The Less Known Traditions of Prostitution in India

prostitution in India

The history of prostitution goes back to the period of the Vedas. It is one of the oldest professions that’s in practice since the birth of the organized society. Prostitution is practiced in almost every part of the world. In India, the Vedas, which is the earliest known Indian literature, has shown the reference of prostitution as an institution. High-class prostitution in the form of demigods acting as prostitutes has been referred to many times in Indian mythology.

The earlier times had several instances of extramarital love that were voluntary and unpaid. Since they were performed under closed boundaries, they were not considered to be some kind of profession. With time, there arose a section of women, who were either widowed, lived in a bad marriage, or were violated, abducted, taken advantage of, and denied by society. Such women were forced to take up prostitution as a profession.

There is no way of knowing when prostitution arose in India as a profession or what the pay was like. However, strict marriage laws and the treatment of women as the property of their husbands could be one reason for women to have taken such measures.

There have been various myths and legends about the origin of prostitution. For example, in the Mahabharata, the account of the destruction of the Yadavas ends with the women of these tribes being abducted. In Kuru and Pancala, the Brahmin sages were associated with the teachings of erotics, in which prostitution consisted of one section. Ksemendra says that wicked mothers often have their daughters away, to be enjoyed and abducted by other men. Vatsyayana in Kamasutra gave intrinsic details of how a chaste girl should be seduced cleverly until she fulfills a man’s lust.

prostitution in Mohenjo Daro
Bronze figure of Dancing Girl from Mohenjo Daro. Said to represent a sacred prostitute carrying out her duties within a temple,

The Apsaras

Prositutes in hindu history apsaras
Apsara Urvashi

The Apsaras or the celestial nymphs were considered to be the portrayal of absolute beauty and feminine charms.

Entertaining the guests in the courts of the Hindu Gods, these females were highly accomplished in music and dance.

They were sent for Tapasya or penance and the devotion of saints.


Prostitution in the Time of  the Mahabharata

Prostitution in the Mahabharata

The work of prostitution was standard in the age of the Pandavas and Kauravs. Being an essential part of the court, both the dynasties possessed them. The courtesans of Indira Puri have been widely depicted in Mahabharata. In total, there were about forty apsaras in this period. Amongst them, some popular ones were Urvashi, Menaka, Rambha.

In an incident in Mahabharat, Arjuna went to heaven to pay a visit to god Indra. To satisfy Arjuna’s salacity, Indra requested Urvashi an apsara to entertain Arjuna for the night.

The concept of women as a commodity for man’s enjoyment was borne by the inclusion of women as young and pretty and added into the lists of the gifts that are to be given to the king as a mark of respect. Thus, she becomes a Dakshina (offering).

At Yudhisthira’s horse sacrifice, women were sent by other kings as a donation to make necessary entertainment. Courtesans played an essential role in Mahabharata. They had the duty to seduce important men to take out important information from them.


Chanakya Arthashastra and prostitution

Chanakaya’ Arthasasthra is famous for depicting the accounts of prostitutes’ lives. It contains rules and activities of how prostitutes should behave and how their lives should be ordered.

It shows exciting data about women who are neglected by society, and their survival depends solely on their income through prostitution. Most of the time, these women came from upper castes.

A code of conduct was prescribed to all who wanted to seek their favor. These women also had certain definite progressive rights and duties.

The Aryans

The Aryan system in India followed the footsteps of the heavenly courts and developed a system of prostitution. Women were made to look like well-accomplished maidens in token of friendship with the kings. In addition, they were offered as ransoms in matters of politics.

Several girls of different classes were carefully selected from infancy to become prostitutes. They were fed poisonous herbs and food and were called the Vishkanyas (Poisonous virgins).

They were made prostitutes and used as a weapon by the kings to destroy their enemies.

Tales of the Kamasutra

prostitution in the kamasutras

An Indian sage of the third century B.C.- Vatsyayan- devoted several pages to prostitutes and their ways of life in his writing Kamasutra. It mentioned the rules of conduct and the popular trade system that happened.

He stated that the prostitutes of today had their prototypes in the olden days. It describes different sports and festivals of the rich, in which courtesans were invited.

Prostitution in the name of God – Devadasi

A 1920 photograph of two Devadasi prostitutes
A 1920 photograph of two Devadasi
Daughters of the Devdasi prostitutes
Daughters of the Devdasi

The “sacred” system of Devadasi is a living example of the highest level of prostitution. Devadasi is a Sanskrit term that means God and Goddess. It is a kind of religious practice that is followed in the southern part of India. When they attain puberty, girls are dedicated to worship of deity or temple for the rest of their life by their parents. After their marriage to the deity, they must perform activities such as cleaning the temple, dressing the deities, etc. Thus, they are considered to be respected members of society.

However, this system was misunderstood by the Mughals and European rulers. They were unaware of the idea of art as an offering to God and hence considered girls singing and dancing in the temples as a form of entertainment to the rich and were not better than prostitutes.

It further deteriorated in the medieval period after the destruction of a large number of temples. This degraded the status of Devadasi in society, and because of the financial problems, they were forced to become the mistress of royal and rich men. And a child born from that union was also dedicated to the temples. It led to religious prostitution all over India and continues to date. The Devadasi are exploited by the rich upper-class people and are not permitted to leave this practice.

The Nautch Girls – Old Courtesans of Delhi

The Nautch Girls -prostitutes of Delhi
The Nautch Girls – Old Courtesans of Delhi
nautch girls prostitutes
The Nautch Girls -Old Courtesans of Delhi

Looking at all the above evidence, it is clear that society has been creating situations in which many women were deprived of the right to remain respectable and were forced into prostitution as a profession.

The male customers who came to these prostitutes found their wives dull as companions, so to fulfill their lust, they came here. Society neglected and blamed the prostitutes, but no one ever shamed their customers.

No matter where the location was, i.e., in a temple, palace, or brothel, these women were forced to entertain the men in fear of payment and getting molested, tortured, or succumbed to death. Their bodies were enjoyed by the community with no fault of their own. Such is and was the precarious lives of women who were forced into prostitution.

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About the Author: Devaanshi is a humanities student with an absolute love for traveling and everything related to it. Cooking and Writing are other fields that interest her.

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