Category Archives: L. Hindu Arts, Architecture and Culture

Culture in Banaras

Banaras is known as one of the oldest, and most sacred holy cities in the world. Most scholars date Banaras to be approximately three thousand years old, while others have dated important structures in Banaras to the eight century BC (Justice 15). This holy city is most widely known as Banaras, but has many names representing its different cultural aspects. The oldest name is Kashi, which is most commonly said to be a derivation from the Sanskrit root kash, “to shine, to look brilliant, or beautiful” (Eck 26). Banaras is also known as the City of Light, which has many different connotations, one of which is that the light implies enlightenment, for it is said that to die in Banaras is to attain enlightenment or liberation. Another name, which is said to be the official name by its residents, is Varanasi, which comes from the names of the two rivers that flow by it. From this name came the Pali version, Banarasi, which eventually became anglicized as Banaras or Benares in British and Muslim India (Eck 26).

Geographically, Banaras only occupies a strip of land along the banks of the Ganges approximately three miles long, but has millions visiting the holy site annually, making it an extremely densely populated area. It is situated on the west side of the Ganges where the Varana (on the north) and Asi (on the south) rivers join. The river flows north to south at this location, back towards its source in the Himalayas, placing Banaras in a very auspicious location. Banaras’ location near the Ganges also makes it an incredibly beautiful site, especially while the sun rises over the river at dawn. It was this incredible beauty that captivated Siva’s imagination and drew him to Banaras to make it his home (Eck 95). Other relations the city has to Siva is that the area is roughly shaped like the crescent moon that is placed over Siva’s head, and in the cosmological frame the city lies on the Trident of Siva [On the cosmological frame, see Singh and Rana (2002)].

While many famous cities around the world are known for their incredible architecture, Banaras is not what you would call architecturally interesting with its narrow lanes and dilapidated buildings. To most observers the most attractive buildings are the few palaces that were built by past princes. During the Ganges’ flooding season the basements of these palaces are flooded and many pilgrims will come there to bathe in the Ganges’ water before death. There are eighty-four ghats (stairs leading into the water) in Banaras forming a symbolic chain of holy sites (Singh and Rana 85). Some of the more popular ghats include Asi, Dasasvamedha, Adi Kesava, Pancaganga, and Manikarnika that are visited during the Pancatirthi pilgrimage to the “Five Tirthas”, or five crossing places (Eck 220). Manikarnika is one of the more visited ghats in Banaras, placed at the center of the city’s riverfront. In Banaras it is said that Manikarnika is the place of the earth’s creation and destruction, hence this ghat is used for cremation and to perform the proper death rituals and thus attain moksa [For more on cremation ghats, see Parry (1994)]. Besides ghats, there are also thousands of Hindu temples, and innumerable smaller shrines, nearly all dedicated to Siva, while the others are dedicated to family deities (kula-devatas) or personal deities (ista-devatas) (Eck 94). Along with the multiple Hindu temples, you can also find many Muslim mosques. While the majority of the population of Banaras is Hindu, it is a multicultural and multireligious city with a small percentage of its population being Muslim.

Another title that Banaras has come to achieve is “Rudravasa: The City of Siva” (Eck 31). The worship of Siva is predominant in Banaras culture. Siva has been the principal deity of Banaras since the first half of the seventh century, most likely earlier, but also shares the city with the whole pantheon of Hindu gods and goddesses (Eck 146). It is a belief to many who live in Banaras that the Divine, or the pantheon of gods, can be visualized in Siva (Eck 41). Similarly, the sacred river, the Ganges, can be visualized as a “prototype for other sacred waters,” and Banaras can be seen as encompassing all other pilgrimage places in India (Eck 40). Many making a pilgrimage to Banaras are on the verge of death because there is a belief that if they die in the city they will undergo a final release and union with Shiva (Lannoy 143). It is here that they will be liberated from samsara, the cycle of birth and rebirth, and attain moksa.

Hindus believe there are three fundamental states of the cosmos, each represented or controlled by a god, forming a sort of Trinity known as the Trimurti (Singh and Rana 61). Brahma is “the creator”, Visnu is “the preserver”, while Siva is “the destroyer” (Singh and Rana 61). Siva being seen as this element of death or endings fits accordingly with the idea of Banaras being a place of death. It is a place to move out of the human realm and leave one’s physical body. Pilgrims at Banaras believe that Siva is Mahadeva, the great god, or Isvara, the Self, and he represents all the powers of the Trimurti (Havell 39).

