Devadasis: Beyond Constructs and Contentions

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The word “Devadasi” is one of the most contentious terms in contemporary cultural discourse. In certain parts, the Tamil variation of the word “devadiya” is an abuse and used as an alternative for the word harlot. On the other hand, in Karnataka, the Kannada variation “Devadiga” invokes respect and the term is still in vogue as a proud caste title. There are disputes and debates about the Devadasi tradition in the academic world too. In this paper, I aim at looking into these debates and contentions. Apart from tracing the constructs and connotations around the term “Devadasi”, I also aim to identify the forces that were consciously or unconsciously behind the contemporary connotations of the term. Further, I plan to problematise the idea of “reformation” of devadasi movement that gained momentum and reached its zenith during the colonial period. In addition to this, I would also provide evidence from four other print sources, which are often ignored by researchers, to prove that there was no hostility against Devadasis among orthodox Hindus from time immemorial to the twentieth century. While doing so, certain sources that refer to Veshyas (prostitutes) are also used. This is not because of the inability to distinguish between Veshyas and Devadasis. Rather it is to drive a point that if Veshyas were tolerated by a society, then there is little chance that Devadasis were treated with disdain. In the course of this paper, I also plan to explore the driving forces behind reformers ranging from Gandhi to Muthulakshmi Reddy. There is no need to mention that the role of the colonial government and that of the missionaries will be also scrutinized.


The term Devadasi has been defined by various historiographers/researchers according to their perspective. The definitions range from those translating “Devadasi” as temple prostitute to those go by the literal translation,’female servants of the God’. The definition given by  Saskia C Kersenboom in her “The Traditional Repertoire of the Tiruttani Temple Dancers” seems to be an inclusive clear definition that is devoid of the binaries. Kersenboom says: ”The term devadasi means literally slave of god. For devadasi was neither a vestal virgin or ascetic nun, nor their opposite a public woman or sacred harlot…. Her place is away from this binaries”. Kersenboom adds that devadasis were “ritual specialists”. There is an issue in this definition too. Kersenboom’s assertion that devadasis were “never a vestal virgin or ascetic nun” can be challenged on the basis of certain ritual texts. However, we shall not digress into that issue in this paper. We can move with this working definition at this point. Sri Ram in his The Devadasi and the Saint: Life and Times of Bangalore Nagarathnamma (2007) presents a similar view. He says, ”chastity was not a parameter in their line of work and they could take on patrons. They were never considered to be prostitutes” (7)

Due to the controversial nature of the topic and the cultural, social and religious orientations, the Devadasi system has always attracted the attention of researchers throughout the world and there is a respectable number of scholarly works written on the system. To name a few of them, Lakshmi Vishwanathan’s Women of Pride (2008) focuses both on the Devadasi system and also on the political, religious and social dimensions of the Devadasi Reform Movement. Priyadarshini Vijayasri’s Recasting the Devadasi: Patterns of Sacred Prostitution in Colonial South India (2004) focuses on the caste-based differences among Devadasis in Karnataka and Andhra. She concludes that all the Devadasis enjoy economic and social freedom but the Temple women belonging to so-called outcasts enjoy greater sexual freedom when compared to the Shudra women in the same system. Rekha Pande and S.Jeevanandhan, in their Devdasis in South India: A Journey from Sacred to a Profane Spaces (2017) point out that the colonial intervention can be connected to the loss of economic freedom and loss of social acceptance faced by Devadasis. Devdasi System in India (2012) is a survey of the practice. Saskia C Kersenboom’s Nityasumangali: Devadasi Tradition in South India (1987) can be considered to be an insider’s account to a certain extent and it has a wealth of information about the ceremonies related to the system. Pran Nevile’s Nautch Girls of the Raj helps in understanding the anti-nautch movement and its effects on the Devadasi system.

