Bhubaneswar: The death of Sashimani Devi, the last in a long line of devadasis at the Lord Jagannath Temple in Puri, marks the end of an era. Since Sashimani chose not to groom anybody as a future devadasi in her lifetime, as required under the temple rules, an 800-year-old tradition has now well and truly come to an end.
But should the end of this ancient tradition be celebrated or mourned?
While liberals, rationalists and sundry right activists are exulting at the end of what they call an ‘obnoxious’ tradition that exploited women in the name of religion, there are others – believers, servitors and even some researchers – who are sad at the end of a system that was such an integral part of the tradition for centuries.
Ironically, the death of Sashimani Devi has ensured that the service of the Lord will now be an all-male affair. Of the 120-odd sevas (services) performed in the temple, the Mahari Seva, consisting of dancing and singing the Gita Gobinda, on special occasions is the only one performed by women (devadasis).
Rupashree Mohapatra, Sashimani’s foster daughter and a Mahari dancer of repute, still cannot get over the fact that the ageing devadasi could not live a few months more to fulfill her last wish of watching the Nabakalebara, the grand festival involving a change of body for the deities that comes once every 19 years or so, in July this year.
“It was her last wish to see the Lord’s Nabakalebara this year. But that was not to be,” she rued.
Interestingly, there are those who blame Sashimani herself for the end of the long devadasi tradition in the 12th century shrine.
“According to the Record of Rights of the Temple, an incumbent devadasi has to ‘adopt’ a teenage girl from a panichhuan caste (those with whom water can be shared or non scheduled caste), train her in dancing and singing and groom her to become a devadasi. But in refusing to adopt anyone, she made sure that there would be no devadasi after her,” former Temple administrator Mahimohan Tripathy told Firstpost.
Tripathy had made the last effort to ‘recruit’ a devadasi on the eve of the last Nabakalebara in 1996 by inviting four girls, who had volunteered to become devadasis and spend the rest of their life in the service of the Lord. But Sashimani refused to adopt any of them thus sounding the death knell of the centuries-old tradition.
While Sashimani could still have been persuaded to relent and take someone under her wings, it was the vociferous protests by human and women’s rights activists and the media which ensured that the efforts to find a devadasi were abandoned midway.
“What could one possibly do? The National Human Rights Commission served a notice on me. Even the state government asked me for an explanation. In the event, I did not have a choice but to backtrack,” says Tripathy.
One of the major grounds on which the devadasi tradition has been pilloried is that it is prostitution by another name. But try telling that to those who have an abiding faith in the sanctity of the temple rituals.
“Unlike some temples on south India, devadasis were never used as sex slaves in the Jagannath temple. They lived a life of purity and austerity and pledged themselves to the service of the Lord. That is why they enjoyed great respect among devotees,” says Asit Mohanty, a writer and critic who has spent considerable time researching the Jagannath Cult.
The institution of devadasi has seen a steady decline over the years. According to the Record of Rights (RoR) of the temple, there were about 25 devadasis in the Jagannath Temple a century ago. According to the Odisha Gazette for 1956, a year after the administration of the temple was taken over by the state government, the number had come down to just nine. By 1980, it had dwindled to just four. Of the four, Harapriya and Kokilaprabha had died while Parasamani, the lone surviving devadasi, ruled herself out of the temple rituals by entering into wedlock (Devadasis are ‘married’ to Lord Jagannath).
Even Sashimani, who died at the ripe old age of 92, had stopped performing her services for the last seven-eight years because of ill health. But as long as she was alive, the devadasi tradition was at least theoretically alive.
But now that she is gone, the much awaited Nabakalebara festival will not be the same again. This year’s Nabakalebara, which is expected to draw a crowd of at least three million, will go down in history as the first without the Mahari Seva.
While the death of Sashimani is unlikely to dampen the spirits of the devotees, it is clear that there would be as many people celebrating the absence as there would be missing it.