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Tuesday, May 21, 2024

Dance Of The Devadaasi

Sri gurubhyo namaha!

To understand what the devadaasi stood for, what her dance meant, how she was on par with any archaka offering worship at the temple altar, we must first appreciate what our vision is as vaidikaas.

Devadaasis in Andhra were called by various names; bhOgam vaaLLu, saani, gaNikulu, kalaavantulu, so on and they were for the most part professionally and sexually independent women, some dedicated to the temples, some to the royal courts and over time, some were involved in operatic and theatrical performances for the public.

A civilization that provided us with shad vaidika darshanaas (six aastika philosophies that uphold the primacy of Vedas), which also birthed Jaina, Buddha, Charvaka (the three main naastika philosophers), did not rest but went a step further and made these visions accessible via ‘song and dance’ to the general public. These abstract shenanigans especially that of advaita vedanta were made people friendly via vaastu shaastra, shilpa shaastra, paaka shaastra and so on but what is unique to the sindhu-saraswati civilization is that we had naaTya shaastra too. How we moved and what we uttered was also made into a means of accessing bhagawaan!

Since advaita’s vision is of one-ness at the absolute level, which bursts forth in all diversity and multiplicity at the relative, empirical level: the rendering of a high-brow thought into a mass movement was supremely logical, rational and therefore extremely beauteous. There is nothing that is not eeshwara, what a celebration! What joy in such a statement! Even a stone is invested with sanctity, so too a tree, a snake, a car, a pillar….knowing that the absolute is both transcendent and immanent, expressing this grand idea via yoga, ayurveda, architecture, weaving, food habits, festivals and most definitively in the form of standardized classical music and dance that conveys this idea of sat-chit-aananda in day-to-day life effortlessly, was brilliance on the part of our rishis, our ancestors!

Our magnificent temple complexes replicate the cosmos vis-a-vis the human connection; the main sanctum is literally called ‘garbha griha’ or the ‘abode of the womb’. The vaastu purusha is mapped out in how a house or a temple is built. So also in dance or music, the underlying philosophy is not physical gratification or appeasement of the external sense organs (indriyaas) as much as a bringing out of an awareness, of a certain bhaava and rasa which convey the qualities of the devataas and in turn attune us to a higher calling; our actual self. To this end our puraaNaas and kaavyaas played a great part providing the body for traditional theatre, be it street or individual or formalized. The extensive study of dance-drama, the what and how of it, is compiled in naaTya shastra by bharata muni and all dance forms in bharata khanDa offered to devaas as worship are based on this treatise and are called bharatam. 

Each bharatam has a different name depending on the region it is presented in. So bharata naaTyam is not a national dance that is mother of all classical dances in Bharat, as wrongly portrayed by less informed people, it is bharatam with a set of mudraas and abhinaya, unique to the Tamizh region (and sanitized from original sadir by Rukmini Devi to suit modern sensibilities), so too the bharatam ie the dance performed at temples, in the Telugu lands was called differently and is now known as Vilasini Natyam, a name suggested by Dr Arudra gaaru.

The act of worship for vaidikaas is concreting of one’s emotions; subconscious and all. Daily devataarchana, done morning noon and evening, gives vent to one’s needs, expectations and complaints at the altar in an aesthetic and pleasing manner. The altar acts as a psychiatrist who listens to one’s woes without talking back, for free! A sacred space is created where the helpless human is able to connect to that whole being that s/he calls eeshwara or bhagawaan, the immanent manifestation of the transcendent, who is invested with name and form of choice, to be easily accessible to the one who is suffering from bhavarOga.

Pooja is more than just prayer, it is a ritual that is very individualized but with a standard format that enables the channeling of higher energy in a step by step manner. Right from offering fruits, flowers, leaves (phalam, pushpam, tOyam) to the lighting of incense, and lamp, cooking of special food (dhoopa, deepa, naivedya) all stylized acts of this 16-step program (shOdashOpachaara) consist of inviting the chosen deity as a guest to one’s residence, who must be treated with great care and affection, who in turn will bless us; the very act of pooja relieves us of tension while the blessings are stored in our bank as good karma (drishTa and adrishTa phalam).

This puNya that we accumulate over time with regular archana, counters and mitigates the negative karma in our human balance sheet. Sometimes it has the power to cancel the bad, sometimes all it can do is prevent more harm and no more, the ways of karma are extremely complex and tough to predict but protect it does when we pray with a certain intention!