Since the 1980s, a number of scholars trained in Feminist/Gender Studies, Cultural Studies and Post Colonial Studies have questioned the foundations and intentions of the celebrated Devadasi Reformation Movement. One of the earliest dissenting/contesting voice was that of Amrita Srinivasan. Amrita Srinivasan’s “Reform or Conformity: Temple Prostitution and the Community in Madras Presidency” (1981) questioned the hitherto cherished assumptions connected with the reformation of devadasis. There was a paradigm shift. Reformers were now turned/looked upon as unwitting accessories of the colonial powers. Even though Gayathri Chakravorty Spivak quoted Srinivasan in her “How to Teach a Culturally Different Book” only to refute Srinivasan’s arguments, the result was an undivided attention from the academia on the thesis of Srinivasan. It can be considered as a case of publicity by rebuttal. (The issue cropped up in Spivak’s discussion on R K Narayan’s The Guide. There is a Devadasi character in The Guide). Spivak summarizes Srinivasan’s arguments as follows. Spivak says, according to Srinivasan, the Devadasis were subjected to reformation “… a result of a collusion between colonial powers and nationalist reformists, supported by men of her (Devadasi) own community who stood to gain by her (Devadasi) fall” (262). Amrita Srinivasan puts forward an interesting observation. She points out that the Devadasi women were stripped of the artistic privileges and properties by the reformation law. (The abolition act saw to it that Devadasis cannot bequeath their properties to adopted successors). On the other hand, the Isai Vellalar i.e., the male counterparts got the custodianship of both the art and property. She also points out the role played by female missionaries and doctors in the “reformation”. The selective publication of ‘medical’ facts too strengthened the discourse against Devadasis. However Srinivasan’s statement that “In Tamil Nadu today, the art of Bharatanatyam is monopolised by Brahmins who clearly see themselves as having ‘rescued’ it from fallen ‘prostitutes’, the devadasi…..” (12) is untenable and the improbability of this will be demonstrated in the concluding section of this paper. Not just Srinivasan, Sriram also commits the same mistake while writing that the orthodox brahmins had an aversion towards Devadasis (13).

Mytheli Srinivas, in her “Creating Conjugal Subjects: Devadasi and the Politics of Marriage in Colonial Madras Presidency”, points out that the Reformation movement was a patriarchial project assisted by colonialism and misidentified notions of nationalism. She unveils certain interesting aspects on the role played by Muthulakshmi Reddy (that will be discussed in the section dedicated to Reddy). Kalpana Kannabiran in her “Judicial Social Reform and Debate on ‘Religious Prostitution’ in Colonial India”(1995) puts forward a similar view. She says: “The agendas of reform, the non-brahmin movement, the colonial judiciary and first wave feminism intersected to produce a hegemonic ideal of monogamous conjugality….” (68). Davesh Soneji’s “Siva’s Courtesans: Religion, Rhetoric and Self-representation in Early Twentieth -Century ” (2010) re-negotiates the colonial constructs by placing an autobiography of a Srilankan Rudrakanika, Anchukam as a representative piece of auto-ethnograhy. Soneji’s monograph, Unfinished Gestures: Devadasis, Memory and Modernity in South India too deals with the same subject.


Before going into the politics of ‘reformation’, it is essential to look into the role played by ‘reformers’ and the issues that nudged them to initiate this ‘reformation’.

As with any another social ‘reformation’ movements of that age, Devadasi Abolition movement too had the blessings of Gandhi. In Young India dated 29 August 1929, Gandhiji wrote that “The Devadasi system is a blot upon those who countenance it”. It would have died long ago but for it supineness of the public. Public conscience in the country remains dormant . . . Gandhi’s idea about sex and religion were strongly influenced by Christianity. It is no wonder that the man who asked his married followers to practice celibacy would have thought that the Devadasi system was abominable. Gandhiji was deeply influenced by Christianity, and his Christian zeal is not the one marketed by the missionaries but a far virulent infectious variety that was popularized by the kinds of Leo Tolstoy.

Hindu religious texts celebrate the idea of celibacy but do not look at sex with aversion. On the other hand, Gandhi considered sex to be one of the greatest sins. He did not support sexual intercourse even for procreation such was his mindset. Hence it is no wonder that he hated the Devadasi system that was rumored to be synonymous with sexual promiscuity during his days.  Swarnamalaya Ganesh in her “Disrespecting the Devadasis: What the MS Subbulakshmi Debate has Exposed” hits the nail with the following words:

“The reform agenda which sought to ‘rescue’ the Devadasis in the 20th century was motivated by the ruling class’s immediate need to give the Devadasi her ‘freedom’ to choose her life and occupation whether a victim or villain, she needed to be ‘liberated’ and granted a self-rule of sorts.

