A Comprehensive Study On The Devadasi System In India

Image of Ningamma, a Devadasi

DEVINE OBJECTS OF SEXUALITY

India is a land of extreme contrasts, where opposites coexist, side by side. An amalgamation of severe poverty and excessive luxury, ancient, persistent tradition and modern, cutting-edge innovation. On one hand, you find people dying of starvation and thirst, malnourished children and debt-ridden families, and on the other hand, you find the overindulgent, with Armani jackets and Rolex watches, driving around in their luxury cars, desensitized to the world. Despite all the progress, development and growth, there is still an air of entrenched, deep-rooted customs, practices, superstition and religion. One such practice is the Devadasi system. Devadasi is a Sanskrit word that literally translates to Servant (dasi) of God (deva), wherein a pre-pubescent girl, sometimes as young as 5 or 6 years old, is dedicated or married off to a temple or a temple deity, in most cases, to Goddess Yellamma. It is a hereditary system. Since she is wedded to the divine, she is forbidden to marry any other man and spends the rest of her life at the temple, in service of God, traditionally, through song and dance. More recently, sex and corruption have crept into the picture. When the girl reaches puberty, her virginity is auctioned off, and she is required to serve the upper caste temple goers, priests and zamindars (wealthy landowners) in any manner they please for the rest of her life. Forced to cater to the carnal urges of men, she enters into a world of sexual exploitation which she can never leave.

Modern-Day India

In modern-day India, the Devadasi System is essentially sex work, with a religious sanction. The legend behind the system is a confusing and convoluted one. It goes somewhat like this. Renuka was the wife of a sage, Jamadagni. They had five sons together. She was an incredibly pure and virtuous woman, so pure that she could carry water in a freshly molded mud pot. She would mold one every day whenever she went to fetch water from the river. One day, while doing so, she happened to see two angelic beings, a Gandharva couple, bathing in the river. She noticed the man’s reflection in the water and was mesmerized by his celestial beauty. But this was a violation of her marital vows, and the pot she was carrying water in shattered, as she was not virtuous anymore. Her husband came to know of her adultery and was furious that his saintly status had been marred. He flew into a fit of rage and ordered his sons to behead their mother. Four of them did not follow through, but Parasuram, the last son did as he was told. He beheaded his mother, and a low caste woman, or Matangi, who tried to protect her. Moved by his obedience, Jamadagni allowed for his son to be granted one wish. The clever Parasuram then wished for his mother to be resurrected. In a hurry attaches the Matangi’s head to Renuka’s body and Renuka’s head to the Matangi’s body. And thus, Yellamma was born. She was thus brought back to life, with the head of a Matangi and the body of a saintly woman.

Eager to make amends for his harsh actions, Jamadagni blessed Renuka, stating that unmarried girls would worship her for the rest of their lives. These girls were to satisfy any of Parasuram’s sexual demands and were to look at any other male as him in human form. Thus, they were to satisfy every man’s sexual needs without asking for any favors in return. Their only income would come from begging from door to door in the name of Yellamma. Yellamma then fled to the villages of Karnataka, where she was worshipped by the lowest Hindu castes. The convention, however, was not always an immoral practice. The custom of dedicating girls to temples dates back to the 3rd century CE, during the period of the Puranas. Devadasis back then were respected temple entertainers, who hailed from high castes and enjoyed a privileged social status. These women sang and danced, took care of the temple and performed sacred religious customs, all in the name of Goddess Yellamma. They learned and practiced songs, numerous forms of dance and other Indian artistic traditions.

Arts

Several classical Indian dance forms are said to have taken root from the Devadasi custom. Bharatnatyam, for example, is said to have developed from sadir dance that was performed by Devadasis of Tamil Nadu. Odissi was performed by Devadasis of temples in Orissa. MS Subbulakshmi, one of the most affluent and celebrated Indian singers traces her lineage to the Devadasis of yore. In addition to their life at the temple, they also performed at the king’s court, attended marriages and birth ceremonies. They were never barred from leading a normal life. There is a reference to the Devadasi System in the Puranas, where it is stated the  individual that dedicated a girl to a temple would attain moksha, that is, liberation of the soul from the cycle of life and death. Between the 6th and 13th centuries, these Devadasis were treated with immense dignity and respect. They were upholders of art and custom.

