Divya Cherian

Illicit Sex in a ‘Globalizing’ World: Gender, Mobility, and Law in Eighteenth-Century Marwar

Lady comes to her lover’s house in a rainstorm, c. 1830, India, Edwin Binney 3rd Collection, San Diego Museum of Art

Despite fanning out across the sub-continent and beyond in pursuit of their trading interests, the merchants of Marwar retained strong familial ties with their homeland, the women of the household remaining back home in Marwar and the men often retiring there after long careers elsewhere. Recent histories of the world and of South Asia from 1450-1750 emphasize ‘connectivity,’ ‘networks’, ‘flows’ and ‘archaic globalization’—that is, a global early modernity. Marwari mercantile communities were exemplars of both the mobility that this historiographic turn emphasizes and of the role of global forces in shaping local, even micro, histories. The brahmans of the region, and of the sub-continent more broadly, also were beneficiaries of the changing matrix of religion, politics, and economy of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. Lost somewhere in the scholarly conversation about early modern South Asia is the question of what effect these transformations had on the women of the very communities that were beneficiaries of the flux and circulations that characterized the age. By examining archival references to non-marital sexual relationships and their repercussions, such as abortion, in the changing context of eighteenth-century Marwar, this paper will seek to trace the effects of an increasingly inter-woven globe upon the bodies and lives of elite women. In doing so, the paper explores how the early modern period reshaped the lives of those who appeared fixed, immobile, and seemingly beyond the pale of the energetic flows of an incipient modern age.


Divya Cherian is an Assistant Professor in the Department of History at Princeton University. She is completing a book manuscript that examines the effects upon the society and politics of the western Indian region of Marwar of the sub-continental rise of the mercantile communities of the region in the eighteenth century. In it, she offers a history of the construction of a singular Hindu identity, one that encompasses Hindu-Muslim relations, untouchability, Krishna bhakti, vegetarianism, and law in pre-colonial western India. Alongside, Divya is also completing a smaller project on gender and law in eighteenth-century Marwar. She completed her doctoral studies at Columbia University and prior graduate studies at Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi. Her research has been supported by the Indian Council for Historical Research, the American Institute of Indian Studies, the Charlotte Newcombe Foundation, and the Rutgers Center for Historical Analysis.