Devadasi system is not only exploitation of women, it is the institutionalized exploitation of women; it is the exploitation of Dalits, the lower class of untouchables; it is the religious sanction given to prostitution of helpless economically and socially deprived women; It is the glorification of humiliation of women. Inherent in this system is the fascistic belief that a certain section of human population, the lower caste, is meant to serve the ‘higher caste’s superior men’. Inherent in it is the feudal-lord- temple-priest- nexus, where the priest, already having a psychological hold over the minds of simple people to the point of dictating their way of life, uses his power to give ‘religious sanction’ to the practice by declaring it ‘sacred’, and thus cajole and lure simple minded villagers into this worst form of prostitution.
Devadasi literally means God’s (Dev) female servant (Dasi), where according to the ancient Indian practice, young pre-pubertal girls are ‘married off’, ‘given away’ in matrimony to God or Local religious deity of the temple. These girls are not allowed to marry, as they were supposedly married to the temple. She ‘serves’ the priests and inmates of the temple, and the Zamindars (local land lords) and other men of money and power, in the town and village. The ‘service’ (read sexual satisfaction) given to these men is considered akin to service of God. The Devadasi is dedicated to the service of the temple Deity for life and there is no escape for her. If she wants to escape, the society will not accept her.
The Devadasi system is still flourishing in parts of India, especially in the South and specifically in the states of Maharashtra, Andhra Pradesh, Tamil Nadu and Karnataka. Ironically, these are the techno-savvy states now synonymous with Indian progress in the global market.
If you take the beautiful country road from Dharwad, Karnataka, you will reach the small temple village of Saundatti in South India. It is in this village that the Devadasi tradition, one of the most criticized forms of prostitution in India (1), is still practiced. Despite the governmental ban, hundreds of girls are secretly dedicated to Goddess Yellammaevery year.
Renuka temple in Saundatti
There are more than 450,000 Devadasies trapped in this form of prostitution, deified and glorified by the heinous religious sanctions. According to the 1934 Devadasi Security Act, this practice is banned in India. This ban was reinforced again in 1980s but the law is broken every day. Poverty and ‘Untouchablity’ contribute to the persistence of this terrible practice.
Devadasi Yellamma poses for the camera
Priest Yedurayariah at the Renuka temple
Continuing Practice of Dedicating Dalits as Devadasies
A report commissioned by the National Commission for Women (NCW) in India reveals the shocking reality of how thousands of Dalit women continue to be forced into the Devadasi system in several states of India. Estimates suggest that girls dedicated to temples in the Maharashtra- Karnataka border area number over 250,000 and are all from the Dalit community of untouchables. More than half of the Devadasies become prostitutes. (2)
According to a survey carried out among 375 Devadasies by the Joint Women’s Programme, Bangalore for the NCW, 63.6 per cent of young girls were forced into Devadasi system due to custom, while 38 per cent reported that their families had a history of Devadasies. The survey pointed out that Devadasi system is more prevalent among three Scheduled Caste communities – Holers, Madars and Samgars in Karnataka. Nearly 40 per cent of them join the flesh trade in cities and the rest are involved in their respective villages. A Devadasi, in a way, is considered “public property” in the village. Devadasies who do not become prostitutes struggle to survive as agricultural labourers or maidservants.
Most Devadasies are single. However, 65 per cent of the Devadasies were associated with a patron. About 95.2 per cent have children. And among those with children, more than 95 per cent could not register the names of their patrons (as the fathers of their children) in school admission records. The overwhelming majority of Devadasies (95 per cent) earn less than Rs 1,000 a month. (3)
What is in a name?
