Jacob Haafner, Halle, 13 mei 1754 – Amsterdam, 4 september 1809
Jacob Haafner, Halle, 13 mei 1754 – Amsterdam, 4 september 1809

Jacob Haafner, the fifth chapter from the second part of his “Reize in eenen Palanquin, of Lotgevallen en merkwaardige aanteekeningen op eene reize langs de kusten Orixa en Choromandel” , Amsterdam 1808. 2 Vols.
Travels in a Palanquin or Happenings and curious notes made upon a voyage along the coasts Orixa and Choromandel”, Amsterdam 1808 2 Vols.
Jacob Haafner lived and worked on the East coast of India and in Shri Lanka between 1771 and 1787. He wrote many travel books about his experiences, several of which were translated into other languages. This is one of Jacob Haafner’s works that has not been translated into English. I have translated this 5th chapter on the Devadasies in order to make the material directly available to dance historians and others interested in the history of dance in India. His writings offer great insight into the lives of dancers in this period, as he had a passionate love-affair with one of them. I have followed the spelling Haafner himself uses for the Sanskrit and Tamil words he included in his writing. They are mostly transliterations into 18th century Dutch from what he heard. Many words can be readily recognised. Others are un-known to me. The details of substances used, customs and dress, music and make-up are very interesting.





Devedaschies is a Samskrit word, and composed from Deve (Deity), and Dafchie (slave). Thus the dancers which are dedicated to the service of the temples, and the gods that are worshiped there, are called.

In some countries like Ceylon, Pegu, and Siam and others, they are called Arambhe; after Rambhe the goddess of dance, daughter of Sorefoutie [Sarasvati] the goddess of harmony and music.

Rambhe has two daughters, Nandie and Bringie, playfulness and entertainment; she is one of the five concubines of Indro [Indra], the God of the atmosphere.
To Rambhe, as well as to her mother, the dancers offer a yearly sacrifice, as well as to Kaam [Kama] (the God of love, son of Maija ((deception or spell). His bow is of made of sugarcane, his arrows are pointed with the flower of the Amra or mango, in every blossom a honeybee lies hidden; he has no temple, but is worshipped in Matra, not far from Agra. A fish in a red field is his banner, and Vasant or spring, accompanies him on his travels)
The main occupation of these Devedaschies is to dance before the image of the God whom they serve – be it in the temple, or be it in public, when it is carried in procession around the streets – , and to sing the praise and the deeds of this deity.


There is a great difference between the Devedaschies or dancers of the principal temples, and those that are called to Natches (festivities) and for other occasions to dance and entertain the guests.

Of these last ones there are various types and classes; such as Nataks, Kaan, Koethernies, Soetredharies, etc. Some of these live independently in groups of ten and more together, traveling from place to place, and share their profits with the minstrels and musicians who accompany her. Others are under the supervision of Daijas, or old former dancers who by themselves enjoy all the benefit, for which they feed and clothe these girls.

Still others are truly slaves to such old women, who managed to obtain some very young girls in her young years, through sale or adoption, to whom they have taught their art in order for her to earn her living in her old age.

Besides these there are still many other types of dancers, mostly foreigners and itinerants; (who this time do not belong to my subject) as there are Bijkar, who sing about the wars of the gods. The Dharhie, from the landscape of Penjab; these are in the habit of accompanying the armies and to sing of the deeds of the fallen or heroes and to encourage the troops with their singing. The Duszun, from Penjab, who sing the Dhoerpud and Sehlah (praise songs at weddings and birth celebrations). The Sezdehtalij are most natives of Guzurat and Malva; the women are commonly young and very beautiful, and dance and sing masterfully, the men are poets and also musicians, and many others more.

But those who are called Devedaschies differ greatly from all those mentioned here. There are two type of Devedaschies; those of the first rank are connected to the service of the two most important Deities, Bieschen [Vishnu] and Sieba [Shiva]; Brahma, or the third major God, having neither temple nor sacrifice has therefore no need for priest nor Devedaschie.

They live within the boundary wall of the temples of the abovementioned Deities, where they enter from infancy and where they are educated in music, dance and singing. They are also taught to read and write, as well as the Pourans; all which women and daughters of private persons are prohibited to know; because an honest woman or girl learns neither to read nor write, and would be ashamed to confess that she had learned and understood.

