Trained in literature, dance and music, Devdasis, servants of God, are women and girls dedicated to temples in South India. A traditional religious practice among Hindus, dating back to the 6th century, girls as young as seven were married to a temple deity and dedicated their lives for the performance of sacred rituals and upkeep of the temple.
The devadasis are revered because they are married to a deity and thus are ‘Nitya Sumangali,’ forever married or forever auspicious. However, this practice has been considered a contentious issue with respect to exploitation of women and caste and gender inequalities in the profession. Caught between various attempts to reform the system, particularly by the Anti Nauch movement in 1947, and the agency granted by their profession, Devdasis have had a limited voice in this discourse surrounding their work. Yet what remains is the persistent sense of inequality and discrimination against women, unequal treatment of the devadasis because of their freedom of profession, and the very profession itself as creating and perpetuating caste and gender inequalities.
Aimed at eliminating women being used as a means of entertainment and servants of god, reform measures began with the British in 1934, and continued post-independence until 2010. Yet, the Devadasi profession granted women a sense of agency to govern their lives and broke away from the traditional ideas of what a woman should be. The girls dedicated to the deity were respected and supported by patrons, musicians, priests
or even ordinary men who revered them as being an integral part of religious ceremonies. They had the liberty to have multiple partners, to engage in economic activities, childbearing practices and also had the opportunity to seek a family life outside the domestic, traditional confines of monogamy and marriage. Most importantly, the devadasi enjoyed privileges of a man, since she had no legal husband, she inherited family property, performed death rites of her parents and took on the duties associated with a son.
In light of this freedom, The Anti-Nautch (colonised term for the hindi term ‘natch’, meaning dance) movement in 1947 was the culmination of the many attempts by colonialists and rigid adherents of traditional gender norms to ‘purify’ the devadasi system. The colonial understanding of India was based on a high-caste Brahmanical textual tradition which propagated a patriarchal notion of womanhood, which Devadasis subverted. In order to maintain their perception of India as being governed by patriarchy, the British sought justifications to bring about a reform in the system.
Yet, these attempts at reform cannot be entirely written off. The very act of dedicating young girls (without consent) to a temple deity and imposing norms of excelling in the art of temple duties, music and dance can be exploitative. Despite living in a matrifocal household, the status of women in the system was not akin to the role of men in a patriarchal setting– their career was steered by the male priests or their gurus (musicians who trained then in the arts). Sexually expected to gratify the needs of worshippers or males who enjoyed her performances, the devadasis were not acknowledged as wives and because they did not have stable companions, they were the target of sexual exploitation.
Gratifying the desires of numerous men could have become obligatory to maintain their patronage. Shifts in societal morality due to colonial rule placed an expectation of chastity in women, rendering Devadasis as unacceptable – becoming a barrier to earning a decent standard of living. Caste inequalities further worsened their condition The devadasi tradition towards the end of the 20th century and beginning of the 21st century became known for the exploitation of lower caste girls, forced by norms and poverty into serving temples and needs of the patrons who supported them financially. Upper caste families’ control over the temple acted as a means for them to perpetuate this practice of exploitation under the sanction of religion. Given their disadvantaged economic, social, and cultural capital,the patronage offered by the temple priests and the upper caste men was possibly viewed by them as the only means to guarantee a secure profession. Thus, gender and caste have played a dual role in oppressing the devadasis
Thus, while the Devadasi tradition has offered women a site of agency and freedom over their own lives, shifting gender norms under colonialism and the caste system have also trapped them within a system of exploitation and inequality. The way forward is to recognise the existence of devadasis, the important ideas that they represent and understand the nuances behind the tradition with the hope that the devadasis lead a life liberated from the shackles of gender and caste inequalities.