In classical Indian literature, they were described as gorgeous, admirable, dignified women. They were showered with gifts and were treated like royalty. There was no exploitation or discrimination. In several temples, they ranked only second to the priests who performed all the rituals. During the 10th century, the temple’s prestige was directly proportionate to its number of Devadasis. During the Medieval Period, they were a common sight. Almost every temple had multiple Devadasis.

Manusmrithi

She was far removed from an ordinary woman. She was free of the pativratha tradition, as stated in the Manusmrithi, where a woman had to belong and depend on a man for her entire life, first to her father, then her husband and later, her son. The community was a matriarchal one, where she enjoyed equal status to that of a male. She had inheritance rights, and her children took her surname, and not the father’s, regardless of how long the relationship between the two lasted. She had the right to perform rituals that no other woman was allowed to perform, such as shradh for her father.

Traditional History

The first explicit reference to the Devadasi system is found in copper plate inscriptions of the Rashtrakuta kings in the 8th and 10th centuries, excavated in Maharashtra. But the existence of Devadasis in this region predates these inscriptions by many years. Rulers came and rulers went, and dynasties overthrew other dynasties, but the Devadasi still remained, performing at temples, and sometimes, in the bedchambers of the current ruler.

By 1818, the status of the traditional Devadasi has been completely transformed. The practice became corrupt. They remained at the temple and served their God. The only difference was that now, their bodies were exploited. They became objects of sexual mistreatment, first by priests, kings, rich landowners and then, any upper caste man who would visit the temple. Although Devadasis were not slaves of a single husband, any man could claim sexual rights over them, and they were often enslaved to particular feudal lords. When this change began to set in, upper caste women withdrew from this position, and lower caste women took their place. But many theorists argue that they still held a privileged position, when compared to other women of their time, despite the fact that were being used for sex.

According to some, being sexually open to multiple men was far better than the prospect of completely and wholly devoting oneself to a single man, only to be reduced to a lowly widow, or worse, to become a victim of sati, and to be burned at  his funeral pyre.

Indian Women And Patriarchy By Maria Mies

Maria Mies, in her study, Indian Women and Patriarchy, speaks of the greater freedom, high social status and religious prestige of the Devadasis. She quotes a Bombay prostitute as saying: “I would not like to be bossed over by the man called husband. So this life is all right for me. After all, I have not missed anything a married woman enjoys except perhaps the husband’s beatings.” Miles states that the stigmatization of the community was due to “puritan morality” which resulted in widespread stigmatization, ripping them of the pride and prestige that they once possessed.

Colonial Effect On Devadasis

During the colonial period, when the British came into the picture, they were appalled by this custom. They thought it was regressive, archaic and morally wrong. The Devadasis were equated to prostitutes. They wanted to emancipate these “naach girls”, as they called them, from the discriminatory, oppressive inhumane conditions that they were subjected to by society. They made several attempts to abolish this practice, and as result, the Devadasi community was driven underground, leaving them in a worse status than they were in before. Dedications were done in secret, and the girls were more ostracized than they have ever been. The tradition slowly deteriorated from one of spirituality, devotion, and honor, to one of exploitation, manipulation, and deviance.

Devadasis In The North And South Of India

Due to Westernization and modernization, the tradition slowly weakened and was eventually lost in the North, but still prevailed in some areas of the Southern parts of the country, and metamorphosed into what we know it as today, a meager shadow of the great honor it used to be. This lifestyle is now being forcefully thrust on little girls who don’t fully comprehend or grasp the entirety of it until it is too late. This is why some consider it to be a form of violence against women.

