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Southern India’s devadasi system - sex work under the cover of religion

22 January 2011

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The Guardian, 21 January 2011, G2 page 16

’Devadasis are a cursed community’

Southern India’s devadasi system, which ’dedicates’ girls to a life of
sex work in the name of religion, continues despite being made illegal in 1988

by Nash Colundalur

Parvatamma is a devadasi, or servant of god, as shown by the
red-and-white beaded necklace around her neck. Dedicated to the
goddess Yellamma when she was 10 at the temple in Saundatti, southern
India, she cannot marry a mortal. When she reached puberty, the
devadasi tradition dictated that her virginity was sold to the highest
bidder and when she had a daughter at 14 she was sent to work in the
red light district in Mumbai.

Parvatamma regularly sent money home, but saw her child only a few
times in the following decade. Now 26 and diagnosed with Aids, she has
returned to her village, Mudhol in southern India, weak and unable to
work. "We are a cursed community. Men use us and throw us away," she
says. Applying talcum powder to her daughter’s face and tying ribbons
to her hair, she says: "I am going to die soon and then who will look
after her?" The daughter of a devadasi, Parvatamma plans to dedicate
her own daughter to Yellamma, a practice that is now outlawed in India.

Each January, nearly half a million people visit the small town of
Saundatti for a jatre or festival, to be blessed by Yellamma, the
Hindu goddess of fertility. The streets leading to the temple are
lined with shops selling sacred paraphernalia – glass bangles,
garlands, coconuts and heaped red and yellow kunkuma, a dye that
devotees smear on their foreheads. The older women are called jogathis
and are said to be intermediaries between the goddess and the people.
They all start their working lives as devadasis and most of them would
have been initiated at this temple.

Girls from poor families of the "untouchable", or lower, caste are
"married" to Yellamma as young as four. No longer allowed to marry a
mortal, they are expected to bestow their entire lives to the service
of the goddess.

The devadasi system has been part of southern Indian life for many
centuries. A veneer of religion covers the supply of concubines to
wealthy men. Trained in classical music and dance, the devadasis lived
in comfortable houses provided by a patron, usually a prominent man in
the village. Their situation changed as the tradition was made illegal
across India in 1988, and the temple itself has publicly distanced
itself from their plight.

The change started in colonial times. Academics dispute what the
British thought of the custom, but their presence meant that kings and
other patrons of temples lost their power and much of their economic influence.

Now the system is seen as a means for poverty-stricken parents to
unburden themselves of daughters. Though their fate was known, parents
used religion to console themselves, and the money earned was shared.

Roopa, now 16, has come to buy bangles at the festival. She was
dedicated to the goddess seven years ago and was told that Yellamma
would protect her. Her virginity was auctioned in the village, and
since then she has supported her family by working as a prostitute out
of her home in a village close to Saundatti.

"The first time it was hard," she admits. In fact, her vagina was
slashed with a razor blade by the man she was supposed to sleep with
the first time. Her future, like that of other devadasis, is
uncertain. Once they are around 45, at which point they are no longer
considered attractive, devadasis try to eke out a living by becoming
jogathis or begging near the temple.

Chennawa, now 65 and blind, is forced to live on morsels of food given
by devotees. "I was first forced to sleep with a man when I was 12,"
she says. "I was happy that I was with Yellamma. I supported my
mother, sisters and brother. But look at my fate now." She touches her
begging bowl to check if people have thrown her anything. "My mother,
a devadasi herself, dedicated me to Yellamma and left me on the
streets to be kicked, beaten and raped. I don’t want this goddess any
more, just let me die."

BL Patil, the founder of Vimochana, an organisation working towards
the eradication of the devadasi system, says that although the
dedication ceremonies are banned, the practice is still prevalent, as
families and priests conduct them in secret. The National Commission
for Women estimate that there are 48,358 Devadasis currently in India.

"For certain SC communities [Scheduled Caste – a government
classification of lower castes] this has become a way of life,
sanctioned by tradition," he says. The priests conduct the ceremonies
in their own houses because "it is profitable for them".

