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The Predicament of Women in Ancient India: [11] Devadasis

Published: 03.06.2008
Updated: 01.10.2008

According to general usage, devadasis ('dancing girls'; literally: females in the service of gods) are women who are closely connected with a temple where they sing and dance for the god. They are mostly unmarried and have sexual relations with the priests (and with the king). 'Devadasi' is the current designation for the category. Our description is correct in general, but applies in particular to the situation in Puri (atypical role of the king). The devadasis of the Puri temple (Orissa, Puri District) are our main subject. The principle deity of Puri is Jagannath (English spelling, used until recently, 'Juggernaut').

L.C.ORR has criticized the generalization of devadasi (in the usual sense) and introduced for the Tamil area the Tamil term 'temple women.' The following quotation from her book is based on Tamil inscriptions: "She [the 'temple woman'] is said to have some function in the temple or matha and/or to receive on a regular basis food, rice, cloth, or gold, or rights over land from the temple." (37-38) Obviously such 'temple women' had no sexual relations with the priests.

ORR's study is based on Chola-inscriptions (Tamilnadu). Refer for "temple women terms" or for "prostitute terms" in inscriptions outside the Tamil area (Karnatak and North India including Puri) to ORR 49-51.

A German magazine (September 2006) recorded that in spite of prohibition (1988) the state of Andhra Pradesh had about 25,000 temple prostitutes (dancers), belonging mostly to the low caste of Madigas. "There are now efforts under way to eradicate the institution." Another record, perhaps more precise (WICHTERICH 1986: 90-95), mentions devadasis in Northern Karnatak. Their goddess is Yellamma (SYED To 100-101, 108). It seems at any rate that the institution of devadasis exists up to this day at more than one place.

Temple prostitution was a wide-spread phenomenon in ancient India (including or excluding the Tamil area), starting somewhere in the first millennium A.D. and not ending before the twentieth century. BANERJI has prepared a small All-India overview, his general tendency being emphasis on the wide distribution of temples with devadasis and on the equation of devadasis with prostitutes (132-148). Prostitution or no prostitution, dedication of a daughter to a temple was not rare (BANERJI 132-148: several examples). We also hear that a Kashmirian king presented a hundred women of his harem to a Shiva temple (BANERJI 134).

Possibly we have to distinguish between the introduction of the devadasi institution and its degeneration, assuming that the sexual factor was a later development. But there is also the view that temple prostitution in India is very old, as old as the devadasi institution (GONDA II 50: prostitution guarantees fertility).

ALTEKAR 182-184; GONDA II 49-50 (religious prostitution as part and parcel of Indian culture); CHANDRA 207-211; DEVA 161; ORR 3-17 (the temple woman, interpretations), 161-180 (the role of temple women in Chola history.) An early inscription (3rd/2nd century B.C.) already mentions a 'devadasi.' (CHANDRA 45)

Whatever the individual devadasi felt about her life, the very status of such a woman -- she is after all in many (though not necessarily in all) cases a prostitute -- is hardly much more bearable in the eyes of a modern observer than the status of an ordinary prostitute.

The following overview is based on MARGLIN's book on the The Rituals of the Devadasis of Puri. The great temple in Puri (11th-12th century), a well-known pilgrimage place, had devadasis until the end of the last century (MARGLIN). The devadasi institution was declared illegal in the province of Madras in 1947, but until 1955 there were still 30 devadasis in the Jagannatha temple (MARGLIN 8, 11, 27).

Refer for the archaeology of the Jagannath temple in Puri to MOELLER 117-118, to HARLE (251, 514), and (mainly for Puri in general) to STARZA-MAJEWSKI: frontispiece and fig.121.

The temple is enclosed by a double boundary wall and is open only to Hindus. "Close to 1,500 persons have some ritual duties in this temple, all of whom are male except for the small group of devadasis. The women ritual specialists dance and sing in the temple on a daily basis as well as participate in several calendrical festivals." (MARGLIN 18) The three central deities with their cars are Jagannatha, Subhadra and Balabhadra (MARGLIN 252-253), Krishna, his sister and his brother. The origin of the triple concept is not known. HARLE calls the temple (for want of a better description) "a Vaisnava shrine of Krsna" (251). The famous car-festival is described on pp.248-263 of MARGLIN.

