SACRED AND SENSUOUS: A history of sex work in Ancient India

Updated: Jun 30, 2021

Prostitution has existed as a commercialized vice in society, albeit its institution has never been acknowledged by society as such. The reason behind this is that prostitution not only causes personal disorganization in the individuals involved but also has an impact on the life organization of the family and the community as a whole. Prostitution has existed in some form or the other for as long as society has sought to regulate and govern sex relationships via the institutions of marriage and the family.



Prostitution as a profession occurs in literature a few centuries after the Vedas, despite the fact that it must have been widespread in society long earlier. The Vedas, the earliest known Indian literature, is replete with references to prostitution as an organized and established institution. Prostitution is mentioned for the first time in Rigveda. However, at first, we hear of the illegal lover, jara and jatni-male, and female lovers of a married husband. What distinguishes such an illicit lover from the professional prostitute or her client is the regular payment for favours received. At times when money was still unknown and barter prevailed, exchange of gifts or favours was equivalent to payment in cash.


Although later Vedic literature implicitly and sometimes explicitly implies and even acknowledges prostitutes, it is in Buddhist writings that we first recognise them as professionals. In Vedic literature, especially in the Aitareya and Sankhayana Aranyankas, the prostitute is mentioned in an apparently obscene altercation with the neophyte (Brahmacarin). In the Vratyasukta of the Atharvaveda, she follows the Magadha. Instances like these are clearly a part of a fertility ritual. It is this role that she retained in ritual and literature over the centuries.


Following the oldest Vedic literature from the twelfth to the ninth century BCE, there is a huge literature from the eighth to the fifth centuries BCE. There are several references in Indian mythology of prostitution in the form of celestial demigods functioning as prostitutes. In his massive book Kamasutra, Vatsyayan, a prominent Indian scholar of the Third century B.C., devoted a lot of chapters to prostitutes and their passionate ways of life. There are rules of behaviour that must be followed in order for their trade to be popular and successful.


There was no marriage system before the advent of civilization. Men and women coexisted in the ancient era in the same way as birds and animals do today. Within the boundaries of each tribal group, sexual promiscuity was acquired. Men and tribes were always at odds over women. The primitive man replaced his partner on a regular basis and the woman indulged herself at her leisure.


Archaeological discoveries have shed insights into the Indus Valley people's urbanized civilization. However, there is little evidence to definitively corroborate the presence of prostitution in society. The bronze image of a dancing girl from Mohenjo-Daro depicts a sacred prostitute doing her duty within the confines of the mother goddess temple.


The Aryans were most likely nomadic pastoral nomads that moved through central Asia. The Pre-Aryans were an established farming society. When the early Aryans settled down as agriculturists, they had to wait for regular rains and secure their grain. But it was beyond control; they pondered about the Supreme Being - the Devas, the most powerful of them was Indra. Some kind of sacrifice was introduced for his invocation. The sacrifice ceremonies were followed by a somewhat intoxicated drink made from Soma plant juice. And in the end, there was most likely a display of natural promiscuity. Promiscuity cannot be labelled prostitution if there is no marriage institution in the community. Sexuality predominated from the start of all human development, but it lasted only a brief period before giving way to a form of semi-promiscuity. It resulted in group marriage and polyandry which in turn resulted in the formation of a matriarchal civilization. This promiscuity was only used in religious or political festivals after then.


The primordial non-Aryans (Dravidians) were animists who worshipped phallic deities. They revered phallus and Yoni as the ultimate manifestations of the creative force in nature. It fuelled the rise of guest prostitution. The Panis (an Aryan merchant class) developed trading links with the Dravidians. The Panis encountered guest – prostitution through their business operations with the Dravidians. They delivered accomplished, attractive, and virgin women to monarchs as a gesture of friendship.


Later Nath traditions viewed these liberated women to be yoginis and dakinis who dwelt in plantain woods, with plantain being a symbol for women. The plantain grove was thought to be the domain of witches who stripped men of their manhood and confined them in the world of mortality. The monastic order despised the world. The monks dreaded them as creatures that rob men of their money and power and then seize it for themselves.


Marriages and more


Marriage is a sexual union of two or more people (as in polygamy), temporary or permanent, with one of its main goals being reproduction and child care - and the union that is sanctioned by society by the conduct of a specific ceremony. The social potentates of the Early Aryans attempted to guide the stream of sexual relationships into a monogamous channel. Because marital regulations were liberal during the Vedic period, prostitution outside of marriage was rarely considered essential. After marriage, the concubinage relationship was presumably not in demand — institutions were created.


