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Mainstream, Vol XLVIII, No 26, June 19, 2010

Prostitution in Colonial India

Sunday 20 June 2010, by Sudhanshu Bhandari



The prostitute has over the ages never been explicitly defined, but commonly any woman, who for the sake of monetary consideration or any other gainful remuneration, sells her body is regarded as such. Throughout the history of human society, the much reviled whore has been deprecated as a sinner, immoral, a repository of diseases, a profaner of religion, whose companionship should be shunned by the civilised, moral, virtuous and married man. Her synonyms are varied: harlot, whore, kerb-walker, stew, strumpet, escort woman, and in India there were the ‘Ganikas’ in ancient times whose equivalent in modern times came to be the tawaifs or courtesans who maintained vast establishments under the patronage of the nawabs, men of the nobility. A society ordered and structured by men could look at her only as a sex object, as a fulfiller of his unrestrained sexual libido, and though polluted by the male’s gaze and touch, it was she who was branded as the polluter of everything sacred. In a man’s world, the female has universally been victimised and marginalised, and her voice seldom heard and even rarely empathised with.

The turn of the twentieth century saw a challenge to traditional social structures at both the level of ideology and practice. The rise of feminism in Europe and North America has over the past hundred years seen most of the male bastions fall, and spread an increasing awareness of a woman’s wants, aspirations and outlook to life, empowering her to evaluate her own ‘self’ and the society around her from her own perspective. Feminism asks for restoring the dignity of women, and for granting her equal rights, power and opportunity with men. It is here where the feminist views as regard to prostitution is revealing as it shows how women look at themselves and at their unfortunate brethren. There has indeed been an unending debate between the radical and the liberal feminist camp centred on the problem of morality and the economic-material angle involved. Should prostitution be looked as akin to any other profession, and if so, should its performance and the actors involved be regarded as equally dignified? Can the demand for prostitutes be ever diminished or eliminated? If so, could the behaviour of the male sex towards females in general be transformed, if at all, so that her objectification as a sex symbol be minimised?

The Prostitute in History

In Indian canonical literature—Hindu, Buddhist or Jain—she has been depicted in colours which make her particularly repulsive. The Buddhist religious texts—comprising of the Pitakas, the Avadanas and the Jatakas—are replete with these ‘Hetaerae’. During the Mauryan period, there appears to be a systematic control of the prostitution business under a superintendant called the ‘Ganikaadyaksha’. Kautilya, the chief minister of Chandragupta Maurya, had enumerated a wide range of prostitutes comprising the Ganika, Pratiganika, Rupajiva, Pumshali, Kaushikastri, Dasi, Rupdasi, Shilpkaria and several others; amongst whom the first two were the highest ranked and recipient of the highest salary by the state. The Ganikas were the accomplished and most beautiful women meant for the king’s court and paid a fixed salary by the state. The second category appears to be a courtesan who substituted in place of the official courtesan during the latter’s absence but was paid only half of her salary. Besides these, there were also mentioned in some texts the ‘Kulatas’; they were married women who secretly would leave their home to meet with their lover or lovers, and the Soarini who was such a shameless creature that she openly engaged in extra-marital affairs despite the disapproval of her husband and family.

The famed ‘Ganikas’ of our ancient times were nothing but glorified prostitutes who were trained in the refined arts of seduction for the pleasure of the royal court and prominent citizens of our cities and towns. The universally known story of the peerless courtesan ‘Amrapali’ from Vaishali during Buddha’s time is a grim reminder of this same fact. Her father was forced by the prevailing social practices of the Licchavi Kingdom to hand her over as the common property of the high and mighty of Vaishali.1 The very fact that the physically perfect and beautiful girls, even those born to respectable households, had to surrender their body for the collective consumption of the high and mighty, and that too in a ‘Ganarajya’, which in university curriculum is still termed as a ‘Republican State’. Thus, if such be the abject subjugation of the female within state structures having some semblance of democracy, then what would have been her condition under monarchial states is only to be speculated.

