Category Archives: Sacred Specialists

Hindu Monasteries (Matha)

Hindu monasteries or mathas are any residential monastic establishments or educational centre for renouncers or sannyasis; even though, the ideal monk is classified as a wanderer. A matha can also refer to a single hut with only one ascetic or a large community of ascetics and their disciplines and students. They were founded by Sankara, a great teacher, in the 8th century. The original four mathas were strategically placed in India to be used as bulwarks for the missionaries and centres for Sankara’s ten religious groups: on the east coast, in Puri, the Govardhana matha for the Aranyakas and the Vana orders; in the Himalayas, near Badrinath, the Jyotih matha for the Giri, Parvaya, and Sagara orders; on the west coast, in Dvaraka, the Sarada matha for the Tirtha and Asrama orders; and lastly, in south India the Srngeri matha for the Bharati, Puri, and Sarasvati orders (Encyclopaedia Britannica). Later a fifth matha arose in Kancipuram, near Madras, called the Saradaptha matha (Encyclopaedia Britannica).

Each matha that was founded by Sankara is led by either a teacher or a spiritual leader also known as a Sankaracarya or a Jagadguru. Individual mathas and their history are directly associated with the succession of its spiritual leader; therefore each matha operates completely independent to any other matha. Typically, the current Sankaracarya appoints one of his followers to become the new spiritual leader in the event of his passing; however, issues can arise if no successor was named and the Sankaracarya passes away unexpectedly. Eventually gurus were even given the responsibility of providing social and economic services to the community. Each Sankaracarya has their own set of followers and their goal is to meet their own religious needs such as “focus on ritual activity and devotional worship rather than renunciation or meditative realization of non-dual brahman” (Fort 613).

There are several important initiations rites to the ascetic life. According Miller and Wertz the first being that after one has determined they want to enter the ascetic life they need to acquire a guru who is willing to take them as his discipline (84). The guru can either be an ascetic from one’s village, a religious teacher or in some cases an uncle (Miller and Wertz 84). Then the discipline must cut all his family ties by performing death ceremonies with his parents (Miller and Wertz 85). After the death ceremony the discipline will no longer be allowed to perform any household services (Miller and Wertz 85). The head ascetic of a monastery will then administer a ritual called diksa (Miller and Wertz 84). The head ascetic must be a man who has already performed his last vows of renunciation (Miller and Wertz 84). The two forms of diksa are when the guru administers the ritual to a lay disciple and the other is only given to ascetic disciples (Miller and Wertz 84). This recognizes the “would be” ascetic and that he is permanently separating himself from his former life (Miller and Wertz 84). Finally, the discipline must acquire a religious name that ends with his sub-order’s name (Miller and Wertz 84). After performing these basic initiation rites a man can enter the ascetic life.

According to Guru Saccinananda the main function of a matha is to give ethical advice and moral teachings to the disciples in hopes of creating “honest, peace-loving, independent, moral, and well behaved” people (Miller and Wertz 25). However, according to Saccinananda several other functions are “to provide education in Sanskrit, to feed guests, to give money to the poor, shelter to the helpless, and the burial to the dead who have no family’ (Miller and Wertz 25). He also claimed that there are ten daily practices that are basic steps to liberation. The first is that the discipline must get up before sunrise each morning (Miller and Wertz 26). The second is that they must pay respect every morning and evening to the sun God Savitri (Miller and Wertz 26). The third is each day while bathing the discipline must recite sacred mantras or verses to a deity of their choice (Miller and Wertz 26). The fourth is that they must perform daily sacrificial fire offerings and yoga postures (Miller and Wertz 26). The fifth is that they must service all their guests (Miller and Wertz 26). The sixth is that the funeral offerings to one’s ancestors must be performed at noon (Miller and Wertz 26). The seventh is that they must take sacred food in the  afternoon and before each evening (Miller and Wertz 26). The eighth is that each evening the disciples’ deity of choice must be worshipped (Miller and Wertz 26). The ninth is that each evening before they go to bed they must perform meditation for the welfare of humanity (Miller and Wertz 26). Lastly, they are only allowed to sleep from the hours of 11pm to 4pm (Miller and Wertz 26).

