In Hinduism, a devadasi (Sanskrit: servant of deva or devi (god)) is a girl “married” to a deity and dedicated to worship and service of the deity or a temple for the rest of her life. Originally, in addition to taking care of the temple and performing rituals, these women learned and practiced Sadir (Bharatanatya), Odissi and other classical Indian artistic traditions and enjoyed a high social status as dance and music were essential part of temple worship.
Traditionally devadasis had a high status in society. After marrying wealthy patrons, they spent their time honing their skills instead of becoming a housewife. They had children from their husbands who were also taught their skills of music or dance. Often their patrons had another wife who served them as housewife .
During British rule in the Indian subcontinent, kings who were the patrons of temples and temple arts became powerless. As a result, devadasis were left without their traditional means of support and patronage. During colonial times, reformists worked towards outlawing the devadasi tradition on grounds that it supported prostitution. Colonial views on devadasis are hotly disputed by several groups and organizations in India and by western academics as the inability of the British to distinguish them from the petty girls who danced in the streets .
Recently the devadasi system has started to disappear, having been outlawed in all of India in 1988. However, devadasis still exist in India today, as shown in a 2004 report by the National Human Rights Commission of the Government of India. According to this report, “after initiation as devadasis, women migrate either to nearby towns or other far-off cities to practice prostitution” (p200). A study from 1990 recorded that 45.9% of devadasis in one particular district were prostitutes, while most of the others relied on manual labour and agriculture for their income. The practice of dedicating devadasis was declared illegal by the government of the Indian state Karnataka in 1982 and by the government of Andhra Pradesh in 1988. However as of 2006 the practice was still prevalent in around 10 districts of northern Karnataka and 14 districts in Andhra Pradesh. Some 80 to 90% of devadasis belong to scheduled castes.
Devadasis are also known by various other local terms, such as jogini. Furthermore, the devadasi practice of religious prostitution is known as basivi in Karnataka and matangi in Maharastra. It is also known as venkatasani, nailis, muralis and theradiyan. Devadasi are sometimes referred to as a caste; however, some question the accuracy of this usage. "According to the devadasis themselves there exists a devadasi 'way of life' or 'professional ethic' (vritti, murai) but not a devadasi jāti (sub-caste). Later, the office of devadasi became hereditary but it did not confer the right to work without adequate qualification" (Amrit Srinivasan, 1985). In Europe the term bayadere (from French: bayadère, ascending to Portuguese: Bailadeira, literally dancer) was occasionally used.
Ancient and medieval history
The first reference to dancing girls in temples is found in Kalidasa's "Meghadhoot". It is said that dancing girls were present at the time of worship in the Mahakal Temple of Ujjain. Some scholars are of the opinion that probably the custom of dedicating girls to temples became quite common in the 6th century CE, as most of the Puranas containing reference to it have been written during this period. Several Puranas recommended that arrangements should be made to enlist the services of singing girls for worship at temples.
By the end of 10th century, the total number of devadasis in many temples was in direct proportion to the wealth and prestige of the temple. During the medieval period, they were regarded as a part of the normal establishment of temples; they occupied a rank next only to priests and their number often reached high proportions. For example, there were 400 devadasis attached to the temples at Tanjore and Travancore.
Local kings often invited temple dancers to dance in their courts, the occurrence of which created a new category of dancers, rajadasis, and modified the technique and themes of the recitals. A devadasi had to satisfy her own soul while she danced unwatched and offered herself to the god, but the rajadasi's dance was meant to be an entertainment.
The popularity of devadasis seems to have reached its pinnacle around 10th and 11th century CE. The rise and fall in the status of devadasis can be seen to be running parallel to the rise and fall of Hindu temples. Invaders from West Asia attained their first victory in India at the beginning of the second millennium CE. The destruction of temples by invaders started from the northwestern borders of the country and spread through the whole of the country. Thereafter the status of the temples fell very quickly in North India and slowly in South India. As the temples became poorer and lost their patron kings, and in some cases were destroyed, the devadasis were forced into a life of poverty, misery, and, in some cases, prostitution.
