Oxford, Oxford University Press, 2000; 305pp.
School of African and Oriental Studies
Date accessed: 11 December, 2023
The figure of the devadasi, or ‘temple-woman’, who entertained Hindu gods at festivals, hardly needs an introduction. Because of her supposed sexual availability, the devadasi became a potent and notorious symbol of the corruption of Hindu society. Together, colonial officials and Indian reformers legislated the devadasi out of existence and sanitized her dance traditions. More recently, scholars have reacted to this legacy by stressing the importance of the devadasi’s ritual dance and sexuality in royal and temple ritual. What unites both of these interpretations is their assumption that the devadasi institution as ‘discovered’ during the colonial period reflects an India-wide tradition that stretches back to the early reaches of Indian history.
This book, through an exhaustive and detailed study of medieval inscriptions, effectively challenges the image of the devadasi inherited from modern reform and recent scholarship. Orr maintains that inscriptions, unlike literary texts and normative representations, reveal the actuality of temple women’s lives, as they record specific events involving real people. Orr has examined the entirety of the Chola (c. 950-1250) inscriptional corpus (and a good deal more). The choice justified by the evidence itself, since the Chola records give a more complete profile on ‘temple women’ than north Indian inscriptions, (though other south Indian languages have rich stores of evidence which remain to be tapped).
Orr begins with the problem of terminology, noting that the term devadasi, apparently a Sanskritization of the Tamil word tevara iyŒ Â (tevaratiyal) (, was neither ubiquitous nor even widespread in medieval inscriptions, but only gained currency in the last century. In pre-colonial times, the historian encounters a plethora of terms which vary across region, language and period. In the second chapter, Orr concludes on the basis of her survey of the Chola materials that rather than the modern figure of the devadasi, the inscriptions suggest a more general category of ‘temple women’. The overlapping of terms like tevara iyŒ Â (tevaratiyal), teva÷ Œ r makaÂ (tevanar makal) , patiyilŒ r (patiyilar), and taÂ iyilŒ r (taliyilar) , along with the mention of functions, privileges and specific associations with temples, indicate, according to Orr, the category of ‘temple woman’ as a coherent social identity. The author compares temple women to other types of women found in inscriptions, most notably palace women. Orr argues, against the conclusions of other scholars, that during the Chola period there was no close relationship between court and temple. An enquiry into the Tamil terms for temple woman, is equally corrective, according to Orr. The term a iyŒ r (atiyar), often translated as ‘slave’ or ‘servant’, probably instead indicated the idea of a ‘retainer’ for a king. It also carried with it honorific connotations rooted in the south Indian religious ethos of devotion. In comparison with terms from other parts of India referring to temple women, which often meant slave or prostitute, Orr finds that the Tamil terms are more honorific and devotional in meaning.
Temple women appear most frequently in inscriptions as ‘donors’, making gifts of various kinds to the temples themselves, and the third chapter of the book analyses this aspect of the evidence. Compared to other women and men associated with temples, temple women appear as donors in increasing numbers throughout the course of the Chola period, and as time passed, were increasingly implicated in the life of numerous temples throughout Tamilnadu as a consequence of their donations. Their appearance as donors leads to the question of their possession of property and wealth. According to the dharma§ Œ stras (dharm a sastras), Orr points out, a woman’s access to wealth was generally mediated through her husband. But as Chola temple women remained unmarried, it seems, the question of where these women accumulated the wealth to make gifts to temples is both relevant, and given the author’s wish to avoid the sacred prostitution theory, a crucial one. Orr speculates that their wealth came from gifts by natal families or inheritances from their mother as well as worship service performed on behalf of other temple patrons. Whatever their source of wealth, the conclusion is that in relation to married women, temple women seemed to enjoy increasing economic power and prosperity through the Chola period due to their relationships with temples.
