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The Predicament of Women in Ancient India: [12] Prostitution in General

Published: 04.06.2008
Updated: 01.10.2008

We read on child-prostitution: “The sexually misused girls have as a rule no mind of their own and no chance to offer resistance. They have learned to suffer. 'Silence, sacrifice and sufferance are some of the moral qualities specifically extolled among the girl children.'"(SYED To 100) Prostitution demonstrates lack of self-determination.

CHANDRA writes "In spite of the rural bias of Vedic culture there is evidence which clearly points to the fact that prostitution existed in Rig Vedic times." (p.1) Epic evidence of prostitution is not missing, but it is part of the scene, and prostitutes do not enter the action (MEYER We 198-205; CHANDRA 9-11; BROCKINGTON 434). Early Buddhist works of the same period include a number of stories were courtesans have active roles (CHANDRA Chapter 2). We concentrate below on literature in the post-Christian period when the culture of courtesans had reached its climax.

The world of courtesans -- let this be said at the beginning -- is not the world of the sacrificial ground where priests murmur sacred formulas; it is not the world of rishis contemplating in the forests on the absolute; nor the world of warriors, fighting innumerable duels with fantastic weapons. The world of the courtesans is a peaceful world of richness and luxuriance -- of enchanting parks and delightful rivers, of drinking-bouts and amorous plays, of capricious costumes and intriguing cosmetics, a world which is dominated by diversion and entertainment. The overarching concept is krida or 'play.'

If we translate krida by 'pleasure' we find, in the relevant texts, pleasure-hills (krida-saila), pleasure-grounds, pleasure-groves, pleasure-ponds, pleasure-houses, pleasure-peacocks, pleasure-monkeys, pleasure-deer, pleasure-cups (liquor-cups), pleasure-cars. There was time and money; there were women of pleasure and idle capitalists, and there were, obviously, long periods of internal and external peace. Courtesans (well organized) were moreover part of the palace (satisfying the demands of the king and of the nobility), and courtesans in general (the rich courtesans?) were necessary as tax-payers. On the other hand, it is nowhere said in which way the many courtesans for the palace were 'procured': Widows of enemies killed in battle? Widows in general? Women (girls) from impoverished families? There is sufficient room for speculation. Probably the necessary women were always available. Rich townsmen had concubines and connections with the numerous brothels.

There was a class of educated men, dominating the world of pleasure and linked to the courtesans. They were the so-called nagarakas (Kama Sutra). "The nagarakas [men-about-town] were cultured men of refined taste who lived luxuriously and devoted their leisure and wealth to the cultivation of fine arts, including dance, drama, music, poetry, wit and humour." (DEVA 189) The nagarakas met in a socially influential club in the city.

Nagarakas and partners of the same stratum (courtesans, wives) were linked with the concept of the kalas or arts. Here was their world. There is a list of sixty-four kalas, some for men and some for women (prepared by the author of the Kama Sutra: CHANDRA 60-66). The list is artificial but not atypical. The words may end in 'kala'. Kalas typical of men include skill in gambling, experience with animal fights, knowledge of the conventions of writing poetry, training elephants, art of warfare, physical exercises. The nagaraka is above all a connaisseur in the fields of music and poetry. Typical of women are dancing postures and gestures, "drawing up [with grains of rice] patterns on the floors of the temples," “wreathing flowers, knowledge of earrings, cooking,” "the art of wearing a torn garment in such a way that it looks whole." Musical competence (singing and instrumental music) is expected from both genders.

Another list of sixty-four kalas contains a subsection on sexuality. It is written by the commentator on the Kama Sutra: The courtesan must practice inter alia the following: "gauging the feelings of the lover," "offering the limbs in embrace," "untying the sari knot before sexual union," "appeasing the angry lover" (CHANDRA 59). BANERJI mentions a third list of sixty-four kalas: only sexual items, and always groups of eight, e.g. eight kinds of mutual embrace, eight kinds of putting nail-marks on the woman's body; 113-116. See ultimately CHANDRA 38-41 for a fourth list, containing seventy-two kalas (most items connected with men: fighting etc.). -- The non-vegetarian diet and the popularity of animal fights demonstrate the total indifference towards ahimsa or non-violence (CHANDRA 62, 220-221: non-vegetarian diet; 64, 217-218: animal fights).

