Natalie Savelyeva

Tiruttani Temple Dancers by Saskia C. Kersenboom

The Term Devadasi means literally "slave of god". This translation led by early Christian missionaries to compare her to the Christian nun (the "bride of Christ"). Since the Devadasi was allowed to choose a patron after her dedication and to bear children, this comparison proved to be misleading and even harmful to the Hindu tradition. For the Devadasi was neither a vestal or ascetic nun, nor their opposite a public woman or sacred harlot. Her function and identity was a third possibility away from the above mentioned binary choice: she was primary a ritual specialist whose professional qualifications ware rooted in her quality of auspiciousness; her powers were believed to bring good luck and to ward off evil.

On Sunday 19 January 1986 Arm. Ranganayaki, a temple dancer or devadasi of the Sri Subrahmanyasvami Temple in Tiruttani prepared a wadding necklace (tali) for me in her prayer (or puja) room. She tied the necklace, blessed me, and pronounced me the successor of her family line. She then gave me a manuscript written by her grandmother. Smt. Subburatnamma (I871-1950). Smt. Subburatnamma had served he a devadasi in the same Sri Subrahmanyasvami Temple in Tiruttani. In that manuscript, she had noted down her entire repertoire of songs and dances as performed within the context of temple ritual (archana), riles of passage (samskara), and concert practice. In this way. I became the heir to a devadasi family tradition that goes back four generations.

Smt. Cinniyamma -> Smt. Subburatnamma (1871-1950) -> Sri Sabhapati Naidu - Smt. Dhanammal (1891 1970) -> Smt. P. Ranganayaki +6 sisters (1914)

Smt. R Ranganayaki was trained by her grand mot her. Smt. Subburatnamma. In 1931 she was dedicated to the Sri Subrahmanyasvami Temple as a devadasi in the rite called "branding". Her tali was tied by her grand-mother's sister, Smt. Jayaratnamma. This practice of dedicating women to temples, images and religious objects became illegal with the Devadasi Act of 26 November 1917.

What did it mean, in traditional terms, to succeed in a line (parampara) of generations of devadasis? Who were the devadasis? What was their function wit lull l he accepted practice of Hinduism and its meaning? How was succession validated?

The Devadasi Community

The term devadasi is frequently misunderstood, The misuse of the term and the social stigma that became all ached to it have caused many representations. One of the most basic errors is the reference to devadasi and her family as member of the 'devadasi caste'. According to several devadasi informants, there is a devadasi "life" (vritti). and a devadasi "order" or traditional right (murai, Tamil), but not a devadasi 'caste' (jathi). It seems probable that the right to become a devadasi was hereditary, although not exclusively so since girls could by adopted and made eligible for the position. However, whether this right was exercised or not depended on many factors: the explicit wish of her parents, the behavior of the girl hi question, and the consent of the relevant authorities. There was a ease in Tiruttani, for example, of a girl who was refused admission to the devadasi initiation ceremony in spite of the feet that she was well (rained in sung and dance, beautiful to look at, and of a good personal reputation. The authorities justified their decision on I lie grounds that her mother had gone astray before obtaining admission to the initiation ceremony. Her family was therefore no longer considered respectable and hence was unfit to offer a. daughter to the temple. This unfortunate girl finally obtained permission to be dedicated to a shrine in Kanchipuram where the rules of ritual purity were less strictly observed.

The Function of the Devadasi

In Tiruttani, she right to be dedicated to the temple was attributed to nine families. The members of these nine families were given nine houses in Mele (Upper) Tiruttani, a small settle men I behind the temple inhabited by the families of devadasis and temple priests (gurukkal, Tamil). The nine houses corresponded to a cycle of nine years. Each year, one house was responsible for the most characteristic task of the devadasi. the obligatory performance of waving the pot-lamp (kumbhadipa) in front of the god (kumbharati). This task rotated among the nine families. Smt P. Ranganayaki belonged to the fifth house and thus to the fifth yeas in the cycle of attendance. During a year of service, the house had to be kept in a ritually pure state (matt, Telugu). Any individuals who were ritually unclean had to stay elsewhere during their period of impurity (saliva and blood are highly polluting substances in the ritual sphere. Birth, menstruation and death should therefore be isolated from ritually clean places, objects and persons). These restrictions notwithstanding the house responsible had had to provide a devadasi for the daily performance of waving the pot-lamp.

