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Devadasi


Devadasi a woman temple servant or a subordinate of a deity. Prostitutes, known as rupajivi or ganikas were also called Devadasis in the past. Devadasis in some ancient cultures were called kalavantis-persons proficient in performing arts. The ruling gentry pressed them into temple service. These women were assigned the duties of sweeping temple floors, cleaning and putting oil in sacred lamps, singing and dancing at worships and processions, and fanning the idol while it was being worshipped. For these services, they were paid from the funds and income of the temple, which were often insufficient to meet their needs. This inadequacy sometimes forced these women to infidelity.

Kautilya clearly referred to the devadasi system when he observed that the temple superintendent employed different categories of women especially, the widows, crippled women, mendicant or ascetic women, women compelled to work in default of paying fines, mothers of prostitutes, and women engaged in cutting wool, fiber, cotton, panicle, hemp and flax.

Some anthropologists relate the origin of this institution to the worship of the goddess who stands for fertility, and 'reproduction'. A girl who is dedicated to the 'mother goddess' was required to promote the human race. During Vedic period there are references to different types of prostitutes such as ganikas, veshyas, etc. When temple culture took its birth some pleasure and luxury-loving gods appeared. These gods and their wives were associated with music and dance. Temple dancer and performers, as they were commonly called, were first employed in temples in India. This system that originated to amuse gods further flourished under the patronage of kings, rulers, chieftains and landlords. This brought a major change in the institution, wherein the service of the 'god' took the shape of the service of 'god's representatives on earth' - the kings, emperors and priests. The status of these devadasis further changed when the princes, kings, and landlords in India used them as personal property.

Devadasis were assigned to sonless families to perpetuate their families and to retain the family property within the family. In such cases, the girls were dedicated to the deity to have sexual relations with persons of her community or from higher strata of society and bear sons. These sons later would inherit the property and the family name of their maternal grand father. The institution of devadasis was prevalent in the 8th century in pundravardhana Nagar (town).

Vatsayana described the activities of devadasis in contemporary India in his book Kamasutra. Brahmins, officials, servants, slaves, and devadasis of gauda and bangalah frequently engaged themselves in promiscuous activities. Devadasis of Pundravardhana Nagar led a luxurious and lascivious life. They were treated as a significant and inseparable part of social life. According to the copperplate found at Deopara, Bijoy Sena and Bhatta Bhabadeva engaged hundreds of devadasis in their temples. Books like Ramacharitam and Pabandoot narrated the lifestyles of devadasis. Even in modern times, an estimated 250,000 girls were dedicated to Yellamma, Hanuman and Khandoba (Shiva) temples in Karnataka and southern Maharastra since independence of India till 1982. In Nepal devadasi was a traditional institution for employing young unmarried women as attendants to temples, especially in Doti, Baitadi, and Dadeldhura districts. The practice of employing devadasis, however is no more now because of adoption of some stern legal measures by governments. [Mir Shamsur Rahman]