Prostitutes under the British Raj

Under the British, the East India Company, and after the Great War of Independence of 1857, the British Crown, directly and devilishly implemented a policy of duality. Thus, on the one hand, the British drafted such a legislation as the Contagious Diseases Act of 1864 and implemented it with rigour upon its subjects in India. The intention of this Act was not to prevent vice and immorality amongst its own soldiers, but rather to denigrate the body of the prostitute as a receptacle of all that was filthy and impure. Under this Act and the Cantonment Rules, the British and other European soldiers in India were not only permitted but promoted to hold native young and good-looking girls as prostitutes for their carnal pleasure. These very ‘White clients’ of the native prostitutes, who spread venereal diseases not only amongst themselves but upon these unfortunate women, would themselves remain untouched and their integrity and respectability untarnished. It would be the Indian girls and women (mostly of poor families) who would be first trapped into a life of sin because the society and colonial government not only disallowed them any opportunity to earn an independent income but encouraged a system which preyed upon their helplessness and lack of better options.

The system devised for furnishing sensual indulgence to the British soldier, and for protecting him from diseases consequent on such indulgence was commonly called the Contagious Diseases Act, but was carried out under Cantonment Regulations, and was as follows in its main features: There were placed with each regiment (of about a thousand soldiers) from twelve to fifteen native women, who dwelt in appointed houses called chaklas. These women were allowed to consort with British soldiers only, and were registered by the Cantonment Magistrate, and tickets of licence were given them. Besides the chakla, that is, brothel, there was in each Cantonment a prison hospital, in which the patients were confined against their will. To these Lock Hospitals, the women were obliged to go periodically (generally once a week) for an indecent examination, to see whether every part of the body was free from any trace of diseases likely to spread from them to the soldiers, as the result of immoral relations. When a regiment came into a large Cantonment, there would be a government brothel to which all such women were sent for residence, and a guard in uniform looked after them. When the soldiers were camped out in the open field, tents were set up for the women at the back part of the encampment. When the soldiers marched, the women were carried in carts, with the British soldiers to guard them, or sent by train to the destination of the regiment. These women was placed under a superintendent or brothel-keeper, called the Mahaldarni, one of whose duty comprised of procuring more such women as and when desired. On June 17, 1886, a military order, known among the public as the “Infamous Circular Memorandum, 21A”, was sent to all the Cantonments of India by Quartermaster-General Chapman, in the name of the Commander-in-Chief of the Army in India (Lord Roberts). As a result, under it there was an officially sanctioned and blatant exploitation of Indian women sanctioned by none other than the regimental commanding-officers of the various British regiments.

Two American women missionaries, who had been sent in the early part of the 1890s for this very purpose of ascertaining, visiting and reporting on these places of shame and the evil practices being carried out under explicit government sanction, had this to report: “The orders specified were faithfully carried out, under the supervision of Commanding Officers. The Commanding Officer gave orders to his Quartermaster to arrange with the regimental kotwal to take two policemen (without uniform), and go into the villages and take from the homes of these poor people their daughters from fourteen years and upwards, about twelve or fifteen girls at a time. They were to select the best-looking. Next morning, these were all put in front of the Colonel and Quartermaster. The former made his selection of the number required. They were then presented with a pass or licence, and then made over to the old woman in charge of this house of vice under the Government. The women already there, who were examined by the doctor, and found diseased, had their passes taken away from them, and were then removed by the police out of the Cantonment, and these fresh, innocent girls put in their places.”2 One such Commanding Officer of a British Regiment stationed at Solan followed the rules laid down in the Circular memorandum to the hilt, and wrote the following application to the Magistrate of the Umballa (Ambala) Cantonment: “Requisition for extra attractive women for regimental bazaar, in accordance with Circular Memorandum 21a. These women’s fares by one-horse conveyances, from Umballa to Solan, will be paid by the Cheshire Regiment on arrival. Please send young and attractive women, as laid down in Quartermaster-General’s Circular, No 21a. Application has been made to the Cantonment Magistrate of Umballa for others, but up to date none has arrived; therefore, it is presumed a great difficulty exists in procuring the class of young women asked for.”