To this first class of Devedaschies, it is not permitted to go outside the perimeter of the temple, without the permission of Pourehiets [Purohit] or supreme priests; but when the image of the Deity, which they serve, is taken through the streets in procession, then they should, as has been said, dance before it, and sing his deeds and praise.

The Devedaschies of the second class, are dedicated to the service of lesser gods, like Kalie [Kali], Kartiek [Kartikeya], Lokhia, Sarasoutie, Indro and others; they do not live in the neighborhood of their temples, but have their houses in the city or in the village, and have a complete freedom to do and go where they want, provided that a certain number of them attend the daily service in the temple, for which they take turns. With some solemn sacrifice or processions, they are also obliged to all appear to provide splendor for the ceremony.

Even though they enjoy a full freedom, however, they will never involve themselves with low or despicable Castes, namely, the Parriahs, Europeans or Moors, the latter, though not so much as the others, also counted under the low and unclean Castes, and considered unclean.

That the first class will mix still less with the low Casten can be easily understood; also, it carries a very heavy penalty. The Dschaster [shastra] says, that when someone from the lower class of Doeder, is found to have had carnal intercourse with a dancer of the first rank, they will rob him of half of his manhood and after the healing will chase him from the land; together with the Devedaschie, who had surrendered to him, after shaving her head with Donkeypiss, the two earlobes cut off, and the bare backs whipped in public, by one tschandal, or shoemaker, with the biné grass.

If a Bramin has mixed himself with a Devedaschie of the second class he will have to perform Snaan, or purification through the bath, and pay a fine; but if he mixed himself with one of the Nataks, Soutredharies, Kaan etc. , he will be obliged to undertake the Perschehut or great purification (which is accompanied with heavy costs and penance), for regaining his Caste, provided he is not a Pundiet [Pandit], or scribe is; this being they will burn him with the Bhogdhoek (brand with an iron, in which the female genital parts are cut out) on the forehead, and ban him from the Province. Thus say the old laws about this, which, in the countries where Europeans or Mughals, do not totally rule, are still carefully maintained and followed.

The dancers thus are mainly to sing the praises of the gods; their victories and deeds; further it is her duty to be present at their festivals, to dance for them, whether in the Temples, or when they lead them through the streets in procession; to braid the Bonemales, or wreaths of flowers, with which they decorate them, and bind the Lantschamins or the flower bouquets, which are used for the sacrifices, and serve for ornamentation of the altars; to sweep the temple and the cells of the priests in the inner courtyard, and all the other work that is fitting for women to perform. They should also clean the wool, of which the Boschroes, or garments of the gods, are woven; also prepare the Tschornoen, or the rubbed sandalwood, with Laal, (a kind of red and yellow powder) with which the mark, or the Bokht is made on the forehead of the idol; clean the lights, which hang before the image of the Deity, and equip them with oil and wicks, and collect the dregs of these oils; which is used to light the Homams, or fire sacrifices. Those who serve in the temples of Bieschn (*Bieschn or Vischnou [Vishnu], or the quality of God personified as presever. Biesch, in his sixth Ovoetar [avatar]or incarnation as Ram in order to war against Rabon [Ravana], king of Lonkai (Cellon) [Lanka], was helped and assisted in this undertaking by an army of great apes; whose captain and king was called Honnoumaan [Hanuman]), must also feed the monkeys, which are maintained in commemmoration of Honnoumaan.

For these and similar activities the Devedaschies are used, while they also serve as Concubines of the Braminen and other high Castes, to prevent they mingle with public harlots and common dancers, and thereby lose their Caste.

In the meantime one should not deduce that their religion or sacred books, allow the unchastity, even with women of equal caste. The Schaster says about this: that fornicators will be condemned by Yom Raadsh (the judge of the dead) to sleep for a certain number of years on a bed of thorns, while embracing an image of glowing copper or burning sulfur. The more educated a person is, and the more he is experienced in Veids [vedas] and carries the name of Pundiet, Scribe or also Philosopher, or has attained fame of sanctity; the greater the punishment and its duration.

