nasa2000 (nasa2000) wrote,


"The Sadir was performed by Devadasis in temples, places and the houses of the people in general on all auspicious occasions... Through in later days Sadir unfortunately developed sensual characteristics, which almost brought about extinction of the art, it must also be remembered that the Devadasis kept up both the technique and the spirit of the dance tradition. They were dedicated to the temples and this was no mere formality but a real dedication, for when they danced during the temple festivals or rituals, they were examples of pure devotion. The joy of dancing and offering their art at the altar of the Supreme was great and had no ulterior motive."
Rukmini Devi Arundale

Devadasi system

Devadasi (Sanskrit) or Devaradiyal (Tamil) means ‘servant of God’, dancing girl dedicated to the service of God in a temple. This custom was practiced since the Sangam age and reached great popularity in medieval period (600 – 1800 AD).

Devadasi system is rooted in universal fertility cult. In India this cult manifests itself in Siva temples where fertility is merged with Tantra (union of Sun and Moon, Linga and Yoni, female and male principles).

According to Puranas devadasi are of celestial origin (for example, description of Indra’s court in Matsya Purana). Tamil record of Sankaranayinar Koil mentions three Tamil kings who went to court of Indra to ask for drought relief. Pandya’s presence was not noticed. He was irritated and came back after taking away four apsaras and their sons.

In Silappadikkaram and Manimeghalai there is a story of Urvashi, who was cursed by sage Agastya for her love to Jayantha, the son of Indra.

Other names of Devadasis are Padiyilar, Taliccherip-pendugal, Emperumanadiyar (used to denote all kinds of temple servants). In Agamas Devadasi are mentioned as Nartakis, Ganikas, Rudra-ganikas, Dasis. In Kerala Devadasi were called as Tevidicchi, Nangaimar, Kudikkari; in Karnataka – Poti, Jogti, in Andhra – sahi, and in Orissa – Patra, Mahari.

While the custom of dedicating young girls to the temple was prevalent all over the country, it became more conspicuous in the great temple-cities of south India after the 7th century. In the following centuries inscriptions giving the names of temple dancers, their functions, salaries and other emoluments began to appear. Rajaraja Chola I recruited four hundred dancing girls from all the temples of the Chola country to be employed at Brihadeeshwara temple and details of their names and the temples to which they were originally attached are available.

A peculiar feature of the Tamil polity was the close link between the temple and the palace. So intimate was the link that the Tamil word for temple, kovil, in fact means palace (ko, king, il, abode). Temples which began to proliferate after the 7th century became the foci of cultural and social life funded by magnificent endowments from the royal treasury. Temple rituals were almost a replication of palace rituals and the distinction between the temple staff and the palace was often blurred. The musicians and dancers dedicated to temple were required to perform before their royal patron. The famous court dancers of the late medieval period were drawn from the temple devadasi community.

The word ‘devadasi’ was never really used before 20th century either in Tamilnadu or Andhra. In Tamilnadu the women dedicated to the temple were called ‘devaradiyal' or ‘servants of God’, which was corrupted to ‘thevadiyal’ and used as a pejorative term after the 19th century. In Andhra they were known variously as vilasini, kalavantulu, bhogam patra, nartaki and swamini, depending upon specific duty assigned to each. The term devadasi was probably Sanskritized from of Devaradiyal. Interestingly, the is no suggestion of a servant (dasi) in the Andhra terms, but only of an entertainer, dancer or artist.

Devadasis were drawn from non-Brahmin castes that followed the tradition of dedicating one daughter to the temple. Sometimes parents would offer a daughter to the temple in fulfillment of a sacred vow. Very often sheer poverty drove them to give their daughters away. The beautiful and talented girls were groomed to become dancers and singers. The less fortunate ones were relegated to various tasks connected with the temple.

The dedication ceremony of the devadasi consisted of a ritual known as pottukattal (tying of the sacred tali or thread round the neck as in a conventional marriage ceremony). The girl was thereafter referred to as devaradiyal and was believed to be sacramentally married to the deity. She became a Nityasumangali (one who never suffers the curse of widowhood) and was specially sought after during marriages to bless the bride.