Devadasis are known by several different names in different regions. In Tamil Nadu they were known as Devaradiyar, Padiyilar, Taliccherippandugal, Empuremanadiyar, Adukkalaip-pendugal, in Travancore region as Kudikkars, in Andhra Pradesh as Dogams, Bogam and Sanis, in Karnataka as Basavis and Jogatis; In Goa and Western India as Bhavins Bhavinis, in Maharashtra as Muralis Jogatis, Jogtinis or Aradhinis, and in Marwar as Bhagtanis, in Odisha the dancing girls of Sri Jagannath Temple are called Mahari and Nachuni. Devadasis are also known locally as Nayakasani, Rangasani, Gangasani, Muttukattikondavlu, Devara Sule, Kasabi, Patradavalu, Jogti and so on. While the institution of Basavis was widespread virtually all over the Karnataka during the course of the colonial era, the institution of Jogatis had been restricted to northwestern Karnataka and southern Maharashtra.

The Devadasi: Patterns Of Sacred Prostitution in Colonial South India

In a foreword to the book Recasting The Devadasi: Patterns of Sacred Prostitution in Colonial South India by Priyadarshini Vijaisri, K.N Panikkar, a historian, says that “Sexual exploitation is integral to almost all forms of women’s oppression. From time immemorial, the patriarch has managed to bring into being ideological devices and social institutions to subject women to his sexual needs outside of marriage. The system of the Devadasi is one such institution in which the ideological and the social have converged. The temple is the locus of this convergence where the Devadasi submits to her sacred duty in service of those who have the social power to control the temple.” It wasn’t just gender-based exploitation, but caste-based exploitation too. Most Devadasis are Dalits. They are not only mistreated due to their profession but due to their caste as well, giving higher caste men the freedom to exploit them without any societal backlash.

Patriarchy, Poverty, And Caste

“The Devadasi System,” says David Selvaraj, Executive Director of Visthar, “is composed of three circles, that are intrinsically and inherently linked – patriarchy, poverty, and caste.” Visthar is a non-governmental organization dedicated to rehabilitating daughters of Devadasis and other at-risk children. They provide them with a home, food, education and the life skills they need to make it in the world. He goes on to say, “Pure tradition was distorted, uprooted, because of the abuse of sex. The Devadasi System used to be a form of Bhakthi, devotion, song, and dance. But all this changed. These women are untouchable by day, touchable by night” “They have no opportunity to express themselves in a public, male-dominated sphere.”

The Bombay Devadasi Prohibition Act

Even though the practice was outlawed decades ago, it is still widely practiced. The first attempt to ban the custom was made in 1934, under the Bombay Devadasi Prohibition Act. According to this act, “whoever, other than the woman to be dedicated, performs, permits, take part in or abets, the performance of, any ceremony shall, on conviction, be punishable with imprisonment of a term which may extend to one year, or with fine or with both.” It also stated that “No marriage contracted by a woman shall be invalid and no issue of such marriage shall be illegitimate by reason of such woman being a Devadasi.”

In 1947, the Madras Devadasi (Prevention of Dedication) Act outlawed this practice of dedicating the girls to the temples in the southern Madras Presidency. Then came the Karnataka Devadasis (Prohibition of Dedication) Act 1982 which provided for the custody, protection, welfare, and rehabilitation of the Devadasis. In 1988, the Devadasi system was completely outlawed all over India. The maximum fine was a mere 5000 rupees, and the maximum jail time was 5 years.

What Are They Owed?

Despite its criminalization, the Devadasi system continued to thrive. Even today, several villages are home to thousands of Devadasis. These women are given a measly pension of 1000 rupees per month by the Indian Government and one or two acres of dry land. They are eligible to collect the money only after they are 45 years old, and many Devadasis still haven’t been allotted their land.

Asha Shirady, Coordinator of Visthar said, “I heard, when I first came here for my training, that the project officers themselves take bribes from these women when they try to apply for the pension scheme. They ask them to pay a certain amount of money for the  application. That’s what the women told me. I don’t know what to say about this. It’s sad that these men are our adhikarigalu (officials).” “I told them to protest against this injustice. I told them that they have done nothing wrong, that other people and society has wronged them, but they won’t say a word against these government administrators.”

