Rebirth of the Sacred Dancer

The Rebirth of the Sacred Dancer

by “Shahrazad” C. Diallo-Huisman

The very large and ancient tree of what is called “Oriental dance” today stands in Cairo, the center of our planet’s landmass —there, where more than 10,000 years ago, people with a stunning level of development built the great pyramids. The branches of this tree reach as far as Alaska and Australia, Santiago de Chile and Tokyo, where nowadays Oriental dancers fascinate a growing number of spectators of all nations. The strong and many roots that support this tree are not only to be found below, in Egypt’s fertile soil, but in all directions: North, East, South, West and in-between, nourishing the dance with new input at different époques with inspiration from many regions.

Turning to one of the most eastern roots, we listen to the Hindu sage Bharata´s first mention of female dancers in chapter one of the holy book of the performing arts, the Natya Shastra.1 This amazing manual is the essence (approximately 5,000 verses) of the ancient oral and physical teachings (originally 36,000 verses), which still form the basis of countless dance styles, not only in India where it was written, but throughout Asia.

The divine wish in a time after wars, turbulence and decadence was to create a wonderful pastime, which should be auditory as well as visual, to make people forget their sorrow, to give them great pleasure and to educate them in the Vedas or sacred laws. (He wanted to make the other Vedas visual and reachable, also for those who could not read.) The highly resplendent lotus-born Brahma (God Creator in Indian terminology, comparable to lotus-born Ra of the pharaohs) appointed one hundred men to do theatrical performances based on three sorts of dramatic style: verbal utterance, grand conception of the mind and vigorous physical activity.2

Shalabhanjika or dancer, Bhuvaneshvar, Rajarani Temple, c. 1000.

He then created the 26 celestial damsels, who were extremely proficient in heightening the beauty and charm of the dramatic art and dance performances: “Manjukeshi, Sukeshi, Mishrakeshi, Sulocana, Saudamini, Devadatta, Devasena, Manorama, Sudati, Sundari, Vidagdha, Vividha, Budha, Sumala, Santati, Sunanda, Sumukhi, Maghadhi, Arjuni, Sarala, Kerala, Dhriti, Nanda, Supuskala, Supuspamala and Kalabha were their names. Only they were able to perform the “kaisiki style ” (charming, graceful), which should have gentle gesticulation of arms and limbs, be full of sentiment, emotional states and activities of the soul. The dress should be charmingly beautiful and the erotic sentiment at the basis. Men cannot adequately portray it. Except for women none can practice it properly.3

After this He added celestial musicians and singers. Playing instruments, singing songs and dancing are mentioned as forms of yoga.4 In the following 35 chapters, the holy Bharata goes on to explain in greatest detail every imaginable factor of the theatre and the arts performed therein. The theatre could have several forms—rectangular, square or triangular. Rituals and offerings accompanied the construction; gold was thrown at the bases of the pillars. “Expert builders take care to lay underneath the stage-head jewels and precious stones: diamond in the east, lapis lazuli in the south, crystals in the west and coral in the north. The central part is laid with gold. The theater should resemble a mountain cave, letting in not too much wind, to assure good acoustic qualities.”5 Many temples were also built in the shape of a holy mountain (Meru, Kailash).

Each performance was a ritual with one purpose in mind: to make people forget their sorrow, to give them great pleasure and to educate them in the sacred laws, expressible in ten different types of performances with various emphases, and specific times of the day or the night best-suited for the performance.

There were three kinds of dancers: temple-dancers, court-dancers and folk-dancers. Eight dominant classical Hindu styles can be distinguished: bharat natyam, odissi, kathak, manipoori, kathakali, mohini attam, kuchipudi and chhau.

Besides these classical styles, there are countless examples of folkloric and tribal dances, more often than not with magical purposes connected to fertility, harvest, weather, hunting, war, celebration, work and the joy of life. They involved acrobatics, invocations of gods or demons, and animal imitation.

The Hindu temple dancers, or Devadasis (servants of God), formed a separate caste with privileges and freedoms that other women did not have. According to some old scriptures, such as the Agamashastras, certain ritual duties and practices could only be performed by women. No ceremony or religious rite could be complete without her. Besides dancing for the deity of the temple, she kept the holy place in order, washed the sacred garments, cleaned the ceremonial utensils, prayed, fanned the deity, carried the fire and took care of the food. In her spare time she would study the Holy Scriptures, play music, write or paint. Many dancers became very cultivated and enjoyed general esteem and received often the same respect as did the priests. Some temples, such as the Brihadevara in Tanjore, owned more than 400 dancers and musicians, according to the inscriptions on the walls of its sanctuary. Seven categories of sacred dancers were distinguished:

1. The Dattas, who gave themselves to the temples

2. The Vikritas, who sold themselves to the temple, to serve there for all of their lives

3. The Bhrityas, who offered themselves to the temple, to fulfill a promise, or to attract divine blessings for their families

4. The Bhaktas, who gave themselves to the temple out of devotion for God

5. The Hritas, orphans or abandoned children that were given to the temple

6. The Alankaras, in general concubines with generous dowries from kings or nobles, presented as a gift to the temple

7. The Gopikas, or regular Devadasis by heritage.

The temple dancers began their intensive training at the age of five and were initiated in a ceremony called “The Placement of the Necklace” (Bottoo Kattal), when they were twelve years old. The dances they performed ranged from offering dances and storytelling pantomimic dances, to the display of highly philosophical ideas in Shiva’s cosmic dance. The Devadasis who were attached to the temple were extremely orthodox. They could not enter the sacred place before having bathed and purified themselves first. They should perform their duties to the deity before taking even the smallest bite to eat, fast during the great religious celebrations and live in strict celibacy, at least while it was their turn to serve. In most of the large temples that had several Devadasi families, a service schedule was observed, leaving the most important ceremonies by order of precedence to the older dancers.