Devadasis were expected to participate in all the rituals of the temples. Ritual dancing before the deity to ward off evil spirits was an important function. The temple dance was known as chinnamelam (small ensemble) while the playing of the nagaswaram and its accompaniments were known as the periyamelam (large ensemble), which was performed by the male members of the community. These two constituted two important components of temple ritual. Chinna melam was also known as sadir, sadirattam, sadirnath, dasiattam and koothu.

The other duties of devadasis were those of accompanying the deity during processions and dancing before the chariot, lighting lamps, cleaning the temple vessels, pounding rice, turmeric and sandalwood and making flower garlands for the deity. The most coveted task was to fan him with a chamarai (fly-whisk).

Devadasis were not merely proficient in the fine arts, but were also highly accomplished in social manners and etiquette, and were the only women of their time who could read and write. Some were poets - like Muddupalani of the 18th century who was a great scholar of Sanskrit and the author of the highly erotic work Radhika Santwanam. This was reprinted in the 1911 by Bangalore Nagaratnammal, but the copies were sized by the police on the grounds of obscenity. In 1947 the ban was lifted and a new edition was published.

Through devadasi could not marry, they had socially accepted relationships with men of the upper castes, priests and the members of royal families. The great king Krishnadevaraya of Vijayanagara was the son of a dancing girl. He married his favorite courtesan Chinnadavi. Kerala Varma, the raja of Vanad, married the devadasi Unnitacci Kuttathi. Saiva saint Sundarar took dancing girl Paravai as his wife.

Devadasis who enjoyed the patronage of the king and the temple were women of immense wealth in the form of gold and landed property. Devadasi community was a group dominated by women whose property and children were under the supervision of the matriarch known as thaikkizhavi. Daughters were naturally preferred as they were an asset to the family. In the absence of daughters the women adopted girls to carry on their tradition and keep the family property intact. The sons were expected to assist the women by providing the nattuvangam and many of them became famous nattuvanars. An alternative profession for them was as nagaswaram players attached to temples. Rarely did they take to classical vocal music as a profession as this was a monopoly of the upper castes. A devadasi generally prefixed he name of her ancestral village/town and, optionally, the name of her mother to her own name, unlike the patriarchal groups were it the father’s name that was prefixed. The men added the name Pillai to their first name. Devadasis were highly emancipated women and were treated with greater respect then the legally wedded wives of the men who supported them.

References to Devadasi services in Inscriptions

  1. 4th cen BC – Kautilya refers to devadasis who were engaged in temple service.

  2. Asoka – Ramgarh cave inscription refers to Sutanuka, slave girl of God; Jalauka (son of Asoka) gave 100 ladies of his seraglio to temple of Siva.

  3. 8 cen AD – epigraph in Jain temple in Karnataka refers to employment of patras; 866 AD – copper plate from Kanyakumari mentiones service of vellatigal, free girls serving the temple.

  4. 7 cen AD – Hiueng Tsang, China piligrim tells about the women serving in Multan (Surya temple).

  5. 1024 AD – Hon-al-Athir, Muslim traveller, mentions 500 dancers, 300 musicians employed in Somnath temple (Sourashtra).

References to Devadasi services in literature

References to devadasi tradition can be found in the following kinds of literary works:

  • Sangam works - Tholkappiyam, Ettutogai, Pattupattu and several minor works refer to several kinds of devadasis: kontimakalir (captive women engaged in divine services), viraliyar (ministrels), kuttiyar (dancing girls), parattaiyar (courtesans).

  • Treatises on arts - Natyasastra, Kuttanool, Panchamarabu (term of Arivakar).

  • Tamil Epics - Silappadikkaram, Manimeghalai, Jivakacintamani

  • Religios Literature - Systematic description of devadasi institution in temples can be found in Agamas. Agamas contain direct references to devadasi system existing during medieval period in context of temple worship. description of rituals like offering food, dance and music to deity, Kanikagama contains description of the role of rudra-ganikayar in temple worship.