These women are so poverty struck that girls were, and still are dedicated to a temple so that her family can gain from the little money she made. Sometimes, a girl is dedicated when there is no male member in the family, so that she may inherit property and stay in the family. To escape this life, these women often move away to big metropolises, like Mumbai or Pune, where they end up employed as common prostitutes or sex workers in the city’s Red Light Area.

The district of Koppal, situated in the Northern part of Karnataka, is home to thousands of Devadasis, according to sources.

The Story Of A Dalit Priest

Maralusiddaiha, a Dalit priest who resided in the area has dedicated many girls throughout his lifetime. He said that plenty of dedications took place in villages throughout Koppal, and his temple saw the most. However, he claimed that no dedications have taken place in the village after 2015. The dedication process, he tells us, is like a marriage without a groom. The girl is given a sari, flowers, jewelry and other items associated with a marriage. A mutthu thali (pearls necklace) is tied around her that symbolizes her bond to the Goddess. In most Hindu marriages, the groom ties a necklace around significant other, officiating their marriage. The woman wears this necklace, as long as she is a part of his life. So, essentially, the girl is being married off to Yellamma. Sometimes, there is a second part of the dedication process, when the girl attains puberty, and her virginity is auctioned off, usually to the village head.

 

The priest claimed, rather proudly, that the practice of the Devadasi in the village began years ago, and was started by his by his ancestors. The temple where the dedications used to take place was a gift from God, because of their devotion, their ‘Tapayoga’. “Ages ago, they started this tradition due to false beliefs,” he said. “Our forefathers, due to the lack of females in the village, prayed to God for a daughter and promised to dedicate the girl child if she was born. From that time onwards, we followed this tradition. The women were called ‘Devara Makkalu’ – Children of God. As time went by, due to societal change, they were transformed into Devadasis, Servants of God, and became slaves of the temple.”

Maralusiddaiha goes on to elaborate on how they used to dedicate the girls out of fear. They believed that dedicating the girl would bring the entire community peace and comfort. They believed that it was destiny, the tradition passed on from generation to generation, so they did not question it.

Maralusiddaiha, a Dalit priest.

“Now that the Government has banned it, we have stopped. We haven’t dedicated a girl in three years,” he stated. The priest admits to waving off activists and NGOs that tried to interfere. “We believed that they had no right to question us or our age-old tradition.” He said. “But after Government intervened, we realized that our ways were wrong, so we stopped dedicating girls permanently.” He further elaborated, “The Government threatened us with five years in jail and a 5000 rupee fine if dedicated more girls.” “It was like they were holding a loaded gun to our heads.”

He added, laughing. Now, instead of dedicating their daughters, the village elders get them married. “She’ll go brighten up another home and create a new family. God will understand, and bless them. In a way, this is a form of dedication too.” Maralusiddaiha then went on to describe the discrimination that the Devdasi community faces. “But it is hard for us to get them married. No one would be willing to marry someone from the Devadasi community, even if they aren’t dedicated. But they’re scared that they would be punished by God if they do. We’ve changed, but the rest of society hasn’t. Other communities rise, but we stay right here.” Regardless of his motives, what Maralusiddaiha said is true. It is immensely difficult for a Devadasi to find a man willing to marry her. Most of them are single mothers with multiple children from different fathers. They live together in communities, isolated from the rest of the village. Their lives are bound by the patriarchal and exploitative structure that is the Indian society.

One such community is located at Naregalu, a village in Koppal. The community was a small one and was located behind an old school. It is home to a group of incredibly warm, welcoming women and their children.

Devadasi Women And Their Stories

 

These women were ostracized and exploited and ashamed of what they do. Most of them, especially the younger Devadasis, had this almost palpable yearning to break free from the chains of this archaic tradition and to change the mindset of the people around them. However, we also encountered some Devadasi women who were proud of their status, proud that they and no one else had been dedicated to the goddess. They were honored to be part of a tradition that has existed for eons. No one had the right to question what they do. Other women had accepted their life, this tradition and its ways. It was an age-old practice they could not change, which they recognized as their fate, their destiny, so they suffered quietly in the background, keeping their opinions to themselves.

