The devadasi system was at one point of time the beacon of arts — host to numerous dancers, musicians, artists and patrons. Temple inscriptions proclaim the great contributions of these women to society — with their art, intellect, donations to building dams and temples.
From the queen of Rajaraja Chola, Panchavanmaadevi, a Talicheri temple woman, to musicians like Bangalore Nagarathnamma who built Thyagaraja’s Samadhi and Padma Vibhushan T Balasaraswati who took Bharatanatyam to the global stage, the tradition boasts of glorious personalities.
So when there was a recent backlash against lyricist Vairamuthu for referring to Andal as a devadasi, it exposed the gross misconception in society about this tradition. Coming from a hereditary Isai Vellalar family, I feel the stain against devadasis was and is ill-judged.
In reality, the women coming from the tradition were dedicated to the temples as children and put in a place where they had to follow a certain mode of life. It was the male patrons who were sometimes abusers of the system and who have gone unscathed but the term devadasi has come to represent a woman with loose morals. This bigotry of having to prove a woman’s chastity to men in order to be respected is a problematic scenario. It is true that there was a practice of wealthy patrons to marry devadasis as one of their many wives.