Coming to how a vaidika worships, all that is offered at the altar is nothing but the representation of the five elements (pancha bhootaas) – the chants and the bell symbolize space (aakaasha), the incense is in lieu of wind (vaayu), the lamp symbolizes fire (agni tattvam), holy water or teertham is water (jala tattvam) and finally flowers, fruits and leaves that are used in this whole process are a stand-in for earth element (prithvi tattvam)

Where do devadaasis fit into all this you might ask….well, given that we offer our honored guest all of the above as well as food, water and also a bath with fresh clothes and fragrant perfume, isn’t it but natural that we offer this effulgent being heartfelt song and dance as part of this shOdashOpachaara too? The only difference being that instead of treating the devataas as a guest, in the temples which is the home of the devataas, the chosen devata is treated as a spouse by the devadaasi.

Shaastra says that the devaas are most pleased with the offering of dance – no surprise here – dance is a form that uses space and time in all it’s grandeur, combined with philosophical lyrics that convey bhakti and bhaavana that also re-iterate the one-ness of the microcosm with the macrocosm, the individual with the whole, jeevaatma-paramaatma aikyam, thus dance assumes a very potent form that can reach an audience without much effort. Physical movement is always appealing in a world where our senses are constantly being directed outward. For most part sadly, dance has been sexualized, Bhartiya film industry being the prime culprit. Folk dances in Bharat also celebrate the physical and are exuberant spontaneous self-expressions performed during festivals or as an offering to the deities too but they lack the detailed grammar, code and in-depth meaning that Bhartiya Classical Dance offers.

The main difference though between classical bharateeya nritya and all other forms of modern dance is the underlying philosophy that this dance conveys. Just as samskrutam words convey meaning via a combination of letters, that are not random, stemming from a root for e.g. phalam means ‘fruit’ and it is so because this word is defined as “phalagutayaat leeyate iti phalam” ie that which decays is a fruit, so also our temple dance done for the devaas is not just physical rhythmic exercise that most dances worldwide are but much more – it strives to first convey a beauty bigger than itself, not limiting itself to the portrayal of the temporal world or the physical body, then it works at personifying the devataas themselves via dramatization of puraaNaas and other classical texts thus being a strong proponent of dharma, and finally our dance is an excellent depiction of the inter-connectivity of space and time, giving body to philosophical abstractions via a very complex and exhaustive set of hand gestures (mudraas), intricate footwork (nritta) and facial expressions (abhinaya) finally evolving into a full fledged dance drama (naaTya).

It takes at least twelve to thirteen years to master bharatam or classical  Bhartiya dance form. As with every area in Bharat, the research has been extensive, practitioners numerous, the diversity mind-boggling! paaka shaastra, naaTya shaastra, kaama shaastra; there is no topic  that is not a shaastra or science for us. Presumption, Definition, Observation, Data Collection, Analyzation, Conclusion – the scientific temperament of our ancestors is seen in the vast number of treatises that exist today, studies of various fields over centuries and more. All pagan societies have had dances dedicated to their gods, this is well known, except that most of these societies are now extinct and have not had the advantage of the guru-shishya parampara like us, which has kept alive this art in Bharat. None of the Abrahamic religions use dance as a means of worship, in fact to do so might even be anathema to a few of them!

To be a scholar in a certain subject means dedicating a lifetime to pursue it. Thus it is no surprise that dancers were dedicated to their art of choice, to their form, just like an astronomer would be dedicated to her profession, just as they are today in any field in any part of the world. And just like today, a dancer would seek to be in a place or a job which was more permanent, offered excellent employment benefits and opportunities for growth and where the lifestyle was high, something she could aspire to….where else but a temple would give her all that!!

She could keep her maiden name, not marry, she could adopt any girl child from any community or jaati, she could own money, land, houses, titles, debate with scholars, write poetry and perform before deities and kings, be taken seriously in the company of men and had the freedom to choose a partner or partners….all her children were accepted by society…sounds too good to be true does it not? Well it is all true, the devadaasis, contrary to evangelical propaganda were highly accomplished and respected class of people, hierarchically on par with the temple archaka who is wrongly termed the temple priest (our priests do not preach!). She was in fact channeling the heavenly apsaras, who danced for the devaas in swargamu, many women took up their family name from one or the other apsara such as Urvashi or Rambha or Tilottama…that was their surname! All the descendants of that line took that up since the system was matrilineal – another bone of contention for those who prefer patriarchy in their religion.

The revenue records of the kings of yore show that their salary was equal sometimes higher to that of the archaka, mainly because temple dancers or devadaasis of a certain level were deemed as the companions of the devataas, spoken for them, married to the gods so to speak. Think of them as nuns for lack of a better example who too are  wedded to their lord but with pomp, grandeur, theatrical skills, technical finesse and beauty.They were termed as ‘nitya-sumangaLi’ ie an eternal auspicious lady and to sight them was deemed very blessed. Women would wear the mangaLasutra at their weddings only after it was first touched or worn by them! Hence most women in this community or vocation which was not hereditary would want to birth a daughter!