The fourth and fifth chapters focus, respectively, on the work of temple women and their identity with respect to geography, religion and kinship. In contrast to their male counterparts, the role of women in temple ritual, it would seem, was often incidental and optional. They were neither ritual ‘specialists’ nor a ritual ‘necessity’ for the temple as some scholarship has recently maintained. They were most certainly not associated primarily with dance. Of the 304 Chola inscriptions that mention temple women, only four, according to Orr, use terms that refer to ‘dancer’. More important was their role in menial work (cleaning pots and pans, washing floors), and performance of attendance functions like flywhisk bearing and dancing. Women’s role in both of these occupations, one debased and the other exalted, increased throughout the Chola period. Women in many cases received honoured status in temple ritual as a result of their donations, but in some (about half of the references that mention temple service) they seemed to received minimal living ‘stipends’, which may have indicated that they entered temple service under conditions not of their own making. For most women, concludes Orr, temple service was not a source of livelihood, (excepting ‘slaves’ acquired by the temple to perform menial services), but was a way ‘to enhance status that was already theirs’ (134). Temple women, geographically spread throughout the Chola realm, show strong identification in the early Chola periods with deities of particular places, but as time wore on, are increasingly referred to in relation to particular temples, reflecting a general trend to a more temple-based authority structure in the post-Chola period. Women’s temple service, according to Orr, was not in most cases hereditary, reflecting what she claims to be a general social fluidity during Chola times.
The book places the history of temple women within the context of temples emerging as the dominant centres of economic and political power as the Chola state declined. While such arguments are tantalising, they remain somewhat fragmentary, and the chief thrust of the book remains its engagement with the image of the devadasi inherited by the debates, reforms and studies of the last century. By its end, this image of the devadasi — as sexually exploited temple dancer/prostitute or the embodiment of sacred feminine power — can hardly be sustained in any simple or unqualified way. In the final section of the conclusion, the author attempts to trace briefly how the institution encountered in the 19th century by colonial officials had evolved from the Chola period. She sees the post-Chola, Vijayanagar, and Nayak periods as bringing a steady decline in the power of women. An increase in feminine symbolism and goddess imagery was accompanied by a decline in the ‘public’ representation of women and decreasing agency in political economic and religious spheres. Hence the modern devadasi.
The alternative image of the temple woman that Orr draws for the Chola period, however, raises many questions. That the turn to inscriptions can illuminate the lives of women in medieval India is surely proved beyond doubt by this book. The book also demonstrates, however, the limitations of an over-reliance on inscriptions to the detriment of other sorts of evidence, and perhaps more importantly, a coherent social/theoretical framework. Inscriptions, as the author points out, record only certain types of events, revealing fragments rather than an entire picture. Their interpretation is not so straightforward. If the copious inscriptions recovered from the Chola period have supported at least three models of the south Indian state, they are certainly capable of revealing several different images of the devadasi.
At a general level, Orr claims that in the Chola period there was no intimate sharing of ritual forms, dance, music, and personnel between the domains of the temple and court. She substantiates this on the paucity of inscriptions which refer to women as both tevarŒ iyaÂ (tevararatiyal) and ‘palace woman’. To my mind, this sort of evidence does nothing to establish the argument that courtly and temple ritual were unrelated. It is not at all surprising that temple women would not be affiliated to the palace, since direct service to two masters in a patriarchal system could hardly be the norm. Because the servants of one household do not name themselves as the servants of another can hardly serve as evidence that these households are run differently. Moreover, much other evidence cited by the book would seems to suggest the contrary, that there was in fact considerable parity between the practices of the palace and temple — that the baths, meals, speech and buildings of both kings and gods are spoken of with the same vocabulary. The Chola period textual evidence is significant in this regard, as both architectural texts like Mayamata, as well as the ea rly pirapantam literature in Tamil, some of which refer to specific ritual events (like the ulŒ (ula) or processional description), clearly envision human and divine lords similarly.
Equally vexing is the ‘legal’ status of temple women. Orr maintains on the basis of the ‘honorific’ character of the term a iyŒ r (atiyar) in Tamil bhakti traditions and its use to denote royal ‘attendants’, that tevara iyŒ Â (tevaratiyal) were not in fact ‘subalterns’ or slaves. She distinguishes these, who formed the demographic majority of temple women, from those who in the later Chola period clearly entered into temple service as slaves. While such a distinction may be plausible, it is vitiated by the lack of any discussion of the legal/theoretical boundaries of slavery, service, bondage and attendance. The inscriptions which record women’s donations, often in exchange for privileges in temple ritual, are for their part ambiguous: they do not clearly spell out the nature of the relationship which constituted them as tevara iyŒ r (tevaratiyar) in the first place. Orr seems to believe that such women had no obligation to temples, since none are mentioned in the inscriptions.
