These are voices that may have been forgotten over the centuries, but they continue to live through books and oral narrations as stories and festivals. These are the voices of women poets, saints, and even princesses that are windows into India’s rich cultural and literary history. Over the centuries, history has celebrated these extraordinary women writers and poets who broke the social norms of the time. Today we look at some of them and the legacy they have left behind for us.
Akka Mahadevi (c.1130-1160)
Akka Mahadevi was one of the early female poets of the Kannada language. This mystic poet was also one of the leading figures of the Veerashaiva Bhakti movement of the 12th century.
She is credited with 430 vachanas (spontaneous mystical verses), which are mostly dedicated to Lord Shiva. Her two short works called Yogangatrividhi and Mantrogopya are considered as important contribution to the Kannada literature.
She was married to a local ruler Kausika but defied social convention by leaving home.
Born in the ninth century, Andal is one of the 12 Alvars and the only woman Alvar saint. She is the most-loved poet-saints of Tamil Nadu. Andal is known for her unwavering devotee to Lord Vishnu, and all her compositions are dedicated to him. She is credited with the composition of Thiruppavai, a collection of 30 verses and Nacciyar Tirumoli, a long poem of 143 verses.
In fact, she refused to be bound by the rules of early marriage and considered her self to be spiritually married to Vishnu. She herself in many places in India, especially in Tamil Nadu, is treated as a form of God and there are shrines and festivals dedicated to her. Such is her popularity that the Rajagopuram of the Srivilliputhur Andal Temple is the official symbol of the Government of Tamil Nadu.
Lal Ded (1320-1392)
Lalleshwari, also known as Lalla, was a Kashmiri mystic and poet of the 14th century.
Born in a Pandit family, married at the age of 12, she renounced her family and domestic life. She interacted with Sufis of Kashmir. She is credited with composing vakhs or verses, which literally mean voice. All her compositions were in Kashmiri language and are some of the earliest compositions in the language. Her work is considered an integral part of modern Kashmiri literature. Her vakhs are still remembered and recited in Kashmir.
Muddupalani lived in the 18th century and was born in Thanjavur. She was multi-linguist and wrote in Tamil, Telugu, and Sanskrit. A poetess, she was also a devdasi attached to the court of King Pratapsimha.
Muddupalani wrote Radhika Santawanam (appeasing Radha), an erotic epic in Telugu, which reflects her own sexual and interpersonal experiences.
She also translated Tamil saint-poet Andal’s Thiruppavai into Telugu. Her other well-known work is Ashtapadi, a Telugu translation of Jayadeva’s eponymous work.
A Mughal Princess and the eldest child of Mughal emperor Aurangzeb and Dilras Banu Begum, Zeb-un-nisa started writing poetry in Persian at the age of 14. She used to write under the pen name of Makhfi (the hidden one).
Zeb-un-nisa became a Hafiz at the age of seven. She was taught literature, astronomy, calligraphy, science, mathematics, and was well-versed in Urdu, Persian and Arabic. In addition to her poetic book or collection of poems, called Diwan, which contains approximately 5,000 verses, she also wrote the following books: Monis-ul-Roh, Zeb-ul Monsha’at, and Zeb-ul-Tafasir.
She was imprisoned by her father for the last 20 years of her life. In 1724, years after her death, her writings were collected as Diwan-i-Makhfi.
While their poems and works are still recited in different parts of India, a lot of books have been written about these women in the later centuries that celebrate their lives and contribution.