The campaign to provide freedom for the Devadasis was similar to Gandhi’s idea of Swaraj, where each one has to experience the self-rule not as an individual willing, or even as a collective willing, but as an individual allowing seizure of their will for his idea of freedom. Many Devadasis, even if individually did not will this ‘liberation’ were forced to allow it. They had to further enroll others of the sorority by speaking for it as a collective freedom, “even it personally eroded their social and economic position”.

Gandhi’s ideological aversion, towards the system, tempered by his Christian understanding of sex was one reason for his voice against the Devadasi system. There was another immediate cause, which we shall discuss soon. It is true  a few women who were exploited in the name of the Devadasi system shared their woes to Gandhi and requested him to look into the issue. But no doctor does an amputation to treat a scratch. The exploitation in the name of the system should have been dealt with, but there was no necessity to do away with the system itself.

The next important name that crops up in the discussion on Devadasi Abolition Movement is that of Dr Muthulakshmi Reddy. One can say that the success of the Devadasi Abolition Movement in the erstwhile Madras Presidency has been completely attributed to Dr Reddy. Gandhi just gave a political sanction. It was Reddy who vociferously fought for it and ensured that an efficient abolition.

Contemporary news accounts and textbooks point a rosy picture of Muthulakshmi Reddy. Her voices against the practice carried enormous weight as she herself belonged to was born in a Devadasi family. However, when one carefully evaluates her writings, a different picture is obtained. Her writings betray the fact that she was not independent thinking reformer but a misinformed ignorant colonial subject, conditioned by the missionary propaganda with a morbid hatred towards her own people.

Reddy says, “. . . we have to look at sexual promiscuity as an antisocial act, a sin and a crime”. Sexual promiscuity is not morally acceptable. But calling it as an anti-social act shows her outreach.  She attacks the Devadasi system with the vigour obtained through such emotions. Her indignation against the Devadasi system was rooted in the misunderstanding of the system as prostitution and the aversion towards it. The colonial government was successful in creating a subject who would hate her own society.

Muthulakshmi Reddy was misinformed to the core in anything and everything connected with the Devadasi system. She condemns the Agamas that talk of Devadasis and Rudra Kanika. She says, “. . . in other parts of India as in Travancore, British Malabar, Central Provinces, Bengal and Punjab have not paid attention to these sacred books” (82). Reddy was blissfully unaware of the vibrant presence of Devadasi in  Travancore until the system was abolished by Rani Sethulakshmi Bai in the first half of the twentieth century (Sethulakshmi Bai’s actions will be discussed in another part of this article). There were Devadasis in Puri too.  She used to repeatedly proclaim that the Princely State of Mysore was very successful in abolishing Devadasi system. Her argument was that if a Hindu princely state can do it, why not Madras Presidency that comes under the Christian colonizers could do it? She once again ignored the background of abolition in the Mysore state (This will be also discussed in another part of this paper along with the Travancore issue).

In a book entitled Son of Mother India Answers (1929), Dhan Gopal Mukerji, quotes from Forward Dec 30,1927: “Mrs Reddi, a leading Hindu feminist, adds further that though the country is ripe for reforms the government, though Christian, yet does not help them”(113). Here, the words ‘though Christian’ is of paramount importance. Muthulakshmi Reddy unconsciously connects reformation with Christianity. This shows us to the extent to which the Christian condemnation of the heathen ideology has penetrated her thinking process. It is really a sonnet that a “Hindu feminist” attempts to persuade the government to abolish a Hindu practice by appealing to their Christian values. Or perhaps she thought that it was a fundamental duty of the Christian government to put an end to all heathen practices.

