The devadasis stand in the direct line of one of the oldest institutions in India. The word comes from Sanskrit: deva means ‘god’ and dasi means ‘a female servant.’ At the heart of the institution lies the idea of a woman entering for life the service of a deity. The nature of that service and the name given to it have wide regional variations and have changed through time; only recently have most devadasis come to be working in the sex trade.
Some experts trace the institution to the ninth century; others maintain that it is far older, and claim that what is arguably one of the most ancient extant pieces of Indian art, a small bronze of a naked dancing girl from Mohenjo-daro, dating to around 2500 B.C., could depict a devadasi. By the time of Asoka, in the third century B.C., a piece of graffiti in a cave in the Vindhya hills, in central India, recalls the love of Devadinna, an artist, who had fallen for ‘Sutanuka, a devadasi.’ There are large numbers of images of temple dancing girls and a few textual references to devadasis from the early centuries A.D. onward, including some in the area immediately around Saundatti. The largest collection of inscriptions, however, comes from the Chola temples, around Tanjore, in Tamil Nadu, where the great Chola kings of the eleventh, twelfth, and thirteenth centuries boast of giving hundreds of devadasis, or tevaratiyars, to the temples they founded. These royal temples were conceived as palaces of the gods, and just as the king was attended by ten thousand dancing girls so the gods also had their share of devoted attendants. The vast entourages added to the status of rulers, whether heavenly or terrestrial, and were believed to surround them with an auspicious female presence.
(Thanks Dr. Gabbo!)