As Katherine Bushnell and Elizabeth Andrew tell us, amidst a regiment of one thousand European soldiers around fifteen of these Indian girls were placed for the exclusive use of the Lal-Kurti (English Soldiers). Thus, when patronised to such an extent by their own officers, at least, eight hundred to nine hundred of the young English soldiers would have availed of their services, and the number which would have to be served daily can well be imagined because even at a minimum estimate of only a quarter of the total regimental-demand asking for sex daily, each of the regimental prostitutes would have to serve from fifteen to twentyfive soldiers at the very minimum. Thus, when these sons of the English working class would have satiated their lust to perfection, and impregnated them with the whole range of STDs which could possibly be spread, he would then have the double luxury of first defiling and diseasing the poor unfortunate girl, and, thereafter, informing about her diseased body (in which he and his fellow comrade-in-arms were culprits) to the military physician-surgeon. The result of which would be her being summoned by the Cantonment Magistrate to appear before the regimental physician for a physical inspection.

Even before the 1886 memorandum, which had generated such a political storm in England and India, the Quartermaster-General had issued a circular memorandum in 1883 to the following effect: “Reliable matrons be appointed to supervise the registered women, and who should ensure that those under their charge should consort with none other than Europeans. They should only entertain the men in their own houses which should be duly numbered, as it was known that men were reluctant to point out the woman who had infected them.” In another observation the following year, the same authority says: “Their houses should not be too pretentious for prostitutes delight in dark little-dens and there is merit in simplicity. Inexpensively built mud-walls with tiled roofs of a village character would best suit the occasion.”3 What a combination of racism, male chauvinism and class instincts! The native Indian prostitute could only serve the ‘Gora sahib’ since providing equal pleasure to the native soldier could transmit to the English Tommy some vicious diseases only susceptible to the natives of the tropics. Then again see the intense gender-bias when he says that it was the woman who infected the English soldier. Now, in reality, since so few women had to serve such a large group of soldiers, varying from a few hundred to a thousand, the probability is much more for her gaining infections from the lascivious soldiers, than vice-versa. However, to the British Civilian-cum-Military Officers, the registered-cum-unregistered prostitutes were the source-pools of the syphilitic and gonorrhea germs.

The threat from the unregistered prostitutes was regarded as extremely harmful. They were labelled as coming from the coolie-class of women —the grass-cutters and the ditch-diggers who were described as seen roaming about and inside the cantonment after dark. The description of the native prostitutes which one chief medical-officer of Calcutta made was: “Everything about them bears the total absence of religious, moral or social feeling. Here, they swarm not only the by-lanes and back-slums of Calcutta, but also its principal thorough-fares, polluting the atmosphere of our neighbourhood and scandalising the morals of the population.” It appears that this medical officer believed the native prostitutes as similar to flies by his use of the verb ‘swarm’ or as a miasma of germs, as unhealthy and immoral entities who would pollute the people and the places (principal thoroughfares) of that city.

The British appear to be hypocrites par excellence. To show the superiority of their own puritanical values they had to show the Orient in poor light as a region where prostitution was openly acceptable to society and to show oriental women as one of loose morals or even outright prostitutes. Phillipa Levine in one of her articles tells of how a British doctor stationed in colonial Burma in 1875 believed the Burmese women as unchaste and considered them as very nearly approximating to outright prostitutes. Commenting upon the perceptions of the colonial British administrators, she writes: Modernity and rationality implied containing and channeling sexual instincts in ways that colonists claimed were beyond the reach of less advanced peoples. The east’s problem was its failure to move beyond the primitivism of unchained nature, to contain sex within boundaries that made it productive and purposeful rather than merely sensual and pleasurable. Prostitution’s emphasis on pleasure rather than procreation drove home this divide between the Christian and the heathen, the former claiming sex as a procreative and biblically ordained duty, the latter merely wallowing in its sensuality.”4


The remarkable hypocrisy of the British, who considered most of the Indian women as always prone to an innate desire for sex as soon as they reached puberty, and which they considered as the reason for the child marriages in India, can be seen from this statement highlighted by Ratnabali Chatterjee: “It may perhaps be supposed that the seclusion in which native women are kept effectually prevents their forming intrigues beyond the circle of their own home. This is a mistake. Old women go between persons who are strangers to each other, and in our large towns there are regular meeting houses where men and outwardly respectable women are brought together. The majority of these women who visit these houses I am told are married women.”5 This view of Indian girls and married women appears all the more remarkable when one realises the remarkable degree of rampant prostitution amongst all classes in England itself, and all the more amongst the upper aristocratic-class whose female-folks, tied down by the Church and the Victorian male’s notion of the chaste wife, had no way to vent out their repressed sexuality than in the infamous ‘Houses of Assignation’.