In Andhra Pradesh these Devadasies are called Joginis, while in Jejuri in Maharashtra they are called Muralis. They are known by different names in different areas. Jogan Shankar gives the names by which they are known in various parts, such as Maharis in Kerala, Natis in Assam, and Basavis in Karnataka. In Goa they are called `Bhavanis’, and `Kudikar’ on the West-Coast, `Bhogam-Vandhi’ or `Jogin’ in Andhra Pradesh, Thevardiyar’ in Tamil Nadu, `Murali’, and ‘Jogateen’ and ‘Aradhini’ in Maharashtra. In Karnataka, old Devadasies are called as `Jogati’ and young Devadasies as `Basavi’. The term `Basavi’ refers to feminine form of `Basava’ a bull which roams the village at will without any restriction. Hence `Basavi’ alludes to the foot loose position of the woman. (4)
Genesis and growth of Devadasi system
There are many opinions about the genesis and growth of this system. For a comprehensive understanding of the dominant schools of thoughts, many factors have to be taken into consideration while trying to trace its origin and development. Factors like religious beliefs, caste system, male domination and economic stress have been recognized as the stimulants behind the perpetuation of this phenomenon.
The beginning can perhaps be mapped out in the inscription found in temples. The word Emperumandiyar which was used in the sense of Vaishnavas before 966 A.D. got the meaning of dancing girls, attached to Vishnu temples, in inscriptions of about 1230-1240 A.D. in the time of Raja Raya III. [Raghavacharya: I, 118]. In many quarters the emergence of the Devadasies has been linked to the downfall of Buddhism in India that the Devadasies were Buddhist nuns can be deduced from many evidences: They are unknown to ancient India. Jaatakas, Kautillya or Vatsayana do not mention them, but later Puranas found them useful. The system started only after the fall of Buddhism and records about them start appearing around 1000 A.D. [Bharatiya Sanskruti Kosh, IV, 448]. It is viewed that the Devadasies are the Buddhist nuns who were degraded to the level of prostitutes after their temples were taken over by Brahmins during the times of their resurgence after the fall of Buddhism.
Devadasi Drummer- Miniature Painting
The Devadasi system was set up (Times of India report dated10-11-1987) as a result of a conspiracy between the feudal class and the priests (Brahmins). The latter, with their ideological and religious hold over the peasants and craftsmen, devised a means that gave prostitution a religious sanction. Poor, low-caste girls, initially sold at private auctions, were later dedicated to the temples. They were then initiated into prostitution.
According to the famous Indian scholar Jogan Shankar, following reasons played a major role in supplanting the system with firm roots:
1. As a substitute for human sacrifice, being and offering to the gods and goddesses to appease and secure blessings for the community as a whole;
2. As a rite to ensure the fertility of the land and the increase of human being and animal population;
3. As a part of phallic worship which existed in India from early Dravidian times;
4. Probably sacred prostitution sprang from the custom of providing sexual hospitality for strangers;
5. Licentious worship offered by a people, subservient to a degraded and vested interests of the priestly class; and
6. To create a custom in order to exploit lower caste people in India by the upper castes and classes.
On the basis of historical studies and research one can see the way this ‘sacred prostitution’ established itself and grew to become a part of Indian society. Vasant Rajas, ‘Devadasi: Shodha ani bodha’, (Marathi), Sugava Prakashan, Pune, 1997, mentions of an inscription of 1004 A.D., in Tanjor temple mentioning the numbers of Devadasies as 400 in Tanjor temple, 450 in Brahideswara temple and 500 in Sorti Somnath temple. According to Chau Ju-Kua, ‘Gujarat contained 4000 temples in which lived over 20,000 dancing girls whose function was to sing twice daily while offering food to the deities and while presenting flowers.’ Eminent Indian historians like R.C Mazumder and U.N Ghoshal have corroborated these facts. They have acknowledged a ‘high proportion’ in the number of the Devadasies in the temples during the medieval period.
Devadasi, the court singer- Miniature painting
Sadly, due to continuation of the factors responsible for the birth of this system, the tradition has maintained itself over the centuries. It is found in all parts of India, but was more prevalent in the south. In some parts of Maharashtra and Karnataka it is still prevalent and has become a source of exploitation of lower castes (5).
It is interesting to note that the untouchables belong to the Dalit community and are lower caste Hindus, though, otherwise are not allowed to drink water from the same well as the rest of the higher caste people of the village. They cannot eat from the same plate or sit in the same place as upper caste people. They work mostly as night-soil cleaners.