According to data gathered among devadasis during the period 1977-83, the task of waving the pot-lamp in front of a god, goddess, king or patron, was the most characteristic feature of the position of devadasi. Although European sources (both travelogues and missionary reports) usually depict devadasis as 'sacred courtesans' who excel in the various performing arts (including the art of love}, none of these artistic skills received much attention in the last decades of this age-old tradition. Few devadasis who had served in temples before 1147 could remember more than a handful of songs. However, they all remembered clearly the task of waving the pot-lamp during daily rituals and at the conclusion of a procession. For them, being a devadasi was synonymous with waving the pot-lamp. Why?

In the ritual art ion of waving the pot-lamp, we are confronted with a complex weave of symbols. The aim of the anion is to ward off the jealous 'evil eye' (dristi, literally 'glance') that may have been cast on the object of worship. The method is a triple dock-wise rotation, concluded by a sweeping gesture from the head of the image to its foot. These movements are performed with implements that considered to be powerful antidotes to the vicious energy of the evil eye. First and foremost among them are lamp (dipa), of which the pot-lamp is held to be the most effective. In addition, the same movements may be performed with plates (tattu, Tamil) containing substances believed to absorb or counteract evil influences; substances such as solutions of charcoal powder, red kumkum powder, yellow turmeric powder, or lemons.

This rite should be understood as arising from a notion of the divine as eternally ambivalent and omnipresent, one that expresses itself incessantly in the dynamic tension of creation and destruction, of balance and imbalance, of this auspicious and the inauspicious. In earliest period of indigenous South Indian literature available to us, we find this divine force referred to as ananku (Tamil), a term that suggests an awe-inspiring, fear-provoking and oppressive power.8 In later times, we are confronted with complementary oppositions such as 'auspicious-inauspicious', 'heating-cooling', 'pure-impure', augmentation and merit (punya) versus the jealous evil eye that consumers everything. The ambivalent tension of thy divine has evidently been-felt throughout human history; although an exact pattern of dynamic change could not lit; constructed, the diagnostic features of the two basic forces were distinguished and the attempt was made to regulate their cause and effect for the benefit (subham) of mankind.

The opposition in question is that between the dynamic, creative principle associated with the goddess, and the more abstract, quiescent principle associated with the god. The dynamic principle can be both obstructive and protective. An excess of dynamism destroys: properly harmonized, however, it creates, not nourishes and protects. A method was deviled for controlling this dynamism from within: the creation of a female ritualist whose power (sakti) could be ritually merged with that of the great, goddess (Sakti). As we shall see, the devadasi was such a ritualist. Her waving of the pot-lamp was doubly effective: both her person and the implement of the pot (kumbha) were synonymous with the goddess. Only in this way-con Id the removal of the evil eye be ensured.

Becoming Devadasi

The transformation of an ordinary girl into a devadasi is marked by three important rites:

  1. Initiation (gajjai puja, literally 'worship of the ankle-bells' worn by the dancer, gajjai, Tamil). This rite concludes the dance training.
  2. Marriage (kalyanam). With this rite, the female power (sakti) of the devadasi becomes merged with the gods sakti, that is, with the goddess (Sakti). In the case of Smt. P. Ranganayaki, this meant a full-scale wedding ceremony with the spear (vel, Tamil) representing the sakti of Sri Subrahmanyasvami. Consequently, her marriage partner is not a part of the god standing for the whole but a manifestation of the goddess.
  3. Dedication (literally, branding). This ceremony concludes the first concert given by the girl before the main deity in the temple. On this occasion, she is branded with the sign of the trident (trisula) on her right upper arm. This painful procedure was considered both an ordeal and an ultimate test of the girl's purity; if the application were granted to an undeserving girl, then she would suffer severely from a wound that refused to heat. After the branding, the newly-ordained devadasi performs the ritual waving of the pot-lamp for the first time for her husband and patron, Sri Subrahmanyasvami.

After this triple validation, the girl is considered 'an ever-auspicious woman (nityasumangali). This term needs further elucidation.