Devadasis in South India and the Chola empire
The Chola empire encouraged the devadasi system. Men and women were dedicated to temple service. They developed the system of music and dance employed during temple festivals.
Inscriptions reveal that the 400 dancers, their gurus and orchestras, were maintained by the Brihadeesvarar temple, Thanjavur, with munificent grants, including the daily disbursement of oil, turmeric, betel leaves and nuts.
Nattuvanars were the male accompanists of the devadasi during her performance. They conducted the music orchestra while the devadasi performed her service. Inscriptions reveal that nattuvanars were used to teach the Chola princess Kuntavai a thousand years ago.
As the Chola empire expanded in wealth and size, they built more temples throughout their country. Soon other emperors started imitating the Chola empire and developed the system.
Mahari Devadasi of Odisha
Unlike other parts of India, the devadasis also known by the colloquial name of Mahari(s)of the Jagannath temple complex in the eastern state of Odisha have never practised prostitution, and have been expected to remain celibate from the time they became devadasis. However,they did have relationships and children, so this practice was obviously not strictly adhered to. It is said that the daughters of the Maharis of the Jagannath temple took to other professions such as nursing in the mid 20th century,because of the stigma attached to their inherent profession, which does suggest prostitution. Devadasi is a name given to a group of women who danced in the temple premises. The word devadasi or mahari means "those great women who can control natural human impulses, their five senses and can submit themselves completely to God (Vachaspati)." Mahari means Mohan Nari that is, the woman belonging to God. Sri Chaitanayadev had defined devadasis as 'Sebaets' who served God through dance and music. Pankaj Charan Das, the oldest Guru of Odissi classical dance, who comes from a Mahari family, explains Mahari as Maha Ripu -Ari (one who conquers the five main ripus - enemies ).
The beginning of the decline of the Mahari tradition started with the Muslim invasion of Odisha in the 14th century. They were exploited and for the first time the Purdah system appeared, ostensibly to guard the women-folk. The gradual degeneration of the devadasi tradition, which had started since the attack of Sultan Shah in 1360 A.D. continued. This was because the social, cultural & political scene was changing rapidly and women, in general, were losing their independence and power.
The Orissa Gazette of 1956 lists nine devadasis and eleven temple musicians. By 1980, only four devadasis were left – Harapriya, Kokilprabha, Paroshmoni and Shashimoni. Now only Shashimoni and Paroshmoni are alive. The daily ritualistic dance had stopped long ago. Now this twosome serve in a few of the yearly temple rituals like Nabakalebar, Nanda Utsav and Duar Paka during Bahuda Jatra.
Yellamma cult of Karnataka in South India
There are many stories about the origin of the Yellamma cult. The most prevalent one says that Renuka was the daughter of a Brahmin, married to sage Jamadagni and was the mother of five sons. She used to bring water from the river Malaprabha for the sage's worship and rituals. One day while she was at the river, she saw a group of youths engaged themselves in water sports and forgot to return home in time which made Jamadagni to suspect her chastity. He ordered his sons one by one to punish their mother but four of them refused on one pretext or the other. The sage cursed them to become eunuchs and got her beheaded by his fifth son, Parashuram. To everybody's astonishment, Renuka's head multiplied by tens and hundreds and moved to different regions. This miracle made her four eunuch sons and others to become her followers, and worship her head.
Toward the end of the 19th century, there was a spurt of social movements in India. Nationalism and search for national identity led to social movements relating to devadasis. These movements can be classified into two categories: Reformists/Abolitionists and Revivalists.
Reformists and abolitionists
Reformists and abolitionists conceived of the devadasi practice as a social evil and considered many Devadasi to be prostitutes. The first anti-Nautch and anti-dedication movement was launched in 1882. "Their main aim was to do away with this system. Reform lobbyists were drawn mainly from missionaries, doctors, journalists and social workers. They urged the abolition of all ceremonies and procedures by which girls dedicated themselves as Devadasis of Hindu shrines. They organized seminars and conferences to create a public opinion against the Devadasi system. In the later part of 1892 an appeal was made to the viceroy and governor general of India and to the governor of Madras. This appeal also defines the position of the anti-nautch movement (Jogan Shankar, 1990).