Mythili Srinivas in her “Creating Conjugal Subjects: Devadasi and Politics of Marriage in Colonial Madras Presidency” points out the less desirable aspects of Reddy’s activism. She worked in tandem with Sengunthar Mahajana Sangam and Kalavantalu Reformation Association. These organisations claimed to represent the interests of men belonging to the Devadasi community. This association and collaboration are interesting as Reddy had repeatedly asserted that Devadasis were not a cast group perse and girls from all communities are turned into Devadasis. Men belonging to the aforementioned associations thanked her for helping them subjugate their womenfolk. They thanked her for bringing in the Devadasi A System Abolishment Act as the act helped them to marry off their minor girls. Mythili Srinivas says that the Reddy’s act effectively prevented Devadasi women from holding and inheriting property. Devadasi women were prevented from bequeathing their property to their Devadasi successor. Instead Reddy ensured that all the property rights were transferred to the men of the community. She effectively destroyed the economic freedom of the Devadasi women and pushed them to survive at the mercy of their menfolk. Empowerment was there through the Devadasi Abolition Act. But it was the men who got empowered, not the women. Swarnamalaya Ganesh rightly points out, “People like Dr Muthulakshmi Reddy, who was the principal mover of the Devadasi Prohibition Bill, set aside the voice of Devadasis, believing their women lacked the power to reason and inflicting harm upon themselves”.

Another name that is very strongly associated with the Devadasi Movement is Moovalur Ramamritham. She was also born in a Devadasi household. Her aggression against the Devadasi system can be better understood in the light of her commitment to Anti-Brahmanism and Dravidian ideology. Her “Dasekalin Mosavalai” warns about the dangers of associating with prostitution. In the very first chapter of her book, she says that the protagonist was introduced to the evil practice of visiting brothels by his Brahmin friends. This is an illustration for how she connects Brahminism and Devadasi system. She is one among the vociferous activists from the Anti-Brahmin Movement. There were many others like her. The anti-Brahmin organisations considered that the temples were central to the survival of Brahmin hegemony. They were also aware of the indisputable bitter fact that Brahmins derived their ritual superiority from Hindu scriptures. So at one point what started as a movement for rights in government employment in par with Brahmins turned into a virulent Anti-Hindu Movement. The devolution of E.V. Ramaswamy from a rights activist to a Brahmin-hater and finally to an atheist is an example for this trend.

The priests in the temple belonged to a few separate sects of Brahmins and they were far removed from secular employment. But the anti-Brahmin activities did not care for such subtle differences as they were fueled by hatred and at times their arguments went dangerously near the proclamation form a genocide.

The Dravidian leaders were hyper-critical about everything associated with temples as temples were connected to Brahmins. Hence it is natural that they were hell-bent an abolishing Devadasi system.

The following lines are from the Revolt dated 17 April 1972. “The dedication of girls to temples has attracted bigger crowds to these places . . . we like to refer to Gandhiji’s criticism of Hindu Temples as homes of prostitutes”. These lines reflect their animosity against the temples. In their perverse imagination, all the Hindu Temples ran brothels. They also promulgated a lie that the Brahmins supported the Devadasi system to turn beautiful girls from non-Brahmin communities into prostitutes. This is another fanciful bit of imagination or a willing lie as it was a well-known fact that girls/women from a number of communities including Brahmins entered the Devadasi system. Abbe J.A. Dubois, Muthulakshmi Reddy and many other attest this fact.

Well, but in spite of all these propaganda tactics, the anti-Brahmin couture often unwittingly published the truths that they wished to hide. Consider these lines published in the Revolt, a mouthpiece of the anti-Brahmin movement in an article on age of consent for marriage: “The Devadasi can say nay to unwelcome solicitations. The wife cannot” (Revolt, 26 December 1928). The magazine inadvertently recorded the autonomy enjoyed by Devadasi. But such acknowledgements were accidental slips of the pen.


As it was stated earlier, there was another immediate cause that jump-started the Devadasi Reformation Movement. It was a book entitled Mother India (1927) written by Katherine Mayo. The central argument of the book that Indian civilization and Indians were unfit for self-rule as the Indians were promiscuous. Although Gandhi dismissed this book as a “report of a drain inspector sent out with one purpose of opening and examining the drains of the country to be reported upon’, the book triggered “reformation”. In fact, Gandhi had condemned the book as a drain inspector’s report, but never denied the existence of the drain. How could he do that as his view of the Indian society was not much different from that of Mayo?; the only difference was in the choice of words to express it and tone that was used to express that. Both Mayo and Gandhi were observed with the idea of sexual weakness. One should remember that Mayo’s (1867-1910) thoughts were shaped by her adherence protestant Christianity and white supremacy. As stated earlier Gandhi was not immune to the charms and influences of Protestant Christianity.