The Devadasi could not marry since she was considered to be the bride of God. Still she had the right to live with a man of her choice, who could be married or not. This choice was honorable; the legal spouse generally received her consecrated counterpart well and adapted herself. The children of this union were legal, and the Devadasi accepted the children of the legal wife as her own. She should show herself as devoted to her partner and he, in exchange, should help and protect her and consider her as a member of his family. The Devadasi could not become a widow because her legal husband was God; they were the Nityasoomangalis or eternal spouses. When their “protector” passed away, she had to stay strictly celibate afterwards. Her daughters would become Devadasi, her sons musicians, but they could also choose to live a secular life. If she had no children of her own she had the right to adopt a little girl, who would become a new temple dancer.6

The highly developed Vedic culture in India expressed itself in architecture and fine handcrafts, music and dance, philosophy and sciences, poetry and spiritual literature, and the refinement of one’s outer and the inner being. According to the Kama Sutra, which was written around the 4th Century C.E. by the famous yogi, Mallanaga Vatsyayana, noble ladies, dancers and concubines, besides striving to be modest and beautiful, aimed at mastering 64 arts (see below).

64 Arts of the Kama Sutra


Playing instruments


Painting on walls, palm leaves and flat stones

Engraving letters on birch leaves


Creating mandalas (circular patterns) out of rice and flowers

Decorating wall and floors with flowers

Painting body, hair, nails, teeth and cloths

Laying out mosaics

Arraying resting places, beds, pillows and carpets


Playing melodies on water-filled glasses

Swimming and water games

Meditation with the help of Mantra- and Yantra-Yogas

Stringing up garlands, necklaces and rosaries

Making head-jewelry out of flowers for weddings


Wearing garments and jewelry stylishly

Producing bracelets and earrings out of shells and ivory

Manufacturing perfumes

Cutting semiprecious stone inlays

Magical tricks and illusions

Preparing aphrodisiacs and magic potions with herbs


Cooking according to different methods

Preparing sherbets, fruit juices and cocktails

Sewing and embroidering


Weaving birds and flowers in silk and wool

Skills in classical Raga and Tala (musical scale and rhythm)

Solving riddles

Poetical word games

Inventing tongue twisters


Recite from Holy Scriptures

Find fitting quotations from epic poems and drama

Improvise poetry

Basket-making from reed and bamboo

Producing love amulets in gold and silver


Woodcarving and carpentry

Architecture and the art of building

Testing precious stones and metals

Melting ore and alloying

Cutting and coloring precious stones


Cultivating garden and herbal medicine

Training fighting cocks, quails and rams

Teaching parrots and starlings how to speak

Massage of the face and the body

Deciphering and creation of secret writing


Inventing a private language

Mastering of dialects and foreign languages

Constructing a flower wagon

Interpreting omen

Constructing sprinklers and other gadgets


Memory training

Flawless repetition of once heard verses

Setting any letter into verse

Arranging flower petals

Knowledge of dictionaries and lexical works


Mastery of metrics

Disguise and the art of table magic

The art of draping materials and

making cotton look like fine silk

Game of chance


Dice games and chess

Children’s psychology and their games

Etiquette and good manners

Warfare, weaponry, military and tactical skills, politics

Yoga and gymnastics.7

Temple dancers, independent yogis and yoginis developed Tantra yogic practices involving dance and meditations based on oral teachings, which were not written down until the 7th Century. Tantra is a spiritual path that uses sexual energies as a vehicle. It also involved admiration of the Feminine principle in the form of a triangle and of the Male principle as the Shiva lingam. Tantric temples were built, but later destroyed. A large one remains in Central Java.

A Tantric vow-holder must sing songs, play instruments, and dance,

Displaying a complete range of emotional expressions.

One should not torture oneself with self-denial,

Destroying one’s own emotional richness….

One should meditatively derive bliss from bliss.8

In Hindu as well as Vajrayana Buddhist traditions, dancers were trained to impersonate and identify with deities in order to support the process of visualization and manifestation of the divine. They performed on occasions of ritual, sometimes in caves or graveyards, or in ceremonies in temples, thereby cultivating enlightened qualities such as wisdom, compassion and transcendent bliss.

In the north Indian Pala area where Buddha was born, and in Nepal, Buddhists began to write down yogic visions of male and female deities in the so called Sadhanas. These were carved in stone in the 4th Century in Nalanda and from the 6th Century C.E. in west India. Cave paintings, sculptures, tapestries and scrolls, carved wood book covers and thangkas show the enfolding of a most wonderful new iconography of Mahayana Bodhisattvas in soft, almost feminine postures. And what is more remarkable, the first female Buddhist deities appeared, the most important being Prajnaparamita (goddess of transcendental wisdom) and Tara (goddess of compassion). They are imagined to be beautiful women, dressed and adorned in royal jewelry and garments. Tara is often praised as dancing, stamping the ground with her feet, shaking the holy mountains, destroying all negativity with her laughter, radiance and movements through space and time. Attributes and qualities of Hindu goddesses such as Uma, Parvati, Durga, and Mayuri, were adopted and/or transformed. From the 6th century until now, the Newars in Nepal, both men and women, embody these and other deities in Buddhist sanctuaries and temples in their Tantric charya dances. Celestial nymphs still dance on the painted cave-walls of Tun Huang and other Chinese cultural Centers.

Imagine the intensity of a dance performance at that time: the dancer a yogini in splendid jewels and silk, arduous perfection in each detail of movement and expression, intelligent passion, spiritual insight combined with deeply felt female energy, psychological as well as entertaining qualities, a source of cosmic elixir, destined to open lotus buds and ignite divine flames—a jewel in every sense!

It was during this time, that the “84 Siddhas” lived in the Himalayas. They were people coming from all kinds of backgrounds who reached enlightenment and supernatural powers through yoga, dance and meditation. Some of them are women, known by name and personal history. They formed the basis of the Vajrayana Buddhist lineages. Their meditation techniques are still being practiced.