Patil started Vimochana partly to stop the children of devadasis
becoming devadasis themselves. He set up a residential school for
devadasi children in his own home 21 years ago, in order to train them
to become teachers or nurses. Enduring protests from neighbours who
did not want to live near the untouchable children of prostitutes, the
school has gone on to educate more than 700 children, and is today
housed in several buildings. "More than 300 of these children are
married and have become part of society," he says.

Roopa does not know what her future is. She says that although she
does not like to be "touched" by many men, the money feeds her family.
"I would like to be a teacher, but this is my fate." she says. As she
walks past Chennawa, she adds: "When I am old like this aayi
[grandmother] I may become blind like her."

Roopa places some food in Chennawa’s hands: "I hope some one will look
after me then. I am not counting on Yellamma though." She wears her
new bangles, admires them and says it is time for her to go back to work.

• Beeban Kidron’s Storyville film about the devadasi system, Sex,
Death and the Gods, will be shown on BBC4 on Monday 24 January at 10pm

o o o

The Guardian, 21 January 2011, G2 page 17

Beeban Kidron on the devadasi system

The film-maker is outraged by the practice, but says that ’evil
mothers’ are not to blame

As told to Joanna Moorhead

Photograph: Two devadasis, interviewed in Beeban Kidron’s Storyville
documentary (BBC)

After I made a documentary called Hookers, Hustlers, Pimps and Their
Johns, which investigated prostitution in New York 18 years ago, I
didn’t think I’d make another film on prostitution. But when I heard
about the devadasis it opened the whole thing up for me again. Sex
work "in the name of God" was a whole new frontier and I arrived in
India full of outrage and disapproval.

The devadasis have a multilayered story, a story in which poverty,
deprivation and injustice against women is central – but what has
happened to them is absolutely an outcome of imperialism and the
impact of British rule in India. Modern Indian society has some big
questions to ask about how it is going to deal with its own cultural heritage.

I also discovered a story that I could see would be difficult to tell.
There is no record of thethe history of the low caste (dalit)
Devadasi. There had been an elite community who were dancers and
musicians, lovers of princes and priests, recorded in statues on
temple walls and in court log books. The British Film Institute gave
me access to hours of unseen footage from India, including a
Maharaja’s home movie - but almost everything I saw was about elephant
hunts and the pomp, wealth and ceremony of the Indian ruling class.
Where women featured in the films at all, they were only on the screen
for fleeting seconds - it was as though the camera-operator, realizing
his lens had panned to the women, simply switched off.The low caste
women were always unrecorded and their tradition, now illegal, had
been plunged into an illicit twilight world. A white woman with a
camera in the Devadasi belt of Karnataka is not inconspicuous…it took
time for these women to believe that I was not an official, carrying
the threat of fine and imprisonment.

Yet the devadasis’ situation is complex, and their views multifaceted.
Their love of the goddess; their pride at their devadasi status; and
set against that, the appalling stories of their mothers and
grandmothers dedicating them to a life of sex work, often before they
can walk. The women’s stories are often heart-wrenching and their
stoicism remarkable. Theirs is a life "dedicated", not chosen – and
they must comply. "What should I do?" ask their mothers, struggling to
support a large family with "no money in my hand".

There is clear abuse, sex slavery, systemised rape – nothing can dress
that up, yet a single devadasi is often financially supporting a dozen
people or more, and unless and until their families have other ways of
paying to feed, marry and educate their young, putting girls into sex
work will always be an option. It’s worth pointing out that the
devadasis are more likely to educate their children than others in
their community – education is the way out for the next generation,
you see that in the film.

I could have made a campaigning film with a single emotive message
that would generate headlines about evil mothers and a barbaric Hindu
tradition. But I wanted to make a different, more difficult film,
showing the intractable nature of the issues, revealing the
complexities rather than reducing them to a simplicity that wouldn’t
have been as honest.

When I made Hookers, I went to New York and and made a film that was
about how sex work wasn’t about sex at all, it was about money and
abuse and homelessness and addiction. Now I’ve been to India and made
a film about how prostitution isn’t about sex, it’s about money and
abuse and homelessness. And while it’s every woman’s right to do sex
work, the reality of almost every woman caught up in it, wherever you
go on the planet, is to do with economic and social pressures.

• Beeban Kidron’s work as a film director includes Bridget Jones’s Diary.