The Role Financial Freedom Played in Determining the Status of Courtesans

Aashna Jain

For as far as can be traced, the gender roles in society were carved out in a way that didn’t allow women to actively participate in it beyond child rearing and housekeeping. Occupational resources were extremely limited (good as none), and some of the only possible means for earning a living (besides helping in the family businesses) were being a handmaid to the nobles, working in the palaces or prostitution. Since the first two were hardly accessible to most, prostitution remained one of the most common options, and is still noted as one of oldest occupations. In such a society, the role of a courtesan was highly coveted by young girls and women as this afforded them not only a higher status, but also allowed them to be active members of society.

Courtesan culture has been extensively documented across the world, from the Hetaerae of ancient Greece to the Geishas of Japan. It generally implied a section of women highly trained in arts, music, and philosophy to entertain their male patrons. In times where women did not enjoy intellectual equality, in most cultures, courtesans were allowed access to higher education and welcomed into symposiums. Even Qiyans in the Abbasid caliphate and Tawaifs in the Mughal dynasty were exceptionally well versed in Urdu literature and were commissioned for their exemplary musical compositions, poetry and were considered the authority on etiquette. The role and status of a courtesan was noted as distinctly different from that of a prostitute. However, with the onslaught of Imperialism and colonisation, a lot of Eastern cultures were chalked akin to vulgarity and cheapened, thus distilling their sacred values to that of a primitive people. The devolution, of the Devadasis in India, and the Qiyans of Abbasid caliphate, into disrepute is directly linked to Western colonialism and lack of financial freedom.

The primary role of a courtesan was to entertain the rich and powerful men they were funded by, whether that be by means of intellectually stimulating conversation, rendering dance or musical performances, or services of sexual nature. Although largely similar, these obligations were decidedly different for the Qiyans under the Abbasid caliphate and the Devadasis of India. While the devadasis were seen as a religious class of women in sacred marriage with the gods, the Qiyans were a class of “singing slave girls”. (Brown University)

Qiyans were “highly educated in all fields of study, from the sciences to the arts, and in philosophy and poetry. They were exceptionally gifted poets, dancers, musicians and singers…” (Al-Hadithi) They were however indentured to the caliphs whose courts they enlivened, and were their slaves. Qiyans were obligated to be sexually available to their imperial masters. “The qiyan (…) were trained to compose and perform music and poetry for the imperial elite… occupying a position of slavery while simultaneously accumulating great wealth and prestige.” (Prince-Eichner) This poses an interesting dichotomy as to how independent and autonomous the Qiyans actually were while being slaves to their masters. This paradoxical juxtaposition also begs the question whether the Qiyan were an anomaly in how they were uniquely positioned in medieval Baghdad and Andalusia; or being an Imperial rule as it were, every citizen was in a certain way slave to the Caliphate.

In Abbasid culture it was customary to keep women in complete seclusion, sometimes as far as having the several wives of an upperclassman to be put behind locks and heavy curtains with the keys only entrusted to the eunuchs (pitied for their sexual inability and thus not viewed as a threat). In such a culture where women were barred access to every field, it is thus likely that courtesans weren’t viewed as just ‘women’ but as servants of the arts and the caliphate. It was permissible for the Qiyans to explore athletics in the form of archery, horse riding and racing. Abbasid culture is referred to as the Golden Age of Islam by many, and the value stressed on knowledge by the Quranic hadith “the ink of a scholar is more holy than the blood of a martyr” is perhaps one of the biggest reasons such opportunities were even extended to the Qiyan. This is not to say that the Abbasid caliphate empowered women. Their condition remained extremely pitiful, and they were largely viewed as objects of sexual satisfaction for their husbands or legal owners.

The Qiyans were directly funded by the Abbasid Caliphate and imperial patrons, in rare instances becoming Queen mothers themselves. The immense knowledge the Qiyans housed enamoured many powerful men and one such slave and concubine turned queen is Khayzuran. She was touted as the main driving force behind the rule of famous caliph Harun al-Rashid. Khayzuran was “a queen in her own right who wielded an immense amount of political power and whose wealth was second only to that of her husband’s in the entire caliphate.” (Ali) This story, while it proves the wit the Qiyans wielded, also sheds light on how dependant the arts and artists of the era were on the royals.

The decline of the Qiyan’s came as a direct consequence of the bankruptcy of the Abbasid Caliphate. The ruin of the Abbasid caliphate came from political instability due to infighting between Shia and Suni Muslims which caused fiscal mismanagement. The reckless splurging during the golden age of the Abbasid caliphate only furthered the draining of the treasury, and constant battles meant soldiers had to be paid. The steadily emptying treasury made any ostentatious display of wealth risky. With no one left to fund them, the Qiyans slowly disappeared from the region, (speculatively) demoted to mere sexual slaves and prostitutes.

