By Sunny Kulathakal
“Every day a different guy
and this is our chastity”
In our land there are still virtual examples of the type of women described in the above verse taken from the Rambhapravesam (Appearance of Rambha) chapter of the Ravana Vijayam (Ravana’s victory) Kathakali. There is nothing to wonder when Rambha tells Ravana that her chastity is nothing but giving pleasure to a different man each night. Some of the other ancient practices are even more interesting. We are all familiar with characters like Vasavadatta who was entertaining a Chettiar (Rich merchant) despite the fact that she was in deep love with Upagupta.
Had there not been parents in our land who used to encourage their daughters to consider the love towards husband, sacrifice and commitment of Seelavathy who used to carry her leper husband on her shoulders to the brothel as model qualities worth emulating?
Tactics of seduction
Relevant are also a few verses from Tactics of seduction (Kuttineematham) containing certain advises of a mother to her daughter. Tactics of seduction comprises 200 “slokas” (quatrain containing four lines each) the subject matter of which are advises about the traditional profession of prostitution from the mother of Anangvalli, a novice into prostitution. Quoted below is a portion of the same:
‘This is youth, my dear daughter! You, the arrow of cupid
born out of women! Moonshine on a rainy day is not eternal;
There is a big ocean of old age before you
It has to be crossed with the wealth earned during your youthful days’
“The feminine charm and voluptuousness of youth is not enduring; Earn as much you can before the physical charm is lost so that you can cross the ocean of old age comfortably” This was what mothers were advising their daughters those days. It was the Venmani movement which perpetuated the literary tradition having the same flavour akin to Tactics of seduction in the name of Ambopadesham. The work presents the advises given bygrannies to young prostitutes in different styles. Venmani Mahan, Kodungalloor Kochuunni Thampuran, Naduvathu Achan Namboothiri, Oravankara Neelakandan were among the authors of Ambopadesam. Given below is one of the slokas:
“You naughty daughter! Why this ghostly look, Why don’t be clean?
Hey young beauty! You have to wash your body;
Don’t you know the well groomed body
of a maiden has infinite charm?”
Many have written similar sleazy verses fuming with the stink of porn and containing lines which have dubious inner meanings and pornographic connotations which no civilised person will ever dare to utter.
The early Malayalam literature clearly presents Malayalee woman as the one brimming with lust. Those days, sexuality was dripping through the naughty eyelash of Kairali (Literary and cultural psyche of Kerala). The writings of Manipravala period were described as “Poetry of skin”.
If it was the heady scent of raw flesh that was steaming from Radha-Madhava Rasa Creeda (sexual indulgences of Radha and Madhava) and the relationship of Subhadra and Arjuna, it was the symphony of “no-strings attached” sexual indulgence that was echoing from the lyrics of Venmani poetry. The celebrated heroines like Unniyadi, Unniyadichi and Unnichiruthevi of early Malayalam literature were all prostitutes.
Seelavathis (Woman of character)
“Then came the bright moonshine of the female. There were also Selavathi’s to teach them noble behaviour. The bards and those who reveled in literature of ribaldry never knew how to bring up a girl in a decent family atmosphere. It was Kumaranasan who lifted the Kerala woman from this stinking sewage and brought her up. “Nalini”, “Leela” and “Seetha” marked the dawn of a new tradition”
What came to replace that tradition was the woman who had become merchandise, says Thayattu Sankaran. He continues “We don’t need Seelavathis; but the entry of Christian Keelers to replace them needs to be resisted vehemently by enlightened Kerala. Today’s progressive writers could see only what the commercial world highlights in a woman. In their eyes woman is nothing but a sexual commodity. For them woman is just the sum up of features that arouse such passion….”
The animal instinct to snarl with lust at the very sight of a naked woman is condemned by Thayattu while underlining the need to recognize the real value of woman.
There were a time during which keeping “Tharavadu” (ancestral homes) doors open for the upper class was considered as a sign of status and pride. Virgins waited to receive them at households with lips reddened with chewing pan (the practice of chewing a mix of betel leaves, arecanut and lime). In those days there were woman who considered it a blessing to have physical union with the body of the “lord” (men from the upper class). With the blooming of sub standard sexual passion, conjugal morality lost its value opening up the doors for prostitution. Matriarchal system which allowed free sex with as many persons as possible without any social stigma attached to it was in vogue during those days. Chandu Menon (One of the early Malaylam Novelist) in his novel “Indulekha” clearly reveals this. The urge of Suri Namboothiri who came to marry Indulekha to enter the bedroom of her mother is quite sarcastically described in the novel.
