With dark eyes that stared defiantly into a world – one in which the trademark pearl necklace of the devadasi that clung around her neck inscribed destiny, Sitavva Dundappa Jodatti would defy its age-old custom. A steadfast figure, she would become the voice of a new generation – one that screamed for the emancipation of the thousands of girls and women marked by those cursed pearls. In 2018, Ram Nath Kovind, the President of India, awarded her with the Padma Sri, one of India’s highest awards, for her relentless efforts to eradicate the devadasi plight.
In the regions where the Indian states Karnataka, Maharashtra and Telangana meet, riverbanks twist around hills and centuries-old mythical legends are interlaced with them. It is here that the worship of the Goddess Yellamma began.
Impoverished parents in these rural areas “dedicate” their daughters to the Goddess from as young as four years old. In so doing, the child is shackled to a life of sexual abuse and exploitation. Her virginity is auctioned off to the highest bidder, and she becomes “married” to a temple or deity, often before puberty. Forced into a life as a prostitute to the richer folk in the community, the Marathi quote sums it up with, “Devadasi devachi bayako, sarya gavachi”, which means, “Servant of God, but the wife of the whole town”.
Two devadasis spoke candidly to The Guardian about their plight.
The man who bought Roopa’s virginity had slashed her vagina with a razor blade. She was first dedicated at 9-years-old. With daydreams of being a teacher and a distinct dislike for being touched by men, at 16-years-old, she was resigned to her fate – too aware that she was the only financial resource for her family.
The other young woman, Parvatamma, was severely sick with Aids and had to return home to her village. Her virginity was sold and she had a daughter at 14-years-old. Before long, she was carted off to a squalid corner of Mumbai to work as a prostitute.
“We are a cursed community. Men use us and throw us away,” she said as her concerns then turned to her child. “I am going to die soon and then who will look after her?”
Yet, despite the trauma that Parvatamma had endured, she intended to dedicate her daughter to that same practice which had signed her own death sentence. This is not out of the ordinary for devadasis, where opportunities are lacklustre and dated bureaucracies rule. Old habits dictate that the daughter of a devadasi should also be promised.
The bleak reality is that their lives mutate into something subhuman; they are little more than sex slaves in a playing field of sexual predators. And if they live beyond the rampant threat of sexually transmitted diseases, once their looks fade, they will be cast out into the streets to face destitution and street begging.
Sitavva had pleaded with her parents to allow her to earn money from farming work. But coming from a family facing abject poverty with nine daughters and no sons meant that her cries fell on deaf ears. At 7-years-old, Sitavva was dedicated as a devadasi.
She was eventually sent to a man who, in exchange, provided her family with financial support. Her mother, however, negotiated for her to be sent to a wealthier man who could pay them far more for her. Over time, the money that he paid dwindled to nothing more than food grains. By the age of 17, Sitavva had born three children.
In time, Sitavva began travelling with former devadasis and speaking out against the custom. She joined MASS (Mahila Abhivarudhi Mattu Samarakshana Samsthe), an NGO organisation that works towards the abolition of the devadasi system. Over the past thirty years, she has rescued over 4,000 women and created rehabilitation programs, which include financial support, sexual health, and workshops. In 2012, she became the CEO of MASS.
MicroGraam, an organisation that offers sustainable opportunities for the underprivileged to generate income, works in association with MASS. Over the years, it has helped hundreds of former devadasi women by providing low-cost micro-credit assistance.
Microgram’s Chief Operating Officer, Krishnamurthy Naidu, said: “The devadasi system is mainly prevalent in parts of South Maharashtra and North Karnataka. And 99% of the girls are born into poor dalit families – the “untouchables” who form the lowest social group in the Indian caste system. Once a girl is dedicated, she is not expected to marry or participate in certain socio-religious rituals of the local community.
“The dedications happen because of traditional beliefs and values, and economic factors. Many of the ex-devdasis, who are first generation devdasis, believed that they were dedicated for a number of reasons.
“It could be because their parents did not have any sons to take care of them during old age; someone in their family had health issues; there was a loss of crop or any other difficult situation faced by their parents; the family’s deity was the Goddess Yellamma; they believed it could bring in rains for a good harvest for the village; or they had matted hair, which indicated that the Goddess Yellamma wanted them to be dedicated.”
In 1982, the Karnataka Devadasis (Prohibition of Dedication) was introduced, banning the devadasi culture. Yet, in remote areas of the country, superstition and fear tactics go hand-in-hand. Idle threats of the Gods becoming vengeful if the girl does not become a devadasi are numerous.
The Government has made attempts to implement measures to tackle the problem and raise awareness. More volunteers and ex-devadasis are taking a stand to protect young girls. In January 2019, thousands of devadasis from all across Karnataka held a rally to draw attention to their plight.
Krishnamurthy admits that enough is still not being done as he explained:
“Though the tradition was banned by law since 1982 in Karnataka, it has continued in the region because of socio-economic factors and a lack of enforcement of the law. So, it is important that these women are equipped with the right skills and help to financially sustain themselves and their family.”
There is little doubt that India is in dire need of a deeper revaluation of gender issues. A retrograded practice that provides an unwavering supply of concubines – or even – underage girls – to the mercy of sexual deviants under the banner of religion, is no religion that should be followed. Any God that promotes the systematic rape and depravation of basic human rights is not a God worth worshipping.