The Devadasi System– A Tradition India Regrets

A Devadasi or Deva adiyar as she is known in the southern states is essentially a woman who is considered as a servant to the goddess. These Devadasis are married to a temple before they even hit puberty, that is at the age of ten or twelve, and they remain loyal to the goddess that they worship for the rest of their lives. They do not get married again or commit themselves to one man or one relationship. However, in the past couple of years they have been treated as sex workers and are prone to social exploitation. If we look up the Devadasi culture in the past, we may find that that Devadasis had a lot of respect and cultural value. The Devadasi culture is a system that has been misused over the past couple of years.

The Devadasi practice has been a part of the Hindu society for centuries. The process of dedicating a Devadasi to the goddess involves a traditional ceremony and is performed before the girl hits puberty. After the ritual she is considered married to the deity and is not allowed to marry a mortal for the rest of her life. The goddess is known by several names including Yellama and Uligamma. The story of the Yellama goddess is long and convoluted yet surreal. The whole ordeal began when Yellama’s son was ordered to chop her head off by her husband after he caught her spying on two people getting frisky by a lake. After a complex process of death and reincarnation, the goddess Yellama was born.

It is said that the concept of Devadasi came into the picture during the time of the great Gautama Buddha, when a particular king summoned Amrapali and assigned her to a particular temple. The tradition of the Devadasi culture can be traced back to the 6th century AD, the period when a lot of kingdoms flourished in India. During the times of the Chola Empire, these Devadasis were treated with immense respect and had a very high social status. They would receive appreciation or compensation for performing in the king’s court by way of gold, silver or land. The Devadasis had certain duties and responsibilities that they had to perform for the temple. They also travelled with the King, contrary to the wives, implying that the Devadasis had more rights or authority than those of the King’s wives. Currently, however, there are children as young as six years of age, who get trapped into the Devadasi culture. These girls have no choice in the matter since they are not educated enough to fight the rigid system.

According to the legend, the Goddess Yellama, fled to the villages of Karnataka and subsequently became a symbol of worship for the lower Hindu castes. Every year, an older Devadasi woman acts as a medium between the deity Yellamma and her worshippers during a session at the Yellama Jatre in Saundatti, India. The Jogati, the elderly woman enters a trance like state and the devotees watch in awe as the deity Yellama begins to speak through her. The medium cries out, shakes uncontrollably and often collapses at the end of the session. This provides the worshippers with direct contact with the deity, and the woman is duly compensated. These mediums are central to perpetuating the rituals of Yellamma and recruiting new young Devadasi girls.

The system prevails across Tamil Nadu, Karnataka, Andhra Pradesh, Maharashtra, Orissa and Assam predominantly. Ancestrally, the Devadasis were not identified as a separate caste. The girls belonged to different castes and hailed from different regions. But caste played a crucial role and formed a hierarchal order within their structure. Traditionally, the Devadasis were categorized into ritualistic and non-ritualistic performers. Ritualistic performers were from the upper caste while the ones from the lower caste were assigned menial jobs such as washing, cleaning the temple and fanning the deity. The nature of work was defined by their caste. Upper caste women were taken as courtesans while the lower caste women were identified as commercial prostitutes. Over the course of the past centuries, the practice gradually shifted to lower caste communities where only Dalit girls were dedicated to the temple deity. This led to further exploitation of lower caste women by the upper caste men.

The efforts to abolish the system began as early as 1800s by reformists and social activists. Laws were passed in the country making it illegal and a punishable offense. Yet, till date instances of girls being involved in this system are being reported. The reality of those who had been dedicated and broken away from the cruel tradition is filled with stigma and struggle. What has not changed over the years is the dominance that the upper caste has maintained over those below them in the social order of caste.

In the beginning, being a Devadasi had nothing to do with prostitution. In medieval India they were glamorous temple dancers who held a high social status. They performed sacred religious rituals and danced for loyalty in the name of a goddess named Yellama. Over the years the link between the Devadasis and their temples gradually diminished, along with their social status. They became the paid mistresses of priests, then kings and then rich landowners. In the 19th century Western missionaries tried to abolish the tradition calling it grotesque and immoral, driving the Devadasis underground. Today, Devadasis are no different to common street hookers, servicing drunken truck drivers and bored businessmen. Even though the practice has been illegal for over 25 years, up to 3000 girls are still being secretly dedicated every year.

A girl child in our society is treated more as a liability, in the sense that there is always the burden of marriage. Families feel that they don’t need to educate the girl child; they always prefer a male child because they believe that they are the liberators of their soul when they die. When this comes to the poorer families, if they get a female child, they think about how they can convert this liability into an asset. The system of ritual prostitution is one of the coping strategies that is adopted, where they feel that dedicating their child to the goddess is acceptable, post which the girl child will be taken over by one of the landlords. The landlord assures some kind of regular income to the family. This religious ritual has now just become a medium or a mere justification for poorer families to pimp out their daughters.

The Vimochana Sangha School in Malabad was founded in 1990 and it is the first residential school that has been established to break the cycle of the Devadasi system. This school was established to educate the children of the Devadasis and also to remove them from the claws of this deplorable culture, since the society considers that all the children of Devadasis should also become Devadasis once they reach the appropriate age.

Many of these Devadasis are now prone to a lot of sexually transmitted diseases and have nobody in the community to take care of them. In a couple of villages, they are even denied the right to visit the local hospitals since they are considered to have bad blood. When these Devadasis get old and have none of the men approach them, they go around door to door begging for money, telling the people how the lifetime of the Devadasi profession is only about 15-20 years after which these women are helpless. This entire tradition makes the Devadasis desperate for money and vulnerable.

Where ‘Beti Bachao Beti Padhao’ is the popular slogan that the politicians of the country preach, the assault that these teenage girls go through is not even reported in many of the districts where this tradition is followed. The hypocrisy of the society is what is supposed to be noted here, where women are worshipped by the day and assaulted by night. The Devadasis did not choose this for themselves; it is a custom they are dragged into without their consent. The Devadasi system thus challenges the essence of the purity of the various traditions, customs or any rituals that are followed in India.

Picture Courtesy- YourStory


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