Relief carvings in Hampi commonly depict dancing girls. These and other historical accounts (mainly temple inscription and travelers accounts) attest to a thriving culture of courtesans and devadasis.

In the Devadasi tradition, a girl (usually at a young age) is dedicated to a deity or a temple. The dedication ceremony is similar in many ways to a marriage ceremony. The Devadasis originally performed rituals and took care of the temple but over time they learned and practiced a dance form named Sadir, which today is widely known as Bharatanatyam. As dance and music were an essential part of worship, they enjoyed a high social status. Very often they married wealthy patrons but continued to perform their temple duties.

dancing girls

Photograph: Jose Ramapuram

 

Courtesans, on the other hand, were not dedicated to a temple but were under the patronage of the king or the nobility. The courtesan was an accomplished woman who was proficient in music and dance. While the Devadasi performed inside a temple complex, essentially as part of temple rituals, the courtesan performed in a more public, though restricted by privilege, sphere. The courtesan and the devadasi were both equally and singularly responsible for the development of Indian music and dance.

dancing girls

Photograph: Jose Ramapuram

 

The Vijayanagara kings drew inspiration from the Chola kings of modern day Tamil Nadu and nurtured a large number of courtesans and devadasis. However, during the Vijayanagara times, the artistic aspects assumed importance. This emphasis on both music and dance over time led to a well-defined tradition of music and dance in southern India – the Carnatic tradition of Indian music.