Ganikas: The silent voices of history

History is a multi-faceted subject mentioning kings and kingdoms, art and architecture, wars and conquests, and many other significant events. These subjects and events owe their significance to the fact that they were recorded either at the time of their occurrence or later. However, limiting the boundaries of history to these recorded sources is the biggest folly, given the complex social and economic stratification of ancient Indian society. From that vantage point, ‘women’ is one category of subjects whose roles were marginalized in historical anthologies, but they were intrinsic to society.

Not only in the domestic sphere but women were subjugated in the public sphere too. This confined role of women in public spaces has grasped the attention of scholars and researchers. Apart from the queen, if any other category of women which are the point of discussion while studying early Indian history is ‘courtesan’.

Kirti K. Shah, an eminent authority in the field, characterizes courtesan as a woman without a family in a recognized sense of the term with neither paternal ties nor affinal ones, yet she had her familial world.

Representational Image

Prostitution is an aspect of patriarchal and the world’s oldest profession, visible in all phases of history. The complete knowledge about this popular profession is still unboxed. However, the few factors which are identified by historians that led them into prostitution are, a broken family background which rendered them economically vulnerable, hence, were open to the market of prostitutes. Many women, also adopt this profession because their mother had done so.

‘Ganika’, a term used for prostitutes in ancient Indian literature had witnessed unprecedented interest of scholars. Kamasutra, Mrichchhkatika, Kuttanimata, Buddhist, and Jain literature give us insights into the life of Ganikas. Kamasutra, one of the earliest works in this regard contains a chapter on Courtesans, elaborating the behavior they should follow, ways of obtaining money, etc.

Archaeological representation of Ganikas

Besides, it is important to note that ‘vesaya’ and ‘ganika’ have been used as synonyms, but there were differences too. While the former lived by selling her physical charm and had no cultural accomplishments as such, whereas Ganikas were more sophisticated.

The description of ganikas as depicted in Buddhist and Jain literature differs from that in Brahmanical literature. In Jatakas, the term ganika is frequently referred to as nagara- sobhani i.e. ‘Ornaments of the city‘. They were believed to render the town beautiful and were a matter of pride for its citizens. Almost all the big towns had chief-Ganikas.

It is very interesting to study the position and status of ganikas in ancient Indian society against the dynamic socio-economic backdrop. According to Monika Saxena, a ganika was a social celebrity because of her intellectual and artistic accomplishments. Rich merchants spend plentiful of money patronizing ganikas. Vatsyayana clearly states that “a courtesan is well versed in both the series of sixty-four arts or Kalas. Ganikas also provided a forum for educated clients. Acquiring training in vocal and instrumental music and dancing became the exclusive accomplishments of ganika.

Ganikas, are tamed since their childhood in gandhrvashalas to learn sixty-four forms of arts subsidiary to the highest technical knowledge of the erotic. The ganikas were invited by respectable citizens and members of corporations to religious festivities, social gatherings, literary gatherings, and sports festivals.

Ganikas engaging in dancing and entertainment activities

While women apart from ganikas were the victims of patriarchal subjugation and were dependent upon their male counterparts, whereas ganikas were independent and supported themselves by way of professional skills and artistic attainments. Ganika undoubtedly earns large sums of money by courting men of high social classes. The payment was also made in gold coins. Also, in some cases, the fees/salary of ganika was fixed and they were under contractual obligation. Ganikadhyaksha, chief courtesan, if died or ran away then her establishment was passed onto her daughter or sister i.e ‘matriarchy’ was prevalent.

Hence, history needs to be rewritten with emphasis on all sections of society and Ganikas are intrinsic to the evolution of Indian society from ancient to modern times. Therefore, ganikas should be given their due place in history.

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