Saving the Devadasi Temple Prostitutes

Devadasi Temple prostitutesA carry over from the English colonial days of India, the Devadasi are today thought of as the 'temple prostitutes', a fate the befalls many young Indian girls.  According to Wikipedia, the devadasi tradition (देवदासी / ದೇವದಾಸಿ; “servant of god”) … is a religious tradition in which girls are “married” and dedicated to a deity (deva or devi) or to a temple and includes performance aspects such as those that take place in the temple as well as in the courtly and mujuvani [telegu] or home context. Dance and music were essential part of temple worship. 

During British rule of India, however, kings who supported the tradition as patrons of temples and temple arts became powerless. As a result, devadasis were left without their traditional means of support and patronage and the sacred tradition succumbed to prosititution. The devadasi system was outlawed in all of India in 1988, yet devadasis still practice illegally.

We have discovered a very informative short film called Saving the Devadasi by American photographer Julia Cumes. Below is the full 8.5 min documentary – 

Guest post on Saving Temple Prostitutes

by Jesuit Friar Tim Byron

96 Girls in our school come from the Devadasi community. Their mothers were dedicated or ‘married’ to the Hindu Godess Yellamma at a young age. They are not allowed to marry a mortal but ones they reach puberty they are bound to give service to the temple. It is ancient tradition that requires them to serve the temple with song, music or dance but most of them are effectively temple prostitutes. Higher caste men come and have sex with them for as little as 20 rupees (25pence or 40cents). This ‘dedication’ was outlawed in Karnataka in 1982, and in all of India in 1988, but as one of the Jesuits puts it ‘ it still flourishes under the carpet,’. With their mothers having children from multiple fathers, the girls can easily be abandoned and without intervention they follow the same pattern of life of their mothers. Sometimes higher castes will ensure a girl goes into devadasi service instead of the family paying debts that are owed. It is effectively a form of child trafficking and child bonded labour.

The girls are often brought to the school here by concerned neighbours who request for admission on their behalf. The devadasi girls stay in the Hostel here during the school year which removes them from the toxic environment of prostitution at home. Interestingly the Jesuits claim that they are among the higher achieving students. When we discussed why this was – whether they are more intelligent or more motivated – the consensus was that they had a burning desire to escape the life that they have seen their mothers having. The Jesuits and staff treat these girls with great sensitivity, their identity as devedasi is not known by most of the teachers and other students. This anonymity is ensured at parents meetings or evenings as the Jesuits ask for only one parent to come for all the families.

Older Devadasi woman begging outside a temple dedicated to Yellama. Photo courtesy of Julia Cumes

This is a striking case of how education brings liberation and social transformation. The help provided to the Devadasi community is not just restricted to education. One of the cruel facts of Devadasi life is as the women age quickly they become less sexually desirable and are abandoned. 

This is a striking case of how education brings liberation and social transformation. The help provided to the Devadasi community is not just restricted to education. One of the cruel facts of Devadasi life is as the women age quickly they become less sexually desirable and are abandoned. 

The Jesuits have been encouraging the founding of womens-cooperatives, realising that on a village level it is the women who are more likely to use small loans wisely and who vlaue education more. One such group in a nearby village is constituted of Devadasis who have turned away from prostitution. A very impressive group, led by strong women, well organised, with support they have built 26 houses and have become a strong influence in the community. I remember visiting them in the community in 2006 and being impressed by their bold spirit. I have since learned that they have become influential on the local political level. In fact officials were outbidding each other at the last elections to secure their votes. Political corruption of course is endemic!

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