Bold & Unabashed: Five Indian Queens Touted As ‘Unfeminists’ and ‘Rule-Benders’

Pitting women against each other or national interest is perhaps, patriarchy’s favourite sport. Queendom can vouch.

5 min read

Heavy lies the head which wears a crown and when the bejewelled ornament is bequeathed upon a woman, it is perhaps, perceived as good as a tiara divorced from the purpose, significance, and the honour of heralding a legacy.

Now, before the fans of the historical drama series—'The Crown’, go up in arms citing a boisterous claim, ‘Her Majesty’ Queen Elizabeth II who ensured the sun never set on the British Empire, perhaps, too, was no exception in being branded as daddy’s little girl who cracked a fair deal in the nepotism business.

Whether born or married into royalty, being a queen is no cakewalk, and even more so when she is a formidable woman, a resolute non-conformist, a rabble-rouser, rule-breaker—ambitious and untameable and intrinsically political. But the adage “Well-behaved women seldom make history, bold ones do” is not for nothing and some of our queens slayed the part and how.

As we recently bid adieu to Women’s History Month, here’s a look back at five such whose ‘thorn in the flesh’ attitude prickled patriarchal pride:


A Misjudged Mother, an Objectified Wife & a Blinding Curse

Kaikeyi: A moon child, the princess of the Kekaya Kingdom, born with a golden spoon in her mouth, but forced nevertheless with a bitter pill to swallow. A thoroughbred patriarchal upbringing relegated her place under the shadow and auspices of men, caged her potential, and marginalised her. In her marriage with the king of Ayodhya, Dasharatha, she broke free of societal shackles and stereotypes, became a warrior and even saved his life in the battlefield which entitled her to two boons she could ask anytime.

In an unequal world, she—the “last of her name”, has had her glory pretty much lost on her (in)decisions. Her only crime? Speaking up for her rights and asserting them too.

Ramayana, in its casting as the king’s most lovable consort, branded her the classic vamp—the black-hearted, evil-eyed homewrecker wary of others’ successes—ever-inspiring a cultural backlash for being opinionated and playing foul at critical climatic junctures. When maid Manthara’s devil’s advocacy gets added to the mix, Kaikeyi evolves as potent as to pull a Lady Macbeth-esque stunt on her husband by vitiating his judgments against Rama’s inevitable political ascension and unflinchingly executing the latter's forest exile.

While she succeeds in her attempt to remove the barrier to cement her son Bharata's kingship, tables turn when her own son accosts her, takes the moral high ground, and relinquishes the throne as he awaits the return of the rightful heir—thus, making Kaikeyi a historical offender and a bigot. A woman is ought to be sacrificial, morally compelling and Kaikeyi writes its very anti-thesis.

Draupadi: It is widely stated that the death knell of the war in Mahabharata—the Indian mega epic, had rung in Draupadi’s rage and revengeful tears at the showdown between her husbands and their cousins (the rival clan) that kept her a pawn in a game of gamble—stripping her of honour in full court. Amid the din and dust of male clashes at the Kurukshetra war that augured in unbecoming wisdom about life and death, Draupadi’s tormented psyche lied invariably martyred.

Even as Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni’s retelling 'The Palace Of Illusions’ attempted to vest upon the princess, a stark sense of agency, beyond the mythological subversion of a woman who didn't hesitate to upstage dharma (righteousness) for retribution, Draupadi’s is a tale of feminist appropriation.

First, as a woman discouraged from non-feminine pursuits for the fear of being rendered 'undesirable', then a compromised bride, shareable among five odd claimants on a contractual basis, as someone endlessly enduring against familial excesses thereafter, and finally, a misunderstood misandrist.

Her quest for identity and reclamation of her narrative is, thus, a defiant saga whilst her inner fantasy—fraught with amorous desires for a man she had written off for social concerns of caste denigration(Karna) but continued to long for, throws a wrench at piety, pride and path that passion must take. She is the architect of her own destiny and the staunchest, anti-establishment critic.

Gandhari: Cast in a patriarchal mould—a pativrata or a duty-bound wife at large to the world whose voluntary blindfolding after her husband’s birth defect, to abort sensory pleasures, shook the society, Gandhari has been grossly underwritten, sided, and silenced only to a supporting character. Call it an avoidant syndrome or a radical act of defiance, Gandhari’s ‘manufactured blindness’ is a misnomer for the impeccable fortitude that she harboured behind her darkened veil.

A complicated and prolonged pregnancy later, she births a hundred henchmen of the Kaurava clan but reposes to being an observant but a resolute matriarch, nonetheless, on the side of 'dharma', notwithstanding the results of the war.

One of the times she made an exception and opened her eyes to vest her eldest son Duryodhana—the last surviving Kaurava—with an immunity armour — but could only partially sanction it, cost his life. Gandhari, belligerent from rage and consumed with grief, cursed Krishna that his clan gets decimated for the ploy that killed Duryodhana and the 'universal carnage' the war triggered. This rang blasphemy among many as to how a godlike figure could be punished while her 'unseeing' gaze scrutinised for censoring a million injustices meted out by her own sons.

A Queer Queen & a Shudra Entrepreneur

Chitrangada: Manipur's princess and the sole heiress (thanks to a matriarchal society), Chitrangada's story is steeped in its gender nonconforming role and spectrum. She, who was raised "like a man", has had a pretty revolutionary upbringing , trained in martial arts, archery, horse-riding and political diplomacy— activities historically stipulated to a male domain.

During a hunting session in the forest, Chitrangada stumbles across the prince of Hastinapur, Arjuna serving a twelve-year exile period, gets lovestruck but fears to come out lest she gets rejected for her 'manly' conduct. Head over heels, she aspires to be a woman wholly to appeal to her love interest as she also feigned it to be the only means to marry Arjuna and bear his child. She urges Madan—the God of Love, to transform her sex, thus, marking one of the earliest indications of sex-change operations in Indian literary text.

In a man's world, vying for a man's attention, Chitrangada's crisis was almost self-inflicted that gripped her with shame and guilt for sacrificing her 'true self'. Hence, when her kingdom was under attack, her 'call for duty' as a warrior princess supplanted her urge to box herself in accepted beauty standards and behaviourism and on Arjun's insistence, she redeemed herself to how she was born and was meant to be, debunking gender-specific diktats.

Rani Rashmoni: Heard of a ‘Shudra’ caste descendent becoming a queen? It was a first in erstwhile Bengal when Rashmoni Das—the widow of entrepreneur Raj Chandra Das, broke the glass ceiling in ways more than one. Even though not born into royalty, Rashmoni’s administrative and people skills led to an unofficial coronation of sorts wherein ‘Rani’ got prefixed to her name—much to the sneer and resistance of the erstwhile Brahminical society.

But surely, a woman can’t run a religious institution and bring it on the world pilgrimage map too? Well, Rashmoni was quick to prove otherwise. Setting up beauteous ghats in old Calcutta and establishing the iconic Dakshineshwar Kali temple along the banks of Hooghly, cap her calibre in an increasingly male-dominated landscape. She even triggered a brouhaha by hiring religious leader Ramakrishna Paramhansa—feigned a lunatic and outcaste as the Chief Priest of the temple and trumped orthodoxy.

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