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. They consisted of six different categories of sebikas, assigned different sevas. They are as follows:
1. Bhitara Gauni: She was supposed to sing in the inner precincts of the temple or the sanctum sanctorum. Her service was reserved for the night during the Badashingara Vesha of the Lord.
2. Bahara Gauni: She was supposed to render her seva beyond the inner precincts of the sanctum sanctorum. She was supposed to sing during the breakfast of the Lord or Sakala Dhupa and other festivals that were celebrated in the temple.
3. Nachuni: They were the dancer community who rendered their service through dance.
4. Patuari: They were the group who provided the costume or Patani of the Lord and were supposed to garb them.
5. Raj Angila: She was the attendant of the Gajapati Maharaja or King, who was considered to be Lord Jagannath in flesh and blood.
6. 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.
7. Rudra Ganika: They were the prostitute community and were appointed for the pleasure of the King, but they were in no way appointed by the temple or connected with any of its rituals.
It may not be mistaken that 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. 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 some time 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 about Lord Jagannath in its 10th Mandala:
“Ado Jaddharu plavate sindhou pare apurusham”
In fact no gods and goddesses find mention in the Vedas. Now if the culture was so ancient whether the rituals and hence the tradition of dance are also ancient? Actually earlier Lord Jagannath was worshipped in a crude, non-Aryan way. The rituals, according to the norms prescribed in different texts, were performed for the first time only after Adishankaracharya i.e. around the 9th century A.D. All the same, the tradition of dance is believed to be still older. This is however controversial. The origin of the Mahari as a professional group of Sevayats is still to be found out from the womb of history.
The selection of young girls to be apprenticed as Maharis was that any girl, evidently a child, could be inculcated as a Mahari, if she perfectly fitted the norms and conditions of the selection process. The young girl chosen for the apprenticeship should not be physically deformed. She should 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 is bathed with turmeric paste. She remains on fast and decorates herself with sandalwood paste and puts 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 is brought to the temple and after a short ritual she is brought to the Sri Nahara where she seeks private audience with the Gajapati Maharaja of Puri, who is considered to be Lord Jagannath in flesh and blood. She is then sent for being trained 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 that is a part of Suta Samhita. Niladri Mahodaya just mentions about dance only once during the installation ceremony of the Lord. It says:
It is said that it was the Apsaras, Menaka and Rambha, who adorned the court of Indradeva, performed 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 reliable, the reason being 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 set up families were debarred from rendering seva.
Dance was an essential part of ritual practices and accordingly was an important part of worship. This dance was performed by a section of Maharis called Nachunis. The times of the day when a Nachuni was supposed to render seva i.e. dance, was during the Lord's breakfast or Sakaladhupa and the same seva she was to perform in the Nata Mandapa right in front of the public eye. She was supposed to dance being 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 the writer of the famous legendary 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 this masterpiece being charmed by her beauty. It is said that she used to dance radiating the effulgence of Shrimati 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.
It is a matter of regret that this great tradition of Maharis is totally extinct now. Some people were 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 an opinion. 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. 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?