For the reform lobbyists — Christian missionaries, doctors, journalists, administrators and social workers — it was precisely these features of the devadasi institution which were reprehensible in the utmost. The portrayal of the devadasi system as "prostitution" sought to advertise the grotesqueness of the subject population for political ends, while the British colonial authorities officially maintained most brothels in India. For those who supported imperialism on the grounds of its "civilizing" function, programs of reform had ideological rewards.
Some journals and newspapers like The Indian Social Reformer and Lahore Purity Servant supported the reformist or abolitionist movement. The movement initially concentrated on building public opinion and enlisting members to refuse to attend Nautch parties as well as to refuse to invite devadasis to festivities at their homes. Around 1899, the anti-Nautch and puritan movement turned its attention to stopping dedications. The anti-Nautch movement paved the way for anti-dedication movement.
The social reform movements, spearheaded by Ram Mohan Roy, Periyar, Muthulakshmi Reddy, S. Muthiah Mudaliar, Sir C. P. Ramaswami Iyer, M. Krishnan Nair, C. N. Annadurai, Ishwar Chandra Vidyasagar, Govind Ranade, Dhondo Keshav Karve, and other prominent social thinkers, questioned the practice of devadasi system and pleaded for its abolition.
The Hindu revival movement consciously stepped outside the requirements of state electoral politics and western scientific traditions. The movement received strong support from the Theosophical Society of India, whose anti-official stance and strong interest in Indian home rule bound them with the revival of dance and music.
Pioneers like Madam H.P. Blavatsky and Colonel H.S. Olcott, the founders of the Theosophical movement, had undertaken an extensive tour of South India and propagated the revival of devadasi institutions and the associated art of sadir. They gained support from some sections of the native elite by their public denouncement of western Christian morality and materialism. In 1882, the Theosophical Society of India had set up its headquarters in Adyar, Chennai with the set goal of working towards the restoration of India's ancient glory in art, science, and philosophy.
The support later given to a revival of sadir as Bharatnatyam by the Theosophical Society was largely due to the efforts of Rukmini Devi Arundale, an eminent theosophist, and E. Krishna Iyer. She took up the cause of evolution of sadir and Bharatnatyam, another traditional dance.
The Theosophical Society Adyar provided the necessary funds and organization to back Arundale as the champion for India’s renaissance in the arts, especially Bharatnatyam. The revivalists tried to present the idealistic view of the institution of devadasi. According to their view, it was the model of the ancient temple dancer as pure, sacred, and chaste women, as they were originally.
They stressed that the dance of devadasi was a form of "natya yoga" to enhance an individual's spiritual plane. The revivalists wanted to preserve the traditional form of sadir dance by purifying it. As a consequence of purification, some modifications were introduced into the content of the dance, which was strongly criticized by dancer Balasaraswati and other prominent representatives of the traditional devadasi culture. The revivalists mostly belonged to Brahmin dominated Theosophical circles. Many Brahmin girls started to learn the dance from devadasis.
The first legal initiative to outlaw the devadasi system dates back to the 1934 Bombay Devadasi Protection Act. This act pertained to the Bombay province as it existed in the British Raj. The Bombay Devadasi Protection Act made dedication of women illegal, whether consensual or not. According to this act, marriage by a devadasi was to be considered lawful and valid, and the children from such wedlock were to be treated as legitimate. The Act also laid down grounds for punitive action that could be taken against any person or persons found to be involved in dedications, except the woman who was being dedicated. Those found guilty of such acts could face a year’s imprisonment, a fine, or both. The 1934 Act also provided rules, which were aimed at protecting the interests of the devadasis. Whenever there was a dispute over ownership of land involving a devadasi, the local Collector was expected to intervene.
The devadasi system was outlawed in all of India in 1988, yet some devadasis still practice illegally.
The devadasi practices have changed considerably over the last centuries.
