The Devadasi Tradition – caught between poverty and superstition

In the areas around the city of Sangli, on the border of Maharashtra and Karnataka, you can easily find red light districts. And you can easily find devadasis – slaves of the God. 

Written by Ditte Hansen, MA History/Sociology of Religion and Journalist

After having wrote my master thesis about devadasis, or temple prostitutes, I finally had the opportunity to go to a red light district to meet and interview actual devadasis. I had been waiting many years for this and it was with a pounding heart that I stepped into a little house in the midst of an area consisting of 500 sex workers.

I met a group of young women, all sex workers and all aged between 18 and 25. Four of them were devadasis.

Before I in details begin describing the circumstances around the four girls and the tradition, let me explain how the red light district works:

I was told that the girls have to be at least 18 years of age before being allowed working as a prostitute. Is this is not being met, the police will arrive and make trouble for the entire area.

I personally have a hard time believing that this rule is being followed for two reasons; firstly, age can be a difficult thing to comprehend and least of all know. Among the poor communities (and here in particular I am referring to the dalit community) such things as birth certificates is not prevalent nor is accurate date and timings concerning when a little one is brought into this world. Secondly, money plays a major role and can be seen working as a blinder among poor people, and that is why I believe age might be mingled with, lied about and ignored. And the police can easily be payed off.

Furthermore I was informed that the government each week hands out 56 condoms to each sex worker because it has been calculated that in average 8 clients is being serviced pr. day pr. sex worker. Unfortunately, while I was there, the government was on the verge of removing this benefit which will be absolutely catastrophic to health issues and the safety of the girls.

The government also provides buckets to collect condoms which is a huge improvement from before, when condoms simply got thrown on the ground.

One thing that really surprised me, but which unfortunately explains a lot about the view on sex and women which allows a continuing series of rapes taking place, was the explanation of the importance of having free (but still chargeable, of course) access to sex workers:

The women sees themselves doing other women a favor; they believe that they insure safety for the average woman; if no prostitution it is a mans right to go out and ‘take’ who ever he wants. That be ‘your daughter, sister or mom’.

This is a common belief in the indian society and it explains why we in the media hear about so many rapes. And all the rapes we do not hear about because they either aren’t reported or too ‘rural’ (‘just another dalit’) are even more.

The origins of the devadasi tradition in short

The four girls I encountered in the small room where by name devadasis. My thesis study had let to a reading and accounting of both the historic tradition with rituals, religious beliefs and foundation found in scriptures and sacred texts and also sociological researches dating only a few years back.

One of them where “Dalit women speak out – violence against women’ which has about 500 accounts from dalit women among who you find devadasis or joginis as they are called in the survey.

They are by profession goddesses, by means simple prostitutes.

Let me explain that a little bit more thoroughly:

In the olden days the devadasis were important dancers in the temples in mostly South India, wherefrom the tradition originates. According to an old inscription from 1014 AD in the temple formerly known as Rajarajashwara in Thanjavur, Tamil Nadu, the temple dancers were brought in from all over the area to perform the religious dance called Sadir and numbered 400. They were giving a house, a piece of land and enjoyed great respect in the society.

Their dancing in the temples were seen as a necessity in regards of putting the sacred texts into life – they were dancing and reenacting the brahmins readings and keeping the religious universe free of chaos.

Later the sacred union between the devadasi (the goddess) and the brahmin (the god) was acknowledged as something good and you will find myths in sacred texts explaining and agreeing with this custom.

Later again, men were able to pay for interaction with the goddess and this also became a sacred union. At least for the man. The women still enjoyed respect and their dance alongside singing were highly regarded.

Then the British arrived and brought with them a victorian view on life which could only regard this ancient tradition as vulgar, barbarian and utterly disgusting. That in the end let to the dance being slowly withdrawn from the devadasis, renamed Bharathanatyam and now performed by brahmin girls and known as one of the most beloved and famed classical dances of India.

The last rituals were officially performed in the 1960’s. Now the girls are only left with prostitution. Or so I thought. But more on that later.

The devadasis in the red light district

The four girls I met are among other devadasis who are being regarded as a goddess in the act of sexual intercourse but as a dalit and a simple prostitute when walking down the street.

An account from the research project mentioned earlier tells a story of a woman who experienced women encouraging their men to sleep with her (because she is a goddess) but who threw stones at her when they saw her in public.

I was interested in finding out why these four girls were here: had they themselves wanted it? Did their families force them? Were they from a lineage of devadasis?

All of the four had the same story. They were out of poor dalit families which meant that they had been forced into this trade by their families. Their families were relying on their daughters to have sex for money.

What about the rituals, what made them different from the rest of the sex workers in the red light district?

Three of the girls did only go through one ritual and that was the actual initiation in which they ‘married the God’ (usually Vishnu), which means that they cannot attain widowhood or use any of their children’s fathers name for their offsprings.

