Profaned dancing returns to the temple

IN ancient India, a devadasi - an unmarried female temple dancer - was accorded respect and property. She was versed in sacred Vedic texts, and she sang and danced with such beauty that it was believed to soothe the often surly Hindu gods.

Today, no devadasis can be found in India's temples - only in the Aids- infested brothels of Bombay, Madras and New Delhi. Soon after these young girls are consecrated in their village temples in the southern states as "servants of God", they are sold by crooked priests and powerful landowners into prostitution. Some social workers claim that in Karnataka state alone, more than 3,000 girls a year are forced by impoverished parents to become devadasis.

But one of India's most prominent classical dancers, Swapnasundari, is determined to bring the practice of devadasi out of ill-repute and back into the Hindu temples where it thrived for more than 1,500 years. In doing so, she has faced the wrath not only of Indian feminists - who view the devadasis as "degrading and shameful" - but also of puritans who are embarrassed by the earthy worship of Hinduism once displayed by the temple dancers.

"The devadasis were expected to perform erotic songs to put the deities in the mood for an evening's pleasure. The gods and their consorts were expected to make love during the night and some of the songs are quite romantic," said Swapnasundari. She is a graceful woman in her thirties who fits the classical dancer's description of having "eyes darting like fishes" and a "languorous gait".

One of the first laws passed when India gained independence in 1947 was to prohibit all activities by the devadasi communities which thrived around Hindu temples. It was a well-intended law, but some big temples had hundreds of devadasis who were suddenly left without a living. All this ban did, according to Swapnasundari, was "to distort religious customs beyond all limits. What has it done? The brothels in Bombay are still full of young girls dedicated as devadasis, and we're in danger of losing the art of religious dance.'' Hindus worship their millions of gods intimately, as if they were family relations with distinctly human moods, whims and passions. The devadasis are there to amuse the gods, cuddle them and even sing them to sleep with lullabies, she says. "The priests I've met have all said that without the devadasis, there's a blank in the ceremonies, a void." A controversy was stirred up recently at the Jagannath temple at Puri, one of Hinduism's most sacred sites, when the pundits [learned priests] tried to "invite" five women to become devadasis. After feminists and leftists denounced the Puri temple recruitment drive as "retrograde", the invitation was hastily withdrawn. But a 12- year ritual is coming up soon at the 800-year-old Puri temple, and no matter what the law books say, Lord Jagannath expects to have devadasis present. Puri has one devadasi left, 61-year-old Parasmani, but the Hindu priests will not let her enter the temple grounds because of her "immoral conduct". She refuses to teach any girls the devadasi tradition because the temple will only pay them 200 rupees (pounds 4) a month. "Naturally the system is dying, young girls see no future in this line," Parasmani said. For Swapnasundari, the answer is simple: restore the temple dancers' status and pay them better wages. To keep the devadasis from being coerced into prostitution, she suggests abolishing the ancient ban on having married women dance and sing in the temples.

According to Swapnasundari's research, the devadasi tradition fell into decline 150 years ago, when the feudal lords seized control of many Hindu temples and pounced on the comely virgins. "What difference should it make if a woman is already married, as long as she sticks to her own personal code of ritual and decorum? How can devotion be the preserve of virgins? That's nonsense," the dancer fumes.

Although she comes from an upper-caste and affluent brahmin family, Swapnasundari herself underwent a devadasi initiation known as the ankle-bell ceremony. The initiation took place at a Lord Vishnu temple which had been built 600 years ago by a wealthy devadasi. "The rituals and dance are very harmonious. I now feel much more comfortable dancing in a temple rather than on a stage." In classical Indian dance performances, she said: "We've transplanted the audience to where the deity used to be."

And were the original devadasi dances provocative? The Kama Sutra set to song? Swapnasundari shook her head. "The dances celebrate the intensity of love, but there's nothing crass or crude about them."

She added with a smile: "I was showing some old devadasis a copy of Cosmopolitan. They opened it up to an advert for underwear or something that had a half-naked couple kissing in the sand dunes. The devadasis were absolutely horrified."