For the English administrators, they were in the least concerned about the increase in prostitution amongst native women, or the ethicality of it, or about the blatant invasion of the woman’s privacy, and the denial of her autonomy as a human being having the same degree of shame and guilt as her male counterpart. When Lieutenant-General Lord Sandhurst was questioned before the Royal Commission of 1871 as to the advisability of soldiers being periodically examined by male physicians, he replied that he preferred to treat his soldiers as reasonable men, not as brutes. About a quarter of a century later in 1897, when the then Secretary of War, Lord Lansdowne, was asked about the practicability of measures regarding the periodical examination of military personnel, he remarked that the issue had been discussed with all the high authorities of the Army, and that the soldiers unanimously considered it as brutalising and degrading, and that he concurred with the sentiments of the men. Now when one takes into consideration that these soldiers and officers would never have had to undergo the inspection of their private parts by a female doctor, whereas women, whom society branded as prostitutes, were forced by law to undergo this inspection periodically, and that too at the hands of a male physician, the gross bias and injustice perpetrated by the male dominant society is so palpably visible.

From a valuable sociological study of prostitutes in nineteenth century Bengal by Sumanta Banerjee, one comes to know a lot about their activities, modes of operation and their perceptions of the ‘Bhadralok Society’ around them. Sumanta Banerjee has a wide variety of official and non-official sources (predominantly the latter). His use of the latter comprises numerous newspapers and periodicals as well as a genre of mid to late nineteenth century Bengali satirical literature. The learned author uses the Bengali satirical works to bring the hidden voice of the Baishya (Vaishya) out into the open and to portray the hypocrisy of the self-righteous Bengali middle-class male in its true colours.6 These works are like a double-edged sword telling things which no official report would have ever revealed. Yet, at the same time, it cannot be denied that these works were printed to cater to a rising local demand for literature of the sensational or titillating type (they can be equated with the modern day tabloid press).Thus, though revealing a lot about the modus-operandi of the Bengali Vaishya and her environment, they have to be read and decoded with care, since their descriptions could be stereotyped versions and normative rather than a realistic account of the feelings, aspirations and inner workings of a prostitute’s mind.

Banerjee’s work is indeed an immense contribution to this field. He tells us how the British officialdom, obsessed as it was with castes and religious segregation, also differentiated the prostitutes on the same basis. There were (a) the high-caste (Brahmin) prostitute who lived a relatively independent life as she was maintained by a rich patron; (b) the prostitute of good caste (by this the officials might have meant non-Brahmanical but not of the lower castes) who also lived by herself but had relatively smaller means at her disposal, and who received a limited number of clients of her own or superior caste; (c) the third category comprised again of Hindu prostitutes who did not have the means to operate from residences of their own, resided in rented accommodation under a Bareewallah to whom they paid rent for their lodgings and food; these invited Hindu customers only but from all castes thereby appearing to be more eclectic-minded than the two earlier categories; (d) dancing women of both Hindu and Muslim creeds who often lived together and invited customers irrespective of caste and creed; (e) public prostitutes of Muslim creed; (f) the low-caste Hindu prostitutes; (g) the Christian and European prostitutes. Banerjee also gives us some interesting facts relating to their numbers and religious composition. He cites the official reports pertaining to the Calcutta of the 1850s and 1870s for what they are worth (since no census of the country took place prior to 1881) that revealed that in Calcutta in the year 1850, there were estimated to be around 12, 000 prostitutes of whom 10, 000 were believed to be Kulin widows or daughters of Kulin Brahmins. After the 1868 Contagious Disease Act, under the category of ‘Registered Prostitutes’, there were in 1872, 6871 such prostitutes of whom 5804 were Hindus, 930 Muslims and the remaining small minority comprised a tremendous heterogeneity belonging to Irish, Polish, Russian, Hungarian, Italian, French and Spanish women. In total, Calcutta in 1853 was estimated to have 12,419 prostitutes which in a space of just fourteen years was estimated at 30,000.7 The second figure, out of a total city population of 400,000, appears an overestimation by some over-enthusiastic medical officer who must have been keen to show the alarming spread of vice and diseases by these harlots. If the latter figure is correct, then nearly 7.5 per cent of the total population of colonial Calcutta were whores.

