GENESIS OF THE DEVADASI SYSTEM IN INDIA
TRAFFICKING OF GIRLS AND WOMEN
BY RELIGIOUS AND SOCIAL SANCTION
The Devadasi system was once prevalent right across India. It was known by different names in different places such as Devarattiyal in Tamil Nadu, Mahris in Kerala, Natis in Assam, Muralis in Maharashtra, Basavis and Muralis in Andhra Pradesh and Jogatis and Basavis in Karnataka. The word “devadasi” is derived from two words, “deva” meaning God and “dasi” meaning slave or servant-woman. Every devadasi therefore, is a slave of God. However, according to Dr. I.S. Gilada of the Indian Health Organization of Mumbai, the word “devadasi” today has been reduced to a euphemism for its raw equivalent, “prostitute.” But they escape being strictly covered by the Suppression of Immoral Traffic Act because they function by the sanction of blind superstition and religious beliefs rather than on the basis of economic gain. Today, the devadasi system has evolved into open prostitution in all other Indian States except in a few pockets where it still flourishes under the guise of ‘dedication to Yellamma.’ In Karnataka and in some parts of the Maharashtra-Karnataka border, the system continues whereby trafficking is induced and implemented by the immediate family of the girl. The difference between the commercial system of prostitution as it exists everywhere and the devadasis who are now prostitutes, lies in that while the former is purely commercial, the latter is perpetuated in the name of Yellamma though the motivation is the same – survival.
The myth behind dedication of girls to the goddess goes like this. Renuka, consort of sage Jamadagni, was a pure woman. She was so pure, that she could carry water in a freshly-moulded pot. She would mould one pot everyday on the banks of the river where she went to fetch water. On one of these trips, she happened to see a Gandharvai couple bathing in the river. She was struck by the handsome looks of the male partner as she saw his reflection in the river waters. But, because of this ‘alleged violation’ of her marital vows, the pot broke and her husband ‘caught’ her in this ‘act of adultery.’ He decided that she had ‘sinned’ by coveting a man who was not her husband. Angered by this puncture to his saintly ego, the sage at once ordered their 12-year-old son Parasuram to behead his own mother. The son did as told. Happy with his son’s unquestioned obedience, Jamadagni wished to bless him with a boon. The clever son requested his father to bring his mother back to life. At this point, the sage saw a matangiii pass by. He beheaded her and attached the head to Renuka’s body. When Renuka was thus resurrected, with the body of a saintly woman and the head of a matangi, Jamadagni wished to make amends for having acted in fury. He blessed her saying that unmarried girls would worship her as their Goddess and these girls would be dedicated to her for the rest of their lives by ‘marrying’ her and would then be ready to satisfy all sexual demands made on them by her son Parasuram, present as he was, within every man. The girls, said Jamadagni, would look at every man as Parasuram in human form and would thus readily satisfy his sexual needs without asking for anything in return – marriage in any form, or any kind of permanent bonding, or anything in cash or kind. These girls, Jamadagni endorsed, would have no right to turn back a man even if he was a leper asking for sexual favours. Their source of livelihood would come from begging for alms from door to door on the Friday of every week in the name of Yellamma.iii
The custom of dedicating girls to Yellamma and to the temples of the Goddess is traced back to the 3rd Century A.D. during the period of the Puranas.iv Devadasis at that time worked in temples as entertainers. They sang and danced at temple functions and religious festivals. A reference to the Devadasi system of the time as stated in the Puranas stated that persons who dedicated dancing girls to temples attained swarga lokav when they died. During the rule of the Pallava and Chola dynasties in the southern parts of India between the 6th and 13th century A.D., devadasis were accorded great respect and dignity by the society at large. They were the custodians of culture and the arts such as music and dance. Mention of them in ancient classical literature describes them as beautiful, accomplished, famous and honorable women. There is no hint of ostracism. They were bestowed with grand gifts of land, property and jewellery by wealthy and royal patrons so they were quite affluent. Inscriptions dating back to 1004 A.D. on the Raja Rajeshwar temple at Tanjore in the south maintain that there were 400 devadasis in the temple who were second in importance only to the temple priests who performed the religious rituals. The Someshwar shrine at Gujarat maintained 500 devadasis.
