Hidimba – The Ignored Wife
In the Hindu epic Mahabharata, when Kunti decides to leave the forest with her five sons after spending some time in refuge, she doesn’t for once think about ‘Hidimba’, the woman her son Bhima married during their stay in the forest.
In Mahabharata, Hidimba has clearly been deprived of justice. But as consumers of these tales, have we been able to unravel the stark misconduct under the garb of ‘dharma’?
Karthika Nair in her book ‘Until the Lions – Echoes from the Mahabharata’, aptly reflects upon the epic through 18 marginal characters, one of them being Hidimba. Here, Nair introduces us to Kirmira, a rakshasa friend of Hidimba, who plays the role of a listener (documenter) of Hidimba’s side of the story.
The book’s title is derived from the first 3 words of an African addage: “Until the lions get their own historians, tales of the hunt will always glorify the hunters.”
In the book, Hidimba confides in Kirmira about how her identity has been subverted to a mere ‘rakshasa. She also painfully narrates that it is she who taught Bheema to master various skills of warriorship. She says, “We rakshasas labeled bloodthirsty, savage, take fewer lives than royals, I proved, time after time…”
Ever wondered why our mythologies describe these women from the ‘other’ races in such a way? Whether it’s Surpanakha (Ramayan) or Hidimba (Mahabharat), they are archetypal ‘rakshashis’, fat, ugly women prowling around for self-indulgence.
For most of us who have been fed with the mainstream narrative of these two epics, rakshashis are these undesirable demonesses who would often make (sexual) advances towards men (a strict no-no for a Hindu woman, perfectly alright for a man though). They are devoid of any emotion, leave alone having human values, ethics and self-respect.
How painfully ironic!
Contrary to this, is the tale that exists not in any text but in popular folklore in around various villages of Himanchal Pradesh.
Here. Hidimba is the village goddess (Maa Hidimba or Hidimba Devi). She is the fearless old woman, whom the villagers many centuries ago had welcomed as their own.
Hidimba Devi temple, constructed in 1553 by Maharaja Bahadur Singh, stands amidst a cedar forest near Dunghri town at the foot of the Himalayan mountains.
There are two distinct narratives here. On one hand, there are multiple temples built on Hidimba in the Kullu and Chamba regions, worshipped and revered by the locals. On the other, she is described in our popular culture as this ‘non Aryan’ woman who isn’t fit enough to be the queen of an Aryan race and hence is best left ignored and forgotten.
For a moment, just think about her. This jungle woman accepted her fate when her husband Bhima left her alone in the forest with a little baby, and never returned or recalled her. While Mahabharata is an epic based on the premise of Dharma and justice, Hidimba has been deprived of both.
The silence throughout the epic about Hidimba speaks volume not just about her but about contemporary society. While Hidimba being a strong and devoted woman accepts her fate with dignity and integrity, the society fails her.
Despite being a rakshashi, having powers to transform herself, she uses none of it and lives with integrity, bringing up an equally honest and brave son.
Despite being left in the forest all by herself with a little child to raise and no male relative to look after her, Hidimba does not flinch. She accepts her fate.
A woman with honest intentions without having any ambitions of enjoying a royal life, Hidimba is just the opposite of ‘Draupadi,’ who always knew how to have her way. (Draupadi took vows from the Pandavas wherein she put a condition that other than her, no one else could ever be the queen of Hastinapur. Only Subhadra, sister to Lord Krishna could break this vow as Arjuna married her).
No repentance, not even any emotional blackmail on account of the son that she carried from Bhima, Hidimba is a true picture of dignified womanhood.
Who can say which part of ‘Itihasa’ is true? It is indeed the story of the hunter and not the hunted that penetrates popular narratives and are retold for centuries together.
At times when we are our own documenters, it is for us to explore these tales and find their echoes from beneath those deep, forested rocks that had perhaps heard the wails of the unsung.