Kathasaritsagara (the Ocean of Story)

by Somadeva | 1924 | 1,023,469 words | ISBN-13: 9789350501351

This is the English translation of the Kathasaritsagara written by Somadeva around 1070. The principle story line revolves around prince Naravāhanadatta and his quest to become the emperor of the Vidhyādharas (‘celestial beings’). The work is one of the adoptations of the now lost Bṛhatkathā, a great Indian epic tale said to have been composed by ...

Notes and etymology of the word “harem”

Note: this text is extracted from Book IV, chapter 23.

“The child, when born, not only irradiated that room, but the heart also of that mother, from which the darkness of grief had departed; then, as the delight of the inmates of the harem was gradually extended, the king heard of the birth of a son from the people who were admitted to it; the reason he did not give his kingdom in his delight to the person who announced it was that he was afraid of committing an impropriety, not that he was avaricious”

The word harem, from the Arabic ḥaram and ḥarīm, means “that which is prohibited,” and is applied to that portion of the house allotted to the women, and also to the women themselves. It is further used to denote a particularly sacred spot, such as the sanctuary at Mecca. Owing to its constant use in English, it is often employed in describing the women’s quarters in non-Moslem lands, or in countries where only a certain proportion of the inhabitants are Moslems. The other words used with a similar meaning are zenana, seraglio and purdah.

Zenana, or more correctly zanana, is from the Persian zan, “woman” (γυνή), and is almost exclusively used in India. The word has become familiar in Britain owing to the establishment in India of zenana schools, hospitals and missionary societies.

Seraglio has an interesting etymological history. It is derived directly from the Italian serraglio, “an enclosure” (Latin sera, a bar), and has become connected with ḥarīm, through confusion with the Persian sarā, sarāi, which originally meant merely “an edifice,” or “palace.” In this sense sarāi was largely used by the Tartars, from whom the Russians obtained the use of the word, degrading it, however, to mean only a “shed.” In the language of the Levantine Franks it became serail and serraglio. It was at this point that a mistaken “striving after meaning” with the Italian serrato,shut up,” etc., connected it with the private apartments of women.

The Italian traveller Pietro della Valle (1586-1652) refers to the subject in his Travels (vol. i, p. 36):—

“This term serraglio, so much used among us in speaking of the Grand Turk’s dwelling... has been corrupted into that form from the word serai, which in their language signifies properly ‘a palace.’... But since this word serai resembles serraio, as a Venetian would call it, or seraglio as we say, and seeing that the palace of the Turk is (serrato or) shut up all round by a strong wall, and also because the women and a great part of the courtiers dwell in it barred up and shut in, so it may perchance have seemed to some to have deserved such a name. And thus the real term serai has been converted into serraglio.”

See Yule’s Hobson Jobson, under “Serai, serye,” whence I have taken the above extract.

The use of sarāi, meaning “house” or “building,” is very well known, though perhaps not often recognised, in the word “caravanserai” (Persian karwānsarāi),“ a (halting)-place for camels.”

Turning to the word purdah, or pardah, it is derived from parda, “a curtain,” and has come to mean the women’s part of the house, which is separated from the rest by a thick curtain or blinds to which this name is given.

The literature dealing with the ḥarīm life of the East is naturally voluminous. The following references, however, contain the more important accounts:—

  • “Harīm,” Hughes’ Dictionary of Islam, pp. 163-167;
  • Hoffman’s article in Ersch and Gruber’s Encyclopädie;
  • J. M. Mitchell, Ency. Brit. (11th edit.), vol. xii, pp. 950-952;
  • F. Millingen, “The Circassian Slaves and the Sultan’s Harem,” Journ. Anth. Soc., 1870, pp. cix-cxx;
  • G. Dorys, La Femme Turque, 1902;
  • Harvey, Turkish Harems and Circassian Homes, 1871;
  • L. M. Garnett, The Women of Turkey and their Folk-Lore, 1901;
  • E. Lott, Harem Life in Egypt and Constantinople, 1869;
  • E. W. Lane, Manners and Customs of the Modem Egyptians (5th edit., I 860), pp. 175-191;
  • B. Mullick, Essays on the Hindu Family in Bengal, Calcutta, 1882;
  • J. Jolly, Recht und Sitte, Strassburg, 1896;
  • S. C. Bose, The Hindoos as They Are, Calcutta, 1881;
  • M. F. Billington, Woman in India, London, 1895;
  • Otto Rothfeld, Women of India [1920].

For further references see the numerous articles in Hastings’ Ency. Rel. Eth. under “Birth,” “Education,” “Emancipation,” “Ethics,” “Family” and “Marriage.” —n.m.p.

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