Wednesday 26 October 2016

Obituary: Sashimani Devi

Temple dancer who married a Hindu god and represented the end of a 1,000-year tradition

Published 26/04/2015 | 02:30

DEVOTEE: Sashimani Devi
DEVOTEE: Sashimani Devi

Sashimani Devi, who has died aged 92, was the last Mahari devadasi (ritual dancer) of the 12th Century Jagannath Temple in Puri, in the eastern Indian state of Orissa; her death brings to an end a tradition which has lasted nearly a millennium.

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The Hindu god Jagannath, an avatar, or incarnation, of Vishnu, gives his name to the English term juggernaut, inspired by a festival in which the image of the god is pulled along the streets in a huge, ornately carved wooden temple cart.

Devadasis were girls who were given to the temple by their families during childhood to be the mortal wives of the god. After their "marriage" to Jagannath their duties included performing ritual baths and private songs and dances at the god's bedtime, dressed in special jewellery and bedecked with flowers. During and after the colonial era, however, the devadasi system fell into disrepute, owing to the corruption of the practice in other parts of India, where devadasis became, in effect, prostitutes for upper caste temple patrons.

By contrast the devadasis of the Jagannath Temple, also known as Maharis, never practised prostitution, and were expected to remain celibate. In 1988, however, the practice of dedicating young girls to Hindu temples was outlawed on human rights grounds.

A census carried out in 1955 found 30 devadasis attached to the Jagannath Temple in Puri. Before her death Sashimani Devi was the only one left.

Sashimani Devi's date of birth is unknown and she could not remember her parents, recalling that "when I was three, my parents left me with Devadasi Labanya Devi [a devadasi at the temple]. I was brought up under her guidance and received training from her. From that tender age I was told that I was born for Lord Jagannath and I married Lord Jagannath at the age of eight, through a 'sari bandha' ceremony."

Traditionally, devadasis drew income from land allotted to them by the temple, but after the state government took over the administration of the temple from the royal family of Orissa in 1955, the temple lands were confiscated and in later life Sashimani Devi struggled to get by on a meagre pension.

Yet she remained proud of her status, explaining that her relationship with Jagannath was "like that of any other married couple".

She continued to dance into her fifties and sang well into her eighties, until her legs were broken by a rampaging bull and she could no longer make her way to the temple.

Traditionally the devadasi would adopt a girl child, whom she would train to succeed her. Sashimani Devi had an adopted son, a temple servant, and an adopted daughter, Rupashree Mohapatra, who, though not a devadasi, is a well-known stage performer of the Mahari form of temple dance.

Sashimani Devi died on March 19.

Sunday Independent

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