The expression “Mahari” is a derivative of two Oriya words, ‘Mahan’ and ‘Nari’, meaning ‘divine damsels’. They were a professional group, a class of sevayats of Lord Jagannath. The Mahari’s consisted of different categories of sevikas, being assigned different sevas as follows:
Bhitara Gauni: The Bhitara Gauni sang in the inner precincts of the temple or the sanctum sanctorum. Their service was reserved for the night, during the Badashingara Vesha of the Lord.
Bahara Gauni: They rendered seva beyond the inner precincts of the sanctum sanctorum, singing during the breakfast of the Lord, or Sakala Dhupa, and at other festivals that were celebrated in the temple.
Nachuni: They were the dancer community who rendered their service through dance.
Patuari: The group who provided the costumes or Patani of the Lord, and were supposed to garb them.
Raj Angila: She was the attendant of the Gajapati Maharaja or King, who was considered to be the local representative of Lord Jagannath.
Gahana Mahari: They were assigned special duties only on special occasions, and they always rendered their service in groups. There was no individual seva for them.
The dance of this Nachuni class of Mahari is not to be referred to as the Mahari Nrutya, instead it should be referred to as the Devadasi Nrutya, as this class of Maharis performed the Devadasi Seva. It is said that after Chodagangadeva ascended the throne of Utkal at Puri, with the help of a very famous Tantrik, Nitei Dhobani by name, who was an ardent devotee of Lord Jagannath, he appointed virgin maidens from the southern parts of India to render their services to Lord Jagannath.
The present temple was built and according to the popular belief, the Mahari seva was introduced by this king, between the 11th and 12th Century. This, of course, does not mean that the religion of Lord Jagannath was so young as to be dated sometime between the 11th and 12th century. In reality, the religion of Lord Jagannath is as old as the creation of this universe. Other gods and goddesses were later developments. The most authentic and oldest text, the Rig Veda, mentions Lord Jagannath in its 10th Mandala:
Ado Jaddharu plavate sindhou pare apurusham
The selection of young girls to be apprenticed as Maharis was such that any girl, evidently still a child, could be inculcated as a Mahari if she perfectly fit the norms and conditions of the selection process. The young girl chosen for the apprenticeship could not be physically deformed. She could not have any signs of ugliness, etc. These young girls were apprenticed as Maharis at a very tender age, before attaining puberty. On the day fixed according to planetary position, the girl was bathed with turmeric paste. She remained on fast, decorating herself with sandalwood paste and puting on Khandua Patani and Swarna Alankara, symbolically donated by the Lord to show that she would be under the custody of the Lord.
After this, she was brought to the temple and after a short ritual, was brought to the Sri Nahara, where she sought private audience with the Gajapati Maharaja of Puri. She is then sent for training under the Mahari Guru and after being fit for seva, offers herself, dancing with complete surrender to the Lord.
The rituals of Lord Jagannath are prescribed in Niladri Moahodaya, which is a part of Suta Samhita. Niladri Mahodaya mentions the Mahari dance only once, during the installation ceremony of the Lord. It says:
Gitanrityatisamsabdoh dibyojani jada dwija
It is said that it was the Apsaras, Menaka and Rambha, who adorned the court of Indradeva, performing for the first time in the temple. The Maharis hail their lineage to these Apsaras. But no information provided directly by these Maharis can be considered entirely reliable, given that they were neither well read nor knew anything beyond their seva.
The Mahari seva was not a hereditary profession, nor did the Maharis have any biological relationship as they were supposed to remain sexually inactive and maintain their virginity. Those who were found guilty or those who wished to start families were debarred from rendering seva.
Dance is an essential part of the temple’s ritual practices and accordingly, is an important part of worship. The dance performed by a group of Maharis called Nachunis took place at a particular time of day, when a Nachuni was supposed to render seva, i.e., dance during the Lord’s breakfast, or Sakaladhupa. The same seva was performed in the Nata Mandapa right in front of the public eye. She was to dance unperturbed by the public.
This dance was always a pure piece, without any song accompaniment. The dance performed during the night, or Badashingara Vesha, was a more clandestine ritual and was held when the Lord retired to the bed. During this period, the Mahari used to step into the Kalahata Dwara as a devi or a divine being, and used to perform only for the Lord near his Ratna Simhasana. She used to render Abhinaya stances from the Geeta Govinda and was normally accompanied by a vocalist and a percussionist, who would remain outside the Kalahata Dwara. Besides this, the Maharis had other sevas during the festivals which if discussed would itself turn into a volume.
The social life of the Maharis was totally dull. They used to live like queens in a sahi called Mahari Palli, or Anga Alasa Patana. They were never allowed free audience with any males and to be assured that they led a totally chaste, unadulterated and pious life, they used to be monitored by the Mina Nahaka and the Sahi Nahaka.
I would like to mention here that Padmavati, the wife of Jayadeva, the famous poet saint of 12th century A.D and writer of the famous literary classic, the Geeta Govinda, was a Mahari. She was said to have married Jayadeva under mysterious circumstances, under the divine guidance of Lord Jagannath. She belonged to Paralakhemundi in the southern part of Orissa, then known as Kalinga. She was instrumental in aiding the creation of this world famous epic. Jayadeva is said to have written the masterpiece being charmed by her beauty. It is also said that she used to dance, radiating the effulgence of Srimati Radharani, and Jayadeva used to sing the Geeta Govinda totally dumb struck by her charm. This has been mentioned during the initial chapters of the Geeta Govinda. The verse follows.
Padmavati charana charana chakravarti
It is a matter of regret that the great tradition of the Maharis is now totally extinct in Jagannatha Puri. Some are of the opinion that these young girls, unable to control their human instincts, were driven into prostitution. There is, however ,no record to substantiate such opinions. During an audience with the Gajapati Maharaja Shri Dibyasingha Deva, he stated that the Nachuni Seva died an abrupt death during the regime of his grandfather. He said there was no such instance of any kind of impurity with the Maharis. In the record of rights of the year 1952, a government chronicle of the temple, among the list of 119 sevas, Geeta Govinda seva is mentioned in the 74th section. The 75th section mentions the Bhitara Gauni Seva. It is most possible that by 1952, the Nachuni seva had already ceased.
Whatever might be the cause for it, the fact remains that the Nachuni seva has gone out of the temple precincts. Undoubtedly the dance performance involved in the Nachuni seva is a divine art form whose extinction would be a tremendous loss to the rich cultural heritage of Orissa. Should we not endeavor to preserve this traditional dance form in all its pristine purity?