India’s Devadasis refuse to dance to God’s tune

By Amrita Mukherjee

In our entire life, we probably haven’t met one of them, and chances are we never would, but as soon as the word ‘Devadasi’ is mentioned, our mind gets transported to the era of the Maharajas, to the Nat Mandir (dance hall of the temple) where a beautiful woman, resplendent in gold is dancing in front of God, in a classical dance style Odissi or Bharathanatyam.

Former Devadasi Kasturi is into the textiles business

Former Devadasi Kasturi is into the textiles business

But the adult and the enlightened mind knows that behind this beautiful picture is a young girl sacrificed in the service of God, shackled to a life of sexual exploitation that throws her into a vicious cycle of social manipulation where a Davadasi’s daughter has to become a servant of God.

In fact, this post that I am writing today is about a few Devadasis in Karnataka who refused to continue to dance to the tune of Goddess Yellamma, to whose service they were dedicated to at the age of six or seven. They wanted a way out of the system and send their children to school and it is people like you and me who have shown them the way.

When the NGO Milaap – you must have noticed them appearing in pop-ups on numerous websites asking you to loan (mind it not donate) Rs 2500, to someone who needs it to change his or her life – claimed they have been helping Devadasis find a new future I wanted to know more.

I came to know Milaap has joined hands with Mahila Abhivrudhimathu Samrakshana Samsthe (MASS) – a collective of former Devadasis, and has been giving out loans to Devadasis to build a life for themselves.

I wrote to Sourabh Sharma, founder of Milaap.org and wanted to know real stories. Sourabh immediately got back with the relevant information. I realized the success stories are heart-warming and what is more fascinating is so many people have played a part in these success stories just by lending a part of their own income to the people who need it more.

Success story 1: Mahananda

This 34-year-old woman now employs four former Devadasis in her sewing enterprise. Her younger daughter studies in class eight, and plans to pursue a career in science. “Girls should prosper. I have painstakingly brought my daughters up so that they are able to live a good life and I want to see them prosper,” she says.

Success Story 2: Shobha

Every year she made a promise to herself that she would find some job to earn a legitimate living but every year she realized no one was willing to employ a Devadasi. Every year she went back to selling her body but she was determined none of her four children would see the life she had seen.

So Shobha registered for help from MASS and Milaap and learned to raise buffaloes and sell their milk. She applied for a loan, and used the money to buy a buffalo. She saved, repaid her loan, and requested another. She bought more buffaloes, earned more. Today, she is securely out of the Devadasi system and her children are in school.

Success Story 3: Mangal

Mangal’s success with her grocery store not only gave her and her teenage children a new life of dignity – it also got her a husband (given that no one marries Devadasis). They have a child together. And Mangal, who realized the importance of financial independence, continues to grow her business.

Here’s what I found out about the Devadasi system:

Does the Devadasi system still exist?

Although states like Orissa, Maharashtra, Tamil Nadu, Andhra Pradesh and Karnataka claim that they have done away with the Devadasi system, Karnataka even passed the Devadasi (Prohibition of Dedication) Act in 1992 the National Commission of Women found out that Andhra Pradesh had 16,624 Devadasis within its state and Karnataka has around 22,941.

Who is a modern-day Devadasi?

French-American author Catherine Rubin Kermorgant spent four years researching among Devadasi women in Karnataka. She interviewed five women and wrote her book Servants of the Goddess: the modern-day Devadasis.

In her book she mentions Ganga who was dedicated to the Goddess because her father had promised to do so if her mother recovered from a serious ailment. Her mother recovered and she was made into a Devadasi – one woman’s life was finished to save another’s.

Although dedications are banned now but these are still carried out surreptitiously as the girl is bathed in neem and turmeric and taken before God and told about her duties which includes never retaliating to abuse and “giving shelter to strangers”.

Ganga further said, “Some landlords consider it a matter of prestige to deflower as many young girls as possible. In Mumbai, virgin Devadasis fetch a high price. By deflowering a Devadasi, a man can cure himself of disease. He can purify himself. If the goddess wills it, then it is possible.”

“And what about AIDS?” Catherine had asked

“It is said you can get rid of it by giving it to a client,” Ganga said.

The National Commission of Women say that women still become Devadasis because of dumbness, deafness and poverty. Women who are deserted by their husbands, widowed, or living with AIDS dedicate their children as Devadasis when they find it difficult to get them married. They subsist on the money that their daughter earns. In fact, most Devadasis now hail from poor families and are responsible for earning for the entire family.

So far the life expectancy of a Devadasi has been low. She usually does not live beyond 50.

And even if she gets out of the system it’s hard to make two ends meet and lead a good life. Read Ratnamma’s story.

Kallava became a Devadasi at six, gave birth to three children in her late 40s and now pays her children’s school fees from her goat rearing business.

Amrita Mukherjee

Amrita Mukherjee is a freelance journalist based in Dubai. She blogs at amritaspeaks.com

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