Such people mostly, who have undertaken vows of chastity, such as Baanproesh, Dapaswie, Joguis [yogis], Saniassies [sanyasis], and other penitents, lose, by one such crime, in one moment, all the merits of their good deeds and penance of several years; and are regarded as if they had never started. To purify themselves, they have to undertake a pilgrimage to Ramasour [Rameshvaram], Sorgonaath or other holy places, where after having purified themselves through a difficult series of ceremonies they are obliged to renew their vows and lead an even stricter life than before.
So it is only to the unmarried that relations with loose women of a decent Caste is permitted; However, there is one exception in advantage of the married; for instance if someone’s wife has an incurable and loathsome disease, or has been robbed of her senses, or if there are otherwise sufficient reasons, which prevent him of having relations with her he is legally allowed to satisfy his passions with others.

The Devedaschies are brought up into that condition from infancy on with permission of her parents. Those of the first rank are taken from the main Caste of the Boisé, those of the second rank, from the chief branch of the Soeders. The Tantirbas, or Weavers, make it to their duty, when they have five daughters, to dedicate one to the temple service.
A girl, who would become Devedaschie, must have several requisites. She must have a beautiful face, be quick of movement, agile in her limbs and well made. She should not have any defects of the body, or some loathsome and incurable diseases, nor have been marked by the smallpox. They should not yet be nubile, nor be engaged with someone or bound by marriage promises. These and several requisites are necessary, both for the Devedaschies of the first, as well as of second rank; although in the case of the last one it is not so completely adhered to.
Now when parents want to dedicate their child to the service of the one or other temple, they inform the chief priest who then comes to see the girl; if he deems her suitable for this purpose, the logno potr (a document, in which the parents renounce all rights to their child) is drawn up and signed by them.

The girl is then brought to the temple in triumph and pomp; to which ceremony a lucky day is chosen in the Pantsch jogam [panchangam] or almanac. The Devedaschies receive her out of the hands of her parents, and after they have had her bath in the Tirtha, or pond, dressed her in new linen, and decorated her with the Gohona, or jewels, belonging to the temple, the chief priest brings her before the image of the Deity, and has her repeat or say after him a vow, to devote her life to its service, after which he hangs one flower wreath around her neck that has adorned the idol, as confirmation of the vow, and has her drink from the milk with which the idol has been bathed; after which he takes an awl, pierces her ear lobe, and with this the ceremony has ended, and the girl has been devoted forever to the service of that deity.
From that moment she is educated in all that it is necessary for her to know, like reading, writing, singing, dancing, music, after their manner, the history of the gods, chiefly those of the Godhead in whose service she has entered. They are taught the Mongols [mangalams] and Khejoers, a sort of songs and hymns, even so as the Poerans [puranas] and other Poeties or books, except the Schasters and Veids, which she is not permitted to read.

It is false, that which Travelers and ignorant Europeans write and say, namely, that they would be obliged to surrender themselves first to the chief priest of the temple; the opposite is true, they can choose their lovers from within or outside of the temple, provided they are from the highest Castes, be it that of Braminen [Brahmins] or Xetries [Kshatriyas]; and even if her whole life she would wish to persist in her virginity, she would be absolutely free in it.

The dancers of lesser deities are, it is true, incorporated into the service of the temple with the same ceremonies as the first, and receive the same education; but they are less restricted, do not live in the temple, but in the city or in the village; They do not dance only in the temples and in the processions, from which they enjoy a certain income in rice and money; but they are also used in all special ceremonies, such as weddings, celebrations, receiving persons of distinction, bringing gifts etc. So that they have a lot more benefit, enjoyment and freedom, than those of the first class; because they are richly rewarded at all those occasions, for which they are used, with money, clothes, linen or jewels, outside and above that which they receive from the temple and their lovers. Her lovers (mostly consisting from merchants, Banians and others) are also generous and richer than the Braminen; So they gain a lot of money; some have as much as 8 to 10,000 Ropijen of gold and jewels on the body. Of what they get from special ceremonies, such as weddings, etc. the minstrels or musicians also receive their part.

