Devadasi: Marginalized Artists of India

Nyx Hauth

The Devadasi system is complex and controversial. Most Devadasi come from lower socioeconomic spaces and lower castes. The caste system has been tied to the Devadasi system for centuries. While efforts have been made to eradicate these systems, they are still in place today. Yet the cultural and historical importance of Devadasi remain underrepresented in academic research and public discourse. The Devadasi have been a pillar of Indian society for centuries, one which has survived exploitation from within their communities and colonialism from outside them. The academic and public discourse around Devadasi must be expanded to encapsulate all of their many facets; as artists, historians, and sex workers.

The women who are part of the current Devadasi system are mainly from lower socioeconomic classes, which coincide with the lower castes of India. The vast majority of these women fall under the Dalit caste. On the first page of “In Perennial Oppression: Internalized Ideologies of the Devadasi” Geetha states, “In contemporary times, the Devadasis are mainly drawn from the Scheduled castes, otherwise referred to as Dalits.” Being in the Dalit caste does not necessarily mean one is lower socioeconomically, as seen by highly visible individuals such as President Narayanan, India’s first Dalit president (“What Is India’s Caste System?”). However, those in the lower socioeconomic brackets of India are more often than not in the Dalit caste (“What Is India’s Caste System?”). Thus, low socioeconomic status and low caste position coincide in Indian society. Given that the Devadasi system is inherently tied to caste (Geetha 1), in order to fully understand the Devadasi system it becomes necessary to review the caste system in India and its societal implications.

The caste system in India has existed for centuries and still functions today, despite efforts to dismantle it. According to the Pew Research Center’s “Attitudes About Caste in India,” the breakdown of castes is as follows. The Brahmin caste is the highest caste in the General Category and consists of priests and religious leaders. The Pew Research Center conducted a survey, from November 19th 2019 to March 23rd 2020, which found that of the 30% of Indians who identified within the General Category only 4% of those were within the Brahmin caste. Most Indians identified within the Scheduled Castes. Within the Scheduled Castes are Dalits, also known as Untouchables. “What Is India’s Caste System?” from the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) describes the formation of the caste system as follows. Originally, the caste system referred mainly to an individual’s livelihood. Over time, this became connected to one’s social status and formed a clear ranking. This hierarchy allowed those at the top of the system to oppress the lower castes. The Madras Anti-Devadasi Act passed in 1947 to dismantle the oppressive norms of the Devadasi system. “In Perennial Oppression: Internalized Ideologies of the Devadasi” by Geetha describes the Devadasi system as, “Sanctioned by religion, the institutionalization of the Devadasi system within the Hindu community legitimated women from certain caste groups to become ‘servants of god’. . .the Devadasis were wedded to God and the caste Hindu patriarchs were authorized to control the sexuality of the Devadasis. . .women from the castes lower in hierarchy were forced into the system.” The BBC article “What Is India’s Caste System?” notes that in 1950 when India gained Independence discrimination on the basis of caste was banned.[1] Despite this, the caste system continues to function to this day as observed by the Pew Research Center. Their survey concluded that, “Caste segregation remains prevalent in India” as stated in the fifth paragraph of the article. Consequently, those in the Dalit caste are still amongst the lowest in societal stature.

Since many women in the Devadasi system are among the lower socioeconomic classes, it would be easy to conflate their engagement in sex work with their socioeconomic status. Many women in the current Devadasi system do in fact engage in sex work (Geetha 90). However, lower socioeconomic status and sex work are not inherently correlated. Yet they often accompany each other due to the criminalization of sex work. Without legal protection, it can be difficult to access resources and safely conduct business (“Why Sex Work Should Be Decriminalized”).[2] A note that sex work is different from sex trafficking and survival sex. Sex work is voluntary and consensual. Sex trafficking is involuntary, non-consensual, and is a form of sexual slavery. Survival sex is exchanging sex for subsistence needs (“Why Sex Work Should Be Decriminalized”). In modern discourse, the Devadasis have often become synonymous with sex work (though the distinction between sex work, sex trafficking, and survival sex has not always been made clear).

Throughout the academic discourse in the past few decades, the urge to pigeonhole Devadasis into the category of sex work has been strong. The overlap of the women in the Devadasi system being among lower socioeconomic classes and engaging in sex work has resulted in a narrowing of the research into their experience. Orchard describes the characterization of sex workers in “In This Life: The Impact of Gender and Tradition on Sexuality and Relationships for Devadasi Sex Workers in Rural India” as follows: “…the experiences of women selling sex in the “third world” are consistently portrayed as violent, non-pleasurable, and oppressive…”[3] Recently more articles are being written about this aspect of the Devadasi without oversimplifying their characters.[4] This accompanies a trend in academia to recognize that sex workers occupy multiple spheres other than sex work and do not exist outside of society. This holds true for the Devadasi, who do engage in sex work and simultaneously occupy a position of historical importance relating to art, religion, and knowledge.

Historically, the Devadasis were respected as cultivators of art and preservers of history yet concurrently exploited sexually (Geetha 91). On the first page of “Entrenched Fissures: Caste and Social Differences among the Devadasi,” Geetha states, “Historically, Devadasis, or ‘servants of God,’ were women wedded to God who performed temple duties and were considered sacral women with ritual powers.” Yet even then there was a clear divide in class and caste.[5]

There were two main categories of Devadasi which were divided by caste. In “Entrenched Fissures” Geetha describes the caste divides in the Devadasi system. There were the Kalavantin/Isai Vellalar/Kalavantulu who were from the non-Brahmin castes. And then there were the Jogini/Mathamma who were from the Dalit castes. The main differences between these two categories was their initiation into the Devadasi system, the temples they were dedicated to, and the art forms they practiced. The initiation ceremonies for non-Brahmin castes were similar to a Brahmin wedding (which were elaborate), whereas the Dalit castes received no ceremony. The non-Brahmin castes were dedicated to temples controlled by Brahmin while the Dalit castes were dedicated to local or village temples controlled by non-Brahmin priests.

