Priestesses and Prostitutes
A Life Spent in Servitude
Welcome to Berkana, a place to find diverse cultural investigative essays. In our last issue, we discussed who were Devadasis and why it is important to learn more about them. Today we are deep diving into their mythological origin, socio-political status both pre-, and post-colonialism, intentional deletion from history, and the current day status. Let’s jump right in!
The history of Devadasis is as ancient and complex as the history of India itself. Customary consecration of young girls by marrying them to the local deities started back in the 7th century. A custom modeled on vanity and superstition. The temples of a particular dynasty used to directly mirror the wealth accumulated by the royals and nobles of the dynasty. The temple paraphernalia was a tool to cradle the ego of the kingdoms. Therefore, to make the Devasthanam (temple) a direct reflection of the royal court, many women trained in various classical dance forms were recruited to perform during festivals and other temple ceremonies. In royal courts, they were called the Nauch girls and in temples, they were known as the Devadasis. To dedicate their daughters permanently to the temples, the family needed to take them out of the domestic realm and expose them to the public realm of politics and culture. This action needs proper justification and legitimization. Therefore lores, myths, and legends were crafted around the traditions to keep them intact and meaningful. It was superstitiously believed that marrying the deities with a priestess would bring immense prosperity for the locals. The original tradition that was later solidified by one particular Queen of the Somavashi Dynasty (modern-day Orissa), was designed to put women at the helm of temple politics. This was a superior position of power and respect. The life of a Devadasi demanded several sacrifices like the abandonment of your five senses and completely being dedicated to the Deva (god) through Bhakti (devotion). Back in medieval times, women were excluded from the domains of public life and were denied representation. The presence of devadasis at the center stage of culture and politics speaks multitudes of their confounding charm and control over their lives. Since the lord was her husband, a Devadasi was considered to be eternally Sughagan (a woman whose husband is alive). This status symbol was considered to be auspicious, and hence they were invited to every public celebration. Therefore, the temple girls or the Sānis played a significant role in the emerging local politics and bureaucracy. Slowly as the wheel of time turned, the customary ritualistic performances became an essential part of traditions. These traditions grew and formed the institution of the Devadasi system. It is important to study this institution to understand the contribution of Devadasis to the art and culture of ancient India and to learn the reason for their downfall in the modern world. History has intentionally been moderated to remove the narrative of women and their active roles in the public domain. But some knowledge is still etched on the rocks and boulders of the remnants of the old world. The walls and pillars of temples are witnesses to the stories of several Devadasis captured by the artists in the wall sculptures. The temple art evokes a past where the temple courtyards used to echo with the chimes of anklets of the female dancers who wandered the temple grounds.
Devadasis were women whose primary social identity was associated with temple ceremonies and dance performances. The Devadasi system emerged as a response to the women’s demand for sovereignty over the devotion of their lord, also known as the Bhakti movement. Around the 7th century, the Sanskritic religions were gradually becoming more important than the Saramanic religions. This shift had a significant impact on the evolution of the history of the Indian Peninsula. The medieval world closely associated the position of the crown prince with his religious institutions. The relationship established a social legitimation of the future king’s status. The temples, in turn, received protection from its mighty benefactors. The religious bodies hence remained independent and discreet in their functioning. Questioning the method of the temples was like questioning the throne. Hence, the temple also became the center point of power and politics asserting more influence over the throne. With the widespread acceptance and admiration of the Bhakti philosophies like self-surrender, the temples found opportunities to devise new methods to exert power. This new tool to forge power was art. The Brahmanical ideologies along with the Bhakti movement’s momentum revived the position of women in domains of religion. This enabled many temples to employ many temple girls for the dance ceremonies, making the temples the era’s epicenter of art and culture. Devadasis are therefore proponents of Bhakti that they inspire through their dance. Therefore, the Devadasi system is a direct component of the Bhakti movement. This narrative gives the Devadasi system a meaningful conception untainted by its colonial misogynistic definition. It also allows us to take history, perhaps for the first time, away from its male-centric narrative to focus more on the social, political, and spiritual dimensions of women’s life.
