An excerpt on matriarchy from Romila Thapar’s “The Future in the Past”

Elections 2024
05 May, 2023

In “Why Did Ancient India’s Matriarchy Disappear,” an essay from The Future in the Past, a collection of writing published by Aleph Books in April, the historian Romila Thapar reflects on the history of matriarchy in India. The following excerpt from the book examines the approach of the Brahmanical and Shramana sects towards women, as well as how Aryan orthodoxy—whose unit was the patriarchal family—supported the position of the male.

Seeing the past in a long duration but as creating the present, a relevant question remains as to whether there was once matriarchy in India and did it disappear? This is what I am touching on in this essay. Probably yes, as it was in many societies that have slowly moved to patriarchy to a lesser or greater degree. One cannot make a pronouncement in the singular and apply it uniformly to the entire subcontinent. There are regional differences. Even within a region there sometimes are strong variations among different social groups. What we need to accept is that although matriarchy/matriliny only remains in small pockets, often tucked away, its imprints have not been wiped out. We occasionally meet them in unexpected places. Nor do we have to argue that there was a linear evolution of matriarchy from earlier societies mutating into or adopting patriarchy, as was the popular view a century ago.

Kinship patterns at the base of matriarchy/matriliny and patriarchy can coexist or can vary or one of them can fade giving way to other. History does not provide an answer but there is much in the material and textual remains from the past that makes such questions relevant. The variations in kinship pattern are often explained as due to conquest by foreigners or imitation of a different pattern, but the question remains as to why it was adopted—local considerations, a society flexible in adjusting to change against well-established norms, the demography of gender, or patterns like the relations between polyandry and the status of women can be among the causes.

Kinship as a lens through which to view early societies made an impact on social history as well. The question asked and is still inconclusively answered is whether early societies were matriarchal/matrilineal and then changed to patriarchy, or have societies always been either one or the other. There has been much discussion on this in relation to the earliest Indian societies. Women could have authority over the extended family or the small community. This may have had an element of matriarchy but did not involve women as rulers and it is unclear whether descent was traced through women. These two features are characteristics of matriarchy as a socio-political system. It can be extended to the context of moral authority as well. The attention to matriarchy is less because it is associated with early history and evidence of its having existed and preceded patriarchy is uncertain. 

It has been argued that in the hunter–gatherer societies of prehistoric times, women took care of the settlement and the children, and were responsible for gathering wild crops and plants for food. They tended to become the decision-makers in terms of where to settle and how to distribute the food. Since food was crucial, those who distributed it would come to have power. In addition to gathering uncultivated food, the hunting of animals for food [became] equally if not more important. This is thought to have been a male occupation. Gradually, therefore, the authority of the women in society was curbed and that of the men increased.

The use of the term matrilineal is more frequent these days and refers to tracing descent through the female line, and to power being directed through the activities of women. Elements of this may lie in customs such as bride price as a form of marriage, where the groom has to give substantial gifts to the family of the bride before being accepted. There are vague references to what seems to be bride price in some of the stories in the epics.

It is sometimes held that the worship of the mother-goddess in a society is a pointer to matriarchy. If that is so, then there is evidence of female figurines in the Harappan culture. Whether these were deities and had a ritual of worship is uncertain, although arguments have been made to support this idea. Female deities in the Vedic texts are not of major importance, especially when compared to male deities. It would have been a religion geared to patriarchy and would also be supported by other facets of such a society.

The Brahmanical religious sects were strongly patriarchal and were in confrontation with Shramanic sects, mainly Buddhist and Jaina. The Brahmanical sects gave little freedom to women in the form of personal choice and social activity. The code of social behaviour as set out in the Dharmashastras and enjoined on Hindu society made it clear that women had virtually no freedom as they were to be controlled by their father, husband, and son, in the three phases of their life as daughter, wife, and mother. The Shramana sects were much more liberal in the freedom they allowed women. There was an initial controversy about whether women could become nuns. But soon after, this was allowed, although permission from the husband was required of married women. Shramana texts present a picture of women being active in social life.

In the Hindu case, there is a curious contradiction where the woman has little freedom as she has to observe Shastric norms, nevertheless the same society observes an intense and almost desperate worship of the female goddess. The deity is all powerful and is adorned by all the symbols of power. The worshipper is abject in his worship of her. Yet this is not referred to as a matrilineal society but one that is asserting patriarchy. 

In subsequent history, there are variations in degrees of freedom for women. But despite some concessions in special cases, the essentials of matriarchy did not exist. The governance and administration of a political entity was not in the hands of women although occasionally women did succeed to the throne, with hesitant control. Lineages recording power going through matrilineal descent were rare. The history of certain Upanishadic teachers identified by their mother’s name was known but not common. Such markers of identities were not the norm. Women do occasionally comment on the morality of ascetics but moral authority was rarely in the purview of women. Property was equally rarely owned solely by women. However, some did have a minimal ownership of property because they are known to have made donations to religious institutions, as for example in the construction of stupas. In medieval times, royal women or wives of the wealthy donated wealth to temples and some religious buildings. This was charity and not strictly a secular ownership of property. The women had no control over the use that this wealth was put to.

Women at the two ends of the social spectrum possibly had a freer life, but for different reasons. Those of the elite were symbols of status where freedom was in any case more for effect than for actual function. Those at the very lowest occupation where they either laboured themselves or assisted their husbands in their work, such women were also relatively more free except when the mores of the upper castes reached down and their freedom was curtailed. For example, what did rules such as forbidding women to touch the plough or the wheel of the potter do to their self-esteem? Women laboured in various occupations but had no control over the result of the labour. It was the women of the middle castes who loyally followed the rules laid down for all women. 

It is thought by some that there was a time, many centuries back, when matrilineal societies were the accepted initial social pattern in the Indian subcontinent. This was in the days before the coming of the Aryans, who brought with them a patriarchal culture. Vestiges of the matrilineal system have remained and are met with more frequently in peninsular India or the northeast, where the impact of Aryan culture is thought to have been less. 

Initially, the arrival of the Aryans soon after 1500 BC perpetuated the system of clan societies in northern India. Despite the patriarchal form, the fact that the clans were nomadic pastoralist, moving from place to place with their herds of cattle ensured an equal status for women, as is suggested in the early hymns of the Rig Veda. But as the Aryans moved into the Ganga plain, cleared the forests, settled in village communities and changed from being pastoralists to agriculturalists, the patriarchal element was asserted. The unit of Aryan society was now the patriarchal family, with authority invested in the eldest male, and lineage being traced through the males in the family. This was coupled with the fact that property was inherited by the sons and not the daughters. The increase in the status of the male led to a proportionate decline in the status of the female.

Excerpted with permission from Romila Thapar’s The Future in the Past: Essays and Reflections, published by Aleph Books.


Romila Thapar is Emeritus Professor of History at the Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi. She is a Fellow of the British Academy and holds an Hon D.Litt each from Calcutta University, Oxford University and the University of Chicago. In 2008, Professor Thapar was awarded the prestigious Kluge Prize of the US Library of Congress.