Published on 17th February, 2023, in Economic Times.
Chanakya’s Arthashastra talks about appointing a superintendent for the ganika, variously translated as pleasure women, prostitutes or courtesans. This is done in a matter-of-fact way. No morality is attached. Ganikas were valuable sources of pleasure, income and information for the state. These were not prostitutes, who have no agency. Contemporary Bollywood films romanticise the courtesan and the brothel often as tragic figures in films such as Pakeezah, Amar Prem, Umrao Jaan and Devdas. This is a male gaze that refuses to acknowledge these women who once were independent women with power and wealth who chose not to marry, and have lovers instead.
Courtesans have existed in ancient India since Vedic times, as suggested by the Rig Vedic verse 1.167.4, for example, that refers to public women. There is also the Vedic tale of Urvashi wanting to leave their husband Pururava and return to be with damsels (apsara) of paradise (swarga). The ganika provided the same services on earth that dancing damsels (apsara) provided in the realm of the gods (deva-loka). Like the goddess of wealth (Shri), these apsaras were churned out of the ocean of milk. They were highly artistic, talented, educated and skilled women who provided entertainment and hospitality services. Their images adorned temple walls.
Ganikas did not marry. They transmitted their knowledge and wealth to their daughters, who (in keeping with caste laws) followed the mother’s profession of singing, dancing, and entertaining. They were matrilineal and not obliged to marry. If they married, property rights went to the husband and the sons she bore him, not the daughter.
Buddhist lore tells us about Amrapali, the courtesan, who invited the Buddha to a meal in her house and who gifted a mango orchard to the Sangha. In Milinda-Panha, a Buddhist work based on questions asked by the Indo-Greek king Menander, we are told the story of the courtesan Bindumati who had the power of truth which could make the river Ganga flow in the reverse direction. She acquired this power by treating all her customers equally, no matter what their caste. Jain lore tells the story of Kosha, a courtesan, who admired her lover Sthulabhadra, who overcame his obsession with her and chose the Jain path. Ancient Tamil epics such as Silappadikaram talks about the courtesan Madhavi whose mother is furious when her daughter, Manimeghalai, chooses to become a nun instead of following the family vocation.
The earliest epigraphic evidence of courtesans in India is dated to 2nd century CE and is found in Mathura Kankali tila in Uttar Pradesh. Women with names such as Ada, Nada, Vasu, Lonashobika, built a temple (ayaga-sabha), set up a stone slab (shila-pata) and a pond (prapa) in honour of Jain Arhats. Another inscription of the same period, from Sannati, in Karnataka, speaks of dancing women (nati or natika) such as Govidasi and Aryadasi who contribute to the building of enclosures (prakara) and entrance halls (mukhudika) for Buddhist monastic orders.
One of the signatories to a Durga temple built in the 7th century as per the Vasantgada plates of King Varamlata (625 CE) refers to ganika called Buta. Anukkiyara Paravai Nankiyara, a dancer in the Chola empire, donated gold, copper and jewels to the shrine of Tiruvarura, in the 10th century. In the 13th century, two of the two hundred donors of the Vithoba temple, as per the Pandharpur epigraph, were courtesans named Vithanayakaci Nayaki and Panditaci Nayaki Hira.
Several inscriptions from the Deccan region, in the Chalukyan, Rashtrakuta and Chola periods of Indian history from 5th to the 13th centuries, reveal how courtesans gave land (devabhoga) and interest-generating permanent endowments (akshaya-daan) for upkeep of Jain temples, Buddhist monasteries as well as Hindu temples, many of these women used their influence on kings to encourage the establishment of Jain temples (basadi). These include Nandavva, beloved of the Ganga King Simhavarman; Paliyakka, the beloved of Vikrama Santaras, Camekamba, the favourite courtesan of Amma II of the Eastern Chalukyas.
After the 13th centuries, we do not find epigraphic references of independent influential courtesans making religious endowments. This was the time when Turko-Afghan warlords entered India and a new worldview shaped India’s landscape. Courtesans took shelter in temples to become devadasis or came increasingly under control of rajas, sultans and aristocrats. We hear how there were brothels in the pleasure quarters in the city of Vijayanagara empire to ensure merchants and travellers were entertained and spent at least a portion of their profits in the city itself.
Courtesans flourished in the Delhi Sultanate, and in the Mughal and Maratha periods. This period also saw the rise of ‘tawaifs’ in cities like Lucknow and Hyderabad where young aristocrats went to these women to learn the arts of refinement and culture. In the Islamic world sex was not sin as in the Christian world, and the Persian culture was familiar with the idea of pleasure women, but the idea of independent women whose trade was pleasure was not appreciated by the orthodox.
Things took a really bad turn for these women as India came to be increasingly controlled by colonial powers from Europe who were Christians, for whom sex was sin and so courtesans were morally reprehensible. In Goa, which came under Portuguese control, dancing and singing women lost their rights as co-guardians of the temples and were seen as mere servants of the temples instead.
During the 1857 Uprising, observing how many ‘nautch’ (dancing) girls funded Indian rebels and acted as spies, the British passed laws to declare their work illegal and immoral. They were supported by puritanical Hindus and Muslims who realised they could ingratiate themselves with the new rulers of the land by equating their faith with Victorian puritanism, and India’s downfall with its heritage of pleasure. This led to the erasure of these ganika’s contributions to Indian art and economy from all history textbooks.