History of the Devadasi Tradition

The tradition of dedicating girls to Goddess Yellama dates back to the period of the Puranas, from the 6th century A.D. according to Anthropologists. But some of the earliest references to the system are found in some inscriptions on stone pillars and tablets, copper plates dating back to 1113 A.D. at Ahalli in Karnataka.

In the Raja Rajeshwara temple of Tanjavur, Tamil Nadu one can find inscriptions dating back to 1004 A.D. mentioning the presence of as many as 400 Devadasis. All over South India, engravings and inscriptions on stone, on walls of temples, on copper and silver plates, boulders and slabs dating back to the 10th-13th centuries A.D. The
cult of "Devadasi" began to flourish during Pallava and Chola dynasties in South India from the 6th to 13th Century A.D., and the rise of "sacred prostitutes" in India seems to have taken place in the ninth or tenth century A.D. have been found, which mention the devadasis and the offerings made by them to temples or to them by rulers of the period. "Historians have also traced and inscription from the Chebrolu of Krishna District in Andhra Pradesh dating back to 1139 A.D. The inscription records that some dancing girls were in services at the temple of Nageshvara right from the age of eight years old. The status of a temple was dependant on the number of Devadasis who were being maintained by it. The Devadasis were temple servers and entertainers, according to historians. They danced during religious festivals and temple functions. They were the custodians of art and culture and, during the period of 6th to 13th century AD, when the devadasis were accomplished and honorable women with considerable wealth and property, since their patrons were wealthy and powerful men or men of royal lineage.
The devadasi acted as a conduit for honour, divine acceptance and competitive reward at the same time that she invited ‘investment’, economic, political and emotional in the deity. In this way the competitive vanities of local patrons, their weakness for one-upmanship with their equals and rivals became inextricably linked with the temple institution. The efficacy of the devadasi as a woman and dancer began to converge with the efficacy of the temple as a living center of religious and social life – political, commercial and cultural.
‘Apparently the expansion of the temple system and the growth of the ‘bhakti’ movement brought into existence the class of temple dancing girls. The bhakti ideologies of self- surrender and devotion to service had a huge impact on the society. It had a huge bureaucracy at its command amongst which the temple girls or the sanis, who were employed in the service of God deserve special mention, since they formed significant officiating dignitaries. They were the most important ritual performers and no festive occasion was complete in the temple without the performance of the temple girls. Hence, the employment of these dancing girls became customary on the part of the devasthana (temple), which gradually institutionalized into a professional organization.’
Another theory traces the practice back to the fall of Buddhism, when the Buddhist shrines were taken over by Vaishnavites. According to this theory the Buddhist nuns or bhikkunis (mainly dalits or lower castes) were the ones who, either fled from the temples, were captured and killed or converted into devadasis. Devadasis were degraded Buddhist nuns.

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