Now, Caroline Sledgholme and Indrani Sinha, citing the 1911 Census figures for Calcutta, tell us that there were 14,271 prostitutes who were calculated at 25 per cent of the working women in the metropolis.8 In 1996, the same two authors give their own estimation of sex-workers as live and work in red-light areas at 20, 000 (exclusive of their family members).Thus, does this imply that in a period of 85 years, the growth in prostitute numbers was a mere 5700 and which are much less than the 1867 figures given in Sumanta Banerjee’s book? Yet, these figures do not tally with the universal perception of the terrible expansion in the trafficking and prostitution of minor girls and adult women. I have some reasons for discounting both figures. It is a recognised fact that British Census Enumerators clubbed all the children of prostitutes in the same category as their mothers. Irawati Tambe’s work on the prostitutes of Bombay in the 1920s confirms this fact where she cites of how even babies as young as one-to-two years old born to prostitutes were branded with the same taint. If the same tendency to paint the entire family of a prostitute as such existed in the case of Calcutta, this would inflate the number of female sex-workers by a factor of two to three so that in 1867 the British figures for 30,000 could in reality mean 10,000-12,000 females as were actually engaged in the sex-trade.

Similarly, Sledgholme and Sinha, by referring to only those who live and work in red-light areas, may be drastically underestimating the true menace. It is important to realise that they themselves have enumerated a category called ‘Floating Prostitutes’. They state: “Most floating sex-workers live in ordinary family-homes and are working as sex-workers to supplement their family income. That 1500 such floating sex-workers visit Sonagachhi.” So if this is the figure for one area, there are several other big red-light areas such as the Kidderpore-Watgunj area, Bowbazaar, Kalighat and the regions of South Calcutta. Then it has to be understood that in contemporary times the proliferation of ‘Call-Girls’ is expanding at an explosive rate. These are generally belonging to respectable families, well-educated, may also be performing some mainstream job in the government or private sector, but engage in selling their bodies to the rich clientele of businessmen, managers/executives, high-ranking bureaucrats and politicians from whom they charge premium rates.


The spatial geography of their presence shows that, though the initial nucleus of the red-light region in colonial Calcutta lay in the Sonagacchi area (comprising the Chitpore Road and the by-lanes emanating from it such as Sinduriapatti), by the 1860s and 1870s, the red-light areas spread to central and southern Calcutta with Bowbazaar, Kidderpore, Bhawanipore and the dock-area showing a proliferation of brothels. In fact, even the nerve-centre of British colonial administration at Fort Williams was not left untouched and the soldiers and sailors stationed therein were catered to by numerous Indian and European prostitutes. One interesting case which was reported by a journal of the first half of 19th century shows that in British India, the higher-class prostitutes did not submit to exploitation meekly even at the hands of their patrons and were quick to seek the remedy of the criminal courts. In this case, one Huroo Khankee had initiated a case of burglary against two persons by the name of Bhairab Ganguly and Bhagwan Ghosh. The prosecutrix openly confessed before the court that she was a prostitute who was living as a tenant by hiring a room in a house in Shiboo (Shibu) Thakur Lane, Calcutta, and owned by one Shibu Sahu. She remarked that there were four to five other prostitutes residing in the same house who like her had hired single rooms. They were either in the keep of babus or entertained customers secretively. The plaintiff also told the judge that she was being kept as a joint mistress of the two accused, Bhairab Ganguly and Bhagwan Ghosh, each of whom were to pay her eight rupees per month separately. The plaintiff had brought a case of theft of her clothes, the jewels on her body and some other items, against these two who at the time of the theft had been her patrons. This case was ultimately decided in favour of the prostitute with her two ex-patrons being subjected to two years of imprisonment with hard labour.9