Prostitution was a socially acceptable occupation throughout the Vedic Period era. The prostitutes were referred to as 'Vishya'. This class was created to help the Vish or Vaishya caste. (For example, merchants who led a town – a life split off from their home.) Vishya evolved into ‘Beshya,’ which lost its original derived root and was framed from the root (to enter) and meaning ‘one who is approachable to and by all’ or ‘one who elegantly bedecks herself’. Ganika, Bandhaki, RupjiVa, Varangana, Kultani, Sambhali, Pumscali, and other names were given to the prostitutes.


Concubinage relationships were on the rise during this period. Concubinage is an interpersonal connection in which a woman has an ongoing sexual connection with someone she cannot marry. Hundreds of slave females were occasionally kept in the palaces of the rulers. These slave females could dance and sing beautifully and had mastered all of Isis’s talents. They pretended to be concubines.


Marriage morality was being polished and redesigned, and the cult of chastity in marriage, virginal purity, and the ideal of rigorous monogamy were progressively established. The period of the Brahmanas saw the emergence of labour disparities and economic complexity in society for the first time. Bread-winning avocation pulled many people away from their pleasant fire-side and calm rural existence and lured them to dive headlong into 'city turmoil.' Under these conditions, it was unavoidable that prostitution would enter people's daily lives and the law.


The Era of the Epics


The institution of courtesans had legal significance during the Epic era. During the time of the Pandavas and Kauravas, Veshyas were common. They played a vital role on the court. Courtesans were on the outskirts of society. They were occasionally invited by persons of great social standing. They were required to wear red clothes, red garlands, and red gold trinkets when attending social gatherings. There are allusions to Bharata ordering courtesans to join the welcoming feast or occasion of the triumphant Rama's homecoming. The colour red is considered to be Yama's emblem. This regulation was created to make it easier to identify prostitutes and to warn people about the dangers of sexual union with a prostitute. Another event where Arjuna once ascended to heaven to pay a visit to Indra, who is considered to have been his de facto father. To appease his son's alleged salacity, he asked Urvashi to amuse Arjuna for the night via Gandharva Chitrasena. There are also instances where the Pandava army was followed by a host of prostitutes who went in the rear of the army on baggage carts. Courtesans of Indra Puri have been described in many ways throughout the Mahabharata. The names of forty-two apsaras are mentioned in the Mahabharata. Urvashi, Menaca, Tilottama, Rambha, and Ghritachee were the standouts.


Since the time of the epics, prostitution has been collecting strength and infiltrating every accessible nook and cranny of society. Prostitutes' status deteriorated throughout the Smriti era. The ganikas were society's outcasts, and hence food from them was unpalatable to a well-bred Aryan. The state protected them and provided them with the necessary human resources to carry out their vocation. According to the Gandharva system, the Ganikas offered themselves in marriage with Brahmins and Kshatriyas at times, allowing them to assume an exalted place in society. The experienced ganikas may always be elevated to the ranks of a concubine and happily housed in an aristocrat's harem.


The Apsaras


In mythology, the apsaras represent beautiful women who are well versed in the arts and are not confined to a single man. According to the Rigveda, the apsaras live in the paradise known as Swarga, which human males yearn for. However, after a certain amount of time, these apsaras appear to get uninterested and distance themselves from humans. They are unconcerned about the notion of faithfulness. Even when they have children, they are not connected to them and abandon them, sometimes even on the forest floor. In other words, these are free women. According to Puranas, when the devas and asuras churned the ocean of milk, Laxmi, the goddess of fortune, emerged, bringing with her the apsaras, who made heaven their home and entertained the gods.


The Apsaras are frequently connected with the celestial musicians, the Gandharvas. Apsaras are sometimes associated with Gandharvas. Tumburu and Rambha, Menaka and Vishvavasu, and other well-known pairs. The heavenly nymphs were considered as exquisite representations of unrivalled beauty and feminine charms. They are extremely talented in music and dancing. In the palace of Lord Indra, the Lord of Hindu Gods, they entertained divinities and their visitors. They were also dispatched to assess the true level of famous saints’ Tapasya (penance) and devotion. An apsara called Menaka brought down the great sage Vishwamithra and became the mother of Shakuntala, the immortal heroine of Kalidas' Shakuntalam. Sometimes, a sage would spy one of these scantily clad apsaras would ejaculate spontaneously. A child, mostly a male child, would be born from this fluid. This is how Dronacharya, Kripacharya, Kripi, Shuka, and Rishyashringa were born. Kripi was the only girl born in this manner.


