by Nabanita Dutt, Jul 15, 2001 | Destinations: India / New Delhi

Sometime around 250 A.D., a man called Vatsayana wrote Kamasutra, a crafty little compilation of various ways to conduct one's sexual life. The book is hilarious in parts, where Vatsayana, in all seriousness, instructs women - from princesses to prostitutes - on how to attach themselves to men and keep them interested. What caught the world's attention though, were the myriad ways of performing the sexual act - information the author apparently gleaned by climbing up trees to peer into people's bedrooms, hiding under their beds, or at times, bribing courtesans to allow him a ring-side seat.

The puzzling aspect of Kamasutra, for which historians have no answer, is why Vatsayana completely ignored a section of women - the `devdaasis' or `temple prostitutes' -- who could have certainly taught him a thing or two. The devdaasi cult was very much in existence in Vatsayana's time (mentions of them can be found in texts dating back to the 6th century B.C.).

A tradition older than the more celebrated Geisha in Japan, much of the devdaasi's history is lost in time and little has been written about them in the English language. Even Indians have a fuzzy idea about who they really are and how they live -- all they see are newspaper reports which get printed from time to time about how some devdaasi has been `saved' from the profession by the government and returned back to society.

The cult of the devdaasi was born out of religion. `Devdaasi' literally means `female servant to the gods'. In ancient India, a need was felt to provide `live' companions to the village gods and goddesses, and even upper-caste families would `sacrifice' a daughter to the profession as part of their religious duty.

The job description, in the initial stages, had no sexual sub-text. In fact, devdaasis often enjoyed a high status in society because they could read and write, were trained in the arts and could weave and blend perfume. A young girl, no more than 9-12 years of age, would be chosen by her family to serve at the temple. The young `volunteer' would then have to go through a solemn rite of investiture in a special enrolling ceremony. The ceremony in effect, was a `marriage to the god', after which the girl could take no more husbands. She lost all her previous worldly connections, such as family and friends, and would henceforth only be known as a devdaasi.

The name of this community of women would change from state to state. For example, in Orissa, they were known as `maharis', in Andhra Pradesh they were called `devganikas' or `joginis' and in Karnataka, they were `basavis'.

Dance was considered a devotional act in those days, and all devdaasis had to go through rigorous training in their early years. A special enclosure, or `natmandir' was created within the temple precincts where the girls would dance to please the god, give him his meals and put him to bed.

For the head priests of the temple, as hot-blooded as any man, this bevy of women proved to be a rich hunting ground. Soon, the initiation ritual began to include a `deflowering ceremony', known as `uditambuvadu' in some parts, whereby the priests would have sex with every girl enrolled at his temple as part of his religious perks.

The kings of the land then came into the picture and a scuffle followed over territorial rights. The priests claimed that as Brahmins, they were god's representatives on earth, and anything offered to the gods belonged to them. The kings, on their part, insisted that since they were the ones to appoint the devdaasis and they were the lord of the land, the first right over these women was definitely theirs.

The conflict was ultimately resolved by an understanding that devdaasis in future would be branded on their chests with emblems - an eagle or a discus, if she belonged to the king, and a conch shell if she slept with the priest. Every Saturday, the king's devdaasis would report at the palace and dance to please the palace deity, before satisfying the king himself. Some reports even suggest that they sometimes assisted the king in his politics and helped in espionage activities against enemy kings.

News gradually spread over the land that there were beautiful, young temple women to be had, and lesser rulers and chieftains began emulating the practices of the king. The high officials and rich traders refused to be left out of the game and bought rights to the devdaasis by paying hefty revenues to the temple.

From here on, the devdaasis continued their journey down to the dregs of society, and a time came when they services became available to almost every man in the town. A Marathi saying, "Devdaasi devachi bayako, sarya gavachi" ("Servant of god, but wife of the whole town") aptly defines their position in the medieval era.

Obviously by then, the higher castes had stopped sending their girls into the profession, and the priests had to force the lower castes into donating their women by threatening them with divine vengeance.

Vermillion was dabbed on the foreheads of these women to announce their married status. Matted hair, a tattoo on the forehead and a wooden necklace identified them as devdaasis. They had to subsist on food gathered by begging with a metal concave bowl, which was given to them at the time of initiation. And they had to sleep with any man who could pay for their services. During fairs and religious festivals, the townsmen would gather to take note of the women on offer. Their choice of devdaasi would stay with them for a short period of time, during which she had no claim to their name or property. Any child that resulted from the brief union would effectively be fatherless and grow up only with the devdaasi mother's identity. Once a woman was caste off by a man, she was "impure goods" for other men of his status. She would then be snapped up by someone of a lesser standing, and in this way her market value would continue to diminish until even a poor man would dare to darken her doorsteps.

