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A Dictionary of Hinduism

W. J. Johnson

devadāsī (‘ servants of the god’) 

A term used to refer to a woman who was ritually ‘married’ to the temple god, or treated as one of his courtesans. Either presented to the temple by her parents in childhood, or born of a devadāsī herself, the girl (considered to be beyond caste restrictions) was trained to attend on the god, and to entertain him by singing and dancing. She also acted as a prostitute to the male devotees. In the medieval period, some temple complexes, especially in South India, had hundreds of devadāsīs under the control of the temple priests. The attitude towards devadāsīs was ambivalent: although regarded by many as auspicious, since they were married to the god, and highly respected for their education and training, particularly in the arts, they were also thought to be unchaste and not fit to enter the inner sanctum of the temple. Some made considerable fortunes, part of which might be returned to the temple in the form of endowments. The practice of presenting female children to the temple was made illegal in 1947, but the devadāsīs' artistic accomplishments have been increasingly appreciated.