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In Southern India, a devadasi was a female artist who was dedicated to worship and serve a deity or a temple for the rest of her life. The dedication took place in a Pottukattu ceremony that was somewhat similar to a marriage ceremony. In addition to taking care of the temple and performing rituals, these women also learned and practiced classical Indian artistic traditions such as Bharatanatyam, Kuchipudi, and Odissi. Their social status was high as dance and music were an essential part of temple worship.
After becoming Devadasis, the women would spend their time learning religious rites, rituals, and dances. Devadasis were expected to live a life of celibacy, however, there have been instances of exceptions.
During British rule in the Indian subcontinent, kings were the patrons of temples, thus the temple artist communities lost their power. As a result, Devadasis 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 non-religious street dancers. This led to the socio-economic deprivation and adoption of folk arts.
The Devadasi system has started to disappear and it was formally outlawed in India in 1988.
According to temple worship rules, or (Agamas), dance and music are the necessary aspects of daily puja for temple deities. Devadasis were known by various local terms such as basivi in Karnataka, matangi in Maharashtra, and kalavantin in Goa. Devadasis were also known as jogini, venkatasani, nailis, muralis, and theradiyan. Devadasi is sometimes referred to as a caste; however, some question the accuracy of this usage. "According to the devadasi 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 the Devadasi tradition is unknown. The first known mention of a Devadasi is to 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. A.S. Altekar states that, "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 tradition of female artists in temples is said to have developed during the 3rd century AD. A reference to such dancers is found in the Meghadūta of Kālidāsa, a classical poet and Sanskrit writer of the Gupta Empire. 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 Tanjore temple in South India. Similarly, there were 500 Devdasi at the Someshwer shrine of Gujarat. Between the 6th and 13th centuries, Devadasi had a high rank and dignity in society and were exceptionally affluent as they were seen as the protectors of the arts. 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 supported the Devdasi system; in Tamil Devdasis were 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. The Chola empire developed the tradition of music and dance employed during temple festivals.
Inscriptions indicate 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 Devadasis during their performances. The Nattuvanars conducted the orchestra while the Devadasi performed her service. Inscriptions indicate that Nattuvanars taught the Chola princess Kuntavai.
As the Chola empire expanded in wealth and size, more temples were built throughout the country. Soon other emperors started imitating the Chola empire and adopted Devadasi systems of their own.
A community of Karnataka living in Andhra Pradesh, the Natavalollu were are also known as Nattuvaru, Bogam, Bhogam, and Kalavanthulu.
It was customary in the Krishna district of Tenali for each family to give one girl to the Devadasi system. These dancers were known as Jakkulas. As part of a social reform, a written agreement was made to formally end the practice.
Ādapāpas were female attendants to the ladies of the families of Zamindars. Ādapāpas led a life of prostitution as they were not allowed to marry. In some places such as the Krishna and Godāvari districts, Ādapāpas were known as Khasa or Khasavandlu.
Natavalollu/Kalawants were a community that was distributed throughout the state of Andhra Pradesh. They were also referred to as Devadasi, Bogamvallu, Ganikulu, and Sani. Kalavantulu means one who is engaged in art. Davesh Soneji writes that, "By the early twenty-first century, large numbers of women in the Kalavanthulu community had converted to Christianity, because this promised them a stable monthly income as members of the new rehabilitation programs of these missions."
Mahari Devadasi of Odisha
In the eastern state of Odisha Devadasis were known colloquially as Maharis of the Jagannath temple complex. The term Devadasi referred to the women who danced inside the temple. 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 and who comes from a Mahari family, defines Mahari as Maha Ripu-Ari, one who conquers the five main ripus - enemies.
Unlike other parts of India, the Odia Mahari Devadasis were never sexually liberal and were expected to remain celibate upon becoming Devadasis. However, there are records of Odia Mahari Devadasi having relationships and children. 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 due to stigma attached to their inherent profession, which may suggest prostitution.