According to Jagadananda, in a Hindu matha, there a ten precepts of ethical behaviour that one must follow. The first is that you must act kind towards a harsh and unpleasant man and by doing so you have the ability to change him (Miller and Wertz 34). The second is that even if others do not like you that does not mean you have to dislike them back. Eventually these people will lose their power and someday feel bad for their negative actions (Miller and Wertz 34). The third is that you need to ensure you are using the appropriate dialogue when conversing with others as this is a main factor when determining if they will be an enemy or a friend (Miller and Wertz 35). The fourth is that you must respect others when it is their turn to talk as everyone was created equally and by God (Miller and Wertz 35). The fifth is that you should not be disrespectful to people in lower classes as you might be born into that class or position on your next rebirth (Miller and Wertz 35). The sixth is that only ignorant men are prejudiced to one’s caste and skin colour (Miller and Wertz 35). The seventh is that you must consider your “superiors as well wishers and your inferiors as blessed” (Miller and Wertz 35). The eighth is that you need to be independent but also care for your parents needs at the same time as they were the ones who made you into the man you are by giving up their money, time and resources (Miller and Wertz 35). The ninth, is that when you pray to a deity you should be praying for the greatness and happiness of humanity  and not for yourself; the deity will only listen and respond to a man who is concerned about the welfare of others (Miller and Wertz 35). Lastly, “do not grasp onto things” or be materialistic; Brahman, the Vedic creator god, is always around and is everywhere in the universe (Miller and Wertz 35).

Even though numerous mathas have been established over the years as either additions to other institutions or by an individual guru, the original four mathas created by Sankara are still the main ones. Srngeri, Dvaraka, Badrinath and Puri are special and are also known as the amnaya mathas as they are connected with the four Vedas, the matching Upanisad Mahavakyas and Sankara’s four main followers (Sundaresan 110). The most famous and influential matha is Srngeri, in Karnataka State, in South Asia. It is also known as the centre of the Sankaran Vedanta tradition and was originally used as a place to stay and study for samnyasins. In the Srngeri matha the samnyasins who reside there highly regard the Vivekacudamani (Sawai 22).  However, since the fourteenth century it became a place for pilgrimage, worship and philosophical study (Fort 613). The main goddess that is now worshipped at Srngeri is Sri Sarada (Fort 613). The lay adherents of the Vedic tradition or smartas also now visit Srngeri for advice and boons from the Sankaracaryas (Fort 613).



Fort, Andrew (1994) The Faith of Ascetics and Lay Smartas: A Study of the Sankaran Tradition of Srngeri. Journal of Asian Studies 53.2: 613. Web. 29 Feb. 2016.

Isaeva, Natalia (1993) Shankara and Indian Philosophy. Albany, NY: State University of New York Press. Web. 5 Feb 2016.

Matha (2016) Encyclopædia Britannica. Encyclopædia Britannica Online. Encyclopædia Britannica Inc. Web. 07 Feb. <>.

Miller, David M., and Dorothy C. Wertz (1976) Hindu monastic life: The monks and monasteries of Bhubaneswar. McGill-Queen’s Press-MQUP. Web. 5 Feb 2016.

Prasad, Leela (2006) Text, Tradition, and Imagination: Evoking the Normative in Everyday Hindu Life. Numen 53.1: 1–47. Web. 5 Feb 2016.

Sawai, Yoshitsugu (1987) The Nature of Faith in the Sankaran Vedanta Tradition. Numen 34.1: 18–44. Web. 5 Feb 2016.

Sears, Tamara (2008) Constructing the Guru: Ritual Authority and Architectural Space in Medieval India. The Art Bulletin 90.1: 7–31. Web.7 Feb 2016.

Shankara (2016) Encyclopædia Britannica. Encyclopædia Britannica Online. Encyclopædia Britannica Inc. Web. 07 Feb. 2016 <>.

