Nityasumangali-Devadasi Tradition in South India

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Nityasumangali-Devadasi Tradition in South India
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Utter the word, and your tongue will be set on fire", with this warning parents instructed their children at the beginning of our century to keep a safe distance from the devadasis and their community. Now, the tide has turned, and the devadasis are rapidly becoming an object of romantic remini- scences of the past. No doubt, the topic is still enigmatic and controversial, even today. Actually, the tradition of the devadasis forms an intimate aspect of Hinduism that is little noticed, known and understood by outsiders.

This study does not aim to give a sociological, historical or philological description of this phenomenon. It rather attempts to understand it from within the Hindu tradition. This perilous approach has followed three roads: textual study of mainly Sanskrit and Tamil sources, 2. practical training in the performing arts of the devadasis and study of the underlying aesthetic theories, and 3. field-work: living in a Hindu family, participating in their rites and rituals, and a long-standing, warm friendship with the informants. This method induced me to abandon my initial view of the devadasis as 'sacred artists' and led to the formulation of the concept of the devadasi as a nityasumangali: an ever-auspicious female. This concept forms the hypo- thesis of this study and provides the title for this publication.

The present monograph is based on my Ph.D thesis which was completed under the guidance of Prof. Dr. Kamil V. Zvelebil and accepted in 1984 by the University of Utrecht. However, my involvement in the devadasis dates back to 1975 when I witnessed for the first time the festival of Arudra Dar- sana held in the great temple of Tiruvarur. This festival left an ineffaceable impression on my mind and sensibilities, as the dramatic force of Hinduism revealed itself in full splendour. In that year, too, Smt. Nandini Ramani, daughter of Dr. V. Raghavan and student of Smt. T. Balasarasvati since 1958, commenced my training in Classical Bharata Natyam. This road I followed ever since.

It is with a feeling of deep gratitude and of profound sadness that I realise that the basis of my acquaintance with living Hindu tradition was laid by three representatives of the "old world", each great in their own way, whose demise marks the end of an entire era; an era that cannot be per- petuated since the surrounding world has changed too much to appreciate their greatness. The immense scholarship of Dr. V. Raghavan, his kindness in teaching me, the hospitality and generosity of a true aristocrat and devotee, Tiru V.S. Tyagaraja Mudaliar, and the uncompromising involvement of the great artist Smt. T. Balasarasvati: they leave us no successor of their magnitude.

The gift of knowledge (vidyadana) is the most precious one to receive; especially in our times. Therefore I express with deep gratitude my indebtedness to all my teachers in Europe, especially to Prof. Dr. J. Gonda, to Mrs. Dr. S. Gupta, and to Mrs. Dr. E. te Nijenhuis. The largest debt I owe to my promotor Prof. Dr. K.V. Zvelebil.

In India I thank my teacher Smt. P. Ranganayaki Cunnan who has made me the heir of her family tradition; Smt. Nandini Ramani who does not only train me in Bharata Natyam but also in the acaram (ritual propriety) and common sense of Hindu life; her family-in-law and her mother who have accepted me for months as a member of their household; Sri and Smt. T. Sankaran whose help has always proven to be the 'magic link'; and all the informants who have willingly shared their knowledge with me; as well as music-master Sri B. Krishnamoorthy and dance-master Sri K. Ganesan.

Finally, I realise that the task of describing the devadasi sampradiiya is beyond a single individual. My only hope can be that this initial step on a long road to follow will be received by the reader in a spirit of generosity.



The moment our mind is for the first time impressed by a cultural phenomenon, we often attempt to investigate it accordingly. The observer cannot help possessing a distinct cultural consciousness based on his own cultural milieu. It is very difficult to perceive, let alone to absorb, an idea which is totally alien to our own modes of thought. In doing so it takes a great effort to achieve that state of mind which is open, and impressible, on the one hand, and on the other hand, analytical in sorting out the mode of this new thought.

The phenomenon of the devadasi (Skt. Devadasi, Ta. tevataci, lit. 'slave of god'), has suffered greatly from faulty, culture-bound evaluations. The present monograph does not aim at judging these earlier evaluations', nor does it claim to give a 'truly objective' description of what the devadasi tradition was; it rather tries to follow the inherent mode of thought, namely, what the devadasi tradition meant within the frame of Hinduism, and its transformation into a living cultural phenomenon functioning significantly in the context of the Hindu tradition. In short, this is not the study of the fact of the devadasi tradition, but of its meaning and the mode of production of that meaning.


