Ever auspicious. Devadasis were no fallen women

The Week. March 13-19, 1988

MAHATMA Gandhi had observed: "The Devadasi system is a blot upon those who countenance it. It would have died long ago but for the supineness of the public. Public conscience in this country lies dormant ... it often feels the awefulness of many a wrong, but is too often indifferent or too lazy to move."

Some active people did come out against the Devadasi system and the anti-nautch bill did become a law. A fierce media controversy followed with one side condemning the dasis as fallen women, and the other insisting that their art was divine.

So 'Devadasi' became a word that could be used loosely to mean traditional dancers to fallen women. But who exactly is a Devadasi? What is her community? Her role in society? What was her job in the temple? Saskia C. Kersenboom-Story's recently published book Nityasumangali: Devadasi Tradition in South India has answers to all these.

The author, a research fellow at the State University of Utrecht, Holland, has studied extensively the textual sources in Sanskrit, Tamil and Telugu, has travelled over long periods in south India, lived for months in orthodox Hindu families and has "sat at the feet of" former Devadasis to obtain material for this book. "The multitude of dos and don'ts in the life of an orthodox Hindu and the cultural evaluations employed by them gave rise to the basic hypothesis for this work which can be summed up in a single definition: the Devadasi is a nityasumangali - an ever auspicious woman."

Women have different degrees of auspiciousness in the Hindu society. A virgin has capricious power. An unmarried mother is malevolent and inauspicious. A married woman or a sumangali with children is the most auspicious. A barren woman is inauspicious, but not as much as a widow who is the most inauspicious. As a ritual person, the Devadasi exceeds even the sumangali in auspiciousness. Vesya darshanam punyam papa nashanam - the proverb means to see a courtesan is auspicious and destroys sin. "Firstly," says the author, "because she is dedicated to a divine husband i.e. one who can never die. In consequence, she can never lose her auspiciousness."

The book begins with the classical period of the Tamils and has probed the Sangam literature for forms of worship and man's relation to the divine. It then traces the medieval periods of the Pallavas, the Pandyas, the Cholas and the Yijayanagar empire.

Kersenboom-Story has also investigated the spread of the concept of nityasumangali, the female ritualist who can deal effectively with the divine which is ambivalent. She exudes power in three ways - through her sexuality that is identified with that of the goddess, through a number of implements of ritual value like the pot, the lamp, coloured water, certain flowers, fruit and unguents, and thirdly through her art.

To arrive at the concept of the nityasurnangali, Kersenboom-Story brings out all angles of south Indian temple culture. She discusses in detail the forms and rituals of indigenous temples, agamic temples, royal temples and pilgrimage temples and the motivation and evaluation of rituals and festivals.

In the author's interview with P. Ranganayaki it is mentioned: "When a girl would reach the age of 16, an application to be allowed to become a Devadasi would be made to the king of Karvet inagar; such a petition would have to be countersigned by ten priests and ten Devadasis. After permission was granted, an auspicious day would be fixed for the air branding function ... Five days before the actual muttirai a gejje puja would be held to conclude the girl's training in? dance ... From the temple they would bring the kattari (the sword, spear or trident) to the home of the girl. All traditional marriage rituals would be performed...

"The girl would then give a dance performance ... The girl would be accompanied to the temple ... There she would dance the pushpanjali, followed by a full. dance concert. Hereafter the mark of trisula would be branded on her upper arm ... After one month the Devadasi was free to decide about her future. Either she would accept a steady husband or she would be kept as a mistress for a period that would be agreed upon ... We were god?fearing. After we got our status of Devadasi we could decide for ourselves. We had our own discipline."

In conclusion Saskia Kersenboom-Story says that the traditional view holds that all women share, by their .very nature, the power of the goddess. The ritual women associated with the ambivalent dangerous goddess. are rather feared than anything else. However, their presence is of vital importance. The merger with the benign, peaceful goddess lends the Devadasinitya?sumnangalis the power of protection against danger, of support of prosperity, fertility, health and happiness."

The author also says that' the association of Devadasis with the field of erotic experience cannot be defined but calling them sacred prostitutes seems ,vastly exaggerated. The degree of artistic sophistication decreases as the nitya?sumangali is removed from the temple and the court.

The book is the result of a scientific probe coupled with reverence and humility. It combines intuition, scholarship, textual study and extensive fieldwork. It provides a clean imagery of the ambience of Hindu temple worship and rituals.


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