as synonyms for Ghoonghat.
Habitually, it is quite simple to call Avagunthana a cloak-veil, Uttariya a shoulder-veil and so on. However, it distorts the very core purpose of Avagunthana and its synonyms. Whenever there is a pujan ceremony in the household, married women and men are expected to cover their head, as a cloak or till their shoulders, neck and head as per their wish.
Unmarried girls and boys and children are not supposed to do so. The reason behind this is that, during a pujan ceremony or Yajna, energy is catalyzed and effects the Sahasrara Chakra at the top of the head of the married couple due to the exuberant life energy during that period. The apparel used for this purpose is Avagunthana, non-translatable to ‘veil’ or any other English word. This practice is followed in Hindu society till date.
This apparel has another logical purpose. Women of the royal or rich households wore Avagunthana in a different way to conceal their beauty. It also became a way to protect their hair from being ruffled by the breeze. This was known as Jālaka, another non-translatable term. Jālaka is an apparel of a net, a beautifying form of Avagunthana (4). As you cannot take away Sindoor from a bride because it is a title that she is married, you cannot take away the Avagunthana from a married woman. Due to practical reasons, Avagunthana can also not be imposed on a married woman as Sanatana Sanskriti has never done so.
Mrrchakatika by Śudraka, Pratimānātaka by Bhāsa, Abhijñānaśākuntalam by Kalidāsa, and even the Ramayana provide many references to this idea. In Abhijñānaśākuntalam, when the heroine arrives at King Duhsanta’s palace, seeking to take up her wifely status, the king first remarks “Kā svid avagunthanavati” meaning “who is this one with an Avagunthana?” and immediately forbears to look at her, with the words “Anirvarnaniyam parakalatram” meaning “The wife of another is not to be inspected.” This largely indicates that Avagunthana was a sign of a respectable married woman (5).
In Valmiki’s Rāmāyana, Rāma asks Sitā to unveil herself so that the citizens of Ayodhya could look at her before their departure for the exile in the forest. After this incident (in context of the exile) Sitā does not unveil herself. This makes it clear that royal women avoided public gaze and wore an Avagunthana, or Jālaka, along with the purpose of beautifying their coiffures (6).
For royal and married women, Avagunthana was a title. It showed that married women are to be respected. There is a phrase used in Mrrchakatika: “Vadhuśabdha Avagunthanam”; meaning the title and Avagunthana of a bride (7).
Ghoonghat has another purpose and a different story. Hindi adaptation of Avagunthana, Ghoonghat was made compulsory at a particular time of the medieval period due to the continuous harassment of Hindu women by Muslim invaders. Imposition of Purdah in certain sections of society by the Muslim administration brought along many changes. The idea of women being subordinate to men under the growing influence of Sharia laws and the Purdah system was mostly being imposed onto unmarried women as well. Women were taken away, harassed, raped and tortured (8). Society adopted Ghoonghat as to keep Laaj (pride) and dignity of women upheld. Ghoonghat was not a way of showing inferiority of women. It was a way to accord them respect.
Page 336 of Dharma Shastra Itihas Pustak says that initially Māhākāvya depicts Ghoonghat (influenced by the Purdah Pratha) only in some royal households, when it became compulsory. On page 337, there are two reasons given for the compulsion of Ghoonghat: i) to provide protection to women. ii) to save them continuous harassment. (9)(10). The never-ending Islamic barbarism , eventually led to constraining the appearances of Hindu women , leading to a form of orthodoxy for women in Hindu families. Even though not largely recognized, this harassment and torture of women back in the medieval period by the Muslim invaders has left a huge impact on Hindu women and their position in the society. Ghoonghat was imposed and the idea of inferiority of women grew among the villages. It still may affect the lives of women in the villages. Avagunthana was for dignity. But Ghoonghat became the reason that women need to be given dignity.
Today’s Feminism will never be able to engage with this issue in any sane manner. Avagunthana has not vanished from the culture because brides in Bharat still wear the Jālaka form of Avagunthana (11).
Defiance of the Ghoonghat is very common. Yet, it is very important to understand that the Ghoonghat is not an imposition of the Sanatana Sanskriti.
We change the way we look at the case of women empowerment. We should remember that Avagunthana provided a title and respect to a married woman. Reviving that sense and purpose of Avagunthana is important to understand the Sanskrit and the Bharatiya perspective of women and society.
- Quoted from ‘Sanskrit Non-Translatables: The Importance of Sanskritizing English’
- en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ghoonghat (ETYMOLOGY)
- Govind Sadashiv Ghurye (1951) “Indian Costume” page 236
- Sulochana Ayyar (1987) “Costumes and Ornaments as Depicted in the Sculptures of Gwalior Museum” page 152
- Laurie Patton (1961) “Jewels of Authority: Women and Textual Tradition in Hindu India” page 81
- Anjani Kant (1951) “Women and the Law” page 43;
(Ramayana : 2/33/8) Referring to Ram and Sita’s exile, it is said that even the birds flying in the sky are not allowed to see Sita’s face and today the entire population of Ayodhya is going to look at her. This clearly explains that royal women avoided public gaze and were expected to wear a Jalaka.
- (7)Laurie Patton (1961) “Jewels of Authority: Women and Textual Tradition in Hindu India” page 81
- Dennis Kincaid “Shivaji: The Grand Rebel” Page 10
[…they (Mughal soldiers) hunted down the Hindu peasantry, destroyed the crops, carried off the women and the boys, …]
- Dr. Pandurang Vaman Kane “Dharma Shastra Ka Itihas” page 336
- Dr. Pandurang Vaman Kane “Dharma Shastra Ka Itihas” page 337
- Referring to wedding ceremonies