Devadasis: the Shift from Temple Servants to Prostitution

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The devadasis of Southern India started in the 6th Centaury has changed its meaning through contemporary times. Once a servant of the God/ Goddess and now, it has transformed into a style of prostitution that still happens today, despite the enforcement of the laws. I argue that the value of the devadasis has changed over the past few centuries: labeling them not as servants of God as they were in a time where it was religiously significant, but as prostitutes in the latter day as the value has been lost. The devadasis can be found in southern India: the states of Tamilnadu, Kerala, Andhra Pradesh, Karanataka, Orissa and Maharastra. Devadasi literally translates to God Devi and female servant Dasi (Deepa and Sunna 63).As young as 6 years old, girls will be dedicated to the deity and to the temple, helping with simple duties along with sexual acts. The first historical record dates back to the Ashoka's time (273-323 BC), where the painter Devadatta, is stated to have been in love with the Devadasi Sutanuka (Deepa and Suni 66). This was found inscripted into a cave's wall south of Varanasi. In literature, the devadasi is mentioned by Arthsastra of Kauilya. His reference told that the devadasi was appointed at certain times for the temples. Huin Tsang also writes about the devadasi's as women who dance and sing in the Sun-Temple of Multan. In his book, Rajatarangini of Kalhana references . . . a Kashmirian king made a gift of one hundred women of his harem to a Siva temple (Ibid). As a devadasi, these women are often in a lower caste, and are dominated by a higher up male or priest in the circumstances in the temple. The women who were these devadasis were used for maintence around the temple and performing sexual religious acts with other patrons, the priests or higher caste men. Such example can be seen in 1004 A.D. where 400 temple girls under the command of Rajaraja (Chola king), lived in the streets while maintaining the temple for service. With this practice, there was no shame, especially because these women were able to read and write.

The devadasi known as the ever-auspicious-married-women gave them respect and protection from widowhood (Evans 27). The devadasis were singular married to a God, and became a 'courtesan' or 'harlot' for the courts in the 8th to 14th centuries, confirmed in Karnataka. Women of these statuses were doing their own religious duties, despite being separated from their families and serving a God, but it was much honor for the God would gift them well. To become a devadasi, one must be dedicated. It was one girl per family, which was a great honor. When a young girl is given, she will become the wife of Yellamma. By worshiping Yellamma, she will grant blessings over families and provide for them. She is by husband, she takes care [of me] (Ramberg 28). The process begins with the tying of the beads or muttu. The tying of the beads represents the bond/marriage that signifies her auspicious marriage. The muttu are red and white cast beads and it is only to be worn of those who have been dedicated to Yellamma. Yellamma is said to bring both gifts and trouble. The gift refers to the fertility and prosperity to the girl and the trouble can be hardships and afflictions of the marriage bond. Trouble from the goddess can result of skin aliments, unexplained illness, along with poverty, conflict and even death; this can be called divine possession of those who wear the beads (Ibid 31). The devadasi is brought in before puberty and given work within the temple's grounds. Devadasis were engaged by the temple and the king to perform daily rituals of singing and dancing during worship, as well as during festival processions when the deity was taken out of the sanctum and paraded through the streets (Evans 26). These daily tasks brought in income to the temple, even though the devadasi is paid very little for her services. The girl would also attain to the court, dancing to the king, as well as sexual acts for the king's pleasure. In addition, she would also attain life-cycle ceremonies of marriage and births within the kingdom. . . . a devadesi is servant of God but wife of the whole town (Torri 33). This saying is true to the work of a devadesiwhile being a servant a God, she serves the whole town with her temple duties. These many services reflected who the devadasi was. Devadesi's were there to please the king, priests and other higher up caste men, despite being an 'ever-auspicious-married-woman.' The Full Moon Ceremony or Rande Hunnime marks a festival every winter. This festival represents the auspicious women and their widowhood to Yellamma in the month of Pousha. The ritual takes place with the deity, and how her green bangles are broken, [the] vermillion wiped from her brow, and her gold is taken off (Ramberg 35). Yellamma will then represent an all auspicious fertility removed, as well as her status of muttaide or marital status. Devotees of Yellamma will travel to visit the Lingayat temple to celebrate this event, which ends at the beginning of spring.

