The Devadasi Institution

There was already mention of lasya-style dances in the Natyashastra, or the Drama Manual, compiled in the 2nd century AD. These dances are soft or “feminine” in style and combine abhinaya (mimetic storytelling) sequences with nrtta (pure dance) sequences. In Indian literature these dances are often related to mythical apsara nymphs, famous courtesans etc.

The votive dances, particularly in the southern parts of India, represent the lasya style and are therefore often called “temple dances” in the West. The performers in these votive dances, dedicated to the chief deity of the temple, were a special group of temple servants called devadasis.

Devadasis were female temple servants, who were given to the temple to be “married” to the deity of the temple. Thus devadasis became the god’s brides. They took care of several ritual duties, the most important duty being the votive dances. In return, the temples provided them with a house to live in and their daily livelihood. Some of the large South Indian temple complexes had hundreds of devadasis in their service.

The devadasi institution declined during the later part of the Middle Ages. The devadasis first provided the clergy with sexual services, and later many of them became public prostitutes. This led to the decline of their art as well as general contempt toward the devadasis, particularly by the British colonial authorities.

The revival of these “temple dances” started in the early 20th century, when some upper caste artists started to perform the repertoire of the devadasis while the tradition was removed from their original temple context.