This is a response to a comment made by Gaura Keshava Prabhu in which he espouses the opinion that head covering by North Indian women is an imposition from Islam.

The theory that North Indian women cover their head with a sari because of Islamic influence is not a sound idea for several reasons. There are places in North India that had very little or no Islamic political domination yet the women cover their heads with sari. And there are large swaths of South India that were under Islamic domination for centuries and the women there don’t cover their heads with saris.

Nepali lady with head covered at marriage

North India

Nepal, a separate country to the north of India, is a Hindu kingdom never conquered by the Muslims or British yet Hindu women in Nepal drape their sari over their heads.

Similarly Himachal Pradesh, and Uttarakhand in North India were never subjugated by the Muslims and they cover their heads like the Nepalis.

Odisha is in North India, it was only under Muslim rule for about 160 years (1591- 1751) and the “Muslim” who conquered Odisha was actually not a Muslim but the Vaisnava general Man Singh who built the temple for Sanatana Gosvami in Vrndavana. So you can understand what kind of “Islam” he brought to Odisha. Even now Odisha has a very small Muslim population.

“Islam has had a very slow rate of growth in Odisha even during the Muslim rule as there had never been any major Muslim missionary work. The current population of Muslims in Odisha is 761,985 (2001 census), roughly 2.1% of the total population [compared to 14% for the whole of India].”

Yet the women of Odisha drape their sari over their head. Odisha style of draping sari:

Odisha bride has head covered
Odisha bride has head covered

South India

In South India most of the Deccan was under Islamic rule from 1294 AD onwards, and with the collapse of the Vijayanagar empire in 1565 the Deccan Sultanates took over almost all of South India. Mysore (Karnataka) was also under the Islamic rule of Hyder Ali and Tippu Sultan until the later was killed by British in 1799.  And Andrah Pradesh, was controlled by the Muslims until British raja and was still a Muslim state under the Nizam of Hyderabad until 1948. So for 650 years much of South India was under Islamic control. Details can be found at this link.

Yet despite the fact that the Muslims ruled most of South India for almost seven centuries the women in South India don’t cover their heads with their saris. So here we see that the theory that head covering is an imposition forced on women by the Muslims doesn’t stand up. We have places in North India that had little or no political rule of Muslims where they cover their heads, and places in S India dominated by Muslims for 650 years were the women don’t cover their heads.

Covering or not covering the head has nothing to do with Muslims, it is an example of different cultural traits that arose between North and South India for reasons yet unknown.

There are some other differences, for example in North India the female Deity is always on the left hand side of the male Deity but in South India it is opposite. I first noticed this when I was visiting a Rama temple in Hyderabad and I asked the archaka, “why is Sita on the wrong side of Rama?” He insisted that Sita was on the correct side and that in all temples that is how it was done. I humorously countered by saying that in North India Sita is on left side of Rama, and that Sita and Rama are from North India! The point being that this difference is there. Was this created by the Muslim presence in India? No. I have no idea  (yet) why it is there, but it exists.

Head covering is an ancient Indo-European cultural tradition that Muslims adopted

It should be noted that head covering was not invented by Muslims but rather an ancient practice of many Indo-European cultures long before the advent of Islam.

“Most people think of the veil solely in terms of Islam, but it is much older. It originated from ancient Indo-European cultures, such as the Hittites, Greeks, Romans and Persians. It was also practiced by the Assyrians. Veiling had class as well as gender implications; thus, the ancient Assyrian law required it of upper class women while punishing commoners for it. The strong association of veiling with class rank, as well as an urban/peasant split, persisted historically up until the last century.”

In the law books of Assyria 1025 BC it stipulates that respectable and free women must cover their heads outside the home while prostitutes and servants (slaves) were forbidden from covering their heads.

“I.40. If the wives of a man, or the daughters of a man go out into the street, their heads are to be veiled. The prostitute is not to be veiled. Maidservants are not to veil themselves. Veiled harlots and maidservants shall have their garments seized and 50 blows inflicted on them and bitumen poured on their heads.”

