Ground Reports

Devadasis: Women Who Lived As Sex Slaves Over 10 Centuries

Devadasi (Deva: God, Dasi: Female Servant), deputed to serve the gods, most of these women end up becoming victims of human trafficking. In Karnataka, the Devadasi system was practised for over 10 centuries.

By Saurav Kumar, 29 Mar 2023

Landless Devadasis in Davangere, Karnataka • Photo Credit: Saurav Kumar

Alone, aged and physically incapable to work are obstacles in sustaining livelihood. It is the condition of women residing in Harapanahalli village of Karnataka’s Davangere district, 273 kilometres, North-West to India’s Silicon valley, Bengaluru.

These women, identified as Devadasis, who in their teenage years were married to goddess Yellamma through a ritual named ‘Huligemma’. The Purpose was to take care of the religious deity but the darker side involved giving sexual pleasure to priests and local landlords.

Five devadasis gathered for an interaction with oral testimonies just weeks before the arrival of Karnataka state assembly elections echoing their monetary and rehabilitation demands from political parties for a dignified future.

The subaltern society has a deceptively innocuous phrase for Devadasis i.e. Servant of God. 64-year-old Deviramma, (sitting first from left) with a slight reddish tilak on forehead indicating her deep allegiance to religiosity has served the goddess for more than fifty years.

Recalling the journey, Deviramma in an inconsolable voice said, “I started serving the religious deity at the age of 15. Worshipping the goddess twice a day and cleaning the temple premises were my duty bound gestures. But life took a nightmarish turn, when I had to be with priests and local landlords for hours serving their physical needs.”

Deviramma being the eldest in the family without a father, had to continue the practice which sustained the family. The mode of sustaining the family was through a meagre amount and more often food grains handed over by the temple priest.

“Compromising dignity in disguise of serving goddess unconditionally became the most horrific part of life”, said the Devadasi.

She added, “Innumerable instances of sleeping with people and sometimes strangers for continuous decades unleashed bruises on my mind and the body like unhealed wounds. I and many are fighting the captivity of outrage modesty.”

With growing age, Deviramma failed to provide physical pleasure and had to fall out of the practice. At present, working as an agricultural labour and rearing livestock of well-established families are the ways to quench the need of life.

Emptiness in life and exclusion from society became lifelong companions for the rest of the Devadasis sitting beside Deviramma.

Anjanamma, 35-year-old Devadasi (second from right) was quick to remark that most of the Devadasis are devoid of government aided benefits because their name does not feature in the government led survey. Having no land, house and money makes their survival tough.

The Karnataka government conducted two surveys to identify Devadasis in the state. The first survey in 1993–94 identified 22,873, while the second in 2007–08 enumerated 23,787 Devadasis.

Uchhangamma, a Devadasi in Davangere • Photo Credit: Saurav Kumar

Inter-Generational Bondage

40-year-old Uchhangamma, a Devadasi of the same hamlet exposed another facet of the derogatory practice. Dalit women across generations were victims of the practice making it an inter-generational bondage.

Uchhangamma said, “My grandmother was a Devadasi, so was my mother who pushed me to become one due to poverty and backwardness. After two decades of torturous span, I broke the generational bondage to give my daughter a life of dignity.”

At the age of 14, Uchhangamma was married to goddess Yellamma through ‘‘Muttu Kattavadu’’ (tying of beads around neck), which symbolised marrying of girls to deities. The family received the interim monetary relief of Rs.100 that became the lifetime cost of losing modesty of the eldest child.

Presently, Uchhangamm resides in a single room mud house with her 16-year-old daughter named Rukmini. The identity of her father is not known but she pridefully was raised by a single mother.

Several Devadasis testified that their entry into the practice was enabled by their mother and grandmother under societal pressure and fear of religion.

The Caste Enabled Atrocity

Caste has a crucial role to play in Devadasi practice. Devadasis are dalit women by caste and predominantly landless. As per Uchhangamma, in a village, the most poor dalit family bearing a girl child became the target of upper caste people and temple priests.

She also revealed that people who were served physically by Devadasis largely belonged to upper castes.

“In my lifetime, I had to sleep with men hailing from the upper castes and one of them conceived me a foetus. That became the break point wherein I thought to change the fate of my child and thus gave birth to a baby girl.” Uchhangamma added.

She said, “the violence unleashed in the practice is an example of institutionalised use of the body dalit women for sexual pleasure and specifically by the men who were placed much higher in the caste hierarchy.”

In 1988, the Devadasi system was outlawed all over the country. However, clandestinely under social and religious impunity, sacred donation of young girls to prostitution still takes place in few northern districts of the state.

T V Renukamma, a Devadasis who's fighting for her community • Photo Credit: Saurav Kumar

The Resistance

Despite unimaginable brutality, the resistance led by Devadasis is also a less focussed part of reality. Once a victim of the practice, 62-year-old T V Renukamma has been relentlessly fighting for thousands of Devadasis.

Renukamma is presently the Vice-President of Karnataka State Devadasi Mahila Vimochana Sangha, affiliated to the All India Democratic Women’s Association (AIDWA), comprising of devadasis who have abandoned the practice and are at the forefront demanding relief measures from the government such as rehabilitation, land, education for children, etc.

Renukamma led the movement demanding a monthly pension for Devadasis and relentless efforts resulted in a Rs.400 monthly pension in 2008. The decisive breakthrough favouring Devadasis came in 2011 when the state government had to release a monthly pension to nearly 23,000 women after conducting another survey.

Moreover, Renukamma’s constant fight resulted in monetary support for victims and from the government increased her credibility in the organisation emerging as its face.

She pins hope on mobilising more Devadasis and said “Continuous struggle and movements have led to the increase in monthly pension from Rs.400 to 1500 but larger demands of rehabilitation, educational facilities to children of Devadasis are yet to be achieved.”

However the State government and its Women Development Corporation have been neglecting Devadasis by delaying dispensation of pension.

The road to struggle for Devadasis of Renukamma comes with the past of self-defiance against the oppressive practice. Her parents due to abject poverty introduced her to become Devadasi at the age of 20 in 1985 through ‘Huligemma’. Mother and maternal grandmother being part of practice made her entry irresistible and the family was given a small monetary help of Rs.200.

“Being a Devadasi brought social wrath and repercussions for the family.”

Renukamma reiterated humiliating instances and said, “My family was treated with disrespect and people were not keen to enter into marriage relationships with my siblings and even with my extended family because I was a Devadasi.”

Despite social rejection and physical torture, she decided to abandon the practice at the age of 36 in 1999 and decided to rescue other victims. Initially, it started with individual efforts and in 2006, she became the member of Devadasi Mahila Vimochana Sangha fighting for the rights of fellow Devadasis.

The saga of subjugation of thousands of women has met an extraordinary resistance, giving hope to the worst victims of social exploitation.