This study is based both on textual sources, mainly in Sanskrit, Tamil and Telugu, and on fieldwork conducted in 1977-1978, 1980-1981 and 1982- 1983, comprising visits to many South Indian temples, living for months in an orthodox Hindu family as well as "sitting at the feet' of former devadasis. The multitude of do's and don't's in the life of an orthodox Hindu and the cultural evaluations employed by them gave rise to the basic hypothesis for this work which can be summed up in a single definition: 'The devadasi is a nitya-su-mangali. i.e. an ever-auspicious woman'.

It was the casual answer to the question- quoted above which transformed the data gathered from textual sources and informants into a meaningful whole. A combination of the intuitive appreciation of the dramatic powers of living Hinduism, and my earlier training both in theory and in the practice of dance, gave rise to a 'frame of understanding' which revealed a 'temperament' that imparted sense to the data gathered thus far. The perception of this 'temperament' was, however, the incentive for several years of further research, questioning and testing the basic hypothesis. In course of time this search led me to the acquaintance with a theoretical base surprisingly similar to my initial attempts at unravelling the cultural phenomenon of the devadasi tradition.

As it is, this work combines intuition and scholarship, textual study and field-work.


a. Semiotics as a "science dedicated to the study of produetion of mean- ing in society" investigates the cultural 'sign' as a "two-faced entity, linking a material vehicle or signifier with a mental concept or signifiedier In our case the devadasi is very much a signifier expressing a signified in the form of her art and role in society. Mukarovsky identifies the work of art as "the semiotic unit whose signifier is the work itself as 'thing' (....) and whose signified is the 'aesthetic object' residing in the collective consciousness of the public". 5 Similarly the devadasi herself is a very expressive semiotic unit signifying the mythical-aesthetic-cum-ritual object residing in the collective consciousness of Hindu tradition. The insights quoted above have been derived from semiotic speculation about the theatrical process of drama. Anyone familiar with living Hinduism will be struck by the dramatic modes of expression of this tradition. The myths, the complex rituals, the colourful customs and festivals aim at a form of cultural transmission that is not based on analytic rationalism, but on imagination and poetic feeling. It is therefore not surprising that Hinduism has produced thinkers like Abhinava Gupta (993-1015 A.D.) who equated aesthetic experience with mystical experience, and saw aesthetic rapture as the mystical experience of bliss." The dramatic susceptibility of Hindu mind is indeed pronounced; in fact, it is the most obvious manifestation of the cultural 'temperament' mentioned above. It stretches beyond drama proper, and, as such, interprets the entire life in terms of mythical poesis. The semioticians define theatre and drama as something which lies outside ordinary social life, a situation which holds probably for the modern, Western world: "The stage radically transforms all objects and bodies defined within, bestowing upon them an overriding signifying power which they lack-or which at least is less evident-in their normal-social function."? Or, as lid Veltrusky put it: "All that is on the stage is a sign.':" In a culture where the cultural consciousness moves mainly in realm of mythico-poetical thinking, every facet of life is touched by this 'magic finger' of dramatisation, all is a stage and all is a sign. It is the 'drama of tradition' that is 'played' by and for the members of the traditional society.

b. The second theoretical pillar for the present treatment of the devadasi tradition follows the investigation of cultural phenomena sub specie ludi", the sacer ludus being traditional Hinduism. According to Huizinga, it is in myth and ritual that the great instinctive forces of civilized life have their origin rooted in the primeval soil of play."? He distinguishes four basic characteristics of play which will prove to be of great interest to us in studying the devadasi tradition.

