Embodying Divine

Embodying the Divine

India, Mother of Sacred Dance

By Patrice Hawkwood Schanck

Hundreds of bas-relief sculptures of Indian temple dancers, devadasis, adorn the gateways and exteriors of some of India’s most famed and beautiful temples. Looking at the images of dancers from centuries past, it is very tempting to conclude that these holy and sensual women were dancing in a style very similar to belly dance. Wearing little but their jewels and a smile, these figures seem to radiate a quality rarely found in contemporary people: an ease and delight in their sacred sexual natures. Clearly these women are at home in their bodies, and at play in them as well!

Often these figures have one hip curving out and down suggestive of a step called ‘Maya.’ This is a figure eight made with the hips in the up, around and down direction. By happy coincidence, the term “maya” is also a Hindu word with several meanings. It has been translated often as “illusion,” the material world which conceals the essence of spirit. Feminist scholars point out that maya is the name for the virgin aspect of the primal goddess Kali—the creatrix aspect of this often misunderstood goddess.1 Maya thus can also be seen as spirit manifested into form through the act of the Great Mother.

The maya step in belly dance has always been one of my favorites, both to perform and see performed. In this basic, very grounded movement, it is as if we celebrate the divine creatrix within ourselves—our ability to conceive on many levels, to manifest our dreams into reality. The timeless cycle of the rhythms of life, death and rebirth seem to be symbolized and danced out in this one circular and hypnotic movement.

Bronze figurine of a girl, Indus Valley Civilzation, Mohenjo Daro, 2500-1500 B.C., now in National Museum, New Delhi.

There are other, even older figures of dancers from India. These date back to the Indus River civilization which flourished in the third millennium B.C.E. Many clay figures of dancing women have been found in the ruins of this culture’s ancient cities.2 One often reproduced bronze figurine from this era has been called variously a ‘dancing girl,’3 ‘sexual initiatrix’4 and ‘yogini5 by scholars and writers. She stands dressed in bangle bracelets and necklace, with one hand on her hip. Her spine is erect and her opposite knee is bent out slightly. Her pose is relaxed yet erotically charged; inviting yet powerful. For many in the belly dance community who have seen this art, they provide compelling witness to truths we are trying to reclaim and embody through our dance: that women can be powerful and feminine, sensual and spiritual at the same time; and that beyond its entertainment value, there is authentic wisdom within the dance we love.

Regardless of the intuitive connection many contemporary belly dancers, including myself, make with these striking works of art, the role which India’s age old and complex culture plays in the early evolution of the belly dance remains a subject of speculation and debate (including a recent lively conversation on the internet Med-dance list). It has been suggested that the Gypsies brought some form of pelvic centered dance out of India centuries ago and this dance then mingled with the many indigenous dances of the regions where they traveled, informing the development of contemporary belly dance. On the other hand, it has also been argued that neither Raks al-Sharqi nor Raks al-Baladi resemble in any important way the classical dances of India, and that while the Gypsies are probably from India, the belly dance that they practiced has its origins mainly in Africa, Persia, Anatolia and the Arabian peninsula.

Part of the difficulty in coming to any definite agreement about this subject is the lack of conclusive knowledge about the nature of dance in ancient India, and the origins and history of the Gypsy tribes.6 Thus, it is impossible to know for certain what the connections were between the devadasi dance traditions and the dances of the Gypsy tribes, and which, if any, contemporary belly dance movements were transmitted by the Gypsies from the devadasi tradition or even India in general.

Yet there are several reasons why studying the roots of dance in India are valuable to the modern Western belly dancer. The beauty and power of the devadasi tradition recalls a time when dancing women were held in high esteem by a civilization in many ways more sophisticated than our own. By every measure, material, cultural and spiritual, devadasis were highly honored. Setting aside the question of a direct historical connection, we as belly dancers continue an ancient tradition of embodying divine beauty, mystery, power, creativity, even humor through our dance, though perhaps less honored in modern times than in old. No other dance form in our culture is as evocative of the eternal feminine as the belly dance. In this sense, the devadasi tradition is truly a dance ‘alma mater,’ a soul mother of belly dance. There is a wealth of dance terminology and a refined philosophy which is part of the rich dance tradition of India. The concepts of Indian dance aesthetics, beyond being interesting for their own sake, can be used as a fascinating lens through which to view any dance form, adding meaning. Indian dance vocabulary could be particularly enriching for the belly dance. Although we do not know enough to come to definite conclusions about the connections between belly dance and the dances of India, sufficient information exists to make an interesting and provocative discussion about the possible roots of belly dance in India.

