Table of Contents
- 1 Devadasi
- 2 The term, Devadasi
- 3 The Evolution of the Devadasi System
- 4 The Devadasi System in Tamilnadu
- 5 Categories of Devadasis
- 6 The widespread System in India
- 7 The Abolition of the Devadasi System
- 8 See Also
- 9 References
- 10 Bibliography
In India , in the past, the devadasis were a very important functionary of Hindu society. The functions of devadasis were a part of religious services in a long history of temple institution. In India the practices originate and developed during the early medieval period. There are a large number of inscriptions which give us a lot of information regarding the existence of the institution of the devadasis. Several south Indian inscriptions prove the association of dancing girls with temple service from about the 9th century C.E.
The term, DevadasiDevadasi Devadasi means a woman who performed the service for some deity in a temple. They were unmarried temple servants who had been dedicated to temple deities as young girls through rites resembling Hindu marriage ceremonies.Parker, M. Kunal. July, 1998. “A Corporation of Superior Prostitutes’ Anglo- Indian Legal Conceptions of Temple Dancing Girls, 1800- 1914.”. Modern Asian Studies. Vol. 32. No. 3. p. 559. Devadasi (Skt. devadasi, Ta. tevataci, lit. ‘slave of god’)Saskia C. Kersenboom- Story. 1987. . Nityasumangali. Delhi: Motilal Banarsidas. p. XV., the term is to be a sanskritized form of the Tamil term tevaratiyal which means a woman who enslaved for the service of some specific deity or sacred object. The word is the feminine form of deva- dasa, a man who is enslaved for the service of a deity.Tarachand, K.C. 1991. Devadasi Custom: Rural Social Structure and Flesh Markets. New Delhi: Reliance Publishing House. p. 1. Though the term has its origin in Sanskrit, the prevailing custom and practices are in no way related to the gods or deities mentioned in Sanskrit literature, especially the Trinity.Ibid., Devadasis were a common feature in almost all the major brahmanical temples.Singh, A.K. 1990. Devadasis System in Ancient India. Delhi: H.K. Publishers and Distributors. p. 13. The devadasi or temple women was one, who was a dancer and one who is associated with temple, either by having some kind of regular service function in a temple or because her primary social identity is defined with reference to a temple.Orr, Leslie. C. 2000. Donors, Devotees and Daughters of God: Temple Women in Medieval Tamilnadu. Oxford: Oxford University Press. p. 5. Many a times these girls also provided sexual services to their clients.
Farquhar stated that every well- appointed Hindu temple aims at being an earthly reproduction of the paradise of the god in whose honor it was built… The gandharvas are represented by the Temple- band, the apsarasas by the courtesans who sing and dance in the service. These are dedicated to the service of the god; but they give their favors to his worshippers. They are usually called devadasis, handmaidens of the god… They dance and sing in the temple- services and also when the images are carried out through the town in procession. Hence the common name for them everywhere in Nautch- girls, Dancing-girls…Farquhar, J.N. 1914 (Rpt. 1967). Modern Religious Movements in India. New Delhi: Munshiram Manoharlal. pp. 408- 409. Edgar Thurston described devadasis as dasis or deva- dasis are dancing– girls attached to the Tamil temples, who subsist by dancing and music, and the practice of ‘the oldest profession in the world’. Thurston, Edgar and K, Rangachari. 1987 (Rpt. 1909). Castes and Tribes of Southern India. Vol. II- C to J. New Delhi: Asian Educational Services. pp. 125- 126.