From the late medieval period until 1910, the Pottukattu or tali-tying dedication ceremony, was a widely advertised community event requiring the full cooperation of the local religious authorities. It initiates the a young girl into the devadasi profession and is performed in the temple by the priest. In the Brahminical tradition marriage is viewed as the only religious initiation (diksha) permissible to women. Thus the dedication is a symbolic "marriage" of the pubescent girl to the temple's deity.
In the sadanku or puberty ceremonies, the devadasi-initiate consummates her marriage with an emblem of the god borrowed from the temple as a stand-in 'bridegroom'. From then onward, the devadasi is considered a nitya sumangali: a woman eternally free from the adversity of widowhood.
She would then perform her ritual and artistic duties in the temple. The puberty ceremonies were an occasion not only for temple honor, but also for community feasting and celebration in which the local elites also participated. The music and dance and public display of the girl also helped to attract patrons.
Devadasis performed various duties as part of the temple deity's worship. The exact nature of these duties varies with region. According to rules concerning temple worship (Agamas), dance and music are necessary ingredients of daily puja of deties in temples. These religious duties are uncontested and are a widely celebrated part of the life of the devadasi temple servant (as in the case of performers such as the Chakyar-s and Nangyaramma-s of Kerala). These variations are described later in this section.
The Orissa Gazette of 1956 mentions some occasions where the devadasis danced. They had two daily rituals. The Bahar Gaaunis would dance at the Sakaala Dhupa. Lord Jagannath, after breakfast, would give Darshan to the bhaktas (the devotees). In the Main hall, a devadasi accompanied by musicians and the Rajguru, the court guru, would dance, standing near the Garuda sthambha (pillar). This dance could be watched by the audience. They would perform only pure dance here. The Bhitar Gaunis would sing at the Badashringhar, the main ceremony for ornamenting and dressing the God. Lord Jagannath, at bedtime, would be first served by male Sebaets- they would fan Him and decorate Him with flowers. After they would leave, a Bhitar Gaauni would then enter the room, stand near the door (Jaya Vijay) and sing Gita Govinda songs, and perhaps perform a ritualistic dance. After a while, she would come out and announce that the Lord has gone to sleep and then the guard would close the main gate.
Yellamma devotees in Karnataka
An elaborate ceremony is held in order to initiate the Jogathis (female) and Jogappa (male) volunteers in the service of Goddess Yellamma. New followers have to bathe in three holy ponds and proceed to the head priest accompanied by community elders and other members of the family. The priests give them a long sermon on what they have to do please Yellamma. They have to identify themselves with the very poor and unfortunate ones and serve the society. At least twice a year they have to visit the Yellamma shrine on full moon days to express and confirm their obedience. During this semi-annual ritual, they must be nude; preferably totally nude. If not, they have to cover their bodies with Neem foliage or scanty clothes. Such rituals, especially in the last decade, have become heavily publicized events due to the youngsters and tourists who gather around such pilgrimage centers to have glimpses of nude and semi-nude human bodies.
Life after dedication
A devadasi's life after dedication was obviously very different centuries ago. Nowadays
After dedication of a girl to the temple, she has to take bath every day early in the morning and should present herself at the temple during morning worship of Yellamma. She is not allowed to enter the sanctum sanctorum. But she will bow to the deity from outside. Thereafter she sweeps compound of the temple. Every Tuesday and Friday she goes for yoga along with senior jogatis (yoga teachers). During this period she learns innumerable songs in praise of Yellamma and her son Parashurama. If she shows some aptitude to learn playing instruments she will be given training by her elder jogatis. In Yellampura and other villages Devadasis do not dance but this is performed by eunuch companions. The main functions of Devadasis would be singing and playing stringed musical instruments and Jagate. They form a small group and go for joga, from house to house on every Tuesday and Friday (Jogan Shankar, 1990).