The legend of Apsaras
There is an ancient lore associated with the origin of the first Devadasi. As per the legend, the Nirtya Natyam (dance drama) was first presented in the court of Indra (king of gods in the Hindu pantheon). The dance form was supposed to retell the many victories of Indra over the underworld Asuras (demons). Even if the new art form was well received by most, some gods acknowledged the fact that it lacked a touch of delicate grace. This criticism sparked serious debate among those present in Indra’s court. To seek a solution, the gods collectively went to see Brahma (one of the three supreme gods). Brahma was mesmerized by the new art form and created Apsaras (celestial nymphs) to become its rightful patrons. This story became the foundation of the establishment of Indian classical dance forms. It is believed that it was Indra’s most elusive Apsara Urvashi, who transferred the knowledge of Nritya Natyam to the first Devadasi. From there started the matrilineal lineage of women carrying the torch of this magnificent tradition generation after generation. The first documented details of this art form are found in the fifth Veda known as Natya Shastra, which is the sacred text for all performing art forms. The dance form mentioned in Natya Shastra was believed to be a practice that blends the art of Nritta (elegant postures and body movement to music) with Abhinaya: an art form that demands mastery over rasa (emotion) and bhav (facial expressions). From the 7th-17th century, an era when the Maratha empire ruled south India, this dance form got a popular name, it was called Sadir Natyam or simply Sadir. It is the same dance form that today is essentially known as Bharatanatyam.
A typical Sadir Attam Ceremony from 7th century
The soft flute music emanating from the temple premises melts into the evening atmosphere. The white marble reflected the moonlight, and the worship hall is lit with infinite oil lamps. Devotees have trodden far and wide to get a glimpse of the grandeur of the temple festivities. Behind the temple, there is a dome-shaped Natyamandapa (dance hall) with open galleries for the audience. The vocalist and her band of highly trained Carnatic classical instrumentalists have already arrived and set their Tambura, Mridangam, Veena, and Thalam in place for the performance. The Nattuvanar (dance teacher) enters and takes a seat next to the prime vocalist to finalize the details of the initiation song. It is after all the Arangetram (solo debut performance) of her favorite student. After decades of training the guru has finally acknowledged that her disciple has the right skill and dedication to graduate. After the Arangetram the dancer will ascend the stage and hopefully be patronized by an important King or someone else from an influential class. Other performances will also be held as a sign of completion of the ritualistic worship of the temple deity. Adorned in the bright contrasting colors of the five-piece Kancheepuram silk sarees, the temple girls will soon arrive on the stage. At one corner, a magnificent idol of Lord Nataraj (Shiva) stood as a sign of fortitude and balance. The musicians have taken their respective positions on the rug with their instruments. Several hanging temple lamps dispersed a warm golden glow on the stage. The fragrance of hand-made incense sticks, fast-burning camphor, garlands of jasmine, marigold, and lily formed the mood of the ceremony. The girls are finishing their final alankar, adorning themselves with precious pearls and jewels. On the master’s cue, the music starts, the dancers arrive on the stage, and then begins the mesmerizing rendition of Nritya Natyam, retelling various mythological lores through Nritta, Rasa, and Bhava. The dancers glide over the stage gracefully, their hands and body movements synchronized with the emotions invoked by their character. There could be no scope of an error on the stage. The women methodically become the characters that they were playing and tell moving stories from long-forgotten chapters of mythology.
Several lineages of Devadasis kept an entire category of performance art alive for generations. Their accomplishments elevated them to a position where they were in favor of many powerful allies. They were affluent too, as their royal patrons often endowed them with expensive gifts such as lands, property, and jewelry.
Appropriation of Art and The Holy Whore
When colonial powers loomed over the future of this nation there were a lot of native traditions under danger of eradication. The British saw the tradition of Devadasis as vulgar. They argued that it had an improper effect on the morale of people. In the eyes of the foreign power, the Devadasi system exposes young women to the public sphere, thus causing a loss of their modesty. This colonial view invoked a sense of shame and reproach towards the royal patrons of these women. To be in good books with the British and advocate their idea of progress, influential patrons one by one abandoned their subjects. Without the protection of their powerful patron, thousands of women were reduced to a state of destitution overnight. Thus the tradition of the Devadasi system shattered long before the first abolishment act was passed. The temple women who were once abandoned by their families were now stripped out of their public roles. The well-respected Devadasis were now degraded to the status of undesirables. Since they had no asylum, these women did whatever they could to survive. In the medieval world that only meant one thing for a woman who had no means, reputation, and money - prostitution.