Shoba

Shoba, a Devadasi and a resident of the community, took us around the village and told us her story. “Then, I was three or four years old when I was dedicated,” she said, quietly. “I did not understand what was happening at that time, I was too young. I was told that it was a tradition that had to be followed, something that was passed on from generation to generation so I complied, I didn’t think to question it.”

“’Later,” she continued, “When I tried to lead a normal life couldn’t. As a child, I was harassed for not having a father. Wherever I went, they would ask me about him, question me as to where he is, and make fun of me. Every time someone saw my mother’s name on a document, they would ask me if my father was dead. This stigma still exists.” “When I grew up, and I tried to break away from this tradition and settle down, but I couldn’t. Nobody was willing to marry me. Everyone has this blind belief that they will be punished if they marry a Devadasi, as we have already been dedicated to God. It’s not just others, but we Devadasis too are afraid to marry another man. The fear is ingrained in us.” To avoid this, many Devadasis use the names of various Hindu Gods while filling in the column for the father’s name in school admission forms.

Shoba then went on to explain how the system works in their community. The Devadasis in their village, she claimed, had only one partner at a time. This partner is usually a married man from an upper caste family, who almost always has his own wife and children to provide for. He may visit a Devadasi for a period of a few weeks to a period of a few years, during the course of which he provides for the  Devadasi and her family, either financially, or by buying them food and other household requirements. “I have two children, one son and one daughter” continued Shoba, perking up a little bit, “and one partner as of now. He’s good to us, so I’m happy.”

But Shoba does worry about her children, and the stigma they would have to face due to the sole reason that their mother is a Devadasi. But she knows the importance of education, and she makes sure that her children receive one, no matter what. “Education is the only thing that can amend people,” she said.

Mahila Sanga 

Growing up as a Devadasi, she knew the hardships she had to face, so she was determined to make a change. She did not want anyone one else, or the generations to come, have to face what she has been through. So she started her very own Mahila Sanga, an organization composed of women, working to better the lives of other women. “We go around the district, and visit a number of villages and we sensitize the Devadasis there. We tell them about the evils of this system, how to fight it and how to change it, and the toll it takes on their physical and mental health, and how important it is to break away from this practice. They are told about the laws and the rights granted to them. We inform them about the importance of education, and how vital it is to send their children to school, and how they can be protected from stigmatization.”

Shoba proudly stated, “So far, since we started this mahila sanga, we’ve got two women from this community married. That is a major change for us. This was the first time that we’ve ever managed to find a groom from outside the community, marriage within the community itself is rare! Even the men, who don’t get dedicated have trouble finding a partner. Due to this organization, we’re finally venturing out, we finally have some hope.” She concluded by saying, “They used God and religion, to force us into dedicating a girl. They instilled us with fear, making us believe that we would be punished if we don’t. But now, we know that was all blind faith. Now we know the truth.”

Ningamma

However, not all women feel the same way about the practice. “Men come and men go, and we live our lives,” said Ningamma, an 82-year-old Devadasi, a skeletal woman with aged expressionless eyes. “People have come and gone. We’ve been visited before by people like you, but the stigma will always exist. Today you came to meet us, tomorrow someone else will come, and nothing will change.” She goes on to say “It has been like this for thousands of years. I was born to be a Devadasi, and I will die a Devadasi.” Ningamma was 12 years old when she was dedicated, and she has been a Devadasi ever since. “I’m not happy about it, I’m not sad about. I have no choice but to have to accept tradition.” 

“I used to be respected. They called me ‘Ammavaray’ (mother), she said. Ningamma had four children. After two of them passed away, she had her remaining two daughters dedicated. She alleged that she got them dedicated when there were policemen right outside the temple.