At this point it is important, for a moment, to draw parallels to other cultures such as ancient Persia, China, Mesopotamia, Greece, pharaonic Egypt, Indonesia, Mali, Peru and Mexico, aboriginal America and Australia, where it was only natural and obvious that one aspect of dance was its spirituality with its strong transcendental effects on performer and spectator alike. In ancient Egypt, for example, two priestesses would prepare themselves by fasting, meditating, remaining silent and wearing only woolen clothes for their performance as the goddesses Isis and Nephtys.9 In Yucatan, carefully selected old women in special garments would dance in Mayan temples to ward off evil and to ensure good crops during the five days of ceremonies and sacrifices preceding the beginning of the New Year.10 The west African “Griots” had memorized their peoples’ history and sang in lengthy stories about their heroes and spirits, accompanying themselves on an instrument. They preserved the material that was depicted in dance and dance-drama.

In studying the different forms of temple dance in the world, we notice époques of idealism, bloom, decadence, decline and decay (as in most things). From a global point of view, we see waves of sacred dancing rising and falling through the centuries and millennia, waves of highest achievements but also waves of destruction, and then again revival. For our tree that means the growing of new twigs, the cutting off of branches, even the attempts to cut down the whole tree. But up to now, it is still very alive.

We see exactly the same thing happening with our Indian root. The events that took place in northern India have, in fact, influenced us quite a bit, and determined why and how we came to do Oriental dance.

The first Muslim invasions in the north of India, which at that time included Afghanistan and Pakistan, were ordered by the Oomiya vice king of Iraq in the year 710 and executed by Qutaiba ibn Muslim (711), town keeper of Chorasan and by Muhammad ibn Qasim, vice town keeper of Basra. They entered Beluchestan and were stopped in 713 in Multan, Punjab, which remained the frontier of the Islamic world for a long time. This area had been Hindu and its particular temple dance form, odra maghadi, based on the Natya Shastra, is now lost.

King Ashoka (273-232 B.C.) sent Buddhist missionaries to Mattura, Amarvati, Sanchi and Gandhara. They, especially Gandhara, had become great Buddhist centers with important libraries, meditation caves and monasteries. Although dance was not part of the monastic activities in early Buddhism, lay worship at pilgrimage sites included dance and instrumental music.11 Later female dancers were attached to Buddhist temples for devotional purposes. To the west, in Persia, Zarathustra´s cult was still being practiced but was slowly losing power.

During this time of expansion, the Muslim rulers depended on existing structures to be able to control the large new Arab empire and did not impose Islam on the general population, since it was from non-Muslims that they could draw taxes. That meant the absorption of Coptic, Mesopotamian, Persian and Indian infrastructures. In the courts of the Arabic ruling class and the Oomiya caliphs, the still sparse intellectual and spiritual life was cultivated, which meant essentially the indulgence in old Arabic poetry. New was the preoccupation with the sources of religion, Koran and Sunna. The surrounding masses of non-Muslims were not involved in this process and after the initial shock of the destruction of many religious artifacts, continued their usual ways of religious practice. The Muslims did not partake in any of this. In fact they changed existing palaces, temples and churches to suit their own Islamic needs. The Indians remained bitter and skeptical towards the Muslims. The orthodox Zarathustrians left towards the east to settle eventually around Bombay. Many Persians and later Turks, however, by and by embraced Islam.

Soon a vivid development of all sciences began. At the courts most rulers, except for a few puritans who held to the orthodox regulations of Medina (Saudi Arabia), were proud to be open-minded towards everything that could improve the Islamic culture. They had harems with Persian and later, under the Abbasids, more and more Turkish wives and concubines. In the beginning of the 9th Century, for example, the Abbasid caliph Abdallah el Ma’mun, whose mother was Persian, founded the House of Wisdom academy in Baghdad, in which Christians translated Syrian translations of classical Greek treaties, like those on medicine from Hippocrates and Galen, on mathematics from Euclid, on geography and astronomy from Claudius Ptolomeus, and also some philosophical works from Aristotle and Plato. Persian history books became examples for Arabic history writing. Several Sufi orders were founded and their poets, male and female, produced wonderful literature. Calligraphy, miniature painting, and all kinds of crafts developed and branched out. Arabic and Persian poetry and song writing influenced each other. Imagine the challenge of being a musician, singer or dancer in this time! What inspirations were drawn from the many new inventions and discoveries! What fertile interaction between artists of different countries!

The Indian dancers and musicians who stayed in the conquered area and chose to work for the new elite, cleverly hid their “treasure of knowledge”. They were both beautiful and intelligent; they managed to learn the new languages, to understand the new religion and to apply their 64 arts in new ways. Their dance had to be more abstract as far as expression of the sacred was concerned. The poetical interpretations were emphasized. These were cherished court dancers and musicians, whom the rulers would proudly present to their colleagues. They would travel in protected caravans as far as Cairo, Fez and Cordoba, influencing the culture at the courts, from east to west, traveling fast and almost comfortably at the speed of 5 miles a day, through the desert. All they had to give up was the idea that their dance or music was accepted as a sacred art, or that it could be seen as the visual depiction of their holy scriptures, which were now replaced by the Koran. It now served as entertainment for the rich. They would never be honored in the same way a Mullah would be honored, even though they themselves felt and knew inside that their art was divine.

Another development occurred around the same time a little more towards the east. Buddhism moved into the Himalayan states of Nepal, Tibet, Ladakh, Bhutan, Sikkim, where from around 800 C.E., Vajrayana (or Tibetan) Buddhism was established during the reign of king Trisong Detsen through the appearance of Padmasambhava, an enlightened Tantric master who integrated all the Bön (shamanistic) deities into the Buddhist pantheon as protectors of the Dharma, Buddha’s teachings. Many of these deities are wrathful and look ferocious. Cham, the wonderful religious dance form in multi-layered costumes with heavy wooden masks, resulted from this integration. No wonder it is danced only by men, and mostly by ordained monks, who were trained to handle these energies. Women were not encouraged to do these sacred dances; nuns were not allowed to dance at all, although the iconography of the meditation models is full of dancing wisdom-partners, Dakinis and Prajnas.

