Over the centuries there have been all sorts of prostitutes, from simple whores who provided sexual services (veshya) to temple dancers who to a certain extent prostituted themselves (devdasis) to highly respected courtesans. But never have they been this bad as we see them in red-light areas of different cities in India today. Here are a few faces of the oldest profession in the world to show how ugly and pathetic it is today compared to the times gone by.
Heera Mandi. For centuries these two words have conjured up images of the forbidden mysterious world of the courtesan. The narrow alleys of Lahore’s walled city was once the traditional playground of the scions of Punjab’s powerful feudal families. Lured by the sound of the ghungroos, the haunting love-songs and the legendary beauties behind the trellised curtained balconies of Heera Mandi, there were many who left their hearts at the feet of the dancing girls of Lahore. Heera Mandi nurtured some outstanding performing artistes, including the famous Noorjehan, Khurshid, Shamshad Begum, Mumtaz Shanti and many others. Most of the early film actresses of pre-Partition Lahore cinema came from the kothas of Heera Mandi. The art of music in Punjab was confined to the streets of the courtesans with Heera Mandi taking the lead as the largest settlement in the cultural capital of the state in undivided Punjab. Today, only the lowest tier in the courtesan hierarchy live and dance in Heera Mandi. The celebrated dancing girls and their powerful patrons have long moved on to up-market residential areas, taking with them the romance and allure that cloaked the sleazy, squalid reality of Heera Mand. In the midst of unimaginable squalor and despair are moments of heartbreaking compassion, humanity, that inimitable brand of earthy Lahori humour and the generosity of spirit that color the cruel cycle of life in Lahore’s ancient pleasure district.
LUCKNOW: As Mughal rule in Delhi declined, the Nawabs of Avadh came into their own. Many courtesans moved from Delhi and surrounding areas to Lucknow, and Urdu poets and the seat of Urdu poetry went with them, to Lucknow. Like in Umrao Jaan and Pakeezah, the courtesan of Lucknow has been variously depicted in films and reams have been written which somehow have created the image of courtesan as the purveyor of sexual pleasures and entertainment. The opulent and ostentatious living of the courtesan was an embodiment of a culture, culinary and artistic talents coupled with a flourish of feminine beguile. The best mahals of Qaiserbagh, with carpets, hookahs, silver paan boxes, crystal lamps, and the Vermeer-like mirrors, belonged to these courtesans. Under the patronage of medieval rulers and Nawabs, a class of dancing girls and courtesans emerged to entertain the palaces and courts. Kathak dance assumed the form of courtly entertainment and attained new heights of popularity and glory. They established the famous Parikhaana (abode of fairies) in which hundreds of beautiful and talented girls were taught music and dancing by expert-teachers engaged by the royal patron. These girls were known as Paris (fairies) with names such as Sultan pari, Mahrukh pari and so on. However, when Lucknow was taken over by the British after the 1857-war of Independence, the British divested them of their earnings and forced them into the abysmal ghettoized life of red-light areas which ultimately resulted in the birth of the tawaif or prostitute with all it’s negative connotations and exploitations, from her previous avtar as a courtesan of erstwhile Lucknow.
Tanjore: Although ancient texts like Vedas, Upanishads do not mention Devadasis (servants of God), institutionalized worship of idols in temples during early centuries of led to the practice of dedicating women to temples. Their main job was to dance and sing as also playing musical instruments. In the course of history the so called “temple women” were both honored and exploited in the name of God. At one time, they were regarded as honorable professionals, and are responsible for development of many of India’s performing fine-arts. Dedicating dancing girls to temples in the service of God was not peculiar to India. Many ancient civilizations, like those of Babylon, Cyprus, Phoenicia, Greece, Mesopotamia, Egypt, and Syria employed young girls to propitiate their deities in their respective temples. In the temple of Corinth, we are told, hundreds of prostitutes lived in the precincts of the temple and the main income of the shrine was from the income of these courtesans. Contemporary norms found no stigma if rich clientele associated themselves with such women, who in their spare time entertained the rich and wealthy. India was no exception. By the time Hiuen Tsang came to India Devadasi system was firmly established. He had noticed a large number of them in the great Tanjore temple built by Rajaraja Chola (10th century). The system of devdasis was officially abolished by the Government but as with many other religious and customary traditions, it survives in some temples in South India.
Kamthipura: For the dancing girls of Lahore, Lucknow and temples of Tanjore, it was, indeed, a free fall to land up in Kamthipura, Mumbai's oldest and Asia's largest red-light district. The area was set up by the British for their troops, which acted as their official "comfort zone". This small region boasted the most exotic consorts. When the British left India, the Indian sex workers took over. Every vile desire a man could dream of was for sale and child virgins were the region’s most noted delicacies. Today, it is said that there are so many brothels in the area, that there is no space for the sex workers to sit in. They hang around in the streets, solicit customers and then rent a free bed. Now these streets are just playgrounds for human traffickers and mafia. The police, the brothel keeper, and pimps share the major part of the earnings of the prostitutes and the rest of it that percolates down to the prostitutes is a mere pittance. It is alleged that the police accepts the hospitality, money and free use of the girls. The police helps the brothel keeper even by bringing back the ones who have run away. With the extreme poverty and societal prejudice toward women, thousands of girls are bought and sold in every state of India. The lenient law enforcement system has allowed for the flourishing trade. Once the girl is sold to a brothel keeper, she becomes a virtual slave of the industry. She is beaten, threatened, caged, verbally abused and forced to have sex with many men every day.
Our society has not only turned a blind eye to minor girls being enticed into prostitution but also is directly responsible for the continuance in growth of child prostitution. First the demand for virgin prostitutes, and secondly it abets child prostitution by failing to provide adequate facilities for orphan and destitute children. Unless so called respectable sections of the society rise in revolt against exploitation, the future of younger generation looks bleak. We have to forget the idea of once a prostitute, for ever a prostitute and think how can a child help what has been done to her by an unthinking adult? We have to overlook their past and rehabilitate them. The society can certainly endeavor to achieve what SITA (Suppression of Immoral Trafficking Act) could not.
thank you very much for your very thought provoking comment. you have analyzed the topic from an entirely different angle, which in itself is unique, yet very intelligent. you make a convincing case for the men vis-a-vis prostitution, which is why it is known as the oldest profession in the world that could never be abolished in any country, at any time. but forcing of minor girls into the brothels by pimps aided by the police is indefensible and must be stopped. it can only be done if the administration as well as the society take it seriously and do not let any small girl brought into the brothels.
clearly, i am grossed out and disturbed to the point of wanting to not read anything more.
dear krishnan bala,
thank you for your generous comments. you are absolutely right about need for some regulatory control of the oldest profession. stronger action is also needed to stop sale of minor girls to brothels which can only be done by disciplining the law enforcement agencies.
it is the first time ever i have had the opportunity to discover so many facts entwined with this delicate subject that few people will find it honourable to discuss in the open.you have done it region-wise with a historical perspective and truly at a social angle.the fact that it has been in existence for so long is indicative of its un-disposable nature of a necessity which may at best require some regulatory control.perhaps the world's ancient profession may also require some modernisation and exculpation of criminal guilt that is sought to be entangled with it.