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Society in Ancient Bengal

The pages on caste system in Bengal and people talk about aspects of society not described here.

During the pAla period, the indications are that devadAsIs or bArarAmAs (high class educated and artistic prostitutes living in the temple, technically dedicated only to God) are much rarer than the succeeding periods; by the time of the sena and varmmana dynasties, they were quite respected in society. But even in the ancient period it appears that women slaves were kept by the wealthy men for similar reasons: these slaves were shared, inherited and sold like property.

Simultaneously, however, the ideal, at least in the upper castes, was one of monoandry. People were expected to live their life using the principles of ritual cleanliness, steadiness of mind, self-control, beauty, civilized open-mindedness, kindness, giving of alms, taking car of guests and forgiveness. Loose sexual mores, drunkenness, theft and adultery were explicitly punishable according to the religious texts. It is to be noted that the society was somewhat different in the villages and in the towns. The villages considered the city lifestyle to be immoral, and at least on the surface, followed the religious ideals more closely.

The life in the villages was very farm and family centered. There was emphasis on not considering wealth very important: the ideal was of a happy family with happy relatives and good sons, with enough to eat and with servants to do the work. On the other hand, the poor were of course unhappy: pictures of families with no rice at home, kids whose stomach has sunk in for lack of food, earthen water pot leaking so that not even a drop of water stays in, not even a needle at home to sew, the logs of the hut shaking, the roof rising in the storm, the mud walls dissolving away in the rain, etc. abound in the literature. The only escape to pleasure that this section of the society seems to have had were the festivals, usually religious, at the rich people's house ... the whole society seem to have partaken of those.

Some women probably worked as nurses in wealthy families.

There is indication of theft being quite common, the use of locks on doors was quite common. There is also a description of necklaces being snatched by thieves from the necks of sleeping women. Adultery by both men and women of established families existed to some extent.

The region of baGgAla (lowlands of current bAGglAdesha) was probably not in complete marriage contact with the other regions of Bengal: it seems that the people of that region were looked down upon by the rest of the people.

The tribal shavara lived as hunters in the hills, though they did do some amount of farming in farms surrounded by bamboo fence and fending off mice. Doma, niSAda, etc. were untouchables to the upper castes and lived outside the villages on a raised ground: they seem to have been responsible for the making of bamboo articles. They also seem to have worked as boatmen and women, often living in the boats. They might also have worked as fishermen, weavers, cotton cleaners, carpenters etc., and most likely were involved in cutting trees to obtain wood. These, and other, tribals also moved around as snake charmers and doctors saving people from snake bites.

Marriage between upper caste men and lower caste women, though discouraged by religion was allowed: and was probably not very uncommon. The children do not seem to have suffered social disabilities because of the status of their mothers. During marriage, the husband's family used to get dowry from the wife's family.

The most common wish for men was for a wife who was devoted and who would provide an excellent son. Women seem to have rights to property: enough to make donations to temples or provide money for building and upkeep of new ones; and often did so in the hope of being blessed with beautiful sons. They carried out a number of rituals designed to bring good luck to their children and husband. It seems that sometimes, wives were bribed to influence their husbands' decision whom to work for.

Serial monogyny was the rule in society, though the wealthy often practiced polygyny; monoandry was the absolute norm. The fighting amongst co-wives finds mention in literature.

Widowhood was the greatest curse on a woman in this society. All jewelery and decoration was removed the moment a woman's husband died. According to jImutavAhana, a childless widow inherits her husband's wealth, but cannot sell, pawn or give away that property; and she has the right only as long as she lives properly with the husband's family, without any jewelery or decoration, and carries out all the rituals required on behalf of the husband's soul. If no male members remain in the husband's family, she has to live with her parents instead. Widows were not supposed to eat excitory foods like meats and fishes. They were usually not allowed in festivals and marriages. The practice of sati (dying on her husbands pyre) was encouraged by religious texts.

The upper class women in the cities were probably literate enough to write letters. Some of them were also probably educated in the arts, specially singing and dancing. The daughters of the kings and landlords probably spent much of their time inside and were likely not very independent. Upper class women, in general, kept themselves out of the gaze of most people by travelling in covered carts. However, they do not seem to have always covered their faces, and this absence of obligatory purdah or ghomTA in Bengal has been criticized by Hindus in other parts of India. It was more the middle class for whom covering their heads and faces was a symbol of status. The ideal was always of a lady with face covered and looking at her feet, speaking little and in mild tone.

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