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A Seventeenth Century Striving To Even Out the Odds

Close to the city of Paithan, in a small village called Sauviragram, which lay along the banks of the great river Godavari, lived a woman named Ilaa. Being cotton farmers, her family was well to do, but not among the richest in their area. It was the harvest season, and cotton had to be picked from the plants. The wholesalers and traders from Paithan would be arriving in just a few weeks, carrying gold and goods for barter. They would exchange what they carried for the cotton that the farmers grew. The bales of cotton had to be ready in time! Work was at its peak!

But Ilaa was not to be found in the fields. She wasn't working. Instead, she was sitting by the banks of the great river Godavari.

'I am sick of this!' she grunted loudly. The cool breeze could not dampen her frustration.

‘Ssh...Not so loud, Ilaa! Others may hear.’ whispered a precarious Eknath.

They both sat cross legged in the soft sand by the riverside. The wild outgrowth gave them a cover from the villagers who passed by. This is where they used to meet, and converse. Eknath came from a Brahmin household of the same village. His father was a temple priest, and at the tender age of nine his father had performed his Upanayana. There started his training in Sanskrit and other religious affairs. Eknath and Ilaa knew each other from childhood, and the bond had only deepened.

‘You do not understand it, Nath. I am running out of ways to convince my father.’ Desperation was written all over her face.

Eknath knew he needed to pacify his friend. Hesitantly, he placed his right palm on her slender shoulders. She tossed it away gruffly.

‘Why are you mum? Speak up. Do you also believe that women must not have the right to education?’ she inquired.

‘Of course not! But that is how the society around us thinks. What can we do about it?’

‘Do you know what my father said today? He told me that man and woman are different; hence their duties are also different. Men are physically stronger, that is why their area of work lay outside their homes. Men are expected to be farmers, weavers, soldiers, lawmakers, rulers, doctors, masons, teachers and even priests. Women are subtler, and their duties include cooking, washing, cleaning, giving birth and all household chores.’

‘Well, isn’t it true that men are physically stronger than women?’ Eknath tried to reason with Ilaa.

 ‘If it is so, why do my family ask me, a woman, to pluck cotton from the plants? Isn’t that a man’s job?’ Ilaa had made her point.

Eknath knew his friend was right. ‘I am not of the view that women must be uneducated. But one should respect his culture and civilization.’

‘Our civilization was not always like this, Nath. Centuries ago in the Vedic times, women enjoyed equal status as men.  They received education and observed brahmacharya, studied the Vedas, and composed Vedic hymns. Women had access to all branches of knowledge.  I respect that golden civilization.’

‘How do you know so much about Vedic periods?

‘I only know what my mother used to tell me when I was a kid. Her mother had told her when she was a child. My mother used to tell me the story of a lady by the name of Vishvara, who composed outstanding hymns. She is my inspiration. I want to go through each verse of our epics, and indulge in intellectual debates. Alas, our patriarchal society forbade it.’

None of them spoke for a while. Both knew that there was no easy solution. Quietly, Eknath started writing something on the wet sand using his fingers. That caught Ilaa’s attention.

‘Now what am I supposed to make out of these lines, straight and curved?’

Eknath had in fact written her name using the Devnagri script. His heart panged when he realized that Ilaa could not recognize her own name. He was about to say something, but was cut short by a booming voice.

‘Namaste Eknath!’

Ilaa and Eknath turned their heads towards the direction of the voice. When he saw who it was, he immediately stood up and folded his hands in respect. Ilaa followed suit.

‘Pranaam guruji.’ Eknath bent to touch the feet of guru Nimbarka, who trained him in Sanskrit.

‘Rise, my child. I was here to collect water for pooja, when I heard your voice. What brings you here at this time of the day?’

‘This is my friend, Ilaa. We were talking, while enjoying the cool breeze.’ Replied Eknath.

‘So it is her name that I see on the sand, then.’ He remarked, pointing to the spot where Eknath had drawn using his finger.

‘Yes, my teacher.’

Nimbarka turned to Ilaa. ‘What bothers you, young lady?’