Mother India had put Indians in denial mode. Dhan Gopal Mukerjee’s A Son of Mother India Answers (1927) saw eighteen prints within a year. As quoted earlier Mukherjee did not deny Mayo’s charges on the Devadasi system. Instead, his defence was that the colonial government did not help reformers like Muthulakshmi Reddy.

The native intellectuals and politicians never thought of questioning the colonial assumption. Instead, the tried to “reform” themselves.

Henry H. Field acknowledges this fact in his After Mother India. He says that the ‘public opinion’ was influenced by the book. There were eleven volumes in this series explaining the developments in India after the publication of Mother India.

Mayo did not stop her mischief with Mother India. She published two more sequels/versions namely Slaves of God (1929) and The Face of Mother India (1935).

Slaves of God (1929) was a collection of essays that threw light on the “decadent” socio-religious systems in India and one among them, from which the book got its title ,”Slaves of God” was  about the Devadasi system. The article begins with a quote from J.G. Frazer’s The Golden Bough that equates Devadasis to harlots. The article is a ‘real-life narrative’ that says how an innocent girl Lakshmi is rescued from the Devadasi system by an English woman as Lakshmi had “claimed . . . help in the name of Jesus Christ, my lord” (134). This is a recurrent motif in most of the European writings about Devadasi. There are two other interesting facts too. The book opens with a letter by Bishop Henry Whitehead to Mayo in which he opines that the immorality of Indians lies in the fact that they are heathens. Interestingly the book’s inner flap has a quotation of J. Krishnamurthi in which he condemns certain dark aspects of Indian heritage, that has to be removed.

In The Face of Mother India, Mayo says, “Rich Hindu Rajahs sent in their unwanted daughters to supply its corps (that of Somnath Temple) of 500 Devadasis – resident prostitutes, ‘wives of the gods’ kept for Brahmin priests and for favoured visitors” (5). These lines can be considered as  another example of the perverted imagination of the western Christian mind. Such perversions were passed around like pieces of scholarly writing. Sons and daughters of Macaulay did not hesitate even for a second before accepting them. They were anglophiles to such an extent that they chose  perverted narration by westerners over the actual truth. With such a conditioning, it is no wonder that they worked hard to abolish the Devadasi system. The Dravidian ideologists wanted to put an end to anything and everything connected with Brahmins. They, out of either ignorance of malevolent ingenuity, chose to believe these accounts. They equated the Devadasi system with a brothel run by Brahmins for Brahmins. With such fuelled with hatred derived from such notions, they too lobbied to abolish the Devadasi system.


Still now, the focus of this paper was on the abolition of Devadasi system in Madras Presidency. However, it is essential to digress and look into parallel movements that took place in Travancore and Mysore. Further it is essential to have a look at the system that was vogue in the Tamil regions of Sri Lanka

Let us begin with Mysore. Muthulakshmi Reddy had often quoted the success of Mysore government in abolishing the Devadasi system.  Her refrain was if Mysore which is a Hindu kingdom can abolish the Devadasi system, then why Madras Presidency that is ruled by the Crown, cannot do the same. It is true that Mysore had successfully put an end to Devadasi system before such ‘reforms’ took place in Madras Presidency. However, the abolition in Mysore was not done as with social reformation in mind. Janaki Nayar’s “The Devadasi, Dharma and the State” (Published in Economic and Political Weekly Vol. 29, No. 50, 10 December 1994) deals with this issue.

The problem started in 1892. The then Mazrai (akin to Hindu Religious and Charitable Endowments) department secretary A. Srinivasacharlu was requested to pay Rs.12 to one Ramamani, a Devadasi at Boger Nandhi temple for her services during the Temple Car Festival. The secretary whose task was to reduce the temple expenses as much as possible considered this amount as an extravaganza. So he wrote an opinion that instead of paying the Devadasi, the amount can be used for expenses related to sanitation. Soon there were numerous such recommendations. Further, the officials thought that if the lands that are allotted to the Devadasis could be retrieved, then that could increase the income of the temples. The only legal way to do that is to discontinue the Devadasi system. Hence they began to move in that direction.

