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  • Writer's pictureMayuri Chaudhuri

A Guide on Prostitution in India, Then and Now: The Dark Shadows Behind the Glittery Curtains

Updated: Apr 18

Every street to these dark dingy rooms tells a story; you just need to listen to it.

Every worker here is an employee; you just need to acknowledge it.

Every human here is respectable; you just need to know they deserve it.

Quoting my own experiences of working closely with them, a person once asked me, “Aren’t their bodies able to work through a regular profession?” My question is, “Is this not one?”

Picture of Nautch girls in Mumbai c.1880
Picture of Nautch girls in Mumbai c.1880. (Via

India houses approximately 3 million sex workers today aged from 15 to 35 years. The Immoral Traffic (Suppression) Act (SITA) by the Indian Penal Code has legalized the profession since 1986, but society is still ascertained of their impure stature. I beg to differ.

Let’s read through their journey and try to understand what corroded their position since ancient times.


In this article, we will talk about:

Let's get started!


Sifting through pages of Vedas

The earliest mention of jaras or jatinis was in Rigveda. They are described as illicit lovers, majorly out of marriages. As the barter system was pertinent in ancient times, they were remitted through favors and gifts. The later Pali texts refer to them as “muhuttia,” the ones who had no obligation or lasting relationships.

With gradual time, a section was pushed to retain the profession either because of getting widowed or not getting married. However complicated may be the cause, these women emerged as the individual breadwinners of the society, competing with men counterparts.

Nath traditions identified free women as yoginis or dakinis who lived in forests.
Nath traditions identified free women as yoginis or dakinis who lived in forests. (Via Economic Times)

The conservative textual traditions have completely avoided penning down the stories behind attaining prostitution. Was it the rape that denied her honorable marriage and translated into this, or did these women choose their lovers voluntarily at first and still enjoy a position in their father’s or husband’s home? Historians are still struggling over the situations that resulted in the same.

Who were the courtesans?

Unlike the uncertainty of Vedas, Buddhist texts and Jatakas are fairly vocal about such types of services provided by women. They were termed Vannadasi, Vesi, or Janapadakalyani, meaning the most beautiful women in the whole janapada (county). The name Ganika was given to the ones who were at disposal of the tribe members. These females would receive free intensive training in diverse art forms such as writing, painting, playing instruments, dancing, and acting. They were molded to perform at courts, enchanting the royalty with their charm and skills. There were strict laws against the men who forcibly tried to associate with them, being charged with fines or could be made to exile from the state. Enjoying such enormous social respect, they also initiated several different functions such as being deployed as spies (mentioned in Mahabharata), paying taxes like a common citizen, or were subject to receiving pensions after getting retired (Arthashastra).

Amrapali, the courtesan, invites Buddha to luncheon at her house, whilst Buddha accepts it non-hesitantly.
Amrapali, the courtesan, invites Buddha to luncheon at her house, whilst Buddha accepts it non-hesitantly. (Via

Devotion or Hidden Prostitution?

During my Diploma in Bharatanatyam (an Indian classical dance form), I came across the term “Devadasi”. This group came to the surface predominantly since the Chola period as the women who had been offered to the god. Such small girls were married to the Almighty in the Pottu Kattu ceremony. Proficient in dance forms such as Bharatanatyam, Odissi, Kuchipudi, and Mohiniyattam, they were often projected to live the life of celibacy, perform artistic rituals at the temple, and be deemed as protectors of the sacred art forms.

But was it just that simple?

Devadasis. (Via Public Domain)

The colonial Era demeaned their social status as goddesses. The reformists wrongly held this practice as prostitution and even as the ones who spread syphilis (a sexually transmitted disease) amongst the soldiers. The authority even created Lock Hospitals and forcibly retained many devadasis there.

But here is where my curiosity peaks. Even though Britishers were shaming them, weren’t they means to an end at the mercy of temple workers, priests, or presiding royalty?

Until Rukmini Devi Arundel saw their artform’s upliftment to the society as a pious and disciplined semblance, they were subject to continual sexual harassment from all the men associated with ritualistic practices. They couldn’t marry and lead normal lives as men avoided interaction. Eventually contracting HIV, they would succumb to death.

Prostitution in British Raj

The Cantonment Act of 1864 started regulating such services in a structured manner. Twelve to fifteen women were restricted to a regiment of 1000 soldiers. These women were often held back against their will and had to undergo regular checks for venereal diseases. Later on, they went on to draft the Contagious Diseases Act to showcase their goodwill by preventing soldiers from immoral activities. Behind it lay the intent to declare these women’s bodies impure. Many women who weren’t even sex workers were forcibly registered for genital exams.

The 1870s - Women in India.
The 1870s - Women in India. (Via BBC)

In 1868, Sukhimonee Raul was arrested for evading the examination which was otherwise compulsory for “registered sex workers.” She fought back vehemently and demanded a petition for her release.

With the mention of fighting back comes about another phase of these professionals uncovering astounding facts usually unknown to the people.

The Tawaif Freedom Fighters of India

The Non-Cooperation Movement in Banaras was at its peak when Mahatma Gandhi delivered a speech at Banaras Hindu University, cheering the students over its success. The audience also comprised a group of tawaifs (a term used to connote prostitutes) led by Vidyadhari Bai. Mesmerized by the nationalist fervor, she started performing patriotic songs at mehfil and renounced foreign fabric. Gradually she started arranging for meetings to spread awareness about the movement. Her vigor was joined in by similar attempts by other tawaifs.