Focusing on the first of these areas in this article, I will discuss the history of the devadasi tradition, tracing it back to it’s roots in the pre-Aryan Harappan culture, explore the golden age of the devadasi, and follow it’s decline in the nineteenth century.

Body of a Devata, Baneaysre, Angkor, Cambodge

The Devadasi Tradition

The profession of the devadasis, the temple priestesses who danced in reverence of the gods and goddesses, was once an honored calling for women in India. Until modern times, thousands of these holy women danced for worshipers and their divinities throughout the land. People brought the devadasis offerings of silks, perfumes, flowers, gold and jewels in homage to the divine feminine embodied by the dancers.7 The roots of the dance of the devadasis may well be traced all the way back to the pre-Aryan Harappan culture of India, also known as the Indus River civilization, dating to the third millennium B.C.E.8 This was a peaceful, advanced culture on a par with the civilization of ancient Sumer. It flourished until approximately 1800 B.C.E., apparently declining due to a series of environmental changes, including severe floods.9

Unfortunately, the writing of the Harappans has not yet been deciphered by archeologists, so we do not know the stories these people told about themselves. However, it is clear that dance was important in the lives of the Harappans. Much of the art work found in the two major cities of the culture, Harappa and Mohenjo Daro, is composed of clay figures of dancing women. Scholars theorize that, like many ancient peoples, the Harappans worshipped a great Mother Goddess who was celebrated and invoked by priestesses through dance.10 This great goddess was responsible for the increase of crops and livestock, and the well being of the cities and towns of the Harappan people. It would follow that their women’s dances would reflect the power and beauty of life itself in all its fecund sensuality, as the figures of the dancers themselves suggest.

This was a culture that had what I consider to be four of the major attributes of civilized life: peace, plenty, dance, and last but not least, superior indoor plumbing unequaled in the ancient world! Harappan merchants carried on widespread trade with Sumer (present day Iraq) and other areas.11 Unlike many other ancient cultures, there were no vast palaces or tombs, military fortifications or large amounts of weapons in Harappan settlements. In other words, it was a relatively egalitarian society in comparison to ancient Egypt or Sumer. The cities were extremely well planned, designed for cleanliness and safety. And if one can judge by the figures of the dancers, it was a good culture in which to be a woman.

The decline of Harappan culture coincided with the movement of nomadic warlike peoples into India from the north. These tribes, primitive in some respects compared to the native culture, had superior battle technology, and over time dominated the continent. The Indo-Aryans, as they are known, imposed their own pantheon of powerful warrior gods, having little esteem for female deities. Eventually, however, it became clear that the Great Goddess could not be wiped out of the minds and hearts of the people. For this and other reasons, the Indo-Aryan priests accepted the goddess into their faith, later known as Hinduism.

It was once thought that the Harappan culture was obliterated by the Indo-Aryan conquerors, but this is no longer the case. While it is clear that Indo-Aryan rulers came to dominate India, it is also maintained that the great classical era of Indian culture arose out of combining the best elements of both cultures into a powerful synthesis.

The devadasis continued their dance tradition in honor of the Hindu gods and goddesses.12 As Hinduism developed, temple dancers were viewed as the human counterpart of the apsaras, the celestial nymphs who danced in heaven. When the great temples were first built in India in the ninth and tenth centuries C.E., dancing women were routinely attached to them, dancing for the gods and the people. Typically, they were ritually married to the immortal god of the temple or an icon symbolizing a male deity, such as a tree or dagger. This meant that the devadasi would never become a widow, a fortunate thing in a culture where a loyal wife was expected to commit suicide upon the death of her husband. Consequently, devadasis were considered human “good luck charms.” Their presence made any occasion, such as weddings, births and festivals, more auspicious.

