Religion

In Southern India, Women Are Being Sexually Exploited in the Name of God

The Devadasi practice that makes women ‘wives of god’ might have been banned, but women are still finding themselves stuck in the inhuman tradition.

by Archana Nathan
30 May 2019, 1:45am

This article originally appeared on VICE IN.

Samadevamma, a 28-year-old Madiga (a Dalit community) woman from Hagaribommanahalli in North Karnataka blinks back tears as she narrates the story of her life.

When she was barely three or four years old, Samadevamma's parents had her consecrated as a Devadasi (a servant of god), a practice that has been outlawed by the Karnataka Devadasis (Prohibition of Dedication) Act in 1982 but one that still continues to take place in the state covertly.

Samadevamma doesn’t remember much about the consecration, except the fact that her parents got her married to Mailaralingeshwara, the local male deity in her village, thereby designating her as a Devadasi. A few years later, when she attained puberty, she was bought for a small sum of money by a male patron—an older, married man from the same village—and it became her “duty” as a Devadasi to sleep with him and dedicate her life to him.

"I come from a very poor family and I am my parents' only child," she tells VICE on a hot afternoon in May sitting inside the office of the Karnataka Rajya Devadasi Mahileyara Vimochana Sangha (KRDMVS), a non-governmental organisation working towards the eradication of the practice. "By making me a Devadasi, my parents were making sure I was there to take care of them until their death using the money my patron would give me. The logic is that otherwise, if I'm married the regular way, I'd go off to my husband's house and would not be available to support my family economically."

She suppresses a lump in her throat as she continues.

"Back when I first met my patron, I didn't know what was being done to me,” she says. "I couldn't understand why I had to give my body to this stranger. But if I refused to sleep with him, my grandfather would chastise me by saying that I wasn't thinking about the well-being or the survival of my family."

In the name of god

Samadevamma is among scores of women in Karnataka who, over the years, have been similarly pushed into this illegal and abominable practice either by their parents or by village elders, often upper caste men and women—all in the name of god. The Devadasi practice that they are forced to follow is a modern-day variation of a Hindu religious practice that goes back 1700 years, one that was widely practised especially in southern India.

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The Devadasis of Hagaribommanahalli. Photo: Archana Nathan

As back as in 3rd century AD, women were married off or dedicated to the local deity and were considered “sacred” beings. They lived in and around temples, were considered the custodians of the deity, and were also proponents and performers of classical music and dance. They were patronised by kings, elders and leaders of their village, many of whom often engaged in sexual relationships with them.

It was in the 1930s that the practice finally came under scrutiny from social reformers when under the British, kings and other patrons of the Devadasis lost their clout and power which, in turn, plunged the Devadasis into poverty and despair. Devadasis were equated with prostitutes and a campaign against the practice gathered momentum.

The first attempt to outlaw the practice was made in 1934 when the Bombay Devadasi Protection Act was passed. It made the dedication of women illegal, be it consensual or otherwise. In 1947, The Madras Devadasis (Prevention of Dedication) Act was passed abolishing the practice, with state of Karnataka following suit in 1982.

As these laws were being passed, the practice itself, in the meantime, had undergone a sea change—especially since the old patrons had fallen out of favour. Unlike its "sacred" origin story, the Devadasi practice in independent India, as Samadevamma’s story attests, is fuelled more by extreme poverty, caste biases and superstition.

For instance, VICE also met 30-year-old Geetha, who was consecrated as a Devadasi in Hagaribommanahalli when she was a child, around eight years after the practice was outlawed. Her parents dedicated her to the local goddess because Geetha was born with jadi or matted hair on her scalp. It is a common belief among communities that matted hair is a sign of the Goddess entering a woman’s body. "To please the Huligeyamma goddess, therefore, I was married off to her and declared a Devadasi," Geetha says pulling out a necklace of orange and white beads that is tied around her neck that is referred to as ‘devaru’ (god) and is worn by most Devadasis. "When I got my period, I was assigned to a patron who was much older than I was. He and his wife have grandchildren now but he still comes to my house every now and then.”

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Devadasis are made to wear a necklace of orange and white beads that is referred to as ‘devaru’ (god). Photo: Archana Nathan

We met nearly 40 Devadasis in three districts in North Karnataka: Bellary, Mudhol and Jamkhandi. Almost all of them spoke about being made a Devadasi by their parents either because their family had no money or because they believed a local deity needed to be pleased. The common belief was that the patron would somehow sustain a Devadasi’s family and the practice was such that if he died, a Devadasi can take on another patron who would then support her family’s economic needs.

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The Devadasis in Jamkhandi. Photo: Archana Nathan

Not an old social evil

It may be outlawed on paper but the truth is that the Devadasi practice is nowhere close to being an extinct tradition in southern India today. This writer learnt of an instance of a suspected new “consecration” as recent as three months ago in Hagaribommanahalli. “The woman and her family deny the entire thing and claim that she was marrying her mother’s brother and not actually becoming a Devadasi,” says Somavva, a Devadasi familiar with the incident. “But the family made a trip to the Huligeyamma temple which is a common spot for Devadasi consecrations. It is hard to discount that coincidence.”