  • Bhakti hymns of Nayanmars and Alwars - Twelve Thirumurais (sacred collections), Tevaram (hymns by Appar, Sambandar and Sundarar), Thiruvacakkam by Manikkavacagar, Periapuranam by Sekkiyar, Thiruppugal by Arunagiri, parasurams of Periyalwar, Andal, Nammalwar in Nalayira prabandham, Thiruppavai by Andal. Ramanuja records of devadasi services in Srirangam temple.

  • Puranas mention the role of singing and dancing girls in ritual worship.

  • Ramayanam by Kamban mentions services of devadasi in Chola period.

The most important works of Sangam literature are classified into two heads, Ettuthogai and Pathuppattu, collections of songs written by different authors at different times. All of them have the same motive to glorify the kings for their valor and martial feats and their devotion in maintaining and protecting righteousness.

Ettotogai includes Nattrinai, Kuruntokai, Ainkurunooru, Pattiruppathu, Paripadal, Kalithokai, Akananoor and Purananoor. Of these works, the work most related to the Chera kingdom is Pattiruppathu. This work is a collection of songs composed to eulogize the great kings of Chera kingdom. The first and the last sections are lost, the remaining eight pattus contain many references to dance and music.

We find dancers and musicians classified under different heads like Kannular, Virali, Vayariar, Panar and Padini. These dancers and musicians were given a high and respectable status in society, they had free access to the king and his court. The king generously patronized them by giving present and money.

“…crossing several hills, Koothar (dancers) and Panar (musicians) come from varied and distant parts of the country with their families to see you (the king) in person after having heard your fame and generosity. Then you noticing that they are fatigues and hungry after several days of tiresome journey, immediately offer them a hearty meal of fresh meat, white rice mized with mutton and cool fresh toddy. After having quenched their hunger, you make them change their dust-laden and tattered garments for new smooth silk garments resplendent like the wet wings of an eagle. Then you provide ornaments of gold to the young women folk who have black curly kongal-s (curls of hair ringlet) and thin tolumuttu-s (shoulder-blade).”
(II Pathu, 2 song)

“The king without any selfish motive generously gifted away all the chariots, elephants and hourses that he had taken from his enemy vanquished in a war, to the two classes of dancers (Koothar-s), Vayariyar and Kannular.”
(II Pathu, 10 song)

“The king called Kalankai Kanninarmudi Cheralatan distribted among the Koothar-s (dancers) and Panar-s (musicians), who were living in his court entertaining him with their songs and dances, all the wealth that he had taken from enemies, without keeping for his own use even a small part of it.”
(IV Pathu, 7 song)

“The Koothar-s (dancers) and Panar-s (musicians) carrying their musical instruments and implements, go into a crowded cities and sing songs at street-corners and other public places.”
(III Pathu, 3 song)

“In the streets crowded with cottages whose roofs are decorated with bright flags which flutter in the winds like the small streams flowing down from the tops of mountains, beautiful Virali-s (danseuses) perform dances with their foreheads shining in the light that proceeds from the flames of the thick wicks of the Pandil vilakku-s (lamps).”
(V Pathu, 7 song)

“The Virali-s perform the dance called Tunankai Koothu in the rich and refulgent light of the Pandil velakku-s to the accompaniment of the beating of the Muzha (drum).”
(VI Pathu, 2 song)

“The Koothar-s (dancers) participate in successive festivals, using the special musical instrument called Yazhu. They visit streets which are most thickly populated and there they sing songs to the accompaniment of the stringed musical instruments which they play very skillfully.”
(III Pathu, 9 song)

“Juvenile Panar-s (musicians) set out for their musical performances carrying with them the curved musical instrument called Yazhu with their strings tightened so to produce sweet notes. At the same time the Koothar-s (dancers) also set out carrying on their shoulders Kavadithandu-s (a long piece of wood), on the end of them are hung the musical instruments of Muzha and Peruvankiyam (a long instrument made of bamboo and having the shape of the elephant’s trunk) and at the other end such accessories for dance as Ellari (cymba;s made of bell metal), Akuli (a kind of small drum), Tatta and Kuzhal which are essential requirements.”
(V Pathu, 1 song)

Dancers (Viraly) wore Chilvala (a kand of bangle) and profusely decorated their body with various ornaments and they looked like the Venga (a timber tree) covered with flowers.
Panar-s (musicians) adorned their heads with garlands made of fresh white lotuses.
In general, the dancers and musicians are described as adorning themselves with garlands made of fragrant flowers. But in certain context, where Virali-s are specially described, they are represented as wearing garlands on their head, gold ornaments on the other parts of the body and a thin silk cloth round their waist.

