How South Asian temple dancers fought moral reform


In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, the role of devadāsÄ«, sometimes referred to as temple dancers, was hotly debated in South Asia. Looking at the dancers’ own writings, social historian Davesh Soneji writes that The devadāsis used a long-standing tradition to assert that they had a legitimate position in their nation undergoing modernization.

In the mid-19th century, British and American Protestant missionaries criticized the Tamil religion as superstitious and idolatrous. In response, writes Soneji, a reform movement led by a Tamil writer Erumuka Navalar sought to revive a “golden age” of religious practice. In the past, Nãvalar argued, devadāsÄ«s were “like ascetics in their devotion to [the god] Åšiva, refraining from prostitution and from consuming meat and alcohol. In contrast, he viewed the temple culture in his day as degenerate and accused the temple authorities of improper sexual relations with devadāsis.

Other 19th and early 20th century reformers in India and Ceylon sought to completely eliminate devadāsīs, in what has become the anti-nautch movement. Started by the British, it won the support of many Indians. Supporters of this effort wrote poems and stories depicting devadasis corrupting young men and spreading sexually transmitted diseases.

Soneji begins the story of the response of women with a Tamil book written in 1911 by a devadas named Añcukam, in what was then the British colony of Ceylon (now Sri Lanka). Añcukam focused on the stories of his predecessors, delved into Hindu philosophy and ended with his own autobiography. Addressed to other devadāsÄ«s, the book documents the lives of “noble women who achieved great fame by mastering the three branches of the Tamil language: literature, music and drama,” as Soneji writes. Añcukam described the start of his own training as a child, studying Tamil and North Indian performing arts, Tamil literature and the Hindu Åšaiva tradition, dedicated to the worship of the god Shiva.

Still, Soneji notes that Añcukam performed courteous, non-ritualistic dances, which were meant to amuse the elites. Añcukam also followed a line in his descriptions of the sex life of the devadāsīs. She writes candidly about the relationship between devadasis and elite men, including her own twenty-five year relationship with a wealthy merchant. Yet she also expresses her respect for the reformer Nãvalar and urges the devadāsīs to remain chaste.

When Indian lawmakers proposed the abolition of devadāsÄ«s in 1928, many dancers responded with arguments similar to those of Añcukam. Where their opponents defined their role as prostitution, they described it as a long tradition of religious devotion. A memorandum from the Madras Devadasi Association – a group that included prominent artists – invoked Tamil religious and literary heritage and compared devadāsÄ«s to Buddhist or Catholic nuns. He also called for a reform, to bring their Tamil tradition back to its great past.

“Give us a religious, literary and artistic education,” the group wrote. “Education will dispel ignorance and we will again occupy the same place we occupied in the national life of the past.”

Añcukam and his fellow Devadāsī writers ultimately failed for the most part. When India gained independence in 1947, their profession was criminalized. This did not eliminate the devadāsīs, but they are still strongly stigmatized today.

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By: Davesh Soneji

International Journal of Hindu Studies, vol. 14, n ° 1 (APRIL 2010), pp. 31-70


Acts of the Legislative Council of Madras, 01-01-1927

Madras: Government Press, 1937-1948.

Acts of the Legislative Council of Madras, 01-01-1929

Madras: Government Press, 1937-1948.


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