Conversations: On Devadāsīs

contemplationist: What are the views on devadasis here?

neelambuj_: It was not really as evil a practice, as was portrayed by the prude Britishers. Natis were not really “disrespected”.

NikhilD: I’m not much knowledgeable about Devadasi system so have no views on it.

maisooru: Were highly respected, especially for being the repository of traditional arts.

contemplationist: Church assault on it renewed.

maisooru: There is a place in Karnataka where one can find devadasis even now, but not the types of 19th century.

maisooru: Church has always played the game of “bringing them to mainstream”, since many many decades. Fact is, they were the mainstream for arts in Hindu society.

contemplationist: Campaign is calling them ‘temple prostitutes’.

NikhilD: West really has no idea of India beyond what Slumdog Millionaire painted for them. Know of many bleeding heart democrats who found that ghastly movie very poignant and moving.
It is easy to sell India as a land of Devadasis,Sati and whatnot to them and it’s not without a larger purpose…India’s image must not build up highly  lest it  challenge the economic hegemony of the Bretton Woods system.

maisooru: Most unfortunate event that almost ended the devadasi system in the erstwhile maisooru princely state was wodeyars’ ban on ‘practicing’ it in early 1900s.

Brigadier Gerard: They played different roles spanning ritual, warding off the inauspicious, recreating the divine story, as also roles of service/comfort & entertainment. Whether it was for the sophistication needed in the kings court or the evocative Bhakti for temple worship thru music & dance,they were extremely well trained & talented.

Is there a superficial similarity to be found with the Geisha system and Devadasi system?

They actively played a role in temple processions, showing the pot lamp to The Lord, singing lullabies etc. Morn to night they were occupied in keeping this dynamic & pious system going. They even played a role in marriages & other imp social functions.

Another are was story telling & dance dramas & enactment of bridesmaids, enactment of spicy dialogues of pauranic tales etc.

Their Sampradaya blends ritual with aesthetics & they are not at all the same as courtesans. In fact, they were Nitya Sumangalis – ever auspicious and this is a central concept in the devadasi system.

Not too sure about the Geisha system…


A very good book on Bengaluru Nagaratnamma, perhaps the last great devadasi.

Brigadier Gerard: Domingoes Paes from Portugal who visited Vijayanagara in the 1500s clearly mentions the distinction between courtesans & devadasis.

But, it needed royal patronage to sustain such an institution. With the decline of the temples during the era of the Raj, some were reduced to prostitution. But in the great shrines of Kumara like Tiruttani some traditional dancers lived on, but they lost the sophistication & talents associated with the role. Their talent needed royal funding no longer. Hence, the institution collapsed with the political & military defeat of the Hindu kings.

Maisooru puts it very well above – They were the mainstream for arts in H society.

maisooru: Yes Gerard. Vijayanagara fall was a major blow. The later pALegaars and nAyakas couldnt encourage enough for the system to sustain, thanks to weak political power. Wodeyars did, for most part of their rule, but ended up in killing the system.

Devadasis’ importance in the erstwhile society can be gauged by the fact that the main aarati in the temples would never happen without a devadasi’s performance.

Brigadier Gerard: Indeed!

Ashwin Kalyan: remnants can be seen in the punaHpUjA when you have sa~NgIta sevA, nATya sevA, etc

Brigadier Gerard:  Look at the screenshots  of the book here:

As Saskia Kersenboom elucidates here, waving the lamp during the arti was a vitally important function for them & they were thought best suited for this role due to the link btwn removal of evil eye & the devadasi as a “Shakti” capable of doing that.

Interesting Ashwin… how ritual & art seamlessly blend. And such specialized arts of course needed lot of dedication & training 🙂

Ashwin Kalyan: Balasaraswati was a seventh generation representative of a traditional matrilineal family of temple musicians and dancers (devadasis,[3] who traditionally enjoyed high social status), who have been described as the greatest single repository of the traditional performing arts of music and dance of the southern region of India [(“Balasaraswati” by V.K. Narayana Menon)]. Her ancestor Papammal was a musician and dancer patronized in the mid-eighteenth century by the court of Thanjavur. Her grandmother Vina Dhanammal (1867–1938) is considered by many to be the most influential musician of the early twentieth century. Her mother, Jayammal (1890–1967) was a singer who encouraged the training of Balasaraswati and was her accompanist.

Also, most of the female exponents of music and art in the south were from the devadasi tradition: MS, MLV, rukminidevi arundale, balasaraswathi, veena dhanammal, brinda and mukta… i can go on. all these people i listed were the ultimate experts in their respective arts. Many brahmin musicians would visit them to learn and discuss from them…

Yesterday I visited UIUC and they have a big collection of Balasarawathi in their music archives and museum. I was totally surprised 🙂

Brigadier Gerard: Wow! What a great lineage! Fascinating

Great point on the musicians like MS!

No wonder our enemies want to slander & portray this system in  a dim light – since that would strike at one of the pillars of Hindu tradition: art, music & dance

contemplationist: Sad. Wonder if we’ll ever be able to restore traditions like devadasi.

