Joomla project supported by everest poker review.

Ileana Citaristi

Devadasi of the JagannathTemple: precursors of Odissi music and dance.

Citaristi, Ileana: "Devadasi of the JagannathTemple: precursors of Odissi music and dance", 16th International Congress on Dance Research, Corfu, Greece, 30/10-3/11, 2002.


The dance of the devadasi (servants of God) who served in the temples of Orissa, India, up to the beginning of the last century, was the forerunner of the style of dance today known as Odissi. In this article the author briefly describes their role in the Puri Jagannath temple and their decline.

1. Mythological background

The Madala Panji or Chronicles of the Jagannath Temple states that gods and other celestial beings attended the ceremony of the pratistha or installation of the deity at the Jagannath temple in Puri. The celestial party included gandharvas and apsaras, singers and dancers of paradise. The ravishing damsels Rambha and Menaka danced on the occasion, accompanied by the music of their celestial companions Ha-Ha and Hu-Hu. Rambha and Menaka, on the basis of this legend, are considered the first devadasi to have danced for Jagannath, the Lord of the Universe. The tradition of conducting seva or services of music and dance as part of the ritual worship of Jagannath, is perhaps as old as this legend. Nachuni or dancing girls have been part of the team of sevayats performing these services from the very beginning, as also are the mardalika or percussion players and kanatalika or cymbal players.

Over the centuries, the legends connected with Lord Jagannath underwent a progressive Vishnuvization and Jagannath came to be identified with Krishna [1] of the Bhagavata Purana [2]. As a result the sevayats who in the temple of the South were known as devadasi, in Orissa underwent a transformation and emerged as Radhadasi symbolising the highest degree of pure and disinterested love towards Jagannath-Krishna. According to the Vaishnava faith, God is kept prisoner by the love-ties of his devotees. His existence depends upon their dedication to Him. The dasi, by her servitude, by giving him pleasure and satisfaction with disinterested attitude, derives power over Him. While poet Jayadeva as a man needed the mediation of Padmavati to be able to communicate with Jagannath and saint Chaitanya thought of himself as a woman to be able to experience the ecstasy of the union with Krishna, the devadasi could deal directly with Him. She was a privileged person; in the eyes of the public, devadasi were associated with auspiciousness and good luck. They were supposed to be capable of warding off the evil eye and, for this reason, their presence was solicited in functions celebrated in the royal court and in brahmana households.

2. Training of the girls

The preparation of a girl chosen to be a dasi of the Lord was aimed at promoting a gradual and progressive development of an intimate and exclusive relationship with Him. The ceremony marking her consecration, usually at the early age of nine, had all the characteristics of a marriage ritual as is usually performed in Orissa. In this case the bridegroom was the Lord himself and the ceremony took place in the temple, the House of the Lord. The typical features included: exchange of garlands, tightening of the sari around the head, application of red powder and sandalwood paste on the girl’s forehead, circumambulation of the temple, and, back home, a ritual in front of the tulsi [3] plant, wearing of new dress, bangles and decorations and distribution of food to brahmana, relations and other invitees. In the evening the young bride was taken to the palace of the Puri king by her mother and other female relatives and was asked to sit near him. She was subsequently taken to his bed-chamber and asked to touch the bed and then look into the eyes of the king. This part of the ritual was observed as the king of Puri was venerated as the moving image of Lord Jagannath.

The training of the girl was started right after the dedication ceremony. Her lessons, imparted by her adoptive mother and her spiritual guru, were all about Krishna-Jagannath, conveyed through Vishnava songs and readings from the Purana. In this context, she also learned dance and its meaning. Her food, always prasad [1] coming directly from the temple or consecrated in front of the idol kept at home, excluded fish, meat and eggs, which were held to be polluted. Her dress, except for the occasion of seva at the temple, was sober and devoid of embellishments. The approach and atmosphere of the training were directed to making her feel always the presence of Jagannath and to link her emotionally and psychologically with Him. The acolyte devadasi offered her first seva to Jagannath about a year after her dedication. Her training continued for six or seven years longer.

