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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 30, 2011

Chapter 7 : Life of the Devadasis (& a little history)

In the first few centuries (A.D), the poojas and rituals conducted in temples in Kerala followed the Dravidian (A term used to refer to the diverse groups of people found in southern India who speak native languages belonging to the Dravidian family of languages) tradition according to texts written by Elamkulam Kunjan Pillai and Ulloor S. Parameswara Iyer (famous historians from Kerala). 

The migration of Aryans to the Dravidian regions of South India led to a gradual transformation of the lifestyles and traditions of the people. The Aryans were perceived as having introduced elaborate temple rituals like extravagant flower offerings, the distribution of food, singing, dancing etc.  As singing and dancing became a significant part of temple offerings, like we have seen in previous posts, plenty of families 'gave' away their daughters to temples to become the Brides of Gods for the rest of their lives. These  girls came to be called Devadasis or Thevadichis .

Thevadichi literally means one who is at God’s feet.

Theva + Adi + Achi = God + Feet + Woman

Currently, it is very sad that this word is used in a very demeaning manner for insulting women (in Kerala).

Education: For the intellectual growth of these girls, institutes of education and performing arts were established. Their training began at the tender age of 5 and special tutors were appointed. From the age of 5-8 years, the girls concentrated mainly on singing and dancing. During the ages of 8-12 years, they were taught to read and write, mainly poetry and drama.

Costumes & Jewellery: Authentic and custom-made costumes and jewellery were made especially for these girls who at that point in time enjoyed a high degree of prestige in society. It is said in historical accounts that even a girl from the ruling royal family at that time became a Devadasi willingly. This girl travelled in palanquins along with an entourage. Nevertheless, Devadasi were not allowed to perform outside temple premises even if they were offered high remuneration.


It has been noted that some of these highly talented women were prominent decision-makers when it came to the affairs of the temple(s) they were in. For e.g. At the famous Thanumalayan temple in Suchindram (a town in Kanyakumari district of Tamil Nadu, India), the renowned Vasantha Mandapam was constructed under the supervision of the Devadasis residing in that temple.  A few of the beautiful female sculptures created in this temple are said to be modelled after a Devadasi called Sitamma and her daughter. It is also said that Devadasis were highly trusted as messengers and guardians of gold/jewels by other influentials members of the larger community (especially women). Apparently, a Pandya Queen called Chokathandadi contributed 200 gold coins every year for a festival in this temple, and gave the responsibility of safeguarding these coins to a Devadasi called Rani Thiruvani.

It has been said that in spite of all the fame and recognition, the girls were only too willing to quietly accept their position as brides to the gods, while allowing all the gold and jewels that came their way in the name of the temple to be appropriated by the men who ran the temple affairs. These girls who in turn became women were said to have maintained their chastity till the end of their lives. They spent their lives as divine brides, forever immersed in prayers, rituals, poojas, meditating, dancing, and singing to the gods with immense and complete devotion.
Devadasi playing drums - Miniature Painting
References
  • The book (in Malayalam) 'Mohiniyattom-Charitravum Aataprakaravum' by the Mohiniyattam maestro (Late) Smt. Kalamandalam Kalyanikuttiyamma (my Guru's Guru)

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