Lot of poor families gave away their daughters to the temple so that they could lead a prestigious and comfortable life. This high life lasted until the kings supported this way of life, without royal patronage, the temples suffered as did the communities that depended on it for sustenance – musicians, dancers, weavers, barbers, washermen etc Temples were huge city-complexes that housed all these groups, all in the service of that one deity who was all in all of that particular abode (aalayam).

As with any profession, there are bound to be ills that creep in especially when situation is at it’s most vulnerable, Bharat historically faced onslaught after onslaught, it fought valiantly to retain its very existence and its way of life, which included dance offerings at every temple as a part and parcel of daily worship, and unfortunately, this custom too took a beating as did others in this churning. At one point, the Brihadeeshwara temple employed 400 temple dancers (mostly female) and also musicians (mostly male)!

Added to the Victorian mores of our colonial rulers who could not see anything beyond the word ‘daasi’ which they wrongly, simplistically translated as ‘slave’, it was not long before a newly independent ‘India’ decided to follow suit and prohibit any form of dancing in the temple, wanting to cleanse the system! Going by the records of what followed, most women were reduced to abject poverty overnight and some did take to prostitution, thereby doing exactly what they were being rescued from!

The Devadasi Act of 26- 11-1947 (Madras) says:

…..practice of dedicating women to Hindu deities, idols….practice however pure in origin leads many women to the life of prostitution….dancing by a woman in temple precincts or….in any procession of a Hindu deity ….is hereby declared unlawful… ”

(from “Vilasini Natyam – Bharatam of the Telugu Temple and Court Dancers” by Padma Bhushan Guru Swapna Sundari gaaru, a must read for anyone keen on classical dance or on the topic of the devadaasis)

Odd, given that prostitution is readily acceptable today in many areas such as modeling or acting which too leads, many women who cannot make it big, to compromise with their values, albeit for self-aggrandizement or in pursuit of a ‘career’, that the government does not deem it necessary to interfere in the private acts of citizens here!

Odd, given that in rural areas poverty or alcoholism of their men-folk results in many women taking to prostitution to make ends meet and to sustain their family, but the government does not ban alcohol! 

Odd, that practices like halala, mut’ah, misyar exist which can also lead to prostitution however pure the original intent, but the government sees no harm in such regressive practices. 

Odd, that the practice of nuns is strangely similar to a devadaasi, where women are dedicated to a convent married to Christ and there are innumerable instances of both sexual exploitation and pedophilia in the Church but no government deems it necessary to interfere there, correct their morally corrupt practices. Examine this Act a bit more and one sees the bias clearly, one also senses the condescension inherent in such acts formulated by people who do not practice nor appreciate the vision of their ancestors. 

Unfortunately, Padma Shree Guru Samyukta Panigrahi’s appeals to the government to allow her to dance in the Jagannatha Mandir precincts were in vain, she died early, perhaps heartbroken in 1997 at age 52, with her wish unfulfilled. Here is a world renowned danseuse who wanted to offer worship in the manner she deemed fit, with her exceptional skill as a dancer but she was denied due to a foolish law that wanted to moralize the “salacious pagans”. Innumerable hasty do-gooder Acts like these however pure in their intent and origin, if at all, have lead to the disintegration and destruction of vaidika life that existed well until 1947.

The British were instrumental in bringing this “terrible practice” to light and made all attempts to stop this cruelty, imaging themselves to be these saviors of the heathens, abetted by Victorian minded proselytizers gleeful at the prospect of correcting a decadent people. If they had had any interest in the well-being of the people, they would not have occupied and brutally ruled a country that they had entered using business as an excuse, deception then was for an ulterior motive; conversion. If not to Christianity then to another way of thought that they deemed superior! Such pomposity! Such ignorance and inability to grasp the subtleties of an ancient wise people.

Hence the devadaasi got labelled as a prostitute by the unlettered colonizers and she never recovered from this onslaught. After the Act was passed, she lost her traditional hold and power, ceded it to the men in her entourage (who previously were subservient to the highly-placed temple dancers), who discouraged her from dancing ever again, taking control of her lands, assets, behavior etc. This distaste associated with temple dance and dancing girls was a post-colonial, post Act phenomenon. A world renowned dancer like Samyukta Panigrahi ji had to fight off parents and society initially to take it up, as they were aghast that she would be labelled a mahari (devadaasi of Orissa).

In Independent Bharat, too many ‘forward thinkers’ tried to abolish this system without fully comprehending the rationale behind it and it was finally outlawed nationwide in 1988. Most of these social reformers belonged to the Rational or the Dravidian movement which is pitted as anti-vaidika anyway. 