Sundaresan, Vidyasankar (2000) Conflicting Hagiographies and History: The Place of Sankaravijaya Texts in Advaita Tradition. International Journal of Hindu Studies 4.2: 109–184. Web. 7 Feb 2016.


Related Topics for Further Investigation




Smarta tradition


Advaita Tradition

Srngeri matha

Amnaya mathas




Noteworthy Websites Related to the Topic


Article written by: Hailey McLean (March 2016) who is solely responsible for the content




Dasanami Samnyasins

The development and the components of Hindu monasticism may appear complex. Sankara, the famous Indian philosopher, founded a Hindu monastic federation referred to as the Dasanami Order (Wade nd). Hindu monks, known as samnyasin, were divided into ten lineages which trace back to Sankara and compose the Dasanami Order. The ten different monk/renouncer groups were then divided up among the four monasteries founded by Sankara (Clark 2). The four monasteries (mathas) are located in the east, west, south, and north of India and they are respectively called Govardhan, Sarada, Srngeri, and Jyotir (Clark 115). This order is the most respected and influential in the Hindu tradition (Werner 148).

Historically, it has been viewed that the four monasteries are representative of Sankara’s travel and his spiritual authority. Sankara’s life is regarded as somewhat legendary. He lost his father at a young age and he was an admirer of the samnyasin life style. Sources claim that at the age of eight, Sankara was captured by a crocodile while he bathed in a river. Sankara told his mother that if he did not receive her blessing to become a samnyasin the crocodile would have taken his life (Pande 31). Historians believe that three factors contribute to why Sankara is held in the highest regard. It is said that Sankara was an incarnation of Siva (Pande 73). His strong connection to and the belief in his embodiment of Siva could be due to Sankara’s connections to miracles. Secondly, the implementation of authentic practices was to emphasize the social and spiritual claims of the reorganized monasteries. The final aspect which made Sankara legendary was the expansion of the Advaitic and non Advaitic schools (Pande 73). The rationales behind legends of his incarnation have been to fortify the Vedic faith and help spread the spiritual way of living across India (Pande 82).

Samnyasin (renouncing) is the final stage of one’s life. One may renounce after they have completed the householders’ stage grahastha (Miller 3). However, some Hindus enter renunciation earlier, once they have completed their education, though such young renouncers are less common. A renouncer is considered to be a wise holy man. He is expected to withdraw from society. From that point on, his life is dedicated to the attainment of moksa (Werner 147). A renouncer’s withdrawal from society is theoretical because, he may live in close proximity to society and interact with its members however, physical detachment is essential (Olivelle 272). One must leave their family and possessions in order to discover the meaning of life and gain inner peace (Burghart 635). Renouncers are placed outside of the caste system and are highly valued. A renouncer who receives offerings and praise from Hindus is not uncommon.

Once Hindu monks formally renounce, they are categorized in relation to the method of initiation and their way of life (Wade nd). Renouncers may fall into one of three distinct categories: the dandis, nagas, or paramahamsas. However, all Dasanami consider themselves as Siva (Clémentin 2). Many Dasanami renouncers decorate themselves with rudrāka beads and put three white horizontal stripes on their forehead to embody the symbolism of Siva and Visnu (Clémentin 3). Each type of renouncer group is affiliated with one of the four monasteries. To formally renounce, a monk must attain a new identity. He is given one of the ten surnames which made him a part of that particular spiritual lineage. The name one receives is linked to the monastery they are associated with and reflects their caste as well as their renouncing lifestyle. The monasteries from the south and west are mainly composed of dandi renouncers. The lineages commonly assigned to these monks, once they formally renounce include: Bharati (speech), Sarasvati (learning), Tirtha (sacred bathing), and Asrama (hermitage). Puri (town) and Giri (hill) are lineages linked to naga renouncers. Other names, sometimes received by all types of renouncers include: Vana (woods), Aranya (forest), Parrata (mountain), and Sagara (ocean) (Dazery na). Receiving a new name is significant because it symbolizes the relationship one has under a guru which acts as an investiture. An opportunity for the new renouncers to teach and ordain followers is given (Clémentin 16). Once a name is received, one is able to initiate another person into the samnyasin stage of life. All three branches of the Dasanami (dandi, nagas, and the paramahamsa) have networks of mathas (monasteries) spread across India.

