“Women in Action: Gender dynamics in the art of medieval South Asia”

Jinah Kim: “Women in Action: Gender dynamics in the art of medieval South Asia”

Female patronage of Buddhist institutions in the form of religious donations to monastic communities and pilgrimage sites is well attested from epigraphic and other textual evidence in early centuries of Buddhism’s development in the Indian sub-continent. The conventional wisdom has it that women’s involvement in socio religious fabric shrinks considerably by the early medieval period in South Asia, to the extent a theory of vanishing women in later Indian Buddhism is entertained. Women may seem less visible in textual sources especially given the patriarchal norms promoted in the societal code books like the Laws of Manu (Manusmṛti, one of the influential Dharmashastras). But women are fully present in visual records of religious donations, and we find them depicted as primary participants and sponsors of rituals.  This paper demonstrates how we can begin to uncover little known stories of women through a careful reading of visual and epigraphic evidence. A women-focused survey of visual records of religious donations in medieval eastern India and Nepal reveals patterns of gender dynamics and differentiation that shed light on active roles women played in spiritual pursuits, tantalizingly coinciding with the rise of tantra and the Goddess cult.