When it comes to sex they are not only ‘touchable’ but are actually forced into sex by the higher caste Hindus and practices such as the Devadasi system are invented to facilitate and perpetuate their exploitation.
It is these powerful sections of the society, who control not only the economic and social activates but also the minds of the poor villagers that pose the biggest impediment to elimination of this evil. There is a crying need for a more comprehensive legislation to emancipate these vulnerable girls (2).
A word about Untouchables or Dalits
Caste permeates every pore of Indian society in hidden and insidious ways. It is so complex that few Indians understand it completely, although it is present in our lives in subtle and not-so subtle ways. Even though the caste hierarchy is a Hindu construct, conversion does not always help: Buddhists, Christians, Sikhs and Muslims often still cling to their caste identities when searching for marriage partners.
Many sociologists believe the caste system in India originated as a way of dividing labour and as a method of exercising social control for maintaining order. Its power – and almost absolute acceptance – stems from the fact that caste derives religious sanction for India’s majority from the 4,000-year-old Manu Sashtra or the Laws of Manu. According to this, society was divided into four broad social orders, or varnas, at the head were the Brahmins, a priestly class, who are the most pure. From the arms came the Kshatriyas, the warriors and rulers. From the lower limbs were born the Vaishyas, the traders. And from the feet the Sudras, the lowest caste, destined to serve the other three.
‘Untouchables’ were considered so impure and polluting that they were not even included in the system by Manu. This translated into their complete exclusion from society. Their hamlets were outside the village, and they could not even talk to or walk on the same path as the other castes, much less touch them. When the British ruled in India, they left this caste distinctions alone to avoid unrest. In some ways they even reinforced it, finding Brahmins useful as clerks and administrators who served the British Empire faithfully. Today, in India, the Untouchables call themselves ‘Dalits’, which means ‘Broken People or the Down-trodden people’. There are almost 180 million dalits in India alone and at least another 60 million around the world who face caste discrimination of various kinds. (6)
Perpetuation of Devadasi System
Traditional empires being despotic restricted trade to the palaces and temples, forbidding the common masses from trading or traveling. Only priests, the royalty and certain privileged merchants (who were closely regulated) traded and traveled. And one lucrative trade that the priests and princes often monopolized was the oldest and most despotic of all, prostitution.
Doubtless the girls were seduced by a theology of mysticism, just as the widows who, as suttees, threw themselves on their dead husbands’ funeral pyres believed they were attaining spiritual purity, but the sexual economics of female exploitation provide a candid explanation of what was happening. (7)
Legends to support Devadasi system
To keep the Bahujans and Dalits under control, stories were manufactured and incorporated in various Mahatmyas in the Puranas. There are three important legends, we should know about. It may be useful to know these traditional stories told by Brahmins and believed to be true by the sufferers themselves. Vasant Rajas, “Devadasi: Shodha ani Bodha”, (Marathi), Sugava Prakashan, Pune, 1997, has given the account of various legends in Puranas concerning this practice.
Legend of Renuka or Yallamma
According to this legend, Renuka appeared from the fire pit of ‘Putra Kameshti’ Yadnya performed by a Kshatriya king Renukeswara. She was married to Rishi Jamdagni. The couple had five sons including Parasurama. One morning she was late in coming home from the river as she was sexually aroused by watching the love play in river, of a Gandarva raja with his queens. This enraged Jamdagni who ordered his sons to kill her. All other sons refused and were burned to ashes by the Rishi’s curse, but Parsurama beheaded her. The Rishi gave him three boons. By first, Parshurama asked to bring back to life his four brothers. By second he wanted his mother to be made alive. But her head was not available. So Parshurama cut the head of a woman from ‘Matang’ caste, and Jamdagni revived his wife with Matangi’s head. By third he wished to be free from the sin of matricide. But Renuka was cursed by Jamdagni to have leprosy and was banished from the hermitage. However, some ‘Eknatha’, ‘Jognatha’ Sadhus in the forest cured her. She returned back to Jamdagni who pardoned her and blessed her that she will attain great fame in Kaliyuga
Temple of Renuka was built in 13th century in Soundati hills. The Jains believe that Renuka is their ‘Padmawati’. For centuries, the devotees of Renuka, who are mostly Dalits and Bahujans, assemble there twice a year on Magha and Chaitra full moon days for pilgrimage and offer their daughters to make them Devadasies.