A nautch girl dancing with musicians, Calcutta.
A nautch girl dancing with musicians, Calcutta. (Via

> Don't Miss This: India’s Tawaif Freedom Fighters - Brut India (watch video)

Husna Bai, one of the tawaifs and summit organizers quoted :

“This was not just our duty as daughters of this great land but also the need of the hour if we did not wish to be consigned to the dustbin of history.”

I wouldn’t be naive to not acknowledge the spur of patriotism and honor this sparks in me for these women of our society, and I know so wouldn’t be you.

How are they existing today?

Growing poverty and the yearning for easy money have pushed marginalized women to the oldest known profession. Added causes can be :

  • Prior harassment at a young age or rape

  • Social customs as we encountered about temple prostitution

  • Abnormal treatment by family

  • The familial profession of prostitution

  • Human trafficking

  • Urbanization or transforming mentalities to sex

As every hour passes by, four women enter prostitution, three of them against their will. Vulnerable groups constituting the Dalits and backward classes are more susceptible, but the phenomenon itself is too generic.

Procuration data of minor girls getting sold.
Procuration data of minor girls getting sold. (Via: Scroll / NCRB)

“There are over 100,000 minor girls abducted and trafficked every year, but the registered number of missing children is barely a thousand. This is because parents are selling off their young daughters for money. We have caught several of these cases in Jharkhand, Bihar and West Bengal, the girl child has been sold for as little as Rs 250.”

Says an official with the Anti Human-Trafficking Unit, a special group of the Crime Branch in Delhi.

Popular Indian Red-Light Areas

1. Sonagachi

It accounts to be Asia’s largest red-light area in Kolkata housing 12,000 sex workers and growing. It was the first to stand up for compulsory condom use, and abuse was reiterated against its employees. Their union named Durbar Mahila Samanwaya Committee, constitutes 65,000 members working rigorously to lowering the rates of HIV amongst the place and other issues.

2. Kamathipura

Situated in Mumbai, the area is flocked with approximately 45,000 workers. After independence, large strata of Nepalese women filled in the already crowded and dark lanes. Dilapidated drinking water and sanitation are the least of the problems encountered by the workers.

Two women walking in the middle of a street.
Two women walking in the middle of a street. (Via: Outlook India)

3. Grand Bastion Road

100s of brothels are built in the two-three storeyed buildings along the streets of Delhi with over 1000 workers. This area records the highest crime rates of mugging, stabbing, and wallet snatching.

Lending a hand for a better tomorrow

There are hundreds of non-profit organizations that are operating tirelessly to make it possible for these women to aspire over what has been denied to them.

  • Rescue Foundation: Led by Balkrishna and Triveni, this organization has rescued 15 minor girls along with Indian police. As Balkrishna passed away, the latter found it as an ardent mission to carry her aim saving 5000 girls furthermore.

Ajeet’s wife with adopted daughters.
Ajeet’s wife with adopted daughters. (Via:

  • Gudiya: Founded by Ajeet Singh in 1993, aims at eradicating child prostitution. At the astonishing age of 17, Ajeet went on to adopt three girls from a red light area, promising them a life they could only dream about.

Shweta Katti
Shweta Katti (Via

  • Story of Shweta: Who knew a girl who grew up in Mumbai brothels would be tiring her nights to attain a full scholarship from New York’s Bard College, breaking all odds. Kranti, an NGO, found her in 2012, which had been empowering girls from Kamathipura through theatre and education, and then there was no looking back. Katti earned a spot on Newsweek’s 25-Under-25 Women to Watch list in 2013 for her work for marginalized girls.

Revisiting the Polaroids and Paints

There are infinite visual media channels that capture the essence of these women of our society. Some of the fascinating ones are as follows :

The prostitutes of Bombay who fought for their right to be who they are.
The prostitutes of Bombay who fought for their right to be who they are. (Via: BBC)

Two Nautch Girls, by Edwin Lord Weeks.
Two Nautch Girls, by Edwin Lord Weeks. (Via:

A lazy afternoon in Lucknow Kotha
A lazy afternoon in Lucknow Kotha. (Via:

A Kalighat Painting showcasing progressive Kotha culture with hookah
A Kalighat Painting showcasing progressive Kotha culture with hookah. (Via: Wikimedia commons)

Resting my pen with beautiful lines from a poem by Nirmala Putul :

The fifth one who was very close to her and quiet

Secretly whispered in her ear—

Will you be my girl, Sugiya?

I’ll make you a golden chain.

She heard and became very sad, Sugiya

Turned silent, still

Forgot laughing, singing, and dancing.

From morning to evening

The whole day, murderous work, Sugiya

Often thought

Here why can every fifth man

Only speak in the language of my body,

How I wish

Someone would say

You’re such a hard worker, Sugiya

and so innocent and honest.

If only someone would say that!


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Prostitution In Ancient India: Sukumari Bhattacharji

The Exploitive Nature of Prostitution and Sex Trafficking in India: Rooppreet K. Sohal

Prostitution and Beyond: An analysis of sex work in India: Rohini Sahni


Mayuri Chaudhuri is an Indian-based History Honors Graduate and a Content Writer at the International Youths Organization for Peace and Sustainability, who is seeking cognizance to varied issues in the world through the power of a pen.

Inputs and Edits by Aswin Raghav R.


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