The dandis traditionally come from a high caste background and hold knowledge of the Sanskrit language. They are the wanderers who usually carry a staff. The staff may be embellished with a saffron cloth with an axe head under it (Clark 28). Generally, dandi renouncers were previous householders, have short hair, and believe that they are the true samnyasin (Clark 41). Their initiation ceremony is completed by a guru and the name given depends on what matha one is affiliated to (Clark 41). One of the four brahmacari names is given at the ceremony either being Svarup, Prakasa, Ananda or Caitanya (Clark 42). The second ceremony a dandi partakes in is called the viraja home (Clark 89). A short sacred utterance that presumably encapsulates the essential wisdom of Vedanta from the monk’s monastic lineage is spoken (Wade nd).

Renouncers, who fall under the paramahasa grouping, discard all belongings including their staff, perform the most asceticism and obtain the highest amount of respect (Clark 102). They more frequently live in mathas and are affiliated to an akhara. However, paramahamsan monks are not deeply connected to the akharas life compared to the nagas (Clark 42).

Lower caste members form the naga renouncer group (Clark 39). Some scholars refer to them as “naked fighting monks” (Wade nd).  The naga have been known to travel nude and they cover their entire bodies (sometimes just their private areas) in ash, especially on festive holidays (Clark 35). The nagas are organized into seven akharas (Clark 48). To be initiated into the akhara as a naga, one must go through a third process referred to as the tang tode (Clark 98). This is a unique initiation among the three groups.

Typically, males are the ones who enter the stage of renunciation. However, women renouncers have recently been reported. About ten percent of female renouncers belong to the Dasanami (Clark 31). However, women may become brahmacarini, but they cannot enter the second stage of initiation in becoming “full” samnyasin (Clark 33). Women remove all jewelry as a symbol of their renunciation. The majority of women belong to the paramahamsa renouncer group. Two known monasteries exclusively admit women. The least number of women belong to the naga group (Clark 34).

A life apart from society cultivates detachment through a community which shares similar perspectives (Clémentin 2). Some renouncers may choose to join a monastic community (Tambiah 300). Monastic communities provide a shared living space between many samnyasin monks. It is where asceticism is ingrained through tradition (Clémentin 2). This concept of communal settlement was introduced by Sankara, and is referred to as the matha system (Miller 4). The purpose was to create a sense of solidarity through group support. The matha was a larger unit comprised of temples, a traditional Sanskrit school, a library, and a shelter for lay followers (Clémentin 4). The caste system was embedded into the institution. Individuals were born to specific gurus. Gurus raised money to support children’s education for their caste (Aya 58). Donations from patrons allow for monks to teach, provide medical care, and help feed the community (Miller 5). Service to the community was viewed as important and resembled Hindu cohesion. Monks may continue traveling, but if they remain in a community for an extended period of time they are less respected, except if it is the rainy season (Olivelle 271).  Clémentin addresses that, “the important point to stress is that they do not owe their allegiance to a monastery, but to a lineage of spiritual succession” (3). Sankara’s successor, a Sankaracarya (head of 1 of the 4 monasteries) essentially becomes “the teacher of the world” by representing the founder of his lineage (Clémentin 6). Sankaracaryas have substantial spiritual power and settle disputes within the matha by helping with court cases (Clark 79). For example, cases may include initiation and personal affairs, adultery, abuse, and caste pollution. Sankaracaryas help decide the punishment of a fine, a fine, forms of social exclusion, and sometimes even excommunication ceremonies (Clark 80).