B. S. Kamble from Sangali dist. mentions the influence of the blind faith over Dalits to an extent that a backward class member of legislature had established a shrine of Renuka image in Bombay Mantralaya [“Sugawa”, Marathi journal, Ambedkar prerana issue, December 1998, p. 51]
Legend of Renukamba
There is a temple of Renukaamba, built in 14th century, at the top of Chandragutti hill in Shimoga district in Karnataka. The gullible masses from Dalit and Bahujan communities are made to believe that Renukaamba Devi is the incarnation of Renuka or Yallamma of Saundatti. The specialty of this temple is that Dalit women must go naked to worship this Devi. It is called ‘Betale Seva’ or ‘Nagna Puja’ i.e. naked worship.
A legend in the Purana says that if the girls go naked and pray to the Devi they get good husbands and married women get all their wishes fulfilled, the childless women get children, and that those Shudra women and girls who do not follow these traditions meet with a lot of calamities.
The chief Minister of Karnataka had to appoint a committee to investigate whether “Nagna-puja” has any religious sanction of Hindu Sastras. The report was submitted in 1988 and states that there is no such sanction in Hinduism. In 1992 a ban was imposed on “Nagna-puja” . There was a hue and cry raised against it, but since then it has stopped.
Legend of Khandoba
The third deity of Devadasies is Khandoba of Jejuri, although there are eleven ‘pithas’. It is the ‘kul-daivat’ of dalits, though many others worship him including some Muslim devotees, who presumably were dalits, and worshipped this deity before their conversion to Islam. Even robbers would attend the annual fair and finalize their plans there. They were, presumably, of ex-criminal tribes, which was a part of the Dalit community. Brahmins have homologized this deity and made out stories that Shankara took this form of Martanda, to protect the Brahmins from the Asuras.
People offer their sons and daughters to this deity. The terms used are Waghya for male and Murali for female. It is a form of Devadasi. Murali, whose token marriage is performed with Khandoba, remains unmarried throughout her life and leads a life same as the Devadasi of Yellama. After Ambedkarite awakening in the Matang society, who forms the majority of Murlis, this practice has declined albeit not completely stopped.
Jogam Shankar gives more details:
‘Muralis’ are girls dedicated to god Khandoba in their infancy or early childhood by their parents. “Poor deluded women promise to sacrifice their first born daughters if Khandoba will make them mothers of many children. Then after the vow the first-born girl is offered to Khandoba and set apart for him by tying a necklace of seven cowries around the little girl’s neck. When she becomes of marriageable age, she is formally married to Khandoba or dagger of Khandoba and becomes his nominal wife. Henceforth she is forbidden to become the wedded wife of any man, and the result is that she usually leads an infamous life earning a livelihood by sin. Some of these girls become wandering muralis. Others become ordinary public women in any town or city, while a few are said to live for years with one man.
The parents of such girls do not feel ashamed to take her earnings, because they belong to Khandoba, and what they do is not considered a sin in the eyes of his devotees. Kunbis, Mahars, Mangs and other low castes make Muralis of their daughters in this fashion” (Fuller: 1900: 103). High caste people of the region also worship Khandoba but their mode of expressing reverence to the god differs. Thus “Not a few high caste people visit Jejuri to pay their vows; but they never give their own girls to Khandoba but buy children from low-caste parents for a small sum of money, which is not a difficult thing to do and offer them instead of their own children”. (Fuller, Marcus B., “The wrongs of Indian Womanhood”, Edinburgh:Oliphant Anderson and Ferrier, 1900). [Jogan Shankar, p. 50](4)
Devadasi: A pan-Indian practice
The Devadasi system is not just concentrated in one part or region of India – it can be found all over India, in Goa, Asam, and Orissa apart from above mentioned south Indian states.
