The amazonian banana republic: the strī-rājya in Hindu tradition


The śaiva tradition shows a dichotomy with respect to the role of the sex in ritual and purity. The earlier antimārga or pāśupata tradition focused on abstinence and the so-called “upward flow” or ūrdhvaretas. This indeed the underlying idea behind the ithyphallic depiction of Lakulīśa, the founder of one of the key atimārga traditions. However, within the śaiva tradition there was another ambivalent practice with earlier roots in the shared pool of ascetic practices, which were also inherited by the vaiṣṇava-s (e.g. Vaikhānasa-gṛhyasūtra). This was the asidhārā-vrata. Here the practitioner engages in kissing and coital contact with his wife or another beautiful and sexually active woman without spilling his seed. Successful practice of this for a certain fixed period is said to confer rewards on the practitioner. This practice continued within the śaiva-mantra-mārga both in the saiddhāntika (e.g. in the Mataṅga-pārameśvara tantra) and bhairava (e.g. Brahma-yāmala) streams. Thus, the practice was likened to walking on the sword-edge. Unlike this practice, which still emphasized the non-spilling of seed, among the practices within the bhairava-srotas of the mantramārga the full-fledged sexual ritual with actual ejaculation developed with many variations in doctrine and praxis. The founder of one of central traditions within this stream, namely the kaula tradition, was the siddha Matsyendranātha. A successor of his was another siddha Gorakṣa, who in certain late manifestations of the tradition is portrayed as superseding Matsyendra himself. This manifestation seemed to have been accompanied by a reversal to more abstinent practices and explicitly castigated the sexual activities of Matsyendra.

This is portrayed in famous story we narrated earlier, which is widespread in the eastern reflexes of the nātha tradition. Here, Matsyendra is described as going to a kingdom where only women existed, ruled by a female chief. It was termed the strirājya or Kadalirājya (the banana-kingdom). There Matsyendra engaged in sex with the queen and was about to die from total loss of vīrya, when his student Gorakṣa comes and saves him. This was the first time we learned of the strīrājya. A tale similar to this one of Matsyendra was also incorporated into the hagiography of the advaitācārya Śaṃkara presented in the Mādhavīya Śaṃkara-digvijaya. These accounts were consistent with our next encounter with the term strīrājya in the sūtra-s of Vātsyāyana. There, in his sexual ontology, he says that the women of strīrājya like violent actions in bed and also the use of kṛtrima-liṅga-s. Since then, we kept encountering the strīrājya in a number of Hindu sources and it struck us that this was a parallel to the amazons, who are frequently mentioned in Greek lore. We had to visit an art museum, where we saw a modern imitation of a Classical sculpture of an amazon, probably one of the famous amazons featured in Greek legend (Top). The person, whom were showing the museum, remarked that the amazon had an “Indian” touch to her – whether there was any truth to that or not – it prompted us to revisit the topic leading to the current discursion on the strīrājya.

While the amazons are frequently mentioned in the Greek epic and early literature, their counterpart, the strīrājya, finds only a rare mention in the Hindu epic, the Mahābharata. Yet a closer examination suggests that the inspiration for both probably stemmed from related steppe Iranic groups:
1) While there is no consensus it is most likely that the Greek word amazon does not have a Greek etymology. Rather, it is likely to have some kind of Iranic etymology such as ha-mazon, perhaps meaning a warrior band.
2) The Greek evidence from writers such as Herodotus associate them as mixing with the steppe Iranic groups like Scythians (śaka tigracūḍa) and spawning the Sarmatians (sairima). Consistent with this they are described as being experts of horse-borne archery.
3) The Roman leader Pompey records them as being in the army of Mithradata-VI the formidable Greco-Iranian king. The later Roman writer and general Ammianus mentions them as a neighboring tribe of the Iranic Alans (Aryans).
4) The archaeologist David Anthony notes that among the “Scythian-Sarmatian” warrior kurgans about 20% contain interred women in battle-suits like their male counterparts. Consistent with this, some Greek sources record the amazons being interred in large kurgans. This can also be placed in the context of Herodotus’ account of the death of Cyrus, where he marches against an Eastern Iranic steppe kingdom of the Massagetae which was led by a queen Tomyris.

