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’ (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 is still practiced. Despite the governmental ban, hundreds of girls are secretly dedicated to Goddess Yellammaevery year.
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.
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.
The Devadasi system was set up 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;6. To create a custom in order to exploit lower caste people in India by the upper castes and classes.
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.
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.