Negative press and media coverage by foreign publications intent on digging the fault lines deeper unable to see any merit in this system also helped propagate the myth that devadaasi meant sacred prostitution. From BBC films to William Dalrymple’s articles, hearing from such ‘knowledgeable’ sources Bhartiyas themselves have no proper appreciation of what being a devadaasi entails.


There was a series of interviews and selection processes by the panel at the temple comprising of senior dancers and others who chose the new entrants, who were then given a rigorous training (the complete training took 12-15 years), some who could not make it took to less arduous tasks at the temple – like anointing the deity or became flower girls….girls of any community, jaati could stake their claim to be a devadaasi, since it was so prestigious, this was a chosen vritti. Once selected the training was stringent starting at 4.00am in the morning and going on until 9pm at night, even today discipline and dance always goes together, without practicing daily one cannot perform for hours. In Vilasini Natyam for example, the dancer also sings to the deity, thus they had to be trained in vocal music too.

Rangbagh Ranganathaswamy temple in Hyderabad is the only temple in Bharat where dance is offered as a means of worship just like the old times, in the traditional manner, during brahmotsavaalu which happen Jan end- Feb beginning every year. Here the dancers are not devadaasis but those taught for free by Swapna Akka. The Pitti family has been extremely generous in sustaining the temple and the art of Vilasini Natyam by supporting Padma Bhushan Guru Swapna Sundari gaaru to teach this to the next generation. My sister Pujita Krishna Jyoti has been learning from Akka and has been practicing this devadaasi form for more than twelves years now.

Offering of devadaasis starts early in the morning, beating of drums, praying to the different directions, waking up the lord…continues through the day into the night ( bheri pooja and cheri tadanam/ dhwajaarohaNam/ baliharaNam/ melukolupu/ balabhogam/ pushpanjali/ kowtam/ pallaki sewa/ kumbhaharati/ hetsarika/ ashTapadis/ adhyaatma raamayaNa keertanaas)

Raajadaasis who performed for the rulers of the land, who in most places were treated as divine beings too, could never becomes devadaasis, as the latter were ordained, had to pass an entrance exam so to speak, undergo military like training and were consecrated as any deity was (since they were spouses to the said deity). Devadaasis on the other hand could become raajadaasis! varNam, swara jati, shabdam, thillaana that we think of as standard bharata naaTyam fare was in fact on the dance card of the raajadaasi, these were not offered to the deity!

Once the support of the large empires was gone (Cholas, Vijayanagara etc),  many princely samsthaanaas became patrons and connoisseurs of this art, who helped sustain it such as Bobbili, Tsallapalli, Venkatagiri, Gadwala, Nuziveedu, Tuni, Yadagiri and many more.

“My dream, my vision, my hope, is to restore the lost dignity of the woman behind this art, (to restore) the lost identity of the artiste behind the devadaasi ” 

– Guru Swapna Sundari 

Part 1 – Dancing at Ranbagh Ranganathaswamy temple by Pujita Krishna Jyoti and other Vilasini NaaTyam dancers,(appears at 7.46 in white and green).

Part 2 – Dancing at Ranbagh Ranganathaswamy temple by Pujita Krishna Jyoti and other Vilasini NaaTyam dancers.

The popularity of devadaasis seems to have reached its pinnacle around 10th and 11th century CE. The rise and fall in the status of devadaasis can be seen running parallel to the rise and fall of Hindu temples” !

Om Tat Sat.

(Featured Image Credit :

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Krishna Kavita Kasturi
Krishna Kavita Kasturi
Krishna Kavita Kasturi, a student of Pujya Swami Dayananda Saraswati ji, studies Vedanta in the Arsha Vidya tradition. She teaches Indian Language and Culture in the US for part of the year. A student and avid lover of shaastriya nritya, when in India she learns classical dance from her sister Pujita Krishna Jyoti, one of the six dedicated Vilasini Natyam dancers in the world today.


  1. I believe Lata Mangeshkar’s family originally was Devadasi too. I have met some other families of former Devadasi origin—they are highly accomplished in music and dance, and don’t have any iota of “persecution complex.” They are rather proud of their past, as they should be!

  2. Thank you for this education.

    “In Independent Bharat, too many ‘forward thinkers’ tried to abolish this system without fully comprehending the rationale behind it and it was finally outlawed nationwide in 1988.” – If anyone reading this is aware of what exactly was outlawed in 1988 and could share a reference, that would be helpful.

    • Devadasi Act of 1947 was for Madras State ….in 1988 it was abolished pan India. You may read Padma Bhushan Swapna Sundari gaaru’s book “Vilasini Natyam – Bharatam of Telugu Temple and Court Dancers)” for references. She revived the art single handedly and also interviewed – with great difficulty – many erstwhile Devdasis who were ostracized post Act and were hiding away from public glare, due to shame that followed.


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