Among the dancers one does not find, (not even among the meanest and lowest of the type) that insolence, those offensive and disgusting manners, posture, gestures and words, that one meets with in such women in Europe. In public they are so demure, as the most honest woman can be; it is only in private that they are doing everything to please their lovers, by giving the tenderest names, providing them with the friendliest reception and choicest flatteries; Also it is very difficult, to disentangle himself from their entanglement. However, they do not seek, like those from Europe, to rob, to pluck or to ruin, their lovers and then, if they can pull no more of them to leave them for others. Nay! They content themselves with a moderate salary, and are, generally, very true: there are many examples of dancers having burned themselves with their lovers.

They have several means to remain infertile; one rarely sees her have children; but if it does happen to them, it is (if it’s a girl) brought up into the profession of the mother; but if it were a boy, to that of musician.

The dress of a Devedaschie is very attractive, and particularly well suited to show a graceful body and shape, at its best. Her jet-black hair, shining like a mirror, from the fragrant oils with which they anoint themselves (For this purpose they often use the Pieschtok, a fragrant root. It is cut into small pieces, boiled in coconut oil, and with it the dancers anoint not just the hair of the head, but also other parts of her body), hang down in a long and thick braid, far below the waist; one black silk tassel, set in gold, is attached to the far end of this braid; along which are braided, moreover, small, round, golden plates, at equal distances.

At the top of the head, shines the Tschormka, a round golden disk, the size of the palm of one hand. On the skull the hair is evenly distributed on both sides, and from the crown of the head run some little gold chain along both temples, and behind the ears, the ends of which are placed in the large braid.

The edges, as well as the lobes of her ears are pierced; in them they have, to the extent of their wealth, jewels or gold ringlets, and other decorations.

In the nose they also carry a golden ring (This ornament seems to the Europeans, who have newly come in those countries, very strange and unattractive at the first look ; but when one gets used to it, one feels it is absolutely necessary for her attire, and has much effect), with a thickness of a knitting needle, and two or three inches in diameter; one pearl, or sometimes a precious stone, is commonly put into this ring.

They also make use of facial paint, but instead of red and white, hers is yellow. For this purpose they use the Kurkuma, with which she smears her countenance and the naked parts of her body, like the arms and neck. It is a peculiar kind of Kurkuma, which is called Gondha horiedra in the Samscritic language; it is of a beautiful golden yellow color, and gives an exceeding agreeable and sweet scent.

And this paint does not at all disagree with her; sometimes it happens that they make rosy cheeks, when they are very white of skin, and to make a rouge it takes her no more trouble than they mix a little quicklime, with the Kurkuma that has been rubbed with water, making them from yellow, immediately a strong blood-red color.

On her forehead they have a small gold plate, the size of a penny, attached with an adhesive gum, called Ticas. The edges of her eyelids are painted black with Tschokkotschadi, a kind of composition, consisting essentially of antimony, which gives great vitality to the eyes, and does them seem much bigger than they actually are. Round her neck are hung several Chikols or gold chains.

Her singlet or Rawke, which they wear on the naked body, and the sleeves of which reach about six inch above the elbow, is just long enough to enclose her bosom. This vest is not laced in front, but the bottom two tips are tied together under the breasts so to easily contain them within, without being pressured. They believe that large eyes, and round, hard, small breasts, form the principal beauties of a woman; and for that reason they take extraordinary care, to preserve the hardness and roundness of them as long as it is possible. In this they differ greatly from many of our European beauties, who do their best to destroy this jewelry of nature, with straitjackets, corsets, and however those things may be called. It is true, they have put down this armor since some time, and they are usually no longer in use; but this is more due to fashion, then to a conviction of the damage that they do to the body; so it is reasonable to believe that, since they again eagerly adopted so many old, evil, injurious and ridiculous habits and customs, which had been abolished, so too the corsets, crinolines, culs de Paris, etc. also probably will emerge again; and to hasten this it takes just a few fools of rank, to introduce this fashion again; or any scholar with some reputation, or who seeks to obtain one by writing something (however brainless), to show the usefulness of the corsets; (because what can not be proven?) there is every likelihood that they will believe him rather than all those many intelligent people who have written against wearing this armor. But to return to the Devedaschies.

And there are among her many who have been blessed by nature with a beautiful breast, and to prevent swelling or collapsing thereof, as long as possible, enclose each breast into a form; with seams to be joined together and tied against the body behind at the back; and as these forms are extraordinarily thin, transparent and resilient, and match perfectly the color of her skin of whom wears it; it is difficult to distinguish this covering from the body.