The fact that temple women were able to make donations raises related issues as to the relative freedom to accumulate wealth and what the sources of such wealth may have been. It is not necessary to assume, as Orr apparently does, that the accumulation of limited amounts of wealth precluded relations of obligation or servitude. How such wealth would have been obtained, of course, is unclear, as the inscriptions are relatively silent on the matter. Orr suggests, borrowing from the contemporary studies she is otherwise keen to distance herself from, that it was gained by performing acts of worship for patrons. Very plausible, but why should we reject the same accounts which suggest that sexual favours also formed a source of income? If the inscriptional record is silent on this matter, what is the justification for borrowing from the ethnographic evidence in such a selective manner?
The ‘gender’ perspective claimed by the book seems to amount to little more than comparing demographic profiles of men and women in inscriptions, rather than seeing gender as a set of ideologies and practices that form subjectivities and agencies. Orr’s indifference to the more ‘symbolic’ or ‘discursive’ elements of gender and dismissal of textual evidence has sadly handicapped a study which otherwise may have added something to what most accounts of women in medieval India are vitally missing. It is healthy to use inscriptions as a corrective to the idealising and unrooted nature of textual analysis, but it is hardly adequate to ignore such sources altogether. What the inscriptions can tell us is in many ways as fragmentary as the literary sources. Even more fundamental is Orr’s seeming understanding of ‘agency’ and disempowerment as mutually exclusive categories, in a sort of statistical zero-sum game. The overarching theoretical framework of the book, to demonstrate that women exercised agency, is pursued at the cost of theorising their oppression. Agency is hardly so simple, as most forms of oppression sustain themselves by actually bestowing certain types of agency to their victims. This is precisely how ideas of servitude and bhakti in medieval India functioned at once to ‘empower’ subaltern classes and compromise their autonomous agency — making bhakti perennially availability for both elitist and subaltern agendas. The complexity of the temple woman’s position, one feels, is missing from this book.
It is gratifying to have my book reviewed by Dr. Ali in such a comprehensive fashion, and the opportunity to be able to respond is, of course, very welcome.
To begin with, I should like to clarify what my aims were in this work. Dr. Ali suggests that they were "to demonstrate that women exercised agency," to challenge "the image of the devadasi inherited by the debates, reforms and studies of the last century," and to present a ("tantalising, [if] somewhat fragmentary") argument for the emergence of temples "as the dominant centres of economic and political power as the Chola state declined." To take the last of these points first: in fact, I do not make such an argument. I am indeed very interested in this book in tracing the evolution of the structure and roles of temples in medieval Tamil society, which is obviously necessary in order to understand the ways in which the identities and activities of temple women changed in the period of the ninth to the thirteenth century. When I began this study, I was surprised to discover that there had been so little scholarly examination of religious institutions in the Chola period. What was required for the purposes of this book-in particular, information about the organization of temple life-had to be generated in large part through my own research. As a preliminary effort, and as the backdrop to my primary focus on temple women, the picture I draw of the shape and place of temples in medieval Tamilnadu is incomplete, without a doubt. But I do not maintain that these temples were emergent centres of power. What I argue for is the importance-throughout the whole of the early medieval period-of temples as local economic and political centres, as nodes in networks of social interactions that were especially dynamic in times and places where royal interest in the temple was absent, as it was very frequently. Even in the period when the Chola dynasty was at its height of power, a very large number of temples were untouched by the attentions or interventions of kings, and this provided scope for the ramification of transactions around the temple as a centre. But my main concern in the present study is with the internal organization of the temple, with the sociology of structures of authority and temple service, where I see changes taking place over the course of the centuries preceding 1300 that are to me the most striking and most germane to my subject.
