Category Archives: L. Hindu Arts, Architecture and Culture


Kalidasa was a brilliant Indian poet and playwright known for his sharp wit, rich humor and brilliant writing style. While little is known about where he was from, scholars believe that the exquisite detail he uses in describing the region of Ujjayini suggests that he was either born there or had spent much of his life there (Anderson, 10). Once again the details of when he lived are not known for sure either, which adds to the mystery surrounding this great figure, but his work is consonant with the geographic, historical and linguistic factors that support the Indian tradition that puts Kalidasa’s life sometime before, after or during the reign of Candragupta the 2nd, who ruled North India from about 375 C.E. to 415 C.E. (Smith, 15). [For more on the Candragupta the 2nd and the Gupta dynasty, see Majumdar (1971)]. His name, which translated means “Kali’s Slave” shows that he was a devout follower of Kali, who is a consort of Siva. His devotion to Siva is quite evident in his plays and poetry as he often brings in the natural world as an integral part and Siva is known through the 8 elements. Although little is known for certain about his life, a popular legend about how he came to possess his talents is still popular to this day. Briefly, the legend goes as follows: Kalidasa was a very good looking man and as such caught the eye of a princess who married him. After marrying him she realized he was ignorant and uneducated and was ashamed by that. Kalidasa was distraught by this and while contemplating committing suicide called upon his patron goddess Kali, who gave him the gift of extraordinary wit (Miller, 4).

Today 6 major works are attributed to Kalidasa because “The coherent language, poetic technique, style and sentiment the works express seem to suggest they are from a single mind” (Miller, 5) but many more short prose works exist that are likely to have been written by him. The 6 attributed to him are 3 plays; Malavikagnimitra (Mlavikā and Agnimitra), Abhijnanasakuntalam (The Recognition of Shakuntala) and Vikramorvasiya (Pertaining to Vikrama and Urvashi), 2 epic poems Raghuvamsa (The Lineage of Raghu) and Kumarasambhava (Birth of Kumara), as well as one shorter poem Meghaduta (The Cloud Messenger), which is not an epic but a description of the seasons through narration of the experience of two lovers (Smith, 15). Ornge

While some have suggested that Kalidasa’s works, like most Sanskrit drama, find their origins in the Vedas, it is also probable that the epics, Ramayana and Mahabharata had their influences on the style and content of his works (Anderson, 12). In all of his dramas, and for that matter all Indian drama from the period, plot is not the central focus of the play but emphasis is put on flavor and emotion [for more on drama in India as a form of religious realization, see Wulff (1984)]. He conveys senitment not only through clever dialogue, of which there is an abundance, but also through stylized enactment involving dancing, body, hand and facial gestures, make-up and the introduction of natural props such as flowers (Anderson, 13). Throughout Kalidasa’s work, love and sensuality play a central role, and following suit all three of his plays involve a love story as its central theme. This being said, he also brings to the forefront other traits and ideas, espoused through his characters, such as honor, dharma and the virtuous ruler.

Out of all of Kalidasa’s works his most popular and arguably greatest play was Abhijnanasakuntalam (The Recognition of Shakuntala) (Smith, 17), one that continues to be performed across India and the world to this day. The story centers on the young woman Shakuntala who is the daughter of a sage but is abandoned at birth and raised in the fashion of a humble life in a secluded hermitage. While the virtuous king, Dushyanta, who shows himself to be so many times throughout the play, is on a hunting trip he comes across the hermitage after following a deer injured by his arrow. There he sees Shakuntala attending to the injured deer, is amazed by her beauty and poise and falls in love. He then courts her in a way that is becoming of a virtuous king and they are married. Soon after the king is called away to the capital and gives her his signet ring as a sign of his love. He tells her that when it is shown in the court she will be able to take her place as queen. Shakuntala was also in love with Dushyanta and spent much of her time day dreaming about her new husband. Just as she was in one of these daydreams a powerful sage Durvasa came to the hermitage, and because she did not notice him and greet him properly he was enraged. He then cursed her so that whoever she was dreaming about would never recognize her, but at the begging of Shakuntala’s friends he lessened the curse so that when she showed a present given to her by the person they would remember.

After a while Shakuntala began to wonder why Dushyanta had not come for her and so she and a couple others headed out for the capital city. Along the way Shakuntala’s signet ring, given to her by the king, fell off while running her hands through the water. When she arrived at the court she was saddened and hurt that the king did not recognize her and went out into the forest with her son Bharat, who was also Dushyanta’s son. She spent many years there as Bharat grew very strong and bold.

Sometime later a fisherman found a ring inside the belly of a fish and realizing the royal seal took it to king Dushyanta. Immediately the king’s memories of his lovely wife Shakuntala came flooding back and he went out searching for her. During his search he came across a young boy who had forced open the mouth of a lion and was amazed by the child’s strength. Feeling somehow drawn to him Dushyanta asked the boy his name. He replied “Bharata, son of king Dushyanta”. The boy then took him to his mother and immediately Dushyanta recognized Shakuntala and the family was reunited (Miller, 85-176).

Although this is only a brief overview of Abhijnanasakuntalam, it should give the reader an idea of how Kalidasa’s works tend to play out. As important as the plot is to the story, just as important is the sentiment and underlying themes that are ever present. Throughout Kalidasa’s plays these themes tend to be parting and reconciliation, young love and maternal love, the king as a patron, the heroine and the king and the duties and pleasures of the warrior, among other things. In Abhijnanasakuntalam specifically, the tone of the play is set by the virtue and piety of Dushyanta while the underlying message is seen through Shakuntala, a woman who is purified by patience and fidelity and is ultimately rewarded with virtue and love (Anderson, 17).

Kalidasa’s works echo the sentiments of Indian society during his life, which were in all aspects religious. Never divorced from his plays are Hindu values, and they are readily apparent in everything he writes (Anderson, 9). Through his wit and humor as well as his genius he has been able to captivate the minds of readers and viewers for the past 1500 years, and his works, being some of the first to be translated from Sanskrit, have played an important part in western understanding of ancient Indian literature.

References and Further Recommended Reading

Anderson, G. L. (1966) The Genius of the Oriental Theater: The Complete Texts of Ten Great Plays from the Traditional Indian and Japanese Drama. New York: The New American Library.

Majumdar, R. C., Raychaudhuri H. C. and Datta Kaukinkar (1946) An Advanced History of India. London: Macmillan.

Miller, Barbara S. (1984) Theater of Memory: The Plays of Kalidasa. New York: Columbia University Press.

Smith, David (2005) The Birth of Kumara by Kalidasa. New York: New York University Press.

Wulff, Donna M. (1984) Drama as a Mode of Religious Realization: The Vidagdhamadhava of Rupa Gosvami. Chico, California: Scholars Press.

Related Topics for Further Investigation



Chandragupta II

The Gupta Dynasty





Written by Mike Kopperud (Spring 2009), who is solely responsible for its content.


Tukaram or “Tuka” as he refers to himself in his poems, was a great Bhakti poet from the first half of the 17th century (Fraser & Marathe 1). Scholars have placed his date of birth to be around 1608 CE and his death or disappearance in 1649 CE (Abbott i). His home was in a village called Dehu, near the Indrayani river (Abbott i). In the modern world Dehu would be by the modern city of Pune in north-western India (Abbott vi). Tukaram was born into the Sudra caste and was of the “Kunbi” sub-caste, who were mainly as farm laborers (Dharwadker 92). Tukaram was fortunate however since his family was financially secure unlike many others of the Sudra class (Dharwadker 92). Despite his class Tukaram became a poet of legendary status.

Tukaram adopted a spiritual lifestyle in order to achieve moksa, which is freedom from rebirth and karma (Abbott vii). Scholars have said that he sought to achieve Videhi which is where the individual is completely consumed by a god, which includes their body along with all earthly desires (Abbott vii). Despite his fame Tukaram’s life is shrouded a great degree of uncertainty since all texts credited to him are devotional texts that were written nearly 125 years after his disappearance and are based from the texts of Manipati (Abbott I). It is unknown if the records of Tukaram’s life and deeds are historically accurate since much of the data we have is from devotional texts.

As a poet Tukaram composed a multitude of poetry. He composed them in a specific style known as abhangs, which is a type of poem that has a specific metric composition like the Shakespearian iambic pentameter; however, this form of poetry is usually in praise of a deity (Fraser & Marathe 1). He did not write exclusively religious poetry; for instance, The Rich Farmer or Dagadacya Deva deals with a wealthy farmer, who while affluent does not cultivate virtues such as piety, generosity or patience (Tukaram 94). Many of Tukaram’s poems are either social criticism that deal with living dharmically or are devotional in nature. The devotional poems are often from the perspective of a lower caste man like the author was, and usually plead with the gods in an up front manner that tries to make sense of life’s mysteries (Dharwadker 93).