What is apparent from the above case is that in the early part of the nineteenth century, the activity of prostitution was not considered so derogatory that those plying the trade would try to avoid the public gaze. Instead it appears that they could operate by hiring rooms and houses owned by the most respected of Bengali middle and upper-class families. Sumanta Banerjee, citing a survey of Calcutta city’s fortyfour principal streets conducted in 1808, found that out of 7633 premises, 655 were owned by the prostitutes. In this survey there was also found that in Bowbazaar Street there were two residential premises acting as brothels from which 43 prostitutes plied their trade and it was owned by a member of Dwarkanath Tagore’s family, one of the leading zamindar families of Bengal, and whose members had close contacts with the ruling East India Company. It appears that the morals of the upper and middle-class Bengalis were not offended by hiring out their premises for such purposes as long as they made good money out of it. Yet these same families would raise a storm concerning the moral pollution of their children if even the prostitutes of the first category, the ‘Baijis’, dared to send their children to the same school or college where their wards studied. In 1853 when a very prominent ‘Bai’ of Calcutta dared to break the barriers of social-distancing by admitting her son to the Hindu College, Calcutta, the babus and their sons became so infuriated that they toyed with the idea of opening a separate college and thereby forced the college authorities to expel the son of Heera Bai for no cause or offence whatsoever.

In a health memorandum issued to the troops in 1905, Lord Kitchener, the military Commander-in-Chief in India, advised his men that “the common women as well as the regular prostitutes in India are almost all more or less infected with disease”. Soldiers posted to the tropics were issued a plethora of similar memoranda warning them that “it can be taken for granted that any native woman, who solicits your attention, is or has been infected”.10 These same memoranda that warned soldiers of the infective contamination lurking in local women, also gave voice to the assumption that diseases caught in the tropics were more ravaging than those acquired or experienced in the gentler climes of northern Europe. One such typical memo stated: “Syphilis contracted by Europeans from Asiatic women is much more severe than that contracted in England. It assumes a horrible, loathsome and often fatal form through which in time, as years pass on, the sufferer finds his hair falling off, his skin and the flesh of his body rot, and are eaten away by slow, cankerous and stinking ulcerations; his nose first falls in at the bridge and then rots and falls off; his sight gradually fails and he eventually becomes blind; his voice first becomes husky and then fades to a hoarse whisper as his throat is eaten away by foetid ulcerations.”11

Ratnabali Chatterjee, quoting from a correspondence of A. Mackenzie, reveals to us what the British administrators in Bengal considered to be an important source of prostitutes in the city of Calcutta. This functionary states: “In Bengal the prostitute class seems to be chiefly recruited from ranks of Hindu widows. The prominence of Hindu women among the prostitutes of Bengal, often it is stated: women of good caste and that even in districts where a large Mohammedan population predominates is the most curious feature disclosed in the correspondence and quite different to the state of things in other parts of northern India.” If this view of the British administrators is correct then the socio-economic reasons behind it would be very compelling. One reason for this could be the preponderance of child-widows as a percentage of the total widows within Bengal. This arose due to a rampant social evil prevalent in nineteenth century Bengal and which was the obsession of upper-caste Bengalis to have their daughters married to a Kulin Brahman irrespective of his age.


In the princely states like Oudh, the nawabi culture was epitomised by legendary misrule, abnegation of most, if not all, public duties, and a patronage of lifestyle which centred on songs, dances, musical soirees, cock-fighting, pigeon flying etc. The nawabs were themselves in possession of a huge Harem full of dozens of concubines, slave-girls, ‘Muta’ wives (who were all but concubines in name). The famed courtesans of Oudh were also an extension of this nawabi ‘high culture’ and were proud inheritors of a distinctive genre of dance and songs, social etiquette—what later on came to be termed as ‘Awadhi Tahzib’ of polished mannerisms and refined manner of speech. In the pre-1856 days, prior to Awadh’s acquisition under Lord Dalhousie’s regime, the courtesans or ‘tawaifs’ seemed to have been the most pampered and glorified of prostitutes as could have existed in any society. The best of these tawaifs were individually patronised by the top nobility and the richest merchants of Oudh. Scholars specialising in Oudh’s history believe that the rising centrality of tawaifs in Oudh came about with Shuja-ud-daulah’s reign (1753-74) and went on increasing till the climax reached under its last ruler Wajid Ali Shah. These absurdities went so far that it is said that until a person had association with courtesans he was not a polished man. The nawab’s courtiers would even send their own sons to the tawaif’s kotha (mansion) for lessons in social etiquette. Does this not bear a strange similarity with the institution of ‘Geisha’ in Japan?