Within this social historical context, it is indeed my aim, as Dr. Ali suggests, to provide an analysis of temple women's agency, but this analysis involves examining not only how these women "were able to act," but also how they "were acted upon" (33)-precisely by those systems and structures, ideologies and institutions, that belong to the Chola period and that I attempt to describe in this book. Since Dr. Ali has a number of comments about my understanding of "agency," I will return to this theme again. But, with reference to my intentions and goals in writing this book, I would like to correct the impression conveyed by Dr. Ali that "the chief thrust of the book" is an engagement with colonial, reformist, and recent scholarly interpretations of the temple woman. Although I frame my study by invoking this image of the devadasi, which is likely to be familiar to the reader, the "chief thrust" of the book is towards a description and analysis of temple women's identities and activities in a particular historical period other than the colonial or the contemporary. In contrast to recent scholarship on devadasis (notably that of Frédérique Marglin and Saskia Kersenboom) which interprets the role of the temple woman with reference to concepts such as sakti or auspiciousness, my aim is to illuminate particularity, individuality, and change in the circumstances, functions, and significance of temple women, to move from abstract, trans-historical meanings toward specificity and historicity (10).
It is possible to make this move because of the nature of the evidence available. The foundation for this study is the corpus of Tamil and Sanskrit inscriptions of the Chola period (which spans the years from 850 to 1300, in my analysis, rather than 950 to 1250, as is indicated by Dr. Ali). The inscriptions "allow us to leap-frog backward over postcolonial, colonial, and late pre-colonial delineations and interpretations of the events and structures of the past and find the traces of a particular historical moment represented in its own terms" (vi). I do not maintain, as Dr. Ali suggests, that inscriptions "reveal the actuality of temple women's lives." I do claim in several places that these records allow us to "glimpse the actuality of their lives" (v, 30), which is a rather different assertion. My book is said to demonstrate "the limitations of an over-reliance on inscriptions to the detriment of other sorts of evidence." That may be the case, although I hope to dispel this notion in what follows. It also may be that the character of inscriptional evidence is for many readers, including Dr. Ali, unappealing. The book contains about thirty translated inscriptions, and these are-I am the first to admit it-prosaic and formulaic. My method of analysis involves looking at a large number of inscriptions, in order to discern patterns of regional and chronological variation, and this means that throughout the book there are maps, charts, and tables filled with numbers. It looks like there is no plot here, and no soul. But I think that depends on who is looking. Of course I must acknowledge having failed as an author if I cannot use my tables and translations to tell a story or to convey the excitement of hearing the echoes of women's voices across the divide of a thousand years. That failure, however, does not undermine the importance of inscriptional evidence or the significance of what is presented in this book. It is true that literary sources have a very different nature and value for the study of the history of Indian religion and society. Dr. Ali claims that I am dismissive of textual sources, and seems to suggest that I have, in fact, ignored such evidence altogether. This is, of course, nonsense. In addition to surveying in the first chapter all the references in Indic literature to temple women, I have, throughout the book, made frequent reference to textual sources as these bear on the subject under discussion- including such topics as women's property rights, slavery, forms of worship, temple service, initiation, devotion, and "mystical marriage." I have taken particular care to connect my findings based on epigraphical sources with literary sources that would seem to have an immediate bearing on the temple context with which I am concerned. Consequently, my citations of Agamic texts and Tamil devotional and hagiographical literature are more abundant that those of other kinds of texts. I have the impression that Dr. Ali feels I should have been more attentive to the literature-in which he himself is especially well-versed-that was produced in the royal courts of the Chola period. In my view, however, this is much less relevant to the temple milieu than the textual material I mined more deeply. This brings me to consider Dr. Ali's first specific critique.
Dr. Ali objects to the claim I make that in the Chola period "there was no intimate sharing of ritual forms, dance, music, and personnel between the domains of the temple and court." What I wish to highlight in this connection is the contrast between the more distinct definition of these two domains that one finds in the Chola period and the context emerging in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries in which the two spheres come increasingly to overlap. In this later period in South India (masterfully portrayed by Narayana Rao, Shulman and Subrahmanyam), the temple woman is a figure clearly visible in both domains-serving two masters-whose ceremonial functions in the court parallel her ritual duties in the temple, and whose temple repertoire is composed by court musicians. In the Chola period, however, we do not find any evidence, either inscriptional or literary, that points towards such forms of interchange and movement between the two domains, or the incorporation by the court of the realm of the temple. But I certainly do not suggest that courtly and temple ritual were unrelated, that royal and religious "households" were run differently from one another, or that human and divine lords were depicted in dissimilar ways. In addition to underscoring the relative autonomy of temples as institutions in the Chola period, my more specific concern is to explore the range of different types of women about whom we can learn something from the inscriptions. Superficially-in terms, particularly, of their lack of association with husbands-temple women and palace women bear a resemblance to one another. But a closer examination reveals that there are important differences between the two groups-not only in terms of how they are identified by the inscriptions as belonging either to the temple or the palace, but with respect also to their activities in these two domains, to the family arrangements in which they situate themselves, and to their patterns of temple patronage.