Scholars have managed to determine that Tukaram composed 1300 abhangs of the nearly 4600 abhangs attributed to him (Dharkwadker 92). Many of the abhangs are believed to have been written by Tukaram’s brother or followers and attributed to him posthumously (Fraser & Marathe 4). The majority of the abhangs were originally composed in the Marathi language with a handful composed in Hindi (Dharkwadker 92). Scholars today have not been able to piece together any chronology for compositions of the poems (Fraser & Marathe 3). Throughout Tukaram’s abhangs, no spiritual ideal or tantra is touted as superior, although some scholars have drawn parallels between his proposed lifestyle and Buddhism (Fraser & Marathe 4). The majority of Tukaram’s poems end with a short aphorism in regards to the subject of the poem. The aphorism is either headed or closed with two words “Tuka says.” Despite the wide range of topical matter in his poetry, Tukaram is considered one of the greatest of his time and is regarded with respect by all different castes (Fraser & Marathe 3).

Tukaram’s early life was financially secure, however, the beginning of his life was filled with hardships. His older brother became a renouncer and left the family after his wife’s death (Dharwadker 92). Tukaram was forced to take over his older brother’s responsibilities (Dharwadker 92). At thirteen years old Tukaram was married to a girl named Rukmabai who had severe asthma and later took a second wife by the name of Jijabai (Dharwadker 92). Tukaram’s parents died when he was at the age of seventeen and he was forced to support his family (Dharwadker 92). A famine struck India from 1629-1631 and during this disaster his first wife Rukmabai and eldest son perished (Dharwadker 92).

All was not lost however since during the famine he became religiously awakened (Dharwadker 92). He became a devout follower of Vitthala of Pandharpur from the Vaisana pantheon [Vitthala was an avatar of Krsna] (Dharwadker 92). At this point he retired to a mountain known as Bhambanath and meditated. It was here that Krsna appeared before him in serpent form (Abbott 83). Some deemed Tukaram mad, and when he returned to his family his business fell apart (Abbott 94). According to devotional texts his wife who had become sick of living in poverty attempted to murder Tukaram, however, he cursed her with boils and she relented (Abbott 228).

After Tukaram’s awakening he began to gather a great number of followers during the next 15 years (Dharwadker 93). Tukaram’s initial fame among the people was due to the skill of how he presented his bhajana and katha works (Fraser & Marathe 1). A bhajana is a hymn in praise of deity while a katha is a sermon regarding the contents of a sacred work that has hymns inserted into it (Fraser & Marathe). Despite his vast popularity, Tukaram’s criticism of Hindu rituals and social mores are cited for the causing outrage among the Ksatriya and Brahman castes (Dharwadker 93). Devotional texts, by contrast, note that his miracles were actually the cause of the unrest among the upper castes (Fraser & Marathe).

His main antagonists were Ramesvar Bhatt, a Brahmin priest, and Mumbaji Gosavi (Fraser & Marathe 1). Ramesvar Bhatt ordered Tukaram’s exile and had all his books thrown into a river. In the devotional texts one of the first miracles to occur after his awakening was the books’ miraculous recovery nearly thirteen days after their disposal into the river (Abbott 213). Tukaram then returned from exile and Ramesvar stopped antagonizing him after this miracle occurred (Fraser & Marathe). Devotional texts cannot agree on whether Tukaram simply forgave Ramesvar for his actions (Fraser & Marathe) or cursed Ramesvar to have a tainted body that would always burn like it was on fire, a curse which took some time to recover from (Abbott 211). However, there is further disagreement on the reason for the curse, some devotional texts claim that the curse was actually placed on Ramesvar for an unrelated fouling of a ceremonial pool (Abbott 209). His other antagonist Mumbaji Gosavi assaulted him physically (Dhawadker 92). Tukaram eventually overcame these enemies and gained enough renown that a king named Shivaji invited him to reside in his palace in Raigad. However Tukaram refused the generous offer and simply advised him on how to run his kingdom better (Fraser & Marathe 2).

Tukaram’s numerous miracles have been recorded in devotional texts about his life. The main text in regards to Tukaram’s deeds is Mahipati’s Bhaktalilamrita in chapters 25-40. While Tukaram may seem larger than life to us, one must keep in mind that many of his miracles are no different from those performed by the figures of Christianity and Islam; Jesus of Nazareth and Muhammad. According to the devotional text Bhaktalilamrita, there were numerous miracles that Tukaram performed during his life and some of the more notable ones had considerable effects on those around him. One of Tukaram’s first minor miracles was taming a fierce dog that had killed a few local men. After taming the dog it became loyal to him (Abbott 243). Another minor miracle was creating oil for a Brahmin couple that he was visiting and whose lamp oil had run out (Abbott 265). Tukaram created an Abhang that could cure demonic possession and used it to cast out a demon from a possessed person (Abbott 248). Tukaram changed a well of brackish water in fresh water for a village (Abbott 263). Tukaram also apparently could raise the dead (Abbott 266) and turn iron into gold (Abbott 265).

Devotional texts also record numerous instances when Tukaram had divine properties and was protected on numerous occasions by the gods. For instance when Tukaram was being attacked by samnyasins who were insulting his poetry, they stopped when he transformed into a deific (Abbott 271). The gods also intervened at numerous points in his life aside from saving his texts. For instance, when king Shivaji returned to visit him a second time, an army of Muslim soldiers attacked his village in search of the king; a deity then descended and took the form of king Shivaji and led the soldiers away, allowing the king to escape (Abbott 280).

Tukaram’s death is even more enigmatic than his life. Tukaram’s disappearance is often debated over since it is reputed by devotional texts that he ascended into the sky riding on the celestial avatar of Visnu, “Garuda” (Dharwadker 93). Other devotional texts claim he disappeared in a flying chariot made of light that showered flower petals on those below (Abbott xi). During his ascension he was reputably watched over by Brahma, Visnu, and Siva (Abbott 315). Historically, however, it is not known what actually happened to him. However, there was a note found in a Dehu manuscript that said “’Tukoba started on a pilgrimage’ and wasn’t seen again” (Fraser & Marathe 2). This note of disappearance has been interpreted by some authors that Tukaram had been assassinated by a Brahman whom he had continuously upset throughout his life (P 2113). Regardless of his actual fate Tukaram ceased to write in 1649 CE. A final unusual detail is that unlike most other Bhakti poets Tukaram did not leave behind any monuments that are a tradition of the Marathi people (Dharwadker 93). Tukaram was a great man who has left us a legacy of wonderful poetry.

One cannot hope to understand a poet without reading some of his poetry and as such it would be prudent to include two samples of Tukaram’s poetry. Therefore included here is two poems of the multitudes composed by Tukaram. The first poem is the aforementioned The Rich Farmer or Dagadacya Deva which deals with social mores (Dvarwadker 95). The second piece of poetry included is devotional, as it deals with a person wondering why the god can be so cruel even though they have devoted their lives to worshiping them.

The Rich Farmer (Dagadacya Deva)

He has vowed undying devotional

to a god of stone,

But he won’t let his wife go

listen to a holy recitation.

He built a crematorium

with his hoarded wealth,

but he thinks it wrong to grow

holy basil at his door.

Thieves plunder his home

and bring him much grief,

but he won’t give a coin

to a poor brahman.

He treats his son-in-law

like a guest of honor,

but he turns his back upon

his real guests.

Tuka says, curse him,

may he burn

he’s only a burden

and drains the earth.

(Dvarwadker 95).

Abhang 23

Why do you not pity me

Though you are seated in my heart?

O Narayana, cruel and merciless,

I have cried on thee unheard till my voice is lost.

Why has my spirit found no repose?

The stirrings of sense never pause.

Tuka says, O why are you angry?

We know not, O Panduranga,

Whether our guilt to be over or not.

(Fraser & Marathe 13).

Work Cited

Primary Sources

Tukaram (1909) Poems of Tukarama (5th ed.) (J. N. Fraser & K. B. Marathe, Trans.). (1909). Delhi: Motilal Banarsidass.

Manipati (1930) Bhaktalilamrita. Trans. Justin E. Abbott. (2nd ed.) Dehli: Motilal Banarsidass, 1-315.

Secondary Sources

Dharwadker, Vinay (1995) “Poems of Tukaram.” Religions of India in Practice. Princeton: Princeton University, 92-103.

Abbott, J. E. (1930). Life of Tukaram (2nd ed.). Delhi: Motilal Banarsidass. (i-xi)

Journal Articles

P, G. D. (2002) “What is a Name After All?” Economic and Political Weekly, 37(22), 2113- 2114.

Abbott, J. E. (1922) The Maratha Poet Saint Dasopant Digambar. Journal of the American Oriental Society, 42, 251-279.

Helpful Websites

Future Topics


Sri Chaitanya


Sri Ramakrishna



Written by Garret Ford (Spring 2009), who is solely responsible for its content.


