In South and parts of Western India, a devadasi (Sanskrit: देवदासी, lit. 'female servant of deva (god)') or jogini is a girl "dedicated" to worship and service of a deity or a temple for the rest of her life. The age group of a girl to be converted as devadasi is 18–36 years. The dedication takes place in a Pottukattu ceremony which is similar in some ways to marriage. Originally, in addition to taking care of the temple and performing rituals, these women learned and practiced classical Indian artistic traditions like Bharatanatya and Odissi dances. They enjoyed a high social status as dance and music were essential part of temple worship.
Traditionally devadasis had a high status in society. After marrying wealthy patrons, they spent their time honing their skills instead of becoming a housewife. They had children from their husbands who were also taught their skills of music or dance. Often their patrons had another wife who served them as housewife. Some of the eminent personalities hailed from this community are Bharat Ratna M S Subbulakshmi, Lata Mangeshkar, Kishori Amonkar, this Padma Vibhushan Ms Balasaraswati and Padma Bhushan Dr. Muthulakshmi Reddi.
During British rule, in the Indian subcontinent, kings who were the patrons of temples and temple arts lost their power. As a result, devadasis were left without their traditional means of support and patronage. During colonial times, reformists worked towards outlawing the devadasi tradition on grounds that it supported prostitution. Colonial views on devadasis are hotly disputed by several groups and organizations in India and by western academics. The British were unable to distinguish the devadasi from the girls who danced in the streets for the reasons other than spiritual devotion to the deity. This caused socio-economic deprivation and perusal of folk arts.
Recently the devadasi system has started to disappear, having been outlawed in all of India in 1988.
Devadasis are also known by various other local terms, such as jogini. Furthermore, the devadasi practice is known as basivi in Karnataka, matangi in Maharashtra and Bhavin and Kalavantin in Goa. It is also known as venkatasani, nailis, muralis and theradiyan. There were Devadasis from iyer communities as they performed Bharatanatiyam. Devadasi are sometimes referred to as a caste; however, some question the accuracy of this usage. "According to the devadasis themselves there exists a devadasi 'way of life' or 'professional ethic' (vritti, murai) but not a devadasi jāti (sub-caste). Later, the office of devadasi became hereditary but it did not confer the right to work without adequate qualification" (Amrit Srinivasan, 1985). In Europe the term bayadere (from French: bayadère, ascending to Portuguese: balhadeira, literally dancer) was occasionally used.
The first reference to dancing girls in temples is found in Kalidasa's Meghadūta. It is said that dancing girls were present at the time of worship in the Mahakal Temple of Ujjain. Some scholars are of the opinion that probably the custom of dedicating girls to temples became quite common in the 6th century CE, as most of the Puranas containing reference to it have been written during this period. Several Puranas recommended that arrangements should be made to enlist the services of singing girls for worship at temples.