Today, a new consecration, if reported to the police, can be prevented and the perpetrators can be punished too. However, that doesn’t mean the practice itself has been uprooted from the ground or that the lives of the previously consecrated Devadasis are that much better. Take the case of someone like Samadevamma again, for instance. She realises that she has no better option but to continue spending her life in the "service" of her patron even though it hasn’t alleviated her family’s economic circumstances. Money from her patron isn't enough, steady enough at least, for her to support her family which comprises her parents, her grandmother and her two children (born out of her relationship with her patron). To keep her head above water, she works in agricultural fields owned by upper caste men for a meagre wage of Rs 100 or Rs 150 a day. In a year of drought, this too is lost.

The patron is not obliged to give his name to his children with a Devadasi. Nor does he need to grant them access to or a share in his property or assets. "His wife or family wouldn't allow it anyway," Samadevamma says. "But my patron helped my children get admission in the local government school at least. In fact, he said, if I gave my children to him and his family, he'd ensure they live a comfortable life. But I don't want to be separated from them—they are all that I have now and the rest of my life is dedicated to them and their well-being. What has happened to me, cannot happen to my children, especially my daughter.”

A way out

One way of rehabilitating a Devadasi therefore, is to make her self-reliant especially by making her economically independent. But in Karnataka, even that plan is currently ridden with many problems. The Karnataka state government, under its Devadasi Rehabilitation Project, currently gives a pension of Rs 1,500 a month, an abysmally low sum, to Devadasis. “How can we run our homes and feed our entire family with such a small amount?” asks Chandrama Mariyappa Banadar, a Devadasi in Mudhol. “We need a pension of at least Rs 5,000 which will allow us to lead our lives with some dignity.”

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“We need a pension of at least Rs 5,000 which will allow us to lead our lives with some dignity.”—Chandrama Mariyappa Banadar

Banadar was one among the many Devadasis who marched at a rally in Hospet in Bellary in January this year in order to highlight the socio-economic conditions that plague Devadasis and to put forth a charter of demands to the state government. Among these was an increase in the pension amount, financial support of Rs 5 lakh for the wedding of a Devadasi’s daughter, and employment opportunities for Devadasis’ children among others.

Devadasis have also demanded a fresh survey to ascertain the exact number of their community in the state. According to a government survey conducted in 2007-08, there were 46,660 Devadasis in 14 districts of northern Karnataka alone. However, this survey does not include women like Samadevamma or Geetha who are below the age of 35. The logic of the government seems to be to count only those women who were consecrated as Devadasis before the practice was outlawed. “But that’s terribly unfair to women like Samadevamma or Geetha who, born after 1982, still did not have a say in how their lives panned out,” says Mallamma, the state general secretary of KRDMVS . “A resurvey will help younger Devadasis too avail of government benefits, as little as they may be. That’s the only way they can be rehabilitated.”

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The Devadasis of Jamkhandi sorting out their pension forms with a government officer. Photo: Archana Nathan

An equally grave concern and challenge in the rehabilitation process of Devadasis is the social stigma that they continue to face. Samadevamma, for instance, said she is wary of dressing up and heading to a wedding she is invited for. "I have to constantly combat how other villagers look at me,” she says. “Men catcall and ask if I would sleep with them for Rs 500 or Rs 1,000. This happens even when I’m just walking on the street. Sometimes, unable to take the harassment, I seek refuge in the temple premises where it is relatively safer."

The stigma is two-fold in the case of a Devadasi because most of them are also Dalits, considered to be ‘untouchables’ and belonging to the lowest rung in the Hindu caste system. In Karnataka, Dalits are broadly divided into two communities: Madiga and Chalavadi and most Dalit Devadasis hail from them. None of them are allowed to enter the homes of the upper castes in their village. “We can’t even ask for water in their houses,” Banadar explains. “All we can do is clean their shit and their garbage but without coming anywhere near them.”

The other problem that some of the older Devadasis are currently facing is trying to find a groom for their marriageable daughters. “Parents of the groom ask our daughters who their father is,” Banadar says. “When they find out that she is a Devadasi’s daughter, they go away or never call back. What wrong did my daughter do?”

This issue is not just restricted to the daughters of Devadasis. 23-year-old Umesh squirms when he thinks of the ragging that he goes through often when asked who his father is. “The situation can be anything—be it a job interview or a social gathering. The question is always what does your father do or what’s his name. It is never enough that we have our mother’s name in our names—all because she’s a Devadasi.”

The Karnataka Devadasis (Prohibition of Dedication Act), passed in 1982 and amended in 2010, too is replete with problems, according to RV Chandrashekar Ramenahalli, assistant professor at National Law School of India University, Bengaluru. “As per the current law, the punishment is only meted out to the parents of the woman and the Devadasi herself but not to the men who patronise or even the members of the gram panchayat who allow these consecrations to take place,” he says.

A team from NLSIU, in consultation with members of the Devadasi community drafted a model legislation last year which rectifies this problem. “The only way to root out the practice effectively is to ensure people actually fear the law and the punishment that awaits them should they indulge in this practice. Also, the rehabilitation process cannot extend only up to the Devadasis themselves, many of whom have now passed away leaving behind orphaned children. We would argue that for the stigma of this practice to completely disappear, the rehabilitation process has to extend up to three generations i.e. up to a Devadasi’s great-grandchildren.”

Back in the KRDMVS office, I asked the Devadasis if they are angry with their parents, their patrons or even with the gods for pushing them into such a torturous practice. "No," came the unanimous reply. "What's the point of getting angry or lashing out now?" asks one of them.

Says another, "Also there isn't any time for us to dwell on what has happened to us—especially when we have to worry about where the next meal is going to come from, every day. We have to figure that out ourselves for we are on our own.”

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This article originally appeared on VICE IN.