Kalarippayattu is the term given to the oldest martial arts form founded in the state of Kerala in India’s southwest. The word, Kalarippayattu, broken down means: kalari or “place of training” and payattu, “exercise”. Kalarippayattu only began to be considered a martial art in 20th century during the revival of the sport (Green 2001a). Kalarippayattu, historically, is said to date back to the 11th century during a prolonged period of turmoil in the kingdom of Cera. During this time groups of Brahmins trained themselves and others in art of warfare and supported the war with the Colas. After the fall of the Cera kingdom, and the region of Kerala was divided, a group of Brahmins continued to practice their military art. The cattar or yatra, the sub-caste of brahmins also called “half –brahmins” for their devotion to the practice of arms combat, proceeded to teach, train, fight and dominate in the martial arts for centuries. Keralopathi, the legendary Kerala Brahmin chronicle tells of how the brahmakshatra, (the land where Brahmins take on Ksatriya roles) was given by Parasurama, and given instruction that the ardhabrahmana (half-brahmins) should fulfill military roles such as guards or soldiers (Mills 23-24). Parasurama, a warrior sage, is said to be the founder of Kerala and the first in the lineage of teaching families. Along with the yatras, other caste groups were trained in the art of Kalarippayattu. The Nayars were both soldiers and personal physical therapists to high-ranking officials such as district rulers or the local raja. The ideals of Kalarippayattu are also said to date back to the time of the Vedas. The concept of vital points (marman) can be traced back to the Rg Veda, in the story where the god Indra slays the demon Vrtra by attacking his vital spot with his vajra (thunderbolt) (Green 2001a).

During British rule Kalarippayattu experienced a decline because of an increase in military technologies such as firearms. It survived through the teachings of a few masters throughout the region, especially in the northern area. In 1920 Kalarippayattu started to revive with a sudden interest in the local art forms. Then in 1958, a few years after Kerala became a state government, the Kerala Kalarippayat Association was formed making Kalarippayattu an official sport. However, Kalarippayattu was still an unknown sport for most of the next few decades. Over the years that Kalarippayattu has been in practice, many forms and styles of it have emerged such as Arappukai, Pillartanni, Vatten, etc. However, many styles were lost, especially in the 19th century where there was a drive to strip power away from the Nayars and centralize power using European institutional models. Nowadays, there are three styles recognized by the Kerala Kalarippayat Association: Northern, Central and Southern, all named for their geographical region (Green 2001a).

Practitioners of Kalarippayattu focus on strict training methods and meditative practices to link the body and mind together. The basis of Kalarippayattu is the knowledge of the three “bodies of practice”: The first is the fluid body of humors and saps attained by rigorous seasonal training. The second is knowledge of the body, composed of bone, muscle, and vital spots. The third is the manifestation of the interior body through yogic practices to awaken the inner “serpent power (kundalini sakti) (Green 2001a). The learning of these practices are essential in creating the ideal state where “The body becomes all eyes”, which is a state of heightened awareness of all your surroundings and being able to act on impulse and instinct, much like an animal (McDonald 1570-1571).

Training in the art of Kalarippayattu is done in a kalari, which traditionally would be a pit dug in the ground, however, modern practitioners go to gyms (McDonald1569). The kalari itself is seen as a temple, with varying number of deities that are worshipped daily during the training season (Green 2001a). Training is traditionally started at age 7 and is for boys and girls. The training season is carried out during the cool monsoon season (June – August) (Zarrilli 25). Clothing prescribed is usually a loin cloth for males and loose fitting clothes for women. Entering the kalari is much like entering a Hindu temple: enter with your right foot first, and touch your forehead and chest with your right hand. The student crosses the kalari and pays respect and performs puja (worship) to the guardian deity of the kalari. Practice usually begins by oiling the body (McDonald 1570) and then start going through body exercise sequences (meippayattu) which link yoga asana-like poses, steps, kicks, jumps and turns and hand-arm coordination’s performed in increasing speed and difficulty. The poses are designed after dynamic animals such as the horse, peacock, serpent and so on (Green 2001b). When students are ready physically, spiritually and ethically, they are allowed to move onto weapons training. It starts with wooden weapons such as the long staff, and then is moved on to combat weapons like swords, and spears. Ideally, if practitioners are ready, the weapon should become an extension of their body-mind. Armed combat, much like un-armed combat is designed to attack and defend the body’s vital spots (Green 2001a). During the training period, special dietary, behavioral and observances are taken on that resemble one of the eight limbs of Patanjali’s yoga. These may include never sleeping during the day and not staying awake at night, no sexual intercourse during training, to never misuse what is learned, and to be a good person (Zarrilli 25).

Along with physical exercise, meditation and massage are important aspects of Kalarippayattu training. Meditation is a way to increase concentration, and through different methods one can attain a higher form of one-point concentration. One method is to repeat particular mantras. Past masters of Kalarippayattu possessed mantra “tool boxes”, with mantras each having its own purpose such as one to worship a specific deity or another that has healing properties used during treatment of wounds. Before exercises begin, students are to massage oil on themselves and during training, full body massages are given by the master’s feet as he holds onto ropes suspended from the ceiling. These massages are done so that it will stimulate a person’s wind humor and create more flexibility and fluidity in the body (Green 2001a).

Although Kalarippayattu is a martial art, it has many other applications other than self defense. Constant discipline calms the three humors in the body: wind, phlegm, and fire. Knowledge of these humors is important to a practitioner of Kalarippayattu because when you know about the body it is easier to train and to treat injuries (Zarrilli 36). The concept of vital spots is important to both self-defense and medicine. In the 2nd century when Susruta wrote the classic Sanskrit medical text, 107 vital spots had been discovered to aid surgical intervention. With the knowledge of the vital spots, a master could injure or kill someone in a “counter application” of the previous use by striking a vital spot, or avoid them during therapeutic massages. Kalarippayattu, although a martial art, is also an important cultural aspect of Kerala and is on constant display in duels, displays of talent, or cultural applications such as dance and dance-dramas. So diverse is its use, that it is even used in a Christian dance-drama form, Cavittu Natakam displaying the Christian heroes St. George and Charlemagne (Green 2001a).

Martial arts, whether it is in Japan or India, are based on its key principles and devotional attitudes. Kalarippayattu is the unique martial art of the Kerala area and has been developing for thousands of years. Its ideals of exercise and meditation have been used in many other ways and in many other areas from medicine to warfare and even drama. The diverse use of Kalarippayattu is a testament to this dynamic and powerful martial art and to the culture that developed it.


McDonald, Ian. (2003) Hindu Nationalism, Cultural Spaces, and Bodily Practices in India. American Behavioral Scientist, Vol 46, No. 11: 1563-1576

Mills, James H. (2005) Subaltern Sports: Politics in South Asia. London: Anthern Press. Pg 23- 24.

Green, Thomas A. (2001a) In Martial Arts of the World: Kalarippayattu. Santa Barbara, CA: ABC-CLIO.

Green, Thomas A. (2001b) In Martial Arts of the World: India. Santa Barbara, CA: ABC-CLIO.

Zarrilli, Phillip B. (1994) Kalarippayattu: A South Indian Martial Art and the Yoga and _ Ayurvedic Paradigms. Journal of Asian Martial Arts 3, 3: 10-50

Related Topics:


Sanga Tamil

Dhanur Veda

Asana Yoga











Recommended Websites:

Article written by: Anthony Erickson (March 16, 2009) who is solely responsible for its content.

The Devadasi

Devadasi means god servant or slave. They are sometimes seen as the godking’s wives, or simply married to their temple, but since the Christian influence has come into South- East Asia, they have been also called prostitutes and have lost most of their high social ranking. The Devadasi are mostly young girls, given to the temple by their parents. There they are taught sacred dances and ceremonies pertaining to the God of the temple. At many of the temples they would perform these cultural acts naked or wearing very little (Sirhandi 44). This is one of the reasons the cult was seen as improper by other cultures. More recently there have been legal ramifications from the treatment of the Devadasi. This introduction into the Devadasi will attempt to explain the complex world in which the Devadasi play a pivotal role.

One of the greatest advantages of the Devadasis was that they could never be widowed (Orchard 2380). This allowed them a higher status than most other women, as being widowed can lead to losing everything. This may be one of the reasons that the Devadasi were seen as ranking higher than most other women in social status. They were sometimes seen as the development of the female Brahmin. Since women were no longer allowed to be priests, it can be said that the Devadasi took over the women’s portion of the ritual performances.

The Devadasi tradition can be traced back to the first century BCE (Jeffery 185). Although that date is unclear and some sources dispute that the tradition began between the third and sixth century CE (Orchard 5). At first Devadasis were simply seen as the wives of the god, or married to the temple. They performed sacred dances, sang and played instruments as a part of their relationship with the temple and its rituals. By the Chola Period, 850-1300 CE, (Orchard 6) they had become far more popular and were gaining much attention by their rituals. At this point many believe that their role as sexual beings became exploited. As wives of the temple they would be expected to perform sexual acts either for the temple to prosper or as part of their lives in the temple. In many cases, despite being married to the god of the temple, the women were still able to have children (Ashton, 798). The pressure for families to keep the temple prosperous may have led to increased pressure on sexual intercourse.

There is now a major problem with the Devadasis and their lives. From all the sources it is very hard to distinguish whether they were empowered wives of the god or victims of prostitution. Some sources say that they were simply dancers and entertainers and were not forced to have sexual intercourse with anyone that they do not approve of. Other sources say that they were sold by their families at very young ages and forced to perform sexual acts on anyone that will bring money to the corrupt Brahmans. Since Christianity came to India, the Devadasis have been under scrutiny. In times of British rule the Devadasis lost their social status.

