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Bharatanatyam and Mohiniyattam dancer. Happily married to Dileep Kannan. Daughter of Mr. E.M Haridas & Mrs. Girija Haridas. Daughter-in-law of Dr. K. P Kannan & Mrs. Shobhana Kannan

September 14, 2011

Chapter 6: The Birth & Rise of Devadasis

The Devadasi tradition (Deva - God; Dasi - Servant) was a religious tradition that began ~ 2000 years ago or around the 1st century A.D. This ancient ritual involved young virgin girls being betrothed, married and offered to a particular deity or to a temple. These girls were expected to dedicate their entire lives to the deity and by extension, the temple, by taking care of the temple surroundings and giving music and dance performances. They learned and practised dance forms which later became the Indian classical dance formats that we know and see today. In those times, these Devadasis also enjoyed a high status in society. There is an interesting legend regarding the beginning of this system.

Our ancestors’ blind faith in the Divine and the urge to appease the gods at every turn led to them sacrificing young virgin boys and girls frequently. Since the male population was required as hunters and farmers, the female population (as usual) had to bear the brunt of being sacrificial goats. It is said that, once, when famine struck a part of South India, as usual, the people turned to the gods to appease them through ‘Poojas’ (temple offerings) and sacrifices. A young beautiful girl was chosen as the first sacrifice. The poor girl was made to sit in front of the yagna fire with a flower garland around her neck and a horde of murmuring spectators around her. A self-appointed “pujari” (priest) cum executor is all ready to behead the girl. Lo and behold!, the girl disappears and only the flower garland remains. The crowd is amazed and dismayed at the same time, fearing the apparent dire consequences from the gods for the ceremony coming to such an abrupt end. That very same night, a nameless and lustrous divine form bedecked in rare jewels appeared in front of all the mortals, shimmered for a moment though and then vanished in a flash. For a while, the poor people thought they were dreaming. However, the very next day, a large area next to the yagna fire and sacrificial place that used to be completely devoid of any animals was filled with deer. The people came to believe that the herd of deer was a gift from the earlier-seen divine & lustrous form for the young beautiful girl that the latter had morphed into or rather abducted! Hence the place was marked as holy and perhaps the first ever temple constructed as gratitude to the gods. After this incident, the people of that region started to give away their young daughters and sisters to the temple(s) to please the gods. Looks like they must have thought it was a much better option than allowing those helpless girls to be beheaded.

Hence, as time passed, offering virgin girls to the gods became a ritual. These girls’ lives completely revolved around the temple. They were completely cut off from their respective families; and hence were never able to have a normal life like their peers. No marriage, no motherhood. They were brides to the temple deity till their death but at the same time they were treated by worshippers as equivalent to their “God”. They spent their days worshipping, singing and dancing for their “Celestial Groom”. They lived on whatever was contributed by the temple devotees.

It was at this point in the history of Indian classical dance that the ancient dances (as mentioned in preceding chapters), performed before these times, transformed itself into “Lasya” - to be performed by the women of the temples. Just like forests were cleared and converted into towns, coarse behaviour, language & costumes into refined ones; all the erstwhile holy places (as marked by the people or self-appointed religious guardians) were turned into high walled temples with beautiful sculptures. The temple girls gradually transformed from being just dancers into graceful performers in full -fledged, defined costumes. Stages were constructed just opposite the temple sanctum so that the dancers could have direct view of the inner sanctum. As per the records of those times, the dancers’ eyes and hearts are filled with love and devotion for their Idol. The Devadasis were honoured and treated with various privileges and given mansions in the temple premises. The sculptures of the these graceful and bedecked dancers were carved inside on pillars and other structures within the temple premises.


Thus was born the tradition of the Devadasi.
Sculptures - Dancing Girls @ Konark Sun Temple
References
  • The book (in Malayalam) 'Mohiniyattom-Charitravum Aataprakaravum' by the Mohiniyattam maestro (Late) Smt. Kalamandalam Kalyanikuttiyamma (my Guru's Guru)

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