Category Archives: Ritual Arts

The Kathakali Dance

Many traditions in Hinduism include the use of dance as a form storytelling. Bharat Natyam (one of the more popular forms of Indian dance) (Courtney), Kuchipudi (from South-East India, composed of “graceful movements and [a] strong narrative”) (Courtney), and Manipuri (from North-East India, performed on religious occations) (Courtney) are just a few of many dances that are found in India. Kathakali Dance is one such form that conveys a story to its audience through theatrical display.  Kathakali Dance is thought to have originated in the seventeenth century and is defined by Caldwell in Oh Terrifying Mother: Sexuality, Violence, and Worship of the Goddess Kali as “an operatic form of ritual theatre in Kerala” (Caldwell 286). The literal translation of the word Kathakali means “Story-Play” and has become a popular form of story-telling in India. As one source tells it, Kathakali came about when the Raja of the time had a dream where the Gods paid a visit and taught him a new type of dramatic dance (Barba 37). Over time the performances of Kathakali have changed slightly from their original form. In the beginning, masks were used on the actors, but later this changed to the use of makeup. The actors originally would carry out the two elements of the performance which was reciting the texts and acting them out. Now the actors take on a mime type role and are solely responsible for the acting portion of the performance and there are two accompanying singers with musicians that are responsible for the verbal telling of the story (Barba 37). It is expressed in one source that the alterations that Kathakali underwent (from the time it came to be, to the form that exists today) stopped its changes with the coming of the eighteenth century and it has remained the same from that time up until now (Barba 37).

The performance of Kathakali usual begins in the evening and lasts long into the night (Caldwell 72). It is themed around the Puranas (group of texts about ancient myths), the Ramayana (epic tales about the Prince Rama) and the Mahabharata (The Great [Story of the] Descendants of Bharata) (Courtney). Kathakali uses a lot of different forms of communication in order to convey the story being told. These forms are seen in costume use, elaborate makeup, music, song, dance and verbal noises that are not in any language but are used to project an emotion. The common themes in Kathakali are the interactions between good and evil gods; they are always an interpretation of grand events that took place with the gods (Barba 38).

The costumes used are very pronounced and designed with the inclusion of bright colours and intricate patterns, where the makeup is very striking with colours that are just as rich as those on the costume. The costumes are thought by some scholars to have a borrowed element from another type of Indian dance called mutiyettu [which, unlike Kathakali, is more of a ritual act involving becoming possessed by the gods (Caldwell 252)] (Caldwell 77). But some scholars also think that mutiyettu borrowed ideas in the ways of makeup from Kathakali (Caldwell 77). Both costumes and makeup are very important elements within Kathakali, they help in inform the audience of which character is which, especially since the actors do not talk.

In order for recognition to take place, colours are given a general designation to a particular character for representation. For instance, green is the colour used on “Satvik characters – gods, heroes, and noble kings.” (Devi 95). A white beard is designated to a higher class monkey being, while a black beard represents “forest hunters” such as Lord Siva (Devi 95). A red beard on a character is the symbol for the main Kathakali demon, and all characters have their face painted in a way that accentuates the facial features (i.e. the eyes, eyebrows, and mouth) so that facial movements that are an important part of the dance are easily viewed (Devi 95).

The roles of women are traditionally played by men. What informs the audience of gender is the use of a smooth non-blemishing base makeup colour (usually white) that helps enhance such feminine characteristics as the eyes, eyebrows and the lips (Devi 87). Another type of female that is portrayed is the demon goddess, who is much more radical, including fangs and protruding wooden breasts (Devi 96). Good and evil is a major factor in Kathakali performances and so it is crucial for the audience to be able to recognize the nature of the characters. Such an example is the meanings behind the colours in makeup used on a characters face, with green usually meaning good, red meaning anger and black meaning evil (Devi 90). The costumes worn also help in determining the type of character being portrayed. The male gods tend to have a wide circumference to the base of their outfits which are quite similar to dresses but do not go down to the floor allowing for the feet to still be seen (Courtney). The female characters tend to have more slimming dresses that reach closer to the floor, and the demon goddess character has a wider dress that looks a lot like the males outfits but involves more black and dark colours to convey the presence of evil (Courtney).

The story is narrated by individuals that do not take part in the acting. The story is told in a language called manipravalam, which is “an artificial courtly literary language combining Malayalam and Sanskrit” (Caldwell 17). The singers are also accompanied by a variety of instruments which largely consist of different percussion instruments. There are four main instruments, three being different styles of drums and the fourth being cymbals (Courtney). The other instruments include a conch shell, gong, and trumpet. (Devi 87) The actors add to the suspense of the story through the use of the beat, adding emphasis for a dramatic scene, and a build up of energy for a climatic rise.