Between 998 and 1030, the Turkish Sultan Mohammed of Ghasni managed to conquer the Kyber-Pass, the historical gate to the northern Indian plain. He wandered through most of northwest India, destroying many Hindu and Buddhist temples and statues. In 1191 Delhi was conquered by Mohammed Ghori, and in 1206 Kutab-du-din founded the first Muslim empire of India: the Sultanate of Delhi. The rulers at first imported court musicians and dancers for their festivities and representational functions from Persia and Afghanistan. The famous poet/musician Amir Khosrau brought Persian maqams (musical scales) to India (end of the 13th to beginning of the 14th Century), which were integrated into the Indian Raga system. King Mohammed Shah II (1378-1397) engaged dancers from Delhi, Lahore and Persia. As time passed, these Muslims adopted more and more Indian habits and the Hindu kathak dancers influenced the court-dance much more than their Persian colleagues. Nritta, the brilliant pure dance parts, were favored, but gradually even Hindu stories, mainly about Krishna, were being performed.

With the development of the Sufi orders in Turkey, Persia, Afghanistan and Pakistan, several trance techniques were integrated into the Muslim religious sphere. Well known are the dances of the whirling Dervishes, introduced by Jelaluddin Rumi, who was born in Balch, Afghanistan in 1207 and died in Konya in 1273. Also Kashmir, Pakistan, Persia, Iraq, Syria, Egypt, Sudan, Tunisia and Morocco have their religious dance forms connected to Sufi orders and danced only by men. Only in very remote areas such as mountains and deserts, could female religious dance-forms mostly used for healing purposes, such as the zar, survive. And although certainly very sacred, they did not have to be entertaining or visually appealing.

So gradually a separation between the Spiritual, Healing and Divine on one hand and the Beautiful, Sensual and Entertaining on the other, came about.

The Mongols under Temüjin, known as Genghis Khan (1167-1227), and his offspring spread through the whole region by force, proclaiming himself as “The emperor of all who live in tents.” He hated luxury and lived in a modest way. His law, the “Yassa,” which was meant to unite the people, included many sensible rules. But his system of punishment of those who did not obey the rules was incredibly severe. He conquered Hsi-Hsia, Northern China, Kara-Khitai, Khwarizm, western Asia and southern Russia. His descendants under Hülegü (1217-1265) took Samarkand, destroyed Baghdad (1285) and Aleppo, took over Damascus (1260) and all of Palestine as far as Ghaza. Jerusalem was spared within a day’s reach, as their advance into Egypt was broken by the Mamluks, mercenary slaves from the Black Sea region who ruled in Egypt for the next two centuries. Batu (1207-1255) terrorized Russia and Eastern Europe. Khubilai Khan extended the Mongolian empire to the utmost and included all of China. He even attempted to attack Japan and Java.

The Mongols had a shamanistic belief system and saw all religions as equal. They felt attracted to Tibetan Buddhism because the Tibetans were nomads too, and because many Bön elements that had been integrated into the Vajrayana were similar to their own spirit belief. But like the Arabs when they conquered large areas, they had to adopt existing structures in order to be able to govern with success. So the Ilkhans (since Hülegü), the first Persian Mogul rulers who were still more favorably inclined towards Buddhism, gradually became Muslims. The 7th Ilkhan, Ghazan, became Muslim, and with him the whole Near East. The Turks and Mongols became dominant in most areas of life, except for religion which was ruled by Al Azhar in Cairo. What is important to know and fortunate for us is that, in spite of all their ferociousness, the Mongols stimulated all forms of art. They spared the lives of all craftsmen, scientists, philosophers and religious personalities.

The very heavy invasions of the Mongols under Timur-i-leng or Tamerlan (1336-1405) from Turkestan in the 13th century came as a further blast. Tamerlan overran large areas of Central Asia, Russia, Persia and India, and gained the awful name “Scourge of God” among the nations that he conquered. However, he too was a lover of the arts and sciences. He chose Samarkand as his residence and built up the splendid city with its blue and turquoise mosaics, fountains, gardens and fantastic buildings. Musicians, poets, dancers and merchants came over the Silk Road with all kinds of art and goods. Books with the knowledge of the whole world from libraries that had already been destroyed, were brought to Samarkand. Artists, philosophers and scientists came to live there. Artifacts from cultures that had been wiped out could be admired. Tamerlan, even when he was over 60 years old, used his ever vital energy to attack India and destroy Delhi and Damascus. He robbed and stole, and obliged the best craftsmen he could find to enhance the beauty of his Samarkand. He put further pressure on the Muslims not to tolerate the Hindu.12 Consequently, kathak-dancers in the Sultanate of Delhi were forced to change their style, becoming even more abstract. Tatkar, the virtuous footwork based on numbers, was elaborated. The threefold bent poses (tribangi) were omitted, the legs and feet staying mainly together, and the hand gestures (mudras) became more decorative than meaningful.13

Sacred dancers (and musicians) in India, if they had managed to survive Tamerlan’s storm, fled in four directions:

1. Northwestern Vajrayana Buddhists disappeared into the Himalayas. The Mongols liked Tibetan Buddhism and adopted it, as long as they stayed in Mongolia. Laywomen were only allowed to dance court-dance and folkloric dances.

2. Mahayana and Hinayana Buddhists, who were more orthodox in the Buddhist sense than the Himalayan Buddhists, went eastwards to Burma, Cambodia, Vietnam, Korea, and Thailand. Large temple complexes had already been built in which male and female dancers and musicians found the right setting for their devotional art, for example Angkor Wat.