The last known ritual by the devadasis are known as the first-client- ceremony. This ceremony takes place after the devadasi has started puberty, and up to one to three years until she is able to start dhandha or sex work. The ceremony exhibits the girl is deflowered (the taking away of her virginity) . . . by a client who offers gifts to her family (e.g., saree, gold, money, bed sheets, jewelry), and after this event he is granted primary sexual access to her (Orchard 6). The girl is then used for dhandha, making Rs 0/- to Rs 500/-, which translates to $0-15.00 USD. The now young women at this time will use the money given by a client to pay for her necessities. Since devadasi's are able to read and write, they live independently from the temple/ in the city where she was dedicated too. The devadesi women are dedicated to Yellamma, as a way of fixing family troubles, but also granting gifts to the family by giving up one girl per family. Each ceremony represents the becoming of a devadesi and worshiping Yellamma. This abrupt shift has been connected to the British colonization of India. When the British colonized India, everything changed for the devadesi system during that time. The colonial rule of India in the nineteenth century called into question the ritual and economic connections between temples and rulers that had sustained the devadesi system (Sreenivas 67). The sudden misunderstanding of the devadesi system created a rift between the devadesis and the colonial rule. The devadasi's themselves were misrepresented, and exoticized. In which the temples themselves needed to be regulated, which significantly affected the devadesi position in the temple. Colonial officials vacillated between characterizing devadesis as wives of the deity or as prostitutes (Ibid). This vast representation gave devadasi's their own social stature among other womenbelieving that they have another social status. Yet, as colonial India was developing, the devadesis were misunderstood because of their work with the temple and the people around them. The British's understanding gave them a criminal representation based on their sexually active acts. Due to this misunderstanding, the devadesis became prostitutes to the western world and therefore, the religious significance lost.

The contemporary devadesi has lost the significance religious aspects. At first, it was something that was made for kings and landowners in the temple, but now, it has progressively changed into something entirely different. Devadesi's are known as prostitutes because of the sex work associated with them. They still found in Southern India, but their meaning of their work is different from the religious past. It still deals with lower caste women, who cannot make ends meet for themselves, so they are forced to do this work. In terms of dhandha, the work of sex is viewed as, peno-vaginal penetration, they do not get undressed (unless paid extra), they do not usually fondle the men's genitals (unless they need to convince him to wear a condom), and the encounter lasts on average 10-15 minutes (Orchard 13). These sexual encounters are the common occurrences for the devadasi's who do this work. For some, this can be a bad experience. The use of breaking-in is a term commonly referred to the education about this sex worker, being tricked, or being chastised because it is a family tradition. Such as Mohini, interviewed by Treena Orchard about her experience: who was sold into prostitution several times without knowing it. After being promised a job at a hospital in Mumbai and ending up in a brothel, she was confused and initially refused clients. For this she was beaten, denied food, and ordered to sleep with men, which she did with great reluctance (Orchard 11). This experience of the devadesi system was not merely a religious upbringing, but forced too, with no way out because these women have such a low caste status. Just like in the past, these women are merely treated like property, and used for sexual desires rather than temple services. With a modern take of devadasis, the worship of Yellamma has shifted to the marriage of Yellamma- Renuka.