In 1947 an act was passed for the protection of the Devadasis (Hubel 15). This act had become a very controversial and heated topic. Many felt it was necessary while others believed it infringed on their religious rights. According to Teresa Hubel, “the Madras legislature passed an act into law that would change forever the unique culture of the professional temple female dancers of South India (Hubel 15).” This topic is still controversial and has only passed in South India, although that is where most of the remaining Devadasi are. According to some of the sources this law has significantly reduced the amount of Devadasi that are used in the temples and their rituals. However one ethnographic study by Treena Orchard, notes that “between 1,000 and 10,000 girls are introduced into the Devadasi each year (Orchard 6).” It is difficult to tell what the proper figures are from most of the sources available. Either way, the law has had a significant effect on the treatment toward the Devadasi, now they are portrayed as prostitutes that are being protected. The ethnographic studies done on the Devadasi mostly depict them as sex-trade workers, but most studies ignore the fascinating history behind their rituals and traditions.

The Devadasi is a complex ritual and tradition. It has been a struggle for those still remaining in the ritual dancing to avoid being subject to calls of prostitution and becoming part of the corrupt nature of some of the temples. For most of those who have studied the Devadasi it was difficult to get anyone attached to the temples to openly discuss their roles (Ashton, 797). They are afraid of being viewed negatively as prostitutes, and the stigma that goes with their position within the temple rituals. Dancers are still used in many ceremonies and are called Devadasi but it is difficult to say what their positions are beyond entertaining at certain ceremonies. The ancient tradition of being married to a god and serving him for ones entire life is no longer found. The Devadasi way has changed along with the colonization and foreign influence in India.

The Devadasi are in a very difficult position in the caste system. They were once in a Brahman sub-caste but now they have been pushed out by outside cultures. They are seen as entertainers to gods and past kings, but modern-day prostitutes. Their position is very hard to place in Hindu society; it is unfortunate that their rituals seem so poorly understood by the sources.


Aston, Martha Bush (1987) Review of: Wives of the God-King: The Rituals of the Devadasis of Puri, by Frederique Apffel-Marglin. American Ethnologist, Volume 14; 4, 797-798 Malden:Blackwell Publishing

Hubel, Teresa (1994) Devadasi Defiance and the Man-Eater of Malgudi. Journal of Commonwealth Liturature, Volume 29; 15, 15-28 London, Canada.

Jeffery, Roger (1990) Review of: Nityasumangali: Devadasi Tradition in South India, By Saskia C. Kersenboom-Story. The Journal of Asian Studies, Volume 49; 1, 184-185ABI/INFORM Global.

Orchard, Treena Rae (2007) Girl, Woman, Lover, Mother: Towards a new understanding of child prostitution among young Devadasis in rural Karnataka, India. Social Science & Medicine, Volume 64, Issue 12, 2379-2390 Vancouver.

Orchard, Treena Rae (2007) In This Life: The Impact of Gender and Tradition on Sexuality and Relationships for Devadasi Sex Workers in Rural India. Sexuality and Culture, Volume 11; 1, 3-27.

Sirhandi, Marcella C. (1999) Manipulating Cultural Idioms: In Contemporary Indian Art. Art Journal, Volume 58; 3, 40-47.

Related Readings

Apffel-Marglin, Frederique (1985) Wives of the God-King: The Rituals of the Devadasis of Puri. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Priyadarshini, Vijaisri (2004) Recasting the Devadasi: Patterns of Sacred Prostitution in Colonial South India. Delhi: Kanishka Publishers.

Related Topics


Bombay Devadasi Protection Act







Related Websites

Written by Courtney Rode (Spring 2008) who is solely responsible for its content.

Fire in Hinduism

Fire plays an important role in various aspects of the Hindu Tradition. It is both the creator and destroyed of life, and those that follow the Hindu tradition recognize this fact through several of their rituals and practices. Fire plays a role in cremations, the worship of important deities through sacrifices and offerings and in daily Hindu routines.

It is apparent that in the Rg Veda and in later Vedic writings that interest moved more towards the fire sacrifice and Agni, and away from the other gods. Worship of these other gods was mostly through fire rituals. Any offerings that were to be given to the gods were placed in the fire and Agni would transport them to the other gods (Hopkins 14). These rituals were possible for Hindu’s of any social standing due to their ability to create fire (Hopkins 13). The importance of fire is evident in how offerings were actually conveyed to the gods, for without fire, it would be nearly impossible.

Agni is mentioned more times in the Vedic hymns that any other deity. Although Agni is not the creator god of the culture, he is still hugely popular and significant to Hindu’s. His importance lies in that he represents fire, something of great human value (Bowes 109). The importance of Agni comes through his association with fire, assisting in how vital his role is for worship. Agni plays a vital role in connecting Hindu’s to their deities by conveying offerings. He also assists in helping Hindu’s that had passed away into the afterlife. Because of this, Agni could be seen as assisting Hindu’s in physical matters by providing head and light, but also by supplying them with emotional and spiritual connections. Because he is considered the god of fire, it could also be assumed that he has control over Hindu’s life cycles. Fire supplies life, cooking food, supplying heat and giving off life. Fire is also seen as the end of a Hindu’s life as they are consumed by flames in a funeral pyre, sending them on to the afterlife. Because Agni supplies the fire in both cases, the life cycle of Hindu’s could be controlled by him.

Fire can be both the sign of life or death. Fire can be associated with the creation of the Cosmic Order, or Rta, and of Truth (Sitya). According to the Rg Vedic hymns, this creation was brought around by heat, or from tapas. The ripening or cooking of food could be seen as providing life to Hindu’s (Hopkins 26). Fire is one of the most traditional forms of gaining heat which is one of the reasons that Hindu’s started to worship it and respect the powers it grants. Through fire, life can be sustained as it helps cook food, provide light and offer protection. It provides Hindus with a defensive tool to scare off predators. It could supply light and heat to help Hindus survive. Fire can also help feed the people by providing heat to cook food and provide suitable drinking water. All of these reasons are vital to sustaining life, and the Hindu tradition recognizes that fire gives them advantage, so they worship fire accordingly.

Fire in the Hindu Tradition (A priest at a temple in Banaras presides over offerings into the fire, which plays a central role in many Hindu worship rites)
Fire in the Hindu Tradition (A priest at a temple in Banaras presides over offerings into the fire, which plays a central role in many Hindu worship rites)

It is Agni the Fire god that presides over the great events that happen in an individual’s life, and will accept their body when they die through the fire of a funeral pyre (Vir Singh 41). The cycle of death also goes out through the fire as the body is cremated. While the fire consumes the body, Agni takes the body parts and transfers them to a heavenly plane where another body is created (Wilkins 403). The wood faggots that are used on the funeral pyre need to be chosen carefully so they are acceptable to the cremation ceremony. It would be best if the wood was sacred and brought from a priest’s residence. Wood should be avoided if it is brought from another pyre, or wood that had belonged to an outcaste or anyone that was unclean (Wilkins 387). This demonstrates how the rite of cremation and the burning of the body were to be respected and the ceremony was to be respected, but also how the fire that accepted the body was ritually pure. This is evidence that fire plays an important part for the final stage of a Hindus life cycle, and is used as a method to move onto the next stage in the afterlife.

The use of fire can also take minor parts in rituals or celebrations, but it is still vastly significant. At the Holi festival, a bonfire is lit towards the end and games are played. This is to symbolize the young Krsna (Monier-Williams 150). This use of fire is a way of connecting to the gods through a festival, and having them observe the proceedings. Some of the rituals that are used with fire are the burning of the camphor, to show that the ego should melt along with the camphor and the soul should become one with the supreme (Vir Singh 13). In Bhakti Yoga, one of the five offerings that can be made to the deities is dipa, or a flame offering. Just the application of fire to bring about a spiritual connection shows how important fire is to the Hindu people. Fire took place in wedding rituals between Hindus as well. They can only be accepted as a true married couple if they complete one of the rituals of saptapadi (seven steps) around a fire (Bharati 185). Perhaps one of the reasons for this action is a connection to the gods, as evidence that they have witnessed the wedding. It is because of rituals like this that we can assume that fire not only plays parts in religious aspects, but also in daily aspects as well. The importance of fire does not need to be the key focus of any of the celebrations, but its inclusion in several ceremonies even in minor roles shows how it is still an important aspect.

All of these are examples of how fire plays an important part in Hindu practices. It is a symbol and a connection to the gods. Agni plays a special role in the connection through the fire and many Hindus feel it necessary to worship him more than the others. Fire can play a difference between life and death. It grants life through supporting the people with food and protection. But it can also mean death and destruction. Fire is used in several rituals, and it does not really depend on the rituals importance.

References and other Recommended Readings

Hopkins, Thomas J. (1971) The Hindu Religious Tradition. North Scituate: Duxbury Press.