Ilaa was taken by surprise.  ‘Nothing, guru.’

‘Do not withhold, child. I am able to read minds.’ He joked with a straight face.

‘ friend wishes to read and write, guru. Unfortunately women do not have any such rights in our land.’

‘I see. It is ironical that somebody with the name Ilaa has to fight for knowledge. Do you know the significance of your name, child?’ asked the guru.

Eknath was the first to respond. ‘As per legends Pratishthana, which is the ancient name for Paithan, was built by King Ila, who was the king of Bahlika Kingdom.’

His guru nodded in agreement.

‘In Hindu mythology, Ila is an androgyne, usually described as a daughter or son of Vaivasvata Manu and thus the sibling of Ikshvaku, the founder of the Suryavansha Dynasty.’ Replied Ilaa.

‘It is amazing to see that an illiterate woman knows this much about our ancient texts.’ Commented the guru. ‘If you go through the Aprisuktas, you shall see Ila being mentioned many a times in Rig-Veda, along with Sarasvati, the goddess of knowledge. I hope you see the irony now.’

‘I want to read everything, guru. I want to read the Vedas, the Upanishads, the Ramayana, the Mahabharata, and the Gita. Will you teach me the letters, guru?’

Her child like wail amused Nimbarka. ‘Stop worrying about your problem and start working on it.’ 

He pointed to the inscription of her name on the sand. ‘Now you have learnt how the letters I and La looks like. You would be able to recognize these wherever you see them. Next time when you visit the Shiva temple, observe the phrase at the main entrance. You would see five characters that stand for na, ma, shi, va, ya respectively. This way you would be able to learn by yourselves.’

‘But isn’t it unfair, guru? Isn’t it unfair that boys are given systematic education while girls have to do it inconspicuously, as if it was a sin?’

‘The world around us is full of disparities, child. But everything changes as years passes. A time would come when women would be treated equally as men. They would be educated, be allowed to go out and work, and discrimination would cease to exist.’

‘Such a situation was prevalent in our society. Unfortunately, it was centuries ago.’ Ilaa opined, referring to the Vedic times.

‘Time is like a circular river, Ilaa. What existed would return some day in the future. Now, if you would excuse me, I shall take leave.’

Ilaa hesitated before speaking. ‘I hear that the Chhatrapati Sivaji Maharaja is planning to visit Paithan while proceeding to Jalna. What if we go and meet him in person? Wouldn’t he address our grievances?’

‘I must commend on your high spirits, Ilaa. But things are not that easy. No society can accept drastic changes. Presently the notion of women being confined to homes is deep rooted in our minds. Trust me it would undergo change, but changes takes their due course of time.’ Nimbarka tried to present the reality, while not dissuading the spirited Ilaa.

‘Well I understand your point, guruji. I am only unlucky to be born in the wrong time.’

‘People label someone great only when she rises against the odds and strive for better living conditions. With your hunger for knowledge, I am sure you would learn the letters soon enough. Then you would be in a position to teach other woman folk. They would start respecting you, and your confidence would rise. You would then be able to convince your critics on the merits of learning. Things would definitely be tough, but you have in you the determination to strive.’

‘Thank You for your inspiring words, respected guru.’ Ilaa touched his feet to seek blessings.

‘You shall be blessed, child. Always remember that if you seek you shall find the answers.’

Guru Nimbarka wished Ilaa good luck and went back to his residence. His disciple Eknath accompanied him. Ilaa was left alone at the riverside. Once again, Ilaa had a look at the inscription of her name. For some reason she found a strange joy rising within her. For the first time in her life, she had learnt how to read an alphabet.

Ilaa promised herself that this would only be a beginning, and she would not stop until she achieved her goal. From a distance, she could hear the shouts of her family members, who were busy picking and sorting all those cotton balls in the farm. She smiled to herself, and started walking in the direction of the cotton farm.

source: pinterest


  1. Nice one! Loved your Ilaa, strong and spirited! I am literally stunned to see how much you researched for this! :D

    1. Thanks a lot :)
      I hope you are also taking part in the competition. Good Luck
      Lemme check out your blog too


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