A recent well researched scholarly book Aphrodite’s Tortoise: The Veiled Woman of Ancient Greece suggests that ancient Greek women routinely wore a veil.

Greek women routinely wore the veil. That is the unexpected finding of this major study. The Greeks, rightly credited with the invention of civic openness, are revealed as also part of a more eastern tradition of seclusion. Llewellyn-Jones’ work proceeds from literary and, notably, from iconographic evidence. In sculpture and vase painting it demonstrates the presence of the veil, often covering the head, but also more unobtrusively folded back onto the shoulders. This discreet fashion not only gave a privileged view of the face to the ancient art consumer, but also, incidentally, allowed the veil to escape the notice of traditional modern scholarship. From Greek literary sources, the author shows that full veiling of the head and face was commonplace. He analyses the elaborate Greek vocabulary for veiling and explores what the veil meant to achieve. He shows that the veil was a conscious extension of the house and was often referred to as “tegidion”, literally “a little roof”. Veiling was thus an ingenious compromise; it allowed women to circulate in public while maintaining the ideal of a house-bound existence. Alert to the different types of veil used, the author uses Greek and more modern evidence (mostly from the Arab world) to show how women could exploit and subvert the veil as a means of eloquent, sometimes emotional, communication. First published in 2003, Llewellyn-Jones’ book has established itself as a central – and inspiring – text for the study of ancient women.”

Here is link to another well research work Headcovering Customs of the Ancient World that discusses the head covering practices for both males and females in ancient Greece, Rome and the Jews.

Image of Roman women with covered head
Image of Roman women with covered head

Did High-class Ladies go Topless?

Gaura Keshava Prabhu asserted that in ancient times high-class Indian ladies went topless. That is very debatable. They certainly didn’t wear cholis as Aryans do not wear sewn cloth, cholis are a recent innovation. But, while they didn’t wear cholis they also didn’t display their opulences to all and sundry. Rather they wore their saris in such a way as to maintain their modesty.

One style is called “Mundum Neriyathum” that is still worn in Kerala (extreme S India) where the sari is tied up across the bosom leaving the shoulders bare but the midriff covered. In colder climates shoulders can be covered with more cloth.

Another method was to wear lower cloth like a dhoti and to tie a band of cloth across the chest this would also help to support the breasts and prevent sagging like a modern brassier. This image of Shakuntala shows how she covered her upper torso and from her two girl friends show how they also had a cloth tied over their bosom.

In the following video of the  “Canakya” TV series you will see how people of India dressed before the various yavana invasions of Greeks and Muslims. The film is well researched for authenticity. You will notice that no one wore sewn cloth, not man, women or child, not King or slave, no one. And much of the series takes place in Taxila in what is now Northern Pakistan, a place having very cold winters, still they didn’t wore sewn cloth, just more layers.

At mark 9:44 in the video you can see how Canakya’s mother, a brahmini, dressed in her home. She wears lower part like a dhoti and cloth tied around her chest to cover her breasts and a chaddar over her head. If you watch the whole series you will also see how women tied their hair in many decorative ways but hair is not kept loose.

Regarding the story of the two brahmacaris the first time I heard it they were Buddhist monks.


In conclusion the assertion that covering the head by North Indian women was influenced by the Muslims has no basis. Rather it is a common practice found in many ancient Indo-European cultures and ancient Mesopotamia. Covering the head was an Indo-European practice that the Muslims themselves adopted. Thus it was Muslims who adopted ancient Indo-European customs not the other way around. That South Indian women do not cover their head is an example of minor cultural differences between North and South India just as there is difference between north and south regarding juxtaposition of the male and female Deity. High-class women did not go topless but rather covered their opulences with strategically placed cloth. And that in Vedic culture no one wore stitched cloth – this was introduced into India by foreigners.

Further reading:

The History & Evolution of the Hijab in Iran

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