Apsaras are ceaselessly used as objects of beauty, seduction, and sexual exploitation by males. Men sexually subjugate them to deflect other men's attention away from their goals or simply for enjoyment.


On Ganikas


A Ganika is not just a mere prostitute but rather “a proficient in the arts, winsome in her ways, and endowed with exceptional beauty and tastes”. According to historians such as Moti Chandra, Ganika's status was valued by the monarch to such a degree that she was regarded as a gem of his capital.


For a long time, it was believed that even though Brahmanical society's attitude toward public women was not praiseworthy, Ganikas, who was the finest among the public women, acquired a respected place in ancient Indian society. Numerous textual references to Ganikas, their glories, and the state's concern for their well-being contribute to this illusion. Ganikas, or Courtesans, were the mistresses of youth, the connoisseurs of exquisite pleasure and culture for the nagarakas of ancient India's booming towns. Their beauty, abilities, habits, and life experiences were the focus of many books and historical studies, yet it appears that many parts of their lives remain hidden and unheard. A story described in the Vinayavastu of the Mulasarvastivada tries to focus on the life of Amrapali or Ambapalika, a famous Ganika of Vaisali who was considered an epitome of beauty and talents. Amrapali was the adopted daughter of Mahanama, a rich citizen of Vaishali. Amrapali’s beauty and her incredible personality attracted many men including princes towards her. Her father took the matter to the assembly of Licchavi Gana, and Amrapali came before the assembly’s command. Awestruck by her beauty and skills, the assembly declared that she is a Stri Ratna (a gem of a lady), that she must not marry but be enjoyed by the Gana. The event narrates how Amrapali became the Nagarbadhu of Vasali and traces the reason behind the terminology ‘Ganika’. So, according to the above-mentioned literature, which undoubtedly reflects current society's perspective, Ganika is a female linked with, or operating for, a governing group (Gana), or appreciated by the Gana.


There are several more pieces of evidence that show they were not regarded or acknowledged as actual people by society. Surprisingly, the writings that demonstrate concern for the well-being of Ganikas are the same writings that provide evidence of society's prejudiced attitude toward them. The Kamasutra plainly mentions that a Ganikas should not dedicate much time to one customer while she is receiving proposals from others.


The Ganikas are advised by Kamasutra, the most comprehensive source on Courtesans and Prostitutes, to study sixty-four skills. Brhatkalpa, a Jaina scripture from the sixth century BCE, gives a daunting list of seventy-two skills for courtesans. Singing, playing musical instruments, drawing, decorating, writing, trimming, dancing, and other notable accomplishments are listed in these lists, coupled with techniques to show respect and appreciate others, social rules, architecture, minerals, chemistry, carpentry, magic, etc.


Society has always done its utmost to disguise Ganika's conscience under weighty words of praise and the harsh and rough cover of costly jewellery. On the one hand, the state ordered an Ganikas to educate themselves and learn various art forms, which has the natural effect of softening the human mind and making a person sensitive and virtuous; on the other hand, it told her not to make a relationship based on emotion rather than money and taught her that money can buy everything, so she should go to the person who can offer her the highest sum. As a result, the state, which functions as a wish-fulfilment machine in the hands of patriarchal society, was brutal to the Ganikas.


Sex Work in the Arthashastra


Pataliputra was a flourishing hub of prostitution during the reign of Chandra Gupta Maurya, and it was the first time the State's attention was directed to the colony of prostitutes for efficient supervision and to bring it under the responsibility of a stabilized revenue system. Brothel keeping was viewed as a source of money for the government. Ganika, Devdasi, Praganika, Dasi, and other terms have been employed by Kautilya.




The Arthashastra of Kautilya provides guidelines for prostitutes and their activities, as well as an explanation of how prostitutes should behave and how their lives should be structured. Prostitutes were utilized for more than just pleasure; their services were often exploited for political goals, particularly in espionage operations. Arthashastra depicts the many functions that courtesans play in assisting the State's revenue. Taxes were paid by various levels of courtesans and prostitutes to the state. Because their occupation was a significant source of money for the state, their rights and privileges were acknowledged.