Dancing Apsaras. Detail from wall painting, Brihadisvara Temple, Tanjore, about 1010.

Although scholars often referred to them using the belittling term “dancing girls,” the devadasis did have priestly functions; i.e. they mediated between the gods and humanity. For example, they had the exclusive duty of performing the Arti ceremony, a ritual of protection and purification. A small lamp lit by ghee, (clarified butter) was placed on a tray. The devadasi would hold the tray at arm’s length up to the god’s forehead, and make a given number of circles with her arm. This ritual was performed twice daily to the god of the temple which the devadasi served. It was also performed for anyone who needed protection, for example someone embarking on a journey, for new brides, and for babies to protect them from the “evil eye.”

The devadasis were often very wealthy. After all, to give them gifts was also to make an offering to the gods. The devadasis were given fabulous jewels, lands and other property by wealthy and noble men. They also were rich in learning and the arts of culture, even in periods when it was not considered respectable for ordinary women to be educated. According to some scholars, girls who became temple dancers often came from families of musician castes. They were trained at home and then presented to the temple. After their ritual marriage to the temple god, the young girls received more training in dance, music, literature and all the graces. Her education in the arts continued throughout the dancer’s lifetime.

The devadasis were considered a caste unto themselves. Chastity or even monogamy was not a requirement for these holy women. In fact, there are many indications that they dispensed their sexual favors as a sacrament.13 The devadasis followed the ancient practice of matrilineal inheritance. Property passed from mother to daughter, although sons were not disinherited. Daughters typically followed their mothers into the vocation of temple dancer. Sons either became musicians and dance masters (the dance teachers seem to have been exclusively male), or they married into a different caste and left the temple community.14

Over time, the role of the devadasi changed to a degree. Some women danced solely for the divinity, while others danced in the courts of nobles and kings. Lesser dancers danced for audiences of the lower castes at weddings and other celebrations. Devadasis no longer danced exclusively in the temples. After the Muslim conquerors established the Moghul empire in India in the twelfth century, devadasis were removed permanently from the temples in Muslim areas, but were welcomed as court dancers. The separation of the devadasi from the sacred context of her art changed her role. Many dancers became de facto courtesans instead of priestesses, even though sexuality had always been a part of their vocation as the embodiment the divine feminine.

The sensuality of the devadasi was a primary reason that she was beloved in Indian religion and culture; paradoxically, at the same time, her growing association with prostitution led to her downfall. Once a highly honored rank, by the mid-nineteenth century, the caste of the temple dancer was considered lowly.15 Of course, this shift took place within the context of larger changes in Indian society. Many social institutions degenerated in India during this time, before and as a result of colonization by the British. Perhaps as the devadasis grew richer, their reputation as holy women became tarnished. Their sexual activities may have become more directly tied to payment, which impugned the credibility of their spiritual devotion. It is also possible that the devadasis were prostituted by the Brahmin priests who were in control of the temples; there were reports of girls being abducted to serve in the temples. Many devadasis also became mistresses of British officers.16 It may also be that devadasis had changed little in essence from the past, and simply came to be seen as shameful as the society around them, influenced by Muslim and Christian morality, lost the ability to recognize the holiness in a sexual woman. From our post-Victorian perspective, it can be challenging to differentiate between the exploited and the exploiter; the sexual victim and the sexually empowered ‘Goddess-on-earth.’ This is difficult enough when looking at present day women, and nearly impossible when trying to analyze those who lived generations ago in a far away culture.

Temple dancer (devadasi) and street musicians. Paintings circa 1800 from Tanjore, Tamil Nadhu.

