Veiling in the Maratha Empire

by Mr. A_B

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History of veiling laws in the Maratha Empire :

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1) Puneri style:

The Puneri style of veiling put simply, is the wrapping of a scarf covering the mouth, nose and  forehead, with two ends tied in a double knot behind the head. Usually the scarf is worn with the hair tied into a bun, to give the knots balance and firm grip over the face. It is the most widely practiced veiling style in the empire practiced mostly by the hindu population of the empire, in India, Thailand, Malagasi and Java island of Indonesia ( the latter also comprising of a large migrant population from Southern India ). Though the origins of the style are not clearly known, most anthropologists of the empire ascribe the origins of this particular style of veiling to the period of modern industrialization between 1884 and 1930. This was also the period post the renaissance revolution, when women's position in society began to improve. Among other things, women were allowed to work with their husbands in coal mines and textile industries which began to flourish around this period. But the exigencies of work in the factories meant that the women had to cover their faces against the dust. Initially, they did this by simply wrapping the pallu of the sari to cover their faces and head tying it over the forehead. Overtime, this was done by a separate scarf, the dupatta, a fashion which came into vogue around after the first world war ( 1908 – 1918 ).

However, modesty laws were not yet passed, and the Maratha parliament was committed more towards social modernization following the model of Japan and the Soviet union, but counter-pressure from orthodox sections of Maratha society went head on against the rising tide of progressive women's rights mobilizations. Ultimately, a compromise of sorts were settled in whereby, the free interaction of women and free choice would be checked by a 'promise' to wear unrevealing clothing including veils and saris or salwars, and modesty measures which would include veils and on a case to case basis voice and arm modesty measures. Not surprisingly, a good number of women of the first free generation did not adopt the freedoms provided at the time, and were more than willing to implement voice-modesty and arm-modesty measures which used preferably soft gags like white tape and arm-modesty measures most popular among which was simple scarf ties. These weren't accepted as much in the overseas territories however, but the hindus of Jakarta in particular adopted it with vigour, both the local and migrant populations, in part as a means to restrict women's interaction with indigenous muslim communities.

In the present day, the style has spread into practice even among muslims and Christians of the empire, though most practitioners are Hindus and Buddhists. It has become most commonly associated with young scooty riding girls who veil to protect themselves from pollution and heat. The typical young Marathan female would dress with arms covered with satin gloves and wear either western clothing or indigenous salwars and saris, in addition to the veils. A more recent modification to the design, though not as much in vogue, has come as a result of influence from the conquests of muslim countries, where the eyes are covered with an under-veil. However, certain local variations of the main style are found all across the empire, in particular in the Northern districts outside of the immediate cultural influence of Maharashtra in the peninsula. Punjab has developed its own style using the dupatta as a 'ghunghat' (which means simply draping the cloth over the head drooping down to the chest covering over the shoulders), over another scarf tied as an under-veil. The Punjab has been considered a bastion of conservatism, and voice-modest measures are most commonly used here.

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A young Punyanagari college girl in Puneri scarf veil
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A lady in Puneri veil going to the bazaar

2) Bengal syncretic:

The second most popular style of veiling after the puneri style is the bengal – syncretic. Though it would be quite a misnomer to call it as a veiling style per se, it evolved more as a method of syncretizing different styles of veiling which were found practiced within Bengal and neighboring regions. The naming of “bengal-syncretic” style of veiling took place mostly because of its origins being in Bengal, and of its syncretizing hindu and islamic fashion within Bengal. Thus, the bengal style alternates between a combination of a Jilbab and Puneri style veil for the niqab among muslims, and a sari and a 'headband' niqab among some hindus. The method was fluid enough to be exported and adopted in East Africa and most of South East Asia, where similar combinations were found which combined niqabs or jilbab or salwar garments with other local clothing variants. Yet another interesting combination was of the Victorian corset and umbrella skirt with the puneri veil and niqabs. A style seen most commonly among anglo-bengalis, anglo-burmese and other anglo-Indians in the sub-continent. More interestingly, the style crossed the seas and found itself being accepted in Britain as well! Some credit the existence of present day veiling laws in Britain to the influence of the 1,500,000 strong English community in the Maratha empire.

The origins of the style are shrouded in mystery, and the fact that it has gone through so many modifications over its allegedly 500 year existence, anthropologists and historians alike are at a loss to spot its exact source or origin. But the people of Bengal ascribe the origin of veiling practices to a particular Bengali folk legend which is popular throughout Eastern india. Around 500 years ago, there lived a King of the Shahi dynasty who had brought in a slave from East Africa. The slave would become a soldier of fortune, and eventually depose the ruler to become the Queen of Bengal. Her 24 year rule is considered as 'the dark period of Bengal' because it was a period of unbridled tyranny and anarchy.

It is said that she was jealous of the beauty of the Hindu women of Kanthai village, and had ordered all the women be kidnapped and murdered under her custody. But in a show of solidarity with their Hindu counterparts and under the guidance of a sufi peer named Saccha, the muslims of the village dressed them in islamic fashion, hiding their faces. However, both hindus and muslims still wore the sari which was the local garment of choice. Concerned with the dilution of their hindu identity, continued to wear the sari, but also veiled using the niqab. The Queen suspicious that the women must have fled to other villages, initiated pogroms there as well. But much to her dismay, other villages incorporated the style from Kathai village, hiding their women in veils. Throughout her reign all women chose to cover for their own security, till the time she was overthrown. Thereafter, she herself donned both the veil as well as physical restrictions befitting a slave. However, bulk of the population of bengal having been accustomed to veiling, decided to keep the style, and eventually improvised on it more and more. Thus was born the bengal-syncretic style of veiling, entirely as a custom and till date untouched by law.