"The Panar maidens are of different types – those who wear gold ornaments, those who wear tazha-s (a kind of leaf) and those who wear garlands of fragrant flowers. These maidens, wearing radiant bangles, sparkling coral-chains on their breasts and hair beautifully bound into a rounded tuft on the top pf the headm which, with their fragrant flowers attract bees, come into the streets with their musical instrument Peri Yazhu and sing the song Uzhinjathina in praise of the king, in different tunes."
(V Pathu, 6 song)

“Virali-s having fleshy rounded arms adorned with bangles, beautiful cool eyes, small tender breasts such as are found in the painting, wearing tightly round their waist soft and thin garments, beautiful tufts of curled hair beutified with Tenoli flowers that attract beetles and wearing different gold ornaments.”
(VI Pathu, 4 song)

Devadasi tradition in Tamil Nadu

In the early years of the Chirstian era the whole of South India was one region called Tamizhakam. There were three separate kingdoms, namely, Chera, Chola and Pandya. The territory of present day Kerala was a part of Chera kingdom. The language of Tamizhakam was mainly Tamizh.

It is difficult to assign a specific date to the origin of Devadasi system in Tamilnadu. Evidences from Sangam classics indicate that the system was in its formative period by the end of 3rd cen AD – 4-5th cen AD, the period of introducing dance and dancing girls (called konti-makalir) in temple worship. Devadasi custom became an institution in 5-6 cen AD under the patronage of Pallavas and Pandyas. The system was extended during the reign of Cholas and later Pandyas, eclipsed during Muslim invasion and re-appeared under Vijayanagara emperors. Decline of the system was started under Nayaks.

Kuttaliyar and Viraliyar were the artist known from the days of Tholkappiyam. They were professional teachers and dancers. Kuttaliyar danced to the beat of drum on the stage at cities and town during festivals. Viraliyar sang hilarious songs in praise of kings and chiefs. They were forerunners of the musical and dancing troupes in the temples of medieval period. Inscriptions give evidences of association of Kuttiyar with ritual dances.

Inscriptions testify that gifts, lands, tax release were given to Devadasis. They also provide information on the arts patronized by temples. Main functions of devadasis were:

  • performing ritual dances and singing during sevas;

  • participating in dramatic performances in temples during festival seasons;

  • re-enacting various kinds of dances in special halls (natakasalai).

Devadasis received remuneration (manya) by kings, temples, villagers and sabhas. They also had other privileges, participated in temple activities and had very high social status.

During medieval period Devadasi system was rooted in royal courtesan tradition. Devadasis were borrowed by the priests from the kings. That time Devadasi were called as Parattaiyar or Ganikkayar and Kuttiyar (captive women). There were two kinds of Parattaiyar (ganikayar): cheri-parattai (public strumpet) and kadal parattai (concubine, other name – kamakkilattiyar – was also used).

Kadal parattai were divided into several groups:
a) nataka-ganikai (actress)
b) kavar-ganikai (dancer in battle-field)
c) atar-kuttiyar (expert dancer like Madhavi of Silappadikkaram)
a) tonmudu-ganikai (aged harlot)
b) nataka-ganikai (actress)
c) kadavul-ganikai (God’s confidant)
a) rudra-ganikai (confidant of Siva)
b) rudra-kannikai (virgin of Siva)
c) rudra-dasi (slave of Siva)
kamakkilattiyar is one more variation of kadal parattai

Just as kings employed armies of artists and courtesans for enhancing their pomp and pleasure, the temples engaged them for singing and dancing before idols and to participate in rituals and festivals. Therefore, its origin in Tamilnadu is to be attributed to a merger of similar institutions, such as parattaiyar or ganikayar (prostitutes) and kuttiyar (captive or slave women). This would have happened as and when the royal upacaras (ceremonies and rituals) were transferred to the God in a temple. They were all vesiyar or dasis (public women). According to classical works in Tamil they were experts in dancing, singing, playing instruments and entertaining. Kamasutra of Vatsyayana also considers them all being adepts in fine arts. They were known for their beauty and artistic accomplishments. In theory they were not allowed to merry.