The origins of the Dasanami Samnyasin illustrate the prominence of Sankara’s philosophical influence in creating the order. Spiritual lineages of the samnyasin monks are traced back to Sankara. The samnyasins aquire a new religious identity in which they abide by certain roles, codes, and practices (Clark 2). The different groupings of renouncers across the four cardinal directions are symbolic of Sankara’s spiritual journey and the prominence of Brahman (Wade nd). The caste system is significant to the Dasanami Order because it allows for different renouncer groups to exist. Subtle differences exist among the samnyasins such as, their appearance, initiation process, status, and their affiliation to a distinct lineage (Clark 39). The matha system was important for the development of education and philosophical ideas for the samnyasin and their lay followers (Clémentin 4). Life consisted of days of expressing bhakti in prayer, meditation, and lectures (Werner 147). Overall, evidence suggests that the Dasanami Order has been very influential and is a representation of Sankara’s philosophy. 


References and Further Recommended Readings

Burghart, R., (1983) “Renunciation in the Religious Traditions of South Asia”. Man18(4), 635–653.

Clark, Matthew (2006) Dasanami Samnyasis. Boston: Brill Academic Publishers.

Clémentin-Ojha, C. (2006) “Replacing the Abbot: Rituals of monastic ordination and investiture in modern Hinduism”. Asiatische Studien, Etudes Asiatiques, Vol.60, 535- 573.

Ikegame, A (2012) “The Governing Guru”. The Guru in South Asia: New Interdisciplinary Perspectives, London & New York, NY: Routledge 5, 46.

Miller, D. M., & Wertz, D. C (1976) Hindu monastic life: The monks and monasteries of Bhubaneswar. Montreal: McGill-Queen’s Press-MQUP.

 Olivelle, P. (2001)”The Renouncer Tradition”. In The Blackwell Companion to Hinduism,  G. Flood (Ed.). Oxford: Blackwell Publishing  271-287.

 Pande, G. C (1994) Life and thought of Sankaracarya. Delhi: Motilal Banarsidass Publishers.

 Tambiah, S. J. (1982) “The renouncer: his individuality and his community”. Contributions to Indian Sociology, 15(1), 299-320.

Wade, D. (2012) “Dasanamis.” In Brill’s Encyclopedia of Hinduism. Edited by Knut A. Jacobsen, Helene Basu, Angelika Malinar, Vasudha Narayanan. Retrieved March 23, 2016, from < hinduism/dasanamis-BEHCOM_9000000043>

Werner, Karel (2013) Love Divine: Studies in bhakti and devotional mysticism, London & New York, NY: Routledge 147-152.


Topics for Further Investigation

The Ramanadi Order



The Four Monasteries




Noteworthy Websites


Article written by: Miranda Deringer (March 2016) who is solely responsible for its content.

Cidambaram Temple

Cidambaram Temple, also known as the Thillai Natarajah Temple is a sixteen hectare temple complex (Smith 4) located in the center of the city of Cidambaram in Tamil Nadu in south-eastern India, and was built and expanded between the 10th and 14th centuries. The official name of the temple is Sabhanayaka (Lord of the Hall) temple (Cush, Robinson, and York 143). This temple venerates Siva as Nataraja (Lord of Dance) in Sanskrit or Thillai Koothan in Tamil (Spencer).

The temple is famous for the veneration a 3 foot tall bronze statue of Siva (Srinivasan 433) in a dancing position and the local myth that inspired the depiction and the worship of Siva in that form in Cidambaram. The statue is meant to be used as an utsava murti (processional image) in festivals (Cush, Robinson, and York 366), but is usually located in an inner gold-roofed sanctum called the Cit-Sabha or Hall of Consciousness (Srinivasan 433, Smith 5). Siva is also represented in the form of a traditional lingam, and in the form of an empty alcove representing akasa (ether, space, or sky) and transcendence (Srinivasan 433). It is said that the Cit-Sabha embodies Siva as well (Ferro-Luzzi 516). Other deities worshipped at the temple include Sivakamasundari, Ganesa, and Visnu among other deities connected with Siva. The depictions of each deity can be found in alcoves and ambulatories around the edges of the temple.

This temple is one of five temples in south India dedicated to Siva which each represent elements and the supposed geographic locations where Siva has appeared and performed miracles. These temples collectively are called the Panca Bhuta Sthalam, (Spencer 233, Isaac 16, Dey 49) and Cidambaram temple represents the element of akasa.