We concentrate on the biography of a devadasi as described by MARGLIN. The main events in the life of a devadasi are her dedication to the temple ('marriage') in the pre-menstrual phase, the menarche and the consummation. The girl to be dedicated is in a good physical condition (not deaf etc.).

First of all the mother has to send a written petition to the court of the god-king, stating that she wants her daughter to be accepted as a devadasi. After this the court finds out whether the girl has the necessary accomplishments (including proper caste). Once the mother is informed of the positive outcome of the examination a day is fixed for the 'wedding ceremony.' Naturally, the day is filled with rituals. The girl receives a mantra from a guru, is brought to the temple, has a special cloth tied round her head, circumambulates the temple, returns to her house (accompanied by music etc.), receives blessings in the form of a long puja etc. After that follows the feasting of Brahmans and the presentation of presents to the girl. In the evening the girl is led to the king. There are again rites, and the girl is now considered married to Jagannath. The dedication ceremony is analogous to an ordinary wedding. The girl can now perform certain rites in the temple (other rites will follow after puberty). 67-72.

The puberty ceremony takes place seven days after the menarche. In the morning of the seventh day the girl takes a ritual bath in a tank. This is followed by rites in the house and by a feast with a great number of guests. Soon after the puberty ceremony the girl (aged eleven or twelve) is invited for the consummation, the king or a Brahman priest being the first to enjoy her. The devadasi is now a servant of the temple and can perform the prescribed rites (72-77).

When the king dies there are no unpleasant consequences for the devadasis. The king is followed immediately by his successor, and, as the king, "living embodiment of Visnu," never dies, the queen as well as the devadasis never become widows (77-78).

The devadasis have children, but due to the use of contraceptives their number is limited, most children being adopted. Fathers must be residents of Puri and members of a respected caste. Expectant devadasis can continue their service, dancing alone being excepted. As a rule, true children are also called 'adopted.' Children (mainly girls) are adopted when a daughter has been promised to Jagannatha (to cure the illness of another daughter), when poor families cannot afford the expenses of a marriage, and when the mother is a widow (and has been driven from her house or has left it). A girl born to the brother of a devadasi is also adopted by her and becomes automatically a devadasi herself (78-80).

The kinship organization of the devadasis is, naturally, different from the general pattern. "Some of the devadasis told me that only a daughter should perform funeral ceremonies because the ancestresses would not get the food and the water offered by a son." (82).

Sexuality in the devadasi milieu is a complex subject. Sexual intercourse in the temple is prohibited (as devadasis are impure they are not even allowed inside the inner sanctum). Sexuality must take place at night and at home. Certain high-class Brahmans even avoid sexual contact with the devadasis. The partners of the devadasis are mainly the Brahman priests doing service in the temple. In addition, the devadasis have upper caste partners (citizens of Puri). They do not change their partners very frequently, and they receive land etc. from wealthy patrons (89-95). -- As is well known, the temple economy in classical antiquity (temples of Aphrodite etc.) included sexual services of female temple servants (hierai gynaikes).

The king had, analogous to the devadasi group for the temple, female servants for the palace, residing like the devadasis, generally, in their own houses. "... they had sexual relations mostly with temple brahman servants and members of the royal entourage." The female servants "were not expected to bestow their favours exclusively on the king." (26).

The authoress tells us that 'Puri is full of widows' (54). They do not seem to suffer any hardship, and some of them are temple attendants (waving fly-whisks etc.).

Generally, the devadasis did not speak openly about sexual matters. However, F.A.MARGLIN had a 'totally uninhibited' devadasi informant who felt: "Why should I hide these things?" (37).

Different from the institution of devadasis is the concentration of widows in centres of pilgrimage. "In Prema (1907) Premchand [distinguished Hindi author] vividly describes the decadent atmosphere around the temples and ghats [steps on the bank of a river] of Benaras where corrupt priests and their strongmen harass young, unprotected women, particularly widows in their quest for sexual titillation." (SOGANI 41) And "The miserable state of widows of all ages in Vrindavan [centre of pilgrimage near Mathura] has been graphically described by Indira Goswami in her novel Neelkanthi Braja (1976)." (SOGANI 42) We do not know since when well-known centres of pilgrimage are connected with prostitution. Maybe, temple prostitution is as old as the early temples.

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Picture Credits: ASW - Aktionsgemeinschaft Solidarische Welt e.V., BERLIN.  http://www.aswnet.de/

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