Bowes, Pratima. (1977) The Hindu Religious Tradition: A Philosophical Approach. London: Routledge & Kegan Paul.

Vir Singh, Dharam. (2003) Hinduism: An Introduction. New Delhi, Rupa & Co.

Wilkins, W.J. (1900) Modern Hinduism : An Account of the Religion and Life of the Hindu’s in Northern India. Dehli: B.R. Publishing Corporation.

Monier-Williams, Monier. ( 2003) Hinduism and its Sources: Vedic Literature – Tradition and Social and Religious Laws. New Dehli: Munshiram Manoharlal Publishers Pvt. Ltd.

Bharati, Dayanand. (2005) Understanding Hinduism. New Delhi: Bharati Dayanand.

Related Topics for Further Investigation

Rg Veda
-Hindu Afterlife
-Bhakti Yoga

Related websites to the topic

Written by Jeff Rasmussen (Spring 2008) who is solely responsible for its content.

Food in the Hindu Tradition

“In Vedic texts, the sacrifice plays the pivotal role in [the] perpetual redistribution of food. The sacrifice was the dining hall of the gods; humans fed the divinities in the expectation that the sated diners would, in turn, feed the universe” (Smith 180). Hindus perform sacrifices for many different reasons and most, if not all, involve an offering of food (Yajna) to a selected deity. It is important to note that one must be in a state of purity in order to offer food to the gods. According to the Havik Brahmin’s three states of pollution, a Havik male must be in the Madi, or purist state in order to worship and feed a god. A Havik female, even when in Madi, is still not pure enough to feed a deity. However, a woman must be in her highest state of Madi to feed a Havik man his dinner. The Hindus see eating as a form of pollution (Rodrigues 68). However, food is still very important within the Hindu culture. It is not only a source of nourishment that sustains life, but it is “synonymous with life and all its goals” (Ravindra 1)

During many stages in a Hindu’s life, food plays a role. For example; in the Investiture with the Sacred Thread (Upanayana) ritual, the boy is “fed by [his mother] like a small child…this is expected to be the final time he will receive food into his mouth from her hands…The boy also begs for his first meal” (Rodrigues 79). Marriage, being one of the most important rites of passage, is celebrated with a huge feast. When the married couple has their first child, Brahmins are invited into the home and offered food in celebration. According to the Laws of Manu, Brahmins are quite restricted in who they can accept food from.

A Brahmin should never eat (the food) of those who are drunk, angry, or ill, nor (food) in which hair or bugs have fallen, or which has been intentionally touched by the foot; nor (food) which has been looked at by an abortionist, or touched by a menstruating woman, or pecked at by a bird, or touched by a dog; nor food sniffed by a cow, nor, most especially, food publicly advertised… nor (food) which someone has sneezed on; nor the food of a slanderer, a liar, or the seller of rituals, nor the food of a tumbler or a weaver, nor the food of an ingrate; nor that of a blacksmith, a member of the Hunter caste (Doniger 1)

Although there are many more restrictions, it is easy to see how eating food can be an ordinary, yet complex task when there are so many limitations to consider. If a Brahmin were to eat any foods treated in such a fashion as described above, that Brahmin would plummet into a high state of pollution. Non-Brahmin Hindus also take heed when eating and accepting food from others for the same reasons. It may seem that some of these dietary boundaries are purely common sense, such as not eating food that has hair or bugs in it. Other boundaries however, appear fairly extreme and would take a great effort to ensure these rules are followed if one wishes to remain pure.

There are three categories of food that can cause anything from health and happiness to disease and sorrow. These categories; Sattvic, Rajasic and Tamasic are synonymous with the three Gunas (the primary qualities of nature). The Gunas are believed to exist in all human beings and are a part of Prakrti (that which keeps one from realizing absolute reality by binding one to material objects and emotions). The first and purist is Sattvic food. In this category food can be anything such as nuts, fruits, or vegetables. These foods increase one’s health, duration of life, strength, and happiness. It is believed that “when food is offered to one’s personal deity before eating, the deity would neutralize harmful energies contained in the food” (Jayaram a1). Thus the food becomes pure (Sattvic) and so does the eater of the food. The second is known as Rajasic (hot) food which can be bitter, salty, meat, garlic, onions or any hot, spicy foods (Saksena 1). It is said this food and/or Guna creates a person who is unhappy, sorrowful and diseased (Jayaram b1). The third and darkest or most intoxicating Guna is called Tamasic. Food under this category would be fermented, or considered untouchable. It would include such foods as meat, fish, poultry and eggs. Eating Tamasic food would make a person dull, sleepy or reckless (Jayaram b 1) Meat is especially important in the Hindu culture. Not for consumption but rather to avoid eating.

It is not the case that Hindus are all vegetarians, but due in part to Karma (action), Hindus refrain from killing, harming and eating any animal unless for ritual purposes or other extreme cases. According to the Laws of Manu, “times when one is in extremis [one] can eat any food whatsoever–even meat from a cow or a dog, or food bought by killing your son” (Doniger 1). Karma plays a large role in this belief of keeping animals off the Hindu’s dietary menu. Karma comes from doing, and what you do will affect you in this life and in the next life. Eating, killing or harming an animal is bad Karma and ultimately those that kill and eat animals will have to experience the same amount of suffering due to the effects of Karma. Food is considered to be one of the five “sheaths” that clothes the soul (the other four are breath, mental, intelligence, and bliss), thus “food directly matters to the formation of a Hindu’s inner being and its becoming from one birth to the next” (Ravindra 5) “Eating meat impacts the development of the five sheaths and delays spiritual development” (Jayaram a1)

Spiritual development is life’s purpose for most Hindus. The highest goal in life is to obtain Moksa, or freedom from worldly existence and Karma. Moksa is contrasted with Bhukti which is defined as the enjoyment of worldly pleasures (Rodrigues 52). Food is a worldly pleasure. Many people find satisfaction in food because of its taste, smell and its ability to eradicate the feeling of hunger. “With food, the [Hindu] regulates his mental states and aesthetic feelings and secures spiritual gains” (Ravindra 9). However, Hinduism offers another religious thought known as fasting. It is believed that fasting will bring you closer to Moksa. Fasting is going for long periods of time without food or with limited amounts of food. Depending on the type of fasting and for what occasion, the time period can vary from a few days to many years. The few Hindus who enter into the fourth life stage (Samnyasin) dedicate their time trying to achieve the goal of Moksa. There are variations of the ideal path, but fasting or restraining from any worldly pleasures is one way in which a Samnyasin attempts to reach the goal of Moksa. “Starvation [becomes] and [remains] a religious goal, even while eating extremely well [remains] a worldly goal” (Doniger 1).

A platter of jalebis and puris (deep fried sweets and bread) at a dhaba (roadside restaurant) in Rajasthan
A platter of jalebis and puris (deep fried sweets and bread) at a dhaba (roadside restaurant) in Rajasthan

Food is most definitely a complex aspect of Hinduism. With all the different types of food that the world has to offer, Hindus are particular in choosing the food they eat and are also cautious about the source from which the food comes. Worship is taken to a higher level when food is involved. Hindus carry the belief that feeding the gods will keep the cycle of food distribution in motion. Through Sattvic, Rajasic and Tamasic food categories, Hindus are able to decipher which foods they shall eat in order to gain or avoid certain actions or emotions. In terms of actions, or Karma, Hindus are quite firm when it comes to avoiding the consumption of animals. “Do not kill an animal, for it might be your grandmother, or your grandchild, or you” (Doniger 1). Food is self evident, it is part of Brahman (Ravindra 5) Brahman is equated with Atman (true inner most self) and thus when you eat food, according to Hindus; you are eating yourself because food and you are one in the same. They are both part of Brahman which is the innermost essence of the created universe, the universe itself (Rodrigues 36). Hindu’s hold a deep knowledge and appreciation for food. “Food reflects survival on one hand and spiritual liberation in the other” (Ravindra 5).


Doniger, Wendy (1999) “Eating Karma in Classical South Asian Texts.” Social Research 66.1:151. Academic OneFile. Gale. University of Lethbridge. 28 Feb. 2008

Jayaram a (2000-2007) Concepts of Hinduism-Annam, Food. Hindu Website

Jayaram b (2000-2007) Gunas, The Qualities of Nature. Hindu Website

Ravindra S. Khare (1992) The Eternal Food: Gastronomic Ideas and Experiences of Hindus and Buddhists. Albany: State University of New York Press.

Rodrigues P. Hillary (2006) Introducing Hinduism. New York and London: Routledge.

Saksena, Dev (2005) Hindu Foods. Cambridge University Hindu Cultural Society

Smith, Brian K (1990) “Eaters, food and social hierarchy in ancient India: a dietary guide to a revolution of values.” Journal of the American Academy of Religion 58 no.2 Sum, p. 177-205

Related topics




Caste system




Five Sheaths

Food offerings (Yajna)


Havik Brahmins


Laws of Manu




Upanayana Ritual

Vedic literature


Related websites

Written by Tiana Mutter-Veitch (Spring 2008) who is solely responsible for its content.

