“Dancing girls of Pondicherry” by Heinrich Rudolf Schinz (1836-45)
Despite safeguards in place, the Devadasi system proliferates partly due to continuing caste sentiments, poverty, lack of opportunities as well as the apparent ignorance of the system itself, allowing young adolescents to be forced into a system of bodily exploitation. Currently, there are almost 2.5 lakh girls being dedicated to the Yellamma and Khandoba templies in the Maharashtra-Karnataka Regions. There seems to be a lack of ripple effect despite the launching of programmes like “Project Combat” to eradicate the system. With all of this, the question that must be posed is: What was the system and what did it evolve into?
What is the Devadasi system?
The Devadasi system, at the time of inception, was not seen as a cycle of female exploitation at the hands of redundant religious sentiments. Rather, it was a system where a young girl child, usually belonging to a particular caste, was given in marriage to the deity, where she became the intermediate between a Goddess and a Woman. She was subjected to the performing arts and sometimes learning up to 64 different art forms.
When did it begin?
The concept of a Devadasi was present even before 960 A.D where the term Emperumandiyar were used by Vaishnavas to refer to girls who danced in ‘Temples’. However, it is most associated to the fall of Buddhism in India where the Buddhist nuns became the original Devadasis. This is because the early Indian writers like Kautilya and Vatsayana or the Jatakas (Literature native to India 300 BC) make no reference to them. However, it is the Puranas (Indian literature prevalent around 16th Centure) which made reference to such a community. This system is also considered to be ‘pre-Aryan’ as Sangam literature (200-300 BC) describes ‘Parattaiyar‘ as a class of dancing women.
Did they belong to a particular group?
A sub caste of the Dalits called the Madiga and the Valmiki are the two main Castes to which Devadasis belong to. The Madiga are an Artisan Dalit group who can be found in the primary locations of Devadasi residence i.e., Karnataka, Telangana, Andhra Pradesh and Tamilnadu. While they have been included in the Reservation scheme, the Devadasis exist as a community who have been neglected and further ostracized. While the Madras Devadasis (Prevention of Dedication) Act (9 Oct. 1947) abolished the practice, there still exists growing numbers of Devadasis with about 1990 to 4000 girls from the age of 4 to 22 being dedicated to the Yellamma fair held in Karnataka every year,
How did they come to enjoy a high social status?
Devadasis could not be widowed; they were servants or wives of God, and hence could not marry any other man. According to the conservative principle, women are transferable property who are given to the Groom’s household in marriage and hence, according to this rationale Devadasis cannot become widows. During the Chola, Chera and Pandya periods, they came to occupy the zenith of their social status. They were given what can only be understood as ‘Royal Treatment’, where the Royal family gave them protection and separate quarters.
As these Royal families lost power, they were provided for by Zamindars and prominent men in the society. Also, it can be considered that the Devadasis occupied the role of the female priestess orBrahmin, as females are often excluded from occupying an important ritualistic position in Brahminism.
Were there male Devadasis?
Surprisingly, there were male Devadasis. They were often called by different names and performed different roles as they occupied the role of musicians most often. The Devadasi called Potraj (male) were dedicated to the goddess Lakshmi all over Maharashtra.
How does one become a Devadasi?
On particular celestial events, young girls, boys, or even transgenders are married to the given deity by a ceremony called ‘Muttu Kattuvathu‘ or the ‘Tying of the Beads’. Previously, these occasions would be celebrated. However today, this happens in secrecy to cloak themselves from the radar of Law. The expenses are usually borne by the ‘Gharwalis‘ or the mistress of the brothel where the Devadasi will later join. The initiate is then made to bathe in holy water after which an offering is made to God or Goddess after which a senior Jogathi (or Devadasi) ties a bead necklace called ‘Dharshan‘ (an invitation for sex thus preventing law to step in even if rape occurs). The initiate then performs Joga or begging in her village to show that she has now been dedicated to the Goddess. The Deflowering ceremony follows usually after the girl’s first menstrual cycle and hence after the menarche which was initially performed by the priest but now is performed by male worshipers and the male who deflowers the initiate gets rights over her. Any child which arises from such relations shall be considered illegitimate and hence have no claim over the property belonging to their biological father.
Is the Devadasi system native to India?
No. Almost all pagan and ancient civilizations have displayed an adaption of this system in their cultures. In Cambodia or Ancient Kambuja, seven dancers, eleven singers and four violinists were appointed to the Temple. Evidence of such a practice has been found in Greece, Rome, Egypt, Phynisia and Babylon. The Exodus of the Bible notes a strange practice where a girl would be made to sit in the Temple of Ishtar and to whomever had dropped a Silver coin as an offering, this girls would become property.
What does the Devadasi system imply in lieu to socio-political Interactions?
Scholars hold that the exploitative form of the Devadasi system was due to a conspiracy between the Priests (Brahmins) and the Feudal class (TOI Report 10/11/1987). Devadasis were expected to be servile to those who provided for them, such as the Zamindars and Priests, for this was considered being servile to God. One can have an educated guess as to how this system of circumstantial servitude progressed into a cycle of exploitation, be it sexual or otherwise under the shield of Divinity.
The future prospects she has?
She might come to be in the custody of the Male who deflowered her and hence be provided by him. A Devadasi is under oath to sexually gratify all the male worshipers, whether she be of age or otherwise. She soon comes to be sold to the flesh trade or enters a Metropolitan brothel. As she loses her charms and looks, she could return to her village to occupy the role of an ‘Akka‘ who begs and specializes in the selling of young girls. To achieve her goals, many a times she resorts to the facade of being possessed and claims girls to have the mark of the Goddess, thus luring young girls through manipulation.
What contributes to the system?
The most basic conclusion and reason is ‘Class’. Money urges families to donate girls to such a practice in hopes of bringing income to the family. Statistics show that out of 4000 women, majority of them enter the system under the obligation of their family vows to practice and the rest become Devadasis owing to either family tradition or having been born in a Devadasi family.
Prostitutes of God:
For a vast majority of Devadasis, sex work is not a choice but rather, is forced upon and most often by their parents. This can be seen in the documentary ‘Prostitutes of God’— which has been written about in all known publications such as the Telegraph— where two journalists visit the red light districts in Maharashtra and Karnataka to interview and understand the system and those subject to the same. One can see the stark difference in Maharashtra, where we come across a brother owner who expresses her voluntary will to be in that profession. Anita, one of Sangli’s successful Brothel owners speaks of how she voluntarily continues in the profession and sees no shame in making a living through prostitution. The village town is like a small knit community thriving under the care and protection of Anita.
While she works for the empowerment of other sec workers, she represents but a niche of Devadasis who have the minimal access to some form of independence. One sees a stark different in the Karnataka area where Madigas are considered filthy and polluting and are considered to be fit to work in the lowliest of positions: street cleaners, sweage collectors and prostitutes.
Hence, a system of abstract devotion fell into a cycle of bodily exploitation where women, men and transgenders came to be manipulated and molded by the domineering hands of patriarchy. This further worsened due to foreign influence for this deepened the stigma. The British, while they can be commended for their efforts were incapable for interpreting the situation in India. While efforts have been made in the past as well as present to better their conditions, they are still in a pitiable state. In 1934, the British enacted the Devadasi Prevention Act for Bombae and Mysore but it was tabled.
A move towards de-stigmatizing the term ‘Devadasi’ is necessary in today’s society, for she too is an unknown figure who we color in a shade our ignorance can best afford.
Hanish Srinivasan, II B.A. Political Science