The famous Lord Jagannath Temple in Orissa has been associated with the Devadasi system for several hundreds of years. In Orissa, the history of the Devadasi system can be traced back to the 6th and 7th century during the reign of Sailadbhawa dynasty. The queen Kalawati had employed many Devadasies for serving the Lord Jagannath. There was a time where devoting oneself in the temple was considered to be highly prestigious. At that time, girls from even rich, aristocratic families were also offered.
According to tradition, a Devadasi is a woman married to a god, and thus Sadasuhagan — at all times married and hence at all times blessed. In reality, she becomes the wife of the powerful in the community. At that time the Devadasies had to maintain strict discipline. They were considered a personal possession of the temple and were not allowed to mingle with the rest of the people. They were not allowed to keep in touch with men.
It is probably during this period that the ancient classical temple dance forms like Odissi (Jagannath Temple Orissa), Kutchipudi (Andhra Pradesh) and Bharatnattiyam (Tamilnadu) developed and flourished to reach their zenith. However, in the course of time discipline declined and the Devadasies came to be viewed as objects of desire by the rulers and the priests. (8)
Branding of Deavadasis
We have the valuable testimony of Al-Biruni to the effect that the kings maintained this institution for the benefit of their revenues in the teeth of the opposition of the Brahmana priests. But for the kings, he says, no Brahmana or priest would allow in their temples women who sing, dance and play. The kings, however, make them a source of attraction to their subjects so that they may meet the expenditure of their armies out of the revenues derived there from.
The truth is that Brahmins and kings used to fight for the possession of these girls. Ultimately the conflict was resolved by an understanding and Devadasies were branded on their chest with emblems of ‘Garuda’ (eagle) and ‘Chakra’ (discus) for kings and ‘Shankha’ (conch) for Brahmins; Branded just like animals, slaves or Jew women in Auschwitz. (4)
Modern Devadasi: A giant step backwards
It was only as late as 1975 when awareness of this deplorable act came to the fore. Around five hundred women gathered in Kohlapur to discuss and find solutions to this problem. In 1985, a conference was held at Nipani which gave strength to the voice demanding the abolition of the Devadasi system. Gradually the demand to end this practice increased and compelled the Karnataka government to pass an act banning the Devadasi system. Some of the provisions in the Karnataka Devadasi (Prohibition of Dedication) Act of 1982 are:
· Anyone found guilty in helping a girl to become a Devadasi or even attending the ceremony is liable to get 3 years prison term and would be fined upto maximum Rs 2000/-
· Parents and relatives would be fined upto maximum Rs 5000/- if they are found guilty encouraging the girl to be dedicated
But these are just few of the preventive measures. At times the arm of law falls woefully short in protecting the unsuspecting girls. As a result, the Devadasi tradition is still prevalent in many parts of India and, according to Farida Lambey, vice-principal of the Nirmala Niketan College of Social Work, it continues to “legitimize” child prostitution. In some Nat communities in Rajasthan, many families openly usher their young daughters into prostitution, insisting that it is part of the community’s tradition.
But as Ms Shubhadra Butalia of Karmika says “The Devadasi system is a form of open prostitution. Poor people dedicate their daughters to the system in the name of appeasing the gods.” But how many more girls will be sacrificed for the sake of appeasing the gods. (8)
Muralis and Waghayas of Jejuri
Devadsi Temple to Lord Khandoba in Jejuri, Maharashtra
Keep your hands off Khandoba woman
Show me your money first
— Arun Kolatkar in Jejuri
The government of Maharashtra finally woke up to this fact in 2004 and appointed a study committee to take stock of the Devadasi system in Maharashta. Based on the committee’s recommendations, the Maharashtra government recently passed the Anti-Devadasi Bill to
‘provide for a comprehensive law to abolish the practice of dedication of women as Devadasies to Hindu deities, idols, objects of worship, temples for religious institutions and to protect the women so dedicated against exploitation’ .
The Bill will abolish the Devadasi system and penalize the perpetrators of this crime with a fine of Rs 10,000-50,000 besides rehabilitating Devadasies through alternate employment and homes. There is also a provision for the formation of district and state-level Devadasi control groups, consisting of persons from civil society organizations. These groups will have the power to make recommendations to the government towards abolishing the Devadasi system.