Culture in Banaras

Banaras is known as one of the oldest, and most sacred holy cities in the world. Most scholars date Banaras to be approximately three thousand years old, while others have dated important structures in Banaras to the eight century BC (Justice 15). This holy city is most widely known as Banaras, but has many names representing its different cultural aspects. The oldest name is Kashi, which is most commonly said to be a derivation from the Sanskrit root kash, “to shine, to look brilliant, or beautiful” (Eck 26). Banaras is also known as the City of Light, which has many different connotations, one of which is that the light implies enlightenment, for it is said that to die in Banaras is to attain enlightenment or liberation. Another name, which is said to be the official name by its residents, is Varanasi, which comes from the names of the two rivers that flow by it. From this name came the Pali version, Banarasi, which eventually became anglicized as Banaras or Benares in British and Muslim India (Eck 26).

Geographically, Banaras only occupies a strip of land along the banks of the Ganges approximately three miles long, but has millions visiting the holy site annually, making it an extremely densely populated area. It is situated on the west side of the Ganges where the Varana (on the north) and Asi (on the south) rivers join. The river flows north to south at this location, back towards its source in the Himalayas, placing Banaras in a very auspicious location. Banaras’ location near the Ganges also makes it an incredibly beautiful site, especially while the sun rises over the river at dawn. It was this incredible beauty that captivated Siva’s imagination and drew him to Banaras to make it his home (Eck 95). Other relations the city has to Siva is that the area is roughly shaped like the crescent moon that is placed over Siva’s head, and in the cosmological frame the city lies on the Trident of Siva [On the cosmological frame, see Singh and Rana (2002)].

While many famous cities around the world are known for their incredible architecture, Banaras is not what you would call architecturally interesting with its narrow lanes and dilapidated buildings. To most observers the most attractive buildings are the few palaces that were built by past princes. During the Ganges’ flooding season the basements of these palaces are flooded and many pilgrims will come there to bathe in the Ganges’ water before death. There are eighty-four ghats (stairs leading into the water) in Banaras forming a symbolic chain of holy sites (Singh and Rana 85). Some of the more popular ghats include Asi, Dasasvamedha, Adi Kesava, Pancaganga, and Manikarnika that are visited during the Pancatirthi pilgrimage to the “Five Tirthas”, or five crossing places (Eck 220). Manikarnika is one of the more visited ghats in Banaras, placed at the center of the city’s riverfront. In Banaras it is said that Manikarnika is the place of the earth’s creation and destruction, hence this ghat is used for cremation and to perform the proper death rituals and thus attain moksa [For more on cremation ghats, see Parry (1994)]. Besides ghats, there are also thousands of Hindu temples, and innumerable smaller shrines, nearly all dedicated to Siva, while the others are dedicated to family deities (kula-devatas) or personal deities (ista-devatas) (Eck 94). Along with the multiple Hindu temples, you can also find many Muslim mosques. While the majority of the population of Banaras is Hindu, it is a multicultural and multireligious city with a small percentage of its population being Muslim.

Another title that Banaras has come to achieve is “Rudravasa: The City of Siva” (Eck 31). The worship of Siva is predominant in Banaras culture. Siva has been the principal deity of Banaras since the first half of the seventh century, most likely earlier, but also shares the city with the whole pantheon of Hindu gods and goddesses (Eck 146). It is a belief to many who live in Banaras that the Divine, or the pantheon of gods, can be visualized in Siva (Eck 41). Similarly, the sacred river, the Ganges, can be visualized as a “prototype for other sacred waters,” and Banaras can be seen as encompassing all other pilgrimage places in India (Eck 40). Many making a pilgrimage to Banaras are on the verge of death because there is a belief that if they die in the city they will undergo a final release and union with Shiva (Lannoy 143). It is here that they will be liberated from samsara, the cycle of birth and rebirth, and attain moksa.

Hindus believe there are three fundamental states of the cosmos, each represented or controlled by a god, forming a sort of Trinity known as the Trimurti (Singh and Rana 61). Brahma is “the creator”, Visnu is “the preserver”, while Siva is “the destroyer” (Singh and Rana 61). Siva being seen as this element of death or endings fits accordingly with the idea of Banaras being a place of death. It is a place to move out of the human realm and leave one’s physical body. Pilgrims at Banaras believe that Siva is Mahadeva, the great god, or Isvara, the Self, and he represents all the powers of the Trimurti (Havell 39).

Siva is almost always connected with the tradition of yoga, and is represented and associated with phallic worship in the form of a linga (Lannoy 139). As one enters into Banaras, a first observance would be the multitude of lingas in the city found under and around every corner. It is a common saying among the residents of Banaras that “The very stones of Kashi are Siva” (Eck 110). A linga, meaning “phallus” and “emblem”, is a rounded vertical shaft of stone implanted in a circular base (Eck 103). This is a symbol of Siva’s reproductive and creative power. One may point out that the linga is also a way for Siva to be represented in bisexual form, with the erect shaft representing the male Siva, and the seat in which it is placed personifying the female half of Siva known as Sakti. While Banaras is most well known for being a place of pilgrimage and worship of Siva, it is also a place of education and art industry.

Banaras is home to three universities with one of them being a Sanskrit university. At any one time in the city you may also find many researchers among the pilgrims studying the culture and the “microcosm” that Banaras is (Justice 19). Indian life, customs, and popular beliefs are what some would say strained and concentrated in this city, making it a popular place for anyone studying anthropology, language (especially Sanskrit), or religious studies. Some famous sages, such as the Buddha, Mahavir, and Sankara, have come to Banaras to teach as well (Eck 4). Besides the educational aspect of the city, there is also a strong art industry found in Banaras. The city is well known for the weaving of silks, brocades, and saris, as well as metal work. The manufacturing of brass and copper idols, lamps, sacrificial utensils, and all sorts of native cooking drinking vessels, is a popular art form in the city (Havell 49-50).

Festivals and performances in the city are another prominent part of the culture in Banaras as well as an attracting force for visitors. Nearly every day in Banaras some kind of festival is taking place (whether it is Hindu or Muslim), with some of them lasting longer than one day. Many of the rituals and ceremonies (daily and seasonal, individual and public) have remained outwardly similar for the nearly three thousand years Banaras has said to be in existence (Lannoy 27). Nearly all the fairs and festivals in Banaras are religious with different cultural and social perspectives. The festivals serve as a means to gather for rejoicing, public worship, and cultural interaction. It is through these festivals that Hindus and other religious sects in the city have grown together just by attending each other’s popular religious festivals. The festivals also serve as a growth of community within their own religion as the role of the srota (hearer) in these festivities is more active than passive (Freitag 37). Popular forms of festivals are katha (oral explanation of a story) and Vedic chanting mainly organized and put on by the Banaras Sanskrit University [For further reading on Manaskatha festivals, see Freitag (1989)].

The yearly cycle in Hindu is divided into 12 months, similar, but not the same as the months known in the West. Each year will begin in the middle of the month, for example, Chaitra is the month beginning in the middle of March, and ending in the middle of April (Eck 258). As well, an extra month is added into the Hindu calendar whenever it is needed to match the solar calendar. During the month of Sravana (July/August), as well as Mondays, is when there is a special focus on Siva; hence it is a spectacular time in Banaras (Eck 262). For each month a specific holy city is mythologized as the sacred abode, or puri, where festivals and religious ceremonies are to be performed. In Banaras, all the puris are established making the city known as the “city of all seasons” (Singh and Rana 68). While many festivals are held annually in Banaras, the more popular festivals are Divali (Festival of Lights), Ram Lila, Sivaratri, Holi, and the Nakkatayya festivals [For a list of all Hindu festivals, and explanations of many, see Singh and Rana (2002)]. During many of these festivals there are retelling of the epics (the Ramayana and Mahabharata), or reenactments of parts of the stories such as during the Rama Lila and Nakkatayya. These festivals are celebrated in Asvina (September/October), and they reenact different parts of the story of the Ramayana. Other festivals are mainly ceremonial where the major component is bathing in the Ganges River. The largest bathing festival is Karttika Purnima, which is celebrated in October/November (Karttika). Other smaller ceremonies take place in the Ganges for couples who are recently married, celebrating anniversaries, anyone who has recovered from an illness, or many other reasons (Havell 59). Many of the festivals include grand decorations and offerings. Sivaratri, celebrated in February/March (Phalguna), is a festival celebrating the marriage of Siva to Parvati. All of Siva’s temples are majestically decorated in sringara and celebrations are held where Ganges water and red powder is sprinkled on the Siva linga. The Divali festival, or festival of lamps and lights, is another that greatly relies on the use of decorations. Rows of oil lamps and candles are put out in the streets or on the Ganges, and clay images of Ganesa and Laksmi are sold. In festivals such as the Holi festival (also known as the Festival of Colors), offerings of flowers, dry colored powders, and sweets are given to the participants and the temples (Singh and Rana 70-77).