Of course not all the girls introduced into the system could reach the same spiritual and devotional plane. It was, as in any other field, a question of natural attitude and disposition. The existence of a code of rules meant to regulate the conduct of the devadasi, expanded or amended from time to time by royal authority, confirms that it was not so easy for the devadasi to maintain themselves completely separated from worldly interests. A royal order, in possession of an old devadasi named Buli, prohibits them from “having physical contacts with men”. It further states: “They should not speak to any male on the day they are to dance before the Lord... While dancing they should not look at the pilgrim audience…”. This order recalls to mind that even Urvasi, their celestial predecessor, while once dancing before an august audience in Indra’s court, could not restrain herself from exchanging amorous glances with Prince Jayanta. As a result, she missed her steps and sage Agastya, who was observing the incident, condemned them both to be born on earth: Urvasi as a devadasi and Jayanta as a bamboo tree.

At the temple of Jagannath, Mina Nayak is the title of the officer responsible for controlling the behaviour of the dasi and the public. In a 17th century document still preserved at the temple, the then Mina Nayak refers to the conduct of the son of a ‘panda’ (priest) during the ritual performance of a devadasi at the time of the Lord’s midday meal. It seems that, while she was dancing, he dared to present her with a flower, and she instinctively wore it in her hair. Consequent to this incident, both of them were forbidden to enter the precincts of the temple for an entire year. Only a devadasi who stayed faithful to her Lord up to the end had the privilege of having her body, after death, covered with the same sari she received during the ritual of the marriage with Jagannath and having the embers for the cremation brought from the temple itself.

3. Rituals inside the temple

Since there were many girls and women serving as devadasi at the temple – records indicate 50 to 60 devadasi houses existed in Puri at the beginning of last century - the ritual services were divided among them and also they were given duty assignments by turns. Those who sang inside the garbagraha (sanctum sanctorum) at the time of Bada-Singhara dhupa (the Lord’s midnight meal) were classified as bhitara gayani. The second category consisted of nachuni, who danced in the audience hall adjoining the sanctum sactorum; patuari, who accompanied the processional deity and danced on the road; and bahara gayani, who sang outside the temple usually when accompanying the processional deity. Two other categories, known as raj anjila (whose bodies are for the king) and gahana mahari (those meant for the inner apartments) consisted of prostitutes who were not allowed entry into the temple.

The bhitare gaani were considered superior to all the others. They had the privilege of being with the Lord in His private apartments every night before he went to sleep. The one serving the Lord on any particular night arrived after the night meal and arati[1] were over. Naked breasted, with her blouse wound tight around her waist, she sang a song from the Geeta Govinda[2] depicting the sringara rasa (erotic sentiment). She retired only when there were signs that Jagannath was going to fall asleep, such as the eyelids of the Lord beginning to droop, the garland offered to Him by His wife Laxmi beginning to fade. At this juncture, the voice of the singer herself would begin to weaken.

There was a time when during the tantric panchamakara puja [3] preceding the singing of the Geeta Govinda song, the attending devadasi had to execute some banda (acrobatic poses) corresponding to some of the 64 banda of the Kama Sutra. Known as maithuna nritya, this danced symbolised sexual union in the tantric puja. This seva was abolished at the beginning of the last century and the only dance performed daily in the temple after that time was the one offered at the time of sakala dhupa or midday meal. The midday meal started when, the door of the sanctum still closed, the offering of the food began; it ended when the arati was performed upon completion of the meal service. Its duration depended on the length of the puja every day. The performance usually consisted of nritta (rhythmic dance), accompanied by the sound of the pakhawaj (percussive instrument) without any melody or song. Jagannath would have a clear, unobstructed view of the dancer behind whom stood the Raj Guru with a golden cane, representing the royal authority. The dancer would, at the beginning, execute a triple turn to be able to offer a triple obeisance to both God and King. The devotees present would stand and watch from the two sides.