According to Minister of Women and Child Welfare Harshavardhan Patil, ‘We found that despite the 1934 Devadasi Security Act, the tradition is still prevalent… Therefore, we have passed a more stringent Bill, which will soon come into force.’ However, the government is yet to give a firm commitment on exactly when the Act will come into force.
Dr Neelam Gorhe, an MLA who has worked closely with Devadasies through her NGO, the Stree Adhar Kendra, is skeptical:
‘the state government’s intention might be good but it does not have any specific measures for eradication and rehabilitation. It has not even found out just how many Devadasies there are in the state; so how are they going to go about the rehabilitation? Without specific numbers, what kind of funds will they allocate?’
According to Gorhe, in the south Maharashtra districts of Kolhapur and Sangli alone, they’re at least 200 Devadasies, who live in poverty and have taken to prostitution in the name of God.
Devadasi system perpetrators in Jejuri, Maharashtra
There are no exclusive remand homes for Devadasies in the state. When they are rescued, they are placed in general remand homes, where they are taken care of until they turn 18. The older women are generally given vocational training. They usually find employment in cottage industries or as domestic help after this.
In Jejuri – a small temple shrine on a hill made famous by poet Arun Kolatkar’s collection of poems ‘Jejuri’ – Devadasies are known as Muralis. Here, as mentioned earlier, there are also the male counterparts of the Devadasies, known as ‘Waghyas’ – dedicated to a lifetime of service to Lord Khandoba when they were still little boys. Often, a Waghya shelters a Murali, and many form relationships. The result of this is that several Muralis give birth to children, which further stigmatizes these women and girls because they are expected to remain faithful to God.
A visit to Jejuri gives an insight into how the Devadasi system works. Today, there are about seven groups of Muralis and Waghyas living in Jejuri. Most of them live in shanties around the temple, often in groups of two or three. They spend most of their days in the temple premises, retiring to their homes only to sleep. A majority of them are middle-aged, poor, and express anguish that their ‘pure calling’ has been tarnished. Says Ratnamala Jadhav, now in her 50s, who has been a Murali ever since she can remember, ‘We earn about Rs 3,000 a month through dance performances on auspicious occasions.’ Their status as servants of the Lord also makes rehabilitation difficult.
An eight-year-old Murali is living in a remand home in Pune after she was rescued from Jejuri last year. Locals say that when she was just a few months old, she was found under a bamboo basket in one of the corners of the temple, with a garland around her neck, turmeric on her forehead, and her hands and legs tied with a rope. Members of a local labour organization took her into their custody, but because the child was ‘offered’ to Lord Khandoba already, they did not dare bring her up in any other way. A 60-year-old woman living near the temple voluntarily offered to look after her. However, since last year, she began harassing the little girl, by forcing her to beg and goading her to encourage male attention.
A local journalist got to know her story and sought the intervention of advocate Varsha Madgulkar, a local social activist. Both of them whisked the girl away from the clutches of her foster mother and registered a police complaint. The journalist, Vijaykumar Harishchandre, says,
“Even the police were hesitant to initiate any action because she was a ‘Murali’ and they feared the wrath of Lord Khandoba. However, with the intervention of the officers of the Women and Child Welfare Department, she was finally rehabilitated in a remand home in Pune.”
The entire exercise took one month. Comments Madgulkar, “Due to superstition and in the name of religion, hundreds of such innocent girls lead a hellish life.”(9)
The Plight of Joginis – Anjamma’s Story
Anjamma is a Jogini.
‘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. All my relatives came. I had a new sari and many jasmine garlands. The priest called a man to tie the wedding tali [necklace] around my neck. The man was Rangasamy and he was 25 years old. I was eight.
Three times a year we Joginis used to go to the temple for important festivals. Everyone worshipped us and treated us well. We danced and went into a trance. Everyone fell at our feet and called us goddess. On those days we became very important. The rest of the time they made fun of us.
When I was 12, I came of age (puberty). Rangasamy kept coming and telling me: ‘I tied tali on you, why don’t you sleep with me?’ I said no. But everyone in the village said: ‘Child, you are a Jogini. It is your duty. You have to sleep with him.’
