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In South India, a devadasi is a girl "dedicated" to worship and serve a deity or a temple for the rest of her life. Devadasis are temple prostitute. The dedication takes place in a Pottukattu ceremony which is similar in some ways to marriage. In addition to taking care of the temple and performing rituals, these women also learned and practiced classical Indian artistic traditions like Bharatanatyam and Odissi dances.
After becoming Devadasis, these young women would spend their time learning religious rites, rituals and dance. They had children by high officials or priests who were also taught their skills of music or dance. Eminent personalities that have hailed from this community are Bharat Ratna recipient M S Subbalakshmi and Padma Vibhushan recipient Balasaraswathi.
During British rule, in the Indian subcontinent, kings who were the patrons of temples and temple arts lost their power. As a result, Devadasi were left without their traditional means of support and patronage. During colonial times, reformists worked towards outlawing the Devadasi tradition. Colonial views on Devadasi are hotly disputed by several groups and organizations in India and by western academics. The British were unable to distinguish the Devadasi from girls who danced in the streets for reasons other than spiritual devotion to the deity. This led to socio-economic deprivation and adoption of folk arts.
Recently, the Devadasi system has started to disappear, having been outlawed in all of India in 1988.
- 1 History
- 2 Devadasi practices
- 3 Social status
- 4 Contemporary statistical data
- 5 In popular culture
- 6 See also
- 7 References
- 8 Further reading
- 9 External links
According to rules concerning temple worship, (Agamas), dance and music are necessary ingredients of daily puja of deities in temples. Devadasis are also known by various other local terms, such as jogini. The Devadasi practice is known as basivi in Karnataka, matangi in Maharashtra and Bhavin and Kalavantin in Goa. It is also known as venkatasani, nailis, muralis and theradiyan. There were Devadasis from iyer communities as they performed Bharatanatyam. Devadasi are sometimes referred to as a caste; however, some question the accuracy of this usage. "According to the devadsi themselves there exists a devdasi 'way of life' or 'professional ethic' (vritti, murai) but not a devadasi jāti (sub-caste). Later, the office of devdasi 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, from Portuguese: balhadeira, literally dancer) was occasionally used.
Ancient and medieval period
The definite origin of Devadasi tradition is unknown to history. The mention of Devadasi is of a girl named Amrapali who was declared nagarvadhu by the king during the time of the Buddha.  Many scholars have noted that the tradition has no basis in scriptures. Altekar states, "the custom of association of dancing girls with temples is unknown to Jataka literature. It is not mentioned by Greek writers, and the Arthashastra, which describes in detail the life of Ganik, is silent about it."
The connection of dancing girls with temples is said to have developed during the 3rd century AD. The mention of such dancing girls is found in the Meghadūta of Kālidāsa, a classical poet and Sanskrit writer of the Gupta Empire in ancient India. Other sources include the works of authors such as Xuanzang, a Chinese traveller, and Kalhana, a Kashmiri historian. An inscription dated to the 11th century suggests that there were 400 Devadasi attached to the temple at Tanjore in South India. Similarly, there were 500 Devdasi at Someshwer shrine of Gujarat. Between the 6th and 13th centuries, Devadasi had a high rank and dignity in society and were exceptionally affluent, who were seen as the protectors of music and dance. During this period, royal patrons provided them with gifts of land, property and jewellery.
Devdasis in South India and the Chola empire (Devar Adigalar)
The Chola empire encouraged the Devdasi system; in Tamil they are known as Devar Adigalar, ("Dev" means "Divine" and "Adigalar" "Servants", i.e. "Servants of the Divine"). Both male and female Devadasi were dedicated to the service of a temple and its deity. They developed the system of music and dance employed during temple festivals.
Inscriptions reveal that 400 dancers, along with 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.
Balijas at the census, 1901, were:—
Jakkulas, among whom it was, at Tenali in the Krishna district, formerly customary for each family to give up one girl for Devadasi system. Under the influence of social reform, a written agreement was a few years ago entered into to give up the practice.
Ādapāpa. Female attendants on the ladies of the families of Zamindars, who, as they are not allowed to marry, lead a life of prostitution. Their sons call themselves Balijas. In some places, e.g., the Krishna and Godāvari districts, this class is known as Khasa or Khasavandlu.
Sri Raja Venugopala Krishna Yachendralu Garu, unmarried, but had issue, two illegitimate sons by Saraswathamma, a dasi of the Balija community. He died on 20 June 1920.
Natavalollu /Kalawant A community of Andhra Pradesh, they are also referred to as Devadasi, Bogamvallu, Ganikulu and Sani and are distributed throughout the state. Kalavantulu means one who is engaged in art.
Mahari Devadasi of Odisha
Unlike in other parts of India, in the eastern state of Odisha the Devadasis, also known colloquially as Mahari(s)of the Jagannath temple complex, were never sexually liberal, 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 Mahan Nari that is, the woman belonging to God. Sri Chaitanayadev had defined Devadasis as 'Sebayatas' 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 Orissa Gazette of 1956 lists nine Devadasis and eleven temple musicians. By 1980, only four Devadasis were left – Harapriya, Kokilaprabha, Parashmani and Shashimani. By 1998, Only Shashimani and Parashmani were alive. The daily ritualistic dance had stopped long ago. This twosome served in a few of the yearly temple rituals like Nabakalebara, Nanda Utsava and Duara Paka during Bahuda Jatra. The last of the Devadasis, Shashimani, died on 19 March 2015, at the age of 92.
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.
Reformists and abolitionists
Reformists and abolitionists consider the Devadasi a social evil, being prostitutes. The first anti-Nautch and anti-dedication movement was launched in 1882. 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.