The association of the devadasi with holiness and sensuality, and later debased sexuality, is not dissimilar to the history of belly dance. Sensuality is both the most obvious and the least understood aspect of belly dancing. The erotic beauty of the dancer is often misunderstood as merely ‘sexy’ or ‘naughty.’ For those of us who choose to belly dance as a means of reclaiming our wholeness as women, what can we learn from the history of the devadasi, who were literally ‘servants of god?’ It seems to me that the essential truth of the devadasi, who danced both in the sacred space of the temple and in the world, is that wherever she danced, she did so in devotion to divinity. (In modern terms, we might say her ‘higher’ Self.) Like the devadasi, the belly dancer ‘leaves the temple’ and dances in the mundane world when she performs—she leaves the sheltered circle of her friends, classmates and teacher and dances before admiring but sometimes ignorant onlookers. But being in the world does not mean that she is necessarily merely of the material world. Through her performance, the belly dancer can dance the divine reunion of the body and soul, and evoke the love of the eternal feminine. It is said in ancient writings on Indian dance that every time a dancer performs, she moves through a cycle of a human life; so that each performance moves her toward her ultimate destiny—completion of the cycle of rebirth.17 Perhaps our dancing has more power than we know to change our own lives as well as enrich the lives of others!

There are no literal devadasis in India today. Condemned as immoral by both the British and native Indians, the dance nearly died out.18 Fortunately, many styles of Indian dance have been revivied, and now flourish in India and around the world as classical art forms. Two styles of Indian classical dance, Bharatanatyam and Odissi, can trace their roots directly back to the devadasi tradition of India.19 There are, however, many differences between these dances today and the temple dances done long ago by devadasis, not the least of which is that the performers are now artists and not temple dancers. Perhaps most significantly, the dances have had many of their sensual elements eliminated in order to make them more acceptable as classical art forms.20 In this sense, it may be that belly dance does truly and uniquely express qualities of the divine feminine which once was celebrated in the ancient culture of India.


1. Walker, pg. 626.

2. Singha and Massey, pg. 53.

3. Wheeler, pg. 44.

4. Douglas and Slinger, pg. 180.

5. Austen, pg. 126.

6. Fraser, pgs. 10-32.

7. Buonaventura, pg. 33.

8. Singha and Massey, pg. 53.

9. Ancient India: Land of Mystery, pg. 51.

Street dancer and musicians.

10. Singha and Massey, Indian Dances, pg. 51-53.

11. Ancient India: Land of Mystery, pgs. 26, 49, 65-66, 72.

12. Singha and Massey, pgs. 34, 55-60.

13. Walker, pg. 819.

14. Singha and Massey, Pg. 57-59.

15. Samson, pg. 30.

16. Singha and Massey, pg. 60-61.

17. Samson, pg. 24.

18. Singha and Massey, pgs. 30, 61.

19. The Dance in India, pg. 14, and Khokar, pgs. 174-175.

20. Samson, pg. 30.

Works Cited

Ancient India: Land of Mystery, Ed. by Time-Life Books, Alexandria, VA., 1994.

Austen, Hallie Iglehart, The Heart of the Goddess, Wingbow Press, Bookpeople, Oakland, 1990.

Buonaventura, Wendy, Serpents of the Nile, Interlink Books, New York, 1994.

The Dance in India, issued by the Government of India, Tourist Division, New Delhi, 1958.

Douglas, Nik, and Penny Slinger, Sexual Secrets: The Alchemy of Ecstasy, Destiny Books.

Fraser, Angus, The Gypsies, Blackwell Pub. Ltd., Oxford, 1996.

Khokar, Mohan, Traditions of Indian Classical Dance, Clarion Books, New Delhi, 2nd ed., 1984.

Samson, Leela, Rhythm in Joy, Classical Indian Dance Traditions, 2nd edition, Lustre Press Pvt., Ltd., New Delhi, 1987.

Singha, Rina, and Reginald Massey, Indian Dances, Their History and Growth, George Braziller, Inc., New York, N.Y., 1967.

Walker, Barbara, The Women’s Encyclopedia of Myths and Secrets, Harper and Row, San Francisco, 1983.

Wheeler, Sir Mortimer, Civilizations of the Indus Valley and Beyond, Thames and Hudson, Ltd., London, 1966.

Patrice Hawkwood Schanck is an instructor of mythology, the psychology of myth and women’s spirituality, as well as a belly dancer in the American tribal style tradition. She has co-taught the Ancient Echoes of Tribal Belly Dance series of classes, seminars and weekend retreats for women with Paulette Rees Denis. She is currently writing a book on mythology and belly dance. pschank@gardenerschool.org

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