It cannot be said that illicit sexual relationships will come to a grinding halt with the improvement in financial condition. The heroine of “Indulekha” and her mother had a wealth of Rs 30,000 those days to spend freely as per their whims and fancies. Still their sexual excesses continued unabated. There were some signs of change in the social standards of living when the financial condition of woman started improving. That was how the moves against the matriarchal system became stronger. The practice of the upper class went on building up extra marital relationships in several households also underwent a change.
The moral dictate at one time was that the woman should not cover their breasts as a mark of respect to the elite. A quote from “Malabar Quarterly review” (XI, 1903) attributed to Tippu Sultan as telling to a particular religious community during his visit to Kozhikode in 1788 is relevant here: “I request you to live like members of other communities after doing away with your practice of a woman having sexual relationship with as many as10 men, allowing your mothers and sisters to follow the same practice resulting in giving birth to illegal children and also your relationships that will put even animals to shame and all the other sinful practices.” So terrible was the condition those days.
Modern Malayalam literature
Writers like M Mukundan and Kakkanadan were the ones who started to anchor stories centered on prostitutes in modern Malayalam literature.
“Aysha” a well known poetic work of Vayalar portrays the touching life of a street prostitute. Aysha, daughter of a butcher, Adriman is sold to a rich man who had married four times before. Aysha objects:
“Adraman roared as usual
Hey girl, I will cut you into pieces
and hang in my shop”
Threatening her in this manner he gets rid of her without sparing gold or any other ornaments or any kind of wealth. Then he buys four goats with the amount received as the price of his dauther’s sale and hangs in his shop.
The rich man who married Aysha divorces her. Pushed to the edge and totally orphaned Aysha becomes a prostitute selling her body in the evening bazaar. Aysha who strangled her first child to death decided to bring up her next baby. He should grow up and take revenge on this world which threw her to the corner of this street. Thus her next offspring turns into the incarnation of her angel or revenge.
One day the rich man who divorced her happened to drop into her brothel. She cajoles him and that night she fatally stabs his chest with a dagger. She ends up in jail. Meanwhile Adraman also lands up in jail in a murder case.
Aysha’s son grows up. Adraman who returns after his long years in jail happens to meet Aysha’s street child. Both of them locked themselves in a prolonged emotionally charged embrace. The poetry ends with the two wows to emerge as a single force of revenge to bring down the whole world to dust.
A few lines from Ayyappa Panicker’s poem “Pralayam” (The great flood):
“Fixing the rate at Rs two, she lay on the metal sheet after spreading her dress on it.
He had a second’s sigh of relief that there is at least no sales tax..
He sprang his body as a bow and sent all his five arrows and then came the flood.”
What the poet portrays here is an innocent woman who had the sincerity to give back 50 paise taking note of the embarrassment of the client who opted for the kind of prostitution that can be described as “love sans creation”. He had become so weak that he could not even accept that money which was actually meant as bus charge to go home. Instead he walked back home.
In Chilappathikaram, one of the five great Tamil poetic treatises there are references to “street of seduction” flanked by “…….plenty of brothels which used to lure men like vampires to suck blood till the last drop and send their preys to unconscious slumber every day irrespective of whether they are monks who happened to be trapped by lusty eyewink or playboys who revel in enjoying different women just like beetles which opportunistically switch from one flower to another in gay abandon to taste their nectar, or adolescents who experience sexual bliss for the first time”
“Our area is so notorious that the eyes of the youth will not dare to tread anywhere near that street during sundown fearing the alluring eyewinks of young women” is how the place is described.
It is said that Madhavi, the prostitute of Chilapathikaram is a descendant of Urvashi, the danseuse of the heavens who received the curse of Agasthya Muni to be born as a human being for her refusal to perform in the court of Indra while Narada was playing violin. Chilappathikaram also refers to Kovalan, the husband of Kannaki known for her chastity matching that of Arundhathi entering the bed chamber of Madhavi, forgetting his affluent home and beautiful beloved.
There is a portion quoted to the great ascetic Kavunthi Adikal as saying “the positive and negative grief brought upon men by cupid touch only those who embrace curly haired beauties and not the wise men who live in their solitude. This is not the first time, but since time immemorial that those worldly men who have found the female body and their feast as a source of just pleasure struggle in the endless ocean of grief succumbing to lust which, the enlightened sages shunned realising that it only breeds grief
Prostitutes also have a history
In short, prostitution is one of the world’s oldest professions. We have already seen a few instances of how fallen women are portrayed in Malayalam and Tamil literature. To have an overview of the world of prostitutes, the best thing is to evaluate their present situation in a historical perspective.