Due to the fact that the actors have no vocal roles in Kathakali, they must convey the story through dance, hand gestures and facial expressions. Certain hand movements or swaying of the body or placing of the feet convey specific meanings. It could mean such things as a river, a cave or the growing of a lotus flower (Devi 104-105). The hands, and more particularly the fingers positions and movements are a type of sign language (mudras) used to express the alphabet in a type of Sanskrit language (Barba 38). The story is told not only in the movement of the limbs but also what is expressed on the face. The eyes have a very active role in the Kathakali and it is something that the actors have to be trained in, to be able to perform properly, for the eyes are to move with the arms and hands, with a lot of eye rolling and shaking, they are almost always moving (Nritta Drishti which means ‘dancing of the eyes’) (Devi 106). An example of the silent communication that takes place through the movement of the face can be seen in the expression of fear where the actor “raises one eyebrow, then the other, opens his eyes wide, moves his eyeballs laterally and rapidly, his nostrils flare out, his cheeks tremble and his head revolves in jerky motions.” (Barba 39-40). Although the actors have no lines to speak, they do include yells, screams, and cries to emphasize the events taking place in certain parts of the performance (Devi 106).

Kathakali dance has survived up to present day and are still performed. The stories told through the form of dance have the power to reach out and touch its audience without them having to be able to understand the language. With the aid of costumes and the actions of the interpretive actors, even if no means is conveyed the performance is still able to captivate.


Barba, Eugenio and Simonne Sanzenbach (1967) “The Kathakali Theatre” The Tuane Drama Review Vol. 11, No. 4. Cambridge: The MIT Press.

Caldwell, Sarah (1999) Oh Terrifying Mother: Sexuality, Violence and Worship of the Goddess Kali. New Delhi: Oxford University Press.

Courtney, David and Chandrakantha (2010) “Kathakali” Music of India. Real Audio. (Thursday, March 11, 2010)

Devi, Regini (1990) Dance Dialects of India. 2nd Ed. Delhi: Jainendra Prakash Jain At Shri Jainendra Press.

Related Research Topics










Article written by: Christina Erickson (April 2010) 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.


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).


Bhagyalekshmi, S (1992) Approach to Bharat Natyam. Trivandrum: CBH Publications.

Bhavnani, Eakshi (1965) The Dance in India. Bombay: D.B. Taraporevala.

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.

Hindu Spirituality in Music

“Music in India is as old as the country’s ancient religious tradition, dating back to the times of the Vedas- the scriptures from which the religious principles of the majority of the Indians are drawn….chronologically placed sometime between 4000 B.C.E. and 2000 B.C.E.” (Venugopal 450). Not only does music’s importance date back to the time of the Vedas, it was also an integral part of the Vedas contents. The Samhita, the first section of the Vedas, consists of four smaller sections, the first of which is called the Rg Veda. It is generally accepted as the oldest and most important text within the Samhita section and contains over one thousand hymns. The chronology of these masterpieces is difficult to determine. Some are believed to have been composed by the Aryans before they entered India, while others are written hundreds of years afterwards. The contents of the Rg Veda were echoed in the Sama Veda, another section of the Samhita, but in an altered manner that allowed the text to be chanted. The Sama Veda originally employed only two notes, however, that eventually increased to three, five and then seven individual svaras or notes (Embree 5).

Music’s involvement in Hinduism’s spiritual affairs does not stop there. According to author R. Venugopal, “All rituals in pursuit of spiritual ideals contained music as an essential part” (Venugopal 450). Venugopal also outlined instruments that could provide appropriate accompaniment for sacred music. These included both the drum and a stringed instrument called the vina (Venugopal 450). The hymns contained in the Rg Veda were often composed for the primary purpose of fulfilling specific needs within these sacred ritual services (Embree 5).

The important and revered position that music played in the country’s ancient religious tradition is also portrayed in its mythology. Here, many important gods, goddesses and celestial beings are associated with a particular dance, instrument or with some other form of music. The God Krsna is portrayed as a great flutist, Siva and Parvati are said to be master of rhythm and dance. Sarasvati, Goddess of Learning and the Sage Narada are associated with the vina and Rama is considered to be one, “well versed in music” (Venugopal 451). The fact that the very gods are endowed with musical gifts displays music’s capacity to enlarge and affect one’s spirituality. It increases one’s awareness of heaven and inspires devotion and worship.

According to Venugopal, “Music was considered to be not only entertainment but also a source for one’s spiritual growth and a means for raising one’s consciousness from a merely mundane level to higher levels of contemplation.” Venugopal goes on to quote the ancient sage Yajñavalka as saying, “a person well versed in playing the instrument Vina, having deep knowledge of the microtones and the rhythm, reaches the heavens without any effort!” (451). It is of no wonder that music would be worthy of representation in the sacred scriptures of the Vedas and why sacred beings, such as gods and goddesses, would be associated with musical gifts.

The question of how music is able to put us in line with exalted levels of spirituality becomes evident in the fact that music, made up of melody and rhythm, is believed to be a manifestation of the cosmic order, rta. According to R. Sathyanarayana, “Rhythm is rta in the sense of a) orderly movement b) cyclic or spiral recurrence c) the principle of organization and design, which regulates the duration of tones, body movements, colours, shade, motifs, balance…and symmetrical proportions in the various arts. It is inhered in the principle of creation and creativity and is, therefore, a cosmic law” (Sathyanarayana 303-4). Order, organization, design and recurrence are the principles of rhythm that direct and mould the endless variety of rhythmic possibilities into music that is in line with the order of the cosmic law.