In one word; they take great care and diligence, to preserve the youthful beauty of her breasts, as long as they can, and do not allow that one treats or touch them roughly.

From the dimple of the stomach down, to just above the navel, they are naked. They wear long pants, made of a striped silk material, which closes tight around her legs and reaches down to the ankle.

Her dress, which commonly nine cubits long, and one and a half or two cubits wide, she winds several times around the lower body, with a multitude of folds in the front, and at the back tight and plain; so that the shape of the hips and buttocks are clearly expressed.

This dress that serves her as a skirt, is commonly of fine white cotton or muslin, also sometimes of silk or taffeta, to the measure of the ability of the person who wears it. For fear that it might fall down during the dance, they have around the waist, just below the edge of the dress, a belt of beaten silver, about four fingers wide, whose both ends, close with a spring, in a round plate.

Besides this dress they have a veil of fine and transparent linen, covering her bosom loosely, and falling down from the shoulders along her back , in a graceful curve.

On her arms and legs, as well as on the legs and fingers, they carry a multitude of gold and silver rings. The tips of her nails they color red, with the juice of a plant, Mindie, also called Laksha, and in her face, they have instead of mouches, here and there a blue patch. It is the women of the Korwas, who prick in the skin (not only in the countenance, but also on her arms, all kinds of figures of flowers, birds and the like, on other parts of the body, except the breasts) with pins or needles; which they then rub with a certain grounded charcoal, or with gunpowder.

They are great lovers of flowers, and when they dance they are always hung with wreaths of them. One sees her almost never without bouquets in her hands, and they also love fragrant oils a lot, and especially of Qtia (Rose Oil).

A young and beautiful Dancer in her full finery, with her casual and loose attitude, and her proud gait – is indeed an enchanting and seductive creature. Her simple headdress, moderate uncovering of her beautiful bosom, of a round arm, the closely fitted dress, with artful neatness and folds, around the high and shapely hips, entwined, the graceful curves of the veil – in a word, the whole garb of these girls, is perfectly calculated to elevate her natural grace and advance her radiance, and shines a certain grace about her person and gestures; every movement of her limbs shows at its most lovely – and her whole figure is visible for the eye at its most charming, and at the same time in the most modest manner.

Since the Braminen so afraid that their temples would be desecrated and defiled by Europeans, or low Castes, one would ask why they allow womanfolk, from the castes of Beische and Soeder, and above of a loose life – to come in the inside of the same, and even before the portrait of the Godhead?

They insist, that these dancers are never ministering in serious religious rituals, such as in Homans (Fire sacrifice), Joogs (Daily sacrifice), the Srandh (Sacrifice for the dead), Sandhia (Sacrifice and prayers in the difficult times, a barren year, war, etc. The description of these and several ceremonies and rituals, the reader will find in the continuation of this work) and the like; but only in the Naarkorm, the Nantaks, Jatras and other ceremonies or holidays which are suitable and intended to rejoice, and to give thanks, to praise and glorify the Godhead; which may not be without song, music and dance, and for which one is obliged to use persons whom have made it their profession.
The Hindus, Malabars and other nations in India, as well as the Moors or Mahomedans, consider their dancing a despicable practice, unworthy of an honest and respectable man, and decent girl or woman; and they put it on an equal level with juggling and dancing on a chord.

But the Devedachies are not disfigured by the dancing, because it is her profession, and they have voluntarily devoted themselves to it, anjd to the service of the Deity, and the entertainment of the audience. To the Musicians or Jontries, however, which generally belong to the low tribes of Soeders, or are the sons of Devedaschies, it is not permitted to enter the inner part of the temples, but they should stand at the second entrance, under the porch, to play on their wind instruments and cymbals.

But although the dancers, because of her vow to God, are sanctified in some way, and therefore can approach its effigy; they may not do so, unless they have bathed first, and are otherwise pure:

They should that day not have eaten onion, garlic or Laal sang, (a certain vegetable with a blood-red color); Also they may not appear before the Godhead without betel in her mouth, or if they are sick, or have a wound or rash on her body, or her have monthly cleansing; or if they have a cold or are pregnant, or otherwise afflicted with discomfort. It’s expressly forbidden to her then to enter in the interior of the temple on heavy punishment. Also they may not appear in a dirty dress.

