Priestesses and Prostitutes - The Forgotten Tales of Devadasis
Welcome to the beginning of Berkana’s 2022 journey. I planned to kick-start the year with some incredible stories of the badass femme archetypes. From an obscure corner of India’s culturescape I bring to you the stories of the mysterious Devadasis and Nauch girls from 7th century India. We will do a deep dive into their origin, social status, impact, and rudimentary present-day existence. So without delaying any further, let’s get started.
Once upon a time, in the motherland of India, women were patrons and protectors of intricate art forms. Back then, grace and spirituality danced across the white marbled temple courtyards. The cultural and religious practices of 3rd century to 13th century India usually were uplifting for women. However, with time, the women of the subcontinent became shackled by the same cultural devices that falsely claimed to free them. One such tradition was the Devadasi system.
Centered around women’s chastity, the Devadasi system emphasized the holiness of the pre-pubescent girls and their divine association with various gods or goddesses. Deva in Sanskrit means God and Dasi means servant. So these women were essentially dedicated to their local temples in the prime of their womanhood to serve the deity. The ceremony of dedication was eerily similar to Hindu marriage rituals. Living lives that are bound to eternal servitude to their temple duties, these young girls eventually became the patrons and gatekeepers of the most important classical art forms - both dance and music. However, their evolution took a downward spiral during the era when India was plagued with incessant foreign invasions. Once prominent priestesses who had affluent connections and were powerful patrons of art, they gradually reduced to being temple prostitutes. The British act that abolished the Devadasi system argued that at one point, the difference between a Devadasi and a Nauch (street dancer) girl dissolved. However, in my opinion, the Nauch girls were a lot more independent and relentless in their spirit compared to their religious counterparts.
Tune into Berkana next week to learn about the complex social origins of the Devadasi system. We will ponder on how it evolved over the various historical periods, the gods and goddesses associated with the rituals, the religious and social significance of a Devadasi, and their decline to their current state. Even if the system remains abolished by law, the practice still prevails in midst of the stark class apartheid and superstition that reigns due to lack of education, awareness, and equality in India. Even when the tragedy of the system is forgotten, the Devadasi system is still thriving among the lower social classes across the country. We will also examine the inspiring strength that these women harbor in midst of their unforgiving circumstances. The modern Devadasis exemplify that one might be born into a world where all the odds are rigged against them but still not choose victimhood. Through the lens of Berkana, we shall redefine these forgotten women who were the pioneers of the rich cultural traditions of various Indian classical dance forms.