A collaborative project with historian, writer and podcaster, Anirudh Kanisetti. 

TEMPLE WOMEN IN MEDIEVAL TAMIL NADU
#whomakeshistory (art by @ankithakini )

Perhaps no aspect of medieval Indian society is as misunderstood as the temple women of Tamil Nadu. You might hear of them today as "devadasis", as prostitutes/dancers who were either rescued or misrepresented by the British morals of 19th and 20th century India. Rarely are they ever thought of as historical agents in their own right. This post seeks to correct that.

In the 11th-12th centuries, Tevaratiyals, Female Devotees of God as they call themselves, were to be found in temples across the Tamil country - not just in the large royal ones. In smaller villages, the temple was the most important public space. It was where the who's who of the town would congregate, where social pecking orders were structured and performed through religious ritual. The more important you were, the more important your position in the temple, the more prominent your role in public festivals and daily devotions to the god.

That is what Tevaratiyals are - women who used their skills (such as music and dance) along with their financial resources, to establish a social standing. They are no different from the farmers, craftsmen, generals, and kings of medieval Tamil Nadu, who similarly used the wealth they earned from their livelihoods for religious and social standing.

Yet, because they are women in a public, performative space - which is so far removed from our understanding of medieval India - we tend to ignore their agency in CHOOSING to be temple women. We do not see the honour attached to their position as being something that these otherwise normal family women actively sought. Instead, they are portrayed either as seducers or oppressed damsels.

In this illustration, @ankithakini tries to imagine an average day in the life of a small-town Tevaratiyal. In conversation with a flower-seller outside the temple, she tells her that she is gifting some gold that her mother-in-law left her to the temple, so that the bureaucrats might promote her to becoming a dancer at the harvest festival - she's getting tired of waving the flywhisk in every evening's service.

 ~ Anirudh Kanisetti
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