Temple History

The Nataraja temple at Cidambaram was built in the 10th century during the reign of Cola ruler Vira Cola Raja and is among some of the oldest temples in south India (Sullivan 58). Cidambaram temple has been the center for the worship of Siva in a dancing form since the seventh century (Smith 1), however the depiction of Siva as Nataraja was popularized by the Saiva Siddhanta school of orthodox bhakti Saivites sometime later (Cush, Robinson, and York 799).

Cola rulers through the 10th to the 13th centuries considered Siva, especially as Nataraja, to be their family deity and sponsored massive expansions of the Cidambaram temple complex and other Saivite temple complexes in south India. Along with the level of temple construction and renovation, they also made efforts to increase the scale and organization of worship at these temples (Davis 16). Vikrama and his military minister Naralokaviran are credited with renovating and adorning the Cidambaram temple, as well as sponsoring and developing services and facilities to encourage patronage and worship such as grand festivals, lit processional walkways, ocean pavilions, etc. with the goal to secure the Cidambaram Nataraja temple as the capital of Saivite worship in south India (Davis 19).

Cidambaram temple is sometimes simply referred to as “the temple”, and the entire city is sometimes referred to as a temple in literature (Spencer 240). Historically in the Saivite temple culture throughout south India, the main keepers and collectors of information were travelling saint-poets called nayanmars (Spencer 234), who were advocates of bhakti (devotionalism), and whose Tamil (Sullivan 195) devotional hymns are still sung today (Sullivan 211). However, there were multiple schools of thought in place in the area in medieval times who each would have a variation on thought and their own canon. For example, the accepted canon for Saiva Siddhanta philosophy was the Agamas (Srinivasan 432). Numerous nayanmars are remembered and venerated at the temple, and their poems have been passed down orally through generations. Recently, the process has begun of writing the poems and stories down for posterity. The veneration of priests, saints, and poets at Cidambaram is hierarchical with more well-known figures such as Umapati Sivacarya who wrote the poem Kuncitanghristava or “The Hymn of Praise to Nataraja’s Curved Foot” (Ferro-Luzzi 515) being remembered and praised more often than lesser saints which included women and Dalits (Spencer 235). The lineages of Saivite saints, priests, and teachers is hard to decipher because of a patchy record and an initiatory re-naming tradition (Davis 9).


Temple Mythology

Cidambaram is considered the center of the universe (Smith 2), as well as the place where Siva first performed the anandatandava, or dance of bliss (Srinivasan 432, Smith 1), in the presence of his consort Sivakamasundari, and three sages who were awaiting his arrival in Cidambaram while worshipping a lingam (Cush, Robinson, and York 143). Cidambaram is said to be the sky temple in the series of five temples in south India which represent elemental forms of Siva, the Panca Bhuta Sthalam (Dey 49). Each temple in this collection of temples is said to have a connected story of Siva appearing at that location in the presence of devotees to perform a miracle in a new form. At Cidambaram the miracle was the anandatandava and the form that Siva assumed was that of Nataraja or Lord of Dance (Smith 1). The traditional lingam which would usually stand in the inner sanctum of the temple, the Cit-Sabha, is replaced in this temple by a bronze statue of Siva performing the dance (Cush, Robinson, and York 143). The representation of the figure of Siva performing the anandatandava is steeped in symbolism.

The speed of the dance is said to determine whether it will be creative or destructive, with a slower pace being creative and a faster pace being destructive (Cush, Robinson, and York 143). Siva as Nataraja is depicted with 4 hands, each having a specific meaning. The hand raised up in the abhaya-mudra (Cush, Robinson, and York 799) represents refuge, while the downward-pointing hand represents escape from samsara shown by the surrounding ring of fire (Cush, Robinson, and York 160). The other two hands hold a drum used for keeping time while dancing and a ball of fire, which each represent creation and destruction; fire can be creative in a Vedic sense by creating favor from the gods and the drum can be interpreted as destructive by marking the passage of time (Smith 1, Cush, Robinson, and York 160, Sullivan 148). In the 14th century in Cidambaram, the priest Umapati Sivacarya devoted a poem to the depiction of Siva in anandatandava entitled Kuncitanghristava, “The Hymn of Praise to Nataraja’s Curved Foot” (Ferro-Luzzi 515), the foot on the statue of Siva as Nataraja is said to grant anugraha (blessing) and salvation (Ferro-Luzzi 516). Siva’s other foot steps on a smaller person or demon named Apasmarapurusa in Sanskrit or Muyalaka in Tamil (Nayagam 120) which represents ignorance (Smith 1).