The next problem that has been raised is more complex. Dr. Ali notes that I have shown how the term atiyar has devotional connotations in Tamil literature, and is utilized in early Chola period inscriptions to designate "retainers" rather than "slaves." He seems to believe that these observations are the foundation for a claim that the majority of tevaratiyar were not "subalterns." He admits that it might be legitimate to distinguish, as I do, between temple women who were slaves and those who were not, but my argument is "vitiated by the lack of any discussion of the legal/theoretical boundaries of slavery, service, bondage and attendance." Given the nature of the evidence I am using, I am in the privileged position of being able to discuss, instead, the practical dimensions of such relations of obligation, and I devote a good deal of space in this book to such discussions. I describe how, in the later Chola period, the term atiyar was increasingly applied to slaves, that virtually all of these slaves were women who served in the temple, and that the use of such a term, with its honorific and devotional connotations, may have been a way of disguising the reality of these women's status. There is a reason that I treat female slaves-those women who were sold or given as property to the temple-as a part of the category of "temple women," and that is because I recognize that these women's connection with the temple is on a continuum with that of the temple women who had access to property and privilege (120-21, 125-26). In part this is because they were all women, and because much of women's work in the temple, whether menial kitchen labour or attendance on the deity, was unskilled and inessential. But it is also because all people who were engaged in temple service or who obtained support from the temple-from priests to potters-were bound to the temple in relationships that involved duties as well as rights (97, 127-130). Dr. Ali's attribution to me of the view "that the accumulation of limited amounts of wealth precluded relations of obligation or servitude" is quite mistaken.
Dr. Ali seems also to have misunderstood my explanations about how temple women acquired property. He indicates that I have suggested that women who received stipends from the temple were "slaves," and that for most women "temple service was not a source of livelihood." What I actually say is that "a woman's role in the temple was not primarily viewed as a source of livelihood." (134) In the passage that Dr. Ali is citing here, what I am trying to get at is the question of what was the most significant, defining feature of the Chola period temple woman. My answer is that "it is the temple woman status that is central to her identity, and temple service roles or support from the temple are accessories to this status." This conclusion comes at the end of the fourth chapter, in which temple women's functions in the temple and remuneration from the temple are described in detail, and directly follows an extensive discussion (126-134) of the ways in which temple women (except for women who were slaves) in fact did receive support from the temple in the form of land, houses, clothing, gold, or daily or yearly allowances of food or grain. I am not sure why Dr. Ali concludes that support from the temple indicates that temple women "entered temple service under conditions not of their own making," unless the same might be said for the entire array of temple servants who were similarly remunerated.
One of the interesting and unexpected findings of my study is the discovery that there were so many women in the Chola period-not only temple women, but queens and palace women, the women of local chiefly families, the wives of landowners and merchants, and Brahman women-who owned property, and were in a position to endow temples. These various types of women would have acquired wealth in different ways, and, in the case of temple women, there were particular factors that made their economic circumstances distinctive. We have just seen that many temple women received support from the temple. I have also put forward the idea that Chola period temple women acquired property through inheritance from their natal families, which was evidently less usual among women who married. But I do not say that Chola period temple women received payment for performing acts of worship for patrons, as twentieth-century devadasis have done. Dr. Ali has misread me here. Further, he is mistaken in believing that contemporary ethnographic accounts "suggest that sexual favours also formed a source of income." The studies of Marglin, Kersenboom, and Amrit Srinivasan "emphasize the absence of exchange of money for sexual services and point out the opportunities that temple women had to acquire money through other means" (199)-which is precisely why I mention the twentieth-century devadasi in this context. Dr. Ali seems to indicate that I am bending over backwards "to avoid the sacred prostitution theory"; for my part, I am surprised at the implication in what he says that the obvious source for a woman's wealth is her sexual relationship with a man. In any case, I do not believe that Chola period temple women's economic position mirrors that of their more recent counterparts. My explanation of how, in medieval Tamilnadu, "temple woman status" might have resulted in the accumulation of wealth-even in the absence of direct support by the temple-is based instead on what is seen in the case of men in this period, whose involvement with the temple as donors or temple functionaries entailed various economic advantages.