The social reform started with the Bombay Devadasi Protection Act of 1934 which was followed by several abolishment acts spanning from 1934 to 1988. Although the tradition of the Devadasi system was abolished, the advocates of culture insisted that the art form of Sadi was innate to the southern values and needed preservation. Therefore, to make it an appealing cultural practice, art historians agreed that Sadir attam should be culturally whitewashed. The art of Devadasis was then eventually appropriated to create the world of Bharatnatyam. Although the basics of the Bharatnatyam were derived from Sadir, the history of the Devadasis who kept the art alive is eradicated from the pages of art history. Recently when art history became the subject of open debates, the question of this intentional omission was raised.
Many scholars have critiqued the eradication of the role of Devadasis on Bharatnatyam. The whitewashing of dance history is like building the foundation of our culture on frivolous lies. The dance form which is now known as Bharatnatyam is the oldest known classical dance form that originated in present-day Tamil Nadu (a part of the Dravidian empire) approximately 2000 years ago. Sadir was once mastered by lower caste Devadasis. The process of appropriation erased their history and offered it to high caste women. It was a cruel and imprudent process, to say the least.
Modern scholars criticize that the politics hidden behind the mask of ‘social reform’ played an active role in devising a downfall of some of history’s most prolific women artists. When the allegiance of their patrons turned, and they were systematically excluded from the public sphere, the devadasis were left to collect the pieces of their life broken by the same society that previously celebrated them as goddesses. The case of Devadasis is a classic example of the hypocrisy of Indian society towards the feminine - she is either a priestess or a prostitute. Since then, the Devadasis have remained India’s own Holy Whore archetype. The archetype has invoked several debates amongst modern feminist art historians. Eventually, the shift of narrative of the divine temple dancers to royal prostitutes has forced this custom to turn around its head to form a tradition of oppression against women born into lower strata of the society.
A life spent in servitude
More than seven decades later today, even if the Devadasi system remains abolished by law, the older traditions are used in their rudimentary form as an excuse by parents of girls as young as 7 years old to sell them into prostitution rings as a means of their livelihood. In the rural parts of the state of Karnataka where untouchability, superstition, and class disparity still prevails, the only way for the lower caste to ensure a place within the society is by dedicating their daughters to upper-caste patrons to gain access to necessities of life. This right here is raging proof of the systemic class oppression that is still prevalent in India. The patron of the modern devadasi is a permanent client who pays her for her menial role of a sex slave in his life. The word Devadasi has taken a derogatory turn in the collective consciousness of the southern states. The modern-day practitioners of Bharatnatyam are vehemently resistant to acknowledge the role that the Devadasis played in the evolution of their art.
It is hard for the west to comprehend traditions that openly celebrate the expression of sensuality and grace of the feminine form. And yet, the world continues to see what remains of the lineage of those prolific dancers through the lenses of western prejudice.
It is important to remember that the Devadasi system originated to revere the feminine form that prevailed over the matters of art and culture. We must acknowledge that at one point in history we considered women to be the rightful patrons of art which were so intricate that its mastery demanded devotion, dedication, and undivided attention.
The post-colonial narrative might have eroded the reality of the early Devadasis from the pages of history, but it could never erase the fact that even if they were restrained within the shackles of patriarchy these daughters of the land have excelled in the pursuits of what appeared to be an honorable career. Even when the societal customs have exposed them to collective lust, ridicule, and rejection, these women have always found enough means to create beauty and grace through their art. The Devadasis deserve to be remebered more than just their derogatary present. They should always be remembered as women of substance and fortitude, who dedicated their limited lives of servitude to perfect and evolve their art and heritage.