Furthermore it tells a story of a tradition which in this case is only about making money. The myths and religious aspect is gone. It’s is all about getting the girls initiated – fast – so they can  make money.

One girl though told me that she had been initiated when little. Her mother had prayed to Renuka Yellamma (which is the goddess of the devadasis and also highly esteemed by dalits because of the myths about her which places her with a goddess body but a dalit woman’s head) and asked for a boy. She promised if the wish came true she would dedicate a daughter to the goddess.

And so she did.

One thing these girls all had in common was that they were all from Karnataka, the neighboring state. And as I found out, there is a great distinction between the devadasis from Maharashtra and Karnataka. The girls from Karnataka usually ends up as prostitutes. The girls from Maharashtra don’t.

The male devadasi

To get back to my surprise of not all of the devadasis to be engaged in prostitution I have to tell the stories of two beautiful men dressed in sarees. Before my trip to Sangli I had never encountered any information about male devadasis.

But on this day I met two.

Dinesh aged 27 and Chandani aged 55. Usually there is a tradition of hijras in the indian society who are men being either eunuchs, castrated or gay and who dance at the births of boys, beg and are considered semi sacred. This description does not apply for these two men.

Both do they attend to the temple I met them in, a small village temple dedicated to Renuka Yellamma. Both do they go out and ‘beg for the goddess’. That means they go from door to door, sometimes with instruments, sometimes with the big Renuka statue but often with a begging basket saying: ‘Please give us something with pride’. They have the mark of Shiva, the God of destruction and part of the trimurti, on their forehead. The offerings are only for the goddess, not themselves.

They are, when ready for initiation, married to Renukas husband Jamadagni and wears either a see-through mala (beads) or a red string. Women devadasis wear a yellow string with 3 beads.

When a man senses that he might be ‘in the need of putting on a saree’ he finds himself a guru. That guru contacts the family and gets permission from that family.

After that the man might be trained in dancing if he pleases and some of the male dancers are highly regarded for this. Others tends to the temples and are present at festivals and religious occasions giving blessings and performing rituals.

And this was were I got surprised because a shift has been taking place; before it was the women devadasis who performed the rituals. Now it is the men.

The female devadasis I talked to only reported tending to temples, not performing rituals. But the begging, singing and playing an instrument at religious functions were also prevalent with them, just like found with the men.

And again, it is male and female devadasis from Maharashtra, not Karnataka, that perform these tasks.

Being in a lineage

Other women devadasis I talked to reported being 6th or even 9th generation of devadasi. But I did not find them in red light districts.

Usually they were more like “village prostitutes” and had been initiated when little and because of the trade running in the family – passed on from mother to daughter.

Several of the women weren’t actual prostitutes but begging devadasis instead – just like the male devadasis. Some of them were able to play an instrument which was used in praising the goddess Renuka Yellamma.

So it seems there is a huge distinction between having been forced by the family out of a necessity of making money or being in a lineage of devadasis – not to mention the distinction of which state you are coming from.

The girls in the red light districts are girls from very poor dalit families, who usually comes from Karnataka and who have either been promised to the goddess or have a family in need of money. Sometimes if a family have two girls they ‘give’ one girl to the goddess. The tradition behind the name is not being considered or put to mind. It is a matter of poverty and superstition.

The women found outside the red light community are mostly from the state Maharashtra. They are in a lineage of devadasis continuing a trade giving to them by their mother and some have already passed it on to their daughters. Some have had the power and luck to be able to stop this from happening. The women either go begging or act as village prostitutes or finds themselves a benificier who tend for them for the rest of their lives. Usually these men have a ‘normal family’ on the side, but has a steady relationship with the devadasi – some even a love relationship.

You want to marry a devadasi?

The government has been taking some action and have initiated the so called ‘devadasi marriages’; a man who marries a devadasi gets 10.000 rs. This is not uncommon in India. After the tsunami hit, the government offered 50.000 rs for a ‘tsunami marriage’.

But is it a good thing? Maybe. Usually the women are seen as what they are: prostitutes who are ‘broken goods’. It is all a matter of tradition and culture. Marriage is a big and important thing in India and can’t you get a husband you are excluded from the society and sometimes your own family. You are a burden and a ‘lesser women’. So maybe when they get married off they will be able to if not change life for themselves then at least change the life of their children.

I believe that where is has to change is within the community itself. In the lineage case the women have to stop passing on the tradition.

In the red light district case it is about empowering the families and dalit communities. And the view on women in the society also has to change so women are not regarded as lesser than men, which in many situations are what is happening.

Do I have hope of this change ever occurring? Yes I have. The mindset among the women from  Maharasthra was evident – they wanted change. The Karnataka women unfortunately were caught between poverty and superstition. And they still didn’t have the power or means to find a way out. And as long as the sex industry is a lucrative business it will keep attracting dalits. And in a combination with age old religious beliefs it will for a long time keep the women chained down as a sex worker.