The tradition of devadasis has been prevalent in India since the reign of the Cholas, Chelas, and Pandyas in South India. Young girls, often from the lower castes, were gifted to the temple by their parents, as a human offering to please God. The young girls were affianced to the temple deity through a marriage ceremony and were culturally defiant of the state of widowhood.
Considered as auspicious females, the Devadasis acted as mediators between God and his devotees, through their knowledge of dance and music, bestowed on them by their gurus and foster mother (an older Devadasi). As their connection with the Lord was divine in nature, it was absolutely bereft of any worldly interests or luxuries. In the religious celebration that still takes place every year in Saundatti town for Goddess Yellamma, Jogathis (the elderly devadasis) act as a channel between the worshippers and the goddess.
A separate class in itself, devadasis were divided into seven categories in ancient times. The first category was when a daughter was offered to the temple by parents, she was called “Dutta Devadasi". If a lady was kidnapped and forcefully made a dasi, she was known as “Hruta Devadasi". A lady sold to the temple was called “Bikrita Devadasi". When a lady voluntarily became a devadasi, she was known as “Bhrutya Devadasi". "Alankara Devadasi" referred to the dasi, who was offered to the temple upon attaining a level of proficiency. Dasis were called “Gopika” or “Rudraganika” when they were offered money for their performances. Apart from the categorization like every other religion, they had upper and lower caste too. The devadasis belonging to the upper caste performed rituals in the temples whereas, the ones of the lower caste were left to do jobs such as washing, cleaning the temple, and fanning the deity. Whatever category they belonged to, all their services were rendered in the worship of their husband.
Mostly, girls were gifted to temples before they attained puberty. After attaining puberty, a ceremony was performed through some symbolic consummation rites after which she was free to choose her sexual partner. This brought a lot of substantial gaze of men on these devadasis who were usually rich Brahmins and high-class landlords. These men were not liable to the dasis in any form, and their offspring wouldn’t have any part in the inheritance. This also gave rise to a saying in the Marathi culture, which is “Devadasi devachi bayako, saryagavachi” (Servant of God, but the wife of the whole town). Initially, being a Devadasi had nothing to do with prostitution. It was a matter of pride and was accompanied by a lot of independence and respect. Not only did they enjoy heavy patronage from the royal courts, but they were also an integral part of social life. In fact, they emerged as sub-caste, with their own traditions, rules of behaviour, and etiquette. Their lives were unique in every sense.
Two nautch dancing girls, in a studio setting. Photograph, ca.1900. Credit: Wellcome Collection. Attribution 4.0 International (CC BY 4.0)
However, with the diminishing influence of temples, their social status also started falling. They became paid mistresses of priests, then kings, and then rich landowners. Thus, gradually, the practice took the form of commercial prostitution. With the British Raj, their social status worsened leaving devadasis with minimal financial support. Dasis who once used to devote themselves to bhakti were now degraded into this hustle. The Britishers saw them as girls entertaining the rich with their dancing skills and started discouraging it. Various campaigns, workshops, seminars started taking place to prohibit the practice. In 1934, the Bombay Devadasi Prevention Act was enacted wherein people who were involved in the act of putting girls into this practice were punished with imprisonment or fine or both.
To protect the girl children of the yesteryears’ Devadasis from getting into commercial prostitution, The Vimochana Sangha School was established in 1990 in Malabad. By the 20th century, the reforms and processes to eradicate the devadasi system became more serious and several other laws came into the picture like The Tamil Nadu Devadasis (Prevention of Dedication) Act, 1947, The Prohibition of Dedication Act 1982 of Karnataka, and so on.
Despite these reforms, the Devadasi System was still prevalent in various districts of South India like Karnataka, Tamil Nadu, Andhra Pradesh, Maharashtra, and Orissa as well. But now for different reasons. The practice that started out in the name of Bhakti soon became a social evil. The girls were forced to become a Devadasi as they were considered a liability. The practice provided them with an opportunity to convert their girl child into an asset by pushing her into it as it acted as a source of income for the family. Hence, the tradition became a mere justification for families with limited resources to pimp out their daughters. The contributing factors to the existence of the Devadasi system are poverty, social pressure, superstitious beliefs like if someone is ill in the family or to get a male heir, dedicate the girl child to being into a devadasi. The fact is they no longer serve the divine but the people and beg for a living.
In the present day, reforms have taken place to support the Devadasis to get rid of this practice and provide a better future for their children. Although, the practice had been put to ban years ago but was still practised in some parts of India until recently.
In 2015, the last Devadasi of Puri, Sashimani Devi, died at the age of 92. She was considered the human wife of Lord Jagannath, and her duties involved dancing before the Lord and singing Geet Govinda. She was adopted by her mother and was known to be the last surviving Devadasi. With her death, it is known that the ancient tradition of Devadasi also came to an end but only in Puri. Research shows that the practice is still prevalent in various districts in the Southern states of India.
Pratha Content Writer and Researcher