Devadasi tradition dying in Puri temple

Anticipating the scenario, the temple administration in the early 90s had attempted to enrol fresh Devadasis to keep alive the tradition, but the effort failed due to nationwide protest against the system and also because no girl volunteered. Among 36 different services (seva) in the 12th century Vishnu shrine here rituals performed by Devadasis, locally known as Maharis, was the only category where women were allowed to serve the Lord.

''This is the only Vishnu Temple in the country where women were allowed to perform specific rituals other than dancing and singing,'' said Rabi Narayan Mishra, a researcher. Under 36 Niyogs (distributed among people from different castes), Mahari seva was the only service where women had a big role to play. ''Without a woman, the ritual cannot be performed,'' said Rabindra Pratihari, a priest.

''This time during the Nanda Ustav (celebrated during Janmastami), the woman service could not be performed,'' Bhaskar Mishra, deputy administrator at Sri Jagannath Temple Administration, pointed out. The Devadasis play role of the Lord's mother during celebration relating to birth of Lord Krishna, he said.

The temple, which had dozens of Devadasis 80 years ago, is now left with just two of them - Sashimani and Parasmani. But, 85-year-old Sashimani is bedridden with her left leg broken and Parasmani had stopped coming to the temple since a long time, he said. Confined to bed in a dingy room close to Sri Jagannath Temple, Sashimani was unable to participate in the rituals she had been performing ever since she was eight years old.

''I became a Mahari at the age of eight. I had been participating in temple rituals since then,'' said Sashimani, sad for not being able to do her job due to her injured leg. Though they were exposed to exploitation in other parts of the country, Devadasis here had been commanding respect from the people, she claimed adding Devadasis were considered the 'living' wives of the Lord Jagannath.

''He (the Lord) is my husband and I am His wife. There is no dispute about it,'' a frail Sashimani, who cannot move her limbs, said as her eyes lit up. Sashimani belongs to the second category of Devadasis. While the first set of Devadasis was known as 'Bhitar Gayani', singers of sanctum sanctorium, there was another set 'Bahar Gayani' had rituals to perform outside the inner temple. The practice of Bhitar Gayani has ended with the death of Kokilaprava in 1992, recalls Debadutta Samant Singhara, a researcher on the Sri Jagannath cult. While no one knows the name of the first Devadasi of Puri, Sashimani is considered as the last 'wife' of Lord Jagannath.

According to the tradition, a girl can become a Devadasi before she attains puberty, Sashimani said. They were supposed to sing and dance in the temple on a daily basis. When Bhitar Gayani dances during 'Badasinghara' (bedtime ritual), a Bahar Gayani sings devotional songs to appease the Lord in other functions.  Apart from daily rituals, Devadasis had a special role in the Rath Yatra (car festival), Navakalebara (change of wooden body of the deities every 14 years) and Nanda Utsav.

Samant Singhara claimed that the practice of dance in the temple ended some 60 years ago. Kokilaprava, who lived till 1992, had her duty confined to singing 'Gita Govinda' during bedtime rituals of the Lord, he said adding that as none of the Devadasis adopted any girl, the Mahari tradition would come to an end after Sashimani. ''No one has offered to become a Devadasi. No girl should be forced to become Devadasi as it is against the wishes of the Lord,'' Sashimani says.

Sashimani, who gets an old-age pension of Rs 300 per month from the Sri Jagannath Temple Administration besides some 'prasad', feels dejected in the face of poverty. When the Record of Rights (RoR) of the temple indicated that there were about 25 Devadasis here about 100 years ago, Orissa Gazette of 1956 lists 9 Devadasis and 11 musicians in Puri temple. By 1980, only four Devadasis' namely Harapriya, Kokilaprava, Parshmani and Sashimani were left.

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