Old age was a curse. Once their bodies ceased to be a marketable commodity and they lost their ability to dance, the temples had no further use of them and they had to live off the pity of the town folk. Covered in lice and a den of sexual disease, they would ultimately die in street corners of starvation and ill-health. Their daughters however would continue their tradition. A devdaasi's daughter was always a devdaasi.

Exploitation of these women came to a head during festivals, when different god and goddesses would be feted. As recently as in 1987, a festival called `Okali' was in existence, when a group of young boys would collect around a pool of coloured water in front of the temple. All the devdaasis in the town would stand in a line in front of them, and each would receive a sari, a blouse and flower garland. After that, buckets of the coloured water would be poured on their semi-transparent white clothes, which would render them virtually naked. Amid much hilarity, the boys would play with the women's bodies, stopping just short of sexual intercourse in open view of the public. Another custom, which was banned by the government around the same time, was the `Sidi Attu'. A devdaasi would be suspended by a hook attached to a vertical pole planted in the ground. The hook would rotate and she would salute to the gathering with her garments flying - her lower body in open view for the enjoyment of the crowd. The little exhibition supposedly brought prosperity to the town, and after receiving a sari, a blouse, a coconut and a betel nut, the devdaasi would thank the gathering profusely for her good fortune.

The cult of devdaasis is on the brink of extinction today. Where there were hundreds of thousands of devdaasis active in several states at one time, only a few hundred now survive. The government has banned the tradition and has succeeded in `saving' a large number of them.

But there have been cases when the devdaasis themselves didn't want to be saved. Firm believers in reincarnation and conditioned to accept their status as the will of god, many are unwilling to challenge their circumstances.

Fearing the law and NGO interventions, their cult has almost completely gone underground. Initiation ceremonies are now performed secretly without much fanfare at smaller temples or the local priests' residences.

The deity who attracted the maximum number of devdaasis to her temples in southern India was Yellamma or `The Shameless One'. The goddess is still known to ask for at least one female - at times all female members - from each family in the village to become her handmaiden. Boys are also accepted in Yellamma's name, who after their initiation, function as transvestite prostitutes known as `Jogappas'.

One of the major Yellamma temples is in Saundatti village in the Belgaum district of Karnataka. This temple has been marked by the police, and devdaasi activity has more or less gone underground here. However, everyone - from the vermillion-sellers near the temple to shepherds who frequent the place -- speak of the devdaasis. Come during festival time, they say, and you can see them. They keep their hair loose and wear hardly any clothes. Even as one approaches the temple, the state's efforts to eradicate the tradition is apparent. Wall-paintings, banners and graffiti urging devotees to help do away with the custom cover every square inch of government buildings.

Journalist Shanta Serbjeet Singh was witness to one of the annual festivals held here, and she writes:

"...Vast, sky-high clouds of turmeric and kumkum [vermillion] hung over all the access roads to the temple...In Saundatti, at the Yellamma shrine, I saw several elderly devdaasis in their 60s and 70s, being grabbed by volunteers of a local NGO group and having their matted hair shorn off forcibly. I saw them weeping and sobbing begging to be let off...Were they offered any compensation, I asked the leader. No, that was not possible because, according to her, it would encourage more women to leave their hair matted. But yes, they were given one sachet of shampoo worth Rs 1.50 each!"

Several non-government organizations, however, are doing good rehabilitation work with devdaasis who have left the profession to cope with life outside her temple world. They are given opportunities to educate themselves and their children, health benefits and information on pregnancy and AIDS. Some social organizations are also giving them a right to housing, with the hope that a permanent residence would improve their chances in the marriage market. But effort is mostly concentrated on helping them become economically independent.

In a few years, perhaps, the cult will be wiped out completely. But the devdaasis will have left behind a rich legacy - in the form of classical Indian dance -- for which the country has given them little credit.

Bharatnatyam, one of the oldest dance forms in India, has its roots in the Dasiattam dance tradition, nurtured and perfected by the temple dancers of Tamil Nadu. In the 1930s, this dying art form was resurrected, taken out of its sheltered existence within the temple walls and given a platform in the public eye.

The Odissi dance form of Orissa, too, developed in temple precincts, where `maharis' (as devdaasis are called in the state) practiced it to please Lord Jagannatha, and passed on the art from generation to generation.

The grace of the devdaasi's dance, their arabesque poses and their various feminine preoccupations have been frozen in sculptures on the gates and walls of scores of heritage temples scattered over India -- such as Khajuraho and the famous temple complexes in Tanjore and Chidambaram: full-bosomed, supple-bodied women applying kohl to their eyes, teasing their companion's hair, feeding birds on their shoulder, removing a thorn from the foot.

In the centuries to come, devdaasis can only hope to be remembered through carvings such as these. In a land where divine presence was perceived in every sexual act, they are little more today than the nation's dirty secret.