Siva is almost always connected with the tradition of yoga, and is represented and associated with phallic worship in the form of a linga (Lannoy 139). As one enters into Banaras, a first observance would be the multitude of lingas in the city found under and around every corner. It is a common saying among the residents of Banaras that “The very stones of Kashi are Siva” (Eck 110). A linga, meaning “phallus” and “emblem”, is a rounded vertical shaft of stone implanted in a circular base (Eck 103). This is a symbol of Siva’s reproductive and creative power. One may point out that the linga is also a way for Siva to be represented in bisexual form, with the erect shaft representing the male Siva, and the seat in which it is placed personifying the female half of Siva known as Sakti. While Banaras is most well known for being a place of pilgrimage and worship of Siva, it is also a place of education and art industry.

Banaras is home to three universities with one of them being a Sanskrit university. At any one time in the city you may also find many researchers among the pilgrims studying the culture and the “microcosm” that Banaras is (Justice 19). Indian life, customs, and popular beliefs are what some would say strained and concentrated in this city, making it a popular place for anyone studying anthropology, language (especially Sanskrit), or religious studies. Some famous sages, such as the Buddha, Mahavir, and Sankara, have come to Banaras to teach as well (Eck 4). Besides the educational aspect of the city, there is also a strong art industry found in Banaras. The city is well known for the weaving of silks, brocades, and saris, as well as metal work. The manufacturing of brass and copper idols, lamps, sacrificial utensils, and all sorts of native cooking drinking vessels, is a popular art form in the city (Havell 49-50).

Festivals and performances in the city are another prominent part of the culture in Banaras as well as an attracting force for visitors. Nearly every day in Banaras some kind of festival is taking place (whether it is Hindu or Muslim), with some of them lasting longer than one day. Many of the rituals and ceremonies (daily and seasonal, individual and public) have remained outwardly similar for the nearly three thousand years Banaras has said to be in existence (Lannoy 27). Nearly all the fairs and festivals in Banaras are religious with different cultural and social perspectives. The festivals serve as a means to gather for rejoicing, public worship, and cultural interaction. It is through these festivals that Hindus and other religious sects in the city have grown together just by attending each other’s popular religious festivals. The festivals also serve as a growth of community within their own religion as the role of the srota (hearer) in these festivities is more active than passive (Freitag 37). Popular forms of festivals are katha (oral explanation of a story) and Vedic chanting mainly organized and put on by the Banaras Sanskrit University [For further reading on Manaskatha festivals, see Freitag (1989)].

The yearly cycle in Hindu is divided into 12 months, similar, but not the same as the months known in the West. Each year will begin in the middle of the month, for example, Chaitra is the month beginning in the middle of March, and ending in the middle of April (Eck 258). As well, an extra month is added into the Hindu calendar whenever it is needed to match the solar calendar. During the month of Sravana (July/August), as well as Mondays, is when there is a special focus on Siva; hence it is a spectacular time in Banaras (Eck 262). For each month a specific holy city is mythologized as the sacred abode, or puri, where festivals and religious ceremonies are to be performed. In Banaras, all the puris are established making the city known as the “city of all seasons” (Singh and Rana 68). While many festivals are held annually in Banaras, the more popular festivals are Divali (Festival of Lights), Ram Lila, Sivaratri, Holi, and the Nakkatayya festivals [For a list of all Hindu festivals, and explanations of many, see Singh and Rana (2002)]. During many of these festivals there are retelling of the epics (the Ramayana and Mahabharata), or reenactments of parts of the stories such as during the Rama Lila and Nakkatayya. These festivals are celebrated in Asvina (September/October), and they reenact different parts of the story of the Ramayana. Other festivals are mainly ceremonial where the major component is bathing in the Ganges River. The largest bathing festival is Karttika Purnima, which is celebrated in October/November (Karttika). Other smaller ceremonies take place in the Ganges for couples who are recently married, celebrating anniversaries, anyone who has recovered from an illness, or many other reasons (Havell 59). Many of the festivals include grand decorations and offerings. Sivaratri, celebrated in February/March (Phalguna), is a festival celebrating the marriage of Siva to Parvati. All of Siva’s temples are majestically decorated in sringara and celebrations are held where Ganges water and red powder is sprinkled on the Siva linga. The Divali festival, or festival of lamps and lights, is another that greatly relies on the use of decorations. Rows of oil lamps and candles are put out in the streets or on the Ganges, and clay images of Ganesa and Laksmi are sold. In festivals such as the Holi festival (also known as the Festival of Colors), offerings of flowers, dry colored powders, and sweets are given to the participants and the temples (Singh and Rana 70-77).