 In the present day, the liberalization of women has seen the appeal of the style reduce somewhat, but not as dramatically. Bengali society is considered more liberal and more 'westernized' than the rest of the empire, and a seat of high quality education. This has been more due to the influence of prolonged British rule, the viceroyalty was only handed over to the Marathas in 1980. It has been estimated in a survey across the empire that still around 60% of women in Bengal continue to veil, but only 15% use modesty measures of any kind. That proportion is higher in rural areas than in urban areas. Within the urban centres of Dhaka, Calcutta, Chittagong and Murshidabad, the most avid practitioners of the veil are the migrant population of peasant-workers who come from villages to work in the cities. In the districts of Orissa and Bihar however, the Puneri style dominates but with some influence from Bengal. The style has travelled along with trade from Bengal to South East Asia, Balochistan and East Africa where the syncretic fashion has rooted itself.

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A hindu woman from Calcutta wearing the sari-niqab combination
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Muslim women in Sylhet wearing a puneri influence niqab style with shawls

3) Chadri style:

The third most popular style in the Maratha empire is that of the Chadri style, which originated from Persia and Afghanistan (now renamed Gandhara) around the 17th century. Its spread is found across most of Central Asia, Persia, Gandhara and Iraq ( East and West ). The style mostly involves a long garment ( called the Chador )  draped over the head, covering the forehead and hair entirely, but leaving the face open, which is covered by another garment known as the ruband. The ruband flows down to the feet covering the face and eyes and is tied at the forehead with a band that is attached to it.

 A Turkish variant called the Carsaff is derived from this and is popular in Turkey as well as among Turkish populations in the Maratha Empire's western dominions. At present the style is still widely practiced among Gandharis, and people of the Turkmen dominion and most widely in Iraq. However, only in Iraq has this been combined with bondage measures like masks with silencers and arm-binders. Persians practice modesty measures, but not as widely as their Iraqi cousins. Within Gandhara a new innovation introduced some time after the Maratha conquest, stitched the ruband and the Chadri together to form a garment called 'the burqa', has been gaining popularity. It has been estimated by the empire wide survey, that around 12% of women use the burqas as against the usual Chadri style. Mimicking the Iraqi example, some extremist mullahs have been successful in wrenching out local laws from the Maratha authority there, which have mandated the use of voice-modesty and arm-binders.

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Typical Persian dressing with ruband and chador
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Typical Gandharian garment the burqa with two grilles for the eyes

4) Northern Buddhist:

The most unusual style of veiling in the empire is the Northern Buddhist style. Tibet, Nepal and Bhutan which account for around a third of the empire's Buddhist population, and are home to this unique style of veiling. The origins of the style emerge from the cold weather of the himalayas and Tibetan plateau, as well as from monastic customs which view the women as necessarily isolated. Unlike the sub-continental mainland of India, these regions have not felt much of the impact of the social reforms, thus some outmoded practices continue particularly in Nepal, which is the seat of the Northern Dominion, encompassing the three territories of Nepal, Bhutan and Tibet.

This style of veiling involves a sheet of metal draped over a rather ornate headpiece placed like a crown over the head of the wearer. The folding plates would then be folded down till they cover over the face completely. In some villages of the western reaches, there is an additional cloth tied smugly over the face over which the headpiece is worn. The women of the hills generally wear pretty ethnic jewellery including bangles and thick necklaces. In Nepal the veil has a slightly more modest variation, which still employs a metal headpiece but has sheer scarves flowing from its sides. The cloths are simply wrapped over the face covering over the eyes as well as nose and mouth, and tied at the back of the headpiece. A more elaborate version of this is used by Hindus of Nepal during wedding rituals.


Peasant Buddhist girl from Sikkim

5) Arabic style:

Before the 'fascist purges' of the late 19th century, muslims accounted for around one quarter of the population of India. Presently they account for less than 8% . Though relations are much better now than they were before, their population continues to decline with only that of the Bori community increasing. The Arabic style of veiling using a niqab and bushiya was practiced mostly by them, but fell out of favor in the late 19th century. Presently, only the Muslims of West Punjab, Kashmir and two overseas territories namely Somalia and Oman practice this style.

 The style was once most common among muslims in the sub-continent *( excluding Gandhara ) but now is in fact the least common, as most Muslims have now adopted either the Bengal-syncretic style of veiling or the Puneri style, so that they may blend in more easily into a harsh and apartheid society. However, a good majority of Muslims within the sub-continent are ultra conservative and force their women into both veiling and bondage. Cultural isolation from hindus is encouraged within the Muslim community. Around the turn of the century many fled to Somalia, Oman and East Africa, influencing the fashion in those parts of the world. Whilst in Somalia the locals adopted the Arabian style of veiling indistinct from the Indian practitioners, in other regions it was syncretized with local styles as well as with influences from Puneri and Bengali styles.


A muslim family with female members veiled in Peshawar

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