Vivekananda Manawade, secretary of Vimochana, an organization that helps devadasis, the earliest reference to the system is found in some inscriptions on stone dating back to 1113 A.D. at Ahalli in Karnataka. The word ‘prostitute’ says Manawade, came into being in 733 A.D. But the earliest reliable and explicit reference to the devadasi system in Pune, Maharashtra is found in copper plate inscriptions of the Rashtrakuta kings in the 8th and 10th centuries. But the existence of devadasis in this region predates these inscriptions by many years. The Yadava kings of Daulatabad overthrew the Rashtrakuta kings in 973 A.D. But the devadasis continued with dancing in front of temple idols and in the bed-chambers of the new rulers, the Yadavas.
Pune came under the rule of Shahaji Bhonsale in the 17th century. By this time, ‘peths’vi in Pune such as Shaniwarpeth, Ravivar Peth and Somwarpeth had emerged. By 1818, devadasis had deteriorated to prostituting themselves for money. The British rule in India brought about a slow and steady decline in local royalty and temple treasuries. Most of the temples at that time ran with royal funding from local kings. All this declined with the rise in British power and one of the first group to be financially and socially victimized were the devadasis. Gone was the respect they enjoyed as members of a class next only to the priests. Devadasis remained entertainers but their entertainment now was through their bodies. They evolved into practicing courtesans skilled in the art of love-making. The system spread across (a) Belgaum, Gulbarga and Bellary districts in Karnataka, and (b) Satara, Kolhapur, Solapur and Osmanabad districts of Maharashtra, both being in the Western regions of India.
There was a time when devadasis were considered to auspicious and holy that their presence was compulsory at every wedding for the making of the mangal sutravii . This was based on the belief that a devadasi is an eternally married suhaganviii who is never widowed. It was believed that if she made the mangal sutra with her own hands, the bride who would wear it would also die a sumangali.ix Those days have gone. Exploited by wealthy and powerful classes of men on the one hand and beset with poverty on the other, devadasis have been driven to prostitution. According to Chakresh Jainx, “Present-day devadasis are not the descendants of courtesans, nor are they proficient in any arts. They are not concubines of the well-to-do and are not wealthy. The lives of the devadasis of Maharashtra and Karnataka are dedicated to Yellamma, the universal mother. They are married to her and can marry no one else. The only art they are conversant in is the art of submitting to any man who desires them and is willing to pay for their favours.”
Religious, Social and Filial Sanction
Devadasis, illiterate people in Saundatti and Nippani who do not belong to the devadasi cult are a conditioned by blind belief, ignorance and illiteracy. Among Banjaras of Ratlam and Mandsu districts, prostitution of the eldest daughter is compulsory. Today, the dividing line between a commercial prostitute and devadasi-turned prostitute is rather thin, or so blurred that you cannot distinguish one from the other. But their origins are different. In commercial prostitution, one is not necessarily born into prostitution but is either driven to it or steps into it by choice. But in the devadasi system, the profession is decided for the female child much before she is aware of its implications. Her parents and family members initiate them into the trade. Commercial prostitution does not have any religious or social sanction. But the devadasi system is sustained through these two very institutions – religion and society.
Dr.I.S. Gilada of the Indian Health Organization says, “Any girl from these areas belonging to the community of Harijansxi can be dedicated to Yellamma under any pretext. She has a white patch on her skin. This may be a result of malnutrition or a simple liver rash, or, just due to lack of proper hygiene due to lack of basic utilities like water for bathing and washing. Yet, due to ignorance and blind belief in superstition, this is interpreted to be a sign that she be dedicated to Yellamma. Sometimes, girls develop a thatch of matted hair for want of regular washing and combing. This is taken to be a divine sign that the girl should be dedicated and married to Yellamma and be converted into a devadasi. They believe that if they fail to follow the ‘sign’ of Yellamma, the entire family will fall under the ‘curse’ and the wrath of the Goddess whose fury will destroy them all. Even a simple boil that does not heal because proper medication has not been taken at the right time is taken to be a signal that Yellamma wants the girl for herself.” Sometimes, a girl is dedicated to Yellamma just because another devadasi, supposedly in a trance, vaguely pointed out in the direction of the girl and said that Yellamma wanted that girl. Married women between 20 and 25 are also sometimes dedicated to Yellamma under similar pretexts.