Parattiyar or ganikayar serving God in temple were known as kadavul ganikayar or rudra-ganikayar later on (such names are mentioned in Manimeghalai). They were given with high status in society. They kept fidelity to one person, generally the temple priest. They are considered as ancestors of devadasis.

Bhakti movement popularized ritualistic worship, intensified religious activity, promoted temple building, encouraged pilgrimage. It also helped to extend royal upacharas (ceremonial rites) to deities installed in temples, i.e. in a sudden shift the king was replaced by the deity. During Bhakti period (7-16 cent AD) many structural temples were built under rich patronage of kings and rulers. Temple became the center of learning, religion, acted as museum, art gallery, library, became center of art, cultural activities, festivals, social life itself. Its growth was further encouraged by the political, religious and personal desires of the ruling and priestly classes which enjoyed the legitimatizing powers in matters of religious importance.

The temples of Pallava-Pandya period greatly encouraged devadasi system. Rituals and festivals were two essential parts of temple worship prescribed by Agamas. Bhakti literature enumerates a large number of such rituals, festivals and processions conducted in temples. Festivals made the services of devadasi a necessity in temple worship. Sacred processions, accompanied by a retinue of drummers, musicians and dancers helped to attract more devotees, make festivals more entertaining, and integrate diverse elements of popular religion. Singing and dance was included in the rites, which required dedication of devadasis to temples.

There are many references to the services of devadasis in Bhakti literature (7-9 cen AD). The Saivite saints like Appar, Thirumular, Sambandar, Manikavacakar and Sundarar as well as the vaishnava saints like Thirumangai Alwar, Periyalwar and Antal have given references to devadasi in their hymns (Tevaram, Thiruppallandu by Sendanar, Tiruvempavai by Manikavacakar, Periyathirumozhi by Thirumangai Alwar, Thiruvaymoli and Nachiyar Thirumozhi by Antal). Hymns of Appar and Sambandar prove that the temple dancers were engaged in temple services from 7th cen AD onwards or even earlier. The progress of devadasi system started by the days of Appar, steadily involved in temple worship by the time of Sambandar and Alwars and the process became complete by the days of Manikavacakar and Sundarar.

Devadasi tradition in Kerala

In Kerala, in the most ancient days the most popular deity worshiped was Amma Daivam (Mother Goddess). The temple of shrine for Goddess is called Kavu. Amma Daivam was worshiped in many forms, the main forms are Bhagavati, Bhadrakali and Durga. She was also worshiped as Porkalathilamma (Goddess of battlefield), Chutalakkattamma (Goddess of cremation grounds) and Goddess of Dharma.

By 7-8th cen AD temple built of stone and wood began to appear all over Kerala, thus, rituals and modes of worshiped were also changed. During this period Devadasi system originated in different parts of Kerala.

Devadasi tradition of dancing arose out of Sringarabhakti movement. Bhakti concept implies that Jeevatma (human soul identified with heroine or devotee) is longing for union with Paramatma (universal soul, identified with the hero or the deity of particular temple). This hero-heroine aspect is the essence of Devadasi dance. Devadasi was supposed to be consort of the deit of the temple (deva-vadhu). Thus, a token wedding (pen-kettu) was performed to the deity so that she became a deva-vadhu. The temple was supposed to give Devadasi Kudi (house to live) and Padi (food or means of lifehood). In the famous temple of Suchindram there were about 32 such Devadasi Kudi-s.