Prostitution was prevalent in one form or other in all caste, classes and religious communities from time immemorial. There is evidence in history that prostitutes who were considered as a means to quench excessive sexual urge had an indisputable position in the society. However there are genuine reasons to doubt that this profession is now at the verge of degeneration in the following the sunset of its good old days and privileges
This institution which once flourished under royal patronage and the shade of religion is still continuing, but under cover and in secrecy.
There are ample references to prostitution in Bible. There are references to functioning of brothels centered around Canaanite churches. There are a lot of evidences in the Old Testament about the prevalence of prostitution.
There are several stories in ancient epics about Urvashi, Rambha, Menaka and Thilothama. Those women who were the symbols of beauty and voluptuousness had exceptional skill in music and dance. Their job was to take care of the gods and pleasing them. The “Matsya Purana” (The epic of fish) refers to even a sage like Viswamithra succumbing to the sexual charm of Menaka leading to the birth of Sakunthala, one of the celebrated heroines of world literature.
There are also evidences of the existence of prostitutes during the times of Pandavas and Kauravas as well. In the book, “The sexual life in ancient India”, there are references about women engaged in prostitution quoted to Yudhistira as telling in a message. It so happened that King Pandu could not engage in sexual intercourse with his wives (He had two namely Kunthi and Madri) due to a curse of a sage. Then he abdicated his throne and opted for living with his wives in a lonely haven. The problem was that his soul will not rest in peace if dies without children and at the same time he could not have sexual union with his own wives. Caught in this dilemma he says to Kunthi “Please have sex with equals or the peerfect ones to have a son”. Kunthi refused. Pandu reassures her that such things have happened before and is not a sin. That was how the Pandavas were born. This can be considered as a typical example of the husband himself compelling wife to have illicit relationships.
The institution of celestial court (The court of gods) which was in vogue during the times of Aryas in the course of time turned into one that gifts prostitutes to guests. Women were utilised as a means to express the friendship and fellowship with other kings. It was common that the king who loses in a battle handing over his dearest whore to the winner.
There had even attempts of battles among kings in the name of some particular prostitutes. There had also been instances of prostitutes being utilized to spell the fall of rival kings. It is said that young girls were specially recruited from a very early age itself and groomed them by feeding poisonous herbs and food. These women known as “poisonous virgins” were utilized to trap enemy kings who used to die after their sexual encounter with these women
“Anthapuras” (Chambers of women)
The slave women were considered a decorative oranmnet for the Brahmin “Anthapuras” (chambers of women). Even in Kerala there were kings who used to keep hundreds of low caste (Soodras) women, highly skilled in music and dance in their Anthapuras. “Manusmrithi” contain a set of rules relating to “women of easy manners” (prostitutes). Brahmin priests had taken upon themselves the responsibility to discourage such women as well as those who encouraged them to follow the wrong path. “Manusmruthi.” prescribes fines and even more severe punishments such as cutting off limbs mainly sexual organs and even death sentence to sexual criminals. It is prescribed that immoral women should be left to be mauled by dogs in public place and men to be burnt alive.
In “Matsyapurana” a prostitute is referred as a symbol of good omen. In south India there existed the practice of engaging prostitutes for tying “Mangalya Sutra” (nuptial cord).
Code of Conduct
An attempt had been made in Kautilya’s “Artha Sasthra” to formulate a code of conduct for prostitutes. The duties and responsibilities of courtesans (high profile prostitutes) are described under the title “Ganikadhyasha) (superintendent of courtesans). Such women appointed in the pay scale of a thousand money (single coin) should have extreme feminine charm and other feministic qualities. A rival prostitute was also appointed at half the pay scale. Royal courts of those times also used to appoint different types of dancers apart from prostitutes for various purposes. They were never meant to be ordinary prostitutes. They were considered as royal courtesans ideally suited for giving sexual company to the cultured elite. They were also utilized for spying for political purposes.
The famous “Kamasutra” of Vatsyayana has described about prostitutes and their lifestyle. It also explains in detail, the tips for successfully carrying out the profession.
Countries like ancient Greece, Armenia, Syria and Cyprus used to consider prostitution as a noble profession according to certain records. Prostitution was practiced as a ritual to please the Godess, Aphrodite. The Greek Afrodite temple might be yet another copy of “Yellama” temple of Karnataka. Prostitution linked to religion was in vogue also in countries like Egypt, Babylonia, Phoenicia and Arabia. Prostitutes had an important role in several religious festivities. There were even official prostitutes in several places of worship! To have sex after paying a small offering was considered as a recognized religious practice. Several women used to serve this way in these places of worship and donate their earnings to the deity. It was with added dignity and pride, these women who accepted prostitution as a divine commitment returned to their homes.