The myth goes that, the chaste wife of a brahmin sage Jamadagni, Yellamma- Renuka, who incurs her husband's wrath due to a lapse in concentration while performing her wifely duty of fetching water from the river (Evans 32). The myth continues, that the wife is beheaded by her son, Parasurama and eventually is restored to life but, she is no longer a higher-class woman, but a lower caste one. This myth goes along the lines of the devadesishe performs her wifely duty while being in a lower caste. Yellamma's modern view takes into the gender account. To be a devadesi, you have to be a lower caste woman who is given to the deity and your life to fulfill the God's every need. Yellamma- Renuka shows the image of a brahmin body and an untouchable women's head (Ibid 31). She represents the Devadasi's hierarchy and what it truly means to be the servant of God, despite being Dalit, a lower cast woman. On top of that, there are different ceremonies from the past. A ceremony called Uditumbuvadu is which is completed once the girl reaches puberty. This is the last of the ceremony as the first ceremony is all about dedication to the goddess. The second ceremony is similar to marriage, much to the surprise that the men now take control of the devadesi for sexual acts for their own enjoyment. the priest marries the girl, dressed as a bride in a ceremonial red sari, to the deity. After the ceremony the young virgin is forced to spend her wedding night with a village elder who invariably belongs to a higher caste, and thereafter she cannot refuse sexual services to any member of the village (Torri 40). Just this alone, places a different definition to the devadesis. They are no longer attached to a temple, but to a system where they are kept and used sexual as their job for work and money. They are unrepresented and used within the villages for her services. Therefore, being a devadesi has been a negative. A five-day Jatara festival shows that these devadesis are praised, and known as goddesses. They are in a trance state, and worshipped throughout the village (which happens 3 times a year) ; but, once the festival is over, the devadesis go back to being made fun of. Devadesis now become prostitutes for money and workno longer receiving the religious aspects of the past. They are used for sexual activities and taken advantage of.

Devadesi's are only women. There are no lower-caste men in this business. The past has shown that these women worked for the temples, and gave sacred sexual acts to priests and king. In this era, there is: The recasting of devadesis as 'nothing but' prostitutes in the colonial era was a site for the articulation of an emergent protocol of modern sexuality as well as shifting alignments between female artistic and erotic power, the state, and the temple in which sex, religion, and economy were being established as mutually incompatible spheres (Ramberg 45). This recasting of devadasis has changed the way they are seen in modern India. Devadasis have been taking advantage of because they are lower caste women and servants of God. First, caste conflicts are common. In rural areas rape is a common phenomenon and often form part of the tactics of intimidation used by upper caste gangs against lower castes (Torri 38). This advantage of the lower caste gives a right to upper caste men to rape them for custom or village traditions, as well as a form of retaliation. Often times, it is to send a message to these women that the upper caste is in charge. Secondly, economic domination transitions to sexual violence; which can often be debt bondage because landowners may lend money to lower castesto settle their debts with upper castes (Ibid). This often leads to problems in the future with these lower caste women. Once a girl is raped, she is no longer able to marry. Thirdly, social control plays a big part in these types of situations. Hegemonic masculinity plays a factor with the lower-caste women such as Dalits who maintain their rule by defining their sexuality and deflowering her. However, the majority of devadasis come from poor landless families. Many Dalit women are dedicated to the goddess at a very young age by poverty-stricken parents unable to pay their future dowries and hope that a pleased goddess will make the next pregnancy a boy (Ibid 39).

Modern day devadesis use their dhandha money for means to live because they cannot afford necessities on their own. Therefore, their work becomes their life and is passed down each generation as a result of money and power and being a lower caste woman. It begs the question about female sexuality and their own statuses. As a devadesi, they transition back and forth between wife (muttaide), and prostitute, widow (rande). This can result in fertility (auspiciousness) and sterility (inauspiciousness). Another problem then comes up: a devadesis relationship with other men which can lead to HIV and AIDS. Geneya or man on the side describes the many illicit relationships that devadesis do have, which translates to affairs. These affairs often times mean the devadesi have multiple partners, such as with their clients and their lovers. When discussing the current generation of Devadesis, several older women said that by having multiple partners the younger girls are straying from the prescribed norms of the past, when they had only one or two patrons during their lifetime (Orchard 15). In an interview, it is said that this was inappropriate sexual behavior and it brought shame to the tradition of the Devadesis. Even to the point of shame and tainting social statures of the women. Even getting pregnant was a scandalous behavior. During the interview that was set up by Treena Orchard, she noticed that many women said the word 'lover', not knowing the actually context of the word, which brings about this issue of love affairs, but in this community, there are many different definitions. The older generation of Devadesi believed that this behavior was caused by the modernity of the times, as well as the influence of media, which gave Devadesis a bad name in doing so. Most have to choose a regular client that can possibly become their khiam or permanent (relationship).