Current reasons for dedication in the Yellamma cult
The followers of Yellamma, who are mostly poor, and illiterate, take a vow to dedicate themselves, their spouses, or their children in the service of Goddess Yellamma when they are unable to face the hardships of life. The typical situations include life-threatening diseases, infertility, and dire financial troubles. These are the people who are primarily responsible for propagating Goddess Yellamma's virtues and achievements and glorify the Goddess.
Even though the majority of the girls dedicated in the past few years or decades come from families with no tradition of devadasis, all of them come from communities with a strong history of the practice. For example, a village named Yellampura in Karnataka, 95 percent of households of Holers have practicing devadasis, which is the highest percentage in the village, followed by Madars.
The system has an obvious economic basis. The sanctions provided by social custom and apparently by religion, combined with economic pressures, have pushed girls from poor families into becoming the wives of a deity. The three factors (religious, social, and economic) are interlinked.
In a 1993 study, Asha Ramesh found that:
Dedication to the Goddess or God was justified on the following grounds:
(a) If the parents were childless, they vowed to dedicate their first child if it happened to be a girl.
(b) If there were no sons in the family, the girl child was dedicated and could not marry as she becomes a 'son' for the family (earning the family’s livelihood).
Yet another economic reason contributed to the dedications. If the girl's family had some property, the family ensured that it stayed within the family by turning the girl into a 'son' by dedicating her.
Traditionally, no stigma was attached to the devadasi or to her children, and other members of their caste received them on terms of equality. The children of a devadasi were considered legitimate and devadasis themselves were outwardly indistinguishable from married women of their own community. Chakyar-s and Nangyaramma-s of Kerala, who performed similar duties, for example, have enjoyed good social status.
Furthermore, a devadasi was believed to be immune from widowhood and was called akhanda saubhagyavati ("woman never separated from good fortune"). Since she was wedded to a divine deity, she was supposed to be one of the especially welcome guests at weddings and was regarded as a bearer of good fortune. At weddings, people would receive a string of the tali (wedding lock) prepared by her, threaded with a few beads from her own necklace. The presence of a devadasi on any religious occasion in the house of an upper caste member was regarded as sacred and she was treated with due respect and was presented with gifts.
Contemporary statistical data
India's National Commission for Women, which is mandated to protect and promote the welfare of women, has collected information on the prevalence of devadasis in various states. The government of Odisha has stated that the devadasi system is not prevalent in the state. There is only one Devadasi in Odisha, in a Puri temple. Similarly the government of Tamil Nadu wrote that this system has been eradicated and there are now no devadasis in the state. Andhra Pradesh has identified 16,624 devadasis within its state and Karnataka has identified 22,941. The government of Maharashtra did not provide the information as sought by the Commission. However, the state government provided statistical data regarding the survey conducted by them to sanction a "Devadasi Maintenance Allowance". A total of 8,793 applications were received and after conducting a survey 6,314 were rejected and 2,479 devadasis were declared eligible for the allowance. At the time of sending the information, 1,432 Devadasis were receiving this allowance.
In Andhra Pradesh, devadasi practice is prevalent in Karimnagar, Warangal, Nizamabad, Mahaboobnagar, Kurnool, Hyderabad, Ananthapur, Medak, Adilabad, Chittoor, Rangareddy, Nellore, Nalgonda, and Srikakulam. In Karnataka, the practice has been found to exist in Raichur, Bijapur, Belgaum, Dharwad, Bellari and Gulbarga. In Maharashtra, the devadasi practice exists in Pune, Sholapur, Kolhapur, Sangli, Mumbai, Lathur, Usmanabad, Satara, Sindhudurg and Nanded. Devadasis exist in temples in Goa in some form or the other (prominent Indian Classical vocalists like Kesarbai Kerkar, Lata Mangeshkar, Kishori Amonkar, Mogubai Kurdikar belong to Devadasi community of God, called as Kalavant in Konkani).
Similar practices in other countries
- Ritual servitude, the practice of enslaving young girls in shrines in some African countries
- Sacred prostitution
- Child prostitution
- Shamakhi dancers
- Gomantak Maratha Samaj
- Chakyar-s and Nangyaramma-s of Kerala
- Kanjirottu Yakshi
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