The rise of the caste, and its euphemistic name, seem both of them to date from about the 9th and 10th centuries C.E., during which much activity prevailed in Southern India in the matter of building temples, and elaborating the services held in them. The dancing- girls’ duties, were to fan the idol with charmaras (Tribetan ox tals), to carry the sacred light called kumbarti, and to sing and dance before the god when he was carried in procession.Ibid., In a book Religious Thought and Life in India, Monier Williams described devadasis in a way that they were held to be married to the god, and had no other duty but to dance before his shrine. Hence they belonged to the god’s and had no other duty but to dance before his shrine. Hence they were called the god’s slaves (deva- dasi), and were generally patterns of piety and propriety.Williams, M. Monier. 1883 (Rpt. 1974). Religious Thought and Life in India. p. 451. He further points out that, in the present day they are still called by the same name, but are rather slaves to the licentious passions of the profligate brahmans of the temples to which they belong. What surprised him the most was the number of these girls and the weight of the ornaments that they wore; especially in the case of those attached to the temples in southern India for they had a profitable trade under the sanction of religion.Ibid.,
Saskia C. Kersenboom- Story understand the devadasi as an expressive semiotic unit which signifying the mythical- aesthetic- cum- ritual object residing in the collective consciousness of Hindu tradition.Saskia C. Kersenboom- Story. 1987. op.cit., p. XVI. Marglin considered devadasis as a very specialized, unusual group of women and one who acted as the harbingers of auspiciousness to a state and society.Marglin, Frederique Apffel. 1985. Wives of the God- King. Delhi: Oxford University Press. pp. 18- 19. They do not marry any mortal men and their dedication to temple service is regarded as constituting a marriage with the main deity.Ibid., p. 18. Leslie Orr stated that the temple women to be a woman, one who may or may not be a prostitute or dancer who is associated with temple, either by having some kind of regular service function in a temple or because her primary social identity is defined with reference to a temple.Orr, Leslie. C. 2000. op.cit., p. 5. Venkatramaiah said that some women were employed in temples as workers and those well versed in dance and music would dance and sing in the temples on certain specific occasions. They were not harlots or prostitutes. They were spinsters who might leave the service in the temples and enter into married life if they should so desire.Venkatramaiah, K.M. 1984. Administration and Social Life under the Maratha Rulers of Thanjavur (in Tamil). Thanjavur: Tamil University. p. 490.
The Evolution of the Devadasi System
Theories Related to the System
There are many speculations and theories regarding the origin of the devadasi system. The theories are occupation and mother goddess theory, religious tradition theory, sanskritization theory, racial theory, political or selfless citizen theory, Matriarchy to patriarchy theory, lineage continuation theory and traditional theory.Tarachand, K.C. 1991. op.cit., pp. 19- 23. The system of dedicating women for the ritual service was an ancient and universal practice. The customs were differed from each country on the basis of the period and their culture. Mesopotamia, Egypt , Greece , Babylonia and Cyprus were the few countries which the system of dedicating women to the religious service was flourished from several thousand years before.Singh, A.K. 1990. op.cit., p. 7. In the temples of Osiris and Isis, Aphrodite Lewinsohn, Richard. 1958. A History of Sexual Customs. London. p. 28., Anu, and Ishtar were accumulated the women for sacred service respectively.
Generally the practice of dedicating women in the name of religion is termed as theogomy. James Frazer viewed that theogomy is the result of Mother Goddess worship.Tarachand, K.C. 1991. op.cit., p. XI. The custom was found in ancient India. Religious women were occupied a divine status and their roles were personified in the forms of Mother Goddess. Numerous material gifts offered to her. Ibid., pp. XI- XII. In mean time the Mother Goddess tradition came under the influence of Sanskritic tradition in a two way process. One was that the new myths were created and propagated, and another one was they were subjected by powerful male deities. The powers and capacities of the male deity were glorified. The concept of ritual purity and pollution were introduced. The shift from matriarchy to patriarchy reduced their status as mere ritual functionaries.Ibid., p. XIII.
