Devadasi: Drought to Desperation


“A devadasi (Sanskrit: servant of deva (god) or devi (goddess)) is a girl ‘dedicated’ to worship and service of a deity or a temple for the rest of her life.”

If you live anywhere in Mumbai, India, you know that we are under a severe drought. All of us have been affected in some way. But the brunt of the blow is inflicted on the farmers. When the farmers go out of jobs, who else does? The workers of the farms.

These workers are not the owners and are not even given any money from the profit that comes from selling the crops. These people are day wagers. So what happens when day wagers go out of jobs?

My mother died when I was three. When I was seven, my brother got polio and was paralyzed. My father had to take out a loan and I went to work rolling bidis (cigarettes) to help pay it back. But it was not enough and the landlord to whom my father owed the money said that he should send me to be dedicated to the goddess to earn more money. I didn’t want to go. I felt very bad. My father said: ‘If you don’t obey me, I will die.’ So I went to the temple.” –This is Anjana’s story, who was subjected to the ghastly practice of devadasi, or prostitution (with a religious sanction).

In various parts of Karnataka and south Maharashtra, the devadasi practice is thriving since the drought began. The day wagers or labourers are dedicating their daughters and neices to the goddess Yellamma, a southern deity. These girls are dedicated (or should we be real and say sold off) to the temples at the puerile age of just 8-12 years.

The young girls patiently submit to their women relatives, who apply a sandalwood paste to their body and bathe them. After the girls are dressed in a white sari and blouse, they listen to the high caste priests chant and pray in Sanskrit, the ancient language of Hindu scriptures, which no one in the crowd would understand.

The bride walks up to the temple where a priest puts a glittering string of red and white beads strung on saffron colored thread around her neck. No groom, however, comes to meet this bride. Instead this young girl, who cannot fathom the complexity of her future, is wed to the temple goddess, and her life is spent as a devadasi, a temple prostitute.

The priests teach that the goddess Yellamma’s spirit has entered the girl’s body; for the rest of her life, when priests and other men sleep with her, it is not the child-bride, but the goddess they are sleeping with. It is the goddess’s desires the men must appease.

Once the girl hits puberty, her virginity will be sold off in an auction to the highest bidder, and the prostitution will begin. From then on, these girls are sex workers to the end of their days. If they are lucky, they find a rich master and stay as his sex servant till the end; otherwise they have to resort to begging after they reach their 40s when they can no longer attract men.

The worst part of this abominable practice is that the girls being sold into this system are sold off by their own families. The parents of these girls sell them for some money — not more than 10,000 rupees — and free meals till the girl gets her first period and is auctioned off. Until then, the priests may do to her as they please.

We can easily assume that this practice is flourishing again because of the unemployment and illiteracy of the working class, who are easily brainwashed into pleasing the goddess or else “suffer her wrath.” But what must also be remembered is that the caste system in our country is still prevalent under the wraps in the rural parts, and these are the priests and “higher castes” preying on the “untouchables” and “lower caste women.”

Despite the fact that most devadasi girls are untouchables” from the lowest caste in India, the priests do not hesitate to sleep with the young girls — some of whom have not even reached puberty. The priests prey on the poor, telling parents that dedicating their daughters to the temple will help family members be reincarnated as high caste Brahmins in their next life. And they offer family members of devadasis the right to enter sacred temples normally closed off to the lower castes. Rich landowners also exploit the poor by paying for a girl’s dedication in exchange for the right to spend the first few nights with her. The money often includes large loans to parents as an incentive to dedicate their daughters.

Bebamma was 13 when her mother, Kenchamma (a devadasi), dedicated her three years ago. “It was a mistake, but what could I do,” Kenchamma says. “I had no male child. I feel sorry for my daughter and wonder what her future will be, but I had no money to get her married. Anyway, who would have married a devadasi’s daughter?” On the night of her dedication and for the following three nights, Bebamma (13) slept with a 40-year-old temple priest.

“I was scared,” she said, “but they gave me toddy (palm liquor) and I was not aware of what was happening. I didn’t feel anything.” Bebamma, now 16, wears red bangles and an old, faded gray-colored sari, most likely her only one. Her pierced ears remain bare — the earrings were probably sold to meet some expense. She lives in a thatched roofed hut in Bapuji Nagar, 40 miles from the Uligamma temple. It is said that devadasis have lived in this area for centuries.

The system was outlawed with a penalty of 5 years of imprisonment in 1982, but it is still widely practiced, mainly by poor, illiterate women in the northern parts of Karnataka, in places like Koppal, according to charities working in the region.

It’s high time we talk about these menaces — that the perpetrators know that we are aware. We can cause some change. A little drop, for an ocean by all. All we need is awareness, a strong will, and some steel in our spine.


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