There were oppositions from the Devadasi and devotees against this. Hence opinion of the experts in agama was sought twice, 1906 and 1907. In both the cases, the experts unequivocally state that the service of Devadasi in temples was mandated by the agamas. However, in 1906, the experts stated that the Devadasis are supposed to live a life of celibate and according to the texts and that rule in flouted by the present members of the system. The 1907 opinion took a more lenient stance pointing out that in the Kali Yuga lapses on such issue are more or less unavoidable.

The government officials preferred to choose what was beneficial to them. Pointing out the violation of code and devolution of the system, by a government order in 1909, Devadasis were deprived of grants and properties. Thus the system was starved to death. The then king of Mysore Krishnaraja Wadiyar IV (1884 – 1946) was the one was appreciated as “Rajarishi” by Mahatma Gandhi and the colonial masters felt that Mysore was one of the best administered states in the world.  o it is no wonder that Wadiyar supported the move.

In Travancore, it was Queen Regent Sethu Lakshmi Bai. Manu S. Pillai in The Ivory Throne: Chronicles of the House of Travancore says: “The Maharani herself was something of a reformer who had adopted western codes regarding the ‘proper’ behaviour of women” (276). She was strongly influenced by the Victorian moral. Pillai says the background of abolition as follows:

It was not especially surprising, then, that in 1930 Sethu Lakshmi Bai during a visit to South Travancore baulked at the prospect of being received at a temple by the local Devadasis, who were now akin to prostitutes simply because their sexuality did not come with a marriage badge. She was vexed to an extent that she commanded on the spot that the system should go” (277).

Even though her predecessor had stopped the recruitment of new Devadasis, it was Sethu Lakshmi Bai who abolished the system completely. The decision was caused by aversion towards Devadasis. The aversion had its root in her affinity to Victorian morals.

Davesh Soneji’s “Siva’s Courtesans: Religion Rhetoric and Self Representation in Early Twentieth-Century” published in International Journal of Hindu Studies (2011) gives a detailed account of the system that existed in Sri Lanka by analyzing the autobiography of a Devadasi, Anchugam.

There were Devadasis and Rudra Ganikas in Sri Lankan temples. Anchugam was one among them and she had taken proper mantra Deeksha to be one.

Gandhi in his visit to Jaffna in 1927 spoke against the Devadasi system. As usual, he remarked, “. . . you are converting temples of God into dens of prostitution.

On the other hand, there was Arumuga Navalar who fiercely opposed the Devadasi system. His opposition was in response to the Protestant charges of immorality in Saivite temples. Navalar was a sort of puritan himself. He wanted to do away with the degraded Devadasi system, bursting of firecrackers in temple etc. He thought that these were too colourful and immoral.

Satires and Mock Epics like Kannaki Puranam (written by a Nattuvancer named Cuppaiyyan associated with American Missionary) that scandalized the Devadasi system also worked against the interests of Devadasis. Anchukam’s autobiography was an attempt to dispel the wrong notions of Gandhi and Navalar. However, she was no match to the reformers who were mesmerized by the Victorian morality.


A mode of  analysis that makes use of tools from theoretical disciplines such as New Historicism is essential to question the colonial historiography and the project of Orientalism. New Historicism is a perspective “…concerned  generally with the interaction …between State power and cultural forms and more specifically with those genres and practices where state and culture most visibly mege….” (Political Shakespeare 2). Using this tool, I would like to unmask the dicourse of reformation which was sponsored by the then colonial government and blessed by the missionaries. Now let me present four sources that are often ignored by academic researchers.