Culture in Banaras has remained relatively similar since its existence as far as scholars can see. This is quite an accomplishment for the holy city, as many other cities of other religious merit have become quite secularized. There is some evidence of Banaras becoming more materialistic, and although it is deemed as one of the holiest cities it does have a portion of the population who live there to attract tourists, and devout pilgrims, and make money off them. While this is true, Banaras still contains its main aspects of the worship of Siva, religious festivals, and rituals in the Ganges, and will remain a highly religion-centered culture.


Bhardwaj, Surinder M. (2003) Hindu Places of Pilgrimage in India: a study in cultural geography. New Delhi: Munshiram Manoharlal Publishers

Eck, Diana L (1983) Banaras: city of light. Princeton: Princeton University Press

Freitag, Sandria B. (ed) (1989) Culture and power in Banaras: community, performance, and environment, 1800-1980. Berkeley: University of California Press

Havell, E. B. (2000) Benares, the sacred city: sketches of Hindu life and religion. New Delhi: Book Faith India

Justice, Christopher (1997) Dying the good death: the pilgrimage to die in India’s Holy

City. Shakti Nagar: Sri Satguru Publications

Lannoy, Richard (2002) Benares: a world within a world: the microcosm of Kashi, yesterday and today. Varanasi: Indica Books

Morinis, Alan E. (1984) Pilgrimage in the Hindu Tradition: A Case Study of West Bengal. New Delhi: Oxford University Press

Parry, Jonathan P. (1994) Death in Banaras. Cambridge, NY: Cambridge University


Sen, Rajani R. (1912) The Holy City: Benares. Gurgaon, India: Shubhi Publications

Singh, Rana P.B. and Pravin S. Rana (2002) Banaras region: a spiritual & cultural guide. Varanasi, India: Indica Books

Related Topics for Further Investigation

The Bhagavad-Gita

Phallic worship

The Ramayana

The Mahabharata









Ganges Valley



Ram Lila





Sanskrit University

Noteworthy Websites Related to the Topic

Article written by Katie Lohues (March 2008) who is solely responsible for its content.


Devadasi literally means “maid servant of god” (Goswami xxiv). ‘Deva’ means god and ‘dasi’ means female servant. The Devadasis are women who (either voluntarily or given up) are married to a god and from then serve in that god’s temple. The earliest evidence of such women is found in a cavern just south of Banaras. The cave is carved with Prakrit writing from around the days of Ashoka and reads: “The excellent young man Devadinna the painter loved Utanuka, the slave-girl of the God” (Chakraborthy 18). The art of the Devadasis has continued to today.

The role of women in the Indian society has gone through changes up to the modern day. Some suspect that women were respected in ancient Indian culture since Manu stated that “where the female relations live in grief, the family soon wholly perishes, but where they are not unhappy, the family ever prospers” (Chakraborthy 2). Men were aware of the importance of women as essential to marriage, family, and child bearing. For women’s protection the first real law on marriage for girls was the Child Marriage Restraint Act (Sarda Act) 1927, which stated that it was illegal for girls to marry below the age of 14 (Chakraborthy 9). However, women were not able to own property until the Hindu Women’s Right to Property Act allowed them to own property jointly with their husbands (Chakraborthy 9). One of the most respectable ways a woman could serve her community was to become a servant of god. Women would dutifully marry a deity and serve in the temple for the rest of her life. It was originally a noble position to hold, but sadly, as history took its course, the role of the Devadasis became more and more degraded.

The origins of the Devadasis are a little obscure. An actual founder is still unknown (Chakraborthy 13). One speculation is that the gods were viewed as feudal lords and the virgin girls were offered for service to please the gods (Chakraborthy 16). Another theory, by Sir James Frazer, is that the girls were models of a Great Mother Goddess, who had many lovers, which coincides with the idea that the Devadasis were for “sacred prostitution” (Chakraborthy 15). Another more commonly held view of the derivation of the dancing girls is that because women needed to marry, and it was a great disgrace for a husband to die, marrying a deity would result in an eternal marriage. This gave the women immediate and lasting auspiciousness (Goswami xxiv). It was said that the “Devadasis who were married to deities were regarded with honour as celestial nymphs” (Goswami xxiv). When women leave their families to marry, their parents no longer have any rights to them; she is wholly her husband’s. For the parents’ sake, if their daughter was to marry a deity, she would be free to look after her parents in their old age (Chakraborthy 16). Once the tradition became established however, parents kept the custom alive. Women of the community often would request favours from the gods (usually to have a safe birth), and promised in return that they would give their daughters to the temple (Chakraborthy 16). Some families even led a tradition in which “a girl from each generation is compulsorily dedicated to God” (Chakraborthy 16).