Culture in Banaras has remained relatively similar since its existence as far as scholars can see. This is quite an accomplishment for the holy city, as many other cities of other religious merit have become quite secularized. There is some evidence of Banaras becoming more materialistic, and although it is deemed as one of the holiest cities it does have a portion of the population who live there to attract tourists, and devout pilgrims, and make money off them. While this is true, Banaras still contains its main aspects of the worship of Siva, religious festivals, and rituals in the Ganges, and will remain a highly religion-centered culture.


Bhardwaj, Surinder M. (2003) Hindu Places of Pilgrimage in India: a study in cultural geography. New Delhi: Munshiram Manoharlal Publishers

Eck, Diana L (1983) Banaras: city of light. Princeton: Princeton University Press

Freitag, Sandria B. (ed) (1989) Culture and power in Banaras: community, performance, and environment, 1800-1980. Berkeley: University of California Press

Havell, E. B. (2000) Benares, the sacred city: sketches of Hindu life and religion. New Delhi: Book Faith India

Justice, Christopher (1997) Dying the good death: the pilgrimage to die in India’s Holy

City. Shakti Nagar: Sri Satguru Publications

Lannoy, Richard (2002) Benares: a world within a world: the microcosm of Kashi, yesterday and today. Varanasi: Indica Books

Morinis, Alan E. (1984) Pilgrimage in the Hindu Tradition: A Case Study of West Bengal. New Delhi: Oxford University Press

Parry, Jonathan P. (1994) Death in Banaras. Cambridge, NY: Cambridge University


Sen, Rajani R. (1912) The Holy City: Benares. Gurgaon, India: Shubhi Publications

Singh, Rana P.B. and Pravin S. Rana (2002) Banaras region: a spiritual & cultural guide. Varanasi, India: Indica Books

Related Topics for Further Investigation

The Bhagavad-Gita

Phallic worship

The Ramayana

The Mahabharata









Ganges Valley



Ram Lila





Sanskrit University

Noteworthy Websites Related to the Topic

Article written by Katie Lohues (March 2008) who is solely responsible for its content.


Devadasi literally means “maid servant of god” (Goswami xxiv). ‘Deva’ means god and ‘dasi’ means female servant. The Devadasis are women who (either voluntarily or given up) are married to a god and from then serve in that god’s temple. The earliest evidence of such women is found in a cavern just south of Banaras. The cave is carved with Prakrit writing from around the days of Ashoka and reads: “The excellent young man Devadinna the painter loved Utanuka, the slave-girl of the God” (Chakraborthy 18). The art of the Devadasis has continued to today.

The role of women in the Indian society has gone through changes up to the modern day. Some suspect that women were respected in ancient Indian culture since Manu stated that “where the female relations live in grief, the family soon wholly perishes, but where they are not unhappy, the family ever prospers” (Chakraborthy 2). Men were aware of the importance of women as essential to marriage, family, and child bearing. For women’s protection the first real law on marriage for girls was the Child Marriage Restraint Act (Sarda Act) 1927, which stated that it was illegal for girls to marry below the age of 14 (Chakraborthy 9). However, women were not able to own property until the Hindu Women’s Right to Property Act allowed them to own property jointly with their husbands (Chakraborthy 9). One of the most respectable ways a woman could serve her community was to become a servant of god. Women would dutifully marry a deity and serve in the temple for the rest of her life. It was originally a noble position to hold, but sadly, as history took its course, the role of the Devadasis became more and more degraded.

The origins of the Devadasis are a little obscure. An actual founder is still unknown (Chakraborthy 13). One speculation is that the gods were viewed as feudal lords and the virgin girls were offered for service to please the gods (Chakraborthy 16). Another theory, by Sir James Frazer, is that the girls were models of a Great Mother Goddess, who had many lovers, which coincides with the idea that the Devadasis were for “sacred prostitution” (Chakraborthy 15). Another more commonly held view of the derivation of the dancing girls is that because women needed to marry, and it was a great disgrace for a husband to die, marrying a deity would result in an eternal marriage. This gave the women immediate and lasting auspiciousness (Goswami xxiv). It was said that the “Devadasis who were married to deities were regarded with honour as celestial nymphs” (Goswami xxiv). When women leave their families to marry, their parents no longer have any rights to them; she is wholly her husband’s. For the parents’ sake, if their daughter was to marry a deity, she would be free to look after her parents in their old age (Chakraborthy 16). Once the tradition became established however, parents kept the custom alive. Women of the community often would request favours from the gods (usually to have a safe birth), and promised in return that they would give their daughters to the temple (Chakraborthy 16). Some families even led a tradition in which “a girl from each generation is compulsorily dedicated to God” (Chakraborthy 16).

Not all women were chosen equally to be a Devadasi. A woman needed to be attractive, smart, audacious, a hard worker, lively, skilled in dance, and have many other good qualities (Goswami xxv). A parent could offer a child from birth, but these qualifications were for women who gave themselves to the temple. There was a special type of marriage ceremony for women who were joining the Devadasis. The first part was a vow, which was made, in some cases, before the child was even born, and offered the girl as a gift to the deity (Chakraborthy 28). Following the marriage the Devadasi would be owned by the temple (Chakraborthy 28). The girl then applied oils and bathed, and went to the temple to give gifts to the custodian, who then stood as a proxy for the girl in a worship ceremony (Chakraborthy 29). The girl then receives a “sacred necklace of beads” and her parents celebrated by feeding the neighbourhood, exactly as a real marriage feast would be conducted (Chakraborthy 29). Once the girl had been officially brought into the marriage with the deity, and had fully become a Devadasis, she was trained in the arts of her profession. Sometimes when there were too many girls in a temple, some were allowed to deviate from dancing and singing, and do such activities as acting. These girls were known as Patradavaru (Chakraborthy 25). The duties of the Devadasis were to sing and dance in the morning and evening, attend marriages and other family gatherings, to bring auspiciousness to the family/couple (Chakraborthy 30, Goswami xxiv). In return for their work the girls received “money and a platform to present their art” (Soneji 30). The Devadasis did not live in the temples, but were given tax free land by the royal family (Goswami xxvii).

The central part of the Devadasis’ work was the dancing, which was set to music. Music, which is pleasant to the ears, also “contributes to the growth of mind and body” (Goswami xx). The music that the Devadasis dance to was originally played by instruments called ‘khols’ and ‘tals’, but were later replaced by a modern violin (Goswami xxvi). Many of the dances, and the songs came from the influential texts; such as the Ramayana, the Mahabharata, and the Puranas (Goswami xxi). The dances may also have association with gods, such a Siva (Goswami xxii). The importance of the dances were to entertain the gods and people, to earn money for the temples, and to help make the religion more widely accepted in the community (Goswami xxi).

The auspiciousness of the Devadasis was continuous so that these “servants of God” had superior status over the other women. A Devadasi did not become ritually impure even when she was menstruating. Therefore she could dance all month long. Nor was she made unclean by a death of someone near her (Soneji 42).

The Devadasis tradition began with the girls being wholesome brides of the gods, but through the generations their morality decayed. Since the girls had to be virgins when they married the deity, they would fulfil their “carnal appetites” with the “priests and aristocrats” (Goswami xxiv). Since the girls danced for the public, rich men were able to observe the beautiful girls, who were then easy prey for prostitution. In the early twentieth century, the younger generations for Devadasis expressed no problem in being paid for sexual favours (Soneji 39).

The Devadasis were once a respected part of the Hindu society, with very important religious responsibilities. Now, though there are hardly any left, the women are exploited for prostitution. The devoted girls who either dedicated themselves, or were given to the temple from birth, still hold important roles in the worship of the deities, but their status in the community has diminished. If the Devadasis could regain their reputation, they could again be the most respected women of Hindu societies.

Bibliography and Recommend Readings

Chakraborthy, Kakolee (2000) Women As Devadasis: Origin and Growth of the Devadasi

Profession. Rajouri Garden, ND: Deep & Deep Publications.

Goswami, Kali Prasad (2000) Devadasi: Dancing Damsel. Darya Ganj, ND: A.P Publishing


Orr, Leslie C. (2000) Donors, Devotees, and Daughters of God. Oxford, NY: Oxford UP.

Rodrigues, Hillary (2006) Hinduism the Ebook. Journal of Buddhist Ethics Online Books, Ltd.

Soneji, Davesh (2004) Living History, Performing Memory: Devadasi Women in Telugu-

Speaking South India. Dance Research Journal, Vol. 36, Issue 2, p30-49.

Related Topics for Further Investigation

Great Mother Goddess




The Ramayana

The Mahabharata

The Puranas




Ritual Purity

Noteworthy Websites Related to the Topic

Written by Rebecca Bouchard (March 2008) who is solely responsible for its content.

Bharat Natyam: India’s Classical Dance

Religion in India has influenced many aspects of its culture throughout history. It has played a particularly significant role in shaping the arts in numerous ways. An example of religious inspirations within art can be seen in the dance tradition known as Bharat Natyam. Originally known as Dasi Attam, this dance was performed in temples and royal courts by devadasis. The devadasis were women who received extensive training in the dance form, which began in their youth (Gaston 26-60). This paper will examine Bharat Natyam in practice and theory from its origin as Dasi Attam to contemporary times. It will also explore the devadasi tradition and their roles in society. Finally it will examine the presence and significance of Hindu religious gods and goddesses within Bharat Natyam.

