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Sashimani Devi, Last Of India's Jagannath Temple Ritual Dancers, Dies At 92


New Delhi:  Sashimani Devi, the last ritual dancer at the Jagannath Temple in eastern India, died Thursday in Puri, bringing an end to a centuries-old tradition that was condemned as exploitative by social reformers, Victorian missionaries and the leaders of independent India. She was 92.

Her death was confirmed by Devadutta Samantasinghar, a retired official in the department of culture for the state of Odisha, formerly known as Orissa, who has researched the traditions of the temple.

Like most devadasis, or "maharis," as the dancers in Odisha are known, Sashimani came from a poor family and was initiated into service at the temple when she was a small girl - in her case, at age 7 or 8, she said. After she reached puberty, she was considered a "living wife" of Lord Jagannath, the god whose timber image is worshipped at the temple, and was not expected to marry.

At that time, according to state records, she was one of about 25 women assigned to care for Jagannath and other images of deities at the temple, conducting ritual baths, rubbing the statues with lotion and performing private songs and dances at bedtime, standing at the threshold of the inner sanctum where the deities were installed.

But public opinion had turned against the practice, which in many cases exposed young women from lower-caste families to sexual exploitation. When temple authorities tried to recruit a new generation of dancers in the 1990s, there were no volunteers.

Sashimani, however, remained proud of her status until the end of her life, though she complained that temple authorities had reduced her role in temple rituals and paid her a miserly pension. She told one interviewer who asked about the god Jagannath, "He is my husband and I am his wife, there is no dispute about it."
She was the last to perform a dance that had been practiced in the temple for 5,000 years, Samantasinghar said.

"The tradition is over, she was the last to dance," he said, in a telephone interview. "There was a time, an era, which is gone - over - with her."

The status of India's temple dancers was at its height between the 13th and 15th centuries, during a period when kings depended heavily on the worship of local deities in their temples, said Lucinda E. Ramberg, an assistant professor of anthropology at Cornell University who wrote a book about modern-day devadasis.

But British observers saw the temple dancers - who frequently had sexual relationships with wealthy temple patrons - as prostitutes, she said. Laws criminalizing the dedication of devadasis began proliferating in the 1930s, and elite temples like Jagannath began to turn away from the practice, though "thousands and thousands" of devadasis are dedicated, to this day, at smaller temples throughout India, Ramberg said.

Sashimani's father had died when she was a child, and her mother, who had also been a temple dancer, "left her at the age of 8 with another devadasi to groom her and take care of her," said Samantasinghar. He said he did not know where the child's mother had gone.

He said that as far as he knew, the devadasis at Jagannath temple had never been pressed into prostitution. By the 1980s, the temple dances were nearing extinction, and only a handful of dancers remained, each one frailer than the next.

Ileana Citaristi, an Italian-born scholar of traditional dance in Odisha, sought out Sashimani in 1994, when she was organizing a government-sponsored conference on traditional dance.

When she found Sashimani - the only surviving dancer - she had been taken in by a local family, and received a pension from the temple of 700 rupees a month, or about $12, Citaristi said. In past centuries, the devadasis had drawn income from land allotted to them by the temple, but temple lands had long since been confiscated, leaving the surviving women destitute, she said.

Citaristi brought Sashimani with her to the conference, where she performed for the first time in 30 years, and, the scholar wrote later, "We could have a glimpse of how the dance must have been when it was meant to be for Jagannath and not for the public."

Afterward, she watched as participants bent reverently to touch the feet of Sashimani, then 72. Sashimani was so elated by the attention that for three days, she refused to wipe off the vermilion mark she had put on her forehead and the dark kohl she had used to line her eyes.

"It was a sort of revelation for all of us, and also for herself," Citaristi recalled, "because up until that moment nobody had gone to her."

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