To begin with let us turn our attention to Siva Purana, one of the eighteen Puranas in the puranic canon of Hinduism. Indological scholars place this text in the Tenth Century. There is an episode in this text related to Devadasi. To be precise, there are scholars who believe that the description of the character suits more for a commercial sex worker than for a devadasi. The tale is present in the Deva-Leela Section, Shata-Rudra Samhitaa (Chapter 26). Mahananda who lived in Nandigram indulges in harlotry. However, she is a devotee of Shiva. Shiva appears as a wealthy merchant in front of her. He solicits him and after a few dramatic twists and turns, Shiva acknowledges her devotion and grants her salvation. One has to keep in mind that the text provides an inclusive option and that does not consider sex-workers as completely abominable beings. The text neither condones the choice nor justifies it. Harlotry is presented as a sinful, socially unacceptable act. However, the text suggests that even women who have chosen that can receive divine grace. This episode from Shiva Purana gives us a glimpse into the attitude pre-colonial Indian society about prostitutes. If they were not hostile towards prostitutes, then there is little chance that they would have seen Devadasis with aversion.

The second textual bit that I like the place before you is also connected to the Saiva lore. There is a sect of Saivas named Siddhantha Saivas, who are mostly found in Tamil Nadu and certain regions of Sri Lanka. Followers of Saiva Siddhantha are from a number of castes. I am going to provide you with images of a couple of pages from a text named Saiva Asoucha Paddhathi. This text deals with the customs and rituals connected with birth and death impurities. The text lists rules for Saivas belonging to various varnas. It is interesting to note that there is a separate section set aside for Rudrakanikas and Devadasis. The mythological origin and the classification of this class of women are listed in this text. The printed version is at-least hundred years old. Look at the image provided below Here it has been categorically stated that Rudra Kanikas are offspring of Shiva himself. In the next section, the text speaks in the voice of Shiva and states that Rudra Kanikas, Devadasis and a few others were created to serve Shiva himself.

At this point, it is to be noted that Saiva Siddhantha is the predominant sect of Hinduism in the Tamil speaking parts.When religious texts that are akin to smruthies acknowledge the divine origin of Devadasis, then it can be inferred without much pain that Devadasis were not considered as outcasts. I would like to provide you with yet another example. This time the text is a hagiography of Sheshadri Swami, an avadhudha. The text says that Sheshadri Swami blessed a Dasi by throwing a dry flower at her. As the result of this blessing, the woman was able to secure a liaison with a wealthy businessman.

What is more interesting than the action of the godman is the choice of the hagiographer. This book was published in the 1930s and both the author and the publisher were orthodox Brahmins. They had no inhibitions in mentioning such a miracle in the text. There are pieces of evidence even in the missionary writings about the enviable religious and literary scholarship of Devadasi. I would like to produce images from a book written by Amy Carmichael in 1905. Carmichael was a very active missionary in and around Tirunelveli in the last century.

In the previous one Carmichael grudgingly acknowledges the scholarship of Devadasis. In another piece of writing says how she had to ‘break’ a young Devadasi girl so that she would come out of the heathen way and accept Christianity. The word “break” betrays her actual agenda. The following lines are quoted by Soneji in her Unfinished Gestures:

“It so happened, that there were two children who had come down from Masulipatnam to Madras, whose father, a European surgeon, had died when they were young; leaving them property. But the mother, a Telugu woman, who had been a dancing girl, had brought them up in heathenism. After much legal delay, Mr. Tucker was appointed guardian to these children, a girl fourteen years old and a boy, thirteen . . . The girl was perfectly wild and ignorant and it was with difficulty she could be taught to use a spoon instead of her fingers, to sit on a chair instead of on the ground, or to wear European dress. Her notions of religion were of the most debasing character, and her mind was thoroughly imbued with the heathen superstitions she had learnt from her mother . . . Having passed through a preliminary process of breaking in, the character of this girl began rapidly to develop, and greatly to improve” ( quoted in Soneji 74).

Soneji rightly points out:

“At stake in these representations is the “character” of devadasis. As we see in this account, the wild and ignorant daughter of the dancing girl is transformed into an exemplary, civilized native. More than other natives, devada ̄sı ̄ s and their children, as representatives of “another kind” of morality, are subject to excessive and unusual forms of scrutiny, sympathy, and objectification”(75).

These evidences reveal us the fact that demonisation of Devadasi system and the subsequent abolition of the system was a very successful Colonial-Christian project.


(1)  Devadasi system, like any other systems, fell into a phase of devolution. But there was no need to abolish it. Left to itself ,at some point it would have regained its original glory and purpose.