Not all women were chosen equally to be a Devadasi. A woman needed to be attractive, smart, audacious, a hard worker, lively, skilled in dance, and have many other good qualities (Goswami xxv). A parent could offer a child from birth, but these qualifications were for women who gave themselves to the temple. There was a special type of marriage ceremony for women who were joining the Devadasis. The first part was a vow, which was made, in some cases, before the child was even born, and offered the girl as a gift to the deity (Chakraborthy 28). Following the marriage the Devadasi would be owned by the temple (Chakraborthy 28). The girl then applied oils and bathed, and went to the temple to give gifts to the custodian, who then stood as a proxy for the girl in a worship ceremony (Chakraborthy 29). The girl then receives a “sacred necklace of beads” and her parents celebrated by feeding the neighbourhood, exactly as a real marriage feast would be conducted (Chakraborthy 29). Once the girl had been officially brought into the marriage with the deity, and had fully become a Devadasis, she was trained in the arts of her profession. Sometimes when there were too many girls in a temple, some were allowed to deviate from dancing and singing, and do such activities as acting. These girls were known as Patradavaru (Chakraborthy 25). The duties of the Devadasis were to sing and dance in the morning and evening, attend marriages and other family gatherings, to bring auspiciousness to the family/couple (Chakraborthy 30, Goswami xxiv). In return for their work the girls received “money and a platform to present their art” (Soneji 30). The Devadasis did not live in the temples, but were given tax free land by the royal family (Goswami xxvii).

The central part of the Devadasis’ work was the dancing, which was set to music. Music, which is pleasant to the ears, also “contributes to the growth of mind and body” (Goswami xx). The music that the Devadasis dance to was originally played by instruments called ‘khols’ and ‘tals’, but were later replaced by a modern violin (Goswami xxvi). Many of the dances, and the songs came from the influential texts; such as the Ramayana, the Mahabharata, and the Puranas (Goswami xxi). The dances may also have association with gods, such a Siva (Goswami xxii). The importance of the dances were to entertain the gods and people, to earn money for the temples, and to help make the religion more widely accepted in the community (Goswami xxi).

The auspiciousness of the Devadasis was continuous so that these “servants of God” had superior status over the other women. A Devadasi did not become ritually impure even when she was menstruating. Therefore she could dance all month long. Nor was she made unclean by a death of someone near her (Soneji 42).

The Devadasis tradition began with the girls being wholesome brides of the gods, but through the generations their morality decayed. Since the girls had to be virgins when they married the deity, they would fulfil their “carnal appetites” with the “priests and aristocrats” (Goswami xxiv). Since the girls danced for the public, rich men were able to observe the beautiful girls, who were then easy prey for prostitution. In the early twentieth century, the younger generations for Devadasis expressed no problem in being paid for sexual favours (Soneji 39).

The Devadasis were once a respected part of the Hindu society, with very important religious responsibilities. Now, though there are hardly any left, the women are exploited for prostitution. The devoted girls who either dedicated themselves, or were given to the temple from birth, still hold important roles in the worship of the deities, but their status in the community has diminished. If the Devadasis could regain their reputation, they could again be the most respected women of Hindu societies.

Bibliography and Recommend Readings

Chakraborthy, Kakolee (2000) Women As Devadasis: Origin and Growth of the Devadasi

Profession. Rajouri Garden, ND: Deep & Deep Publications.

Goswami, Kali Prasad (2000) Devadasi: Dancing Damsel. Darya Ganj, ND: A.P Publishing


Orr, Leslie C. (2000) Donors, Devotees, and Daughters of God. Oxford, NY: Oxford UP.

Rodrigues, Hillary (2006) Hinduism the Ebook. Journal of Buddhist Ethics Online Books, Ltd.

Soneji, Davesh (2004) Living History, Performing Memory: Devadasi Women in Telugu-

Speaking South India. Dance Research Journal, Vol. 36, Issue 2, p30-49.

Related Topics for Further Investigation

Great Mother Goddess




The Ramayana

The Mahabharata

The Puranas




Ritual Purity

Noteworthy Websites Related to the Topic

Written by Rebecca Bouchard (March 2008) who is solely responsible for its content.