He had a wife and two kids. He gave me money and rice. After one year I had a child, a baby boy. Soon after that, he abandoned me. I went to Bombay for construction work to support my child. When I returned to the village another fellow called Raghav was very nice to me. He said to my father: ‘I will protect her.’ He also had kids. I became pregnant again and had a girl. But he left me after six years.
I joined the ‘Joginis’ organization. I decided to fight the system. To prevent my sisters from suffering like me. I go to temples now and stop the Jogini dedication. People said: ‘After sleeping with so many men, what’s your problem?’ The upper caste men started saying we spread AIDS. I said: ‘You sons of bitches, motherfuckers, bastards, go tell that to your wives and mothers. I’ll get the government to do DNA tests on all Jogini kids and you can take them. I’ll take the Joginis away and look after them. I’ll expose each of you who sleep with us and then abuse us.’ Yes. They’ll shut their mouths and run when they see me now.’ Interview by Mari Marcel Thekaekara. (6)
‘Since the day of the initiation, I have not lived with dignity. I became available for all the men who inhabited Karni. They would ask me for sexual favors and I, as a Jogini, was expected to please them. My trauma began even when I had not attained puberty.’ (Testimony of a 35-year-old former Jogini named Ashama)
The Devadasies, spread all over India, lead intolerable lives. They have been quenching the thirst of millions of upper caster Indian males lusts. Since the inception of this deplorable system, the Joginis have been subjected to merciless subjugation and injustice (10).
Many of these women were tiny girls when they became Devadasies, “dedicated” to the sect by poverty-stricken parents unable to pay their future dowries and hopeful that a pleased goddess would make the next pregnancy a boy. Tradition has for centuries locked Devadasies into a proscribed and highly stigmatized social role. Forbidden to marry or work outside the temple, they have spent their lives tending the shrines and decorating altars, singing and dancing, telling devotional stories and collecting coins from worshippers to support themselves and their religious work.
They continue to face discrimination and indignities on the basis of caste, remain politically powerless and suffer from acute poverty, oppression and exploitation. They run high chances of acquiring sexually transmitted diseases. Although in independent India, many steps have been taken to prevent the system and rehabilitate the Devadasies, they are not enough to improve the situation as the root cause of poverty continues to push young girl to the roads of ‘sacred prostitution’. (10)
I would like to conclude with my poem Devadasi’s Saga on the plight of these Devadasi, wherein I have tried to empathize with these exploited women.
I could hear the temple bell
Ringing in my ears,
The day I was born
To an unwedded mother, or rather
My mother was “married” to the temple!
The Temple was not my father!
I could hear the temple bells
Ringing in my ears.
I could hear the temple walls,
Heaving sighs in the dead of night,
Sighs of satisfaction.
I could hear my mother’s sobs,
Intermingle with the sighs,
Sighs of dissatisfaction.
As I slept on the cold-rough stone,
My cradle in the darkest chamber,
Where light hardly ever entered,
I missed a father’s loving touch,
When I asked my mother,
The temple was my father!
Then one day, through the
Half shut doors, I saw:
The priest heaving and hawing,
Full of sweat.
The pained surprise in my mother’ eyes,
(On being so exposed),
Silently beseeching me
With helpless tearful eyes:
“Go away! You’re still too young!”
But one day, I grew up!
I felt the “touch”,
A creeping crawling, lustful touch,
The expression in the priest’s eyes,
Matched the touch,
As he held me in his clutch.
Nausea welled up in my throat:
It was not a father’s touch,
I could feel it in my innocent bones.
Then Another, and Another.
Now, I am “My Mother”.
Like her, I do not know,
The father of the baby in my womb.
Like my mother, I am going to
Tell, my daughter:
“Temple is your father!”
This has gone on for centuries,
And still goes on.
This will go on forever.
I am the Devadasi of the Temple.
Temples may crumble.
I will go on
By – Zoya Zaidi, Originally published at Sikh Spectrum
Image Credit – Devadasi by Giordana Napolitano