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Response to Review no. 169

It is gratifying to have my book reviewed by Dr. Ali in such a comprehensive fashion, and the opportunity to be able to respond is, of course, very welcome.

To begin with, I should like to clarify what my aims were in this work. Dr. Ali suggests that they were “to demonstrate that women exercised agency,” to challenge “the image of the devadasi inherited by the debates, reforms and studies of the last century,” and to present a (“tantalising, [if] somewhat fragmentary”) argument for the emergence of temples “as the dominant centres of economic and political power as the Chola state declined.” To take the last of these points first: in fact, I do not make such an argument. I am indeed very interested in this book in tracing the evolution of the structure and roles of temples in medieval Tamil society, which is obviously necessary in order to understand the ways in which the identities and activities of temple women changed in the period of the ninth to the thirteenth century. When I began this study, I was surprised to discover that there had been so little scholarly examination of religious institutions in the Chola period. What was required for the purposes of this book-in particular, information about the organization of temple life-had to be generated in large part through my own research. As a preliminary effort, and as the backdrop to my primary focus on temple women, the picture I draw of the shape and place of temples in medieval Tamilnadu is incomplete, without a doubt. But I do not maintain that these temples were emergent centres of power. What I argue for is the importance-throughout the whole of the early medieval period-of temples as local economic and political centres, as nodes in networks of social interactions that were especially dynamic in times and places where royal interest in the temple was absent, as it was very frequently. Even in the period when the Chola dynasty was at its height of power, a very large number of temples were untouched by the attentions or interventions of kings, and this provided scope for the ramification of transactions around the temple as a centre. But my main concern in the present study is with the internal organization of the temple, with the sociology of structures of authority and temple service, where I see changes taking place over the course of the centuries preceding 1300 that are to me the most striking and most germane to my subject.

Within this social historical context, it is indeed my aim, as Dr. Ali suggests, to provide an analysis of temple women’s agency, but this analysis involves examining not only how these women “were able to act,” but also how they “were acted upon” (33)-precisely by those systems and structures, ideologies and institutions, that belong to the Chola period and that I attempt to describe in this book. Since Dr. Ali has a number of comments about my understanding of “agency,” I will return to this theme again. But, with reference to my intentions and goals in writing this book, I would like to correct the impression conveyed by Dr. Ali that “the chief thrust of the book” is an engagement with colonial, reformist, and recent scholarly interpretations of the temple woman. Although I frame my study by invoking this image of the devadasi, which is likely to be familiar to the reader, the “chief thrust” of the book is towards a description and analysis of temple women’s identities and activities in a particular historical period other than the colonial or the contemporary. In contrast to recent scholarship on devadasis (notably that of Frédérique Marglin and Saskia Kersenboom) which interprets the role of the temple woman with reference to concepts such as sakti or auspiciousness, my aim is to illuminate particularity, individuality, and change in the circumstances, functions, and significance of temple women, to move from abstract, trans-historical meanings toward specificity and historicity (10).

It is possible to make this move because of the nature of the evidence available. The foundation for this study is the corpus of Tamil and Sanskrit inscriptions of the Chola period (which spans the years from 850 to 1300, in my analysis, rather than 950 to 1250, as is indicated by Dr. Ali). The inscriptions “allow us to leap-frog backward over postcolonial, colonial, and late pre-colonial delineations and interpretations of the events and structures of the past and find the traces of a particular historical moment represented in its own terms” (vi). I do not maintain, as Dr. Ali suggests, that inscriptions “reveal the actuality of temple women’s lives.” I do claim in several places that these records allow us to “glimpse the actuality of their lives” (v, 30), which is a rather different assertion. My book is said to demonstrate “the limitations of an over-reliance on inscriptions to the detriment of other sorts of evidence.” That may be the case, although I hope to dispel this notion in what follows. It also may be that the character of inscriptional evidence is for many readers, including Dr. Ali, unappealing. The book contains about thirty translated inscriptions, and these are-I am the first to admit it-prosaic and formulaic. My method of analysis involves looking at a large number of inscriptions, in order to discern patterns of regional and chronological variation, and this means that throughout the book there are maps, charts, and tables filled with numbers. It looks like there is no plot here, and no soul. But I think that depends on who is looking. Of course I must acknowledge having failed as an author if I cannot use my tables and translations to tell a story or to convey the excitement of hearing the echoes of women’s voices across the divide of a thousand years. That failure, however, does not undermine the importance of inscriptional evidence or the significance of what is presented in this book. It is true that literary sources have a very different nature and value for the study of the history of Indian religion and society. Dr. Ali claims that I am dismissive of textual sources, and seems to suggest that I have, in fact, ignored such evidence altogether. This is, of course, nonsense. In addition to surveying in the first chapter all the references in Indic literature to temple women, I have, throughout the book, made frequent reference to textual sources as these bear on the subject under discussion- including such topics as women’s property rights, slavery, forms of worship, temple service, initiation, devotion, and “mystical marriage.” I have taken particular care to connect my findings based on epigraphical sources with literary sources that would seem to have an immediate bearing on the temple context with which I am concerned. Consequently, my citations of Agamic texts and Tamil devotional and hagiographical literature are more abundant that those of other kinds of texts. I have the impression that Dr. Ali feels I should have been more attentive to the literature-in which he himself is especially well-versed-that was produced in the royal courts of the Chola period. In my view, however, this is much less relevant to the temple milieu than the textual material I mined more deeply. This brings me to consider Dr. Ali’s first specific critique.