Both categories of Devadasi performed music and dance as integral functions of their communities. The music and dance were tied to the religious processions through temples. They also kept history and knowledge through the stories told at such occasions. The non-Brahmin caste Devadasi mainly performed Indian classical music and dance. The Dalit caste Devadasi performed folk music, dances, and drama. (Geetha 91)

These art forms came under siege from colonialist aesthetics. “From a vital function of the temple, during the British rule her status changes, either under socio-economic pressure, or under the look of a colonialist patronising attitude.” (Marinescu 57) The Devadasi had maintained their art and history for centuries. Yet, in a matter of decades, colonization had resulted in a complete reversal of their societal status. While Devadasi had always been exploited, previous to colonization they still held a form of respect within their communities. When the British colonized India, they transferred their views of arts and culture as well. They saw the Devadasi as immoral and overly sensual. This period is when the connotation of Devadasi as mainly prostitutes first took hold. Within India, this mindset was adopted and the Devadasi were rejected. The temples they had dedicated themselves to refused to patron them anymore, and the result was that most had to turn to sex work out of necessity. This transformation had a lasting impact on the perception of Devadasi who no longer were known as: “. . . a practice where women possibly could express their freedom out of the society(‘s) bindings, as educated, learned and ‘sacred’ . . .” (Marinescu 57)

In current Indian classical music and dance there is a tension between the history of the Devadasi who kept this knowledge for centuries and the reality of the break in that system. Only in recent decades since Indian Independence has Indian classical and folk dance been resurrected. Current practitioners of Indian classical and folk music and dance are not Devadasi, yet Devadasi continue to exist without necessarily being keepers of these arts. Marinescu highlights this dichotomy in “Between ‘Celestial Maiden’ and ‘Sacred Prostitute’: The Myth of the Deva Dāsī in the Imaginary of the Contemporary Indian Classical Dance Practitioners.” where she states, “The Devadasi, in her antagonistic position between ‘celestial damsel’ and ‘sacred prostitute’, that lingers in the affirmation of the Bhakti (devotion) and the denial of the Sngara (erotic) expression. . .”  (Marinescu 57)

The Devadasi system may be complicated, especially relating to the undeniable exploitation many women have faced through this system and the fact that it is tied to the caste system and lower socioeconomic status. These injustices must not be minimized. Yet they must also not overshadow the many distinct and powerful contributions the Devadasi have made to Indian society throughout history. Situating the accomplishments of these powerful women within the unjust system they operated in necessitates transforming the academic discourse and public perception. Current Devadasi must not be invalidated, and neither must their historical roots. Without both of these elements, only a fraction of their story can be told. Devadasi are neither “celestial maidens” nor “sacred prostitutes” and should be examined on their own terms apart from the narrowness of sex work alone and devoid of mythical exoticism. (Marineescu 57)

[1] While the Indian Independence Act went into effect in 1947, ending British Imperialist rule, the Republic of India was officially established in 1950 with the Constitution of India. (Ackerman, Peter, and Jack DuVall 80)

[2] For more information, see The Human Rights Watch article titled “Why Sex Work Should Be Decriminalized” in 2019 based on research they conducted across multiple countries globally and consultations with sex workers.

[3] Before continuing, a short disclaimer; the article this quote was pulled from was written in 2007. Since then it has been widely understood that “third world” is an inaccurate and denigrating term, and now countries are referred to as developing instead.

[4] See Treena Orchard’s “In This Life: The Impact of Gender and Tradition on Sexuality and Relationships for Devadasi Sex Workers in Rural India” for a thorough examination of the place of Devadasi in Indian society in relation to other women, rather than “othering” these women as purely sex workers separate from Indian women as a whole.

[5] See “Abuse of Lower Castes in South India: The Institution of Devadasi” by Maria-Costanza Torri for more information.

Works Cited

Ackerman, Peter, and Jack DuVall. “India: Movement for Self-Rule.” In A Force More Powerful: A Century of Nonviolent Conflict, 61-111. New York, NY: Palgrave, 2000.

“Attitudes About Caste in India.” Pew Research Center’s Religion & Public Life Project, 3 Mar.2022,

Geetha, K. A. “Entrenched Fissures: Caste and Social Differences among the Devadasis.” Journal of International Women’s Studies, vol. 22, no. 4, May 2021, pp. 87–96. EBSCOhost,

Geetha, K. A. “In Perennial Oppression: Internalized Ideologies of the Devadasis.” Journal of International Women’s Studies, vol. 21, no. 2, Apr. 2020, pp. 67–75. EBSCOhost,

Marinescu, Angelica. “Between ‘Celestial Maiden’ and ‘Sacred Prostitute’: The Myth of the Deva Dāsī in the Imaginary of the Contemporary Indian Classical Dance Practitioners.” Synergy (1841-7191), vol. 17, no. 1, Jan. 2021, pp. 56–73. EBSCOhost,

Orchard, Treena. “In This Life: The Impact of Gender and Tradition on Sexuality and Relationships For Devadasi Sex Workers in Rural India.” Sexuality & Culture, vol. 11, no. 1, Winter 2007, pp. 3–27. EBSCOhost,

Torri, Maria-Costanza. “Abuse of Lower Castes in South India: The Institution of Devadasi.” Journal of International Women’s Studies, vol. 11, no. 2, Nov. 2009, pp. 31–48. EBSCOhost,

“What Is India’s Caste System?” BBC News, BBC, 19 June 2019,

“Why Sex Work Should Be Decriminalized.” Human Rights Watch, 28 Oct. 2020,