The Past, Present and the Future

Wednesday, March 28, 2007

Devadasi Dance

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The Devadasi dance tradition which developed through the temple Danseuses is an important type among the dance patterns of India. Bharatnatyam in Tamil Nadu, Kuchipudi in Andhra Pradesh, Odissi in Orissa and Mohiniyattam in Kerala took shape in the tradition of Devadasi dance. These dance forms grew and developed a classical status.

In the Puranas, there are references that a custom of dedicating maidens to the deity in temples was prevalent in India from very early times. They later came to be known as 'Devadasis'. They were in charge of the music and dance aspects of temple rituals. In India the dancing and singing of Devadasis was an integral part of temple worship. They were attached to temples in various parts of India, like Kerala, Tamil Nadu, Andhra Pradesh, Mysore, Maharashtra, Rajasthan, Gujarat, Bengal, Orissa and Kashmir. It was a common custom in all places that maidens under went a symbolic marriage with the deity before she became a Devadasi. In Kerala, it was called 'Penkettu'.

The Saiva section of Hinduism fancied the Devadasi custom more than the others. The 'Shiva Purana' lays down that when Siva temples are built and endowments made for the conduct of the daily rituals, the gift of damsels well versed in dance and song should be made to the temple. History records the fact when in the 9th century A.D. Raja Raja Chola built the Brahadesvara temple in Tanjore he gifted four hundred Devadasis to the temple.

Though in the beginning the Devadasi institution was confined to Siva worship, as times passed other forms of relegion also adopted the Devadasi tradition. By about the 1st century B.C, the Devadasi system had found a place in Buddha, Jama and Hindu temples. Various references in ancient literature gives us an idea of the Devadasi tradition and their dance performances. In Kautilya's Arthasastra (considered to be written in the 3rd century B.C) there are references to Devadasis and their training in dance. In 'Mricchaghatiham' a Sanskrit drama supposed to have been written by 'Sudraka' in the 2nd century B.C, the heroine Vasantasena is introduced as a good danseuse. The original 'Katha-Sarit-Sagara' (the ocean of story) written in Paisaci language is deemed to have been composed before the birth of Christ. Though original is lost, its Sanskrit translations are available. In the story entitled 'Alajala', a dancing girl 'Sundari' who performed in temples is mentioned. The earliest and the greatest Tamil epic poems, 'Cilappatikaram' and 'Manimekhalai' are the main sources of information about the life of the danseuses of Tamil Nadu and Kerala of that age and their special styles of dancing.

In the course of time, separate subsects of Devadasis came into being. The duties of Devadasis included dancing as well as cleaning the temples, providing flowers and other items needed for the conduct of the daily propitiations in the temple, cleaning the rice and the articles of offerings to the deity to help the work of the priests. In addition, they were called upon to perform dances in the King's court and serve the palace in general. This variety in their work pattern gave rise to various types with separate distinctive names.

The Devadasis known as 'Basavis' in Karnataka, are of 4 types. Those who danced in temples were considered the most prestigious and they belonged to the highest class. The Maledavaru indicated the section which took part in dance recitals in marriages and other festivals, while the Maleyavaru prepared garlands of flowers etc. for the temple and the Subyavaru were plain prostitutes.


Devadasi has a long history, and, like many Hindu practices has evolved into a number of forms. Evidently the first Devadasi were celibate temple dancers, who eventually fell out of favor and some were forced into prostitution.

Ancient and medieval history

Originally, devadasis were celibate all their life. Reference to dancing girls in temples is found in Kalidasa's "Meghadhoot". It is said that dancing girls were present at the time of worship in the Mahakal Temple of Ujjain. Some scholars are of the opinion that probably the custom of dedicating girls to temples became quite common in the 6th century A.D., as most of the Puranas containing reference to it have been written during this period. Several Puranas recommended that arrangements should be made to enlist the services of singing girls at the time of worship at temples.

There can be no denial of the fact that by the end of 10th century, the total number of devadasis in many temples was in direct proportion to the wealth and prestige of the temple. During the medieval period, they were regarded as a part of the normal establishment of temples; they occupied a rank next only to priests and their number often reached high proportions. For example, there were 400 devadasis attached to the temples at Tanjore and Travancore.

Local kings often invited temple dancers devadasis to dance in their courts, the occurrence of which created a new category of dancers, rajadasi's and modified the technique and themes of the recitals. A devadasi had to satisfy her own soul while she danced unwatched and offered herself (surrendered) to the lord, but the rajadasi's dance was meant to be an entertainment.

The rise and fall in the status of Devadasis can be seen to be running parallel to the rise and fall of Hindu temples. Invaders from West Asia attained their first victory in India at the beginning of the second millennium A.D. The practice that probably started around 6th century A.D. seems to have reached its pinnacle around 10th and 11th century A.D. The destruction of temples by invaders started from the northwestern borders of the country and spread to the whole of the country. Thereafter the status of the temples fell very quickly in North India and slowly in South India. One may possibly say the same about the status of Devadasis in India. As the temples became poorer and lost their patron kings (and in some cases temples were destroyed), the Devadasis were forced into a life of poverty, misery, and, in many cases, prostitution.

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At December 29, 2007 at 10:17 PM , Blogger Unknown said...

Hi casy

That was a very good article on Devadasis.Like all things Indian/Hindu, Davadasi concept also has a religious connotation. Though most of the things about Devadasis( Their role ,duties, etc) in the article may be correct the most important reason for the birth of the Devadasi system is left untold. Devadasi system clearly demonstrates the Decadence prevalent in the Hindu / Vedic society since ages. These Devadasis were meant to serve first,the priestly class and after them the society at large by providing sensual/physical gratification.To this day we are a nation of Hypocrites,alluding noble motives to pervert acts.Devadasi is a cruel and a sad system. Why would they want only women for the upkeep of temples? Don't we know that Men have always been as good if not better Dancers, cooks(!!???)
At the height of the Greek civilisation, castration of young boys turning them into eunuchs was rampant. They were needed to guard the womenfolk of the gentry without making any passes at them !!
Which only makes me want to be cultured always and never civilised.
Your interest in all forms of Janapada Kunitha,the spontaneous expression of joy & celebration of the common folk ( Janapadaru), is most endearing.



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