Describing the dance performed during sakala dhupa Dr. M.Mansinha has said in his book ‘The saga of the land of Jagannath’: “...the dancer this writer saw as a school boy in the very temple of Jagannath... about four decades back was supremely beauteous. She was fully Aryan in complexion with the lovely tan of the Puri climate. She danced in absolute silence for about half an hour to the simple but exciting rhythm of a small pakhawaj played on by perhaps her Guru, an elderly man. The whole performance was a real piece of aesthetic dedication to the Lord... And after the dance was over, this writer was amazed to witness many devotees, young and old, men and women, rolling over the very ground that the young devadasi had danced on…”.

4. Festivals outside the temple

During the lunar month of Baisakha (April-May), with the approaching summer heralded by increasing heat during the day, Jagannath would be given a special bath with sandalwood paste (chandana) inside the sanctum. During the bathing ceremony, a devadasi belonging to the bithara gayani group would sing for Him. While this continued for 21 consecutive days, every night during this special festival called chandan jatra, Jagannath’s idol, together with that of his consort, would be taken to the Narendra tank near the temple for boating. There would be two boats: a red one carrying the five mahadeva popularly known as the five Pandavas and the idol of Rama-Krishna; and a white one carrying the image of Madana-Mohana and Laxmi-Saraswati, or Jagannath and his consort. Boys known as akhada pilla [3] would dance on the first boat, while a devadasi would dance, singing along and accompanied by the sound of a pakhawaj on the second. The songs she danced to always embraced the Radha-Krishna theme. They were songs of Vishnava poets like Jayadeva, Dhina Krishna, Banamali and Gopala Krishna. Sometimes, in a single night, the dancer would execute six or seven abhinaya (expressional dance) numbers.

On the way back to the temple late at night, the processional idols would stop in four places along the main road, once in front of the Maharaja’s palace and thrice in front of three different matha (monasteries). Each time, while priests offered pankti bhoga (small quantities of food in small pots made out of clay), the same dancer who had performed on the boat would perform on the road what is called patuara nritta, short items of rhythmic dance. Nowadays, only the akhada pilla dance during the chandan jatra. The last performance by a devadasi apparently took place about 50 years ago.

Another occasion for dance by a devadasi outside the temple was during champaka dwadasi, three days before the full moon of the lunar month of Jyestha (May-June) when the marriage of Krishna and Rukmini would be celebrated within the temple precincts. A group of priests and devadasi would act out the abduction of Rukmini as she emerged from the Bimala temple after having offered worship. In this enactment, the two divinities were represented by their own idol, but Sisupala, the presumptive husband, and Krishna’s younger brother Balarama were represented by two of the priests. On this occasion a group of devadasi would perform a triple seva. First they would sing the contents of Rukmini’s message that had to be delivered to Krishna. Then they would give a bath to the bride with water from seven different containers. During the marriage ceremony in the bibaha mandapa (marriage hall) they would sing the mangala geeta (auspicious song) and do ulu-uli during panigraha - the joining of the hands of the bride and the groom. The first night after the marriage, the divine couple would be taken in procession to the Maharaja’s palace, accompanied by the priests, the musicians and the dancers. Inside the palace, while the king offered worship and a rich variety of foods to the deities, three devadasi would dance items of rhythmic dance.

Another important seva performed by the devadasi takes place during the nine days of the ratha yatra (car festival) in the month of Asadha (June-July). Five days after Jagannath, accompanied by elder brother Balabhadra and younger sister Subhadra, has left the temple for the abode of their aunt Gundicha, on the night called hera panchami, his dejected consort Laxmi, accompanied by a group of devadasi, sets forth to bring him back. All the way towards Gundicha’s temple she expresses her resentment for not having been taken along by Jagannath [3] through the song called Hera geeta sang by the group of devadasi. The song has fifty stanzas. About 25 are sung during the night of hera panchami; some more on the ninth day, when Laxmi, from a high place, sights Jagannath’s car on its return journey standing in front of the Maharaja’s palace: and the rest on the 12th day during the dwara paka (closing doors) when she refuses to open the doors of the temple and let Him inside. She is reconciled only when, from the other side of the door, Jagannath speaking through the priests, tells her that he has brought some present for her and that he will express his repentance.

On the night of hera panchami the devadasi would perform other symbolic actions also to give vent to Laxmi’s resentment and anger. On reaching Jagannath at Gundicha’s temple, they would break a plug from the wheel of the chariot and tear the dress of one of the priests.

