The Devadasi System
Abhay Kumar has been working with the Devadasi community in Raichur and partners with us on this project. He gives us his knowledge and experience of the system and its existence today.
Information on the Devadasi system dates the tradition in Medieval India, a few centuries ago. At this time the temples and Kings were the main patrons of the arts and girls from upper caste families were dedicated to be trained in the performing arts, care for the temple, and take part in its rituals and ceremonies. These girls were called Devadasis which means servants of god. This was a highly respected way of life and great piety was attributed to the girls who remained unmarried to serve the deity.
The status of the devadasis changed when the status of the Hindu temples fell with invasions that dethroned the patron kings. It is said that the women were also misused by the rich and powerful and the upper caste families ceased to dedicate their daughters to the temples. As temples became poorer the devadasis fell into a life of poverty, misery and abuse. It is here that the system became one where girls from the lower castes were made devadasis. However, these women were no longer patrons of the performing arts but used by the men of the village.
In this century the poor who were being abused by the system began to use it to their benefit. Children were dedicated to be devadasis before they reached puberty. This essentially meant that the child would be taken to a temple and a ritual conducted where she would be “married” to Yellamma, the goddess. She was then sold to the highest bidder, or given to a powerful man in the village or a relative. This was not a one time sale but the girl was expected to support her family throughout her life. It became a sure method of ensuring financial security for the poor who had no land or resources and faced much discrimination by way of the “untouchability” system. The woman lived with one man throughout her life, known as the Mallik, who supported her and his children through her.
The financial implications urged families outside the devadasi lineage to dedicate their daughters as devadasis. Parents who have no male children would dedicate one of their daughters so she would care for them in their old age. 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. The logic being that the girl is supported by the Mallik and therefore supports the family.
Today, the face of the system has changed. Many Malliks are unable to support the women and her children. So devadasis have begun to change partners leading to an increase in sexually transmitted diseases and many have died of AIDS. Many have also moved to cities and enter into sex work.The devadasi woman is no longer respected but treated with much contempt and often ridiculed. The Karnataka state government passed the Devadasi (Prohibition of Dedication) Act in 1992 and called for the rehabilitation of devadasi women. Like many laws aimed at protecting women and lower castes, the act suffers from a lack of enforcement. What is worse is that the government at a practical level refuses to take into consideration the dedications that have taken place after 1992. Rituals and dedication ceremonies continue, very often in secret, and young girls continue to be violated on the basis of tradition, economic need and the misuse of the caste hierarchy.