“She is given to the temple by her parents just when she reaches her puberty. Scared she is, about the outcome of that event, as she is dressed by her mother. The poor girl, hardly understands the meaning of marriage, let alone marriage with God!” bemoans Mokshamma, a dalit women working with Navjeevana Mahila Okkuta (NJMO), an organization working in North Karnataka (based at Raichur).
It’s estimated that every year more than 1000 young girls in Karnataka are sacrificed in the name of tradition. These girls come from Dalit families, primarily belonging to the lowest strata of the society. The girls are given away often for money, at times to save the cost of dowry and marriage. Often parents seek boy child and when a girl is born instead, she’s sacrificed. The disabled or deceased girls too end up being the victims. On a few occasions, the Gowdas (upper caste) of the village, on suspecting an evil force active in the village, urges (forces) a lower caste family to sacrifice their daughter in service of GOD. Such a girl is known as a ‘Devadasi’, a servant of God.
In the medieval times, Devadasis were upper caste girls, who dedicated their lives to performing art and rituals at the temples, serving God and remaining unmarried. They commanded high respect for their art and service from the society.
The system today
With the demise of the ancient kingdoms and deterioration in the situation at temples, the lives of Devadasis started becoming tough and the respect was lost and was replaced by lust. The parents from upper class , hence, stopped giving their girls away as Devadasis. With the gradual change in times, original meanings were forgotten and then came a time when the poor who were abused by the system started using this changed system for their own benefits. The untouchable girls became touchable in the night. The new version of Devadasi was married to the God at young age (at times even at 3 years!). After she reaches her puberty, the head of the village or the priest generally has a first go at her virginity. Sometimes she’s sold to a particular man who’s called Malik and supposed to take care of her and her children. The girl, although given away by the family, needs to take care of the family with her new profession now, which often is a new form of prostitution. At village fairs or temple festivals, she needs to show her great art of dancing. During the dance, any man can lay hands on her and then throw 5-10 Rs at her. Many such nights are spent being beaten and stripped by drunkards. Devadasi in the village sometimes does have one man to take care of her and her children, but in the cities she’s always a synonym to a prostitute. Those women who manage to find themselves some labour work, try to get their kids into schools. Such children, with no father, face a lot of stigma in the schools, sometimes even denial of admission. Their daughters often end up being Devadasis.
Attempts for betterment
Devadasi system has been prevailing in parts of Karnataka and AndraPradesh and a few places in Maharashtra. Although Karnataka Governemt issued Devadasi Prohibition Act in 1982 (and 1984 in AP), a large number of girls are still turned to Devadasis in many parts of North Karntaka. They are often known as Mathamma or Jogini. NJMO has been working for betterment of Devadasis for over 5 years now. With numerous struggles, they have been able to provide help with education and vocational training for the children of Devadasis, ration cards, housing to these women along with empowering them by forming collectives, which benefits in terms of ensuring livelihoods. They could even assure pension for these women with the help of Women and child welfare department (the scheme is halted for time being). “The process of providing housing facilities for homeless was not easy. It consisted of a good deal of survey and the report then was sent to Rajiv Gandhi housing board in Bangalore. It was a continuous follow up for nearly 2 years then with respective Panchayats to get the sanction of 280 houses.” remarks Manjula, my co-fellow at CHC and one of the founding member of NJMO. The girls found as prospective Devadasis or daughters of Devadasis were sent to Visthar in Bangalore, a group that runs school for children at risk.
Although the work of groups like NJMO does help these women, the bulk of the blame lies with the society. A lot of girls are given away due to poverty , patriarchy and oppression by people of higher strata. I’ve always wondered what it takes to treat a fellow human being with respect, not as an object to derive fun from.
– Interactions with Manjula (my co-fellow at CHC) and women workers from NJMO
– ‘Holy Wives’ – a documentary by Pedestrian Pictures