What is the Tantra of Temple Dance?
Let us first take a journey back through time to the ancient Temples of Mother India…
For a couple thousand years some of the most prominent Temples of India (as well as many other Asian countries, and perhaps throughout the world) housed not only the male Priests you will still find there to this day, but also some of the most auspicious women of the times, the Devadasis. To break down the term Devadasi, we have the Sanskrit word Deva, meaning God in the masculine form, and Dasi meaning servant in the female form. I would translate this to the term Priestess, for is not a Priest but a servant of the divine? A Devadas would then be a male servant of the masculine form of the divine, but let us not forget that the Hindu pantheon also has female Goddesses, therefore there could also be Devidasis, female servants to a female form of divinity, or even Devidas, male servants to a female form of the divine. I believe that all of these have existed in the temples of India in past chapters of Her history, however today you will only find male priests, or Brahmins serving both the male and female aspects of the divine.
As many female traditions have fallen from grace during this current age, the Devadasi’s were not exempt. To date the term Devadasi relates to prostitute in modern India, where it once was the term for yesterdays Priestesses. This is something that the Devadasi tradition has in common with Tantra, for both now have a poor rapour within the very land of their birth, mainly due to misunderstanding and taboo. It has become a passion of mine to not only reclaim the term Devadasi for what it really and truly is, but also the term Tantra that has become so convoluted both in the West as well as the East.
So what was the role of the Temple Priestesses, or Devadasi?
These auspicious women were wed to the divine at a young age following their coming of womanhood, or first menses. At this point they were given to the temples as apprentices under the elder Devadasi. In the tradition of Odissi Temple Dance (which has since been codified into a classical form), in which my studies take root, the deity that the women were married to and served was the Lord Jugannath, a form of Krishna and avatar of Vishnu, the preserver. As wives of this most auspicious Lord, the Devadasi were seen as living embodiments of the Goddess Lakshmi, the Goddess of abundance, beauty, culture, wealth, pleasure, success, etc., all of the qualities that made a kingdom rich in all ways. She brought the rains that fed the crops that fed the people, she brought the song and dance, the fertility and the blossoming of the land and it’s people. It was these women’s duty to uphold the wealth and treasure of the land through their dance, song and music. They danced solely for their Lord, their bare feet slapping the stone in the inner sanctum of the temple in time to the rhythm of the pakawaj (drum) and the sing-song voices of their sisters. The dance was their way of merging seamlessly with the Beloved, of entering into the sacred marriage of form and consciousness. It was their ecstatic path to Moksha, or liberation.
This places the song and dance of the Devadasi within the tree of yoga, specifically on the branch of Bhakti yoga , or the yoking of the Divine through devotion and the nectar of the heart. It is here that I wish to make the connection of Temple Dance as a Tantric path. Let us now turn to the lens of Tantra…
Tantra literally translates to “Web”. It is the Matrix of the manifest universe (uni meaning One) that is infused with conscious awareness. Tantra is the feminine (immanent) and masculine (transcendent) qualitIies of energy and consciousness, seeming duality, merging into a seamless whole, nothing separate from Divine although veiled in a multitude of forms. It is the ultimate Lila, the ultimate dance of opposites and paradox that eventually lead us to the truth of our nature AS the Divine incarnate. Tantra is such an exceptional path in that it excludes nothing from sacred. Part of both the taboo and allure of Tantra is that it is of few spiritual paths that include human sexuality as a gateway to Divine merger, however to focus simply on this aspect is to miss a much larger picture. The sexual energy is the beginning of the path as the desire for opposites becomes the fuel feeding he fire of the intense sadhana (practice) that leads a soul through the gateways of the chakras and into the ultimate union in which there is no longer perceived separation of self and divine. Tantra recognizes from the get-go that we are not separate; our flesh, our blood, our sex, our desire is already an integral part of the sacred manifestation of God/Goddess. In Tantric ritual we ourselves become the deity, we ourselves become the Murti, or idol. It is the same in Temple Dance. We become that which we are dancing through sacred theatre. In the telling of the stories of divine epochs, we remove the smaller ego self to allow for the archetypal space of divine presences to fill our beings in a multitude of qualities and emotions.
Tantra and Temple Dance also share the common languages of Mudra (hand gesture), Yantra (geometric form), and Yoga. As I continue to deepen into the study of the now Classical version of Odissi Temple Dance, I see the subtle movements relating to the different chakras, or energy centers, the mudras as switchboards of elemental alchemy as well as the language of the dance to communicate sacred stories. The dance and its postures as a whole are living Yantras of divine energy, moving mandalas of prayful movement, a mala of gestures, steps, and expressions offered to the lotus feet of the Divine within and without.
Through this dance we embody divine energies whether of the Goddess Durga in the heat of battle, or Radha flushed with romance at the soft touch of her beloved Krishna, or Shiva’s wild dance of Tandava birthing and destroying worlds as he whirls, or bringing life into the many avatars of Vishnu. This dance becomes sadhana, a spiritual practice within which we can merge in the ultimate Tantra, self and divine, self and source, self and beloved. This dance creates the tapas, or inner heat of yogic transformation. It can become the alchemical container to transform our desire into higher realms of expression and merger, for is it not union with creation itself that we truly seek?
This is the Tantra of Temple Dance; it is the rebirth of the feminine into the path of Yoga via the expressive and sensual means of dance. It is the ability to translate the frequencies of divine energies through embodiment. It is breathing life into Yantra through the moving mandala of dance. It is opening the nadis (energy pathways) in the body to allow more divine energies to flow through. It is bringing self and observer alike into more intimate contact with the sacred, and ultimately it is the path to the ultimate merger of full self realization, where the drop once again becomes the ocean.
May the Devadasi live on, as her role is of utmost significance at this time. May we rebirth her through our efforts, our remembrance and our new-found and hard-won freedom to re-ignite the feminine arts of the Temple Priestess. In my heart of hearts, I wish to hear the jingle of her ankle bells, the slap of her bare feet, and the sound of her sweet trilling voice filling the temple walls in my lifetime. It is then perhaps that our society will have again reclaimed the woman’s right to be keeper of the keys alongside of her brother Priests once again.
If you would like to take an embodied journey into the Tantra of Temple Dance, please see below for a profound opportunity to join Halo Seronko in Guatemala this winter to dive into the lineages of Temple Dance interwoven with Tantric practice.