Devadasi literally means God’s (Dev) female servant (Dasi), where according to the ancient Indian practice, young pre-pubertal girls are ‘married off’, ‘given away’ in matrimony to God or Local religious deity of the temple. She serves or rather sexually satisfies the priests and inmates of the temple, and the Zamindars (local land lords) and other men of money and power, in the village or town. For her service to them is akin to service to God. There are more than 450,000 Devadasies trapped in this form of prostitution, deified and glorified by the heinous religious sanctions. The girls are enslaved here in the name of tradition and godliness.
The core reason found behind the continuance of this practice hitherto is poverty. The southern parts of India are especially poverty-stricken and the birth of a girl child is taken to be an added responsibility for them. Most of the parents get rid of this ‘baggage’ when the little girl has not even developed the faculty to think by herself. Moreover they see it as a source of additional income and one less mouth to feed. The Dalit or the untouchables mostly fall prey to the Devadasi pratha due to their social status and also due to lack of education. They dedicate their daughters in nascent stages for institutionalized exploitation.
devdasis in south india
A journey from sacred to a profane spaces
Pages : 322
The history of Devadasis speaks of complex sexual identities, misplaced sense of family, organised crime against lower castes, social stigmatisation, exploitative ideas of servitude and a painful human struggle for survival and dignity.
While in practice, the ‘Devadasi’ system differs in form and context across India, it is safe to say that it is customary in all its versions for a girl to be ‘married’ and dedicated to a Deity. In 1947, the Madras Devadasi (Prevention of Dedication) Act was passed, making it illegal to dedicate girls to Hindu temples. And by 1988, the Devadasi system was outlawed all over the country. However the practice persists in some parts, moving the community from dance, palaces and temples to HIV clinics and abject poverty.
It is against this backdrop that the book Devdasis in South India: A Journey from Sacred to a Profane Spaces is written by S. Jeevanadam and Rekha Pande. This book has used qualitative methods, especially the methodologies of History and Gender studies. This book is based on archival researches and unstructured interviews with the last surviving devdasis. In a nutshell, this book can be a valuable resource for students and researchers of History and whoever is interested in learning about the plight of these devdasis.
Our National Policy for children recognises child survival, health, nutrition, education, development and protection as undeniable rights of every child. According to the policy, a long term, sustainable, integrated and inclusive approach is necessary for protecting children of the country. One hopes optimistically that this policy translates into practice and that the term “Child of God” ceases to have the Devadasi connotation.
By Nilabh Krishna