Dr. Ali objects to the claim I make that in the Chola period “there was no intimate sharing of ritual forms, dance, music, and personnel between the domains of the temple and court.” What I wish to highlight in this connection is the contrast between the more distinct definition of these two domains that one finds in the Chola period and the context emerging in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries in which the two spheres come increasingly to overlap. In this later period in South India (masterfully portrayed by Narayana Rao, Shulman and Subrahmanyam), the temple woman is a figure clearly visible in both domains-serving two masters-whose ceremonial functions in the court parallel her ritual duties in the temple, and whose temple repertoire is composed by court musicians. In the Chola period, however, we do not find any evidence, either inscriptional or literary, that points towards such forms of interchange and movement between the two domains, or the incorporation by the court of the realm of the temple. But I certainly do not suggest that courtly and temple ritual were unrelated, that royal and religious “households” were run differently from one another, or that human and divine lords were depicted in dissimilar ways. In addition to underscoring the relative autonomy of temples as institutions in the Chola period, my more specific concern is to explore the range of different types of women about whom we can learn something from the inscriptions. Superficially-in terms, particularly, of their lack of association with husbands-temple women and palace women bear a resemblance to one another. But a closer examination reveals that there are important differences between the two groups-not only in terms of how they are identified by the inscriptions as belonging either to the temple or the palace, but with respect also to their activities in these two domains, to the family arrangements in which they situate themselves, and to their patterns of temple patronage.

The next problem that has been raised is more complex. Dr. Ali notes that I have shown how the term atiyar has devotional connotations in Tamil literature, and is utilized in early Chola period inscriptions to designate “retainers” rather than “slaves.” He seems to believe that these observations are the foundation for a claim that the majority of tevaratiyar were not “subalterns.” He admits that it might be legitimate to distinguish, as I do, between temple women who were slaves and those who were not, but my argument is “vitiated by the lack of any discussion of the legal/theoretical boundaries of slavery, service, bondage and attendance.” Given the nature of the evidence I am using, I am in the privileged position of being able to discuss, instead, the practical dimensions of such relations of obligation, and I devote a good deal of space in this book to such discussions. I describe how, in the later Chola period, the term atiyar was increasingly applied to slaves, that virtually all of these slaves were women who served in the temple, and that the use of such a term, with its honorific and devotional connotations, may have been a way of disguising the reality of these women’s status. There is a reason that I treat female slaves-those women who were sold or given as property to the temple-as a part of the category of “temple women,” and that is because I recognize that these women’s connection with the temple is on a continuum with that of the temple women who had access to property and privilege (120-21, 125-26). In part this is because they were all women, and because much of women’s work in the temple, whether menial kitchen labour or attendance on the deity, was unskilled and inessential. But it is also because all people who were engaged in temple service or who obtained support from the temple-from priests to potters-were bound to the temple in relationships that involved duties as well as rights (97, 127-130). Dr. Ali’s attribution to me of the view “that the accumulation of limited amounts of wealth precluded relations of obligation or servitude” is quite mistaken.

Dr. Ali seems also to have misunderstood my explanations about how temple women acquired property. He indicates that I have suggested that women who received stipends from the temple were “slaves,” and that for most women “temple service was not a source of livelihood.” What I actually say is that “a woman’s role in the temple was not primarily viewed as a source of livelihood.” (134) In the passage that Dr. Ali is citing here, what I am trying to get at is the question of what was the most significant, defining feature of the Chola period temple woman. My answer is that “it is the temple woman status that is central to her identity, and temple service roles or support from the temple are accessories to this status.” This conclusion comes at the end of the fourth chapter, in which temple women’s functions in the temple and remuneration from the temple are described in detail, and directly follows an extensive discussion (126-134) of the ways in which temple women (except for women who were slaves) in fact did receive support from the temple in the form of land, houses, clothing, gold, or daily or yearly allowances of food or grain. I am not sure why Dr. Ali concludes that support from the temple indicates that temple women “entered temple service under conditions not of their own making,” unless the same might be said for the entire array of temple servants who were similarly remunerated.