Temple Structure

The style of southern Indian temples is distinct from northern Indian temples. In the southern style, the gopuram (main towers) are raised high above the gates of the temple and set into the walls that encircle the inner sanctuaries, the walls are usually highly decorated and ornate (Sullivan 227). Cidambaram temple is one of the largest in south India, with the gopurams measured at 49 meters high (Sullivan 58).

The walls of the Cidambaram temple have been decorated with depictions of 108 Bharata Natyam (traditional Indian dance) poses (Cush, Robinson, and York 160). This style of classical dance is said to have originated in the surrounding area of Tamil Nadu and especially within Saivite temple culture (Tiruvalluvar 1201), and the temple also boasts a large performing arts hall shaped like a chariot called the Nrtta Sabha (Sullivan 58).

The Cidambaram temple is also set apart by the golden roof of the Cit-Sabha, extensive processional routes, and lamped walkways all added on by Cola rulers (Davis 19). Cit-Sabha, the innermost hall or sanctum of the temple contains three alcoves, the main alcove contains the three foot tall bronze statue of Siva Nataraja, with the other two alcoves containing the stone lingam usually representative of Siva and an empty space representative of Siva as the element akasa (Srinivasan 433). Several shrines to other deities are featured in the temple, most of whom have some connection to Siva in Hindu literature (Sullivan 58). All of the elemental Saivite temples are built in the same southern style but differ in their decorations and size.



The main festival at temples dedicated to Siva is Mahasivaratri (Great Night of Siva) or simply Sivaratri (Sullivan 211). This festival is held yearly on the thirteenth night and fourteenth day in the dark half of Phalguna, the month that takes place in February to March in the Gregorian calendar (Sullivan 130). The festival is widely popular and devotees of many different deities attend. The festival consists of a night vigil at the temple which involves devotional hymns, darsana (auspicious viewing) of images of Siva either in statue or lingam form and highly decorated (Sullivan 130), and puja offerings which include sandalwood paste, flower petals, bilva and bel leaves, milk, curd, ghee, honey, rose water, and vermillion paste (Dwivedi 30, Sullivan 130). A drink made of cannabis, milk, and almonds is also said to be consumed at this festival (Dwivedi 30). The second day of the festival is a celebratory day reserved for feasting rather than solemn worship (Sullivan 130). The Mahasivaratri has many origin stories including Parvati venerating a lingam in Siva’s absence, a hunter accidentally venerating a lingam when out in the wilderness, and the gods Brahma and Visnu finding a pillar of fire which is revealed to be Siva in a different form (Dwivedi 72).

Other festivals include occasional processional temple festivals called mahotsava or brahmotsava in Sanskrit and tiruvila in Tamil. These festivals can last up to two weeks and involve the use of utsava murti (processional images) of deities used in festivals and temple rites (Cush, Robinson, and York 366). The icons are dressed in finery like silk, flowers, and gold ornaments and led down the streets either on the shoulders of followers, or pulled in chariots by devotees holding hemp ropes. There are also animals and musicians involved in these parades, which stop occasionally along the procession to allow people to view the gods and make offerings to them which is seen as very auspicious (Davis 15). Bronze figures and accompanying inscriptions show that this form of festival worship has been taking place in south India since at least the 9th century (Davis 16).