Robb Stark: Forget restore, I knew nothing about it before a few hours ago.

contemplationist: I knew the outlines but not the rich tapestry as the brilliant folks here provided us.

Ashwin Kalyan: An informative article

I wish the makers of this doc were dead.

In our culture, being a courtesan itself was not viewed with scorn or disrespect. In many ways the Geisha is similar but I don’t know if the Geisha was also the nurturer of arts.

Almost all our dance forms originated or developed in the Devadasi.

The Devadasis weren’t virgins.

When the system declined, the Brahmana Jati started incorporating, learning, developing and teaching the arts. It may be that this did not include the courtesan’s role.

With general decline in social subtlety, the Muslim and British rules, appreciation of subtle art/life was slowly replaced with crudity or clamping. The physical started gaining prominence at the cost of the subtle.

It’s is not easy to “go back” or revive these institutions bcs our genetic behaviours have been modified. Basically, our culture has become corrupted. If we see a beautiful woman dancing in a Devasthana today, our eyes will rove and disrobe first. Then maybe settle down to appreciate and enjoy the art. Maybe.

Not that these women may be expected to say no to a suitable advance by an admirer, but that would happen by the by.

Spirit of Hindutva: When I speak of culture, it’s not what we do but what we are

Rohit: Why Brahmins picked up arts in Banaras is an interesting take. Kathak was reduced to a court, brothel dance. The religious aspect had almost died out. Many redirected Brahmin families worried the art will die out completely. Same was with classical music.

But devadasi tradition has been much maligned in my opinion.

Spirit of Hindutva:I agree with the Brahamana impulse. They were naturally given to learning and passing it on hereditarily.

Rohit, there is no shame in admitting the Devadasi was a courtesan. These women were very sophisticated and cultured.

Rohit: My problem is that the word courtesan does not encompass everything. The only comparison to them in the world are Japanese Geishas.

Devadasis were artists first and foremost.

Exploitation happened yes, but then one should also not forget that devadasis were well taken care of.

Kshetragnya: The devadasi system,  or rather it’s ancestor the nagara ganika system is very old..may be at least 2000 years.One of the oldest references to temple maidens cam be found in a description of a temple of soma in coastal karnataka in a Greek (or Roman?) play. Arts required total dedication to them,  which meant being releived of the ‘normative’ strIdharma.This fostered the system the way it was. The dasis typically chose whom to live with..typically lived with more than one patron. They were the one of the few women folk allowed to own property on own name and allowed to dispense it as they wished. There are scores of pathshalas in the Tamil country that ran on thier endowments. They were also allowed to be village heads. They typically had high sanskrit education (trashes the other stereotype that only brahmin men had access to it). And some like the famed tanjai ganika at the nayaka  became exceptional scholars.The system was torn apart when the East India company’s ravages destroyed the local elites that were patronizing the system.By mid 1800s they were invariably forced into prostitution

That’s a very imperfect snapshot.

The association of prostitutes with devadasis is from this period.A Tamil sociologist has shown how the Tamil word for prostitute,  tevadiya – was not used for that purpose until before 1850s.Tevadiya of course comes from tevar adiyal,which is the literal translation of deva dasi.

Rohit: One interesting reference actually comes from Madurai’s Meenakshi Amman temple city. John wood in his series on India actually traced back a house (still standing in a new form) that was allotted to a temple dancer.

Kshetragnya:Very common.They were given dana and land grants,and every temple town had a tevaradiya theru.

Rohit: Yes indeed. To be able to dance in service one had to understand the Sanskrit stutis and devotional text.

Sattriya dance in Assam is another living example – comes from the word Sattra. Also, even today Manipuri Meitei Hindu dance Sankirtanas are all temple dances done on specific dates. Manipuri Hindus today are the only people I can think of (except few Tam Brahms living in North India) that still bother to have dance performances and music recitals in temples today.

Spirit of Hindutva: There is a difference between a courtesan and a prostitute. Kind of like the difference between an academic and a literate 🙂

Murali K: Incidentally,reading this book right now: 🙂

neelambuj_: Your review of the book? 🙂

Murali K: 🙂 The book is lot of conjecture.. need deep Tamil knowledge to understand… (I am Tamil, so no prob) few apparent time class mentioned..Reduced to incidents proving the high stature of Devadasi.

Brigadier Gerard: Thanks for sharing Murali. I came across Saskia Kersenboom as a contributing author in another book called “Roles & Rituals for Hindu women”… but this one seems lot more comprehensive

Kersenboom mentions how she was initiated into the order by one Ranganayaki, one of the last devadasis.

So, it’s all the more authentic – since it’s an eye witness account of the devadasis of Tiruttani… Literally like a sneak peak into a typical “Day in the life of a Devadasi”


2 thoughts on “Conversations: On Devadāsīs

  1. Very interesting!! Actually–the concept of ‘being married to God or servants of Gods existed in other cultures too. But the two rigid religions killed all that and removed any concept of connection between everyday life and ritual and sacred. And labelled wherever it existed as ‘profane.’ Good that you are writing about this!! keep it up!!


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