The men of Greece who used a category of women known as “Hetere” for sexual outlete after leaving the duties of giving birth to children and take care of the household on the shoulders of their wives also gave the necessary encouragement for the growth of prostitution. In some communities there were attempts to use prostitution a practical dimension by giving it a religious façade. It was said that ancient Armenians encouraged their daughters to engage themselves in prostitution prior to marriage to earn money to pay dowry. Thus these who were engaged in the so called “Freelance prostitution” used it as a temporary short cut for easy money and thereby making their life secure.
The great Poet Kalidasa in some of his works had referred to “Holy prostitution” prevalent during the third century. He had recorded that prostitutes were accommodated in the premises adjacent to the Mahakalikshethra (The temple of great Kali) in Ujjain. The devotees who thronged seeking the pleasure from these “Holy whores” were also in fact numerous! It may be surprising for the new generation of our times to know that it was a practice those days to offer daughters at the temples out of the faith and commitment to the God and religion. It is only a historical fact that the Devadasi system was prevalent till recent times even in India. Dr S D Punnekkar (Tata Institute of Social Science) who conducted a study on the Devadasi System has states that there were many who believed that girls should be offered for satisfying the sexual passion of the God just preparing “Amruthethu” (food offering) for the deity at temples.
The Devadasi System
It is even said that the Gods will heed to the prayers of the devotees only in the presence of temple prostitutes known as “Devadasis” in South India and “Mangalmukhis” in North India. This was the reason for the flourishing of prostitution in temples and attribution of divinity and dignity to the same.
There was a time when “Thevidichi Sthanam” (the post of prostitute) set apart for those women who educated, pious, brilliant in arts and music were accepted as a highly decent profession. There is a great similarity between these “Thevidichis” who excelled in dance and music and the Geishas of Japan. Those who manage to get jobs related to temples wre known as “Devadasis”. Even the kings never considered marrying them as some thing against prestige. Kandiyoor Thevidichi Unnikulangara, the wife of the Venattu King Veerakerala Varman, Chinna Devi , wife of Odanattu King Eravi Kerala Varman, Pavaiyyar, wife of Sundara Moorthy Nayanar and Chokkathandal, wife of Veerapandyan were all Devadasis. Devadais of temples used to tattoo the image of the deity of their respective temples on their body. The rule was to give respect to such women who carries the imprint of the God. Beautiful women were made public property by offering them to temples and even given royal status. Devadasis who had the right to sit with the king alone and chew pan used to receive them with handshake. There was a standing instruction that the Devadasis of Sucheendran should accompany the Venattu kings all through their visit.
The following excerpt from Elamkulam Kunjan PIllai’s preface written for Unnooli Sandesham wherein there is a clear description of the status and privilege enjoyed by Devadasis is worth noting:
“There is no doubt that upto 14th century Devadasis enjoyed the status akin to that of today’s film stars. Thereferences of Abdul Razaq in 1943 that the Devadasis who were the most respected in Vijayanagaram were considered on par with the wives of ministers and the visits of gentlemen to their houses were never considered as anything wrong and, the entire expenses of the 1200 and odd police force were met from their income and aptly said of Kerala…. It is said that it was common that Brahmins, Kshathriyas and others used to offer virgins to the temples seeking blessings like healing of disease and even parents of high class families were enthusiastic to see their daughters becoming Devadasis.”
Devadasis and their lovers had shown great interest in paying money for writing poems about them. In “Chandrotsava”, there are references about Sankaran, Poonam and others getting closer to prostitutes and singing songs. The Sanskrit poems like Sukasandesam, sivavilasam, Mayoora dootham etc are full of descriptions about Devadasis. Certain poems of ancient times testify that the genesis of the movement of “Manipravala” itself to Devadasis.
Elamkulam Kunjan Pillai in his work titled “The dark chapters of Kerala” has written”
“the word, “Thevidichi” underwent fast degeneration because of the curious mix of factors like the pleasure crazy Namboodiris administration of temples, the advise of
Pizharakayyamars and Pattas who had stooped to the level of lusty bulls, the hegemony of local rulers and the life in the premises of temples. He establishes that Devadasi system started degeneration ever since it became a matter of heredity. One could realize this from works like “Unniyachi Charitham, Unnichiruthevi Charitham, Sukasandesam, Unnuneeli Sandesam, Cheriyachi Unniyadi Charitham written during those days.
