Thursday, March 19, 2020

Women of Kuru: Then and Now

According to Buddhist texts, people in the region of Haryana (i.e. ancient Kuru) were known for their health, virtuosity, wisdom and competence to engage in deep Dhamma talk. There is mention about how when women met at communal wells, they would enquire each other about the progress in their Dhamma practice. Xuanzang found that people of this region were naturally honest and held high esteem for religious wisdom.
The situation since then has changed drastically. This state now records the lowest sex ratio in India - 877 females to 1000 males. This indicates a preference for male children which is not uncommon anywhere in India but more pronounced in some regions.
On the 4th day of my foot journey, in Gandhinagar (Yamuna Nagar District), I was introduced to a lady who inspired me with her heritage awareness work. Smt Veena Devi lives with her husband, Shri Krishna Lal Saini, and their three married sons. Her husband is a government employee about to be retired while herself she looks after the house and the cows. I was told by my local facilitator Shri Surinder Saini, a heritage activist from Topra Kalan, that Veena Devi and her husband both are followers of the teachings of the Buddha. They believe that their community, the Sainis, and Shakya clan in Haryana are descendants of Emperor Ashoka. Veena ji lives close to Chaneti where a stūpa was excavated in 2005 belonging to the Kushana period (2nd century CE). Ever since its excavation, Veena ji visits the site regularly and offers prayers. “This heritage belongs to us and by offering prayers at this site I do my bit in making it a living heritage,” she expressed. Veena ji was initially alone in her endeavour to revive the sanctity of this site but gradually managed to sensitise her neighbours and relatives about the importance of this piece of heritage. She has now gone so far as to organise communal celebration at Chaneti Stūpa site on the occasion of Vesak Purnima (the day of the birth, enlightenment and mahāparinirvāa of Buddha). I was curious to know if Veena ji knew about Mahāprajāpati Gautmi - who facilitated establishment of the Bhikkhuni order and became the first Bhikkhuni (nun). It seems she did not.

Smt. Veena Devi accompanied by her daughter-in-laws gets ready to give the interview while our filming crew set up the equipments. 

Veena ji introduced me to her daughter-in-laws (bahu) - Deepa Sakya, Tina Sakya and Priya Sakya - all in their twenties. They were feeling shy to present themselves with their father-in-law in the room. It is an old and common tradition in India that daughter-in-laws observe purdah (literally meaning curtain) where they seclude themselves from male elders in the family as a sign of respect towards the elder males. Veena ji and her daughter-in-laws make a nice team of women working for heritage preservation. Veena ji, although her illiterate, proudly told me that her daughter-in-laws were well qualified. Among them, Priya, even knew about Mahāprajāpati Gautami. Priya told me that she would be taking her first Vipassana meditation course sometime soon.
During my stay at the village of Topra Kalan, about 10 kms away from Veena ji’s place, I saw a message put up on a board at a public school which I felt describes the situation of the girl child aptly: Girls make the world bright, but still struggle to see the light. My curiosity was aroused in the school and I went inside to meet the students and staff. I was surprised to find that girls outnumbered boys in this school - 179 girls to 140 boys. The English teacher, Smt Bhupinder Kaur, told me that girls do better in academics compared to boys. Smt Karunalata, the Hindi teacher, added that girls participate in the cultural activities of the school more than boys. Boys have to be motivated, sometimes even compelled, to be involved in extracurricular activities. Smt Bhupinder Kaur, who has a son and is expecting her second child now, tells me that she is worried and literally praying that her second child should not be a boy as well.

School teachers, Ms. Karuna Lata (third from left) with students Ritika and Prachi and Ms. Bhupinder Kaur (third from right) with students Neha and Madhu stand next to a message which highlights the difficulty faced by women in Haryana and many other parts of India in receiving education. 

My local host, Shri Surinder Saini, tells me one reason why there are more girls than boys in government schools. The reason, not such a happy one, is that people do not want to invest in the education of girl children as they are destined to get married and go away to live in their husband’s home or have very bleak chances of utilizing their education to earn for themselves and the family. Since government schools provide education free of cost or at extremely nominal cost, parents send their daughters to these schools to get educated namesake while sparing themselves of expenses of the education. 
Early in the morning, school children await their bus along with a grandfather. 

Shri Surinder Saini, my local facilitator, had a contrasting attitude to the issue of the girl child. With two sons and no daughter, he felt that his family was incomplete. Therefore, he adopted a girl - the daughter of his brother-in-law who has two daughters. I asked Surinder ji why Haryana had such a high rate of female infanticide. He thinks it is because parents of daughters have to get their daughters married away and in so doing, submit to the demands put by the groom’s family. This puts the parents of daughters in an inferior position and any parent would like to avoid it if they can

L-R: Somesh (eldest son), Surendra ji, Shivam (2nd son), Ansika (adopted daughter), Saranjeet, Suman (daughter-in law)

Some candid moments

Young girls in Rakshera village
A common sight in Haryana and throughout India - enterprising women creating opportunities for economic upliftment of their families and sending their children to study in schools. 
Everywhere in rural Haryana, I noticed women brining fodder in carts. Regardless of their age, all of them observed the purdah.
This is Soni, who runs this roadside snack stall from 5 am till 7pm on the outskirts of Panipat every day. After having my breakfast at her stall, I said thank you to her, to which she replied 'welcome.' I had not expected to hear this, so i asked her in surprise whether she  had studied in school, and came to know that had finished class Xth.
A group of ladies on their way to attend a marriage ceremony. When i asked for permission to click a photo of them, they gladly posed with their musical instruments and a few of them even performed a few dance moves.
Women at work at Edict Park at Topra Kalan village commemorating the site of the Ashokan Pillar removed from here and installed in Delhi in the 14th century.

The gate of school showcases the statues of two female deities Lakshmi and Saraswati revered in Hindu tradition for the accomplishments in education and arts. 
In the early morning hours, i would spot many women starting their day's work. 

Girl children made to sit together to be served food with extra care during the communal meal on the occasion of Mahashivratri Pooja.

                                           Story chronicled by Dr. Aparajita Goswami 

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