During the lunar month of Bhadra (August-September) on the asthami - the eight day of the 14 days lunar cycle - the birth anniversary of Lord Krishna is celebrated at the Jagannath’s temple. Two devadasi interpret the roles of Yasodha and Rohini in a symbolic marriage with Nanda - Krishna’s adoptive father. The action takes place on the platform of the snahana mandir (bath place) inside the compound of the main temple. The maidens first go to Nanda’s house, place a garland of flowers around his neck, apply sandalwood paste to his forehead and symbolically feed him with some food. Then, together with different musicians, they go in procession towards the temple. Nanda embraces the two wives. He then milks a cow which has never been milked before and, after having personally offered the milk to Jagannath, feeds the child who takes the role of the baby Krishna. Another priest, interpreting the role of Pootana, [3] enters and asks that the baby be given to her. But as soon as Pootana takes Krishna to her breast, she falls on the ground as if dead. End of enactment. The two devadasi who portray the roles of Yasodha and Rohini each receive the gift of a sari as compensation.

5. Degeneration of the system

An Englishman, Sir W.W. Hunter alleged, circa 1871, that indecencies had crept into the rites of worship. He cited as an illustration, the birth festival of Jagannath-Krishna in which, according to him, a priest took the role of Krishna’s father and a dancing girl that of his mother and together they enacted the nativity of Krishna. The allegation of indecency in any of the rites at the Puri temple was rebutted by another Englishman (Sri Malley) writing in the Bengali District Gazetteer in 1908. Rebuttal was offered also from the two devadasi who were still alive up to few years ago, Kokila Prabha and Harapriya Devi. Kokila Prabha, also called Kohili, up to the time of her death, which occurred a couple of years ago, was still rendering service every night at the temple by singing a Geeta Govinda song to Jagannath at bedtime. For this service, she used to receive a monthly salary of 120 rupees. After her death this service has been discontinued because no other devadasi belonging to the bithara gyaani is alive.

Harapriya Devi - the source of much of the information in this article - was about 70 years old when she passed away. She had virtually retired from service at the temple, and had been for few years the president of the devadasi samiti, an association formed by about ten ‘devadasi’ with the purpose of institutionalising their art of dance. Unmarried, except to Jagannath, she used to live in the house of her brother’s family. She was receiving a monthly pension of 200 rupees from the cultural affairs department of the Government of Orissa.

Both Harapriys Devi and Kokila Prabha firmly denied that any such practice as alleged by Hunter ever existed. According to the former any sexual contact between the priests and the devadasi was prohibited in any event because they belonged to different castes; and were a brahmana priest ever to marry a sudra [3] (outcaste) devadasi he would lose his right to perform seva in the temple. But it is true that a certain degree of degeneration and moral laxity crept in, affecting not only the devadasi but also indirectly the system of rituals and duties connected with the Puri temple. This development is to be viewed against social changes that occurred. It seems that the integrity and reputation of the devadasi system began to suffer after the Afghan and Muslim invasions of Orissa in the XVI and XVII century respectively. The invaders apparently obtained favours from the devadasi by offering large amounts of money and other favours and had free access to the latter houses at any time.

A document in the Chronicles of the Jagannath temple reveals that, during this period, a paricha of the temple known as Mahadeva Rajguru Mohapatra wrote a letter to the heads of each of the seven akhada warning them about the danger in continuing to allow the participation of devadasi in public ceremonies. He suggested that, instead of the devadasi, young boys might be selected and trained to perform the seva dressed in female attire. Whether it was due to this warning or not, the devadasi were replaced by akhada pilla for doing seva during the jhula jatra - seven evenings during which the idols of Radha and Krishna are placed on a swing at the Mukti Mandapa for the public to feast their eyes upon - and during dhola purnima when devotees play holi (festival of colours) with Radha and Krishna.

