Servants of the Goddess


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South India's poverty belt is littered with ruins of medieval temples attesting to a time when powerful kingdoms vied for power. Priests had the power to confer legitimacy on upstart kings, and acted power brokers in their communities. Devadasis, with their dances and plays enacting the lives of the gods, drew crowds to the temple. If a man saw a devadasi that tickled his fancy at a festival, he could seek out her favors at a later time, provided she was not already spoken for. Men were known to ruin themselves vying for the privilege of becoming the patron of a great dancer. Kings taxed temple revenues, and having devadasis helped him fill coffers. Alberuni, an 11th century traveler writes, "Hindus are not very severe in punishing whoredom. The fault, however, lies with the kings and not with the nation. But for the kings, no Brahman or priest would suffer in their idol-temples the women who sing, dance and play. The kings make them an attraction for their cities, a bait of pleasure for their subjects, for no other but financial reasons."

All photos and site © Catherine Rubin Kermorgant