During the Gupta dynasty, the institution of the courtesan matured and played an essential role in the people's social and cultural lives. The Vatsayana Kamasutra and the Bharata Natyashastra have compiled all important material regarding courtesans and their clientele. Courtesans and prostitutes were allotted separate lodgings in the city.


The Devadasis


Purchasing women and delivering them to temples was a very abhorrent method of obtaining women for temple prostitution. Such benefactors were supposed to become wealthy in this world and to spend a long time in heaven. We hear he who gave a host of prostitutes to the Sun God went to the region of the sun after death.


Another common name associated historically with prostitution in India is that of the Devadasis. Due to its early beginnings, the historical account of the devadasi system is hazy. The earliest known mention of a devadasi was made during the Keshari Dynasty in South India in the sixth century A.D. The ritual originated when one of the Dynasty's great queens determined that in order to appease the gods, some ladies educated in classical dance should marry the deities.



The practice began with great respect, as the women chosen to become devadasi were subject to two great honours: first, because they were literally married to the deity, they were to be treated as if they were the Goddess Lakshmi herself, and second, because they were considered to be “those great women who [could] control natural human impulses, their five senses, and [could] submit themselves completely to God.”


According to legend, the sage Jamadagni directed his son Parshurama to behead his mother Renuka. Parashurama obeyed his father and received three boons in exchange. He utilized one of the boons to resurrect his mother. Renuka's severed head could not be found and her body was fitted with the head of a lower caste lady named Yellamma. As a result, a lower caste lady rose to the greater rank of being a Brahmin's wife. Following tradition, other young girls began committing themselves to the deity.


The rise of prostitution has been a long process that varies from area to area and age to age. Professional prostitution required an economic situation in which a surplus was generated, a surplus that brought affluence from outside through trade and commerce. It also assumed the growth of petty principalities, the dissolution of tribal culture, the growth of the joint or extended family, and the overall social subjection of women.



Further Readings

  • Altekar, A. S. (1995). The Position Of Women In Hindu Civilization. Motilal Banarsidass PVT. LTD.

  • Bhattacharji, S. (1987). Prostitution in Ancient India. Social Scientist, 15(2), 32-61. doi:10.2307/3520437 https://www.jstor.org/stable/3520437?seq=1

  • Clark, S. (2003). Representing the Indus Body: Sex, Gender, Sexuality, and the Anthropomorphic Terracotta Figurines from Harappa. Asian Perspectives, 42(2), 304-328. Retrieved June 4, 2021, from http://www.jstor.org/stable/4292858

  • Chakraborty, D. (1999). Atrocities on Indian Women. A.P.H. Publishing Corporation.

  • Chakraborthy, K. (2000). Women as Devadasis: Origin and Growth of The Devadasi Profession. Deep and Deep Publications Pvt. Ltd.

  • Joshi, L. (1964). Protohistoric Origins of Esoterism in India. Proceedings of the Indian History Congress, 26, 115-120. Retrieved June 4, 2021, from http://www.jstor.org/stable/44133105

  • Prasad, A. (1984). FUNCTIONS AND GRADATIONS OF DEVADASIS. Proceedings of the Indian History Congress, 45, 192-199. Retrieved June 4, 2021, from http://www.jstor.org/stable/44140198

  • Prasad, A. (1999). ORIGIN OF THE DEVADASI SYSTEM. Proceedings of the Indian History Congress, 60, 129-136. Retrieved June 4, 2021, from http://www.jstor.org/stable/44144079

  • Shingal, A. (2015). The devadasi system: Temple prostitution in India. UCLA Women's LJ, 22, 107.

  • Sikka, K. D. (1984). , Prostitution: Indian Perspectives and Realities (Vol. XLV). The Indian Journal of Social Work.

  • Sinha, S. N., & Basu, N. K. (1933). History of prostitution in India [Ancient-Vol. 1].

  • Sreenivas, M. (2011). Creating Conjugal Subjects: Devadasis and the Politics of Marriage in Colonial Madras Presidency. Feminist Studies, 37(1), 63-92. Retrieved June 4, 2021, from http://www.jstor.org/stable/23069884

  • Srinivasan, D. M. (n.d.). The Mauryan Ganika from Didarganj (Pataliputra). Istituto Italiano per I'Africa e I'Oriente (IsIAO).

PICTURE CREDITS- FeminismIndia, WikimediaCommons, CelestPrize Artworks (Devadasi by Giordana Napolitano).



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