The traditional view holds that all women, by their very nature, share in the power of the goddess. In the imagined continuum of auspiciousness (mangalam), individual women are placed at one end of the scale or the other according to their status. At the top is the married woman whose husband is alive and who has borne several children: she is called 'auspicious worn an' (sumangali). At. the bottom of the scale is the widow for she is considered highly inauspicious. In ritual terms, however, the devadasi exceeds even the sumangali in auspiciousness. Two reasons are given for this. First, her individual female powers are merged with those of the goddess Second, she is dedicated to a divine husband who can never die-Since she can never lose her (double) auspiciousness, she is called 'ever auspicious' (nityasumangali).

Devadasi Tradition

The quality of "eternal auspiciousness" that characterizes the devadasi is the key to both her tradition (sampradaya) and all that that implies: ritual objects, implements, jewellery, costumes, make-up. ritual actions, and the ritual repertoire of songs and dances.

As indicated above, human beings sought to construct a pattern of dynamic change as well as to manipulate it for their own benefit. This was attempted in various ways: by regular communication with the divine through traditional (agamic) temple worship; by occasional propitiation, as in village sacrifices; by giving nourishment to the living proofs of prosperity and vitality in the form of service to the king: and by the ubiquitous preventive, propitiating and purifying measures taken at every step in daily life as well as during important events. The traditional expertise of the devadasi covered all these spheres of divine influence- the personal, especially during rites of passage; the political, through attendance on the king; and the purely ritual, in the performance of temple worship, In fact, none of these spheres of contact with the divine can be called exclusively-social, political or ritual. For the element of manipulating and influencing the divine energies that they all share is strongly reminiscent of the activities of the medieval alchemist. Song and dance are primarily instruments to this end; the aesthetic quality and effect comes second.

Before giving example of compositions that operate in these three different spheres the personal, the political and the ritual - it is useful to analyze the character of ritual attendance- Bearing in mind the risks of oversimplification, I should like to suggest two basic categories:

  1. the purely ritual, i.e. instrumental in:
    1. establishing/maintaining the auspicious
    2. warding off/destroying the inauspicious
  2. the devotional ritual i.e. fostering the mood of devotion (bhakti) by:
    1. recreating the divine story
    2. service (comfort, entertainment)

The traditional repertoire of the devadasis provides songs and dances for both categories and for their subdivisions. The richest offering is to be found in the temple repertoire which includes compositions to serve all these aims. The kings court requires inure artistic sophistication and entertainment than is usually found in the temple. In the privat, social sphere, however, the emphasis is on the removal of, or protection against, the evil eye.

Temple Ritual

As indicated above, it is in the temple that the devadasi repertoire – is displayed m us full scope. Both the daily ritual and the festival ritual feature a variety of compositions.

The daily ritual

In the days when Smt. P Ranganayaki was an active devadasi, regular attendance began at 11.00 a.m. with the singing of praise–poems (stotra) for several gods and goddesses residing in the temple grounds An alternative name tor these compositions is sobhana (copanam, Tamil), meaning "happy event, auspiciousness, congratulations". These fall into the category of ritual songs intended to establish or maintain the auspicious state of the divine.

The next ritual attendance (puja) which required devadasi participation was that of twilight worship held at sunset. The "junction" of 6.00 p.m. is considered extremely dangerous and so, as day slip away into night, the gods need all the support and attendance mankind ran give (this ritual of twilight – sandhi, literally, "junction"– worship was termed "cayaratcai" or "protection against the decrease of brightness", Tamil). The ritual waving of the pot–lamp by a devadasi was considered the most effective method of warding off an inauspicious state of divine. During the year in which the fifth house was responsible for the waving of the pot–lamp, Smt. P. Ranganayaki would observe the rules of ritual purity very strictly. At such times, she would wear the long nine–yard sari fastened in the brahmin style {matisar, Telugu). She would arrange her hair in a loose knot, put 'in auspicious round red powder mark (kumkumanpottu, Tamil) and sacred ash (vibhuti) on her forehead, and wear a necklace of black beads. .She would then embark on the ritual programme for the puja, given here in full:

  1. A composite offering of song, dance, (imaginary) flowers, and the waving of the pot–lamp at the main shrine of Sri Subrahmanyasvami (swamipushpanjali):
    • pure dance (nritta);
    • a verse accompanying the offering of imaginary flowers (pushpanjalisloka);
    • danced mime (nritta, nritya);
    • an auspicious verse (mangalam);
    • a laudatory verse (sobhana);
    • cooling the image by waving a fly–whisk (camara);
    • an auspicious verse acclaiming victory {svamijayamangalam), accompanied by the waving of lamps on plates (tattudipa, Tamil and Sanskrit).
  2. A verse accompanying the offering of imaginary flowers and an auspicious verse for Sri Apatsakaya Vinayaka (vinayakapushpanjali)
  3. As 2, for Sri Devasena (devasenapushpanjali).
  4. As 2, for Sri Valliyamma (valliyammapushpanjali).
  5. An auspicious verse for the small processional image of Sri Subrahmanyasvami (cinnotsavamurtimangalam).
  6. An auspicious verse for the large processional image of Sri Subrahmanyasvami (peddotsavamurtimangalam) .

    This concludes the sunset ritual.

At 9.00 p.m., the rituals of the early evening hour (ardhayama) and the daily procession (nityotsava) were performed, Devadasi played their part in the dairy procession of a small image of Sri Subrahmanyasvami by accompanying the processional group and singing, devotional songs, (such as 'daily songs', praharilu, Telugu), or simple songs about the Lord in order to foster the mood of devotion.

Around 10.00 p.m., the divine pair would be sealed on a swinging the bedroom. Here the devadasi took part in the 'service in the bedroom' (palliyarai seva, Tamil, Sanskrit) by singing lullabies (lali, Tamil etc.) and swing songs (uncai. Tamil), while the pries is offered a tasty evening snack and rocked God and goddess to sleep.

The god Sri Subrahmanyasvami, alias Murugan, is believed to have married two wives: Sri Devasena and Sri Valliyamma. In South India, Sri Valliyamma is the clear favorite: her festivals are celebrated with much more pump and gusto then those of her co–wife. However, the existence of two wives causes problems. In order to avoid confusion regarding whose turn it is to spend the night with the lord, the priests in Tiruttani have arrived at a practical solution. The bedroom images (murti) are kept in a little shrine in the inner or first circuit (prakara) behind the inner sanctum (or "womb house", garbhagriha). The two ladies flanking the god are each given a wooden rod. The goddess who can look forward to the company of her lord is allowed to stand free while the other is barred by both rods. Each night this arrangement is adjusted by the priests.

The devadasis concluded their attendance for the day by singing an auspicious song to ensure that all was safe until the following morning.

The Festival ritual

We have seen how the categories of establishing auspiciousness (mangalam), warding off inauspiciousness (amangalam, dristi), creating the mood of devotion (bhakti), and offering service (seva) in the form of comfort were expressed in the repertoire of songs and dances performed by the devadasi in the course of the daily ritual. The categories of "recreating the divine story: and "entertainment" seem to be more pronounced in the programmes of festival worship.

The most characteristic feature of festival worship it the procession (pradaksina) of the god, the goddess, or both. Such a procession is part of a larger unit called a "festival" (utsava). A festival may last as little as a few hours or as long as twenty–seven days. The power of the god or goddess, the local version of the divine story, and the time of the year are important criteria for determining the length, elaboration, mood and sophistication of a festival.

Examples of the story–telling part of a festival are the small dance–drama (Kaman kuttu, Tamil), and the quarrel–dialogue between the god and his first wife, both found in the manuscript of Smt. Subburatnamma and taught to me by Smt. P. Ranganayaki.

In the dance drama, performed on the sixth day of the great festival (Brahmotsava) held in January or February (maci macam, Tamil), Sri Subrahmanyasvami is depicted as Kaman, the god of love. First, a devadasi appears dressed as Kaman. complete with bow and arrows (here in the shape of a fruit). Naturally, the god of love tries to lure young girls into his game; so, after an introductory verse announcing the arrival of some beautiful girls (also played by devadasi), a dialogue ensues between the god and the girls. The latter complain about his treacherous behavior while Kaman expresses his longing for love This dialogue is conveyed in mime to the accompaniment of a (Telugu) text sung by the devadasis. The merriment increases with the throwing of turmeric water.