Festivals, games and pastimes of all description were an important element of city-life. The festivals were mainly organized by nagarakas. The Kama Sutra has a long list which includes the well-known festivals of Diwali and Holi (CHANDRA 70-72). The list also includes minor entertainments where grams, mango fruits and lotus roots were eaten and people were dressed with crest ornaments of Ashoka flowers and lotus flowers. There is finally a shorter list of festivals (ad hoc festivals, all the names ending in -krida, pleasure): water-pleasure (jala-krida), forest-pleasure (in spring), vegetation-pleasure, sand-pleasure, drink-pleasure, etc. (CHANDRA 218-221). Water-pleasure: "He [the king] dallied with them [the women] for some time and threw gold coins and precious stones in the vapi [tank] to encourage his women to dive and claim them." The purpose of diving was obviously the presentation of the human body in different postures. Diving amusements were often linked with competitions, mainly musical contests (CHANDRA 29). The atmosphere was jovial, the conversation light, the amusement great.

Kautilya's Artha Shastra includes valuable information on the organization of the courtesans: "... the ganika [courtesan], who is allowed a suitable establishment by the state, is expected to entertain visitors according as the king may direct her. A refusal to obey the king in this respect means heavy punishment." (KANGLE 164) The state was responsible for everything: "The principle of providing some sort of old age pension to the old and infirm prostitutes shows the benevolent attitude of the state towards them. Their profession gave them an opportunity to meet all sorts of people, both native and foreign and taking full advantage of this, the state employed them as spies." (CHANDRA 44) Ganikas were under state control. There was probably a distinction between ganikas inside and ganikas outside the palace, between ganikas and other prostitutes.

About the ceremonial functions of the courtesans the following is said in the Artha Shastra: "They held the royal umbrella [parasol], the golden pitcher and the fan when he [the king] was seated in the royal litter [vehicle], the throne and the chariot." (CHANDRA 46) This is reflected in the royal iconography of deities and spiritual heroes (Tirthankaras).

As can be expected, a pleasure-loving society is mirrored in many works of literature (drama, narrative literature, verse literature). The odd Indian theory of drama (a construction) describes various standard roles of which the vita type at least [male] is a child of contemporary eroticism. See § 1.

Sexual scenes on the temples are unexpected for the western observer. We mention Khajuraho and Orissa (DEVA and DONALDSON). The modern descriptions of temples refer very often to surasundaris (heavenly nymphs) and mithunas (amorous couples). Female chowry-bearers and parasol-bearers (supra) form an additional field of iconographic eroticism. There are no dancing girls in the technical sense. Coital scenes appear at Khajuraho in friezes (DEVA 172-173, e.g. 5'' inches high) or, more conspicuous, in figure compositions on the outer walls (DEVA 176, e.g. 2'5'' to 3'5''). Numerous sexual motifs on Orissan temples have been demonstrated by DONALDSON. § 13.4 We do not know how the society reacted to the eroticism (but see MERTENS 336-337: action of a Kashmirian king against immoral behaviour in a sect). “The gods and goddesses are spiritual entities, but their forms are often blatantly sensuous, if not erotic.” (Pal 13)

Refer for vivid descriptions of courtesans, with additional information, to MEYER Da (52-63, 205-208) and to MEYER We 198-205. See also JAMKHEDKAR 67-71.

In modern India, prostitution has been studied mainly in Bengal, where it was, and is, a regular theme in the press and in novels. Prostitution, in Bengal or elsewhere in India, has an alarming dimension. See BANERJI 150-180 (Bengal) and 191-204 (India in general). Refer to SYED To 100-102 for child prostitution, prostitution in general and devadasis in modern India (mainly statistics) and for stray remarks (105-106, 108) on the situation in ancient India.

An Indian author (2000, SYED To 100) speaks of about 2,000,000 prostitutes below the age of fifteen in a population of 1,020,000,000 (2001). According to a study of the UNICEF there were in the beginning of the nineties circa 300 000 child prostitutes in India (SYED To 100).

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Some texts contain  footnotes  and  glossary  entries. To distinguish between them, the links have different colors.
  1. Ahimsa
  2. Artha
  3. Ashoka
  4. Body
  5. Deva
  6. Diwali
  7. Holi
  8. Kama
  9. Khajuraho
  10. Non-violence
  11. Orissa
  12. Rishis
  13. Shastra
  14. Sutra
  15. Tirthankaras
  16. Vapi
  17. Vedic
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