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Volume: I, Issue: I, July - December 2010



This article tries to focus on the various interpretations given by the historians on the term Ithījhakhamahāmātās as mentioned in the Rock-edict XII of king Aśoka (BCE 269-232). As the term relates to the post of the high official appointed by the king to look after the welfare of women, hence the article tries to contextualize the meaning of the term in the mirror of gender issues.

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Of the various measures undertaken by Aśoka (BCE 269-232), the third ruler of the Maurya dynasty, for the propagation of his dhamma, as vividly described in his Rock-edicts and the Pillar-edicts, we find mention of the appointment of various officials of several cadres such as dūtas, rajjukas, pradeśikas, aṅtamahāmātas, vachbhūmīkas, dhamma-mahāmātas and ithījhakhamahāmātās for various administrative measures but primarily for spreading his message of dhamma amongst people of his empire and even beyond the limits of his jurisdiction. Of these three are mentioned in the Rock-edict XII viz. dhammamahāmātas, vachbhūmīkas and ithījhakamahāmātāsi. The first two of these i.e. dhammamahāmātās (Skt. dharmamahāmātras) and the vachabhūmīkās (Skt. Vrajabhūmikas) clearly stand for the high officials in-charge of morality (dhamma) and the officials in-charge of cowpens respectively. However, there is no consensus on the meaning of the third, ithījhakamahāmātās (Skt. Stryadhyakshamahāmātras), which has been variously translated as “the Mahāmātras controlling women” [Hultzsch, 1925: 22], “Superintendents of women” [Buhler, 1892: 20; 1894: 470; Bhandarkar, 1955: 289], “Mahāmātras in-charge of, or who were, the superintendents of women” [Mookerji, 1955: 157], “censors of the women” [Mookerji, 1955: 157, note 6], etc.

The interpretation of the term is even more complex than its translation. Scholars almost last two centuries have talked about it giving explanations according to their own understanding of the term and often quoting from various literary and epigraphic sources to substantiate their views. Yet, no consensus of opinion has been arrived at keeping the subject open to further interpretation. Since the term is significant as it deals with gender status during the Mauryan period, it shall be worthwhile to review various theories regarding its proper meaning. Buhler, who edited the Rock-Edicts of Aśoka as early as 1892ii, simply translated it as ‘superintendents of women’ without going into any details of the term and what this designation stood for. Perhaps, the matter was of little significance at that time as the issue of women’s status was yet to pick up with the scholars of Indian history. Hultzsch [1925: 22, note 4] compared the term with gaṇikādhyaksha, the overseer of courtesans mentioned in the Arthaśāstra of Kauṭilya [II,27] and took the two to be equivalent. Why he equated all the women with gaṇikas was never explained by him. Perhaps, he took the former as model for the officials mentioned in the Aśokan inscriptions and finding no other specific adhyaksha of women he equated the two as same. His explanation is not only far from satisfactory but also does not find favour with scholars at present. As early as 1923 Raychaudhuri [1972: 282] in the first edition of his monumental work observed that “the Ithījhaka Mahāmātras who, doubtless, correspond to the Stryadhyakshas (the Guards of the Ladies) of the epics”. He referred to the Rāmāyaṇa [II,16.3] and the Mahābhārata [IX, 29.68, 90 and XV,22,20; 23,12]. There is no doubt that the two terms are identical and the epics refer to stryadhyakshas as officers to guard the royal ladies. This has further led the learned scholar to equate them with the aṅtarvaṁśika of the Arthaśāstra [I.12.6; I.20.13; I.21.3, 12; V.3.5; V.6.5, etc.]. D. C. Sircar has also explained the term as aṅtarpurādhyaksha [1946:35] translating it as ‘superintendent of the harem’ [1966: 325]. P. V. Kane [1946: 112] has also taken the same meaning of the term calling them in-charge of the royal harems. What the learned scholars have ignored, while equating the term under discussion with the references contained in the epics, is the contextual factor. In all the references given by Raychaudhuri and quoted by others the context is of the royal ladies, their transportation, protection, etc. So a class of officials called stryadhyakshas are said to have taken care of the requirements under circumstances. It certainly does not make them officers exclusively attached with the harems or appointed for the care of the royal ladies. We must not forget that the royal ladies were also women as distinguished from men and any officers appointed for the welfare of the former would obviously take care of the royal ladies also.

