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

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.

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.

Keywords: ancient india matrilineal gender