Typically, a wealthy courtier began his direct association with a kotha by bidding for a virgin whose patron he became with the full privileges and obligations of that position. He was obliged to make regular contributions in cash and jewels, privileged to invite his friends to soirees, and to enjoy an exclusive sexual relationship with the virgin ‘tawaif’ who had just come of age. In those days, the most beautiful and accomplished of the tawaifs owned immense real estates in the form of orchards, manufacturing and retail establishments, mansions, precious jewels and furniture imaginable. Even in the post-rebellion period, when the British Crown wreaked its full vengeance on them for their major support to the cause of the rebel-soldiers of Oudh, many of them were the highest taxpayers and ranked along with the richest nobles, merchants, talukadars and other traditional elites.

The world of tawaifs was indeed a strange inversion of the typical male-centric patriarchal society where the male child was favoured right from birth and the daughters victimised, biased and ignored. In the world of these ‘high-class’ prostitutes, the girl child was the apple of her mother’s eye, her birth was celebrated with pomp and gaity; it was the daughter who would be provided with the best of education; it was she who would receive all the property and money of her mother. Veena Oldenburg in her interviews with a group of thirty odd tawaifs, from 1976 to 1986, who were, perhaps, the last of their breed, recounts of her experience with them. She tells of how ‘Chote Mian’, who was the son of one of these tawaifs, was given only a solitary room to call his own and a small pittance (that too in lieu of his working on various miscellaneous errands for his mother). It was as if by their inversion of the male-centric world-view they were trying to rebel against, and subvert the general social behaviour, which was structured and controlled by men. It was as if through such deliberate inversion of the social order, they were creating an autonomous existence of their own, completely independent of the male-folks. Within the ‘kotha’ (brothel), they were the decision-makers, the centre of power, and the men (their brothers and sons) mere appendages, their subordinates, to put it more crudely—their servants in waiting.12

Even in the early decades of the twentieth century, trafficking in women was rife in the region of Punjab now called Haryana. In 1921 a regular sale depot was discovered in the Hissar district, and a large number of women were found in wrongful confinement. They belonged to various castes and hailed from different parts of the country. In Hoshiarpur, Ludhiana and Ambala there is also a regular trade in women, who are hawked from place to place by professional cheats. In some districts of the United Provinces there was a definite traffic in girls with the Punjab, while Allahabad and Banda contain local matrimonial agencies, whose methods were not always above suspicion.13 The turn of the twentieth century also saw a remarkable internationalisation of this vicious business. A certain number of prostitutes of East European and Russian origin found their way to the sea-ports of India in Bombay, Karachi, Madras, Rangoon etc. via their sojourns in cities like Constantinople, Cairo, Alexandria, Baghdad etc. The male procurers or pimps, who were responsible for bringing them hither, belonged largely to the Jewish faith who advised women in Cairo, Alexandria and elsewhere of vacancies in the Indian and Far Eastern brothels, arranging with the brothel-keepers for their reception, if they desired to start in a new country, and often advancing the money for their steamer tickets, if they were short of funds.14


Prostitution has rightly been called the oldest profession in the world. It is also one which is nearly universally prevalent in all nations, communities and societies for as long as the masculine libido remained insatiate, the male’s unrestrained sexual energy shall always find ways and means to perpetuate a system which in today’s parlance is equated as sex-slavery. Outright kidnapping, extreme poverty, misfortunes such as widowhood, social customs such as birth in such a community or tribe which perpetuate prostitution amongst their unwed female-folks (such as the Bediya and the Kalbeliya tribes of Rajasthan) were some of the reasons compelling women to take to prostitution. Amongst these vicious social-customs was the custom of the Devdaasi in which families would dedicate their daughter or daughters to the local deity—be it Basava in Karnataka, Khandoba in Maharashtra. Such girls were prevented from marrying as they were regarded as the God’s bride, and they were in reality, the common mistress of the principal functionaries of the temple to whom they had been dedicated. The prostitute in British India like today cannot be characterised as constituting a distinctive class of their own. They ranged from the economically well-off Baijis and Tawaifs to the lowly, despised ‘randis’ living on the miserly pittances eked out by their village patrons. The emergence of the principal cities like Calcutta, Madras and Bombay in the British period saw a proliferation of this activity. An activity which had hitherto been spatially dispersed now began to be agglomerated within a specified part of the city which came to be called as the red-light area. It is not clear whether this was due to a deliberate design of the British administrators, for whom the proliferation of this activity within a well-demarcated area could have meant a greater ease in implementing legislations such as the Contagious Disease Act and their Cantonment Regulations.