3. Northeastern Buddhists and Hindus fled by boat through the Gulf of Bengal to Malaysia, Bali and Java, where in temples like the Borobudur, the great Buddhist heritage could continue to ripen until the Moslems and Christians also arrived there. Bali still is a temple dance paradise for men and women.

4. Hindu casts of singers and dancers in the northwestern parts, Rajasthan, had to either convert to Islam and stay or flee to the quieter parts in the west. They were the future Gypsies. Because they lived in remoter areas with little education, they were less able to quickly learn a new language and adapt to the complexity and intricacy of the courts. They could not profit from the protection of a ruler and his well-equipped caravans. They traveled slowly and suffered many hardships, but eventually ended up in the same places as their lofty colleagues who had worked at the courts, only centuries later, hiding their treasure of devotion in acrobatics, highly emotional music and singing, and in trancelike dancing. They no longer performed in the temples, but in market places. They were the masters of improvisation who influenced the folkloric styles of all of the areas that they passed through and lived in; they were the ones who were admired, envied and despised for the fire of expressiveness in their daring performances.

After Tamerlan’s death and the destruction of Baghdad and Damascus, there was a period of relative peace. In Samarkand, the new capital of the world, Ferghana, Buchara and Khorasan culture bloomed under the Timurids and later the Uzbeks. Many refined styles of music, dance and poetry were created and polished to perfection.

In India’s eastern state of Orissa, the last great development of temple-dance-culture was taking place. The belief system of the Ganga dynasty had integrated as many as 15 religions and cultures. The prestigious Sun temple of Konarak was constructed under King Nahimsa (1238-1264) whose wife was a dancer. Legends speak of twelve hundred artists and craftsmen who worked twelve years to build this miracle, costing the national income of twelve years. The building is covered with love-scenes, representing “the soul’s happiness, while uniting with God”. Hundreds of dancers in classical Natya Shastra poses are depicted in the typical tribanga (three-fold-bent) way. A huge magnet that hung in the top held up the building. Its magnetic field was so strong that the navigation instruments of bypassing ships of the later Colonialists could sense it.

Ganapati, the next dynasty from 1434, continued to develop the Bhakti (devotional) cult, even though Muslim attacks from the north became heavier. Daily dancing was done by hundreds of female temple-dancers, the Mawari, while only men and boys performed theatrical dramas.

A wave of violence again struck India as another Genghis Khan descendant, Babur (1483-1530), captured Agra in 1526, making it the capital of the newly established great Mogul empire. In 1568 the Afghan King Daud Shah of Bengal overthrew the Orissa Ganapati dynasty. Many shrines and statues were destroyed and for eight years the Sun temple was not used.

In Agra and Delhi new mosques, palaces and tombs were built from the marble of the temples the Moguls had destroyed. Indian and Persian craftsmen worked hand in hand to create wonders of Muslim architecture, such as the Taj Mahal. Music and dance especially flourished under the very tolerant Akbar Shah, who resided in the city of Fatehpur Sikri from 1571-1585. People of several religions served at his court. He put an end to Daud Shah’s quest in Orissa and allowed the Hindus to repair their temples, replace the statues, and continue their rites.

Since Orissa was now no longer independent, a moral-ethical and artistic decline of the dance began. Whereas the very respected Maharis had lived secluded and chastely, well guarded all in one street, now, because of lack of financial support, they had to begin dancing for money—first for the kings, then in the homes of nobles and the wealthy, and later in public festivities. With the coming of the British, whose prejudice towards the Hindu cults was adopted by the Indians who had been “educated” by them, the former brilliance and fame of the dance crumbled to hardly more than a reflection of its former glory.15 In their eyes, “to make people forget their sorrow, to give them great pleasure and to educate them in the sacred laws,” was considered a sacrilegious combination.

The same thing happened in south India when the colonial power reduced the material and moral support of the Devadasis. In the second half of the 18th Century they began to live as concubines of the rich until the 2nd half of the 19th Century, when an anti-dance-movement arose among the British, the orthodox Hindus and the social reformers who had been trained in the European way. This led to the official prohibition of the consecration of temple-dancers in Mysore in 1910 and in Travancore (Kerala) in 1924. In 1927 in the British-ruled district of Madras alone, some 200,000 temple-dancers were reduced to prostitution for survival.14

It is an interesting coincidence, that at the same time Ruth St. Denis (1880-1968) staged her Oriental ballets, “Radha, the Dance of the Five Senses” (1906) and “Egypta” (1909), Mata Hari (1876-1917) caused a sensation in Europe with her exotic Hindu inspired dances (1907-1910).

The decline of the temple-dance in India has its parallel in the destiny of the sacred dancers in Egypt who were, in the beginning, main actors in pharaonic rites, and then served to glorify the pharaohs. Following generations of former temple dancers experienced the decadent phase of Ptolemaic dynasties, mixing their style with Greek and Roman orgiastic elements, only later to be condemned by the Copts and Muslims to point of extinction. Local folklore developed within the Muslim social frame. When court-dancers were introduced to Egypt, their high level of knowledge and artistic achievement was very much appreciated. Even when in the 19th Century the British and French took over power, these women were still known as Awalim, the learned ones. Some of them became quite wealthy and were independent. Some lived as concubines. However, there was no possibility of expression of the sacred through female dance-forms. As everywhere else in the Arab world, only men performed zikr and the whirling Dervish dances. The ancient healing zar dance was not performed, but done as a ritual in special houses behind closed curtains.

Ghawazee in lithograph from 1848, “Prisse d-Avennes,” Victoria and Albert Museum, London.