(2) The colonial government looked at the system from the Victorian perspective and hence had aversion to it.

(3) The missionaries found out that Devadasi were their rivals like the Brahmins. The missionaries were no match for the polemics of Brahmins and Devadasis. They know that they could convert masses only if they do away with these two set of people. Hence they successfully demonized both the groups. The abolition of the Devadasi system was a feather in their cap. Writings of Arch Bishop of Canterbury, Mayo and Amy Carmichael are testaments of this agenda.

(4) The anti-Brahmin group readily jumped into the wagon as they thought this would affect Brahmins.

(5) A number of leaders like Gandhi and Reddy were misinformed by the system and their indignation against the system was tempered by the Victorian view of sexuality.

(6) The male members of the Devadasi family used the Devadasi abolishment as a chance to subdue their women folk and move the families from the matriarchal system to the patriarchal system.

(7) The rulers like Sethu Lakshmi Bai also acted on the impetus.

(8) Pieces of evidence provided from Shiva Purana, Agamic ritual manual and biography of Sheshadri Swamigal suggests that the Hindu population in general and the orthodox Brahmins, in particular, had no animosity or aversion against Devadasis. In fact, they were not judgmental even towards ordinary prostitutes.

(9) Hence the appropriation of Carnatic Music and Bharatanatyam by Brahmins from Devadasis is nothing but a myth.

(10) The appropriation or rather misappropriation for puritan purposes was done by people like Rukmani Devi Arundale who were Brahmins only by birth but ideologically theosophists or Victorians.

(11) The demonization of the Devadasi system is a classic example of how the accident constructs the orient. This illustrates the ‘Orientalism’ put forward by Edward Said, stereotyping, (in their case branding all Devadasis as prostitutes)is one of the ways in which the Orientalist project works.

(12) The participation of natives in the Devadasi Abolition is an example of Ideological State Apparatus in action.

(13) These words by Bill Ashcroft et al in Post Colonial Studies:The Key Concepts (Third Edition) (2013) summarizes the need for shift in focus while analysing the social movements of the yesteryears, especially when there connected with religion.

There has been no more dramatic shift in recent times in postcolonial studies than the growing awareness of the role religion has played in both the practices of colonization and the developments which have occurred since political independence in the postcolonial world. This takes many forms. First, there is a growing awareness of the complex role religion played in the history of imperialism, both directly through the impact of missions … and indirectly as religion acted to shape the responses of both colonizer and colonized. The religious practices of colonized peoples were often denigrated as mere superstition or openly attacked as heathenism, and so used to justify the so-called ‘civilizing mission’ (mission civilatrice) of the colonizer. This was particularly the case where these practices were not written down in forms (sacred texts), which Europeans could recognize. Even where their complexity and intellectual force was acknowledged (e.g. as in the case of cultures with written religious texts such as India), they were perceived to be decadent or decayed and in need of reform. So influential was this view that it even exerted force on the reformers sprung from within those cultures themselves in the colonial period; for example, Tilak and Vivekananda in India”(226)

Looking back, the abolition of Devadasi system is no reformation but just a Christian colonial project that was executed by naïve natives.

Works Consulted

Details of all the books/articles quoted and consulted are provided within the article itself. Titles of books are put in bold letters; titles of articles are put in double quotes.

Writer’s Note :

This is the complete version of the short communication published a couple of months ago in the same journal. The earlier version was written in a hurry and it did not do any justice to the scholarly reputation of the journal. Hence I submitted an enlarged version running to some 6000 words. This time I have focused on both the text and the context.

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1 comment

nunmai January 15, 2021 - 2:10 am

An utterly foolish way to support the devadasi cult., which is nothing but a distortion of fact and misapporopriation of the female body by the vested interests in the name of god. you can quote any number of scriptures saivaite and other religious sect to justify even the most sinfuil acts tha IS ABHORBED BY the civilized society abhors.. i have nothing more to add except to repeat what dr MUthulakashmi reddy sid :” If it is so good why not every body take part in it? why not those castes who are virtually identified with thae temples and gods ? yes Imean the brahamins who cried that hindu culture will die if devadasi cult goes. Nothing like that has happened now.

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