Dr. Gilada adds that devadasis account for 25 per cent of the total number of prostitutes in India. Vivekananda Manawade differs from the data offered by IHO. A survey by Vimochana in the Athani Taluka in 1986 revealed that there were as many as 750 devadasis in 108 villages accounting for 30 per cent of the total number of devadasis in these areas. What happened to the remaining 70 per cent? They found their way to the brothels of Mumbai. Till this day, about 1000 young girls are dedicated to Yellamma on Magha Purnimaxii night at Saundatti. This is the biggest festival of the year in areas where the Goddess to become a devadasi, alias a prostitute thereafter.
According to the Indian Health Organization, nearly 15 to 20 per cent of the total number of prostitutes in Mumbai red-light areas is devadasis. It defines four districts in South Maharashtra – Sangli, Satara, Solapur and Kolhapur – and four in North Karnataka –Hubli, Belgaum, Bijapur and Gulbarga despite the central government’s Prevention of Devadasi Act, 1935. 95 per cent of devadasis are harijans because Yellamma is a Goddess of the harijans because her head is from the body of a harijan woman, remember? The system continues and even several shibirs organized by social welfare associations aiming to liberate these women from the vicious circle during the jatra festivals each year on Maghi Purnima have not been able to make a dent in the pernicious practice.
In an informal survey conducted by the IHO in 1982-83, volunteers posted outside the temple door counted 110 little girls entering the temple within a span of 60 minutes. The girls were bedecked in bridal finery - a new yellow saree, green glass bangles and neem leaves. At least 100 necklaces of red-and-white beads were sold (this is the mangal sutra for the devadasi). Given that even 50 per cent of the purchases were for replacements, it automatically suggests that the remaining 50 per cent of buyers were buying for the first time. Having studied the dedications on Magha Purnima day, the IHO sums up that of the four to five lakh pilgrims that come to temple every year, five per cent are devadasis already, one percent is comprised of jogtas and one per cent of girls are being dedicated for the first time.
It should be mentioned here that not all devadasis sell their bodies for a living. The system also provides for a class of devadasis known as jogins or jogtins and a few males known as jogtas. Their main function is to lure other girls into the system. These are the women who go into a ‘trance’ directing parents of little girls to dedicate their daughters to Yellamma. These women go out to beg for alms on Tuesdays and Fridays with a plate filled with vermillion powder, turmeric powder, some flowers and a brass head of Yellamma perched on their heads. This is how the system brings in girls into the profession. According to tradition and myth, the devadasi is not supposed to charge for her services. But today, begging for alms twice a week does not provide them the barest minimum and poverty drives them to such extremes that they accept payment for services rendered. This wipes out whatever little difference there might be between the commercial sex worker and the devadasi-turned sex worker.
The Legal Angle
Regretfully, the devadasis cannot be brought under the purview of the Suppression of Immoral Traffic (in women and girls) Amendment Bill 1986 because other than devadasis who live in the regular brothels of Indian cities, devadasis do not admit to practicing prostitution because their entire functioning is based on their blind trust and devotion to Yellamma. The practice exists because it is socially sanctioned. The sanction is based on ignorant and irrational belief in the guise of religion and superstition. The central government passed the Prevention of Devadasi Act in 1935. This did not bring about the slightest change in the status quo of the practice in Karnataka and Maharashtra. The Janata Government of Karnataka succeeded in passing legislation banning the devadasi cult, with Karnataka Devadasi Samarpan Nishedhan Act 1982 that took effect from January 1984. Many years later, the dedications continue. The Act states the following:
“Dedication” means the performance of any ceremony or act, by whatever name called, by which a woman is dedicated to the service of any deity, idol, object of worship, temple and other religious institutions, and any woman so dedicated is a devadasi.