The middle age
The middle age was a period which ascribed over importance to wine and women. Except Aurungaseeb all the Muslim rulers had encouraged prostitution. Prostitution flourished as a widespread institution on account of the loving patronage of most of the then rulers and kings. The “Anthapuras’ (women’s chambers) of the Muslim rulers were overflowing with exceptionally beautiful women and mistresses. A haven called “Shaitanpuram” was set up exclusively for courtesans in the capital itself during the times of Akbar. Akbar had 800 “Anthapuras” in Agra alone. “Meena Bazaar” was a shopping place exclusively set apart for courtesans. Only the kings and their close associates had the permission to visit the prostitutes who frequented that place. Several women were engaged for performing dance and music in Mugul durbars. However they did not allow anyone to have sex with anyone anywhere in any manner. The prostitutes had a comfortable living under the protection of those who were in high places. They were skilled in music dance and other fine arts. Mughul kings ensured that dancers are provided for the entertainment of military chiefs at their camps. With the decadence of Mughul rule, the inmates of Anthapuras and those who were engaged in dance and music were thrown out the royal mansions. Those hapless women who had to wander in the streets as a result knew no other jobs. Also none came forward to promise any creative occupation for them. That being the situation those days, it is not surprising that they opted prostitution for earning a living.
Women like Barias Dure Dars, Patarias, Nutts, Brijwasis ,Rajdharis etc were being considered as the descendants of the inmates of “Anthapuras’ and mistresses of royal palaces of yesteryear.
The condition of women had not improved significantly even during the British rule. In the absence of governmental regulations, prostitution developed as an institution. In the place of Muslim royal patronage, new patrons surfaced. Jamindars, Taluk heads and Nawabs came forward to take care of prostitutes. But, when the Jamindari system was done away with and states were re-organised after independence, those who earned a living by prostitution were once again on the streets.
The situation today
Thus, prostitution which was in vogue in various forms years ago is continuing either organised or not in all the cities of India. It is impossible to get the statistics of the number of persons engaged in this profession. Nobody has the figures of the number of men who work in this field as brokers and others. The statistics available from the police and doctors can only be incomplete. It is not that easy to trace the whereabouts of prostitutes and their accomplices who migrate in newer pastures constantly and compile their up-to-date statistics. Trafficking women using new technologies surpassing any other trade and sexual crimes relating to the same as well erosion of moral values are currently on the rise.
Prostitution as an easy means to make money with the unofficial support of the society continues even today in several parts of the world as a legacy of the past.
At least a certain amount of success was achieved in banning prostitution after the Eastern Europe came under the control of Communists in the post second world war period. Several controls were imposed in countries like France, Italy, Belgium and Japan. Still there is no widespread awareness in most parts of the world that “adulteress” is such a bad word.
There are legal provisions facilitating the conduct of prostitution in most parts of Asia including Arab countries. In Latin America prostitution has no strings attached it. Even in Mexico it had legal sanction till a few years ago.
It was after independence, Government started to pay attention to the problems created by prostitution in India. The first official enquiry into prostitution was initiated under the auspices of Social and Moral Hygiene Committee in 1954.
The said committee studies the manifold implications of prostitution including the social, moral, economical and commercial problems created by the same. However the report of the committee submitted in 1956 was incomplete. Yet there was a realization of the need to make common people aware about moral and social norms of hygiene in a scientific perspective.
Vidhyadhar Agnihotri has published a book titled “Fallen Woman” after conducting a study of prostitution in the commercial city of Kanpur in Uttar Pradesh. M S Mathur and Dr B L Gupta of Agra University could study the situation there in more detail and more scientifically. The book titled “Prostitutes and Prostitution published by them in 1965 contains the conclusions of their scientific enquiry and their recommendations.
Dr R B K Jayasankar had conducted some researches about prostitution prevalent in the city of Mumbai. Hindi writer Amrit Lal Nagar has published a book titled “Ekothe Valiyan” in 1961 based on his interviews with some prostitutes. But it doesn’t delve much into the social and economic implications of the problem.
The research books under the title; “A study of the prostitutes in Mumbai” published by Dr S D Punnekar and Kamala Rao of the Tata Institute of Social Sciences in 1962 deals in good detail the family background and the special circumstances of those who enter the field.
Dr J J Pankkal and colleagues are currently engaged in a detailed research into the Devadasi system.
The researches conducted by Dr B C Muthayya in the city of Madras have been published under the title “Institutionalised Victims of Immoral Traffic and Commercialised Vice in Madras City.
M Ranga Rao and J B Raghavendra Rao have also conducted a study on the prostitutes of Hyderabad.This is an attempt to have a factual study in a historical perspective on this institution based on direct findings about prostitution which is on the rise in the developed cities of India. In all the Indian cities prostitution is thriving in all the Indian cities. However but what is highlighted here are the realities directly came across in Mumbai, one of important cities of India as a typical example.
trans: saj mathews