One of the interesting and unexpected findings of my study is the discovery that there were so many women in the Chola period-not only temple women, but queens and palace women, the women of local chiefly families, the wives of landowners and merchants, and Brahman women-who owned property, and were in a position to endow temples. These various types of women would have acquired wealth in different ways, and, in the case of temple women, there were particular factors that made their economic circumstances distinctive. We have just seen that many temple women received support from the temple. I have also put forward the idea that Chola period temple women acquired property through inheritance from their natal families, which was evidently less usual among women who married. But I do not say that Chola period temple women received payment for performing acts of worship for patrons, as twentieth-century devadasis have done. Dr. Ali has misread me here. Further, he is mistaken in believing that contemporary ethnographic accounts “suggest that sexual favours also formed a source of income.” The studies of Marglin, Kersenboom, and Amrit Srinivasan “emphasize the absence of exchange of money for sexual services and point out the opportunities that temple women had to acquire money through other means” (199)-which is precisely why I mention the twentieth-century devadasi in this context. Dr. Ali seems to indicate that I am bending over backwards “to avoid the sacred prostitution theory”; for my part, I am surprised at the implication in what he says that the obvious source for a woman’s wealth is her sexual relationship with a man. In any case, I do not believe that Chola period temple women’s economic position mirrors that of their more recent counterparts. My explanation of how, in medieval Tamilnadu, “temple woman status” might have resulted in the accumulation of wealth-even in the absence of direct support by the temple-is based instead on what is seen in the case of men in this period, whose involvement with the temple as donors or temple functionaries entailed various economic advantages.

I am, of course, extremely interested in examining the important differences that distinguish women from men-with respect not only to their “legal” and economic status, but also the nature of their involvement in temple service, geographical and chronological variations in temple patronage, and access to positions of religious authority. Dr. Ali seems to regard my efforts in this connection as rather mechanical and pointless. My “indifference to the more ‘symbolic’ or ‘discursive’ elements of gender…has sadly handicapped” my study. The problem once again is, in Dr. Ali’s view, my “dismissal of textual evidence.” Throughout this book I explore the question of whether representations of femaleness found in literary and religious discourse-associated with divine marriage, representation of female divinity, and association with kingship-are relevant to the imaging of temple women in this period and this place. In large part, the answer is no, but that is not a foregone conclusion. There are certainly some very interesting ways in which gender was constructed in the royal and sectarian literature of this age-although I am not sure that there is enough evidence to fully understand gender in this context “as a set of ideologies and practices that form subjectivities and agencies.” There is certainly nothing in the literature produced in the Chola period that allows us to position the temple woman within such a discourse of gender, unless we want to make a big leap into speculation. In fact, it is only the inscriptions that afford us even a remote chance of understanding the subjectivity and agency of temple women.

Dr. Ali’s critique of my understanding of “agency” appears to be in large part a response to the last five pages of the book, where I outline a possible scenario through which the temple woman of 1300 might have been transformed into the figure more familiar to the colonial era and to contemporary scholarship. Here I am supposed to have provided a picture in which women’s power, public representation, and agency simultaneously decline, suggesting that I understand agency and disempowerment as mutually exclusive categories. In fact, what I am interested in exploring in these last pages of the book is the idea that a gradual decrease in temple women’s agency seems to have been accompanied by an increase in their symbolic significance, their “instrumentality” (here, as elsewhere in the book, I have borrowed Ronald Inden’s categories of “agent,” “instrument,” and “patient”). The only thing I have to say about “empowerment” is that the emergence of images of temple women as “wives of God” or as representatives of divine feminine forces “has not empowered them in any effective, pragmatic sense” (179). Apart from these few final pages, my book is dedicated to an examination of the temple woman within the context of the social and religious history of the Chola period, and here I have a great deal to say about the “status” of women and the changes that took place during the Chola period that altered that status. Because of the continuing tendency, in scholarly work as well as in popular stereotypes, to see Indian women’s lives as being shaped by structures and a history that are not their own-as being defined and circumscribed, from ancient times to the present, by monolithic normative religious codes of behaviour-I have perhaps gone too far in my efforts to demonstrate that women have actually been participants in this history. But it cannot in fairness be said that I have ignored women’s exclusion, women’s marginalization, or women’s oppression. It has been precisely my purpose to show the mixed nature of medieval women’s circumstances, partly governed by restrictions and partly characterized by liberty of action, and to trace a complex history that does not have a simple trajectory of progress or decline.

It appears from Dr. Ali’s review that the unfortunate lack in this book of “a coherent social/theoretical framework”-and I assume that he is referring here to what he regards as my too-simplistic understandings of agency, gender, and subalternity-is due to my “over-reliance on inscriptions.” “Their interpretation is not so straightforward.” I know this, of course. I suspect that perhaps that the real problem that Dr. Ali has with my approach is not that I am using the evidence of inscriptions, not that I am such a positivist as to imagine that they can tell us “what really happened,” and not even that I am turning towards textual sources less than I might, but rather that I resist using textual sources-or a particular text or textual genre-as the interpretative key that would open the door to what the inscriptions “mean.” I will continue to resist doing this because I regard the epigraphical evidence as capable of giving voice to agents other than those who have composed the Dharmasastras, the Puranas, and the Agamas. The stone inscriptions crowding the walls of South Indian temples also give voice to others than those who authored the copperplate grants of kings. These voices are muted-Noboru Karashima has invited us to listen to their “whisperings”-and those who speak, agents who have gone to great lengths to leave us these records, to record their actions for posterity, were of course constrained in terms of what they could do and how they could talk about it. Nonetheless, they thought they were making history, and it behoves us to attend to that fact.