The story of the Devadasis in India (largely in the south) is similar to that of the Qiyans. An important difference worth noting is that the Devadasis were quite literally seen as the servants of God (in Sanskrit deva means God and dasi means servant). This means they were immediately given a respectful place in society as bearers of culture and people who kept the house of God full and colourful with arts and rites in service of the Divine. Devadasis were referred to as the eternally ‘suhagan’ or the ones who cannot be widowed, since their induction ceremony involved being married to a deity. Their position in society was also believed to be auspicious as “their presence in marriage ceremony for the purpose of making mangalsutra was compulsory. It was believe that the bride who wears that mangalsutra will die suhagan.” (Indian Institute of Legal Studies)

All artistic endeavours of the Devadasi thus had religious undertones. The songs were devotional and the dances, such as Bharatanatyam, Kuchhipuddi, Mohiniyattam and Odissi, were representative of religious stories. They were involved in the upkeep of temples and carried out important rituals too. In fact one of the major tenets of being a Devadasi was the vow of celibacy as they were viewed as divine wives. They flourished most between the 6th and 13th century. They held an exceptionally high place in society and were seen as protector of the arts, frequently showered with gifts, property and jewellery. This makes the decline of the Devadasis into a practice of selling pre-pubescent girls to the temples and rendering them as temple prostitutes all the more confounding.

The idea of art as an offering to the Gods was foreign to the Mughal and British colonisers who ravaged the Indian continent and raped the land of its vibrant culture. “As per their understanding girls dancing and singing in temple are doing that for the purpose of entertainment of rich people and they were not better than prostitute.” (Indian Institute of Legal Studies) Destruction of temples and statues was rampant, and with it the maligning of the culture was inevitable. (Pilallamari) The Mughal and British empires have done irreparable damage to countless parts of Indian culture and Devadasis were just one such casualty in that centuries long campaign.

The devadasis and their important distinction from regular street dancers was lost in the cultural wars raged by the Mughal and British colonialism, and the status of Devadasis was steadily revoked from that of respectability to vulgarity. Since their main patrons were the Hindu Kings, once they lost their powers and fiscal autonomy, so did the Devadasis lose their wealth. The British colonisers even stole and took over their gifted lands, just as they did from the Indian rulers.

With the destruction of temples, where the Devadasis lived and worked, their situation became precarious. “Left completely defenceless and their way of life criminalised” (Bombay Devadasi Protection Act, 1934), the Devadasis were all but forced to resort to ‘temple prostitution’ and provide sexual services in exchange for money. This was only exacerbated as they were compelled to become nothing more than concubines or mistresses for royal and rich men. “Any girl child born from that union was also dedicated to temple and boy born were trained as musicians. This led to the religious prostitution in temples of India which continues till date. The devadasis were exploited by the rich, powerful and upper class people and in the other side their economic needs were not permitted them to leave this practice and ultimately they were driven to the valley prostitution.” (Indian Institute of Legal Studies)

It was important to make a distinction between elite courtesans and common prostitutes and was done in every culture. This is true of ancient Greece, where Hetaerae enjoyed an elevated status and dignified intellectuals who also rendered sexual services to their male patrons as opposed to Pornai, another class of prostitutes; Devadasis in India, who were the pillars and carriers of culture, arts, and religious rites, forced into prostitution after their financial safety was revoked by the royal patrons at the behest of the British Raj. Even in the case of the Yiji, it wasn’t until they were banned from being employed by the State in the Qing dynasty that they started offering sexual favours in return for patronage, because they were dependent on private patronage.

This raises a larger concern about the treatment of cultures and ancient arts, and their destruction by invading powers. They misunderstand existing systems that have flourished for centuries and pillage the future generations of their roots as well. It is akin to an ongoing theft as by destroying an art form and culture that is so inherently dependant on oral traditions, they steal from any subsequent generations the possibility of continuing these traditions. In every case that has been examined in the scope of this paper, the ruin of these courtesans has been a direct consequence of their financial ruin. These brilliant women composers, artists, philosophers, and literary minds were brought to ruin due to their lack of fiscal freedom and their works were lost to history.

Works Cited

Al-Hadithi, Miftin. n.d.
ghvjbdkc. n.d.

Prince-Eichner, Simone. “Embodying the Empire: Singing Slave Girls in Medieval Islamicate Historiography.” 2016.

Brown University. “” n.d.

Ali, Adam. “Slave, Queen, and Mother of Caliphs: The Story of Khayzuran.” n.d.

Indian Institute of Legal Studies. “” n.d.

Pilallamari, Akhilesh. “The Diplomat.” n.d.

Bombay Devadasi Protection Act, 1934. Bombay High Court. 1934.

Indian Institute of Legal Studies. n.d.

—. n.d.