The ninth day of the same festival featured the wedding of Sri Subrahmanyasvami and his second wife, Sri Valliyamma. On that day, the devadasis were busy from morning till evening recreating the divine love story: the abduction of Sri Valli, the wedding, the quarrel between the god and his first wife. Sri Devasena. and their reconciliation. Serving as brides maids, the devadasis carried the wedding presents and sang swine songs and wedding songs (nalanku, Tamil) in the wedding pavilion (kalyanamandapa). To conclude the festivities, they performed a grand, purificatory waving of lamps (including the powerful pot–lamp) in order to absorb and counteract the cumulative effects of the evil eye accrued dining the long day.

An interesting moment during this festival day occurs around 6.00 p.m. when Sri Subrahmanyasvami returns with his new wife to the temple only to rind the door of the shrine of Sri Devasena locked. The goddess is furious with her husband for his unpardonable behavior. She seems determined not to see him again. Lord Subrahmanyasvami begs her understanding and forgiveness. Their spicy quarrel was impersonated by devadasis singing along the following lines (in Telugu):

  • S: "Quickly open 'be door, dear Devasena!"
  • D: "Go away! Do not come here publicly!"
  • S: "I have come to your street full of love. Devasena!"
  • D: "Tender love and sweet repentance do not affect me! Go! Go!"
  • S: "Are you without softness? Please, Devasena! Please!"
  • D: "Go! Go away! Don't speak loud words!"
  • S: "I am your beloved Lord of Tiruttani, dear Devasena!"
  • D: "Let us be happy! Come, O Cenkalvaraya!"

On these words, the door is opened from the inside: and peace: is restored.

Apart from these devotional compositions portraying episodes from the god's life, entertainment was offered on specific occasions, such as when the god was seared in a pavilion and treated like a king, or when he was placed on a raft (plava) and floated on the temple tank. Such entertainment might consist of a full–scale dance concert, the sounding of all musical in instruments and the performance of several types of vocal compositions (sarvacadyam), or the performance of group dance compositions to popular songs, with or without sticks.

In addition to devotional songs and dances characterized by their topical and entertainment value, the devadasi also sang purely ritual songs such as "eight–verse" praise poems (astakam), heralding songs (curnikai, eccarikai, Tamil), and songs deter mined by the hour of the day (praharilu).

The Repertoire for the Royal Court

There was a direct link between attendance on the deity and attendance on the king. In Tiruttani. the palace of the king borders on temple territory. In the days when Smt. P. Ranganayaki was a devadasi, however, attendance on the king was limited to a few occasions each year: for example, during the Brahmotsava or great festival (see above); and during the festival for the goddess which lasts nine nights (Navaratri) and on the and on the concluding tenth day of which the goddess reveals her victorious form (Vijayadasami). On both occasions, devadasi used to perform a full–scale dance concert.

The regular suit for a classical dance concert (catir kacceri, Urdu) consisted of: introductory tuning and prayer (melaprapti, Tamil and Sanskrit); a warming up dance (alarippu, from the "alari" – flower, Tamil, an abstract dance composition intended as a greeting); choreographic dance patters based on musical noted (jathiswaram); a mythological anecdote in mime (sabdam, "word"); a composition combining intricate abstract choreographies and mimetic interpretation of a text (varnam, "color"); a love–song rendered in mime (padam, akin to the courtly love–song or "chanson de amour" of medieval France); an erotic song rendered in mime (javali, Telugu); and a grand finale in abstract dance choreography (tillana, "ending").

On the fifth day of the Brahmotsava, the concert was performed in the fourth circuit in front, of the palace. On Vijayadasami, a concert was performed in the palace of the king and accompanied by the purificatory 'waving of lamps' (diparadhana), on a grand scale. In other places such as Thanjavur where the court culture had received generous patronage and artistic attention. I his creative side of the traditional devadasi repertoire was developed to a far greater degree of sophistication. After 1947, this concert suite was furl her chiselled into what has become known as Bharatanatyam, a term previously unknown.

The Repertoire for Rites of Passage

Even in 1986, when I was last in Tiruttani. people came to the house of Smt. P. Ranganayaki to ask her to remove the evil eye from a family member who was either temporarily con fused or suffering from headaches. When I returned from a long walk through the village, she thought it best to remove the evil eye from me: as well. This demonstrates that not all trust and belief in, nor respect for. the power of the devadasi have vanished.