This suggests that indeed these steppe Iranics with female participation in warfare might have inspired the yavana legends about the amazons. They may have been more familiar to the early Greek sources than the Indic ones because they launched a series invasions in the direction of the Greek sphere and are even credited to have built some temples in the Greek sphere, which were subsequently centers of Greek worship.

On the Indian side of the evidence we find a further mention from the great Gupta age naturalist Varāhamihira in his Bṛhatsaṃhitā:
diśi paścimottarasyāṃ māṇḍavya-tukhāra-tāla-hala-madrāḥ |
aśvaka-kulūta-halaḍāḥ strīrājya-nṛsiṃhavana-khasthāḥ || 14.22

He places the strīrājya in the northwest along with several other tribes including the aśvaka, madra-s and the Tocharians. This is consistent with strīrājya being associated with the steppe Iranics of the Northwest. In the second reference to strīrājya by Vātsyāyana it is situated along with Bāhlika (modern Balkh) again pointing to the northwest direction. This reference also mentions the strīrājya women sequestering youths in their antaḥpura-s comparable to the a Greek tale regarding how the amazons reproduce by sequestering males from other tribes. The Chinese bauddha traveler-scholar Xuanzang and the Tang-Shu record a country Lang-ka-lo with its capital as Su-t’u-li-ssu-fa-lo which has be rendered by some as strī-īśvara. It is explicitly stated as being under Iranian rule despite using Brāhmi script and having both bauddha-s and Hindus (hundreds of deva temples) on the way to the “Western woman country”. This would suggest that all these sources recognized the same Northwestern land, likely associated with one or more steppe Iranic groups.

This position is also in line with the mention by Kalhaṇa in the Rājataraṃgiṇi of the strīrājya. He describes strīrājya as being invaded in course of the expansive conquests of the greatest Kashmirian emperor Lalitāditya to the north of Kashmir. He mentions strīrājya as being conquered prior to the Lalitāditya conquering this Uttarakuru-s would again place it to the north and potentially in the steppes. Notably, he appears to attack it from the east crossing a desert which might have meant the southern reaches of the Takla Makan. In this regard we hear from the kavi who mixes the rasa-s of warlike and the erotic:

tad yoddhān vigalad dhairyān strīrājye strījano’karot |
tuñgau stanau puraskṛtya na tu kumbhau kavāṭinām || 4.173

Then the women-folk of strīrājya made the valor of [Lalitāditya’s] soldiers melt,
by placing to fore their high breasts and not the frontal lobes of their elephants.

strī-rājya-devyās tasyāgre vīkṣya kampādi-vikriyāṃ |
saṃtrāsam abhilāṣaṃ vā niścikāya na kaścana || 4.174

Seeing the emotions of trembling and the like exhibited by the queen of the strīrājya in front of him (Lalitāditya), no one could say for certain if it was due to to fear or eros.

ekam ūrdhvaṃ nayad ratnam adhaḥ karṣat tathāparam |
baddhvā vyadhān nirālambam strīrājye nṛhariṃ ca saḥ || 4.185

By placing one magnetic gem which pulled it upwards, and another one which pulled it downwards, he (Lalitāditya) installed an idol of Nṛsimha suspended in the air without support in the strīrājya.

Lalitāditya’s successor Jayāpīḍa is also mentioned as conquering the strīrājya:

citraṃ jitavatas tasya strīrājye maṇḍalaṃ mahat |
indriya-grāma-vijayaṃ bahv amanyanta bhūbhujaḥ || 4.587

After he conquered a large territory of the strīrājya it is a wonder that other kings considered his conquest of the field of his (Jayāpīḍa’s) senses [ever greater].

karṇa-śrīpaṭam ābadhya strīrājyān nirjitād-dhṛtam |
dharmādhikaraṇākhyaṃ ca karmasthānaṃ vinirmame || 4.588

He established the office of the court of justice and hoisted therein the auspicious silk of Karṇa, which he had seized from the conquered strīrājya.