The devadasi system suffered a grievous blow when royal patronage in the form of land grant etc. ended. Some devadasi families were forced to sell their rights to perform seva to others able and willing to pay. The transaction had to be registered with appropriate authorities. Once a devadasi family sold its rights to another, it could not regain them. Another survival tactic employed by some was the sale, within the precincts of the temple itself, of the prasad received by them. Yet many of the devadasi could not survive with the proceeds of selling the prasad as their only income. Compelled by circumstances, they had to relinquish the devadasi status and take to other service professions like nursing and teaching. Marriage to a mere mortal was another way out. Jagannath slowly but surely lost the services of his female attendants.

6. Ornaments and make-up

How the devadasi of the Jagannath temple used to dress and decorate themselves during the seva has been described in a manuscript written by one devadasi named Mukta. They typically wore more than thirty pieces of ornaments, half of gold and half of silver, all over the body. This set of ornaments is similar to the one worn, even nowadays, by girls belonging to panda families for netta puja performed during the dusshera festival (October-November). The ritual is aimed at securing good husbands and the girls after undertaking the morning bath at the Markandeya tank in Puri, call on relatives and friends in the netta dress and receive auspicious offerings from them.

On the day a devadasi had to perform a seva she would take her morning bath with haladi (turmeric powder) and water, consume a small quantity of mahaprasad from the temple and begin making herself up with the help of her mother and two other persons who were specialised in drawing flower patterns and other decorative motifs on the body. She would have the most complete and elaborate make-up if she had to participate in the seva on the white boat during chandan jatra. For all occasions, the ingredients used for the make-up had to be satvik, that is ‘benign’ in nature.

During the make-up session the devadasi was not supposed to be concerned with the beautification process but expected to be in a spiritual and devotional frame of mind. “Calm, slow and thoroughly absorbed, full of bhakti bhava (devotional feeling)...” - to quote from another manuscript, this one an 18th century text written by Lavania devadasi - the young lady had to concentrate on how to become worthy in body and soul, of the projected encounter with her Lord. She had to review in her mind the choice of the songs to be offered and the bhava to be expressed. The devadasi offering seva on the white boat during chandan jatra had to have a make-up consisting of sixteen elements (sola singar) as follows:

- siri drawn with red powder in the form of a drop in the middle of the forehead;

- topa, a black spot at the base of the siri;

- gorachana, a yellowish substance extracted from the brain of certain cows after their death, with which a ‘v’ form was designed under the topa;

- laanzi or black kajal for the eyes, drawn to two sharpened points;

- tilak with a shape of a long ‘v’ on the nose;

- makari, two side-curls of hair pasted on the cheeks with a paste made of flour;

- chandan or sandalwood paste decoration around the eyebrows;

- lines of sandalwood paste from the jaw to the base of the neck;

- red colour on the lips;

- one black spot under the mouth on the right side;

- flower-shaped decorations on the hands made with a flower called haragoura[3];

- application of the same pigment on the nails;

- lines of sandalwood paste on the arms up to the wrists;

- alota or red colour around the edges of the feet;

- patterns of red flowers on the feet;

- patravali or floral decorations around the breasts made with a highly scented substance compounded of sandalwood, camphor, kasturi and the seeds of the kum-kum tree.

Furthermore, she had to wear her hair in a bun behind her head and have fresh flowers of different colours on it. As a crest, she was expected to wear a tiara [4] of fresh flowers.

The dress prescribed for the occasion consisted of a velvet blouse (kanchala) fastened behind with three strings and a ‘sari’ worn like a long skirt. Layers of different kinds of golden necklaces were hanging down to the waist and a silken chadara, used as a shawl to cover the head while walking the distance between the house and the temple, would be tightened around the waist, with the folds falling in between the thighs, at the time of the dance.

The dances of the devadasi, being a ritual offering rather than entertainment, had to conform to certain rules and a style dictated by the atmosphere of religious reverence in which they were performed. Accordingly a deep display of bhakti bhava was substituted for complex rhythmic patterns and intricate footwork; circular and wavy movements, typical of religious dances, were predominant. The abhinaya was simple but touching and impressive. The dances have survived their offerers. In the secular world outside the temple, the style of dance known as odissi has been enriched by refinements and embellishments. But the sacred flavour imparted to it is the great contribution of the devadasi of Jagannath, the Lord of the Universe.


