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Mainstream, VOL LIII, No 16, April 11, 2015

The Last Devadasi: Does her Death brings down Curtain on a Disgraceful Temple Custom?

Sunday 12 April 2015, by A K Biswas

Devadasi, though described as a female slave of the gods, used with reference to women dedicated to the temple, was actually a temple prostitute. Many parts of India boasted of these women who were an integral part of Hindu shrines. And she pandered to the carnal desires of the priests, besides the rich and wealthy visitors, who undertook the journey to those places under the religious pretext. These women were a source of attraction which enhanced the reputation of many temples. The Jagannath Temple, Puri, Somnath Temple, Gujarat, various shrines in Tamil Nadu, to mention a few, had these unhappy women to serve the priests and visitors. The system has slowly faded away partially.

A report from Puri, Orissa suggests that the last devadasi, Sashimani, attached to the Jagannath temple, has died at 92, drawing a curtain on the disgraceful institution. Sadly, the report, though it appeared in a national daily with large circulation, seeks to mislead readers that the devadasi system was introduced in Puri’s Jagannath Temple in 1955. The report presented her as the ‘human wife’ of Lord Jagannath.1

It is shameful that truth has been sacrificed for vested interest. Francois Bernier (September 25, 1620-September 22, 1688) was a French physician and traveller. His account of travels in Mughal India is considered as a very valuable source material for the history of the country. He was the personal physician to Prince Dara Shikoh, the elder son of Shah Jahan, and after Dara Shikoh’s fall was attached to the court of Emperor Aurangzeb for around 12 years during his stay in India. He had visited Puri. His account discloses that every year prior to the ratha jatra in Puri, Jagannath took a new, young wife. She used to be deflowered on the first night for consummating the marriage by one of the temple priests intruding inside a room where she was sheltered.

A century ago Puri’s devadasis dominated debates of the Governor’s Legislative Council in the colonial era.

 In March 1912, Bal Krishna Sahay, representing the Chotanagpur Division in the Bengal Legislative Council, raised the “custom of dedicating female children to the temple of Jagannath in Puri who, when grown up, lead immoral life”. He demanded government intervention “to abolish the immoral custom”. The government’s response was classic. The government, the Council was told, “would view with favour and lend its support to any organised attempt made by Hindu society at large to eradicate the evils which have grown up around the system at Puri”. The British rulers flatly refused to initiate “reforms on its own motion in a matter so closely connected with religious observance”.2

In a dispatch to The New York Tribune, August 8, 1853, Karl Marx had charged the British saying: “Did they not, in order, to make money out of the pilgrims streaming to the temples of Orissa and Bengal, take up the trade in murder and prostitution perpetrated in the temple of Juggernaut?”3 It was not an insinuation. It was an admonition-based statement of facts, though he sounded highly abrasive against a shrine sacred to Hindus. After 74 years, Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi in 1927 precisely made, in no mellifluous voice, the same point. “There are, I am sorry to say, many temples in our midst in the country, which are no better than brothels.”4 The Hindu, September 15, 1927, quoted him as saying: “In calling them devadasis we insult the God Himself under the sacred name of religion and we commit double crime in that we use these sisters of ours to serve our lust...........”

Karl Marx was not alone or without company in exposing the temple vices. In the 19th century, a thriving brothel had grown around the Tarakeswar Temple in Hooghly district (West Bengal). The prosperous shrine’s mahant, Madhav Chandra Giri, had the notoriety of kidnapping, seducing or inducing or procuring innocent women for illicit relations with him by deploying his musclemen. “Afterwards these women could not return to their families: their only sanctuary lay in the growing brothels of Tarakeswar. Newspapers in 1873 were full of lurid description of the temple pandas of Puri and Tarakeswar......... Tarakeswar has been a place for illicit assignation,” says Tanika Sarkar.5 The census report of 1871 shows that this district had second largest number of prostitutes, next only to 24-Parganas, in Assam, Bihar and Orissa, besides Bengal!6 What a contribution of a solitary priest to the womanhood of Bengal!

Rich and wealthy landlords of Bengal, Bihar and Orissa flocked to Puri under the pretext of pilgrimage with desire not so pious indeed. Some of the zamindars levied illegal imposts or abwabs for example, hatbhara mahaprasad, barunisnan to defray expenses for their prolonged visits to Puri. John Beams, the highly esteemed District Collector of Balasore, Orissa, reported this to the Bengal Government in 1871. Many of the zamindars from Calcutta spent lakhs of rupees on their visit to Puri, spanning over two-to-three months.

Temples Cesspool of Syphilis?

An Imported Disease in Sanctum Sanctoram

Syphilis is not a native disease of India. It came from abroad. In fact the vicious disease was unknown to India before 1494. The discovery of America that year by Columbus is a watershed in public health globally, not to speak of many countries of Europe besides India, China, Japan, etc. In his Unhappy India (1927), the stalwart of the freedom struggle, Lala Lajpat Rai, laboured painstakingly to trace out the source of advent of syphilis in India. Quoting a contemporary medical authority Dr Awan Bloch, the Lala noted that “Syphilis was first introduced into Spain in 1494 and 1495 by the crew of Columbus who brought from Central America, and more especially from the island Hyati, from Spain it was carried by the army of Charles VII to Italy, where it assumed an epidemic form; and after the army was disbanded the disease was transported by the soldiers to the other countries of Europe and was also soon taken by the Portuguese to the Far East, to India, China and Japan”.7 In his seminal work, Prof Gilbert Slater, Department of Economics, Madras University, showed how priests of twelve great temples stacked with devadasis in Kumbakonam, a town 300 km south of Madras, critically infected their wives back home with syphilis.8

Syphilis did not make its appearance in South India but invaded the inmates of households of the priests. This underlines that this shameful disease had found its patrons in the elite class hailing from the upper social layers having access to the houses of gods. The doors of the Hindu shrines are still closed for people from the lower social strata across the country.