Parasher- Sen considered the service of women in the temples in India was an innovation of the puranic religion.Orr, Leslie. C. 2000. op.cit., p. 6. But the devadasi institution in India does not go back to 3rd century B.C.E.Singh, A.K. 1990. op.cit., p. 24. because the practice of worship in public temples was taking shape in the early centuries of the Christian era.Ibid., Though the system existed in early centuries it was much practiced and prevailed in early medieval period onwards. Altekar pointed out that after the magnificent construction of the temples of Hindu gods, people began to feel in course of time that there should be singing girls attached to shrines to play music on the occasions of the different services and worships of the day.Altekar, A.S. 1959. (Rpt. 1983) The Position of Women in Hindu Civilization. Delhi: Motilal Banarsidass. pp. 182- 83. Leslie Orr also suggested that the system is prevailed from early medieval period onwards.Orr, Leslie. C. 2000. op.cit., p. 5. M.G.S. Narayanan believed that the expansion of the temple system and growth of the bhakti movement brought into existence the class of temple dancing girls.Narayanan, M.G.S. 1973. “Handmaids of God”. in Aspects of Aryanization in Kerala. Trivandrum.
The medieval temple organizationJeevanandam.,, S. 2011. “The Sacred Geography of Medieval Tamilakam- A Study of Saiva and Vaishnava Temples”. in Birendranath Prasad. Monasteries, Shrines and Society: Buddhist and Brahmanical Religious Institutions in India in Their Socio- Economic Context. New Delhi: Manak Publications. pp. 242- 252. did not strike roots before the 4th century C.E. to 5th century C.E. Though the practice of worshipping images in public temples was taking shape in the early centuries of the Christian era, but the institutional character of the temple, its importance in the socio- economic life of the people, does not became noticeable before the 4th and 5th centuries C.E.Singh, A.K. 1990. op.cit., p. 24. The study of inscriptions shows that the inscription of devadasi started taking roots in the 7th century C.E. and 8th centuries C.E.Ibid., The central part of the feudal age in India, from the 9th century C.E. to the 12th century C.E. marked the origin, development and maturity of the devadasi institution in South India.Ibid., pp. 14- 15. In India the whole process of social formation from 5th to 6th centuries C.E. onwards appears to be inseparably connected with developments in the field of religion. The conflict between Saivism and Vaishnavism and other religious values propagated the new religious ideology. This marked the new era in the religious temple preface. Religious sanctification of the political authority is an important characteristic of feudal polity.Ibid., p. 11. The temple was the hub of the social and economic life in a locality.Ibid., p. 12. Temples with devadasi drew liberal patronage from both rulers and private individuals.Ibid., Even outside the temple devadasi was an integral feature of the social life.Ibid., They emerged as sub- caste, with their own traditions, rules of behaviour and etiquette.Ibid., p. 13. The inscriptions also reveal that the 11th and the 12th centuries C.E. marked the period of maximum growth.Ibid., p. 24. Though the system started and flourished even before 10th century C.E., the development of the institution was not uniform everywhere.Ibid., p. 13. This was concentrated in some particular pockets which were economically and politically developed Ibid., p. 13, 24. during 14th and 15th centuries C.E.
The custom got support from religious, political, economic and social situations which prevailed in the society in the period and region. All the royal courts in India were associated with the devadasi who were good dancers and singers.Tarachand, K.C. 1991. op.cit., p. 13. Though, the devadasi system was prevalent throughout India but it did not flourish to a great extent in northern India due to various reasons. In the north it did not emerge as an institution as having a strong base in the society nor a common feature of majority temples there.Singh, A.K. 1990. op.cit., p. 12. On the other hand the political instability of the North and the strong non- Hindu rulers Tarachand, K.C. 1991. op.cit., p. 11. like Persian and Moghuls were not ready to patronage the temples and to accept their alien custom. Kafi Khan, famous historian noted about the pathetic story of devadasi of North India especially on Aurangazebs’s reign. He pointed out that Aurangazeb issued a public proclamations prohibiting singing and dancing by women and at the same time ordered all the dancing girls to either marry or be banished from the kingdom.Penzer, 1924. op.cit., p. 241. At the same time very little sources were available on devadasis of central India.Tarachand, K.C. 1991. op.cit., p. 11. However, it is not clear if these women are devadasis or Courtesan Culture: Complexities and Negotiations. Even in South India the development of the devadasi institution was not uniform in nature.Singh, A.K. 1990. op.cit., p. 13. In South India the system existed. The supernatural beings were not much affected by the non- Hindu invasions or influence from outside. So the details of the rituals were completely deep-rooted in the minds of the people in the rest of South India.Tarachand, K.C. 1991. op.cit., p. 12. As a part of Hindu ritual structure, devadasi custom had its own status, roles, functions to play and rules. In South India, temples became the hub of the social and economic life in a locality.Singh, A.K. 1990. op.cit., p. 12. Temples with devadasi drew liberal patronage from both rulers and private individuals.Ibid.,
The Devadasi System in Tamilnadu
The Earlier References
In South India particularly in Tamilakam the earliest inscription to mention a devadasi is as late as the 8th century C.E.Ibid., p. 23. The earliest literary sources to mention the association of devadasi with temple is in the hymns of Tamil Nayanar Campantar in 7th century C.E.Ibid., The devadasi custom had to become an institution towards the end of the 5th and 6th centuries C.E. under the patronage of the Pallavas and the Pandyas.Sadasivan, K. 1993. Devadasi System in Medieval Tamilakam. Trivandrum: CBH Publications. p. 5.