Her dances are so very different from ours. Some of those exist in agile and rapid movements of the limbs, which are however controlled and graceful; others again, in airy and artful leaps and steps. They are excellent pantomimes. With a prodigious accuracy of posture and gestures, they can, while singing and dancing, express a love – story, or any other subject – even a fight -, and they have brought the art, to express such passions, to such a pinnacle that our dancers and extras would figure but very poorly on stage with an Indian dancer, with their cold, meaningless gestures, turnings of the body and breakneck jumps.

The young Devedaschies are standing together in a group ready for the dance, their countenance covered with her veil; now the Tourte (a kind of bagpipe, with two pipes; in the one (in which one blows), are three holes, in one other four; This tool provides a sound like a bassoon), begins with her monotous tone; then rises the melancholic sound of the Nagassarem (Nagassaram is a kind of oboe, which gives by itself a very sad and melancholic tone); followed by the Carna (Carna is a flute, without any holes), the sounding Talan (The Talan consists of two copper plates, which are sounded one against the other), the Matalam (The Matalam is an oblong drum, which hangs perpendicular across the body, and which one strikes with bare hands), the Dool (The Dool is a long and large drum, which is beaten on both sides with sticks) and other instruments; they never begin all at once, the one follows the other; finally enters the Chelimbikaren behind the Devedaschies. (The Chelimbie, also called Tal, are two little round cymbals, smaller than the palm of a hand; the one of steel, and the other of copper. The Chelimbikaren, who beats it, is as much as with us the ballet master. With his gestures, his voice, and with these cymbals, he gives the beat, and directs the dance and the steps of the dancers)


Outside these music instruments, they still have a large number of other, both string- as well as wind instruments; as there are the Viné, a kind of Zither, with copper strings; the Ravanostrom, a violin, invented, so as they say, by Ravon, king of Ceylon; the Junter, the Bhien, Kinner, Sirbhien, Ambirtie, Rebah, all stringinstruments of various shapes; they also have the Sirmondel, with twenty-two strings, of which some of iron, others of copper, and some of intestines. Besides this, they have many wind instruments, trumpets, horns and flutes, and various drums and cymbals, which are all used for different occasions.


At once they uncover her faces and let the veil fall. Now they steps forward, and form into rows; one with astonishing skill and art, they spin through one another, or dance in groups, or in pairs; her eyes, her arms and hands, and even the fingers of all her limbs, move with astonishing agility, grace and art; the Chelimbikaren, while playing on his little cymbals, and following her close on her heels, encouraging her by his voice and gestures, and Dayas, or old dancers, clap their hands to the beat, and sing therewith. Especially in private and special groups mostly, they display all her art and ability. The sweet emanation of perfumes and flowers; the seduction of charms which they reveal in an artful manner for the beholders, the singing, the music – all combine to bring the passions into motion, and to fill the heart with lustful affections. Meanwhile, in public they show the greatest modesty and restraint, and mimic so well the virgin shame that one would hold them all to be Vestals.

The Devedaschies of the first and second grade, are treated and seen with respect and honor. They are under the protection of the public, and enjoy many privileges. They are honored with the title Begoumie (as much as Mrs.). They are seen as an indispensable ornament of the religion, both on special festivities and in groups.
With giving honors or receiving significant visitors, they form the main pomp; and when to great persons, and even Princes, the Nazaré (Nazaré, the gift in the first audience. One never approaches a prince or great man, for the first time, empty-handed) is brought; they are the ones who offer it.
The first dancer from a company of eight or ten, carries one silver plate or flat dish full betelleaves; around the edge lie Areeknuts, and the middle of the platter, on the leaves, the Nazaré, which should be uneven, that is to say, of 11 rupees, (not less) or 111, or of 1101 After she presents her gift with the appropriate ceremonies, she returneth (stepping backward) back to the group, and immediately the music with the dance shall commence.
In the trust that I have satisfied the curiosity of my readers, regarding these dancers, I will leave this subject, and continue the story of my voyage.


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