“I had to dedicate them,” she said, in a raspy monotonous tone. “Only then will I be able to attain Moksha.” “Besides,” she added, “It was socially accepted back then.” “When I was younger, different organizations approached us, telling us to stop. I told them that these girls are our daughters and that they were no one to interfere. But after it was made an official law, we had no other choice but to stop. I was reluctant at first, but now I realize that it is for the better. We don’t dedicate girls anymore, we haven’t for the past 3 years.” Despite her pessimistic outlook on life, she did admit that some change has taken place. “Our girls are getting educated now. Some of them are even getting married.” She reverted back to her original mindset by adding “But even if we want to make a change, we can’t. For some, even education does not make a difference. We need society to help us, but they don’t, because of our status and caste. The boys in our community don’t get jobs outside. They have to be farmers here. We have no one to take care of us. We are cursed to remain like this.”

Shunkappa 

Shunkappa, a Dalit activist, who has been fighting for caste equality and to eradicate the Devadasi system shared some of his experiences with us. He said, “In some villages, older Devadasis, who are referred to as Jogatis, and Jogappas (male devotee of Yellamma) usually go from house to house begging for food grains. While doing so, they look out for young girls who haven’t been dedicated yet. Sometimes, higher caste men will bribe them with money and alcohol, and point out a Dalit girl they fancy. These Jogatis and Jogappas then go to that girl’s family and manipulate them. They tell them that if they don’t dedicate their daughter, they will have to face the wrath of God. It says that all the hardships that they had to face were because they hadn’t given their daughter to Huligaeamma (local name for Goddess Yellamma) yet. They then take this girl away, who is usually no more than 14 or 15 years of age, perform a small ritual, and auction off her virginity to the highest bidder the on very same day.

The Devadasis Children

It is not only Devdasi women who face discrimination but their children as well. Their daughters especially fall victim to the harsh judgment and discernment of society, leaving them so burdened at such a tender age.

 

Meenakshi 

Meenakshi is a 14-year-old girl, dropped out of school to help her mother. She later re-enrolled at Bandhavi, a residential school set up by Visthar. “I used to hate to go to my old school. Our teachers never showed up most of the time. I didn’t learn anything there. I did not even know how to hold a pen. I’ve learned so much since I came to Bandhavi,” she said. Her mother was dedicated to Huligaeamma (local name for Goddess Yellamma) at a very young age to sustain their poverty-stricken family. “My grandmother rejected a marriage proposal for my mother and dedicated her instead. All the village elders told her it was the best way to earn money.” “My mother faces a lot of discrimination,” she added, as her eyes swelled with tears. “Everyone looked down on her, for no fault of hers. She was ostracized because of a mistake her forefathers made. But she never complained, she accepted anything life threw at her and suffered in silence.”

Meenakshi describes how she was taunted by the village residents during her last visit – “Whenever I go back to my village, the people there look at me and say, ‘Neevu  Devadasi Magalu.’ (You’re a Devadasi’s daughter) When they say that, I feel really hurt. They’re incredibly patronizing.” “The village elders tried to compel my mother into dedicating me as well, but she did not give in. She went through hell, and she did not want the same thing to happen to me.” “Education is the best thing that can happen to girls like us,” she said, not looking up. “I want to eradicate the Devadasi system completely so that no one will have to be mocked at again because no one should have to deal with the stigma we’re facing.” She added, before falling completely silent. Meenakshi hopes to finish her education, procure a job, and take care of her mother.

Lakshmi 

Lakshmi, who is also 14, is from Raichur. She did not go to school as she had to take care of her brother while her mother worked. “In my village, they look at us like we’re worthless. They treat us in a very discriminatory manner.” She then added, “Men come to my mother’s house.” After this statement, Lakshmi broke down crying and was unable to continue.

Ganga 

Ganga, an outspoken 15-year-old girl, shared her story. “As a child, I hardly studied in my village. My friends used to work, so I went with them. My mother made me drop out of school so that I could add to the family income. I later got an opportunity to go to Visthar, Bangalore, but my mother refused. But her partner, the man she was with at that time, told her to let me go. I returned when I was in 4th grade, and all the people called me a Basivi’s daughter.” Basivi is a derogatory term for a Devadasi. It means bull and is used to denote an immoral woman who roams around freely with no restrictions. “I never understood it at the time, but I did a few years later, I wasn’t even allowed to use the village’s public water tap. I was furious with my mother and I yelled at her and asked her why she had to become a Devadasi. On several occasions, I told her I was tired of being looked down upon and tired of constantly crying. I told her that I could not walk around the village and that I could not bear the pain anymore. Then she told me her story.

