The American Heritage Dictionary defines a courtesan as, "A woman prostitute, especially one whose clients are members of a royal court or men of high social standing."
The history of courtesans in India goes back to the religious tradition of Devadasi (देवदासी "a woman who serves god") in which girls are "married" and dedicated to a deity (deva or devi) or to a temple. They were responsible for taking care of the temple and performing rituals, were adept in Bharatanatyam, Odissi and other classical Indian artistic traditions and enjoyed a high social status. The custom was quite common in the 6th century BC, and finds frequent reference in the Puranas, with documented recommendations on the arrangements for enlisting the services of singing girls for worship at temples,
Local kings often invited temple dancers to dance in their courts, which created a new category of dancers, the rajadasis. A devadasi danced for the gods, but the rajadasi danced for the entertainment of the royal court. Rajadasis eventually became courtesans, women with patronage of the court or the nobility, and continued to be custodians of fine arts, and studies classics (Sanskrit and regional languages.) No stigma was attached to their profession and to their children and they frequented social and festive ceremonies. In the medieval ages courtesans came to indulge in prostitution, and were widely escorted by men who sought pleasure for money.
Read about some world-famous courtesans from across the globe.
Courtesans, have been romantized in many a novels with an Indian theme. Get your own copy of one such novel: Aranyani - The Courtesan's Lament: A Romance Of Ancient India by Stephen Alter.
The famous novel, Memoirs of a Geisha by Arthur Golden is a story of the traditional, female Japanese entertainers whose skills include performing various Japanese arts such as classical music and dance.