The Ghawazee, or Gypsy dancers, allocated to the fringe of society, lived in tents outside the cities on the Nile banks and danced for the general population whenever and wherever they could make an income with it. They adopted the local dance idiom and added their own, creating the kind of dance style that is now considered authentic Egyptian. (For insiders of Egyptian belly-dance: did you realize that the musical structure of awadi baladi, with which individual dancers express their feminine power by improvised, sensuous dancing, corresponds exactly to that of the classical Indian raga presentation in alap, jor, jhala and gat?) Although the Ghawazee were invited to dance at weddings and other festive events as luck-bringers, no “decent” person would marry them. Some 400 were beheaded and dumped in the Nile for flirting with the French. In 1834 they were banned to Upper Egypt, where they settled in Esna, Assuan and Kean.15

A new époque began in the 20th Century after the First World War, when radio and film made fast communication worldwide possible. Those who could afford to go and see a movie were confronted for the first time with moving pictures of worlds they had never seen before and had only heard or read about. Curiosity, and even a longing for these other worlds, was awakened in the East as well as the West. Both India and Egypt were now on their way to recovery.

Barely ten years after the anti-nautch movement was founded in India, the counter movement began with the genius, poet, painter, composer, philosopher, director and cultural politician, Rabindranath Tagore, of Bengal (1861-1941). Tagore introduced manipuri dance in schools for educational reasons and notably, against public opinion, dared to put young dancing girls on stage in 1926. He wrote several plays in which dance performances played a part, and because they were performed on stages instead of in dubious environments, and because it was completely secularized, the beauty of the dance began to be appreciated once again. He created a new form of dance drama based on the ancient tradition of Indian folk-theatre but adopting the structures of European ballet. This innovative folkloric ballet style was well-received and began an upward trend in the art of Indian dance.

Another influential artist was Menaka (1899-1947), daughter of a rich Brahman who, much to the bitter objections of her family, performed her first kathak solo program in Bombay in 1926. She had studied violin in London where she had been greatly inspired by Anna Pavlova. Following the example of the Russian ballerina, she built up her own ensemble and started to perform folkloric ballets in kathak style. She went on tour in Europe in 1936, adapting the classical kathak to suit a concert style performance. After her return to India, she staged the classical love drama of Kalidasa as a kathak ballet, using also dances in manipuri, bharat natyam and kathakali styles, without mixing them. She opened a kathak school close to Bombay in 1938. The most famous representative of kathak now is Birju Maharaj, descendant of a guru family of Lucknow—a great dancer and teacher.

In Kerala the poet and freedom fighter Vallathol Narayana Menon (1878-1958) made the rebirth of kathakali possible. He raised money with a lottery and founded a village in the Trichur area where the poetry, music and dance of the Kerala culture were being taught by the best gurus he could find. A kathakali dance troupe was formed that very successfully toured India, Malaysia and Burma.

In Madras, where heavy discussions had been going on between enemies and lovers of the dance, a bharat natyam performance at the Music Academy in 1934 by the Devadasi Bala Saraswati, famous for her mastery of facial expression in the dance, had a decisive effect. She became a celebrity.

Rukhmini Devi, like Menaka, had met Anna Pavlova, while she was in Australia in 1926, and had been inspired by her to devote herself to Indian dance. She learned bharat natyam in a remarkably short time and founded Kalakshetra in Adyar, close to Madras. the most important art center and dance institute in India to this day.

Uday Shankar and Anna Pavlova in “Krishna and Radha,” 1923.

Outside of India, Uday Shankar (1900-1977) was the primary dancer who did much for the image of Indian dance in the world. He came to London to study painting and sometimes did Indian dances that he had invented himself. Anna Pavlova asked him to work with her, and in 1924 they performed the piece “Radha and Krishna” for nine months in Europe. Afterwards he focused on reviving the ceremonial temple and court dances, and Indian folklore. Although he took care to remain based on the Natya Shastra, and not cater to superficial exoticism, he still did much to make the dance understandable to the non-Indian audience. In addition, he was the first Indian dancer to stage themes like social problems. He founded the Sangheet Natak Akedemi in New Delhi in 1953.

The Odissi style took a long time to recover, but through the efforts of Menati Misra, Indrani Lehman and Sanjukta Panigrahi, the style has been preserved.16

In Egypt the medium of film, and later television and video, have made hard working individual dancers such as Tahia Carioca, Samia Gamal, Soheir Zaki and Nagoua Fouad, very famous. Thanks to the outstanding work of Mahmud Reda and Farida Fahmy, the whole world enjoys Egyptian folkloric dances and new court-dance choreographies. Egyptian style Oriental ballets and stage shows involving dance, music and singing were produced that influenced the whole Middle East.

We have seen how classical Indian dance as well as the dance scene in Egypt has regained respect and quality, fame and the expansion of repertoire. But what has happened to the quest to make people happy and forget their sorrow, and educate them in the sacred laws? Could one say that the laws were changed? Did the sacred laws have to make way for a more secular, western way of thinking? What happened to the yogic aspect of the dance? Where are the healing and transforming qualities—where is the devotion? What would have happened to the temple dances if India had not been conquered? Only some questions can be partly answered by looking at the places that preserved the qualities of temple dance, even though they were driven out from other areas.

Bali remained Hindu and developed its particular forms of sacred dances that are most beautiful to the eye; that make people forget all sorrow; that tell tales of heroes, gods, spirits, animals; and have a clear moral. Trance is part of the dancer’s means of making rituals effective. The key word here is ritual. The beneficial effects of the ritual dances on the population can be felt by anyone visiting Bali. Since practically everyone dances from the age of three until they are very old, they are elegant, physically fit and have no weight problems. The refinement in all art forms in the personal behavior of the people, in their healing techniques and in their generally high level of spiritual accomplishment through different meditation techniques, are most remarkable.

In the non Indian Himalayan states such as Nepal, Tibet, Ladakh, Sikkim and Bhutan, ritual never stopped being an important part of everyday life, as in Indonesia. The ritual dances are done with a purpose. They are like spiritual surgery to the environment, the spectators and to the dancers themselves. If the outer forms of the divine appearance finds its counterpart inside by allowing nothing else to reside there but supreme consciousness and sharp awareness, if divine love emanates from all the pores, then the dancer is being danced. Cosmos dances in and through the dancer. Sound familiar? Yes! That is exactly what the whirling Dervish aims to achieve in his dance.