Regarding his profligate successor Lalitāpīḍa we hear again from Kalahaṇa:

atṛptaḥ strībhir alpābhir ugrarāgaḥ sa parthivaḥ |
jaḍaṃ mene jayāpīḍaṃ strīrājyān nirgataṃ jitāt ||

The king (Lalitāpīḍa) with a raging passion and not satisfied with [just] a few women considered Jayāpīḍa impotent for having left the strīrājya after conquering it.

Thus, we see parallels of the Matsyendra story, where the king Jayāpīḍa is praised for having controlled his senses upon conquering strīrājya. Notably, the Karṇa-śrī-paṭa, while obscure in meaning, reminds one of the Greek legends of Herakles and Theseus taking away the girdle of the amazonian queen Hippolyta. A further account of the strīrājya in Hindu tradition is seen the Jaimini-aśvamedhaparvan, which presents itself as a fragment of the Mahābhārata of Jaimini. However, as it has come down to us it is much reworked text with a Vaiṣṇava focus. Here, the sacrificial horse reaches the strīrājya in course of its wanderings and is taken by Pramilā, the queen of strīrājya. Arjuna challenges her to battle and after a brief archery encounter a celestial voice advises Pramilā to give up and marry Arjuna. She releases the horse and accompanies Arjuna to Hastināpura, where she waits for him till his period of celibacy for the aśvamedha is complete. But in course of this account it informs us that there are no males in strīrājya. The females are apparently left male-less due a curse of Rudrāṇī. If the males go there they die in a month from the excessive and violent sex with the females of strīrājya in line with the Kāmasūtra-s comment in this regard (“māsamātraṃ striyaṃ prāpya paścāt prāpnoti vaiśasam | … tenaiva svena liṅgena praviśanti hutāśanam |”). This also reminds one of the Greek legend of the destruction of men by the sirens or Kirke during wanderings of Odysseus. There is indeed a reversal similar to that of Odysseus and Kirke in the Matsyendranatha tale where the women of strīrājya attack Gorakṣa when he leaves with the former, but by his yoga he turns them into birds.

Thus, we may infer both Greek and Hindu traditions had the memory of a land of females. In both traditions they were much embellished but it appears that the Greeks had much closer contact with the actual agents behind these legends. However, in both cases it seems they gave rise to a floating mass of legends, which were incorporated into various cycles in different ways. Given the relatively sparse occurrence of the strīrājya in Hindu tradition, one may ask if they really encountered them or if were merely stories borrowed from some other group like the yavana-s. In this regard we may note the following:
1) The pre-Mauryan bronze mirrors described Vassilkov of Indian origin suggest some kind of a contact between the Hindus and the steppe Iranics. Moreover the alternative account of the death of Cyrus given by Ctesias, where the Indians are said to form an alliance with a central Asia group the Dṛbika-s against the Achaemenids. These point to contacts between the Indians and the steppe long after the Indo-Aryans conquered and settled in India.
2) Stylistic similarities are seen between Northern Indian and horse-trappings (phalerae) and jewelry recovered from Sarmatian graves.
3) Recently Veeramah et al looked at ancient DNA extracted from individuals from Sarmatian and other graves from a wide swath of western Eurasia and studied their genetic affinities. Notably, one Sarmatian individual (labeled PR_10 in their study) from Russian Orenberg region (~400-200 BCE) and a Crimean individual (labeled Ker_1) with Hunnic-style deformed skull from around 200-400 CE show evidence for Indian admixture. A preliminary examination (needs more careful confirmation) does suggest that this reflects a relatively recent Indian admixture with SNPs private to greater India rather than some ancient Indo-Iranian relationship. This would imply that there was direct contact with individuals of Indian origin so as to result in gene-flow.

In conclusion, we hence believe that there was some real knowledge of the steppe Iranics with female warriors among the Hindus. They were a distant group with which the authors of the texts might not have had close familiarity. Nevertheless, the direct experience of those who had journeyed to those regions likely formed the historical core of the information presented by Hindu authors, which was then subject to poetic elaboration. It is known that among the steppe groups both Iranic and later Turko-Mongol there was some degree of participation of women in warfare (down to the Mongol times and even after their conversion in the west to Mohammedanism). This was probably the root of both the Greek amazons and the Hindu strīrājya.

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