Play is voluntary activity, it is free, in fact it is freedom. Hinduism as such can be understood as a voluntary expression of Indian culture; this, in contrast to forced conversions to other religions than the indigenous. (2) Play is not "ordinary" or "real life" . Connected with this aspect is the disinterestedness of play. Huizinga admits, though, that there are different degrees of intensity and devotion in play. It may proceed with the utmost seriousness, with an absorption and a devotion that passes into rapture and that, temporarily at least, completely abolishes the consciousness of play being "only a pretend". Here we may remind ourselves of the fervent devotion of bhakti movements, the supreme seriousness of the officiating priests during the ritual, and the aesthetic theory crediting aesthetic experience with mystical truth." As we saw before, to a cultural consciousness that moves mainly in the realm of mythico-poetical thinking, all is a stage and all is a sign. Indeed, the ultimate aim of the Hindu is not to 'earn his living' by his participation in the sacred play of Hinduism, but to reach that total absorption in his sacer ludus that does not last temporarily-as in ordinary play-but eternally tmoksa, liberation from the chain of rebirths). In essence his participation is disinterested; although Hindu ritual worship knows two aims: bhukti, i.e. physical well-being and material gain, and mukti, i.e. liberation, on the whole the notion that every worship results in punya, i.e. auspiciousness which ultimately leads to happiness and liberation, is strongly felt. In its all-embracing temperament Hinduism can be interpreted as a perpetual play transforming the "ordinary life" unintermittently into a sacer ludus, a holy dramatic interpretation, actualised incessantly in a macro-theatrical performance, and spreading its theatrical mode of signi- fication over the entire culture. (3) Play is played out within certain limits of time and space. Here we find the raison d'etre for the meticulous division of time-cycles as described in chapter II, as well as the transformation of space into 'sacred space' both in the open village area and in the temple territory. The limitation in time leads to the rise of intentional repetition which develops into tradition. The limitation of space leads to the well- guarded 'play-ground' containing an absolute and peculiar order. This is another very positive feature of play: it creates order, it is order. Connected with the third characteristic of limitation in time and space is the fourth characteristic that every play has its rules. "No scepticism is possible where the rules of a game are concerned, for the principle underlying them is an unshakable truth."12 Indeed, as soon as the rules are transgressed the whole play-world collapses. The game is over. The spell is broken and sets "real" life going again. In this respect it is meaningful to draw attention to the many rules and distinctions of ritual purity, the anxiety with which they are observed, and the utter uncompromising indignation at overstepping these rules of ritual propriety. If only for a moment the temple has been entered by a person in the state of ritual impurity the entire shrine must be purified and sanctified anew. Any contact with persons in ritually impure state requires a head-bath." The overt trespasser and the cynic are unacceptable to the play-community since their withdrawal from the rules of the play reveals the relativity and fragility of the play-world. Therefore, they must be cast out. Much more acceptable than the cynic, the 'spoil-sport', is the 'false-player'. The latter's 'false behaviour' may be ignored, forgiven or redressed. He need not be cast out as he does not break the magic circle of the play-world. As a result of the rules accompanying any play, and the in acceptance of any cynicism, play-communities arise, traditions within traditions, castes within castes, each performing a drama that is valid for them only. The rise of these permanent play-communities with their own customs can be seen as the fifth characteristic.

When we apply these five characteristics of play to the sacer luaus of Hindu- ism, in which the devadasi had her effective role, it is not surprising to see that the modern world has disrupted the tradition of temple dance and music. The problem which expressed itself so flamboyantly in the case of the devadasis belongs in fact to the larger sphere of devotional Hindu temple worship. The reasons for this decay are manifold but can be divided into two main jeer: the internal and the external causes. Precisely because of the incapacity to accept cynicism in the process of devotional performance, the tradition is crumbling with the advent of modern times, The poetical function which devadasi participation had in the temple-ritual and in society, was unable to reformulate itself in the temperamentally changed context.'! The external cause can be found in the drastic political changes, which led in the first place to the rupture of the traditional social organization. Traditionally a balance was struck between the king, who ruled like a feudal lord and patron, and the powers of religion. All arts and sciences prospered under the wings of the temple, generously supported by the king. On the other hand, the king's "holy strength", i.e. to be victorious, maintain peace within his own territory, enhance rain and rich crops, was sustained by the temple- priests through ritual and by the devadasis, who served in many cases both the temple and the court by their ever-auspicious presence and arts. All this is no more. The modern world, even in India, becomes more and more the world of pragmatic cynicism. So far Hinduism has been able to incorporate practically all foreign influences into its tradition. The crisis which presents itself now is far deeper than it has even been before. It turns into a 'spoil- sport' of the first order. And, as it seems, the poesis of devotional ritualism is likely to suffer as one of the first.

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