The term Bharat Natyam was introduced by E. Krishna Iyer in the nineteen thirties. Prior to this time, the dance was known as Dasi Attam and was associated with a long-standing tradition of extensively trained female dancers (Devi 49). These were the devadasis. Initially they were servants of the temple who were required to become well versed in Sanskrit and the art of Dasi Attam. Being dedicated or “married” to a temple well before puberty, the women led lives of celibacy and devotion to their religion. The purpose of the dance was to honour the gods and temples. Local kings invited devadasis to dance in royal courts; this gave birth to the rajadasi, a dancer who would perform for the purpose of entertainment (Kersenboom 90-111). As the devadasi surrendered to gods, the rajadasi would surrender to kings. After the eleventh century AD the devadasi tradition disappeared as many temples were invaded and destroyed. The fall of the tradition forced many devadasis into poverty and often prostitution (Gaston 38-44).

The colonial era brought about social movements relating to the devadasis. The Reformists and Abolitionists regarded the tradition as evil and every devadasi as a prostitute. Under the influence of Christian values, these movements urged the abolition of the entire practice. The Revivalists favored the ancient view of the devadasi as a sacred, chaste devotee and set out to revive the dance form of Dasi Attam as Bharat Natyam (Devi 45,58). This revival allowed a girl or woman to practice the art form without necessarily being involved in the historical cultural practices of the devadasi.

The myths of the initial arrival of dance in Indian religion involve the great gods of the cosmos. In one such myth, the ancient gods and goddesses pleaded with Lord Brahma to create a fifth Veda. This Veda would be one that would appeal to the common man. In response Brahma created the Natya Veda. He took words (pathya) from the Rg Veda, communicative movements (abhinaya) from the Yajur Veda, song (Gita) from them Sama Veda and sentiment (rasa) from the Atharva Veda to form the Natya Veda. He then commissioned the sage Bharatha to write it down as the Natya Shastra and perform it to Lord Siva. Bharatha then propagated the dance on earth (Gaston 206-220). From the spreading of the dance on earth, emerged many forms of dance that are still practiced in contemporary India such as, Odissi, Kathak, Kathakali, Kuchipudi, Mohini attam, and Bharat Natyam.

Another proposed mythical origin of the dance involves the Goddess Parvati and her daughter. It is said that Parvati taught the dance to Usha, her daughter with the demon Banasura. Usha then want on to teach the art of dance to the gopikas of the city in which Lord Krsna was born [The gopikas were milkmaids in Hindu mythology. They were young women who were enamored with Krsna and vied for his affection; Krsna often had romantic affairs with the gopikas.]. This version of the legend acknowledges Lord Siva as the Supreme Dancer, the universe being his divine dance. He dances with Parvati and together they teach the other gods and goddesses the art (Kramrisch 78). The heavenly dance gradually passed through into the human world and resulted in the forms of dance practiced in India today. Bharat Natyam, which originated in the Southern Indian State of Tamil Nadu is one such form.

Just as the tradition of the devadasi underwent gradual change, so did the tradition of Bharat Natyam. Originally practiced in temples as a sacred form of devotion it is now a form of entertainment for many in India as well as other parts of the world. Many people study the dance as a hobby and some adopt it as a lifestyle and become professional dancers or teachers. Dancers devote a substantial amount of time studying purpose and theory of Bharat Natyam. There are several fundamental components of the dance that remain unchanged. These components usually include those involving facial and physical movements as well as their purpose. Divine figures such as gods and demons are still present in the dances just as they were in centuries past.

Bharat Natyam encompasses three elements. Nritta are repetitive rhythmical aspects; Natya is the combination of gestures and poses, which forms the dramatic element; Nritya is the combination of the two. Throughout training, a dancer is taught various body movements involving the feet, legs, arms, hands, fingers, torso and neck. They are also taught several facial expressions and dramatic gestures (Bhagyalekshmi 7,8). The combination of all of these elements creates the many traditional dances that one performs. While some dances are performed in devotion to the gods others are stories depicting the gods themselves in which dancers characterize the gods.

The first dance learned by a student is Pushpanjali or Alarippu. These dances are based on pure rhythm. They incorporate movements of each and every body part. Dancers often regard them as efficient warm up dances. Traditionally, they were performed in order to greet the gods in the temples and later on to greet the audiences in recitals. The next dance is known as the Jatiswaram, which involves a complex set of dance steps. The Shabda is a dance that is performed in praise of the Lord Krsna. It is in this dance that Abhinaya or Drama is introduced; the dancer depicts the childhood and adolescence of Krsna. The presence of Krsna is quite significant in the dances along with his relationships with Radha and gopikas of the city. The next two items, Varnam and Padam are pieces involving an abundance of dramatic art. The dances typically employ themes of betrayal, love and heroism. The item that is the main devotional piece to Lord Krsna is the Ashtapadi. The dance is performed in twelve cantons, which contain twenty-four songs sung by Krsna or his lover Radha; the songs are derived from famous poetry compositions. The final two dances are the most complicated with respect to physical movement as well as dramatic ability. They are known as the Devaranama and Tillana. The final traditional piece studied by a student of Bharat Natyam is the Mangala; it involves a salutation to the gods, gurus and the audience (Massey 11-16).

The appearance of divine characters in dance pieces is quite apparent. Many dances depict stories of Krsna, Radha, Rama, Sita, Visnu and Brahma among others. Perhaps one of the most significant figures in Bharat Natyam is Lord Siva. It is said that Siva assumed the form of Nataraja (Lord of the Dance), one of his many images and danced the Tandava. In the legend, Siva noticed that the sages had grown corrupt and indulgent so he set out to humble them. The sages responded violently and vainly attempted to destroy Siva. It was then that he began the Tandava, crushing his challengers beneath his feet. The purpose of his dance was to lift the illusory veil from the sages’ perception (Gaston 134-135, 315-319).

Bharat Natyam can be seen as involving three distinct components that are observable to an audience. These are footwork (adavus), hand gestures (hasthas) and facial gestures (abhinaya). Footwork typically follows a set rhythm that may change several times during a dance (Kothari 52). The musical element of the dance usually rests in the dancers foot movement. Hand gestures are the main feature responsible for the story telling component; the gestures are reinforced with facial expressions, which increases dramatic effect. Each of the twenty-eight hand gestures is representational of characters and events in the mythical stories told in the dance pieces. The gestures may depict animals or elements of nature associated with specific gods such as the tortoise, fish or serpent. Other symbolic gestures include the Siva linga, which is a phallic symbol associated with Siva or the trisula, the trident which is also exemplifies Siva (Kramrisch 36).

Religion inspires many areas of life. From daily schedules to annual celebrations to education and art. Art is an outlet for religious myth to be portrayed to a vast audience. Forms of this art are seen in the dance and drama. Bharat Natyam combines the two in a manner that results in elaborate and intricate pieces if dance that convey religious myth for the purpose of entertainment. This was not always its purpose; as an ancient form of dance known as Dasi Attam, it was an art form that allowed individuals to devote themselves to their religion and values. Regardless of its evolution from temples to royal courts and eventually to theaters, it has remained the oldest extant form of dance in the world today (Gaston 345-350).


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Bose, Mandakranta (1970) Classical Indian Dancing, a Glossary. Calcutta: General Printers and Publishers.

Bowers, Faubion (1953) The Dance in India. New-York: Columbia University Press.

Coomaraswamy, Ananda (1956) The Dance of Shiva. Bombay: Asia Publishing House.

Devi, Ragini (1990) Dance Dialects of India. Delhi: Motilal Banarsidass.

Gaston, Anne-Marie (1996) Bharata Natyam: From Temple to Theater. New

Delhi: Manohar Publishers & Distributers.

Kersenboom, Saskia C (1987) Nityasumangali: Devadasi Tradition in South India. Delhi:

Motilal Banarsidass.

Khokar, Mohan (1979) Traditions of Indian Classical Dance. New Delhi: London Clarion Books.

Krishna, Lalita Rama (2003) Musical Heritage of India.

Kothari, Sunil (1997) Bharat Natyam. Bombay: Marg Publications.

Massey, Reginald and Massey, Jamila (1989) The Dances of India: A General Survey

and Dancers’ Guide. London: Tricolour Books.

Pesch, Ludwig (1999) The Illustrated Companion to South Indian Classical Music.

Delhi: Oxford University Press.

Shulman, D.D. (1980) Tamil Temple Myths. Princeton University Press.

Varapande, M.L. (1983) Religion and Theatre. New Delhi: Abhinav Publications.

Venkataram, Leela and Pasricha, Avinash (2002) Indian Classical Dance: Tradition to

Transition. New Delhi: Lustre Press.

Related Topics for Further Investigations

Devadasi Tradition



Mohini Attam




Indian Folk Dance

Indian Theater




Siva in Dance

Krsna in Dance

Noteworthy Websites Related to the Topic

Article written by Jessica Sita Naidu (April 2006) who is solely responsible for its content.