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Devadasi can be literally translated as ‘a servant of god’. But colloquially, the word refers to women considered married to god. They are sometimes referred to as being nitya sumangali – eternally free from widowhood.

There is a great deal of debate on the historical status of Devadasis. Some scholars believe that devadasis were originally, an important aspect of temple life, performing ritual functions such as dressing the deities, in addition to performing the arts of classical dance & singing (and teaching devotional singing & dancing). According to some commentators, the devadasis were a feature of Saivite, Sakta & Vaisnava religious practice, and devadasis had an auspicious status and conferred blessings at weddings.

Europeans appeared to have been suspicious of temple devadasis and their role in Indian religious life, confirming Europeans’ suspicions about the immorality of Indian religion. The French missionary Abbé Dubois condemned them in no uncertain terms:

“Once the devadasis’ temple duties are over, they open their cells of infamy, and frequently convert the temple itself into a stew. A religion more shameful or indecent has never existed amongst a civilized people.”

whilst the Baptist missionary William Ward described the devadasis as being “of infamous character.”

Kay Jordan’s study From Sacred Servant to Profane Prostitute-The Changing Legal Status of the Devadasis: 1857-1947 examines the change in status of the Devadasis as a consequence of British and Hindu reformist influence. She notes that an early attitude of the British administration that: “These girls, by definite title or by prescription, occupy a defined position and perform defined duties in Hindu temples and from that point of view, their services must be considered lawful and necessary and are also recognized by the Civil Courts as being so” shifted, eventually, under pressure from social reform organisations towards condemnation and legal action. In 1929, a brahmin woman, Dr. Muthulakshmi Reddy, launched a vocal anti-dance campaign, demanding the abolition of the Devadasi system. According to Jordan, Dr. Reddy’s campaign prompted scores of pleas and protests written by Devadasis. She recounts one such plea from a Devadasi association:

“Our institution is similar to the mutts presided by sanyasis for the propagation of religion. We can be compared to female sanyasis who are attached to respective temples. We marry none but God and become devotees of God.”

“They described themselves” writes Jordan, as “guardian angels of dance and music with a devotion that bears comparison with the ardor of the pundits reading Vedas in preference to modern pursuits. They quoted the Saiva Agamas to substantiate their scriptural origins-“Shiva said: ‘To please me during my puja, arrangements must be made daily for shudda nritta (dance). This should be danced by females born of such families and the five acharyas should form the accompaniments. Since these Agamas are revered by every Hindu, however modern and educated they are, what reason can there be for our community not to thrive and exist as necessary adjuncts of temple service?” They averred Dr. Reddy’s proposed abolition of their tradition punished the many for actions of a few, and painfully assessed: “In proposing this legislation, the legislators attempt to do away for ever with our sect. Such legislation is unparalleled in the civilized world.”

Despite the protests, Dr. Reddy’s campaign prevailed, and initial punitive legislation in 1927 was followed by an outright ban in 1948 with the Madras Devadasis Act:

“Dancing by a woman, with or without kumbhaharathy (pot- shaped temple arati lamp), in the precincts of a temple or other religious institution, or in any procession of a Hindu deity, idol or object of worship installed in any such temple or institution or at any festival or ceremony held in respect of such a deity, idol or object of worship, is hereby declared unlawful… Any person who performs, permits or abets [temple dancing] is punishable with imprisonment for… six months.

…A woman who takes part in any dancing or music performance… is regarded as having adopted the life of prostitution and becomes incapable of entering into a valid marriage and… th e performance of any [marriage] ceremony… whether [held] before or after this Act is hereby declared unlawful and void.”

One of the last portraits of the institution of temple devadasis comes from the anthropologist Frédérique Marglin, in her book, Wives of the God/King, a study of the devadasis of the Jagannath Temple at Puri. According to Marglin, the devadasis continually stressed that they did not have “relations” with temple pilgrims, and if they did so, they were dismissed. However, they did speak of having sexual relationships with priests. As one informant, Radha, said:

It is a custom for us to keep relations with a brahmin temple servant, but never with ‘outsiders.’ Why should I hide these things? When I had my puberty, I exchanged garlands with this priest [a widower] in whose brother’s house I live and I have lived within the boundaries of that relationship always.”

The Puri devadasis explained that they grew up with the priests and felt a natural closeness to them as both had dedicated their lives to being temple servants. The brahmins’ wives were fully aware of these “second wife” situations. Until “reformers” came, they were never a moral concern. Samita Sen, in her 1998 essay, Offences against Marriage examines how a wide range of social practices – in particular those relating to non-marital cohabitation were seen as abberations, as they deviated from both high-caste practices and textual prescriptions, and were declared legally invalid.

Contemporary devadasis appear to have lost status and now the term is widely seen as being synonymous with prostitution and slavery. In 1992, the Karnataka state government passed the “Prohibition of Dedication” Act which criminalises the activities of a devadasi, but not those of her patrons. The group Human Rights Watch says that many contemporary devadasis belong to low-caste groups such as Dalits and are forced into becoming prostitutes for upper-caste community groups and that many end up in urban brothels. “When a devadasi is raped, it is not considered rape. She can be had by any man at any time.”