In the days of her grandmother, Smt. Subburatnammal devadasi were invited to small and grand social functions for reasons of both prestige: and safely. The smaller functions are exemplified by the rites of passage (samskara), such as the name–giving ceremony or the ear– and nose–piercing ceremonies. On these occasions, devadasi sang auspicious songs and performed the ritual waving of tamps. An example of a grand social function is the wedding ceremony. In her day, Smt. Subburatnammal used to prepare the wedding necklace for the bride, decorate her, and prepare the flower garlands and the welding pavilion. Accompanied by other devadasis she would sing auspicious and laudatory compositions as well as typical wedding songs, boat songs, and the swing songs. In addition to these more ritual songs, she composed many Tamil joke songs (cantakavitvam) such as "We have come from Bengal" (vankalam poyivarom), "Tippu Sahib from Triplicane" (tiruvallikeni tippusayapu), and songs that, mock the bridegroom such as "The brother–in-law from Thanjavur taluk" (tancavur talukka attan).

You spoke about the artistic brother–in–law from Thanjavur taluk. but when one comes to see for–oneself in Thanjavur, he only beats, a little drum, tra–la! You spoke about the: brother–in–law who is a policeman in Pondicherry, but once you get there, he is eating parched rice that he has picked up from the street, tra–la! You spoke about the brother–in–law in Mayuram who is a manager, but looking for oneself one discovers that he grazes cattle, tra–la!

In addition to such joke songs, marriages gave rise to rather obscene songs such as the request for a "cooked" or "ripe" woman (caminca potti, Tamil) in a rice–pounding song. Smt. P. Ranganayaki beamed with delight as she recalled her grand mother's composition!. All this laughter and obscenity served not only to create a jovial mood but also to ensure the exclusion of the ever–lurking evil eye, jealous of any happiness. This corresponds with the text which one can rind over the entrance of Tamil houses even today: 'Looking at me, laugh!' (ennai parkka ciri). To laugh means to break the tension of evil, jealous energy.

The ever–auspicious nature of the devadasi made her a welcome guest at marriages and at other important social functions which exposed the family members to an excess of public attention. Some very aristocratic and rich households even employed their own devadasi. Such a devadasi was called a manikkam (Tamil; usually translated "ritual servant"), in this role, she took care both of the auspicious state of the puja–room (by singing songs and decorating the altar and its gods) arid of the inauspicious evil eye that was believed to attach itself to family members returning home from outside. Nowadays, many of these functions have been taken over by secular family women (see sumangali. above); however, always with a slight feeling of danger.

Repertoire of Devadasis

The repertoire of the devadasi as it was practiced in the temples and during rites of passage has not been witnessed publicly since 1947, the year in which the Devadasi Act was passed. Even before the legal bail on devadasi ritual song, dance and action, the tradition had dwindled into a few almost symbolic steps, gestures and tunes. Among tile remnants of the traditional temple and social repertoire of devadasi in general, the Tiruttani example stands out as exceptionally rich and, among the devadasis, of the Tiruttani Sri Subrahmanyasvami Temple in particular, the heritage of Sri P. Ranganayaki is unique.

However, in all the samples of ritual devotional repertoire once performed by devadasis in Tamil Nadu it is clear that their art was marked by a minimal attempt to achieve aesthetic effect. The songs and dances are extremely straightforward and simple. It is clear that they were considered a ritual task, one which had to be performed for the sake of its occurrence and not for the sake of its artistic form. The ritual songs are set to a rhythm and tempo that sometimes resemble a military quick march. The dances make use of the idiom of the concert repertoire known today as Bharatanatyam (catir) but without either the rhythmical intricacies of its choreographic phrases or the sweep and flourish of the courtly tradition from which the modern dance form was derived.

The devadasis of Tiruttani performed these dances and songs without self–conscious pride. Their attitude towards the repertoire remains respectful but matter–of–fact. In the words of Smt. P. Ranganayaki:

"What is there? . . . It is all gone; it will never come back. . .

Nowadays, anyone can do any thing on the stage or in the film . . .

We were God–fearing. After we got our status as devadasi, we could decide for ourselves . . .

If some of us were deserted by men, we still had our profession which afforded us a living . . .

We had our own discipline!"


"Nityasumangali" by Saskia C. Kersenboom, New Delhi, 2004