My grandmother had taken a vow to dedicate the first girl child she had to Huligaeamma. Two of her older sisters died, so my mother was made to drop out of school, and she was dedicated when she was just 10 years old. She told me she felt like she was a lamb that was going to be slaughtered. After her dedication, she was unable to leave the house for five days.” Ganga said she regretted her initial reaction to her mother’s condition. “She was a child when she had me, she is 27 years old now,” she said. “She is so young, I look like her older sister,” she added, smiling. “No one understood my mother’s difficulties,” she continued. “Multiple men visited her. My sister and I have different fathers. We’re in different castes. These men who were the reason for our birth aren’t poor. They’re rich and of a high caste. We know who they are, but there is no interaction between us. They have their own families.” She then went on to elaborate on her present situation. “My mother’s current partner is good,” she said. “He has another family, with a wife and four children, but he offered to takcare of our family as well. He doesn’t treat us like we’re a Devadasi’s children.” Ganga says that she is now exposed to the evils of the world, and she wants to put an end to them. So far, she has participated in multiple women’s empowerment movements and is a member of many child welfare organizations that work toward the betterment of girls like her. As of now, her main aim is to get educated.

Roja 

Roja, who is 13 years old, got another chance at life when her mother, Devamma, quit being a Devadasi and decided to work as a cook at Bandhavi. Devamma grew up in a poverty-ridden household. Her mother, to avoid expenditure, got her two older brothers married when they were only children. Her sister was given away to a man, and Devamma was dedicated. “I faced a lot of discrimination in my village. Everybody used to ask me who my father is, and I never had an answer for them. When they found out who I was, they treated me like dirt. I was told we were treated like this because of society, but aren’t we a part of society as well? Roja recollects extensive fights between her mother and her partners. “After coming to Bandhavi, I know the difference right and wrong, good and bad. I can stand up for myself now. I know my rights, and all the laws and regulations.” “This one time, I was denied access into a temple. An old lady told me I wasn’t allowed inside. I asked her if God told her so, and I went in any way!” Roja was responsible for stopping two child marriages that were about to take place in her village. When she found out that they were happening, she contacted the necessary authorities, and put an end to them. “My uncles were 12 and 15 when they got married. I’m not going to let that happen to anyone else,” she said.

Netra 

Netra, a timid 12-year-old girl who hails from Gangawati said that she has a family with six members. “My biological father is married to another woman. He could not get married to my mother because she is a Devadasi. Sometimes, he comes home very drunk and fights with her. My sister had to drop out of school and work because we were that poor,” she said. “All my relatives reprimand my mother. They told her that she should have gotten me dedicated instead of sending me to school. They told her that all the hardships that she had to face in life were because she did not offer me to Huligaeamma. Also, they said her children were a curse and threw us out of the house. We were so poor, that one time, my mother tried to hang herself. If we hadn’t found her, she would have died,” she said, breaking down.

Renuka 

Renuka, a benevolent girl, has been working at Bandhavi for a few years now. She told us that her mother was dedicated when she was only a baby. “She was 3 months when she was dedicated. As she grew older, she was told of her duties.” “Every Tuesday and Friday, after the pooja, my grandmother made her go begging for food. She gave birth to me when she was 18, after that she couldn’t conceive. She could only afford  to buy me two pairs of clothes in a year.

When I was younger, my father came and went. When I grew older, he offered to take care of us. We went to live with him and his other family, but they hated us. They told my father to kick us out because we were from the Devadasi community. Also, they said that we are immoral, impure beings who sleep with men. They did not want to be associated with us.” She said, “they ill-treated me when my mother wasn’t around. They yelled at me, hit me and forced me to stay at home and wash all the vessels and clothes. I wanted to go to school, but they didn’t let me. I was only allowed to go once a week.”