Due to the Devadasi being equated to prostitutes, they also became associated with the spreading of venereal disease Syphilis in India. During the British Colonial period, many British soldiers were exposed to venereal disease in the various brothels being operated at that time. As such, Devadasis were misunderstood to be responsible for this. In efforts to control the spread of venereal disease, the British Government mandated that all prostitutes register themselves, with Devadasis being forced to do this as well, as they were thought to be prostitutes by the British Government.
In addition to obligatory registration, the British Government also established institutions known as Lock Hospitals, where women were brought in order to be treated for venereal diseases. However, many of the women admitted to these hospitals, including many Devadasi women, were identified through the registry and then brought to the hospitals against their will, with a number of these women never seen again by their families.
Sitavva Joddati from Karnataka today helps victims find a foothold in society. At seven, she was a Devadasi. Thirty-six years later, she is a Padma Shri awardee. In 1997 she began a non-governmental organisation called MASS (Mahila Abhivrudhi-Samrakshana Sansthe) in Ghataprabha, Belagavi district to help women like her escape the clutches of the Devadasi system and live a life of dignity. And she can now proudly look back at the last two decades as her efforts during this time have helped bring over 4,800 Devadasis into mainstream society. Her efforts were recognised and Padmashri award given to her in 2018.
Rukmini Devi Arundale, a theosophist and trained in ballet, sought to re-appropriate the Devadasi dance traditions and bring them into a context which could be perceived as respectable. She did this by changing the dance repertoire to exclude pieces perceived as erotic in their description of a deity. She also systematized the dance in a way that incorporated the extension and use of space associated with dance traditions such as ballet. The product of this transformation was Bharatnatyam, which she then began to teach professionally at a school she established in Madras, called Kalakshetra. Bharatnatyam is commonly propagated as a very ancient dance tradition associated with the Natyasastra. However, in reality, Bharatnatyam as it is performed and known today is a product of Arundale's endeavour to remove the Devadasi dance tradition from the perceived immoral context of the Devadasi community and bring it into the upper caste performance milieu.
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. In 1947, the year of independence in India, the Madras Devadasi (Prevention of Dedication) Act outlawed dedication in the southern Madras Presidency. The Devadasi system was outlawed in all of India in 1988, yet some Devadasis still practice illegally.
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 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 begins 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 Orissa Gazette of 1956 mentions some occasions where the Devadasis danced. They had two daily rituals. The Bahara Gaaunis would dance at the Sakaala Dhupa. Lord Jagannatha, after breakfast, would give Darshana to the bhaktas (the devotees). In the main hall, a Devadasi accompanied by musicians and the Rajaguru, the court guru, would dance, standing near the Garuda stambha (pillar). This dance could be watched by the audience. They would perform only pure dance here. The Bhitara Gaunis would sing at the Badashinghara, the main ceremony for ornamenting and dressing the God. Lord Jagannatha, at bedtime, would be first served by male Sebayatas- they would fan Him and decorate Him with flowers. After they would leave, a Bhitara Gaauni would then enter the room, stand near the door (Jaya Vijaya) 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.
Life after dedication
A Devadasi's life was different centuries ago. The following paragraph from Devadasi System in India and its Legal Initiatives - An Analysis is an example of the daily rituals the Devadasi had to follow.
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).
Traditionally, no stigma was attached to a 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.
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, collected information on the prevalence of Devadasi culture in various states. The government of Odisha stated that the Devadasi system is not prevalent in the state. There is only one Devadasi in Odisha, in a Puri temple. In March 2015, a newspaper report said that the last devadasi, Sashimoni, attached to Jagannath temple had died, bringing the curtain down on the institution.
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.
According to a study by the Joint Women’s Programme of Bangalore for National Commission for Women, girls who have to accept becoming a Devadasi, few reasons were provided, which included dumbness, deafness, poverty, and others. The life expectancy of Devadasi girls is low compared to the average of the country, it is rare to find Devadasis older than fifty.
In popular culture
|1976||Bala||Dance performance of Balasaraswati in the documentary, directed by Satyajit Ray.||Joint production of the Government of Tamil Nadu and the National Centre for the Performing Arts.|||
|1984||Giddh||Hindi movie starring Om Puri and Smita Patil.||Portraying the theme of exploitation of young girls in the name of Devadasi tradition. Set in a village on Maharashtra and Karnataka.|||
|1987||Mahananda||Hindi movie on the life of Devadasi in Maharashtra.||Produced and directed by Mohan Kavia.|||
|2000-2001||Krishnadasi||A tele-serial on SunTV.||About the life of Devadasis.|
|2011||Sex, Death, and the Gods||BBC Storyville series||Documentary directed by Beeban Kidron|||
|2011||Balasaraswati: Her Art & Life||Book on Bharatnatyam dancer, Balasaraswati.|||
|2012||Prostitutes of God||A documentary by VICE Guide to Travel||Controversial documentary on the lives of Devadasi sex workers.|||
|2016||Krishnadasi||A tele-serial on Colors TV.||Depicted the lives of Devadasis married to Lord Krishna|
|2016||Agnijal||A movie||Bengali romantic drama between a King and a Devadasi|
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|Wikimedia Commons has media related to Devadasi.|
- Devadasis - Sinned or Sinned Against? by Anil Chawla.
- Given to Goddess - Article on the Yellama Cult of India, 31 July 2000
- Slaves to the goddess of fertility by Damian Grammaticas - BBC News, 8 June 2007 in which it's claimed that devadasis are 'sanctified prostitutes'.
- Serving the Goddess, The dangerous life of a sacred sex worker by William Dalrymple. The New Yorker, 4 August 2008
- Devadasi video Mystery - Article about 1930 video capture at Baroda
- Prostitutes of God- VICE Travel Documentary