The British administration never viewed prostitution from a moral angle, or if they did, their concern was about preserving the dignity of the Christian and European women than the Indian. They viewed the Indian harlot as a medical or hygiene problem, and they were concerned only to the extent that the native women could be precluded from spreading venereal diseases to their soldiers and officers. Thus, the Imperial Government did not look into the supply-side forces which forced ill-circumstanced women into a profession from which the victim or practitioner had no escape, and which branded her progenies to come with a taint as demeaning, and social ostracism as severe as a leper. The British could only apply legislations borrowed from their home country which reflected the gender-bias and double-standards of the Victorian Age. Instead of applying the retributive action of the state on punishing those who pushed the hapless women to this trade, they made the life of the Indian prostitute more miserable by initiating the system of ‘Lock Hospitals’ and ‘Registered Prostitutes’, the intention of which was to fully meet the lascivious needs of the English Tommy without impairing his bodily vigour and, thus, maintain the British Army, an important pillar of British hegemony around the globe, as an active fighting force capable of warding off challenges to this ‘Jewel in the Crown’ both internally and externally. n


1. For the story of Amrapali, see Samuel Beal’s English translation of Ashvaghosh’s “Buddhacharita”, in Sacred Books of the East ed. by Prof Max Mueller, Vol. 19; the original Sanskrit version now not extant but fully translated in 420 AD by Bhikshu Dharmarakshita into Chinese.

2. From Elizabeth Andrew and Kathleen Bushnell, The Queen’s Daughters, London, 1898, pp. 10-11.

3. In Kenneth Ball Hatchet’s Race, Sex and Class Under the Raj, Vikas Publishing House Pvt Ltd, New Delhi, 1979, p. 55.

4. Phillipa Levine, “A Multitude of Unchaste Women: Prostitution in the British Empire”, Journal of Women’s History, Indiana University Press, Vol. 15. No. 4, 2004, p. 162.

5. Ratnabali Chatterjee, The Queen’s Daughters: Prostitutes as an Outcast group in Colonial India, Bergen, Michelsen Institute, December 1992, p. 8.

6. See Sumanta Banerjee’s Under the Raj: Prostitution in Colonial Bengal, Monthly Review Press, New York, pp. 72-103.

7. See ibid., p. 77, p. 81.

8. See Sledgholme and Sinha, Guilty without Trial, Calcutta, Stree Publications, 1996, Introduction, p. 9.

9. From The Calcutta Monthly and Daily Register, August 1838, No. XLV, pp. 403-406.

10. From Phillipa Levine, “Venereal diseases, Prostitution and Empire: The Case of India”, The Journal of the History of Sexuality, Vol. 4, No. 4, April 1994, University of Texas Press, p. 590.

11. From Philippa Levine, “Venereal Diseases, Prostitution and Empire: The Case of India, The Journal of the History of Sexuality, Vol. 4, No. 4, April 1994, University of Texas Press, p. 591.

12. From Veena Talwar Oldenberg, “Lifestyle as Resistance: The Case of the Courtesans of Lucknow” in Douglas Haynes and Gyan Prakash (ed.), Contesting Power: Resistance and Everyday Social Relations in South Asia, Berkeley: University of California Press, 1991, pp. 23-61.

13. S.M. Edwards, Crime In India: A Brief Review of the more Important Offences included in the Annual Criminal Returns with Chapters on Prostitution and Miscellaneous Matters, Oxford University Press, London, p. 88.

14. Ibid., p. 95.

Sudhanshu Bhandari is a Ph.D research scholar, Centre for Historical Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi. He can be contacted at: or sud_charu1357@

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