Notwithstanding any custom or law to the contrary, the dedication of a woman as a devadasi, whether before or after the commencement of this Act, and whether she had consented to such dedication or not, is unlawful.
All marriages of devadasis are regarded as valid and their children are regarded as legitimate.
Whosoever performs, permits, takes part in or abets the performance of any such ceremony is punishable for a maximum of three years imprisonment and a fine of Rs.2000. (around $40.00)
The above punishment is enhanceable up to a maximum of five years imprisonment and a fine of Rs.5000.00 ($100.00) “if the abettors are parents, guardians or relatives of the girl.”
It may be noted that the word ‘husband’ is not used in the last-mentioned rule. This is a grave omission considering that many husbands and in-laws are known to dedicate their wives and daughters-in-law to the Goddess as a way of earning through these women.
The Question of Economics versus Social Rehabilitation
Most of the rehabilitative programmes for devadasis and for girls ear-marked for induction into the system is bogged by the question of simple economics. The system supports a large number of priests, temple employees, jogtas, jogtins, parents and relatives of the girls depend on either the dedication or marriage of girls to Yellamma, or on the money the girls earn from prostitution. Questions of collective economic gain and individual survival are the ones most difficult to resolve through simplistic answers. The Renuka Yellamma Devasthan Trust earns a huge amount of money during Maghi Purnima each year that is accompanied by a festival and a fair. Firstly, the Trust charges a small fee for every visitor. Secondly, a higher fee is charged for those who wish to have a ‘closer look’ at the Goddess or a dedication ritual. Thirdly, pilgrims drop coins and currency notes into a donation box placed within the temple premises. The money that comes in every year amounts to around a neat $60,000. The local police allegedly charge a ‘commission’ from the authorities for ‘looking the other way.’ Touts and agents who flock to the temple around festival time earn hefty sums for procuring the dedicated girls and selling them off to prostitution in Mumbai or in other Indian cities.
Most of the devadasis belong to the Mahar and Matang castes who give no importance to education. People belonging to these communities are so very poor that the immediate families of the girl such as parents or husband do not balk at dedicating the girl to the system so that she can become a regular source of income for them as long as she is young and useful. When she becomes old and useless, she is discarded by these very people and left with the choice of begging for a living. If she is diseased by then – which she very often is – she dies alone and in penury.
Social changes cannot be brought about through law alone. Alongside law, the processes of social change, namely the NGOs, other voluntary organizations and the governmental machinery should collectively pit themselves against religion and commercialism structured into the business for many years. At Manoli, 12 kms from Saundatti, some devadasis are being trained to handle sewing machines at a centre run by the Akhmahadevi Mahila Mandal. This voluntary body trains 40 girls at a time for six months. The Mahatma Phule Samata Pratisthan of Pune is trying to educate children of devadasis to that they can find employment in the mainstream. Revabai Kamble is President of the Pune Devadasi Sangathan founded in 1982. It raises health consciousness among prostitutes who visit the dispensary once a week. The Social Welfare Department of the Government of Maharashtra has set up a hostel for children of devadasis at Bhukam, 12 miles away from Pune. It has room for 75 inmates at a time but corruption is reportedly rampant and facilities are inadequate. Sawali at Nippani has Sushila Naik as president, who is a devadasi herself. It is a centre established solely for the rehabilitation of the devadasis and for deserted and displaced women. The Karnataka Dalit Action Committee based in Bangalore hs constantly tried to raise public support against the degrading system. This organization forced the Karnataka Legislative Assembly to pass the 1982 Act mentioned above.
The Vaibhav Mitra Mandal of Pune has helped established the Renuka-Vaibhav Devadasis’ Urban Co-operative Credit Society run by devadasis for devadasis. This is the first of its kind in the country. It provides loans ranging from $10.00 to $100.00 to its members during times of crisis. The Mandal had a membership of around 5000. They do not have to offer mortgage or security against loans and interest charged is minimal compared with rates charged by private moneylenders. The Mandal
runs a hostel in Kondhwa village along with another charitable trust for 100 children of devadasis. Lodging and boarding facilities are free. The Karnataka Social Welfare Board jointly with the Christian Children’s Fund (CCF) based in the USA, has adopted20 villages in Athani Taluka with a target to cover 600 children of devadasis.