There is not only great room for variety within rhythm, but in all the individual elements that make up beautiful musical phrases. Melody, tempo, texture, dynamics and instrumentation are just a few examples of elements that are a necessary part of music. In order for music to be a part of rta, these essential elements must embody the characteristics of rta. According to Ainslie T. Embree, “This cosmic law was not made by the gods, although they are the guardians of it. It is reflected not only in the physical regularity of the night and day and of the seasons but also in the moral order that binds men to each other and to the gods” (Embree 9). Regularity and order are principle components of rta, and thus must also be reflected in music, despite its limitless capacity for diversity, surprise, and variation.

As stated above, rhythm is rta in its sense of cyclic or spiral recurrence, meaning a repetition of key melodic phrases and rhythms. This element of repetition is a key factor in creating regularity, unity and order within music as a whole. According to Sathyanarayana, “All form is governed by an important princple of design, viz., unity in variety. Too much rigidity in unity leads to monotony and too much variety, to Chaos” (305). Musical variation is contained and placed in line with the cosmic order through the principles of design, unity, regularity and order; however, its beauty is maintained through the principle of variety. Only within these parameters can music be in line with rta and raise, “one’s consciousness from a merely mundane level to higher levels of contemplation” (Venugopal 451).

The ancient sage Yajñavalka was quoted earlier as saying, “a person well versed in playing the instrument vina, having deep knowledge of the microtones and the rhythm, reaches the heavens without any effort!” (Venugopal 451). Attaining this level of spirituality through the vehicle of musicality is not a passive process of simply hearing beautiful sounds; it takes concentration, reverence, and meditation. This can be seen in

the approach that talented vocalists take in performing sacred music. Sushil Kumar Saxena offered insight into this approach when he wrote of the sacred nature of each individual svara, or note, and how each svara must reign in its own right, much as Brahman or Reality, reigns in his own right. He states, “Every single note must seem effective in itself; configuration, though important, is by no means enough. The best of our singers may find it difficult to meet this requirement, but if they are only a little aware of our philosophical-religious language, the vocalists may feel, in the very course of singing, a measure of the same reverence for some individual notes…as is elicited by the thought of ultimate Reality. The concept of reigning-in-its-own-right is similar in meaning to svaprakasam (self-luminous), an attribute that is commonly ascribed to God or Brahman” (Saxena 441).

As Saxena mentioned, this standard of allowing each individual note to shine in its own right is a challenging undertaking, even for the best of vocalists. Contemplation allows the singer time to understand the meaning and context of each svara, thus allowing the singer to become in tune with its relationship to Brahman. Saxena explains that a talented Indian vocalist is often found to be “lost” or absorbed when projecting certain notes, as the sound originates from within. This absorption is similar to the time spent in contemplation as it causes the vocalist to attain a “deeper attunement with the thought of the Ultimate” (Saxena 441).

The pursuit of Brahman has lead many individuals to the sweet sounds of music. Many of these beautiful sounds are found in the Vedas and were composed by ancient priests. Rituals are often performed with music as an essential ingredient in its completion. The great gods and goddesses of Indian mythology understood the spiritual nature of music and became masters of it. Within music is found the essence of Brahman, rta and Hindu spirituality.


Embree, Ainslie T. editor (1996) The Hindu Tradition: Readings in Oriental Thought.

New York: Random House, Inc.

Sathyanarayana (2004) “Rta – Samgita.” In Rta: The Cosmic Order. Edited by Madhu Khanna. New Delhi: D.K. Print World (P) Ltd. 297-312.

Saxena, Sushil Kumar (1997) “Spirituality and the Music of India.” In Hindu Spirituality

Vol. II: Post Classical and Modern. Edited by K.R. Sundararajan and Bithika

Mukerji. New Delhi: The CrossRoad Publishing Company. 437-449.

Venugopal, R. (1997) “Spirituality and the Music of India.” In Hindu Spirituality

Vol. II: Post Classical and Modern. Edited by K.R. Sundararajan and Bithika

Mukerji. New Delhi: The CrossRoad Publishing Company. 437-449.

Related Readings

Gautam, M.R. (1989) Evolution of Raga and Tala in Indian Music. New Delhi:Munshiram Manoharlal Publishers Ltd.

Ramakrishna, Lalita (2003) Musical Heritage of India. New Delhi: Shubhi Publication.

Ranade, Ashok D. (1990) Keywords and concepts: Hindustani Classical Music. New Delhi: Promilla.

Related Websites

Related Topics for Further Investigation

1) The renown of composers in the late 18th century and early 19th century of Carnatic Music: Thyagaraja, Muthuswamy Dikshitar and Shyamasastri.

2) The content of the hymns found in the Rg Veda and Sama Veda.

3) Music used in sacred rituals, such as mantras.

4) Rta, the cosmic order.

5) Brahman.

6) The Hindustani style of the North

7) The Carnatic style of the South

Article written by Nicole Harding (March 2006) who is solely responsible for its content.