I am, of course, extremely interested in examining the important differences that distinguish women from men-with respect not only to their "legal" and economic status, but also the nature of their involvement in temple service, geographical and chronological variations in temple patronage, and access to positions of religious authority. Dr. Ali seems to regard my efforts in this connection as rather mechanical and pointless. My "indifference to the more 'symbolic' or 'discursive' elements of gender...has sadly handicapped" my study. The problem once again is, in Dr. Ali's view, my "dismissal of textual evidence." Throughout this book I explore the question of whether representations of femaleness found in literary and religious discourse-associated with divine marriage, representation of female divinity, and association with kingship-are relevant to the imaging of temple women in this period and this place. In large part, the answer is no, but that is not a foregone conclusion. There are certainly some very interesting ways in which gender was constructed in the royal and sectarian literature of this age-although I am not sure that there is enough evidence to fully understand gender in this context "as a set of ideologies and practices that form subjectivities and agencies." There is certainly nothing in the literature produced in the Chola period that allows us to position the temple woman within such a discourse of gender, unless we want to make a big leap into speculation. In fact, it is only the inscriptions that afford us even a remote chance of understanding the subjectivity and agency of temple women.
Dr. Ali's critique of my understanding of "agency" appears to be in large part a response to the last five pages of the book, where I outline a possible scenario through which the temple woman of 1300 might have been transformed into the figure more familiar to the colonial era and to contemporary scholarship. Here I am supposed to have provided a picture in which women's power, public representation, and agency simultaneously decline, suggesting that I understand agency and disempowerment as mutually exclusive categories. In fact, what I am interested in exploring in these last pages of the book is the idea that a gradual decrease in temple women's agency seems to have been accompanied by an increase in their symbolic significance, their "instrumentality" (here, as elsewhere in the book, I have borrowed Ronald Inden's categories of "agent," "instrument," and "patient"). The only thing I have to say about "empowerment" is that the emergence of images of temple women as "wives of God" or as representatives of divine feminine forces "has not empowered them in any effective, pragmatic sense" (179). Apart from these few final pages, my book is dedicated to an examination of the temple woman within the context of the social and religious history of the Chola period, and here I have a great deal to say about the "status" of women and the changes that took place during the Chola period that altered that status. Because of the continuing tendency, in scholarly work as well as in popular stereotypes, to see Indian women's lives as being shaped by structures and a history that are not their own-as being defined and circumscribed, from ancient times to the present, by monolithic normative religious codes of behaviour-I have perhaps gone too far in my efforts to demonstrate that women have actually been participants in this history. But it cannot in fairness be said that I have ignored women's exclusion, women's marginalization, or women's oppression. It has been precisely my purpose to show the mixed nature of medieval women's circumstances, partly governed by restrictions and partly characterized by liberty of action, and to trace a complex history that does not have a simple trajectory of progress or decline.
It appears from Dr. Ali's review that the unfortunate lack in this book of "a coherent social/theoretical framework"-and I assume that he is referring here to what he regards as my too-simplistic understandings of agency, gender, and subalternity-is due to my "over-reliance on inscriptions." "Their interpretation is not so straightforward." I know this, of course. I suspect that perhaps that the real problem that Dr. Ali has with my approach is not that I am using the evidence of inscriptions, not that I am such a positivist as to imagine that they can tell us "what really happened," and not even that I am turning towards textual sources less than I might, but rather that I resist using textual sources-or a particular text or textual genre-as the interpretative key that would open the door to what the inscriptions "mean." I will continue to resist doing this because I regard the epigraphical evidence as capable of giving voice to agents other than those who have composed the Dharmasastras, the Puranas, and the Agamas. The stone inscriptions crowding the walls of South Indian temples also give voice to others than those who authored the copperplate grants of kings. These voices are muted-Noboru Karashima has invited us to listen to their "whisperings"-and those who speak, agents who have gone to great lengths to leave us these records, to record their actions for posterity, were of course constrained in terms of what they could do and how they could talk about it. Nonetheless, they thought they were making history, and it behoves us to attend to that fact.