The 1956 Orissa Gazette 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 still alive. The daily ritualistic dance had stopped, although Shashimani and Parashmani served in a few of the yearly temple rituals such as 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 popular story indicates that Renuka was the daughter of a Brahmin, married the sage Jamadagni, and was the mother of five sons. She used to bring water from the Malaprabha river for the sage's worship and rituals. One day at the river she saw a group of youths engaged in water sports and forgot to return home in time for her husband's worship and rituals, which made Jamadagni question her chastity. He ordered their 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 had Renuka 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 inspired her four eunuch sons as well as others to become her followers and worship her head.
Reformists and abolitionists
Reformists and abolitionists considered the Devadasi a social evil due to their way of life, which seemed like prostitution according to the western eye. The first anti-Nautch and anti-dedication movement began in 1882. The portrayal of the Devadasi system as "prostitution" was done to advertise the supposed grotesqueness of Indian culture for political means, even though the British colonial authorities officially maintained most brothels in India.
As the Devadasi were equated with prostitutes, they also became associated with the spread of the venereal disease syphilis in India. During the British colonial period many British soldiers were exposed to venereal diseases in brothels, and Devadasis were misunderstood to be responsible. In an effort to control the spread of venereal disease the British Government mandated that all prostitutes register themselves. Devadasis were forced to register, 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, were identified through the registry and then brought to the hospitals against their will. A number of these women were never seen again by their families.
Today, Sitavva Joddati of Karnataka helps former Devadasi find a foothold in mainstream society. In 1982 she was made a Devadasi at age seven. In 1997 she began the non-governmental organisation MASS (Mahila Abhivrudhi-Samrakshana Sansthe) in the Belagavi district of Ghataprabha to help women like her escape the Devadasi system and live a life of dignity. Between 1997 and 2017 MASS helped over 4,800 Devadasis reintegrate into mainstream society. In 2018 she received the Padmashri award at age 43.
Evolution of Bharathanatyam
Rukmini Devi Arundale, a theosophist trained in ballet, sought to re-appropriate the Devadasi dance traditions in a context perceived respectably by Indian society which had by then adopted the western morales. She altered 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 a new version of Bharatnatyam, which she taught professionally at the Kalakshetra school she established in Madras. Bharatnatyam is commonly seen as a very ancient dance tradition associated with the Natyasastra. However, Bharatnatyam as it is performed and known today is actually a product of Arundale's recent endeavour to remove the Devadasi dance tradition from the perceived immoral context associated with the Devadasi community and bring it into the upper caste performance milieu. She also adopted a lot of technical elements of Ballet into the modified form of Bharathanatyam.
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 Indian independence, the Madras Devadasi (Prevention of Dedication) Act outlawed dedication in the southern Madras Presidency. The Devadasi system was formally outlawed in all of India in 1988, although 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 initiated a young girl into the Devadasi profession and was performed in the temple by a priest. In the Brahminical tradition, marriage is viewed as the only religious initiation (diksha) permissible to women. Thus, the dedication was a symbolic "marriage" of the pubescent girl to the temple's deity.
In the sadanku or puberty ceremonies, the Devadasi initiate began her marriage with an emblem of the god borrowed from the temple as a stand-in bridegroom. From then onward, the Devadasi was 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 not only a religious occasion, but also a community feast and celebration in which the local elites also participated.
The 1956 Orissa Gazette references Devadasis dances. They had two daily rituals. The Bahara Gaaunis would dance at the Sakaala Dhupa. After breakfast Lord Jagannatha 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). They would perform only pure dance, and could be watched by the audience. The Bhitara Gaunis would sing at the Badashinghara, the main ceremony for ornamenting and dressing the God. At bedtime, Lord Jagannatha would first be served by male Sebayatas, who would fan him and decorate him with flowers. After they left, a Bhitara Gaauni would then enter the room, stand near the door (Jaya Vijaya), sing Gita Govinda songs, and perhaps perform a ritualistic dance. Later she would come out and announce that the Lord has gone to sleep and the guard would close the main gate.
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
Indian 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 villages of 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.|
|2009||Jogwa||A national award-winning Marathi feature film.||A love story revolving around Dev Dasi.|
|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