The sources for the origin of the custom largely based on the literary records of ancient Tamils, particularly Tolkappiyam and Chilappatikaram. The practice of ritual dancing practiced by ancient Tamil tribe such as the Maravar hunters, and the gradual transformation of it under the influence of the brahmanical religion, seems to point towards the probable inspiration for the system temple dancing.Singh, A.K. 1990. op.cit., p. 24. In Sangam literature, the dancing women and prostitutes are frequently mentioned. But there was no evidence of temple women. During early medieval period onwards the devotional literature of Alvars and Nayanars from 6th to 9th centuries C.E. referred to women as celestial and human, offering worship to temples and to singing and dancing. The earliest literary source which mentioned the association of devadasi was the hymns of Tamil Nayanar Campantar one who lived in 7th century C.E. The Tamil bhaktiJeevanandam.,, S. 2011. “The Background of the Bhakti Movement in Medieval Tamilakam”. in Mishra. P.P and K.N. Sethi. Ed. Journal of New Aspects of History of Orissa. Vol. XIV. Delhi: Shivalik Prakashan. pp. 106- 128. ideologies of self- surrender and devotion to service had a huge impact on the society.Orr, Leslie. C. 2000. op.cit., p. 22. It had a huge bureaucracy at its command amongst which the temple girls, who were employed in the service of God deserve special mention, since they formed significant officiating dignitaries. They were the most important ritual performers and no festive occasion was complete in the temple without the performance of the temple girls. Hence, the employment of these dancing girls became customary on the part of the devasthana (temple), which gradually institutionalized into a professional organization. The institution of devadasi was became an integral part of medieval temple organization.Singh, A.K. 1990. op.cit., p. 24.
Devadasis in the age of Cholas
Devadasis were commonly found in most of the temples of the Chola period.Pande, Rekha. “Devadasis”. in D.P. Chattopadhyaya. Ed. Philosophy and Culture in Indian Civilization. J.S. Grewal. Religious Movements and Institution in Medieval India. Vol. VII. Part. 2. Oxford University Press. p. 494. A Inscription of the time of Kulottunga III (1215 C.E.) recorded that the king resumed about fifty six sacred festivals (tirunals) in the templeSII., Vol. VII. No. 11; ARE., of 1923. No. 396. and also he also revived some of the old practices found mentioned in some earlier records.ARE., of 1912. No. 120. The process of the system further extended the system during period of Kulottunga III and Rajaraja III.Sadasivan, K. 1993. op.cit., p. 93. It is evident from two inscriptions dated 1204 C.E. and 1235 C.E.ARE., of 1912. No. 122. They state that the system received royal support in the Tiruvorriyur temple. Another inscription recorded that Kulottunga III seated in the Rajaraja mandapa (hall) in the temple, enjoyed the dance performance of a devadasi in the Ani festival.ARE., of 1911. No. 368. A record dated 1235 C.E.ARE., of 1912. No. 211. of the time of Rajaraja III registered the presence of the king at the time of dance performance by a devadasi named Uravakkina- talaikkoli of the temple in the same mandapa. Much pleased with her performance, the king ordered that a village of sixty veli of landUravakkinallur was the earlier name of the village. be granted to her. The later Pandyas also paid their keen attention for the institutionalization of the devadasi custom. An inscription dated 1203 C.E.ARE., of 1935- 36. No. 190. recorded that queen probably of Jatavarman Kulasekhara I promoted the devadasi system in temple of TirupatturIt is in present day Ramnad district. and the system was further extended in the Sucindram temple around same period.Pillai, K.K. 1953. The Sucindram Temple. Madras: Kalashetra Publications. pp. 287- 289.