The Hindu temples were patronised by a strange class of people for access to the prostitutes, an euphemism for devadasis inside them. This is though an interesting, but little discussed, chapter of cultural history. Here underlies the mystery how the Britishers got access to the temple and prostitutes. William Ward, a Serampore missionary, had focused on this little known aspect. The English officials got foothold in Hindu temples with superb manoeuvre quite early in the day. “In Conjee-varam, the Shiva Temple was in ruins and the people did not care to repair. An English official induced the Company to carry out repairs and himself gave a gift to the temple.” 9 This surprise, nay, unpredictable munificence must have earned loudest admiration for the Company, yielding access for its official to the sanctum sanctorum of the Hindu shrines. This action threw open doors to them for intercourse with the devadasis. In the early days of the Company, their officials did not accompany their wives to India. Infecting the women in the shrine with syphilis was just the natural consequence! The temple priests and British officials shared the same women. So the priests carried the disease home and infected their women. The moral pretension of some of the priests is skyrocketing.

In 1803, the priests of the Jagannath temple handed over its management to the British after Orissa was conquered. As per the terms of transfer, salaries of the priests and others, including devadasis, dependent on the shrine were paid out of the temple coffers by the Company till 1841 when the Company withdrew from management of the Hindu shrine. The pilgrims resorting to Puri were subjected to entry tax varying from Rs 2 to Rs 10 per head. A Bengali journal in 1831 disclosed that in 17 years the revenue officials responsible for collection had grossed a sum of Rs 992,050 at Rs 58,355 per annum from the pilgrims.10

On December 16, 1997, Sashimoni and Parashmoni, both devadasis, called maharis in the Oriya language, gave public performance in Calcutta under the auspices of the Odissi Vision and Movement Centre. A media report quoted them as claiming: “We were born into high class Kayasth families from where maharis adopted us with the intention of training us like them.”11

Does the death of the last devadasi herald the end of sexual exploitation of women under the pretext of divinity? Does it as well usher a new era of reforms in the shrine of Lord Jagannath? A year back, an accomplished Odissi dancer, an Italian national, was assaulted by pandas who refused her permission to ascend to the rath (wooden chariot) while it was drawn on the streets on the day of puja. She did not pay the bribes they demanded. The Thai princess, few years ago, was denied entry into the temple of Jagannath because she was a Buddhist whereas every year scores of Scheduled Castes meet the same fate on the ground of untouchability. Will the temple authorities (read pandas) show liberal proclivity hereafter? I see no such possibility. Temple orthodoxy will be the last of the vices to abate from the soil of India. Till then the practice of untouchability will perpetuate.

Yogini, counterpart of Devadasi

The saga of exploitation under the name of gods does not end here and now. The vice survives in much worse shape and ramification in some South Indian States. The yoginis, patronised there, involve the other side of ‘the same ritualistic sexual exploitation’. Young Scheduled Caste girls serve as prostitutes for dominant community members. In 2007, the Anti-Slavery International published a study on the practice of the ritual of sexual slavery or forced religious ‘marriage’. It found that 93 per cent of yoginis or devadasis were from the Scheduled Castes and seven per cent from the Scheduled Tribes. Subjugating Dalit women as prostitutes and tying prosti-tution to bondage by dominant castes seeks to enforce their social status and economic superiority. Girls who become devadasis and yoginis are prohibited from marrying and are stigmatised by the community. The children of yoginis suffer from discrimination because nobody acknowledges their parenthood.

In India discrimination is integral to social reality. It matters little to the elite class and rulers. So the yoginis may have to go a long way for emancipation. Threats of divine displeasure against discontinuance of the yogini system and vested interest of the powerful dominant castes may perpetuate the evil, how long nobody can predict.


1. The Times of India, ‘Puri’s last practising devadasi dies at 92’, March 20, 2015.

2. Proceedings of the Bengal Legislative Council, vol. XXXIV (January to March 1912), Calcutta, Bengal Secretariat Press, 1913, p. 19.

3. Marx and Engels, Selected Works, Vol. I, Moscow, 1962, 357.

4. Young India, October 6, 1927.

5. Tanika Sarkar, Hindu Wife, Hindu Nation: Community, Religion, and Cultural Nationalism, Indiana University Press, December 2002, p. 158.

6. A. K. Biswas, ‘Imaging the Hindu Rashtra’, Mainstream, vol. LIII No. 1, December 27, 2014.

7. Lala Lajpat Rai, Unhappy India, Banna Publishing Company, Calcutta, 1928.

8. Prof. Gilbert Slater, The Dravidian Element in Indian Culture, Ess Ess Publications, New Delhi, (Indian reprint 1976, original print in 1924),

9. William Ward, History, Literature and Mythology of the the Hindoos, Vol. II, Serampore Mission Press, 1818.

10. Brajendranath Bandopadhyay, Sambadpatre Sekaler Katha (Bengali), Vol. II, Calcutta, BS 1348, p. 558.

11. Baijayanti Ray, ‘Brides of The Lord’, in The Asian Age, December 17, 1997, Calcutta.

The author is a retired IAS officer and former Vice-Chancellor, B. R. Ambedkar University, Muzaffarpur, Bihar. He can be contacted at biswasatulk @gmail.com