Devadasi – The Fallen Idol

Once sought for their extraordinary talents in the creative arts, now reduced to a forgettable chapter in India's history, the Devadasis have endured it all.

Devadasi – The Fallen Idol

Devadasis were legendary temple artists whose place in history has been usurped by the invaders and colonists that marauded the Indian subcontinent after its Classical era. It is still hard to believe that these virtuosos who commanded such high respect from all sections of society are now banned according to the 1934 Devadasi Security Act, as the tradition was thought to have supported prostitution. As the name suggests, traditionally girls who showed prowess in the performing arts were dedicated in service to the local temple deity, much like how boys who showed an aptitude or were inclined towards the scriptures were made priests. They were made the wives of god and had names such as jogins, kalawants, mathammas, paravatis including Devadasis, living in the boundary of the temples. Primarily, they performed over religious activities, ceremonies, and temple functions, but were also a part of the larger community at cultural events.

Devadasis’ origins lie deep in the Saiva Agamas (circa 1,500 BCE), which dignify her as a bonafide ceremonial officiant, with specific duties, training, and rules of conduct. Both the Devadasis and the priests were a part of the subtle, sacred task of invoking the divine energy of Shakti of the Mahadeva, thus making it a tangible experience for the devotees. The priests employed Sanskrit mantras; the Devadasis used music, dance, and mudras. Their fulfillment was completely inner as the joy of serving the almighty gave little worldly reward. The Devadasis had a daily routine that was synonymous with the temple she was attached to. Like any other person, she lived in her own small house on temple lands, albeit alone and ate the temple prashadam as well as cooking for herself. Like the priests, she rose before dawn, performed her personal worship and arrived at the temple. She sang, drew kolams, performed rituals, lit lamps and danced at two different locations– one right before the inner sanctum while the other at mandapams where devotees were enthralled by her pious worship.

The number of Devadasis in a temple was in correlation with the prestige of the temple, as was evident with the 400 Devadasis attached to the temples of Thanjavur and Travancore. A prestigious occupation such as theirs meant that they were ranked next only to the priests. For millennia, these highly trained performers filled India’s temples with devotional song and rigorous dance. They also had a family life with their patron, who possibly had a family of his own but was only relevant to ensure the bloodline of the Devadasis continued. This unique tradition was Hindu society’s strategic way of guaranteeing the preservation of the classical arts as religious, not secular expressions. The Devadasi’s marriage to the Deity was more than a spiritualizing arrangement as society felt during that time that the demands of a female family member-daughter, wife or mother were so consuming, only someone removed from such responsibilities could commit the time and energy needed to master the classical arts. “They could practice and perform all day long and not think about anything else,” examines Mythili Kumar, a famous contemporary dancer, herself trained by a Devadasi. The colonial powers with their missionaries made sure to condemn their existence and be a horrible blot in India’s history. The anglicized Indians in tune with their masters perpetuated this ignominy which is why few can comprehend how a society that once called her Nityasumangali, “the ever-auspicious woman,” could later chase her into the streets.

Saskia C. Kersenboom in her book Nityasumangali: Devadasi Tradition in South India, painstakingly researched the history of the Devadasi culture and tried to disentangle the web of lies fed to us. In one of her interviews with P. Ranganayaki, the following is mentioned:

“When a girl would reach the age of 16, an application to be allowed to become a Devadasi would be made to the king of Karvet inagar; such a petition would have to be countersigned by ten priests and ten Devadasis. After permission was granted, an auspicious day would be fixed for the air branding function … Five days before the actual muttirai a gejje puja would be held to conclude the girl’s training in dance … From the temple they would bring the kattari (the sword, spear or trident) to the home of the girl. All traditional marriage rituals would be performed…

“The girl would then give a dance performance … The girl would be accompanied to the temple … There she would dance the pushpanjali, followed by a full. dance concert. Hereafter the mark of trisula would be branded on her upper arm … After one month the Devadasi was free to decide about her future. Either she would accept a steady husband or she would be kept as a mistress for a period that would be agreed upon … We were god fearing. After we got our status of Devadasi we could decide for ourselves. We had our own discipline.”

The tawaif who were courtesans during the Mughal era were wrongly associated with Devadasis. Tawaifs were talented artists at mehfils and special houses called as Kothas, performing mujra, theatre, Urdu poetry recital but were seen as mere entertainment for the nobility. They were similar to the Geisha tradition in Japan, whose main purpose was to professionally entertain their guests where sex was a possible outcome. This distinction was conveniently ignored to portray this ancient cultural system as reprehensible and hence the immediate need for its abolishment. India in modern times is often cited as sexually repressed but the colonial imposition of Christian morality has a lot do with it. Indians are generally self-denigrating in nature, aided by false knowledge of history and cases such as these tend to prove that point. An open and all-encompassing ethos was derided and this was one of the thousand lies that passed itself as the truth.

Many of India’s famous singers and dancers such as Lata Mangeshkar, her sisters, and MS Subbulakshmi trace their lineage to the Devadasi community. As Devadasis were banned from existence, many led a life of poverty and were seen on society’s fringes. Deemed as ‘public women’ by decades of propaganda by Indian and western writers, the stigma associated with them has eroded their existence as preservers of India’s cultural heritage. The so-called reformers and abolitionists have rarely done anything for their betterment and as history is witness, many have now been forced into actual prostitution. Years of derision and sense of worthlessness has put them into a position from which they were supposed to have been alleviated. Be it the Yellamma cult of Karnataka in South India or the Mahari Devadasi of Odisha, all have met a similar fate.

‘The Devadasis enjoyed a privileged position by means of temple association that granted them religious prerogatives and economic benefits that were not devoid of social honour’ (Srinivasan 1870). From such a high position in society with complete financial independence to being reduced to begging for alms or worse, India has been terribly unkind to the Devadasis. The words of India’s most famous classical singers, Kishori Amonkar, who is unashamed of here Devadasi heritage, truly shows this fall from grace —

“Once I was sitting on the parapet of the Someshwar temple in our home village Kurdi, when I was rudely asked to get down from there and sit on the step below. Why? I failed to understand. I did not budge. Later on I came to know that our low social status automatically assigned us to at place a the bottom.”

It is indeed our deep shame that this gross miscarriage of justice has not been set right and that those descendants of Devadasis, as well as people from marginalized sections of society, have not been provided with the kind of training in creative arts that was originally intended.

References / Footnotes

1. Nityasumangali: Devadasi Tradition in South India by Saskia C. Kersenboom

2. Perceptions of Prostitution: The Devadasi System in India

3. Srinivasan, Amrit. “The Devadasi and Her Dance.” Economic and Political Weekly 20.44 (1985): 1869-1876.

4. India Perspectives, 1991, by Rashmee Seghal

About Author: Vinayak Sridhar

Vinayak has degrees in engineering & managment, with interests in philosophy, music, history and politics. He currently resides in New Delhi and is the co-founder of Pragyata. Twitter Handle - vsridha2

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.