The chief duties of Devadasi-s were singing and dancing. In some temples they had special duties like holding Tookkuvilakku during processions in Tiruvanchikulam temple. They were considered as auspicious women thus when a king set out for some important purpose, Devadasi-s were purposely posted at the door so that he might have their auspicious sight at the time of coming out. When the Maharaja of Travancore went on a tour, the Devadasi-s of each village had to receive him in his ‘progress’ through the village.

All the evidence found so far about the temple danseuses of Kerala is from the 10th cen AD or later. During that period danseuses were knows as Nanga, Talinanga, Nangachi, Nangayar, Nangaiyar, Talivadhu, Koothathi, Koothacchi and Tevidichi.

A stone inscription of the year 932 AD found in Chokkur Siva temple near Calikut contain references to the danseuses of Kerala of that age. the inscription mentions how one Nangayar belonging to the Chittarayil family donated some land to the temple.

Another record of 934 AD is found at Tali Siva temple at Nedumpuram. It mentions the payment made to Nangai-s (danseuses) and Nattuvan-s (teachers of dance). In the inscription of 12 cen AD found at Vadakkumnatha Siva temple of Trichur testify that there were devadasi-s at that temple.

Devadasi were known by the general name Tevidichi (woman who serves at the feet of god). Their dance were called Tevidichiyattam or Tevidichi Koothu.

Life of Devadasi

There are six Samskaras (rites of passage) of Devadasi:

  1. Marriage: spiritual marriage, participation in divine life. Kalikagam: pottuk-kattu (trinket tying), formal sacred marriage and dedication of girl to temple. Rudra-ganikai, rudra-kanikai and rudra-dasi were married at 7, 8 and 9 years old respectively. Acharya should alone conduct the ceremony.

  2. Branding: the girl was branded with some symbol (muttirai) to identify that she is dasi and which temple she belongs to. Devadasi of Siva temples were branded with Trident, Vishnu – with chakra and shankha on the right and left shoulder respectively. After this devadasi was not supposed to enter any service outside the temple, even in royal court. Devadasi would never become a widow. She was a confidant of God, her presence was auspicious and her service complete. Devadasi were called ‘Nityasumangali’ or ever auspicious. May of devadasis got married influential patrons, became concubines of priests, monarchs, chiefs. But they were not allowed to serve God after marriage to mortals. Dedication to sacred service was done irrespective of caste and social considerations, it was done with intention of serving God (devotion), fulfilling certain vows of desires (seeking boons), eking out a living (economical reasons).

  3. Initiation into performing arts: training was the duty of Nattuvan and temple establishment, in dance, music, tala, literature, languages.

  4. Arangetram (debut): was conducted on auspicious day, in presence of the king (description can be found in Silappadikkaram). “Talakkol” (the greatest among the dancers) was the title given to successful performer by the king.

  5. Duties: the major duties of devadasis were dancing, singing, reciting Tiruppadiham (10 Saivite hymns) or Tirupasuram (Vaisnavite hymns) and cleaning the temple premises. During the festivals and processions devadasi used to sing, dance and play music instruments. Other services included sweeping floors, decorating temple precincts, making garlands, fanning idol with charamaram, lighting perpetual lamps, preparing incenses for worship. As allowances devadasi received food, lands, remuneration.

  6. Funeral: at death of devadasi no puja was conducted in the temple. Dead body was covered with kantakki chelai (saree) and burnt by fire-wood supplied from the temple. Devadasi were cremated as sumangali (auspicious female) wearing trinket (tali). After cremation the temple was purified and the God was served a curry of bitter vegetables.


  1. Devadasi System in Mediavel Tamilnadu by K. Sadasivan, CBN Publications, Trivandrum, 1993

  2. Nangiar Koothu. The Classical Dance of the Nangiyars by Nirmala Panikker, Natana Kairali, Kerala, 1992

  3. Nityasumangali. Devadasi tradition in South India by Saskia C. Kersenboom, Motilal Banarsidass Publishers, Delhi, 1987

  4. The Madras Quartette. Women in Karnatak Music by Indira Menon, Roly Books, Delhi, 1999

Tags: south indian culture

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