Devadasi "Female Slave of God"
Indian Temple Prostitutes
By Athena Ives
India is second in the world for most populated countries (Shingal, 2015) and 37% of that population is under the age of 18 with a large amount experiencing extreme poverty (Choudhry, Dayal, Pillai, Kalokhe, Beier, & Patel, 2018). In 2007, research was conducted by the Ministry of Women and Child Development (MoWCD) and interviewed 12,447 children of which 53% reported being sexually abused (Kacker, Loveleen, Vardan Srinivas & Kumar, 2007). More recent studies conducted by the National Crime Record Bureau found that in 2018, 109 children are sexually abused every single day in India.
According to Man (2014), the Devadasi is a practice that takes place in India where low-caste girls, many as young as five, are forced to marry a Hindu Goddess and are then sexually exploited by temple worshipers and members of the higher cast. The word Devadasi means “female slave of God” (Man, 2014). While Devadasi is not as commonly practiced today, it is still an issue. According to the Indian National Commission for Women (NCW), there are still at least 44,000 active Devadasi in India, with the NCW noting that the number could in fact be as high as 250,000 (Shingal, 2015).
Similar to many cultural practices, Devadasi has significantly changed. While it is still a practice that is honoring a deity, it has significantly changed from a practice of temple worship and dancing, to exploiting the lower caste through sexual slavery (Man, 2014).
“There is an almost unimaginable gulf separating the Devadasis of ancient poems and inscriptions and the lives lived by women today. In the Middle Ages, the Devadasis were drawn from the grandest families in the realm—among them princesses of the Chola royal family and possibly from slaves captured in war. Many were literate, and some were highly accomplished poets; indeed, at the time they seem to have been among the few literate women in the region. Today, the Devadasis are drawn exclusively from the lowest castes—usually from the Dalit Madar cast and are almost entirely illiterate. The majority of modern Devadasis in Karnata-ka are straightforward sex workers” - William Dalrymple of The New Yorker (Man, 2014). One of the major differences between sex-workers and Devadasis is the ages. According to Chandra, a Devadasi who was interviewed by the Wall Street Journal “for the first pattam (the tying of the beads before the goddess), the girl is usually between six and thirteen, but the second pattam (the night of the girl virgin) takes place after a girl’s first menses” (Shingal, 2015).
Why does this practice continue especially at such a young age? According to Man (2014), it continues due to religious pressure, economic necessity, and social construct. There are three main religious beliefs supporting this practice.
1. The younger the girl, the more dedicated she is to the deity and the more blessings her family will receive from the Goddess. Because the majority of these girls are taken from the lower caste, they believe this is the only way for their family to survive and live a blessed life.
2. Some believe this is the only way for them to move up in the caste system. By marrying the Goddess, they are in their belief marrying up and are therefore in a higher caste.
3. Many Hindu priests seem to actively condone the practice. According to India’s Human Rights Commission, there is a prevalent belief that “offering some-thing to the deity is rewarded bountifully.” The report states that when individuals went to the temples with problems “such as bad health, poverty, barrenness, etc., the priests often interpreted these problems as the wrath of the deity and suggested that they should offer one of their daughters to the service of the deity.” Given that the physical manifestation of Hinduism, i.e., the priests themselves, perpetuate the system, it is unsurprising that the system continues to thrive” (Man, 2014).
Similar to other countries, many of these girls are supporting their families and keeping them alive by sacrificing themselves to this practice. Many practicing Devadasi explain that they were able to make 300 rupees in one night which allowed her sister to be married off, her family to own land, and to feed and clothe the entire family which would not likely be possible in the lower caste (Man, 2014). They have children by their rapists and are not allowed to marry, how else are they to provide for their children? Their children have no father and this makes it difficult for any of their children to marry, obtain jobs, and many become Devadasi because they see no other way.
The most disturbing reason this practice continues is due to Social Beliefs. Many landowners, who almost always are from a higher caste, believe that it is prestigious to deflower as many young girls as possible. Adding to this problem is the fact that many within Indian society believe that intercourse with a young girl is a remedy for disease and other illnesses. The effect of custom cannot be overstated: according to a survey that was carried out by the Joint Women’s Program, Bangalore, over 63.6 percent of young girls were forced into the Devadasi system due to custom, while 38 percent reported that their families had a history of Devadasis” (Man, 2014).
Devadasi has been outlawed since 1924 but as you can see, the practice is still continuing and has become even worse. Change cannot take place overnight but it won’t take place at all if we don’t know about it, don’t talk about it, and don’t educate others on what is happening!
Choudhry, V., Dayal, R., Pillai, D., Kalokhe, A. S., Beier, K., & Patel, V. (2018). Child sexual abuse in India: A systematic review. PloS one, 13(10).
Kacker Loveleen, Vardan Srinivas, Kumar P. Study on Child Abuse: India 2007 Ministry of Women and Child Development, Government of India, 2007.
Man, B. Q. (2014). The Damini Rape Case: Addressing Sexual Violence and Women's Rights in Indian Society. Asian Journal of Research in Social Sciences and Humanities, 4(7), 223-242.
Shingal, A. (2015). The Devadasi System: Temple Prostitution in India. UCLA Women's LJ, 22, 107.