Devadasi – in Service of the Divine
Once a woman entered the lifecycle of a Devdasi, the girl children she bore would automatically have no respite from the system.
By Sudeshna Hazra
The term “Devadasi” has an interesting epistemology. As the name suggests, “Dev” in Sanskrit indicates divine and “dasi” is a personnel in service. Over the course of time, history has transformed the role of Devdasis by an absolute turn of hundred and eighty degrees. What started as a voluntary choice of an adult woman, whereby she dedicated her life to the service of divinity was coerced into a system of votive offering of minor girls especially from the downtrodden sections of society to supposedly please the Brahmanic Gods.
There are varied schools of thought on how this entire Devdasi system mushroomed. One of the most commonly accepted belief is with the rise and spread of Vaishnavism. Now, unlike its conservative predecessors – Shaivism or Shaktism, Vaishnavism introduced a plethora of performing and liberal arts in their religious practices. The Gupta dynasty in Southern India (300 A.D) were some of the first few Vaishnavites who were known to have extensive performing arts in their temples. Dedicated dancers performed before the deities, the priests and the nobility. These sacred performers often chose to dedicate their lives tending the shrines, decorating altars, and playing minstrels. They sang and danced to devotional couplets, collected alms and grants from believers or patrons to support themselves as well as their religious work.
With the advance of the medieval era (post 600 A.D.) there was a rise of the feudal class (the landlords). Along with the priests, this nouveau riches devised a treacherous way to trap poor girls from the lower castes to be entered into temples as Devadasis. In those times, many of these girls were often sold for money or material (as goods and chattels) to serve as slave girls or concubines. Another major social evil in the medieval era was the rigid observation of class differences. For instance, the lower castes were shunned from entering the peripheries of the temple. If they did, it was ensured that they faced divine wrath. The priests and the men in power took utmost care that these gendered people failing to keep up with the set social norm, were adequately reprimanded.
Needless to say, this system is based out of sheer exploitation, pushing these girls to extend sexual favors to men from the upper castes or in power at an age their bodies are not even equipped enough to have intercourses.
Dowry was yet another social malpractice that was burdensome for parents with meagre means and young daughters of marriageable age. So, when one of these parents were asked if they would marry their daughter to the temple deity and be a Devdasi, most of them would be enthralled at the offer. For them, it was a matter of utmost fortune, pride and opportunity. Instead of having to assemble a dowry to marry their daughter, they would then receive a piece of land or money in return for making their daughter a Devdasi. Sometimes there would be a slight alleviation of their social status accompanied with the system as well.
The Devadasi system further evolved as the custom of providing (sexual) hospitality to notable visitors in the temple. The want for male heirs amongst people of power and prosperity was yet another role Devdasis were required to fulfill when the wife at home could not emerge with one. Since then, these poor girls have been proscribed to face discrimination and indignities, remaining politically meek and being victims of major exploitation for lack of education and awareness. They’ve been exposed to sexually transmitted diseases, poor gynecological health trapped in a vicious cycle of poverty. Once a woman entered the lifecycle of a Devdasi, the girl children she bore would automatically have no respite from the system. With her limited means, she would be unable to educate and take proper care of her children and that could often mean losing them to deadly diseases, crimes, addictions and many more such untoward situations. Most of them have a very sordid end of their lives. After the end of their youth, Devdasis are often cornered with little care offered.
Author Sudeshna Hazra is a banker by profession, passionate about new stories, new lives, tastes, culture and art. Firmly believe not all who wander are lost. Can’t keep my hands off world history and political economics.