Deva Dasis: Dancing Girls of Hindu Temples (Post No.3189)


Compiled by London swaminathan

Date: 25 September 2016

Time uploaded in London:19-58

Post No.3189

Pictures are taken from various sources; thanks.


Following is an excerpt from the book- “The Land of the Lingam” by Arthur Miles, 1933


“Dasis, or Deva-dasis (handmaidens of the gods), are dancing girls attached to the temples. They have their own caste, which has its own customs, councils and laws of inheritance. Dasis, dedicated to the temple, are married to the god or to a sword and receive their marriage badge.


There are two divisions of the dasis: the Valangai, or right hand, and the Idangai, or left hand. The former will have nothing to do with artisans, and refuse to dance in their houses; the latter is not so particular. Neither division however, will sell themselves to men of the lowest castes. In the Oriya country the dasi caste is not connected with the temples in any way, and its girls neither marry the god nor receive the marriage badge.


Indian music is perhaps the oldest in the world, and the Dasi caste is the repository for much of it.


Dancing girls sometimes amass considerable fortunes, which frequently they devote to piety or to something which will commemorate their caste endian bridges and other public works frequently owe their existence to these girls, and the large tank at Channaraya patna in Mysore state was built by two dancing girls.


Girls are usually presented to the caste between six and eight years of age, and after formal investigations have been made the parents of the girl must pay the expenses of the ceremony and present something to the temple. If the girl is accepted she is taken to the inner sanctuary of the temple where she sits facing the deity. The priest then makes the fire and performs the marriage ceremony. A mimic marriage, representing Siva marrying Parvati, sometimes precedes the girl’s marriage to the god. After the marriage the girl is taken to her father’s house, where her marriage is celebrated for two or three days. A coconut is rolled back and forth between the bride and the elderly dasi dressed in male attire to act the part of the bridegroom.


The home of the dancing girl is the only place in India where the birth of a male child is not an occasion for rejoicing. Three boys born to the dancing girls sometimes remain in the caste as musicians, playing for the women to dance. Daughters are brought up to follow the profession, and are taught dancing, singing, and the arts of dressing and make-up.


Too old to dance

When a dancing woman becomes too old, or too diseased, for the profession she applies to the temple for permission to remove her ear rings. After she has formally handed over her ornaments which are returned to her, she becomes an old mother and is supposed to lead a life of retirement. She may still receive a small income from the temple to which she was dedicated.

When a priest dies, the dancing girl whom he married vicariously prepares the turmeric powder which is dusted over his corpse. She also observes the anniversaries of his death. It is said that in former times dancing girls, at the commencement of their career, used to sleep three nights in the inner shrine of Koppeswara temple in the Godavari district, so as to be embraced by god.


Dancing Girls of Conjeeevaram Temples

At the beginning of the last century there were a hundred dancing girls attached to the temple at Conjeeevaram.


About three years ago I arranged to have a group of girls’ dance at the temple in Conjeevaram, the temple of Ekambara Swami, the god of a single garment. They danced in the hall of a hundred pillars, a fine old structure in the temple courtyard. They were dressed in gaudy saris, with as much jewellery as their frail little bodies could support. Their necks, breasts, hips, arms, fingers, ankles, and toes were fairly plastered with jewels, most of which were imitation.  Their faces were heavily painted, and their eyes were touched up with kohol. Old hags and several ragged musicians accompanied them, and the former no doubts had been nautch girls once. The hags’ mouths were stained with betel and they talked rapidly to the dancers in highly pitched, unpleasant voices.


The girls danced slowly, rhythmically, swaying their bodies from side to side and dislocating their necks. The hags, meanwhile uttered a series of grunts, in time with the music.  A girl, who could not have been more than twelve years old, knelt before me, making the erotic gestures and singing a filthy Tamil song. When she finished the song she stood up, the others joined her, and the dance became very excited. The musicians put down their instruments, and one old hag took up a conch shell and blew in it. The wail of the shell seemed to madden the girls, and they started a wild song which left little to the imagination.

As I watched and listened, I could feel modernity slip away – back to the days hidden behind centuries.”


My comments

The author has criticised Hindu customs through his book and he had lot of factual errors. His understanding of Hindu religion was not good.

In the very first page of his book he has written, “Siva’s symbols are the lingam and the yoni. The cow, usually wrought in bronze, is placed in the temple before the altar. The cow represents Maya (illusion).”

Dance has become a sacred art now as we had it in the days of Bharata, who wrote the sacred treatise in Sanskrit 2000 years ago.

Raja Raja Choza had 400 dancing girls around the Big Temple in Thanjavur 1000 years ago. Their house numbers and their beautiful Tamil and Sanskrit names are inscribed on stone. Many Tamil inscriptions reveal that they have made donations to temples in cash and kind.