The Devadasi System in Post Chola Period
After the decline of the Cholas and Pandyas the political instability overshadow the Tamil society. The devadasi system faced the struggle of existence. The interlude of non- Hindu rulers further questions the system and temple institutions of Tamilakam.Sadasivan, K. 1993. op.cit., p. 112. Amir Khusru mentioned that the large quantities of wealth and jewels were carried away to north.Ibid., Due to the lost of patronage, many professional communities remained unemployed, and the work men suffered from want and misery. Ibid., The emergence of the Vijayanagara rule in south India marked the significant move in the reformulation of the system. Kumara KampanaKumara Kampana was the one of the Chieftains of Vijayanagara emperor. He captured Tondaimandalam around 1352 A.D. from the local chieftains, Samburavarayar. captured Tondaimandalam from Sambuvarayas and following that event that the restoration of the devadasi system also occurred.ARE., of 1916. No. 64.
After the decline of the Vijayanagara kingdoms the system also started to degrade from its nature. The symptoms of the decline made their explicit appearance during the Nayaka period between 1565 C.E. and 1800 C.E.Sadasivan, K. 1993. op.cit., p. 112. The political instability of the state, the loss of the importance of the temple institution, frequent political interlude among devadasi, repeated transfers of the devadasis from one temple to another, the graded hierarchical order of the system, distracted from their so called sacred principles of the divine services, and poverty were the few causes for the degradation of the system. During the colonial period they were criminalized as prostitutes. Parker, M. Kunal. July, 1998. op.cit., p. 560. They were illustrated even outside the temple institution. They became an integral feature of the social life and every important social occasion would not be complete without the presence of devadasi. Singh, A.K. 1990. op.cit., p. 12.
Categories of Devadasis
The customs of devadasi system has much connection with Hindu religious and rituals. It had a long history and prestigious status. They are integral part of the temple organization. It is an all India phenomenon. They had much skill and ability in all the fields. According to their commitment of the work they generally categorized into two broad sections as ritualistic and non- ritualistic performers. Pande, Rekha. op.cit . p. 498. The ritualistic performers included dancers and singers, etc… Normally devadasis were good dancers and singers. Their songs and dance performance were became a source of attraction for the lay worshippers and pilgrims.Singh, A.K. 1990. op.cit., p. 12. They performed their ritual dances and singing music in the temple worship. They participated in the dramatic performances in the temples during the festival seasons and re-enacted various kinds of dance (aryak- kuttu, santik- kuttu, etc…) with meticulous care, devotion and dedication. These performances were held in the specific halls like natakasalai, nirttamandapa etc… For their performance they got remuneration or manya (gift) or jivita (grants of allowances) granted to them by the kings, nobles, temples, villagers and sabhas for the recognition of their multifarious activities.Sadasivan, K. 1993. op.cit., p. 8. Even in latter days their artistic qualities became an iconic identity of them. Altekar pointed that some of the people began to visit shrines not so much to pay their respects to deities, as to carry on their love intrigues with the singing girls employed there.Altekar, A.S. 1959. op.cit., pp. 182- 183. The non- ritualistic performers were attended different duties in temples as washing, sweeping, collecting flowers, sounding bells, fanning the deity. Tarachand, K.C. 1991. op.cit., p. 8. South Indian inscription mentioned that the women who served in temple kitchen (madaippalil) were called as adukkalaip- pendugal.SII., Vol. IV. No. 34.
