The Devadasi: India’s Religious Prostitutes
The devadasi are women who are dedicated to a Hindu goddess and serve as her temple attendants. However, in modern times, many of them have become sex workers, exploited by their families and society. How did this ancient tradition turn into a form of slavery?
The origin of the devadasi dates back to the sixth century, when young girls from wealthy backgrounds were offered to local temples as a sign of devotion. They were considered to be married to the deity and performed rituals, dances and music in her honour. They also enjoyed a high status and respect in the society.
However, over the centuries, the devadasi system underwent a decline due to various factors, such as the invasion of foreign rulers, the spread of Christianity and Islam, and the loss of patronage from the nobility. Many devadasi became mistresses of powerful men or were forced into prostitution to survive. The connection with the temple and the goddess was gradually severed, and the devadasi became stigmatized as immoral women.
In 1988, the Indian government banned the practice of dedicating girls to temples, but it still continues in some parts of the country, especially in Karnataka. According to some estimates, there are around 23,000 devadasi in Karnataka alone. Most of them come from poor and low-caste families who sell their daughters to the sex trade in the name of religion. Some are also infected with HIV/AIDS and face violence and discrimination.
There have been efforts by various NGOs and activists to rehabilitate the devadasi and provide them with education, health care and alternative livelihoods. Some former devadasi have also spoken out against the tradition and advocated for its abolition. However, there are also challenges in changing the mindset of the people who still believe in the sanctity of the custom.
The devadasi are a tragic example of how a sacred tradition can be corrupted by human greed and exploitation. They deserve dignity and freedom from their oppressive situation. They are not prostitutes of god, but victims of injustice.
Source: Based on information from The Telegraph and other web sources.
One of the most prominent devadasi in history was Muddupalani, a poet and courtesan who lived in the 18th century. She was dedicated to the temple of Tirumala Venkateswara and became the lover of the king Pratap Singh of Thanjavur. She wrote a famous erotic poem called Radhika Santwanam, which celebrated female sexuality and agency. She also patronized arts and literature and was respected for her intelligence and beauty.
However, after her death, her poem was banned by the British colonial authorities, who considered it obscene and immoral. Her legacy was tarnished by the Victorian morality and the patriarchal norms of the society. It was only in the 20th century that her poem was rediscovered and appreciated by feminist scholars and activists.
Muddupalani represents the contrast between the past glory and the present misery of the devadasi. She also challenges the stereotypes of the devadasi as passive and submissive women. She was a woman who expressed her desires and opinions freely and defied the conventions of her time.