Ruth St. Denis in “The Incense,” 1916. Photo: Strauss-Peyton.

The growing freedom of religion in western Christian countries—especially since the Second Vatican Ecumenical Council, opened under Pope John XXIII in 1962 and closed by Pope Paul VI in 1965—as well as the high standard of education, allowed people to study to their heart’s content the religious and artistic values of other peoples. This right was formerly reserved for Jesuit priests only. This brought about a change of religious behavior in the free countries. The study did not stop at reading—people also began to practice all kinds of meditation, yoga, tai chi, breathing techniques, mantra chanting, and so on. Free dancing and drumming, ancient trance techniques that had long been forbidden by the church, now once again broaden religious horizons, enhance spiritual knowledge and restore to laymen and women the possibility of having direct contact with the divine.

The similarity of the present time to past Indian and Egyptian cultures before the foreign invasions, becomes evident. Beautiful woman are dancing Oriental Dance in combination with good education and broadened spiritual horizons. Many are not that far from mastering the 64 arts and sciences. Doctors, engineers, atomic researchers and psychologists are among the women who perform on the stage. Their motivation is certainly not to make money with their dance.

One of the aspects of being a successful dancer at this time is the necessity to travel, to be exposed to all kinds of people from all kinds of cultures. Travel serves as an eye-opener, and is the common factor in all of those individuals who have revived the classical dance in India. The years of physical training, the understanding of the audiences, the refinement of the personality and the repeated moments of trance, have transformed the dancers. They begin to see and hear beyond. They study the roots and discover the hidden treasure. They start to remember the sacred mission of the arts, which was to make people forget their sorrow, to give them great pleasure and to educate them in the sacred laws.

There is a much wider meaning to this sentence now than ever before, through better access to knowledge. The esoteric and religious wisdom of the whole earth is at our disposal now—an opportunity truly rare, if not unique in history! Also there is a much greater need in this time of wars, turbulence and decadence. The sacred laws were written in many books throughout history. We, as world citizens of the 21st Century, are looking for the universal sacred laws. We search for them in old myths and modern discoveries alike, in all countries on this planet.

We see new versions of performances of mythological stories by individuals and groups in the East and West, led by Egyptians and Westerners. Religious dances and healing rituals have re-entered the repertoire of Oriental dancers. New combinations are made. What had been separated is coming together again.

As an example, one Egyptian choreographer who has influenced this development in Germany, Switzerland, Austria, the Gulf countries and Egypt itself, is Prof. Dr. Hassan Khalil, head of the Department of Dramatic Studies at the High Institute of Dramatic Arts in Kuwait. He has introduced, along with ballet, folklore and theatre, the zikr and the whirling tanoura dance in his teaching and directing activities. In 1986 he taught the relation between zar, zikr and the Oriental Dance at a festival of trance dance in Bad Soden, Germany. He also choreographed a dance to “Al Besha’a,” an old shamanic ritual in a mix of Oriental dance and drama. He staged “Isis” many times as pure Oriental Dance (’79,’80, ‘85, ’88). He choreographed dances on the theme of magic: “Qare’at El Fingan,” “Tamer Henna Sha’abi,” “Al Henna” (Abdel Wahab), “Layali El Nour” (Ahmed Fouad Hassan) in 1988, and “To Milk The Stars” in 2001. He created a pantomimic drama with a combination of dances called “Adam and Eve” in 1994, and another on the epic of “Iliad and Odyssey” in 1997. Both programs were performed in Kuwait.

Younger Egyptian choreographers who work in Europe also follow the same line. For example, Momo Kadous produced “Rabia el Adawia” (1996) on the life of a Sufi saint, and “Zaro” (1998) on the zar ritual; Gamal and Khaled Seyf perform tanoura dances, teach Oriental and folkloric dance, and have introduced the zar in the European dance studios; Non-Orientals such as Laurel Victoria Gray and Havva produced “Egypta” (1996) on the history of Egypt from pharaonic times; I produced “The Story of the Lotus” (1994) on the chakra system and the history of sacred dance, and “The World of Tara” on the Himalayan Goddess of compassion, and teach whirling along with Oriental dance.

The activities and interests of the European students of Oriental Dance have shifted over the years and at the moment include the development of spiritual potential. Most women experience an opening to this higher potential after they have participated in well-guided whirling classes.

The fact that Westerners have an interest in religious dances has changed the attitude in eastern countries, as we saw in the earlier example of Anna Pavlova’s influence on the revival of classical temple dance in India. Thus in Turkey, where the whirling dance had been forbidden by Atatürk in the beginning of the 20th Century, not only the Dervishes are whirling again, but now women are performing whirling there as well. Even the most traditional Mevlevi order has recently started to teach women how to whirl (end of 2001), and is preparing a Sema ritual in which performers (Semazen) and spectators will be only women (December 2002).

Sufen Wu, a Taiwanese dancer who studied modern dance and ballet in Los Angeles, made her examination on a dance for Buddhist goddess Kuan Yin, and Sufen Wu’s sister, who is a Buddhist nun, choreographed the movements of a large choir of over 80 monks and nuns, who toured the world with the Taiwanese symphony orchestra and their spiritual master Hsin Yün in 1999. For this occasion Sufen Wu’s troupe performed Buddhist dances in a style that has Chinese, modern and balletic elements.

Pema Dasara, an American woman, performed the Buddhist dances of the 21 Taras with her students in front of the Lamas of Tibet, Nepal and India. In response, a troupe of Nepalese nuns has begun to tour Europe, dancing the Lama dances. On several occasions, my troupe and I also had the honor of performing Tara dances before high rinpoches. In 2000, the Director of the Royal Institute of Performing Arts of Bhutan gave women the opportunity to study and perform sacred dances for the first time in history. Inspired by my Tara dance costumes, he adopted the crowns for use in certain women’s dances, fashioned after a model the beloved queen mother used to wear.

