(Last Updated on : 27/01/2009)
Devadasi is a Sanskrit
term meaning female servant of God and a Hindu religious practice in which young girls were "married" to a deity. This system of offering of votive girls to the deities in Brahmanic temples is a system found in all parts of India but most prevalent in the south. In addition to taking care of the temple, they learnt and practiced Bharatnatyam and other classical Indian art tradition through which they expressed their devotion to the deity or Almighty. The office of Devadasi was hereditary but this does not mean they were allowed to work without adequate qualification. Devadasis have been referred in Kalidasa`s Meghadoot and also in the Puranas
and therefore it is believed that this custom of dedicating girls to Gods started from the 6th century BC. The Devadasis were known by various names as Jogins ,Basavis ,Kalawants,Paravatis or Mathammas.It was customary for the elite to invite devadasis at marriages and family function .By the end of the 10th century the total number of Devadasis in the temples increased .During the medieval period their status was elevated and occupied a rank next only to the priests. The popularity of devadasis seemed to have reached its pinnacle around 10th and 11th century B.C. Devadasis, as a community, developed distinct customs, practices and traditions that were best suited to enable them to live as artists without suppressing their physical and emotional needs. This professional community was controlled by women and was matriarchal. Following the demise of the great Hindu kingdoms the practice degenerated.
Originally Devadasis were celibate all their life. Though they had a glorious past, later these girls were forced into a life of poverty, misery and in some cases were also further degraded. In modern India the tradition has become associated with commercial sexual exploitation as described in recent report of the National Human Rights Commission of the Government of India. However, the Government of Karnataka and Andhra Pradesh declared this practice of dedicating devadasis illegal in 1982 and 1988 respectively. It is widely prevalent even today as a profession, which has the sanction of religion and culture, seldom considering it as a violation of human rights. Efforts are being made to abolish the `evil` of devadasi system.