The dance of Shiva symbolises the cosmic cycles of creation and destruction, birth and death. His dance is therefore the dance of the Universe. The parallel is seen in modern physics, which has shown that the cycle of creation and destruction is not only reflected in the turn of seasons and in the birth and death of living creatures but is also the very essence of inorganic matter.
For centuries, our culture has accepted that the dance of Shiva is the dance of life, myths, symbolism, mystic responses and philosophical explanations all merely add to the strength of such belief in a power that transcends the merely mortal. and when the human dancer enacts this act encompassing concept, he or she only makes a humble offering of acknowledgement. The earliest historical illustration of Nataraja preaching Natyagama in its pure form originates in the Chalukyan sanctuaries of Badami and Aihole in the mid 6th century A.D. The temple rituals necessitated the physical presence of women replacing the imaginative celestials, propitiating the Gods. The allegorical view of dance used for the purpose of the pleasure of devas, transformed into a divine service in the medieval temple traditions. As a result temples vied with one another in having the best dancers and musicians in their services. Thus temple dancing was institutionalised and the dancing girls were patronised by the kings and mahajans and were often respectfully mentioned in many inscriptions of temples built in the medieval age. The famous temple of Belur has several epithets glorifying the Hoysala queen Shantala as Natya Saraswati, Vichitra Suthradhare etc.
The dancing girls of the temples were called devadasis and the temple activity was considered as a means of dedication.
In the times of Vijayanagar the entire South India and parts of Orissa came under one rule and by this time the bhakti movement had lost its essence and the temples were the place of grandeur and celebration of events, the dancing girls were more exhibitionistic in their presentation.
The temples of Khajuraho, Bhubaneswar and Puri echoed with the lyrics of poet Jayadeva. The devadasi system in these temples was a living tradition till recently. Later due to factors like economic constraints, tantric practices and free sex enjoyed by the siddhas, jangamas, charanas, patrons and priests, these dancers in the temples were victimised to become public women and they were completely equated with prostitutes. The term devadasi which was used in the divine sense was replaced by the term Bhogastree and dance and music were used as a means of attracting clients.
The British government in India in order to uplift the women, their emancipation in education and to protect them from social evils abolished the devadasi system.
The present Bharatanatyam style finds its substance from the Dassiattam of colonial times. If at all we regard Indian dance as the spectacular contribution to human endeavour we should recall today with great reverence the entire class of devadasis who were the repository of delivering the tradition in most difficult situations from vedic to colonial times.