Within the warped interplay of reverence and coercion, a profound impact has been etched upon a particularly susceptible segment of society – young girls. It is amid this intricate backdrop that the Devadasi system, an age-old Hindu religious custom, exists.
Originating as an offering of young girls in marriage to deities, this tradition has evolved into a deeply problematic practice intertwining devotion and exploitation and perpetuating a cycle of suffering and indignity.
Historically rooted, the Devadasi culture emerged as early as the 7th century in southern India under the rule of Cholas, Cheras, and Pandyas. Initially intended to honor deities where a young girl was married to a god before she reached puberty and dedicate her life as the guardian of the temple and deity she was married to, the system devolved into a grotesque reality where young girls, upon reaching puberty, were ritually coerced into offering sexual services.
The term Devadasi, meaning 'Servant of God', took a dark twist, transforming these women into pawns in a ritualistic form of prostitution.
The Devadasi system, a manifestation of the Hindu caste hierarchy, unfolds in varying forms across India even today. In Andhra Pradesh, girls are dedicated to temple deities to avert evil, later becoming concubines for the local gentry.
In Maharashtra, girls sacrifice their first-born daughters, who are then wed to deities like Khandoba. In Karnataka, famine or epidemic prompts the dedication of girls to the goddess Huligamma, marked by the muttu kattuvudu ritual. Tamil Nadu's Vellalur village stages a festival where selected girls live bare-chested in a temple, offering pots of liquor to a deity.
Devadasis serve as sexual servants to upper-caste men after puberty, bought as concubines or used freely by men. Many migrate to towns, joining brothels as commercial sex workers, reflecting the enduring exploitation within this system.
The exploitation of Devadasis, rooted in the intersection of religious rituals and societal hierarchy, delves deeper than mere ceremonial veneers. These women are entrapped in a cycle of subjugation, transforming into sexual servants at the behest of ritualistic practices. The system's perversion extends to pedophilic dimensions, as young girls are coerced into intimate relations with priests, causing immeasurable suffering and vulnerability to abuse.
Systemic oppression perpetuated by the caste structure further exacerbates their plight, rendering them trapped in a relentless cycle of suffering and exploitation.
Efforts to dismantle the Devadasi system have yielded limited success through state laws such as the Bombay Devadasis Protection Act, the Karnataka Prohibition of Dedication Act, and the Andhra Pradesh Prohibition of Dedication Act. However, eradicating a deeply ingrained cultural practice proves challenging.
Yet, amidst the darkness glimmers of hope emerge. Empowered leaders like Shobha Gasti challenge entrenched norms, aiming to free Devadasis from generations of exploitation. Her efforts inspire a growing movement, uniting individuals within and beyond affected communities.
Education and awareness campaigns further dismantle the silence surrounding the issue, shedding light on the plight of Devadasis and catalyzing conversations on a global scale. These initiatives aim to shatter exploitation's cycle and destigmatize their experiences.
India is infamous for its hypocrisy where women are revered as goddesses by day and disregarded by night, the battle against the Devadasi system signifies a larger struggle against entrenched patriarchy and exploitation. While we have made remarkable strides against social ills and championed the cause of human rights, how can a tradition so exploitative and dehumanizing slip through the cracks merely due to its religious origins?
As we vehemently condemn and combat abhorrent practices like child prostitution and firmly reject any form of pedophilia, can religion still be employed as a shield to obscure our vision, allowing these distressing realities to endure? The enduring presence of the Devadasi system forces us to confront the unsettling paradox of a society that claims progress while harboring deeply entrenched injustices in the shadows of its religious beliefs.