She continued, saying, “When I was 12, some people were distributing forms in my village, so that people from low castes could apply for financial aid provided by the Government. When my mother and I went to the tahsildar for a signature, he saw that my mother was a Devadasi, he told us to sell our bodies and earn for ourselves, and that we didn’t need any aid. I was extremely hurt by this.” “I remember yelling at my mother, asking her why she became a Devadasi. I blamed her for everything. But then she promised me that she wouldn’t be with any other man except my father so that people would stop mocking me.” “My father may have used my mother, but he treated me well. He raised me as if I was his son,” she said, picking at her food.

Her voice began to shake. “One day, when I was 18 years old, my father got very sick. We were told that both his kidneys had failed. When I found out, it felt like the whole world had collapsed around me. We spent a lot of money on his treatment, but his other family didn’t help out at all.” “When we ran out of money, my mother and I went to my father’s brother, who was a Panchayat member. We told him what happened asked him for a loan, which we promised to pay back. What they said to us, I’ll never forget. They told my mother and me to sleep with other men and make money and pay for the treatment ourselves. I was so humiliated.” She paused and cried. “I was involved in starting a women’s organization for Devadasis when I was younger, now it has 15 branches in multiple villages. These women got together and gave me ₹30,000 for my father’s treatment.” “His family never thanked us, not even once. I felt so insignificant. Naanu annadalli upputara aagubittae anistu” (felt like the salt in rice). But I had God, so I pushed through”

“Now that my father was too sick to work, he did not have any money, and his family did not want us to stay with them anymore. So we left, they neglected him, and he got worse. They hated him because he brought a Devadasi home.” “He got so sick, he couldn’t walk. He’s a big man, fat, black, like an elephant. I couldn’t pick him up, so I had to put him in a trolley that was used for garbage to get him around. It broke me every time I saw him like that,” she said, weeping. “A day before he died, he made me promise him that I would take care of his family, and till today, I haven’t forsaken them.”

“After he died, there were five people in one house, with not a grain of rice to eat. We would  survive on bread and tea every day. But we worked hard and managed to clear off all our debts. Today, we have everything except a fridge!” she said. Renuka added, “I would like to tell all my sisters out there that we need to be strong and brave in the face of adversity. No matter what we go through, we should make each other happy. Women should respect, love and accept other women. This would give girls like me a morale boost, and make us feel like we aren’t outcasts.” The most important thing, according to Renuka is education. “Every single girl must be given an education. If she is educated, she will rise, and will be able to lead her life with confidence.”

Asha

Asha, who the girls of Bandhavi affectionately refer to as Amma (mother) says “Most of the time, the fathers don’t take responsibility for their children. They have their own families, their own priorities, and it ends up being the woman’s obligation to take care of them.” ‘The custom exists only for a few people’s vested interests. For this type of practice, there is no such thing as untouchability. It exists in every aspect of life, except this one.” So you may find yourself asking, “Why can’t these women just stop being Devadasis? Why can’t they just leave their village and start anew?” Asha provides an answer to these questions.

“The practice is an ancient one. It has been reinforced by the upper caste because they want to exploit these women. It’s hard for them to break away from this tradition because it is so strongly rooted in the minds of people and within themselves. Just like the patriarchy, it is deeply ingrained within themselves, and within others. It is a socially accepted practice. They are also scared as to what will happen if they do, as they are defying God’s plan.” “But it the system is slowly changing” she adds. “Education, especially non-mainstream education, such as awareness programmes, are making people more conscious of their rights.”

“When I was in Hyderabad,” said Asha, “I was told that men from Gujarat and Rajasthan buy these Devadasi girls and take them back to their towns. This happens in Mudhol especially. These girls come from very poor families, so their own parents are usually glad to sell them.” Even though India is one of the fastest growing nations in the world, inhuman atrocities are still perpetrated against Dalit women every single day, not only in backward rural areas but in modern, developed cities as well. Devadasis are oppressed and lead a despicable life at the lowest rung of the prevalent social hierarchy. The Government and society make little to no effort to help these women, allowing this archaic practice to thrive. If one could judge a nation by the way it treats its women, India has a long way to go.

The article was written by Potus.