This festival takes place in Cidambaram as well with the obvious addition of the Nataraja statue. Other differences in the Cidambaram mahotsavas are the length and scale of the festival which is always very long, around fifteen days, and features two parades each day with the deities riding on different vahanas (vehicles). This culminates in the ratha-yatra where the deities are paraded on chariots which are much like individual moving shrines (Davis 15). At the beginning of any festival period devoted primarily to Siva, the temple flag is raised with the image of a bull on it which represents Siva’s vahana Nandi (Davis 30). Another practice which sets Cidambaram apart is the practice of applying a black balm to the statues, priests, servants, and lay people in hierarchical order if the festival is venerating Nataraja (Davis 51).


Staff and Important Persons

Important persons connected to the temple include the Saiva Siddhanta school of orthodox bhakti Saivites who popularized the veneration of Siva as Nataraja, as well as the other numerous lesser-known philosophical schools which helped inform the literature in medieval south India (Cush, Robinson, and York 799). Also of great importance were the travelling saint-poets called nayanmars (Spencer 234), whose Tamil devotional Saivite hymns recorded the mythology and chronology of the area and whose stories were passed down orally and are still told and sung today creating a rich illustration of the history of the area (Sullivan 211). Some of these poets became priests or teachers or gained fame from their writing which creates a useful image of the social landscape of the time.

The temple staff at Cidambaram are called diksitars because they undergo the initiatory process of diksa. This process involves numerous rites to be performed at different prescribed times before the initiate is accepted. The nitya-karman are the daily rites and show Saivite piety if they are done on one’s own behalf (atmartha), this category includes the nityapuja (veneration of a lingam), nityahoma (a small fire sacrifice), and suryapuja (sun worship). Daily rituals need to be completed before other rituals, they are the prerequisites. Naimittikarman, or occasional rites include pavitrosava and damanotsava and they are the prerequisites for the last set of rituals. The last set of rituals, on completion, marks the initiation of a diksitar as part of the Saivite community and released of earthly bondage. These rituals are therefore held in high regard as transformative. The initiate is consecrated as either a sadhakadiksa (mantra-adept), or as an acaryadiksa (priest) through a series of upanayana-like rituals including a mock cremation on the receiving of a special mantra (Davis 7).



Aghorasiva (1157) A Priest’s Guide to the Great Festival. Translation and notes by Richard H. Davis (2010) New York: Oxford University Press.

Cush, Denise, and Catherine Robinson, and Michael York (2008) Encyclopedia of Hinduism. New York: Routledge.

Dey, Nando L. (1979) The Geographical Dictionary of Ancient and Medieval India. New Delhi: Cosmo Publications.

Dwivedi, Anil K. (2007) Encyclopedia of Indian Customs & Rituals. New Delhi: Anmol Publications.

Ferro-Luzzi, Gabriella E. (1996) “Reviewed Work: The Dance of Siva. Religion, Art and Poetry in South India by David Smith” East and West 46:515–17. Accessed February 5, 2016.

Isaac, Eric (1960) “Religion, Landscape, and Space” Landscape 9:14-18.

Nayagam, X.S. Thani (1970). Tamil Culture and Civilization. London: Asia Publishing House.

Smith, David (1996) The Dance of Siva: Religion, Art and Poetry in South India. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Spencer, George W. (1970) “The Sacred Geography of the Tamil Shaivite Hymns.” Numen 17:232–44. Accessed February 5, 2016. doi:10.2307/3269705.

Srinivasan, Sharada (2004) “Shiva as ‘cosmic dancer’: On Pallava origins for the Nataraja bronze.” World Archaeology 36:432-450. Accessed February 5, 2016. doi:10.1080/1468936042000282726821.

Sullivan, Bruce M. (1997) Historical Dictionary of Hinduism. Lanham: Scarecrow Press.

Tiruvalluvar (2000). The Handbook of Tamil Culture and Heritage. Chicago: International Tamil Language Foundation.


Related Topics

  • Bhakti
  • Diksa
  • Bharata Natyam
  • Saivitism
  • Viasnavism
  • Cola Dynasy
  • Tamil Poetry
  • Poet-saints
  • South Indian Architecture
  • Processional Festivals


Related Websites

Article written by: Katherine Christianson (March 2016) 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.