Bharat Natyam: India’s Classical Dance

Religion in India has influenced many aspects of its culture throughout history. It has played a particularly significant role in shaping the arts in numerous ways. An example of religious inspirations within art can be seen in the dance tradition known as Bharat Natyam. Originally known as Dasi Attam, this dance was performed in temples and royal courts by devadasis. The devadasis were women who received extensive training in the dance form, which began in their youth (Gaston 26-60). This paper will examine Bharat Natyam in practice and theory from its origin as Dasi Attam to contemporary times. It will also explore the devadasi tradition and their roles in society. Finally it will examine the presence and significance of Hindu religious gods and goddesses within Bharat Natyam.

The term Bharat Natyam was introduced by E. Krishna Iyer in the nineteen thirties. Prior to this time, the dance was known as Dasi Attam and was associated with a long-standing tradition of extensively trained female dancers (Devi 49). These were the devadasis. Initially they were servants of the temple who were required to become well versed in Sanskrit and the art of Dasi Attam. Being dedicated or “married” to a temple well before puberty, the women led lives of celibacy and devotion to their religion. The purpose of the dance was to honour the gods and temples. Local kings invited devadasis to dance in royal courts; this gave birth to the rajadasi, a dancer who would perform for the purpose of entertainment (Kersenboom 90-111). As the devadasi surrendered to gods, the rajadasi would surrender to kings. After the eleventh century AD the devadasi tradition disappeared as many temples were invaded and destroyed. The fall of the tradition forced many devadasis into poverty and often prostitution (Gaston 38-44).

The colonial era brought about social movements relating to the devadasis. The Reformists and Abolitionists regarded the tradition as evil and every devadasi as a prostitute. Under the influence of Christian values, these movements urged the abolition of the entire practice. The Revivalists favored the ancient view of the devadasi as a sacred, chaste devotee and set out to revive the dance form of Dasi Attam as Bharat Natyam (Devi 45,58). This revival allowed a girl or woman to practice the art form without necessarily being involved in the historical cultural practices of the devadasi.

The myths of the initial arrival of dance in Indian religion involve the great gods of the cosmos. In one such myth, the ancient gods and goddesses pleaded with Lord Brahma to create a fifth Veda. This Veda would be one that would appeal to the common man. In response Brahma created the Natya Veda. He took words (pathya) from the Rg Veda, communicative movements (abhinaya) from the Yajur Veda, song (Gita) from them Sama Veda and sentiment (rasa) from the Atharva Veda to form the Natya Veda. He then commissioned the sage Bharatha to write it down as the Natya Shastra and perform it to Lord Siva. Bharatha then propagated the dance on earth (Gaston 206-220). From the spreading of the dance on earth, emerged many forms of dance that are still practiced in contemporary India such as, Odissi, Kathak, Kathakali, Kuchipudi, Mohini attam, and Bharat Natyam.

Another proposed mythical origin of the dance involves the Goddess Parvati and her daughter. It is said that Parvati taught the dance to Usha, her daughter with the demon Banasura. Usha then want on to teach the art of dance to the gopikas of the city in which Lord Krsna was born [The gopikas were milkmaids in Hindu mythology. They were young women who were enamored with Krsna and vied for his affection; Krsna often had romantic affairs with the gopikas.]. This version of the legend acknowledges Lord Siva as the Supreme Dancer, the universe being his divine dance. He dances with Parvati and together they teach the other gods and goddesses the art (Kramrisch 78). The heavenly dance gradually passed through into the human world and resulted in the forms of dance practiced in India today. Bharat Natyam, which originated in the Southern Indian State of Tamil Nadu is one such form.

Just as the tradition of the devadasi underwent gradual change, so did the tradition of Bharat Natyam. Originally practiced in temples as a sacred form of devotion it is now a form of entertainment for many in India as well as other parts of the world. Many people study the dance as a hobby and some adopt it as a lifestyle and become professional dancers or teachers. Dancers devote a substantial amount of time studying purpose and theory of Bharat Natyam. There are several fundamental components of the dance that remain unchanged. These components usually include those involving facial and physical movements as well as their purpose. Divine figures such as gods and demons are still present in the dances just as they were in centuries past.

Bharat Natyam encompasses three elements. Nritta are repetitive rhythmical aspects; Natya is the combination of gestures and poses, which forms the dramatic element; Nritya is the combination of the two. Throughout training, a dancer is taught various body movements involving the feet, legs, arms, hands, fingers, torso and neck. They are also taught several facial expressions and dramatic gestures (Bhagyalekshmi 7,8). The combination of all of these elements creates the many traditional dances that one performs. While some dances are performed in devotion to the gods others are stories depicting the gods themselves in which dancers characterize the gods.