The results of the interview had a 63% that are currently maintaining a relationship with a khiam, while 29% do not have a regular clientele (Ibid 16). Long-term relationships with khiam depend on the man; ranging from if they pay well, to liking their certain character with most demanding the utmost loyalty and are abusive. If the khiam finds out she has been with another man, that might be the reason for the beating. Women in the devadesi system worry about pregnancy and with that, comes with the fear of AIDS/ HIV. With multiple partners, a devadesi can suffer from these diseases because of the practice. With the fear of AIDS, children can contract them as well. The motherhood aspect depends on the women itself and some can choose not to go down that path. The road well-traveled bears little fruit (Ibid 18). A saying from the interviews, that was repeated several times about the want or need for children in this line of work. It is estimated that 20% of Devadesis are infected with HIV (Torri 43) This was based on a 1995 statistic. Many who are infected with HIV, do not think that the symptoms are a serious problem and therefore, do not take their health seriously. A Devadesi's children do not have it any better. Based on their gender, will depend on if they dedicated to Yellamma, in order to keep up the family tradition and the money for the family. When a woman is a Devadesi, it is important to keep the tradition going. This interview from National Campaign on Dalit Human Rights told about one woman, and the consequences of having children: two boys and two girls, which is troublesome for the matter of a devadesi: Although I have four children, I know that my two sons will be of no use to me in old age, that is why I have dedicated my eldest daughter to Yellamma. She and her children live with me. We cannot give up this work even if we want to, as the survival of our children and families depends on it (Torri 44). The work of a modern Devadesi is to maintain the tradition, just like this particular one who gave her daughter to Yellamma. While this tradition still lives on, there are many cons about this industry such as caste conflicts, economic dominance, multiple partners and AIDS/ HIVS that devadesis have to deal with these gendered issues.

The devadesi system, despite its rich history is not abolished internationally and in India. The Indian government effectively outlawed the devadesi practice in 1924 when it made dedication of girls for the purpose of prostitution illegal (Ankur 116). With the help of the Indian government, the system of devadesi was made illegal but, despite the bills passed, it still happens today. Ten years later, the Bombay Devadesi Protection Act (Bombay Act) targeted the regulations made by the specific laws, which declared that it was illegal, irrespective of whether the girl was dedicated with or without her consent (Ibid). This striking legislation took aim to eliminate the system of devadesis, and the changing practice. The devadesi system is considered illegal, yet it still happens in parts of Southern India. On February 13, 2014, the court ruled that, the Supreme Court directed the Karnataka Chief Secretary to take all steps to prevent women from being forced to become 'devada- sis' at a temple function (Ibid 117). This was a victory for women in India, that was made in Uttarang Mala Durga temple in Karnataka. These small victories for women that start from the court make all the difference for the devadesis who still suffer and use this practice as part of their tradition. Throughout the years, the Devadesi's work has changed. In the past, it was made for religious aspects and sacred sexual acts; compared to now, where the devadesi system has become a way for sex work and prostitution losing the religious influence of it. However, despite the system becoming illegal, there are still issues that woman in this practice face: such as abuse, HIV/AIDS, multiple-partners, caste-conflicts and economic dominance because of their lower caste status.

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Devadasis: the shift from temple servants to prostitution. (2019, Dec 11). Retrieved December 1, 2023 , from

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