Some Indian dancers have used the classical dance idiom of Hindu temple dance to depict scenes from the life of Jesus Christ, like Vijaya Rao and her troupe, or Christian prayers, such as Dr. Ronald Sequeira who dances the “Our Father” prayer in bharat natyam style.

The Future of Oriental Dance

Dancer Yamuna as Kanakavamatara, or the Golden Tara, from ”The World of Tara,” choreography by Shahrazad, January, 2002. Photo: Walter Schüssele.

In addition to the continuation of existing Middle Eastern dance activities in teaching and performing, one branch of growth is the individual study and performance of the sacred dances of all peoples. It is building bridges of understanding between cultures and translating spiritual concepts to the general public by means of dance. Real yogic training as part of the dancer’s education can make it possible to show, in a short time to willing spectators, what otherwise would take years of study, by direct transmission of knowledge in the dance. Dancing healers and healing dancers, supported by modern science, can start a new branch in health-care. Dancers realize that there are always three temples available: their own body; the space they dance in (any theatre or performance place); and the whole cosmos.

We are beginning to have more control over the flow of different energies and the charkas, using our potential of radiation and the perception of powerful healing energies in communication with the audience during a dance performance. We are learning how mandalas can be the patterns of foot, arm, hand, hip and body movements. Heightened awareness of all the senses are leading to “supernatural” experiences felt by the audience and the dancers. Purification of one’s own character gradually changes the environment.

With a staff of idealistic, experienced and knowledgeable pioneers in this field, a new kind of dance academy and a new kind of temple theatre could be founded. Just imagine the weekly schedules during years of classes in:

· dance, music, singing, acting, whirling techniques and classical martial arts

· several forms of yoga and meditation

Nuns of Kachoe Gakyel Ling Monastery in Kathmandu, Nepal, costumed for “The 21 Taras,” 2001. Photo: Eva Anderson

· languages, literature in prose and poetry

· holy scriptures and oral deliveries of all peoples of the world

· the cataloging and studying the myths, legends and folk tales of our planet (mythological psychology)

· studying the rising and decaying of different cultures and the reasons thereof (history and art history, cultural anthropology)

· psychology and moral conduct

· all kinds of arts and crafts (useful adaptation of the 64 arts and crafts as mentioned before)

· the study of ritual, ceremony and prayer

· sacred drama in history and in the present time

There would be a great library, retreat caves set in nature, and a theatre attached to the academy. The wonderful, inspiring and healing performances of sacred dance to most beautiful music would be a new field of performance. Architects would be inspired to build different theatres in which craftsmen and artists would work on amazing spiritual art forms in stone and glass, etc.

Zaza Hassan as the Dervish, Shahrazad as Raba’a El Adawiya (a famous 8th century saint from Basra), and Soraya Kadous as a protecting angel. Choreography by Momo Kadous. Frankfurt, Germany, 1996.

The new devotion could be defined, for example, as the effort to make people forget their sorrow, to give them great pleasure and to educate them in protecting the earth and its inhabitants, animals and resources, skies and waters, with values such as wisdom and compassion.

Tears of joy, moments of enlightenment, ecstasy and deeply felt love, the reconnecting with the divine and the recognition of that divinity in the shining eyes of all beings, is what I wish for all those who come to see this cosmic dance.


1) Natya Shastra, ISBN 81-70 30-007-X, Sri Satguru Publications, Delhi, India.

2) Ibid., chapter 1.Verses 41-42.

3) Ibid., Verses 45-50.

4) Ibid., Verses 11 and 51.

5) Ibid., Verses 51 –53, 73-74, 81-82.

6) La Dance Sacree, “Arts et Métiers Graphiques,” Louis Frédéric, 1957, Paris.

7) Kama Sutra, “About the Sciences and Arts,” 1980, pages 24-26, ISBN 3-926537-13-2.

8 ) Cittavishuddhipra-karana, Verses 110-111, translation by Miranda Shaw. Sanskrit and Tibetan editions by Prabhubhai Bhikhabhai Patel (n.p. Visva-Bharati, 1949).

9) Egyptian Magic, E.A. Wallis Budge, 1899, Ed. 1979, pgs. 192-193.

10) Chactun, Die Götter der Maya, Christian Rätsch, 1994, page 191, ISBN 3-424-00797-8.

11) Classical Indian Dance in Literature and the Arts, Kapila Vatsyayan 2nd ed., Sangeet Natak Akademi, New Delhi, 1977, page 294.

12) Das Weltreich der Mongolen, Peter Brent, 1977, ISBN 3-7857-0193-4.

13) Die Tanzkunst Indiens, Eberhard Rebling, 1982, ISBN 3-7959-0348-3. Chapters on Kathak and Odissi.

14) Indian Dances, Rina Singha and Reginad Massey, London, 1967, page 61.

15) More details about the Egyptian dancers in The Serpent of the Nile, Wendy Buonaventura, ISBN 3-8077-0246-6.

16) Die Tanzkunst Indiens, Eberhard Rebling, 1982, ISBN 3-7959-0348-3, pgs. 229-235.

Shahrazad was born in Holland and grew up in a goldsmith family where art and music were a part of everyday life. At twenty-one, she traveled from Amsterdam to India overland, then studied for six years at the Maastricht Art Academy and in 1976 began studying bharat natyam, kathak, raqs sharqi, Oriental folklore and court dance. Since 1980, she has been performing, teaching and traveling in thirty-three countries. Shahrazad was one of the first European women to learn the dance of the whirling Dervishes and has been initiating hundreds of women world-wide into this form. Together with her ensembles, she has staged multi-layered Oriental dance productions, such as “The History of the Lotus,” “Dreams of Peace,” and “The World of Tara.” She lives in Cologne, Germany, where she teaches at her Studio Mashallah.

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