B. M. Barua [1955: 182] followed Raychaudhuri adding two more references, one each from the Vinaya Piṭaka [ Vinaya Chullavagga, vii] and Buddhaghosha’s Commentary on the Raṭhapāla Sutta [Pāpañchaudanī, II]. While discussing the issue he [1955: 183] seems to be aware of the wider connotations of the term and thoughtfully adds “the duties of the Stryadhyakshas of Aśoka need not be confined to the queens and other women of the royal or imperial household”. He then divides them as ‘women in general’ and ‘women in particular’. The latter being the royal ladies, he puts courtesans, prostitutes, actresses and the like in the former category, referring to the gaṇikādhyakshas of the Arthaśāstra as suggested by Hultzsch. This merely seems to be a compromise between the two views simply putting all the women in two categories—the royal ladies and the gaṇikās, and falls short of a satisfactory explanation of the term. Mookerji [1955: 31] too attributes the duties of stri-adhyaksha-mahāmātras as ‘supervision of the female establishments of the members of the royal family’. V. R. R. Dikshitar [1993: 210], like Barua, was unsure of the exact implication of the term ithījhakhamahāmātā. He talks of two possibilities. Either they were ‘the superintendents of courtesans’ i.e. gaṇikādhyaksha or “these officials attended to the needs of the comforts of the women members of the royal family”.

Romila Thapar [2001: 116-17] has rightly rejected the view of Hultzsch with the remark that “It seems hardly feasible that the officers of the rank of mahāmāttās would have been appointed merely to supervise the city’s prostitutes”. However, she has ignored the fact that these officers were not meant merely for a city but are referred to in a much larger context of the whole of empire. She opines that “Owing to the suppressed condition of women in society of his time, it is possible that Aśoka may have felt the need to appoint a special group of mahāmāttās who would be concerned mainly with the welfare of women”. But later on she stresses the view that “much of their time must have been given to the royal harems”iii. Though she is right about the officials for the welfare of women but there is no substance either in the first or the last part of her statement. It is purely presumptuous on her part to say that the position of women in society of Aśoka’s time was suppressed. Simply because some officers were appointed for the welfare of women and Aśoka talks of performance of some useless rituals by womenfolk [Rock Edict IX] does not mean women in society were suppressed. The Arthaśāstra does talk of destitute and hapless women [2.23] but also of the steps taken by the state to provide for their employment while protecting their honour. In section 59 of the third Book, it dwells upon the complex questions concerning women’s property, supersession, transgression, elopement, cruelty to women, etc. and the laws to protect their rights. The work dwells upon women in public life including courtesans on one hand and the nuns and ascetic women on the other. Interestingly, it refers to the working women in the state employment as royal guards [1.21], spies [1.11-12] and in various other capacities that completely negates the idea of women being suppressed in society at that time. Even the art, especially sculpture, also depicts women of the time enjoying full freedom in society. Likewise, Thapar’s presumption that most of the time of these mahāmātras must have been spent in royal harems appears to be without substantial evidence. Throughout his edicts Aśoka talks of the appointment of various high officials for spreading his message amongst his people from all walks of life and of all ages – men and women, young and old, religious men and the householders, ordinary as well as members of the royal family, within his empire, in the bordering (pratyanta) states as also in the far off lands of the Yavanas and others. The comprehensive picture from these inscriptions that we get is of an emperor fully devoted to creating a society with high morals where women enjoy complete freedom from fear and suppression.

The true import of the term ithījhakhamahāmātā seems to have been grasped by D. R. Bhandarkar [1955: 54-55; Sastri, 1957: 30]. While discussing the term he draws our attention to various issues pertaining to women being discussed in the Arthaśāstra and the role of the state there in. He points out that “anybody who has studied the Arthaśāstra knows full well what different and complicated questions connected with women such as her maintenance, transgressions, elopement and so forth have been discussed in the section ‘Dharmasthīya’. The state also recognised its duty of providing subsistence to helpless women….. It is quite conceivable that there was appointed an officer specially for this purpose who was called Stryadhyaksha”. Such a broad outlook and complete understanding of all the relevant texts without any preconceived ideas immediately brings to fore the true import of the term so casually used by Aśoka while describing his measures of welfare for his people.


 i.   This is Girnar version. Kalsi version has ithidhiyakhamahāmātā, Shahbazgarhi has istridhiyakshamahamacha and Mansehra has istrijaksha-mahamatra.

 ii.  Alexander Cunningham edited the Inscriptions of Aśoka in Corpus Inscriptionum Indicarum, Volume I in 1879 but the volume is not available to us.

iii.  While commenting on Bhandarkar’s [1955: 12] interpretation of Avarodhana as Aśoka’s harems in various cities outside Pāṭaliputra, where the women were of lower caste, Thapar [2001:117] has very rightly pointed out that this is an ‘exaggerated estimate of Aśoka’s indulgence in harem life’ and these harems must have been of his other relatives[cf. Rock Edict


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