The stairway opened up into a cramped room, which also lay in darkness. A woman loudly asked for something, but no one responded to her. Achintya asked us to sit inside. As our eyes adjusted to the darkness, things slowly started taking shape. Clothes were piled up in whatever available space there was in the room. Suddenly, we realised an emaciated woman lay on a mat on the floor, clumsily wrapped up in an old sari. Despite the darkness, we could make out the wrinkled skin on her hands and feet and on her face too. She groaned and whined, sometimes loudly.
Achintya told us her name was Prakruti, she was nearly deaf, and that she had danced before Lord Jagannath at the temple till the day the ban on the devadasi system was implemented in the state. She was the last of the Odia devadasis.
When we told her we wanted to know about her life as a devadasi, she forgot about all her infirmities and requested Achintya to help her sit up. The effort involved in merely sitting up seemed to wear her out. Her breathing became more laboured, and the groans became louder. I grew frightened to see her strain like that. She began to talk slowly. Though deaf, she cupped her ears and caught a few portions of our questions.
“Is your name Prakruti?” I asked loudly.
“Prakruti devadasi,” she corrected me, pride evident in the way she uttered the word “devadasi”. Achintya got his school-going son Ajay to help us with the translation. Ajay, who was not yet 15, could hardly manage himself, with only a smattering of Hindi he had picked up at school. But he managed to translate our queries into Odia and Prakruti’s answers into Hindi for us.
Prakruti was made a devadasi at the tender age of seven after her family had promised to make their daughter one. She was now 85. “Certain brahmin families traditionally offered their children as devadasis,” she explained. “I was from one such family. I was privileged to be a servant of Lord Jagannath. We were trained in dance and music at the temple. I learnt everything from experts. Why do girls study music and dance? To please their husbands. We devadasis too learnt the arts to please our husband – none other than Lord Jagannath. I have pleased him with my skills – from the age of seven to 79.” Her treasure chest of memories opened up, unfazed by the passage of time.
When the devadasi dance was banned in Puri in 2005, Prakruti was 79. The doors to the sanctum sanctorum would close at 10 pm, and the traditional belief was that its lord should drift off to sleep after being delighted by the sight of the beautiful women who were dancing for him. For decades, Prakruti said, the lord had been lulled to sleep by her dance, her eyes glistening with pride at the memory. “Jagannath would only sleep if the dance and the music were up to the mark. We could not compromise on them.”
Prakruti spoke just as a dedicated wife would talk about her husband’s likes and dislikes. She believed that her dance was perfect because of the virtuous deeds she had accrued from previous births and that those blessings would last her for several lifetimes. One has to follow the conduct of a faithful wife to receive such blessings, she explained. Devadasis had to be absolutely chaste and true to their husband. She reminded us that her only bridegroom was the lord. She had adopted Achintya as her son, a decision that was taken with the permission of the lord. “As I lived according to the conditions laid down for a devadasi, the lord gave me good fortune,” she said.
Good fortune! I recoiled at the thought. Did she think her current condition – huddling on a tattered mat on the floor with all her aches and pains in a dark room – was a marker of good fortune? I didn’t want to interrupt her, so I didn’t say anything. She continued to dig out the memories.
Prakruti recollected there were around 50 devadasis during her heyday, all of whom had taken the vow of chastity and remained true to the lord till the end. All of them had fallen to the vagaries of age. Only she remained. She told us that until 2005, the devadasi dance was conducted as a ritual at the closing time of the Jagannath temple. In later days, this duty fell entirely upon Prakruti. When Achintya remarked that she danced gracefully and unruffled by the frailties of her old age, Prakruti demurely said it was her duty as a wife to put her husband to sleep. “When the lord himself lies down before you to see your dance, how can you not give your best?” she asked. As she recounted her past, Prakruti began to sing without anyone’s prompting.
The songs did not express just devotion but a deep love for Jagannath. One line went, “I am so lucky to be your servant. Wake up soon for me to put you to sleep again at night.” There was no quiver in her voice as she recollected the songs, no loss of memory. She synchronised her mudras to the song as much as she could while seated on her mat. I thought that if she could stand, she would forget all her infirmities and dance once more in ecstasy. I wanted to click a picture of her singing, and Ajay brought an emergency lamp and held it against her face. I wondered if the bright LED lights would bother her. Achintya reassured us, “Sir, no problem. She is blind. Don’t worry. You can take the pictures.”
As the light shone on her face, I was numbed by the vast emptiness in her eyes that had glimmered with the navarasa for over seven decades. It was as though the lord had taken away his beloved bride’s eyesight because he couldn’t bear her looking at others. As we clicked pictures, Prakruti continued to sing. Finally, when it was time for us to leave, I picked out whatever money I had in my wallet and gave it to her. When she realised I had given her money, she blessed us. As she put her hands on our heads, her eyes began to water. Once again she sang glories to her lord, that it was by his grace that people had come from far away to meet her.
Achintya, however, had a different story. According to him, despite dedicating her life to the temple, the authorities had not provided anything for her. When she was bedridden after an accident with a vehicle, they gave her a few thousand rupees, although the treatment had cost much more. Prakruti interrupted him, however, and did not allow him to continue with his complaints. She went back to reminiscing about her glorious days. Somewhere inside, I thought the loss of her eyesight and hearing was actually a kindness to someone like her who preferred to live in the glory of her past. We bid her goodbye and walked down the narrow stairway. Our mission now was to meet Prakruti’s beloved.
Excerpted with permission from Sacred Sins: Devadasis in Contemporary India, Arun Ezhuthachan, translated from the Malayalam by Meera Gopinath, Hachette India.