The first dance learned by a student is Pushpanjali or Alarippu. These dances are based on pure rhythm. They incorporate movements of each and every body part. Dancers often regard them as efficient warm up dances. Traditionally, they were performed in order to greet the gods in the temples and later on to greet the audiences in recitals. The next dance is known as the Jatiswaram, which involves a complex set of dance steps. The Shabda is a dance that is performed in praise of the Lord Krsna. It is in this dance that Abhinaya or Drama is introduced; the dancer depicts the childhood and adolescence of Krsna. The presence of Krsna is quite significant in the dances along with his relationships with Radha and gopikas of the city. The next two items, Varnam and Padam are pieces involving an abundance of dramatic art. The dances typically employ themes of betrayal, love and heroism. The item that is the main devotional piece to Lord Krsna is the Ashtapadi. The dance is performed in twelve cantons, which contain twenty-four songs sung by Krsna or his lover Radha; the songs are derived from famous poetry compositions. The final two dances are the most complicated with respect to physical movement as well as dramatic ability. They are known as the Devaranama and Tillana. The final traditional piece studied by a student of Bharat Natyam is the Mangala; it involves a salutation to the gods, gurus and the audience (Massey 11-16).

The appearance of divine characters in dance pieces is quite apparent. Many dances depict stories of Krsna, Radha, Rama, Sita, Visnu and Brahma among others. Perhaps one of the most significant figures in Bharat Natyam is Lord Siva. It is said that Siva assumed the form of Nataraja (Lord of the Dance), one of his many images and danced the Tandava. In the legend, Siva noticed that the sages had grown corrupt and indulgent so he set out to humble them. The sages responded violently and vainly attempted to destroy Siva. It was then that he began the Tandava, crushing his challengers beneath his feet. The purpose of his dance was to lift the illusory veil from the sages’ perception (Gaston 134-135, 315-319).

Bharat Natyam can be seen as involving three distinct components that are observable to an audience. These are footwork (adavus), hand gestures (hasthas) and facial gestures (abhinaya). Footwork typically follows a set rhythm that may change several times during a dance (Kothari 52). The musical element of the dance usually rests in the dancers foot movement. Hand gestures are the main feature responsible for the story telling component; the gestures are reinforced with facial expressions, which increases dramatic effect. Each of the twenty-eight hand gestures is representational of characters and events in the mythical stories told in the dance pieces. The gestures may depict animals or elements of nature associated with specific gods such as the tortoise, fish or serpent. Other symbolic gestures include the Siva linga, which is a phallic symbol associated with Siva or the trisula, the trident which is also exemplifies Siva (Kramrisch 36).

Religion inspires many areas of life. From daily schedules to annual celebrations to education and art. Art is an outlet for religious myth to be portrayed to a vast audience. Forms of this art are seen in the dance and drama. Bharat Natyam combines the two in a manner that results in elaborate and intricate pieces if dance that convey religious myth for the purpose of entertainment. This was not always its purpose; as an ancient form of dance known as Dasi Attam, it was an art form that allowed individuals to devote themselves to their religion and values. Regardless of its evolution from temples to royal courts and eventually to theaters, it has remained the oldest extant form of dance in the world today (Gaston 345-350).


Bhagyalekshmi, S (1992) Approach to Bharat Natyam. Trivandrum: CBH Publications.

Bhavnani, Eakshi (1965) The Dance in India. Bombay: D.B. Taraporevala.

Bose, Mandakranta (1970) Classical Indian Dancing, a Glossary. Calcutta: General Printers and Publishers.

Bowers, Faubion (1953) The Dance in India. New-York: Columbia University Press.

Coomaraswamy, Ananda (1956) The Dance of Shiva. Bombay: Asia Publishing House.

Devi, Ragini (1990) Dance Dialects of India. Delhi: Motilal Banarsidass.

Gaston, Anne-Marie (1996) Bharata Natyam: From Temple to Theater. New

Delhi: Manohar Publishers & Distributers.

Kersenboom, Saskia C (1987) Nityasumangali: Devadasi Tradition in South India. Delhi:

Motilal Banarsidass.

Khokar, Mohan (1979) Traditions of Indian Classical Dance. New Delhi: London Clarion Books.

Krishna, Lalita Rama (2003) Musical Heritage of India.

Kothari, Sunil (1997) Bharat Natyam. Bombay: Marg Publications.

