Considered as the world’s oldest profession. Prostitutes existed since the beginning of civilization. According to some historians, the existence of prostitution was first recorded as early as in the Babylonian times. In ancient India, their services were not limited to providing entertainment and physical pleasure to kings, nobles or common man, but they were also used extensively for carrying out honeytrap espionage missions or political assassinations.
In Hindu scriptures like the Puranas, they enjoyed the status of a demigod. Known for their exquisite beauty, quick intelligence and sensuality, Rambha, Urvashi, Tilottama, the apsaras (courtesans) at the king of gods Indra’s court, were revered and celebrated by religious scholars in ancient times. Sadly, in modern India, they are treated as social outcasts and are looked down upon with hatred and disgust.
They also found a respectable place in early Sanskrit literature. In Abhigyan Shakuntalam, poet and dramatist Kalidasa glorified the celestial nymph Menaka’s tragic love for sage Vishwamitra. Another playwright Sudraka celebrated the clandestine affair between an impoverished young noble Charudutta and a wealthy high-class courtesan Vasantsena in his drama Mricchakatika (the story was later adapted into a critically acclaimed Bollywood film Utsav). Even Vatsyayna’s Kamasutra (which is considered as an ultimate guide to human sexual behaviour) greatly stresses on the lives of courtesans in the early centuries of ancient India. The Hindu text dedicates several pages and chapters amplifying the indispensable role played by the courtesans in the society.
Despite enjoying the veneration in literature and religious scriptures, their importance in society, however, was formally recognised much later- during the time of King Chandragupta Maurya. The king’s royal advisor Chanakya, in his book on socio-economic policy Arthashastra, very specifically stated the importance of brothel incomes. He drew attention to the prostitute colonies by bringing their income under the state’s mandatory taxation system and in doing so he stressed on their indispensable role in government’s revenue system. If folklores are to be believed, the shrewd political advisor of Pataliputra also had raised and trained an army of assassins, who went by the name of Vishkanya (meaning poison maiden), to assist his favourite king in ascending the throne. These cold-blooded murderesses (whose nature of work was also somewhat similar to that of a prostitute) used to lure the enemies with promises of carnal favours and then secretly carried out assassinations.
Later in the time of Mughals, who were considered as great patrons of fine arts like music and dance, prostitutes gained the significant title of royal entertainers. Skilled in classical dance forms and Hindustani vocal music, these women became an inseparable part of royal courts. Such was their importance as professional entertainers that they used to move with the army to provide entertainment during stressful campaigns. In the era of nawabs and zamindars, these women flourished as Tawaif. However, in spite of familiarizing us with rich classical dance (Kathak) and music (thumri and ghazal) which we modern Indians proudly brag as our national heritage, these women have been pushed into oblivion now. We have forgotten their contribution in enriching our culture.
In the name of devdasi (religious entertainer), these women are still being exploited by immoral priests or powerful men of the community. Even decades after the abolishment of this practice by the Indian government, devdasis are still found in some parts of southern India. How many of us are aware of the fact that Goddess Durga, who is worshipped as the epitome of feminine power (nari shakti), also shares a deep connection with prostitute quarters. Her idol constitutes clay collected from 18 locations and one of these locations is a brothel. And the irony is the clay collected from the brothel entries is called Punya Mati (sacred/pure soil). Sadly, these women are far from being called anything even remotely connected to the word pure.
Even the pictures of goddesses that we worship in temples and houses are an imitation of Raja Ravi Verma’s paintings. The prolific painter painted images of Lakshmi and Saraswati based on his muse who also was a prostitute.
Ganika, vaishya, tawaif or call girls, call them by any name you want, there is no denying the fact that we owe a lot to these women. Prostitutes are a necessary social evil which is consistently trying to make this world a safer place for us women. Imagine if the sex workers would not have existed then how many women would have had fallen prey to the sexual predators that infest our cities, towns, and villages. Rapes and other forms of sexual crimes against women would have had escalated to even more horrifying levels than they are now if these women were not there to appease the carnal desires of these perverts.
By serving the needs of these sex-starved men, prostitutes are actually saving the world from a lot of hideous crimes. Yet we have turned a blind eye towards this section of the society. This impoverished class (which is forced to live at the mercy of pimps and cruel brothel owners) live in extreme poverty. A simple stroll into the famous red-light areas of the country Banaras (Shivdaspur), Kolkata (Sonagachi), Delhi (G.B Road) and Mumbai (Kamathipura) gives a dismal picture of the life led by these brothel dwellers. Without proper housing, sanitation and basic amenities like school and hospital these people are struggling to survive every day. Although prostitution was vaguely legalised by the Constitution a few decades ago, however necessary steps to protect these people from exploitation in the hands of middlemen and clients are yet to be taken. Most of the girls in this profession are there not by choice but are trafficked from rural areas or sold by their own parents and deceitful lovers in lieu of money.
Efforts are being made to help their children earn a living through respectable means by providing them with proper education. Authorities and NGOs are trying to control the spread of HIV and other STDs by educating them and providing necessary healthcare. However, the measures taken towards their improvement are still not enough and often the aids that are being allocated for their reforms go into wrong hands. Sometimes they are exploited by the very people (police or other law enforcement representatives) who were supposed to protect them.
A little bit of empathy and acceptance from us can give these people a better standing in the society. We people have to change our attitude towards them. After all our ancestors, literary scholars, artists and even gods have celebrated and accepted their importance in maintaining a balanced society, it’s high time we also give them their due. I reiterate that this is a necessary social evil without which a balance in the society cannot be attained.