NEW DELHI — Sashimani Devi, the last ritual dancer at the Jagannath Temple in eastern India, died on March 19 in the city of Puri, bringing an end to a centuries-old tradition that was condemned as exploitative by social reformers, Victorian missionaries and the leaders of independent India. She was 92.
Like most devadasis, or “maharis,” as the dancers in Odisha are known, Sashimani came from a poor family and was initiated into temple service when she was 7 or 8, she said. After she reached puberty, she was considered a “living wife” of Lord Jagannath, the god whose timber image is worshiped at the temple. She was not expected to marry.
At the time, she was one of about 25 women assigned to care for Jagannath and other images of deities at the temple, according to state records. She conducted ritual baths, rubbed the statues with lotion and performed private songs and dances at bedtime, standing at the threshold of the inner sanctum, where the deities were installed. Asked by an interviewer about the god Jagannath, she replied: “He is my husband and I am his wife. There is no dispute about it.”
She was the last to perform a dance that had been practiced in the temple for 5,000 years, Mr. Samantasinghar said.
The status of India’s temple dancers was at its height from the 13th to the 15th centuries, a period when kings depended heavily on the worship of local deities in their temples, said Lucinda E. Ramberg, an assistant professor of anthropology at Cornell University. She wrote a book about modern-day devadasis.
Sashimani’s father died when she was a child, and her mother, who had also been a temple dancer, “left her at the age of 8 with another devadasi to groom her and take care of her,” Mr. Samantasinghar said. He said he did not know where the child’s mother had gone.