But all these efforts have been useless in bringing about change. Most of the women are caught in the debt-traps of pimps, agents and touts. Others say they cannot wait for projects to come through because by then, their children would starve to death. A third group of women are so set in their lifestyle that prostitution seems an easier way of earning a living than knitting or weaving baskets.
i Gandharva signifies angelic beings from Heaven.
ii Low-caste woman
iii Interestingly, the incestuous implications embedded in this ‘blessing’ seem to have escaped scholars, theoreticians and social activists working ceaselessly for the rehabilitation of these young girls. The ‘incestuous’ reading comes across because firstly, Renuka is re-named Yellamma, who is female though she is a Goddess. How can a Goddess be wed to another female? Secondly, if a girl is married to Yellamma who is Parasuram’s mother
, doesn’t having sex with the partner’s biological son amount to incest which is forbidden even among the Gods and Goddesses in the Hindu pantheon? Thirdly, how can Parasuram in human form expect these girls to offer sex to him without giving back anything in return
, not even a blessing? In that case, does this not reduce his status to that of a beggar too?
iv Religious scriptures of a particular period in pre-historic times.
v The heavenly world.
vi ‘Peth’ is the Maharashtrian word that roughly translates as ‘street’ in a larger sense – not street literally but more in the sense of a ‘neighbourhood.’
vii Mangal Sutra is derived from two words, mangal, meaning ‘holy’ and sutra, meaning ‘thread.’ In actuality, it is a chain worn round the neck of a woman by her husband at the time of marriage. This takes various forms such as black beads strung together with a golden chain with three golden balls for the locket in the centre – for the Maharashtrian woman. Lower down on the Indian map - among the Tamil Nadu women, the mangal sutra is called the thali – a rope-like gold chain with a different gold locket at the centre. Another ethnic group wear orange beads threaded on a chain of gold. Girls cannot wear these under any circumstances before they are married. Married women have to break the chain and their glass bangles when their husbands die so widows cease wearing the chain as soon as their husbands die. Interestingly, one ethnic group of Muslim women in Karnataka also wear the mangal sutra.
viii Suhagan – this is the Hindi word that suggests a woman who is eternally in a married state – whose husband does not ever die since she is married to a Goddess.
ix Sumangali is derived from two words ‘su’ meaning ‘good’ and ‘mangali’ meaning ‘holy woman.’ If the bride dies while her husband is alive, she is considered to be a ‘good, holy woman.’
x Devadasis:Maids of God – and Men
, article in Express Magazine
, June9, 1985.
is a term coined by Mahatma Gandhi to define the low-caste untouchable class of people in India. They are divided into different classes and tribes within themselves, bound by the common factor of being untouchable. Upper caste Hindus such as Brahmins and Kshatriyas do not touch them, drink water from their hands, or take food they offer. In many parts of India, till this day, small towns and villages have water-wells ear-marked for these low-caste untouchables and they live in areas ghettoized by them instead of living in mainstream areas of the city of village. Gandhi coined the word Harijan
from two words- “hari
” meaning “God” and “jan
” meaning “man” together meaning “man of God” or “the man who is close to God.” The Indian Penal Code however, has made provisions of penalizing any one who uses the term ‘harijan
’ or any equivalent of the word ‘low-caste’ to address a man, woman or child who actually is a harijan
. Constitutional provisions have been made to reserve government posts
, educational seats in government and non-government institutions to admit people from the harijan
class. Much later, a political term has been coined to club these classes under the label of Dalit
– meaning ‘poor, oppressed and humiliated’, to widen the significance of the narrow term ‘harijan
’ and include all castes and classes who fall within these adjectives. Interestingly however, most of them fall under low-caste, untouchable categories.
xii Magha is the tenth month of the Saka calendar in India. This falls around the 15th of February in the Gregorian calendar. Purnima is the night of the Full Moon.