Suggested Topics
Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
News
Sir David Attenborough
people
Life and Style
Young girl and bowl of cereal
food + drink
News
Comic miserablist Larry David in 'Curb Your Enthusiasm'
peopleDirector of new documentary Misery Loves Comedy reveals how he got them to open up
Arts and Entertainment
Henry VIII played by Damien Lewis
tvReview: Scheming queens-in-waiting, tangled lines of succession and men of lowly birth rising to power – sound familiar?
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooks
ebooksA year of political gossip, levity and intrigue from the sharpest pen in Westminster
Sport
football
Arts and Entertainment
'The Archers' has an audience of about five million
radioA growing number of listeners are voicing their discontent; so loudly that even the BBC's director-general seems worried
News
i100
Arts and Entertainment
Ready to open the Baftas, rockers Kasabian are also ‘great film fans’
musicExclusive: Rockers promise an explosive opening to the evening
Life and Style
David Bowie by Duffy
fashion
Arts and Entertainment
Hell, yeah: members of the 369th Infantry arrive back in New York
booksWorld War Z author Max Brooks honours WW1's Harlem Hellfighters in new graphic novel
News
advertisingVideo: The company that brought you the 'Bud' 'Weis' 'Er' frogs and 'Wasssssup' ads, has something up its sleeve for Sunday's big match
Arts and Entertainment
tv
News
i100
Environment
Dame Vivienne Westwood speaking at a fracking protest outside Parliament on Monday (AP)
environment
Life and Style
tech
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Tradewind Recruitment: English Teacher

Negotiable: Tradewind Recruitment: This post arises as a result of the need to...

Tradewind Recruitment: Class Teacher Required ASAP In Uminster

£120 - £150 per annum: Tradewind Recruitment: I am recruiting on instruction o...

Ashdown Group: Head of Finance - Financial Director - London - £70,000

£70000 per annum: Ashdown Group: Head of Finance - Financial Controller - Fina...

Ashdown Group: Marketing Executive - Wimbledon, SW London

£24000 - £28000 per annum + benefits: Ashdown Group: Marketing Executive - Wim...

Day In a Page

Isis hostage crisis: Militant group stands strong as its numerous enemies fail to find a common plan to defeat it

Isis stands strong as its numerous enemies fail to find a common plan to defeat it

The jihadis are being squeezed militarily and economically, but there is no sign of an implosion, says Patrick Cockburn
Virtual reality thrusts viewers into the frontline of global events - and puts film-goers at the heart of the action

Virtual reality: Seeing is believing

Virtual reality thrusts viewers into the frontline of global events - and puts film-goers at the heart of the action
Homeless Veterans appeal: MP says Coalition ‘not doing enough’

Homeless Veterans appeal

MP says Coalition ‘not doing enough’ to help
Larry David, Steve Coogan and other comedians share stories of depression in new documentary

Comedians share stories of depression

The director of the new documentary, Kevin Pollak, tells Jessica Barrett how he got them to talk
Has The Archers lost the plot with it's spicy storylines?

Has The Archers lost the plot?

A growing number of listeners are voicing their discontent over the rural soap's spicy storylines; so loudly that even the BBC's director-general seems worried, says Simon Kelner
English Heritage adds 14 post-war office buildings to its protected lists

14 office buildings added to protected lists

Christopher Beanland explores the underrated appeal of these palaces of pen-pushing
Human skull discovery in Israel proves humans lived side-by-side with Neanderthals

Human skull discovery in Israel proves humans lived side-by-side with Neanderthals

Scientists unearthed the cranial fragments from Manot Cave in West Galilee
World War Z author Max Brooks honours WW1's Harlem Hellfighters in new graphic novel

Max Brooks honours Harlem Hellfighters

The author talks about race, legacy and his Will Smith film option to Tim Walker
Why the league system no longer measures up

League system no longer measures up

Jon Coles, former head of standards at the Department of Education, used to be in charge of school performance rankings. He explains how he would reform the system
Valentine's Day cards: 5 best online card shops

Don't leave it to the petrol station: The best online card shops for Valentine's Day

Can't find a card you like on the high street? Try one of these sites for individual, personalised options, whatever your taste
Diego Costa: Devil in blue who upsets defences is a reminder of what Liverpool have lost

Devil in blue Costa is a reminder of what Liverpool have lost

The Reds are desperately missing Luis Suarez, says Ian Herbert
Ashley Giles: 'I'll watch England – but not as a fan'

Ashley Giles: 'I'll watch England – but not as a fan'

Former one-day coach says he will ‘observe’ their World Cup games – but ‘won’t be jumping up and down’
Greece elections: In times like these, the EU has far more dangerous adversaries than Syriza

Greece elections

In times like these, the EU has far more dangerous adversaries than Syriza, says Patrick Cockburn
Holocaust Memorial Day: Nazi victims remembered as spectre of prejudice reappears

Holocaust Memorial Day

Nazi victims remembered as spectre of prejudice reappears over Europe
Fortitude and the Arctic attraction: Our fascination with the last great wilderness

Magnetic north

The Arctic has always exerted a pull, from Greek myth to new thriller Fortitude. Gerard Gilbert considers what's behind our fascination with the last great wilderness