R.K. Das: Legends of Jagannath, Puri, Bhadrak, 1981.

D.N. Patnaik: Odissi dance. Cuttack,1971

Hunter, Sterling: Beams, A history of Orissa. Calcutta, 1956.

K.C. Panigrahi: History of Orissa. Kitab Mahal.

Beryl De Soete: The other mind. London, 1953.

S. K. Chatterjee: Devadasi, the temple dancer. Calcutta, 1915.

K. C. Mishra: The cult of Jagannath. Cuttack, 1971.

M. Mansinha: The saga of the Land of Jagannath. Cuttack.

D. Hota: Odissi as a part of Indian classical music, in History and Culture of Orissa, Cuttack.

K. Mayo: Slaves of the Gods. London, 1929.


J. Pani: Abhinaya in Odissi, Sangeet Natak Academi journal, New Delhi, 1972.

S. R. Sharma: Mahari, Kala Vikash Kendra journal. Cuttack, 1958.

M. Khokar: Devadasi of Orissa, in Souvenir of the XIII Natya Kala Conference. Madras, 1958.

G. Vidyarthi: With the daughters of Urvasi and Rambha, Sangeet Natak Academi journal. New Delhi, 1958.


Devadasi Nrutya Karika, by Lavania Mahari (18th cent.)

Madala Panji, or Chronicle of Jagannath Temple, Puri

The author

Italian by birth, Ileana holds a Doctorate in Philosophy with a thesis on ‘Psychoanalysis and eastern mythology’. She has come to Indian dance after years of experience in the traditional as well as experimental theatre in Europe. Ileana has been living in Orissa, India, since the year 1979 in close contact with the people, their language and culture. Her mentor in the Odissi dance style is the renowned Guru, Padmabhushan Kelucharan Mohapatra. She is equally at home with the different martial postures of the Chhau dance of Mayurbhanji, which she has learnt under the guidance of Guru Shri Hari Nayak, obtaining the title of ‘Acharya’ from the Sangeet Mahavidyalya of Bhubaneswar in Orissa. Her contributions, besides the many performances and lecture-demonstrations given in all the major centres in India, include articles on Oriya culture published in Indian and foreign magazines, research work for film-documentaries on Odissi and Chhau dances and practical dance workshops for dancers and theatre workers which she regularly conducts under invitation by different institutions in India and abroad. Her innovative choreographies in Mayurbhanji Chhau include the Greek myth ‘Echo and Narcissus’, which was a revelation at the East-West Dance Encounter held in Bombay in April 1985, ‘The Wreck’ (December 1988), ‘Icarus’ (July 1991), ‘Pancha bhuta’ (January 1996), ‘The journey’ (September 1998), ‘Images of change’ (March 2000) and in Odissi style the ballet ‘Maya Darpan’ premiered at Nehru Center in Bombay in April 1993. ‘A’ grade artist from Cuttack Television, Ileana has been awarded the prestigious title ‘Leonide Massine for the art of dance’ in Italy in September 1992 and the ‘Raseshwar’ award by the Sur Singar Sansad, Bombay, in December 1994. In May 1996 she won the ‘National Award for best choreography’ for her dance direction to the Bengali film ‘Yugant’ directed by Aparna Sen. She has conducted a research on the Martial Art of Orissa under the aegis of the Indira Gandhi National Center for the Arts in 1991 and in 1996 she has been granted a senior Fellowship by the Dept. of Culture, Government of India, for writing a book on Kelucharan Mohapatra’s life. The book, titled ‘The making of a guru’, has been published by Manohar and was released in New Delhi, in February 2001. In Bhubaneswar she is imparting training in Odissi and Chhau dances to local as well as visiting students in her own Institution ‘Art vision’, founded by her in the year 1995.

Dr. Ms. Ileana Citaristi


[1] Ritualistic offering of lights to the deity to ward off evil spirits.

[2] Sanskrit poem written by Jayadeva in the 17th century depicting the erotic love between Radha and Krishna

[3]The petals of this flower were pounded and applied on the palms until they were dry. The design left by this flower remains intact for long time.


Articles View Hits
Monday the 27th.