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."