An excerpt on matriarchy from Romila Thapar’s “The Future in the Past”

05 May 2023

In “Why Did Ancient India’s Matriarchy Disappear,” an essay from The Future in the Past, a collection of writing published by Aleph Books in April, the historian Romila Thapar reflects on the history of matriarchy in India. The following excerpt from the book examines the approach of the Brahmanical and Shramana sects towards women, as well as how Aryan orthodoxy—whose unit was the patriarchal family—supported the position of the male.

Seeing the past in a long duration but as creating the present, a relevant question remains as to whether there was once matriarchy in India and did it disappear? This is what I am touching on in this essay. Probably yes, as it was in many societies that have slowly moved to patriarchy to a lesser or greater degree. One cannot make a pronouncement in the singular and apply it uniformly to the entire subcontinent. There are regional differences. Even within a region there sometimes are strong variations among different social groups. What we need to accept is that although matriarchy/matriliny only remains in small pockets, often tucked away, its imprints have not been wiped out. We occasionally meet them in unexpected places. Nor do we have to argue that there was a linear evolution of matriarchy from earlier societies mutating into or adopting patriarchy, as was the popular view a century ago.

Kinship patterns at the base of matriarchy/matriliny and patriarchy can coexist or can vary or one of them can fade giving way to other. History does not provide an answer but there is much in the material and textual remains from the past that makes such questions relevant. The variations in kinship pattern are often explained as due to conquest by foreigners or imitation of a different pattern, but the question remains as to why it was adopted—local considerations, a society flexible in adjusting to change against well-established norms, the demography of gender, or patterns like the relations between polyandry and the status of women can be among the causes.

Kinship as a lens through which to view early societies made an impact on social history as well. The question asked and is still inconclusively answered is whether early societies were matriarchal/matrilineal and then changed to patriarchy, or have societies always been either one or the other. There has been much discussion on this in relation to the earliest Indian societies. Women could have authority over the extended family or the small community. This may have had an element of matriarchy but did not involve women as rulers and it is unclear whether descent was traced through women. These two features are characteristics of matriarchy as a socio-political system. It can be extended to the context of moral authority as well. The attention to matriarchy is less because it is associated with early history and evidence of its having existed and preceded patriarchy is uncertain. 

It has been argued that in the hunter–gatherer societies of prehistoric times, women took care of the settlement and the children, and were responsible for gathering wild crops and plants for food. They tended to become the decision-makers in terms of where to settle and how to distribute the food. Since food was crucial, those who distributed it would come to have power. In addition to gathering uncultivated food, the hunting of animals for food [became] equally if not more important. This is thought to have been a male occupation. Gradually, therefore, the authority of the women in society was curbed and that of the men increased.

Romila Thapar is Emeritus Professor of History at the Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi. She is a Fellow of the British Academy and holds an Hon D.Litt each from Calcutta University, Oxford University and the University of Chicago. In 2008, Professor Thapar was awarded the prestigious Kluge Prize of the US Library of Congress.

Keywords: ancient india matrilineal gender