Massey, Reginald and Massey, Jamila (1989) The Dances of India: A General Survey

and Dancers’ Guide. London: Tricolour Books.

Pesch, Ludwig (1999) The Illustrated Companion to South Indian Classical Music.

Delhi: Oxford University Press.

Shulman, D.D. (1980) Tamil Temple Myths. Princeton University Press.

Varapande, M.L. (1983) Religion and Theatre. New Delhi: Abhinav Publications.

Venkataram, Leela and Pasricha, Avinash (2002) Indian Classical Dance: Tradition to

Transition. New Delhi: Lustre Press.

Related Topics for Further Investigations

Devadasi Tradition



Mohini Attam




Indian Folk Dance

Indian Theater




Siva in Dance

Krsna in Dance

Noteworthy Websites Related to the Topic

Article written by Jessica Sita Naidu (April 2006) who is solely responsible for its content.

Hindu Spirituality in Music

“Music in India is as old as the country’s ancient religious tradition, dating back to the times of the Vedas- the scriptures from which the religious principles of the majority of the Indians are drawn….chronologically placed sometime between 4000 B.C.E. and 2000 B.C.E.” (Venugopal 450). Not only does music’s importance date back to the time of the Vedas, it was also an integral part of the Vedas contents. The Samhita, the first section of the Vedas, consists of four smaller sections, the first of which is called the Rg Veda. It is generally accepted as the oldest and most important text within the Samhita section and contains over one thousand hymns. The chronology of these masterpieces is difficult to determine. Some are believed to have been composed by the Aryans before they entered India, while others are written hundreds of years afterwards. The contents of the Rg Veda were echoed in the Sama Veda, another section of the Samhita, but in an altered manner that allowed the text to be chanted. The Sama Veda originally employed only two notes, however, that eventually increased to three, five and then seven individual svaras or notes (Embree 5).

Music’s involvement in Hinduism’s spiritual affairs does not stop there. According to author R. Venugopal, “All rituals in pursuit of spiritual ideals contained music as an essential part” (Venugopal 450). Venugopal also outlined instruments that could provide appropriate accompaniment for sacred music. These included both the drum and a stringed instrument called the vina (Venugopal 450). The hymns contained in the Rg Veda were often composed for the primary purpose of fulfilling specific needs within these sacred ritual services (Embree 5).

The important and revered position that music played in the country’s ancient religious tradition is also portrayed in its mythology. Here, many important gods, goddesses and celestial beings are associated with a particular dance, instrument or with some other form of music. The God Krsna is portrayed as a great flutist, Siva and Parvati are said to be master of rhythm and dance. Sarasvati, Goddess of Learning and the Sage Narada are associated with the vina and Rama is considered to be one, “well versed in music” (Venugopal 451). The fact that the very gods are endowed with musical gifts displays music’s capacity to enlarge and affect one’s spirituality. It increases one’s awareness of heaven and inspires devotion and worship.

According to Venugopal, “Music was considered to be not only entertainment but also a source for one’s spiritual growth and a means for raising one’s consciousness from a merely mundane level to higher levels of contemplation.” Venugopal goes on to quote the ancient sage Yajñavalka as saying, “a person well versed in playing the instrument Vina, having deep knowledge of the microtones and the rhythm, reaches the heavens without any effort!” (451). It is of no wonder that music would be worthy of representation in the sacred scriptures of the Vedas and why sacred beings, such as gods and goddesses, would be associated with musical gifts.

The question of how music is able to put us in line with exalted levels of spirituality becomes evident in the fact that music, made up of melody and rhythm, is believed to be a manifestation of the cosmic order, rta. According to R. Sathyanarayana, “Rhythm is rta in the sense of a) orderly movement b) cyclic or spiral recurrence c) the principle of organization and design, which regulates the duration of tones, body movements, colours, shade, motifs, balance…and symmetrical proportions in the various arts. It is inhered in the principle of creation and creativity and is, therefore, a cosmic law” (Sathyanarayana 303-4). Order, organization, design and recurrence are the principles of rhythm that direct and mould the endless variety of rhythmic possibilities into music that is in line with the order of the cosmic law.

There is not only great room for variety within rhythm, but in all the individual elements that make up beautiful musical phrases. Melody, tempo, texture, dynamics and instrumentation are just a few examples of elements that are a necessary part of music. In order for music to be a part of rta, these essential elements must embody the characteristics of rta. According to Ainslie T. Embree, “This cosmic law was not made by the gods, although they are the guardians of it. It is reflected not only in the physical regularity of the night and day and of the seasons but also in the moral order that binds men to each other and to the gods” (Embree 9). Regularity and order are principle components of rta, and thus must also be reflected in music, despite its limitless capacity for diversity, surprise, and variation.

