The passing of Sashimani, the last devadasi at the Jagannath Temple in Puri, marks the end of an era. The devadasi tradition has finally disappeared from India’s great temples and now survives only in overlooked rural patches of the southern poverty belt and perhaps in Nepal. While the tradition enabled the emergence of great art and artists, any twinge of nostalgia gives way to the sense that justice has been served. The human costs of the devadasi system were simply too high. Over the past 1,000 years, how many girls have been forced into a life of prostitution and sexual slavery?
The devadasi system has always been a sensitive subject. While some denounce it as an oppressive structure of Brahminical patriarchy, others celebrate it as a great Hindu tradition. The devadasi question is inscribed in wider, highly politicised debates concerning colonialism, nationalism and an emerging Hindu identity. Revisionist historians point to the few lucky devadasis, great poets and dancers, who made a name for themselves and became mistresses of wealthy patrons. They claim that a devadasi’s life was not so bad, and that the system only became perverted in the colonial era. A famous example is Muddupalani, a devadasi and poet who lived in 18th century Thanjavur. Her erotic epic, Appeasing Radhika, celebrates female desire and sexuality. She describes in detail the life of a devadasi and what it means to be a woman. Her heroines demand to be satisfied; they are proud, sensitive, passionate and wilful.
Unfortunately, the art of the great singers and dancers of the devadasi tradition are largely lost to us. Only with the advent of gramophones and cinema were some performances preserved. Bangalore Nagarathnamma, Tanjore Balasaraswati, and M.S. Subbulakshmi, to name a few, give us a taste of what the tradition had to offer.
But while the devadasi system did produce great art, the historical record makes it clear that the majority of devadasis lived, much as they do today, at subsistence-level poverty. Inscriptions show that, after hereditary service, poverty was the most common reason for dedication. Families sold their daughters to the temple in times of drought, or when they could no longer afford to feed them. Devadasis were transferred between temples along with horses and elephants, and were frequently branded in case they ran away.
In the wake of the Bhakti movement, song and dance grew in importance as a form of worship. The rapid proliferation of the system can be seen in light of competition between temples vying for political power. Sponsoring dance-worship and elaborate festivals was a way for priests to draw crowds, thereby filling the coffers of the temple and the kings. The number of devadasis in the temple’s retinue was in direct proportion to its wealth and prestige. Large urban temples, like the Jagannath Temple, had hundreds of devadasis. Exceptionally talented and beautiful dancing girls were transferred to the more sophisticated city temples, enabling dance-worship to reach high levels of artistic achievement.
I have great admiration for the devadasis’ strength and resilience, and have come to resent those who shunt aside modern-day devadasis as “untouchable prostitutes”. Looking into the world of devadasis is like peering into a mirror that has been shattered and hastily pieced back together. We recognise fragments of our own world and the gender issues that frame it.
There is ample evidence of their fighting spirit. One medieval temple inscription mentions that the devadasis went on strike for a number of years. A staple of their repertoires were satirical farces mocking repressive relationships, male sexuality and the traditional mores of Hindu society. To see devadasis merely as passive victims of male exploitation is to gravely underestimate them. Devadasis are remarkable for their resilience, ingenuity and ability to take control of their lives. While they operated in an oppressive, caste-stratified society, by creating distinctive female subcultures, governed by a separate set of values, they found ways to challenge dominant society and the constraints imposed upon women.
This is true even of modern-day devadasis. And yet, the great majority eke out a living at subsistence-level poverty. Let us pay homage to the great art and artists that the devadasi tradition produced by reaching out to the last communities that still harbour the tradition.
Modern-day devadasis are trying to make the transition to a world that offers women more choices than just the oldest profession. Perhaps now that the last devadasi has passed away, dance-worship based on a new contract, one that excludes slavery, can once again be performed in the temple?
Kermorgant is the author of ‘Servants of the Goddess’