Though the caste system influenced all the sections of the society, the devadasi’s were not organized as a separate caste. The customs of devadasi had an accumulation of girls from various castes, customs and regions. They could dedicate to different deities.Tarachand, K.C. 1991. op.cit., p. 2. But within the system, caste played a vital role and forms a hierarchy. Based on their caste their genres of works were differed. The dedicated girls from upper caste were allowed to perform ritual roles and the others had only the secular.Ibid., In same time the upper castes girls were taken by the upper caste men as concubines, and the others went as commercial prostitutes.Ibid.,
The widespread System in India
Due to the cultural and geographical variations in different regions, devadasis were denoted by several names such as tevataci, tevaratiyar, patiyilar, talicceri pendukal, tevanar makal, cottikal, atikalmar, manikkattar, kanikaiyarSathyabama, K, 1998. Mechenzie Tamil Chuvadikal Chuttum Makkal Valviyal (unpublished Ph.D thesis). (in Tamil). Thanjavur: Tamil University. p. 204., emperumanatiyar and koyil pinakkalSwaminathan, A. 1992. Tamilaka Varalarum Panpadum. (in Tamil). Chennai: Deepa Pathppakam. p. 150. in Tamilnadu, tevidicchi, nangaimarOrr, Leslie. C. 2000. op.cit., p. 49., kudikkari, muraikkari, kootachi, koothichi, and attakkari Philip, George. March, 2005. A Historical Anatomy of the Evolution of Social Revolution in Travancore (unpublished Ph.D thesis). Kottayam: Mahatma Gandhi University. p. 66. in Kerala, suleyarOrr, Leslie. C. 2000. op.cit., p. 49. or sule, poti, basavi and jogtis in Karnataka, sanis and bhogam in Andhra Pradesh,Ibid., darikas, Ibid., patras and maharis in Orissa, kurmapus and kudipus in Assam, bhavin and kalavant in Konkani and MarathiCush, Denise; Catherine Robinson and Michael York. 2008. Encyclopedia of Religion. London: Routledge. p. 180. and in Bombay presidency each shrine had its own name for its girls.Sadasivan, K. 1993. op.cit., pp. 1- 2.
The Abolition of the Devadasi System
During the 19th century C.E. and 20th century C.E. the availability of the new knowledge system in the Indian subcontinent questioned much on the superstitions and beliefs of the native customs and practices. Today we use the blanket term devadasis for all the girls attached to the temples. By the time we come to the British period most of these women were prostitutes or had taken up prostitution as the temples had lost the royal patronage and were no longer able to support them.Pande, Rekha. July- December, 2004. “At the service of the Lord- Temple girls in Medieval Deccan (11th to 17th centuries)”. Deccan Studies. Vol. II. No. 2. p. 32. Reformist or Abolitionists conceived Devadasi practice as a social evil and considered every devadasi to be a prostitute. By the late 1800’s, a reform movement was in full bloom comprised of “missionaries, doctors, journalists and Indian social workers heavily influenced by Christian morality and religion. And the devadasi tradition- with its custom of allowing her an alliance with a respectable “patron” in the community- stood out as the most ungodly, un- Christian violation. The institutional collapse of the temple system, the lack of patronage and social negligence are weakened the livelihood of the devadasis. The Indian social reformers considered the system was one of the chief causes for the exploitation of the women by the caste based Indian society. The reformers and section of the devadasis insisted the colonial government to legally abolish the system. In 1930 C.E., with effort of Muthulakshmi Reddy the Madras Legislative Council banned the pottu ceremony (the processes of the dedication of the devadasi to the particular deity) in Madras Presidency (modern Tamilnadu). Later, Bombay Prevention of the Dedication of Devadasis Bill (1934 C.E.), Madras Devadasi (Prevention of Devadasi) Act of 1947, The Karnataka Devadasis (Prohibition of Dedication) Act of 1982, Andhra Pradesh Devadasi (Prohibition Dedication) Act,1989 and Goa’s Children Act, 2003 were implemented to abolish the system of devadasi in India.
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