As stated above, rhythm is rta in its sense of cyclic or spiral recurrence, meaning a repetition of key melodic phrases and rhythms. This element of repetition is a key factor in creating regularity, unity and order within music as a whole. According to Sathyanarayana, “All form is governed by an important princple of design, viz., unity in variety. Too much rigidity in unity leads to monotony and too much variety, to Chaos” (305). Musical variation is contained and placed in line with the cosmic order through the principles of design, unity, regularity and order; however, its beauty is maintained through the principle of variety. Only within these parameters can music be in line with rta and raise, “one’s consciousness from a merely mundane level to higher levels of contemplation” (Venugopal 451).

The ancient sage Yajñavalka was quoted earlier as saying, “a person well versed in playing the instrument vina, having deep knowledge of the microtones and the rhythm, reaches the heavens without any effort!” (Venugopal 451). Attaining this level of spirituality through the vehicle of musicality is not a passive process of simply hearing beautiful sounds; it takes concentration, reverence, and meditation. This can be seen in

the approach that talented vocalists take in performing sacred music. Sushil Kumar Saxena offered insight into this approach when he wrote of the sacred nature of each individual svara, or note, and how each svara must reign in its own right, much as Brahman or Reality, reigns in his own right. He states, “Every single note must seem effective in itself; configuration, though important, is by no means enough. The best of our singers may find it difficult to meet this requirement, but if they are only a little aware of our philosophical-religious language, the vocalists may feel, in the very course of singing, a measure of the same reverence for some individual notes…as is elicited by the thought of ultimate Reality. The concept of reigning-in-its-own-right is similar in meaning to svaprakasam (self-luminous), an attribute that is commonly ascribed to God or Brahman” (Saxena 441).

As Saxena mentioned, this standard of allowing each individual note to shine in its own right is a challenging undertaking, even for the best of vocalists. Contemplation allows the singer time to understand the meaning and context of each svara, thus allowing the singer to become in tune with its relationship to Brahman. Saxena explains that a talented Indian vocalist is often found to be “lost” or absorbed when projecting certain notes, as the sound originates from within. This absorption is similar to the time spent in contemplation as it causes the vocalist to attain a “deeper attunement with the thought of the Ultimate” (Saxena 441).

The pursuit of Brahman has lead many individuals to the sweet sounds of music. Many of these beautiful sounds are found in the Vedas and were composed by ancient priests. Rituals are often performed with music as an essential ingredient in its completion. The great gods and goddesses of Indian mythology understood the spiritual nature of music and became masters of it. Within music is found the essence of Brahman, rta and Hindu spirituality.


Embree, Ainslie T. editor (1996) The Hindu Tradition: Readings in Oriental Thought.

New York: Random House, Inc.

Sathyanarayana (2004) “Rta – Samgita.” In Rta: The Cosmic Order. Edited by Madhu Khanna. New Delhi: D.K. Print World (P) Ltd. 297-312.

Saxena, Sushil Kumar (1997) “Spirituality and the Music of India.” In Hindu Spirituality

Vol. II: Post Classical and Modern. Edited by K.R. Sundararajan and Bithika

Mukerji. New Delhi: The CrossRoad Publishing Company. 437-449.

Venugopal, R. (1997) “Spirituality and the Music of India.” In Hindu Spirituality

Vol. II: Post Classical and Modern. Edited by K.R. Sundararajan and Bithika

Mukerji. New Delhi: The CrossRoad Publishing Company. 437-449.

Related Readings

Gautam, M.R. (1989) Evolution of Raga and Tala in Indian Music. New Delhi:Munshiram Manoharlal Publishers Ltd.

Ramakrishna, Lalita (2003) Musical Heritage of India. New Delhi: Shubhi Publication.

Ranade, Ashok D. (1990) Keywords and concepts: Hindustani Classical Music. New Delhi: Promilla.

Related Websites

Related Topics for Further Investigation

1) The renown of composers in the late 18th century and early 19th century of Carnatic Music: Thyagaraja, Muthuswamy Dikshitar and Shyamasastri.

2) The content of the hymns found in the Rg Veda and Sama Veda.

3) Music used in sacred rituals, such as mantras.

4) Rta, the cosmic order.

5) Brahman.

6) The Hindustani style of the North

7) The Carnatic style of the South

Article written by Nicole Harding (March 2006) who is solely responsible for its content.